Monday, December 30, 2013

French verbs and Martin Luther

Here is the last lope around the track of Blog Entries of Christmases Past.  Today’s remembrance comes from 2010…in two days begins a new year and then a new blog entry. As the Christmas decorations start coming down we have a little time left to contemplate the work of the Christmas season… 

Away in a manger, no crib for a bed,
the little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head.

I played through this piece the other night and sang some harmony, remembering an arrangement of this I conducted when I had a church choir in Belmont, North Carolina at the Christmas of 1991. I was reminded, yet again, how when I am in Jordan, I am so very near Bethlehem and this celebrated event. Since our campus was stilled I went back and googled some information about this familiar hymn. It was written in 1883 to mark the 400th anniversary of Martin Luther’s birth. We sing this song so often, if you are a Christian or not, it makes its way around in December, but I realized we are no longer as shocked by the image as perhaps we should be.

Stop and think about the jarring imagery: a manger is made for animals, not humans. Babies belong in a cradle or a crib, made for tender nurture. But this baby Jesus lies in a manger—hard, harsh, filled with prickly hay. The song is sweet and gentle, but the reality was not. The word “manger” comes from the French verb manger, which means, “to eat.” A manger was a receptacle for animal feed. And yet in God’s strange and unexpected ways, the manger becomes a precious vessel that holds the Christ child. When the shepherds and the wise men come in search of the announced savior, it’s not in a royal cradle, but in a humble manger that they find him. Having attended a Lutheran church while I lived in New York, I knew how powerful the symbol of the manger was for Martin Luther—that was why it was written with him in mind. Luther used the image of the manger in enlightening ways: in his writings he called the scriptures a manger, a feeding trough for believers; Luther also called the congregation of the church as the manger in which the Christ child is found. Congregation as manger? What did Luther mean? I think what Luther wanted us to understand is that the manger is not a place, but a people, an event. Where is that place from which we feed our souls? With whom we do we feed our souls?

Of course at this time of year many congregations set up manger scenes on their grounds, but it begs the question, where is the real action of the manger? What is the responsibility of being the manger? Where does the real Christmas story take place? 

I remember a marvelous sermon sometime in the early part of this century in New York in which the minister reminded the congregation, “Christmas isn’t really about the manger—it’s about the Babe.” She then quoted Martin Luther who said, “For not all mangers hold Christ and not all sermons teach the faith.” When we focus on ourselves, then we see cease to be a manifestation of the manger of Christ-like values.

As I pondered Martin Luther and Christmas traditions and the flight I am about to make, and the resolutions I will surely devise in the next two weeks, I loved the challenge of living up to the responsibility of Christmas. Followers or not of the Babe in the manger, there is a mighty responsibility to live up to the ideals of this season and how those ideals might transform the world. Luther offered an answer in a long-ago Christmas Eve sermon: “We are the humble barnyard animals that go with this manger. There Christ is placed before us, and with this food we are able to feed our souls.” The manger, by definition, is a feedbox. Many congregations, many non-Christians sponsor food pantries for the needy. When we recognize ourselves as mangers, then each of us can be a food pantry for all who hunger; we offer that nurturing to the others around us.

This morning a very sweet 10th-grade girl stopped and asked me, “Are you going home for Christmas?” The question was everywhere in the air today with the ex-pats looking forward to flights and time away from that proverbial Gerbil Wheel of School. I smiled and said, “In all my years on earth, I have never missed Christmas at home with my family in Cincinnati. Never!” Since I have been in Jordan, this is my fourth year at King’s Academy, going home is even more exciting than it ever was. I enjoy the work here, but I miss the conveniences and my logic of my homeland. I miss the ability to jump on a plane somewhere domestically and visit friends and family over a weekend if I so desired. But I am very excited about this flight and time spent in Cincinnati.

In the footsteps of Christmas, when love comes into the world in the vulnerability of a child, when light pierces the darkness, and hope is born, when you think about it, as the poet wrote, the work of Christmas has only just begun. There is always that danger to sentimentalize the cuteness of the newborn child in that manger, rather than focus on the awesome mystery of the incarnation. When we look to the incarnation of God and the profound mystery of the birth of love into the world, then we can begin to change from expecting the worst to working toward something good. So from our kneeling place beside the manger, we slowly rise to our feet, and the miracle of this birth and the glow of this gift of love stay with us, lie within us, even as we slowly step back toward that cowshed door and out into the cold January air and to the world from which we came. We begin again in this new year with courage and joy and love to set about doing the work of Christmas in all the far away and forgotten places of our lives and in the world where people expect the worst.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Christmas 2009-style

For today’s trip down memory lane of Christmas Past Blog Entries, we go back to 2009, the year KA had its first senior class. This year was the most volatile in the school’s history, a particularly difficult year in the life of this young school. In this entry I mused about angels, and especially about the angel that had visited Mary for the Annunciation:

"I thought about how startling it would be to have a run-in with an angel. No wonder the first thing an angel says is the predictable, “Fear, not!” Anyone who knows their Bible knows that 99 times out of a 100 when humans run into angels the first words out of the angel’s mouth are always, “Do not be afraid.”

This could reflect on angels, I guess, but maybe it just says something about the state in which angels typically find us: afraid. You could forgive angels for smelling out fear a mile away. After all, fear seems to be a constant companion for us. Our ancestors lived in fear about food and shelter. All these millennia later, despite the frozen meat section in your grocery store, we still live in a state of fear. These last 18 months or so we have been terrified about the global financial markets collapsing and empty retirement accounts. And before that, we were terrified by terror, and anthrax, and the Cold War. Some of our Americans are terrified of Barack Obama. Some are terrified of Sarah Palin.

But as senior Ghassan read the familiar passage during a Lessons and Carols of “Don’t be afraid” from the angel to Mary, an unmarried teen-ager, I thought…hmmm… I wonder if it ever crossed Mary’s mind to retort, “Easy for you to say!”

A student sang the song, “Born to Die,” which made my mind race to the Resurrection and the angel who greeted the women at the tomb with the same, “Don’t be afraid.” Of course those women had just a number of hours earlier witnessed the Resurrection, and they are asked not to be afraid?

How in the world do we manage all this fear? Our seniors are afraid about college acceptances. Some of us are afraid of the sustainability of this grand experiment in the desert, and the list really is almost endless. Of course the fears that plague all of us can hardly be overcome by the words of the angel who proposes to instruct us: “Don’t be afraid.”

Two weeks ago today, on December 11, a particularly stressful day (even though Fridays are officially off days, I spent 8 hours with the hardest working people at KA—the class deans of the office of Student Life) doing work that a highly-paid administrator should have done (‘nuff said). At one point I walked over to the refrigerator for a Diet Coke in Sheena’s apartment and a magnet caught my eye. The black-and-white magnet read:

It does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble or hard work.
It means to be in the midst of those things and still be calm in your heart.
--Unknown writer

I grabbed a post-it note and quickly wrote down this intriguing conceptualization of peace.

Later that night I googled this saying—having never heard it before, and on a website, someone shared the greater context of this definition. Here is the fable I found on the internet:

There once was a king who offered a prize to the artist who would paint the best picture of peace. Many artists tried. The king looked at all the pictures. But there were only two he really liked, and he had to choose between them.

One picture was of a calm lake. The lake was a perfect mirror for peaceful towering mountains all around it. Overhead was a blue sky with fluffy white clouds. All who saw this picture thought that it was a perfect picture of peace.

The other picture had mountains, too. But these were rugged and bare. Above was an angry sky, from which rain fell and in which lightning played. Down the side of the mountain tumbled a foaming waterfall. This did not look peaceful at all.

But when the king looked closely, he saw behind the waterfall a tiny bush growing in a crack in the rock. In the bush a mother bird had built her nest. There, in the midst of the rush of angry water, sat the mother bird on her nest - in perfect peace.

Which picture do you think won the prize? The king chose the second picture. Do you know why?

"Because," explained the king, "peace does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble, or hard work. Peace means to be in the midst of all those things and still be calm in your heart. That is the real meaning of peace.”

--- Author Unknown

This conceptualization of peace resonates with me as I find myself consumed by the pressures and challenges at KA. As a teacher and dorm parent, there are many times when there is noise, trouble, and hard work all at once! Yet, I do often find peace, knowing that this is part of the process of growth and transformation in this young school. Working in Jordan is generally far from an easy or trouble-free process, but as I take the long view of what we have accomplished in the last thirty months, and the students I have met, I find that mysterious peace. I am able to be at peace knowing that I am doing what I was meant to do, and that everyone involved will grow through the problems we are facing. Cultivating a confidence about my abilities to manage and overcome the obstacles allows me to feel at peace amidst the challenges that arise.

Of course, life wouldn’t be very interesting if everything was quiet, trouble-free, and effortless. We may wish at times that this were the case! However, our triumphs are gained through the more chaotic and difficult times. When noise, trouble, and hard work fall upon us, how we perceive it and react to it makes all the difference. The challenge is to learn how to be at peace inside ourselves, even when things around us are far from peaceful.

On this Christmas evening, with the chaos and noise and hard work of the holiday winding down, I am left with a marvelous calm, an understanding that I hardly have all the answers, but a serene peace that we are making a difference in a few people’s lives.

God bless us everyone…and Merry Christmas. Peace to you.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

A look back five years...

Five years ago I wrote this blog entry. This past Tuesday night, Christmas Eve, my sister and I sang in church for the 40th Christmas Eve in a's look back to Christmas 2008:

Last night my sister and I sang in our family’s church on Glenway Avenue. There isn’t anything novel in the announcement of that performance—we have been singing on Christmas Eve together, without fail, every year since I was 10 and she was 7. If you know about where my age falls, you can do the math, and figure out that this is a tradition that dates back to the era of Watergate in American politics.
Over the years, of course, many variables have affected this set-in-stone performance. There has been a name change in terms of what this church has been called (my family still is not happy about the change in 2004—my father suggested they just call it “The Anything Goes” church) and there have been 7 pastors (by my own count this frosty Christmas morning). There were some years my mother was in the hospital, and one memorable Christmas Eve where doctors allowed her out of the hospital for three hours so she could be bundled up—IV and all—to come to the church and hear us sing. There were years when the hairstyles and the outfits mattered so much more than the song being delivered to the church family. There was the year the church team forgot to turn on the heat, and up until I put my fingers on the keyboard, I kept my hands encased in much-needed gloves.
Ever since my sister got married in 1994 she has made a point of locating songs for Christmas Eve that illumine parts of the Christmas story we might have forgotten—she has made it her mission to act as surrogate pastor and remind us that there are nuggets of wisdom still to be gleaned by the oft-told Christmas story. For years I had chosen semi-flashy pieces designed to show off our vocal skills—then as Elizabeth took hold of the annual song choice (and leave no doubt—she is in charge of choosing!) she chose songs along the lines of Amy Grant’s “Grown-Up Christmas List” that act as beautiful meditations of how we can look into the traditions and stories and find something refreshing, re-invigorating, and re-affirming.
When I got home this year Elizabeth presented me with a song I had never heard, a song entitled, “Not That Far From Bethlehem.” I immediately noted, “Hey, I don’t live that far away from Bethlehem in Jordan! It’s only about 50 miles to Bethlehem!” Elizabeth—as wise mothers often do—nodded in knowing assent. That was partly why she had chosen this song, it fits into the reality of our lives so well these days. I have gone off—left the country—but where I have settled and made a new life—is not very far from the site of the genesis of the Christmas story. That Elizabeth—she is a good one, you know.
Rendering the song last night allows me to think about my life in Jordan—thousands of miles away. I love to go to Mukawir near Madaba in Jordan. It is about a 40-50 minute drive away from KA. At Mukawir stand the ruins of the once-lavish summer palace of our biblical acquaintance King Herod. Archaeologists tell us this was a sumptuous villa with opulent apartments for the royal family. It boasted a Roman bath with hot and cold pools all with a stunning view of the Jordan valley. When you hike there it is possible to close out the 21st century and focus simply on the ancient ruins and the staggering natural views. How interesting to compare Herod’s summer get-away with the Bethlehem birthplace of Jesus—not a castle, but little more than a grotto, or a garage.
The words to song Elizabeth chose offer this refrain:

We’re not that far from Bethlehem
where all our hope and joy began.
For in our arms we’ll cherish Him.
We’re not that far from Bethlehem

What a wonderful meditation. In the last few weeks here in the United States, I have realized, again, that while I may live thousands of miles away, I am not that far from the love of family and friends. Each day I visit someone, talk to someone, reunite with someone who makes my world meaningful and brighter. I realized yesterday that there has been a preponderance of wonderful activity with people whose names begin with D. Here are just some snapshots of the Four Ds bringing home the meaning of Christmas.
Two weeks ago I spent an afternoon with my mentor, the iconic Doris Jackson. We came to Hackley the same year, 1996, and look back that we bonded on the first day faculty gathered that year. We team-taught a course together in 1999-2000 and have forged one of the best friendships over the years. My KA friend Rehema and I spent the afternoon visiting and feasting on Doris’ legendary potato salad and roasted chicken (seriously, it may just be the best anywhere!). Going to Doris’ house is like soul food on a plate, and soul interaction in the family room. No matter how far away I go, I am not that far from Doris’ love and affection (or watchful eye, she would add!).
When back in town I try and see my friend Debbie—a friendship ignited while we both sang and sweated in the 1980 All Ohio State Fair Youth Choir. This choir is one of my favorite memories of my youth, and while we did not see each other from 1985 until 2005, ever since the 25th anniversary of our choir, Debbie has been a faithful friend. We get together for breakfast, and I bask in the beam of her marvelous smile and wisdom. It is a friendship that has stood the test of time. Seeing Debbie reminds me that I am not that far from the ebullience of youth and the thrill of making new friends.
On Monday of this week my junior high and high school friend Dawn and I had dinner at the “Golden Lamb” in Lebanon, Ohio. Dawn decided that we should take our high school AP History teacher out to this famed establishment—the oldest continuously serving restaurant/inn/pub in Ohio, going back to 1803—as she took us 25 years ago while we were finishing high school. My friendship with Dawn goes back to the U.S. Bicentennial—it is a treat to know and care about someone who has seen you through the seasons since you were 12. Our teacher, the inimitable Jean Michaels, is one of the main reasons I became a teacher—I saw how much she loved her job, and I wanted to do something that offered me the chance to love life in the same way. Mrs. Michaels is a little older these days than the halcyon days of our AP and Dickens class in the early 1980s, but no less feisty, opinionated, funny, or sharp. It was a delightful evening remembering that we are not that far from the days we chose our careers, and started out with high hopes and expectations.
And two nights ago I talked on the phone with a former student, David, from the class of 1998. It has been awhile since we visited, but we re-connected through the miracle of Facebook. David was in my very first class at Hackley, and his enthusiasm, even-handedness, and focused curiosity has always made him a favorite of mine. He has traveled the world, lived in China, is finishing a law degree, but our conversation reminded me I am not that far from the excited moments that have gratified me as a teacher.
The other day I joked about the miracle of Facebook and my sister, ever the insistent mother, reminded me that it is not really a miracle, “Johnny, come on—the ‘miracle of Facebook’?? The birth of Jesus is a miracle, not that you can log on to Facebook!” Yes, you are right Elizabeth, but Facebook is an exciting new way (for me) to reconnect with the message of what Christmas means to me.
However—this is a certainly a week when people celebrate miracles. The Jewish tradition of Hanukkah—the Festival of Lights—commemorates the time when a small amount of oil lasted 8 days and kept the light in the temple from going out. And so this week allows us a chance to think about, what exactly is a miracle? Last Sunday my marvelous Aunt Dot hosted a Griley get-together that dwarfed all others. Our cousin from Charleston, Barbara, joined us for a delightful reunion. Is that a miracle? I guess in December we are prone to hope for miracles. We yearn for them. Deep down most of us believe that darkness can be overcome.
The other day I played my Denison cassette tape of the entirety of Handel’s Messiah.  I love so many moments in this beloved classic but when the chorus bursts out with “And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed” I am overwhelmed by the multi-facets of that glory and our search for glory in general. Such images of wealth and power must have filled the minds of the Hebrews after they heard that prophecy from Isaiah.
The Messiah who showed up, however had different trappings of glory—I guess one could call it the glory of humility. This messiah emerged as a baby who could not eat solid food and depended on an unwed teen-age mother for shelter, food, and love. God’s visit to earth was in an out-of-the-way shelter in a feed trough. Indeed, the event that divides history into two parts may have had more animal than human witnesses! As songwriter Phillips Brooks penned:

How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given! So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of His heaven. “  --O, Little Town of Bethlehem.
With all my Jewish and Muslim friends I try and look for an ecumenical approach to Christmas, besides the sacred understanding of the birth of the Messiah. And I am not talking about a Santa Claus spin on the holiday or trying to cover up religiosity. I mean—in the birth in Bethlehem, how can we walk away with an ecumenical understanding? Simply put: Jesus’ birth is a reiteration that love came down, and offered vast promise. It is about the power of love to change, and the power of cherishing each other. Christmas offers us that opportunity to turn back to those promises—those hopes and joys, and remind ourselves we should never allow ourselves to be that far from Bethlehem.
We’re not that far from Bethlehem
where all our hope and joy began.
For in our arms we’ll cherish Him.
We’re not that far from Bethlehem

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Way back in 2007--my first return to the USA from Jordan

For the next few days I will indulge myself a look back at the first few years of my life in Jordan. Here is an excerpt from my Christmas blog from that first year in Jordan, way back in 2007. It is interesting to re-read that excitement about the first flight back to Cincinnati from Jordan. I have since made that trip many times, but it is charming to remind myself of that first year of the school. Have a Merry Christmas Eve, blog readers!

From 2007:

The sun is shining, the grass is green;
The orange and palm trees sway,
There's never been such a day
[except] In Beverly Hills, L.A.

Thus begins the somewhat obscure verse to the immortal “White Christmas” anthem written by Irving Berlin in 1942. In that year Berlin was Christmas-ing in California, writing songs for movies, far away from his beloved New York. This verse holds a special resonance for me this year—indeed, I would only have to change a word or two to reflect my new situation! Let’s change the “orange and palm trees,” to “olive trees,” and move Beverly Hills to Jordan and the picture is quite accurate! As I look outside the window right now at KA, we have the perpetually blue skies (a title of another Irving Berlin number by the way—Blue skies, nothin’ but blue skies, from now on…) I have come to expect in my five months in Jordan, and it is about 60 degrees out there in this corner of the Middle East. In spite of the lovely day, I concur with Irving Berlin’s next line: I am longing to be up north… and of course, in the next measure the world heaves a nostalgic, sentimental sigh as Bing Crosby’s baritone plaintively muses,

I’m dreaming of a white Christmas,
Just like the ones I used to know…

When Berlin penned this ditty 65 years ago, many people were serving in the armed forces overseas for the second American Christmas of World War II. I can only imagine the millions of lumps in throats as people yearned to be back home, yearned to see their loved ones, and dreamt of those Christmas pasts of bountiful blessings. I understand that feeling better this Christmas than maybe ever before.
As all of you readers are aware, I moved to Jordan five months ago, and my compatriots and I are about to complete the first semester at KA. Since I started this blog in late July, I have henpeck-typed some 140 pages of my impressions—ruminations on the various and sundry experiences—from the gastronomic, travel, political, frustrating, joyous,  challenging, humbling, and triumphant aspects that have opened up in my life since journeying to Jordan in July (hard not to relish that alliterative phrase!). I have this sentence stuck in my head from one of Bing Crosby’s Christmas specials, a delicious staple of my childhood December viewing: “Unless we make Christmas an occasion to share our blessings, all the snow in Alaska won't make it ‘white’.”

As I wrote this last Tuesday: Tomorrow I will be celebrating my blessings as I board a plane in Amman, Jordan, and fly to Chicago and transfer there for a flight to Cincinnati. And there I will get the best of all gifts around any Christmas tree: the presence of a happy family all wrapped up in each other.
Thirty hours after I left my apartment at KA, my dad met me at the Cincinnati airport. I got the best greeting you could imagine: “You’re skinny!” (It’s funny—people say this to me when they haven’t seen me for awhile. I rarely lose much weight, but maybe I am remembered as, what, more “solid” in their memories??)
The next few hours were fun as I padded my feet on wall-to-wall-carpeting again, and had cold milk, and a BLT, felt the weight of a quarter again in my palm, brushed my teeth from tap water, and drove a car. Ahhhh. Pretty good stuff.
We headed over to my niece and nephew’s school to pick them up—they didn’t know I would be in yet, so I got to surprise them. Jack’s jaw dropped, and he went silent, and Emma’s eyes widened and screamed out, “King!” Cashmere sweaters are nice, but that’s the real pay-off!

We spent the afternoon playing hide-and-go-seek, eating gingerbread cookies, wondering what Santa might bring. At one point as we hid from Emma (Jack and I always hide/count together—it’s a team project us boys), Jack whispered to me, “King, I missed you more than anybody else did!” How sweet can a 5 year old get???

As the violet hour of dusk approached, we headed off to the Cincinnati Zoo for the Festival of Lights. In the mini-van I asked if we could eschew the DVD player and listen to Christmas carols instead. Emma responded: “Oh sure, why not? You’ve gotten everything else you’ve wanted today!”  Oh yes, the bloom is off the rose! The warm welcome was nice while it lasted!
Today as I shopped around the west side of Cincinnati, the mercury rose to 60 degrees. Wait—it felt like Amman just the other day…

Guess what was on TV last night as I began addressing the Christmas cards? I kid you not—the movie White Christmas—one of those movies I can watch over and over again, and I tear up every time when the old army guys show up for the General toward the end of the movie. And while addressing cards to friends in Dobbs Ferry, Atlanta, Charlotte, San Diego, Columbus, et cetera, I was reminded of another Berlin ballad to savor:
When you’re tired, and you can’t sleep,
I count my blessings instead of sleep.
So I fall asleep, counting my blessings.

Thanks Irving for the reminder…

Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Metropolitan Museum of Art as Diner... Hmm....The Imperial Diner as Museum


Last week when I arrived in the United States I went first to New York City. Some years I go there immediately upon my arrival in the USA and some years I go at the end of the winter break. But whenever I go, there are a few constants in my visit. One habit/custom/ritual/tradition is that I go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art every day. I know some of you wince or moan to think of going to an art museum every day, but as I explain it to people, for me going to the Met is actually like going to a diner.

I come from diner pilgrims. For years my mother made a pilgrimage to Frisch’s for her morning coffee and visit with the regulars. Obviously she could have eaten breakfast at home while her children readied themselves for school and quickly ate cereal. But there was something more in store for her at Frisch’s. Then about 20 years ago when my father retired from the Cincinnati Fire Department he began going to a diner for breakfast conversation. Somewhere in the 1990s he started going to the Imperial up the street for his chatfest and coffee. Yesterday, my first full day in Cincinnati for the 2013 Christmas break, I slid into the booth opposite my father for the morning habit/custom/ritual/tradition.

These daily visits to the Met in New York and the Imperial in Cincinnati are more alike than I realized.

When I go to the Met in New York every day, I go for maybe an hour, maybe an hour-and-half—that’s all! I go to check in, start the day, see some familiar things, soak in an atmosphere and plan that I know like the back of my hand, and then go about the business of the rest of the day. When my father goes to the Imperial six days a week (he takes Sundays off), he goes to check in with the regular denizens, officially starts his days, sees the familiar in an atmosphere and plan that he knows like the back of his weathered hand, and then goes about the business of the rest of his day. He is there for about the same amount of time that I am at the Met. Wow! The similarities…

But there is more than just a same old same old mundane routine in common. For starters, both visits offer a kind of sustenance.  Hmmm…the Met feeds the soul while the Imperial feeds the body (although, I hasten to add that Kurt, one of the regulars at the Imperial, reminds the buddies that “we sure don’t come here for the food!”).  But the parallels continue on into a more profound realm. Both spaces have a great deal of the “expected.”  For example, when I go to the Met, I always go and see at least one thing I know very well. My father knows exactly where every character will sit in the Imperial.  No one changes his “role” or his “place.”

So why does one go every day?? Is there something more we seek to find, or happen to find in making these daily stops?

Last week at the Met I visited two of the paintings I know extremely well. One is a Rembrandt and one is a Brueghel. These are paintings that have been in my consciousness for 20 years, and I have taught them, used them in tours at the Met, and reflected on them. And yet…in my visits last week, I caught something new about these old favorites.

Rembrandt’s Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer is one of the art works I have talked about the most in the last 12 years of teaching art history.  Rembrandt has painted the philosopher Aristotle standing in darkness with light shining on his face, his sleeve, and his right hand. While his hand rests on a bust of Homer, his stares past it, projecting an introspective and melancholy wonder. This piece is my “diner philosophy” of the Met. I come by there all the time, and yet…and yet, might there be some new revelation? Last week as I looked at the familiar Rembrandt, I noticed for the first time that the philosophers' arms seemed like scales in a balance. This wasn’t a big surprise since the piece is one of contemplating avenues to pursue in life—teaching or wealth and fame.  But I had never really seen this familiar work in quite the same way. Were 'Aristotle’s' arms actually weighing the different paths in life like scales in a balance? After seeing this piece for so long, I loved how there was something still new to be gleaned from such a familiar piece.

On another day, another “diner visit” to the Met, I soaked in the familiar Brueghel painting of  The Harvesters. This is a piece that at first glance is about the silly average bumpkins in this Dutch society. But as I learned long ago, there is subtext to the Brueghel piece, biting commentary about contemporary politics in the Dutch world. But the other day I am staring at this familiar piece, standing in practically a well-worn groove for me in front of this painting, when I decide to look around in the painting a little more closely.  The bumpkins are all there,  yep,right in their places, but as I look in one of the trees on the side, I see something completely new to me! There in one of the trees is hiding a devilish boy, waiting for the perfect time to throw apples down on some unsuspecting denizens!  How have I been looking at this painting for so many years and missed this little gem of humor?! But this is exactly what I mean about the Met being like a diner for me…I go regularly, see the same faces (albeit ones of paint!) and yet, I keep going not just for the expected, but for the revelations, the epiphanies, the joy of the unexpected!

The Imperial is not unlike a museum—there are old faces in these booths, and like the Brueghel, they may come across like average bumpkins, but there is more than meets the eye. If, as Kurt attests, the food isn’t the draw (and yes, I can attest to it, the food is unremarkable in every way!) then what is the draw for these regulars who congregate six days a week at this diner??? We can make breakfast and coffee at home. But there is a camaraderie that attracts and binds. For this particular group of men it is a common bond of losing wives.

But I think there is still something more.  There is humor, there is learning, there is sharing, and yes, there are revelations and epiphanies at the Imperial. To continue with the Brueghel parallel, there is often political subtext as well…

Yesterday I was very aware of the human connections at the Imperial, and in a melancholy way, because of the absence of some of the humans. About a week ago, Dick Kitz, one of the regulars and among the most colorful canvases at the Imperial, died suddenly. He was in his late 80s, so maybe it is never exactly “sudden” then. This guy sat opposite my father in his booth for years. Dick never varied in his breakfast order—it was always the same: fried eggs hard, a stack of white bread, and a cauldron of steaming coffee. But each day Dick or my father would bring some problem to the table; some days they discussed electrical wiring, some days, concrete issues (i.e. cement), and on and on, the same old same old ritual of trying to solve some problem. But woven through their talks was humor: political humor, old man humor, and even more. It was as if these Brueghel-esque characters were weighing the choices they had made in life, seeking a little validation and approval for how they have lived their lives.

On our refrigerator at home hangs a sign that Dick once gave my father: “I can only please one person per daytoday is not your day. And tomorrow doesn’t look good either.” Dick Kitz was an ornery and eccentric man. He could also melt your heart with a laugh or a reminiscence of his beloved, late wife. He might also bake you a cake if he was in the mood. There was that joy of the unexpected with knowing Dick.

At his funeral, Dick’s daughter told my father that she was sure her father’s morning visits to the diner had prolonged his life. There had been a kind of psychic sustenance with the treks to “The Institution of Higher Learning” (as Dick dubbed the Imperial). The day or so after his funeral, my father told me that Dick’s son came and made the morning pilgrimage to the Imperial. When he left he paid for the breakfast of everyone in the Imperial.

Of course my visits to the New York daily haunt of the Met, and my visits to the Cincinnati daily haunt of the Imperial, do happen to be timed to the season of Advent. This is a season of theologically anticipating the birth of the Christ child. There are expectations tied to this season, and a trotting out of routines and customs and rituals and traditions. This is a season suffused with expectations, and that can often be part of the problem. We can “expect” the holiday to go a certain way, and often we might be let down, since the reality almost always will compromise our expectations.

But there is a strange convergence for me of the Met, the Imperial and Christmas. All three share some longing. In a word, in all three, we long for joy. I walk across the park, go into the massive structure on Fifth Avenue, lope up the grand staircase, and long for joy at seeing these examples of artistic triumph. Whether these men know it consciously, or not, they seek the Imperial diner on Glenmore Avenue every day because they long for joy, the joy of human connection and fulfillment. Might our joy be enhanced by opening our eyes to the familiar and seeing some of the surprises around us?

Advent is a wonderful opportunity to remind ourselves of expectations. In the midst of our familiar we must always be open to the joy of the unexpected, an important life-affirming sustenance.