In 2001 I was invited to speak at my college, which fulfilled a dream from my college days. It was, in fact, a “two-fer,” since I was a co-presenter with Dr. Milburn Price for the Ball Institute AND spoke in the chapel. When I was a student, I
heard speakers who impressed me mighty well—Dr. Frederick Sampson, a magnificent preacher who held us spellbound for 65 minutes one day, the great Grady Nutt, and others. I imagined that I might someday, after graduate work, be important enough to come back and be one of those speakers. Now it was at hand.
I sent biographical info about me ahead of time. The conference was great, the college incredibly gracious and welcoming, and the terrain churned up wistful memories and nostalgic longing for a good and simple time in our lives. Here is what I wrote:
As a matter of information, Vickie and I met and married while at Carson-Newman. We lived in the little house behind the infirmary. Our neighbor and dear friend during those lean and happy years was Mrs. Henrietta Jenkins. You may also be interested to know that in my senior annual, while in a flippant mood, I listed my extra-curricular activities as President of Omega Omega Omega (non-existent) and captain of the Curling Team. Another bit of CN irony is that I am now pastor to Dr. John Fincher, retired President of CN, and his dear wife Ruby. The last time I saw Dr. Fincher before they visited our church was on the graduation stage in 1976!
My professors at Carson-Newman, especially Ray Koonce, Walter Shurden, Bill Blevins, L. Dan Taylor, J. Drury Pattison, Don Olive, and Ben Philbeck, had a happy and permanent effect on my life and thinking. I will always be indebted to them and to Cn for shaping our lives forever. We remember very happy days together at Carson-Newman.
Miss Jenkins, in fact, was most special to us. We took her classes while there, including Shakespeare, Milton and probably something else. Shakespeare was 8 a.m., and Henrietta had this lilting, mellifluous voice, really quite beautiful. It was always a little on the edge of singing it, although not like a hefty operatic diva. More like your grandmother singing to you while you were going to sleep, which we sometimes were at 8 am. I was married at 20, had a new baby 14 months after marriage, and working 3 jobs and going to school trying to get educated enough to come back and speak in chapel for the spellbound students.
My teachers changed my life. Years later, even though my head nodded in “Shakespeare for Dummies,” which it should have been called, given her audience. She would have been proud to see us in London years later laughing our heads off at the Royal Shakespeare company as they gave us “Twelfth Night” through their acting gifts, or when we visited Stratford upon Avon.
Henrietta loved her subject. She would stop and recite poetry in the middle of a lecture from memory, long and gorgeous passages. “By heart” was an apt discussion. When she wandered over into the bawdier passages, she would be matter-of-fact, but would get that twinkle in her eye and blush at the same time, letting us in on something terribly funny but not for polite company.
But she was more. Henrietta was our neighbor. We lived in the little house behind the infirmary, which rented for less than $100 a month. A few doors down lived “Miss Jenkins” as we always called her. She would bring us things, sometimes, and we would go “hang out” with her. She loved our new baby (who turned out to be an outstanding English major, reader and writer). And we would talk to her poodle, Porky.
Porky was a miniature French poodle, one of the most high-strung and opinionated variety. He was an ultra-soprano yipper whose barks were, Miss Jenkins swore, decipherable and intelligible. Porky could let her know what he wanted and she got it. She told us stories about how he knew things when she was talking and would start barking to render an opinion. Certain subjects stirred him into a frenzy, so she took to spelling in front of him and us to avoid the reaction, especially saying she was going to L-E-A-V-E to go to class. “I tell you,” she solemnly said a hundred times in our presence, “He is as sharp…as…a TACK!” Every day they happily walked down the street together.
We saw one another nearly every day for 2 ½ years. She was our teacher, our friend, our neighbor. Our first real neighbor as a couple. The best. And when we went back for that speaking engagement, we went to see her. Porky had passed on by then, and she was devastated by the loss. He was buried in the backyard of her home, a different house from the one we knew. We visited the gravesite and swapped stories and remembered that, yes, he was as sharp as a tack. No doubt.
Since I am record as believing in the potential resurrection of the animal kingdom, too, I am hopeful that Porky and Miss Jenkins will be reunited, walk the streets of gold (hopefully without the inconvenience of the more unpleasant responsibilities of curbing the dog, for the former things are no more. I can’t imagine heaven being heaven without Porky for her.
But then, I can’t imagine heaven being heaven without Henrietta Jenkins, either. Kindness her way, keenness and wit her manner, love of words her craft, and a never-ending love of life and desire to learn her companions. She was a deacon in later years, active in church, a traveler and continued to know what it means to “have a life.” She was our teacher, our first neighbor, our friend.
So when we went back on the college’s dime, we had a grand time. We revisited our special spot out at the lake where we would watch the “submarine races” until the security guard shined his police light into the car through the foggy windows and send us home for the night. We sat in the parlor where we courted. And we went to see our friend, who all those years later, looked the same as we remembered—same mind, voice, twinkly smile, and gentle intensity.
* * * * * * * * *
My chapel fantasy? It was quite a letdown—like preaching and college lecturing turned out to be, too, by the way. Some students were keenly listening, some in and out, heads down, some mouths open, some secretly cramming for the quiz next period they did not prepare for, and one or two reading the paper. It dawned on me that except for Dr. Sampson and Grady Nutt, this was the fate of most chapel speakers.
Many of my teachers are physically gone—moved on in their careers to other schools, retired, or in heaven. My religion prof, Ben Philbeck died young from a brain tumor, although he came back in a dream and blessed me late one night after I co-edited my first book. Miss Mack, dictator of the cafeteria and force of nature, to whom so many owed so much, including us, was long gone. I did Dr. Fincher’s funeral as his pastor, as well as his dear wife Ruby. Life doesn’t stop. Neither does death.
People who love you even leave eventually. There is this mystery, though, about memory—Augustine mused over it considerably. It seems untouched, not altered by time. A face, a soul, a teacher and a neighbor, unchanged in us though no longer with us. How quickly these years pass and how long they stretch out sometimes. But, as Miss Jenkins’ longtime friend Shakespeare said,
‘Tis in my memory lock’d,
And you yourself shall keep the key of it.
Say hello to Porky for me, Miss Jenkins. Thank you for the keys.
…there are aspects of humanity that are not reducible to particles, chemicals and rational analysis.
In my last post, I reflected on the interesting work of Oliver Sacks on memory. A few further thoughts about the whole notion of science, faith, and humanity.
Sacks has been criticized roundly for his “anecdotes” that don’t meet all the rigor of some scientific requirement, especially by the radical reductionists. Some believe that “there is no self or soul. We are merely the product of our acculturated experiences and brain physiology and when it’s gone, so are we.”
But there is something instinctive that we know—that there are aspects of humanity that are not reducible to particles, chemicals and rational analysis. Beauty, humanity, value abide somewhere beyond all our curiosity about mechanisms. Even when the mechanisms are explained, there is yet Something.
I once asked a group of scientists with whom I meet from time to time to talk about religion and science (none of whom are six-day creationists, all but one of whom are yet theists and Christians), “My question for you is not why you believe in evolution or why even intelligent design is not logically necessary from the perspective of scientific method. It is this: you are committed scientists, are convinced of its methodology, humble about what we can know. And yet you still worship, believe in God, go to church. I am much more interested in that than boring college-dorm debates where someone has to knuckle under at the end and say, “You’re right. I give up.” Why do you do this?” What is it that you DO believe?
Then I heard something fresh. “Even when you understand these things, it causes wonder.” There is Something underneath that can be alternatively explained but it seems vulgar to do so. Wonder. Amazement. Delight. Joy. They can be explained as neurons, nerves, responses, brain centers, blah blah blah. But why do they exist at all?
On December 27, 1992, I did a funeral of a real character in the town where I lived in South Georgia. Mr. Earl “Tige” Pickle (short for “Tiger,” a peculiar name for such an outgoing man!) was a newspaper columnist, leader in the community and local radio personality. Everybody who was anybody in Early County eventually was asked to be on Mr. Tige’s radio show. Since our paper came once a week, people depended on Tige to get the day-to-day necessities. He kept us up on things like the funeral notices and what the coach had to say about the big game and how the peanut crop might do this year with the lack of rain and that terrible fungus the county agent had just identified.
Since I was the new preacher in town and he had more or less run out of interesting guests, Tige invited me to be interviewed. He was particularly interested in the fact that I was from Texas and, as people usually do, assumed that I knew all about things Texana. I didn’t know these things, of course, but like any good Texan, what I lacked in fact I simply invented, added and padded.
He was a wordsmith who appreciated a good story and a well-written sentence. He often came up to tell me how much he appreciated some joke I had told in a sermon or some point well-made. Of course, as in all lives, the day came when life began to take his gifts away, and it took them in a most cruel fashion. This dear man with a sly grin and quick wit began to lose his words. They said it was Alzheimer’s.
One day, long after the ravages of senility had begun to take their toll, I went out to the nursing home to lead a worship service. As always, Tige was present, sitting in a rocker at the back. By now he had become silent and unresponsive. This particular day I invited the residents to join me in singing “Amazing Grace.” As we began to sing, something came over Tige. He got up as though moved by an invisible and ancient force of habit and moved toward me. Now he was no longer in the day room at the nursing home. I believe he was sitting again in his mind in the pews of First Baptist Church and worshipping in his regular place.
He sang out loud and continued to make his way forward until he stood shoulder to shoulder with me. There he continued to sing as though he were leading the congregation itself until we finished the song. When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun; we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise than when we’ve first begun.
Then he went back to his seat. When nearly everything else had left his memory, the power of a lifetime of faithful worship and faith had marked his life. Though he rarely spoke those days, something raised him out of that chair and moved him to sing every word of that great old hymn. Religion has just about lost its soul in America trying to control the culture, run politics and come up with glib answers to everything. We’d do better to settle back into mystery, in my opinion. Humility is not such a bad place to be, not if you really believe in something. Especially if you think there is Something that comes from beyond us, beyond death, beyond decay and Alzheimers and suffering and loss.
Oliver Sacks’ work may also remind us that the practice of faith is deeper than what we “feel” or “decide” or experience. There is something entirely worthwhile about the practice of faith that resides at the level of gestures, behaviors and trusting actions. Liturgy, devotions, singing, and prayer become habits of a life. Theologian Greg Jones once wrote:
Two of the most powerful intellectual and social forces in our culture are the hard sciences and capitalist economics. Together they have conspired to produce images of personhood that undermine Christian understandings. According to these images, persons are defined by their rational capacities and their productive contributions.
The loss of reverence and respect for human life and human bodies, whether they retain capacity for memory or not, is the result of our obsession with reason and the GNP. But institutional religion can commit the same sin. People can be valued only for being young, for the contributions they make to the community or for their sameness to us. This is as far from the religion of Jesus of Nazareth as can be. The One who welcomed lepers, outcasts, children and the sick reminds us that pragmatism is a useful tool but not a way of life adequate to all things.
I find it frankly puzzling to meet conservative Christians who effusively praise Ayn Rand. In the words of Liz Lemon, “What the WHAT?” We can love, value, care for people poorer than us, less fortunate, weaker or damaged. This is not misguided but actually a humble bowing before mystery. There are yet things in a silent woman sitting in the activities room of the nursing home unknown to us. And so we care for her, not only for her past, but for the simple fact of respect and care for her deep fellow humanity. That is enough. To learn this is the beginning of wisdom.
“The Lord…gave me these sounds.”
Oliver Sacks is a British-born neurologist whose maverick investigations inspired the Academy-Award winning movie, “Awakenings” and who gained notoriety for his book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, a collection of unusual cases of mental and emotional issues. He is, as his website puts it, “physician, a best-selling author, and professor of neurology and psychiatry at the Columbia University Medical Center,” even being named the first Columbia University artist forhis contributions to the arts. In his book Musicophilia, “Dr. Sacks investigates the power of music to move us, to heal and to haunt us.”
In his “Music and Memory Project,” Dr. Sacks collected and investigates the power of music on memory. It is tempting, and I have even said this sometimes myself in thinking about identity, that when memory goes, so does our sense of identity and self. Who am I when I can’t remember any more. So often in my vocation I hear people say, “Mom left us long ago.” In Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders, an individual descends into a solitary cocoon of long-term memories, and then finally into silence before death. Where did what we knew as “the person” go?
A friend recently shared a very moving video posted on YouTube of Sacks’ project. CLICK HERE TO VIEW It is a remarkable record of a man named who has debilitating case of Parkinson’s disease which rendered him inert and lifeless most of the time. They learned from his family about some of his favorite music from Cab Calloway and others early in his life and put it on an MP3 player and put on the ear phones. The transformation is remarkable. He is alive again, eyes bright and he begins to move to the rhythm and sing along. A glow of life continues after the music is taken away.
He says, at the end, “The Lord…gave me these sounds.” There is something remembered in our bodies, our minds, our selves, deep and irreplaceable. Human beings and the earth God made are sacred, all of it. We should treat it that way. Read the rest of this entry