Archive for the ‘Religion’ Category

Color Me UU

March 24th, 2010

A perennial source of Unitarian Universalist garment rending was an undercurrent last weekend in Brookline. The church there held a fabulous event that was an anomaly in several ways.

UUs do fret about many far too many subjects. Perhaps the greatest recurrent hand-wringing is over their incredible whiteness. Other Protestant denominations are also largely white, but UUs tally only  about 1% African American membership.

UU note: We refer to ourselves as an association and not a denomination. Despite both U and U’s Christian histories, our churches and church-like groups belong to the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. It’s OK to be a UU Christian, but it’s not the norm and disdain of Christians is an unfortunate UU habit in many congregations. It’s a reaction to the long-standing Christian dogmatic exclusion, discrimination and worse that have set the tone.

Musical Bridge

Well last Saturday, the Brookline church was not only nearly full, it had a more U.S.-representative share of brown and Black folk. It is likely that won’t happen again until there is another special event centered on an African-American person or project.

This dinner and concert double event celebrated John Andrew Ross. It was:

  • a fundraiser for the restoration of the organ
  • a project organized and produced by his recently late sister Paula Ann Ross
  • a soul-food dinner
  • a two-hour concert featuring superb jazz and gospel musicians and singers performing music John loved or arranged
  • a largely African-American musician evening, with minor exceptions like single numbers by the church’s junior and adult choirs

John Ross, who died in 2006, became the church’s music director in 1997. He arrived already justifiably famous as composer, producer, director, educator and on and on. He made his “Uncle Langston” Hughes’ Black Nativity into a continuing national phenomenon. He led the Emma Louis School of Fine Arts‘ music and founded its remarkable choirs. So for the last nine years of his life,  he ran music at the church. He quickly picked up the title Minister of Music there as well.

Throughout his professional life, his sister promoted and often managed his career. She continued after his death, culminating in this project. She worked on it until a couple of days before the celebration, originating the project, driving it to completion and seeming to die in her sleep only after everything was in place.

Prima facie, one might suppose that nearly a decade of his musical leadership, performances and presence would have attracted more Black visitors and members than a typical UU church gets. That’s not so and there are only a few non-white members of any racial or cultural background.

Diversity?

That is a UUA-wide concern and trait. Again, this is the kind of thing, we UUs think, talk and worry about. In this vein, a couple of articles that cover the numbers and issues appear in UU publications. Try:

Note the related articles in the sidebars to these articles.

Many Protestant denominations are perfectly content to be almost entirely white. They speak of people being more comfortable with what they know, with their own kind. That is true of predominately Black churches as well. UUs don’t let it rest at that.

For a religion that does not proselytize, UUs nonetheless seem flabbergasted that  more and more types of people don’t flock to membership. As a UU of over a quarter century and having been involved in the polity and politics of various UU churches, I recall my own experiences with this.

The first time I saw a UU church nearly full of Black people was when Rev. Victor Carpenter got his fariend Rev. Jesse Jackson to preach at the Arlington Street Church.  They arranged for the choir of one of Boston’s largest Black churches to sing. The church seats about 1,000, was filled and for once, white people were in the minority.

In the next several year, I heard that question repeatedly about what we needed to do to attract Black, Latino and Asian parishioners to the ASC. I served on various committees and ran the board for a few years, so the question was often plaintive and also demanding when I heard it.

We’d have reports from membership-committee folk who were frustrated. I asked and had others go to visitors and friends with the question. Many times, the answer as far as African-Americans was concerned focused on two aspects:

  1. Our music is comparatively stultifying with that in Black churches
  2. Our non-creedal/non-dogmatic churches did not offer Christ as lord and savior or even hold out promises and threats of heaven and hell

As counterpoints to these likely intractable problems, Rasor’s article on the subject includes:

Multiculturalism is not simply about numbers, of course. The Rev. Taquiena Boston, director of Identity-Based Ministries at the UUA, reminds us that “diversity alone is not the goal,” and that developing a genuinely multiracial and multicultural identity “must be integral to the larger mission and ministry of the congregation.” Or, as former UUA President William G. Sinkford put it, “the objective of finding a few more dark faces to make our white members feel better about themselves is not spiritually grounded.”

I note for non-UUs that Sinkford is Black. Almost to a one, UUs tend to be inclusive. His skin color was not a problem. However, I heard numerous comments that mildly disparaged his overt Christianity.

The Possible

For music, yes, it’s true. I’m not very musical myself, but I can tell the difference. Our hymns are largely old Protestant tunes, with fine-tuned lyrics to enforce our openness and downplay God and Christ and lords over humans. Simply put, they don’t rock.

For the underlying beliefs, we in fact do not and never will push absolute answers in a dogma. Many people expect and need directive creed.

Instead, we have principles, which concern people and the larger world, and share the great goals and behaviors of many other religions. That is surely why many raised as Jews or Catholics are comfortable being members of UU congregations.

The cold fact remains that for many we lack the requisite trappings of what they demand from church. We may occasionally throw in some incense and sing old Christian hymns on Christmas Eve and Easter, but we can’t offer the music and dogma.

Thus, the UUA has just over 1,000 congregations and is likely to remain both one of the nation’s smallest religions and one of its whitest. I know that I am over fretting about what we can do to attract more members or even visitors of color.

I know that many of our congregations have a role as visitors to non-UU churches, as volunteers in community programs, and in co-hosting events. We get to know each other and our ministers often participate in social action and religious gatherings with those of other churches.

That’s gotten to be almost enough for me. I am certainly comfortable without dogma, but I would appreciate some snappier music.

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Churning Out Americans

March 16th, 2010

By European standards, 150 years is no big deal and it’s even a short term in Boston history. On the other hand, a group of nuns in South Boston have been ringing the school bells instead of waving crucifixes for that long. The Notre Dame Education Center has been about the business of staging immigrants to take part in this new-to-them nation.

Short-term, you can meet the NDEC folk and their supporters while tossing back a few at the same time. They have a Harbor cruise/fund raiser on the Spirit of Boston in a couple of weeks,  Thursday, April 8th. You need to reserve by Friday, April 2nd, to mingle with the sundry do-gooders who support the sisters. There’ll be no pitch for funds on board. You can get aboard at various price points.

See the details here, and remember the RSVP date has moved to 4/2.

I mention them for a couple of reasons. First for the disclaimer, a drinking buddy is their development director. Second, I did one of their morning tours to see what they are up to. I’ll tweet the next couple of those; they’re worth the 90 minutes.

Basically, the sisters and various staff teach newcomers and the not-integrated-into-the-U.S. what they need to know…without religious overtones. You don’t have to be a Roman Catholic or any sort of religious type nor even live in Boston or its South Boston neighborhood. You do need to get the language, civics and communication skills to move yourself up and plug into America.

See their programs here.

Some of us seem to like the ideas of building literal and legislative walls to keep any and all immigrants out. These plain-clothes nuns are about the business of helping those who are here become productive Americans. I know which side I fall on in this one.

For Kindness in Correction

May 22nd, 2009

“What is a mini-computer?,” asked my neighbor on the next plastic folding chair. “Is that like a Blackberry?”

Ah, the educated ignorant! Let us be kind to them in our responses, to earn the same from others who observe our own inscience.

In triple fairness, I note:

  1. She was probably 30 or so
  2. She is a lawyer
  3. She did not pull the lamest cover of I-wasn’t-born-yet

I have no doubt she must know many things I do not. That wouldn’t include much about the law. After J-school, writing for papers and magazines, and recently blogging legally related issues, I can likely walk lockstep with her there. However, she surely has areas of knowledge I do not.

Yet, I wondered how it could be that one could get a couple of college degrees and be raised in the Boston area without knowing such a fundamental economic and technological topic. I briefly discussed mainframe, mini and workstation technologies along with the huge impact DEC, Data General and such folk had for so long here.

We sat before the opening session of the Unitarian Universalist Urban Ministry annual meeting. The 140 or so of us are fairly bright and socially active folk. I would suppose that as a group, we read much more news than average. Thus, I wondered how she could have grown up without knowing of the fundamental drivers of the Massachusetts economic boom and cultural transformation when she was a tot. Did they not get newspapers, did she not read them, did they not discuss current events at the dinner table, or did she glaze over when business and technology were in the air?

The joy here is that among human shortcomings the easiest to overcome is ignorance. Except for the most advanced subjects, not knowing is far, far easier to correct than not being able to understand — the difference between ignorant and stupid. Share a little knowledge and everyone comes up to speed.

Amusingly though, some use knowledge as a weapon or as a test. While not exclusively reserved to the prep school/Ivy types, this is most common in those who have grown up hearing how brilliant and wonderful they are. Some of them love to correct others, even their peers. Each minutia can be a little badge on their sashes of superiority. It is obnoxious.

Life in general and conversation in particular are ever so much more pleasant without the self-righteousness and melodrama. No one needs to be shamed public because of not having learned some tidbit or not having learned it precisely in the form you did.

I hope my row mate has the chance soon to mention the wonders of the 1980s, when technological and economic marvels, mini-comuters, powered the glories of Route 128 and the Massachusetts Miracle.  She’s a UU. I’m sure she’ll spread the information gracefully and in the spirit of knowledge.

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Why Read Personal Blogs?

May 11th, 2009

A favorite UU minister has had me thinking again about the intrinsic nature of blogs. He basically asked me why anyone would care about the small or even momentous very personal details here.

That written in his email,  he noted that he, as a long-term friend, did care about the tales here of my broken leg/operation and recovery. For a taste, “All in all, I found your blogs very interesting, but frankly, interesting only to me.  I especially appreciated the combined efforts of the whole family to get you to the Haymarket.  However, I wondered who else besides those who love you really gave a damn?

We have always been candid to the point of bluntness with each other. We’ve known each other for over 20 years from when he was interim at a church where I chaired personnel and was about to take over the board. We have chased a lot of polity issues around the trees, as well as sharing many meals and drinks together and with our families. He has never felt he had to play the kindly padre with me.

He’s the good type of 92-year-old too. He’s paid attention and is no Abe Simpson.  While we disagree on some events and people’s behavior, he has always been insightful, analytic and open to discussion. We should all age so well that we end up with a bucket full of experience and related wisdom to dip into as needed.

Gravitas

So, I’m back to that question that bloggers squeezed their soggy teabags over a decade ago. If an individual post or a whole blog is personal, who will want to read it and why?

I fretted about that too. Reading the Pew reports on who blogs, why and what type, I was surprised to see how much of it was the chatty stuff so common now on Facebook. Cruising with my mouse, like clicking Next blog in Blogger or the equivalent in a directory, I was astonished too see the granularity and apparent trivia of so many.

For example, I knew someone who had a blog full of mini-anecdotes and almost indiscernible images of his two cats. Someone I worked with had a blog dominated by his wife’s photos of, quite literally, every restaurant meal they ate.

Meanwhile, the tiny weeds of technology, politics and even reportage were getting more numerous and vigorous. These other blogs, whether individual or community ones, had purpose and heft.

I started nearly six years ago with a marriage-equality blog, Marry in Massachusetts.  I can’t seem to restrain my fingers and have covered much more in political terms, a lot of it unrelated to the original theme. The name is less accurate but it remains progressive politics.

Likewise, I joined with a couple of other pinkos in a weekly podcast based blog, Left Ahead!  It is also not a ain’t-my-kitten/girlfriend/house-cute sort of thing.

This blog seemed necessary when more personal topics were creeping into Marry in Massachusetts. Readers here know this will be more intimate and occasionally philosophical. I don’t avoid the effects of being a liberal, a UU, a spouse and parent.

Very Different Strokes

Yet, as I contrast various blog types, I think back to pre-blog days when I erred badly in a UU church men’s group. My church was in downtown Boston (Arlington Street, or as it was known at the UUA across the Boston Public Garden and Common, the UUA chapel for the number of staff who belonged). We shared some group meetings with the similarly liberal Paulist Center.  The joint men’s group was one and worked fine, once the Catholic contingent adjusted to the reality that UUs tend not to charge for R.E. meetings, where they put a fee on every activity.

The first meeting had maybe a dozen from each of us.  I blundered early as each of us went around the seated circle saying why we were there. The ASC is a seriously social-activist church, which attracted my wife and me from the beginning. I said that and then — drum roll and cymbal clash — said I was not in the church for music or drama (also strong at ASC), with the implication that they were less meaningful.

While the Paulist crew grunted and nodded in understanding, two other ASC men turned colors. They were in the choir and lambasted me. They considered music their worship and said it was equally as important to human well being as  feeding the hungry and so forth. They had heard my type before and would not let it pass.

Thus, I think of blog varieties and readers. The voyeuristic and gossipy sorts remain ubiquitous and beloved. Whether it’s people we know or celebrities, who among us has no interest in someone else’s life?

At the Keyhole

Oh, I know another UU who doesn’t. A great friend over 30 years despises blogs, including mine. Apparently the New Republic convinced him that they are dangerous, unreliable and mentally toxic. I saw the effect again last week when three of us gray or bald types shared some bar stools. One had taught me about comminuted bones. He discussed some posts here and his following the obvious and internal progress of healing. The other said he had not and would not read about it.

I can imagine not looking at a friend’s blog, but that is not my style. I would want to know and would find that kind of self-indulgence fine. Like my minister friend, for someone I know and love, I do care about such posts. Moreover, for my most personal posts, I do try to do a bit of sermonizing to spread the intimate out to the larger world.

As a sidebar on the matter, that same minister has said many times that I should plan on a divinity degree and a retirement career of ministry. He and I preached together in the ASC, as I did with the incoming minister who is still there.

Clearly, there are millions of blogs with lots of room for the personal and political and many other types. In UUPDATES alone, I find all manner of splendid reading.  To the question who cares, it seems many of us do. Finding and bookmarking the blogs we want to care about regularly is time consuming but gives a good return.

I have not returned to that blog filled with pictures of plates that couple had set before them. Most blogs in my RSS reader are political and news based, but I do have diversions to the personal. Moreover, while most bloggers are not good writers, some who deal in the personal craft their posts better and a few regularly rise to the level of literature. Those are wonderful surprises.

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Living the Bible with an Ex-Con

March 19th, 2009

For most of us, it seems, there is no such thing as paying your debt to society. A convict is a convict is a convict, regardless of punishment served.

Considering how fond we are of such concepts as innocent until proved guilty or even someone was innocent of the accusations because a jury returned a not-guilty finding, you would think we’d do the other end better.

The concept is simple enough. Get accused of a crime. Get convicted or plead guilty. Get sentenced to jail. Get released per se or on parole. And then…and then…the idea is to return to society chastened and ready to contribute.

The current example of our not accepting that is in small-town New Hampshire. Where a fundy minister is living his and his church’s faith by housing and monitoring a parolee. The convicted criminal was no jaywalker either.

Links of chainIt’s about a nasty as human behavior gets. Raymond Guay tortured and murdered a 12-year-old in 1973, kidnapped a couple nine years later, and stabbed another inmate while in prison. The court ordered him on release on parole to spend the next three years in New Hampshire. That hasn’t proved easy, as the mayors of Manchester and Concord forced him out of their cities. NIMBYism is never subtle and can be relentless and vicious.

The discussion is a lot lighter and easier when the released criminal is not violent. A check kiter or cat burglar is less threatening, even if they as or more likely to repeat their crimes. We don’t fear a Bernie Madoff murdering us or our kids in the night.

In this case though, Rev. David Pinckney of the River of Grace Church in Concord is putting his Christianity in practice for real, not in checkbook religion. He is housing and taking responsibility for Guay in his own home in Chichester, population just over 2,000.

In case you have any doubt of Pinckney’s sincerity, be aware four of his five kids, 13 to 18, still live at home. As the minister put it, “We were warned. It was said this could disrupt life. People wouldn’t like it. He’s not liked. But at the end of the day, this is what Jesus did. He defended the defenseless. He was a friend of sinners.”

NIMBYism is never subtle

Pickney’s neighbors are keeping their own kids inside and some have let him know they don’t appreciate his faith in action.

What’s disappointed him, he said, are the reactions of others, given the lengths he is taking to keep Guay under close watch. Though Guay is legally free to go where he pleases, he has agreed to Pinckney’s terms that he always remain under adult supervision, and has even volunteered to wear a movement-tracking ankle bracelet like an inmate on house arrest.

Those just waiting for the worst and ready with shovels of I-told-you-so must be many.  As a father of three, I take a deep breath or two or three at the concept. Here the doctrine and theory are solid, but Pinckney has placed a terrific burden on himself.

Advocates for released prisoner re-entry, such as the Fortune Society, have long and rationally decried the hypocrisy of refusing to accept someone having been punished enough. This extreme case and the penalty for failure here make Pickney a remarkable example of walking it like he talks it.

Interestingly enough for me is that River of Grace is not a UCC or UU church. It is certainly Bible based. Its website doesn’t specifically say it is morally conservative, although it did list on its resource pages Help with homosexual issues: Exodus International. A good look at the sparse site suggests he and I would have considerable theological and political differences.

Yet, the RoG doesn’t hide from the issue at hand. On the home page, it states:

The River of Grace Church in the news

We believe in the power of God to save and change people, both inside and outside prison walls. While we are committed to love and support ex-convicts as they seriously seek to re-enter society and follow Jesus, we also recognize our responsibility to provide a safe-haven for the families and children God has committed to our care.

Pickney didn’t invite Guay home on a whim though. He explained his process and thinking in a letter to the Concord Monitor. He reported that after examining records and with interviews with Guay and numerous others, he firmly believes there is no danger to anyone in Chichester.

As Pickney wrote, “He has committed some horrendous crimes in his past. What doesn’t get reported is that since 1993 his life has been on a very different course. That year he became a follower of Jesus.” Sixteen year of good behavior and avowed Christianity convinced the minister.

For a differing view, a neighbor who lives across the street told the paper, “I say B.S. Once a murderer, always a murderer. I want him off my street, and I won’t rest until he’s gone, period.”

That seems to be the American way and the practical limit of Christianity for most people.

By the bye, the contact for The Fortune Society’s treatment options is here.

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The Undead on Obama

November 12th, 2008

One famous UU minister, Carl Scovel, delights in two things:

I saw the second again this weekend when he was guest speaker at First Parish in Brookline. As with his King’s Chapel, where he was senior minister for three decades, 1st P’s parishioners are entitled and privileged by wealth and position. His willingness to tease the largely humanistic UUs with his overt Christianity might be enough, but he also enjoys jolting them out of their smugness.

Last weekend, he sat expressionless during the candles. In UU vernacular, these are candles of celebration and concern lit by congregants. Supposedly they say a few words about something personal. I tend to think of these as candles of bragging and whining, and wince when one after another become prolonged rants.

Carl ScovelQuite predictably this time, many were in fact of celebration. It was, after all, the first service following Barack Obama’s election. Yet, behind Scovel’s glistening eyes, the not very tall but very thin preacher (he truly looks like hillbilly evangelists I saw in my childhood) was ready. He must be in his late 70s, but has the clarity of vision of an experienced and vital preacher.

Rather than roll in the meadow of euphoria, he asked for transcendence. He reminded the almost entirely rich and almost entirely white folk that there are multiple ways of looking at the results. He asked us to get beyond the obvious and expect the other side to have its days again.

He did spare us his Christianity though. In most UU churches on most Sunday’s, that’s wise.  For a denomination/association that prides itself on its tolerance, we’re hardest on Christians. Over the years, I’ve heard parents at various Boston UU churches say their kids have learned more about Hinduism than Christianity.

Out in the West and Southwest, I’ve attended UU churches where most congregants were raised Roman Catholic. They don’t mind Christ talk or images. In contrast, the former Catholic in some Boston churches can be downright hostile to those. Some speak of being abused by priests and hit by nuns. GLBT parishioners have tales of feeling denigrated for their orientation.

Yet, the UUA’s president is an open Christian. Bill Sinkford has never downplayed or hidden that. Likewise, at Arlington Street, some of the finest people I have ever known are Christians. I think immediately of Dan Cheever, former chair of the board (the Prudential Committee) and generous benefactor to the church and association. He epitomized the ideal UU.

In Brookline, the anti-Christian riffs are not hidden though. Oddly, that doesn’t seem to be a factor among the numerous parishioners raised Jewish, many of who still call themselves Jews. At the most recent annual Passover Seder, several Jews at the table said they had no problem with blending Christianity into the mix or even singing Christian hymns.

Most UUs joined as adults and typically came from Methodism or other mainline Christian churches. How odd that they would take the best from other religions, while seeming to fear and dislike Christianity. Personally, I was a very devout little Christian, more so than the rest of my family. That’s past and I am no longer a Christian, but I don’t feel scarred by it nor do I think it cut me off from intellectual and spiritual growth.

Perhaps Scovel will return and share some of his famous five-minute radio lessons.

Those unfamiliar with King’s Chapel might be surprised to learn it was a loyalist/royalist enclave as the first downtown church in colonial times. It was Anglican and Episcopal before Unitarian. It has never identified as Universalist and reports everywhere that it is “unitarian Christian in theology, Anglican in worship, and congregational in governance.”

I can’t do a steady diet of King’s Chapel, even though it can be nice to sing hymns with the worlds I grew up hearing.

Like most 1st P folk, I was on quite a political high five days after Obama’s election. I think it was good for us all to step back and take the longer view. There’s lots of time at home for clinking glasses.

Hidden Jewish Cemeteries

August 6th, 2008

hahmabel.jpgAn eye-opening walk means I’ll never think of Toys R Us and Super Stop & Shop the same. At the West Roxbury/Dedham line I strolled into an amazing maze of Jewish cemeteries.

I had an hour and nine minutes to fill on Spring Street in WR. The map showed Hand & Hand Cemetery. Burying grounds are an avocation, so I walked Spring to Baker to Centre. Wowsers, the entry at the Temple Mishkan Tefila Memorial Park was just the loose strand on the ball of yarn.

There were nearly two centuries of graves there. Some stones, like that sweet, floral one for the young girl Mabel could be in any goy graveyard in New England. Others were in Hebrew or had Jewish-specific symbols.

Oddly to me, accustomed to Forest Hills, St. Michael and Mt. Hope in my neighborhood, this turns out to be a grouping of 13 separate cemeteries. They largely belong to particular temples, each with its own area. As you pass from one to another, a subtle stone or a chain link fences easy to pass delineate the boundary of each.

The map with the 13 sections is here at the Jewish Cemetery Association of Massachusetts.  Boy, was I ignorant. I learned that there are 209 Jewish Cemeteries in the commonwealth, of which JCAM operates 101.

Pic Trick: Click a thumbnail for a little larger view. It opens in the same window, so use your back button to return.

hahrose.jpgSome of the 20th Century stones use standard, old-fashioned iconography. For example, Rose Kowinski’s has a fairly traditional use of a broken tree. This, of course, symbolizes life cut short.

Rose was only 17 when she died in 1920.

This is not the usual tree used in such carving and probably indicates a European stone worker instead of the WASPy or Irish sort.

hahflow.jpgAn older stone is in Hebrew shows a rarer symbol, a vase or urn pouring liquid. This symbolizes life leaving the body. I know very little Hebrew and do not understand the age or name of the deceased. However, iconography conventions use this type of symbolism for someone who has lived a full live, and not a child or young adult.

A totally different symbolism and one more generally seen in Christian cemeteries is on the stone of Rosa, who died at the end of the 19th Century. Originally, this suggested the passage from one form of life to another — typically with the implication of resurrection.

hahrosa.jpg

However, it also became popular in Germany, the rest of eastern Europe and elsewhere.  The stage-curtain tassels generally are included. The motif seems to have come to stand more for the end of the play. Also, in this case, it is easy to project that a woman then at 54 may well have been a grandmother and taken to wrapping herself in a shaw, replete with tassels. There’s much possible here.

A particularly Jewish stone with two hands would stand out at Forest Hills, and not just because it has Hebrew inscriptions. It seems to show the Vulcan salute from the Star Trek shows.

hahhands.jpg

Old fans will recall that Spock (played by Leonard Nemoy) introduced the raised hand with pinkie and ring finger together, and middle and forefinger together. Vulcans and their kin used this in the TV shows and movie.

Nemoy, who was a Jew from Boston’s West End, created this salute to enhance  his character. As he tells it, he simply adapted it, adding the live-long-and-prosper greeting, from his own childhood religious memories. The kohanim, those priests descended from the first high priest, Aaron, use a two-handed version in their blessings.

In Hebrew the two hands in this position represent the first letter of the word for the Almighty. It is a powerful blessing indeed, and well suitable for a tombstone.

As I visited each of the 13 areas, I came over a small rise and down to a plain. It was only then that I realized I was behind the Dedham Racquet Club, Super Stop & Shop and Toys R Us. I have shopped on the other side of Hand & Hand for many years without realizing there is a necropolis there.

Skulls in Brookline

July 28th, 2008

While I abut the splendid Forest Hills Cemetery (cum art museum/park), I am often unfaithful and walk the lanes of other graveyards as I can. The following images concentrate on details from the Walnut Street Cemetery in Brookline.

I had saved this one to savor, knowing it was the oldest in the town (1717) and likely filled with colonial era gems. Well, it isn’t really, but it is worth the visit. There are few noted corpses. More to my disappointment, it does not have any spectacular or unique iconography (one exception is jolly Mary Boylston).

On the other hand, it contains a fine sampling showing the evolution of the death’s head imagery into cute cherubic carvings. Click on the thumbnails below for larger views.

Disclaimer: I have been attending First Parish in Brookline, but I don’t feel that I have to defend their non-maintenance of this cemetery through 1840.

The first bit of history is that First Parish ran this cemetery until it gave it to Brookline when the church could not or would not keep it up. Unlike garden cemeteries and many private graveyards, this one started before the concept of perpetual care — paying for a sort of maintenance annuity for the graves — was in place here.

There is a preservation plan, but it is long overdue in execution.  For remarkably complete details on the history, burial at, and that plan, visit the Walnut Street Cemetery site.

Walnut Street hourglassBefore looking at the various death’s head images, wander this small graveyard. At the top of its central hill is the deteriorating iron fence of the Cook site. It has a fine example of an hourglass, illustrating the ephemeral nature of life.

The older and less imposing headstones lie almost entirely in the depressed (but not depressing) middle valley. There are a few tombs along the Western rise next to Walnut Street. By far the best art is on the stand alone stones in the valley.

Truth be told, there are many New England cemeteries with fancier examples of the carver’s art. Yet, appreciate this one for what it does have — a full range of a century and one half of development. The early 18th century horrific death’s head with sunken eye holes and forbidding teeth develops into more humanized heads with stylized features. Next comes a softened almost cherubic version for young adults and children and finally an almost realistic portrait style, much more human and human than ghastly.

At the end of the burials here, the stones went more for willows, symbolizing eternal life and even a few with graceful flowers and no overt reminder of mortality.

Three death’s head styles three death’s head styles
Young Gardner Typical late 17th and early 18th century death’s head, 1721
1721 classic death’s head wsmarygardner.jpg
Infant son’s stone Child’s version, 1723
1727 traditional skull with large eye holes Cap’n  Aspinwall
Seaver 1741 1741, end of the iconography era, with bones
1752, rounder, less stark image McLaine stone
wssgoddard.jpg 1755, shortly before the Goddard family stones began to move to more humanized images.
1768, Seuer stone showed stylized eyes and a mouth without lips instead of teeth. wsseuer.jpg
wssonsgoddard.jpg 1764,a toddler Goddard showed a rounder, but adult face instead of a death’s head.
The same carver produced a series of Goddard variations. Here 26-year-old Sarah’s stone from 1780. wsgoddard.jpg
wshgoddard.jpg Six years later, her sister Hannah (27) received a very similar image, with more elaborate borders.
In contrast, by 1794, a much friendlier, rounder image appeared on the stone of the 51-year-old Hannah Dana. wsdana.jpg
wsagoddard.jpg Also in 1794, the stone of 21-year-old Abijah Goddard shows the transition in the family previously committee to stern images. This is well on the way from a skull to a more cherubic image.
Transitional images include the Whites. Here from 1780, Moses’ stone added both the human face and obvious hair. wsmwhite2.jpg
wswhite.jpg Similarly, from the next year, the stone of his wife Rachel had a feminized version.
A little earlier, 1775, some of the later softer elements appeared on the Amos Wadsworth stone. Note the lips are stylized and minimal. The rough eyes are cartoon-like. wswadsworth.jpg
wsgriggs.jpg The humanization trends included hair, which gradually became fuller and appeared combed. The 1782 Griggs’ stone is early in this process. There’s not too much detail, but it spares the shocked look of the new eye styles.
By the 19th Century, instead of the grimness of death, the image of a willow as a symbol eternal life began to appear. An early example is on an Estabrook stone. wsestabrook.jpg
wswillow.jpg This quickly developed into more detailed and elaborate willows. This remains a common theme in New England and elsewhere.
A foreshadowing image is the 1815 Mary Allford one. It came before the fancy and more realistic willows. However, note the urn representing the body and the simplified leaves in an unnatural but esthetically pleasing arch. wsallford.jpg
wsbuckley.jpg In contrast to most stones with carved images in Walnut Street, the new style is well represented by the 1852 Charlotte Buckley stone. It has a floral motif but no overt symbolism of mortality.Various plants and flowers have their connotations, but tend to be more subtle.
My favorite in this graveyard is Mary Boylston’s 1722 stone. It is in contrast to the other stones and is an exception to the slow imagery transitions. The carver seemed to try to reflect a strong personality and represent her in much more of a portrait style than others. This is the more remarkable for its period. Mary may have been a merry soul. wsmboylston.jpg

Exposition and factoids: For reference, I often use Graven Images, Allan I. Ludwig, Wesleyan University Press. Amazon and other online sellers discount it. There a scattered details of graveyard iconography on the net. If you search, include variations, like headstone in your terms. You can find pages like the Yale University one with a  list of images appearing on Cape Cod colonial era tombstones.

Whalebones and Sermons

June 26th, 2008

Some skills we are wise not to advertise. One of mine is paper folding and envelope stuffing, which often come in a pair.

I recalled my childhood. While not Dickensian, the hours preparing Red Cross mailings were on task.  This morning my memories transported me as I prepared an order of service for this Sunday. This time it was only 45 sets.

Playing Preacher

It is amateur hour, quite literally at First Parish in Brookline. I am in a set of sparsely attended summer services. Ordained ministers, perhaps largely so congregants don’t forget them, preach a few of these June through August. Most services are by one-shot pretend ministers. Perhaps like every cab driver, business executive and others, we believe we have at least one book and one sermon in us.

I am somewhat anal retentive. Coupled with nearly two decades as a technical writer, I have the tool (FrameMaker)  and the procedural oreintation for an order of service. But it is to my mother, Wanda, that I owe my efficiency at creasing paper and assembling such packages.

There’s no whalebone paper creaser here, but I learned such clerical skills using them.

I came after the days of buggy whip handles and corset stays in common use. Yet, I grew up when whales and other high-intelligence mammals were fair game — literally. Today, it is illegal to import or export whale parts, although interstate trade and selling antique objects is permissible.

From centuries ago, people knew how good whalebone was for creasing paper. Don’t think a  basketball or larger sized vertebra. Whalebone is not whale bone, rather the osteoid filter blades in the mouth of a baleen whale. In fact, whalebone is the baleen.

It is much denser and ivory-like than a more porous bone. Even without smoothing and carving, whalebone has soft edges. A piece about the size of a letter opener presses down paper, making a crisp edge without catching or tearing.  You can also use one a long time without getting a cramp or blister. The modern plastic versions imitate the whalebone proportions and curved edges.

Lifelong Skills

Because volunteer availability is often unpredictable, my sister and I were unquestioning volunteers in our mother’s Red Cross chapters from primary school. In part, she instilled a worth ethic in us, as well as the awareness that volunteering  should be part of everyone’s obligation to neighbors and other humans around.

(I confess that we did the same to her many times. After the years we lived in Japan, she would end up in front of our of our classes in kimono and obi, holding up cultural objects and lecturing.)

Back to the not-so-thrilling days of mimeograph machines and German Gestetner copiers that reeked of ammonia… We sat and joked and folded and stuffed. Mailings by the many hundreds were possible and passable with good company and a couple of whalebones.

We saw that process in the summers at my grandparents’ backyard as well. My grandmother, Mable, played a little game with her husband a few times a summer. She’d say, “Bill I need a few Lima beans.”  Another time, she’d say the same about tomatoes, green beans, peaches and more. Granddad would go to his gardens or the nearby orchards and arrive with two or more bushels of the stuff.

Then the neighbors and kids in our immediate family would show. Under the wide maple in the yard, we take chairs or picnic benches and bend to work. Back when string beans had strings, we’d pull those and chop the beans. We’d press our thumbs into pea or Lima pods until they popped and we’d push the beans out with our thumbnails. Mable was off to canning and everyone got a share as she stocked the whole basement, floor to ceiling with jars and her deep freeze with bags.

Today, I only had 45 orders of service. It wasn’t worth gathering a community. The work would be complete before the second story finished.  Pity. There’s much learn and enjoy in communal tasks.

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Jimmy Breslin Pounds a UU

February 15th, 2008

On Point on WBUR is not normally a yuck-fest. Today, though, I caught the Jimmy Bresllin segment while driving. It’s worth listening to for the first caller, a UU minister.

This show will be online shortly here. This entry is cross-posted at Marry in Massachusetts.

As a disclaimer, I admit that I’m a long-term UU. I even drive the cult car, a Volvo sedan. Also, I am a former journalist and as someone whose high-school tenure was exactly the same as Breslin’s three years writing columns for the New York Herald Tribune. We got the local paper, the NY Times and the Trib daily. I”d start with the Breslin column any day it ran. So, I can identify with both self-righteous UUs and newspaper writers, and of course, Breslin in particular.

I nestled in when I heard that he’d be on talking about his latest collection of Mob Tales, The Good Rat: A True Story, and taking listener calls. I got an extra charge when Tom Ashbrook rushed the introduction to start taking calls and the first caller was someone I’d met.

That would be Rev. Aaron Payson. His a big guy who dresses colorfully. He’s the minister at the UU Church of Worcester. He’s the other type of UU minister.

About half of them are slight and wiry with close cropped gray beards. Payson is the other kind — tall and chunky, smiling with dreadful sincerity.

We met in Worcester in court at the Larry Cirignano trial last fall. Payson was a witness for the prosecution, as well as a friend of the victim. He attended the whole trial and we chatted on occasion in the chamber and outside. We’re not buddies.

I do have a full enough sense of him to see my lefty politics racing behind his eyes, eager to assert themselves in conversation. That he did with Breslin…failing miserably several times.

Payson started with a longish assertion disguised as a question. It tangentially keyed off Breslin’s long journalistic and fictive association with the Mafia. Payson’s routine had two points:

  • Does writing about the Mob, treating them as entertainment, do society a disservice?
  • If the Mafia killings and such are somehow justified and humanized, does that lead to excusing the bloodshed of such adventurism as the current Iraq war?

Breslin was born in 1930 and has seen and done a lot. As far as I know, gangsters threatened him many times for his coverage, but only beat him severely once. As well as well writing, he’s extremely well read and is very thoughtful. He’d have none of Payson’s UU syllogisms.

I have no doubt that Payson rides those violence horses around his nave and in his living room. As a UU of more than 20 years, I am puffy and pedantic like that often as well.

Breslin noted that not only is violence one of the few mainstays of our entertainment, that has long been true. He said something to the effect that William Shakespeare had the stage littered with bodies before the end of many of his first acts.

Payson kept coming back. Breslin kept pushing back. He found it outrageous that someone would see a causality from writing about gangsters to thinking it’s okay to murder folk in foreign lands.

It’s a hoot and I hope I think of it the next time some right winger edges me into a debate. We lefties, particularly Unitarian ones, have to guard against such silliness.

By the bye, that BUR link has its sub-link to a selection from Breslin’s book.


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