Wednesday, March 30, 2011


"...One of the shaman's jobs was ensuring that solar eclipses would be temporary. Nice work if you can get it." ~Robert Wright, The Evolution of God

It has occurred to me—with a combination of humility, seriousness, and not a little amusement—that I am the village shaman. (Perhaps I should say a village shaman.) The calling of the preacher traces its lineage back into the mists of pre-history, to the emergence of the tribal wise man, the shaman, the witch doctor (from which profession the line evolves and finally divides, leading, on the one branch, to the humble parish pastor and on the other, the medical doctor – who, for some reason, ended up making more money.)

Although in most religious communities the clergy person is charged with the task of passing on the sometimes narrow, dogmatic beliefs of a particular creed, I mean, for the sake of this discussion, to set that aside. I am speaking of the more general sense in which those who are called to lead various “flocks” are looked to as “wise” men or women – the ones who are expected to say something worth listening to regarding how to find meaning in life and a purpose for the living of one’s days, including:  “How do I go on now that my Mildred’s gone?” “Do I have to take that chemo?” and “What’s it all about, Alfie?”

For thousands of years the primary means of receiving this dispensed wisdom has been in a weekly address of between fifteen minutes and an hour or more in length. (We can take today’s standard sermon length and add five minutes for every fifty years going back in time.) My seminary professors would no doubt remind me (and I agree) that a sermon is not about the preacher’s personal philosophy or homey tips for living. (As one of them liked to say, “Remember, preach the good news, not your good views.”) But I’m speaking here of a kind of “folk” understanding of the preacher’s task.

Although one has to be either a megalomaniac or mighty humble to stand up before hundreds of people every week and presume to talk, uninterrupted, for fifteen or twenty minutes about the meaning of life(1), I think there is something to the premise I am putting forward here, both as a description and an expectation of the preacher’s assignment: The average parish pastor plays the role of something like a tribal shaman.(2) When I’m in the pew and not in the pulpit I do expect to get a word to instruct my life in one way or another.

My intention here is neither to ridicule nor to puff up the importance of my profession, but to observe, both from the inside and the outside, that all societies have had and continue to have their shamans. I write at a time when the persuasive power of the church and its preachers is (at least for the time being) waning. I know there are – and always have been – other “wise” ones to whom the community looks. I was going to list some candidates here, but let me ask, instead, who is your shaman? Is it important for someone to play that role in our lives, whether religious or secular? To paraphrase the Apostle Paul, “Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age?”

Where, dear reader, do you get the good word?



For many, the word "shaman" is synonymous with "charlatan." For this discussion, however, I mean it in its more objective anthropological sense as "tribal wise person."

1. "In some cultures shamans have struck anthropologists as psychotic, people who may indeed be hearing voices that no one else is hearing…. The Chukchee used to describe someone who felt driven to the shamanistic calling as 'doomed to inspiration.'” –Robert Wright, The Evolution of God

Martin Luther said that “after every sermon the preacher should fall on his knees and ask God to forgive him for what he’s just done”

2. This is one of the reasons that clergy who are charlatans, or who exploit for their own gain or sickness are so devastating: they’re messing with people’s understanding of life itself. Another post for another time.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011


For two or three years, when our children were in junior and senior high, our family gave up TV for Lent.* Although it wasn’t their idea, our daughters went along with Dad’s scheme without too much persuasion. We put the television set in a closet, so there was no evidence of the bug-eyed monster in the house. My memory of that experience is that, after adjusting to the change for about a day, we really didn’t miss it. I can’t say that it resulted in idyllic sessions of Monopoly games or family readings in front of the fire, but we really didn’t miss it. I recommend it. Five weeks is a good amount of time to adjust to the change and then get on with a TV-less life. (A predictable question is, “Why did you turn it on again?” A good question.)

Now (at the time of this writing) I’m about half-way into doing without Facebook for Lent, and the result is much the same, with some variations. It was not the social connections I wanted to give up (certainly not you, dear friend!), but the process and screen-time of Facebook; and to evaluate how I use it. I don’t think I am any more a compulsive Facebook user than the next guy, which is to say that there is a bit of compulsion to it, and that’s what I’m temporarily weaning myself from, and quite happily.

I haven’t given up e-mail, and I have come to appreciate that digital niche more and more as a way of staying in touch with close friends and family. (I say “niche” because among the various e-communication media available to us: telephone, cell phone, texting, e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, etc., I actually find e-mail to be uniquely “intimate.”) But I have come to enjoy some of those old-friend-Facebook-reconnections – the kind of communication that only happens on Facebook (these folks and I will most likely not exchange e-mails during my dry spell) – and these connections are one of the reasons that I will reactivate my account at the end of Lent.

When I do think of Facebook, it is to analyze what I’m missing, if anything, and to get a sense of if (or how badly) I want to go back to it. And I find that the thought of re-activating causes me more cold sweats than did the prospect of shutting down. It’s not just that I once again open myself up to the reports of what my friend’s cousin’s roommate fed her cat, or having to decide if I’m going to accept a friend request from my friend’s cousins’ roommate. And it’s not just re-opening that struggle with the near-compulsion of the lure of the Facebook screen…

It’s limiting myself once again to the narrow slice of myself that I present on Facebook. Oh, it’s not a phony presentation, or somebody I’m not, but it’s a narrow part of myself: The goof-off. With a few honorable exceptions, I’m basically just horsing around on Facebook.  In her new book, Alone Together, author Sherry Turkle proposes that on Facebook we’re all “performing” for each other. Although it may be a fine line of difference, I would say, rather, that (speaking for myself), I’m just goofing-off, both in the old-fashioned sense of wasting time, and in the other sense of being a wise guy.

I have no doubt exaggerated in that last paragraph. (And the reader will note that I’m only speaking for myself.) But I still seek a nobler cause for Facebook; and whether or not it is a trivial or an important part of my life is still an open question for me. FB is in its infancy – it’s still the crank-telephone on the wall into which we shout for the operator. It’s about twenty per-cent pure silliness, seventy per-cent idle chatter, and maybe ten per-cent meaningful discourse. That’s what it is now; who knows what it will become. But I’ll be there. Right after Easter. I’ll try to be noble.


*Lent is a six-week penitential season in the Christian calendar leading up to Easter. The rationale for giving up anything for Lent is a subject for another post for another time.

Saturday, March 19, 2011


About once a year someone sends me one of those collections of “church bulletin bloopers,” and they actually make me laugh. Some of the perennial favorites:

The sermon this morning: "Jesus Walks on the Water."
The sermon tonight: "Searching for Jesus."
The Rector will preach his farewell message after which the choir will sing "Break Forth into Joy."
Weight Watchers will meet at 7 PM at the First Presbyterian Church. Please use large double door at the side entrance.
These are funny because they are most likely real bloopers – not made up. (At least I’m convinced.)

The blooper phenomenon brings to mind a sort of sub-category: the danger of the find-and-replace feature in word processors. Here’s one that most certainly had to have happened, because it could happen to me tomorrow:

The preacher discovered that his word processor allowed him to save the bulletin of his last funeral service and use it as a template for the next. One week it was a funeral for “Mary Jones,” a couple of weeks later a service for “Agnes Schultz.” He simply replaced every instance of one name with the other. Those attending the service that week were amused when, in the creed, they confessed belief in a Lord who was “born of the virgin Agnes.”

Sunday, March 13, 2011


To begin with, my title is just a bit pretentious. It’s not as though I have a collection like Thomas Jefferson’s, which he donated to re-stock the Library of Congress after the conflagration of the War of 1812. I had some ceiling damage in my study, and needed to completely empty the room for the plasterers, then, to re-assemble the room -- desk, computer equipment, and a small wall of books. The “library” of my title.

But the process did elicit some thoughts:

1. Although I agree with people wiser and more prescient than I that books will be with us for a long time to come, I couldn’t help the feeling that I was engaging in an almost-quaint activity, like returning a bunch of scrolls to the scrollery. Some writings I wouldn’t think of having except in book form, but for general reading, ten of the last twelve books I’ve purchased have been on Kindle (actually, the Kindle app on my iPhone).  When I wonder how long the transition will be, really, from the book to whatever is next, I’m haunted by Benjamin Franklin’s reflection upon first seeing manned balloons over Paris: “This is such a wonder; it will be a mere thousand years before mankind will be traveling by air as a common practice.” The Wright Brothers flew 120 years later, and fifty years after that jet passenger liners were flying from Boston to Paris.

2. I was convicted (if that’s the right word) by the number of books I have purchased and not read, and those that had book-marks one-quarter or one-half or two-thirds of the way through, where I left off reading them. In almost every case, I had thoroughly enjoyed the books that I had partially read, and in almost every case I still want to read those unread. I know that Adult Attention Deficit Disorder is the fad diagnosis of the day, but I wonder….

3. There were so many books that I had read – and with great pleasure. Our re-stocking project was slowed by my pausing to comment, “Oh, this was a good one…” as Caryl waited patiently to hand me the next one.

4. Three of the books, lifted coincidentally from the storage box one after the other, brought to mind a category of “great endings” (which was actually the impetus for this blog post). And, in the spirit of endings, I will end with them:

The ending of A River Runs Through It, by Norman Maclean:
Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world's great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.

The ending of The Donner Party, a book-length poem by George Keithley:

After this life we will listen
to the long river running through the soil
saying it is Spring— 

the sun has begun to burn
the brown needles nesting on the ground
around our graves. 

The jays perch in the pines and cry
and wherever we may sleep
among the dead we will rise 

together under the trees
like men who are set free
from the folly of a dream 

into the fragrant morning
to hear the heavy stream
of our blood begin to sing, 

our souls awake and warm once more 
and weaving like a fire
when the light begins to dance
in the land of our desire.

The ending of The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien. (Yes, fellow LOTR nerds, I know it’s not the actual ending. But it really is.)

“Well, here at last, dear friends on the shores of the Sea comes the end of our fellowship in Middle-earth. Go in peace! I will not say: do not weep; for not all tears are an evil.” 
Then Frodo kissed Merry and Pippin, and last of all Sam, and went aboard; and the sails were drawn up, and the wind blew, and slowly the ship slipped away down the long grey firth; and the light of the glass of Galadriel that Frodo bore glimmered and was lost. And the ship went out into the High Sea and passed on into the West, until at last on a night of rain Frodo smelled a sweet fragrance on the air and heard the sound of singing that came over the water. And then it seemed to him that as in his dream in the house of Bombadil, the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise.

Saturday, March 5, 2011


Carnegie Library, Huron, SD 1909 ~ 1965
I am grateful that my parents, my teachers, and the phonics-heavy “Alice and Jerry” series in first grade taught me how to read. Beyond these seminal reflections, I hold in memory two distinct episodes of what were, without exaggeration, life-changing experiences of the introduction of books into my life – books as physical objects of learning and enjoyment. I was apparently a good reader from the start. But it was these experiences that turned me into a book reader:

It was probably the summers after third, fourth, and fifth grades that I would ride my bike the eight blocks from our house to the Huron Public Library. At least part of the time I must have been participating in an organized summer reading program for kids. (Here’s to summer reading programs for kids!) I think I had a chart to fill out. The memory is as much physical and tactile as it is mental: The cool marble floors of the 1909 Carnegie Library building, the hot summer day left behind outdoors, the meaningful hush produced by the neck-craning grandeur of the high ceilings and book-lined walls, the kid-height bookcase island in one of the alcoves. And, of course, the solid feel of the book as I pulled it from that case – just browsing, I discovered it myself – and the light riffle of the pages as it falls open to “How the Leopard Got His Spots” in Kipling’s “Just-So Stories,” and the scrape of the chair as I take the book to the nearest table. I can’t wait until I get home – I’ve got to read this here: “How the Camel Got His Hump,” “The Elephant’s Child,”…. The memory is of the book – and the place of the book. The temple of the book.

Then, comic books (now I am exaggerating), until:

In my junior year in high school I was looking for something in a back corner of our basement, and I came upon a box of books. Hard-cover books with slip-covers intact. Not musty and smelly, but clean and almost like new. Like all smart young moderns, my parents had belonged to the Book-Of-The-Month club in the early years of their marriage, and this was a trove they had packed away in our move from Huron to Rapid City (or maybe earlier). It was the thrill of discovering “Just-So Stories” all over again – and the weighty feel of these tomes: “Clarence Darrow For The Defense,” “Dear and Glorious Physician” (a novel about the Apostle Luke – with some authentic, uh, earthy parts in it if you get my meaning), a novel called “Yankee Pasha.” I read book after book out of this box. And, like the bookcase in the Huron Library, I still have a picture in my mind’s eye of exactly where I found that box, and I’ve been a book reader ever since. (I didn’t return to comic books, although I’d kill for a good copy of “Donald Duck and the Pony Express Rider,” c. 1958.)

The rapid development and acceptance of the e-book (ten of the last twelve books I’ve purchased have been on Kindle) cause me to wonder (not rant – just wonder) what experiences children will have in the future that may be equivalent to the cool alcoves of the Carnegie Library or finding that box of books in my basement.


It is obvious from the modest building pictured in the photo, above, that I am remembering it from my kid's-eye view. But it does kind of look like a temple, doesn't it? It was torn down in 1965 and replaced by a blond brick building of one level. You know what that looks like. It doesn't look like a temple.

I have another Carnegie Library memory. In the sumer after my junior year in college, I had a job selling dictionaries door-to-door (forgive me) in Washington, Indiana. There, too, I came upon the cool confines of an historic Carnegie Library on a hot day. I visited again and again, my dictionary bag slung on the back of the chair. It was during those visits that I discovered the treasures of The New Yorker, Harpers, and The Atlantic magazines -- which have become part of my life. The lure of the library was such that it, shall we say, interfered with my sales performance. I ended the summer owing the dictionary company twelve dollars.

This now-classic video depicts similar wonderment at the transition between the use of the scroll and the printed book. (Just in case you haven't seen it.)

I have reflected on my gratitude to those who introduced books and reading to me in this post: "Thank You, Miss Zamow,"  -- and more experiences with discovering books in "The Lord of The Plastic Revolving Book Rack."

I am proud, happy, pleased, and excited that one of our daughters is a librarian. She and her lively colleagues have moved far beyond Carnegie 1909, and have answers to book questions that I haven't even thought of asking.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011


The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry….
                                                        ~ from To Be Of Use, by Marge Piercy

Over the years I have read a variety of essays claiming that, for example, dance or music or painting or poetry should be considered the first “art.” Although I have my own candidate, I have no argument with these proposals, and I find moving and persuasive the ideas put forward for any of them to be considered the genesis of the aesthetic spirit of humanity. (The following whimsical vignettes are my summaries of some of these anthropological theories.)

Oola is thrilled at Og’s expression of first love, and she spins with delight at the memory of their kiss. This spinning releases more joy, not to mention that Og rather likes watching her primal spontaneous movement– it stirs something in him, too, and he looks forward to seeing it again. Dance. 

Oola rocks their little Oolina in her arms, her cooing takes on a lilt that rises and falls with the rhythm of rocking. Then she replaces the cooing with words from a mother’s heart. The next night she sings it again.(1) Music.

Og and the other returning hunters draw crude sketches of the map of their hunt and their quarry on the cave wall, and – as it develops – some of them have a better feel for this kind of thing than others, and go on to draw and paint on the wall for less practical reasons. Something other than a map is “expressed.” Painting.

At Og’s funeral, Grok says, “Og dead.” But Shak steps forward quietly into the firelight and says,

            Og is in his grave
            After life’s fitful fever he sleeps well.(2)

Everyone hears and ponders these words as they turn toward Shak with tear-brimmed eyes. He has spoken the same truth that Grok spoke, and something more. Yes, this death is like sleeping.  And those two words, "fitful fever" (that is, the cave-man equivalent), they slide together well. They blunt the pain. The gathered clan hears both the meaning of the words and the sound of the words. Poetry.

And my candidate, if I had to add one to this proto-artistic list, would be pottery, the ceramic arts. With the dawn of humanity and communal life there was certainly an almost immediate discovery that not only can fired mud be formed into a drinking cup, but that the accidental thumb print can be repeated around the middle for a place to grip – and it looks kind of nice. The twig used to cut away the excess mud also scratches the form of a twig (or a bird) into the cup. Looking up, those bright spots in the night sky must be designs applied to the inside of the overturned bowl that is the heavenly firmament. Og will apply designs inside his bowl, too. And there is this:
 … the cup implies the mouth and the hand, and ...when we talk about a pitcher we refer to its lip, throat, belly, and foot.(3)
And no doubt Og notices the pleasing parallel between the form of the drinking cup he’s working on and the enticing shape of his Oola. Maybe he’ll just tweak the design a little bit – try to bring out a little more of that anatomy…

I guess, as I’ve implied above, you can make a case for any of these. But it’s stirring to think that one of them was “the first art." (Although I don't mean to imply that I've exhausted the possibilities here.)

And then there’s another theory. Lewis Thomas, in his essay, “On Speaking of Speaking,” imagines a primitive scene similar to the ones I’m depicting here. The adults are around the fire communicating through grunts and sign language. Meanwhile,

Somewhere, nearby, there is a critical mass of noisy young children gabbling and shouting at each other, their voices rising in the exultation of discovery, talking, talking, and forever thereafter never stopping.(4)

Thus, Thomas’ thesis that language is a product of the development of the brains of children and the communication between them; so much more facile and open than stolid, already-formed adults.

So, with apologies to Lewis Thomas: Perhaps, as poppa Og stoops before the fire to craft a utilitarian drinking mug, “somewhere nearby there is a critical mass of noisy young children,” young Ogbert making a cup like dad, and  holding it up to the other kids to show the big smiley face he’s carved into it; little Oolina delighting in the twirl of her buckskin skirt as she spins; and a gaggle of girls discovering that their shrill screams harmonize and meld until they become the Oolettes.


(1) Some claim the origin of song
      was a war cry 
      some say it was a rhyme
      telling the farmers when to plant and reap
      don’t they know the first song was a lullaby
      pulled from a mother’s sleep... (from Song, by Alicia Ostriker)

(2) Adapted from Shakespeare's lament for Duncan in Macbeth, the poet A.E. Housman says that these lines are an example not of "high poetry" but of the essence of poetry.

(3) From The Poem in the Rock, Joel Froehle, Masters Thesis, U. Mass. Dartmouth. It is through my son-in-law, Joel's, eyes that I have an unfolding appreciation not only for the beauty of the potter's art, but its primal and literal earthiness.

(4) From Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler's Ninth Symphony, by Lewis Thomas

Image above: Untitled ceramic sculpture by Joel Froehle