Friday, August 25, 2017

The Amish Way

Rod Dreher is a writer and senior editor and blogger at The American Conservative and author of several books on religion, politics, film and culture. The views expressed here are his own.

Is there any place on earth that more bespeaks peace, restfulness and sanctuary from the demons of modern life than a one-room Amish schoolhouse? That fact is no doubt why so many of us felt defiled – there is no more precise word – by news of the mass murders that took place there. If you’re not safe in an Amish schoolhouse ... And yet, as unspeakable as those killings were, they were not the most shocking news to come out of Lancaster County.

No, that would be the revelation that the Amish community, which buried five of its little girls, collected money to help the widow and children of Charles Carl Roberts IV, the man who executed their children before taking his own life. A serene Amish midwife told NBC News that this is normal for them. It’s what Jesus would have them do.

“This is imitation of Christ at its most naked,” journalist Tom Shachtman, who has chronicled Amish life, told The New York Times. “If anybody is going to turn the other cheek in our society, it’s going to be the Amish. I don’t want to denigrate anybody else who says they’re imitating Christ, but the Amish walk the walk as much as they talk the talk.”

I don’t know about you, but that kind of faith is beyond comprehension. I’m the kind of guy who will curse under my breath at the jerk who cuts me off in traffic on the way home from church. And look at those humble farmers, putting Christians like me to shame.

It is not that the Amish are Anabaptist hobbits, living a pure pastoral life uncorrupted by the evils of modernity. So much of the coverage of the massacre dwelled on the “innocence lost” aspect, but I doubt that the Amish would agree. They have their own sins and tragedies. Nobody who lives in a small town can live under the illusion that it is a haven from evil. To paraphrase gulag survivor Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the line between good and evil does not run along the boundaries of Lancaster County, but through every human heart.

What sets hearts apart is how they deal with sins and tragedies. In his suicide note, Mr. Roberts said one reason he did what he did was out of anger at God for the death of his infant daughter in 1997. Wouldn’t any parent wonder why God allowed that to happen? Mr. Roberts held onto his hatred, purifying it under pressure until it exploded in an act of infamy. That’s one way to deal with anger.

Another is the Amish way. If Mr. Roberts’ rage at God over the death of his baby girl was in some sense understandable, how much more comprehensible would be the rage of those Amish mothers and fathers whose children perished by his hand? Had my child suffered and died that way, I cannot imagine what would have become of me, for all my pretenses of piety. And yet, the Amish do not rage. They do not return evil for evil. In fact, they embody peace and love beyond all human understanding.

In our time, religion makes the front pages usually in the ghastliest ways. In the name of God, the faithful fly planes into buildings, blow themselves up to murder the innocent, burn down rival houses of worship, insult and condemn and cry out to heaven for vengeance. The wicked Rev. Fred Phelps and his crazy brood of fundamentalist vipers even planned to protest at the Amish children’s funeral, until Dallas-based radio talker Mike Gallagher, bless him, gave them an hour of his program if they would only let those poor people bury their dead in peace.

But sometimes, faith helps ordinary men and women do the humanly impossible: to forgive, to love, to heal and to redeem. It makes no sense. It is the most sensible thing in the world. The Amish turned the occasion of spectacular evil into a bright witness to hope. Despite everything, a light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.


Monday, August 14, 2017

Hey, God … It’s Me, Lil Later


If time can fly, then why can’t it stand still?


LIL: Hey God, I know it’s been a while since we talked, but I don’t have the time these days. Can you just give me a few more hours each day? I'm a good person. I pay bills, do laundry, buy groceries, cook meals, go to church. I even visit Aunt Gertrude every year on her birthday and she can’t stand the sight of me. If I had an extra hour or so I'd have time to write. And pray.

GOD: Hold on, Lil! For years you’ve talked about allowing your creative juices to flow on paper like milk and honey. I recall your vow to knock out a novel every year. So what happened?

LIL: Life happened, God! Husband; children. Stuff.

GOD: But your grown son has a hairline like the coast of Florida and your daughter's middle-age spread is the size of Oklahoma. Why didn’t you set the publishing world on fire once your responsibilities had dwindled?

LIL: I don’t know. Every day when I wake up I promise myself to type my fingers to the bone.

GOD: And?

LIL: Duh! Stuff happens. Cooking, cleaning, laundry, feeding the dog, paying bills and making bank deposits. I'm too tired to think after that. I can't write if I can't think.

GOD: People generally do what they want to do.

LIL: No, they don't.

GOD: Don’t contradict Me. I’m God.

LIL: Writers are natural procrastinators.

GOD: Nonsense. NOT writing is so NOT an option for a successful writer. They make it happen. Time equals energy and energy is a commodity. Burn it up with excuses or redirect it. Your choice. Create space and your dream will become a reality.

LIL: I just asked for a few more hours, God, not a lesson in quantum physics. Creating space where there is none might work for You, but it won't work for me.

GOD: And just why not?

LIL: Because nobody takes me seriously.

GOD: Then take yourself seriously, Lil.

LIL: Huh! If my husband comes home from work and I’m writing, I know what’ll happen.

GOD: What?

LIL: He'll say, What's for dinner? I'll say, There is no dinner because I didn't cook. He'll say, Why not, and I'll say, Because I was taking myself seriously and you need to take me seriously, too.

GOD: Sounds about right to me.

LIL: Not gonna happen.

GOD: Okay, here’s the plan. One day a week, do everything that prevents you from writing.

LIL: Like what?

GOD: Hello?! Like cooking?

LIL: YOU designed us with a built-in eating schedule. i.e., three meals a day, 24-7. Once a week ain't gonna cut it at my house, Boss.

GOD: (Sigh) So use your creative juices. Spaghetti. Soup. Casseroles.

LIL: My family won’t eat casseroles.

GOD: Then buy TV Dinners. I gave the world the microwave, didn't I?

LIL: I told you ... it won’t work.

GOD: And I told YOU not to contradict me. I’m God. I know these things.

LIL: Even doing it Your way, I still don't have enough time in the day.

GOD: Then get organized. I hatched up a little something with the Pope called the Gregorian Calendar in 1582 A.D. Get one.

LIL: Something that old won’t help me. It's the Twenty-first Century, for heaven's sake.

GOD: (sigh) I KNOW what year it is. Just get yourself a calendar, Lil. If you let busy work overwhelm you, the only thing you'll ever write is a grocery list.

LIL: But, God, I'm only one person, and ...

GOD: Waaaa! Waaaa! Waaaa! I think my work is done here.

LIL: But wait! You said you'd give me more hours.

GOD: (sigh) Listen up, Miss Priss. If I made more hours in the day, the Gregorians would be protest chanting till Doomsday. I told you how to create more time for yourself. I can’t do for you what you are perfectly capable of doing for yourself.

LIL: But you don’t understand. My life is not my own. All this stuff keeps getting in the way of doing what I really want to do.

GOD: Goodness gracious! Would you look at the time? I’ve gotta run. I need to help a promising mystery writer who is trying to cope with the Freytag pyramid–Denouement and that sort of thing. It's time to say Amen, Lil.

LIL: Amen?


Sunday, May 14, 2017

SENTIMENTAL JOURNEY

 “You may forget the one with whom you have laughed, but never the one with whom you have wept.”~ Kahlil Gibran

Laughter can be cathartic, but a good cry is how I cleanse the clutter from my soul.

My penchant for sad movies where heroines die an untimely death began the day Mama took me with her to see the movie, Sentimental Journey. She was crazy about John Payne and I guess because she was Irish, she believed that Maureen O’Hara was her distant cousin. Mama apparently kissed the Blarney Stone at a very early age.

I was six-years-old but I clearly remember that day in the theater. Mama started to sob about five minutes into the film and I, lacking the capacity to understand her tears, cried along with her. She would pull out two Kleenex tissues at a time from her pocketbook, hand one to me and then blow her nose with the other. 

Mama loved going to the picture show and it didn’t much matter if it was a drama, comedy or musical. Whatever was showing at the Carolina Theater (with the possible exception of Roy Rogers and Trigger) was the movie she would stand in line and pay a whole quarter to see. For many years, I went with her. 

Together we saw Pinky, Johnny Belinda, Imitation of Life and Little Women, of course. Tearjerkers, every one of them. Occasionally, she took me with her to see a murder mystery. After seeing Edward G. Robinson stab a woman with scissors in the film, The Woman in the Window, I woke up screaming for weeks.

But Sentimental Journey set the emotional bar for Mama and me. For the rest of her life, anytime that movie was mentioned either in conversation, a recorded version of the song, or even if the movie was replayed on television, Mama would look over at me with a knowing smile. That long ago day in the theater with her when I was just a child continued to be our shared moment in time, one that lingered between us for nearly fifty years. 

Once when I was living in Los Angeles, she sent me a newspaper article about the movie. It was a tiny thing, not much more than a blurb, but I still have it. It’s tucked away in my memory box, yellow now with age. The day I got it, I opened the envelope and lifted out the two-inch square newspaper clipping and thought, “What in the world is this?” Then I read the heading: SENTIMENTAL JOURNEY. It said that Turner Movie Channel was planning to run the movie again at such and such a time.

I skimmed it and then read the note Mama had attached which read: “I saw this in today’s paper and thought of you. How could I not?”


Oscar Wilde said, “Memory really is the diary we carry around with us.”

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Black Friday, USA

Babe and I ate Thanksgiving dinner with my son and his kids and also my ex-husband and ex-husband's new wife. Are we the picture of modern family or what?

After swallowing a mouthful of turkey and dressing, I said, "WalMart's got Cuisinart Handichoppers for five bucks on Black Friday. I'm going to buy a few for Christmas gifts."

My son the lawyer, stared at me like I needed a brain transplant.

"Mom, are you nuts? Don't even think of going to WalMart on Black Friday."

The grandkids from hell giggled. My son stared at me. "Do you have a death wish?"

"I most certainly do not," I quipped while the grandkids laughed even louder. "I have a wish to buy Cuisinart food choppers and I'm gonna."

He cleared his throat as though practicing his judicial expression. (He'll make a scary judge one of these days.)

"I'm handling a law suit right now brought on from last year's Black Friday sale. The poor woman got crushed and wound up in the hospital with multiple head wounds and a gunshot to her foot."

"She must have wanted a food chopper even worse than I do."

"Mom! These so-called sales inspire barbarity in people. Stores stock only a few advertised items and once they're gone, they're gone. Black Friday is just another word for stampede."

My eyebrows knitted together to form a big punctuation mark while I strained my brain to remember how many little choppers were on the shelf when I scoped them out. I saw four on Tuesday, but assumed the Wally World Worker Bees planned to restock before Friday.

"Tell me something son, did the nice folks slaving away at WalMart at least send her flowers? I think they should have, don't you?"

He gave me a look that said, I am pretty sure you did not mean to ask that stupid question, so except for this scary look I'm throwing your way, my lips are sealed.

Batting my eyelids, I tried to think of a way to move the conversation as far away from the subject of Black Friday as possible.

"Back in the day," I began, "the word crush meant something far different than it does today. It had nothing to do with holiday bargain shopping.

"Like, I had a crush on Paul Newman after sitting through his first movie fifteen times. Lucky for me, stalking wasn't an issue then, not that I was stalking him mind you, unless writing him letters every day begging him to divorce Joanne and marry me, qualifies."

Six pairs of drooping eyelids at the Thanksgiving table screamed Tryptophan Overdose.

"On prom night, I was afraid my orchid corsage, pinned to the left strap of my blue tulle formal gown would get crushed if I wore a coat over it. So what I remember most about my prom night is that I was so freakin' cold my skin came close to matching the color of my gown."

"What's a tulle?" asked one of the grandkids from hell.

"Some girl thing," his brother replied in a sleepy monotone.

"I decided to pin the orchid on my wrist so that when my date and I were dancing, it wouldn't, well, you know."

Babe looked at me like I needed serious therapy. "Crush your freakin' corsage," he finished the sentence and then rolled his eyes.

"Score one for Babe," I chirped. Heartened that nobody had yet fallen headlong into the sweet potato soufflé, I kept tripping down the road back to the Fab Fifties.

"Back then, the style was to wear five crinoline petticoats underneath a full skirt and starched stiff as a, uh, as a board. It took a lot of planning to avoid crushing them when sitting down for too long."

I saw that only one pair of droopy lids had made it to Siesta City, so the ol' wordsmith in me kept pulling crushing examples from my memory bank.

"After a few months when Paul Newman had not written me back, I had to admit he was not interested in divorce or remarriage. Well, you can imagine: I was totally crushed."

Fueled by boredom and candied yams churning in their overfilled, flatulent bellies, they fled the table en masse and tried to get through the small door at the same time. Alas, they crushed each other like leftover Christmas cookie crumbs.

The mass family exodus was a crushing blow to my ego.



Saturday, March 11, 2017

In The Moment on St. Simons Island

You see a painting of a St. Simons Island marsh and your senses are awakened to all that surrounds you. Sidney Lanier’s poetry glides effortlessly through your mind. The ocean air becomes a pungent mixture of seawater and new milk. You slap at a mosquito that is curiously, not there. While gazing at the marsh, a breeze caresses your skin to bring you intimately in the moment on St. Simons Island. 
You are a child playing in the water on East Beach on a hot July afternoon. You wade out up to your knees and feel the warmth of the ocean spatter-paint your legs with salt. Your toes curl under into the sand as the next wave pushes ever closer. You cup your two small hands together, scooping up water to splash on your legs. You draw in a breath of alarm as something alive scurries over your tiny feet. Something, that curiously is not there.
You are in the moment on St. Simons Island.
Outside Christ Church, you stand with the artist in old St. Augustine grass damp now with dew. The antiquity of this holy place, tightly bound with souls of the faithful departed, seeps into the very marrow of your bones. Christ Church is hallowed ground. You close your eyes and history surrounds you. You feel the embodiment of those who have walked in this same deep-rooted grass long before you were born.
Anchored off-shore in a small boat, you are immersed in the silent world of the sea. You listen to the sails gently flapping in the wind and you hear the mirth of porpoises at play. Beyond the buttress of rocks, you see the St. Simons Lighthouse, the brick cottage, the white gazebo. Soft strains of past summer concerts by the sea float melodically through the air. You hear yourself humming in this moment on St. Simons Island.
You are crabbing under a bridge using chunks of leftover ham as bait. Surrounded by your children or grandchildren, you hear, I caught one! followed by squeals of happy laughter. You smile at the conquest and recall the exquisite taste of blue crab meat and you wonder who will have the honor of picking the blue crab bounty.
You hear a Black Grackle call Uh Oh as you stroll the footpaths at Fort Frederica and watch small children climb on top of cannons that once protected this island. A woman wearing a baseball cap snaps a photo with a state of the art digital camera, but the picture you see is not the one she takes. Yours is one of General Oglethorpe giving the order to “FIRE!” You see a young soldier light the fuse and you smell the kerosene-soaked torch in his hand. You hear the cannon roar and you are swallowed up in the past during this moment on St. Simons Island.
You are playing golf at Retreat, walking on the velvet green carpet that rolls over and under itself. Mullet jump high in the air at your approach. An alligator slips quietly into the water, the sun bounces off your nine-iron as though sending a message from above.
Strolling peacefully through the Avenue of the Oaks, you resist an urge to climb one of the ancient trees and hang upside down by your knees. You feel the curly, parasitic strands of grey moss that drape and droop from its fat limbs. You step back in time and hear the approach of a horse and buggy as it travels down the historic Avenue of Oaks. 
When your fingers reach out to touch what is left of the Tabby Ruins at Retreat Plantation, you are mindful of the passage of time, the struggle for survival, the life force of endurance. The amplitude of being in the moment on St. Simons Island is breathtaking. 
Now it is nightfall and the sun has surrendered its hold on the island for another day. From where you stand, you catch the yellow hues glowing through the windows of Lovely Lane Chapel. Inner warmth cradles you, inviting you to surrender your dark nights of sadness so that you can begin again tomorrow.
Moments spent on St. Simons Island means your life will never be the same again.