Tuesday, September 25, 2018

The Gospel According to Bus 104

For the last couple of years of my supposed retirement I have taught ethics as an adjunct at the local state (née community) college. Truth be told, my business with teaching simply was not finished in 2015 even as I had felt the need to escape the university with my sanity and what was left of my dignity. I had come to the university from the Osceola Campus of Valencia in 2001. At a very basic level, it was like coming home to return to teaching there. 

Transit Trade-offs

After my first few weeks as an adjunct commuting to work, I calculated that between my planning time, grading time and commute time - in addition to my actual time on campus -  I was making just above minimum wage. Between tolls and mileage to the Osceola Campus alone, I was paying nearly $17 each way just to get there. 

So I began riding the local transit system bus to work. It was a long ride, about an hour and 10 minutes on a good day, one way, this after a 15 minute drive to the bus stop along the route to the college, catching the bus in front of a grocery store where I left my car each morning.

It was a hassle on a good day. The bus was as often late as not. Because it only ran every hour, I always gave myself plenty of leave time prior to scheduled departure. That meant I waited most mornings 10-15 minutes. But it also gave me some breathing room when the bus ran late so I wasn’t late to my class. Some days it rained and at my stop – like most stops - there was not even a bench to sit on, much less a shelter.

So, who really cares about working class people, anyway, right?

But the bus ride allowed me time on the way down to the college to catch up on the news, to check to see if it would be raining when it came time to catch the bus home that afternoon or to read the latest dystopian science fiction novel on my Kindle. I used the time on the way home each evening to grade papers.

The second year of my commute, the bus became free for college students and staff. I could hardly get a better deal. No one was going to pay me to ride.

While the use of local transit came at a cost of time and convenience, it had other payoffs which are hard to reduce to the dollars and cents that market fundamentalism insists that all aspects of life in a consumerist culture be measured in. My car was not adding one more vehicle to overcrowded local highways. It was not adding one more car’s worth of demands for carbon fuels or dumping one more car’s worth of carbon exhaust into our atmosphere.  

There was much less wear and tear on my aging Prius, a car this retiree hopes will last me indefinitely. I didn’t have to worry about traffic along the way – much of which is under construction - or parking once I arrived. Thus, I inevitably arrived a lot less stressed than before.

Then there were the educational aspects.

Some days I simply sat on the bus and watched the parade of humanity that passed by my seat. It was never dull. Living in a majority/minority metropolitan area, the first thing one learns is that they can never presume the person sitting next to them speaks English as their first language. Then there was the lesson I learned as a professional middle class man, that my life circumstances were rarely shared by the majority of the people I encountered.

I called it the Margaret Mead Express. Because whatever else you might say about that long ride, it was never dull. And it was always informative. 

Aware of My Privilege

The morning She appeared I found myself just sitting, looking around the crowd. The bus was about half full and, as is often the case at that late morning hour, fairly quiet. I noted that, as usual, many riders wore the required polyester corporate uniforms enroute to or from work.

It was one of many moments that I was consciously aware of my own privilege.

Perhaps it was the fact I had the luxury of spending my transit time checking for last minute student messages on my course site using my iPad which in turn had access to the bus’ wifi system. Or maybe it was the fact I had a thermos of coffee I’d made at home with my favorite Cuban coffee beans and soy milk from which I periodically took a clandestine swig (you’re not supposed to eat or drink on the bus, for good reasons).

Then there was the fact my polo bore no corporate logo declaring that the garment – if not the very soul of its bearer – were ultimately the property of some  corporate chain restaurant, hotel or managed health care system.

Like many who sat around me, I, too, would be paid no benefits nor a living wage by an employer who relied on part-time, minimally paid workers to continue operating. But, unlike any of them, I had a meager state pension paying me enough to keep the lights on and the beans on the table. And I had a husband whose medical coverage through the same college toward which I was headed to work which ensured treatment should I become injured or ill.  Adjunct teaching for me was at some level a luxury I could engage or not as I chose.

Few people on the bus that morning could make any of those claims.

Because I had nothing pressing that morning, I was able to stare out the windows at scenes of life passing outside my window. These were working class neighborhoods with exotic sounding names: Sky Lake, Meadow Wood Estates, Buenaventura Lakes. I would never live in neighborhoods like those, I simply passed through them twice daily enroute to and from my job as a college professor and wondered to myself what life was like in such a place.

(Brief Excursus: I love community/state colleges. Every teacher is called “professor” there out of respect - including adjuncts like myself. Neither the students nor the staff have the time or the need to play the inflated ego games of hierarchy or status that is second nature at universities. If you’re standing in front of the class, your title is professor.)

She Looked Exhausted

This day promised to be challenging at the college. It was the day we covered the ethics of punishment. Who punishes whom and why was one topic that always managed to engage students, some of whom would have already experienced the “justice system” first hand. I sat pondering how I would try to explain concepts like deterrence theory and its many failings and restorative justice and its largely unrealized promise.

That was the moment She came staggering down the aisle. And at that moment, the world seemed to grind to a complete halt.

She was a middle aged African-American woman. Overweight. Graying hair flowing loose, unkempt. She looked exhausted, her eyes opened just enough to negotiate her way down the aisle and up the stairs to the back of the bus. Indeed, her appearance suggested that today was not an exception for her, she had probably led a difficult life.

In another life she might have been a pillar of her community, a respected source of wisdom at her local church and a valued voice in its choir, famous for her chicken and dumplings at the Sunday potluck. This day she wore the flimsiest of worn rubber thong sandals on her dirty feet. Her dress was so sheer as to be diaphanous, more like ragged bed clothing than daily public wear. Periodically her garments gaped open revealing large swollen breasts which threatened to spill out unimpeded.

As she passed without making eye contact with any of us that morning, I almost lost my breath. This was not the ordinary denizen of Bus 104. She fell into her seat at the very rear of the bus with a loud sigh, dropping into a semi-coma almost immediately.

As I looked around me, for at least a brief moment, everyone there seemed to recognize that something unusual had just happened. Then, just as quickly, they went back to their previous activities.

Perhaps some of them wondered about her as I did. What had brought this woman to this place this day in this condition? Had she had a long night? Was she running from abuse? Had she just scored whatever cheap street drug that was available to temporarily escape the hell that was her life? Was she mentally well? How in the world did she end up here, looking like this?

Heaven only knew. And this morning, heaven wasn’t about to tell.

Just Trying to Get By

But she didn’t care. Soon loudly snoring, she was oblivious to the fact she was nearly exposed here amidst a group of strangers. Fortunately for her, few of them paid much attention.

Indeed, a number of them, too, were dead tired. Some were coming off night shifts at hotels, restaurants, hospitals, their bodies and dirty clothing smelling of a long hard day of labor, perhaps at more than one job site connected by even more bus rides.

Some listened to i-pods or distracted themselves with games on their cells. Some surreptitiously gobbled down cold remnants of their daily fast food meal, looking around to see if anyone noticed they were breaking the rules regarding food and beverages on the bus. Truth be told, no one really cared.

Others took clandestine swigs from cans of malt liquor poorly disguised by the tan paper bags issued them with the beer at the convenience store. For most of us, this would be the middle of an ordinary work day, hardly the time to be swilling down booze. But for these folks it was the end of their shifts and they were determined to take the edge off their bodily – if not existential - pain at the end of a long day.

It was a bus full of souls just trying to get by.

Not everyone was exhausted. Some wearing freshly washed clothes and plastic name tags simply sat quietly awaiting their stops at the Walmart, restaurants and convenience stores where they would spend their day. Some elderly men with oversized fountain drinks from corner filling stations carried on animated discussions in Spanish with people they knew sitting several rows of seats away. Here and there students used the time on the bus to get in last minute cramming before the algebra and biology tests they faced upon arrival at the same destination I awaited.

Then there was the occasional professional middle class worker like myself, a professor reading the last minute excuses from students who would be avoiding that day’s classes. My guess is that most of my fellow passengers figured I was there due to a DUI and suspension of my driving privileges. Neither was true but I didn’t really care.

And neither did She.

In the back of the bus where I always sat, the snoring had tapered off to a low hum. For a moment, she was at peace.

And Yet the Image Shines Through

Years ago, Joan Osborne made a hit record raising a provocative question:

Just a slob like one of us.
Just a stranger on the bus trying to make his way home….”

(Joan Osborne, 1995)

What indeed.

As I observed this exhausted woman, her large breasts spilling out of her sheer garment and heaving with each breath, collapsed now across two seats, head against the rear window, calloused feet dangling into the aisle, a sudden revelation came to me:

“Here is the image of G-d.”



Socially unacceptable.

But nonetheless the divine image, shining brightly through what Mother Theresa called “the distressing disguise of poverty,” for those willing to look long enough to see it.  Here was one of the “little ones” that Jesus loved, one of the poor that Jesus said G-d sees as blessed.

And for just that brief moment, I realized what an incredible privilege I had been afforded to be present for that revelation.

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 2018

Friday, September 21, 2018

Tribal Gods and The Prejudices That No Longer Serve Us

Jim Meisner, Jr.’s essay on “Biblical Sexism and Modern Rape Culture” is provocative and well worth your five minutes to read. It prompted me to reflect on the relationship between religions generally and the socially constructed systems of deprecation and discrimination that have haunted human societies historically and today serve as the crux of the culture wars.

For far too many years far too many people within the world’s religions have conflated common social constructions of human beings and human relationships that proclaim who can be valued in that society and who must not be with what they purport to be revelations of the divine. In an early Iron Age culture with its warrior sky gods rapidly displacing agrarian female deities, it would hardly be surprising to see the tribal values of the socially dominant – patriarchy in all its hydra heads (sexism, homophobia) and racism – accepted as simply part of the natural order. 

Correspondingly, over time, those understandings which were produced through social construction would no doubt be attributed to the tribal deity. Thus, sexism, homophobia and racism came to be seen as reflecting the mind of their god.

I doubt such tribal gods ever fully served all the people of G_d. It was undoubtedly a question of where one fell in the cultural hierarchy. If one was male and straight in patriarchal cultures and white in racist cultures, the tribal gods who reflected and validated their privilege was a great deal. If you were wealthy, divine affirmation reflected your privilege. If you lacked one or more of those qualities, this was a lousy deal even as your socially constructed misfortune was generally interpreted as the result of divine judgment and thus your fate.

There was a reason that Jesus of Nazareth consistently spoke out on behalf of the anawim, the little ones, whom he declared G-d favored. In a culture which proclaimed by word and deed that G-d did not value them, statements like “Blessed are the poor...those who mourn...the meek..,” i.e., the opposite of those exercised power and enjoyed privilege in his culture, were words of resistance - if not defiance.

The holders of arbitrary, socially constructed privilege and virulent social prejudices at some level inevitably recognize how arbitrary and thus how fragile their positions are. Most come to feel the need for legitimation for the same. The common sources of such legitimation tend to be nature, tradition and religion. But regardless of how legitimate these understandings may come to be seen, at heart they always remain social constructions, subject to deconstruction by critical consideration and reconstruction in ways less exploitative and injurious to others. 

To the degree they impact the lives of targeted groups of people negatively today, they must be seen as what they are - common social prejudices, NOT the respectable tenets of a venerable religious tradition. Those traditions may well hold a number of tenets worthy of respect (and it is neither fair nor intellectually honest to sum up entire traditions based upon their worst features). But the conflation of common social prejudices and socially constructed privilege with the mind or will of the deity is not among them.  

Insisting that the deity demands such understandings in the face of modern scientific knowledge about sex, gender, sexual orientations, race and the creation and distribution of wealth no doubt requires increasing levels of denial among even minimally conscious human beings. Notions of a deity who is seen as the source of all goodness are simply impossible to reconcile with corrosive prejudices which causes observable harm to human beings and to the planet we share with all other living beings.

A thoughtful believer today might begin to ask him/herself whether their construct of deity needs reconsideration. A god who ordains male privilege within families, who excuses egregious male abuse of women and children, who is homophobic and/or racist, or who blesses the amassing of enormous amounts of wealth at the expense of the rest of the population and the good Creation itself, is not a god worth worshipping by thoughtful people regardless of the tradition in which that construct is found.

Whatever else that construct might be, it does not point toward the Creator of the Universe, the G-d who is Source and Ground of All Being.

As for those who continue to foster such impoverished and ultimately pathological understandings without further consideration, they reveal themselves as holding a vision of religion not worthy of respect even as their persons and the image of G_d they bear must always be respected by those who would draw them into question. Clearly, many will find it difficult to make that distinction. But it is there and it can be and must be made.

As always, we can do better. 


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 ShapiroWisdom of the Jewish Sages (1993) 

 © Harry Coverston 2018


Monday, September 03, 2018

Turning 65 - Officially an Old Fart

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Today is the beginning of my 65th spin around the Sun. My Medicare A and B card arrived last week. And my mailbox is now full of offers from companies wanting to sell me supplemental plans. They’ve temporarily replaced the flood of political propaganda that jammed our box until last week’s primary election. I’m even considering joining AARP if for no other reason than the savings that membership can provide.

Let’s face it. As of today, I’m officially an Old Fart. And truth be told, I’m just fine with that.

A lot of my fellow Boomers lament the reality of leaving behind their youth. From my perspective, I’m just glad to have made it this far. In a life as intensely and unrelentingly  lived as my own has been, that was never a given. Today, I will celebrate having made it to 65.

Deo Gratias! 

I promised myself I’d never be one of those old people who got together and complained about physical ailments and treatments. Even so, I find myself discussing the little surprises our bodies spring on us with people my age and older. This is as close as our youth worshipping culture gets to badly needed rituals to gracefully let go of vitality and agility that comes with the aging process, not the least of which is the ever nearer presence of Sister Death.

And so we gently kvetch.

Truth be told, I am grateful to be in as good of physical health as I am. My primary weak point right now is my knees, both of which bear torn menisci. I have been undergoing a treatment called prolotherapy designed to stimulate reparative growth of knee cartilage. While the knees still ache, they are better than they were prior to the therapy. My goal is to avoid knee replacement surgery as long as possible. I’ve seen how rigorous that surgery and recovery is and I know that not all surgery is successful. Time will tell.

I also control mild blood pressure and a mild case of Barrett’s Syndrome with medication. I take a handful of supplements each day and give thanks I am able to afford all the forms of medication I need to remain healthy.  I know only too well that is not necessarily a given in a socially irresponsible culture like our own. Best part of reaching 65 is that I am finally eligible for Medicare.

A Rich Life of Study

As I look back over my now completed 64 years of life, my primary reaction is gratitude. I have never made a lot of money in my life and I’ve never commanded much power or social status. As alluring as those temptations may have been, they were never my callings. I’ve pretty much swum upstream all my life, drawing into question a culture which holds those  values as its ultimate concerns.

Little wonder I celebrate having survived this long.

But I have nonetheless led a privileged life in many ways, not the least of which was winning the genetic lottery. I was  born into a loving family of well educated parents who later produced two siblings and now their children whose lives I have always cherished sharing. I was born with a good brain which my parents insisted I develop to its greatest potential. And I was raised in a family whose values included a respect for the common people, an awareness of the suffering in the world and a duty driven by compassion to address that suffering as best I could.

Those have been my callings all of my life. They continue to be my callings today.

My life efforts have produced a modest monetary reward. My highest annual salary was in 2016, the year I retired from the university, when I made $62,000 working three different jobs drawing on three different graduate degrees. So much for the add-on value of higher education and the value of public service to our culture.

Even so, I have led an incredibly rich life. My husband often reminds me that when he met me at the Kappa Sigma fraternity house in Gainesville, he thought I was the most curious human being he’d ever met. I have little idea of how I compare to others on curiosity but a desire to understand the world and experience as much of it as I could has always been my deepest yearning. And given those desires, my life has amassed a wealth of understandings attained through study, work experience and travel.

I don’t think you can really understand people until you’ve shared a bit of their lives. My work life began in the fields of Sumter County where I was raised, picking peas, bell peppers and tossing watermelon. What I learned from that experience has stayed with me all my life.

Agricultural work is hard. It ages workers prematurely and ultimately beats their bodies to a withered pulp. I gained a great deal of respect for working class people during those summers. Our daily bread is never simply a gift dropped from the heavens to people who believe they are entitled to it. It comes by the hands of people whose faces we do not see and whose labor we often take for granted. 

If you want to enrage me, refer to the immigrant farmworkers who have long since taken the place of privileged men like me in those demanding fields as lazy. I've been there. I know better.

I also learned a lot about myself that summer. Many of my co-workers carrying those bushel baskets to scoop up bell pepper, paid by the hamper and then only minimally, would spend the rest of their lives in those fields until their bodies simply wore out. Even as I shared their experience, sweating like a pig, treating my sunburned lower back - exposed when I bent over the rows of pepper plants – with aloe and trembling when lightning or snakes appeared, I always knew that my time there was finite.

At the end of that last summer I knew I would be off to college, off to a life that most of these folks would never know. And at that moment, I recognized my own privilege.

Since that time, I’ve worked in a couple of department stores selling clothes, at several newspapers as reporter and copy editor, and practiced law for about eight years. I also worked as a summer intern in the halls of Congress. But the bulk of my employment has always been in education. I have taught students from fifth grade to doctoral work, the bulk of which occurred in higher education. It has always been my deepest calling. 

My curiosity drove me to study the subjects that I always cared about – history, politics, law, sociology, religion, theology. And my privilege (as well as my willingness to work while studying and to pay back three rounds of major loans) allowed me to study at state universities ranging from Florida’s two oldest universities to classrooms at Berkeley, Vanderbilt, East Lansing and on-site in Israel, Brasil and across Central and South America.

The understanding of what it means to be human I have been able to develop from this life of study and travel has been rich indeed. And for all of that I am deeply grateful.

A Rich Home Life

Where I truly realize my good fortune is in this home we call New Coverleigh (Coverston + Moberleigh, Andy’s ancient family name). As I write this day. I look out my office window to a yard full of trees, flowering shrubs and vines. Interspersed among the vegetation are statues honoring the symbols of faith traditions from Sts. Francis and Clare (complete with a Wolf of Gubbio!) to Shinto stone lanterns delineating a sacred space to the Buddha and Guanyin, the bodhisattva of compassion, who oversee our beloved jungle.

Within my home live my life’s greatest treasures: Oscar Dachshund, Saidy Beagle, Magadalena, Romero and Frida, the cats who own us, and my gentle spirited husband of 8 years and life partner of now 44 years. The walls bear the art and photographs from my travels as well as bookshelves holding thousands of books from 17 years of higher education.

We had to rebuild our beautiful home after it was destroyed by Hurricane Charley in 2004. We were out of our home for nearly four years and we had two contractors begin work on the repairs and leave before they were completed. We ultimately took out the permits to finish the work ourselves. 

Little wonder this place is so dear to us. 

My ability to retire from the university three years ago was predicated upon our ability to pay off both the remaining mortgage on our rebuilt home (we lost $30,000 on the reconstruction above insurance) and my ability to finally pay off my student loans for my last round of graduate education. So I have much for which to give thanks in my life.

We live in a progressive, highly diverse city, a cosmopolitan and relatively compassionate blue island amidst an angry red sea. There is a modicum of safety in this oasis even as it is always tentative in the polarized times in which we live. I pray this oasis does not ultimately prove to be a mirage.

I love being uncle to my brother’s three children and my sister’s two. My siblings both live within an hour and a half of me and I am grateful to see them fairly regularly. My parish, St. Richard’s Episcopal in Winter Park, is the center of much of my life activities these days. I cherish the friends I have there and the ministry I am able to offer there.

There are many nights I lay in bed just before dropping off to sleep, listening to the gentle snoring all around me. I look across the room to the smiling images staring back at me, hanging from the Tree of Life above my ancestor altar, and I tell myself “You are the luckiest man in the world.” And in all honesty, I really feel that I am. 

For all of these things I am deeply grateful this 65th anniversary of my birth.

And Now for a Little Solitude

One of the ways I know I am 65 is how tired I feel just laying out my account of this very full life. I have just completed an 18 month period of serving as executor for my Father’s estate. That has included the selling of our homestead in Bushnell, a labor fraught with no small amount of emotional baggage. My Dad, Brother and I had cleared the property on which we built our house, the house my best friend’s father designed and constructed.

Though none of us were willing to move back to the woods of Sumter County, letting go of Edenfield, our family home with its banks of azaleas that bloomed each spring and its 300 year old live oak Tree of Life, was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do in my life. At the end of that long process, I am feeling pretty drained.

This fall I chose not to teach and I have ended my contract work with the Florida Humanities Council. I’ve also trimmed my ministry in the parish to a minimum. But it’s not like I will have much time to sit on my laurels. I still have a house full of photos, books and household effects from our family home to sift through and dispose of. That includes several boxes of the genealogical materials my Father slaved over to try and discover who we were and where we came from. To his credit, my recent 23 and Me report verified exactly what he found and what I’ve told people for years: We are Celt and Kraut to the bone. 

I find myself at the odd place of craving silence and solitude for the first time in my life. A screaming extravert from childhood, I have come to love the early mornings I spend on my meditation bench in my garden as the sun rises through the trees to a chorus of birds. I have come to crave my afternoon naps curled up with my two dogs and three cats, a book laying open across my chest.

I’ve recently bought a loom and hope to begin learning to weave. My Mother’s family name was Webb, German for weaver, so I guess it’s in my DNA much like teaching (fifth generation of teachers in the family, great-grandparents named Reed and Wright). I’m even on occasion playing my piano which has sat ignored for years.

Most of all, I cherish my time in my garden, rooting cuttings from our family estate, planting seeds from fading heads of flowers snatched from roadsides and trying to stay one step ahead of a vibrant jungle more than willing to take over if given half a chance. Touching the good Earth provides the grounding my tired soul needs at this moment.

Even so, my guess is that my public life is not over yet. I have a sense that I am simply catching my breath. Once I get through all the materials from my family home, I intend to devote myself to writing and doing some photography. I believe that ultimately, I will engage the world of public scholarship once again. And I believe my rich life of learning and experience may well provide me something of value to offer that  world.

Before this Labor Day weekend is over, I will have spent my birthday at Cassadaga, one of my favorite places in Florida, received my birthday blessing at St. Richards and celebrated eucharist there Sunday night. On Labor Day Andy and I will walk the beach at Cape Canaveral and end the evening with supper at one of my favorite places there. It’s been a perfect way to launch this 65th spin around the Sun.

Today, I give thanks for a rich life and a fortunate existence. I offer my gratitude for making it to old fartdom and living to tell the story. And I thank you for taking the time to read it.

Deo Gratias!


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 ShapiroWisdom of the Jewish Sages (1993) 

 © Harry Coverston 2018