Boundary Issues

I don’t believe I have anything against religion. And yet when I come across it unawares, I am sometimes unsettled by the earnestness with which it is pursued. Or maybe it’s just the facial expressions that seem to surface whenever an administrator of the creed begins to talk.

Still, the older I get the more I wonder about things. It’s strange -I find I’m tangled in the words of Shakespeare’s court jester, Touchstone: ‘A fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool.’ Which am I? Which are any of us? It seems there is no winner.

But the more I struggle to free myself from the web, the more enmeshed I become, the more I see it as a lesson: we are both.

“How can you say that?” Edward almost rose from his chair as he pounded the table. It wasn’t only the loudness of his voice that attracted attention in the room, but also the expression in his eyes when people turned to look. His face was red and several fat veins had surfaced on his temple like snakes sunning themselves on a rock. He looked furious. Dangerous!

The man sitting at the adjacent table studied Edward almost clinically for a moment and then, glancing briefly at me, asked if he could be of some help.

The snakes disappeared immediately and Edward stood up, pretending to smile. Then, after trying to attack me with a glare, he slipped out of the room embarrassed by the silence and the flock of eyes that followed him to the door.

“A friend of yours?” the man asked, barely able to suppress a worried grin.

I nodded as nonchalantly as I could manage, but I think I blushed all the same. “I don’t think today is one of his good ones…”

The man was silent for a while and had a sip of his coffee, but he was obviously upset. It was clear that he was thinking about the outburst, because he soon turned to me again. “Look, I realize this is none of my business,” he said, choosing his words carefully. “But is he all right?”

I summoned my eyes from my coffee cup where they had been resting and sent them to scratch at his face. As they circled to alight somewhere I noticed he was wearing a grey clerical collar. I think I must have gasped, because he smiled and shrugged as if to say you never knew who you’ll be sitting next to -especially someone with a grey collar. At least it matched his suit, I thought. Maybe the church was finally looking into fashion.

I took a deep breath and sat back in the hard chair. “He thinks he is…”

His smile broadened. “And you…? Do you think he’s all right?” It was my turn to shrug. “Because he seemed very angry at something… In fact,” he continued, “I think he even frightened some of the customers in here.” He had a sip from his now-cold coffee and extended a hand for me to shake. “I’m sorry, I’m being rude talking to you like this. I’m Gregoire –Greg.”

I introduced myself with a tentative handshake –I didn’t want to commit to anything. “We…” I hesitated to explain, lest it be misconstrued. “We were talking about God.”

Greg’s eyes attached themselves to my face like roosting birds preparing for a storm. “And I take it you disagreed.”

I nodded, but carefully -Edward is my friend. “He just gets excited sometimes.”

“About God?” I could see a little smile trickling across his mouth –I was in his territory after all.

I shrugged and decided to be honest. “Well, not exactly about God, more like whether God…”

I was still locked in the talons of his eyes like a prisoner. “And he felt strongly about his opinion?” he said kindly –like he’d heard it all before.

I had to smile; Edward feels it’s his duty to stand on the other side of a fence no matter what. “He sometimes thinks with his mouth. Words tumble out and then, like a father, he feels he’s obliged to support them.” I sighed to show I’d heard it all before as well.

Greg summoned his eyes back for a moment as he finished off the rest of his coffee. “And are the arguments usually about god?”

I could tell he was trying to be nonchalant about the word. In fact, I think he purposely avoided a capital G. But I had to think about the question. I saw Edward infrequently, often in this coffee shop; and yes, the conversation usually ended up with religion. I had no recourse, especially under the attentive pecking of his eyes, but to shrug again. “He seems to have a thing with religions…”

His eyes nibbled harder on my cheeks and he smiled a weary smile. “Competitive ones…?”

I blinked. “No, neither of us belong to anything…”

“So…?”

I have to hand it to Greg, he knew how to interrogate. Maybe it’s part of pastoral training. “So, I suppose we compare them…” I tried to pretend the arguments we often had were usually just discussions -explorations of contrasting myths, and not heated quarrels.

His face dissolved into a wicked grin and his once predatory eyes now twinkled back to their cages. “Just window shopping… or looking for the best deal?”

I hadn’t thought about it like that before, but it made me wonder about Edward. His wife had belonged to a church before her death many years ago. He’d always resisted, but now that he was retired, he seemed, well, anxious. Or…empty, as he once put it. “Maybe…”

“Maybe he’s read Pascal’s Wager,” Greg interrupted with a mysterious smile. “You know, Blaise Pascal. He thought that even if the existence of a god was unlikely, the benefits of believing in one far outweighed those of any disbelief.”

A light suddenly went on inside my head. “And he’s just trying to find the most comfortable pew?”

Greg nodded, obviously pleased his observation had fallen on fertile ground. “We seem more at ease when we have a direction to face. Then we just need to find a road going there.”

His face was a poem and his metaphors so apt. So certain.

Religare, eh?”

He seemed surprised that I knew the etymology. “Re-fasten? Re-attach…?” And then he sighed the sigh of the contented. “Exactly.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Boundary Issues

I don’t believe I have anything against religion. And yet when I come across it unawares, I am sometimes unsettled by the earnestness with which it is pursued. Or maybe it’s just the facial expressions that seem to surface whenever an administrator of the creed begins to talk.

Still, the older I get the more I wonder about things. It’s strange -I find I’m tangled in the words of Shakespeare’s court jester, Touchstone: ‘A fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool.’ Which am I? Which are any of us? It seems there is no winner.

But the more I struggle to free myself from the web, the more enmeshed I become, the more I see it as a lesson: we are both.

“How can you say that?” Edward almost rose from his chair as he pounded the table. It wasn’t only the loudness of his voice that attracted attention in the room, but also the expression in his eyes when people turned to look. His face was red and several fat veins had surfaced on his temple like snakes sunning themselves on a rock. He looked furious. Dangerous!

The man sitting at the adjacent table studied Edward almost clinically for a moment and then, glancing briefly at me, asked if he could be of some help.

The snakes disappeared immediately and Edward stood up, pretending to smile. Then, after trying to attack me with a glare, he slipped out of the room embarrassed by the silence and the flock of eyes that followed him to the door.

“A friend of yours?” the man asked, barely able to suppress a worried grin.

I nodded as nonchalantly as I could manage, but I think I blushed all the same. “I don’t think today is one of his good ones…”

The man was silent for a while and had a sip of his coffee, but he was obviously upset. It was clear that he was thinking about the outburst, because he soon turned to me again. “Look, I realize this is none of my business,” he said, choosing his words carefully. “But is he all right?”

I summoned my eyes from my coffee cup where they had been resting and sent them to scratch at his face. As they circled to alight somewhere I noticed he was wearing a grey clerical collar. I think I must have gasped, because he smiled and shrugged as if to say you never knew who you’ll be sitting next to -especially someone with a grey collar. At least it matched his suit, I thought. Maybe the church was finally looking into fashion.

I took a deep breath and sat back in the hard chair. “He thinks he is…”

His smile broadened. “And you…? Do you think he’s all right?” It was my turn to shrug. “Because he seemed very angry at something… In fact,” he continued, “I think he even frightened some of the customers in here.” He had a sip from his now-cold coffee and extended a hand for me to shake. “I’m sorry, I’m being rude talking to you like this. I’m Gregoire –Greg.”

I introduced myself with a tentative handshake –I didn’t want to commit to anything. “We…” I hesitated to explain, lest it be misconstrued. “We were talking about God.”

Greg’s eyes attached themselves to my face like roosting birds preparing for a storm. “And I take it you disagreed.”

I nodded, but carefully -Edward is my friend. “He just gets excited sometimes.”

“About God?” I could see a little smile trickling across his mouth –I was in his territory after all.

I shrugged and decided to be honest. “Well, not exactly about God, more like whether God…”

I was still locked in the talons of his eyes like a prisoner. “And he felt strongly about his opinion?” he said kindly –like he’d heard it all before.

I had to smile; Edward feels it’s his duty to stand on the other side of a fence no matter what. “He sometimes thinks with his mouth. Words tumble out and then, like a father, he feels he’s obliged to support them.” I sighed to show I’d heard it all before as well.

Greg summoned his eyes back for a moment as he finished off the rest of his coffee. “And are the arguments usually about god?”

I could tell he was trying to be nonchalant about the word. In fact, I think he purposely avoided a capital G. But I had to think about the question. I saw Edward infrequently, often in this coffee shop; and yes, the conversation usually ended up with religion. I had no recourse, especially under the attentive pecking of his eyes, but to shrug again. “He seems to have a thing with religions…”

His eyes nibbled harder on my cheeks and he smiled a weary smile. “Competitive ones…?”

I blinked. “No, neither of us belong to anything…”

“So…?”

I have to hand it to Greg, he knew how to interrogate. Maybe it’s part of pastoral training. “So, I suppose we compare them…” I tried to pretend the arguments we often had were usually just discussions -explorations of contrasting myths, and not heated quarrels.

His face dissolved into a wicked grin and his once predatory eyes now twinkled back to their cages. “Just window shopping… or looking for the best deal?”

I hadn’t thought about it like that before, but it made me wonder about Edward. His wife had belonged to a church before her death many years ago. He’d always resisted, but now that he was retired, he seemed, well, anxious. Or…empty, as he once put it. “Maybe…”

“Maybe he’s read Pascal’s Wager,” Greg interrupted with a mysterious smile. “You know, Blaise Pascal. He thought that even if the existence of a god was unlikely, the benefits of believing in one far outweighed those of any disbelief.”

A light suddenly went on inside my head. “And he’s just trying to find the most comfortable pew?”

Greg nodded, obviously pleased his observation had fallen on fertile ground. “We seem more at ease when we have a direction to face. Then we just need to find a road going there.”

His face was a poem and his metaphors so apt. So certain.

Religare, eh?”

He seemed surprised that I knew the etymology. “Re-fasten? Re-attach…?” And then he sighed the sigh of the contented. “Exactly.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Identifiably Old

Who are we? No, really… I’m not talking Canadian, or Catholic, or even hominid –and certainly not the kind of who you’re expected to reveal at a party or perhaps on the long census form. And just what is an identity anyway? The word itself ultimately derives from the Latin idem: ‘the same’; or even identidem: ‘over and over’ –although that’s a bit of a convoluted etymology. The point, I think, is that identity is supposed to be something that is consistent –perhaps unique.

Unique, I realize, is easy –each and every one of us is unique. But if identity is an attempt to pin something on any of us that is consistent and the same, there is a problem.

George was sitting on his veranda as I walked by on the sidewalk in front of his house. It was raining lightly and wind was raking the yard and robbing the trees of what few leaves they still possessed. But he seemed entertained by the scene and sat serenely comfortable on a deck chair dressed in a heavy grey coat and blue toque. It wasn’t cold enough for a toque, but he’d knitted it himself and wore it at the slightest provocation to show off.

I tried to pretend that I was texting and didn’t see him, but he called out to me. It’s hard to pretend you don’t notice somebody when they shout your name and wave.

“Come on up, Goz,” he said when I raised my head. I forced a smile -it bothers me when anybody calls me the childhood nickname that I let slip late one night at a party.

“Don’t call me Goz, George. It’s not my name.”

He sighed over-elaborately and pointed to a seat beside him on the porch. Sometimes  it wasn’t just his toque that was annoying. “I’m sorry, I was just teasing. I like the name…” he added to mollify the expression on my face.

“My father liked it, too, but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” I explained -it seemed to encapsulate my feelings. I hoped he wouldn’t press it any further.

He smiled broadly at my biblical reference. “Paul, in his epistle to the Corinthians, isn’t it?” George is an emeritus professor of Philosophy who took an early retirement and I think he likes to keep in practice.

I had no idea where the phrase came from, but I shrugged as if to indicate that it was common knowledge. I probably shouldn’t have used it around George, though.

“Names are like adjectives, don’t you think? They describe the noun.” He wasn’t going to let the nickname go without a fight.

“Described, perhaps,” I said, attempting to emphasize the past-tense of the word.

“We all change, I suppose,” he said, trying to be conciliatory, and pausing briefly to let me enjoy the reprieve. A gust of wind swept a parcel of leaves onto the deck and he studied them for a moment. “But sometimes I wonder just how much…”

“How’s Retirement, George?” I had to change the subject before it got out of hand.

He looked up from the leaves and smiled with an expression that said his mind had been miles away. Then, he sat back in his chair and stared at an empty tree across the road for what seemed an eternity. “It’s given me time to think,” he said, finally breaking the fast of his silence.

“Think…?” Good I thought -it worked.

“Those leaves,” he continued, pointing at the dreary, sodden lump near his feet. “They’re not where they used to be…” He paused as he thought it through. “And they’re not doing what they were designed to do on the tree…” He looked up at me. “I suppose they’re fulfilling another function in nature now… But they’re still called leaves.”

I had a feeling this was not going where I wanted. I decided to shrug. “It’s a generic descriptor, I suppose.” A weak response, but couched in big words. I hoped it would suffice.

He stared at the tree again, considering my answer. “There’s been a change -I’ll concede that, if you like- but the name is still apt nonetheless, don’t you think?”

I studied his face for a moment. I had the uneasy feeling I was being led into a kind of Socratic trap. “George, I’m not the same person that ‘Goz’ described, if that’s the trap you’re trying to entice me into.” I felt pleased with that –especially when he sent his eyes out to perch on that tree again. I was a bit concerned about the smile, though.

“Who are you, then?” he said, still examining the tree. “A rose by another name…?”

I hate it when people use Shakespeare against me; it almost seems sacrilegious to argue the point. “I just don’t like the name…” I might as well put it on the table, I figured.

His eyes flitted to my face for a moment and then withdrew to their assigned cages. “Because you’re not the same person, you said?”

I could feel the door closing on me. “No, I’m not the same person I was when I was ten. Neither are you,” I added, hoping to salvage something in the argument. Anything, actually.

His eyes were twinkling now, although he was trying to disguise them by sending them back to the clump of leaves to hide. “Neither is the tree, I suspect…” He freed his eyes briefly to sample my face.

I took a deep, somewhat stertorous breath -I also dislike losing arguments. The funny thing was, I wasn’t actually sure that I had. Hope springs eternal, I guess.

The rain had stopped and although it was still windy, I could see some blue sky beginning to accumulate in little patches. “I was just heading for a coffee,” I said, rising to my feet. “Want to join me?”

He smiled and nodded his head. “Actually, I could use an espresso this morning…”

“Still coffee, though, isn’t it?”

He looked at me and laughed. Sometimes friends have to let each other win…