A book that changed your life

The monthly memoir writing group at our church follows a standard format: people in the group can read something they have written since the last meeting (usually based on last month’s writing assignment); then I read a passage from a published memoir, and give an assignment based on that example; then the last hour is devoted to writing.

We can’t meet this month. I was going to send out the assignment via email, but it seems to me it’s important to hear the example read out loud. So I made a video of this month’s writing assignment:

For those who prefer to read it, the full text of the video is below.

Continue reading “A book that changed your life”

Memoir

I’ve been leading a monthly memoir writing at church. I do the exercises, too, and recently I wrote about something that happened almost exactly thirty years ago this week. So here are my memories of that day. I’ve changed the names, because there’s no reason to give those names to intrusive search engines.

August —, 1982

During the summer, the lumberyard always hired someone extra to help out in the in the yard, and to help out stocking shelves in the store. Summers were busy, and there was always at least a truck driver, or one of the yardmen, or the stock clerk, on vacation. One summer they hired Bud, whose father worked in the building trades, and who lived in one of the streets back in behind the lumberyard. He was a few years younger than I, which means he must have been seventeen or eighteen. If you saw him, you’d describe him immediately as a good guy: he was always smiling and cheerful, he always worked hard and he was in great shape.

Continue reading “Memoir”

In the train station

Carol and I were walking through the San Mateo train station late at night, on our way home. It was very quiet. I looked down, and there was a playing card on the platform, face down.

“A playing card,” I said. “Let’s see what it is.”

I bent down and turned it over.

“Five of clubs,” I said. “That means good luck.” That’s the kind of thing my mother used to say: she’d see some random thing, and say that it meant good luck.

“You just made that up,” said Carol.

“Not me,” I said.

Why I dislike cleaning out desks

This afternoon, I set myself the task of going through a desk that I had used when we lived in New Bedford, but which has since then stood in the garage. I found stationery I had forgotten about, a brass button that had come off my blue blazer, blank checks from a bank that is now defunct, and a set of keys to my parents’ old house. For some reason now forgotten, the keys were on a key ring that originally had held the keys to a 1969 Plymouth Valiant automobile I once owned, an automobile (not that it matters) which I had purchased from a direct lineal descendant of Ralph Waldo Emerson.

The sight of the key to the porch door instantly brought back a vivid image of walking up to my parents’ house and letting myself in. This was a disturbing image because when dad sold the house after my mother’s death, the new owners tore it down; nothing from it had been salvaged but everything merely thrown away; while in its place a tawdry three-story mansionette was erected, the new building extending to the absolute limits of what the zoning regulations allowed.

This train of thought led immediately to a consideration of the vanity of human endeavor. This is why I do not like to clean out desk drawers and make them tidy: better, I think, to let some things lie unseen.

REA conference, part one

Near Toronto

David Hogue spoke on the topic “Practicing Religion, Forming the Faithful” in the first plenary session of the Religious Education Association (REA) Annual Meeting for 2011. Hogue is a professor at Garrick Evangelical in Evanston, Illinois, and has research interests in ritual, liturgy, pastoral care, and brain science. He is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church USA.

Hogue gave a brief orientation to the physiology of the brain from the point of view of a practical theologian. He also pointed out that neuroscience is investigating questions that religions have been pondering for a long time. He believes both science and religion can contribute productively to an ongoing investigation of these questions.

Hogue said he is convinced that experiences of spirituality are grounded in experiences of everyday living, and in particular he’s interested in storytelling, memory, and human relationships. These three areas are also topics of interest to neuroscience. Rather than discuss “spirituality” per se, he chose to focus on these three specific areas to engage religious education with neuroscience. Continue reading “REA conference, part one”

Yet another set of 9/11 memories

Somehow I had managed to arrange to take a day off on a Tuesday. I was going to theological school half time while working three-quarters time as a director of religious education at First Parish in Lexington, Massachusetts. Late summer is always a busy time for religious educators — kids are back in school, they’re coming back to Sunday school and youth group, and you have to take care of a thousand and one details before they return. I had been working non-stop for quite a few days, but finally on that Tuesday I had managed to schedule a day off.

I slept late. It must have been nine o’clock when the phone rang. I came immediately awake, my heart pounding from adrenalin; my mother had died twenty-two months before that, after a long illness, and I still dreaded phone calls that came while I was asleep. “Hello?” I said.

It was Ellen, the assistant minister at First Parish. “Hello,” she said, and paused. “Have you seen the news yet?”

“What?” I said. “No.”

“A plane hit the World Trade Center in New York,” she said. We turned immediately to business. The senior minister was out of town, and Ellen thought we should have a candlelight vigil that night. Continue reading “Yet another set of 9/11 memories”

Getting in trouble

Last month, the prompt for our writing group at the Palo Alto church was this: Write about a time when you got into trouble as a child….

The old Hodgman farm was sold, and the road for the new development went in during the summer of 1965. A year or two after that, they started building a a house or two down the new road. The kids in the neighborhood would ride our bikes by where this one house was being built. We knew that when the carpenters were working on the house, we would not be allowed to set foot on the lot. But in the evening, or on the weekend, we might walk a little ways up the driveway to see what progress had been made on the building.

One day, a bunch of us were looking at the house. I know my sister Jean was there, and a couple of other kids her age, perhaps eight or nine years old. There were also a few younger kids closer to my age, perhaps six or seven. I can’t remember who the other children were, but at least a couple of them were members of the extended Hodgman family.

We looked at the house. The walls and rafters were framed up, most of the plywood sheathing had been nailed on, but there were no windows or doors, no siding or roofing. You could see that the stairs to the second floor consisted of nothing more than stringers with some boards nailed on for rough stair treads. It looked very interesting, and very inviting. Continue reading “Getting in trouble”

 

Henry, our music director, stood up during joys and concerns (what this congregation calls “Caring and Sharing”), and spoke poignantly about his mother. Henry said his mother had died in 1999, which was a while ago. But he has learned over the years that while the pain immediately after someone dies does lessen, it never goes away, and remains always, as a kind of “dull pain” (to use Henry’s words). He managed to put into words what I’ve been thinking myself. My mother died in 1999; Carol’s mother died just over two years ago; and this year I’ve been very aware of that dull pain of which Henry speaks. This is not exactly a profound insight; but it’s funny how I manage to forget this repeatedly, until suddenly there it is again.

Creativity vs. religion

Just thinking out loud here; no final conclusions in this post, but merely the beginnings of some thoughts….

I’ve been thinking about the role of creativity within religion. Generally speaking, religion seems to me to take on an essentially conservative role; e.g., religion conserves a set of values that a group holds dear, and passes them on to the next generation. Another way of putting this: a religious group is a community of memory, where the group conserves important memories. These memories can be greater memories — Christians conserve the memory of Jesus’ death and resurrection; Buddhists conserve the memory of Siddhartha Gautama’s decision to return to this life after achieving nirvana — or they can be lesser memories — my home church, First Parish in Concord, Massachusetts, conserves the memory that many of its members fought in the Battle of Concord and Lexington, one of the early battles in the American Revolution.

And consisting as it does of groups and organizations that conserve memories, religion does not necessarily place a high value on creativity. I found this out personally when I went for my required psychological evaluation and career counseling while pursuing fellowship as a Unitarian Universalist minister. One evaluation instrument I filled out indicated that I placed a high value on creativity, and according to the psychologist who interpreted the test results for me, this was unusual in a minister; and it has certainly been true that one of my biggest challenges at having a job in religion is that I find it difficult to find sufficient outlet for creativity; which is one of the motivations behind this blog, and behind other creative endeavors in which I engage.

However, if religion is basically conservative and non-creative, it can provide a happy home for creativity. Many of the most creative works of European art during the Renaissance were supported by the Roman Catholic church. Stephen Hawking holds religious views that seem to tend towards fundamentalist humanism — his rigid disapproval of Christianity is in its own way just as conservative as the religion he disdains — yet he is perhaps the most creative scientists of his generation. King’s Chapel in Boston is one of the most conservative Unitarian Universalist congregations, yet for decades it employed Daniel Pinkham, a prolific and creative composer.

And what about the relationship between liberal religion and creativity? Liberal religion is more likely to accommodate itself to changes in society around it than traditional religion, although generally speaking liberal religion institutions seem to lag behind societal changes by a generation or so. So compared to traditional religion, liberal religion is less conservative. Yet I sometimes feel as though liberal religion is more stifling to creativity than is conservative religion; certainly liberal religion stifles entrepreneurial creativity; as for artistic creativity, with a few exceptions (Daniel Pinkham comes to mind) liberal religion doesn’t provide much in the way of either financial or institutional support.

As I say, I’m just thinking out loud here — I’d value your comments and criticisms.