Navajo Nation to Barstow

We were almost the only whites in the Dine’ Restaurant this morning; and we were the only whites at the Window Rock post office; and the only whites at the Navajo Nation Museum, which doubles as a cultural center and meeting space. Of course we went to the bookstore in the Navajo Nation Museum, where, among other things, I bought I Swallow Turquoise for Courage, a book of poetry by the Navajo poet Hershman R. John. In the poem “Strong Male Rain,” John writes about his childhood fear of thunderstorms, and how he discovered that his friend “Darcy, a Jewish girl from Phoenix,” was also scared of thunder:

I told her about the Male Rain and what not to do during a storm.
She told me about Ean and his tale of the Kugelblitz.
I guess Jews and Navajos aren’t all that different.
We were both afraid of thunderstorms.
We have other past storms we were afraid of too.
She had the Holocaust
And I had America.

We drove up to the tribal park in Window Rock, and looked at the memorial to the Navajo Code Talkers of the Second World War. We also looked at the memorial that had a long list of Navajo who had died while serving in the U.S. military. Continue reading “Navajo Nation to Barstow”

From Texas to Navajo Nation

We left Amarillo and drove across the flat plains to the west. Everything looked frighteningly dry: the grass wasn’t even brown from lack of water, it was bleached almost white.

At lunch time, we got off the interstate and followed Historic Route 66, as it is called in New Mexico, through Santa Rosa. We pulled in to a restaurant called “Route 66.” A man got out of a truck marked “City of Santa Rosa” and walked in in front of us. I figured it was a good sign that a city worker was going to eat there. Inside, the restaurant was well kept, with lacy curtains in the windows, Route 66 memorabilia on the walls, and pretty red and white artificial flowers in vases on the tables. It seemed like just about everyone eating in the restaurant knew each other; one older man stopped at nearly every table to greet people on the way to his table at the back of the restaurant.

A distinguished looking man with salt-and-pepper hair, wearing a sport shirt and new and neatly pressed blue jeans, stood at the cash register. He asked us with a soft Spanish accent how our meal was. We got to chatting about the weather. “It’s the driest year ever since they’ve been keeping records,” he said in his soft voice. When he learned we were from California, he asked, “How is it there?” “We’ve had a wet year,” I said. “And cold,” said Carol, “our tomatoes just aren’t growing.” He shook his head at this news: wet and cold! Continue reading “From Texas to Navajo Nation”

Heading west

We got a late start this morning, and didn’t leave Van Buren, Arkansas, until nearly noon. After we had been driving a bit, we turned off at a sign that said “Oklahoma Welcome Center,” and turned into the poshest rest stop I think we’ve ever seen. It was staffed by three volunteers. One politely asked me if she could help me with something, and I said, “No thank you, I’m just waiting while she checks email,” pointing to Carol, who was sitting an a very comfortable armchair enjoying the very fast Internet service. “In that case,” she said in her Oklahoma drawl, “I’ll just kill flies,” and, picking up a flyswatter, proceeded to do just that. “Do you keep score?” I said. “No,” she said, “and I’m not doing a very good job, either,” as she missed a fly for the third time.

As we drove through eastern Oklahoma, I noticed that the land looked much greener and much less dry than it had when we drove east a couple of weeks ago. Clearly they had had rain since then.

At exit 200 for Seminole, Oklahoma, we turned off to see if Robertson’s Ham Sandwiches was open. We had seen their distinctive red-and-white billboards heading east, but we had arrived after they closed. They were open. There wasn’t much on the menu but ham sandwiches, so we each had a double ham sandwich for less than five dollars. We sat at one of the wood tables to eat our sandwiches. It was about the best ham I’d ever eaten in a ham sandwich.

We turned off the interstate at El Reno, Oklahoma. Continue reading “Heading west”

Still in the South

Our goal for our driving vacation this year was to see the South. We saw some southern cities — Birmingham, Memphis, Nashville, Charlotte — and we saw a little bit of the country — Natural Bridge and San Mountain in Alabama. Now here we are in Van Buren, Arkansas, and tomorrow we drive in Oklahoma.

I feel that we’re still in the south here. The air is warm and damp, and the trees and plants are all very green. When you walk across some grass or under trees, you can smell the earth and the vegetation. Distant hills are blue. The people say “y’all,” and it’s easy to find a place that serves turnip greens or green beans cooked up with bacon, or some fried okra.

By tomorrow night, we’ll be in Amarillo, Texas. The air will be dry, there won’t be those rich smells at night, the trees won’t be nearly so green. People will still say “y’all,” but it won’t be quite the same. We’ll be headed back towards home, towards the far West.

Inside “La Cabeza” by Niki de Saint Phalle

“La Cabeza” is part of the show “Creation of a New Mythology,” now at the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art in Charlotte, N.C. Five monumental sculptures are outdoors in a public park across the street from the museum; and you can climb inside this sculpture. You can also stick your arm through its teeth.

At Amelie’s

Carol and I are sitting at Amelie’s, a French bakery in Charlotte, N.C., that’s open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It’s after eleven o’clock on a Thursday evening, and there are lots of people here. At a table to my right, I can sort of hear two men talking about the theater. There’s a card game going on at aother table. There’s a couple who look to me as though they’re on a date. Two women sitting on couches are talking very seriously in low voices. That’s this room. There are two other rooms, the main bakery counter, and the outside patio. I’ve heard at least two languages other than English (Russian was one, and I’m not sure about the other). I’m seeing a lot of white folks, but there’s definite racial diversity here. And I’d guess that all of the people here are younger than Carol and me (that is, at least under 45). There is excellent wifi access, and I can see people checking Facebook and surfing the Web. We are sitting at a table with two laptops, a pear tart, a peach tart, and a cup of really good coffee:

OK. You know what the setting is like. Now, a lot of what I’ve been hearing about recently is how the shape of religion and spirituality is changing, and it’s increasingly taking place outside of traditional places of worship, particularly for people younger than me. If I lived in Charlotte, given that I’m something of a night owl, I have a feeling that I’d be spending a lot of time here. And if I were going to imagine a place where I’d want to do spirituality, this would be it. This pear tart can only be described as spiritual. Good wifi access, pleasant surroundings, interesting conversations going on around you — what more do you need?

If I had my way, church would look more like Amelie’s, and I’d be able to get fast wifi access and really good pear tarts and really good coffee there.

Hey, a guy can dream.

Ministry Daze, er, Days

Charlotte, N.C.

General Assembly hasn’t begun, but ministers and religious educators have already arrived here for professional meetings: “Ministry Days” for ministers and seminarians, and “Professional Day” for religious educators. I won’t say that the streets around the convention center are swarming yet with Unitarian Universalists, but when I went out to get lunch today I ran into Rosie and Marie, old friends from seminary, on the sidewalk, and Nancy, a minister from the Bay Area, while crossing the street, and I saw several other people at a distance whom I felt sure I knew.

Just after four o’clock, I went over to the Hilton Hotel to register for Ministry Days. There were ministers everywhere: ministers in sandals, ministers in seersucker suits, ministers in dresses, ministers in hip black West coast urban garb, ministers in Midwestern pastels, old ministers, young ministers, ministers all over the place. Some of them were people I have never seen before, some of them were people who looked familiar, some of them were people I once knew, a few were people I know quite well. Unfortunately, my brain does not allocate much processing power to my facial recognition software, so when I am in large groups of people I often cannot cannot process faces rapidly enough; as a result, I tend to wander around looking vaguely dazed and slightly bewildered (more so than usual, that is).

Fortunately, I ran into my old friend Ellen, with whom I served at First Parish in Lexington, Massachusetts under Hellen Lutton Cohen. Ellen had not yet eaten, and was looking a little pale, so we went right out and looked for a place to eat. All the cheap restaurants I had looked up on the Web seemed to close at five o’clock. We finally wound up in Halcyon, the restaurant next to the Mint Museum. Ellen told me all about the things they’re doing in her church in Chelmsford, Massachusetts — the successful evening worship service, the way she mobilizes amateur musicians within her congregation, their coming of age program, their youth service trips to Saint Bernard Parish south of New Orleans. Then it turned out that our waitress grew up on Nantucket, so she and I tried to figure out if we had any common acquaintances, but the people I know who live there are all quite a bit older than she. Then Carol joined Ellen and me, and we began talking about families. We walked Ellen back to her hotel, talking all the while.

By the time we got done, today’s program for Ministry Days was over. Yet though I hadn’t attended any official programming, I got more good ideas while eating dinner with Ellen than I get in most half-day professional workshops.

Small “u” universalists are everywhere

Today I attended the annual Macedonia Church Singing, a group of people who have been singing shape note hymns on Sand Mountain in Alabama for generations. This is one of the few parts of the country where churches sing in four part a capella harmony from the The Sacred Harp, a four-shape note hymnal, in regular Sunday services. Thus, liturgically speaking it is one of the more conservative parts of the United States; they still conserve some of the old ways of conducting Sunday services that date back a hundred and fifty years or more.

At lunch I sat down across from a fellow who was also singing in the bass section, and when he found out that I was a Unitarian Universalist he grinned and said, “I’m a Christian universalist.” We spent the rest of the lunch hour talking about James Relly — when he found out I hadn’t actually read Relly, he said I simply had to do so — and about Rob Bell, and the Primitive Baptist Universalists, and Hosea Ballou. He probably knew more about universalism than I did, although I was able to tell him one thing that he didn’t know: that Abraham Maxim, one of the composers in The Sacred Harp, had been a Universalist.

It turns out that he belongs to a Methodist church, where he is a Bible study leader. When he became convinced of the truth of universalism, he offered to step down as a study leader, but his church thought it would be fine if he stayed on. I asked about his pastor, and he said that his pastor seemed to have universalist leanings, though of course he didn’t come right out and say so, he just never preached about hell.

You just never know when you’re going to run into another universalist.