Folding Tents, Leaving Town

On 14 January 2017 the Ringling Brothers/Barnum & Bailey Circus announced that it would fold its tents for the last time and go out of business. We’ve taken our children to the Ringling Brothers circus only once that I can recall. We’ve also taken our children and grandchildren to the Big Apple Circus, which is also in bankruptcy and selling off its assets.

There are only a few degrees of separation between myself and both circuses. We have a family member on Jody’s side who is related by marriage to a dancer who has performed with both the Ringling Brothers and Big Apple circuses. Her husband, a drummer, has also performed with both. Mark Heter, who taught me to play the euphonium, played tuba for Ringling Brothers in the days when a live band accompanied the performances with tunes such as Julius Fučík’s “Entry of the Gladiators” and Mikhail Mikhailovich Ippolitov-Ivanov’s “Procession of the Sardar.” Before that he played with smaller tent circuses that he referred as “mud shows.”

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I don’t have any great affection or disdain for the circus. The exploitation of animals is regrettable, especially since the species exploited by circuses—elephants and tigers in particular—also face extinction in the wild because of widespread poaching. But watching the circus is an opportunity to learn that even the most fearsome threats can be tamed, to admire the skill and athleticism of the acrobats and other performers, or to laugh at ourselves as we see ourselves reflected in the behavior of the clowns.

There’s another lesson to be learned from the role that circuses and other forms of entertainment have in our lives. Although modern circuses are not used to placate a discontented populace, how timely is the concept of “bread and circuses”? It also puts me in mind of Neil Postman’s excellent Amusing Ourselves to Death:

“Americans no longer talk to each other, they entertain each other. They do not exchange ideas, they exchange images. They do not argue with propositions; they argue with good looks, celebrities and commercials.”
Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Or Business

Or we argue with tweets and Facebook posts.

As the administration of Barack Obama was also folding its tents, the New York Times published an article on his reading habits during his years in the White House. The comments accompanying the on-line article reflect a wide range of views. No doubt any group of people who happen to read this post will also have a wide range of views on the subject, and that’s cool. I believe with President Obama that one purpose for reading, and reading broadly, is to enable us to gain new and valuable perspectives on our lives, on the lives of those around us, and on the events of the day. I would hope that the days to come will find us looking to literature that will help us gain those perspectives, and not relying on the bread and circuses of our day.

Thanks for stopping by!

Winter Silence

Just before sunrise, at approximately 7:15 a.m. on New Year’s Day, our neighborhood in the Allwood section of Clifton was very quiet. No surprise, really, given the day and time. The sounds that could be heard were mostly bird calls, including jays, crows, English sparrows, and a nuthatch. A grey silhouette, shaped like a mockingbird, sat in a nearby bush but made no sound.

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Sunrise over Allwood, May 2015

The birds that remain in the area during the cold months are active and vocal. They call to alert one another to the presence of predators or to the location of food sources. In a few weeks they will begin calling to attract mates and any quiet early mornings will be filled with those hopeful sounds. By coincidence our pastor at Grace Presbyterian Church, Paul Leggett, preached on New Year’s Day about the sometimes unrecognized presence of Christ in our midst. In discussing John 1:26b Paul said that anything that brings us joy, such as hearing bird calls, is a token of the presence of Christ.

By another coincidence Krista Tippett’s On Being broadcast on New Year’s Day 2017 featured her interview with Gordon Hempton, originally aired in May 2012. Hempton refers to quiet not as the absence of sound but as the absence of noise. Big difference. He also says that humans have evolved to be most sensitive to sounds in the frequency range of bird song. This suggests to him that one of the key indicators of a habitat or ecosystem that will support human life is the presence of bird song.

Silence can allow us to hear important things that we ought to hear or that will enlighten or gladden us. Silence can also make us uncomfortable or unsure of what’s coming next. I once attended a meeting with other members of an organization. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss strategies for publicizing the organization and its events. I said little and mostly listened. When I was next in the presence of another member who was also at this meeting she said she was tempted to hold a mirror under my nose to see if I was still breathing. 🙂

As Ecclesiastes 3:7 tells us, there is a time to keep silent and a time to speak. Many of us think now is the time to speak, if social media activity is any measure of those inclinations. Yet few of us are truly the prophets whose voices need to be heard. (Yes, I do grasp the irony and hypocrisy of that statement.) Bill McKibben is a prophet. Wendell Berry is a prophet. Tim Keller is a prophet. [insert name of your choice here] is a prophet. I am not. I need mostly to listen, evaluate and think critically, and, because being silent does not mean being passive, act in ways that will benefit humanity, the planet, and the church.

For my part I hope 2017 will be more a time for keeping silent and for being  thoughtful, intentional, and charitable when speaking is necessary. I wish for you a year filled with beneficial silences, profitable interactions with those around you, and actions that bear good fruit. May contentment and health also be yours in abundance. Thank you as always for stopping by.

Caterpillars, Compost, and Natural Cycles

Recently our parsley patch hosted some black swallowtail caterpillars. At least two were observed over several days. A family member suggested that we remove them and display them in Jody’s first grade classroom. The expectation was that they would soon enter the chrysalis stage, and would subsequently emerge as adult butterflies.

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Spring Has Come Early to New Jersey

Spring has come early to Northern New Jersey. That is a cause for concern. More about that later.

The early arrival of spring is also a cause for rejoicing. The furnace runs less, and we have more reasons and opportunities to step outside for what passes for fresh air in Northern New Jersey. The growing season may also be a bit longer. Although it is a bit of a risk, seeds for cool-weather crops such as spinach, lettuce, and peas can go into ground that later can be planted with tomatoes or summer squash.

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Do Crows Keep Calendars?

On a recent Saturday morning the air was cold and the sky was clear for the walk to the bakery. Blue jays and cardinals called in the distance but I did not stop to look for them. Other birds might have been calling but I paid them no attention. It was impossible not to pay attention to the crows, however. There were dozens of them in the trees and on the utility lines; here and there a few hopped around on the ground.

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A Garland Instead of Ashes?

This was originally written as a devotional for our church choir, and it received a couple of favorable comments, so I’m sharing it with a wider audience. Full disclosure: I did not attend an Ash Wednesday service this year or receive ashes as discussed here.

The season of Lent begins with the distribution of ashes. Growing up in the Catholic tradition I heard the priest invoke Genesis 3 as he applied ashes to each forehead: “Remember, man, that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return.” As I think about that, though, I think of dust as the general product of decay. Ashes, on the other hand, have a more specific origin.

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Squiggles and Dots

A few days ago our daughter Betsy sent us a photo of Ellie Rose leafing through a copy of a magazine. Ellie is fifteen months old, so the photo isn’t really evidence of her precocity, especially since the section she was looking through at the time is filled with ads for graduate schools and seminaries. But it did start me thinking about forms of communication, and especially about communication that makes use of words.

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Wildlife in the Local (North Jersey) News

The Herald News for Sunday, 10th January, offered two pieces about local wildlife:

The Bergen County Audubon Society advocates for smarter gardens.

A pair of bald eagles, residents of Ridgefield Park, are given some space by a local developer.

A third article about Ivan Kossak of Lincoln Park, a birder and an environmental activist, appeared in the print edition but is not available on line.

It’s great to see the local news media giving such extensive coverage to local wildlife. Enjoy! And thanks as always for stopping by.