The Land of Little Girlhood

My daughters are much older now, but this is a piece I wrote for the South Peace News when they were much, much younger.  This was back in the days when I was a rural, Baptist pastor:

This Summer, I was speaking at a Jr. High Summer Camp when the subject of Strawberry Shortcake, the cartoon, came up.  I then launched into an informed discussion about the different characters of Berry Bitty Town.

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When I asked how I knew about these characters, my answer was simple: I have two daughters.

I kind of always prided myself on being a man’s man, giving myself over to rough and wild pursuits.  Daughters, though, have tamed me.  I have now gone on countless butterfly expeditions, attended tea parties, read aloud books about fancy girls, and have dressed millions of dolls and stuffed animals.

Not only was I watching the videos of these little girl characters, my eldest daughter wanted her night time bed story to be about these folks and, well, I had to get to know their setting.

But it didn’t stop there.  A couple months ago, my eldest daughter wanted to color. At random, I printed up a bunch of pictures from the i-net for her to doodle on.  As a parent, I colouring next to her to model the fun and excitement of coloring.

That’s when my addiction began: colouring.

I’ve always wanted to be a really good artist, finding that the ideas in my head don’t match the reality of what I can sketch. Colouring makes it easy: the drawing is already done, you’re just filling in with colors.

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Oddly therapeutic, I got caught into this world of coloring folks like Strawberry Shortcake, Elmo, Fancy Nancy, Fireman Sam, Super Why, and Dora.  At times, my house was ablaze with screaming kids, pots steaming over, and the phone ringing- all the while, I was lost in the colouring world with my daughter.

One night, while my eldest was in bed and my youngest was being fed by my wife, I picked up one of the extra pages and started doing it on my own.  I wanted to color a pink princess with a sugar wand against a cotton candy castle. As I did my work, my wife asked me why I was colouring the kids stack of printed pages.

That’s when the reality surfaced: I had plunged myself into the world of little girldom.

How did I, as self-proclaimed man’s man, become a citizen of a world filled with tiaras, pink boas, ballet slippers, and multi-colored tea pots?

Girl making a costume. View from above.

Simple: I love my kid’s and I want to know them in their world.

This is not unusual.  Jesus, whom was God, decided to leave the surety and safety of heaven to enter our world, in order to relate to us on our terms.

“Make your own attitude of Christ Jesus,” Paul wrote in Philippians 2:5-8.  “Who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to be used for His own advantage.  Instead He emptied Himself by assuming the form of a slave, taking on the likeness of men. And when He had come as a man in His external form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death-even death on a cross.”

Simple idea here in this passage: don’t remain in your world, but get into someone else’s.

Are your friends just like you?  Same race?  Same age? Same type of person?

It’s an odd educational fact, but we don’t learn new things by doing the same things, being around the same people.  It’s through difference and dissidence that change occurs.

Years ago, a teen was brought to my office by his mom with the orders, “Fix my kid, pastor.”

In talking with the teen, I found out he wasn’t a “bad” kid: his interest was the exact opposite of his parents, down to how he dressed and his music and his hair dye.

I recommended to his mom that she should stop waiting for him to become like her, but get to know his world, his interests.  “Why?” she asked.  “So I might make him come around to become normal.”

“No,” I said.  “It would be good for you.”

Most of the times I’ve had breaks in relationships or have hurt over friends usually comes from me trying to make them behave or think like me.  My consistent failings point an arrow to this truth: healthy change in my life comes from me not holding on to all things Eric but embracing the difference and dissidence around me.

Learn to color princesses.  Talk to someone not like you.  Leave your comfortable world of you and get out into the land of otherhood.

 

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Peace Frog: A Small Window into a Novel

Around 2002, I wondered what Americans would do if America- the culture- went to sleep and died on them.

Newly married and working as a minister to teens in a Southern Californian mega- church, I wrote the novel “Peace Frog”.  The title was lifted by a song from the Doors and I wanted there to be a theme of rock and roll/culture throughout the book.

With any great novel, it was submitted to all of the best publishing houses to collect rejection letters and passes.  This one, in particular, received one of my most favourite rejection letters.

It was from an agent whose work was being closed up.  “We regret to inform you that our main literary agent has suddenly passed away…please do not think this reflects poorly on your manuscript, but we cannot represent you at this time.”

Great, Peace Frog killed someone!

This is a small window into the novel, the set or the hook into a novel that has never seen print.  And, like most stories we run into, it represents that Kubla Kahn factor of life, the great “what might have been” of unfinished or unpublished stories.

Enjoy!

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Darryl

Darryl Oech awoke to find that America had ceased to exist.

The morning existed, like any other morning: sun light, warm covers, the smell of coffee steaming from the kitchen.  Darryl climbed out of bed, like any other morning. He walked across his bedroom to the kitchenette of his studio apartment. He passed a mirror, looked at his bed hair-like all of the other mornings-and made the decision not to shower this day.  He combed his long, curly hair.  He brushed his teeth.

He did this all without the knowledge that America had come to an end.

He came back to his kitchen and poured himself half of a cup of coffee. After taking two swigs of the coffee and dumped the rest down the drain.  Darryl dressed.  As he walked down the staircase that stretched along the side of his garage/apartment, he didn’t notice that he was the only one outside.  This would only strike him as strange when he got on his motorcycle, reached his first traffic light, and noticed no traffic.

He looked down each other streets and no cars present.  He shrugged and gunned his cycle when the light turned green.  When this happened at the second light, he checked his watch. 8:32am.

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He knew he was late, so he didn’t mind the lack of traffic.  His apartment, in a suburb of Pasadena, was close enough for him to take side streets.  Plus, he’d miss the traffic congestion of the 210 east.  Had he climbed on the freeway, that day, he would have found the 210 deserted.

When he pulled into the driveway of the Coffee Shop, his vehicle was the only one in the parking lot.  This caused him to look around at all of the other parking lots, empty with the exception of an occasional abandoned car.   He walked to the coffee shop and found the door locked, the lights turned off, and a proclaiming that were open at 6am.

He was there, before his client.  All of the stores and shops and gas stations were dark, empty buildings. He then realized he was the only man outside on the streets of Monrovia at 8:36am.

Alone.  He wanted to yell.  But he didn’t.  Instead, he waited for his 8:30 appointment.  Jon Barret.

Jon was a bar owner and wanted some large robots in his bar. They would move every fifteen minutes, delighting his customers.  He knew that Darryl was a metal artist and could put something together for him. Darryl needed the work and agreed to meet him for breakfast, portfolio in hand, at 8:30.

But when Jon nor the rest of the world decided not to show up that morning, he got confused.  Rightly so, since everyone shows up for life.

The wind!  Who ever thought the wind existed in Pasedena?  One can feel the wind, especially in the summer time.  But hear it?  The sound of people talking, the drag of a bus, and the noise static of California all drown out the wind.  Usually. And now, that morning, Darryl could only hear the whistle, screech of wind roll over a naked LA.

When it got to 9 o’clock, Darryl left.  Jon Barret was late and he waited for a half an hour.  He guessed that’s the rule, the social norm.

He rode on and was stopped by another light.  No cars to the right, to left…he waited for the light to turn red. Why?  Darryl might get caught.  Caught by whom?  Someone, anyone.   Who?

When the light turned green, Darryl rode into an electric mart. Darryl plugged his bike into the chargers and paid with his credit card.

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Why the door to the 24 Electra Mart was open?, he mused.  He walked in, hoping to see someone alive, to see if they knew why they were the last people on Earth.  The lights were on, the store’s music played.  This was when Darryl saw his first dead person.

Correction: he wasn’t dead yet, just asleep.  He found a man, crumpled in the corner of the store.  His arm was leaning next to the cash register, his back against the window.  An olive skinned man, bald and wore a moustache.  Oh and he was asleep, breathing.  His mouth open, his face looking like he had been screaming.  He snapped in front of his face and clapped. “Hey!”

Asleep, never to awake again.  He would soon discover a whole planet chock full of dead people who just went to sleep.  People who died without giving Darryl a reason why.

He grabbed some chocolate milk and a candy bar and left a ten dollar bill.

Darryl exited, drinking the last milk from a bottle he’d ever have.

Darryl continued to ride, waiting at all of the red lights, until he got on the freeway.  The moment he got on, I pulled off the side of the road.

Darryl found myself walked into the center of the 210 freeway.  He stood in the middle lane, the two fast lanes and two slow lanes on either side of him.  He could hear the wind again, staring down the expanse of the highway. He could stare down all the way to Azusa, Glendora, and Claremont.  He turned around, facing Pasadena and LA.  Sat in the road.  No car threatened to run him down.   Darryl got up, walked across the freeway, and climbed aboard his bike.

This is crazy, he thought to myself.  Absolutely crazy.  It’s like I’ve woken up in some horror movie, with everyone left LA for vacation.

Darryl would have called a brother or sister or buddy, but he didn’t have any.  He wanted to call someone, to see if they were awake and running around an empty town. Or if they were gone like the rest, vanished or asleep.  He jay-walked the 210 freeway during “rush hour”.

Who else is out there?  Who else is alone, like I am?

This was the first time he ever wanted to see anyone.

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People, ever since he could remember, got in the way of life.  When Darryl was a kid and the rest of the boys in class needed someone to terrorize, for no reason other than they hated themselves, he wished to be left alone.  He remembered in the 3rdgrade, they’d poke him in the back of the name, repeating my name, “Darryl!  Darryl!” He wished all of them dead.  All them to curl up and die, he thought, so I could be left alone.

In High School, Darryl would be put in the Special Education classes. Teachers would give me special tests, to see how much he understand and knew what was going on.  Every day, every lunch…more tests.  All he wanted was to be left alone.   Let me just get my diploma and leave me alone.  Don’t try to fix me.  Don’t try to understand me.  Just leave me alone.

His mom and dad died, but while they were living, they never understood why he was an artist.  Why he bent metal for a living.  Why he wasn’t like them.  They never knew.  They told me they were waiting for me, the thought, waiting that I’ll make all kinds of money.  If I could just make more money, I’d be worthy to be called their son.  I’d be a real American.  My life would make sense.

He had one girlfriend, a teenage runaway.  She wanted me to talk about my feelings.  He didn’t want to.  She wanted money for drugs.  He didn’t have any.  We couldn’t work out our differences.  When she left, he felt relieved.  All I wanted was to be left alone.

And this proves, if you work hard and do whatever it takes, your wishes would come true.  Darryl just wished he could call someone to tell someone about what had just taken place.  Instead, he went to find lunch.

After his lunch, Darryl saw some more sleepers.

He couldn’t take it.  He needed to see someone.  Even if they got mad at me, he figured, and they yelled and screamed at my face, I had to see someone.

So he got on his bike and found some houses behind the building.  All of the houses had their cars parked in their driveway and their lights on.  It wasn’t that they all left for work this morning or left for vacation or whatever, they all were home.

He found this white house, with a picket fence and all these plastic animals in their lawn.  The sign over their door read, “The Mertons”.   He tried kicking in the door, but it didn’t work: it ended up making a really loud noise and hurting his toe.

He grabbed a plastic deer and threw it through one of their windows.  They had that new, treated glass so it took me half a dozen tosses before he could make a hole.  He smashed most of the glass out of the way and waited for them to come out with a gun or something.

He came into the room with the TV, finding two children and a mother sitting in front of their television, asleep.  Again, he tried to wake them up and he couldn’t do any good.   They just sat there, huddled together like sleeping wolves.  I heard another television upstairs.  I walked upstairs and found the father, in his underwear and a dress shirt, sleeping in a chair, facing the television.

He ran out, fearing that he might get caught by the police for the murder of this family.  He later would recognize this to be irrational, but it’s how he felt when he saw them asleep and dying.

It was only after that he broke into three other houses, all on that street, that their story was not alone.  People were asleep, could not be awoken, and their radios or televisions or computers were on, taking over their silence.

He began to think.  What drug is in the air, I wondered, that has killed everyone?  Some biological warfare that didn’t work on me. And why am I not dead?  Did everyone just close their eyes and die? Am I just a lingering survivor, waiting for the biological weapon to take care of me and wipe me out along with all of America?  Is that what happened?  Am I the last American?

And why me?  I hate America.

He got on my bike and drove out to the 5 Freeway.  He took it past LA, past Magic Mountain, and past all of the towns along the way.  He got as far as Buttonwillow and turned around, back to his apartment in Pasadena since it was getting dark.  And he saw no one during that drive.

When he got home, I locked my door and turned on my lights.  He pulled out my television that he had stored in the closet.  He attached the coat hangar to the top, plugged it into the wall, and scanned the channels to see what had happened.  Nothing.   Just static, except for a few pre-taped shows.    He turned the TV off and put it away.  He pulled out my radio and found the same thing: static unless it was a pre-programmed show, set on a loop.

He imagined that most of everything will be like this for the next couple of days: the energy, the water, the telephone, and the gas. Everything’s connected to some super-computer that will be on its loop, its program well after everyone’s dead. Only when a problem happens or the program runs out will the service end.

That night, he shut off the lights and went to sleep, hoping he would wake up from this dream.  He woke up the next morning and found no one outside of his door.  He unlocked his garage door, got to his bike, and rode through the streets of Pasadena, looking for survivors.  All alone.  He gave up waiting for the red lights to turn green.

 

Runing…

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For about 9 years, I loved long distance running.  All the time I spent in Northern Alberta, I would be training for 1/2 and full marathons.  However, about two years ago, I was diagnosed with severe arthritis in my left hip.

I now look forward in being one of the youngest hip replacements in my city of Edmonton, every doctor and specialist has told me my running days are over.  The surgery will end a lot of pain and give me a lot of mobility, but I won’t be back to how I once was “before the limp”,

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Looking back on my writing and reflecting on all that running has taught me about life.  Here are two piece.  The first one can be found here:

https://ericjkregel.wordpress.com/2017/03/31/the-12-marathon-of-life/?fbclid=IwAR1voGzGDnOmzUDuavtZ8GleIZaEbkjO1HK3ocyqGoSqzJUMb3I4bzU_k60

This is the 2nd one, published after my first race in Tumbler Ridge, BC.:

Crossing the finish line, the surge of fire left my legs and my body, leaving me hollow.  I looked over my shoulder at the 20k behind me, trodden by my shoes through the mud and water and dirt that made up Tumbler Ridge, BC.  20k to my back, spent by my tracks.

On August 11, I did my first half-marathon in Tumbler Ridge- a run that involved the first 5k climbing atop the 2500 ft. high Roman Mountain and the rest running a series of ups and downs, making me long for the flat terrain of Alberta.

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It all began a year and a half ago when Trent and Patty Kenyon visited us for some coffee.  Trent, upon seeing my beater tennis shoes, asked if I ran.  I told him I had just started, now pulling in about 20 minutes a run (this was light years from when I first began with 7 minutes).

“Oh, you’re soon due for a marathon,” he said. “That’s in your future.”

It’s amazing how much our world tries to drown us in bleakness and yet, with a simple statement of encouragement, we can turn on a dime.  That night, I turned and took up running seriously.

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After finishing a 10k jaunt in the fireman’s run, I started to run every day.  Sometimes I’d run with Trent, most of the days with my dog, Tasia, waddling besides me. In the snow, in the rain…I ran. I’d like to say I lost tons of weight, becoming a lean arrow across the trails of JC Park, but weight loss is achieved by 40% exercise and 60% diet and, well, if my health earned me marks in school, I’d be getting a D-.

Trent and Patty Kenyon, along with Steve Lauchlin, picked the Tumbler Ridge run from the secret cabal known as “the Running Room” because it was a half-marathon and the location sounded pretty.   We trained once for hills, but mostly focused on increasing my run to 20k.

The week before the Tumbler Ridge run, Trent had run an equivalent of a marathon in Grand Cache, so he was in shape and I, well, was just there to cross the finish line.

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As I stood by the starting line, I sized up the competition. Men and women stood, stretched in their lycra and spandex, their bodies shaped like knives.  I looked down at my D-physique; my body more in the shape of a spoon.  What had I gotten myself into?

Before an answer came, the sound alarmed and the race rushed into a furious start.  The clot of humanity tumbled down the trail and into a patch of trees, opening up into a creek.  For the next twenty minutes, we climbed uphill alongside a creek until we got up to the first summit.  At this point, no one ran.  We walked up the sheer climb like a series of stairs in an old house.  After the second summit, the last trek took us to the top of Roman Mountain.  An hour past, 5k was under everyone’s belt and we started running down the hill.

About 12k into the run, my body slowed down.  The downhill beat up knees and back, the uphill took all of my wind, and nothing level rested before me.  The group I ran with up the mountain were behind me, conking out one by one while the friends I came with were far ahead of me.

Another hill stood in front of me and I tried to take it. I felt dizzy, sore.  I guessed I looked like I was struggling because a voice called out behind me, “Don’t run this one.  Here.  We’ll walk it together.”  That’s what I needed: someone to walk with me.

He was a chatty South African doctor who entered with his teenaged daughter, way ahead of him.  We visited for about ten minutes and, upon the end of the incline, I took off running again.  Rested and restored, I left him, wondering what would have been my fate if I hadn’t head those words to stop and rest.

As the final K rushed past me, I felt hungry and empty. Pushing and pushing, I committed to my goal of crossing in a running stride.  The emptiness is something people warned me about.   In fact my wife, watching at the finish line, saw several people run across and then collapse, unable to move because the emptiness took over.

With the end in sight, I charged across the line being met by Trent, Patty, Steve, and my wife.  Over 3 hours.  I did it.

Many of you reading this tale were and are drawing the usual spiritual comparisons to running and a faith in Jesus Christ. Like running, you have to have a goal that is closeness with Christ.  And the race, whether it is an actual one or the spiritual one we have with Christ, is not measured by how you start but if you make it to the finish line.

Aside from that metaphor, the heroes in my tale- Trent, Patty, Steve, my wife, the South African doctor- all shared something in common: they, at the right moment, gave me a word of encouragement.  Words are powerful and can help us all make positive changes within a moment of encouragement.  How can you give an encouragement to someone that will help them press on to their goals?  For my goal, it was to finish the 20k and the encouragements came at the right moment; what are the other goals around you that your words can aid in?

And for my next goal, I need to diet…

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Why Does Eric Want to Become an Anglican Priest?

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For a long time in the freshman years of my ministry, I liked being the guy in back, watched really bad mistakes happen, and shrug because the church wasn’t my circus.  And I did not belong to any monkeys[1].

There was a gentle peace not caring and not being “the guy” that represented the Bride of Christ, with all of her hang-ups and issues and baggage and dysfunctions.

Church, for those first years when I did youth ministry, was a place I worked at and went home to do ministry.  I used the analogy that I was committed to the invisible church, the organic body of Christ and I had very little to do with the building, the institution, and the structure many called “church”.

And no, I would not, ever be ordained.

Until I was.

During those first few years, the invisible church and the visible church kept hanging out with each other.  It was like having your work friends bump into your parents and they were getting along.   I kept seeing ministry take place on Sunday morning and on Friday nights.  My issue was that I thought in either/or.   Ministry happened outside of the church, never inside…until I saw it happening in both.  Ministry became a both/and.

In my Baptist denomination, I approached the leadership in becoming ordained mainly because I saw my gifts and passion and dreams match that of someone who led the visible and invisible church.

Plus, God kept calling me to this plan.  My elder board agreed, wrote a nice letter to our district supervisor, and then we scheduled a meeting for me to face the council.

THE STAR CHAMBER

“The Council” was a group of ordained pastors who would ask you questions about your theology.  In order for them to know your theology, you had to write a 50 page document about your theology about everything.   This document would be lovingly scrutinized by a small panel and then, if they thought you were ready, would move you to the next step: “The Council”.

“The Council” was scary.  As a teen, I had heard of candidates facing the council and being denied an ordaination.  It took place at my church and the candidate, who was refused, wasn’t “up to the levels needed” to be a pastor.

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Was he a video game character?  A fourth level RPG player character?  A wizard who couldn’t roll against a higher pipped dragon?

I wrote my theology about everything and did my best to make all of my answers sound as correct as possible.  I anticipated every argument, every counter-argument, and every counter-counter-argument one could have for a position I just took.  Some were near and dear to my heart, like theologies about the church or grace; others, I had to role a dice and assign a number to a particular side/position[2].

No matter what, though, I had to sneak in the phrase “Share God’s grace.”  It was something I landed on early as the type of focus I wanted in my church and I wanted that to be in all of my theologies.  Plus, if they were in imperfect, talking about grace so much might give me more of a pass.

“The Council” would meet two days before the church celebration service of my ordination.  With that poor fellow who wasn’t “leveled up”, I guess he stood by the entrance of our church and greeted people, explaining to everyone that he didn’t make. This sounded horrible mainly because it was a church of over 1000 and those were a lot of people to disappoint.

I got scrutinized and probed and prepared, with a stamp of approval on my theology of everything to face “The Council”.

All of the Baptist Ordained Pastors were invited to descend upon my church for the Friday morning’s meeting.  A table of food was set so we could go through breakfast and lunch, examining me. The rules were strict and firm: only ordained pastors could address the candidate.  Non-ordained people could attend, but they must remain silent.

In the largest classroom with the longest table of food, I waited for “The Council” to come to that church in southern California.  I invited some friends of mine that were volunteers in my youth group, some of the office staff came, and some of the staff from the children’s department attended.  For silent support, really.

And we waited.  After thirty minutes, it was just a retired pastor in the room, my friends, and the other ordained pastor at our church.

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The other ordained pastors were too busy to attend, many of them figuring it wasn’t much of an advantage to them to see a Jr. High Pastor see “The Council”.   Even the District Minister wasn’t there when we began (he came 2 hours late).

We made an emergency decision: everyone who came were ordained for the day.  They could ask any question, bring up any idea and I would talk to them about theology. Quickly, the atmosphere no longer was a test to be taken, but a conversation about theology.

My friends and co-workers could ask all of those “I always wondered but never asked” thoughts about God.  I got out the dry-erase board and we walked through my document, allowing me to draw pictures, tell stories, and ask question back to folks.  Laughter filled the room and we became, suddenly, a group, a unit for theology.

When the District Minister came, we excused me from the room so he could interview “The Council” as to my ordination.  He figured, just this once, that he would accept this as a pass and that I was at the levels needed to be a Pastor.

That Sunday, I celebrated with my church.  My dad and a friend came to show support.  It was a blessing and became a symbol of what I consider to be a Pastor.  It was as God intended: a local church supporting and loving a young person who wanted to enter into ministry.

 

 

But why did I become an Anglican minister?

A while back I wrote the blog “Why Did Eric Become an Anglican?”. You can read it here:

https://ericjkregel.wordpress.com/2017/11/03/why-did-eric-become-an-anglican/

An equivalent of “The Council” is ACPO (Advisory Council of Postulants for Ordination).  It was over a weekend and I found the process to be affirming.  Others have different experiences and, whenever humans are involved, there is that possibility that it may not go well.   Mine was a good experience and happened while I went through my 8 months of internship with the Anglican Diocese of Edmonton.

In August, I was ordained a Deacon.  This process felt more like it was happening to me, rather than I was calling all of the shots, building all of the rungs of the ladder, and climbing based on my own ferocity and strength.

It felt like I walked into a story and the characters kept asking me to do things which soon became the plot of everything around me. Certainly, I could leave the story at any time: but I sure didn’t want to.

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Plus, I kept making discoveries of truths I always held but never had the words for until an Anglican told me about them.  I never thought much about the Eucharist until I became an intern.  I wrote about it here:

https://ericjkregel.wordpress.com/2017/10/10/1-a-tale-of-three-tables-the-eucharist/

The guiding light in my journey to the Deaconate was found in the Sunday Morning’s liturgy for Holy Eucharist.

The Priest/Deacon addresses the congregation by stating: “The Lord be with you.”   The response from the people follows: “And also with you.”

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The essence of Anglican worship is that the Priest wishes God to be with the people, lead them, care for them, approve of them, and help them out; and the people, in turn, wish it back to their priest/deacon.  A priest is not an exalted member in the worship, a Rockstar that has earned the love and adoration of his people; a priest is also not an employee, bending and shrinking and twisting to the whims of the customer.

Rather, there is a relationship wishing God’s love upon each other and through that relationship comes the plot of the story.

A priest, in the Anglican Way, must be a Deacon for a minimum of 6 months.  This is a time to test calling, to discern the Holy Spirit’s intention, and to have the community affirm the direction God has in your life.  A Deacon are the active, hands-on ministers whereas the priest is to absolve, bless, and consecrate within the worship services.

During my first ordination to become a Deacon, I was given something to read about the nature of Anglicanism.  The English church wanted a 3rdway, back in the days of Elizabeth, that would take the structure of Catholicism with the theology of the new Protestants.

For these first Anglicans, the issue was grace.  With the formal structure of 16thCentury Catholicism or the raw, zealous legalism of the new reformers, they felt God’s grace was being controlled, mediated, and filtered.  No, they felt: God’s grace must always be unmediated.

This is the guiding principle of Eucharist: that all who believe could come to the Lord’s table.   Grace unmediated.

That was the idea that guided me in becoming a Deacon.

This is signified by how a Deacon wears their Stole as opposed to a Priest.  For the Deacon’s stole, it’s at their side so their hands are free to serve.  The stole is a symbol of a towel, that the Priest/Deacon is to wash the feet of those in the congregation as their servant leader in Christ.  Not every Deacon becomes a Priest; however, every Priest must know the practice of a Deacon.

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During these six months, I served in a small parish outside of Edmonton.  It has been a kind place, full of forgiving people that were gracious towards all of my “learner’s mistakes”.  I was comfortable as a pastor, it’s just the Anglican element needed more time in the saddle.

In this season, I focussed on the liturgy to get everything right, especially for doing Eucharist.  I focussed on details, on order, or procedure: all of the things that my personality struggles with.  I wanted it to become second nature, something that I could lean into when the small congregation gathered together.

However, Deacons cannot bless the bread.  Every week, then, I had to go to another church to have our small church’s bread and wine blessed by a priest.

It was a good experience, for the most part.  Most of the priests I ran into were kind, generous, and supportive.  Some were formal, others had a very relaxed presence to the mid-week Eucharist. Everyone followed the book (mostly the “Book of Alternative Services”), but they were themselves as each congregation learned how to relax into the Eucharist.

This season was a time for me to ask, “Couldn’t I just stay a Deacon? Why be a priest?”

Simply, the answer was that I wanted to show God’s unmediated grace to people; and lead them so they could do the same back to everyone else. Like other things in the Anglican journey, it was something God was doing already in my life before I entered the road to priesthood but I just needed the right words for it.  In this case, it wasn’t a word but a ritual: the Eucharist.

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The Eucharist is the main story Anglicans tell each other and it’s the rite that tells the story of God’s unmediated grace.   This is why I feel God wants me to become a priest: to use this ritual to guide a church.

When I preparing for my ordination as a Deacon, I finished reading Wendell Berry’s “Hannah Coulter”.  It’s a novel that tells of a woman whose first husband dies in the war.  As a widow, she is welcomed into the farming community of Port Williams.  The place, the people bring her into the plot of the land’s story.  She becomes a member of this community.

She reflects: “I realized that the story of even so small a place can never be completely told and can never be finished. It is eternal, always here and now, and going on forever[3].”

Sometimes we make our stories, sometimes stories find us and offer us their membership.  Sometimes we earn our way into stories, like passing a test or landing a job; other times, it is a work of unmediated grace.

The later has been my intended membership into the priesthood.

 

 

[1]To quote the great Polish expression

[2]I only did this for my stance on Eschatology, the study of last things.

[3]Berry, Wendell.  “Hannah Coulter”.

A Pirate Looks at 40

This week, I turn 46.   Digging through my archives, I found this reflection I wrote when I turned 40.  This was written for the newspaper of my small town I pastored in.

Enjoy!

On January 15th, I turned 40.

A weird idea struck me, the last few months of my thirties, and it was the need to do some sort of risk, something that got me outside of my comfort zone.  Perhaps it was a pre-emptive strike on my mid-life crisis or that I wanted some sort of monument to mark the decade, but I wanted to take up a dare.

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Rather than sky diving or running with the bulls in Spain, I decided to perform Bob Dylan’s song “Tempest” as my birthday party. The song struck a chord with my birthday and a distant one at that, since it was about the sinking of the Titanic. The sinking of the Titanic, turning 40…it seemed to work.

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It was a long song.  I told the poor audience at my birthday party, “If you want to get up, go to the bathroom during the song, don’t worry: the Titanic will still be sinking.”

And yet I’m happy that I’m 40, so there was something deeper to the idea than just a boat sinking.

The song tells the true story of those faced with their death.   In the final hour of their life, everything about those died came out into full view.

The rich man, Mister Astor, kissed his darling wife, not knowing it was the last trip of his life.

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Jim Dandy gave his seat on the lifeboat to a child.  Death faced him and he was at peace.

The rich man known as Wellington strapped on his pistols for he was going to take on the waters that would drown him armed.

An unnamed bishop decided not to hide in the final minutes, but served those around him.

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There were turncoats and traitors, breaking each other’s necks and backs to escape.  Some lied to get on lifeboats, some stole seats.

Calvin, Blake, and Wilson gambled in the dark, waiting for the waters.

Thousands had died that hour and their final moments revealed heroism or cowardice.  Whatever was hidden by money, routine, or entertainment became painfully obvious; whatever good buried deep in people, shone like the sun.

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As I faced my birthday, I thought of the Titanic: if I were sinking on that ship, what would my last hour look like?

Probably much like my first 40 years.

Someone once asked me why they should do the “Christian” stuff: be kind, give money to the poor, speak up when there is injustice, pray, worship, read the Bible, etc..  For this individual, they were very comfortable with his life’s routine and Christianity would just be one more thing for him to do.

I blew my answer with him and I just talked about how good these things are, trying to talk him into liking God.

Coming on the other side of my 40thbirthday, singing about Bob Dylan, I now would probably give a better answer:

In our lives, we’ve given Titanic moments where all of our life will be boiled down to a single hour.  What will be in that hour?  Stress, fear, desperation, anger, defense?  Or will it be compassion, justice, heroism, faith?  The strength of that hour shall be the result of our daily lives, rituals, and faith.  Not what we appear, but what we do with God.

Or, in other words: “Lord, measure my days before me and the end of my life.  Let me know how transitory I am.”  Psalms 39: 4

 

Epiphany

Tomorrow is Epiphany Sunday! And this, I contend, is one of the most uncomfortable days of the church year.

Our society has programmed us against the message of Epiphany Day.

We live in communities designed for people just like us and do clever (and sometimes not-so-subtle) ways to keep people un-like us out.

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We go to churches that have established demographics, even though many of us use words and phrases like “everyone is welcome”, “we invite all kinds of people,” and such.

Our shopping areas target us as a specific kinds of consumer.

We’re followed by adds on our computers, finding the right thing for someone just like us and filter out everything else that is different, unusual, or would never be purchased.

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Our friends, unless unusual things happen in our life, are mostly like us.

We vote and then wonder why the world doesn’t follow “common sense” rules.

We, as human beings, like to be around people just like us. It’s a human thing and it’s been with us for centuries.

It could even be an animal thing. My dog’s chief pastime is barking at people who walk past our backyard. We have an elevated bluff that many people use as a walking trail. The green space is free for all people to use, but our dog has never received this message. She can, if not stopped, bark for hours and hours. The dilemma my family faces is that we want her to bark if there’s someone climbing over the fence; but she barks at anyone she sees from atop of her picnic table. For her, all people are bad…except for the ones in her house.

We like being around people like ourselves. We know this is wrong, of course. We’ve heard the sermons that “God so loved the world…” or a good TED talk about diversity.   We’ll parrot these back to the world, but then make decisions and spend money so that the process of our lives doesn’t quite match the content of our words.

That’s the trap: we speak words of inclusion but then live exclusive lives.

When confronted with this reality, we turn crazy. “But my best friend is _______ (fill in the ethnicity)”, “The neighbourhood is free to come to our church. We put a welcome sign on our door”, or “You’re the exclusive one!”

This is why the church’s liturgy, once a year, pauses it’s routine to celebrate the painful goodness of Epiphany.

The story is about the Magi visiting Jesus and bringing gifts to the child Jesus. To lighten the load of this story, the Magi sometimes become Kings and the emphasis is on the gifts they bring (gold and things that are probably worth the same as gold). This reduces the scandal- Christ’s first being caught hanging with the wrong crowd- of the Magi coming.

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The Magi were magicians. Yes, wizards (possibly graduates of Hogwarts) visiting a fine, moral Jewish family. They disobeyed their Jewish king and withheld key information about the birth of Jesus, so they were also criminals. And they traveled a great distance, making them foreigners.

The gifts were significant not by their worth, but of their spiritual significance:

 

https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/people-cultures-in-the-bible/jesus-historical-jesus/why-did-the-magi-bring-gold-frankincense-and-myrrh/

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Simply put, the Magi “got” the mission of Jesus: who He was, why He came, and why He died. The rest of the Jewish world- people like Joseph and Mary- treated this birth like just another and they suffered from the pangs of anonymity.

This was all so the Old Testament prophesy could be fulfilled:

For from the rising of the sun, even to its going down,

My name shall be great among the Gentiles;

In every place incense shall be offered to My name,

And a pure offering;

For My name shall be great among the nations,”

Says the Lord of hosts. Malachi 1:11

Gentiles is a word that pretty much means “everyone else and people not like me”.   The Jews used this word for people not born in the tribe of Abraham.

Today, ancestry isn’t a currency of power so we’ll use other means to exclude: behaviour, nationality, politics, attitude, gender identity, interest, or the like. Today, we still live with Gentiles but they mean something different.

Epiphany is the story where the Gentiles showed up and wanted to be a part of God’s mission: a mission invisible to the insiders, to the good people, and to the religious.

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The Magi were uninvited guests, reminding us the uncomfortable truth that we’re not allowed to pick who God includes in His story.   They come and bless, despite Joseph or Mary asking them to do so or even know what they’re up to.

And once a year, the church calendar reminds us that our worship, our faith, and our resources are not just for us.

This reflection could cause the question to ask: “Am I sharing the Kingdom of God?”

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Find Your Joy: Campfire Smoke and Wendell Berry

As a teenager, I had been recruited as a volunteer for Christian Service Brigade’s summer camp in the Gold Country of California (just outside of the city Sonora).

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I spent three years as a cabin leader at these camps.  Try as I might, I could not capture the wonder and magic of being a teenager in the late 1980’s serving at a Protestant, Evangelical Camp.  Right now, in our present culture, whenever I talk about those adventures, it sounds like “A Handmade’s Tale” but for boys.  It wasn’t.  I saw a lot of goodness, a lot of chaos and a lot of people finding their joy.[1]

That’s the key expression: their joy.

I found mine at these camps.  During the day, it was a usual camp: games, crafts, meals, and free time.  However, after the evening game, the boys would wash up and we’d go to “Campfire”. The meeting would outside, facing a cross that was made of old redwood that looked like it had been ripped clean from a wood rotted fence.  Hovering above the cross was a gray rock erupting from the soil of the Earth.

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The camp fire had a liturgy: 1) Funny Songs, 2) Funny songs with a Christian message, 3) A skit, 4) Hymns, 5) the Campfire Sermon, 6) An invitation to make a decision about Jesus, 7) The singing of “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus”, 8) Exit.

The singing of 7) always made me laugh because it was an all-boys camp, with the camp run by boys in throws of puberty or retired ex-military gentlemen.  It began in a low-G and then the second stanza reached to a voice cracking, tone breaking high-C.   Now, as an adult, every time the song is sung, I hear the crack and break from a camp that existed in the 1980’s.

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The first year I served, I wanted to give the sermon at campfire.  Junior Counselors couldn’t, but I still wanted to.  Those who failed, would just preach and tell the campers facts about Jesus; those who succeeded told stories that related to the Bible.  I wanted to be like them, tell stories about Jesus.

I worked up the courage and, during my second year, I requested to speak at the campfire.  They agreed.  I picked Robert Boyd Unger’s story “My Heart-Christ’s Home” to tell and I practiced it throughout the week.

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On the night I spoke, it was particularly dark without a single star in the sky.  I prayed a lot leading up to that evening, asking all of my buddies and fellow staff people to pray for me.  The fire blazed and burned, giving a smoky incense throughout the sweet pine scent and mountain breeze of the camp.  The smoke thick, salty and musky.

I told the story and found a joy unknown to me from my previous 17 years of living on Earth.  The community of old men, teenagers, and kids affirmed: keep telling stories at campfire in the smoke.

I’m reminded of a quote from the writer Wendell Berry:

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“Though I would support the idea of a 30-hour workweek in some circumstances, I see nothing absolute or indisputable about it. It can be proposed as a universal need only after abandonment of any respect for vocation and the replacement of discourse by slogans.

“It is true that the industrialization of virtually all forms of production and service has filled the world with “jobs” that are meaningless, demeaning, and boring—as well as inherently destructive. I don’t think there is a good argument for the existence of such work, and I wish for its elimination, but even its reduction calls for economic changes not yet defined, let alone advocated, by the “left” or the “right.” Neither side, so far as I know, has produced a reliable distinction between good work and bad work. To shorten the “official workweek” while consenting to the continuation of bad work is not much of a solution.

“The old and honorable idea of “vocation” is simply that we each are called, by God, or by our gifts, or by our preference, to a kind of good work for which we are particularly fitted. Implicit in this idea is the evidently startling possibility that we might work willingly, and that there is no necessary contradiction between work and happiness or satisfaction.”[2]

 

As I write this, I am awaiting my Ordination of Priesthood within the Anglican Church of Canada, coming at the beginning of February 2019.   It’ll be at All-Saints Cathedral in Edmonton, a place “high on the Anglican Candle of liturgy”- simply this means there’s a lot more Catholic and a lot more liturgy than many low-Anglicans are used to.

At this ceremony, there will be incense to convey mystery and prayer essential to Christian sacramentalism.  It also reminds me of campfire smoke unique to those found at camps in Northern California.

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I believe in destiny and fate and providence, but I also believe in chance and free will and our responding to calls from our Creator.  What’s the math of our saying “yes” and our Creator’s invitation?  I don’t know and that, I claim, is the smoke of our prayers.

What I do believe in is that our joy must have plenty of campfire smoke, that what we do to find our happiness is found always in discovering who we were meant to be and to do the work our Creator has put us on the Earth to do.  Through mystery and discovery and failure and choices and Divine help, we find our joy in the midst of the smoke of our world.

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[1]A small fiction piece I wrote about this world can be found here: https://ericjkregel.wordpress.com/2016/12/22/at-the-bottom-of-the-lake/

[2]This is taken from Wendell Berry’s response to “Less Work, More Life” found in www.theprogressive.com.

Rev. Eric Discovers Synthwave

This happened last week.

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I had an appointment with the Bishop in the downtown of Edmonton.  I went to a barista early to meet a friend- a priest and fellow minister with the Anglicans- but he had an unexpected issue with his family that made him miss our meeting.

Sitting alone in the morning emptiness of the coffeehouse, I heard wild music playing overhead.  This is a standing tradition within 21st Centuries: let the employee with the the most extreme tastes in music set the playlist.

A few years back, I used to frequent another coffeehouse near another church I worked at.  For the most past, the playlist was country-pop or Christmas jingles during Advent or pop Jazz.  I guess, that’s the one word that connected the music together- pop.

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For a while, this monochromatic, middle of the road, music that seeks only to be accessible made me remember my childhood.  “Elevator music” we used to call it.  Not quite noise, but not something you’d sit down and listen to either.  The odd thing is now it’s pop, rock, or classics.  “AC/DC”, “Rolling Stones”, and “The Cure” all have replaced elevator music.  How did this happen?

Well it was alive, a few years ago, at the barista with only one exception: a tall, lanky gentlemen who strode through life.

When we set the playlist, his laser precision tastes focussed only on Russian, 20th Century Composers.  An explosion of Shostakovich, a flash of Mussorgksy, a bang of Stravinsky, and an eruption of Borodin.

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Typically, you would go into the silent coffee house, order your cup, and then, CRASH!!!!!!!! the symphony would erupt in one of the many, unexplained climaxes found in the middle of the piece.  The young man would grin when he’d see his dark, dimly lit coffee world break out into colour from his music.

I got to know the young man who set these lists.  He was the bane of the rest of the employees, who hated his music and found it hard to keep a calm, serene pace through their work day.

He didn’t care.  He joked and claimed the sole reason for him working hard to be promoted was so he could overtake the coffee house’s playlist.  A classical musician himself, he struggled with the rest of the world that wanted everything Pop.

We made a friendship and he would write a list of Russian composers and then I’d look them up on Youtube.  “It’s like discovering the colour red, once you get into these guys,” my new friend would say.  He was right.  That was a difficult time otherwise, as a pastor, so the music of Shostakovich was a help, a friend to otherwise tough time in ministry.

And his music, I think, at times created an unease with my administrator whose office was next to mine.  For a sample, here’s Shostakovich’s 7th symphony:

Flash forward to happier times as an Anglican- a few days ago.

I was sitting in the coffee house next to the Bishop’s office and my friend couldn’t make our appointment.  I was fine because the workers of the place had a total run of the store, with only me as their customer.  The music the played…wow!

It was electronic, but done right.  Full of fugues and drama, with long sagas of songs.  It felt like it was from the 1980’s, but I’m from the 1980’s and I hadn’t heard any of this.

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The closest we had was “Tangerine Dream” or “Yello” or “Art of Noise” or Vangelis.  My friends and I would play this on tape or record, while spending hours and hours playing roleplaying games.  The electronic music matched the “cyberpunk” world of our gaming, yet it didn’t have much power or fire.  In a few years, this would become ambient music that housed groups like “Orb”.

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But there was nothing ambient about this music, with crashes and explosions and fury.   I had to figure this stuff out so I chatted with the young man who worked the coffee machine.  Quickly, he addressed me as “Father” and I realized I was wearing my priest’s collar.  I didn’t care about the collar, I just kept asking him about the music.  We answered my questions, brought me my coffee, and then I sat and enjoyed his set list.

Ten minutes later, the young man met me and brought me a list of all of the bands he claimed were in the genre of Synthwave.

M.O.O.N., Gunboat, Grimes, Laserhawk, Gessaffelstein, etc..

He described that the TV show “Stranger Things” got people back into 1980’s, so these bands- who had been doing it for a long while before- came into the mania.  He got more and more excited, as I listened and got a crash course in this sub-sub-sub-genre.  However, at the peak of his joy, his manager came in and he retreated quickly back behind the counter.  A few minutes later, the synth wave music vanished and was replaced by Madonna.

I wished him a “Merry Christmas” and that he had given me a gift.  I now am looking up these bands.  Here’s an example of some of this kind of music:

More importantly, he embodied a lesson: let the crazy people of the staff set the play list.  People don’t have conversations over the mainstream or what is common or even popular.  The oddities, the freaks, the folks who have found something no one else knows about- let these folks in on the background music of our communities.

 

P.S.- Since this post came out, this video has been sent to me.  It’s got to be included, although I don’t have any place for it so I leave it at the bottom “for the sake of art”:

Thank You Jodie’s Doctor: The Problem is Not the Problem.

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“The problem is not the problem,” is an axiom that I learned from sociologists.  It’s the simple idea that what is first seen as a threat, harm, or disharmony might either be a symptom of something far worst or a distraction from the real issue.

On a macro scale, it’s a country that struggles to provide fresh water to all of its citizens- but the problem (water) is notthe problem.  Rather, the real problem is corruption, apathy, and a poor infrastructure.

On a micro sale, it’s when a family sees a priest because their youngest son, a teenager, hates going to church.  He’s angry, bored, and unpleasant.  But the problem (the young man) is notthe problem.  Rather, the fellow is shaped by the parent’s anxiety, anger, or bitterness.  He is the will to their ego (IE. Their Smerdyakov to their Ivan[1]).

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The latest series, the Freshmen year for Jodie’s Doctor, is finished and I loved it.  There, I said it.  I was nervous going into the series, scared it wouldn’t come off right and, guess, what, I’m still on board the TARDIS.  For those who did not like this season-for whatever reason- I give you warning that I’m gonna keep on writing about my still favourite show.  And there’s no apologies to my attitude.

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Picture shows: The Doctor (JODIE WHITTAKER)

Every series, every arch has a theme.  For some of Matt Smith’s series, it’s “A Good Man Needs Friends” or “Everything ends”.  Even Classic Who had themes particular to their own Doctor’s.  Pertwee game us the theme: “Every life matters.”  McCoy had as one of his: “Evil undoes itself.”

I love this idea because when I look back over my own adventures, there are themes that pop up: ideas that make sense of my own life’s resolutions and explains the conflicts I undergo.

For Jodie, one of the big take away themes is “the problem is not the problem.”

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For many of the episodes, she is confronted with an alien, a monster, a creature that is an obvious threat.  Through teamwork, deductions, and knowing how the universe works, the Doctor reveals there is more to the perceived threat’s story than just what we see.  Instead of a direct conflict with a “win/lose”, the resolution is found in changing the context or setting so peace can take place.

In our world, we like to reduce all stories to a “win/lose”[2].  This is based on a concept of “win/win”.   Here’s the diagram:

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And here’s a video:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U41N02_9zNU

 

The diagram has four places, the ideal is “win/win”.  However, the most common place to operate from is a “win/lose” view of success.

Politics can function this way, where there must be winners and there must be losers.  Sadly, in my world with the church, Christians have functioned with this same world view of winners (IE. “good Christians”) and losers (IE. “non-Christians”, pagans, sinners).

The stakes are the same for the Doctor who functions with the “win/win” concept: the world or universe is threatened, everyone around her might die, etc..  However, her operating system is entirely different than-what I’m used to- North American storytelling.

We’re used to these kinds of stories: the baddie threatens the hero/heroine, the protagonist escapes threat, and then the protagonist/goody overwhelms the villain so the power roles are switched which leaves the villain to be destroyed horribly by the hero/heroine.  The lesson in these stories is simple: don’t mess with them.

But what if the villain isn’t the real problem? What if there is a worst problem that goes un-confronted because the fight is between only two characters?

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Or as the story that guides my faith and work says, “We struggle not against flesh and blood, but against powers and spirits of this dark world.[3]

This is why this series’ theme works.  And it’s an interesting lens to see our world on planet earth without travelling through time and space.

Thank you Jodie and Chris and the BBC and The Doctor. For now, hurry up and make 2020 happen so we can see more.

 

[1]For those who get “The Brothers Karamazov” reference I just did.

[2]I’m truly thankful for Stephen R. Covey who made this idea mainstream in his book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”.

[3]Ephesians 6:12

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.”