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Fat Tuesday

Marti Gras masks

Marti Gras frightened Sammy Gene beyond all reason. Masks are de rigeur for the carnival. Photo Credit: Emily Naser-Hall @ http://www.axs.com

Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, (February 9 this year) used to scare the begeebers out of me. This disconcerting emotion has been more than a small embarrassment to me ever since I was a street urchin in Mobile, the American birthplace of the annual pre-Lenten bacchanalia. New Orleans claims center stage for debauchery in the public imagination but the even more venerable festival of banality that surged into the streets of Mobile with its ancient mystic pedigree always wagged its own seductive finger in my direction with an inveigling invitation to small sins and temporarily half-wicked pleasures, and this frightened me unreasonably.

As a child these excesses ran only to clandestine candy before dinner. The masked revelers on Government Street in their Bourbon-inspired generosity strew the crowds along the curbs with salt-water taffy, butterscotch and moon pies, unsteadily sowing seeds of venality. There was, I was sure, some reason that the passengers on the floats that glided down the Mobile streets were masked. Why they were disguised I was not certain, but I was suspicious in any case.   Nevertheless it was only candy they were dispensing, but, on the other hand, it was sufficient to rob a child of his modest appetite for his vegetables and for his common life.   Who wants green beans when such sweet delights are an option? Who will be satisfied with everyday when offered long nights of green and purple and gold-spangled parties and balls? Who can resist the temptations to excess when the oh-so-tasty comes unbidden with no apparent cost? Halloween and Mardi Gras share both the same subtly diabolical mystery and the enticing lure of candy.   This Lolla-of-the-floats, who always got what she wanted, wanted me, and so made me feel uneasy, even somehow threatened.

The Symbols of Life

Life is full of symbols. Many of them are exceedingly powerful. Mardi Gras was a basket full of symbolism. The masks hid the public identity of the otherwise respectable citizens of Mobile society to avoid the consequences of societal opprobrium for shattered decorum and uninhibited insobriety. I wondered if the mask, paradoxically, revealed the true face of the men and women in the spangled costumes. Something about the secret societies, the “Crewes” that paraded and produced lavish balls where guests were admitted by invitation only and only when properly attired; then as now, gowns must reach the floor, and tuxedos are de rigeur. And masks, one must wear a mask, for identities are hidden this week.

There seems something slightly irrational to me about the idea that before one enters into a month and ten days of asceticism leading up to Easter, a period designed to cleanse the soul, one must pollute it well with all that one will forego during the fast. I was troubled, even though it all seemed like harmless silliness that Joe Cain, reputed to be the origin of the term, “Raising Cain,” began in 1866; then he appropriated the alter ego of Chief Slacabamorinico and led the revival of the parades of the mystic societies that the Cowbellion de Ranken Society had begun but left off when the South was subjugated in “the War.” The allure of the mystics never abated from their origin in 1703 until the present, even if the parades were intermittent that ran down Church Street and back up Government, lit by the torches they called Les Flambeaux, flares that were carried by dark bearers hired for the occasion. Mother and Dad tried to assure that our experience was wholesome, but they ever feared that we would be lost in the crowds or injured in the crush at the curb. Mother’s apprehensions were confirmed one night when Dale, my brother, was separated from the family for a few anxious minutes.

The flaring light, the loud bands that both delighted with brassy music and shook your stomach with the pounding of the bass drum, and the mad crush of children and adults screaming “Throw me something!” worked a voodoo that was at once intoxicating and revolting. And unspoken, too, there danced the specter of alcoholism that had plagued the men of Mother’s family for generations. Drunkenness was an unpleasant sight that was blatantly and unrepentantly on display to our innocent eyes even if the maskers were unidentified.

Serious Folly

Of the scores of parading societies that trooped down the street in Mardi Gras, the Knights of Revelry most impressed me. Annually the floats would change with a new theme to inspire their creation, but just as each Crewe displayed one immutable society float, KoR presented their Jester-and-Death tableau. The symbol of their society was a broken column reminiscent of the hundreds that stood before defunct and abandoned plantation houses that were strewn across reconstruction Alabama.   Around the ruined graciousness of the neo-colonial column danced two figures. A pied jester, known to all as “Folly,” armed only with a golden inflated pig’s bladder sparred with a skeleton carrying a formidable scythe; they identified him as “Death.” In all of the scenes that passed by me, Folly always seemed to have the upper hand. How this symbol spoke to me of Mobile and Mardi Gras! Her citizens have faced and continue to endure destruction and disappointment time and again from wars and hurricane, from societal upheaval and cultural conflict, and from economic or personal reversals, but something in the Mobilian character has made us laugh at our loss and continue to celebrate life, even taunting Death. Twain, while not a Southerner himself, might have approved since he is reputed to have said, “Ah, well, I am a great and sublime fool. But then I am God’s fool, and all His works must be contemplated with respect.”

Marti Gras flambeaux

Flambeaux illuminated the night time parades when Sammy was a child in Mobile as they still do today in New Orleans. Photo credit: anerdsguidetoneworleans.wordpress.com

Beyond the Flambeaux

I did regard the comic life-size emblem with respect. Nevertheless, the image haunted me. For a time, I dreamed of the harlequin who danced with its pig’s bladder. In my dream I lay safe beneath the house and peered out into a frightening world obscured in darkness, save for the jester illuminated in the flaring light of the Flambeaux. When he danced far away I looked on only with curiosity, but when he drew near, my heart raced with anxiousness and desperation. Freud said that sometimes a dream is only a dream, but I sense I understand what my psyche was telling me. Folly may be alluring but there is, indeed, reason to be on my guard. Neither Death nor Life is as playful as he or she is portrayed in a Mardi Gras parade. This disturbs me still. Whenever I look again upon the revelry, I worry what else lurks in the dark beyond the light of the Flambeaux. Ash Wednesday follows hard on every Fat Tuesday.

Marti Gras Folly

Folly leads the Knights of Revelry Photo credit: blog.al.com

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Clock Quartz

A quartz time piece can tell me precisely how late I am to my next appointment. Photo Credit: http://www.clockworks.com

There hangs a clock on my kitchen wall that ticks each second off in crystalline precision. It is not the pendulous kind of clock that fascinated me when I was a child.   It is a thoroughly modern timepiece. Where once the distinguished name of a chronometer’s creator, a proud craftsman, was proclaimed, the name of him who had conceived and executed a device of great intricacy with rasp and skill, with turnings and dexterity, with jewel bearings and ingenuity, with ratchet and pawl, now an anonymous “quartz” is imprinted.

Nevertheless, I can now have time dispensed to me with the accuracy of the Atomic Clock in Boulder, Colorado, where unsuspecting Cesium atoms oscillate at their native frequency of over 9 trillion ticks per second while voyeur technologists watch and listen intently and sound a radio gong at the passing of each second. Now I can know with astonishing precision how late I am to an appointment or how little time I have left to do what I must and would do. But I do not better know how to spend my time now than before.

Only So Many Heatbeats

Graydon Larrabee, a colleague of my Texas Instruments days, dismissed all time invested in exercise as folly, thus: “You have only so many heart beats, I understand. You waste yours grunting and sweating; I will spend mine more pleasurably, here, beside the pool, drinking Margaritas and watching the sunset.” An interesting idea. But if by raising your heart rate to 120 for thirty minutes per day for five days of every week, you could lower your resting heart rate by five beats per minute for the remainder of your life, you would reduce the overall number of cardiac contractions by the equivalent of about five years over a normal life span. So exercise might extend your life by a half decade, if life were as simple as arithmetic. I am the beneficiary of a youth of active exertion so that my resting heart rate is often as low as 45 pulses per minute. Cardiologists call this condition “Bradycardia,” and sometimes show concern. Nevertheless, at that rate I should live to the age of 101. By this logic I reckon that if I can get my heart to stop all together I should expect to live forever.

Indeed, if I were to live to see eighty Februaries I should have expended about two and a half billion seconds, and my heart would have contracted just about as many times. And if I had taken a step with each heat beat, then my journey would be nearly a million miles, two round trips to the moon, or 38 times around the world. Such a trip should take us far from where we began. But as we circumperambulate the globe we may end very near to where we began. It all depends on where and when we stop and how we wander, like laps around a cinder track.

I half resent and half revel in those ticking clicks that are the sounds of seconds evaporating. It is inevitable that time be dispensed in such small and manageable doses. The ocean of time is so immense that we would drown is centuries and millennia if it were not dispensed to us in mouthfuls of seconds. Still seconds often seem to come so fast we invariably spill many of them, never to be recovered. Time wasted is time we will never taste again.

A Grandfather Clock ticked away in Doc Brown's office metering out them minutes of boredom waiting as his patience. Photo Credit: www.riotgamesmerch.com

A Grandfather Clock ticked away in Doc Brown’s office metering out the minutes of boredom waiting as his patient. Photo Credit: riotgamesmerch.com

My memory is clogged with clocks; the grandfather clock in Dr. Brown’s office. His clock ticked and ticked and ticked interminably, and we waited impatiently an eternity to receive shots or to endure his probing of my sore throat or for an examination of a perennial ear infection. Ma and Pa Moates, too, had a clock, a cuckoo clock that ticked frenetically and, on the hour, hoarsely crowed its wooden heart out. Then there was the mantle clock of my Mother’s sister, Ruth, whom we all called “Aunt Sister,” a name that now seems a strangely ambivalent appellation for a confusing relationship, but in customary use seemed so natural and easy to pronounce. In the culture of my home and family “Aunt Sister,” “Uncle Doc,” and “Miss Mary” were the gentle way of speaking that raised no eyebrows, though we had no “Uncle Bubba” until I married into the Rhodes’ family of Texas. But I digress. There were clocks everywhere ticking, ticking then.

Einstein was right: time is relative. But our sense of time obeys different laws than the clocks or the mechanics he worked out. Time drags its feet when we would hurry toward an event, leaving long parallel grooves on the ground. And time rushes ahead of us as we drawback from the future, it dragging us forward inexorably. In the South we often stop the clock’s pendulum all together when someone dies, just as we cover the mirrors. The clock has stopped for our loved ones to be sure. But perhaps it is good for us to take time out to grieve and to ponder life. Then we return to the frenetic pace of business as usual.

The variability of internal time may explain why I have always had trouble with rhythm. I find it impossible to keep a steady beat. I theorize and excuse my lack of “groove” as a congenital inability to properly subdivide time because of my bradycardia. “I don’t have a rhythm bone,” I insist. My musician son has a different explanation: “Dad, you’re too white, that’s all!”

Sometimes this temporal defect has been simply an embarrassment, but occasionally it has been a sad disability that caused me to shake my head and cluck at myself. I recall the Sergeant’s remark when I was in the Marine Corps, “Matheson (intentionally and precisely mispronouncing my name with a gratuitous “h”) would make an excellent guide if only he could march. He can’t keep a steady cadence.” Many times I have mocked myself by singing in a halting beat, “I’ve got…rhythm….I got music. I got my gal. How could ask for anything more?”

Still Running

I have always been racing the clock, it seems, challenged to keep up. Often this has been true figuratively, but in my teenage years it was most literal. I was a runner. My lanky legs made me ill-suited to short sprints. My lack of long-term stamina precluded any prowess at distance. But my stupidity made me a candidate for the middle distance. The willingness to subject oneself to agony is a prerequisite for such races. The taste for masochism is a distinct asset for the middle distance racer.   The half-mile, the 880 yard run, is the plebian cousin of the more cosmopolitan 800-meter “dash” of international competition. The 800 is a race devised by a sadist. I can hear him exclaiming at the moment of inspiration, rubbing his hands together, “I know! Let’s have these poor chaps run their hearts out for a quarter of a mile, but instead of letting them break the tape then, let’s have them slough out a second lap around the track. What bully fun!”

I always approached the race with anxiety and dread. I was like a skittish dog approaching its master, the one who always cuffed his ears in greeting, making him howl. “Butterflies” they delicately call the sensation of the anticipation of an unwelcome, painful event. My reaction felt more like hornets ominously swarming in my abdomen; at the next moment they may decide to sting in a deadly attack. Perhaps the psychological experience was necessary to prepare me physiologically for the next two minutes of exertion. I could feel the adrenaline pouring into my blood stream. In “fight or flight,” like a deer fleeing the hunter, I started at the sound of “Runners to your mark! . . . Ready!” then an eternal pause, and at last the starter’s pistol retort. It is no accident, I believe, that such races begin with the runners fleeing from the sound of a shot.

It most often begins well enough, in a civilized fashion. Each runner dashes straight down his assigned lane for the first fifty yards, vying for a slight advantage by the time he reaches the curve, enough advantage to justify his cutting off his nearest challenger at the turn when we all break to the inside. The clock ticks steadily then. Paces come four or five to the second and the grass at the side of the track blurs by. The other runners, arms pumping, are close; you can hear them breathing the first deep breaths they have taken since the start; and at the break they jostle each other. Once a runner only a half step ahead of me at the curve cut in and spiked the muscle above my right knee. A thin red stripe grew down my leg and bathed my black track shoes. I never got the rust color out of the laces although I washed them repeatedly. But Neet’s Foot oil restored the leather of my spiked shoes and kept then supple for years after I had hung them up for good.

The aptly named backstretch is coming, this is the place where we stretch our stride and let our feet eat up the yards. If someone else leads I mustn’t let them get out of reach; if I lead I must carefully measure my expenditure of heart beats, just enough to stay ahead, but not too many to squander myself before the finish. But I have only fifteen seconds more to strategize and to adjust before the first quarter mile is ending.   I see the white line signaling the mid-way point of the race and I hear my coach yelling “49, 50, 51, 52….” He is watching his stopwatch and calling out the seconds as they tick off. His voice is growing louder as I approach: “56, 57, 58, 59, 60…a bell rings as we begin the last lap. “Pretty fast pace,” I note silently as I make the turn. Then the seconds begin to sag like a Salvador Dali painting, hanging limp and long as I am lost in my own disoriented world as the second lap repeats the first. When will this race ever end? I am trapped in the commitment to the people in the stands, to my coach, to myself to run on and finish. Where are the other runners? I can hear them, I think. Are they struggling as am I?   When will they make their final move? When should I make my final kick?

Start Your Kick!

Here it comes, up ahead, the curve. “Now! Start your kick, Sam.” I lean forward slightly and push hard against the ground to spring forward. I accelerate and lean into the curve. It feels good, for a few seconds. Then as I come around the final curve, it hits me. As if a bear had suddenly jumped onto my back, I instantly gain three hundred pounds. The clock speeds up while my motion slows to a viscous pace. I strain to keep up with the world but it is receding. The crowd is roaring as the runners fan out across the lanes for the final eighty yards, but their voices are muted, far away. The only sounds I hear are the sounds of my labored breathing coming in a jagged three-four waltz rhythm, inhale for two beats; exhale explosively for one count. And my heart is beating in my ears like a clock, loud and insistent. I hear the footsteps of my rival, too, who is pulling up to my right. They sound somehow ominous. I dig deeper to run faster. The tape is across the track, and I focus on crossing it in just a few more ticks of the clock, a few more steps, a few more heart beats. The world turns red and my vision tunnels to a small circle centered on the finish. I fling up my arms and lunge across the line. “Did I finish first, second, last? No matter. I finished. What was my time? Good. I beat my personal best.”

The Finish

One of my high school team mates (Alvin Seale, left) makes his final kick to win the relay race in 1965. I still feel as if I am running, myself. Photo Credit: Sam Matteson

I marvel at what I once did not think possible: that one entity can be two contradictory things at once. Time runs simultaneously fast and slow. Time both sprints and ambles. My last race was only yesterday. It was fifty years ago. No, I am still running and wondering about the finish. I wonder if I will have enough to make it in good time. I hope God is running with me and with be there to catch me at the tape. It is taking all the strength that I can muster.

I am ambivalent about ticking clocks. At once they remind me of how inexorably the seconds evaporate, but at the same time, their tiny voices are speaking a reassuring rhythm of faithfulness.

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Church Towers

In Europe one cannot avoid the presence of ancient church houses. Their towers dominate the skyline while the influence of the congregations who built them has waned. Photo credit: Sam Matteson 1978.

I saw much of the public kind of religion growing up. I saw it put on like Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes, but it did not always fit well like the too tight dress shoes you out grew not long ago. I saw. I was not blind. I could tell that it was a show that made no difference most of the time. But many of us for “Momma’s sake” or “old time’s sake” or just for “Pete’s sake” went through the motions. I wondered if some folk were touchy about religion because the one they had was not really theirs. They must have borrowed it, for even bringing up the subject made them feel a sham, and a good thump from a question was enough to produce an echoing hallow “thud” from the empty shell of their faith.

Even I went dutifully to church despite such considerations. In defense I cultivated strategies to endure the deadening weight of stultifying music inexpertly rendered with pretension and immodest but undeserved pride; I sat through endless pompous orations delivered with stentorian rhetoric that seemed so interminable, irrelevant and beside the point of my life. I found that I could entertain myself with mental games that only occasionally were disruptive. For example if I stared at the podium, spot lit with a single bright light, I could burn into my retinas the image of the scene so that I could erase the figure of the sweating evangelist and he would disappear. I could still hear his voice however.   I counted the holes in the tiles and did mental arithmetic calculating the average number of holes per tile and per square foot. As much as I could I often went elsewhere in my mind.

Despite the boredom I complied with my parents command to get ready every Sunday morning without audible protest partly because of the guilt I felt whenever I was apostate and partly because of the deep-seated hope that flickered in my breast that perhaps I would at last meet God in the church and that He would begin to answer some of my most troubling questions. But I was taught to look with suspicion on novelty in matters religious; questions raised by science and “Higher Criticism” were dismissed by most as new fangled and suspect. The “old time religion” we sang about that was “good enough for Paul and Silas” had to be “good enough for me.” Unfortunately and paradoxically, the religion of my fathers I learned was a twentieth century contrivance, and I suspected that the novelty of the first century Jesus-way would have shocked the congregants and parishioners of my church with its alien form and Middle Eastern subtlety.

All Day Singing and Dinner on the Grounds

Now don’t get me wrong; there were plenty of things that I liked about the church, but they mainly had to do with the people, imperfect as they were. We were a family, or a community at the very least. I felt loved and cared for by people who did not have to give a care about me, but did nevertheless. This community of a few hundred souls was nowhere more evident than when we had “All day singing and dinner on the grounds.” The church potluck was something I looked forward to with the pleasure of a healthy adolescent appetite. Of course there was an etiquette and morality that was not spoken of in public nor declared explicitly but that you learned at home. I can still hear my mother’s admonition: “Never take as much as you want. If there is only a little left in the pot take no more than half. Remember the people in line behind you. Don’t embarrass your momma or your God. You don’t want to make God or me blush, now do you? Instead make them both proud of you.” I perversely dreamed of an all day dinner (and singing on the grounds) when we could have as much as we wanted. When I heard stories about heaven this metaphor always leapt to mind. I wondered about what was the church, at the first. I hoped it was like what I dreamed of.

The study of the origin of words that we daily use tells us much about how humans have used (and misused) them over the ages and what we are unwittingly saying when we speak them. The etymology of the word “church” in English versus the New Testament word “ekklesia” (the called out ones) that it translates is informative in this regard. Scholars of language tell us that “church” originates in the non-Biblical Greek word “kyriakon” (literally “of the Lord”) perhaps also a contracted form of “kyriake oikon” (Lord’s House). Over the centuries the word slipped into Gothic dialects as kirche that, in turn, migrated to “church” in English. How different is the current meaning and connotation of this word from the original meaning it translates! It seems that “church people” have mistaken the church house for the “called out ones” that assemble there, substituting architecture for biology. The Apostle Paul likens the ekklesia to the body and bride of Christ, a living entity, not a brick and mortar edifice.

Over the decades of my life, as I wandered from place to place, I came to understand more of this reality. I saw empty church houses throughout the world: beautiful buildings dedicated to God but that had no life within them any more. I have also observed ecclesiastical institutions that still functioned but were as empty of real vitality as a deserted kirk on the moor. Gratefully, I have known exceptions.

When we arrived in Pasadena for our sojourn in a postdoctoral assignment we, as was our custom, visited the local church house on Sunday early in our stay. When we walked into the meeting room we were immediately embraced by the group that included (to our surprise and delight) friends that we had known years before and thousands of miles away. The seminarians in the small gathering of the Sunday School, who were as transient as we, showed us that we must “love in a hurry.” Strangers no longer, we went deep and were loved well even to this day.

A Sojourn in the Desert

Our assignment called for a time abroad in Germany and Hungary. Despite our best intentions, we were unsuccessful at connecting with a local congregation in the six months we were abroad. Surrounded by kind but secular friends and coworkers, we were nevertheless “on our own” spiritually. It was a sojourn in the desert, dry and difficult. We felt the presence of God as we traveled but we missed the encouragement and fellowship that we had known in Pasadena. Great was the rejoicing when we returned. I resolved never again to live in isolation.

Thus, as we have relocated the several times in our itinerant life, we have sought out where God would have us graft into His body, the church. There were occasions of heartache, for sure, on this journey when human imperfections caused hurt in the body. There were times of desperation that drove us to our knees, as when our long-time faith family came close to shuttering the church house doors. But from our humbled position God amazed us and filled our hearts with joy as we realized that it was not “our” church but His. Yes, it was a Lazarus moment when the congregation roared back to life as satellite a “campus” of a larger, healthier body. Ultimately, the resurrected congregation became again a separate and independent entity, unique in its context and membership. It was then that I re-learned that a real church was not a social club but a living, breathing collection of Christ-following but not yet-perfected-saints committed to Christ and one another.

It was there I was known most intimately for the first time outside of my family and—wonder of wonders—loved anyway by my brothers and sisters in Christ, a terrestrial example of heavenly grace. When we were led at my retirement to leave the college town to be nearer our children, we grieved our separation from the dear saints we had come to love. In our annual migrations to and from our summer retirement home in the Colorado mountains, the pull of this faith family is irresistible. We inevitably find reason to deviate a few hundred miles from a direct route just to worship again with our sibs there, for it was there we learned that church means “doing life together,” complete with mutual accountability and encouragement. You cannot long mutually care deeply about others and appreciate them without it becoming habitual and natural.

Church Mosque Pecs

 

The church/Mosque in Pecs, Hungary that was constructed as the Pasha Gazi Kasim Mosque during the century-long Turkish occupation, demolishing the original Gothic church to obtain stones to build the mosque. Then in the 19th century, the building was rededicated for use as a church. In the foreground the Matteson girls pose in the late fall of 1978. Photo credit: Sam Matteson

 

 

 

 

So now that we have moved in retirement to two new locales, we as genuine “snowbirds” we have identified two congregations where we can do life. As we alternate seasonally between the two ranges, the Rockies and the Cumberland Plateau, we have endeavored in each venue to invest in the lives of our Jesus-sibs and be shepherded and nurtured in return. Thus, we hope that in a real sense we can continue to partake of an appetizer of the banquet that awaits the church, the All-day-singing and dinner-on-the-grounds.

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Church house

Religion is a touchy subject. No doubt about that. People would always get excited whenever the topic of religious faith came up when I was a child; this was so even if everybody had at least one favorite, whether they admitted it or not, be it one of the “Bible Belt” orthodoxies, some version of a thoughtful or an unconscious inherited agnosticism or even an absent-minded hedonism. Religion and politics—I was taught early in my youth—are not fit for polite dinner conversation, although why I do not remember ever being told. They cause indigestion, I suppose. This state of affairs seemed particularly strange to me since, down South, religion is the basis of the third standard question with which we skewer our victims in the inquisition of new acquaintance. After “Where y’all from?” and “Who’s your folks?” the final poser comes: “What’s you church?”

Like a Nose Out of Joint

I have seen people sometimes get huffy when you bring up religion as if you had asked whether they were wearing polka dot boxers, or long johns, or no underwear at all. “None of your d*** business” they seemed to say, even if they were too polite to voice the words. I have wondered over the years what it was that riled folks so when the subject turned to the spiritual, especially since I suspected almost everybody had an opinion on the matter of God and the state of his immortal soul just like almost everybody has a nose. And like a nose, it was sometimes put out of joint by the slightest affront or the mildest provocation.  Of course, I am aware that wars have been fought for centuries over religion, and I have seen some fights for myself that were only slightly less bloody than the War of the Roses. “I have a problem with organized religion,” I have occasionally heard, which always prompted me to think “Would you find disorganized religion more palatable? I think that can be arranged.” Perhaps, I concluded at last, the off-putting comes from what we consciously or inadvertently communicate: an offensive sense of our “rightness” and of our “righteousness” and consequently a tacit indictment of the others’ implied waywardness and wicked apostasy, if not their blatant and obstinate stupidity.

Certainty Has Eluded Me

Yet, this sense of certainty always eluded me. Indeed, the more I learned and the more powerfully I felt the allure of my own convictions, the more I realized what one risks in such matters. Maybe that is why many of my friends and acquaintances, as well as strangers, grow uncomfortable when the subject raises itself. When you follow a path that tracks the edge of an abyss only dimly lit by an uncertain moonlight you might be forgiven a bit of skittishness. Perhaps a little compassion would prompt us think twice before lambasting a brother with a liturgy that seems a little strange at first.

I, too, am conflicted by thoughts of religion. On one hand, I think that we are all so terribly alike in our hunger for meaning and significance; we want to matter and to be valued. We are all like Monte, the homeless cyclist who accosted me one day, “Pardon me, Sir. Could you spare some change? I’m powerful hungry.”  We are all hungry for something. I am sure of that.

My hunger was no less real than that of my brother on the road, only mine was a hunger of the spirit not of the belly. I concluded that we are all alike: hungry homeless ones. Yet we are also remarkably unique in our particular journey. “But does it really matter?” I asked myself. I became convinced that the journey of the spirit is, indeed, important and that it does make a profound difference what we choose to guide our life, for we risk the squandering the only true treasure we have, our one precious life, if we misapprehend the way of things. So I came to appreciate the dispatches of the soul that stout-hearted explorers sent back from the frontier.

A Lesson from a Lepidoptera

Moth Photo credit: carpetcleaningottawa.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/Moth-Photos.jpg

Moth Photo credit: carpetcleaningottawa.com/

Among the varieties of religious expressions I discerned two categories: the outer, public religion of the club and social institution and the inner, when-nobody-is-watching kind of spirituality. I contend that one cannot always know what is happening on the inside by appearances. One summer evening this truth was demonstrated to me when as a young teenager I arrived at the church house to attend the vespers worship. I was loitering with my friends in the vestibule laughing and joking when an itinerant moth that had been aimlessly circling the overhead light suddenly decided to explore the recesses of my ear. One wag later quipped that the moth must have seen the glare shining through my (hollow) head and flew toward the glow. Whatever the reason, I was instantly knocked off my feet. I was unconcerned about those around me, about what I had held in my hands that I had sent flying. All of my attention was totally captivated by the sensation of the creature wriggling in my head. I was horrified. My ear itched, hurt, and tickled at the same time. I pounded on my head. It was futile. Each motion only drove the frantic and benighted insect deeper into the darkness. When it reached my ear drum it began a deafening tarantula dance with it wings and six tiny legs.

The dignified adults who glanced toward the back of the sanctuary frowned. What was the commotion? “Sammy’s slain in the spirit!” They might have thought.   Then they might have cautioned, “Beware the evil influence of the charismatic.” I, however, was not in the least interested in theological proprieties at that moment. My conniption came not from religious ecstasy but rather arose from an entomological infestation. I flung myself down on a pew writhing in pain. Soon my father was looking down at me. “What’s the matter son?”

“I’ve got a moth in my ear.” He stifled a chuckled but got to work to try to help. He took me home immediately. First he attempted to kill the bug with peroxide. The panic-stricken Lepidopteran only fluttered against its constraints more vigorously in the oxygenated foam of the solution. Then, after some thought, my mechanic of a father found some baby oil that he used with better results. Then with a pair of eye-brow tweezers and an hour and a half of labor his big hands crushed the hapless bug and gently exorcized pieces of the moth-spirit. It was slain but not in the Spirit. The experience made me forever afterward anxious to be in the vicinity of circling moths. My ears will begin to itch, and I scratch or at least cover them without thinking. Like the spectacle of my moth-possession, however, few knew what else was really going on inside me; they were without power to read my heart from my face. They could not see the storms and the conflict raging inside. I wondered if there were others like me, outwardly smiling but inwardly raging, bluffing their way along as I, but just as afraid to admit their weakness to anyone.

Two Varieties of Religiosity

Thus, I saw that there were really at least two kinds of religions: the Sabbath morning dress up big church one, and the one I knew on the creek bank. For me the former was a desiccated prune salad of which old people routinely partook because it “kept them regular,” one that was recommended because it was good for your constitution even if it were entirely unpalatable. The latter, however, I discovered to be an exciting adventure like the taste of wild Scuppernongs hanging from a limb in the woods, unimaginably sweet when sucked warm with the still living juice in them, the skin tart, the seeds bitter, the whole bronze or green but never dull, dead, or lifeless.

As I have muddled through the years since, I have sought and found—more often than less—the living kind of faith. I now rarely say that I am a “religious person,” since the declaration smacks of the former rather than the latter persuasion. Instead, I now strive to self-identify as a “Christ-follower.” This is closer to the “Way” described in the New Testament than the secular expectation of “church people.” I am also persuaded that this is closer to the “old time religion” than conventional wisdom would allow.

A recent Pew survey suggests that the American people may be less “religious” than in times past. As I think on that statement, I wonder if it might not be such a bad thing after all. It might mean that we are just more honest about what we truly believe than heretofore. It just might also mean that we are tired of prunes. As an alternative, my experience compels me to ask, “Have you tried fruit fresh-plucked from the vine? I recommend it.”

Scuppernong grapes, native to the South Photo credit: gardenandgun.com/files/GG0409_What's-in-Season_01(1).jpg

Scuppernong grapes, native to the South Photo credit: gardenandgun.com/files/GG0409_What’s-in-Season_01(1).jpg

[My next post “All-day-dinner and Singing-on-the-Grounds” with examine the other side of the coin—our desperate need for community in a living faith]

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The Pines

Alabama Pines Photo credit Carol Highsmith, Library of Congress http://www.loc.gov/item/2010640176/

Alabama Pines Photo credit Carol Highsmith, Library of Congress http://www.loc.gov/item/2010640176/

The colors of autumn in Vermont where hundreds of Mattesons fill a graveyard, the citron medallions of Colorado’s aspen, the Emperor’s crimson of a Japanese maple in the garden, all make their claim on my admiration. But give me, instead, a pine tree, or—better—a whole woodlot of evergreen prickly posts smelling of balsam and pine-straw-needle mulch. This is the tree that is my brother, or at least a close cousin.

Our little house in the swamp was built of pine, each board branded SPIB for “Southern Pine Inspection Bureau.”   The studs I knew intimately from when they were installed like soldiers on guard duty, silent, attentive, their feet toe-nailed into the plate. Later they were hidden with camouflage of sheet rock and siding. They were out of sight then, but I knew they were there, standing still and silent, faithful like the trees they had been. I could see the floors, made of pine too, only sanded, varnished and polished to the shine of a yellow mirror where you could see your face when you hung your head over the edge of the bed. And I could smell them. Their balsam scent waffled to me like a balm of Gilead that always soothed my soul; it was the smell of home.

A Boy Should Have A Wood

I came naturally to this affection for the needled citizens of my life from rambles, aimless and free, in the “woods” as we called it. Every child should have his woods, though a “hundred acre wood” is a more immense space than most neighborhoods can afford. Some must do with a mere thicket like my son’s “Bamboo Forest,” fifty feet on a side. The important thing is that you can lose yourself in it and set free your imagination to swing abound without breaking out into the sight of everyday. But I had my woods that stretched from a few yards from behind our lot to the edge of the world, I supposed, since I never reached its far border.

There were other trees about to be sure: oak, and chinquapin, hickory, black walnut, sweet gum, wild cheery, and sassafras, of course, but mostly there were pine trees. They were of all sizes from infant bushes to a giant mama tree that challenged this boy to reach around her trunk with a complete hug. Many others challenged him, too, to climb. The wind would make each one sing, and the lyrics sounded like, “Come up, boy. Come up and brush your hair against a cloud.” So I accepted one invitation after another; often it was an easy climb with branches near the ground, better than Jack’s bean stalk ladder to the sky, but sometimes the only way up was to shinny: to grasp the body of the tree with its rough red-brown bark in a two-handed hug and place a dirty bare foot on each side pincering the trunk. Then push up and hang on with your arms until you can get another toehold. Up and up, each minute higher and more perilous. It can cost to climb a tree; I recall intense maternal scoldings for torn shirt pockets and rosin soiled shorts. I never fell like my brother once did, though I do bear scars on my chest and abdomen from breathless slips and bark-burn descents. Mostly, I ascended without fear or incident.

The View From Above Is Worth The Climb

You knew you had gone high enough, though, that you had reached the zenith, when she began to give way to your grasp, when your perch swayed with every breath of air and when the earth beneath seemed far away. When you are high in the crown of a piney wood, people, viewed from high above, become tiny and curious circles of flesh, and their cares shrink in significance, as well. On days when my cares press in, I sometimes go again to the needle nest and see me down below in a true out-of-trouble experience. All seems different when viewed from far above, even if only in the imagination.

I am partial to pine trees. Not just because they were kind to me and gave me a fragrant gymnastic diversion but also for what they still can teach us if we pay attention. Perhaps their patient steadfastness grows out of a difference of perspective. Life looks different when viewed from above. Often we can see no way out while we stumble about in the understory of brush and bramble. But from above a reason for hope is easier to see.

Sammy Gene's boyhood home in rare snow fall. Photo credit: family photo.

Sammy Gene’s boyhood home in rare snow fall ca. 1964. Photo credit: family photo.

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A Squall lies low over the water. Photo Credit: NOA--   http://www.srh.noaa.gov/images/hgx/swa/2013_graphs/squall_line.JPG

A Squall lies low over the water. Photo Credit: NOA–
http://www.srh.noaa.gov/images/hgx/swa/2013_graphs/squall_line.JPG

In “LA” it rains. Indeed, it rains hard in Lower Alabama, as they call it, as if there were something lower or more common about the ‘Bama swamps where I began my journey among you. Rain is in the nature of the place.

There, I grew up to be a connoisseur of precipitation. A daily cloud burst rolls in from Mobile Bay when a white cloud that began like the backdrop of a Constable landscape, philanders with the sea, grows steely gray, and gets pregnant. She delivers the bastard with a shout. All speech is suspended during the long, sustained, hissing rant. Then silence!

I see a summer squall quarrel with his wife: punching pewter arms straight down between the trees and pounding the marsh with silver hammers, making her shake as if she were terrified at the sky’s sudden petulance, who is plainly abusing her. When he stomps off, the swamp lies stunned, not breathing, beaten. At last, she opens her sun-eye, and the sky kisses her once more as if to offer an apology, and the black earth, smelling like pipe tobacco, gives back its surfeit of water in a ghostly upward pirouetting sprite. All is forgiven.

At times, the rain kneels down, so fine, little more than a cloud, to kiss your hand. Yet in winter the same mist will bite with a thousand tiny rasp-teeth.

And rain comes like tears.

Mother said, “It always rains when something important happens.” It rained when Ma died. And when my friends’ baby was still born; when all those boys went off to a monsoon-drenched Viet Nam. It rained each time heartache visited a house in my neighborhood.

Irony took no holiday when it rained there. How could it when even my high school was called “Rain?” It has rained tears on my classmates these fifty years; one in six is gone. Put it off to actuarial statistics or not; it is so. It is only a matter of time: ultimately we all will be gone. The rain will surely fall on my house at last, too, I know.

I had to come west before I learned of virga, rain that repents and returns to the cloud, evaporating before it hits the ground. In Lower Alabama, the clouds are more honest than that, even if they seem ever unsympathetic. It rains hard in Alabama, but, then, it rains on everybody.

Virga is rain that evaporaates before it reaches the ground. Here a downpour turns to virga in Australia. Photo Credit: http://www.bom.gov.au/storm_spotters/handbook/images/photo15.jpg

Virga is rain that evaporates before it reaches the earth or sea. Here a downpour turns to virga in Australia. Photo Credit: http://www.bom.gov.au/storm_spotters/handbook/images/photo15.jpg

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The Toys

Marionettes in Der Speilzeug Museum in Nuremberg, Germany Photo credit: Sam Matteson 1978

Marionettes in Der Speilzeug Museum in Nuremberg, Germany.           Photo credit: Sam Matteson 1978

Play is the serious work of children, and toys are the tools of that play. I share a persistent affinity for the well conceived play-tool, “Der Spielzeug” as it is known to German children and adults. Such clever and engaging devises of childhood occupation have transcendent appeal, not only for me, but also for all children. Indeed, such toys are known and loved world-wide, their charm universal and their delight easily translated into indigenous glee for the children, die Kindern, les Enfants, los Niños, Watoto, the little ones of a thousand lands. The universality of child’s play suggests its hidden utility in shaping human work.

Impoverished and crippled, assuredly, is the spirit that does not play. There among the tools of play we see character abuilding: Imagination clocks in for work in dress up and in snow forts; Design dresses for the day and a life with crayons and stubby pencil; Discourse struts in a puppet theater; Analysis sits, reflecting on a collection of handsome rocks, curious bones, odd seeds or colorful buttons. We learn first very real empathy and then justice in the malleable make-believe kingdoms of our juvenile creation. The problems of the world—technical and interpersonal—have solutions tried on for first fit like a tailored bespoke suit in the give and take of playmates, there chalked up for alterations later in the diplomacy of adult statecraft and social interaction. In the tussle of a game of ball on the green or the dusty village clearing or a session of paper dolls in the parlor with a sibling or with a gang of friends, a child reaffirms for herself the rules of fair competition and the oxymoronic selfish joy of unselfish teamwork and shared accomplishment. In idle dreaming and cloud gaping are birthed wonder and the liberating possibility of hope.   All this is child’s play, the work of children.

Anything is a toy if we play with it, but the very best toys are they that demand that the child or the child-in-the-man supply the principal and missing ingredient themselves, from within. The best tools are not those with the most lights or LEDs or microprocessors or that clang with the loudest bells or whirr with the most raucous whistles; rather they serve us best that should have had an advisory label attached: “Some Fancy required (Imagination not included).” When I recall the toys of my youth there are few that survive the sieve of years and fading memories. There are yet a few toys that still bring joy to my heart to recall; they are items that never fade since their luster comes from within me, from what they evoke in me.

A Teddy Bear was my frequent companion in the “Birdville” projects on Flamingo Drive. I christened him “Tim” because that seemed his appropriate name. I imagined my pal an intrepid, high wire artist—graceful even if furry—as he scaled the dining room chairs and walked the strings across the circus of the living room, high above the center ring laid out on the bare hardwood floor far beneath. It was his warm and fuzzy whisper heard only in my ear, more than any adult’s exhortation, that put heart into me and lent me courage to face the ether (“Now count backward from a hundred, Sammy”) and the awful scalpel—really a wire-loop-tool—for a tonsillectomy (Do you want some ice cream afterwards?). And, painfully, he also taught me remorse at age six. I thought him beautiful, despite or perhaps because of his blue and white pillow ticking chest where Mother had repaired him when I left him on the stoop, vulnerable to the neighbor dogs that naturally ripped out his stomach. But I was bereft and guilt-stricken when I thoughtlessly deserted him again, and he was obliterated completely. It was my fault, I knew. Loyalty, I suppose, made me give up on Teddy Bears altogether after that; no successor that my kind parents offered would suffice to take his place or assuage my grief and guilt.

Sammy with his vintage Hoody Doody Puppet. Photo Credit: Audrey Matteson Christmas 1954

Sammy with his vintage Hoody Doody Puppet. Photo Credit: Audrey Matteson Christmas 1954

There were other more durable toys, fortunately, ones I learned to treasure and care for better. I, like millions of other children, was in the Saturday morning thrall of Howdy Doody. I laughed and sang with the television screen along with my brother and sister at the antics of the wooden-headed cowboy and his posse. I begged my parents with earnest pleading voice—and in writing to Santa Claus, just to be safe—for a Howdy Doody marionette. I was blessed to find him under the tree the next Christmas. He entertained us for years afterward with spontaneous and creative puppet shows, staged with sofa cushions and dining room chairs. He was joined by a supporting cast of sock puppets animated by small hands, characters that we fabricated on the spot or acquired with the savings of our pennies and nickels. “Howdy” earned his place in our memory by faithfulness; he always danced when we juggled his strings, and he always spoke our thoughts with his enameled jaws. Thus, he still stands or hangs about today, well worn and well loved among the kites, the interlocking lettered blocks, and the Lincoln Logs, a freckled icon of my childhood. Mother kept him safe for me as she did other playthings, some that I never understood, like the voice-actuated Japanese bus that “Slim,” Aunt Sister’s and Uncle Howell’s merchant marine friend gave to me one April when he was in port. It buzzed and whirred and flashed and changed direction when you called to it, no matter if in English or Nipponese. It was a curiosity for a week, then went, boxed again, up on the shelf forever. It came with all its parts and demanded nothing more. I was grateful for the stranger’s generosity but unimpressed.

In “Birdville” and later in the swamps of 1950’s Lower Alabama I had fewer toys than I wanted, but probable more than I needed.   At my house I learned that the statement “I’m bored” was not accepted as a valid complaint but rather was thought an admission that I was too lazy or too uninspired to think of some play to entertain me. So, I learned to augment our toy box with found things. The day the Catchots next door killed and plucked a huge turkey I seized upon the wing feathers and soon the air above our court of Broadmoor Place swarmed with “hawks” we built of three feathers wired together in a “T” and flown with a few yards of thread.

An old discarded shoe’s leather tongue and two lengths of its shoe string became David’s sling that launched egg-shaped pebbles far into the woods. And thus I proved to myself and to my delight the potential lethality of the shepherd-king’s defense against Goliath. I whittled twigs, with scars to prove it. I hammered wire in miniature black smithy to shape small knives and forks and spoons to complement wooden plates that I carved from rounds sawn from pine boughs. I built covered Conestoga wagons with other sectioned-limb wheels. I joined “Pete” and Dean Cooper, next door, to explore our woods and draw maps of buried and imagined treasure. I dreamed of sailing ships with models and pencil and paper, of automated and robotic automobiles that drove themselves for us and rockets that I would someday build and fly to the ionosphere. I studied chemistry in the kitchen sink with baking soda and vinegar and ecology in a drop of hay-infused creek water under a toy microscope in the wash room. I so equipped my soul with play-tools and my mind with games, that today if I am sometimes forced to sit, waiting, idly it seems, I can busy myself within. I jokingly say, but only half in jest, “Not to worry. I have a rich inner life to entertain me.”

And so my grandchildren benefit from my appreciation of play. Paul Samuel, first grandson, was heard to remark with pleasure, “I’m glad Papa is coming! He plays with me.” But now with them, mine is not the play of children, self-absorbed and selfish. Now the children are my toys, to wonder at and to encourage, and I suppose, I am theirs to use as well, a smiling and benevolent overgrown playmate or a colossal robotic doll. Play was something my grandparents had forgotten how to do by the time I came along, and I regret that deeply.

Yet, I was and am a blessed child of this planet. I am indeed a fortunate man-child, one whose adult work rewards creativity and affords his imagination a wide field in which to play. I would gladly pay, if I had the means and it were required, to do the “work” that I have chosen most seriously to pursue, for I very often find that the best work I do these days, the labor for which I am most highly appreciated—as much now as when I was rightly called “a mere child”— looks so very much like the business of children’s play; and the tools I employ to accomplish great deeds are—of a truth—really my newest toys.

Dr Sam at his retirement admiring a "tuned" wive goblet, one of his many science "toys." Photo credit: Department of Physics UNT

Dr Sam at his retirement admiring a “tuned” wine goblet, one of his many science “toys.” Photo credit: Department of Physics UNT

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