08 September 2008

Wednesday, Part One

My first year in seminary, I would travel into the city each Wednesday for what we call "field education," referred to in a bygone day as "apostolate," to carry out some form of service in the local community. It certainly had value as service, but I experienced it as a healthy way to keep our feet on the ground and make sure we don't get too stir-crazy going to classes all week long. It's a good balance to our academic and spiritual formation. The following was one of a couple different stories I wrote about one Wednesday in particular; seminary starting again reminded me of them and I thought I'd post them to get me off the hook from coming up with something original the first week of classes.

Enjoy! I'll post the next one in a little while.


Among the many things I’ve noticed as I’ve grown older is how infrequently I laugh. There was a time in my life when it was rare that I did not find myself doubled up over some foolishness, especially when in the company of those further along on the march – which, happily, seemed like just about everyone. The world was new and fresh enough to my youthful perspective that the slightest hint of a jaded or cynical outlook caught me off guard. When in the sixth grade, I would sputter and choke at eighth graders’ open defiance of authority. When in high school, the thought of the college student’s lackadaisical life, pompous and derisive of this or that professor, or class, or author was comical in its unfamiliarity. When home from college over the summer, working with blue collar tradesmen, the descriptions of their home lives, the relationships with their bosses and wives, their life-philosophies did not measure up with what I thought was appropriate for men of that age, and so, bewildered, laughter was all I could come up with. At the risk of sounding a little too philosophical, laughter was how wonder at people’s loss of a sense of meaning found its way to the surface. Not that I was aware of it then. Thankfully, my instinctual response was more disarming than anything.

Though there seemed to be no shortage of such opportunities to ignite my seemingly boundless mirth, these days encounters like these are more depressing than anything–not only because of their monotonous frequency, but because I sense the possibility for their settling into my own life. When I find myself genuinely laughing, as I did when a bit younger and more susceptible to the absurd, it’s refreshing. The dross is, from some hidden surface, buffed away and the luster is freed from beneath.

This week has been one of much laughter.

Breakfast has been with a handful of seminarians who have all by chance ended up around the same table each morning. A rich eruption of guffaws would boom through the subdued atmosphere of the refectory as it took its first meal of the day, like a lab reaction that had gone haywire. Echoing across the glassy smoothness of the nearby lake, a groggy heron or two was sent squawking into the air, flapping resentfully.

Mornings are always more likely times for mirth. At morning prayer, the chants were intoned by Drew, a late vocation who had spent ten years as a Chicago cop. The formal, Hebraic poetry acquired a new grandeur as it was recited in his South side accent. My insides twisted up as unusally forceful snorts and splutters clutched at me.

At breakfast today, the man of the hour was Ben, a seminarian from the upper peninsula of Michigan. Ben has the same inexhaustible storytelling ability as the sort possessed by my relatives of eastern Wisconsin, and the same accent. Bright eyes burned attentively above a thick, brown beard with streaks of clay and a round belly they call the Milwaukee Goiter. It’s common knowledge that the remote surroundings of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula attract many remarkable types; Ben has a number of stories of the unique individuals that inhabit that place. Among them, Otto, a neighbor of his, occupies a notable place. Otto has a number of exploits to his name, but of importance to us is the Day Otto Fed His Garden.

Otto is quite the outdoorsman, and outdoorsmen of this part of the country pride themselves upon their ability to keep in check animal populations that, without salutary and benevolent management, would multiply themselves with such ferocity that entire ecosystems would be no doubt rapidly annihilated in the ensuing feeding frenzy. This particular day, Otto has been plucking carp (commonly regarded as a pest) from the native waters at a pace commensurate with a woodsman of his skill and experience; that is to say, the water level of the lake in question is dropping at a noticeable rate in proportion to the loss of carp volume. With a reckless abandon matched only by stunt drivers and soldiers who’ve lost the will to live, Otto continues his haul with no regard for what he’s going to do with all these massive fish, flopping pathetically in the bed of his pickup. This is not important to Otto; he is a man of principle. The delicate balance of nature must be maintained, however dire the consequences might be.

Soon, Otto tires. Even sinewy woodsmen like Otto tire! He is, of course, a man of principle; it will not do simply to let these fish lie. They must serve their purpose in the circle of life: how, he cannot say. He is but nature’s humble servant; she will reveal her inscrutable purposes in her own good time. For now, the carp come home with Otto.

His ‘82 Chevy rumbles into the housing development, laden with prey. Carp are no good to eat though they can grow to be quite large fish. Surveying his lot, admiring his massive flower and vegetable garden with satisfaction as he muses over the problem of the carp, something is triggered … Blurry connections begin to form in his head.

As the earthy reek of fish guts mingled with two-stroke exhaust slowly permeates the neighborhood, one by one people come to their doors to investigate the persistent source of their discomfort. Very quickly do they learn it. For from not far down the street comes the sound of a small engine laboring under a heavy load, and the sight of Otto loading carp into his ten-horsepower chipper/shredder. Ragged, meaty fish parts chunk out the chute into a wheelbarrow. Fish too large for the hopper are cut to size with a chainsaw. And Otto, clad in running shorts, aglow with the vision of eight foot vines heavy with produce, calls out over the throb of the machine with all the certainty of a prophet:

“It might smell like fish now, but in a few weeks you’ll be smellin’ my roses!”

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