Saturday, 15 January 2011

Tracy Kidder and small city America

On January fourth of this year I took out a book from Sarasota’s fabulous Selby Library.  It was written by Tracy Kidder.  It’s called “Strength in what remains”.  I found it to be a powerful and moving story of DeoGracias, a young man from Burundi.

DeoGracias (yes, that’s his name) survived the ghastly civil war/genocide in his homeland, and against all odds he made a new life in these United States.

Tracy Kidder is a good writer. He tells the story of DeoGracias with clarity and objective sympathy.

I enjoyed Kidder’s writing so much that I  sought out another of his titles when I was back at the library. I chose “Home Town” (published by Washington Square Press in 2000).  It’s a marvelous account of life in Northampton, MA - a town which I know well.

To quote from the dust jacket:

“ A host of real people are alive in these pages:  a tycoon with a crippling ailment; a criminal whom the place has beguiled; a genial and merciful judge; a single mother struggling to start a new life at Smith College; and, at the center, a policeman who patrols the streets of his beloved hometown with s stern yet endearing brand of morality…”

Readers of this blog who know Northampton, MA will rejoice in this book, even as they recognise every street.  Folks from  other states or nations will get a unique and splendid view of small city America should they borrow or buy it.

Thank you Tracy Kidder!

Friday, 14 January 2011

Sweet, sweet, sweet.

My first visit to Florida was in about 1989.  My friend Joe and I drove down from Pittsfield, MA in my Mazda 323 (one of the neatest cars I’ve ever owned - except in this case the car was on a three year lease).

My mind had imagined some gentle countryside with lovely valleys and streams, and surrounding hills which were filled with citrus groves.  It was a romantic image, and far from the truth.

In fact Florida is very flat. Very flat!  The highest point is in north Florida where Britton Hill rises to a stately 345’ above sea level. Even “Little Rhody” (Rhode Island) has a hill more than twice than height.

As for citrus groves, I saw not one on that first visit. It was a disappointment.  But having lived here now for four and a half years I can tell you that citrus groves are rather plain and geometric places, with none of the random beauty of the older New England apple or pear orchards.

But we do have citrus.  Much of it is processed just up the road from here in Bradenton where “Tropicana” has a huge plant.  

Here and there we find remnants of older “pre-industrial”  groves.  So it is that in the community which adjoins mine there is a splendid grapefruit tree just outside the house of my acquaintance Dan.  The fruits are “there for the taking”.   Dan is happy to see them harvested by the locals.

Damn!  They are the sweetest, juiciest pink grapefruits you could ever hope to eat.  I have enough to give me breakfast for the next ten days.

Sweet, sweet, sweet.    And probably sweeter because they are “there for the taking”.

Reminds me of God’s grace!

Thursday, 13 January 2011


FIRST  a disclaimer.  I vowed that when I  adopted my cats and my dog via the Sarasota Humane Society that I would never refer to myself as their “daddy”.  I have broken that vow!

Simple pleasures:

1.  jmp speaks:  My simple pleasures are: 

reading a good book as I sit on the lanai. 

taking an afternoon nap as I lay prone on my new “recliner” ( which I bought as a bargain at $60 from a local second-hand store).

snacking on smoked mussels from the Duck Trap Company in Maine.

2.  Penne the dog speaks:  “When daddy sits down to read a book I know that he in fact is summoning me.  So I press my wet nose into his leg, and then turn around so that he will scratch my haunches.  I know that he’d rather do this than read".

3.From Ada the senior cat: “Daddy is not trying to nap on his recliner.  In truth he wants me to jump up onto his belly so that I can get a good sleep. But first I have to knead away with my front paws, so that I can make a nest on his tummy.  I hope that this pleases him“.

4. Junior cat Adelaide has her say: “Mussels are all well and good.  But tuna is better.  I am so happy that daddy gives me a bit of canned tuna each afternoon, so I choose to ignore that he sneaks my daily medication into this delicious snack.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

One in Fifty

Today the National Weather Service reported snow on the ground in 49 of the 50 states -- only Florida was spared.

Sewanee, TN  Monday 10th Jan 2011

 Waltham, MA Jan 12th 2011

  Pittsfield MA  (1) Today

Pittsfield Ma (2) Today

 Melrose, MA  This morning

  Sarasota, FL this afternoon

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Ironing as a spritual discipline

I enjoy ironing. 

I conserve electricity by drying my clothes on a rack which is stationed in the spare bedroom. 

Would to God that I could hang them out to dry on a decent clothes line, but our prissy “Condo Association Rules” forbid such flagrant displays of laundry.

So my shirts and pants need to be ironed after they have dried out, and that’s just as well, because I enjoy ironing.

In the “olden days”  1976-80 I would even iron my undershirts/vests, and underpants/shorts.  Believe it or not (and please believe it), in those days I also ironed sheets.  Indeed I like ironing!

My enjoyment of ironing is most likely rooted in two places.

First:  as a parish Pastor I dealt with beginnings (baptisms); middles (weddings); and endings (funerals).   So I ministered with “bits” of human lives, but never with the whole.  When I iron I am able to begin, continue, and end an activity. Ironing is a “whole” activity.

Second:  I am (to my embarrassment), something of a perfectionist.   The beauty of a shirt well-ironed is a safe way of expressing this perfectionism.

The only grandparent I ever knew, (Nanny Povey),  never owned an electric iron.  Instead she had two flat irons which she would heat on the burner of her gas stove.  She would use one, whilst the other was getting “hotted”  over the open flame.  Nanny would have a bowl of cold water from which she sprinkled droplets over the item which she was ironing.   I thought that she was so “old fashioned”!

Mum had an electric iron.  Its technology was a step ahead of Nanny’s flat irons, but the heat controls were crude  (scorching was almost inevitable), and steam irons had yet to be invented.

Modern irons have “teflon” faces, and steam/spray faculties.  They are much more user-friendly than the irons which my grand mother and mother used, even though the intrinsic technology is little changed.  What has changed is the variety of fabrics which may or may not require the use of an iron.

I like ironing.  It satisfies my desire to be at tasks which have a beginning, a middle, and an end.  It’s a safe outlet for my perfectionism.

It is also speaks to me of wonderful cooperation in a marriage.  For you see, many years ago I was in England, staying with my youngest brother Martyn and his wife Wendy.  We were about to “go out” for dinner.  Wendy needed to apply her make-up, and she also needed to press her dress  (we were running late).  Brother Martyn spoke. He said “Wen, you take care of your make-up and I’ll iron your dress”.  And that she and he did.  I watched my brother as he ironed his wife’s dress.

It was a perfect resolution of our time problem.   It was a solution which would never have occurred to our Dad (God rest his soul)!

I often remember this as I set about my own ironing.

Monday, 10 January 2011

Everence F.C.U. - a new kind of Banking.

My mortgage, checking/current account, and  visa credit card are each held by one of the behemoths of American finance -  the Bank of America.  The local B of A staff are great and they give fine service, but I am not too comfortable with having all my eggs in this one conglomerate basket.

With this in  mind I decided to open a savings account at one or other of the local Federal Credit Unions.  Having checked credentials on line, I decided that my new account should be at the Everence F.C.U. (Federal Credit Union).

“Everence” used to be called “Mennonite Financial Services”.  The new name is meant to evoke both permanency (Ever), and piety ( Reverence).

One of the blessings of having a substantial Mennonite and Amish Community  in Sarasota is that Everence F.C.U.  has a branch here. 

I have a decent respect for Mennonites  - named after Menno Simons  -  (see - even though their emphasis on peace and justice has not yet extended to include lesbian and gay Christians).

So dollars in hand I took myself to the one and only local Everence branch.  I discovered that their norm for membership is membership in an Amish or Mennonite congregation. 

But non- Mennonites such as I may join if we are happy and able to subscribe to the following:

“I share a commitment with the historical faith and biblical stewardship  principles of Mennonite/Anabaptist  Christians acknowledging that all aspects of life belong to God (Psalm 24) and:

Practice the stewardship of God’s love toward others, e.g.,

Following the example of Jesus Christ.
Sharing divine mercy.
Promoting reconciliation efforts.

Practicing the stewardship of God’s gifts, e.g.,

Stewardship of money and possessions.
Stewardship of the environment.
Stewardship of health.
Stewardship of time.
Stewardship of talents.

Practicing the stewardship of God’s generosity by sharing, e.g.,

Christian mutual aid.
Spiritual gifts for ministry and missions.

All of the above in blue is from the Everence F.C.U. document which I was asked to sign prior to opening a Savings account. 

I did so very gladly.  I admire and respect the Everence way of doing business!

Sunday, 9 January 2011

Please re in conjunction with my blog entry from earlier today

 Thanks POTUS

"A time to keep silence, and a time to speak".

"A time to keep silence, and a time to speak". (Ecclesiastes 3:7b  KJV)

In 1986 a young priest, who at one time had been my assistant, took his new canoe out onto a Berkshire County, MA lake.  It was late winter/early spring and there was still ice on some of the shallower coves.  Later in the day his canoe was found, but he was missing.

Word spread like wildfire. The next day I called the community of St. Stephen’s together for prayer and Eucharist.  I chose not to preach.  I simply said “there are no words which are adequate to our fear, all we can do is to hold on to each other”.  The congregation sat in silent embraces.

His body was found later in the week.  The grief of his girl-friend, his family, and of the two congregations in which he had served knew no bounds.

I had a friend who was murdered.  He was in fact the brother of one of my very best friends.  I will never forget the Saturday morning when this friend called me in my Church office to relay the news.  Once again I entered into grief unbounded.

In due course his alleged murderer was placed on trial in Springfield, MA.  I drove down every day from Pittsfield to sit with them in the court-room.  That was all except for on the last day when the jury found the man guilty and the judge pronounced a sentence of life without parole.

Back in Pittsfield I watched the report of the guilty verdict on Springfield’s Channel 22.  A T.V. reporter said to another brother “well, I suppose that your family will go home now to celebrate”.  I will never forget his reply.  He said “we are not going to celebrate.  We will go home to think about what all this means in our lives”.

The two tragedies I have described were cause for silence and/or  thoughtful reflection. Those two commodities are now very rare, at least in public life.

I read about yesterday’s Tuscon murders via facebook, on which a couple of my friends posted the story.  Scarcely had the news broken before facebook “pundits”  began than the comment and analysis began  (much of it has already be proven false).

One “friend of a friend” drew a direct line from Tuscon to Sarah Palin.  I have no brief for her, and little respect for her views, but I suggested that even in this midst of this tragedy we were called (to use Prayer Book language) “to respect the dignity of every human being”.    For that I received a Facebook tongue lashing!

The larger point that I was trying to make was that our first reaction to such horrid violence should be thoughtful reflection and not instant punditry.  The President, the leader of the House, and the Senate Majority Leader each made wise and cautious statements, but how I wish that they had called us to twenty-four hours of national mourning.  How wonderful it would have been if these three leaders had come together and called upon the American people to reflect.

Regular readers of the blog will know that I spend a lot of time in silence.  That can be dangerous for it is easy for me to lapse into “stinking thinking”.  Yet I long for more public and shared silence.  I especially long for this in Church.

Back in 2004 I was at home in Bristol on November 11th - Remembrance Day/Armistice Day.  I I took a ‘bus from Staple Hill where my family lives to go to the Centre of Bristol.  At precisely 11:00 a.m. the bus drew over and parked by the kerb on West St near Old Market.  The driver turned off the engine, and in a very respectful manner, asked us each to observe the traditional two minutes of silence.

There followed a most profound experience of  public and shared silence.  I wish that we had more.