Tuesday, July 19, 2016

A Day with Jeff

July, 2016: For Aunt Sally and Uncle John

Part I

You know about this day already, December 24, 1987.

You know about it as the corned beef fondue day. But it’s also noteworthy because it represented something unusual: two of the cousins and their cohorts met, not at Bristol Hills, Annapolis or Darien, but literally on the other side of the world. Manly Beach, New South Wales, Australia.

But while, like you, I look back on this day with humor and nostalgia, memories of it stir up certain other feelings in me, feelings about Jeff. Because this day changed me, and changed my relationship with Jeff.

It was Christmas Eve, and yet I was still working at the boatyard. I think they must have let me off early, because it was still broad daylight as I approached our spartan beach apartment. It was going to be a strange Christmas season, I supposed, alone with my friend Henry on the other side of the world.

Imagine my surprise when I opened the door to find Jeff, Ross and Mark lounging about. Newly in Australia, they’d gotten the address from my mother. Showing up, we were not home, and so they simply broke in. Boy, was I elated! Henry would be home soon, and we were going to have a party.

Parties were the order of the day in Australia. Henry and I had a three bedroom apartment, and probably could have used the rent from a third roommate. In the meantime, our third bedroom served as a giant trash can; we filled it up with empty cases of Foster’s and Victoria Bitter. Less trips to the curb.

But before the party, we spent some time catching up, filling in the months since we’d last seen each other. Then we set about planning our next few days. Dinner was to be Fondue Bourguignonne, a Christmas Eve family tradition for Jeff and me, to which everyone readily agreed. I was surprised to find that consensus for the next order of business was not a party, but rather Christmas Eve mass. They’d even found a church, if memory and Google serve, St. Matthew’s Anglican Church on Darly Road, not a mile down the beach. Then home for a nightcap. The next day, we’d find a soccer field and play a scrimmage. The following day, the three world travelers would continue on their way around Australia and then on to New Zealand.

I can’t remember who did the shopping but I’m sure you know how the fondue turned out. The fiasco ended just in time for us to get ready for church, a more somber and orderly affair.

Having only been to an Episcopal church, and knowing very little about the various Christian denominations, I was surprised and delighted to find the Anglican mass reassuringly familiar. The liturgy was the same, word for word, and I could sing every hymn by heart, or at least the first verse.

During which hymn exactly I can’t remember - it was probably Hark the Herald Angels Sing - but at some point I started to cry. And it wasn’t just any cry. Some crys are just tears and matters of the face and eyes. Others, more important ones, epic ones, start below your diaphragm, in your gut, and emanate up. They dominate your breathing, and, importantly, make singing impossible. This was an epic one.

I was confused and embarrassed. I couldn’t be crying - I was a man! A man on a manly trip to Australia! And yet here I was, standing in a pew with my big cousin and his two graduate friends, crying like a sissy. I stifled the sounds and fumbled with my hymnal, trying to make it seem that I’d lost my place and didn’t know the words. Someone leaned his hymnal toward me so I could see, but I bowed my head and shuffled through the pages of my own while I tried to get a hold of myself.

I don’t know how long it lasted, or whether anyone in the Church was aware of my struggle, but the rest of the service was a blur as I sat, stood, and kneeled in a red-faced stupor. Some complicated brew of emotions had gotten hold of me and would not let go. Mercifully, by the end of the service I’d mostly regained my composure, and I walked home with the others, each jolly in a strange, antipodean Christmas mood.

While my first, adolescent reaction to the situation that night was rejection and humiliation, I’ve thought deeply and more honestly about it many times since. The truth is that I was a very young man in a place far, far away who’d essentially been coddled since birth. But then I showed up in Sydney with no job, no college degree, very little money, and only my wits and gumption to make it through the year. While it was most certainly thrilling, it was probably more than a little stressful, whether I knew it then or not.

Today, I can almost feel the longing in my bones as I approached my apartment that day and pondered Christmas mostly alone and so far from my family. It was a longing for home, but also for comfort, for familiarity, for ease and for security, none of which I had.

So, let’s think, and be honest: if you had to be far, far away from home, what is it that might comfort you, be familiar to you, and give you a warm feeling of security?

Well, for starters, how about Hark the Herald Angels Sing? Or, Oh Come All Ye Faithful? Or Silent Night?

And, to continue the analogy, what else would you want to be happening as you were singing these hymns so far, far away? Would it matter what the church looked like, or what the people were wearing, or the accent of the preacher or the temperature outside? Probably not.

But it might make a difference who was in the pew with you. And if you craved home, comfort, security and familiarity, what kind of person would you want by your side?

If you had to build from scratch a person who was capable of providing a sense of home and comfort and security and familiarity, what would that person be like?

Well, there is nothing that you know so viscerally as home. So this person would have to know the very foundations of your soul, and you, his. He would have to have been witness to your wants, desires, pursuits, foibles, excesses and conceits, perhaps from as early as the day you began to walk.

He would be comfortable with all of these things, and refuse to judge them. This might be important, for instance, if your conceits sometimes exceeded your achievements. This person would nurture the admirable qualities in you, and forgive those which were less praiseworthy.

He would find humor in those small things in life which might make lesser men feel ignoble. He would take this humor, born from something inane, or gross, or simply silly, and expand it, so that it provided joy to everyone around him.

He would provide comfort to you by letting you know that he cared. When he asked you a question about your goings-on, he would listen, carefully, as if he were really interested in the answer, rather than just having a conversation. If he didn’t understand something you said, or didn’t understand your motivation, he would dig deeper and deeper until he got it. Then he would confirm that he understood, and implicitly give his consent to your desires.

He would provide familiarity by possessing in his brain an encyclopedic catalog of all the things which are most important to you: the stories, jokes, peculiarities and rhythms that make a family a family. He would discuss these things with reverence, and very rarely or perhaps never with a critical tone. Things unpleasant or malevolent would rarely merit a mention, and even then, usually only as a means to highlight other, more exemplary qualities of the person in question.

He may provide security by being older and wiser, perhaps only by a little bit, but enough to make a difference, even if it’s all relative. His sagacity would be only be heightened by the gentleness of his soul, because it’s harder to take advice from someone who bangs violently about life rather than someone who has made peace with the world.

This person, the one whom you’d built from scratch to provide home, comfort, security and familiarity, is Jeff. Jeff was everything good that day. He was a bowl of chili on a cold and snowy ski day. He was PB&J. He was mom. He was a favorite blanket. He was dad giving a piggy-back ride. He was everything gentle and good.

Combined with Hark the Herald Angels Sing, it was too much for me, and I cried. I’ve since learned that this kind of thing is normal and human, and I’m happy that I got to experience it, and glad that it shines in the memories of my times with Jeff.

Part II

When we got home after church that night, the party was more subdued than usual. There was no Quarters or Whales Tails or even a round of Oh Hell!. We just sat around drinking Foster’s, talking about life and travel and, as the night wore on, a few of the Really Big Questions.

Having known Jeff so intimately for so many years, I was surprised to learn that he and his friends were each reading the Bible as they traversed the world. I found it odd, and a little bit fascinating. At the time, I was reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance - a profoundly silly book - and I realized that I’d always known Jeff as child, and I was now learning about him as a man.

We talked late into the night, and the more we talked, the more I learned that my cousin was truly a man of faith. Of course I’d known that Jeff and his family had been going to church all of our lives, as mine had from time to time. But his commitment was on another level compared to most people I knew. Again, I was fascinated, and even a little bit jealous.

Eventually, we went to sleep. We got up and played that soccer game, and then Jeff and his friends departed. I was sad to see them go, but knew that they had a busy itinerary  before reaching Darien the following summer.

That was 1987. Since, I’ve gone on to complete my own Australian adventure, graduated from college and graduate school, saw the passing of my grandparents, met my life’s love and married, had four children, watched one of them die in my arms, watched three of them grow and flourish, attempted to instill in them the virtues I deem most important, and, along the way, tried to make sense of the world and my place in it.

In short, ever since, I have been presented with a steady stream of events which would cause me to reexamine the Really Big Questions. Questions like, “What’s It All About?”, and “At the End of the Day, Where Are We Really Going?”

And I have to admit that all along the way, the edge of my conscience has always been aware of, and a little bit jealous of, Jeff and his faith.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I have my own version of faith. It has been instrumental at times, particularly when our son Nicholas died. At that time and ever since, I have always been convinced that God’s greatest gift to mankind was the promise of eternal life.

But my version of faith has always been complicated and fickle. It relies on a definition of God which, while philosophically satisfying, is difficult and inaccessible. It’s hampered by caveats and requires the suspension of certain disbeliefs. It is fleeting, appearing sometimes when necessary, but requiring work to reinstate at other times.

But Jeff’s faith, the one I heard about that night in 1987, was simple and elegant. It relied on the familiar and the accessible. It proceeded from the God that we all know. And although I never spoke to him again like that night, by some twinkle in his eye or some other mysterious nonverbal communication, I have always known that Jeff’s faith was constant.

I received a call from Tom in the fall of 2011 after Jeff’s surgery had gone badly. What little hope we had seemed to be fading. Jeff was entering a fight of indeterminate length, but of certain outcome. After battling the shock and grief of this news which knocked the wind out of me, I was able to reflect a bit on Jeff and his circumstances. And over the coming weeks and months, a recurrent thought floated about in my conscience. It battled with fear and resentment and anger, but it kept coming back. In the end, this idea prevailed. It said: “Jeff is going to be OK.”

For who better to enter such a fight with grace, courage and strength, than a person who, for others, seems to be tailor-made to provide a sense of home, comfort, security and familiarity, and who, for himself, seems to possess a simple, elegant, accessible and constant faith?

Who better indeed?

Bon vent, Jeff!

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Travel Notes from Czech Republic

·       Nice Place: The Czech Republic is a clean, upbeat interesting country whose best days are probably ahead.

·       The Best Kind of Tour Guide:  If you visit a former Eastern bloc country, I recommend spending more than just a few minutes with a resident who is at least middle age. We visited a plant an hour north of Brno, which itself is a three-hour drive from the Prague airport. Our host was kind enough to pick us up and drive the entire way, giving us plenty of time to hear the Czech Republic’s history from his point of view. Within three generations, the Czech Republic went from being a happy and prosperous part of the Austro-Hungarian empire to being at the geographic center of World War I, then being sold out to Hitler by Chamberlain et al. in the Munich Agreement, invaded by the Nazis a short time later, consigned to totalitarianism with 1948’s Communist Party coup d’├ętat, occupied by the Soviets in 1968, released from Soviet rule when the wall came down, finally achieving independence as the Czech Republic in 1993. It’s a fascinating history, and almost anyone with a reasonably-sized family will have incredible stories to tell.

·       Capitalism = Colorful; Communism = Grey:  We travelled for several hours through the countryside where tiny towns with a steeple in the center dotted emerald green rolling hills. On occasion, we’d spy a Soviet-era monolith, but for the most part the stone and brick houses were small, quaint and colorful. Our host admitted that if we’d made the same drive thirty years ago, everything would have been grey. People did not have enough money back then to take care of their homes. Now, people are repointing their mortar, painting exteriors and taking care of their property.

·       Politics is Dirty: When speaking about politics in the Czech Republic (and perhaps any other former member of the Soviet Union) invariably the conversation turns to corruption. The good news is that corruption is on the wane in Czeckia (that’s the government’s new popular name for itself). But people are sorrowful about crooked pols.

·       Sold!: During the Soviet era, everything (everything!) of substance was owned by the state. Farms, power and water companies, consumer products companies, everything. When the Soviets relinquished control and liberal democracy took hold, there was a great push to privatize everything. In the first years of its new power, the government undertook a clever but complicated scheme to sell all of these things to the public. Each resident received, for free, an equal amount of virtual currency which could only be used to purchase shares in the farms, companies and other enterprises up for auction. People could choose which shares to buy, including the farms upon which they toiled, or the companies for which they worked. Of course certain companies had greater prospects than others, so some shares shot up dramatically, and some shares floundered and eventually went to zero. If you picked well, you could end up a millionaire. If you chose badly, you could end up destitute. In fact, this is what happened. The plan, which sounded so fair, turned out to be not so equitable in the end. Further compounding the problem, the auction itself was compromised in various ways by those crooked pols. The people seem to be happy that the privatizations took place, but less sanguine about the way it was done.

·       Empty Pews: There are beautiful old churches everywhere in the Czech Republic. But apparently they’re empty. Czeckia has the highest percentage of atheists in the world. Two generations of Soviet rule made it so. Most people during the Soviet era held jobs, in factories, farms, or as nurses or school teachers. The government would pay a modest stipend to these workers so they could eat. The government never declared churches off-limits or confiscated the chapels. But apparently, if the government ever caught wind that a family was taking its children to church on Sundays, they would simply stop paying the stipend. Church attendance plummeted. After thirty years, the pews were empty.

·       Eye Candy: Here are some pictures from Prague.