Recycling Thoughts of Bicycling

I saw a photo in a Maine newspaper of a cyclist riding along, wearing a yellow T-Shirt. Inscribed on the back: “Give me three feet please.” I empathize.

Boston has painted cycle lanes on many streets. I have noticed that the space of those cyclists isn’t always respected. Give them three feet, please.

On the other hand, I frequently find myself on the other side of things, not as a driver, but as a pedestrian. I would like to wear a T-shirt on my walks along the Charles River that states: “Ring your bell please.”

This has been my experience. I am walking along the joint-cyclist/pedestrian pathway by the river. I am walking on the right. Suddenly, as if from nowhere, a cyclist silently whizzes by, a couple of feet to my left. I had no idea that such a cycling whirlwind had been approaching me, until it passed me by.

My Lord! I could have been killed! Or smashed into, to the detriment of both the cyclist and the pedestrian. What if I had suddenly moved to my left, to tie my shoe, propping my foot on the guardrail? What if I had suddenly turned to my left to catch sight of a beautiful bird, which had suddenly appeared? And what if, at that very moment, a cyclist had been silently whizzing by? The cyclist would have crashed into me, to the physical displeasure of both of us.

Shouldn’t every cyclist be required, by the canons of common decency, if not of law, to have a bell; and to use that bell every time he or she passes a pedestrian from behind?

I know that I should look behind me every time I move off my course on the right side of the path. But help! I can’t control myself! Impulsively I move to my left to see that multi-colored bird, whose name I don’t know, or to catch sight of that sweet young thing, jogging along on the other side of the street, with her rhythmic endowment in dramatic evidence. Okay. It’s a weakness of my nature. But I can’t do anything about it. But do I have to be killed because of it?

Actually, more than once, I’ve been nearly run over by a speeding cyclist. So fast and so silently did he or she pass me by that I didn’t even have time to yell: ring your frigging bell!

But the problem is: most of those cyclists don’t even have bells to ring! That’s been my observation anyway.

So this is my proposal. I will give you three feet whenever I’m driving my car and passing you by. And you will buy and install a bell and ring it every time you come speeding – oh so silently – click, click, click – upon a pedestrian from behind. Deal?

Oil in the Yard

I walked over to Harvard the last day of April from my nearby residence, to lend my tired voice to the students and faculty and alums who had gathered there in the Yard to protest the University’s failure to divest itself of its holdings in oil. Been there, done that, it felt, hundreds of times. But it was worth the walk.

It was a cold spring morning. As I stood there – perhaps the oldest alum in that gathering of about two-hundred souls – feeling that chill to my bones, I carried a sign that a student had given me, “The Temp is Going Up!”

The first speaker, a writer for The Nation and an alumnus, reveled in his anger against Harvard and its President, Drew Faust, as well he should have. Make no mistake about it, he yelled into his hand mike, those who are already suffering the most from climate change and who will continue to suffer all the more are the poor, the oppressed, and the forgotten.

I had written a long letter to the President some months before, in a more temperate voice. But it was, for me, an angry letter. As is my wont, I waxed theological. I reminded her of the Kairos Document in South Africa, during the late eighties. There comes a time, I said, when even the normally and appropriately detached institutions of this world must take a stand. Nor would it do, I observed, to make the perfectly accurate and perfectly commonplace point that if Harvard were to sell its holdings in fossil fuels others would buy that stock; and Harvard would probably lose money in the process, thereby becoming less able to educate the future scientists and politicians and clergy who would one day seek to work for real change in the socio-economic-religious system. Rather, I observed, she should listen to voices like Desmond Tutu’s, which have made what should be, for any academic with eyes to see, the obvious historical point: it was the divestment movement in the U.S. during the nineteen-eighties-and-nineties, above all else, which was the tipping point in the international struggle against apartheid.

Weeks later, I received a polite letter from President Faust. Harvard’s scientists are leaders in climate change science, she said. Harvard has a vigorous “Green Initiative” of its own, she said. And Harvard is educating students who will be leaders in the global campaign for climate justice, she said. Divestment will accomplish nothing useful, she said.

The second speaker, a former professor at the Harvard Business School, was more reflective than the first. Was it surprising, she asked, that she had been the only professor with any connection with the Business School who had joined with the more than one-hundred faculty in their letter to President Faust, demanding that Harvard divest itself of its holdings in fossil fuels? Did this not signify that, apart from its commitment to Veritas and such good things, Harvard was most deeply committed to business-as-usual? She also referred to a scientific study which had projected that, if things are to continue in their present course, the waters of the Massachusetts Bay will have, by 2040, flooded the Charles River back up to Mt. Auburn Street, not far from where we were standing. So, given the oil in the Yard, I thought to myself, oil and water would mix, all too soon.

The third and final speaker, mirabile dictu, was a clergyperson, the local Unitarian pastor, bedecked in his – egads! – shiny white, traditional clerical collar. His theological heritage to my contrary nothwithstanding, it was gratifying for me to notice that he seemed to be welcomed by the student activists, all wearing their identifying yellow T-shirts, more than any other speaker. Was he, again, mirabile dictu, a kind of godfather for those activists? Where, by the way, were the other Pastors from the Harvard Square churches and the Preacher to the University? Where were the Divinity School faculty? Didn’t they know about this protest against oil in the Yard? What had become of the prophetic voice of the churches that so preoccupied so many of us when I was a member of the “United Ministry” in the nineteen-sixties? Thankfully this Unitarian brother was there and there visibly (I also met another clergyperson, wearing a stole, from the Old Cambridge Baptist Church). And thankfully, he quoted the prophet Amos at length – and everyone cheered!

The point of the whole rally was to support the six students who stood at the door of the President’s office-building demanding her to repent (my language). Each of the speakers lauded those students; all the rest of us enthusiastically applauded. What was to come of all this? Back home, my dear wife told me that she had already seen a Google News story that six students had blockaded the President of Harvard. That was something. But quo vadis, Harvard? Be that as it may, I say, with apologies to Chairman Mao, let a thousand flowers bloom. Who knows what might spring forth with such spring flowers, especially in that Yard?

As I stood there freezing, but warm of heart, my eyes drifted across the Yard to Holworthy Hall, opened in 1812, thanks to a large grant given “for the promotion of learning and the promulgation of the Gospel.” I lived in that brick, colonial edifice for the better part of a year in 1953-54, my first innocent experience of this great university. Sixty years later, now much more wistfully, having acquired a doctorate in theology from the Divinity School along the way, I concluded that I had come back to the right place that cold April morning in that venerable Yard, precisely, this time, because of all the oil.

Boston Strong?

I haven’t heard “Boston strong” mentioned once in my – mostly African-American – church in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood.  While the whole Boston area, and by news accounts apparently the whole nation, was fixated on the running of the Boston Marathon this year, and proud, to all appearances, of the resiliency of the people of Boston, coming back so “strong” after last year’s bombings at the end of the marathon, it was as if the thing had never happened, as far as my church was concerned.  On any given Sunday, we typically pray about everything, but nary a prayer about “Boston strong” the Sunday before the Marathon.

I did read one article in the Boston Globe at the time of the Marathon that referred to the scores of African-Americans killed each month in street violence in Boston.  Why no uproar about that?, the article asked.  But for the most part, by my observation, people in the Boston area weren’t of a mind, or didn’t have the heart, for that kind of uproar.

I live in Watertown.  Late into the evening of the day of the Marathon bombings, I heard multiple sirens.  Must be a large fire somewhere, I thought.  Then the sirens became even more strident.  So I turned on the television to see what, if anything, of note was happening.  It was then that I realized that Watertown had become ground zero for the pursuit of the bombers.  Scores of police cars and other emergency vehicles were dashing in every direction, it seemed.

At one point, I looked down on the Charles River, from the vantage point of the roof of my building, and I saw this sight:  across the Charles, on Soldier’s Field Road, four police cars were racing north, sirens blasting; down below, on Greenough Boulevard, four police cars were racing south, sirens blasting.  Was Greater Boston mobilized?

Life in the area, the next day, as is well known, came to a virtual halt, while thousands of law enforcement personnel searched relentlessly for the bombers.  And, of course, most of us had little else to do than to watch CNN doing endless interviews, a number of which were done a few blocks from my building.  It was surreal to see locals interviewed in front of the diner, where my wife and I sometimes go for breakfast.

One Sunday several weeks before, in my church, we had prayed for a family known to some in the congregation, who had lost a little girl.  She had been playing on her front porch and was hit by random street gunfire.  Such deaths add up in places like Roxbury and Dorchester.  So does the misery such deaths wreak in the hearts of family members who suffer such losses.  But, notwithstanding efforts by neighborhood pastors and churches and a variety of residents, such deaths keep happening, and it’s as if nobody else notices.  Such deaths and such misery don’t seem to count as much as the deaths and the misery perpetrated by the Marathon bombers.

Is Boston really strong?

Two Days at the End of Winter in Rural Maine: Inside and Out

The plumber called today, early. Thankfully, I thought, as I turned over in bed to grab the phone and rubbed my eyes in the morning twilight. I’d been eagerly awaiting that call, since our toilet – our only toilet – had been nearly stopped up for a couple of days. Longer than that actually, since I – whose grandfather and two of his sons had been plumbers by trade – fancied myself to be a kind of down-home expert on toilets; and I had been using my own five-foot long plumber’s snake off and on, for months, to clear blockages. But to no avail. It was time. Even I have limits, when it comes to plumbing. Hence the plumber’s call, rousing me from my peaceful slumber.

I knew the guy. I’d called on him before, in the aftermath of other – failed – efforts of mine with the house’s plumbing. I drain the domestic water of our summer home every late fall, so that it doesn’t freeze during the brutal Maine winter. Sometimes, more often than I’d like to admit, I forget about a section in one of the copper water pipes. The result: that part of the pipe freezes, of course. And, in the spring, when I turn on the water pump from our deep-drilled well outside, I hear that deadly fzzzzz, that telltale sound of water gushing through a crack in the copper pipe that froze and split. So I call Mark, the plumber, and he comes out and replaces that section of the pipe for me. I long ago gave up trying to sweat the copper pipes myself. One time, working on an elbow joint underneath a wood cabinet in our kitchen, I almost set the house on fire with my torch. So praise the Lord for Mark, I say.

Mark showed up carrying the same kind of plumber’s snake I’d been using. That was a disappointment. I’d thought that he would have brought the kind of machine-driven, diamond-headed snake that the real pros in the city use. But I told him to give it a try anyway. He did. He jammed and twisted that snake ferociously for some time, as often I had done. The result: we poured some water down the toilet and that water sloshed happily into the downpipe and thence, thankfully, out into our septic tank. Rats, I thought. How could hehave done that, doing the same thing that I’d done many times before?

“Dunno,” said Mark. Then he looked down into the toilet bowl. “Wazzat?!,” he exclaimed. He put on a pair of surgical gloves (true), reached down into the bowl and pulled out — a fork! A dinner fork! Two of its points were bent in opposing directions, making it look like the under-structure of one of those tiny multi-colored paper umbrellas that you get at tourist restaurants when you order a Hawaiian drink. My own labors with the plumber’s snake over the preceding months had perhaps done that kind of damage to that fork, even as I had apparently jammed it more securely in place down in the depths. I couldn’t resist. I told Mark: “The challenge, then, isn’t the fork in the road, it’s the fork in the toilet.” “Yup,” he said, without any sign whatsoever of a smile.

How did that fork get in there? No doubt in my mind. One of our toddler grandkids, had thrown it in there. Maxwell and Marlow – both of whom I had baptized in a huge white crock outdoors a couple of summers before, with much well-water from that very plumbing system – love to throw things into watery places, no matter where or of what kind. I knew, by then, that they were particularly fond of heaving small, toy cars into watering cans or into the dishwater or amidst recently watered garden plants or even into the stream outside. But a fork!? In the toilet!?

April 3, 2014. From the dark bowls of the earth, to the bright heavens. From the twilight to the sunshine. Cascading, overwhelmingly resplendent sunshine.

Over more than four decades of married life, I have learned the key to marital happiness. I do what I’m told. In this instance, I found myself out back in our perennial garden, somewhat bewildered at first, but happy. It was a strange sensation, because that garden was then covered with three feet of snow.

This had been an unusually cold winter, even by Maine standards, so the snow still appeared pristine. It was dry, through and through, although layered, here and there, with sheets of solid ice, signaling times of thawing during the past winter. My assignment: to clear as much snow as I could from the perennial garden. The rationale: since the perennial garden is on the north side of the house, due to the shadow from the house it would remain covered with snow and, well into the late spring, with thick ice, at the very time when the snow and ice overlaying all the surrounding earth would have melted and signs of green would be emerging everywhere.

Whatever grumbling, however, that had lurked within my soul while I was layering my body with my outdoor winter clothes in order to shovel the garden (!), was soon dissipated. The brightness was indeed overwhelming. Not just the great ball of fire over my head in the cloudless blue sky, but the reflection of its rays everywhere, shining forth even from the precipitous hill behind me, where the barren trees scarcely inhibited its rays.

I once read that First Nation peoples in the Arctic have dozens of words for what we call “snow.” (Strikingly, it has also been reported that they have no word to name the bird we call “robin” – even when they see one, these days — since, prior to the advent of climate change in our time, those ancient peoples never saw a robin!) During the midday when I was shoveling the perennial garden, I had some sense of what those First Nation peoples might have experienced with the changes of their seasons so far north and the changes of their weather, above all when they contemplated the contours and the colors and the textures of the snow all around them.

When my brother and I were kids, maybe not yet ten and seven, we used to frolic for hours in the deep winter snows of exurban Buffalo, New York, where we grew up. We dug tunnels. We cut out blocks of snow in order to build make-shift igloos in a ewe grove, where we would sometimes sit in the quiet and just listen to our own breathing. At those times, the snow was enchanted, as far as we were concerned.

I felt some of that enchantment as I carved out blocks of snow and then carefully hoisted them to what I knew as the field behind me. As a large trench emerged, maybe forty feet long, three feet wide, and three feet deep, I recalled those magic times that my brother and I had enjoyed together in the snow. Warmed by the sun and protected from the brisk winds by my winter garments and by the trench in which I stood, I also recalled, as is my wont, the elegant simplicity of St. Francis’s great hymn to the sun.

Francis himself probably was not thinking of the glories of the sun reflected on the crystal snow, although I would not rule out such a thought. He was most likely celebrating the sun as the earth’s fountain of green fecundity in Tuscany. Either way, or all the more so, both ways, I paused frequently that midday to salute our brother, the sun. That I also needed to pause in order to regain my breath and to renew my strength, was also true. But that made those times of contemplating the sun reflected and refracted on the pure white snow all the more revitalizing, body and soul.