Friday, October 14, 2011

A Memory

It was a typical morning.  Maybe too typical.  I was determined to get some things done that seemed at the time important to me.  I sat here at the computer and reached for a few letters on my desk.  One letter was from Gaetan, a monk and friend of mine.  He lives in Gethsemani, our monastery in Kentucky.  I met him many years ago and we exchange letters.  He is a wonderful writer.  He writes beautifully of simple things, things available to any one of us who takes the time or, better, the effort to look at the events of daily life.
I read his letter and want to share some of it with you.  Gaetan once lived in our monastery in Lantau, China.  The monastery is on an island and not far from Hong Kong.  He was on a boat between Hong Kong and another island, Peng Chau.   The boat was making its way to the monastery.  Gaetan writes that it was a very old boat and that he was delighted, for it was, as he puts it, “like being out of time.”  The middle of the boat was open, and there was seating along the side.  A young woman was sitting with her little boy, who was about three years old.  “A beautiful, typical Chinese kid with his hair all sticking up.”  Gaetan was gazing at the river and when he looked again at the little boy, things had changed.  The boy was standing in the open space.  Suddenly, he wet his pants and started to cry out loud.  His arms hung to his sides as the urine stained his pants and formed a small puddle at his feet.  Gaetan writes that he felt do badly for him, he felt like crying himself.  He writes:

“I felt so bad for him that I could have cried with him.  I understood him completely.  I do not know why he did not ask his mother but there is a world of mystery going on inside a little child. It was like he knew he was wrong but at the same time he could not control it and so there was no alternative for him.  Se he peed and cried.  His mother was a nice woman.  She immediately got up and kissed him while he finished what he could not hold anymore. The she took him aside and held him, speaking lovingly to him – it was all in Chinese – but the love and gesture said it all.”

The story stunned me.  I put the letter down and thought about all the supposed big and important things I had to do.  I thought of the littleness of that boy, not just in terms of his size, but his helplessness and his utter dependence on his mother. 
We like to think we grow.  We like to think that there is a way to realize, once and for all, independence.   We make our plans, arrange our schedules, make all the lists of what we do or think we should do.  And then, the day comes when we can no longer control our lives and have to let go.  We feel a pressure and then the warmth running down our legs.  Things fall apart.  We need help.  And we realize that we were always like that – our independence was illusory.  The first and last word of human existence is more like a cry, a plea for some good and loving other. 
Gaetan writes that the memory is of a ride on a boat that sailed a river twenty years ago.  And it has stayed with him all these years.  He learned wisdom, the ways of God, from a mother and her son.  He did not understand a word that was shared between them.  He could only see and understand a cry, and a loving response.  The truth of salvation, on a small boat in between islands. 

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Stubborn Lock

The lock on the door to this room where I write has been problematic for a long time.  When I stick the key into the lock, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.  On good days, it works smoothly.  On bad days, I have to wrestle with the key, turning it and jiggling it until it turns and then it is very difficult to remove.  But it always works, give or take a few extra seconds.  I do not mind.  It gets the job done.
Augustine told me recently that he wanted to make extra copies of the key and that Alphonse would be coming by to check the lock and the key.  He was here a little while ago.  He could not open the door.  Well, he finally did, with no small amount of difficulty.  He told me that something was wrong with the lock.  I told him I knew that.  Then he said he would send Alex up here to put a new lock on the door and that Alex would then make extra keys and give several to me. 
Then Alphonse started talking about the lock and what might be the matter with it.  Some words I knew.  Most words I never ever ever heard of.  Well, let me qualify that.  I heard of most of the words but what they mean in the lock and key context is beyond me.  And two words baffled me.  A tang?  A cam?  And the rest – a dead bolt, inner and outer panels, pins, a spring – they were somewhat familiar to me in that at least I had heard them before.   Interesting.  But way beyond me, as to how they fit together and work so as to secure a no-entry or easy-entry door.
You do not know, I realize, Alex, Alphonse and Augustine.  They are great men, very handy with tools and machines and getting big and little jobs done.  They have been a wonderful help to me.  Like I said, I would have continued to spend years rattling that key in the door until it turned correctly and the door opened.  I think it drove Alphonse crazy this morning when he could not get the key to function.  I would have told him that all it takes is a sense of, a “feel,” for the right way to twist and pull.  But it was better that I kept silent.
I was writing something about God when Alphonse came in.  Putting words together on this computer, big words and little words, a twist here and a jangle there, all in the hope of writing something nice about a being I have never met and whose existence is behind the door that leads to the next life.
I have no key to that.
I admire Augustine, Alphonse and Alex.  I think they like my writing.  They have told me as much.  But something tells me that they are onto something that I tend to ignore.  There are all sorts of doors and keys, locks and cams and tangs in this life.  We are very adept at making them, and keeping things secure.  We make sure that some come in and others stay out.
But A, A and A know how to get in and out of all kinds of places.  I believe Paradise has a lockless and Pearly Gate.  And, if Hell has a lock, A, A and A will find a way to open it.   I think that is what angels are about.  And I think that is what God is about, training us to do what we can to open doors, turn keys, turn hearts.  I hope I do that with my words.  I know three men who do that with a smile, a kind word, and maybe a jiggle.

Friday, October 07, 2011


Summer is upon us and the warmer weather has a way of enticing my memories of long gone summers.  When I was younger I used to spend many summer days down in Belmar, New Jersey.  It is a small town on the Jersey shore.  It has long had a reputation as a summer haven for high school and college kids.  I am sure it still enjoys that reputation.  I would go to a small bungalow on 15th Avenue, which was owned by close friends of mine.  We would spend hours on the front porch, which had a hammock and chairs.  At night, we could see the passing cars and passersby.  People walking their dogs, or young couples walking along and holding hands.  Older people, too, would walk by, taking in the cool of the evening as they headed in the direction of the boardwalk.
There was an enormous nightclub several blocks away which catered to the young crowd.  The place was always packed and from the porch we could hear the howls and the laughter as the crowd there moved into full swing.  The name of the club was Bar Anticipation.  It was and still is the place “to be” in Belmar on a hot summer’s night.
I was there in the winter a few years back. The town was deserted, since most of the houses were summer rentals and were closed up.  The boardwalk was closed for the winter months.  Main Street had a some places open, since there is a resident winter population in the area.  But the streets near the beach were practically deserted.  I stayed a few nights in the bungalow on 15th Avenue with Bill, friend of mine.  His family owns the bungalow. We had a heater and some blankets, so the nights were fine.  In the evenings, we sat on the porch with the TV on in the room behind us, the volume turned low.  A bottle of wine was opened and we toasted each other and talked about old times, all the summers we enjoyed in that house, the memories flowing as easily and as readily as the wine.
The little bungalow is the kind of place that we know well at a particular time in our lives, and then we move on and leave it behind.  Yet its simplicity and its comfort is something we look for again and again all during our lives.  Many new places are silently compared to the elegant charm of a modest beach bungalow in Belmar.  It is as if it was a place that good memories were born, and it would be something of a miracle to reduplicate that process in all the later places of our lives.  But memories that glow are born from special times, special places.  I am fortunate that I can go back and savor the times that were, in the very place those memories came from.
When I was last there, Bill and I sat on the porch late into the night.  Bill wanted to go out, but I talked him into just hanging out there and chatting.  He asked me several times if things were okay, if I was sure I did not want to go out.  I told him no, that it was good to be there, to be at peace.  I could hear the ocean, its waves rhythmic, even, marking time with each roll on the beach.  Like days and years, as they come and then go.  But that night, all seemed still, and good.  Time rolling on, the taste of wine, a good friend, a return to what is beautiful and good in this life.
The Receipt

I have taken pictures all through the years.  I have my slides, prints and negatives.  I have been scanning them so that I can share them with my family and friends.  It is taking a long time, but it is worth it.  I am glad I kept everything – there must be something good said for the pack rat side of me.
Every so often, I come across something that more than sparks an interest.  It can, if I let it linger, light a bonfire of memories. This morning I came across one such thing.  It is a photo envelope from Plains Pharmacy, in Fairfield, New Jersey.  I was a priest in the parish there at the time, which, according to the date on the envelope, was August 10, 1977.  A roll of film cost $8.62 cents to be developed and printed.  It was Kodacolor film and there may have been two rolls, since there are two sleeves in the envelope that held two separate strips of negatives.  I scanned the negatives, which held memories galore.  There I am, hosting a car wash given by the youth group of the parish.  We had the wash behind the church.  I recognize the kids – now grown with families of their own.  I am still in touch with almost all of them. Looking at their faces, one by one, I can see now what they could not have seen.  Good times and bad.  Healthy and hurtful relationships and marriages.  Sickness and, in some cases, way too early a departure from this life.
There are pictures of the church as it was decorated for Advent.  Big colorful banners hang from the walls of the church.  I recently saw the woman who made them and asked her about them.  She said they were long gone.  Her name is Mary Anne and she looks well.  I will send her pictures of the banners.
And New Orleans.  I went with a couple at about that time.  It was a convention of sorts and I tagged along.  I visited family while I was there.  There is a nice shot of the couple standing next to a street car.
There are a few pictures of friends I sailed with on the Queen Elizabeth II.  We sailed from England to New York.  What a great trip that was. Some of the people in the photo have left this life.  Some are still here.  It was good to share a voyage with them across the sea.
There is the receipt.  Receipts have not changed that much.  There is a date and charge number, my name and address and the name and address of the pharmacy.  Charlie ran the pharmacy and Claire worked the register.  Charlie had a good sense of humor.  When he saw me, he used to say “Someday your prints will come in,” – a play on the similar phrase from Cinderella.  I got to know Claire’s family very well.  I am still in touch with them.
Some years later, Charlie lost the store and struggled a bit till he found another line of work.  I think he hoped to keep the store but could not keep pace with the deals being offered by the then up and coming big discount drug stores.  I still hear from him at Christmas.
There is a lottery ticket in the photo envelope from the store.  A “snap and win” lottery ticket.  I scraped off the gold on top of the numbers but in the process scraped off the numbers as well.  Maybe I won, maybe I lost.  But it makes no difference since in the small print on the back of the card, it reads that all prizes had to be claimed by December 15th, 1977.
Maybe I could have been a rich man.
But maybe I already am.
I need be still, and look at the pictures, and realize with some humility and gratitude how many people have befriended me.  I hope I have been as good and as friendly to them.  All kinds of people – photos do not differentiate between religions, creeds, beliefs, color or nationality.  Everyone has a beauty and a magic.  We each hold the charm of life and hopefully learn to share it, and, with a photo, keep it to remember.  While I have some life, some years left to me, I will take pictures, and keep the negatives, and pass them on.  They really do have something of a life, even after I am gone.


WARNING: As Hurricane Irene batters the East Coast, federal disaster officials warned that Internet outages could force people to interact with other people for the first time in years. Residents braced themselves for the horror of awkward silences and unwanted eye contact. FEMA advised: “Be prepared. Write down possible topics to talk about in advance. Sports...the weather. Remember, a conversation is basically a series of Facebook updates strung together.”

The above was written by a Charlie, who is a friend of mine on, uh, Facebook.  Actually, I knew Charlie when he was a little kid.  I was his parish priest in Fairfield, New Jersey.  His mom and dad were great people – they worked for the parish for many years.  Charlie would often come with his dad, who ran the parish bingo operations.  As I remember him, Charlie had a wonderful smile and was as friendly as a kid can be.  His dad worked hard, as did his mom.  I think they had trouble making ends meet, but managed through the years to raise a fine family.
I found Charlie on the Facebook site shortly after I signed on.  I looked at his pictures.  He had been a Marine and is now married and has a beautiful wife and kids.  He works in construction and the above was posted on his “wall” a few days ago.  I think it is funny.  It is typical Charlie – I do not know if he wrote it but it sure is “him.”
There are times I miss the interaction I enjoyed with people when I served them as a parish priest.  Charlie and his family were and still are a gift to me.  I can see his mom and dad in my mind’s eye – how proud they were of their kids, and how very proud they must have been of Charlie.  He has lived a good life.  He is a good and giving man.
Say what you will about the pros and cons of Facebook.  It has enabled me to touch base with a lot of people I knew over the years.  Being in touch with them now reassures me that the only reason we are born to this life is to know each other, love each other and help each other. Maybe some day, I can return the kindnesses given me by Charlie and his family.
The world is shrinking, due to marvels like Facebook.  We really are in the process of becoming a global village.  People reach out all the time via social networks.  We might tend to over do it a bit, so the above quote might be for some close to their  experience.  But the human heart calls us back again and again to what is good and real in life.  To flesh and blood people, their smiles, their hopes and dreams, their need for human contact.
Facebook links people in Cyberspace.  I have a feeling that someday, I will see Charlie and his family again.  The internet offers a way to really connect.  It offers a way to embrace those we love and somehow lost touch with along the way.  It brings back good memories, good times, good people.
Some Religious Thoughts about Subway Riders

On my last trip up north, I rode the New York subways a lot.  My aunt was in a Brooklyn hospital and the easiest way to get there was by taking the train from New Jersey and then walking a few blocks from Penn Station to catch the N or the R subway to Brooklyn.  All in all, it took about an hour and a half to get from New Jersey to Brooklyn.
I like the subways.
I was thinking about the people I saw on them as I was falling off to sleep last night.  Maybe that is a kind of prayer for them.  I hope so.  I realize prayer is supposed to go directly to God with no stops or detours.  But the subway train and its riders were on my mind last night.  The people almost swayed in my thoughts as I pictured them riding the rails beneath Manhattan.  So I caught another ride with them, and I think that is close to God, too.  For he must have been in the subway, too.
There was a Chinese man whose little daughter squeezed in between his legs.  He sat next to me, by the door.  His daughter looked up at him and pointed to a plastic bottle he held in his hands.  She wanted a drink and he would smile and slip the straw in her mouth.  She would finish drinking and then rest her head in his lap.  She looked at me and smiled.
A young Latino mother sat across from me.  Her little boy, who looked to be about five, couldn’t stay still.  He would run from her, and then turn and laugh, and then run back.  She would try to grab him but he was quick.  He’s be off again before she could get her hands on him.  I had the feeling that the boy would have been in big trouble had not the others on the car been looking on.  The mother was careful to keep her cool.  And the little boy knew it.  And loved it.  And exploited it.
A young black couple were holding hands and kissing.
A lot of people had iPods, iPads, Kindles, MP3 players and other devices that had games on them.  In fact, I would say most people were absorbed in those things.
One lady sat across from me and when I looked at her I had to look away because I could not tell if she was a man or a woman.  There was something about her or him that was vaguely undefined.  Hard to tell, these days.
And old Chinese man was reading his paper.  The paper was in Chinese and I could see a page from how he held the paper.  I think it takes a near genius to read Chinese.  He smiled as he was reading.  And I wondered what made him smile.
A young guy got on with a CD player and his buddy was right behind him.  When the train started to move, the guy turned on the music and the buddy started to dance and twist, and then got onto the floor and spun around and around.  The music was good – I think it was something about sex by James Brown.  It was a fast, popping kind of song that made me want to move, to dance.  But as it was, I sat there.
The more I write this, the more I remember.  All the people, so handsome and beautiful, living life as best they can and moving beneath one of the greatest cities in the world.  All of it made by God, though God is always discrete, hidden, living as he does in all living things.  In the dance, in little thirsty babies, in kids running up and down the aisles, in the smile of an old man and the kiss of the young.  It is there every second of every day.  They say Manhattan is a city that never sleeps. God doesn’t sleep, either.  He rides.
Goodness as Revelatory

I have known Donnie all my life.  We were friends through school and then I moved away from town and did not see him as frequently.  I did see him recently.  I went back home and made it a point to get in touch with him.  He is a retired fireman.  I did not spend much time with Donnie during his working years.  We were both absorbed by our life callings.  I was a priest in the same town where Donnie was a fireman.
When I saw him this last trip, we covered a lot of ground in our conversations.  One night, we sat beneath an awning in a church parking lot.  It was raining, but we did not mind.  We drank red wine until the wee hours of the morning, and talked and talked.  He loves many of the same things I do – black and white photography, street scenes, the works of Diane Arbus, Vivien Meier, Cartier-Bresson.  I told him about other photographers I thought he might enjoy, like Milton Rogovin, Helen Stummer and Helen Leavitt.  Donnie absorbed everything I said.  He goes to Manhattan a lot.  From what I gathered, he heads into the city on a weekly basis, taking in all kinds of scenes – music, museums, book stores, art galleries, photo exhibitions.  He is a walking encyclopedia of Manhattan culture – high, low, and in between.  He loves Italy and has gone back many times over the last twelve or so years, making contacts with relatives and friends over there.  He hosts parties for his family and friends that number in the hundreds – just from the immediate area of our home town.   He cooks – I see his delicacies on Facebook.  He never married – he lives in a big house that sounded like an open house to me.  Friends come and go and stay if need be.  Donnie has offered his home, his meals, his warmth to many a man or woman in need.
I remember Donnie as a gifted athlete and outstanding student.  He was an only child and I remember, too, how proud his parents were of him, and rightfully so.  He was always eager to do good and be good, and to share whatever he could with others.  I do not know it all came easily to him.  All I know is that he made it look effortless.
At one point in our conversations, he must have felt he made a lapse in something that he said.  He looked at me and said, “I have never been religious…I do not go to church.  When I was a kid, it all seemed so narrow to me, I needed some space, some way out of that l box.”  I said I understood and refrained from trying to encourage him to see himself in a different light – the light with which I saw and see him.
But now I can take a stab at it.
Donnie told me that he likes my writing.  It comes naturally to me.  I do not make a big deal out of it.
I like what he does not make a big deal of.  I like his naturalness, his goodness, his willingness to go out of his way to help others.  And think nothing of it.
One day while I was in Manhattan, it poured rain.  It really came down.  I was soaked.  And on top of that, the trains to New Jersey were cancelled.  Something about a derailment on the Jersey side.  I finally made it home by bus.  My cell phone rang the next day and it was Donnie.  He said he had tried to call me to see if I needed a ride from Manhattan – he had heard about the derailments and wanted to come in and get me.  I got the message but did not play it back until he told me that.
I am in my monastery now, a place where we ponder spirituality and the place of God in this life.  I suppose that a church secures for some a sense of God.  But for me, a phone call like Donnie’s assures me that I am in the right place.  And I am glad that Donnie moved along in life along the lines he loved – I sense he finds God there, too.  And gives him away, through a call, through his love of beauty, through his open house and great food.  It all somehow fits, even though we cannot always see it.  A bit of rain helps, along with a good friend and some red wine.
The Late Night Show in the Cheap Motel

I like cheap motels.  And I recently stayed in one.  The name or the place does not matter.  It was between Georgia and New York City.  There is a certain charm to a cheap motel.  For one thing, such a place does not glare glitz.  The place where I stayed was reasonably clean.  The lady at the reception desk was friendly.  She took my information and my money and then gave me the little plastic card for the door and pointed me in the direction of my room.
It was a one floor motel.  As I went to my room, I passed some people partying it up outside and inside their room.  They sat on lawn chairs and seemed friendly and were definitely having a good time.  They were drinking beer and had a bunch of little kids. They said hello to me as I passed and I wondered if they would ask me to join them later on.
The door card worked.  There was a big screen TV with a remote in my room, a little coffee machine, shampoo, soap, conditioner, a little coffee machine with four packets of coffee and a bunch of Styrofoam cups.  The lady at the desk told me that there would be a continental breakfast available in the morning.
It was a bit stuffy so I turned on the air conditioner and got ready for bed.  It was late, and I was tired.
I got into bed, kicked off the covers, bundled up all the pillows so I could lean on them, and turned on the TV.  With the proper aim of the remote, going from channel to channel was easy.
I settled on a show that was on the Science Channel.  It was all about the beginning and the end of things, of everything.  The commentator was a young British guy and he was pleasant enough to listen to and to watch.  He offered all kinds of interesting examples of what he called “entropy.”  That word means, basically, that everything in a closed system goes from order to disorder.  Disorder is the more operative of the two.  It has the upper hand.  It is inevitable.  The British guy showed a castle made of sand that eventually was washed away.  He had other examples too.  Melting ice cubes. He spoke of one of the qualities of time as being a process.  History moves forward.  The universe moves.  One thing happens after another.  There are sequences, developments, chapters, evolutions and revolutions.
So things get better for a while.  Then they corrode.  And rot or die.
I began to feel ill at ease.
I could hear the party outside.  They had not asked me to join them. Now I was wishing they had.
It got worse.
The British man said that the end will come.  In a few billion years, our sun will run out of whatever makes it a big hot source of light and energy and will became a dwarf star.  A puny little thing.  And then it will, finally, become a dark star and everything will be sucked into it, never to return.  Gone for good.  Into the dark hole.
Te British guy said that there would be nothing left.  And to top it off, he said that every star in the universe, every single one, is doomed to the same fate.  In other words, the entire cosmos is destined to be the same that it was before it was.  Nothing.  No matter, no rain or sunshine or earth, wind and fire or Tina Turner.
I cannot remember the end of the show.  Maybe the British guy said something along the lines of enjoying ourselves while we can.  In fact, I think he did say something like that.
Maybe I should have crashed the party that was still going on outside.
Instead, I started to watch the next show.
It was some special with Stephen Hawking, the world famous physicist who has charmed millions and enraged millions.  He has a disease that has left him physically impaired – he has to communicate through a machine – but his mind is incredibly active.
He warmed up to his topic – explaining how the idea of God is just that – an idea – and how science can explain all that people have used God to explain.
It was getting very late.  I was still thinking about the first show and how everything was going to end and vanish and never come back. Including Stephen Hawking.
Then I thought of something.  Actually, I thought of two things.
As far as the first show, the word that came to me was “push.”  This whole thing is being pushed.  Just like when a woman has to push to give birth, God pushed this Cosmos into being from the womb of the void and he is still pushing.
With a flick of the Divine Wrist, everything came into being and is growing, decaying, coming to life again, decaying.  Yin and Yang.
Secondly, I had just seen a friend of mine that morning who is a philosopher.  A professional philosopher.  He wrote a letter to the New York Times and it was published.  He wrote to suggest that someone should not criticize the work of another if one does not have sympathy for it – it one does not share a sense of the world under critique.  He was, specifically, complaining about a writer who wrote about religion in a negative way and did not or could not share the vision of that religion.  In short, my friend suggested that he is an outsider.  Not in the game.  I thought that was a fair criticism.
So, maybe Stephen Hawking should stick to his figurings about the universe without crossing the yard to his religiously inspired neighbors and trashing their party.
A flick of the wrist.  Magic.  Creation.  Something out of nothing.
The party outside had quieted down.  I heard a bit of laughter.  Then it was quiet.
I turned off the TV with a flick of the button.  The screen went blank.
A flick of the wrist, yes.
Goodness, mercy, hope, love, redemptive suffering, going an extra mile, giving from one’s want to those who have little.  Wondrous things that are of as wondrous an origin.  When it all ends, may there be another slight of hand, another flick of the wrist, a new card thrown into the void that then magically comes to life – bringing into being all that was and is, seen and unseen, pushing, pushing, pushing.

My Aunt Margaret and Uncle Jim lived in Brooklyn.  Dad used to drive the seven of us kids and Mom over to see them when we were little kids.  God knows how we all fit in the old Packard.  We must have sat on each other’s laps in the back seat and two little siblings sat in the front.  The car was green, and then painted maroon.  I cannot remember the order of the colors.  It of course had no air-conditioning.  We lived in Hempstead then, which was on the eastern end of Long Island.  I suppose it was about an hour’s drive from Hempstead to Brooklyn.  Margaret and Jim had very little money.  They lived on the third floor – a walk-up – of an old brownstone.  As I remember it, the apartment was really nice.  A long wooden staircase wound its way to the third floor. The banisters were of highly polished wood.  There was a skylight in the bathroom and the toilet had a pull chain which was connected to a water tank above the toilet.  The kitchen was small, and all the appliances were old, even back then.  In the sitting room, which served as a living room and was the front room of the apartment, there was a beautiful breakfront made of wood.  It was beautifully carved, with a mirror in the middle and little shelves up and down the sides.  Uncle Jim was a poet – he used to write for the Brooklyn Irish paper called the “Irish Echo.” They never had children, and when we visited them, they lavished us kids with Cokes and cakes – chocolate cakes from Entenman’s Bakery, and ice cream and other goodies that we rarely got when we were home.  I did not realize until many years later how much it must have cost them to give us so much.  They just did not have it to spare. In later years, I used to hear Aunt Margaret say that when she needed money, it always had a way of coming along.  I do know that even though they had little in terms of things, of wealth, they sure were happy.   Whatever they needed came along.  I would guess that Uncle Jim made a little money from the paper.
I can still remember the view from their rear window, which looked out from the dining room onto the back yard.  The yard was small and filled with vegetation and little paths.  There was a statue of the Virgin Mary, which stood in the middle of a bird bath. Apartment houses filled the landscape for as far as one could see.
They lived there rent free since they cleaned the office of the dentist who owned the building and whose office was on the ground floor.
After dinner, Aunt Margaret and Uncle Jim sat in the living room on big soft chairs and told us stories of Ireland, from where they had come. Uncle Jim smoked a pipe and I still remember the aroma of his tobacco. On a hot summer’s day, the heat in the apartment was intense.  There was an overhead fan, and an occasional breeze from the open and screened windows.  But we did not mind.  I do not think anyone had air-conditioners back then.
The years passed.  Uncle Jim developed what was, looking back, Alzheimer’s disease and would leave the apartment and wander.  On one trip, which turned out to be his last, he was mugged and was found by the police.  He was placed in a nursing home not far from where they had lived.  Aunt Margaret was to follow him there a short while later.  They lived there for several years and died days apart from each other.  They were apart from each other and reality at that point.  But it was not to be a parting of the ways.  It was as if one knew the other had left this life and wanted to follow.
All that was a long time ago.  I am getting on in years, and when I go, a lot of old memories will go with me.  Maybe my nieces and nephews will hear snippets of conversation, but they, too, will lose their moorings to this life and will fade into history.
Like Aunt Margaret used to say, they were given what they needed.  And, more importantly, they shared from their very modest means.
And we, too, are given what we need.  There is nothing we can hold on to forever.  There comes a time when we have to move on.  We can be a blessing to those we love, by sharing what we have.  We will get by. And learn something about God from such fleetingly rich memories of Cokes and cakes on hot summer days, all gone, but somehow still alive, still whispering to me.

The Day my GPS Died

The GPS came with the rental car.  I had trouble booting it up and had to call the GPS people.  A live one answered the phone and she said that I had to use the access number that was provided with the rental paperwork.  I told her I could not find it.  She then asked for some proofs of ID, to ascertain that I was who I said I was, and when that was done she gave me the code.  I keyed in the numbers and was up and running – or at least on the ground and moving.  I really liked it.  A woman’s voice told me when to turn, how to stay on the right or left, when to drive straight ahead and for how long.  I got used to her voice and liked it.  It sort of kept me company.  The GPS is amazing, I thought to myself.  It brought me right to any place I needed to go and its last words on any given routing were “You have reached your destination.”
Then it died.  I do not know what happened.  I was driving along, and the screen was lit and the voice as reassuring as ever.  Then suddenly the screen went blank, the voice stopped, and no matter what I did, I could not bring it back to life.  I jiggled the wires.  Made sure there was power from the power jack in the car.  There was – a little light told me as much.  I tapped the screen.   Then tapped it again, harder.  Nothing twinkled.  Nothing came to life.  I knew that it was okay since from that point on, I knew where I was going.  I was in familiar territory.  But I missed the voice, looking at the passing miles on the little screen, missed knowing when I had erred in my following directions.
It was very sad.
I thought of something my brother Johnny had recently told me.  He said that he was concerned that there would come a time when everything would be in the sky and available.  At first I did not know what he meant.  But I got it when he elaborated a bit.  Someday, he said, everything will be in the sky.  There will be books, messages, photographs, movies, directions, banking, reservations, antiques, puppies, condolence cards, divorces, food deliveries, restaurant and concert seating, traffic warnings – all these and more, up there floating around and available – yes, YOURS, for a fee and the press of a few buttons.
At first I felt bereft when the woman’s voice was no longer mine, no longer with me.
I was alone. 
But in my heart of hearts, I knew she was not real and could not possibly care about anything.  She was as dead as the GPS and had always been as lifeless as a corpse.
But something in me needed her for the ride.
But then…
With all that stuff swinging through the cosmos, I hope we do not lose our need for each other.  We are, after all, inter-dependent creatures.  We need the sun and rain and each other in equal measure.  We need to ask directions to get through this life. 
We need the joy of listening to music together, of waiting for the delivery of tangible goods.  It is not good when virtually everything comes to us virtually.  We need to ask, to stretch, to wait, to screw up, wait out turn on lines, learn patience when things take time. 
Maybe the sky will buckle because of all the stuff, it will collapse in on us.  We may well lose the sky and everything in it.  Flattened by our needs. Laid low because we lost the way to each other. 
The Chelsea Hotel

I was recently in New York City.  It had been a while since I was there, and one of the places I wanted to see is the Chelsea Hotel.  It is place of legends – successive and dramatic stories that played out in many of its rooms.  Dylan Thomas over imbibed and died there.  Pattie Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe lived there, beginning a life long love affair that lasted for decades.  Bob Dylan lived there and wrote “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” in room 211.  Sid Vicious stabbed his girlfriend Nancy Spungen to death in room 100.  He later died of a heroin overdose.  Leonard Cohen lived there and wrote a song about the place, in which he sang about his room and a dalliance with Janis Joplin that he later regretted.    Jack Kerouac wrote his infamous “On the Road” while on a three week drug fueled trip.  Arthur Miller suffered through his break-up from Marilyn Monroe while staying at the Chelsea.  Arthur C. Clarke found the inspiration to write “2001: A Space Odyssey” while living there.  Madonna called the place her home in the 1980’s. The lobby saw the likes of Andy Warhol, Allen Ginsberg, Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, the Grateful Dead, Velvet Underground and an ongoing cast of characters from the free-spirited and bohemian era that was then and now, but, for then, found its nesting place in the many rooms of the Chelsea Hotel.  The era still lives, but not at the Chelsea.  It has long since moved on.
Sadly, the Chelsea was recently sold.  The hundred or so residents still living there will have to soon relocate.  They will be bought off.  The Chelsea is to be remodeled along the lines of, according to the news, a “Holiday Inn-ish”style of structure.  A modestly priced motel.  A come and go kind of place.  A far cry from what the Chelsea once was and can never be again.
I understand that change is the name of the game.  Nothing stays the same forever. 
But I regret not visiting the Chelsea Hotel when I recently had the chance.  I asked where it was and was told that it was a good walk from where I presently was.  I should have followed my better instincts and hoofed on over there, just to take a look and maybe sit in the lobby and touch things, knowing that everything in the place is a second or third class relic.
But I had things to do, places to go.
People to see.
And I missed out. 
Well. There will be other times, other places that attract and breed the strange and mystifying world of art. 
I read that the Chelsea lost its allure a while back.  So say the newspaper stories about it.
So maybe I really did not miss anything.  But I wonder. It is a great thing that is passing, soon to be a flashy motel.  I should have sat in the place, and said a prayer of gratitude.
And then got up and looked for something just like it. 

Labor Day

Father Matt gave a homily on this past Labor Day about creation and the labor of God.   It was a beautiful homily in which he mentioned the six days of labor when God created the universe and all that is in it, and then how he rested on the seventh day.
My thoughts took off in several directions as he was speaking.  I mused over the word “labor” and I thought of the stories my mom used to tell me about her giving birth.  She gave birth to seven babies.  And over the years, I have heard my sisters tell of their ordeals with bringing their babies into the world.  For my mom and my sisters, it was a time of great joy and expectation – as it was for my dad and my sisters’ husbands.  But for a woman, the delivery of a baby is intimately personal, unique and profoundly beautiful.  It can also be painful, and a time filled with anxiety.
It is said that we are made in God’s image.  And I cannot think of any activity closer to the creative genius of God than the gestation of and giving birth to a baby (or babies).  Giving birth is a share in the very life and identity of the Divine.  Even the labor intensive activity that brings forth life is of God – God struggles and cries as life comes into this world.  God lives in all creatures – God is the source of life as well as its every manifestation.  AN infant’s first vague sense of tenderness is his or her first feeding.  It is the first sense that all of this is gift – the fruit of the labors of others.  We come from the labor of God and are sustained by it all through our lives.  And we are at our best when we labor to give life and well-being to others – especially to those who are born into circumstances of hardship, or deprivation.
There are times when we are most God-like when we are least conscious of it.  It may be good to bear that in mind when so much of our ideas about God have to do with chasing him with thoughts, theories, mental gymnastics of one type or another.  We assume that if we have the right thinking about God, we have him in our grasp.  But all the while, God has us in his – in the palm of his hand.
I was a twin and when we were born, I arrived first.  My mom used to tell me that she had no idea that she was carrying twins.  After I arrived, the doctor knew that my brother was not far behind.  He told mom that there was another baby and that he needed her help.  When she heard that there was another baby, she passed out.  And my brother arrived from her body into this world with a wail and the helping hands of the doctor.  Mom eventually awoke with two baby boys at her breasts.  And God was awake all the time, in her and in us and in the doctor - who all did the divine thing bringing God to life and bringing life to God.  It is all a mystery, rich and ongoing with wails and cries of joy.  How wondrous, this God who lives within us. 

Amy Winehouse

When someone dies young, the loss of youth adds to the grief felt by those who knew and loved the one who has died.  This was true of Amy Winehouse, the British singer who died over this past weekend.  I liked her music.  She was a gifted, sensitive person who sang in the traditions of Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald.  She was haunted by demons that would be hard to call “personal.”  Her struggles with drugs and alcohol were the fodder of the media the world over and many of her songs dealt with the themes of substance abuse. I watched her singing “Rehab” on the internet and watched it over and over.  It is a catchy tune.  It is sad to believe that she was singing about her own hard, and eventually lost, life. 
I was astounded when I read the comments posted on several websites.  Many were written from a sense of love, of sadness, of pain.  But there were too many written from a depraved sense of vindictiveness and meanness.  There were comments that were cruel, crude and grossly insensitive.  And these were from people who well knew of the struggle Ms. Winehouse had with abuse.  It is a tragedy that some people chose to continue the abuse, even after her death. 
I liked to watch her sing.  She had a nice smile and a way of looking at the audience as she sang one hit after another.  I winced when I saw a video of her recent appearance in Serbia.  She was out of control and was apparently booed off the stage.  It was a scene that begged for compassion, not judgment or ridicule.
People turn to gifted artists because they are capable of putting into artistic forms deep and beautiful things we all feel but cannot express.  Good things – and sad things.  Artists are at their best when we feel with them, and can laugh or hope or cry from a place in our hearts that we know is there but cannot normally reach without the aid of an artist’s gift.  An artist shares his or her life with us.  It can be a raw, vulnerable kind of sharing.  Amy Winehouse had that gift and she deserved more than the scorn and ridicule evidenced by the web site comments.  She was not able to find a way out of the labyrinth of the alcohol and drug fueled corridors that lead nowhere except dead ends.  And that was tragic.  It could happen to any one of us.
I look at the photos on the Internet of the flowers, notes, letters and mementos that are piling up outside of her London house.  There are also pictures of Vodka bottles, which was her favorite drink.  But even these were left by those who loved her, but may not have known what else to leave.  I can understand that.
What I do not understand are the comments I read on the Internet.  If those who wrote them ever heard her words and music, what they wrote does not show it.  What they wrote only shows how narrow and self-centered they are, people who watched the suffering of another human being and laughed, and when she died, wrote what they thought was smart or cool.  It wasn’t.  It was frightening, something ignorant and akin to something out of hell.  Amy Winehouse lived better than their words.  And she also wrote better, much better.  She left sadness and beauty behind.  She left something real, something that we all hope to cope with in this life. 
I hope she found the peace that was, in this life, beyond her grasp.  But in her reach for it, she touched the stars.   

Amie’s Card

I was recently to Coney Island, in Brooklyn, New York and I took a lot of pictures.  I made note cards out of some of the pictures and sent one to Amie, a long time friend of mine who lives in Staten Island – right across the Narrows from Brooklyn and, therefore, not all that far from Coney Island.  We have corresponded for as long as I can remember.
Amie wrote back to me and did so on a card that she made.  She wrote how much she liked my card. It brought back a lot of memories for her, for she used to go to Coney Island as a teenager and how she loved the fireworks that were set off every Tuesday night. 
She said my card is beautiful.  And so is hers.  It is card she made by hand.  She wrote all over the inside and back.  She could not write on the front, for that is adorned with little plastic colored beads on a background of deep blue. The beads are glued on in a fan like shape – not unlike the majestic tail of a peacock.  But they are more like a burst of fireworks on a long gone Tuesday night, on Coney Island.   It is a special card, one that I know was made with love and especially for me. 
I know that my card brought back good and warm memories for her.  I cannot remember exactly what photograph I used for the card – for I made a bunch of them.  Yet I like Amie’s better.  It brings back other memories to me, memories of all the times we have written to each other and how the letters and cards have carried so well the ups and downs of the human heart in its search for beauty, for goodness, for God.  Amie is an artist and has used her gift to bring the mystery of God to view – through pastels, slides, and, in the case of the card sitting here on my desk, little dazzling plastic orbs of color and arrangement.
She lets go her of art very easily.  She gives away a lot of it – and somehow it seems to move her to create more, to give away more. 
She recently told me that she will soon be heading to a Benedictine monastery in Erie, Pennsylvania for a stay.  I know some of the women there – and I know that Amie will be welcomed and loved.  The community there thrives on art and any artist is welcome. 
There are times I wonder if we have reached a point where words need a rest.  Have we exhausted them?   Maybe.  Words that try to seize mystery are woefully overburdened.  And so it is that art then takes the stage and has its “say.”  It communicates beauty in color, form, wonder – and it satisfies our restless need to create something near divine with whatever we have at our disposal.  And then some of us, like Amie, give it away.  I cannot express in words how much her friendship means to me.  I have learned so much from her – she is a traveler who is seeking the divine because somehow she has already found it.  And she won’t let it go.  She can do that – and still give it away. 

The Man from Mid-City

Many years ago I met a man in a New Orleans restaurant.  The name of the restaurant was Mike’s Mid-City CafĂ©.  The name of the man I have long forgotten, though I am pretty sure I have it here, in this room, on an old address list.  I have not lost the list.  It is, I like to think, just temporarily misplaced.  I had gone there that night to meet my cousin Steve and when I walked in, Steve was sitting at the bar.  I sat next to him and after we had a drink he told me he wanted me to meet a friend of his.  I said sure and asked where he was and Steve nodded toward a booth.  Sitting at the booth was a little man, very nicely dressed, reading from a book.  A beer sat in front of him on the table.  We walked over and Steve introduced me to him.  He invited us to sit.  I asked him what he was reading and he smiled and said, “You may have never heard of it.  It is a book called On the Nature of Things by Lucretius.  It is in Latin.”  I thought a bit and told him that I had heard of it.  In fact, I had read it and even translated it in college.  I did not tell him that.  As we chatted, he told me that he was a Latin teacher in the same school where Steve then taught.  We spoke a bit more, then thanked him for his conversation and headed back to the bar.  That was twenty years ago.  I never saw the man again, though I did write to him and we may have exchanged a few letters. 
I had a course on The Nature of Things while in college.  Back then, I was not overly impressed.  It was a mandatory course and I did not have the fervent love for the book that our teacher, Father O’Sullivan, had.  I remember him as very kind and very scholarly.  He later fell in love with a lady and shifted his sense of grammar from Latin to his love for her.  I thought that was pretty nice. 
I remember that there was a final exam.  It was to be a translation of Lucretius.  We were told that it would be a passage in Latin and we had to correctly translate it into near perfect English.  Jack Christell picked me up at my house at five in the morning and we drove over to Seton Hall.  The Student Center was not yet open, so we parked in the near empty and enormous lot.  We both smoked back then.  Jack smoked Raleigh cigarettes because his dad collected and then redeemed the coupons.  I smoked either Parliaments or Marlboros.  There were no coupons.  I liked the taste.  So we sat there in the car with a flashlight and clouds of smoke and memorized, word for word, the sections we were hoping would appear on the exam sheet.  I remember that it was cold and we had the car heater on full blast.  The heater was not that good.  We were still cold.
I do not remember what the text was.  I do remember that me and Jack guessed the right translation.  We both passed and even though I think Father O’Sullivan suspected that we memorized it, he never said anything.  We purposefully made a few minor mistakes to give the impression that we struggled through the test.  Maybe that worked.
Years passed.  Jack and I entered the seminary.  Roughly two years after we entered, Jack began to show signs of depression.  He went for therapy, then began a regimen of drugs, but his condition worsened and he had to leave the seminary. He returned home and took what began to be a string of low-income jobs.  We exchanged letters but he eventually stopped writing.  One morning I found a fax at my table here at the monastery.  Jack had taken his own life – he hung himself in the house where he grew up and where, by that time, he lived alone.  I felt terrible that I had not kept up with him. 
I would see Steve every time I went to New Orleans, which was often in those days.  And he would make it a point to see me in my various locales.  He visited me in every place I lived over the years, including here, at the monastery.  I loved him like a brother.  He was so easy to be with, though his three wives may not agree with me.  But he weathered all that well.  We would sit and chat for hours about the nature of the church, war and politics, love and loss, the past and the future….well, the nature of things.
He passed away a few months ago.  He had a severe diabetic condition and succumbed to the gradual weakening of his body.  I could not go to the funeral – we are limited to such things – but I know he would have understood that.  I like to think we were there for each other when it mattered.  He was a good and faithful friend.  He shared friendship with such a seeming ease and joy.
I think I found the man’s name.  The man in the booth from a long time ago.  I found the list.  Actually, it was right next to me in a pile of papers.  I had a hunch it was there.  His name was Lane Zellerman.  It was obvious that he loved books, loved the past, loved history.  I liked him.  Looking back, I am glad he found his passion.  Steve told me that he never married.  His first love was the written word and all that he could give to it and it to him.
In this morning’s New York Times there is a review of a book that brought all this to mind. The name of the book is Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Steve Greenblatt.  On the Nature of Things and old Lucretius figure prominently in the mapping of the book.  Among other things, Greenblatt is indebted to the ancient text of Lucretius as well as its history.  Looks to be a good read.  I am not sure I will get to it – I may have already benefitted from it.  But, I may get it.  One never knows.
Memories came back to me as I read the review.  Some good and some sad ones. 
We all struggle with this life, with the nature of life as it blesses us, wounds us, casts us aside.  There are moments when hope seems as close as breathing and other times when it seems gone, never again to come back.  It always does, if we wait for it.
Lucretius dispensed with the need for a God to give all this plausibility.  And for him it worked. 
And that is good.
For me, life has been a series of hits and misses.  Some days I get it, other days I don’t.  The best I can figure, even Jesus relied on the common grace of friendship to get him through tough times.  No big answers, just friends.
Friends you meet other friends with.  Friends who share a drink or two in a bar.  Friends who share a cold morning, memorizing some old words that may still ring true.  I think of the nature of things all the time.  And discuss it with my friends.  And share what I can with you. 


Slab City

His name is Dave and he is ninety-years old.  I recently read an interview with him that appeared in The Sun Magazine. He lives in a place called Slab City, a squatter’s community located on a desolate swath of South California desert.  Cement slabs are all that remain of a former military base.  They serve as foundations for the tents, old buses, vans and other makeshift dwellings.  Nearby, there is a bombing range.  Military aircraft fly overhead every day to practice military maneuvers, including dropping bombs.

In the interview, he said “I have not done a damn thing with my life except staying alive.”  After living at the slabs for ten years, he felt he needed more solitude and moved his camp a mile farther out into the desert. He has a commanding view of the bombing range.

Attached to the walls of the near wreck of a motor home he calls his house are prints of Van Gogh’s Bedroom in Arles and the Potato Eaters.  Stacks of books are everywhere: Thomas Wolfe, Cormac McCarthy, Truman Capote.  He recently started writing and is always striving for perfection in his work.  “Oh, it can never be achieved, he said, “but it must be the goal.”

That is pretty much all I know about Dave.  But I like what little I know.  He may have been down and out for most of his life, but he persists in something.  He strives to write well.  I hope he succeeds.  I hope he finds peace in the crafting of words on paper, words about his life, his hopes, his failures, his efforts to do well.  Writing necessarily entices one to search for meaning.  Dave is at work on the most important and rewarding search in life.  He is doing more than merely staying alive. 

None of us do much in this life, though most of us live with the burden or the illusion of making a big dent in life, far more than the small indent of a word or two on paper.

The woman in the gospel is persistent.  She has nothing but her need to press Jesus again and again for help.  He gradually listens to her, and responds with care.

A miracle happens.

We can do nothing more effective than prayer.  It may seem at times futile, but something strange and ultimately good comes from it.  Maybe not today, or tomorrow, and the response may differ radically from what we asked for.  But even the lowly among us know how small are our efforts but how necessary our willingness to have a goal, to try and give something of ourselves to the God who will someday lift us from the slabs of life to something lasting, an eternal home. 

I suppose the typical American dream is to own a big house in a real nice area, what one might call an “upscale” area.  Huge homes with gatehouses, pools, plenty of acreage.  Maybe I am wrong.  But it seems that the media holds up such places as the most desirable.
When I was in the northeast not too long ago, I traveled to Brooklyn almost every day for the two weeks I was there.  I took the train and subway and one day went as far as Coney Island.  But most days I went to the Lutheran Medical Center to see my aunt, who was hospitalized there.  She spent several weeks there and then moved on to a rehabilitation facility.  She is doing better these days.
The Lutheran Medical Center is the place where I was born.  It is located on 2nd Avenue and 56th Street, in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn.  My aunt tells me that years ago, the area was heavily Swedish.  Then, as time passed, other ethnic groups moved in – mostly Irish and Italians.  They eventually moved on and now, from what I was able to see, the area is heavily Latino. In the hospital, there are directional signs in several languages – English, Spanish, Arabic and Russian.  There is also a sign directing people to the Chinese section of the hospital.
I would walk the several blocks from the subway to the hospital and loved what I saw.  There were kids playing in the streets and sidewalks.  There is a park near the hospital and kids were there, too, in abundance.  Their mothers sat and watched them, chatting with each other as the kids had all kinds of fun, spraying each other from a fountain, skipping rope, playing ball.  An ice cream and hot dog van was parked right outside the gate and did a brisk business. 
The area is very residential.  There are mainly row houses.  There were little gardens in front of many of them, with statues of the Virgin Mary and flowers in some of the gardens.  People sat on the steps, chatting away the morning.  There were stores, too, up on the main avenue.  All kinds of stores.  Small grocery stores and coffee shops with counters.  There were flower shops and hair salons, store-front churches and newspaper stores.  Liquor stores and cleaners, clothing shops and vegetable stands.  All of these had windows that were wonderfully decorated.  I took some pictures of them.  The streets were teeming with life.  I felt safe walking around.  One day, there was a large crowd – there was a ball game and just outside the small field was a food bazaar.  Vendors were there, seemingly representing every nationality and food.  I walked through the area slowly and was amazed at the variety of languages and dress.  Yet everyone got along – it actually had a natural feel to it, all the differences being gathered on a street in Brooklyn.  It was beautiful. 
There is such richness to Brooklyn.  My thoughts have returned there often since I returned here, to Georgia.  Admittedly, I have a bias.  I think of those kids on the Brooklyn streets who are learning so much from each other – they are picking up their “street smarts.”  May what they learn serve them, and us, well.
The big churches up there are not doing well.  People cannot relate to the old, established style of religion.  Life goes on – they are finding their own, the best they can. God comes through for them and in them.  He lives in the untypical, the places we somehow have forgotten and moved away from.  He is here, too, in the homes that have big pools.  But something tells me he is harder to find there.   

The Magic Coins

I had just missed my train.  I stood on the platform watching the rear car as it slowly moved away.  I was the only person there – everyone else had been on time and was on the train. 
I stood there.  The next train would be coming soon.  So I sat down and waited.  Suddenly I heard a high whine sound, like the kind of noise you hear coming from an electronic device, and then I heard the clanging of what sounded like coins hitting the tray in a Las Vegas slot machine.  I turned and located the source of the noise.  For some reason, one of the ticket machines was disgorging a bunch of coins.  I got up and went over and looked in amazement as the coins kept coming.  Then the jingle jangle clinky clink stopped.  I looked around.  No one was there.  The best I could figure was that a person had that money coming to them but had to board the last train, and could not wait for the machine to cough up.  So, I reached in and gathered the coins, which amounted to about fifteen dollars.  I did not know that there were dollar coins.  But there are and I had them.  So, I made out good that day.  The Lord giveth, and then the Lord giveth again.  The Lord took my train but then the coins came.  I was delayed, but happy.  Happily delayed.
Some people think that God sends such things our way.  So it is that some people think that the Lord sent the coins and that the Lord somehow made me late for the train.  Frankly, I get confused when I try and line things up along such providential lines.   It seems to me that God does not bother himself with whatever comes down the chute of a ticket machine or what comes and goes on the track. 
But I do think that God is in everything, is everywhere, is early and late, and jingles and jangles all that the same time.  He is with the winner and the loser, all at once and forever.  He is the penny in your pocket and the millions in the bank.  He is every container imaginable and the best thing we can learn to do is empty ourselves and fill whatever empty space we find in life with love, with attentiveness, with hope. 
The universe was once a void.
God made a hole in it, and filled it with life, with us, with ticket machines and late trains.
At least I like to think that way.
Now I know someone is out fifteen bucks.  The best I can figure, that person slid a twenty-dollar bill into the machine for a five dollar ticket and the machine stalled and the train came and the person got on and probably cursed the machine when it seemingly ate the change.
But then I came along and so did the coins.
Our paths will surely never cross again, me and that on-time rider.
I feel I owe something to him or her.
I believe God lives in everyone.  Maybe in a roundabout way, I can give fifteen dollars to a needy person.  I often see them in big cities.  And maybe with that money he or she will buy a ticket to a favorite destination, and be late for that train, and will hear the same jingle jangle clinky clink and take the money and feel they owe somebody. 
Maybe that is the way salvation works.  Give away the excess in the hope that others catch a ride.  It may work, all the way to heaven.  Maybe that is how we all get to heaven, win or lose, early or late.