The Church of Starbucks

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Whatever happened to the coffee house in the church basement? It’s gone corporate, like everything else. The excuse offered here is that churchgoers need to relax. Silly me, I thought that was the point of the long, boring sermon. And I’ve never thought of caffeine as a relaxant. Perhaps they should try handing out marijuana brownies before the service. Or, I don’t know, just try being a little less white…

These days, along with the usual sermons, places of worship are quenching more literal forms of thirst, too.

Those who crave Starbucks can step over to a kiosk at Grace Capital Church in Pembroke, N.H….

“Starbucks has done what churches should have done a long time ago, and that’s to become more people-friendly,” says the Rev. Peter Bonanno, senior pastor of Grace Capital Church. “It’s not so much the coffee as the environment the coffee and the coffee bar create – a relaxed, relational, and fun place. We hope to create an environment that we believe is more biblical than [conventionally] religious.”

Parishioners seem satisfied. The kiosk opened in July, and visitors say the building that houses it “feels more like a Starbucks … than a church,” says Mr. Bonanno. Since July, average Sunday attendance has doubled to 550.

“More biblical.” What do you suppose that means? Do the baristas sacrifice a fatted calf in between serving up double lattes?

Back to the A&P

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Last night over the dinner table we were reminiscing about some of the things my mother used to say to me when I was a little kid. Well, say and sing. See, Mom made up lullabies for each of us kids when we were a couple weeks old. They were nothing elaborate, just a few lines of her own lyrics set to a short segment of a familiar tune. I still remember my younger brother’s song. I won’t embarrass him by repeating the words, but the tune was taken from Beethoven’s 6th, and it worked like a charm. Not only did he learn to fall asleep on command, he became a huge classical music fan. Mom claims he could hum most of the themes in all nine Beethoven symphonies before he learned to talk.

On one level, they were lullabies, but on another level, they were like the extended or true versions of our given names. Mine she sang to the tune of “Everything’s Up to Date in Kansas City,” from the musical Oklahoma: “What are we going to do with David Jeffrey? The naughtiest little boy in all the world!”

So that was me: David-Jeffrey-the-Naughtiest-Little-Boy-in-All-the-World-[Patronymic].*

Mom was really pushing the envelope of the lullaby genre with that one. There’s a kind of ironic distancing there that you wouldn’t find in either of my brother’s lullabies. It’s easy to imagine what might have been going through her head when she made it up: “Okay, you rotten little kid. Since you won’t go to sleep anyway, take this!”

It’s true, though, I was pretty rotten. Not mean rotten – except to my little brother, whom I tormented – but tantrum-throwing rotten. I cried constantly. My parents still recall one time when I screamed for two hours straight at a nursery school. From the moment they plunked my four-year-old butt down in the nether regions of that house of God, I began howling at the top of my lungs. My older brother was allowed to attend services, why couldn’t I? They said they could hear me faintly from upstairs in the sanctuary, all throughout the sermon. It is in such seemingly minor incidents, I think, that one can locate the fertile seeds of what would become life-long obsessions.

I didn’t break the crying habit until I reached puberty. We’ve all heard the pop psychological explanation for such behavior: “Oh, he just wants attention!” But I think I was alert enough to realize that in my case, the opposite was true. If I wanted attention, all I had to do was stop crying for a little while. I can still remember the acute pleasure I derived from making myself and others miserable. Misery was more than company – it was a lifestyle. Hence my mother’s affectionate nickname for me as a child: Eeyore.

Nobody worried much about political correctness back in the early 1970s. Whenever we became especially cantankerous, Mom would threaten, “I’m going to give you back to the Indians!” That always seemed like a fairly attractive alternative, however. So sometimes she would change it and say, “I’m going to take you back to the A&P!”

I was always very well behaved in the supermarket.

* Some things you just don’t want Google to pick up, know what I mean?

Cibola 6

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 6 of 119 in the series Cibola


UPDATE: revised and augmented on 1/09/05.

Beginnings (cont’d)

When I went to the desert through books
I felt blind. History is a wilderness:
we’ve made of both a moonscape
& planted the flag. Peopled them
with beasts, with demons,
with the ghosts of lost tribes.
Unsettled them with Potemkin villages
complete with fake tombstones
& technicolor cowboys who, with
a wink & a wave, vault into the saddle
of the Great White Father.
The silence from ten,
from twenty million untimely dead
might strike us as appalling if
the din of our monstrous cutlery
were ever to stop. It takes fewer
than a million head of starving cattle
& only three years of drought to turn
the best pastures in New Mexico
& Arizona into a wasteland. That’s why
in the Old West of cartoon fame
carrion birds are always circling
& no saguaro seems complete
without the skull of a cow
resting in its emaciated shade.

Those who had farmed
the baked earth for millennia
& foraged from the desert as if
it were an endless garden
learned about livestock & devils at
the same time: ghost riders came to haunt
every other sacred hill of the O’odham.
For the Diné and the Pueblos,
Coyote the sheep eater now shares
his skin & thieving yellow eyes only
with witches, the eaters of people.

While those who come for love
of the desert sun, seekers of Native artifact
& lawn-green uniformed utopia, thrust
their steel straws in the earth & suck.
In this Land of Enchantment, ah,
that the Indians should have guessed right
about underground lakes! Where once
the wind was gentled in vast ciénagas,
willow-lined marshes teeming
with reedtalk and birdsong, now
even the deep-rooted mesquite trees
offer their sun-bleached bones as souvenirs.


ten, twenty million: Estimates for the aboriginal population of America north of the Rio Grande vary widely.

fewer than a million head of starving cattle: This happened in 1871-3. According to Gary Paul Nabhan (Gathering the Desert), “When the rains finally came in the following years, floods were ‘flashier’ in that there was less ground cover to slow their flows. The downcutting that followed has been extensively studied…It is unlikely that the Sonoran Desert has ever regained the carrying capacity destroyed at that time.”

livestock & devils: A vast number of southwestern toponymns include the words “devil” or “hell.”

Land of Enchantment: New Mexico’s official tourist slogan.

underground lakes: A regular feature of indigenous mytho-geographies of the Southwest. These geographies are accurate in the sense that underground aquifers do exist, are vital to the health of desert ecosystems, and are thus, at least figuratively speaking, the ultimate origin of human civilization in such regions.

ciénagas (Sp.): marshes. In the Sonoran context, the word is retained by English-speaking ecologists to refer to a specific, endangered habitat.

Burying the dead

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

I’m discontinuing my political blog, dead raccoon in the road. Thanks to everyone who kept up with it and everyone who linked.

Time-wise, there’s no reason why I couldn’t keep it going as an occasional thing, posting whenever the spirit moves me. I imagine it serves a marginally useful social function as a political links blog for a few of my Bloglines-using friends who don’t have the time or patience to keep up with the news otherwise. But it was beginning to feel a bit fraudulent. A blog should be part of a larger conversation, in my view. And I’m afraid I don’t make the effort to keep up with more than four or five political blogs. I can’t, really. I already read 50 blogs, and that – in addition to whatever online news sources I can squeeze in, plus the Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio, and a handful of magazines – is the absolute limit, at least if I am going to continue to put the kind of energy into Via Negativa that it deserves.

Plus, while it was fun playing Grand Inquisitor for a couple of months, I was rarely too happy with the results. Toxic sarcasm makes for good punk and heavy metal lyrics, but beyond that, it’s, well, toxic.

A third motivating factor is my interest in taking on other projects, for which I never seem to run out of ideas. Stay tuned.

Cibola 5

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 5 of 119 in the series Cibola


Beginnings (cont’d)

I’ve been to the desert southwest,
I know how it’s pictured, & I swear
this is that light. What so many
sun-starved souls travel the breadth
of the continent for: that blood-
drenched gold. While down below
in the shadow, all around me
the dooryard birds–Carolina
wren, white-throated sparrow,
cardinal, titmouse, chickadee, junco,
goldfinch & mourning dove–
are wagering every note they have.
The pileated woodpecker uses
the whole cove for a resonator,
a fast rattle of dice on the bone of
a locust. As the light spreads,
every bush & tree on the ridgeside
stands distinct, singing in the dawn wind.
I see roots from underground, shining
tips of feathers. The blue down here
is the color of an ordinary horizon,
a thinness, a spreading of rhizomes
under my skin–the globe-encircling
miles of veins–grown feathery
like the feelers of a night-flying moth.
I can hear what shrews
are up to in their tunnels
& the newborn bears in their dens,
blindly sucking the blue milk
of a huge & dreamless sleep.
My breath tastes like the wood smoke
from my chimney, oak & cherry–now
rising, now running along the ground,
blue, blue . . .


holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

I made baked fish for supper last night – thick thawed steaks of mahi-mahi, the gift of an acquaintance who had caught them herself in a fishing trip off North Carolina. I soaked them in lemon juice and smothered them under a thick blanket of whole wheat bread crumbs that had been sauteed in olive oil with cumin, coriander and plenty of basil and garlic. It was delicious, but too plentiful; I ate too much. Exhausted as I was when I finally went to bed, I woke after several hours, feeling the fish in my stomach and listening to the downpour on the roof.

This is our first major winter storm here in central Pennsylvania. All night and into the morning – continuing even as I type at 8:30 – hard rain has been falling and freezing, falling and dripping and freezing. As the small hours crawled by, I could hear the muffled cracks and crashes of trees giving way under the weight of ice. Twice when I got up, the digital clock at the foot of the stairs was flashing, but miraculously, the electricity stayed on. The second time, I stayed up to read for a little while. The book I grabbed was Carolyn Forché’s The Angel of History, where I found the following line:

Nuit blanche, your nights awake and the white window winter-locked.

I poked my head outside at one point around 4:30 and noticed a light in the far window of the main house. My father, too, was awake. Sometimes I think of insomnia as the family curse. Every family needs a good curse, don’t you agree?

At quarter after six, following a brief hour of sleep, I rise for the final time, anxious to brew my coffee and take a shower before the power goes. I’m out on the porch by 6:35, cradling my mug and listening to the fuselage. If you’ve never been through a major ice storm, let me tell you, it sounds like war. The difference with this one is the sheer volume of water in the stream, whose roaring drowns out most smaller breaks. What I hear are the sharp rendings of limbs, the explosive cracks of trunks snapped halfway up, and the thunderous crashes of full-sized trees giving way at the roots.

There are hundreds of acres of woods in all directions, and a high percentage of canopy-height trees are weedy, first-succession species such as black locust, black cherry and scarlet oak, many of them near the end of their natural life span of 80-120 years. The only thing preventing me from accepting this damage with complete equanimity is the knowledge that many parts of the forest may never successfully regenerate, beset as it is by a triple threat of white-tailed deer, invasive trees and shrubs, and acid precipitation. Usually one thinks of the effects of acid rain in terms of damage to the soil and water, but during ice storms, the trees and shrubs are encased in acidic armor that may last for days at a time. I can’t believe this doesn’t do a lot of damage, especially to evergreens like hemlocks and mountain laurel.

One thing I don’t have to worry about, however, is direct damage to the houses. Those farmers knew what they were doing when they planted their houses in the middle of large clearings, out of reach of any but a few ornamental trees. Usually I resent this distance between my house and the woods, but this morning I’m grateful for it.

The day dawns on an eerie and beautiful landscape. Ice storms of this severity have occurred with increasing frequency over the past thirty years – now they come as often as once every three to four years – but this is the first I can remember when the ground was completely bare of snow. The effect therefore is of pure, unmitigated crystal, white from a distance only in the way that cut glass appears white. If I had a camera and put a picture up here for you to look at, you’d probably imagine that every surface would answer a curious tap with a resonant ding. But such beauty weighs heavily on the real world. Even just reading about it, you might picture sleek, transparent body suits for every branch. But all the twigs droop with closely spaced, finger-long icicles, racks and racks of little knives – and that’s where the extra, fatal bit of load comes from. The 20-foot-tall red cedar tree in my herb garden is bent completely over, its head to the ground. In desperation, I get the broom from the kitchen and give it a few nudges to see if I can shake any of the ice loose. All I manage to do is roust out a couple of terrified sparrows.

I take my umbrella and go for a walk around the field – the woods are too dangerous. Now I can watch as well as listen to the limbs and trees crash down, at the rate of several a minute. When the big ones go over, they send up a brief splash of ice fragments. They also trim limbs and branches from their neighbors, which may not be entirely unwelcome. Any time I see a branch or limb breaking loose, I wonder if it isn’t just the radical amputation the parent tree needs to take the weight off the main trunk. It’s all in the architecture, of course. Trees that are built for the long haul, such as tulip poplars and white oaks, are masters at dropping the odd limb and quickly healing over the wound before infections can enter. You’d think hemlocks and white pines, with the tremendous weight of ice on their needles, would – like my red cedar – be the first to go. But as I survey the line of hundred year-old white pines along the driveway, I can see how easily each ice-laden limb rests its weight on the limb below. Hemlocks and spruce are even better at this, folding up like umbrellas under a heavy layer of snow or ice. Hence their tendency to eventually dominate northern forests, given a few centuries of winter storms to weed out the competition.

I approach as close as I dare to the woods on the northeast side of the field, above Margaret’s old house. Five large, downed trees – black cherries and locusts – stretch out into the field. Beyond, it looks as if at least a quarter of the trees have been felled or badly dismembered by the ice.

Dramatic and beautiful as this all may seem, I’m keenly hoping for a rapid rise in temperature. I don’t believe in petitionary prayer, but do try to picture, as hard as I can, ice falling off the trees: big frozen swordfish-size chunks dropping from the limbs, schools of ice-minnows slipping from the crowns. I visualize Marianne Moore’s “Octopus of Ice” dissolving into harmless calamari. But really, these things that are wreaking havoc now are more like giant squid with their sinister, cigar-shaped heads anchored upside-down to the boles of trees and their tentacles poised, terrible and still. To them, perhaps, the forest is a sideshow, and they are waiting for some properly monstrous prey – as if the fish I ate for supper had grown into a whale in my belly and I was soon to deliver it on the never-never shoreline of Nineveh, that great city. The rain shows no sign of letting up.

Cibola 4

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 4 of 119 in the series Cibola


Beginnings (cont’d)

Winter is the driest season: a fast for the land.
The last quarter of the year, dressed
like a Sabbath bride. And though
we’ve foresworn the salt cod
of old Europe, most of us, coddle
ourselves with all-beef patties or
expensive wines & huddle around
televisions, the desert still comes.
The wilderness of John & Jesus,
of Moses & Elijah & Mohammed
still comes to the door,
makes the windows rattle with
her stark visions,
her disabling prescriptions.

Come snow, & the low sun
leaves a bit of night in the sky at noon,
teases from the old, old ridges
their longest dawns. This morning
as I stand by the roadside facing west,
still scrutinizing the line of trees
where the year’s fattest moon–the one
that heralds hunger–has just
gone down, the ridge turns vermilion.


“salt cod”: traditional Lenten food for most of Western Europe during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. (This church-mandated market for the nearly tasteless but long-storing fish of the north Atlantic, incidentally, led to the “discovery” of Newfoundland by anonymous fishermen out of Bristol, England several years before John Cabot, and thus quite possibly before 1492, according to the geographer Carl Sauer.)

“the year’s fattest moon”: I.e., the moon at perigee when perigee occurs near perihelion. “Extreme values for perigee and apogee distance occur when perigee or apogee passage occurs close to new or full Moon, and long-term extremes are in the months near to Earth’s perihelion passage (closest approach to the Sun, when the Sun’s tidal effects are strongest) in the first few days of January.” These differences are visible both in size and intensity of light. The year I wrote this, 2002, the largest moon was right at the end of February/beginning of March.

“the one that heralds hunger”: The full moon in March was referred to as the Hunger Moon by many Eastern Woodland tribes, since food stocks were at their lowest point of the year then, both for people and for many species of wildlife.