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The Shipwreck Rose: Risen Indeed

Wed, 04/03/2024 - 11:36

It’s Easter week, the season of death and rebirth, and the thing that has died — bringing the Easter surprise of renewal and rebirth — is the fuel-oil furnace at The East Hampton Star. It went kaput, gave up the ghost, bought the farm, back at the beginning of March. Exhausted, I guess. Done in. The furnace, a mean old silver hulk in the basement of this old building, put on quite the operatic performance before its final curtain call. Drama queen. It spewed a fine, oily black soot all over every surface, object, ceiling, carpet, and wall, from archival issues dating to the First World War to desk clocks to jumbo packs of toilet paper. Well, when life serves you lemons, you call Dayton, Ritz, and Osborne, cry on your insurance agent’s shoulder a bit, and then contract with a mitigation company that sets about washing three floors of cabinets, carpets, and clutter. So far, the 20-yard dumpster from Mickey’s in the parking lot has been filled and emptied twice.

On Easter Sunday I went to the Presbyterian Church to check out the new reverend, Jon D. Rodriguez. There were a lot of yellow daffodils, pink neckties, and very cheerful ringing of handbells. I did my best to mind my Ps and Qs but did indulge in a little — very belated, life-timeline-wise — churchy nose-poking, craning my neck around like an egret to see who was in attendance and what they were wearing, and reading with unseemly over-interest the notices in the back of the program listing which parishioners had bought the pots of daffodils in honor of whom. Is it sacrilegious to nose-poke at church on Easter Sunday?

I was impressed by the high-preppy, high-WASP outfits worn by several families in the congregation. Episcopalian outfits, I would have thought. Being a student of social class and fashion, by profession, you might say, I am of the opinion that it is the Anglican-descended ruling class of Boston that is responsible for Nantucket-red trousers and kelly-green lambswool Fair Isles. The descendants of the Puritans — my people, the Presbyterian Church of East Hampton people — were congregationalists, not high church. The last time I went to the Presbyterian Church, it was more a windbreaker crowd. Talbots, not Tuckernuck. Is it sacrilegious to discuss the provenance of Peep-yellow trousers on Easter Day?

I’ve attended fewer than a dozen services of any sort in the First Presbyterian in my lifetime, one of them the funeral for my dad, who left the church — so the frequently repeated dinner-table story goes — after arguing with the Sunday School teacher, at the age of 9 or 10, about the likelihood of Noah fitting all those animals on the ark. My father considered himself an expert on boats. My father left the Presbyterian Church around 1942 and the family never went back, but, even so, I am here to admit in print that, ludicrously, I harbor a slightly proprietary interest in it, because members of my family went there beginning in, well, I guess, 1648. Plus, I’m a neighbor. I live across the street.

Mr. Rodriguez did a good job, I thought. (Yes, I realize that as a non-churchgoer I’m in no position to judge a reverend. “For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”) He read a passage from Acts about how God “does not show favoritism” but accepts for salvation people “from every nation.” I took that as a gentle Easter-season suggestion that we could do better at fostering tolerance of the Other and of immigrants. Maybe that’s not what he was driving at, but I noticed several of us nodding and bobbing our heads like herons at that juncture in the pews.

It is rather nice to have a place to go on a Sunday to chat about ethics. Rather nice. The reason I’m not churchy myself doesn’t actually have anything to do with the practicalities of the ark, or even the objection — which has always struck me as very adolescent-minded — that belief in a Higher Power is akin to a belief in, as the 13-year-olds are wont to say, Santa or the Easter Bunny. That Santa-or-the-Easter-Bunny objection only sounds scientific, but isn’t, I.M.H.O. You grow older and you realize you know nothing, especially about the universe or reality. The Santa-or-the-Easter-Bunny objection is as foolish as pontificating that there is no life in ocean water because you can’t see the teeming microbes with the microscope you got in the Cracker Jack box.

The real reason I don’t go to church is because I have an issue with what seems to be a broad Christian habit of using prayer, or considering prayer, to be a sort of begging system, transactional, in which you ask God to get a parking ticket forgiven in traffic court, or ask God to shine his favor on your football team, or ask God to send you a sexy date for prom. (Is it sacrilegious to complain about others’ styles of prayer on Easter Sunday?) I frown on this. It doesn’t jibe with famines and the Holocaust. If there were a God up there, deciding who to give party favors to based on the fervency of their prayer, would he really prioritize the lotto win, the football trophy, or the inch from a dieter’s waist over the beseeching of, say, toddlers being starved and bombed who’d rather their mommy and daddy not die in a fiery blast of napalm? I’m no theologian, but I’m going with “no.”

In fact, that sort of prayer starts making me angry whenever I start thinking about it, so I’m going to stop thinking about it now.

The reverend also made some interesting Easter remarks, I thought, about death and rebirth, and how it’s sometimes easy for Christians to get a bit too obsessive about the death-on-the-cross part of the story — the final tallying of sins and good deeds — while neglecting to be grateful for, and joyful about, the beauties of this forgiven world. The earth we’ve been given. By God or by primordial, microbial accident, life arriving on some forgotten meteor from some forgotten star. The cranes, the herons, the hyacinths. The dappled palomino.

As these things do, coming in a series of nudges, the Easter theme of death and rebirth came popping brightly back up on Monday morning in my inbox, when The Paris Review emailed me a terrific apocalyptic poem by Donald Hall called “Prophecy.”

It’s a scorcher of a poem, “Prophecy” by Donald Hall. I recommend.

Damn, Donald Hall!:

“I will strike down wooden houses; I will burn aluminum

clapboard skin; I will strike down garages

where crimson Toyotas sleep side by side; I will explode

palaces of gold, silver, and alabaster: the summer

greathouse and its folly together. Where shopping malls

spread plywood and plaster out, and roadhouses

serve steak and potatoskins beside Alaska King Crab;

where triangular flags proclaim tribes of identical campers;

where airplanes nose to tail exhale kerosene,

weeds and ashes will drowse in continual twilight. . . .

We’ve had a bit of a fiery apocalypse of a year, this 2023-24 in the Rattray family, as well as in the infernal basement of The Star. But now it’s April, the violets have sprung, and we find ourselves three-quarters of the way through the greatest spring cleaning since 1648. Even the atheists — and by that I mean the reporters — are going around the office crossing themselves and giving thanks for the Great De-clutter. As U2 said: “He moves in mysterious ways.” (That’s a joke, about U2, for those of you in the back with the plastic microscope.)




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