Sunday, September 20, 2009


I was standing looking up at the blue dome of the morning sky above the oak trees, pondering questions of life and death, when I had the fleeting image of a baby bird pecking out of its eggshell. This came after I'd been mulling over the theories of what our life on earth is. A divinely designed testing ground for future reward or punishment? A semester in a cosmic educational system? A prison? A chemical accident? A beautifully landscaped hell? A scientific experiment whose instigators observe us in the way that human scientists observe a bacterial culture in a petri dish?

To me, the little bird breaking out of its shell and seeing the sky and sunshine for the first time was an analogy of what happens at the end of this life on earth, and a hint at our earth life's function.

Friday, September 18, 2009


Don't read this unless you are interested in remedies for physical problems that afflict old people. Yes, “old” people. Please never call me a “senior citizen” or, worse, a “senior.” I was a senior in high school. Let that word stay in high school where it belongs and not be one of those condescending euphemisms that has become almost mandatory in the United States.

First, don't go to a doctor except in extremis. The body has an amazing ability to heal itself. Like bureaucratic pests, bad things in the body will often go away if you ignore them for awhile. The exception would be if you find a lump growing somewhere.

Second, don't have surgery just because a doctor thinks it's a good idea, especially where the bones, joints, and connective tissues are involved. I once joked to my golf foursome, “I'm the only one here with real knees.” We had all experienced very painful knee problems. Why was I the only one with the knees I was born with? Because instead of hopping into a hospital gown I just waited until my knee eventually stopped hurting. Such joint problems take a very long time to heal even with treatment. Use a crutch if necessary, and common sense, and you probably won't need to go under a knife.

I learned as I got older that the way one holds and moves the body – posture in the broadest sense – is extremely important.

For lower back pain: Let the upper body hang forward from the waist. Simply relax and bend forward and let the arms dangle. Keep the legs straight. Don't try to touch the floor – just let gravity take over. Do this every day for at least 2 minutes. It completely cured me of terrible back pains after several doctors had been able to do nothing except run up large bills with tests, x-rays, and conflicting diagnoses, and consultations about exploratory surgery. One, who was obsessed with malpractice, wanted me to go to the Mayo Clinic. I healed myself completely by “dangling” for a few minutes each day while my coffee was brewing.

For spasms or blockage of the esophagus when eating: I'm not sure how to describe the inner mechanism, but for years I suffered an affliction which might hit me during a meal. The passageway through which I swallowed food became blocked so that I couldn't swallow, but at the same time I couldn't burp up the air which I felt pressing upward. . . as if two trucks had met on a one lane road. It was a frightening feeling, and it brought eating to a complete halt unless something happened to end the impasse . . . possibly vomiting. Dr. Malpractice said it could be very serious and that a journey to a Mayo Clinic was in order. A less frightened doctor told me to sip warm coffee or tea – but when this thing happened, I couldn't sip. When that doctor retired, my present doctor could offer no cure. And then one day at lunch I discovered what caused the affliction: Posture. I suddenly realized that when I ate I tended to slump forward, chin down toward my plate while my somewhat portly middle section pressed upward into my lower chest. Despite my rudimentary knowledge of anatomy, I concluded that I was crimping my esophagus, so that my food-swallowing tube was like a severely bent garden hose. As soon as I had this realization and began to sit up completely straight when eating (sometimes raising my chin toward the ceiling in the manner of a chicken), my embarrassing affliction was gone forever. It also helps, of course, to swallow food in moderate amounts rather than to gulp it ravenously.

To avoid falls: Between watching where you're going, and watching what your feet are going to encounter, favor keeping an eye on your feet. I feel sure that a lot more old-age falls are caused by tripping over things or kicking into things than by bumping into walls or doors because people weren't looking where they were going. Also, never stand on a ladder or stool.

To bring sleep: Take very deep, slow breaths. I certainly did not invent this technique, but it works. Relax in the bed, take one long, slow, very deep breath after another, and use the meditation method of paying attention to the breathing rather than letting the mind wander off into thoughts, plans, worries.

Above all, realize that you are as young as you were at the age of seven because only the body ages, not the soul or spirit. Your spirit can command the body.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009


One fine winter day in Arlington, Virginia I attached my brand new Hobie Cat to the back of the Oldsmobile and set out with my almost brand new wife, Julia, on the thirteen hour drive to Gainesville, Florida. My mother, now widowed, was waiting to greet us at her cottage on Swan Lake, thirty minutes from her home in Gainesville.

I've titled this little narrative “My Boating Accident” in the singular because in spite of my being in love with boats for as long as I can remember, and acquiring sailboats from the smallest imaginable to larger and larger, I had never had an accident. I count the numerous times I ran sailboats harmlessly aground on submerged sand not as “accidents” but as part of the routine process of sailing.

When we parked in front of the lake house and saw the wind lashing the Spanish moss on the oak trees, it was obvious that we were going to have much more than enough wind to move the catamaran. Even though Swan Lake is probably no more than a mile across, it flashed frothy white caps like a stormy sea.

It was very cold for a Florida late morning –- in the Fahrenheit 40's -- and the warm glassed-in porch of the cozy little house was the closest a normal person would have wanted to come to the blustery outdoors. The weather radio warned, “Lake Wind Advisory”. But one of my primary and most disaster-provoking characteristics is impatience. The boat was new. We had sailed it only during an orientation provided by the dealer. I had owned a smaller catamaran, a Seacat, and had plenty of experience sailing. Therefore Mr. Impatience announced that it was time to release the Hobie Cat into its natural element.

My mother, bundled up to the chin with a sweater and scarf, stood in front of the house and looked down the slope to the water while Julia and I slid the boat into the lake (I could almost hear it sighing with happiness at being afloat), turned the bow into the wind, and raised the sail.

A catamaran is much more lively and responsive to the air than any other boat, and as soon as we were on board and I allowed the sail to catch some wind, we were riding a wild tiger. The Cat surged forward with speedier acceleration than I'd ever experienced on the water, bounding from wave to wave, throwing out a white wake like a speedboat. I tried to keep the bow as close to the wind as I could, to avoid extreme heeling of the craft which would raise one pontoon too high above the water.

We were on the other side of the lake in an incredibly short time, and I didn't look forward to coming about and sailing with the wind behind me to some degree or other. The worst thing about sailing on this small lake was that the wind constantly shifted direction. Had even a wind this strong wind held steady from one direction, the most dramatic part of this little story would not have occurred, but as soon as I'd try to sail before the wind, the wind would start coming from another direction and I'd have to adjust the sail and the course of the boat. At times the sail would flap loudly and pointlessly like a flag, and then suddenly it would billow out and we'd be off once more like a race horse out of the gate.

Shooting along more or less toward Mother's house, we were suddenly moving with greater speed than I imagined possible. As catastrophe struck, I had time to glimpse the tip of the starboard pontoon slip under the water. In a gasp I was high in the air, the world tumbling around me. Then I was in the water up to my neck, with Julia in the same situation a few yards from me, and only the bottoms of the two pontoon hulls showing above the icy water.

We had pitchpoled, which is the most undesirable event a sailor can suffer short of seeing his boat torn apart on rocks. The bow of the boat goes under water, the now-blocked motion brings the stern up into the air, and the boat does a somersault, stern over bow, and lands upside down.

I swam around the boat and helped Julia scramble onto a pontoon. I was all right, but she had been badly bruised when she was thrown high into the air and came down on some part of the boat. But at least we had a place to sit and contemplate the situation. We were approximately in the middle of the lake, and suddenly, in spite of the wind, everything seemed extremely quiet and still. . . and lonely. There were no other boats on the lake, and no signs of life around any of the houses scattered around the shores. They were summer cottages, perhaps all abandoned for the winter.

Well, we said, thank goodness we had that lesson on how to right the boat if it capsized. So we descended fully into the water again, took hold of the proper parts of the catamaran, and did as we had been taught. But nothing happened. It was like trying to turn over a dock. Were we doing something wrong? We kept trying, but the boat stayed exactly as it was.

We climbed back onto a pontoon to contemplate our fate, feeling colder and colder. I had the strength and ability to swim to the nearest shore, but I had read again and again, “Always stay with the boat.” Most boat accident drownings occur when people swim away from the boat, and I was going to risk that only as a desperate last resort. Surely somebody would see us. My mother would soon look and realize what had happened. What on earth was she doing?

As frigid, windy minutes went by, I had never felt more isolated. After awhile a unique thought entered my mind: I might die out here.

Finally the little figure of my mother emerged from the house and hurried down the to lakeside, waving. We waved back. There was no way voices could be heard. We made motions which we hoped looked helpless and pleading.

Mother turned and disappeared into the house. Soon after, we saw her car moving onto the dirt road that circled the lake. Clearly she was driving from house to house, seeking help. Minutes passed as we watched the car sporadically moving along the road, never stopping long enough to encourage a belief that she had found somebody to speak with.

Then came the dreary moment when the car had completed the circuit and Mother came down the slope, raising her arms in a gesture of failure. She then hurried back into the house. What seemed like another hour day passed – it was by then after noon – before a Sheriff's car drove up. Rescue couldn't be far away! The world was alerted to our plight.

The deputy went down to my brother's boat, which was under a shelter on the beach. Good, good. Now just start the outboard motor . . . The deputy suddenly jumped back from the motor as if electrified and scampered back up the slope. As we later learned, wasps had built a nest under the motor cowling and swarmed in a horde after the deputy when he opened it.

Freezing and disappointed, but comforted by the knowledge that the Sheriff's Department probably wouldn't leave us to die, we waited, and waited and waited.

Then dejection turned to elation as we saw a small boat heading out into the lake from one of the houses on the eastern side.

Does it see us? Yes!

The boat putted up to us, and an angel in the form of a middle-aged, heavily suntanned woman helped us clamber from the pontoons into her rocking little skiff. It turned out that my mother had stopped at her house, but that only the lady's disabled husband had been at home, unable to help us. As soon as our angel had come home and learned the story, she came out to rescue us.

In Mother's house, warmed, dryly clothed, and fed, we gazed out at the underside of the Hobie Cat for several more hours before a Sheriff's Department boat was launched and swiftly dispatched to the site of the pitchpole.

Then we learned why we had been unable to turn the capsized catamaran upright: The mast had plunged deep into the mud at the bottom of the lake. When, with the help of ropes and full power, the Sheriff's boat finally worked the point of the mast free, the boat bobbed up sharply and comically above the water like a cork released below the surface.

So, there is the story of my boating accident, complete with happy ending and the lesson learned, never sail on small lakes on windy days.

(I put this story in writing for my friend Adriana, who makes blogging seem worthwhile.)

Monday, April 27, 2009

I LEARN ABOUT GOD Memoirs of Fleming Lee, Chapter 8.

After my early religious indoctrination, while I was in the early years of college, I asked myself if, had I grown up alone on an island and never been told anything by anybody, I would have conceived or discovered the idea of a God. My answer had to be “no”. I concluded that I, as a lone islander, would have felt that there was an awesome power responsible for Nature and my existence, but that I would not have come up with the idea of God as taught in church. The Power that created the ocean and trees and birds and fish and me would have been a great mystery, but not some kind of “person”, much less God in three persons.

Would I also have independently come up with the idea of “worship”? I don't think so. “Prayer”? I don't know. Maybe. To whom or to what? In what form? Is the impulse to communicate with invisible forces sparked by one's experience of reality, or is it taught?

As a university student trying to separate what I had been taught about God from what I might have found or invented on my own, I concluded that when the teachings of others were removed, what I felt and believed was that there was something – “spirit” was the best word I could think of – which underlay everything in the universe. Spirit was the source, the underpinning of everything. It was invisible to human eyes but was manifested in everything our senses could perceive.

What I was taught in earlier years was an entirely different thing.
In the time and place where I grew up, religion meant church and Sunday School. Daddy came from a Baptist family and Mother from a Methodist. It was because of strong feelings on Gramma’s part that we children were subjected to the Southern Baptist Church, which was generally regarded as the least sophisticated of the major brands offered in Gainesville – Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Episcopalian – but also the most popular. The Roman Catholic Church was also represented in the town in a little white church the size of an ordinary home, but regarded by the great majority of the population as a tiny, strange, exotic, almost heathen denomination of idol-worshipers which had unnaturally survived and struggled on after the Protestant Reformation and was ruled by a foreign Pope from Rome.

From the beginning, my association with church and Sunday School was a disaster. My first experience was brief in the extreme. For a number of years it remained high in Daddy’s earliest list of complaints about me -- which included such offenses as carving my initials in the stepladder, spilling my drink on somebody at a football game, and aggravating a man in the seat in front of us when I was taken to see Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. When I was very young, Daddy took me to nursery class at a church to begin my journey to salvation. There I was deposited among a bunch of little children sitting around a table covered with paper and crayons, surrounded on the walls by pictures of foreign men in bathrobes, many with rings of light above their heads. After I declined to prolong the visit, I am bawling as Daddy angrily carries me down the stairs over his shoulder and back to the car. I think that it was because of his embarrassment that I was spared Sunday School for another year or more.

I think that although both my parents believed, by default, in the basic tenants of Protestant Christianity -- that Jesus was the Son of God sent to save us, and that the Bible was dictated by God -- they both seemed to feel that a person could establish an adequate relationship with the Deity without going to church. Neither discussed the subject much, certainly not with us children, who were best left to the experts, but my father spoke of being able to worship God as well in a fishing boat in the middle of a lake as in a church building, and he scorned people who went to church “every time the doors open.”

Of course it is an ultimate consequence of Protestantism that church becomes merely a place to socialize with those of like beliefs, and to listen to a moral message from a person who is no more divinely anointed than the congregation which is listening. Proper belief and prayer — and in my mother’s and her mother’s case, reading the more pleasant and optimistic parts of the Bible — were sufficient to satisfy God. On the other hand, one had to consider the threat of hell (known in our house as “the bad place”) and those words about, “wherever three or more gather together in my name,” and the phrase, “the house of God,” and so there might be extra credit for attending church.

I would have been much better off if I had been told about God solely by my parents than sentenced to serve time in the First Baptist Church of Gainesville, Florida, our spiritual headquarters.

This landmark in my life’s progress was located on the south side of University Avenue a few blocks north of the center of town, facing the State Theater – the facade of Christianity squared off against the temple of Hollywood, where it was my natural inclination to worship. The church was — is — a large red brick, three story building with something like the white front of the Parthenon embedded in the facade. The building is, I have read, in the Classical Revival style, and holds one thousand worshipers. Six white pillars across the facade alternate with two layers of tall windows. There may have been some rational motive for pasting columns onto the front wall of a brick building rather than having them actually hold something up — maybe to save the expense of genuine columns and a real portico. The entrance to the big sanctuary was from stairways on either side of the facade, rather than directly from the front. In the back part of the building was the warren of dim Sunday School rooms and offices.

Most of our Sundays during the period of my life from about the age of eight to sixteen began with Sunday School, which was followed by the main church service at eleven o’clock. Sunday School, as its name implies, smacked too much of school to be a welcome destination for a child on a weekend morning. It had grades and classes like regular school. The rooms smelled of chalk, crayons, books, deteriorating paper, and floor wax. There were inspirational pictures and mottoes on the walls, just as in real school, and one had the same dreary sense of captivity as when falling into the clutches of a home room teacher at eight in the morning on an otherwise beautiful day — brightened only by the fact that Sunday School lasted less than an hour.

The pictures on the assembly and classroom walls, by the way, are all that I can remember of my very earliest years at Sunday School, because I thought those garishly tinted men and women draped in curtains looked so strange and alien. There was always Jesus with children gathered around him, and The Good Shepherd holding a shepherd's crook, and the miracle worker walking on water while his disciples looked on with typical expressions of astonishment. In deference to Baptist sensibilities the miracle of turning water into wine was omitted in favor of the much more impressive scene of distribution of unlimited loaves and fishes to an admiring throng.
Sunday School began with general assemblies, followed by the smaller individual classes separated by age and gender. In the general assemblies we were treated to greetings, prayers, and announcements, and were expected to join in singing a hymn or two. “Jesus Loves Me” was a favorite, along with “Onward Christian Soldiers.”

“Jesus loves me, this I know,
For the Bible tells me so.”

“Stand up and sing,” the assembly leader said. “Jesus hung up on a cross for you. You can at least stand up and sing for him.” Even at a young age, I thought that was a tasteless and stupid statement.

My assembly leader for awhile was Judge McDonald, who had the misfortune to adopt a child who turned out to be a Holy Terror, as my father put it, and who frequently had to be expelled from the very Sunday School assembly over which his adoptive father was presiding. (I wonder if Judge McDonald ever had to recuse himself from sentencing his own adopted son to prison.) At one time my father was the leader of my assembly. He and Mother both served a term as Sunday School teachers, as did numerous other parents during the time their children were in their formative years.

The entertaining part of Sunday School occurred during the few minutes that might elapse between the arrival of us boys in the classroom and the entry of the teacher. Is it remarkable that there was no spontaneous manifestation of piety or discussion of religious issues? Is it possible that at the ages of 10, 11, 12, 13, 14 we would not have taken an interest in God and His plan for us if adults hadn't told us there was such a Person who demanded our attention, obedience, and devotion? Is it strange that our Bible lesson of the day didn't arouse intense interest in the improvement of our moral characters and the salvation of our souls, or at least some growing curiosity about the details of Jewish history? The unsupervised behavior in the Sunday School rooms indicated that we boys had no interest whatsoever in the chronicles and genealogy of the Hebrews or in the letters of the apostles. On the contrary, an objective observer would have concluded that we were interested only in learning about sex and telling jokes.

One of the few things I remember from Sunday School was R.L. Coleman's story about sex with his cousin. R.L. was a nice fat country boy who appeared older than the rest of us at the putative age of 11, and who was certainly who more worldly than the sons of white collar workers and professors and doctors and lawyers and who made up the large majority of his school companions. He always wore blue denim overalls to regular school, but on Sundays he dressed up in a short sleeved shirt and khaki trousers. He carried a pipe wherever he went, at an age when the rest of us were still several years away from trying our first cigarette.

“Last night,” he began, leaning back and crossing his legs with an air of imparting wisdom to the unsophisticated, “I went out to the barn to smoke my pipe. I wasn't wearing nothing but my underpants 'cause it was late. I was standing by the pig pen with my foot up on the fence, just looking at the stars and sucking on my pipe when I seen something white move in the dark, and it turns out it's my cousin Arlene. She comes up and stands next to me, and she ain't wearing nothing but her slip. She acts real sweet, and so after awhile I put my arm around her and squeeze one of her titties. Next thing I know, she's ahold of my peter and starts squeezing on it. So I stop smoking, knock out my pipe on the fence, and turn around and start kissing her. The next thing I know she's leaning back against the barn and she's pulling up her slip, and we're screwing standing up. Mmmm boy! I bet none of you all had so much fun last night.”

It was a safe bet, on odds of about a million to one. R.L. closed his eyes and smiled contemplatively while those of us who lived on wet dreams and hopes that a girl would someday let us put a hand inside her blouse gazed at the obese master in mesmerized wonder.

The only Sunday School teacher I remember by name was Mr. Ted Eubanks, who ran a Sinclair gas station. He was a sincere, lean man. Maybe the reason I remember him is (1) that he told us in great detail about his appendicitis attack, which sent him running out of his front door and rolling on the ground, and (2) that he proved the existence of God by pointing out that the light bulb burning above our heads would go out if the electricity were shut off. God, of course, was the electricity, the generator, and even though we could not see Him, He kept us alive. I was impressed by that analogy but baffled as I tried to pin down its exact implications.

In Sunday School and sermons we were taught all that really mattered about the universe. God had written the Bible — dictated it, actually, to men in long robes with neon lights around their heads, eyes rolled toward the sky, hands poised with quill pens waiting to take down the next sentence. Therefore every word in the Bible was absolutely true, even the contradictory parts. It all began with the Jews, whose many shenanigans made some entertaining stories, such as Samson and Delilah, and proceeded until God got tired of punishing them for their disobedience and sent his Son to save all humanity under a new contract.

God was a very big person who created the Earth in seven days, rested, then put a married couple on it, and even walked with them in the Garden of Eden for awhile until they made him mad by eating fruit off the wrong tree. It was downhill for the human race from then on. Downhill, that is, until God sent his only begotten son so that whosoever believeth on him shall have everlasting life. (We had to repeat John 3:16 so often that we knew it better than our own names.) Having become fed up with his chosen tribe’s devilry several times over, even after having destroyed all but a handful of them along with everybody else on earth for good measure, God gave us one last chance by sending his son to be born on earth and offer salvation.

Salvation from what? Saved from going to hell, and therefore going to heaven, where one would be greeted by relatives beside a river and have a happy time forever. All you had to do was accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior, and God would take care of the rest.

It sounded a little too easy to me. And besides, how could God have a son? We had never been told about a Mrs. God, and we were also told by the more sagacious Sunday School teachers that God was not a man with a long white beard sitting on a cloud somewhere, but instead a super person who could do anything, who could make anything happen that He wanted to happen, and who was everywhere all the time, hearing and knowing everything that happened at every moment, even your thoughts. There was no way to hide from Him, even inside your mind, and He – like Santa Claus – was always taking notes so He could decide eventually how you would be judged and sent to Heaven or The Bad Place.

It seemed like a strange arrangement to me. If God was all-powerful, why didn’t He just make everything all right to start with? Why didn’t He create people good? Why did He let the Devil run around loose? Why didn’t He just create heaven and not hell? And what possible good could it do to send His son to earth to be murdered and then ask people to believe that His son was really His son in spite of having come to a bad end, and make that the ticket to heaven?

Such thoughts became very important to me as I got older and began to read philosophy and history, but at first I just had vague discomforts that got bounced from one specious answer to another like a volleyball.

One incident that stands out in my mind is when Dr. McCall, the minister who presided over the church, was indoctrinating a group of us young people in the finer points of theology preparatory to our graduating to a higher level of Sunday School.

Dr. McCall was a fine looking, pale, whitehaired man, tall and thin and dignified, with a wonderful Virginia accent which made him pronounce “about” as “aboot,” “house” as “hoose”, and “cards” as “kyards.” When preaching at the regular church service, he often wore an entirely white outfit — white suit, white shirt, white tie, white socks, white shoes. When I saw him raking leaves in his yard one day — in clothes other than the white suit — I could hardly believe he was the same person.

“Faith,” Dr. McCall told the candidates for baptism, “means absolute trust in the Lord. It means doing whatever Jesus wants you to do.” He gestured toward the open window with his long fingers. We were on the second floor of the church. “If Jesus stood down there on the sidewalk and called to you to jump out of that window and he would save you from harm, you would jump. If you have faith in Jesus, you would jump.”

My hand shot up.

“How would we know it was Jesus?”

“That’s what I mean: You must have faith, which can mean believing without proof.”

“But how would we know it was really Jesus?”

“You must have faith. If Jesus says, ‘I am your Lord. Jump!’, if you have the faith that’s taught in the Bible, you would jump, knowing you would not be hurt.”

“But what I mean is, how would we know it wasn’t just somebody saying he was Jesus?”

Dr. McCall cleared his throat and said something like, “Well, for the purpose of what we’re talking about, it really is Jesus, and I think you would know Jesus if you saw him.”

Thus my “But” was sidestepped, and I doubt that the dialogue continued, but I was left wondering from a practical point of view how I would know if God, or Jesus, was sending me messages — assuming any messages came — or if an impostor was at work. I can see now that this is a serious problem not only for me but for a lot of other people, some of whom have murdered even their own children in the belief that God had given them the order.

We were lucky to have Dr. McCall for our pastor. He was not of the fire and brimstone branch of the Southern Baptist Church. His sermons were serious and thoughtful, designed to instill belief in Jesus and to motivate good living according to Jesus’ teachings without scaring people half to death in the process. His references to hell were rather oblique, as I recall, although he did have his share of scare stories aimed at getting people to accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior without delay. One was about a young man of dissolute ways whose mother pleaded with him to be baptized. He scorned her earnest admonishments and sank further into the sinful mire of kyards and dancing, and even tasted liquor. As he was leaving home to go to college, his mother stood by the side of the train and begged him at least to say that he would accept Jesus and be baptized as soon as possible. He refused.
“And, do you know?” Dr. McCall said. “As that poor boy stood in a doorway of the moving train, the train gathering high speed, the boy leaning out to wave to his mother in the distance, his head was caught by a wire and he was decapitated. Suddenly, an unbeliever and sinner who had been given the opportunity to be saved, he was cast into Eternity without salvation.”

Sincere tears glistened in Dr. McCall’s eyes. Even if he did not mention the word “hell,” the implications were clear enough, and an unusually large number of people went up to the front of the church to accept Jesus as their savior that morning.

The only other Dr. McCall story I remember was one from his seminary days. He told how, after studying for awhile to become a minister, something — maybe some doubt about his vocation — made him consider quitting his studies. He agonized about it, prayed, and asked God to tell him what to do. He was packing his suitcases when he placed his Bible on the bed and was moved to let it fall open. Before him was a page on which there was a verse which said, “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.” Dr. McCall unpacked his clothes and stayed. That event impressed me deeply. It exuded authenticity and something deeper than the command to believe this or that because the Bible says so.

The Sunday morning church services, which immediately followed Sunday School at 11 o'clock, were seemingly interminable periods of ennui in which prayers stretched on and on like parched deserts, and sermons were evaluated by me according to how many plodding minutes they consumed on the clock above the balcony at the rear of the church.

I preferred sitting up in one of the side balconies and looking down on the sea of ladies' Sunday hats, from which arose the scent of dusting powder. Many of the congregation held cardboard fans on wooden sticks. The brightly colored side of the fans depicted scenes from the life of Jesus, while the back side contained a funeral parlor ad – an appropriate reminder of the main reason one was in church in the first place.

Dr. McCall's prayers were long and methodical. They generally started with a request for a general blessing of this church and its congregation, then zoomed in on such people as Sarah Turnipseed, who was sick in the hospital, and the Jameson family, which needed strength in their time of loss, and then pulled back out to draw God’s attention to various other groups and categories who needed help or guidance — children and their parents and teachers, missionaries, our “black brethren” in their own churches, and also drunkards, kyard players, sinners generally — and finishing up with pleas that our president and our congressmen of both houses and both parties would receive wisdom in governing our great country, made strong by its Christian faith, and that the Holy Spirit would lead to the conversion of the heathen in all nations. Just when I thought there couldn’t possibly be anybody left to mention, and when I was passionately wondering why God, since he was all-knowing and perfect, couldn’t do all those things without being reminded, Dr. McCall would think of something else to draw to the Lord's attention, and the prayer would drag on for yet another mile.

But much worse were the occasional prayers by one of the old men who sat together up front and to the left, and now and then intoned, “Amen!” when Dr. McCall would touch on damnation or make an uncharacteristically sharp attack on some particular category of miscreant. This would have been the vigorous “Amen corner” in some country churches, but loud vocal responses to sermons were looked upon as poor form in Gainesville. Anyway, if Brother Tom or Deacon Bob were invited to stand up and offer a prayer, just forget having that roast beef anywhere near 12:30 because not only were the speaker’s pet gripes all paraded out, one by one, for the Lord’s attention, usually including a few digs relating to church politics in the form of requests for enlightenment to the misguided, but the opportunity was also invariably seized to present an entire bonus sermon to the congregation in the guise of pleas to the Lord.

The regular church service also included, of course, the passing of big wooden plates for the deposit of offerings, and a plea for those who were moved to accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior to come to the front of the church to the melody of “Almost persuaded. . . .” and sit in the front pew and be welcomed and prayed over. On some Sundays young people who felt a calling to missionary work received an invitation to come to the front of the church and be recognized and praised. Communion was not a weekly feature, but it was always welcome because jiggers of grape juice were passed down the pews on platters fitted with round holes. There wasn't much grape juice in a glass, but any deviation from routine was welcome.

When once or twice over the years we did have a fire and brimstone evangelist as a “revival” guest preacher, it was a relief even though it might give one nightmares for awhile afterward, because at least it was lively, and the sight of seeing a man leaping from one side of the platform to the other, shouting until he was hoarse, pounding on his Bible with his fist, drawing down vivid visions of a flaming and unending hell in which sinners writhed like worms on fishhooks, was a far cry from Dr. McCall anchored at his pulpit trying to reason quietly with people. I got the impression that a Baptist “revival meeting” was essentially a way to frighten a quiescent congregation back into avid belief and faithful tithing.

Some people, judging from the loudness of their vocal contributions, enjoy singing hymns. I discovered very early that, basically, I could not sing at all, and I merely moved my mouth to appear cooperative rather than risk an off-key squawk. In any case, I disliked all hymns, which I continue to feel are for the most part insipid music and worse words. When the Music Director enthusiastically called for “one more verse” I felt as if another stone was being added to those already bending my back. I later appreciated learning that the famous Christian convert C.S. Lewis disliked hymns as much as I did. He avoided church services that included music, and said, “I disliked very much their hymns, which I considered to be fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music.”
There were two exceptions to church music boredom. One was the fact that the organist for the First Baptist Church was Claude Murphree, the University of Florida organist, an excellent musician. A rotund homosexual man with a balding head, he played great and often rousing organ classics before and after the spoken parts of the service, and although my appreciation of music took time to develop, I would sometimes pause at the end of an aisle — after all that waiting to get home to the roast beef — just to listen to a little more Bach.

The other entertaining musical exception was at the opposite end of the spectrum from Claude Murphree's beautiful performances. It invoked laughter. There was always at least one song each Sunday by a soloist, and some of the soloists had mannerisms which were more comic than artistic. Some singers overreached in their effort to project piety, while some were just plain bad. One woman in particular invariably sent me and any children near me into spasms of laughter. When I saw this woman's name on the program I experienced a mixture of delighted anticipation and dread because, although laughing uncontrollably was a great treat, in church it was also a juvenile misdemeanor.

Her primary idiosyncrasy was to prolong the “s” on any word ending with “s”, and to do so with sudden explosive emphasis and volume, thus: “. . . eternal blissSSSSSSSSSSSSS”. Or “the love of JesusSSSSSSSSSS”. The accent on the beginning of the extra hiss was so violent that people jerked in their seats, perhaps jolted awake from a pleasant doze, and the sea of fans stopped waving for an instant before resuming their leisurely motion. I was literally on the floor under the pew by then, holding a hand over my mouth in a vain attempt to stifle the sound of my laughter. . . which was sent even more out of control by the “hee hee hees” and snorts coming from other children.

To make the hilarity more excruciating, this same woman had another vocal trick – putting a gratuitous “AAHHHH” on the end of an occasional word, so that “this blessed rock” at the end of a line became “this blessed rockahhhhhhhh.”

With tears wetting my cheeks, it would sometimes take me an entire ministerial prayer or set of announcements to recover from my fits of hilarity, and then I would sit upright again and watch the clock, waiting for noon, when we would drive home to our Sunday roast, whose aroma I could already smell.

Dr. McCall would at last walk to the entrance doors at the back of the congregation and turn and raise his arms. “The Lord bless and keep you, and cause His face to shine upon you.” Then the church would empty with solemn shuffling slowness, and the roast beef would have to wait yet longer on the line of unbelievably non-hungry people who shook the preacher's hand and praised his sermon.

Copyright 2009 Fleming Lee

Saturday, April 11, 2009

THE BIGGEST DAYS OF THE YEAR Memoirs of Fleming Lee, Chapter 7

In memories of childhood, holidays and other special days shine like beacons on mountaintops.

By the time I left J. J. Finley School after the sixth grade, the tides of the year were so familiar that they affected my moods for decades afterward. Classes began in September, a dismal imprisonment relieved by the certain hope of resurrection in June, when summer vacation would bring glorious freedom. In between, the captivity was made more bearable by the Thanksgiving-Christmas season, which was preceded for weeks by a psychological state akin to that of a racehorse straining against the starting gate.

But first came Halloween, a festival which must seem particularly odd to observers from other planets. Why would children become preoccupied with dead bodies, imaginary monsters, and scary old women in pointed hats, and look on that night at the end of October as a gala occasion? The main event was, of course, going around the neighborhood dressed as a pirate or a skeleton and collecting candy. And there were sometimes Halloween parties, which featured bobbing for apples (my technique, probably illegal, was to take the apple in my mouth straight down and pin it to the bottom of the bucket so my teeth could sink in, my head entirely under the water), or trying to bite into an apple suspended on a string.


My most interesting memory of Halloween is a custom that I believe was originated by me within the world I knew. My brothers and I would write letters to The Halloween Witch — a sovereign hag of our own imaginations whom we occasionally reported glimpsing as a fast-moving black speck below the October clouds — and then build a bonfire in our back yard and send the letters on their way. Dropping our sheets of paper into the flames, we would raptly watch their magical transformation into smoke and flecks of soot which would rise above the crackling fire and spiral into the air until their verbal incense was caught on the breeze and disappeared across the sky. Before long, the content of the letters would reach The Witch on her distant mountain peak (we had never seen a mountain), and she would be greeted with such sentiments as, “Happy Halloween, please don’t scare us too much,” or “I hope we see you fly over our house on your broom,” or “Please write to me and tell me what it is like to be a witch, my address is. . .” After all, since witches don’t leave presents there was not a lot of material for correspondence.

In recalling the witch, it occurs to me that while children often treat imaginary beings as if they were real, it's so not much that they become convinced that any creature they are capable of visualizing really exists in solid form like a squirrel or a butterfly as it is that their minds have not yet built up a firm conceptual wall between “real” and “imaginary.” When they imagine elves or The Halloween Witch or Pegasus the flying horse, or say that when it rains God must be wee-weeing, they are playing, and in a way not really believing, but they also have the same ambivalent attitude toward what adults call “reality.” They do not really expect to encounter a giant around the corner, or a dragon in the vacant lot next door, but (if they are in Florida) they also have the same attitude about the Windsor Palace and the gondolas of Venice.

There was one personage, however, in whose solid existence I unequivocally believed, and that was Santa Claus.

MY CELLULOID SANTA AND SLEIGH (1930s, Japan) (Click to enlarge)

Christmas and summer vacation were antipodes, the highest points of the year on opposite ends of the calendar, generating equal amounts of ecstatic anticipation. I would get so excited about Christmas long before December 25th that everything else became microscopic in comparison. For awhile each day took a week to pass, and then each hour took a day to pass. Meanwhile the stores were blazing with lights and decorations — at least they waited until after Thanksgiving then — and various pseudo-Santa Clauses began to appear in stores and commerce-boosting parades. My parents responded to my puzzlement at this plethora of Saint Nicks by explaining that they were just his helpers — ordinary men dressed up in Santa Claus suits to hug children and relay Christmas lists to the real Santa Claus. This was, of course, the perfect explanation, for it left the true Santa Claus sacrosanct in his polar fastness, where he and his elves were busy preparing for the fabulous nocturnal trip.

Some of my friends said that their parents had told them that Santa Claus was a spirit, and that he couldn’t be seen — which helped explain how he could get around to all those houses all around the world in a single night, and which also spared a certain type of adult from the guilt of lying and promoting future disappointment. But I knew that Santa was a real, solid, fat, bearded person. The “spirit” story smacked of ignorance and Sunday School. After all, while lying awake on Christmas Eve nights, had I not myself heard his sleigh bells tinkling, and even the tapping of reindeer hooves on the roof?

Were not the fruit cake and Coca Cola left invitingly on the coffee table consumed by Christmas morning, only a few crumbs remaining as testimony of Santa’s living hands at work in our own house?

I do not remember — despite the eventual whispered doubts and brazen taunts of a few schoolmates — ever reaching a point at which I definitely lost my belief, and so I must still believe. Similarly, perhaps there were not unintelligent ancient Greeks who were able to believe somehow that Zeus and Minerva walked and lounged about on top of Mount Olympus, as real as grapes, when presumably a long hike would have revealed the contrary.
Of course I had to ask my usual questions: How could Santa Claus, being fat, get down our narrow chimney? (If necessary, he would come in through a window or door.) How could he go to so many houses in one night? (He’s magic, and time is a mystery anyway.) How could his sleigh possibly carry so many presents? (Don’t worry about it; it just does. Magic again?) Whatever the plausibility of the answers, the fact remained that Santa Claus came to our house each year and ate cake and brought presents, and the whole world would hardly have become so excited had he been only a myth or a case of mistaken identity.

We helped Mother make fruitcake before Christmas. Because that had to be done early so that the cake could develop its full flavor, sitting around the dining room table cutting up the candied fruit with sticky scissors was – along with decorations going up in the stores and around the town square – one of the earliest signs that the momentous season was underway.

Mother would say, “Christmas is just around the corner!,” and she would quote Mom Belle, who always said, “Christmas on the hill!”
With the fruitcake curing in a cupboard, about two weeks before Christmas we would drive to Blitchton to get our tree and gather holly and mistletoe. As we opened and closed gates and bounced slowly across fields, grass and brush scraping noisily against the underside of the car, Mother would recall how, when she was first married to Daddy, she was startled when he would just turn their car off the road and take off across a stretch of Blitchton countryside — stumps, stones, and all — as if they were on a Sunday drive. He knew the terrain so well that he could avoid the pitfalls and obstacles which would have ruined another car.
When we saw a particularly nice looking clump of mistletoe high in an oak tree (mistletoe always seems to grow very high, as if avoiding human clutches), Daddy would use his shotgun to shoot its stem from the tree, so that the whole cluster would come tumbling down, perhaps even into somebody’s arms. That might bring back other memories — as when Daddy first took Mother bird hunting, and left her behind some bushes with a light shotgun, telling her to shoot when she saw a dove or quail flying. When he later heard her gun let out a blast amid a flurry of wings, he hurried over and found her flat on her back where the shotgun’s kick had deposited her.

We would never, of course, be satisfied with the first well-shaped evergreen tree we found. This meant traveling back and forth over several bumpy fields to settle the question which of the favored two or three to take. We would ponder the decision while having our lunch around a fire which both heated our can of pork and beans and roasted our hotdogs. Finally we would make one last motorized foray into the wilds, and Daddy would take out his old handsaw and cut down the winner. With the tree sticking out of the trunk of the car, we would make one more stop to cut a few holly branches, rich with red berries, and then head for home.

My birthday was a week before December 25, and our tradition was that the Christmas tree was decorated by my birthday if not before. Unknown to us were such customs as waiting until Christmas Eve to decorate the tree, or, worse still, children going to bed on Christmas Eve without a Christmas tree, only to find one decorated when they got up Christmas morning. There was enough agonizing waiting to be done before Christmas without having to wait for the Christmas tree too.

On Christmas Eve, after supper we always had boiled custard and fruit cake as we sat around the fireplace and listened to Christmas carols. Then the children would be shepherded to bed with warnings that Santa Claus might not come if we stayed up too late. Much too excited to sleep, I would lie and listen intently, determined this time to hear some unmistakable sound of Santa Claus’s visit. It did not arouse my suspicions if soon after we went to bed I might detect bumps or rustlings from other parts of the house, because we knew that Mother and Daddy gave presents to us and to one another and had to get them under the tree before Santa Claus came.

Certainly Christmas Eve was the most sleepless night of the year. When I was very young, in St. Augustine, I had been caught on the stairs headed down to the livingroom at three in the morning, but before I was hauled back to my bed I had seen enough to shout, “He’s been here! He’s been here!” As far as I know, after that none of us violated the rule against wandering about the house, partly because it would have spoiled the precious moment of surprise when we all arrived under the tree at the same time.

No doubt I did fall asleep at some point on Christmas Eves, but my lifelong propensity for early awakening was greatly inflated on Christmas morning, and I would greet any hint of dawn’s light with loud coughing, and creaking of my bed, in hopes of encouraging the rest of the family to wake up. Each minute after darkness began to fade from the sky seemed endless, and I could not imagine why everyone else wasn’t also wide awake. The fact was that we always got up early on Christmas morning, and if I had slept as many hours as I usually did I would have had no waiting to do at all.

After brushing teeth and washing faces at a frantic tempo, we three brothers would gather at the top of the stairs in our pajamas and wait for the signal, crouched for the race. To lessen the chance of injury we were placed in order and required to run down the stairs in single file instead of all at once. The one who had gone first the preceding year would be at the back of the line this year — although it hardly mattered, since we would all arrive at the livingroom within half a second of one another.

“Merrrrrry Christmas!” my father’s voice would finally boom from below, and we three boys would avalanche down the stairway, skid through the turn in the front hall, and shove our way into the magical room. Then we were frozen for an instant by the spectacle of the presents under and around the tree, whose multicolored lights enhanced the mystical transformation.

If some special, large present was visible, there would be a cry of glee as we dove for the tree. To avoid territorial wars and confusion over which presents went to which child, on Christmas Eve we always used strips of ribbon or crepe paper like the spokes of a wheel to divide the area under the tree into three pie slices. When we went bed on Christmas Eve our territories were empty except for boxes received in the mail from grandparents and aunts and uncles. In the morning they were full of gala packages. Of course we insisted on each area being identified with a name written on a sheet of paper. Otherwise how would Santa Claus know which area belonged to which boy?

When I was still a spoiled only child in St. Augustine, my best presents were a Mickey Mouse rocking horse and a shiny little convertible automobile (things like that were metal, not plastic, in those days) that I could pedal up and down the sidewalk. Then, of course, my Lionel electric train for Christmas 1937, the Christmas gift that I enjoyed the most for the longest time -- with its track running through a landscape of cotton snow and mirror lakes. It emitted a scent of oil and ozone, while its whistle sounded above the rattle of the Pullman cars and boxcars and its headlight brightened miniature trees.


It seemed I had to wait forever for a bicycle, but when the Schwinn finally appeared gleaming next to a Christmas tree, it supplanted the electric train as the best present I’d ever had. Only the long-sought chemistry set, with which I produced real gunpowder, came near equaling it in later years.

Our grandparents and aunts and uncles always sent gifts. In my ungrateful childish opinion, the worst presents always came from my Aunt Legie, Daddy’s sister, who lived with her Scottish carpenter husband, Alex, in a house under an overpass in Ocala. They were poor, I'm sure. Each year I would open her soft and pliant gift and find two pairs of socks. Socks were bad enough — in fact all gifts of clothing were automatically and immediately thrown into a discard pile, from which they would be rescued and admiringly folded by Mother — but these socks were from a mysterious source which had fashioned them for something other than a human leg. Instead of stopping at a reasonable distance above the ankle, they climbed more than halfway to the knee, and as they had no elastic in them they would respond to gravity by sagging to the shoe tops as soon as they were hauled up to their full length and released. Even Mother could find no way for me to use them. Maybe she gave Legie a hint, because eventually she sent me a present that was even less welcome than socks: "Tom Brown’s School Days." School days in Tom Brown’s time were so different from mine that after two pages I put the book down and never picked it up again.

After all the presents had been opened, and all the candies and nuts had been shaken from the stockings — so fat with food and doodads that Santa Claus had to put them on the hearth instead of leaving them hanging from the mantel — we turned to cracking nuts and playing with presents, especially any toys which could be taken outdoors . . . and finally to thoughts of Christmas dinner, which we always had in the middle part of the day.

Sometimes we had the dinner at home, but more often we traveled to Blitchton and Ocala. The usual custom was to go first to Blitchton in the morning, and later travel the remaining thirteen miles to Ocala. We sometimes had midday Christmas dinner at Blitchton and sometimes at Mom Belle and Papa's, but we always visited both places on the Christmas trip.

I remember arriving at Blitchton late in the morning to find our cousins, Ann and Sim, being forced to wait until we got there before they could open their presents. What unimaginable torture! How stern was life on the farm. We from The University City, flushed with the joy of early-morning Christmas abundance, looked on our cousins as we might have looked on unfortunates in a penal institution for children. I felt sure they hoped we wouldn't come on the next Christmas so they could open their presents earlier.

I always had a feeling of something stiff and reserved about Christmas at Blitchton, in spite of the hugs and gifts and good food – somewhat like the old-fashioned wooden furniture in Gramma's parlor where we sat while presents were distributed – hard, uncomfortable, high-backed, fitted with white, lacy antimacassar. When possible, I would flee to the porch swing, a wooden bench suspended by light chains from the ceiling, where it was actually fun to sit.

In Ocala the atmosphere was more relaxed, more modern, more familiar. Whether we had Christmas dinner at Mom Belle and Papa’s house, or at Martha and Hugh’s, I felt more at home than on the farm. I don't know how to describe the difference, but an example would be the voice of Bing Crosby caroling through the warm house, which was furnished with comfortable, soft chairs and sofas and cushions reminiscent of Mom Belle's wonderfully enveloping perfumed hugs.

Once, at least, there was an effort to combine Blitchton and Ocala in a single holiday meal at Gramma’s house. I don't remember much about it, and I would assume it went fairly well, except that Mom Belle remarked afterward that Daddy’s mother was “quaint,” and Daddy complained angrily to Mother about the remark, “Who does she think she is?” It was one of the few occasions when I ever saw Mother with tears in her eyes.

Compared to Christmas, Thanksgiving was a mere prelude, and simply an excuse to eat prodigious quantities of turkey, bread stuffing, cornbread dressing, boats full of gravy, candied sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, corn pudding, green bean and almond casserole, pumpkin pie, pecan pie, and Mother's family's favorite, ambrosia (fresh orange slices mixed with coconut). . . a menu which would be repeated with a few variations on Christmas Day.

Then came the long, arduous climb over the barren rocky range of January, February, March, and April . . . until May brought June into sight in the distant valley below, and blood flowed faster at the prospect of a whole summer of freedom.

Photography by Julia and Fleming Lee.
Entire contents of this blog post copyright 2009

Thursday, April 9, 2009

New Memoirs Ahead

About three weeks ago I was amazed to see that the number of visits to FLIGHTS OF PEGASUS had suddenly increased from less than 10 per week to more than 80. Each week another surprising report came in -- numbers like 72, 60, 56. I have no idea why that has happened (I wish people would leave comments), but it has motivated me to take renewed interest in this dormant blog.

In addition, after feeling completely uninspired for a long time to write more of my memoirs I woke up yesterday morning with a strong desire to continue them. I don't know why that happened either. It was not based on any rationale. It came as a simple strong impulse -- a most welcome gift to one who has always thrived on periods consuming enthusiasm. I felt as if my becalmed sailing ship, drifting nowhere for weeks, had suddenly been brought to life as a hearty breeze filled its sails. So, I will soon be posting a fairly short chapter on childhood holidays, and then a more ambitious memoir of my introduction to religion.

Thursday, January 15, 2009


Yesterday morning, in that half waking state which often brings unusual perceptions, I saw vividly the words: “You will be heard”, as if typed on the lower part of a piece of paper which had some sort of innocently pleasant images above. The message was accompanied by a strong feeling of electricity and great importance which startled me.

I immediately associated “You will be heard” with my efforts to pray before I fell asleep late that night.

Prayer – which might be defined as human efforts to communicate (often verbally) with a higher power – is a vexing subject, as many posts in this blog attest. If “giving orders to the universe” is a form of prayer (see my previous post), I am back on that subject again because my prayer these days is based on myself as a lens focusing the power of the Source to achieve desired results. My words and mental images form effects which the Source will create in the human world. . . or so I believe.

The unusual thing about the night whose morning brought the message was that I had struggled over the dilemma whether or not to include among my positive orders for the benefit of myself and others, any negative commands aimed at people who are creating pain and injustice in the world. I knew the spiritual teaching that I should never let anger and hatred or a desire for revenge affect my wishes, and that praying bad things on others will rebound to injure me.

But during these days of the unholy Israeli massacres in Gaza I couldn't help feeling outrage of the most extreme degree, and so a few days ago I decided to let myself go and try to focus the Source on the destruction of those who are killing many hundreds of people, a third of them children, inside a relatively defenseless enclave forced on its population by their Israeli occupiers. My anger extended not only to Israel and its supporters in the United States, but also to the idea that there was some biblical “God” who was allowing such a thing to happen.

So for several days I did my best to focus the Source on those horrible murderers and asked for and visualized their defeat and destruction. As a concession to certain spiritual teachings I also tried to replace the bloody carnage with images of peace and of people moving back to cultivate the lands which the Israelis had stolen from them. I also tried to see myself in the role of a dispassionate gardener who must cut off a diseased branch in order to save the tree. I tried not to feel any hatred. A surgeon who removes a leg so that the body can be relieved of pain and poison is not motivated by anger or a desire for revenge, but instead by a positive desire to bring health.

Be that as it may, the night before the morning message I realized that a nagging discomfort I felt was coming from my “negative prayers”. Apparently I could not focus a destructive design to rid the earth of a source of injustice and pain without polluting my own spirit with anger. So, with a sense of guilt because I felt I was abandoning a good cause, I decided to end my prayers for destruction. That was not because I felt sorry for the people I might hurt, but because of a spiritual principle.

I do not know which of my words will be heard, but I know that “You will be heard” came to me with authority and created a feeling of ecstatic happiness. I was in an elevated mood throughout that morning, feeling that I had been favored with communication of a very unusual kind even though I have only my intuition to interpret it.

Please note that I have written extensively about Israel and its supporters in the United States in my other blog, VIEW FROM THE MOON.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009


These ideas came to me as I was thinking about the manifest inefficacy of prayer in the form of begging a deity to grant favors. Every year whole churches full of people are obliterated by storm or sea or earthquakes while earnestly beseeching their God to save them. Prayers for justice are answered by the victory of missiles and bombs. How many sick or dying people are not praying for relief as their condition worsens?

Spare me the arguments about “God's mysterious plan”. The fact is that in this life, on this planet, we see no evidence that a helpful deity is influenced by prayers to let one person succeed and another fail, or this tribe or army be victorious, because one person or group is better at praying than others.

I believe that our misguided concept of a potentially helpful God who is amenable to appeals to sympathy is related to the notion of a Creator molding man from clay scooped from a river bed. That widespread “mud” creation myth in different versions puts God in the place of a potter at his wheel, turning out creatures to populate the earth and then bringing them to life. This leads to the idea of a Master managing his creations. The general conclusion of such creation myths throughout the world is that the Creator was not merely creating robots to serve his needs, or to play with as toys, but instead that the Creator assumes a managerial role and is concerned with the welfare of his creatures. “The Lord is my shepherd.” And if this anthropomorphic Creator continues as a manager, some of his creatures may be able to get special favors if they play up to him in the right way, or fashion words or rituals to gain his approval and help.

A more accurate image of creation than the potter is that of a spring bubbling up from the earth to form a pool and overflow into as stream, or a fountain spraying water droplets into the air, or a fire throwing out sparks. An erupting volcano's lava populates the landscape with forms, but it is a spontaneous creative action rather than the planned art of a human potter.

When we conceive of the Source as a spring of being bringing potentialities into existence, rather than as a managing and judging superperson, we are on the path to looking to our own creative imaging and actions to form our condition and our destiny. You learn that instead of being a begging child you are a lens which can focus the brilliant power of the Source to achieve effects on ourselves, other people, and our universe. Thus I admired a poster I saw on the wall of an Olympic champion's room. A man stands looking up the vast expanse of the sky, saying “These are my orders for the Universe today.

Start them young! (From a Christian website.)

“DLTK's Bible Activities
Old Testament Bible Crafts for Kids

Creation Craft
Uses a gingerbread man to explain the creation of man!
Age 3+”

Sunday, January 4, 2009


Once we realize that we can know nothing, and that nothing matters, the charge, “You're wasting your time” has no meaning.

The notion that what we do is “worthwhile” only if it meets certain criteria evaporates like morning fog in the incomprehensible vastness of the Universe and the insoluble mystery of Being. This brings a certain sense of freedom – as did my realization long ago, as I looked up into the sky for that judgmental God I had been told about, that “Nobody out there cares!”. We no longer have to feel guilty if we aren't doing something “useful”.

My Romanian friend, Adriana, does higher mathematics for her own entertainment, and she told me that she sometimes asks herself, “Why am I doing this?”, just as I ask myself why I am playing computer games and learning 3D modeling and animation instead of doing something “constructive”.

The standard of activities becomes what interests us and what gives us pleasure – particularly if it keeps us in Now and leads us not into the temptation of the past or the future. The idea that we must be accomplishing something like making money or getting published or preparing for an examination or performance no longer torments us. If a man wants to spend his life lying around on beaches and riding waves, more power to him. If I would rather play Super Mario Galaxy or build a palace in Second Life or learn about ancient astrology instead of doing something that qualifies for the mythical title “useful”, more power to me.

I'm not implying that I, personally, can dispense with all values, however arbitrary they may seem. I'm talking only about how we choose fill our time – and I say that you can tell much more about what a person really wants by how she chooses to spend her time than by what she says she wants. Witness the man who wants to be a great author but spends his time figuring horse racing systems.

Speaking for myself, it feels like a good thing to try to decrease the amount of pain in the world, even if governments like Israel and the United States devote themselves to increasing the amount of pain in the world. Justice feels better than injustice. Honesty feels better than dishonesty. And most people are happiest if they can arrange to create a comfortable, tidy, attractive environment. The relative desirability of activities might be measured by those kinds of feelings, but hopefully without any sense of “should” or guilt.

For me the greatest pleasures beyond food and sex come from learning and creating. For somebody else it might be training horses or learning Greek or sailing or fishing. But let none of us be chained to the galley bench of “useful” or “worthwhile”.