Wilderness Wandering

Matthew presents Jesus wandering in the wilderness, sent by the Holy Spirit to be tempted by the devil, who is introduced to the narrative as The Tempter. Traditionally, the Church has liturgically connected the temptation of Jesus to the temptation of Adam and Eve (Genesis 3) and, subsequently, to Paul’s discourse on Adam contrasted to the One Man (Romans 5). Sometimes the Church has paired the temptation with David slaying Goliath (1 Samuel 17). Thus the Church generally has understood the temptation of Jesus to be an embodiment of some other significant event, drawing it out of its historical bonds of unbelievable, legendary, indeed, mythical storytelling, into the cosmic realm of timeless applicability.

Even so, it appears Matthew is guiding his reader to pair the temptation of Jesus with the Israelites’ wandering in the wilderness. In fact, if you read it this way, the wilderness wandering is transformed from being a tale of rebellion and grace–or a tale of mere rebellion and grace–to a full development of the struggle of the One Man against the satanic forces. Israel, indeed, is the One Man.

I am reminded of my first religion course, in which I enrolled as a wee lad of eighteen, fully knowledgeable in all things, offended that I had to convince a soulless institution of that fact. As a lifelong church goer, what in the bible could I possibly not know? A merciful professor was he, and he heaped mercy upon me and those like me with a quiz, a quiz given one week before the final exam. This quiz stood as the first and only mark going into the final exam. Of the ten questions submitted to us, a simple reading comprehension quiz, I was able to answer only one. Therefore, I was going into the final exam–pardon me–The Final Exam with a mark of ten percent, far below my expected A plus plus plus. Sufficiently chastised, I went to my dorm room, fetched my bible from its place on the floor behind the university-supplied bookshelf, tore off the cellophane wrapping, cracked open the spine, and read the sections our tender-hearted professor had assigned.

After the exam, which I managed to pass with ease, I stayed to speak with the professor, excited by the narratives which had engaged me for the first time in memory. “Boy,” I said. “Those Israelites really did deserve judgment, didn’t they?”

I had in mind all their sins and rebellions which commenced almost immediately after the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea. “Yahweh is a mighty warrior!” they cried out in exultation. “He has thrown the horse and its rider into the sea!” They rejoiced and celebrated this victory given to them by the Lord with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, rejoicing, at least for the moment, before they turned to face their new freedom, this life in the visible presence of a personal and fiery God.

“Would that we had died by the hand of Yahweh back in Egypt, where we sat beside meat pots, and we ate bread to our fill!” This is how they remembered the Iron Furnace: meat pots and bread, all the comforts of home, not the cruel slave drivers forcing them to make bricks without straw.

If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread. “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word which comes out of the mouth of God.'”

Surely the Israelites have fallen to temptation here, failing to trust God. But are they condemned? The One Man received bread from heaven. “What is it?” they called it, the substance which was like a wafer made with honey, a down payment on the milk and honey they were about to inherit.

But not without more temptation. God called Moses up to the mountaintop to talk about this arrangement of God dwelling in his destructive glory in the very midst of the people, that is, they talked of building a protective tabernacle to shelter the Israelites, but of such a kind that God might be there in plain view. Well, an arrangement like that is going to take some time to hammer out, forty days, in fact, a type of the forty days of Jesus’ time in the wilderness. The Israelites became terribly impatient and built for themselves an idol. They threw off all inhibition and threw a party for this golden calf.

This one stung God. He told Moses that he wasn’t going to go with them. Moses, of course, interceded, begging God to come with them or else they would all die, and then what would the nations say?

If you are the Son of God, throw yourself from the pinnacle of this Temple. “It is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.'”

Surely the Israelites have fallen to temptation here, putting their God to the test with this bacchanal to an idol they made with their own hands, and a series of other tests, known as the Bronze Serpent, the Rebellion of Korah, the Complaining at Meribah, the Twelve Spies, and many more. Even Moses managed to test his God so that he earned himself a ban from entering the Promised Land. But are they condemned? God listened to Moses, and after the tabernacle is constructed, he descended from his heights to dwell in the midst of the One Man, fully revealed in his glory, leading them personally to their Promised Land.

But not without more temptation. On the cusp of inheriting the Promised Land, the Moabite women came calling. They must have been absolutely drop-dead gorgeous, sweet as honey, nice as pie. All the Israelites had to do to eat their peaches was to bow down to their gods. Without hesitation, they did eat and they did bow the knee to the Moabite gods. Twenty-four thousand Israelites were struck with plague and died.

All these nations and all their glory I will give to you if you throw yourself down and worship me. “Begone Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.'”

Surely the Israelites have fallen to temptation here, bowing the knee to the gods of the nations. But are they condemned? The One Man enters the Promised Land, and the process of inheritance begins in full force, with Yahweh the mighty warrior picking up where he left off at the Red Sea.

How disappointing to The Tempter! All that evidence, and the witness of heaven and earth to the red-handed sinners, but no condemnation! How can this be?

“Boy,” I said to my professor. “Those Israelites really did deserve judgment, didn’t they?”

He looked at me through little round glasses, thick-lensed, which caught the fluorescent classroom lighting in such a way that his eyes always looked like they were laughing, but his countenance was otherwise stern, projecting dour and trustworthy wisdom.

“David,” he said. “The Israelites paint a picture of your heart. You are the Israelites. The Israelites are you.”

I slumped into my chair. My life was changed.

In this way I see the world and everything that goes on in it.

In the wilderness with Jesus is in the wilderness with the Israelites, distilled to forty days for intensity: the stakes are not a little Ancient Near Eastern nobody people with a bizarre blood cult, the stakes are all the nations of the world.

Perfectionism

Old Earl–I saw this with my own eyes–Old Earl leaned down to put his face into his wife’s face–I was in the kitchen with them, just the three of us. They were sharing an early-evening snack with me. I was visiting as a friend of the family. She leaned back against the kitchen sink when he did this. He leaned down to put his face into his wife’s face, which fell, and a little fear came into her eyes, realizing that she had provoked her husband. I recognized the face.

Her daughter, my friend, had been ill and in the hospital, and while I was visiting her, the doctor came in to deliver bad news, seriously bad news: surgery and a very long recovery, along with an abrupt change of lifestyle. Her face expressed wonder girded up by fear and framed by anger.

I think her mother’s expression was anger slow-cooked over the course of several decades so that her face was now expressing tired rage. Nevertheless, she shrank because his own expression overpowered her resentment.

They called him Ole E which took me forever to understand as a diminutive for Old Earl and not Olie. They called him that, being a long-time president of a local, and under his leadership the local had grown, never experiencing any scandals with money or other kinds of abuse. He was telling his wife what time and where the great-grandkids’ soccer games were that evening. He went outside to take care of something in the yard. His wife relaxed and came to me, setting a bag of powdered doughnuts before me. I indulged.

“Do you have any children?” she asked.

“Two,” I said. “Two boys, 10 and 8.”

“I had two boys,” she said. “And a girl. Do you take them to church?”

“Almost every Sunday,” I said.

“Do you dress them up?”

“What?”

She looked at me, then she said. “I remember dressing the kids for church every Sunday. We would walk to church. Church is only three blocks from here, so we walked. It didn’t make much sense to start the car just for a three block drive. We walked to church every Sunday.”

“But you drive now?”

“Three blocks is an awful long way when you’re as old as we are.”

I wolfed another powdered doughnut. “I’ll bet,” I said.

“I used to press the boys’ pants into perfect creases, every Sunday morning, and then I hung them over the easy chair until just before we left for church. Do you know why  I did that?”

“No,” I said, licking the powdered sugar off my fingers.

“Every Sunday, right after I pressed the creases into the boys’ pants, I would do Lucy’s hair, so that the curls would be just right. It seemed to me that just about every time I was pulling the bow into her hair, trying to set it perfect, the boys would start wrestling on the living room floor.”

“Oh, I get it,” I said. “They’d mess up the creases in their pants.”

“That’s right,” she said. “So I started hanging their pants over the easy chair.” She laughed. “Such a funny memory: the boys in their underwear, a shirt, and a tie, wrestling on the living room floor. I lost my voice almost every Sunday morning, screaming at them to settle down.”

I wished at that moment I had had a little brother, or even a big brother, to wrestle with on Sunday mornings.

“Earl taught them to polish their shoes, and we made them polish their shoes every Sunday morning while I got Lucy’s hair right. Oh, I remember her glossy black shoes, Mary Janes!”

“Mary Janes?” I asked.

“Buckle shoes,” she said.

“Oh.”

“They slipped right over her perfectly white Sunday tights, and she walked so tall and so proud, leading the way to church. I can still see it to this day: we showed the whole neighborhood what a good Christian family looks like!”

“Lucy?” I asked.

“Yes,” she replied.

“Lucy doesn’t look like someone who ever wore white tights and black Mary Janes.”

“People nowadays have no respect for church. If they even go, they wear jeans and crumpled t-shirts, like they just rolled out of bed to meet the Holy Lord Almighty.” She shook her head.

One day, by invitation, I walked the path from Ole E’s house to the church, the full three blocks under the gaze of the whole neighborhood and God himself. It wasn’t a Sunday, but there was stuff going on. In fact, there was a hive of activity, busy little religious bees buzzing about, setting up tables for a fundraiser of some sort, baskets and displays emerging like so many six-sided cells. Over in one corner of the comb, several would-be queen bees were having a very quiet, but mortal, argument over who would be handling the money. I steered clear. Repudiated queen bees have a deadly sting.

On the day Lucy came home from a long stint in a rehabilitation facility, I saw Ole E put his nose into a nurse’s face, but instead of shrinking away, this nurse drew up in indignation. His wife suddenly piped up, “He does that to me all the time.”

Ole E stood, silent, thunderstruck.

The nurse replied, “You let him push you around like that?”

“Oh,” his wife said, “it’s not so bad if you just forgive him.”

“Forgive him? I’d never put up with that from my husband.”

His wife laughed. “You girls nowadays. You know, he got that from his mother, putting his nose down in people’s faces. She used to do that all the time.”

Ole E finally spoke. “I do that?”

“Your whole life,” his wife said.

Tears sprang into his eyes. “I do that to you?” In his face, I saw a wave of realization wash over him. “I do that to the kids?”

“You did,” his wife informed him. “But not anymore, now that they’re bigger than you, and out of the house.”

Ole E wheeled to talk to Lucy. “I did that to you?”

“My whole life, Dad.”

“Oh, dear Lord,” he said, sitting down in his son-in-law’s easy chair. “Oh, dear Lord. I didn’t mean to do that to you. I tried to be a good father. That’s not good; that’s what my mother did to us!”

I excused myself, wishing Lucy a happy and quick recovery.

Lucy told me, when I asked, that the whole family had been transformed. Not only had things gotten easier between her father and her mother, and easier with her and one of her brothers, but it had gotten more tense between her father and the other brother. Until Ole E’s dying day, Thanksgiving and Christmas were gala affairs, with more wine spilled, and more laughter with it, and also palpable tension with the brother who retained the perfection instilled in him in his childhood.

The funeral was a gala affair, with one third of the family excusing themselves quite before the celebration had begun.

Tectonics

I have a new gig in two communities in New York State near Lake Ontario. The communities are eighteen miles apart, oriented east and west from each other. The community to the east we shall call Parker; the community to the west we shall call Coomer. Parker and Coomer are both towns centering respective town-and-country lifestyles. Those who live outside Parker envy those who live in Parker, and those who live outside Coomer envy those who live in Coomer. I live in neither community: I commute from no small distance to work in one or the other, or both, four days a week, driving in from the south.

Or, as they say, I drive from “up,” because I live above the Niagara Escarpment. In this way they are the same culture. Below the Escarpment is one culture, what I might call the Lake Culture. It is populated by very old, early-American farm families, in some state or another resembling the The Sound and the Fury, some having achieved greatness, others having fallen from greatness into utter ruin, still others having wallowed forever in the misery of poverty. Overlaid is the Erie Canal Culture, which is archetypal mid-century blue-collar America, its participants working in the many and varied factories of heavy industrial giants, seen in one way as the purveyors of great wealth to a rural class of people without the back-breaking and agonizing labor of farm-tending, and also as the soul-destroying never-ceasing powered shafts and conveyor belts. The factories shuttered suddenly.

Above the Escarpment is another culture, with a completely different history, distinct family infrastructures, and different institutions, even though the factories are shared.

So I drive north, down, to do my work in their midst as an outsider, always looking in, watching them as families interacting, and I on occasion being invited in to interact with them, to my great delight. I get lonely while I’m driving, and they’re good people, enviably so.

It has been given to me as a task to unify a few families of each community, so that they might achieve some effectiveness in certain charitable endeavors, endeavors which are to be determined in the future, after we can determine what sort of resources we might be able to pool together, determined by ascertaining what resources these several families are able to acquire. Driving from Parker to Coomer, and then again from Coomer to Parker, is a lovely task under pleasant skies, with regular glimpses of vast lake waters to the north, the constant shoulder of the Escarpment to the south, the land between lined all long with orchards, vineyards, farms, and wooded lots, wherein dwell various species of game animals and their predators. It is a flat plain without a single geographic interruption.

Nevertheless, the people of Coomer, being separated by a mere eighteen miles of empty highway, translating to twenty minutes of travel time, have no knowledge of the people of Parker. The people of Parker know nothing of Coomer. In fact, they are suspicious of each other. At first, this flummoxed me. How is it that these very old families, who are veritably nearly in view of each other, know nothing of each other? When their respective high schools compete against each other in varsity contests, the enmity is palpable and brief. After sharing a regulated and tightly contained space to yell at their children for an hour or two, they depart, socializing not. They have not intermarried.

Instead, each community looks up the Escarpment to sizable little cities, traveling north and south for goods and services not available in Coomer or Parker, respectively, which journey is more than twenty minutes. It seems obvious, to an outsider, that Coomer and Parker together, with greater ease, could support each other with those same goods and services, such as restaurants and larger supermarket grocery stores. It is not so. They think on a north-south axis, they speak of a north-south axis, and they live on a north-south axis, going up and down the Escarpment, to the disadvantage of their own utility. Well, maybe. I dunno.

Driving on the east-west axis, the horizon is apparent, I suppose. One could argue that I’m trying to manufacture a horizon, where the one community ends and where the other begins, but I think I’ve found one. There is a third community, which we shall call Lakeshire, a very thinly populated town, spread out over some area, closer to the Escarpment than Parker and Coomer. There is practically nothing to this Lakeshire community to speak of, no important institutions, no real history, no central presence in the area. Although it is little more than a crossroads, it is more than a crossroads, but no inhabitant of Lakeshire claims to be from Lakeshire. Instead, they claim to be from either Parker or Coomer. The inhabitants of Parker and Coomer, on the other hand, would not consider Lakeshire a part of their respective communities.

There exists, north of Lakeshire, exactly halfway between Parker and Coomer, and on the main road, a mobile-home park. It is large, containing the population of a small town all by itself. The inhabitants of the mobile-home park are located exactly as far away from any amenities as is possible in this area.

There it is, a blight, an unpleasant experience, seeing all those country poor people gathered together in one forlorn place, out of sight, and perhaps out of mind. What is life like within this mobile-home park, each home nestled too close to its neighbor, with no fences to make neighbors, good or otherwise? Caricatures fill the mind. And then the conscience strikes.

There are no trailer parks on the north-south axes.

Uncoiling

“Sleep in Safety” by 45 Grave was one of my favorite all-time songs between my fifteenth and thirty-fifth birthdays. I was born in 1973. Somewhere along the line between my thirty-fifth and fortieth birthdays, I forced people to endure waves of nostalgia, as happens to those of us who watch our children rise up around our feet, coiling mortality around our throats. “Remember when?” How dreadful the nostalgic! And then the all-time favorites were boxed and put away, not thrown out, but stored, to be laughed at as comic elements participating in a greater tale, a grander story than mere fond memory.

It’s an impulse to hang on to adolescence when manhood is necessary, to substitute the carelessness of adolescence for the freedom of manhood, a liberty which requires discipline, the rote, regimen, and pure, unadulterated liability. That is to say: a man is willing to fail at manhood in order to achieve that quality which allows one to be called a man. If he’s lucky, they might append it to him when he lies in state. Therefore, why grow up?

Overlapping that prolonged adolescence, between the fifteenth and thirty-fifth birthdays, is the uncoiling, prying open mortality to see what dreams might come alive. It is uncoiling before my eyes, and with the uncoiling, the realization that Poor Yorick, though he be unearthed, sleeps in perfect safety. Should he come back, he will not come back as a zombie, formed in perfect silliness and lots of foam rubber. No, he shall sleep in safety to awaken as though he were only resting to hear the next grand story, refreshed.


It is a deliberate act, uncoiling, to examine what is and what is not, what is imagined and what is unimagined. How does one distinguish? The sun shines, the shadows move, and then the sun is gone again for who knows how long. Who can distinguish? One holds the coil open, I suppose, even as it recoils around your throat, and, with a knife, one probes carefully and exactly, inasmuch as one can remember how it looked when the moving sun shone upon it. We’re fumbling around and using the wrong tools, aren’t we? Certainty comes and goes, and then they say some words, and you yourself are gone.

Military graveyards are set in perfect rows and columns, and they endure for a time, embodied as long as they do as belonging to the institutions of power. The helter-skelter arrangement of all the rest of us–mercy! After a much shorter time we are excluded.

Dreams do come to pass, and they come. They are embodied, and we live and eat and breathe among them.