Reflections from the Swamp
Recently a couple of my readers asked me, “How do you come up with ideas for writing?”
Of Piles and Such
I separate ideas into different piles. I don’t like mixing the concepts. I want to develop my ideas from one pile. My favourite pile has nothing in it. I don’t have to do anything or think about anything. This is my empty pile. It’s as if my dreams are underwater. You have to dive into a pile. Above the piles is all manner of things floating by as in a stream. Occasionally I will grab one of these things and stick it in an appropriate pile. Sometimes I forget about the ideas and just enjoy floating myself. I call this my creative space. If I actually want to do something with something floating by, I’m forced to crawl out of the stream, go to one of my piles, and start writing.
Last week I wrote about Gouda cheese and community. That came out of my pile of early memories of a church in a Dutch community. In that story, many boys and Johanna eat a jar of pickled herring just before Sunday-School. I started thinking about one of the boys named Eddy. While resting at the bottom of the stream, all of these memories about Eddy started floating by. The Eddy memories are connected to other classmates and eventually a story about sheep, goats, and pigs. So here we go, here’s a story about sheep, goats and pigs that floated by.
A bunch of us kids were sitting in the back of a trolleybus after school when Eddy brought up a storey we heard in Bible class. None of us grade six kids were theologians, but we all prided ourselves in our biblical knowledge. Fundamentally we were fundamentalists and tended to see things in the Bible as literal. The Good Book had simple, accurate answers that were spelled out in black and white.
Many of my classmates were from dairy farms. When you’re sitting on your three-legged stool milking in a barn full of Holsteins, it doesn’t matter in which direction you look; everything seems to be in black and white. We were very open to allowing others to be free to think like us.
The Bible story was about the end of time when the sheep would go to the right, and the goats would go to the left, the right led to the excellent place called heaven, and the left went to the bad place called hell. Miranda pointed out that sheep don’t really go to heaven. The sheep were the good people, and the goats were the bad people. This was helpful to some, but I already knew that.
Joyce asked what the right hand and the left hand were all about. There was an eerie silence for a minute before Eddy waded into the discussion. He said most folks were generally good and like sheep would go to heaven. Some folks, though, weren’t good and were destined for the fires of hell. There was an easy test to find out which group you belonged in. If you were right-handed, you were a sheep and would go to heaven, and if you were left-handed, you would go to “the other place” with the goats.
After another moment of silence, we all started looking at our hands. I was right-handed and felt pretty good about the whole situation. I started looking at everybody else’s hands but couldn’t really tell if they were left or right-handed. Everybody else was doing the same thing. We eyed each other and wondered if any of us were destined for hell but didn’t dare ask.
John De Gelder asked, “Why weren’t there any pigs in the story? Pigs were probably as bad as goats. They weren’t even allowed to eat pigs back then, at least until St. Peter had a dream from God of a blanket full of pigs and lobsters descending from heaven. The dream meant, “You can eat pigs and lobsters from now on, especially bacon.” “I have dreams of bacon, confessed Bill De Klerk, but I think they come from my stomach and not from The Lord.” “I don’t think God eats bacon,” said Bill Van Geeman, “He wrote the rules in the first place, and I think He’s still Jewish.”
We all waited for Eddy’s words of wisdom. He had insights into almost everything biblical. He was a living a biblical concordance. “Pigs had cloven hooves,” said Eddy.
This sounded familiar, but none of us knew what” cloven hooves” were. We waited. Finally, when all eyes were on Eddy, he spoke. “Cloven hooves were a disease that pigs got. They got it because clover got stuck in their hooves. Bugs and things crawled into the pig from their hooves. If you ate the meat, you could die. You could only eat clean animals. Pigs were unclean because they were always rolling in the mud picking up diseases and worms. Even today, my mom says you have to cook the snot outta pork, or you’ll get tapeworms.”
Out of the blue, Peter, who was in grade four, exclaimed, “I’m left-handed!”
“Not Peter!” I thought. He’s a good kid. His family already had enough problems. Peter’s father had died at a young age leaving a widow and three children. I gave Peter a pat on the shoulder before I got off the bus and told him I’d try to find a way to get him out of all this. Maybe there was some sort of “Get out of Hell Free” card like the “get out of jail free” card in the game of Monopoly. We all went home and undoubtedly brought up the heaven, hell, and sheep, goats, and pigs conversations we had on the bus.
The next day before school even got going, we had an assembly. The principal, Mr. Vanderveen, started talking about the sheep and goats. Apparently, you could be left-handed and still go to heaven. We all looked at Eddy. How could he have gotten the story wrong? I felt relief for Peter; he was going to heaven after all! Yippee!
I don’t think Eddy became a theologian. I heard years later that he got into real estate, but I’m not sure about that. We no longer consulted him on biblical interpretations. He was a good friend. I missed seeing him at our school’s 50th reunion.
I don’t hear about hell anymore, even in church. Did it disappear? I still have a lot of questions, but I am comfortable with uncertainly. It takes courage to face life with all of the unknowns. When we ask the big questions, such as “Why are we here,” we stand with all of humanity going back to the Greek Philosophers. Be leery of the simplified answers; life is much more extraordinary, mysterious, and complex than we can even imagine.
Life, meaning, beauty, goodness, consciousness are emergent realities that arise from the physical world and can neither be separated from it nor be reduced to it.
Brian D. McLaren ( Progressing Spirit April 29/21)