The Transcendence Machine

This is a story formed by my childhood’s summers in the upper parts of Berkeley, California.  I didn’t know I had any of these images buried inside of my brain until I had daughters.  Hope this blesses you.  There is a special thanks given to Kenneth Shumaker with Inevitable Unicorn Press who helped me make sense out of this.  

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When my girls asked me if I believed in magic, I thought about my grandmother’s home in the hills of Berkeley. My youngest – a 12-year-old artist and pianist.

The two teens took their seats on the couch with the realization that mom was going to talk about her past, which is something I rarely do.

My past isn’t troubling or full of despair or painful, just uneventful-mostly. And yet I knew there was always a mystery with my girls concerning my past. Characters like my parents and grandparents were lost to them due to their untimely deaths before the birth of my children. Plus, my family rarely comes to California, where I spent most of my childhood.

I was talking about California and answering a question about the nature of magic.

My grandparents lived in an upscale community in the hills of Berkeley. My grandfather was retired from his work with NASA with research being in jet propulsion. During his retirement, he taught a class or two at UC Berkeley because-amongst his many degrees – he did have a Masters’ in education.

When I entered Kindergarten, it was his idea for me to stay a week with them. My parents agreed over the phone,claiming, “It would be good to have a break. Yes!”

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On my first visit, my grandmother didn’t know what to do with me. I didn’t play with dolls, didn’t like “getting make-overs”, and wasn’t particularly active. As a six-year-old, I got the firm impression I was boring her.

I learned later the true reason why my grandfather thought it was a good idea to have me over. One Saturday morning, when the cartoons ran out on TV, I climbed down the stairs to the basement.

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My grandparents’ home was built on a hill, with stairs connecting them to every room.  At the bottom of the hill-next to the garage-I entered into my grandfather’s shop.

Wearing a leather apron, he pointed at me with his #2 pencil. “Hand me that sprocket,” he said. I turned around and found a series of sprockets dangling on the wall joists of the un-finished room.

“Which one?”

“Surprise me. We’ll need to build a motor around it, so choose wisely.”

From that day, I learned what I was to do with my summer’s week at grandpa’s: build engines.

For most other girls, this would be a living Hell. However, grandpa knew-instinctively- that this was my language. I thought in gears, motors, belts, and engines. I didn’t know it yet for no one ever thought of a little girl wanting to see how things work, but I did and my grandfather brought me into his play area

For two years, we built things. He showed me the power of blueprints and oil and how to make things move.  This was my new play area.  With any play area, there were rules.  You must always try to figure out how things work, how things move.  There was also the rule to measure multiple times before you do anything.  Finally, there was the golden rule: no one gets mad when things don’t turn out.

During the hours we spent in his shop,there rules would come out. “Get out all of your mistakes in the shop. That’s why engineers need to work alone. Most of the world doesn’t know what to do with mistakes,” he said when I dropped something.

Another time, more rules came, “You don’t have to have good penmanship. When you go to work, that’s what your secretary is for: make him write pretty.”

And one time, he was washing his wrenches and said, “Be kind to your tools; they’re people too.”

My grandmother became more and more of a background figure during my stay. She became part of her porcelain dolls, I think, in the collection above ground of her pristine, pastel home.

During my last night with grandfather, she asked me to go upstairs and get ready for bed. I agreed and shuffled up the stairs. Tired and not wanting to sleep, I stretched out every task to be as long as it could be.  Finally, double to length I needed to take, I laid to bed. For me, sleep was a sign of defeat: why would I lay down, lay there, do nothing…

In the croak of her senior voice, I heard her ask him, “How is she ever going to get married when she has a head full of machines?”

“She doesn’t have to get married. She just has to learn how to fix and build things. That’s what makes her happy, I think.”
They talked more, but I couldn’t hear them as I headed for bed.

In between that summer and the next, my grandfather died of a heart attack quite suddenly. I attended his funeral, held at the local Lutheran church.  I could tell the minister didn’t know my grandfather, pronouncing his name wrong through the message and he kept a straight, monotone cadence throughout the liturgy.

At the reception, my grandmother said that she was counting on me to come for my week’s stay during the summer.

With all of the adults in the room watching me, I agreed and said I was looking forward to it.

So, the next summer, I spent my mornings in the shop. I had to get up early, for when my grandmother got up and got herself ready, she put me to work boxing all of grandfather’s things.  However, during the late afternoons, she gave me free time to wander.

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“There are lots of things to do. About every fourth house, there’s a park. You just have to look for them.  And there’s the Merry-Go-Round down the hill. It’s open every day for summer.”

I shuffled down the hill to the Merry-Go-Round and found the experience very lonely. Standing in line with a group of people who don’t talk to you, sitting on a horse that went up and down in seclusion, and hearing the roar of the organ without anyone else to talk to: something was lost.

The Merry-Go-Round seemed pretty proud of itself, with signs everywhere boasting that the organ was a historic recreation and that few of these kinds still existed. When I got to the tall box on cart wheels, I tried peering behind the curtain where the little wooden man conducted the music. My finger touched the velvet: smooth, slippery, and fine.

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I wanted to look behind, see the machines and the gears … simply figure out how it worked. I imagined my grandfather would have been with me on this question mark crusade.

Suddenly, a voice called out from the ticket booth. “Little girl,” a man’s voice called out. “Look with your eyes only, please. You don’t want to ruin the magic.”

I didn’t see what the man looked like, for the sun blurred all four windows of the box office. Just his shadow: a taller than usual man, broad shoulders with the stature of might.

I obeyed by reeling my hand back, tucking it close to my chest.

Instead, I took the parks. My grandmother explained to me that all of the parks were hidden, often the entrances being pathways behind driveways or in between alleys of homes. If you knew where to look, you belonged and the park was for you. “It keeps those dirty hippies out of our parks,” my grandmother said proudly.

The only problem was that you could spend days circling blocks, peaking through bushes or in between cars to find the entrances.

This part of the story didn’t make sense to my girls. “You mean, grandma just let you wander the streets by yourself?”

“It was the 1980’s. Adults just left kids to be alone and work out their own entertainment. They believed they were doing us a favor.”

“Can you do that with us?” my eldest asked.

“No,” I said sharply.

If I hadn’t been left alone to wander, I wouldn’t have met Wilbough.

I found the entrance to one of these secret parks and came in to see a swing set, a teeter-totter, and a slide. None of these devices were of interest; instead, there was a blond girl marching around the perimeter holding out a stick asa rifle.

Being my age, she looked over to me and motioned for me to walk with her. I did and when I got close enough to hear her, she announced, “We’re hunting elves.

“There’s a pack of elves around the hills of Berkeley. They have a spell which makes young girls really, really stupid. We need to capture one and force him to tell us how to reverse the spell.”

I kept up with her pace. “I don’t want to hurt anyone.”

“Don’t worry, we won’t. I got a handful of cough drops from my grandmother that we’ll use to bribe the creature into telling us his secrets.”

So, we spent the day looking for elves and didn’t find any.   Dooming-as we believed-most of the female population to live really, really stupid lives.

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We played again during three more days until we found out we were in a similar situation: both were spending time with our grandparents for a week and were not from Berkeley.

Wilbough was very interested in my machine interests, answering every statement I made with: “Really? Really?!?” For her, she just told stories and nothing else. Looking back, this was our saving grace because we wouldn’t be looking for elves or fighting invisible giants if wasn’t for her story-making.

Wilbough invited me to her house on the final day of my visit.

I arrived at the door and was met by a plump, gray looking woman.

“So, you’re Marin?” the woman asked, taking up most of the doorway.

I nodded.

“Well, you’re not very big, are you?” She said this with an abrupt, soured expression that if it was a joke, I couldn’t see any of the delight in it.

My grandfather was a shorter person, like me. I heard someone say a similar thing to him and he replied, “Well, they don’t store diamond rings in piano boxes.”  That line worked at that moment, but I didn’t have any such wit at age 8. Instead, I just slunk and cowered until she told me to get inside.

Wilbough’s mother spent most of her time on the couch, reading paperbacks with strange covers of women being – what I guessed at the time – wrestled by shirtless men. For decades afterwards, I’ve never seen these books anywhere else but on the coffee table of Wilbough’s grandparent’s living room.

The couch and chairs were all covered with industrial strength plastic, so whenever someone breathed deeply it would make a crackle sound. Wilbough’s grandmother sat next to her daughter reading mystery novels.

The entire house sounded like a library trying to be quiet.

Wilbough took me down the long, sideways staircase to her basement. Unlike the shop of my grandparents, it was just a blank room without any windows, art, or furniture. No toys, nothing personal. This place was perfect for Wilbough, for she could fill it with her adventures. And I was invited along.

We played that way and heading off to our separate homes. For me, it was Campbell; for Wilbough, it was Houston in a kingdom she called Texas.

The two grandparents conspired to have our visits coincide and make it a “Marin and Wilbough Week”.

When the next summer came, my grandmother walked me over to Wilbough’s grandparents’ home. The two elderly women greeted each other and my grandmother, in the middle of our meeting, exclaimed, “This is such a relief! Thank you for taking Marin off my hands.”

Wilbough’s grandmother shrugged and returned some gardening shears she had borrowed, suggesting they had become fast friends in between my visits.

Wilbough was ready for me. At first, I thought it was odd that she didn’t bring any toys with her. I’m sure she had some toys, but the kind of imaginative play she did would be only slowed down by props and figures.

Plus, during that week, she explained, “I don’t like Barbie. She doesn’t come with any pirates to capture or wizards to free. I also don’t like G.I. Joe. He’s much too violent.”

We played when we were at her house; we built things when at my house.

Wilbough would ask me to make something in under an hour; something that had a motor and made noises.  “What should it do?” Willbough asked.

“Don’t worry about that. When you make the machine, I’ll come up with what it does.”

I made zombie laser nets, dragon remote controls, and a bomb that put dangerous fairies to sleep. This made my engineering brain spin faster because I knew whatever I made, Wilbough would use to save the world from immediate danger.

That week actually became two weeks, for all our parents decided that this was a good thingand good things are rare.

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Wilbough told me during that time,“I don’t have any friends back in the Kingdom of Texas. Texans don’t like that I’m always looking for elves.”

We played and built and went looking for more hidden parks.

Only once did we go to the Merry-Go-Round.

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Wilbough’s mother and grandmother took us there to spend the afternoon.

Her grandmother told us: “You are lucky. Not every neighborhood has a Merry-Go-Round. And all girls like Merry-Go-Rounds.”

We could hear the organ sounding in the distance. Not really music, more like a siren of a single, sustained note.

Only when we got closer, did the melody come through along with the rattle of the drums.

The organ carriage had a full orchestra; automated and set to fill the Merry-Go-Round for hours.

“Why do you have one?” I asked.

“Well,” the older woman said, baring her Texan drawl. “The adults of our city decided that a Merry-Go-Round would make our neighborhood nice. Children from this neighborhood are privileged for only they get to have a Merry-Go-Round in their backyard.”

“Do other kids outside of the neighborhood come and enjoy the Merry-Go-Round?” I asked.

“Only you two,” she said proudly.

Wilbough, when she caught sight of the striped, dome building, whispered to me, “I sense evil.”

Her mother and grandmother didn’t hear her, instead they gave her a zip-lock bag full of quarters. “We’ll be on the lawn reading our stories. Have fun, girls,” her mother said. She had one of her books out, freshly set aside.  Her mother, I learned, read newspapers and tabloids cover to cover. This was her afternoon to devour such papers in daylight.

We rode the horses, but without any joy. In truth, I spent most of my time following the pipes and cranks back to the covered machine. Only once in a while did I notice the organ, playing an assortment of circus songs from days of old. Wilbough rode her horse silently, gripping her golden pole tightly.

I noticed the operator. He was a tall, striking older man my grandfather’s age. He sat in the box office, operating the controls and talking to someone. Later, when I got a better look, I saw that it was a boy. The boy didn’t look like he was in trouble or that he hated being perched on a stool outside of the tiny box office. Instead, he nodded and smiled every once in a while, listening to whatever the old man said and did.

After a dozen rides, Wilbough wanted to take a small walk around the actual carousal and headto the boxed organ.

The organ had half dozen statues. Some moved to the rhythm, most were frozen in time. Around the walls of the organ were hand painted scenes of maidens visiting knights, pretty women dancing, and a wedding at the bottom.  Pipes formed a brass wall in the back of the carriage, looking like metal alps looming in the horizon as a background.

“This is what I sensed when I came here. It’s a wicked piece of machinery,” Wilbough whispered. “I’ve been investigating this … thing. I learned it’s for-real name.”

She spoke with an urgency that let me in on the fact that she was play-acting. Had she used her normal voice, I might have been nervous.

“What’s this machine called?” I asked.

“The Transcendence Machine.”  She looked down and then over both of her shoulders. “It kidnaps children. I don’t know how, but it does. And it’s as old as time. Every time period, it looks different. In caveman times, it looked like a rock’ during the pirate age, it looked like a golden woman in front of a boat; and in the future, it will be a robot. This is the boss of the elves.”

We rode a couple more times, but then we had things to do back in Wilbough’s empty basement. We left the Merry-Go-Round to find her mother. As we left, the operator said almost in a song, “Come again.”

The last three nights ended in a sleepover, with the final night as sleepless one as we told stories, played games, and talked about the Transcendence Machine. I left back to my home in Campbell and her back to the Kingdom of Texas.

At this point, my daughters stopped my story to ask something burning on their minds. “How does any of this have to do with magic?” my youngest asked me.

“It’s the Transcendence Machine. It’s magical, right?” the oldest asked. “And if it is, you’re going to have to do a lot of explaining.”

“Why?” I asked.

“You’re a rational scientist, mom. You don’t ‘do’ magic.”

I continued by jumping into the next year and the final one I spent with Wilbough.

I arrived at my grandmother’s house, ready for my two weeks with my luggage, tools, and mechanical books. They didn’t have engineering books for kids back then, so I had to go to the library and wade through books for University students just beginning in the field. Only once did I find something to introduce boys into building motors, but I had to return it to the library and then it disappeared.

So(,)I had my books stacked by my bed, my clothes packed in the wardrobe, and my toiletries in the bathroom. All I needed was to call Wilbough. However, my grandmother came to my room then and sat at the foot of my bed.

“We need to talk,” she said. “Your stay will be looking a little different this year. Instead of the normal fun we like to do, you’ll be helping me pack. I’m selling the house. I have carefully organized your schedule. You can have your evenings with your little friend, but the mornings and afternoons are to put things in boxes. I’m moving to a retirement home and selling this house.”

This was not open for discussion. Instead, she got up and left me to think about how things will be.

Quickly, I called Wilbough and she was crying on the other end. For me, when I heard her cry, I realized then that I would never see her again, probably. Back in the 1980’s, a lot of friendships were lost through the process of mail, phone, and visits- social media would have been our salvation.

We decided that those two weeks were going to be special. They had to be, for I wasn’t going to (see her again.

I worked in the mornings and afternoons, boxing things and moving them around. The evenings were for Wilbough and I in her emptied basement. We did less playing that time around, more talking. I had the sense, even back then, that this meant I wouldn’t be pretending as much as I did when I was younger. It was the first time when I felt I was getting older. Before that time, I only felt myself getting bigger. Now I was older and I didn’t do things I used to do, even if I enjoyed them.

Like playing with pirates or rescuing princes from towers or saving trolls from a burning castle. We did less and less of that. Instead, we just talked.

Wilbough and I were only children. Both of us didn’t really have friends at school. I didn’t mind; it bothered Wilbough tremendously.

All four of our parents worked, so we were “latch key children”.

Wilbough struggled with school because it was hard for her to concentrate on only one thing; I found school very, very boring.

The first week was spent in the rhythm of packing and evening visits. The second week was begun with my going over to Wilbough’s house, hearing her end an argument with her mother.

“She’s tired,” her mother said in a Texan drone. “Everyday, she lives in her dead husband’s house. She’s reminded of him in every room, every corner. She’s getting old. She doesn’t need our anger, only pity. Pity, nothing more.”

I knew they were talking about my grandmother. I didn’t think much from her perspective on the move. I didn’t hate her for it, but I didn’t understand it either. I guess I was so used to being shuffled around by parents that my reaction to things wasn’t part of any factor. In Wilbough’s house, she had the right to throw a fit and be angry. The result was that she learned more about my grandmother than I did, yet I was related to the woman.

I didn’t touch my engineering books during those days, just moved boxes and visited Wilbough. Once in a while, Wilbough would ask me about machine making. “You’re really good at it. You don’t do it anymore? Why?” she asked me in her basement.

I shrugged and hoped that was enough.

She left it alone and turned her attention to somewhere else. “Why are women’s bodies so weird in comic books? They’re skinny and fat in all of the useless of places.” And that led us down another trail.

The last two nights by grandmother told me to spend my time, exclusively, with Wilbough. “You can go to the parks or catch a movie or even go down to the Merry-Go-Round.”

News came to Wilbough’s house because when I got there, Wilbough was downstairs in her basement, pacing. “It’s we have two full days left. There is an emergency,” she said with mock severity. “The Transcendence Machine has stolen another child. A big boy, who steals lunch money from smaller children and uses that money to buy hundreds of candy bars. A terrible, terrible boy-but he still doesn’t deserve to have his soul eaten by that organ.”

“What can we do?” I asked, entering into her story.

“You,” she said as she pointed to me. “You. You need to make a machine. I’ve studied this machine. Only a machine can defeat a machine. The Transcendence Machine needs to go back to being just a normal, old organ. We need to create a machine that makes a noise, but one of those silent noises that only dogs and angry teachers can hear.”

So I went to work. When my grandfather was alive, he talked to me about sonic technology. But how do you make a sonic sound? I ran back to my grandmother’s house. She was laying on her bed, neither napping or reading: just laying down. I got my engineering books and ran back to Wilbough’s house. I poured over the pages and got the idea that sonic was, basically, just intense vibrations of a machine.

“I need to make a machine that shakes,” I said and we got to work.

We talked and told stories and I worked on our Anti-Transcendence Machine.

For research, we went down to the Merry-Go-Round to look at the thing. The old man running the machine greeted us, “Hey, welcome back! You just missed the ice cream man.”  I told him we weren’t hungry and we’d like to walk around the carousal.

When we got to the wagon, the art was brightly colored as if repainted. The style of the orangepanels belonged more to a Catholic altarpiece than a Merry-Go-Round. The pipes burst and trumpeted, the drums rattled, and the little conductor man waved his wand to the song.

“Tonight,” Wilbough said. “We shall bring your machine. We shall turn it on and it shall turn the organ back to normal.”

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I nodded.

That night, I went to bed with my clothes on. My grandmother kissed me goodnight. I told her I loved her, she nodded and glided back to her room. Within minutes, I could hear her snoring. I made my exit out my window and found my machine hidden under some bushes by the front gate. Wilbough was waiting by the gate clad in black, carrying six flashlights.

She handed me two. “Let’s go do this thing.”

“How many souls do you think this machine has claimed?” I asked.

“Hundreds. It’s an old, old machine. It draws children in and then stores them like leftovers in a freezer. Only the pretty children are turned into art. Those are the statues.”

“By my calculations,” I said, quoting my grandfather. “This machine should send a pulse that will chase out all magic from the machine. It will go back to being a normal organ.”

“Good,” Wilbough said as we made our way down the hill. We could see the dome top between the trees and rooftops of the neighborhood. “Now, this next part will be extremely dangerous. We have to turn it on right in front of the thing.”

I grabbed Wilbough’s hand, holding my sonic machine under my arm. My device, once completed, was no bigger than a shoebox.

We arrived at the darkened carousal. There was only one window in the second story that was on. I pointed up to it. “Adults leave lights on to scare away burglars. We’re okay and alone,” she said.

There was a small, side window that was left open. An adult couldn’t slink through and we, as lean girls, could barely wiggle through. We did with a lot of work, but we were soon inside. The horses stood still, threatening to come alive instantly and move like wild specters in the night. Shadows were thick, mostly covering objects with only the suggestion that they’re either boxes or sleeping giants. In the far corner, there was a mound of darkness that, at times, looked like elves waiting to ensnare us with a net.

“You there,” Wilbough started in a loud, declarative voice. “I see you and I know you! My friend and I have hunted your likes for a long, long time. We have chased elves who make girls stupid, rescued princes from tall towers, and have fought giants. All of this has brought us here. To face you, the Transcendence Machine! You will no longer steal the souls of children! Instead, we shall turn you back into a normal music maker for children! This is our last night to do this! We’re leaving, but future kids will be safe from you!”

We walked over to the dark tower of pipes and wood. None of the art was visible at night. Instead, it appeared to be a giant’s head in the shadows, popping from the ground and grinning at us.

“No more! No more,” I said. I ran over to the electrical outlet on the nearest pillar and plugged in my machine. It ground to life.

“You shall leave this place! You deal in magic, but my sister deals in science!”

“Hold on,” a man’s voice called out from the shadows.

We froze. Wilbough gasped. I quickly put my arms around Wilbough.

Steps pounded around the carousal and towards us. When the man came into the streetlight, it was the man who ran the box office.

“Hold on,” he said and then pointed to the Transcendence Machine.  “You’re doing it all wrong.”

“What?” I asked.

“You suspect something evil is going on with this organ, right?” he asked with a sharpness and urgency that matched Wilbough’s.

“Yes,” I stammered. I was so scared. I mean, I was frightened if he called my grandmother and told him everything.  We were only playing-I thought- only pretending and probably sounded really, really crazy.  Worst, we were broke in. We were burglars and they went to jail and I was terrified of jail.

“What’s wrong? I’ve suspected some really bad, arcane magic going on with this Merry-Go-Round, but I thought I was alone. What does this do?”

Startled and sounding slightly embarrassed, Wilbough mumbled, “It steals the souls of children?”

“That’s what I thought!  Now what do you have here?” he asked me as he walked over to my box.

“It’s a machine to reverse the magic through the technology…of sonic stuff.”

“That’s what I thought. But there’s one problem,” the operationsaid as we he walked over to turn on the lights. “The lights need to be on and the machine needs to be running. Evil hates when the lights turn on and in order for the machine to be reset, it has to be running. It’s the opposite of a computer because it works with magic.”

We both nodded. He flipped on the machine and it roared into a merry reel from the pipes.

“We need to scream at the thing in order for it to work,” he said.

Clutching Wilbough, I screamed; she joined me. The man gave a quick yawp.

After our screaming, he bowed to exhale and said, “I think we did it. The dark magic has fled. It’s gone. We now run a normal, average Merry-Go-Round.”

“And the souls of the children?” Wilbough asked.

“Scattered through time and space, to return to their original bodies. Everything is back to normal.” He grinned. “No, correction: everything is back to better.”

“That doesn’t make sense,” I said.

“It shouldn’t have to,” he replied with a quick wink. He looked over to Wilbough. “We need to keep them away from the world, this evil magic.”

“But how?” she asked, her voice full of wonder.

“It’s done by doing simple things. Three rules: 1) Don’t talk with food in your mouth, 2) Do one kind thing for a stranger at least once a week, 3) Never give up on magic.”

“I already don’t talk with food in my mouth,” Wilbough said proudly. “And I think I can do the other things too.”

“Good.” He looked over to me. “You’re the scientist, right? Please come tomorrow and I need to show you how this organ works.”

“But why do you need to do that?”

“Because it’s utterly fantastic, that’s why. Come back tomorrow. Make your way back to your homes before your grandparents know that you’re gone from your beds, okay?”

We agreed and headed back to our homes.

The next day, we both were able to persuade our grandparents for one last ride on the Merry-Go-Round. They took us down, with Wilbough carrying her grandmother’s bag of quarters.

The man in the ticket booth ran out of his small box with my machine under his arms. “Hey,” he said to me. “Last night, the weirdest thing happened. Someone broke in and left this behind. They didn’t take anything or hurt anything, but just dropped this. I knew you’d be smart enough to figure out what this device does.”

“Who would do such a thing?” my grandmother asked.

“Someone,” he said in a feint whisper. “Who is very brave. Brave enough to fix things and build stuff.”

I looked it over and shrugged. “It’s a sonic machine, I think.”

“Take it home and study it. You might find a use for it. Who knows?” he said. “And now, please stand in line and get a ticket for the Merry-Go-Round. It’s a slow day and I promised this future scientist that I would show her behind the curtain of the organ, so she could see how the thing worked.”

“But won’t that ruin the magic?” I asked.

“I think magic will survive.”

 
At this point in my story, my girls jumped in full of questions. For them, they were anticipating the usual wrap up: “We went home and our hearts were full and we never saw each other again.”  They also expected me to make mention my grandmother died shortly after her move.

But their questionswere to the original address: do I believe in the supernatural?

“But I just told you a story about the Transcendence Machine.”

“Wasn’t that just two girls pretending?”

“Or was it?” I asked.

I did have two Aces up my sleeve, though. Instead of the typical, adult ending being one that (where) Wilbough drifted off into my past, I told them that I was still in touch with Wilbough. We both did teach together at the University. She had changed her name and was has a PHD in mythology.

And the second was when I left them for a moment to fetch something from my study. Buried in my shelf, behind some copies of some old textbooks, was the machine we used on the organ.

“Whenever the home is threatened or I feel something wrong is going on, I turn this on.”

“And it works?” she asked.

“I’m not sure…yet. I’m a scientist and the data hasn’t come in to say one way or the other. And that, my daughters, is the nature of magic.”

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Gender Has Changed Doctor Who

 

Doctor Who Series 11

The decision to have a woman play the Doctor instead of, for the past 50+ years, has changed the show forever.

And that isn’t a bad thing.

When the announcement, a year and some time ago, came out that Jodie Whittaker would be taking the role, assurances were made that the show would never change, it would still be Doctor Who, and that it would be a continuation of her story.

These assurances didn’t work for me, mainly because the reason why most of us love Doctor Who is that it is always changing.  If the return (not reboot) in 2005 brought us to a black and white world of cardboard monsters and Murray Gold’s music being played on a Moog synthesizer, then I’d have panicked.  It would be a comfort to hear, “Why mess with something that worked in 1963?”

But the Doctor is about change.  Everything changes.  Everything always changes.

The Doctor is now a woman.  What has the brought us?

One subtle difference that has brought a big challenge to me as a man.

“The Woman Who Fell to The Earth” was the pilot episode for this new Doctor and it brought us all of the things we love about the show:

  • Good Vs. Evil
  • A space monster
  • A hope filled heroine
  • Companions
  • Lots and lots and lots of running

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Like before, the Doctor finds a companion (or, in this series, a team of companions) and they fight against the baddie.  The adventure achieves some satisfaction, so the person(s) remain (even if it’s against their will or judgement) on the show to travel through time and space.

Same as before.

Only this time, the Doctor is different towards these companions.  She calls them “friends” now.  She apologizes to them that they have to see a dead body.  When there is a tragedy, the Doctor stays behind for the funeral (Imagine the other Doctors doing that?  They barely make it indoors for Christmas.  “Yeah,” you can read on their faces.  “I don’t DO funerals.”).   And her new friends stick together and never wander away.

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What?  Isn’t that a rule?  The old Doctor kept losing companions.  As soon as the Doctor stepped onto a new planet, the companions always wandered away.

He, when this happened, made a joke about it and then went exploring.  It’d only be a problem when they’re about to be sacrificed to a giant squid, got poisoned by a Dalek plant, pushed off a cliff, attacked by a street gang, or almost drowned.  Then the Doctor got annoyed.

With this new Doctor, she is protective of their feelings and of them.  Getting her group to be near her and go through the episode together is the true mark of her leadership.  In “Rosa”, she allows them to split up but it’s for her to allow, alone, to confront the villain and the danger of the episode.  They then meet back.

The old incarnations would often have a half smile when danger too place, with that nonchalance of “well, they are adults: they can sort this out on their own.”

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And true, they mostly do.  For every scream Mel gave or time Tegan was hypnotized or Sarah being pursued by a half-wit giant with a crush, there were good times for sure.  This relaxed spirit of “not understanding what the big deal is” was what made him alien. And in that alien nature, we could relate to because there are people in our life that seemed to make a bigger deal of things than need be.  Why can’t we be Timelords about their problems?

The Doctor had, for the most part, a distracted quality to him.  He was a Time Lord, thinking about bigger and better things.  Tom Baker was perfect in this posture.  You felt, at times, his brain was only working 10% on the problem and the rest was off somewhere else.

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Plus, he was giving his human companions fun, right?  It was the Doctor’s sense of fun to run through rock quarries and face peril at the end of every episode and stand up to bad guys.  His fun, maybe fun for everyone else.  Fun!

Sure, Adric was blown up in space.  And Rose got sucked up into another dimension.  And Donna got her memory erased.  And Sarah was dropped off in the wrong part of the country.  And Katrina was killed.  And…

But the old, male Doctors just felt bad those exceptions took place.  There wasn’t an ability to keep the team safe or to understand what the team was going through.

Until now.

Danger will still happen to the team (so far, they were stuck in space without any space suits and they were chased by killer fabric and they faced a monster who loved shoving teeth in his face) but it’s a different kind of danger because it’s a different kind of context.

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It is in the context of a Doctor who now has empathy for her friends.

Will this backfire for her? We don’t know.  Episode 4, in my present time, is just coming up this weekend. Could empathy be her undoing, though, in future stories?  Maybe. But it is a welcomed change.

Of course, it isn’t a much needed change.  The old Doctors were heroes and did care and were amazing people.  It’s just now, there’s this new dynamic which has caused me to ask:

 

How am I a Doctor to my friends?

 

Am I reading them, watching after them, and building teams around me?  Do I stick around for events in their lives or fly off with my own mental TARDIS to the next thing?  Do I bring people along to start adventures only to leave them literally dangling from the side of a cliff (or metaphorically)?  How present am I in my life’s current episode?

 

The Politics of Orcs, The Empire, and Death Eaters OR…Why Jodie Whittaker Becoming the Doctor is the Right Thing We Need Right Now.

Bill Maher might upset or delight you, but I’d like to use a distinction he made concerning a cultural divide in North America that I feel is bang on.

Granted, there is profanity and he doesn’t lean to the left (rather runs past the left and into new, liberal territories) and he stands against his country’s current President. He might, therefore, upset; let me than summarize his argument[1].

There are two types of camps when viewing culture: those who thought the 1950’s were cool and those that thought the 1960’s were necessary.

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The 1950’s people viewed America as stable, everything worked, everyone was in their right place, no one was on depression medication, a man and a woman could make a family, if you worked hard and did your part the system worked, church was important because it provided the control a central story, and things would get better and better.  The 1950’s was about status quo.

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On the B side, the 1960’s people saw a need for change with a deep belief that not everyone was included.  This is the age of Free Love, Martin Luther King Jr., and ERA. It is a re-examination of how systems, language, religion, and art sought to exploit the majority and elevate an established minority.  The 1960’s was about upheaval.

Scattered through Canada and the US is a line:

do you think the 1950’s was the height of America’s problems and the 1960’s the solution to that problem

OR

was the 1950’s the height of North America being the best and the 1960’s is when everything good came crashing down?

 

Which brings us to the stories we tell and watch and write and read: who are our baddies, the ones who need to be stopped.

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For those who love the 1950’s, they read Harry Potterand find comfort: here’s a poor boy, through hard work and determination, fights against such Death Eaters as Political Correctness, liberal bullies, and elitism.  And for those who love the 1960’s, Harry Potter is the one who befriends Mudbloods, questions crooked authorities, and raises his wand in protest when injustice takes place.

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For those who love the 1950’s, Star Wars is about rebels trying to bring back the Old Republic and democracy.  For those who love the 1960’s, it’s about fighting against the old, established Empire who seems to ONLY hire humans.

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For those who love the 1950’s, Lord of the Rings is the last stand against the encroaching evil who seeks to do away with their culture and religion and morality.  For those who love the 1960’s, Orcs are the machine heads who seeks to exploit the environment and all of the people who do not fit the monolithic standard of Sauron.

Trump or Hillary[2]is Voledmort.  Or Palpatine.  Or Sauron.

In these stories, evil is very Evil.   I mean, Orcs are pretty much are monsters.

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If you are an Imperial Officer in Star Wars, you have to surrender yourself to living in monochromatic colors, black metal, and only hues of gray.   As an officer, one couldn’t wonder if one of them asked, “Are we on the wrong side of history?  I mean, everything about us- from fashion to interior design- it’s just really, really evil looking.”

Or Death Eaters.  None of them ever looked neutral.  In the Battle of Hogwarts, I would have liked to see one of them wear a light blue or orange hood…just by mistake, not getting the e-mail that everyone was to wear solid black while destroying a school for children.

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This is why Snape is always being fingered as evil no matter how innocent he might be.  You’d think Dumbledore would pull him aside and encourage, “Just add some color.  A splash of red or purple.  You’d be surprised how this could cut down on all of the kids convinced you’re a servant of absolute darkness.”

My point is that evil is in primary colors; good is equally obvious.  Just by looking at someone, you can tell which camp they belong to.  This, of course, spill over into the lines drawn by culture between the lovers of the 1950’s or the 1960’s.

An example of this can be found on the Christian satire website Babylon Bee.  At first, I didn’t get the humor it didn’t seem all that Christian.  I then realized that it is not a Christian satire about politics, but a political view about the Christian church (Republican)….then things made more sense.

Here is an example of what of this kind of thinking:

https://babylonbee.com/news/let-the-hate-flow-through-you-cackles-cloaked-hillary-clinton-at-campaign-rally

Us Vs. them.  And before those who are pro-1960’s are absolved from this kind of thinking, the Babylon Bee was shaped by The Onion only with a more Humanist, Liberal perspective.

And if you’re that rare group of people who have been labelled Generation X, you might want to escape this binary polarization by simply stating, “Well, I don’t like either the 1950’s or the 1960’s.”  If so, please round up and pick a side: North America has suddenly turned binary unless one actively fights against such a tide.

Right now, there is an impulse to see the world of your friends against all of the Death Eaters.  It effects our posture, our language, and our engagement.

 

 

The Bad Word Test

Let’s pretend there’s someone in your church or on your block or in your coffee group or will be attending a Christmas meal with you and they, you know, will say a malediction.

Depending on if you’re a 1950’s person or a 1960’s person, there are bad words.  Let’s say your friend uses the bad word(s): “White Male”, “Patriarchy”, “Equal Opportunity”, “New Canadian (American)”, “Alternative Lifestyle”, “Victims of the Immigration System”, “Black Lives Matter”, and so forth.    The other side has a list as well: Any ethnic slur, anything seen as exploitative, any phrase that reinforces patriarchy or class distinction or gender inequality or stereotypes or any other harm.

Let’s pretend this word or words are used right in front of you.  What do you do?

As a Christian minister, we have our “go to” speech: “I would correct them firmly, but with love.  I would let them know they are wrong in their word choice and offer them examples of a better way to speak.  My tone would be kind, warm, and positive.”

Yet if you think you’re talking to a Death Eater, this process can get derailed.  You might believe you’re coming across as Dumbledore, but you’ll have the vibe of an altogether different character in Harry Potter.

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This is Dolores Umbridge.   Horror writer Stephen King claimed she was the greatest monster in recent fiction.  Here’s his quote:

 

“This one’s a slam dunk. A great fantasy novel can’t exist without a great villain, and while You-Know-Who (sure we do: Lord Voldemort) is a little too far out in the supernatural ozone to qualify, the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher at Hogwarts does just fine in this regard. The gently smiling Dolores Umbridge, with her girlish voice, toadlike face, and clutching, stubby fingers, is the greatest make-believe villain to come along since Hannibal Lecter. One needn’t be a child to remember The Really Scary Teacher, the one who terrified us so badly that we dreaded the walk to school in the morning, and we turn the pages partly in fervent hopes that she will get her comeuppance…but also in growing fear of what she will get up to next. For surely a teacher capable of banning Harry Potter from playing Quidditch is capable of anything.”[3]

 

For Umbridge, she was right and everyone else at Hogwarts was wrong.  She was sent to improve things, get the school back on track.  She corrected while smiling, mostly.  Appearing to be sweet and kind, she is such a searing source of condescension…which makes her all the more evil.

Why?  Because deep down in her heart, she believes the students and faculty are the baddies and she is the last, good, righteous one who has been sent to fix everyone.

This is the problem with living as a member of the Rebellion, the Fellowship of the Ring, and/or the Order of the Phoenix- no matter how nice you come across, the people disagree with you who live with will be seen as the problem.

The People of the 1950’s and the 1960’s both believe they are on the side of Democracy, however whenever you see an opposition to your ideals as a problem, a barrier, and a threat then you no longer function as a defender of Democracy.

Simply put, Hogwarts was not defended by a vote and the Empire was not taken down by filling out ballots.  One cannot see others as the problem to the world AND allow them to be part of a Democracy.

 

 

“Okay, You’re Now My New Best Friends”

I love Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and, sometimes, Star Wars.  The power of these stories is that they give us so many tangible metaphors for redemption. And we will, for a long time, use these stories to navigate our sense of morals.

However, might I propose a newer metaphor during our current, political climate:

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Jodie Whittaker as Doctor Who.

This is the first time in the 50+ years of this show when the main character, a Time Lord of many different lives and bodies, have turned into a woman.  There has been a storm over Jodie Whitaker taking the role, labelling it as a “PC genderfication reboot[4]”.

Although I do think Science Fiction is getting a little crazy with the rebooting of the past, tried, and true franchises, I don’t think you can apply this to Doctor Who.  The show has always been about change, about doing something new: you cannot reboot something that is intrinsically dynamic.

I wasn’t sure I’d like Whitaker as the new Doctor, until there was a moment she owned the part.  For me, it was during an advertisement before the premiere aired: it was her, looking at a group of strangers, and asking, “Okay, right now: can we be our new best friends?”

That worked for me.  Perhaps because I’m a longtime and that my inner 10-year-old desperately wants to be the Doctor’s best friend.  Primarily, though, it establishes the heroic quality of Whitaker’s Doctor: she introduces herself by friendship.

Yes, there are still baddies in the Universe. During the premiere of the new season, we meet one but what is different to the “Us/them” is that the Doctor, on several occasions, invites the baddy to stop their plans, to turn away, and to quit the harm the creature is inflicting.  Of course, the villain doesn’t listen but undoes himself in the end by his own devices and by one of his would-be victims.

She is an alien, a part from the places she visits eternal “us/them”.  She does take sides, but not until she first considers the issues and the morality of each new place.  There is always an offer for friendship, but it must be on the terms of changing for the good and not the binary “you aren’t an enemy”.

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It’s a classic Who image: the outsider who steps in the middle of two sides, defining the good that is absent from the cycles that perpetuate the conflict.

She is inclusive while maintaining a sense of good triumphing over evil.  Her inclusion is not at the expense of morality, rather it is its engine.

At least, that’s as far as we can see from the pilot. However, if there’s more of this kind of message it’s why, perhaps in today’s climate, she is needed most: a figure who is able to enter as an outsider to all of our embroiled fights.

For those who are stuck in the 1950’s or the 1960’s, our new heroine is a time traveler.  Correction: a time and space traveler.  Someone who can investigate where is the good and rid the world of exploitation.

Now, did the other stories miss the boat on being inclusive?  No.  It’s there at Hogwarts and Middle Earth and the rest: but the Doctor goes out of her way to have this in her story.

I propose that this might be the new model- Whitaker’s Doctor- as we configure what our worlds and lands need.  And perhaps, if we’re lucky, this new Doctor might visit Middle Earth, Hogwarts, and the Star Wars Universe.

If not, we can only imagine.

[1]For those who love primary sources, here’s the video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wzUd8YrFJCk

[2]Are we still talking about her?

[3]https://www.reddit.com/r/todayilearned/comments/vkz0n/til_that_the_novelist_stephen_king_said_that/

[4]https://www.cnn.com/2018/10/05/entertainment/doctor-who-preview/index.html

A Street Vendor Dressed as a Cat Selling Sweet Potatoes in Tokyo

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A few months ago, I learned that there was a man who dressed as a cat and sold roasted sweet potatoes on the streets of Tokyo.

 

https://theculturetrip.com/asia/japan/articles/in-japan-theres-a-popular-cat-man-selling-sweet-potatoes/

 

The first I saw of it was a video of the man selling sweet potatoes without words or noises, just  soft, happy music in the background.  The video showed him as the only one in a long street, taking care of a single pedestrian who needed warmth, joy, and sweet potatoes.  The video showed the customer sufficiently served by a man in a cat suit.

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He does this, according to the link, because of his love of cats and his belief that those who love cats, whomever they may be, will have their day redeemed.  He gives free food to children and those who are hungry, believing he is doing something greater than just making money.

Does this sound crazy?

Sure it does…if it doesn’t work.

He is trying to appeal to everyone’s inner child and if he just makes more adults on the streets of Tokyo, angry and put out and committed to their pretenses.  You can hear the outrage, the protest of those who might encounter this Quixotic pursuit of joy mixed with sweet potatoes.  Or the disgust, people shriveling up their faces because something is “just too weird.”   We, as humans, are passionately and stridently committed to our view of normal that this might be too great of an assault on such a pretense.  It could have gone disastrously wrong.

But if it does work…isn’t it worth it?

If someone’s day is redeemed because of a man in a cat suit serving him sweet potatoes then it makes all of us consider the idea of wearing cat suits to our work, meals, and when we do errands.  Heck, I considered it when I first saw the video!  I was working in a supportive role at a church (a very nice and friendly one), but I was doing a lot of grunt work.  The whole day I was setting up tables and chairs, the thought struck me: “What if I did this same job, resembling a cat?”

I didn’t because I wasn’t convinced it would have brought redemption to my world.

But there’s that fine line where what we can do for each other is either redemptive or just adds to the pretense of our world.  The line is discovered through the tacking of listening, reflecting, and community.

And for those who need to see the original video, here it is:

 

 

Autumn and Dementia

Today, on September 21, it’s snowing in Edmonton.

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Typically in the north, a snow fall in the September or October isn’t too unusual.  It happens, it reminds us that Winter is coming, and that it goes away the next day. However, the freak snow fall hit last week; it’s snowing again today.  When it snows once in September, it feels like it’s an accident; when it snows twice, it feels like a conspiracy.

A few years ago, every year I’d do a race in the Autumn.

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Autumn is precious in Alberta, mainly because it is so short, so beautiful, and so fragile.  In High Prairie, I participated in a 10k run every Autumn to support our volunteer fire fighters.  It was a beautiful run, shooting through the dappled sunlight, the brisk wafts of icy air, the crimson and bursting gold of the leaves, and the last bits of summer being dumped out from the bottom of a jar.

I think of Autumn now as I journey through my own parents’ departure.  My father, about 5 years ago, suffered three massive strokes that left him without speech, most of his motor functions, and the ability to understand most communication.

My mother, a few years ago, began to show signs of dementia similar to Alzheimer’s: moment of aphasias, memory loss, confusion, and experienced “twilighting[1]”.   She is now in hospice care for those who are struggling with dementia; my father is in a separate home for stroke patients.

 

 

Autumn is their season, as Summer is quickly leaving them.  The leaves are falling and the ones that remain are changing shape and color with the promise to join their falling brothers and sisters.  Warmer days are a rarity.  Snow shows up, then retreats with the promise to return.  Winter is coming.  And Winter will be long.

It’s a season of kindness because those with dementia do not just leave.  It’s a slow departure, as the heat slowly leaves the land and the frost comes up over the plants.  Harvesting happens, with an awareness that Thanksgiving is just around the corner. With your parents who have dementia, they lose names and memories and skills slowly.  Still there, just not as much.

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My mother believes I am a pastor in Flint, Michigan.  She grew up in Flint and the cold of Canada reminded her of her childhood setting. During this past year, when I would do my weekly call, she would talk more and more about Flint.  At first, whenever I talked about the various adventures of our family, her reply would be, “Oh, that’s just like in Flint when I was a kid…”. Soon this became an odd expression because-specifically with my kids 21stCentury experiences- they were nothing like her days in Flint.  Confusing and, it seemed, like she really wasn’t listening to me.

A wise fellow from one of my congregations heard about this and gave me a piece of golden insight: “With relatives who have dementia, don’t correct them.  Just affirm. They are no longer present enough to be corrected; they are only somewhat here.  They are leaving.  And what do you do to guests who are leaving you?  Affirm.  Thank them for the visit.”

Later, my brother visited her and revealed that she believed I was in Flint.  Memory erasure, in many dementia patients, works backwards.

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There’s an Akira Kurosawa film my brother and I forced ourselves to watch when my dad has his stroke called “Rhapsody in August.”  In this film, a family is watching their grandmother slowly start to go back to her childhood, marking by the Allied bombing of Japan.  The film ends with her running into a violent rainstorm, leaving behind her family to return to her childhood home before the nuclear devastation.

This is her Autumn.

Our beloved ones leave us slowly, memory by memory working backwards towards their Spring.

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Autumn is kind, but it’s also cruel.  In Canada, Autumn is when you just have finished building your porch, you bought a new firepit, you got in shape with your cycling, and you developed a rhythm in going to the community pool with your kids.

And then it snows.

Quickly, you’re scrambling to get your lawn chairs in storage, coil up your hoses, and shut off your outdoor water supplies. School starts, the days get shorter, and grass no longer needs to be mowed.  Worst, all of us have some sort of yahoo who lives in Palm Desert or Long Beach or Tuscan, posting pictures from their phone taken from the weather network boasting that they live two miles from the sun.

Winter is coming and none of us are ready.

 

 

Winter is a point of pride in Canada.  When I moved to Canada from California, I felt there was this strange bravado towards how cold it got.  I’d have coffee with old farmers who would chuckle, “Just wait until it gets cold!”  And then they would laugh without any breaks for an impossibly long time.

In my mind, I would scream, “I just want to go through a winter to prove that no one died and it wasn’t as horrible as they made it out to be.”

My wish came true.  I’m now facing my 13thWinter.

A snow fall can happen in the summer here in Alberta.  It’s rare and strange and feels like a betrayal.  Old timers will tell you: “I’ve seen snow fall every month of the year.” It’s a strange badge of pride.

Death in the young is like snow falling in the Summer: it happens, it just shouldn’t happen.

But Winter coming after Autumn feels like a promise made good, like an inevitable extension of the season.  Winter means Christmas and Christ’s birth and the setting of a new calendar- which are all good things.  Winter is also when things slow down completely, freeze over, and light fades.

As a pastor, I’ve visited people who are in the hospital dying.  An older man who lived his life in service of his community, his church, and his God was asked if he was scared of death.  “Nope,” he said.  And then he described his time in the hospital as a prolonged Advent.  “Not too many days left until Christmas!”   When he passed, his funeral had every single hymn one could sing about Heaven.

Winter is inevitable.  You can either fight it or embrace it.  I knew a mechanic from South Africa who wore shorts in the winter, in the snow.  We’d ask him why he wore shorts in the snow and he’d reply, “Is it snowing?  Hadn’t noticed.”

Embracing Winter is what Autumn teaches us.  There’s a wonderful Twilight Zone episode where an old woman is visited by Death (who is played by Robert Redford, so you can imagine where this is going) and he gently takes her away.  She leaves, finishing her slow journey.

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Snow in September teaches us the reality of all of our slow good-byes.

“Pebbles and marbles like things on my mind
Seem to get lost and harder to find
When I am alone I am inclined
If I find a pebble in sand
To think that it fell from my hand.”  Phish

[1]Twilighting is a term used to describe when someone with dementia suffers from more and more of their symptoms later in the day.  In the morning, they are refreshed and their strength can hold things together.  The longer the day, the more difficult it is to remember, to march through the day with memory gaps, and harder to keep remembering basic things.  The result is the level of confusion takes its toll at dusk, when the individual is their most tired.

The Sharing Tree – An Ecological Children’s Story

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This is with apologies to the late, great Shel Silverstein who wrote “The Giving Tree”.   I lifted some of his public domain pictures from his book’s illustrations.  

Once upon a time there was a tree and she loved a boy.  She called the boy’s name for a long, long time.  Finally, he heard: “Come boy!  Play on my branches.”

So the boy did.  And he loved the tree; the tree loved him.

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The boy grew older and the tree gave the boy an idea: “Tie a swing onto my strongest trunk and swing.”

So the boy tied a swing to the lowest branch.  “No, not that one.”  And then another.  “No.”  And then another.  “No.”

“Why can’t a tie the swing to the lowest and easiest branch?” the boy asked.

“It won’t be safe for you or me.  Find my strongest and highest branch: that will work.  It is what it is,” she answered.

So he did.  And he swung for days and days.

He left.  And she waited.

He came back as a young man and noticed the apples on the ground.  “These are good apples.  Maybe I can sell them?”

“Yes, boy,” she said.  “But don’t sell the apples on the ground.  Climb and pick my branches.  The higher the apples, the better they will sell.”

“But that’s too high and too much work.  Why can’t you drop your best apples?”

“It doesn’t work like that.  The harder the work, the better the apples.  It is what it is,” she said.

“Anyone ever call you bossy?”

“I’ve heard that once or twice,” the tree said to the boy.

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So he did what she said and found out she was right.  So he sold the apples.  And came back every year.

Until one year, the apples were too small to sell.

“Don’t you love me?” the boy asked.

“Of course.  But I need to be pruned.  Cut my branches at the base when it’s Fall.  Next year, my apples will be the better than ever.”  The boy scowled.  “And pick up your garbage.  It’s getting into my soil.”

“But that’s work,” the boy protested.

“It is what it is.”

“Anyone ever call you bossy?”

“I’ve heard that once or twice,” the tree said.

He did what she said and the apples grew next year better than ever.  The boy sold the apples and left for a long time.

And the tree waited.

Years later, the boy came back as a man.  “I need an adventure,” he said.

“What you need to do is cut my branches, pick my apples, and make a boat.  Then sell my apples to people along the river.  That will be your adventure.”

“But that’s work!”

“It is what it is.”

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“Anyone ever call you bossy?”

“I’ve heard that once or twice,” the tree said.

So the boy did what she said and spent several years living on his boat.  He saw all of the land that surrounded the tree.

Years later, he returned to the tree.  “I have a family now.  They want to live somewhere. When I was a child, I climbed your branches.  Maybe…”

“No,” the tree said for she loved the man.  “Families don’t live in trees.  Chop down my trunk and use it to make a house.”

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“But that’s-” the man said.  “…It is what it is.  Yes, ma’am.”

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So he made a house.  Raised a family.  Grew old.

One morning, he walked over to the tree that was now a stump.  “You have nothing left to give,” he said to the tree.  “I want to play again, like I did as a boy.”

“You can’t play anymore, you’re an old man.”

“I want to sell apples and make money,” he said.

“No more apples to sell.  Now there are markets and superstores.  They will not buy our apples.”

“I want a boat, so I can go on another adventure.”

“You have a wife, children, grandchildren, and the land.  Everyone needs you.  Don’t go.”

“I need, I need…”

“You need to sit,” the stump said to the man she loved.  “You are tired.  It is what it is.”

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“I will sit,” the man said and he did what the tree told him what to do.  “Anyone ever call you bossy?”

“Yes,” the tree said.  And she was happy.

The Sublime Forest: It Is What It Is and It Is What Isn’t

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This is a picture floating around in I-Space. It’s a digital reconfiguration of a pretty well-known photograph.  Here is the original:

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The original is from Point Reyes, California. It’s called the “Cypress Tree Tunnel”. However, I have no idea who made this digital manipulation.  It’s absolutely breath-taking.  Whomever did this- THANK YOU!  I would love to credit you with this work, as a fan and as someone who, when seeing this, his mind was blown.

This reminds me of the concept “the eyes that can see”, borrowed from many faith traditions.  This concept simply states that there is reality and a reality behind the reality we, at first glance, perceive.

Writer Wendell Berry argues, “There are no unsecured places; there are only sacred and desecrated places.”

My daughter, when she was seven, put this concept as, “It is what it is and it is what it isn’t.”   Let me tweak that: “It is what is and it is what isn’t seen yet.”

It is: our physical world.

It is what isn’t seen yet: the interior world, the world underneath our world.

Trees bear this image.

Coastal Redwood trees, under the surface of the ground, have a complex network of roots.  No tree stands alone, but is connected to their tree family.  This root system is so strong that you could chop down a tree and it will grow back by the support, aid, and nourishment of its roots.  All hidden, all buried within the soil.

The roots of a Weeping Willow tree are shallow, but long.  They can grow up to three times the size of its branches, spreading out its arms and legs just below the top soil.  I’ve seen a Weeping Willow slowly rip apart sidewalks and streets, the slow work over years of growth, cutting through cement as if they were made of butter.

Birch trees are the polar opposite to Weeping Willows.  Shallow, thin roots.  They thrive in cold climates, thriving when their roots are in frozen ground. Standing like lean businessmen in a crowded elevator, Birch trees need cold, moisture, and lots of other Birch trees. All of their growth is above ground, in relationship, related to their forest.

Certainly, oh gentle reader, you can see the metaphor of the exchange between our inner lives and our outer lives, reflected in the nature of trees.

Psychologists describe this interchange as the introvert-extravert tension.   Introverts gain energy from solitude, from quiet withdrawal; they spend energy in the company of other trees.   Opposite to them, extraverts burn energy in solitude but gain it in community.

I am a newcomer to Anglicanism, which borrows from Catholic traditions.  I find it interesting that Catholic prayer find itself steeped in this tension.

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Thomas Kempis’ classic “Imitation of Christ” emerged around 1418, written in Latin and became second in popularity to the Bible. It is a road map on how one can change from being selfish, angry, lusty, and mean into the very good image of Jesus Christ.  It’s a “How-To” on monastic living, finding joy and pleasure in the world of solitude. It is a for one who wants to dig in the dirt, get to one’s root system.

Kempis shows the way for the European monastics of the beauty in withdrawing from community, building up little introvert cloisters, and drinking deep from quiet waters.

A professor of mine once quipped, “The only problem with reading the desert fathers is that none of them had kids. They tell you to spend three hours contemplating the Trinity and yet they don’t know what it’s like when a three-year old is nattering at you.”

In Anglicans (again, borrowed from the Catholic tradition) we have Collects: organized prayers that collect our thoughts and prayers into an arrow, bringing us back to our intended purpose.

There are many Collects: for the Incarnation, for nature, for the Word of God, for worship.  All seeking interior truths.

However, many of them are quite like Weeping Willow or Coastal Redwood prayers: to strengthen the interior root system.

However, I imagine there are emerging real life Collects referencing our relationships, our communal rhythms.  Such as:

 

Dear God in Heaven,

         Praise be your name. You are the Mother-Hen who takes care of us, the Father who protects us, and the constant friend.

         I make my intended prayer to you stating a simple truth:

         My husband is an idiot….

 

Or:

 

To You who all hearts are open and desires known:

Please have my kids please be quiet for twenty minutes.  I promise, I will take this time to clean and make dinner.  I won’t fritter the time away.  I promise…

 

These are the Birch Tree prayers: spirituality found in community, in family.  God is the God of the monastic but also of the domestic, writer Nikos Kazanzakis urges us.

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The joy monastic tradition must have felt when St. Tereas of Avila came to the scene.  A Spanish nun, extravert extraordinaire, she penned “The Interior Castle”.  The castle is a journey inside ourselves, symbolized by a castle.  Yes, it was a book for those to tend to our own root system but the rooms to her castle seemed to always be about processing relationships and communal life. Every room in the castle could be tied a problem found in community.  Living with God means living with others.

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Idealists tend to let their worlds take root under the surface of things; communalists branch out wide enough and are strong enough to shade reality with their truths.  Both are needed, bot work together.  Without deep roots, spruce can fall when the weather turns warm; Willow trees can break apart the world because of all of their layers upon layers of introspection, meditation, and worrying.

 

 

But let’s get back to this bi-fabricated world view, seeing the world above ground and beneath ground.

Here’s my question: would it be “OK” if we could delve into people’s thoughts and mediations and inner-worlds?

As a Whovian, I’ve always chuckled when I’ve seen Star Trek. Here’s my great chuckle: Praise be the gods that the Holo-Deck isn’t available to me!

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If I had a Holo-deck and let my fantasies run wild and it would be just my private session, what kind of madness would be unleashed in that black checker-boarded world?

My writing is enough madness I’m willing to unleash to the world, but it’s often times edited, proofed, polished, deleted, and combed over so my crazy silver and purple streaks have been whittled away.

As an Anglican, there are public prayers and private prayers. The private inform the public (and visa-versa) but should never be confused.

Let each other’s inner-dragons lie until we can, as a community, feed them.  Or slay them. Or befriend them.

The picture is still a gift, even though it might be an impossible image.  It reminds us that for every branch or apple or trunk, there are roots buried deep under the soil.  Invisible, but nonetheless shaping the forests we walk amongst.

 

 

St. George: Eric’s New Gig

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This is an odd bit of joy.

My experience as a Baptist and Evangelical Pastor has shaped me to leave/enter a congregation in much the same way, despite the fact that every church is unique in their own imprints.  The usual story is that I am contacted by a church based on a resume I sent them, a reference made, or some third party makes an introduction.  They have been without a leader for sometime and usually seek a different kind of leader than the one that they had previous to my pastorate.  When I get there, I settle for a few months, listen to the stories of my predecessor, and hold back the reality that things, pretty soon, will be much, much different.

This is the way of the congregational led, anabaptist, evangelical world.

Not so with Anglicanism.

My new parish will be starting September 4th and, after a long wait, will be…

St. George’s Anglican Church in Fort Saskatchewan.

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If this sounds familiar to you-then you’re right-it is where I first was placed as an intern when I first started this adventure back in November.

I will be their interim Deacon-in-charge.  This interim season will be no less than 6 months and no more than a year.  The plan is that during this time, I will be ordained from Deacon to Priest.

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This congregation was a place of great joy and healing, as the people received a fairly hurt intern who had a very long backstory.  I learned the ropes of Anglicanism there and really jived well with the vision set by Rev. Chelsy.  As an intern, I wasn’t biting my tongue and holding back my words, pining for the day I could be in charge of my own parish so I could “finally do things right”.  Quite the opposite: there was a concrete vision being given by people who were getting on board and it was a pretty inclusive strategy.

I now mean what most priests/pastors say when I begin with the words: “We will be continuing the vision.  We’re on our way to becoming a neighbourhood church, a place of cooperative ministry and leadership, and a people who follow God’s mission.”

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These are good people who have benefited from a strong leader.  Rev. Chelsy, ironically, will be the assistant priest at Christ Church (another familiar name: it was the location of my second internship).   Still in the area, just in a new neighbourhood.  It is an honour to be asked back and I am very excited to continue with the parish’s story

For those who pray, please keep me in mind as I start this new chapter in the Kregels journey.  Also, if ever in the Fort, look me up.

You can read about it in the Synod Scene:

http://www.edmonton.anglican.org/newsletters/94/display

 

Synergy

 

Synergy:syn-er-ji//noun: cooperation of two or more people or things to produce a combined effect that is greater than the sum of their separate effects. 

Once upon a time, there was a youth pastor, Arty Williams, who ran a Summer Camp.  His church’s insurance required him to have at least 1 adult to 8 kids for his program, yet only his girlfriend and roommate ran the youth group.  When asked where he was going to find the other staff, his answer was the same, “I don’t want to trust in my own strength.  God will bring the staff.”

On the morning of the camp, his senior pastor met Arty in the parking lot to only find his girlfriend and his roommate as adults on the bus.  Sadly, the camp was cancelled.  When Arty met with the elder board, he informed them he never made any calls, never visited any of the Bible studies of the church, or even invited any of the parents to the camp.

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An older gentleman summed up the board’s feelings concerning Arty, “I know you didn’t want to use your strength but God’s, yet I think it’s okay, every once in a while, to break a little sweat for the kingdom.”

This describes on extreme view on God’s Mission: He’ll do it all, we just have to sit back and watch.

The other extreme is that the goal of following God is to make everyone go to church, whatever it takes, and make them into people just like yourself.  The one who makes the most Christians is the best at following God and the church with the most converts…wins.

On this extreme, it is the brow beating and hyperactivity that makes people into Christians and saves the world.  God can help out, so long as he sticks to the plan.

Either extreme shall make one nuts.  Either side, you’re all alone.

No, God works in community and in relationship.

“It is surely a fact of inexhaustible significance that what the Lord left behind Him was not a book, nor a creed, nor a system of thought, nor a rule of life, but a visible community,” writer Lesslie Newbegin asserts.

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If what God left behind was a community to change the world, then why do we either think we have to make it happen or stay in isolation, a lonely despair waiting for “God to do something…anything.”

The solution is that God is already at work and wants us to walk alongside Him, to cooperate and participate.  To share in the invitation of following Christ…with Christ.

Karen Wilk wrote an amazing devotional called “Don’t Invite Them to Church”.   “The disciples experienced the power of with. I think that’s what loving our neighbors is all about…The risen Lord showed up, not in the temples, but in cemeteries, on beaches, at home gatherings, and on the road.  He ate a lot of fish and bread.  Sometimes I wonder if the church has made everything too complicated.  What if we all just did what Jesus did: walked alongside, listened, empathized, told the story, broke bread?”

He is the God who shows up with those who follow Him and is there before they come. It is a blessed synergy: God’s activity and our partnership.

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The presence of God is found with those who follow Him, not in data, celebrities, digitally recorded sermons, books, exclusively in church buildings, or products.  When people cooperate with Christ, the glory of their witness shines.

Kind of like John 17: 20-23, “I pray not only for these but also for those who believe in Me through their message.  May they all be one in Us, so the world may believe You sent Me.  I have given them glory You have given Me.  May they be one as We are one.  I am in them and You are in Me.  May they be made completely one, so the world may know You have sent Me and have loved them as You have loved Me.”

Grace is Like…

Years ago, I brought my 4 year-old daughter to a camp I spoke at and she listened to one of my messages.  I attempted, in my message, to communicate the style of Jesus’ teaching.  He rarely used a lectern or formally taught, but would be walking with his disciples and point to things near them, stating, “The Kingdom of God is like…”   I did this in the chapel and, comically, ran out of things to point at.

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“You see,” I concluded.  “You’ve got to leave the chapel to find the God-metaphors in your world.”

A few days after the camp, my daughter woke up and came to the kitchen for her breakfast.  I poured her some cereal and went to get some milk.  She pointed at the bowl and declared, “The Kingdom of God is like cereal…”

She expected me to finish the sentence. This, my friends, is a metaphor for parenting.

Christ loved metaphors and used them to reveal himself to the people around him.  Such words like “sanctification”, “incarnation”, “propitiation”, and the like would be drowned in legal language and scientific babble if not surrounded by metaphors such as coins inside fish, a lost son, a mustard seed, and other such tales.

This is especially true for the abstract notion of God’s grace.

Let me give you, gentle reader, some metaphors:

 

The Grace of God is like…

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The Marx Brothers.

In these old movies, there is a perfect plot going on that you would find common to most stories from the 1930’s to the 1950’s. Baddies are in charge, the goodies are being persecuted, and everyone takes a break to sing a Broadway-like song. Then the Marx Brothers enter and everything was turned upside-down.

The proud are humiliated, the innocent are empowered, the lovers united, and there’s more singing (but the songs are now strange and possible parodies of something else and totally unique to the Marx Brothers films).

Margaret Dumont was in a lot of these, always looked shocked, aghast, and disgusted by their anarchy.  There’s a rumour in Hollywood that she wasn’t acting, but her career with the Marx Brothers was a prolonged sense of genuine outrage.  Why did she coming back for the next film?  No one knows, but her outrage seems to only make their humour only funnier.  They were breaking all of her rules!

There are times, in their movies, when the humour defaults to the hostilities and limited perception filters of their time.  Yes, some of their scenes make us rightfully cringe as a 21stCentury movie watcher.  However, the base idea of the Marx Brothers is essentially grace.

James 4:6 asserts, “But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says: ‘God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.’”

You cannot be proud, be in control, and be right and, equally, be able to fully grasp, exude, and relate to God’s grace.  Why?  Grace will always be the Marx Brother to your status.

Writer Philip Yancey argues that there is nothing you can do to make God love you more; equally, there is nothing you can do to cause God to love you less[1].  We like the last bit- we’re loved no matter what.  However, what about the first?  That if I live a way where I see myself with the criteria that God sees me, then I don’t play the game of earning my status, levels of superiority, or control?

Another writer, Richard Rohr, says something similar when he says that the opposite of faith is not doubt but control.  According to this passage is James, we don’t understand grace when we seek for things to be under our control.

When we are in control, God lovingly sends us the Marx Brothers as a grace.

 

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The Taste of Berries.

Another writer, Frederick Buechner, describes God’s grace as the taste of berries[2].

You don’t earn the taste of berries.  You could be the greatest Dad in the world that morning, making your kids breakfast and picking a flower for your spouse…and the backyard berries will taste every so sweet.

Or you could be an absolute animal of a being, burning down orphanages, using shopping carts without returning them to their port, and discarding garbage without separating them.  And the backyard berries will taste equally sweet.

The metaphor helps me because the state of grace one has is not about who eats the berries but about the berries themselves.

If, by the grace of God, I am loved by the Almighty, then it is less about me and more about the goodness found in the Spirit of God.  This worth is not my own, but given from Above.

 

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A banjo.

As a child, I was instructed in the piano. I hated every moment of it.  For 7 years, I took lessons and played and suffered. Left alone, I had to just make noise on the piano.  My parents just listened for something, anything.  If it went quiet, I’d get a holler.

The clarinet was the same story.  That lasted a year.

Then, in University, I worked with youth ministries in an Evangelical Church.  I was told that ALL youth pastors could play the guitar.  I needed to because, let’s say, we’re sitting around a campfire in the woods I shouldn’t just talk to the kids, I needed to start playing music and turn it into an organic, spontaneous church service (a la Calvary Chapel).  And I hated the guitar when I was learning it.

One day, I good friend gifted me his banjo. I played with no ministerial or familial demands.  The machine existed just because and for no other reason than to be enjoyed.

I plucked and claw-hammered and frailed on the machine way back in 1996.  I still play it today.  From that state of grace, I have led worship at camps and church services (when asked), but I have also used it as my machine of grace.

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As a young man, I wrote on the front skin of my banjo: “THIS MACHINE SHARES GOD’S GRACE.”  The words are a loving parody to Woody Guthrie’s words “THIS MACHINE KILLS FASCISM.”  I figured God’s grace was closer to my heart than politics.

The banjo reminds me of the passage in Ephesians 2:8, 9: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9= not by works, so that no one can boast.”

God is the greatest gift giver  we might ever know and the LORD invites us, as Christians, to share in this spirit of gift giving.  Not because we must or are told to or will get yelled at if we don’t or because we want to build our own empire, but because it’s a way of sharing in it’s goodness.  There is a joy in sharing of grace.

This is God’s grace.

[1]What’s So Amazing About Grace?  Yancey, Philip, Zondercan, 1997.

[2]The Alphabet of Grace. Buechner, Fredrick, Harper One, 1970.