Introducing the Lightening Point

IMG_1891My friend Mary Anne, a retired journalist and editor, took me to task one morning at the church office for my use of exclamation points in my writing. “Did you ever think about using words to express yourself rather than exclamation points?” she asked. It’s just the kind of blunt question I’d expect from a reporter and I loved it.

I replied with a grin, “The only reason why I use so many exclamation points is because English punctuation hasn’t provided me anything stronger.”

Later it occurred to me that I was correct, not merely sarcastic. The English language is reported to have the largest vocabulary of any modern, living language, but it’s punctuation marks have not changed in centuries.

There are 14 punctuation marks commonly used: the period, the question mark, the comma, semicolon, colon, dash, hyphen, parentheses, brackets, braces, apostrophe, quotation marks, ellipsis, and the exclamation mark. Nothing more.

Yet, we English-speakers are quick to adopt or invent a word to suit our purposes, from Milton’s “pandemonium” in Paradise Lost to the hipster lingo such as “hangry”. So, why can’t I create a new punctuation mark that exceeds the strength of the traditional exclamation mark? No reason that I can think of! So, dear readers, I present to you for the first time in history the newest addition to English punctuation: “lightening point”.

IMG_1891

It will revolutionize the language and literature of the world. No more need for multiple exclamation points to end a sentence, or all those pesky adjectives and adverbs to clutter up the copy. The lightening point will take our thoughts and prayers to new heights of passion. With the stroke of one key, all kinds of new meaning can be expressed. For example:

“But Lydia, darling, I love you⚡️”
Or…
“You dirty rat⚡️ I’m gonna drill you full of lead⚡️”

See? The meaning and intensity of such mundane and trite are elevated to new levels of emotion and truth. I use emoji lightening bolts in my copy here, as my lightening point does not exist in my word processing program. I am currently in negotiations with several companies to remedy the situation.

One issue they raise is the keyboard. Currently, keyboards use the universal qwerty arrangement of letters, punctuation, and symbols on the billions of keyboards out there. “How do you propose solve that problem?” they ask.

I have the solution: we get rid of the letter “q”.

Q is an unnecessary letter and not very attractive looking anyway. Capitalized, it looks like an O with a cigarette in its mouth, and a lower case q looks like a lower case g that threw its back out. It can be replaced easily with the letter K. We can replace the q key with a lightening point key, saving those billions of keyboards, and start spelling words with a “kw” instead of “qu”, like kwick, kwiet, and kwilt “. Most words look much more attractive with the letter K in it anyway, like, say, Kevin.

So, I’ve solved all the outstanding issues and we now can proceed to use the lightening point as the newest edition to punctuation. It will be historic ⚡️ Revolutionary, even⚡️ A hundred years from now, Alex Trebeck will ask the question on Final Jeopardy, “The year the lightening point was invented”, and the answer will be “2018⚡️”

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Reclaiming the Vulture

We must change the name of the turkey vulture, aka buzzard, and rename them “sky gliders”.  They are extraordinary creatures who have been linguistically maligned and need to be rehabilitated with a more appropriate name.

The turkey vulture, Cathartes aura, also known in the American west as the buzzard, has been labeled with a phonetically irritating word that grates the ear like a dull chainsaw.  The words themselves have degenerated to insults, describing decrepit old men or rapacious opportunists. These same names are used to identify some of the world’s greatest gliders, capable of sailing along air thermals for hours with nary a flap of their wings.

Few sights are more tranquil than watching the dark shallow V of their wings, spanning 6 feet wide, circling overhead in search of their next meal.  Their pinion feathers look like fingers stretched out, feeling for the gusts of wind upon which they sail. They bank, loop, and circle in their silent dance, and when it seems they have reached the end of their ride like a surfer whose wave is about to crest out upon the beach, they miraculously find another thermal and soar back into the sky, a black kite against the clouds.

Occasionally, they fly so close overhead I can see the red skin of their featherless heads. Ornithologists say their baldness allows them to jam their heads into the carcasses of carrion and slide back out without the mess and potential infections of head feathers.  They also have some of the most corrosive stomach acids of any bird on earth and they need it, as they eat the rotting flesh of dead animals as a primary food source. They have developed their digestive system into a defense mechanism, being able to projectile-vomit the contents of their stomachs several feet.  The stench and acid burn are highly effective against predators.

We are ungrateful to these garbage collectors of Nature, who clean up the carcasses of the dead, and we do not appreciate the beauty and skill of their flight prowess.  They provide hours upon hour of entertainment and meditation to those of us who bother to stop, look up, and appreciate their beauty gliding silently overhead. I know of no other bird who can match them for grace, elegance, and even spiritual renewal.  If beauty will save us, they are part of the saving. So let us crown the sky gliders with their new name, and bury the names of vulture and buzzard forever.

My Dad and the Television Age

We were the first family on the block to own a tv set.  Pop was uninterested in spending money to buy one until he heard that baseball games were broadcast on tv, so he bought one that weekend.

It was the size of a family van and had a screen no bigger than the window of a microwave, but it was high-tech for its day.  When Pop turned it on, I swore I could see the lights dim in the house.

It took a good five minutes to warm up, it hummed like it had a motor idling inside somewhere, and when the picture finally appeared, it was a grainy black and white.  But there it was: a live baseball game from St. Louis, or Chicago, or New York.  Amazing – the Television Age had arrived at the McGrane household.

Games became a neighborhood event.  Several of the men on the block came over to watch the game, and they often brought a six-pack of beer to contribute to the gathering.  They knew the soft spot in Pop’s heart – a cold beer.  I remember men crowding into the front room of the small house on Garesche’ Avenue – all of them smelling of beer, cigarettes, and sweat – chatting about the game or complaining about the pitching, the calls, or whatever.  When the game was over and the beer ran out, it was time to go and everyone walked home.

Pop also discovered tv western shows.  He was a fan of the American genre of wild -west tales, and he watched shows like “Zane Gray Theater” and “Gun Smoke” nearly every night.  Mom would watch as well, but always became upset by the inevitable saloon brawl scene. She would wince and grunt as the bad guy would swing a hay-maker at the good guy, who would fall backwards into a bar table and smash it to pieces.  Her “Oh!” and “Ack!” with each punch would drive Pop to distraction.  As a kid, I wondered why saloon furniture was so flimsy.  Every time my brother Harry threw me or Denny into the furniture at home, it would just scoot across the floor, leaving large scratch marks on the floor and really ticking off Mom.

Anyway, the tv brought great sport and high drama to our home, as well as most of the neighborhood.  Soon, other families in the little blue-collar community began to buy tv sets, and one by one the game day visitors began to disappear.  Uncles Larry and Uncle Jack still came over with Aunt Pat and Aunt Helen, and often stayed for dinner afterwards, but the McGrane tv community event, which stood in for the village bonfire around which the village community gathered so long ago, passed on.

I wonder whatever happened to that boat of a tv…that thing was huge…I think Pop is sitting somewhere still watching a Cards vs. Cubs game on it, with folks in the neighborhood gathered around…  Happy Father’s Day, Pop!  Have another-‘un!

In Praise of Soap

I stumbled across soap on YouTube.

I was wrapping up our Bible Study class at Good Shepherd for the summer and I was thinking how the program might have been better.  The parishioners were terrific, but my choice of study program not so much. Frankly, it was a bit boring. That’s when soap caught my attention.

While looking for some Bach to listen to on YouTube Music, a short video popped up in my feed with the title “How to Study the Bible Using the SOAP Method”.

“Soap?” I thought.  “What do they mean, ‘soap’?”  

I popped it open and watched a 10 minute video made by a delightful young woman named Asheritah Ciuciu.  SOAP is an acronym that represents the words Scripture-Observe-Apply-Pray, a four step process to engage the Bible in what looks to this Anglican’s eye as a 21st century version of lectio divina.

It is deceptively simple.  All you need is a Bible, a notebook, and a pen.  I’m not going to describe in detail here how you go about studying the Bible using this method, for Ms. Ciuciu’s video does an excellent job explaining it.  Please find and watch it. What came to my mind, though, while learning this method, was: “This is lectio divina with a pen and a notebook.” Lectio divina, the ancient method of studying the Bible contemplatively.

The more I examined SOAP, the more intrigued I became.  There are dozens of YouTubes and websites on this Bible study program – some good, others not so good – but they all revolve around the same, basic concepts of Scripture-Observe-Apply-Pray.  I thought it would be a good skill for class participants to take along with them for the summer break, and when I presented the idea to the class, the students’ responses were positive.

I cancelled my last three planned class readings and we explored the SOAP method together instead.  We discovered that it not only works for individualized study, but can work very well for a group who wants to get together once a week and share one of their daily SOAP studies to the group, going round-robin fashion in a get-together.

What surprised me by end of week #3 was SOAP’s effect on my own spiritual life.

A daily practice of directed, intentional Bible study is a most powerful spiritual practice.  More than just reading Scripture, SOAP is a deeper engagement with the Bible and a new twist on the ancient practice of lectio divina.  Lectio divina is a slow, purposeful, contemplative reading of Sacred Scripture, with specific steps in the process. SOAP essentially does the same thing, but asks you to write your meditations in a personal journal, forcing you to write down what lectio divina asks you to simply keep locked in your head.  

In working with it, the SOAP method melds nicely with my own personal quirk of thinking with a pen in my hand.  Searching for the just the right word to write in my notebook slows me down; it requires that I dig deeper into myself and listen more closely to the voice of the Holy Spirit.   The result is reading Scripture in a deeper, consistent, and more challenging way for me. It reminds me not only of lectio divina, but also has elements of the Jesuit daily examen, in which the meditator answers questions in the examen such as, “What’s been happening in me?….What is being asked of me?…”

The search for and identification of “just the right word” is to articulate the thought revealed in one’s study of Scripture – many linguists and poets pose that thoughts becomes actual thoughts when we can finally express them with words: you cannot have a finished thought without the right words with which to express it.  In finding the right words, you have discovered the very thought itself, upon which you can then marvel and feed.

The SOAP method requires that I find just the right words to jot down what I am hearing and feeling from the Holy Spirit as I read Sacred Scripture.  I then discover anew what I am reading, day by day, and it changes me. I have adopted SOAP as part of my daily spiritual practice.

There are lots of happy, youthful YouTubes about SOAP that we can watch, but do not be dismissive of them.  SOAP is a serious way to encounter Sacred Scripture and hear the voice of God in our studies. It has become a part of my own spiritual practice and has greatly enhanced my spiritual life.  Give it a try. You have nothing to lose and much to gain.

Clouds

Our home sits at the top of the ridge, and we get to see quite a bit of open sky here at Windy Hill.

That is a bit unusual for the Ozarks, made up primarily of “hills and hollers” covered with old growth hickory forest. If you are lucky enough, sometimes your land has a treeless glade that sits atop the ridge and you can see miles and miles of sky…like Windy Hill.

I’ve often thought that the best vistas are out west, in the Rockies or along the coast. There are many spots there where the vistas are so vast it seems the entire continent lies before you.  Not so, here in the Ozarks. The landscape is more intimate here, with hills and hollows and aquifer-fed streams beneath the canopy shade of maples, oaks, hickorys, and elms. If the western landscape was meant for the extrovert aeries of a Machu Piccu or a Shangri-La, the Ozarks were meant for the introverted friaries of a Portiuncula or an Abbey of Gethsemane.  Outward bound in the west; inward bound in the Ozarks.

Though the streams and the hollows offer great beauty in their mystery, the clouds that drift overhead are often breathtaking. They are armadas, islands, veritable continents of white, gray, blue, pearl, purple, yellow, orange, red, rose, and colors for which I have no name. I can sit in the sunshine and see dark sheets of rain falling miles away. The ragged edges of a storm front looks like the edges of a torn sheet of pastel tissue paper.

They sail by, stacked and staggered in living 3D, and they are never, ever the same. They float in the sky, but are strong enough to block out the sun. Some days they gather together on the landscape, resting in the hollows, and the locals called that ground fog, but I know they are actually lost clouds.

Meteorologists have given them names according to their formations. Lovely names such as Cumulus and Cirrus and Nimbostratus. They say their formations can help foretell the weather, like astrologers reading the stars to determine our fates. No doubt the meteorologists can, in their own way, read the sky and clouds. I hope they also love the clouds, like a painter or a poet loves clouds. Clouds are such a gift in so many ways, not the least of which is their beauty and their mystery. To know their function is good; to contemplate their mystical meanings is even better.

Stuff

Recently, a new building went up in my hometown of Fiddlestix. It’s a big deal when there is any new construction in Fiddlestix. It turned out to be a storage rental business, with a couple of dozen stalls for people to warehouse the stuff that they can’t store at home.

That has come to strike me as odd, that we have so much stuff that we can’t even keep it in our own homes, but need to rent space to store our “overflow stuff”.

C and I rented a storage unit when we first moved here, for we lived in a 2600 sq. ft. home for our family of five back in The Big City. When our last child moved out of the house, we moved to Fiddlestix for a while until we bought and built Windy Hill, a few miles outside of town. The cottage we rented could not hold all our stuff, so we rented a unit to store it all.

When Windy Hill was finished about a year later, we moved into our new, 1100 sq. ft. home. If you do the math, you’ll see that 2600-1100 = 1500. That is 1500 sq. ft. less of homespace than what we had, which means that much of our stuff was not moving in with us.

The thing of it is, after a year of living without much of our stuff, we realized that we did not miss our stuff. In fact, we were hard pressed to recollect all the stuff we stored in the rental unit. A quick look into the unit on a Saturday afternoon told us that many of the things we had would never fit in our new home, and we had not missed them at all anyway. So, why did we have them? What’s more, why were we paying someone to store stuff that we didn’t even miss? This made no sense to us.

We got rid of our storage stuff. It all went, with the exception of a couple of buckets of tools and some pots and pans. Once we dusted off our hands and congratulated ourselves on getting rid of our stuff, we looked around Windy Hill and realized that one of our bedrooms was still full of other stuff. Stuff hiding in plain sight! We decided we wanted to reclaim this extra bedroom, and began to get rid of the “residual stuff” in our new home.

We First-Worlders sure have a lot of stuff. I suppose it is part of being a First-Worlder. We live in a consumer society, and we are afflicted with mega-marketing which sells us stuff at a surprisingly wicked rate. Some experts say that we see about 300 ads per day, if not more, from every source imaginable.

Much of our economy chugs along powered by consumerism, not need. So, we buy a ton of stuff and stuff it in every nook and cranny of our homes, garages, sheds, and now there is a billion-dollar industry to help us store our stuff. Stuff we never need.

I think we have too much stuff. It’s beginning to own us, not the other way around. In essence, I was paying twice for my stuff: once to buy it, then a second time to store it, and I didn’t even need it. This is the point where people start calling their stuff “crap”. Now, I’m a little kinder to my stuff than that. After all, they did exactly what I asked them to do when I bought them, and it wasn’t their fault that I bought more stuff. And they can be someone else’s wonderful stuff when I drop them off at Goodwill. So, there is little need to get all hostile with our stuff by insulting it with the name of crap.

But I think we First-Worlders need to reassess our relationship with stuff. We have too much of it. It’s a waste of money that could go to things like trips, or charity, or education, many things that would give a lot more enjoyment than most stuff. I have few things among my stuff that compares to a trip C & I took to the redwoods in No. California this year. Or the Smoky Mountains a couple of years ago. Or Ireland ten years ago. That stuff is in our heads and hearts. Lots of room there.

 

The Ancient Ones and the Presence of God

As I scribble these notes on my knee, I am sitting on the ground with my back against a tree that is 238 feet tall, 24 feet wide, and 1,500 years old. I am in a redwood forest in northern California on a pilgrimage, of sorts.

It took C and I two solid hours of picking our way over an endless path of tree roots to get to this exact tree. Called The Boy Scout Tree, it is one of the largest trees in the world. There are some trees on the planet larger and older, but when this one was a sapling, Vandals were sacking Rome, the Mayans were laying the foundations of their temples, and Benedict of Nurisa was scoping out Monte Cassino for a place to build his monastery.

We nearly missed it on our way along the trail. We were so taxed by our hike and confused by the thickness of the redwood grove that, were it not for the little sign by the edge of the path that said “The Boy Scout Tree”, we might have walked right past it. The tree stood serene and dark at the top of a small bank to our right, a brontosaurus standing among the dinosaurs.

The hike here through the redwood grove is, in itself, a transcendent experience. The trees are so tall I cannot see their tops from the ground. Their trunks are the size of cottages, yet they grow within a few feet of each other. The grove is as silent as a church on a weekday morning. Time seems to have overlooked this part of the world, and does not have much meaning here. Time is absent, and by its absence makes this place all the more unearthly.

Then there is this colossus. It is, simultaneously, the largest and oldest living thing I have ever encountered. Try as I might, I cannot see it all at once. It is beyond my vision to capture it fully, and beyond my understanding to appreciate it completely. All I can do it lean against it and feel it.

God is everywhere here. Just to smell the dank pine aroma rising from the forest floor makes every breath a prayer. The rough bark digging into my back is the support of grace after a hard pilgrimage to this shrine. Perhaps I should say that all here is in God, rather than God is everywhere here.

Sometime over the past two days, C and I started seeing these trees as beings, not plants. We have no idea if they are, in any way, sentient, but their presence has such a power and life to them that we cannot help but feel they are living beings within their own ageless community. And, for some inexplicable reason, as I sit here on the forest floor leaning against one, I feel welcomed among them. They are the Ancient Ones, and they welcome us to their sanctuary.

I remember a verse from the Psalms that says the righteous shall grow like the cedars of Lebanon (Psalm 92:12). If the cedar forests in ancient Lebanon were similar to this redwood grove, I can well understand how the psalmist came to recognize the presence of God in an ancient forest. The presence of God in this grove sings a psalm. It is as if the trees sing with God’s silent voice, and we listen. C and I do not speak but whisper to one another, as if in a cathedral.

The hike back out of this grove will be just as long as the hike in, but not as arduous. The return journey of a pilgrimage is seldom as demanding as the journey in – we are on a journey of discovery on our way in, and discovery demands much. The journey back is one of reflection, and it preoccupies us until we suddenly find ourselves back were we had started, back in the land of time again. But now we are changed by our experience, and all is different.

The light is at a sharp angle through the trees now, which tells me it is getting late. It is time for us to leave. There it is again, that thing called time. As we trudge back, we will have much to reflect upon regarding time, the Ancient Ones of creation, and the presence of God.

 

The Boy Scout Tree