Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Calls of Duty: Part One

          The ring of the phone was so soft, and his sleep so deep, that Dylan had managed to work the sound of it into his dream. In his dream, he was back in high school. He had just managed to coax Faith O'Donnell to his locker under the guise of showing her his new letterman jacket. He was proud of his letterman jacket with the thick embroidered volleyball on the sleeve, CAPTAIN in big block letters just below it. He was proud of it to be sure, but the truth is that he would have said just about anything to get her to have a one on one conversation with him, even stand in his general vicinity, for that matter. Right now Faith was so close to him that he could smell her strawberry lip gloss. He was astonished by how much more beautiful she was at this distance. He showed her the jacket and watched her smile widen. He added with pride that he had just won an academic scholarship, and that college was definitely going to happen. Dream Dylan was doing incredibly well – Faith was suitably impressed, hanging on his every word.
            He watched her run her fingers over the stitching of his name, tracing the cursive letters, her shiny pink fingernail tracing each letter. “You are so amazing, Dylan.” He raised an eyebrow. She continued, “I mean, you’re an incredible athlete, you’re smart, you volunteer, you play the piano.”            
            “And guitar,” he added quickly, so as not to interrupt her flattery.
            “And, you’re not so bad looking.” She felt her cheeks start to warm – getting hotter with every word – but she continued, “You’re sort of the perfect guy.”
            Dylan felt like he was floating. Her litany of compliments gave him enough nerve to finally ask her out. He drew a deep, calming breath to try and steady the quiver he knew he would have in his voice. “Faith, would you like to go to the homecoming dance with me?”
            Before she could answer, the third period bell rang.
            And rang.
            And rang.
            Faith began to vaporize before his eyes as the school bell gradually morphed into the pestering ring of his phone. He begrudgingly left Faith behind, standing at the locker and about to say yes (he hoped). With any luck, he thought, they would meet again soon.
            Dylan glanced at the clock, 3:25am. He answered the phone without even looking to see who it was. He knew that a call at this hour would probably not be good.
            “I don’t know what to do, Dylan. . . she’s my world. . .she can’t go yet. . . I love her so much. . .” Henry’s voice was barely recognizable through the sobs.
            “Henry? What? Wait. Slow down. What happened?”
            He spoke in fragments, the long pauses where he was obviously trying, with little success, to gain composure. “It’s my Eva. . . she got out of bed. . . complained she didn’t feel well. . .they say her heart stopped. . .what if she dies, Dylan?”
            Without even realizing it, Dylan rotated the brass switch on the hurricane lamp that sat on his night table. The mechanical click reverberated off of the old knotty pine walls with such force that he was certain he woke the whole house. He threw off the covers and began to dress himself as Henry shared more details of what had happened to Eva. For Henry, just saying it out loud was cathartic, and he calmed a little with each sentence. As of yet, no one had given Henry an official diagnosis, but it was clear that they were incredibly lucky that Henry insisted on calling 911.
            “She’s going to be okay, Henry. I know it. Is Junior there with you,” Dylan asked, squeezing the phone to his ear with his shoulder as he wiggled himself into his jeans. The old wooden floors moaned loudly under his shifting weight. This cabin only has one volume –  thunderous, he thought.
            “You’re the first one I called. I knew you’d know what to do. Can you come over to the hospital? They’re getting ready to take her there now.”
            Dylan hesitated. He realized Henry had forgotten about the family reunion. This week was the first in three years that the whole family was able to get together in the same place at the same time, and it was usually Dylan’s schedule that was the problem.  He recalled the tense phone call with his parents earlier in the summer.

            “I can’t get vacation right now, mom. We’re in the middle of a huge project.”
            “But, Dylan, you’re the only one who can’t do it. Please come, Dyl,” she begged.
            He heard his father in the background, “Is he coming?”
            The sound became muffled as his parents began their own conversation as if he weren’t there – sidebars, Dylan called them. He pictured the scene as he listened: His mom held the phone against her chest in one hand, the other (barely) covering the receiver as she yelled into the family room to his dad, who was firmly rooted in his recliner for the evening.
            “He says he can’t get vacation. Some big project,” she began.
            “What does that mean, can’t get vacation? It’s his vacation. He just needs to take it,” his father insisted. Dylan wished it were that simple.
            “Dylan,” the phone unmuffled now, “it’s your father. Listen, your mother is in tears. She’s been planning this for a year. Please do what you can to make this happen, okay son?”

            Dylan’s slight pause was enough to make Henry recall that he was out of town. “Wait. This is your reunion week, isn’t it? Never mind. You stay right there with your family. I’ll call Junior; he can be here in an hour. I’ll be okay.” Dylan could hear the disappointment in his voice.
            “Henry, listen, maybe I can get there in a couple of days. It would kill my mom if I left now.” The words felt like acid pouring from his mouth. He could hear them stinging his friend, but he couldn’t even imagine telling his mother he had to go. “Do you have a ride to the hospital?”
            “You best stay there, then. As it turns out, half of the Lodge is working night shift, and they’ve all offered me a ride. Seems I’ll have my pick of squad cars to follow the ambulance. I better go.”
            “I wish I could be there, Henry,” he apologized. “You and Eva are practically family to me. You’re both in my prayers. Please call me as soon as you know something.” Dylan hung up and stared at his phone. He was in an impossible situation, and he hated it. Henry was as much a part of his family as his actual blood relatives. There was no way of explaining that to his parents, though. They would just stare at him blankly as he tried to put the depth of a fraternal bond into words that made sense to them. He has his own children to handle it, they would say. It wouldn’t matter to them that Dylan was the first one he called.
            He pulled the lace curtain back and glanced out his bedroom window. In the gloaming, he saw the grass, needle-like with frost. The sun was still below the horizon but had already begun to paint the bottoms of the impossibly high cirrus clouds with a hundred shades of gold and orange.  There was no way he was getting back to sleep at this point, so he decided to go make some coffee, to feed his inner caff-fiend, as he liked to say. He desperately needed to come up with a way to at least broach the subject with his parents so that he could, at the very least, leave a day early without a whole lot of grief.
            He crept down the well-worn stairs of the cabin shoeless, placing his feet at the extreme edges of the treads so they would be less likely to squeak. Even the slightest noises carried through here as if the house were wired for sound and he had microphones on his feet. He was desperate not to wake anyone.  
            His plan, when he reached the bottom, was to switch on the pot and retire to the porch to watch the sun continually re-imagine the palette of the sky. There, alone, he hoped an answer might come to him.
            He imagined the scent of coffee as he reached the main floor and headed toward the kitchen. I drink way too much of this stuff if I can smell it before it brews, he thought.
            He rounded the corner toward the kitchen and saw first one, then a second cup of coffee sitting on the long oak table, the steam rising and curling from both. He looked up from the mugs to see his mother’s silhouette framed perfectly in the soft yellow light of the open refrigerator.
            “What are you doing up,” he asked.
            She closed the door and turned toward him. He wasn’t sure how to read the look on her face, it seemed both happy and sad. He noticed her eyes glistening, a little wetter than usual. She gestured for him to sit and he obeyed.
            “I heard you on the phone, and I thought maybe we should talk.”

To be continued. . . 

Sooner or later, we will each face a situation like the one you just read. In today’s world, time is our most precious commodity, and (somewhat ironically), the one with the most demands on it. Dylan’s mom sees her son being swept into his own life. Dylan feels the pull of loyalty to two families – biological and fraternal. And Henry is facing the uncertainty of his wife’s illness in her later years, and perhaps by extension, his own mortality.

How will they handle it? We each have our own hierarchy of importantcies. The pressing need of one person may be the last thing on earth another would want to do. Successful interaction with others often relies on our ability to view any given situation from atop the other’s hierarchical pyramid. Remember, Modern Vitruvians, that we are judged not only by who we are, but by who we are in the presence of others.

In the next issue, we will see how it all goes for Dylan and his loved ones. Until then, think about how well you handle situations where you have competing loyalties. Do you attempt to force your will, or do you compromise? Does one desire always take precedence or can you rearrange your hierarchy to accommodate difficult circumstances? What would you do in Dylan’s situation? His mom’s? Henry’s?

What do you think will happen next? Weigh in, share your own story, or ask questions in the Comments section below.

Friday, September 5, 2014

The Last Mason

The room was unusually quiet for a stated meeting, and the candles threw enough light to illuminate the area immediately surrounding the altar, but not much else. He knew something wasn’t right as he ascended the stairs in the East to begin the meeting. He rapped the gavel as if to command even more silence from the already still room.
“Brother Pursuivant, close the outer door.”  Nothing. Not a creaking chair, not the rustling of tuxedo fabric. Nothing. He strained his eyes in an effort to cut into the darkness. No one was there.
Wait. Where is everybody?
Do I have the meeting night wrong? No, today is the second Tuesday. Well, where is everybody, then?
I can’t remember a time that our little Lodge had even five empty seats, and now there’s no one.  What on earth could have happened?
Well, I know a few of them got angry that we spent a little bit of our Reserve fund fixing up the Lodge. What did they expect? The building is 75 years old and has never had a single renovation. I swear that they would have complained about getting rid of gas lights in favor of electric had they been around for that debate. Aren’t we supposed to be about more than that?
What about Brother Bob and all the guys that work down at the factory? They should be here, too. Ah, I remember now. One left after the merger because he didn’t like the name and number we chose, and instead of leaving quietly, he took a bunch with him. I always thought our good works should have mattered more than the name we gave the Lodge.
Let’s see. Who else? There were some who left because we gave too much of our money away to charity, and some who left because we gave too little. I’ll never figure that out. Oh, I can’t forget about the two young men, still in college, who left after an older member scolded them in open Lodge because they were wearing wrinkled suits. Who can blame them for not coming back?
The five dollar dues increase took a few out with it. Imagine that. Someone didn’t see the value in paying five more dollars per year to belong to Lodge. Maybe we never showed them the value of what they had. Maybe our dinners could have been more than subs and chips, and we probably should have let the ladies come as guests of the Lodge.
We have so much money in the bank. We could have given our Brothers something special. We could have made Lodge a place they wanted to be. We could have helped the community, our youth groups, each other with all that we have.  Instead, we hoarded it like misers, squeezing every nickel until Jefferson cried – and for what?

I’m the Last Mason.

I have a beautiful building, fine regalia, and all the money I’ll ever need, yet I’ve never felt so poor. Without people, the Lodge is just a building. Without the mystic ties of Freemasonry, we are just a random gathering of men – no different than a crowd at a bus stop. Why, then, did we let the petty eclipse the significant? Why did the trivial trump the vital? Why? Why? Why?
He woke gasping for air. He turned on the light, picked his phone up off of the nightstand and pressed the home key. Tuesday the 10th, 3:57am. The meeting was still more than 15 hours away.
“That was quite a nightmare,” his wife said. “Are you okay?”
He told her about the dream in as much detail as he could. When he finished, he just shook his head. “It was awful. I’ve seen most of those problems to a small degree in our Lodge, but I never pictured any of them leading to the end of Masonry. I’d feel empty if I played a part in something that terrible.”
“You need to tell them tonight,” she said.
“About the dream? I don’t know. What good would it do?”
“Just tell them. You only need to change a couple of hearts to make a difference.”
 “Maybe you’re right,” he said. He kissed her softly on the cheek, rolled over and switched off the light. “You always are.”
“I know. Now go to sleep.”

Friday, May 16, 2014

Whispers on the Wind

     Henry checked his watch as he was opening the door to the Lodge. 12:05. He hated to be late, even if it were just a few minutes. Sure, it was only a practice, but he prided himself on the efficiency of his rehearsals. They started and ended when they were supposed to, and he worked hard to keep everyone on task while they were there. He knew that the younger guys were scheduled more tightly than he had been when progressing through the chairs, and as a consequence he tried to be respectful of their time, even if it meant giving a gentle scolding to the Brethren who arrived after the appointed hour.
     He truly couldn’t figure out how today’s men manage to do all that they do. He watched in wonder a few weeks earlier as Dylan showed him that he could pay his electric bill, book a hotel for his upcoming business trip, and download the newest Dan Brown book, all right from his phone. He even laughed when Dylan tapped the phone with an overly-grand showman’s flair, proclaiming, “And to top it off, I just ordered us a pizza. It will be here by the time practice is over,” adding with a wink, “I hope you like pepperoni, old man.”
     The rocky start to their friendship was barely a memory. Now the two of them met at least a couple of days a week to go over ritual, talk about Dylan’s upcoming year as Worshipful Master, or just to talk. Their favorite meeting place, weather permitting, was the lake on the campus of the tech company where Dylan worked. They typically walked the half-mile circuit around the lake twice, Dylan echoing lines of ritual as Henry fed them to him. After the walk, they would find an open bench and talk until Dylan had to get back to work.
     Henry was proud of the man and leader that Dylan was becoming, and today he was delighted to be greeted by Dylan’s easy laugh echoing from the Lodge room as he walked into the building. These are good kids, he thought to himself as he hung his jacket. But as the laughter subsided and the conversation continued, his delight faded.
     “I didn’t even know you could get a suit with lapels that wide,” someone said, the whole group laughing in reply.
   Another quickly retorted, “His suit is easily twenty years older than Dylan.” Another chorus of laughter.
     “I was going to ask him to join the line, but I’m afraid he’d show up in a powder blue tux.” More laughter.
     Henry knew immediately that they were talking about Roger, their newest Entered Apprentice. How ironic, Henry thought, that all these men who were here to practice for the conferral of Roger’s Fellowcraft degree were instead gossiping about him.
     The attention then turned to another Brother, and the attacks were just as mean spirited.
     Henry was furious, but he quickly composed himself and entered the Lodge room. “My being late doesn’t give you the right to sit around and gossip. Pair up and go over your individual parts. Dylan and I are going for a walk. I want to go over it with him one last time before we start.”
     Dylan rose to leave. The shortness of Henry’s tone told him a lesson was coming.
     “Grab your coat. It’s chilly,” Henry said.
     In more ways than one, Dylan thought.
     Dylan was pulling on his down vest as they left the Lodge and headed to the walking trail that abutted the Lodge property. The strong wind made Dylan thankful that he heeded Henry’s advice. “Don’t you want yours?” he asked Henry.
     “I’ll be fine. Too bad you couldn’t afford one with sleeves,” Henry mumbled as he bent and picked a stick up from off the trail.
     Dylan wanted to laugh at the comment, but knew he shouldn’t. “That’s the style these days,” was all he could muster.
    Henry dug deep into his pocket and pulled out a penknife. He whittled in silence for what to Dylan seemed like an eternity.
     “We’re not out here to go over ritual, are we?” Dylan asked.
     Henry looked at Dylan with a raised eyebrow and whittled another minute before he spoke. “What do you know about your Brother, Roger?”
     “I don’t know. He seems nice enough, I guess,” he said. “Obviously not a sharp dresser,” he added, simultaneously trying to lighten the mood and to get Henry to his point. Dylan was being tortured on purpose, and a big part of him knew he deserved it.
     They walked without a word. “It’s not that big of a deal. I won’t do it again,” he said, breaking the uncomfortable silence.
     Dylan took the profession of Masonry seriously, and in his heart, he saw this as an opportunity for personal growth. The words of the Closing Charge echoed in his head: You have promised to remind him in the most tender manner of his failings, and aid in his reformation. He wasn’t sure how tender Henry would be, but he knew with absolute certainty that he would be a better man at the end of this walk.
     “Brother Roger joined the Marines after we were attacked on September 11th. For two years, he put himself in harm’s way for you and me. While he was serving his country in Afghanistan and Iraq, his parents were killed when their house caught on fire while they slept. He came home and spent the last six years working two jobs to put his younger siblings through college. Once they finished, he was able to cut back to 60 hours each week, and he began taking classes himself. He wants to get a business degree.
     “He told me he joined the Masons for two reasons. First, he thought they could teach him to be a better man.” Henry chuckled. “Think about that. Two combat tours. Six years working without rest to take care of his little brother and sister, and he still thinks we can make him better.”
     Dylan felt terrible. He looked over at Henry. The wind was whipping his white hair and beard so fiercely that, for a moment, he reminded him of Charlton Heston as Moses.
     “You said he joined for two reasons. What was the second?” he asked his mentor. He already felt so terrible that he wasn’t sure he wanted to know the answer.
     They walked to the crest of the hill and stopped. From the top of the trail, they could see for miles. Henry stood silently and whittled. The wind buffeted them from behind and carried the shavings several feet away before letting them fall to the ground. Finally, he answered. “The second reason,” he said, “was that he wanted to remember what is what like to have a family again.”
     Dylan’s eyes welled up with tears. How could he have been so insensitive?
     Another strong gust caused Henry to shiver. “Probably should have brought my coat. Can I borrow yours?” Dylan nodded and handed his vest over to Henry.
     Henry took it from him, but instead of putting it on, he plunged his penknife into the nylon shell and cut a long gash from top to bottom. He shook it violently over his head, and the sky in front of them filled with tufts of goose down, swirling in eddies high into the air. Soon the sky before them was as white. It looked for all the world like they were in the middle of a blizzard.
     “What are you doing,” Dylan yelled, “that’s my coat!”
     “It’s not that big of a deal,” Henry said. “We’ll just go get the down and put it back in the vest. It’ll be as good as new.”
     “You’re out of your mind. It’s gone, and we’ll never get it back. Heck, some of it is still fifty feet over our heads,” Dylan said, point up into the sun.
     “Isn’t that what you said about your gossip earlier? No big deal? Well, just like these feathers are riding the wind and can never be returned to the vest, every unkind word or belittling remark, once uttered, can never really be gathered back into your mouth. They are there forever, and they damage, even if only slightly, your Brother’s name, reputation, or worse yet, his sense of self worth.”
     They stood for a long time without a word. Dylan could still see feathers riding the breeze. He thought about all the times he had been unkind to others, even if he was only trying to be funny. He thought about Brother Roger and tried to imagine what it would be like to have that kind of responsibility at such a young age. He couldn’t take back what he said, but he knew he would never act that way again.
     Henry put his arm around Dylan. “What do I owe you for the coat, kid,” he asked, a large grin consuming his whole face.
     “Not nearly what I owe you for the lesson, old man. Let’s get back to the Lodge. I want to make sure Roger gets my best Degree. He deserves it.”
     “And that’s what he’ll get from you. You’re his Brother, after all.”

Monday, February 10, 2014

Of Redwoods and Blue Lodges

“The redwoods, once seen, leave a mark or create a vision that stays with you always. No one has ever successfully painted or photographed a redwood tree. The feeling they produce is not transferable. From them comes silence and awe. It's not only their unbelievable stature, nor the color which seems to shift and vary under your eyes, no, they are not like any trees we know, they are ambassadors from another time.” ― John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley: In Search of America

So what’s the difference between a Freemason and a Giant Sequoia? 

I hope you weren’t waiting for a punch line; that wasn’t a riddle. It turns out that the answer is, “A lot less than you might think.”

In coastal California where the conditions are right, the Giant Sequoia tree can typically grow to be over 200 feet tall, with several having been documented at well over three hundred feet. Amazingly, a tree of this height typically would have root system that does not penetrate much deeper than eight feet. So how does a tree that is more than a football field high manage to survive the strong coastal winds with such a shallow root system? They do something very interesting. Instead of a deep taproot anchoring them to the ground, they send shallow roots more than a hundred feet outward. In a redwood forest, the trees are closer together than that, so that when one examines closely, he will find the roots of several trees interlocked with one another. You see, they do not rely on their individuality, but their interconnectedness, to give them strength. 

While Masonry is in many ways a truly individual journey, a Mason, just like the Sequoia, needs to rely on his Brothers for strength. That strength can come in many forms. Depending on where each man finds himself in his Masonic pilgrimage, it can be defined as the patience of a mentor with a frustrated student, the encouragement of a Master to his Officers, the Charity of the Lodge to a Brother in need, or the strong grip of a friend helping us back to our feet after we have stumbled. 

You see, for Masonry to thrive, there must exist a willingness for one to receive support as well as the ability for another to give it. In practice, it requires you to be both penitent and confessor as the situation dictates. Too often, we feel as though we are the first, last and only man to be battling the demon before us. In truth, at any given Masonic function, there are probably several people who have struggled with a similar situation, be it work, family, illness or anything else that could befall a man today. Being part of a strong community necessitates giving freely of your strengths to your Brothers and supplementing your weaknesses with their assistance thereby growing as a group.

Sequoias are often found growing in distinctly shaped groups; either in a line, or a circular pattern called a cathedral. The trees growing in a line come from a parent tree that has fallen down. Those branches that are pointing upward after the parent has fallen will actually begin to root and become trees in their own right, each one becoming separate and distinct from the original tree that fell. In the same way, we introduce good and upright men to Freemasonry with the hope that when we leave this earthly home, they will stay behind. And if their thoughts are focused heavenward (meaning we have taught them well), they too will grow to become the leaders of our Lodges and keep this great Fraternity alive.

The trees growing in a circular pattern, or cathedral, are trees that have sprung up from the roots of a fallen tree. Though the body of the parent tree is gone, the roots see to it that the community carries on by sending up saplings. As these saplings begin to root, they are able to weave themselves quickly into the already intricate root system of the parent plant, giving themselves immediate support to grow straight and true. In the same way, Masons, as we labor, provide support for future generations by leaving behind a strong foundation. If each of us is true to our calling, we will leave behind a strong foundation upon which each successive generation can build.

Another interesting adaptation of the Sequoia is its ability to take in water through its leaves. You see, these trees can grow nearly anywhere, but the area of coastal California where they thrive has a peculiar type of climate. In areas without regularly occurring fog, the tree’s height is limited to the distance it can push water vertically from the root system toward the upper leaves, but the near constant morning fogs of that region allow the upper leaves to supply their own water by pulling it from the heavy air, thereby allowing the trees there to grow to heights unattainable in any other place.

So it is with Masonry. It is possible to go through life without thinking about whence we came or whither we travel, and often that is exactly what we see in the world. However, the man who stops and ponders those questions, the man who realizes he comes from something greater than himself and has a duty to his Creator to be the best man he can be – that man begins to use the upper leaves of his intellect to not just survive but to thrive. Just like the roots supplying water, we bring some light and knowledge to our new members, but it is not until those men begin to use their own intellect, discerning life’s important truths for themselves, that they truly grow to their fullest potential as men worthy of the name Freemason.

So, Modern Vitruvian, is your root system spread out far enough? If not, strive to give more support to your Lodge and Valley. Have you done enough to introduce worthy men to this Fraternity? If not, resolve to, for we are never more than a generation from extinction. Make sure you are helping to build the strong foundation for the future – leaving behind a cathedral in which other worthy men can dwell. Lastly, remember always that we are here by the grace of the Great Architect of the Universe and to Him we will each someday return; that our time here is to be used shaping the ashlar of our lives. Each action we take either helps or hurts that process. Promise yourself that if you are the only Mason someone knows, that person will look up to you as he would a Sequoia – as a giant among men, towering over a forest of mediocrity below.