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Me and Thee, Oh Lord

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I really do not know that anything has ever been more exciting than diagramming sentences.― GERTRUDE STEIN

Each moment begins pretty much like any other; it was preceded by one and will be followed by another. Each represents an opportunity which can be embraced or allowed to pass.

As an ersatz historian, I should be more interested in periodization than I am. Units of time — hours, days, months, centuries, aeons — are arbitrary, so I cannot claim that what I’m about to write has much to do with either New Year’s Resolutions or birthdays; its appearance in mid-January is coincidence, albeit a happy one, for I have begun to write a book. Holding your breath won’t help; simply suspecting that some of my friends might give a shit will suffice.

For the time being, the book’s specific subject matters to me alone. The book, like each of my three blogs, will involve two related topics: architecture and religion. And since the title will include the word “architecture,” it seems appropriate to say a few words about the religious perspective that will frame the text.

The foundation of my religiosity was laid in the 1950s and 1960s. Though I do not remember her — my mother abandoned the family in 1953 when I was eight years old — Marge was a Congo, that is, a Congregationalist and I suspect she may have taken me to the Congregational church in Argo, near where we lived. I have no recollection of those Sunday visits but after her departure our neighbors the Millers took me with their daughter Andrea.

In those days, the mid-1950s, the Congregational denomination was an outpost of New England conservatism and restraint. I remember hard pews, the singing of hymns less memorable than elevator music, and a good deal of calisthenics, sitting, standing, kneeling. In hindsight the pews were occupied by little old ladies in drab dresses, white gloves, and veiled pillbox hats. Imagine a room filled with Mamie Eisenhowers.

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Sunday School consisted of one activity — again my memory is hazy — locating Bible verses called out by the Sunday School leader. And the sole remaining benefit of that exercise is my ability to name all the books of the Old and New testaments in order. I didn’t stick around long enough to learn the actual content of The Book, however, because the Millers moved to LaGrange and I was left on Sunday’s to my own devices.

Where, you may ask, were my father and grandmother as guardians of my spiritual welfare? Roy worked at the family business seven days a week, but he was an atheist who almost never spoke of God, save for the occasional smashing of a thumb or dropping of a hammer. My grandmother Clara was a Roman Catholic, but she had married outside the Church, to an alcoholic wife-beater who was himself a disbeliever. He had died in 1951, so I only learned these things about him when I was much, much older and able to understand my grandmother’s reticence.

At about age fifteen I succumbed to a bout of peer pressure and went to church with some classmates. But by this time, the old Congregational church had merged and become the United Church of Christ. And those stoic Mamie Eisenhowers were now inclined to interrupt the sermon, blurting exhortations to “Praise the Lord!” and “Amen, brother/sister.” The congregation seemed taken over by Elmer Gantry; a decided turn for the creepy. I stopped going altogether and have never regretted the choice.

Norman, Oklahoma

It was always assumed I’d go to university, the first in my exceptionally small family to do so. Working in the high school library, a copy of “Ford Times” passed through my hands, an unassuming monthly for owners of Ford vehicles. This one included an article on Bruce Goff, an Oklahoma architect, who had chaired the architecture program at the University of Oklahoma. If you don’t know Goff, you should; if you do, I don’t have to explain why OU received my only application—another choice I have never regretted.

Arriving for the fall semester 1963, I moved into Kingfisher Hall of the Woodrow Wilson Residential Center — a relic from WWII that had been part of a Naval air station — and roomed with a guy from El Paso. Most of the guys I knew in our wing were Roman Catholics, so I often went with them to Newman Center for Saturday afternoon “hangover” Mass. Besides being a university parish, Vatican II was underway and Fathers Ross and Swett had already liberalized the service: “Take, eat of my Nabisco vanilla wafers, sacrificed for you….” Get the idea? My first confession was the most excruciating exercise I can recall: to do something nice for the person I disliked the most: First I had to make a list and then determine what God might consider suitably “nice” without actually letting the other person in on the exercise.

One day I spoke with Father Chuck about an issue and he ended our talk with a question: “Why is it I haven’t seen you at Communion?” for which I had an excellent reason. “You see, Father, I’m not Catholic.” After a week of the flimsiest catechism ever employed, I was baptized on a Saturday afternoon, with Dorothy Ryan (a former nun and secretary of the Newman Center) as my sponsor. Somewhere I’ve still got my baptismal candle. Meanwhile the war in Vietnam went on and on and on.

It was 1965. Bras and draft cards were aflame; JFK and Bobby were assassinated; so was Dr. King. My Black friend Harold showed me the Cleveland County courthouse where the adjacent duplicate water fountains for Whites and everyone else had been just two years before; the fountains were there, but the signs had been removed. God seemed nowhere in the vicinity. I’d also gone home to Chicago during the summers and attended local churches where Vatican II was barely a rumor and confession was formulaic. I learned that religion and spirituality weren’t even on speaking terms with one another. So, despite my deep appreciation for the rites and rituals and the sense of family I had known at university, I became “unchurched” a second time.

The Social Gospel

Dean Bryant Vollendorf and Fred Shellabarger were my favorite professors at O.U. Shell taught studio and two of the four architectural history courses, and it was somewhere in there I became aware of the Social Gospel, which resonated with the turmoil around me. It addressed my questions — about evil and good and being an agent for change — and set me on a path.

I think it was also Shell who dropped the phrase “Akron Plan” into a discussion, probably with a negative spin, since he and Gladys were Episcopalians and stylistic snobs. He was inclined to editorialize, too: couldn’t say “Christian Science,” for example, without the parenthetic observation “…neither Christian nor Scientific.” But his head and heart were in the right place for an appreciation of ethical behavior and social justice. I filed “Akron Plan” away for future reference, though it took forty years. I have a long attention span.

The invention of an imaginary town in Iowa, Agincourt, has provided numerous outlets for my spiritual inclinations: the introduction of characters of indeterminate religious stripe (like myself); creation of Agincourt’s own “village atheist” watchmaker Ernie “Red” Anhauser; the community’s very own incidents of the Second Great Awakening; and even the design of a genuine Akron-Auditorium church as a test of my own understanding of the type that I’ve invested so much time identifying.

The Mighty Muskrat River, which flows along the western edge of the original Agincourt townsite, took me to the creation myth of the Iroquois people, for whom the industrious muskrat was alone among animals to dredge mud from the bottom of the primordial sea to create an island for human habitation. Frankly, it and the Gnostic myth are the most satisfying tales I’ve encountered as a basis for belief in anything beyond ourselves.

He grazes much but produces no wool.

Cecil Elliott, another irreligionist, was my department chair and friend for fifteen years. He encouraged my interest in the Akron-Auditorium plan phenomenon but warned of a former colleague at N.C State: He grazes much but produces no wool. I have grazed this particular patch of grass for twenty years or more; the time has come to write.

The word count says 1,433. That’s 433 more than Cecil Elliott set for his own daily writing goal. If I could maintain that pace for three months, there’d be 90,000 of these words and very likely a first draft of the book in my head.

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