Sunday, December 31, 2017

When Texting Zombies Become Parents

            And lead them not into temptation
            But deliver them from evil
- Lord’s Prayer, paraphrased

It was the day after Christmas, Boxing Day in Anglican circles. I was en route to the Party Store to get plastic table clothes to cover the dining room and card tables which would soon be covered with snacks and potluck offerings.

We could not have asked for a more beautiful day. Temperatures were in the upper 70s, mostly sunny, nice cool breeze. The party would be able to spill outside onto the deck and into the yard. These are the days we cherish here in Central Florida, our repayment for enduing far too many weeks of ungodly subtropical heat that have only increased in number and intensity in these days of climate change.

“And a Little Child Shall Lead Them…”

Ahead of me on the street I saw a family walking, two parents and a little boy no more than 3 years old, likely headed for the park around Lake Underhill at the bottom of our street. He was the typical curious child, darting here and there to examine the many amazing things he discovered along the road that fascinate three-year-olds.

It was a joy to watch him.

Sadly, his parents did not share that joy. Indeed, they were almost completely unaware of him. Both of them stumbled in and out of the street, texting zombies oblivious to the world around them – including their little boy.

I slowed down instinctively, as I often do on this street leading to a main north/south artery. There are a number of children living in this neighborhood which once housed WWII veterans who had retired from nearby Orlando Air Force Base, now Executive Airport, when we first moved here in the mid-1990s. Over the years we watched those vets  age and die and their families move away. In their place have arrived new families with children and dogs.

For a brief second, the mother looked up from her cellular device and barked a command at the little boy to stay out of the street. Just as quickly she was right back to the device, unaware of whether he actually heeded her command or not. The father never looked up at all.

The child waved at me, huge grin on his face. Down to about 5 mph at this point, I smiled and waved as I drove past. Coming to the cross street a few feet away, I turned toward my destination in the shopping center.

In the rear view mirror I could see that the parade of the oblivious led by a child proceeded unabated.

Grieving Lost Opportunities

As I turned the corner, a wave of sadness swept over me. Sadness for this child, orphaned by the clever ploys of consumerist advertising which had successfully convinced this couple that the most important things in life could only be found on the tiny screens of their cellular devices. But more importantly, sadness for his parents and their squandered opportunities.

They had taken the time to actually get out of their house and take a walk on a beautiful day. But they were essentially unaware of that beauty. As intently as they stared at their screens, the day could just as easily have been marked by an approaching firestorm. 

Worse yet, they were missing the joyful, excited discoveries of their little three-year-old boy, discoveries that will all-too-soon cease to amaze and delight him in the wake of a waning childhood, no doubt soon to be replaced by the mediocre life of an obedient consumer.

Indeed, this child probably has little chance to become anything other. Children learn expected adult behaviors by watching and then imitating the adult authorities in their lives. 

The behaviors these parents were modeling will no doubt be perfected soon in this child’s life, ready to be passed on to yet another generation of well trained consumers. In the end, they will rear a child at risk for deficient interpersonal social skills and prone to public behaviors that can at best be described as excessively self-focused if not simply rude.

But perhaps the saddest part of that entire encounter was the implicit message their behaviors clearly and powerfully communicated to this child: You are unimportant. At the very least, you are less important than the tweet or the Instagram or the snapchat I’m consuming.

The excitement of this three-year-old and his joyful discovery of the world around him had proven to be the loser. The winner? Never ending waves of hypnotic intellectual pabulum reduced to the reading and intellectual level this child will hopefully attain and surpass very soon in his educational process, all conveyed on a medium from which complex thought is effectively banned.

Imagine a lifetime of trying desperately to convince yourself that you are at least as worthy of attention as the latest viral cat video.

Technology Always Outpaces Ethics

Our behavioral scientists are increasingly telling us that our awareness of and voluntary encounters with the natural world are decreasing.  There is no small amount of irony in recognizing that these declines are almost in perfect inverse relationship to the steady decline of that natural world in terms of extinctions and displacement of natural populations due to climate change.

There is almost a sense of repressed anxiety if not actual guilt observable on the part of a human animal population whose behaviors have become essentially parasitic on its own biosphere. Our cellular devices are not simply means of keeping us electronically sedated, they have become very effective means of avoidance and denial of the actual harm we are doing to “this fragile earth, our island home.” (BCP 1979)

As with virtually every other form of innovation, the arrival of any technology comes well before the ethical considerations of its usage occur. Indeed, most technology related ethics are responsive in nature and often are considered only in the wake of unpredicted and often destructive results of its initial employment.

Neil Postman detailed this pattern in his book Technopoly. Postman observed that in technologically driven cultures, any innovation in technology is inevitably seen as progress regardless of its nature. Thus, the presumption that attaches to such innovations is that they must be engaged without restrictions and without consideration for possible consequences.

Now, consider the innovation called the atomic bomb. Consider the rush to use the bomb, to see its effects demonstrated on a human population, even as the strategic need for such a weapon of mass destruction at that point in the conflict with Japan was at best questionable. Consider the presumed need to impress upon our then ally, the Soviet Union, the power of the post-war United States using the lives of a half million Japanese civilians as the means to that geo-political end.

It was a decision that would kick off an incredibly expensive “cold war” – both in terms of natural resources and human lives – that would consume the attention of the world for four decades. And, finally, consider the terrifying, nail-biting moments of October 1962 when frightened school children like me were being taught to duck and cover in our classrooms as the world came within a whisper of self-annihilation using its horrific new technologies.

Unforeseen consequences can prove deadly.

It Doesn’t Matter Whose Fault This Is

There are those who argue that the declining social interaction skills and boorish behaviors that begin online and spill over into real life and the detachment from nature that we readily observe in our daily lives is nothing more than a generational shift. That might be more convincing if we did not see grandmothers weaving all over the highway in the middle of the day when intoxication is an unlikely explanation for that behavior and middle aged semi-truck drivers texting at green lights, oblivious to the sea of honking cars behind them.

The truth is, many – perhaps most - of us have a problem with our personal use of our technologies. But undoubtedly, we all have a problem when those individual behaviors are extrapolated to a societal level as everything from accident rates to poisoned electoral processes attest.

In becoming well-trained consumers we have clearly lost some of our humanity.

While I tend to hold my own Boomer generation accountable for allowing their children and now grandchildren to become texting zombies, I recognize that many of us are engaging in the same behaviors. In the end, we are all well trained consumers.

But at a very basic level, it does not matter who is to blame. Where the problem arose is at this point immaterial. Once it is clear that there is a problem, the only questions that remain are whether, when and how the problem will be dealt with.

Like the college freshman who wakes up hungover and wonders “How did I get home last night?” s/he no longer has the luxury of naiveté. Clearly, there is a problem. That problem exists regardless of how it came to be a problem. The only question now is how to respond to it.  

It is the duty of mature human beings to learn from their mistakes and evolve to a higher level of functioning as a result. Similarly, it is the mark of a responsible human society to learn from its mistakes in the uses of its new technology and to rectify the unforeseen problems that technology has spawned.

That time has come.


On the way home from the party store, I came to a stop behind a black BMW SUV at a red light. The light turned green. The SUV remained in place. A few seconds expired. The SUV did not move. Behind me someone blew a horn. No response from the SUV. Another horn sounded and then a symphony of horns. Finally, I blew my horn.

Suddenly the SUV lurched into motion, speeding down the highway, probably to avoid any contact with the angry motorists he had left behind. Some of them fail to make the light before it once again changed to red. One wonders how long it will take for the first such frustrated motorist to speed up to catch the offending driver, reach across their seat, pick up the gun many now legally carry and register their discontent with the source of their frustration.

Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. - Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Jewish Sages (1993) 

 © Harry Coverston 2017

Thursday, December 21, 2017

The Voice Crying in the Wilderness

A sermon preached Advent III, December 17, 2017 at St. Richard’s Episcopal Church, Winter Park, Florida. Lessons include Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 and the Gospel of John 1:6-8,19-28.

I am the voice of the one crying out in the wilderness, Make straight the Way of the Lord!” May I speak in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. AMEN.

The Call to the Desert

Our Gospel reading takes place in a location known today as Bethabara, Jordan. It is on the Jordan River not far from Jericho and just above where the river dumps into the Dead Sea to the south. 

To get to Bethany across the Jordan as the writer of the Gospel of John describes it, one must descend down long winding mountain paths nearly 3000 feet in elevation from Jerusalem to place nearly 800 feet below sea level. Bethabara is in the heart of the Judean Desert, a rocky, inhospitable place for human habitation. There are no fast food or convenience stores and cell service does not extend that far into the desert. To the modern eye, it is, indeed, a wilderness.
Like most deserts, the Judean Desert is barren, quiet. There are no distractions. And there is a reason that many who find themselves on spiritual journeys come to the desert. They come to be alone with themselves, alone with the lives they bring with them and the callings they sense, alone with the G-d who created them and seeks so earnestly to make his presence known to them.

Jesus spends much time in the desert during his lifetime. Between rounds of healing and teaching, Jesus routinely replenishes his spirt in the desert. He knew that it is there one can most readily hear the small still voice that always calls to us even when we are too distracted to hear it. 

Advent calls all of us to the desert. Our lives are marked by noise and constant distractions. We are told by telecommunication advertisements that we should “Talk all the time!” And we often take that seriously without considering the obvious: 

If we are talking all the time, when do we listen? When do we have time to think about what we’re going to say? Indeed, if we talk all the time, what do we have to say worth hearing?

I sometimes ask my Valencia students “What does it tell us about the quality of the lives we are living if we are so resolutely unwilling to spend time with our own company alone?”

Advent is the time to think long and hard about that question.

Giving Up on a Brood of Vipers

But there are other reasons John the Baptist has come to the desert, to become, in the words of John’s Gospel, “a voice crying in the wilderness.” He has given up on the institutional religion of his time. The Baptist observes that the Sadducees who operate the Temple are in bed with the Romans, allowing the collection of taxes in the Temple courtyard. They can’t be trusted. Worse yet, they operate an exploitative system of sacrificial offerings that effectively shut out the poor.

He observes the Pharisees, obsessed with control issues based in purity codes, codes that determine who is in and who is out when it comes to G-d’s favor. Their reward is a feeling of self-righteousness.

And he observes the poor, the vast majority of the population in Roman occupied Judea. The poor cannot afford the offerings in the Temple. Their desperate scramble for survival does not permit them the means of meeting the daily demands of the Pharisees’ purity code. Everything in their lives suggests that G-d could care less about them. There is a reason Jesus will feel the need to tell them “Blessed are the poor…” and repeatedly remind them “You are the light of the world, the salt of the earth.” Everything else in their lives suggests just the opposite.  

John looks around him and sees religious leaders who have sold their souls for access to power and privilege. He sees sectarian bodies who create walls around themselves, declaring those inside the tribal walls to be the elect and everyone outside to be the damned. All the while the poor and the homeless languish in misery, waiting for someone to remind them of their humanity, demonized as lazy and undeserving by those with full stomachs, clean clothes and secure roofs over their heads. I fear that John the Baptist would find himself strangely at home in 21st CE America.

The Baptist spares no words in his criticism of the religious leaders of his day: “You brood of vipers!” he screams. He has given up on Jerusalem and Judaism as then practiced. He believes that G-d has as well and that an apocalyptic event is now required to set things right. And like all apocalyptic thinkers, he’s pretty sure that those who are the targets of his outrage will get theirs. The god of John the Baptist is decidedly a punishing deity.

The Classic Prophet

The Baptist is also a rather classic prophet. He articulates the vision he feels compelled to pronounce. He knows that few people want to hear it, he says these things to his own peril and yet he feels he has no choice but to proclaim them.

No doubt John has no small sense of the precariousness of his situation, a well-founded fear that soon proves right on target. Within months he will lose his head to King Herod whose incestuous and bloodthirsty dealings with his own family would make him a target for the Baptist’s critique. In the days before Twitter made midnight slandering of one’s political enemies possible, tyrants took out their revenge in blood.

But the Baptist is also insightful. He recognizes in Jesus something new. “Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me.” A number of biblical scholars believe that Jesus was likely a disciple of John the Baptist before realizing that John’s message was not the Good News that Jesus was called to proclaim. John’s message envisions a justice cast in terms of vengeance. Such is the besetting sin of all sectarian thought – we’ve got it right and if you don’t agree, you can go to Hell – quite literally.

To be sure, Jesus does not pull his punches. He is also very critical of the self-righteous Pharisees. And Jesus is contemptuous of the Temple cult, turning over coin changing tables, disrupting business on the Temple Mount because of its exploitative practices that limit access to sacrifice by those perhaps most in need of it, thus desecrating that holy place. It is this act of righteous anger that will cost Jesus his life.

The truth is, we need our prophets. We rarely like them and often avoid their pronouncements by choosing to shoot the messenger rather than heed their message. But we almost always need to hear what they have to tell us, even if the implications for our lives are dire. Perhaps *especially* if the implications for our lives are dire.

Even as we badly need to listen to our prophets, we most often reward them for their gut wrenching words and examples by putting them out of our misery. Consider John the Baptist, Jesus. Consider Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. Oscar Romero. There are two things these prophets all hold in common. The first is that we remember their names and the second is that we remember them because they ended up martyrs.

A Calling to Transcend Our Lives, Transform the World

But Jesus’ Good News is more than a critique of the status quo, the calling of every prophetic voice. I think it is no accident that Luke will put the words of the prophet Isaiah from today’s Hebrew Scripture lesson in the mouth of Jesus in his first public appearance in the synagogue in Nazareth after his 40 days in the desert:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor….to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”

In effect Jesus is telling people “This is who I am, this is what I am called to proclaim and live out. This is what the kingdom of G-d is about and this is the Way my followers will engage.” In short, this is the Standard Operating Procedure manual of the Way of Jesus. 

It is a way of being the people of G-d here, now in a manner that has the potential for its followers to transcend their default ways of being human – ways of living that cause us to avoid our own company with a constant din of electronic distraction and noise. And it is a way of being human that – if engaged collectively and consistently – has the potential to transform the world in which we live.

Advent is a time of waiting and watching, a time that is intended for reflection, for reconsideration of our lives, a process that is known as repentance.

So, how are we doing this Advent?

·         Can we embrace the quiet of the desert?

·         Can we put down our electronic play things long enough to hear what G-d may be desperately trying to communicate to us all year long but finding it impossible to get a word in edgewise when we “talk all the time?”

·         Can we spend the time alone with just our own company and the presence of G_d who is always present with us but rarely recognized?

·         Can we consider the reasons we avoid our own company alone, the things we have said, done, thought of which we are not proud, things we might – if we are being honest with ourselves and resist the temptation to rush in with self-justification – actually call sin?

The voice crying out in the wilderness calls us to take this time of Advent to examine, reflect and be present with ourselves and G-d. Because, like John the Baptist, Advent is pointed toward the coming of the Good News, a Jesus who will call us to a Way of being the people of G_d that has the power to transcend the lowest common denominator of our lives and to transform the whole world. If that sounds familiar to you, it should. We hear it each week in our mission statement:

We are here to discover G-d’s grace, change our lives and change the whole world.

Advent is a time to prepare for that task.

How will we respond?

Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us, through Jesus the Christ, our Lord, to whom with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and forever. AMEN. (Collect for Advent III)

Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)

 © Harry Coverston 2017

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Return to the Ocean of Being

One of the more difficult aspects of being a priest is the duty of burying those you love. This week I had the sad duty of saying goodbye to a wonderful friend, a fellow priest and sojourner in the long road to justice. I was asked to offer one of the two eulogies at his service and I was grateful for that privilege. Here is my homage to a brilliant man, a true patriot, a faithful priest and a dear friend. It was offered at his memorial service Friday, December 15, 2017 at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Winter Haven, Florida.

A Fellow Subversive

There are three basic purposes for a memorial service like the one we are attending today. The first is to commemorate a rite of passage, the celebration of the life of a loved one who has departed our immediate company. The second is to acknowledge the grief that this loss has inflicted on our lives. And the third is to express the hope that this departure from this life is not the final word.

I am honored to have been asked to help celebrate the life of Warren Thompson. He was my friend, my mentor, my travelling companion and my fellow subversive in our efforts to resist what he routinely called systems of “domination and control.”

I greatly admired Warren. He was brilliant, well-educated and always well read. He was also funny and fearless. A member of Mensa, the organization for those with IQs of genius, Warren displayed a wide range of talents from playing the piano to telling some of the saltiest versions of limericks I’ve ever heard. Warren served our country in the Air Force before returning to get his undergraduate degree from the respected University of Wisconsin, Madison and later his Masters of Divinity from the Neshotah House Episcopal Seminary. Thereafter Warren served the Episcopal Church.

We became friends as a result of our mutual involvement in the Episcopal ministry among gays and lesbians called Integrity. Warren was our celebrant at many of our monthly Integrity Eucharists and often brought alternative liturgies to use for that purpose. The liturgies emphasized justice and equality. Warren insisted upon crafting worship in a manner that lived into the promise in our Baptismal Covenant to “respect the dignity of every human being.” It is a promise we Episcopalians make every baptism with the words “I will with God’s help.”

Important Questions

After the eucharists were over, Warren inevitably pulled out an article or book he had brought with him that was raising some new understanding of our Christian tradition. His materials always sought to address important questions:

·         Who was Jesus of Nazareth?
·         What can we know about him and how can we know it?
·         Who wrote the various passages within scripture that we read each day in Morning Prayer and each Sunday in our Eucharists?
·         What do we need to know about the writers of scripture to critically understand the literary legacy they have left to us? 

In pursuit of those understandings, Warren and I made a number of trips to Santa Rosa, CA where the Westar Institute, the parent organization of the often reviled but meticulously scholarly body known as the Jesus Seminar, met each year. The scholars came together in public meetings to analyze scripture, evidence from archaeology and anthropology as well as arguments from linguistics to try to ferret out the authentic words of first Jesus and later the Apostle Paul. 

Warren could not get enough of this and was always excited about each new report from the Seminar. He marveled at the conclusions about the historic Jesus the scholars had distilled from the writings of the early Jesus movement and its later editors that ultimately became the Gospels. Warren came to know many of these scholars from across the world on a first name basis. He will be sorely missed at the Westar gatherings.

The Archbishop of Mulberry

But they will not be the only ones to miss him. Warren was a faithful servant of the Episcopal Church even when it failed to respect the dignity of every human being, most notably gays and lesbians. And yet Warren happily served parishes in Central Florida from Longwood to Winter Haven to his final gig as the supply priest in the mission church in Mulberry.

Warren knew the Mulberry parish could not pay him the full amount required by the diocesan pay scale. But he believed the people of Mulberry deserved a pastor who would love them and serve their pastoral and clerical needs. And so he made a deal with them off the books to come every week but they would only pay him for every other week, essentially half pay. Warren drove the 45 minutes to Mulberry for several years under this arrangement, loving every minute of it. Those of us who knew him often teased him by calling him the Archbishop of Mulberry (a much more honorific title than that afforded him by his bishop who called him the diocesan heretic). 

And so today I celebrate the life of my friend, Warren. It is because he was such a dear friend that I am so painfully aware of his passing. Memorial services are designed to provide a means to acknowledge the grief of loss of those we have loved and I must confess that my life is decidedly diminished by the death of my friend, Warren Thompson. The presence of those who have gathered here today reveals that my loss is shared by many of you as well.

The Ocean of Being

The final purpose of memorial services is to express the hope that the departing from this world of our loved ones is not the final word. I want to relate a story that Warren often told about what happens to us when we die. Warren was widely read and open to the wisdom that other traditions provide those willing to accept it. And so Warren’s illustration came from the writings of Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist sage from the Vietnam War era:

“Think of walking along the beach,” he would say. “As you look out toward the horizon, you see a series of waves coming in toward the shore. The wave rises, builds, crests, and then crashes back into the ocean from which it came. That is the way our existence is,” he said. “We are never created out of nothing and we don’t disappear upon our death. Like the wave, we come from an ocean of being. For a moment we experience what seems like an individual existence. But in the end, we return to that ocean of being from which we come.”

I find much to admire in that understanding. Richard Rohr, the Franciscan sage
of our own generation, puts it like this: “G-d is the ground of our very Being. We come from G-d. We exist In G-d. And ultimately, we return to G-d.” And to that understanding I would simply add the familiar Episcopal response, “Thanks be to G-d.”

Today, I look forward to that return. And I look forward to being reunited with Warren Thompson in that ocean of being, in the very heart of G-d.

At the end of our Integrity Eucharists, Warren often dismissed the community with a blessing that included a quote from Swiss philosopher Henri- Frederic Amiel. I conclude my remarks today with that blessing:

Life is short. We don't have much time to gladden the hearts of those who walk this way with us. So, be swift to love and make haste to be kind.  And as we are blessed by God, may we be a blessing to all we meet. Let us remember that we are beautiful in the sight of God. The blessing of [+] Christ is upon us. Let us walk free and open our hearts to life, for Christ walks with us into each new day. AMEN.

Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)

 © Harry Coverston 2017


Friday, November 24, 2017

Secrets of the Kitchen Goddess

The Kitchen Goddess is watching me as I rinse the collard greens to put them into the large pot to begin cooking for Thanksgiving dinner. The greens will join the chunked potatoes, onions, garlic and tri-colored bell peppers already simmering in butter, garlic and Portabello mushrooms at the bottom of the pot. Soon they will be joined by three ham hocks boiling in a couple of cups of chardonnay to create the stock for the greens.

The kitchen smells wonderful.

The Kitchen Goddess smiles approvingly.

Everything I know about cooking I learned from the two most important women in my life. One was the Kitchen Goddess, Henrietta Hadley, our beloved Nanny. The other was St. Marge, my beloved Mother.

I think she’d be proud…

The shrine to our Nanny turned Kitchen Goddess is actually a large cookie jar which stands on the shelves on which we keep our pots and pans against the far wall of the kitchen. I bought the cookie jar years ago at an African-American Heritage event at Hannibal Square. It’s the heart of the historically black section of Winter Park complete with an arts center and municipal auditorium. It’s also the part of Winter Park where African-Americans are struggling with forces of “gentrification,” a condescending description which masks the reality of a minority population being displaced by wealthier, and largely white, developers.

The arts center is where the Equal Justice Initiative Task Force of which I am a member meets monthly. Our goal is to commemorate a massacre of up to 60 African-Americans in nearby Ocoee as a result of their attempts to vote in the 1920 presidential election. The task force is also charged with erecting a marker to commemorate the lynching of July Perry in Orlando consequent to that massacre.

I think Henrietta would be proud. She was the one who made me aware of why it was dangerous for her grandchildren to be out of the house on nights when white men wreaking of Budweiser and Jim Beam would careen through the Lincoln Terrace section of Bushnell, Confederate flags fluttering from the back of pickup trucks without mufflers.

Her’s was the face that made it impossible for me to buy into the sea of racism in which my childhood occurred. She was the example that proved the living refutation of all the dehumanizing things that passed for conventional “wisdom” about black people in a small town in Central Florida on the edge of the Bible Belt during the conflict-ridden days of desegregation in the 1960s.

She was simultaneously the source of my most painful ongoing cognitive dissonance as well as the object of my deepest loving gratitude.

And I will always be in her debt.

Smiling approval and that knowing look….

I feel her eyes on me as I sauté the yellow and zucchini squash for the casserole. I don’t use nearly as much black pepper as she did in her squash, a spicy soul food dish cooked in bacon grease that to this day still brings back happy memories from the kitchen in our home. No doubt my own ongoing love of soul food finds its roots in her cooking. But I can hear her directions as I mix in the bell peppers, onions, mushrooms and garlic (Don’t let it burn, Harry) and get ready to add the egg and cheese mixture before going into the oven.

There are smaller representations of black nannies around my kitchen that came from our home in Bushnell. Henrietta worked for my family about 20 years from before my sister’s birth in 1963 until after her graduation from high school, just after Henrietta's own grand-daughter graduated. Long after she no longer worked for us, we continued to go to her home in Lincoln Terrace, which my Mother had helped refurbish through her work at the Farmer’s Home Administration. It was the highlight of our Christmas Day to take her presents and a few dishes from our Christmas dinner.

Some might see these small statuettes as racist. And perhaps for some they are, sold as they are in truck stops at the exits of interstate highways across the Bible Belt and in souvenir shops in more charming venues like Charleston and New Orleans.

But I always smile when I see the small statues of black nannies around my kitchen. For me, they convey the almost palpable presence of a woman I deeply loved who changed my life forever.

I hear her voice freely giving expert advice - when asked - on everything from my love life to folk remedies for rashes from stinging nettles to who would win the high school football game Friday night. I see her holding my sister – her baby, she told people – on the front seat of Daddy’s pickup truck as I would drive her home in the afternoons once I finally got my driver’s license. And I remember her standing in line to vote with my Father after work down at the Bushnell Woman’s Club where the poll was located. It would be many years before I figured out that my Dad stood there silently with her to make sure Henrietta was not denied the right to vote.

I also see the face of her oldest daughter nodding at me with that same knowing look. It was she who came in Henrietta’s place to my Mother’s funeral years after Henrietta herself had died, the only person of color in the First United Methodist Church in Bushnell that day.

“Stolen plants grow the best…”

The smells in the kitchen are wonderful. Dinner time is drawing near. The Kitchen Goddess nods approvingly.

I look through my kitchen window to the jungle in my back yard. The angel trumpets are gorgeous right now with their foot long blossoms that begin white, turn yellow and finally orange, their perfume pervading the damp night air.

I can hear her voice saying, “You know, stolen plants always grow better.” And, truth be told, that’s how a lot of plants from the golden cassia tree to the glossy leaved Morea irises came to be in our yard in Bushnell and now populate my jungle in Orlando. “Just take you a little piece of this and stick in the dirt and water it. It’ll grow,” she said.

And she was right, as she almost always was.

Christmas Day, 1982

There is something wonderful about feeling the presence of those you love who have gone before you. That’s particularly true in the context of a Thanksgiving meal being prepared for a crowd of 17 loved ones, family of birth and family of choice. There is a positively sacramental aspect in seeing the symbols of loved ones, envisioning their faces and hearing the echo of their long-gone voices, reminders of a grace-filled life that was full of loving relationship.

The Kitchen Goddess is absolutely beaming as the last dish is pulled from the oven.  

I call everyone together to the dining room. We circle around the recently refinished dining room table, the table on which we all grew up eating family dinners, now covered with my Mother’s table cloth, glowing with candles. We join hands and silently give thanks for all the many blessings of this life. I conclude with a short prayer from the Book of Common Prayer: “For these and all thy other many blessings, may G-d’s holy name be praised through Jesus the Christ our Lord.”

Now it’s time to eat.

Buried Chests of Family Treasures

Before the night is over, my Brother will have brought in from his car two huge boxes of family photos that he found in our house in Bushnell. When he and Ruthie, his wife, picked up the bed from my sister’s old room to move it to the van to bring back to Winter Park, the two long, shallow boxes suddenly revealed themselves, bearing decades of family history. 

Once the pies are all cleared away, David deposits them on the dining table and opens them up.

We pick through the photos together, telling family stories and trying to remember names of relatives and friends long gone. There are photos of the three of us as children. My brother and I rag my sister on her first Easter photo in 1964. “You have no have no idea how hard we had to work to get that bunny hat on you and to get you to hold still long enough to take the photo.”

There were photos of my Brother and I in our hippie days, long hair and sideburns. And there were photos of our parents in the days of their courtship and marriage when they were students at the University of Florida in the late 1940s.

Perhaps it was no accident that the first photo my fingers touched bore the image of Henrietta Hadley. From the next room, I could feel the smile of the Kitchen Goddess, that knowing look on her face.  

Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)

 © Harry Coverston 2017