Death and the Absurdity of Heaven

image02I remember, as an undergraduate, reading Spinoza for the first time. I came across the sentence, “The free man thinks of nothing less than death.” Spinoza meant, of course, that a free man never thinks about death.

But I managed to read the sentence in the opposite way. I took the phrase “nothing less” in the way you might say, “I want nothing less than the best cheesecake in the state.” I thought Spinoza was saying that the free man demanded the very best to think about. Death, obviously, tops that list.

I took it for granted that everyone thinks about death almost all of the time. On becoming a Catholic in my adulthood, I was excited by the prospect of joining the morbid parade of suffering souls trudging stolidly toward the grave, fingering our rosaries and muttering under our breath about the veil of tears.

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A Tradition without Tryptophan

pb210006November is always an interesting time for a family of vegetarians.

While my three children have never lifted turkey to their lips, they’ve come home from school with a multitude of smiling birds cut out in the shapes of their hands, illustrated plates labeled peas, potatoes, and turkey, and all manner of pilgrims and Indians sitting before bulbous, crayoned drumsticks.

My children have also studied the confusingly whimsical psychology of turkeys facing certain death, a standard subject in contemporary childhood cinema and song. In second grade, my oldest daughter, Lydia, participated in several morbid numbers at a school performance, including “Five Fat Turkeys”:

Five fat turkeys short and plump.
The first one hid way high upon a stump.
The second one said, “We should run, run, run.”
The third one said, “or we’ll be done.”
The fourth one said, “I don’t want to be dinner.”
The fifth one said, “I wish I were thinner!”

Her performance was not convincing.

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The Benevolent Season

thanksgiving“Good Letters” is pleased today to welcome D.L. Mayfield to our team of bloggers.

“That day we cook the big chicken” is what one of our neighbors called Thanksgiving, which seemed entirely appropriate to me. That year my husband and I invited all of our neighbors—refugees mostly from Bhutan and Somalia—to the community center of our low-income apartment complex to experience a traditional American holiday meal.

It was not going well.

People had filed into the community room, sitting at folding tables. We’d asked a few friends and family members to help us cook, and striving to be culturally appropriate, my husband and I dished up the plates and served them to the guests starting with the most distinguished (older, male) and ending with the children.

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The Subtle Traitor

Back-stabbingI’m about to describe a character. He doesn’t exist everywhere, nor is he a threat to everyone. But it’s important to sketch out his profile, because he’s hardly ever seen for what he is, and because his brotherly embraces can end with a knife between your ribs.

To be even halfway familiar with him, you have to be from a place, or of a group, that has a “checkered past”—a group whose forebears transgressed against the modern orthodoxies in a big time way. I’m talking “Mark of Cain” stuff that gets you centuries of bad PR. These forebears are often losers in the wars, both military and cultural, so their sins get chiseled into marble.

Being a white (rumor of a Choctaw somewhere won’t cut it), Christian, Southern, heterosexual male, in good health and with no certifiable mental deficits (damn it), I’m in pretty bad standing. My immediate family didn’t even have the decency to be poor. So I’m everybody’s worst nightmare—on the wrong side of all government quotas. Worse, if you dig around in my family magnolia tree, you’ll find the reason those quotas got instituted in the first place.

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The Treasure in the Trash

Johnston graphicAs much as I associate Kansas with The Wizard of Oz, I have yet to come across one canary-colored brick in my eight years as a Kansan. There are, however, a number of historic red brick sidewalks and streets in Lawrence, the city I call home. The words “LAWRENCE KANSAS” appear, imprinted, on the bricks, so no one can mistake their parentage—they belong to their municipal mother.

One day, while walking alone on one of those sidewalks several years ago, a red milk crate sitting next to a dumpster in a nearby alleyway caught my eye. I decided to investigate, and soon found myself thumbing through the cache of rejected records inside—my inner pop culture junkie jonesing for a fix, my eyes sparkling in their sockets like twin disco balls.

Had my wife Becki seen me, she would have said I reminded her of the silver-haired hoarder who rummaged through the rubbish bins outside of her old apartment. How could either of us forget that bow-backed man, whose spine was shaped like the curve of a shepherd’s crook?

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