Garage Sale Reflections

I proposed to my wife over thirty years ago when we were both in grad school, poor but happy in a small midwestern city. My mother-in-law to-be telephoned her relatives in Canada to inform them of the upcoming nuptials and they asked the obvious question: what do they want for a wedding gift? Without consulting us or her husband, she replied, “Silver service.”

For thirty years, my wife and I have dutifully wrapped and boxed a least twenty pieces of silver service and schlepped them around the country as we moved for jobs. We cannot remember ever using one piece although my wife swears that we must have served on silver at least once. My only memories are pulling out the silver, moaning over the tarnish and wasting an afternoon polishing the pieces before wrapping them in fresh plastic wrap and putting them back in the cabinet.

We are moving again but this time we are paying for the move ourselves. After packing and unpacking the silver into cabinets and cupboards to be conveniently forgotten for years I insisted, the silver goes. We never use it and I am done polishing it. Thus began a series of conversations that culminated in a garage sale on a Sunday morning.

Downsizing has been a process. The back corners, the utility shelves and the closets were searched. Once we decided the task was insurmountable and someone else’s fault, we rallied our energy and started. The first weekends concluded with piles of junk on the curb. The weight of paperwork, notebooks and outdated materials of one Ph.D., one D.D., three M.A.’s, four undergraduate degrees and several careers was alarming. The unsalable was depressing. Metal for salvage was set aside for those entrepreneurial souls who cruised the neighborhoods on certain nights. By Monday morning, some of items were gone and others were dutifully thrown into the back of the garbage truck.

The house was purged and the garage was refilled. The digital notice went out and in the early evening the night before the sale, I nailed a sign at traffic light at the top of my neighborhood. Everything from the backyard was moved around to the fence for quick setup. The early morning alarm was set.

All the items were arranged for display on the asphalt of the driveway. I euphemistically referred to the furniture, the housewares, cd’s, silver, and other items as “crap” as in, “I put all the crap out; let’s see if it sells.”

By midmorning, I no longer thought of the items as crap. I had been blinded by my privilege. The couch, love seat, stuffed chair combo that had worn poorly was offered for free because bedbugs are an issue in my area and no reputable organization accepts them now. A family came somewhat early, asked about the furniture and claimed the set. A friend had phoned them, telling them of the offer. They took off all the cushions and then began calling everywhere to find a truck or van. In the late afternoon, we loaded the furniture in the back of large pickup belonging to a friend of a friend. The family was exhausted but content.

The gas grill went. The dresser was purchased by an employer for a woman who had no money after paying rent on an empty apartment. A woman who ships or delivers goods to poverty-stricken homes bought a box of bedsheets, mattress covers, bed ruffles, and tablecloths. We had a long conversation about the lack of supports. Her friend bought the mini-fridge for a house kitchen that only had a stove. More than one grandparent swung by searching for tools for their grandsons who work construction for a living.

Few if any want used books. No one wants dated stereo equipment either.

Almost everything went. Most of the items went to people without much means rather than the professional resellers that trawl garage sales early in the morning. Everything we sold was in working order. People needed what we had to offer, from tools and home goods to school supplies.

We had expected to make a couple hundred dollars with the assumption that we did not want anything we offered for sale to go into the landfill; better to sell it than dump it. Whether we realized what we had done, we had priced everything or repriced everything to get it out of my house into other households who would use it. I told the family who bought my gas grill where to get their propane tanks filled at the best price. I tied the eleven-foot extending ladder to the roof of a young woman’s car, after she walked her toddler in his stroller home first.

In Hebrew, business is called maseh u’matan, give and take. Nothing was priced to make a profit but I made a goodly one nonetheless. Everyone who chose to speak with me was treated with respect and the respect was reciprocated every time. People walked away with a smile and I smiled with them. The young man who purchased my lawnmower must have needed it because the relief on his face was evident when I quoted the price.

Their need struck me. Several of my visitors walked over from one of the main avenues only a few streets away. I must pass their homes daily, never giving them a thought or even a glance. As we talked and bargained, late model SUV’s trundled past, heading out of the neighborhood, their occupants staring at us as they passed. People said “thank you” and shook my hand. We exchanged names, neighborhood updates on traffic and congestion, and political commentary.

I probably gave away too much and priced lower than I could have. However, what I received in return for used goods that I no longer wanted was more than worthwhile. Said one man as we discussed the cushion-less couch in the mid-afternoon, “You understand; you have a good heart.” I truly got more out of my garage sale than profit.

As for the silver-plated serving pieces that started this process, on my wife’s advice, I swept them up into a box and sold them in bulk for a quick price to the purchaser of the dresser. I placed them in her car to be doubly sure she took them. There was a happy dance on the driveway when her car disappeared around the corner.

Response to Charlottesville

Having lived in David Duke’s home state of Louisiana for two years, I can tell you what he did today. He woke up and got to work, as he has done every day since he decided to spread his message. The man neither paused nor did he let defeat deflate his drive or let success give him pause through all these years. He may be cheering and celebrating today yet he was on the phone, posting online, and planning his programs, intent on his goal just as he has done every other day.

He is a racist, a bigot, and an anti-Semite but the First Amendment protects his right to spew his hatred.

What about you? What about me? Do you and I have the same depth of passion, but for justice and right? After all, fighting for climate change legislation is tough in a fossil fuel world. Explaining racial injustice and raising awareness of the economic injustices of energy policies to communities that do not want to hear facts and reason is a stubborn climb. Holding proudly to one’s faith in a cynical world can be a daily hurt. Are you still fighting?

This missive is not about the Neo-Nazis and the White Supremacists though. This message is about those who have the passion to fight for what is right, good, and godly, about those who stand up to the evil and hate. These people are our family, our friends, acquaintances, workmates and our members-in-faith.

One died and nineteen more lay wounded in the Charlottesville confrontation. Many, many more though, people of all colors, creeds and faiths, marched; they held the lines, and shouted down the hatred. Their passion brought them forth and their courage kept them going. The citizens of Charlottesville refused to accede to hatred, to acquiesce to murderous rage. Instead they welcomed those who hold beliefs of equality, justice, and freedom for all of God’s children. Together, they gave the voices of hatred no quarter and no measure of comfort to broadcast their message of intimidation and confrontation.

Evil only expands when it is allowed, when people of goodwill do not stand as a bulwark against the malicious tide. Silence, apathy and vacuum are tacit permissions to continue to fill the streets with hate-filled rhetoric. The streets of Charlottesville were not silent though and intimidation was met with spirited determination.

What about you? What about me? Are we going to sink into the sofa cushions or lean back into our computer chairs, and watch passively as a few good souls contest a contagious fear and paranoia? Whether the summons is the Hindu call of Gandhi, the Christian call of Martin Luther King Jr., or the beckoning of the ancient Israelite prophets, the universal demand of justice is broadcasting loud and clear across the land.

Will you and I answer the call? Shall we answer with unequivocal passion?

“Then I heard the voice of my God saying, “Whom shall I send? Who will go for us? Then I replied, ‘Here I am; send me.’”  Isaiah 6:8

Here I am; send me.

Adelphi invocation

We begin this commemoration with a small admission of truth. Every human being in this amphitheater has known failure, has known defeat and experienced moments of humiliation. The truth is that no one achieves even the slightest measure of success without slogging through the morass of insecurity, uncertainty, panic, and self-doubt. This is how human beings are built; this is how great human beings are built.

The joy of this moment was years in the making. The academic success each of you celebrates is all-the-more sweet when you reflect just how hard you had to strive, how far you had to traverse, how much you had to sacrifice. You are surrounded by family and friends who stood by you, encouraged and helped you, and even got out of your way when you hit your stride.

May the Divine Reality, called upon by many names:

The Great Spirit,

The Father in Heaven,

The Holy One Blessed Be He,

Allah,

Buddha,

The Dao,

One All Pervading Spirit,

and Brahmah,

Lead us from ignorance to Knowledge
and from darkness to light;
Move us from the fear of failure to the celebration of life.
To our Adelphi Graduates from all of the faculty and administration who have gathered here for your commencement:
May the ideals you have come to believe become the truths you live.
May kindness, justice and mercy be your friends.
And with your new knowledge and your new degrees, may you bring blessing to this world.

Amen.

 

My TEDx Talk

“God in the Public Square” has been posted here. This seventeen minute talk examines non-theist God beliefs, a huge part of our culture today that few even acknowledge exists. For non-theists, God is a “What” rather than a “Who”. Non-theists have been central to the conversation in the Public Square since the founding of the United States and are still in the middle of the great debate.

tedx004

TEDx Adelphi University | AU PAC | April 5th 2016. Copyright Chris Bergmann Photography

God for the rest of us #2

When I encounter a politician making a statement that includes God, there is a jolt of discomfort. The worst visceral reaction is when the politician declares with all the passion of an entranced believer, “God bless America!” My wincing is not a matter of patriotism or of affirming my citizenship but a matter of God belief. “God bless America” is a statement explicitly announcing to the audience that God is a self-conscious deity who intervenes in human history and takes action for those God favors. The cringe is the experience of absurdity, of a clash between reality as I understand it and a God belief that I do not accept.

If just the absurdity of a God belief I do not hold and reality as I understand it was the only issue, my complaint would be a minor affair. However, when a politician declares “God bless America!”, my denial of that statement leaves me open to a much graver accusation, an indictment that I am a poor citizen, lacking pride and respect for my country. “God bless America” is not just about God, but about me, and you, and you too.

The logic works like this: because I do not believe in the all-conscious God who intervenes (I call this God “The Parent God”), I may not believe in my country either. In reality patriotism and God belief are not connected, one does not inform the other. However, some promote that God and country go hand-in-hand. For the politician seeking a thunderous applause of affirmation, the accusation is subtle and pernicious – clap or you are a bad citizen.

Hence, the finch of absurdity and the desire to avoid all politicians on the campaign trail.

God for the Rest of Us #1

Many of us are seeking a God we can believe in without discarding all of the amazing knowledge that we use in this unprecedented age of human advancement. Evolution is a fact and the Big Bang Theory is a fact. Computers, quantum physics and genocide are all facts of life. With all of this information and the rush of new ideas and concepts that we rely upon daily, what is a God for the rest of us?

#1 God of the Bible

Torah presents God as the Parent God, intervening in history, granting favor to the obedient, and lending a miracle or two to His children, the Israelites. This God has to present principles by which people can live without resorting to violence and mayhem first. This God sets down laws that are derived from the principles. He rewards good behavior and he punishes bad behavior. Like any parent, God of the Torah loses his patience with His children quite a number of times.

In the middle part of the Hebrew Bible, the prophet Hosea presents the image of God as the husband and Israel as His unfaithful, whoring wife. The prophet preaches that the relationship between God and Israel is not father and child but instead, husband and wife. This is not an equal relationship though because women were still property in significant ways and the husband was the final authority. Song of Songs softens the “authority and property” model with the erotic love poetry of two lovers. Rabbi Akiba, in his argument on why Song of Songs should be in the Bible, suggests we read Song of Songs as God the groom and Israel the bride.

The Book of Esther, in which God makes no appearance, presents the greatest challenge to those who want to believe in God. God is not in the story and He is not even in the wings. Through their own courage and tenacity, Esther and Mordechai save themselves. The Silent God, the God who does not answer, will haunt every person who finds themselves in harm’s way throughout the millennia. They will pray for rescue and salvation, and there will be no divine intervention.

The God who answers this dilemma of silence in the Book of Job offers no comfort. “You know not what I do. Even if you did know, you could never understand,” explains God in the whirlwind in a long piece of poetic prose in the last chapters.

The Bible gives us four major images: God the parent, God the husband, God the Silent and God who cannot be known. Orthodox Christians, Jews, and Muslims embrace God the Parent and at times, God the husband. Atheists point to God the Silent and God who cannot be known and respond, “What’s the point then?”

If you are not Orthodox or Atheist, the search for a God for the rest of us must continue to look elsewhere.

Lesson in Jewish Humor

There once was a powerful Japanese emperor who needed a new chief samurai. So he sent out a declaration throughout the entire known world that he was searching for a chief.

A year passed, and only three people applied for the very demanding position: a Japanese samurai, a Chinese samurai, and a Jewish samurai.

The emperor asked the Japanese samurai to come in and demonstrate why he should be the chief samurai. The Japanese samurai opened a matchbox, and out popped a bumblebee. Whoosh! went his sword. The bumblebee dropped dead, chopped in half. The emperor exclaimed, “That is very impressive! “The emperor then issued the same challenge to the Chinese samurai, to come in and demonstrate why he should be chosen. The Chinese samurai also opened a matchbox and out buzzed a fly. Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh, whoosh! The fly dropped dead, chopped into four small pieces. The emperor exclaimed, “That is very impressive!” Now the emperor turned to the Jewish samurai, and asked him to demonstrate why he should be the chief samurai. The Jewish Samurai opened a matchbox, and out flew a gnat. His flashing sword went Whoosh! But the gnat was still alive and flying around.

The emperor, obviously disappointed, said, “Very ambitious, but why is that gnat not dead?” The Jewish Samurai just smiled and said, “Circumcision is not meant to kill.”

************************************

Point #1 – No other group, including the emperor, was denigrated in order to generate the humor. Historically, Jewish humor has been sensitive to the inferior position of Jews in a given culture and has striven to be uplifting rather than degrading of others. However, Jewish humor is often self-denigrating.

Point #2 – There is a wonderful ambiguity between taking the joke at its plain meaning or as an act of unbridled chutzpah. When in doubt, the holy grail (ahem) of the Jewish comedian is chutzpah. It is true Jewish mothers feed their children chutzpah in their breast milk.

Point #3 – There never was nor is such a thing as Jewish samurai, at least as of today.

On Elder Suicide

A colleague just lost a 72 year old father-in-law to suicide. He wanted to assure us that are the family making a concerted effort to remember the joys and successes of the man’s life and not just his tragic end. Only a short time has passed since Robin Williams took his life while in his sixties. Elder suicide is not a new phenomenon and its tally has been recorded for decades; it is not uncommon. There are many lessons to be learned in these tragic deaths and the first and most important is that not everyone can be saved from their own destructive impulses.

The media frenzy surrounding Robin Williams’ death immediately pointed to his history of depression and perhaps other mental illnesses even though he was under treatment for Parkinson’s disease. The message left for entertainment consumers is that depressed people kill themselves. The media left for fresher tales of woe and then ignored information that was released later. Rarely does the media circle back to examine earlier released articles, meaning that a later review of Mr. Williams death got little play.

Parkinson’s disease is a progressive disorder of the central nervous system of the brain. The disease is incurable and affects brain chemistry. Besides the physical symptoms of stiffness and tremors of limbs that an observer can see, victims of Parkinson’s disease experience organic depression. “Organic” signifies that the depression is not from an external source (i.e. loss of a spouse or a job) but is an issue caused by brain chemistry. Medications for organic depression may not be effective and in this case they were not. Robin Williams committed suicide but he died of Parkinson’s disease.

The case of Robin Williams is not atypical for the disease. No one failed Mr. Williams and Mr. Williams did not fail himself. However, practitioners of certain religious systems condemn Robin Williams and his death, consigning him to their version of after death damnation commonly called “Hell”. What these people believe is not of consequence but the pain they inflict on mourners is consequential. Of course mourners have doubts; they have doubts whether they were attentive enough or aggressive enough. If only they had observed “x” or seen “y” or asked “z”, they bargain that they could have prevented the tragic end. Or they are angry at the deceased for causing them such pain. Hellish condemnation only fuels the pain of profound mourning.

One of the formidable reasons for religion is to guide us through the painful episodes of our lives. When a religious system causes more pain at the point that it supposed to provide solace, the theology is false. Any religion should be able to understand suicide as a disease, as our medical science demonstrates that it is. Suicide in the oldest cohorts of human beings is not wholesale preventable or simple to understand. Even more, these adults are old enough and have enough experience to succeed in their destructive impulse. If anyone can succeed in acting on this urge, our elders certainly will.

Our ever evolving understanding of disease and its courses forces us to reassess our elders’ motives and our judgments of their behaviors. Disease attacks mind, body, and spirit. When the brain is afflicted by a disease, boundaries of behavior may disintegrate. It is the disease not the person and the caregiver is helpless. Condemnations and self-recriminations are common, wrong and only spread the destructive consequences of the disease beyond the afflicted.

My colleague in mourning is correct: celebrate the successes of a life when lived well and invoke the good memories. If one wants to pray for these souls who have been released from the burden of their tangled minds, then pray for cures that allow mortals to go gently into that long, dark night.