Photo of our sheep flock by Claire Gilbert.
This is my second, and final, excerpt from my memoir’s Epilogue. At this point, after the death of our farm helper, Sam, we’ve sold the sheep flock we tended for a decade. My mother has just died. We’re getting ready to list our farm for sale. We’ve been attending a country church for almost a year, and after thirteen years in Appalachian Ohio we feel at last at home as we prepare to leave.
February 15, 2009. “Have you heard the expression ‘Love your neighbor?’ ” Kathy asked the children of Alexander Presbyterian Church. “There was a very special man who had a television show about neighbors that ran for more than thirty years. Have you ever heard of Mister Rogers?”
The children, all four of them—it was an old congregation—shook their heads solemnly No. Fred Rogers had been dead for as long as most of them had been alive, and his reruns hadn’t reached Albany, Ohio. Kathy was prepared for this. She held up a photograph of him from the pulpit.
“Let me read you something that Mister Rogers wrote late in his life,” she continued. “He said, ‘The older I get, the more I seem to be able to appreciate my ‘neighbor’ (whomever I happen to be with at the moment). Oh sure, I’ve always tried to love my neighbor as myself; however, the more experiences I’ve had, the more chances I’ve had to see the uniqueness of each person . . . as well as each tree, and plant, and shell, and cloud . . . the more I find myself delighting every day in the lavish gifts of God, whom I’ve come to believe is the greatest appreciator of all.’
“Mister Rogers is saying that everyone is our neighbor—whoever we are with at the moment is our neighbor. And we should love all those we are with and we should appreciate them for who they are. And God is the one who appreciates all of us for who we are. We should understand that we are all God’s neighbors.”
A woman led the children away, and Kathy turned her attention to us. “I have been thinking about neighbors a good deal as we prepare for another move to a completely different place, to new jobs, to another house, to another community,” she said. “There are a few big differences from our last move. This time we won’t be moving to a farm; we’ll be living in town with neighbors all around us, and we’re not used to that.
“I’m a little concerned that folks will be monitoring our lawn, and we’re accustomed to turning the sheep out when the lawn needs some trimming. And this time our children won’t be moving with us. So for the first time we won’t be moving as a family. And we’ll be living on the fringes of a large city.”
Joann, a pillar of the church, had asked Kathy to speak when Pastor Bob was away. We’d thought Kathy wouldn’t be recognized in a country church on the edge of Albany, but soon everyone had known who she was. The university’s provost was often named, and pictured, in Athens’ newspapers. And the latest news is that she’s been hired as president of a small Methodist-affiliated Ohio college. Otterbein was founded by members of the United Brethren in Christ Church, who were active conductors in Ohio’s Underground Railroad before and during the Civil War and who admitted women on an equal basis with men from the school’s start, in 1847.
Kathy based her sermon on the story, in the Gospel of Mark, about Jesus’ encounter with a “teacher of the law” who has asked him to name the most important commandment. Jesus thunders:
“The most important one is this: ‘Listen, Israel! The Lord our God is the only Lord. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second most important commandment is this: ‘Love your neighbor as you love yourself.’ There is no other commandment more important than these two.”
“The connection,” Kathy said, “between loving God and loving your neighbor is not simply that they are the most important commandments but rather that one follows from the other. We need to find ways to do both during these difficult times. And as Richard and I find ourselves moving on to a new life in a new place, we will take these lessons with us.
“We will remember, also, that as members of a church community we are responsible to look out for one another and keep everyone informed about those in need of prayer and assistance as you all do each week. It’s important to take the time to share our own personal trials and tribulations and turn to our neighbors for support and love. We will remember what it feels like to be members of a caring community in which you accept everyone for who they are.”
Her words resonated against the backdrop of America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and a severe economic recession. The congregation looked up at her, and afterward they shook her hand. She was a natural in the pulpit, but their attention was humbling. It wasn’t just about her role, her place in a secular hierarchy, the esteem in which the world held her. I’m sure they sensed her goodness.
May 5, 2009. I’ve never asked Kathy what she thinks about God. Maybe what she’s found for us, a voluntary community of people trying to be good, is enough. Maybe that is God. Her words implied as much. My notion wouldn’t wash with many people, believers and unbelievers alike. Sam’s minister, for one, would set me straight—again—right quick. I am, I know, an a la carte Christian. Yet, having always spurned dogma, I now struggle for my own definitions. Pastor Bob surely would smile at this, my vanity.
The winter of Sam’s death, trying to grasp why I had been (and am still so often) anxious and angry—and hoping at last to heal—I’d studied a popular psychology textbook. I read there are no healthy Americans, that everyone is distorted from growing up in sick families in a toxic society. The book’s viewpoint seemed tautological: if everyone’s damaged, isn’t that normal? Does everyone truly need therapy? Surely I’d needed it myself, as a disturbed child, as a depressed adolescent. But even if this diagnosis of universal woundedness is valid, it hadn’t helped me live better. Or given me any peace. It had only deepened my pain.
Having read Buddhist philosophy off and on for fifteen years, starting back in Indiana, lately I’ve been meditating with Athens’ newest clergywoman, a Zen priest, her head shaved as bald as mine. “I will end my suffering,” she told me. This pain, she’d said, was anger. I admire her, and find Buddhism’s tools clear and accessible. On my new Facebook page, I’ve listed my religious affiliation as Methodist Buddhist.
Just before she got sick, Mom sent me a paperback book, A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose, a spiritual synthesis with a Zen flavor. I would never have bought this Oprah-endorsed New Age bestseller myself—10 million copies sold!—and threw it aside on the dining room table the day it came. I returned to my recliner to grade freshman papers, and picked up a girl’s essay in which she began to discuss A New Earth. Jess was an art major, sensitive and smart, and was taken with the author’s insights into how the ethereal beauty of flowers, birds, and precious stones can awake people to their own inner essence. I lowered my La-Z-Boy with a thunk, got the book, and started reading.
A New Earth struck me as a masterpiece, and I’ve read it repeatedly in the year since Mom’s death. Its author, Eckhart Tolle—whose gentle outlook sounds a lot like Mister Rogers’s, actually—writes of the “pain-body” each human carries (baggage: familial, racial, sexual, national) and how inability to let go of it mars one’s ability to live fully in the present. He answers the question of what, in you, is irked and angered by the malodorous egos of others: your ego. He defines the ego simply: that part of human nature which “wants and fears.” The ego clings to grievances and fattens on anger; a parasite, it needs the pain-body.
Tolle believes humans are outgrowing the necessary stage of the ravening ego. With his faith in a changing global consciousness, he reinforces my innate, progressive view of history: humans are getting better, evolving. This gives me a fragile faith in some sort of higher power, on the one hand, and a faith in my own future on the other. When young I had wanted to change so badly, to become something else. I am old enough now, the years having washed over me, that, teenage fantasies of genius and outrageous success forgotten, I am what I am. I have a track record, a full resume. But if I might devote myself to passions that have survived, I can grow. I can become what I’m meant to be.
For once I crave a larger context than myself, however. Which is one reason that for the first time since I met Kathy at Ohio State, I’m reading the Bible. I read it for its poetry, I say, but poetry is distilled wisdom. And after Tolle, I’ve concluded that it is an adult’s task to define, for himself, the God he believes in—or doesn’t. Maybe then we can talk. I can’t accept that there’s a deity in the sky or a physical afterlife. Yet I believe there is something within us—a shared will we don’t yet understand—that makes us human. While I view most biblical stories as metaphors, this indwelling force, this impulse toward goodness in human history, appears real. As real as Abraham Lincoln was real before he became, also, a metaphor.
I know that Europe’s great cathedrals, after wars and Holocaust, stand empty. I sense that many people don’t believe anymore in their own species’ innate goodness, let alone in its religions. But as a species we’ve selected against brutes; we’ve nurtured goodness within us as well. Love thy neighbor; forgive trespasses. Hard tasks, but unless people try, are reminded they should try, I wonder: what’s left? It doesn’t seem viable to me that humans can count on mass disillusionment in place of spiritual disciplines. Count on our unknown, unloved neighbors to teach their children to tolerate us as we totter into their paths.
I’m favoring the New Testament: Jesus’ relentless attacks on dogma and hypocrisy thrill me. But I intuit that it’s the Old Testament that wrestles with an underlying and undying mystery. How and why did the long-suffering Jews—the Bible’s famously “stiff-necked” people—discover, some 3,000 years ago, followed by Christians and Muslims, that there’s a greater good than the narrow, prideful self? See that they must serve this good? Their submission is epitomized in the extreme allegory of Abraham, who, preparing to obey God and kill his own son, was at the last moment allowed to slaughter a ram instead.
I’ve always been wary of groups—sensitized as a weak boy against any potentially bullying entities—but I’m starting to see that I can’t shun communities without also forsaking their wisdom. On the eve of our departure, I wish we’d joined our neighbors from the start in a more open-hearted way. I wonder if our children should have gone to Albany’s schools instead of commuting with us into Athens. At the time, I’d told everyone—even myself—that we hadn’t wanted to change their schools yet again. Which was partly true, but now seems largely class bias and hypocrisy. I hadn’t wanted to sacrifice my children to a fading if not extinct democratic American ideal. And yet fully embracing humble Albany might have blessed us all.
Maybe my task, in a time when so many historic links to others are fractured, is to help heal frayed ties or to create new ones. I haven’t ever done it; I’m not sure I can. Long ago I embraced the writer’s image as outsider. But in Alexander Presbyterian Church, I see—in songs and sermons, in handshakes and psalms, in my wife’s words—what has been hidden from me in plain sight. In the face of life’s utter mystery, here is celebration and solace.
Like poetry, our fellowship and our words point only indirectly at what they seek, at what they honor—at what they embody. At what I am struggling at last to name, to call God.