Melanie and Atticus

A number of animal residents of Richmond, Ind., have brightened my days when I am required to be here for residential study at the Earlham School of Religion. Two of them have been Melanie and Atticus, a pair of dogs whom I met a few years ago on their regular walk down the alley that adjoins my guesthouse. Their human companion is Neville (another story). Last night I met Neville walking only Atticus. Melanie is gone; Neville explained that she was 13 and had begun to experience health problems. Atticus is a robust 3-year-old, Labrador-sized (I don’t know his breed, since I am a cat person), whose disposition is visibly sweeter now that Melanie, the more sociable of the pair, is gone. Atticus nosed around patiently as Neville filled me in on the dogs.


Though I rarely see these dogs, I was stricken by a pang of sadness. A dog’s, or any pet’s, death gives us humans an inkling of the big snooze that awaits us. I am picturing Melanie in the Elysian Fields, happily sniffing around, attracting friendly attention from many souls. The Gospel of John, which has my attention during my study here, contains the immortal image of the good shepherd. Dogs are used to help with shepherding. Some would say Melanie has been promoted to a happier neighborhood, where she doesn’t have to wait for Neville to walk her, I expect. For some sentient beings, heaven is a dog park. Here on earth, Atticus continues dog duties and doings, which include nosy visiting with strangers who may become friends.

Walking cheerfully

I have been losing sleep over the election. I am really, really afraid of one candidate. I’m more than happy with the other, despite some important disagreements. I’ve been wondering what is my responsibility besides voting. I’ve wrestled with writing about this, since I have some talent at communicating in writing. But there is a real tsunami of opinion out there, and so one more view hardly matters. On the contrary, in this election, restraint is a good, mature thing; thinking “I alone have the answer”  is hubris at best, narcissism at worst.

Like so many others, I really liked Michelle Obama’s speech and her idea that this is not about us: this election is about our children’s world. And I’m a little worried about the children, and not just my two. I’m worried that we’re not leaving them a better place, but instead we are bequeathing a lot of crushing personal debt, a climate-challenged planet, fear of strangers who speak different languages, and soul-numbing cynicism. That last really bothers me.

I heard a lot of great speeches at the convention. Although I normally find good oratory inspiring, I must admit its charm is wearing thin. And this article  really got me re-thinking the way I value an inspirational speech. What about getting things done? What about problem solving?

For me, for my children, for my planet, I want solutions. I want to read about them. I want to vote for somebody who sweats the details of getting things done. For my own part, I need to concentrate on things getting fixed, or getting better, given enough commitment and ingenuity. I need to shift my focus from a relentless litany of what’s wrong without denying what is wrong and from jejune despair that “the system is rigged.” The system is big and complicated and contains a lot of people who unfortunately don’t think like me.

More concretely: this is also a way of practicing the Quaker discipline of “walking cheerfully over the world” . This is what I am going to do during the election season: call attention to solutions. If I can’t find any, it might just be cute kittens or pretty flowers. (I thought of doing this while sitting by my flowers.)

I’m kicking off by celebrating an amazing planetary healing (it’s yuuge): the hole in the earth’s ozone layer is closing because we banned CFCs. The lead scientist who published about this said: “Aren’t we amazing humans?”

Bonus: here are some flowers:IMG_1173.JPG


Mr. Fish, in memoriam

Mr. Fish, the piscine member of our household, died this morning at the age of 19. We are guessing his age. He joined us sometime between 1994 and 1997, the years Bill was in nursing school. That’s as close as we can come.

He was a really old goldfish, and sizeable as well, four inches or so from tip to wavy tail.His orange-


Junior, subbing for the late Mr. Fish

gold color had almost entirely worn off, and he had been blind for quite some time. A fishy cataract covered one of his eyes. The other eye was diseased; it was tumorous-looking and swollen, probably a xenoma, a lumpy growth caused by a parasite.

Mr. Fish didn’t seem bothered by his tumor or lack of vision; he knew where he was. He hung out in one corner of his aquarium and ate his meals every day. For the past few years we were expecting every morning to find him floating on the water’s surface. This expectation was gradually overtaken by amazement at his longevity. I took to calling him Methusaleh. He reminded me of Granddad, the Australian lungfish at the Shedd Aquarium, whom I was introduced to years ago when writing a story. Granddad came to the Shedd in 1933; it is unclear how old he was when he arrived.

Mr. Fish was the last surviving member of a gang of feeder fish we acquired sometime after we moved to Aurora in 1994. Feeder fish are destined to be consumed by larger fish-eating animals. We liberated a dozen of them to spend their time with us in our vegetarian household instead. Over time, they died, one by one, except Mr. Fish, who swam along, slowly and persistently enlarging himself and his territory.

Old fish don’t do a whole lot less than young fish. Yet Mr. Fish got a new lease on life in November when we brought the new goldfish Junior from the pond on the deck indoors for the winter. We were slightly apprehensive that Junior might be the death of the aged resident fish, but something wonderful happened instead.

They made friends. Mr. Fish swam more. They hung out together in the same corner of the aquarium. Mr. Fish appeared to be teaching Junior the secret of indoor survive-and-thrive. The two could frequently be found side-by-side.

Until this morning. Right now I can see Junior, checking and re-checking their common corner, his tail wriggling. Where’s the old man?

Though James Herriot popularized it, the phrase “all creatures great and small” comes from a poem by the Irish hymn-writer and poet Cecil Frances Alexander. Every being deserves a little notice. Here is your obit, Mr. Fish. Peace be to you.

Catching Up on Reading

Did anybody but me wonder about the literary references in Jonathan Franzen’s Purity? I am resisting googling the reviews (except for PW). The Dickens reference to Great Expectations is explicit, but I found myself thinking about the way the murder is written and the kind of fever dream that Andreas Wolf’s mind eventually becomes, and thought of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment,  given how much force the murder assumes over time, given how deeply it is buried (pun intended). The querying of ideological purity also called to mind Jean-Paul Sartre’s play Dirty Hands, which perhaps really dates me or at least says something abut the literature and philosophy I was taught.

I hated the characters so much I almost didn’t finish the book. But it did keep hooking me, even though I would have shortened it. Tom’s and Andreas’s back stories are too long and tediously male-centric; Franzen’s editor ought to stand up to him a little more. Still, I am glad I read it to continue reckoning with the reaches of contemporary tastes and forms. Such a sea of difference between literary fiction and genre fiction.

Prayer of gratitude to celebrate and mourn Phyllis Tickle, publishing visionary

I owe my professional livelihood to Phyllis Tickle. Had she not established the religion department of Publishers Weekly, I would not have had a dozen years of supporting myself through writing about the publishing of religion books. Phyllis’ comprehensive vision accommodated not just a segment of the publishing industry, but a team of professional observers, of which I was privileged to be a member.

More personally, she wrote the introduction to my first book, The God of Second Chances. In it she called me an investigator of hope. I would like that on my tombstone. Phyllis treated words like gems — precious, beautiful, and precisely faceted. She also had an admirable and large collection of them, so that she had just the right words always at the ready. She generously wrote introductions and endorsements for dozens of grateful colleagues. This, in addition to having the discipline of a writing machine, turning out her own provocative and far-sighted work that was especially visionary in the later part of her amazingly productive career.

Now she goes before us, to a place where all the books are about heaven. After she and Sam catch up, she may turn her energy to forming a Divine Words imprint. Here on earth she has sown a bountiful crop in the field of publishing. We benefit from the harvest. May we honor her memory and remember her well-chosen words and broad insight. Hard as it is to imagine her not writing, may she rest in peace.


God’s Hands

I haven’t had a chance to reflect on seed collecting as being God’s hands. Christ has no body, no hands but yours, wrote Teresa of Avila. Last Tuesday I dove into tallgrass prairie, leaving the path and heading into the grasses, seeking leadplant. Our steward Cindy has told us that the presence of leadplant is a sign of eco-health, and the Schulenberg Prairie is a vigorous being this year, bursting with leadplant. If the earth is God’s body, what organ are the prairies? The kidneys, maybe, filtering waste products?Image

Leadplant was pretty in bloom, with purple lupine-like flowers (the two are cousins, both members of the bean family) and fuzzy leaves. The dried flowerheads are easy to spot, of middling height next to tallgrass. It’s also easy to collect seeds, stripping them easily and then feeling like I could pat the plant as I might a just-sheared sheep, saying thanks and go on now. We only take half the seeds and leave the other half to reseed the prairie on its own. The week before I did coneflowers, and those were just as easy but differently textured, pointed seeds bordering on prickly and so needing clipping of the seedheads. Leadplant by comparison is gentle on the hands.

At the end of long summer days on the prairie, dried forbs mix with early autumn plants in bloom: purply-blue asters, cream gentian (I haven’t seen the blue variety). Many of the varied yellow composites are still hanging around, but the blooms of summer are aging into seedy maturity, losing eye-candy appeal and settling into the rhythm and imperative of reproduction. The yellow coneflower ages well, drying into drooping grey florets but gaining olfactory appeal with its anise-smelling seedhead, so many individual seeds tightly packed, poised to parachute to earth, take hold, and flower next year.