Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Anointed With Ashes

The prospect of Ash Wednesday this week prompted the recall of the following story.

There is a church in New York that is located near the end of one of the subways. Every year at the beginning of the Easter season one of the priests takes a huge bowl of ashes and stands on the bottom step in front of the church. Morning and evening rush hours are his favourite times. Each day hoards of frenzied New Yorkers stop quietly to have their foreheads marked with the traditional cross of ashes and to hear the ancient words: "Remember you are dust and unto dust you shall return."

One year the priest went down the escalators and ashed scores of people as they came through the turnstiles. Another time a bus driver pulled up, opened the doors and called the priest onto the bus to anoint everyone with ashes.

Over the years he has become something of a fixture and every Easter season people would look out for him—executives, prostitutes, office workers and housewives—the fashionable and the forgotten would all line up together to receive the holy ashes.

This ministry in the marketplace is a wonderful idea. What prompts the urging within people to receive the ashes, especially in the Big Apple, where there's entertainment, success, market forces, ambition, luxury and extravagance?

What would it mean for you to be marked by a dusty cross in your city or town?

To be marked with the cross is to admit that we know the taste of ashes. It is to remove our masks and recognise that we have had broken hearts and crushed dreams. It is to declare that we are acquainted with grief and tragedy and despair and anguish. It is to reaffirm that we are human.

Geoff Pound

Source: Newspaper article in the Age, about two years ago.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Don't Try and Explain Everything

The author Christopher Morley once had this experience when he went to see a play. He expressed it in this way:

"I went to the theatre with the author of a successful play. He insisted on explaining everything, told me what to watch, the details of the direction. He pointed out the errors of the property person and the foibles of the star. He anticipated all my surprises and ruined the evening."

Image: Christopher Morley [1890-1957]

Why Didn't I Notice Her Eyes?

Leonard Griffiths tells how once he was sitting at a U shaped counter eating a hamburger at the Washington airport.

There was a man who was sitting next to him who appeared rather glum and silent. But then a mother came in with her daughter and she sat opposite them.

Griffiths said he found it hard to keep his eyes off the child, although he tried hard not to stare.

The child could not have been more than ten yet she had a wrinkled face and a terrible complexion. The silent woman beside him did stare and made no attempt to hide it. Suddenly she spoke and said tenderly to the little girl, “How old are you dear?” The child grinned showing wide gaps in her teeth. “Eight”, she replied. Then the woman said, “You have such beautiful eyes.” She was rewarded by a smile that lighted up the cafeteria and Leonard Griffiths thought to himself, “Why couldn’t I have done a nice thing like that? Why didn’t I notice her eyes?”

Changing Places

Soon after the Second World War a famous physicist was asked to deliver a series of speeches across the states of America. He was a brilliant scholar but he was rather uncomfortable about standing before large audiences. He didn’t change his speech so before long he became bored with both the speech and the routine of giving it.

Now he had a chauffeur who drove him from place to place and they became very good friends. One day the physicist suggested to the chauffeur that they should change places. To break the monotony they would swap clothes. The physicist would drive the car and the chauffeur would give the speech. He realised that few people knew what he looked like and they didn’t think there were be any problems because the driver had heard the speech so often.

Well, that evening everything went well. The chauffeur delivered the speech exactly as he had heard it but then something happened upon which they had not counted. The hosts asked for a question time to follow the speech. One arrogant person asked the first question that was so elaborate and technical that it took five minutes to ask. After a few moments of silence, the chauffeur replied. He said, “I am very surprised with that question. The answer is so plainly obvious I would expect almost anyone to know the answer. And just to show you how easy it is, I’m going to ask my chauffeur over here to answer it.”

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Present Moments

Sometime ago a magazine asked the Swiss theologian Karl Barth what he would do if in the light of past experiences he was only now beginning his work as a theological teacher.

Karl Barth graciously declined saying his method had never been to work to programs but rather his thinking and writing and speaking had issued from living encounters with people and conditions that spoke to him.

Barth said he felt like a man in a boat which must be rowed and steered diligently but which swims in a stream that he does not control. It glides along between new and often totally strange shores, carrying him toward the goal set for him, goals which he sees and chooses only as he approaches them. He said, “As I see it now, my theological career has been a succession of present moments.”

Geoff Pound

Image: Karl Barth

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Having The Eyes To See

In Murray Bail’s book Eucalyptus there is a wonderful story about an Italian fruit shop owner in Carlton. He reckoned he was the first shop keeper in Melbourne to call himself a FRUITOLOGIST which was painted in green letters outside his shop.

His shop in Carlton was famous for its displays of fruit. Not the usual pyramids of apples—instead he did detailed maps of Italy using green and yellow peppers, the state of Queensland to celebrate the mango season. National flags, football, clocks and cyclists were some of his memorable subjects.

As he got better he turned to fruit sculptures of nativity scenes, Ayers Rock using red Tasmanian apples, anti-war scenes using custard apples, cantaloupes, and pineapples. It was good for business, it gave great pleasure to customers and people would come by each Monday and say, "What have you dreamed up for us this week?"

Working next door in the cake shop was a young woman. Occasionally she stepped into his shop to buy a bunch of grapes but she'd barely say ‘thank you’. Whenever she passed, he paused to look at her. Never once did she acknowledge him. Never once did she take an interest in his fruit displays.

This woman had extraordinary blue eyes — eyes like those of a Persian cat. Even more extraordinary was the way she was always looking at herself — every time she passed a mirror, a window, a shiny car bonnet or even a puddle — she would look and preen herself. Here was self-absorption to the extreme.

The fruitologist was not very handsome but he became obsessed with her. He'd love to develop a friendship so he spent all his time trying to catch her attention. One Sunday he drew up a list of exotic fruit. He went to the market and selected each item for weight, shape and evenness. Then on Monday the customers gathered when he raised the shutters. He was like a politician unveiling a bronze stature. All the tourists were clicking their cameras and a lecturer in Art History at the nearby University called it a masterpiece.

Then she appeared. As she arrived in high heels he left his customer in mid sentence to move to the front of the shop. She was in a hurry but she looked at herself in reflective surfaces. She walked straight passed the window without noticing anything special. On her way out her attention was caught not by this fruit sculpture but by the side mirror of a parked truck.

But there she was — modelled in the window, her head on bare shoulders, pictured in this amazing fruit mosaic. It had her peaches and cream complexion, there was sliced apple and dates for her nose, paw paw for her forehead, a banana for her chin, pomegranate to display her glistening teeth, kiwifruit fur for her eyebrows, luscious, juicy plums for her lips, a bunch of guavas for her ears, pears formed her shoulders and other bits and pieces too subtle to immediately recognise contributed to the whole. With a split in the forehead and a delicate placement of nectarines and figs he had even captured her self obsession.

It was all there in loving accuracy, all except the eyes. He had been unable to find a light blue fruit. For without the eyes she apparently could not see herself.

Geoff Pound

Source: Murray Bail, Eucalyptus, 119f.

Sending the Wrong Message

Valentine’s Day has become increasingly popular around the world, fostered largely by retailers who hawk their chocolates, heart-shaped balloons and fluffy teddy bears. In India this year there were many protests, some of which became violent. Protesters were critical of people for embracing this symbol of Western culture. Others ransacked shops in Srinagar and burned cards saying that Valentine’s Day fostered immorality.[1]

Ever tried to send a message and got it wrong? One poor guy never seemed to get it right. Everything he did went wrong and people picked on him constantly. One day he met up with a very pleasant woman and in the next few weeks, as a way of symbolizing his love and fostering the relationship he said he would send her a bunch of roses for Valentine’s Day, one rose for each year of her life. He rang the florist and ordered twenty-four roses to be sent to the young woman for Valentine’s Day. Working over the orders in the morning the proprietor said to his salesman, “Tom, here is an order from Mr. Higgins for twenty-four roses. I know him. He is a good customer. Let’s do him a good turn and put in an extra dozen.” That was the end of the romance. The young man never did find out what made his friend so angry.

Geoff Pound

Source: Unknown
[1] Hardliners protest Valentine’s celebrations, 15 February 2006, Gulf News, 30

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Remembering the Future

The author, Sam Keen, told of an incident that happened to him one Saturday afternoon. He was constructing a fence around his backyard when a man in his early thirties came by with his dog. Watching the construction he asked if he could help. He explained that he loved to work with wood and that he had little to do with his time. Sam Keen accepted his offer but before he could tell him when he would next be working the man interrupted him and said: "There's something I must tell you now while I remember it. If I wait it may be too late..."

He went on to explain that several years earlier he'd been injured in an accident in which a small piece of metal had pierced that section of the brain which stores and controls the memory. Somehow he survived and the long road to rehabilitation began. He'd learned to talk again with scarcely any impediment. But he still had no control over his memory. Lacking a dependable memory he couldn't hold down a job or plan for the future in spite of his technical intelligence being largely unimpaired.

Sam Keen said, "I listened to his story with a growing sense of tragedy. We planned to meet on the following Monday and work on the fence together.... but he never appeared."

Memory is such a precious gift. Without it we are prisoners to the present. We are cut off from the past and held back from the future. Yet, when our memories are sensitised to remember those things which are good and true— we are inspired. We are energised to live into our future. This is part of the challenge and the gift of remembering the future.

Geoff Pound

Image: Sam Keen

Source: [One of Keen’s books or lectures. My memory fails me! GP]

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

'Friendly Fire' Misses the Target

The recent episode [13 February 2006] of US Vice President Dick Cheney firing on his shooting mate instead of a quail would be funny were it not for the news that Henry Whittington (at the time of writing) is still in hospital recovering from gun shot wounds and a heart attack.

This accidental shooting is known in military circles as ‘friendly fire’ and it has a grim history. The Pentagon estimates that ‘friendly fire’ was responsible for 16% of the total American casualties in WWII, 14% in the Vietnam War and a horrific 23% in the Gulf War last decade. That’s a lot of pain and wasted lives.

Before we so quickly join those in taking pot shots at poor old Dick, let's recognize that it so often seems to be open season for ‘friendly fire’ in our homes, schools, churches, mosques and business circles. Painful are the pellets we fire on each other intentionally or inadvertently. The bullets we fire can destroy our relationships and leave people wounded for life. Yes, there’s nothing friendly about getting shot by your own side.

Geoff Pound

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

The Yearning for a Worthwhile Passion

The film Adaptation is a fascinating movie on the adaptation of Susan Orlean’s book, The Orchid Thief, into a film. As well as playing on the adaptation theme it focuses on many facets of the subject of passion.

When Susan Orlean is researching her book, orchid enthusiast, John Laroche says to her: “These flowers are smart! You gotta fall in love with them. Once you learn anything about orchids, you’ll devote your life to learn everything.”

To build her knowledge Orlean visits an orchid show and is intrigued by the many people who sniff flowers, feel petals, stare deeply looking for nectar, jabber passionately about the plants and buy some specimens to add to their collection.

Orlean looks deeply into various flowers, at a dazzling array of colours and shapes but remains detached.

Later at home she says sadly to herself: “I wanted to want something as much as people wanted these plants but it isn’t part of my constitution. Orlean stares out the window at the empty streets below and says: “I suppose I do have one embarrassed passion. I want to know how it feels to care about something passionately.”

Geoff Pound

Susan Orlean, The Orchid Thief
, Director by Spike Jonze

Do You Really Mean It?

You don’t have to be a jockey or a gambler to enjoy Jane Smiley’s book Horse Heaven. She’s has a longtime fascination for horses but this intriguing novel was written after two years of closely watching horsey antics on the race horse circuit around the world.

Tiffany Morse who works at Wal-Mart is described by the author thinking about what she really wants in life. Jane Smiley takes up Tiffany’s reflections:

“After she had gotten into bed and turned out the light, she thought that all she had was the same prayer she had uttered before. She lay on her back and looked at the ceiling. She whispered, “Please make something happen here.” Tiffany sighed. This was a prayer that always worked. Unfortunately, it didn’t always work as she had hoped. For example, she had prayed for a job, and gotten hired at Wal-Mart. She had prayed for a boyfriend, and attracted the deathless interest of Lindsay Wicks, her dampest, palest co-worker. She had prayed for a couch, and her mother had decided to buy a new one, passing the seventeen-year-old brown thing on to Tiffany, who was required to be grateful. She continued, “This time, I mean it.”

Geoff Pound

Source: Jane Smiley, Horse Heaven, (London: Faber and Faber), 21.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Tiger Woods on The Joy of Shaping Lives

What had happened to cause the world’s No. 1 golfer, Tiger Woods, to say, “This is the best day of my career”? Had he just completed a perfect round or sunk a hole in one? Had he snared another competition to add to his tally of fifty-seven tournaments and ten major championships?

No. On this day he did not even have a golf club in his hand. Instead he was opening the new Tiger Woods Learning Centre in his old neighborhood in Anaheim, California. Tiger’s contribution of $25 million was a creative and generous investment in helping children to find their way.

Dressed not in his golfing garb but in a formal suit Tiger Woods told the audience at the opening: “This is by far the greatest thing that has happened to me. This is bigger than golf. This is bigger than anything I’ve done on the golf course. Because, [through this new facility] we will be able to shape lives.”

Source: 12 February, 2006, Gulf News, p56.

Geoff Pound

Leaders Need Stillness

In the classic book Moby Dick, there's a turbulent scene in which the whaleboat is bobbing across the ocean in pursuit of the great white whale. The sailors are working hard, their muscles taut all energy focussed on the task.

But in the boat there's one man who appears to be doing nothing. He's not rowing. He's not sweating, He's not shouting or swearing. He's the harpooner and he is quiet and poised and waiting.

Then Herman Melville says: "To ensure the greatest efficiency in the dart, the harpooners of this world must start to their feet out of idleness, and not out of toil."

It often seems to be more dramatic to row the oars and get into the fray but for any group to be hitting the target the leader must first be still.

Geoff Pound

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Give Me Another Chance

When AJ Cronin was a young doctor, he was appointed a medical officer in a fever hospital in a solitary district of northern England. One winter’s night, soon after his arrival, a boy of six was admitted suffering from Diphtheria. He was so seriously ill that only am immediate tracheotomy would give him even a slender hope of life. Painfully inexperienced, Cronin had never attempted that crucial operation.

As he stood, and now I am following his own story, “In the poor lamp lit ward and watched the old sister and the only nurse, a junior probationer, place the gasping boy on the table he was trembling. He felt cold and sick. Still he was determined to do his utmost with the operation and with the operation successfully completed he went back to his room glowing with satisfaction. Four hours later at 2.00 am the young nurse came knocking frantically at his door. She had dozed off by the child’s bed and had awakened to find the tube blocked. She had lost her head and panicked. When Cronin got there the child was dead.

There was a sense of loss and the failure of the nurse overwhelmed him and his anger blazed forth. ‘I will put in a report’, he said. A little later he sent for the nurse and read the report to her. She heard him in pitiful silence. She was thin, anemic, under nourished and half-fainting with shame, fright and misery. ‘Have you anything to say?’ Cronin demanded. She shook her head and then suddenly stammered, ‘Give me another chance.’ This was something that Cronin had never thought about. She must pay for what she had done. He dismissed her curtly and signed the report, then went off to bed.

Off to bed but not off to sleep for all through the night, echoing, drumming in the ear, was the plea, ‘Give me another chance.’ In the morning he tore up the report. That was a long time ago. She, the nurse who had erred so fatally became the matron of the largest children’s hospital in Wales. Her career was a model of competence, service, devotion and she was loved to the point of worship by successive generations of children. If she had not been forgiven and treated with tenderness and kindness she would have been lost to her profession, but she was given another chance.

Source: A J Cronin, Adventures in Two Worlds.
Photo: A J Cronin