This summer featured some changes in my plans, but nevertheless was perhaps one of the most fun breaks I've ever had. I finished the school year at the beginning of June, graduated the class of 2000, which was the very first group of students that I taught at St. Joe's, and proceeded to jump right into teaching summer school. I was worried that I was going to be too tired, too burnt out from the end of the year, but teaching a completely different course actually was refreshing enough for me to still feel as though I were getting some sort of break. Actually, I ended up teaching two courses, one a basic catechetical course based on the Nicene Creed, and the other a version of my Sacraments course for two of my students who will be juniors this year.
After my teaching was complete, I had a week off and then took a fabulous theology class over at Notre Dame, taught by Philip Sheldrake, who has been teaching spirituality at ND during the summers, getting away from his native England. The class, Theology and Spirituality: The Self, Transformation and Holiness, was far and away one of the more worthwhile and engaging theology courses I've taken. It grabbed me especially for the way it raised the issues of what the study of spirituality actually offers in our intellectual context today and then how the class examined these issues in a variety of distinct historical circumstances. If you are an odd duck and are interested in the course itself, you can examine the syllabus here.
I met a great many wonderful folks in the class, topping off the whole experience by spending a night at The Vine with one, the young Jesuit Michael Conley, busily examining the inside of a bottle of wine and finding out why I "fit the profile" for the Society of Jesus. Privately alarmed by this turn of events, I led the way over to Corby's Pub, where we met various Jesuits and M.Div-ers for some end-of-session festivities. As we walked in, we were approached by a beautiful "Black Irish" young woman named Shannon, who was starting a doctorate in Biology, who said, "You guys look like theologians." Only in South Bend.
The next day I was off to the West! The next three weeks were to be spent hanging with my friend Kevin Fleming, Ph.D., who was finishing up his post-doc at the University of Wyoming. Although our original plan had been to head off to Ireland, his relocation costs were nixing that idea for a year. Now our plans were for a week in Laramie, for me to see the rugged western life, and then two weeks of traveling, road-tripping through the west to end up out at Kevin's folks' place in Massachusetts.
Traveling to Chicago turned into great fun as I feel into talking with a woman who was also a teacher, Christine, and her delighfully precocious three-year-old daughter. I was able to give her a hand while we talked about education and such and so a potentially dull bus ride became quality entertainment.
Then I caught my plane and before I knew it, I was landing at that weird Denver airport that I remembered from the news a few years ago--the one that cost millions of dollars to develop a system to destroy people's luggage. I suddenly became nervous. But my fears were groundless: Kevin met me and my luggage was safe. All was well with the world.
We got into town and before I knew it, I was not only meeting Kevin's girlfriend, the charming Miss Sarah Jackson, but her entire family as well, including her sister-in-law, Megan, who was introduced to me still sprawled out in bed having just given birth to her first child. She was immensely courteous, given that neither of us had ever been introduced to another person while in such a situation (respectively).
Over the next few days, Kevin, Sarah and I spent our time wandering the countryside, sampling the resaurants and looking for good views despite the haze from all the wildfires that were raging in the west. Out here near Centennial, we spent an afternoon in the sun up on an open meadow.
When we weren't outside, there was still plenty of entertainment. Along with many hours of conversation, including one night that went until 4am, Kevin and Sarah would get into the most amazing wrestling matches. Although Kevin had a definite size advantage, Sarah was able to hold her own, especially with her vicious hair-pulling tactics....
Yes. Well. [Ahem] Anyway, we continued the process of packing, even with all of this fun. We spent as much time as we could socializing during the day, even while Kevin had to deal with wrapping up his affairs at the counseling center. One afternoon we had lunch in a cute little ice cream shop/deli type place. Here I took what I think might be my favourite shots of the entire trip. As we finished lunch, Kevin and Sarah were having a lot of fun flirting and just looking at one another. All of a sudden, I realized that I loved the look of them sitting there and I grabbed these two shots....
For me, this was just one of those really fun moments in life where you feel like you're really seeing your friends: what it is that you love most about them. Sometimes we complain about being around people who are in love, but I think other people's love gives me (in a different way) as much pleasure as a love of my own. Perhaps it's easier just to enjoy your friends' loves. I don't know. Maybe I'm talking nonsense. Anyway, this time in the ice cream shop was characteristic of our afternoons of hanging out and, for me, is what the Laramie part of my journey was all about.
The toughest thing in all of this, however, was a drama that had been going on since Kevin had met Sarah: she, like everyone else in the family, was a Mormon. Months earlier, when he called me up and told me excitedly about this first date he had been on and mentioned that she was very pious, a Mormon in fact, I just started laughing and asked him what he thought of his first date with a pagan. "Huh?" was more-or-less his response. I explained that while Mormons use many of the same words and names as Christians do, (Jesus, etc.) they mean by them completely different concepts. It is, in fact, a very recently-created polytheistic religion, completely distinct from Judaism and Christianity, although in what amounts to a very deceptive way, they do not reveal this. Sarah liked Kevin a lot, and wanted him to come into "the true faith." My biggest beef with Kevin through this whole thing was that he was not honest with Sarah about how strongly he felt about his Catholicism, for fear of driving her away, I supposed. As it was, this constant confrontation of faiths caused Kevin to learn more about his own faith at a rapid pace. And made our phone bills extraordinary.
While in Laramie, Kevin and I attended a Mormon service with her family, which was quite an interesting experience for me. It began with a fairly bland hymn and testimony worship service. Very straight-laced and restrained. Much to my utter annoyance, they had a hymn based on the text of John Henry Cardinal Newman's "Lead Kindly Light." He would have been spinning in his grave! Their "stake center" (from the Mormon pioneers' using stakes as they journeyed west: they don't call the place a "church") is a very stark, functional, and suburban meeting place. It is very remeniscent of many evangelical or fundamentalist Protestant assembly halls. After this, there was "bible study," which was really Book of Mormon study. The "worship" then climaxed with an hour-long presentation (with video!) on Fire Safety, through which Kevin and I struggled to keep a straight face as everyone listened intently. There was no sacramental awareness, no hint of the mystical. There was no sense of transcendence, whether in God or over such aspects of human existence as culture or politics. It was, in fact, an orderly, democratic meeting. Period.
This was part of the emphasis Mormons put on caring for their families, which is always presented as a very noble part of their ethics, but I began to see a very dark side to their language while observing them. They use people's families as weapons against them. Any questioning of Mormon tenets is met with the threat of eternal separation from their families: this is an intolerable fear for most of them, so Mormon doctrines (and the difficulties reconciling them with history, science, logic, consistent ethics, et cetera) go unchallenged. The ultimate Mormon test for the authenticity of faith seems to end up being "a warm feeling" inside that tells you that this is the truth. My long, 10pm to 4am conversation with Sarah the one night came about as she asked a fairly random series of questions, trying to understand the Catholic faith, which Kevin was inexperienced at articulating. She ended by saying in disbelief that she couldn't believe anyone believed in anything so complicated. Like I said, she had asked a fairly random set of questions, so I hadn't given her anything very systematic. I simply said that reality is complicated and Catholicism/Christianity reflects that. We couldn't believe that anyone could believe something so simplistic, as Mormonism strikingly resembles the basic, "picture-ish" way that we try to "dumb-down" Christianity for five-year-olds in Sunday School: God as a Man in the Sky; that kind of thing. As a professional educator in history and theology, it was also interesting to notice how blatantly Mormonism is a modern, American religion. So much of it screamed its development in 19th century American culture and philosophy. It would have been obvious without any specific knowledge of its origins, and it made it more mind-boggling to me that they really saw themselves as proceeding directly from the New Testament.
This tension behind everything didn't stop us from really enjoying one another's company. I adored her in many ways, she was great fun and terribly kind, especially when my father called a few days into my stay there and told me that Grandpa Novak had died on August 1st. I was sad, and just empty somehow, although I'd known before I had left that it was going to be a matter of days or a few weeks by my dad's descriptions. Sitting on Kevin's porch over the next few days, when he was at work and I was just picking the guitar, gave me some time to think about Grandpa talking with me over the years.
Sarah had to leave us, though, and Kevin and I continued the process of packing, while being a bit more lonely (him more than me, no doubt). Our last evenings also featured a few gigs for Kevin in nearby Cheyenne, where we were joined for one night by several of Kevin's friends and colleagues. On the night that only I was there, Kevin made $55 in tips. On the night he had a full cheering section to let the resaurant know that this was quality entertainment, he made nothing. This is a mystery.
Kevin and I journeyed out into an amazing sunset one evening to eat back in Centennial, in a steakhouse located as the road just begins to curve up into the mountains.
There we had a great conversation, veering, as our conversations often do, into psychology and spirituality. As I sawed into my steak (and the wine began to saw into me) I noticed that the two cowboys at the table next to us had become very quiet over their hamburgers. They hadn't said much to one another anyway, but it seemed that they were eavesdropping on our conversation. Apparently, two guys discussing their psychosexual development was not something you saw very often out on the range. We just pretended that we didn't notice them listening and hoped that they might find something educational in what we said. Or at least amusing.
Back in Laramie, I also had the opportunity to see where Kevin worked at the counseling center and even to have Kevin conduct some kind of arcane experiment on my mind that he said was "very illuminating." You get used to this kind of thing hanging out with a pshrink. Actually, I found that be an profitable experience myself. I was also able to see some of the other attractions of the UW campus, including the art museum and this amazing T-Rex in the campus zoo, which is kept behind this sturdy safety fence.
I discovered that the University of Wyoming features one of the most kick-butt Geology departments in the States, since one thing Wyoming does extremely well is have rocks. You could hear people talking around town in accents from all over the world about rocks. And fossils. In rocks. When Kevin and I traveled over to the campus geology museum--which featured an incredible dinosaur collection, by any standard--we ended up there during the afternoon with hardly anyone around. In a fit of juvenile enthusiasm, I had Kevin jump over the guard rail (there to prevent this exact occurance, I know) to give me a visual demonstration of his ferocity versus that of a T-Rex.
After we finished cleaning Kev's apartment, we headed off to Mass at the Newman Center where I was able to briefly meet Fr. Roger, the Benedictine that had been Kevin's local touchstone for the faith. Seemed like a good fellow, and I remember enjoying the Mass heartily. We then had a farewell breakfast with Kevin's incredible colleague Frances, a lady I'd been hearing extraordinary things about all year. It was tough for them to say good-bye to each other, but that's all good: if the friendship wasn't of the best kind, then it wouldn't have mattered. You could see that it mattered a lot. Once we hit the road we began singing as the CD randomizer began blaring Creedance Clearwater Revival's "Up Around the Bend." I assumed that this would be the fated theme song for the journey, but I think it was played by the CD angel merely as a prelude. The real theme song for our trek would actually be the Saw Doctors' "Joyce Country Ceili Band." This song kept popping up at just the right time, always highlighting moments of divine significance. The image of a fairly cheesy group of musicians tooling around begging for attention seemed to fit pretty well, too. We are the Joyce Country Ceili Band.
Are you bored yet? If not, you can continue to follow the road trip.