Sunday, May 31, 2020

The Holy Spirit and the Ghost of Memorial Days Past

Memorial Day, 1998
I can't sleep.

This is a privileged lament, when others in this age of COVID-19 are crying, literally and metaphorically, "I can't breathe."

The news today brings into my mind a conversation I had six mornings ago, on Memorial Day, with my college friend Kathy.

She and I used to write long letters to each other, and over the years she's put up with my literary pretensions with the grace of someone who's much smarter and more artistic than I'll ever be.

Since Kathy lives in Minnesota, it thrilled me to talk to her face-to-face, virtually, and also to take part in a Zoom chat that wasn't business-related. And since I can be honest with her, I confided about the undercurrent of sadness I feel lately. As if I were Matthew Arnold surveying the landscape of Dover Beach.

In daylight, I'm fine... healthy, safe. So is my family. I appreciate that we are blessed and lucky. At night, though, when everything should be silent, I hear a distant, melancholy roar.

I can't get to sleep. I worry about everything.

To comfort me, Kathy mentioned "The Lament of Deor" -- which, of course, I had never heard of before -- to put things into perspective.

In this thousand-year-old poem, a man named Deor has been exiled from his life of luxury. He compares his situation to that of figures from Anglo-Saxon folklore who have all suffered an undeserved fate. After mentioning each tragic incident, the poet repeats the same phrase:

"That passed, and so may this... That passed, and so may this... That passed, and so may this."


Later that Monday, as we would all soon learn, there was an incident of unmasked racism -- a murder -- in Kathy's hometown.

I tried going to bed early to start the work week fresh, but my mind was racing. Around 11 p.m., I realized that Tuesday was the first day of twice weekly, summer garbage pickup in my hometown. I had forgotten to put out the trash cans. I forget to do a lot of things lately.

Hurrying downstairs to put the trash by the curb, I stopped short when I saw a dead rabbit lying near our white picket fence. Not only dead, but brutally torn to shreds... probably by one of the large, menacing crows that have been stalking our yard lately.

I found a shovel and buried the remains of the rabbit.

Facebook post, 2014
Funny thing is, I knew this rabbit -- or its son/daughter, grandson/granddaughter, great-grandson/great-granddaughter. Almost every spring/summer morning for the past several years, a rabbit settles on the same patch of dirt in our front yard and stares at our house, seemingly at my daughter's bedroom window.

In 2014, we even began receiving U.S. mail from State Farm Insurance in care of "Bun Var" at our street address. In a running family joke, we always wave and say hello to the rabbit staring up at our house.

It was nearly midnight on Memorial Day when I returned to bed after burying Bun Var. That's when I finally remembered what had been gnawing at my subconscious.

I had forgotten to call my uncle.

He turned 90 years old a few months ago, and for many years he hosted a Memorial Day family picnic at his home near Hackettstown. When I was a boy, when my grandmother and grandfather lived there, we always called it "the country." So much land surrounds the house that it's the perfect place for an annual family outing.

We'd ride tractors, and play bocce, badminton and touch football (in imitation of the Kennedys). We welcomed pets, and one year there was a brief, almost disastrous, flirtation with lawn darts. My uncle kept ice buckets filled with drinks, and he did all the barbecuing. In the evening, his cousins would play guitars and encourage everyone to sing along ("You Are My Sunshine" was a favorite). Before everyone left, we always gathered for a family photo.

My Mom and uncle on the front porch
My uncle stopped hosting the picnics a few years ago, after attendance dwindled. Still, for the past few Memorial Days, I've traveled with Mom to visit him in the country.

When we pulled up to his driveway last year, we were surprised to find him pushing a lawn mower, as if preparing for another picnic. He has trouble getting around these days, and it turned out he was basically using the mower as his walker.

My uncle still uses his sit-down tractor mower too. It's stored in his garage, where his car used to be. He doesn't drive anymore, although he has loved cars all his life. He knows everything about them. He used to maintain and repair all the family cars until the engines became computerized.

Last Memorial Day, as he and Mom talked on his front porch -- thick as thieves, giggling and telling stories as if they were young -- he turned wistful when he saw a car speed past on Route 46.

The Mars/M&M Car Show -- an annual Rotary Club benefit -- was being held in Hackettstown that afternoon. My uncle had been enjoying watching the old cars drive by, or seeing them carried on trailers.

He gestured toward Route 46. "Did you see that red GTO?" he asked, with the enthusiasm of a teenage boy. He briefly debated with himself what model year the car was, by the sound of its engine.

Right then, I decided to take him to this year's Car Show. I even put it on our family calendar. But I deleted the reminder after the Rotary Club canceled the event in mid-March because of the COVID-19 lockdown.

I didn't give it another thought until a few minutes before midnight on May 25, 2020. Haunted by the Ghost of Memorial Days past, I realized I hadn't even bothered to call my uncle.


I always try to be a better person. I always fail.

That's a recurring theme among the followers of Jesus in the book I just finished reading: "Daily Reflections for Easter to Pentecost, Rejoice and Be Glad 2020." It was written by another friend, Mary DeTurris Poust, and published by Liturgical Press in Minnesota.

I had bought it months ago, mostly to support Mary. With all my extra time at home in the mornings in the age of COVID-19 (unable to sleep and with no commute), I decided "what the heck" and vowed to read the passages each day. The personal stories Mary included in the reflections delighted me. The Bible stories were familiar and comforting. They reconnected me to my better past, and reading the actual text will prevent me from saying things like, "As the Bible says, 'this too shall pass'."

The Bible doesn't say that. "The Lament of Deor" does.

A few days ago, I exchanged texts with Kathy. There's now looting and rioting near her home each night, and she described the details, noting at first that "we have 400 years of oppression to atone for."

I worry about her. I worry about everything these days.

Next year, I vow, I'll take my uncle to the car show in Hackettstown... if there is another show. Next Memorial Day will be different. Maybe it will be better.

This morning, I read the last pages of Mary's book. It's the day the Holy Spirit gave diverse people the gift to understand and love each other. Pentecost Sunday encourages us to rejoice despite everything because, in mysterious ways, God is always in our midst.

I opened my front door on this beautiful, cool morning in New Jersey, half expecting to see an incarnation of the Holy Spirit settled on a patch of dirt in my lawn.

There was no rabbit there.

I still have faith, though: I no longer see any crows.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Some Good News: New Milford NJ Edition

New Milford NJ
No, this isn't a Zoom meeting;
it's nine of more than 200 signs of appreciation around town. 

Among things I'm missing this cloudy Memorial Day weekend (besides some more sunshine) is another of John Krasinski's inspiring "Some Good News" reports.

Scrolling through my recent photos, though, I realize I don't need to look online for inspiration. It's been all around these past two and a half months in my own home town.

So now for some good news, New Milford NJ edition:

Let's start things off with this video of Gov. Murphy citing the efforts of a local high school student who sold lawn signs to purchase food this month for workers at local hospitals, the New Milford Volunteer Ambulance Corps, the New Milford Volunteer Fire Department and the CareOne New Milford assisted-living facility.

That's just the start of the good news. There are so many examples of good works around town... from food drives to the heroic efforts of healthcare workers, volunteers and small business owners... that a blog post can't capture all the detail.

Instead, here's a link to a Pinterest board with stories, photos and videos from around New Milford since the lockdown in March. There are more than 50 pins here that celebrate life in New Milford in the age of COVID-19.

I especially love the photos of all the signs filled with appreciation and hope, the marriage photos, and the great journalism from reporters and photographers at and Two examples of those stories this month:
  • "Public service runs in the family for New Milford mother and daughter helping during pandemic"
  • "Miracle recovery for high-risk teen in hospital for 26 days"

There's also a video of a mayoral proclamation for Mother's Day, read by a collection of local families.

As of this morning, the NJ Department of Health reports 436 confirmed COVID-19 cases in our town of about 16,500.

Behind each case is a neighbor, supported by dozens of first responders and healthcare workers and family members. Also, thousands of prayers.

Memorial Day

There were more prayers just this morning in front of Borough Hall, as New Milford observed Memorial Day.

Even without a traditional parade, local heroes were honored. Signs with photos and biographical information for each fallen service member were unveiled on the borough hall lawn. The project is a joint effort of the Historic Preservation Commission and the Public Events Committee in observance of Military Appreciation Month. Signs will be displayed until May 31.

If you are unable to see the display in person, there's a video of it below, and the Historic Preservation Commission will post a profile of a war hero daily until May 31. Additionally, a slide show about New Milford’s military heroes, "The Stories Behind the Stars," can be viewed here on the historic commission's page on the borough's website.

That's all for now. I'm going to go outside. The sun has come out, and the weather... uh... looks pretty good.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Here Is (a Fourth) New York in 2020

St. Patrick's Cathedral
St. Patrick's on Sunday morning.
Click here to hear its bells ring on May 17, 2020.

On Saturday, I returned to New York City for the first time following a 9-week Quar time absence. 

The New York Times had just posted this story: "Where New Yorkers Moved to Escape Coronavirus." Statistics showed mail-forwarding trends from people who have fled the city.

First Avenue
Looking south on First Avenue,
Beekman Tower (Ophelia on top) blocking the U.N.
On Saturday, I was heading in the opposite direction -- a quick car trip into Manhattan from my home in New Jersey, to pick up my daughter who needed to be somewhere that evening, returning on Sunday morning.

Most of those who had fled New York had been living in upscale neighborhoods on the Upper East and West Sides of Manhattan. I saw the evidence of this on my drive: no traffic, no tourists.

My route took me past my workplace on the East Side, where everything on my desk is likely just as I left it Friday, the 13th of March. Back then, I expected everything to be back to normal (the commute, the tourists, the office) on Monday morning, March 30. Today, I hope to be back at my desk, and expect everything to be very different, sometime before the end of the year.

E. B. White's "Here in New York" once described people who account for three New Yorks.

First are those who are born there. I can never claim that.

Second are the commuters. That's my ordinary self.

Third are those who were born somewhere else but who come to New York in quest of something. That's who I am when I'm my best self.

Times Square, Sunday morning, May 17, 2020.

In White's words, the third city "accounts for New York’s high-strung disposition, its poetical deportment, its dedication to the arts, and its incomparable achievements."

E. 50th, the weekend after Irving
Berlin's 132nd birthday (he lived
at the end of the block).
That's why I look forward to coming back to New York to work. That's why I'm so proud my daughter lives there. That's why I stepped out of my car to capture these images.

Of all the people I read about in The New York Times on Saturday, I most admire Roman Suarez, who lives in the Bronx.

Mr. Suarez is a fourth New York. He's worth the whole damn bunch put together.

Here is what The Times wrote about him on Saturday. Here is New York in 2020:

He picks up medication and groceries for about three dozen family members who live nearby. "I just stayed and made myself available for my family," he said.

His neighbors, many of whom work for the city, or in health care, stayed too, he said. His neighborhood, just east of the Bronx Zoo, had fewer than a quarter as many mail-forwarding requests as the Upper East or Upper West Sides.

"My father was a cab driver. My mom was a hairdresser, so I understood service to your community," Mr. Suarez said. He recalled living through other challenging times in the city, from Hurricane Gloria in 1985 to the Sept. 11 terror attacks in 2001. "Whenever New York goes through stuff, the best thing to do is just be there."

Grand Central Terminal
My last photo before leaving New York City in March --
Grand Central Terminal.