Sunday, January 4, 2015

Early Morning On The Cabin Porch

Howard Zahniser at Mataskared, Crane Mtn in backgroundThe importance of religion is not so much the forgiveness of sins as it is awareness and gratitude, I tell my sons, Eric and Justin, aged twelve and fifteen, respectively. Amazing grace throbs in daily life, I tell them. There are debts of love owed life.

We are not Jewish, but I sometimes think it would be easier for me to teach them the Hebrew language, which I do not know, than to tell them about this untellable story, which, in a way, I do know.

We are sitting on their front porch of our extended family’s cabin, Mateskared in the southern Adirondacks. I call this their front porch because Mateskared used to be my parents’ cabin and now it belongs to me and my three siblings. I could tell them: Look, true future ownership of this cabin resides in your gonads and those of your cousins.

But I am not even enough of the shadow of a rabbi to broach that this early in the morning.

I have already discussed sex and sexuality with them, when each was nine years old. In retrospect, that was no more difficult than taking the Graduate Record Exams, which lasted all day, with a soft, computer-readable magnetic lead pencil and those huge, page-wide multiple-choice rows of tiny light blue vertical rectangles made up of dashed lines. By afternoon they were dancing—not my kids, but those light blue dashed rectangles. Maybe I could make up a multiple-choice test about religion for my kids, but should I grade it on the curve or pass-fail?

Justin and Eric are up fairly early this morning. I’ve been up reading and writing since six o’clock. Vacation protocol is that people sleep-in as long as they like, which Christine and my mother Alice were doing as we spoke.

What about you? Would you rather sleep-in or hazard talking to your kids about religion?

What if you were just graded pass-fail?

Justin and Eric stare off into space at the view down and across the valley to Crane Mountain. Odds are – even in this deterministic world – they are making up new characters for their role-playing games. If I tried to make them read the Hebrew Scriptures, they would grouse no end. If I suggested instead that you might get great ideas for role-playing characters and scenarios out of the Hebrew Scriptures, they might fight over the chance to devour it. Motivation is the basic difference between, say, youthful Moonies and mature Christian Scientists.

Christine and I do not want to burden our children with metaphysical guilt or with the notion that one should invest only in another as yet unseen world. My aging grandmothers used to sit in their rocking chairs and read their Bibles every day. This was before we got a TV. Maybe they were just watching their Bibles. But the way my grandmothers talked about religion, you could tell they read their Bibles like cramming for their real finals.

Our paternal grandmother once corrected my brother Matt – he was about 14 years old and had just squirted himself with acrid orange-rind spray and blurted out “I hate orange peels!”

“You should never hate anything but sin,” she scolded him.

That’s just about my favorite story to tell therapists. Most of the therapists I’ve known only think of religion as something that happened to other people in the past and should now be the subject of a Twelve-Step group.

“Hi, my name is Ed, and I’m the adult child of a religious family system.”

“Hi, Ed! Keep coming back. It works if you work it.”

Earlier this morning fog pockets still sat in the foothill valleys and other low spots leading up to the base of Crane Mountain. Seen from our porch at Mateskared, they look like pseudo ponds and lakes. Most people sleep too late to see them. These illusionary bodies of water remind me of the part in the book of the New Testament now called “To the Hebrews,” where it says “we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses. . .”

Justin and Eric are beginning to wake up enough to begin to externalize their energy. They won’t be content to sit still on the porch much longer. It is as though their consciousness takes a certain amount of time to reorient itself and then this Psalmist-on-duty in their brain cries out “Sleepers, awake!”

This means I have just minutes left to talk with them meaningfully about religion.

Maybe I should be autobiographical and tell them “Look, before you guys were born I spent ten years growing into an earnest meditation practice. What most people call mysticism comes down to a simple, profound gratitude. When Godself told Moses his or her name was I Am – or I will be what I will be – Godself wasn’t shucking Moses. Real experience of God comes when you finally are absolutely certain that when you pray you are talking to yourself.”

There is another wonderful part in “To the Hebrews” in the New Testament where it says—and then repeats it twice later—“Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.”

That’s what I should tell my sons: “Today, if you hear that voice, do not harden your hearts.”

I wonder what Crane Mountain is thinking? It sits off by itself and towers over its near neighbors. It has one real pond on it, a small lake halfway up, which faces heaven like an unblinking third eye. I once spent time on Crane alone for an abbreviated vision quest—no fire, no cooked food. Maybe I should tell my sons “Look, what I learned up there was not to expect anything of the mountain. It just is.”

My two guys will want their breakfast now. Last night before bedtime I told them I’d make French toast.

“Well,” I tell them matter-of-factly, getting out of my porch chair, “On this day in 1600, after eight years in prison Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake by the Inquisition for heresy. You guys still want that French toast for breakfast?”

Photo: Howard Zahniser at his cabin in Johnsburg with Crane Mountain in the distance (Courtesy Ed Zahniser).

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Ed Zahniser retired as the senior writer and editor with the National Park Service Publications Group in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. He writes and lectures frequently about wilderness, wildlands, and conservation history topics. He is the youngest child of Alice (1918-2014) and Howard Zahniser (1906–1964). Ed’s father was the principal author and chief lobbyist for the National Wilderness Preservation System Act of 1964. Ed edited his father’s Adirondack writings in Where Wilderness Preservation Began: Adirondack Writings of Howard Zahniser, and also edited Daisy Mavis Dalaba Allen’s Ranger Bowback: An Adirondack farmer - a memoir of Hillmount Farms (Bakers Mills).

5 Responses

  1. Bob Meyer says:

    Ed, i know a Rabbi you SHOULD speak with. She’s a hiker, seeker, former Lutheran.. wonderful woman.
    See you on Crane some day. It was beautiful this Fall.

  2. Justin says:

    I frequently appreciate the gift of living in a time and place where one generally need not fear execution for holding beliefs contrary to the Catholic faith.

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