Some Random Thoughts As We Enter Summer

Some Random Thoughts As We Enter Summer May 21, 2024

Even though summer doesn’t officially begin for another month or so, for a college professor summer begins as soon as commencement exercises are over. That was two days ago. My college has its commencement at the downtown arena where I have seen hundreds of exciting basketball games over the past three decades. I have also seen more than twenty-five commencements there, as the name of the arena went from the Providence Civic Center to the Dunkin’ Donuts Center (the “Dunk”) to the current Amica Mutual Pavilion (the “AMP”). The only times I have missed is when I was on sabbatical.

College commencements are generally as enjoyable as root canal, but as I’ve told new faculty hires both as department chair and program director over the years, attendance is expected and is part of your job. Clearly not all of my colleagues agree with me, since no more than half of the faculty attend in any given year. This year’s event took a bit over two-and-a-half hours (about the average length), plus an extra hour or so of waiting in the bowels of the AMP drinking crappy coffee and eating horrible pastries while waiting for the faculty’s turn to process (after close to 1000 graduates have made their way in).

Because Jeanne had an important church event to attend, my commencement commitment was even longer than usual this year. She had to be at church by 9:30, so she dropped me off downtown at 9:00. Since I didn’t need to be at the AMP until 10:00 at the earliest, I settled into a corner table at Panera and did something I haven’t done in what seems like an eternity—I spent an uninterrupted hour reading unencumbered by computer, phone, or people. The wise faculty member always brings a book to commencement for entertainment purposes while hundreds of graduates walk across the stage; my choice this year was Anne Lamott’s new book Somehow, published just a couple of months ago. Between Panera and commencement, I read half of the book last Sunday,

Of the many authors whose work has influenced my spiritual development over the past fifteen years or so, Anne Lamott is at the top of the list. Her 1995 Bird by Bird is the best book I’ve ever read on the writing life, but it was her 2000 Travelling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith that hooked me on her work. I’ve read everything she’s written since then (Somehow is the ninth), use her work in many of my classes, and eagerly anticipate her next witty and quirky offering.

It’s a good thing that Anne Lamott’s insights are so profound, because I do not automatically resonate with her style. I feel that her books are occasionally repetitive, she spends far more time with descriptions of whatever random things are interesting to her at the moment than I have patience for, and on occasion it’s difficult to find the thread of what she is up to. That often happens when an author has hit the NY Times non-fiction best-seller top ten list multiple times in a row. The pressure is on to crank out the next one. She is as West Coast (California) as I am East Coast (New England), which means that I often just want her to get on with it. But every two or three pages she will drop a one liner or a paragraph that makes it all worth it. Somehow is no exception—here are a few examples from my Panera hour:

We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. No one is going to come to save us from our deepest fears. This is so incredibly disappointing.

It really is. I’m reminded of when Rick Pitino was coach of the Boston Celtics with little success from 1997-2000.1 He was often asked about when, if ever, the mediocre Celtics would reach the rarified air of excellence reached by Bill Russell’s Celtics of the 60s and Larry Bird’s Celtics of the 80s. After yet another loss in 2000 and yet more questions about when things would get better, Pitino lost it in the postgame press conference.

Larry Bird is not walking through that door, fans.  Kevin McHale is not walking through that door, and Robert Parrish is not walking through that door. And if you expect them to walk through that door, ladies and gentlemen, they’re going to be gray and old.

We would all love for the Divine to swoop down and fix things, but that’s apparently not how things work. We’re it—and that’s disappointing.

Miracles rarely are lovely: a door opens and you go through, and God is not waiting there squealing with delight to see you.

So true. Lamott follows this up on the next page by noting that “All miracles begin with a hopeless mess or bad news.” And that hopeless mess is probably me. It’s probably you. As the saying goes, your giant goes with you wherever you go. As Montaigne says, on the loftiest throne in the world, you are still sitting on your own ass. There are rumors and reports of New Testament style miraculous healings and such floating around, but more often miracles are incremental, slow, and close to unnoticeable until you look back and say “Wow! That was a miracle!”

Life is such a mystery that you have to wonder if God drinks a little. How did my youngish, athletic friend get this disease? It must have been on a day when God was drinking tequila.

This resonated because just a couple of days earlier I had been revising the Epiphany chapter of my forthcoming book on spiritual growth through the liturgical year that included a section riffing on Jesus’ first miracle—turning water into the best wine anyone had ever tasted. As I write this enjoying an offering from a local microbrewery, connecting God and alcoholic beverages doesn’t seem too much of a stretch.

This summer will involve a number of important matters, including a landmark birthday for Jeanne early next month, ten days of vacation in Newfoundland at the end of June, and continuing revision of my book whose final draft is due to the publishing authorities on August 15th. As always, I’ll be writing about it here. Thanks for reading and stay tuned!

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