The Wall-e World Comes to the Finger Lakes

I was traveling to Geneva, New York, at the northern end of Seneca Lake, passing through the many attractive villages along the way, and congratulating New Yorkers on having the sense to support Governor Cuomo’s moratorium on fracking, thereby preserving this beautiful part of the country.  Geneva is a nice-looking college town, and Seneca Lake, like all the Finger Lakes, is spectacular.


If anyone wants to contemplate what the future looks like, travel to Seneca Falls, NY. This picturesque town has a main street full of beautiful old 19th century houses, among them the home of that powerhouse of the women’s rights movement, Elizabeth Cady Stanton.   In her honor, Seneca Falls hosts the National Women’s Hall of Fame.   It’s also home to two monstrous artificial mountains of garbage, trash and detritus from counties all over New York State and the Northeast, to the tune of 450 tractor-trailors a day for a total of 6,000 tons each day, six days a week. That would be 4 tons every minute of the day if they ran around the clock. Strangely enough these gargantuan piles of industrial waste, sewer sludge, and contaminated soils are called Seneca Meadows. Perhaps they took a page out of the book of that enterprising viking who brilliantly named his new-found island “Greenland” in an effort to lure settlers to that ice-encrusted wasteland.

Seneca Meadows’ website tells us it is “responsible waste management for the next generation” and I have no doubt they are doing all they can to fulfill that promise.                           They have an education center, they sponsor programs for kids, they do a lot of things for the community, but not everyone is pleased at the change in topography. There is an anti-waste group, the Concerned Citizens of Seneca County, who find the newly arrived mountains offensive. It’s not just the view, it’s the methane escaping into the atmosphere, the leachate ( what a word!) getting into the watershed, and the toxic-gas stench.

The Trash Mountains rise up noticeably from the horizon when you look over the flatlands north of Geneva, two ziggurats memorializing a decadent culture of waste. It’s a Wall-e World in real life. The trash has to go somewhere, right? and this is just one of several sites in New York State that processes, if that’s the word, the garbage and junk of our 21st century lives. What are we supposed to do with it, if not pile it up in Seneca Falls?  We need some better answers.

Two generations of Americans probably have no idea who Pogo is, but he said it all back on Earth Day 1971, staring at a junkyard in the woods :  “We have met the enemy and he  is us.”


God Works in Mysterious Ways

I had an unusual experience last weekend visiting relatives in beautiful Central New York State.  Fall is the perfect time to travel through the undulating hills and valleys that characterize that region, and it’s especially entertaining to try the highways and byways you’ve never explored.   This time, as we cut across Otsego County southwest on Route 80, we came to the unassuming township of Edmeston, population 1,826. The Amish have settled in the area recently, and just as we were passing several families in their horse-drawn carts, we saw an inconspicuous sign pointing to the right : “Rosa Mystica” it said. Curiosity got the better of us, so up the hill we went along a country road with very few houses on it. After about 2 miles we found Rosa Mystica, and let me tell you, it’s a surprising place.   There is an ornate white chapel surrounded by statues of angels and Mary in all sorts of sizes and in all sorts of poses. Next to it is the “Jesus the Divine Healer Prayer and Meditation Chapel,” a log building just 2 years old. Across the road there was the “Stations of the Cross Woods Walk” with even more statues of Mary and angels, and one larger-than-life Christ on the cross (26 feet high). A life-size replica of Michaelangelo’s Pieta can be found on the grounds and we also saw little log cabins across the road—maybe a dozen or so, built for participants in retreats. What was all this doing here?

That’s the most surprising thing of all.

The website tells us that for ten years starting in 1973, an Italian woman, Mother Leonardi , a follower of Padre Pio, was given a series of numbers by Mary. Those numbers turned out to be the longitude and latitude of a spot on the globe: Edmeston, NY.   She traveled here to determine the exact location for the chapel and the building was dedicated as a Marian center for priests in 1985. It’s mission: to bring more people to Christ through Mary.

What are we to make of all this? It all seems so improbable.

Well, first of all, never underestimate the power of religion. It will move mountains.

Second, it’s comforting to know that Catholics can find solace and strength in contemplation and prayer in these environs.   We all can use a dose of that now and then to help us deal with the human condition.

Third, and here’s where my impious side kicks in, I couldn’t help wondering why Mary couldn’t have given Mother Leonardi a tip on how to solve world hunger, or the population bomb, or tropical diseases. Why this cryptic series of numbers that turns out to be coordinates to a location (wasn’t that an episode in Lost?). Are my brethren of Central New York so in need of salvation that Mary had to go to these lengths to save them?   To my heathen mind it all seems so medieval, as does referring to Mary as “Our Lady.” or the relics, the focus on Christ’s blood, his wounds (and by the way Padre Pio is famous among other things for bearing the stigmata of Christ for decades).

To add an additional layer of unreality to the picture, a gentleman named Anthony Fuina experienced “the Lord’s miraculous blessing and healing through Saint Pio.” It happened while he was driving his car, so Anthony donated his car to Rosa Mystica, and there it sits, under a small roof in Padre Pio’s Grotto.

I couldn’t help wondering what the Amish thought about it all.

St. Lucy’s in Syracuse: A church that’s making a difference

I just visited an old friend who has moved to my old stomping grounds in Syracuse, New York and after all the catching up about families and colleagues, she mentioned some unusual news: she had found a church that she really liked.   This is unusual because in much of the country, traditional churches are losing members, particularly among the young.   But St. Lucy’s, a Catholic church on the West Side, is doing something right.

It felt like home.   As soon as she walked in with a friend, she could tell there was something different about it. For one thing, she was immediately impressed with the diversity of the congregation: Asians, Latinos, Blacks and Whites—and young people. Then there was the pastor. He was someone you immediately took to. Father Jim has been there 25 years and was clearly a regular guy.   He noticed the two newcomers in the congregation right away and made it a point to come to them in the pews to welcome them and find out more about them.

Unlike other churches, there was an easygoing feel to the service.   There was singing, and the music was refreshingly pleasant. Father Jim made it clear that everyone was welcome to join in Communion and the pomp that often accompanies that ritual was absent.

Then there was the “sign of peace” segment of the mass. Many a good Christian finds this a problematic interlude in the worship service. As one contributor to the Catholic Herald wrote, it’s part hippie-love fest, part election campaign as some people rush to shake hands with as many of their fellows as they can (see link).   If you’re an introvert, this is the kind of thing that can drive you into the arms of the unchurched faster than you can say Richard Dawkins.   But at St. Lucy’s it felt authentic because people just talked. The man in front of them turned and said “We call this intermission” and everyone proceeded to chat casually instead of turning it into an awkward moment where you have to say “Peace be with you” to total strangers or even (shudder) hug them.

St. Lucy’s is definitely doing something right.   There is an active community outreach program to revitalize the neighborhood in conjuction with Syracuse University. There is a community garden, a soup kitchen, an “athletic ministry” and more.  My friend is anxious to join some of these groups, perhaps as a volunteer to help teaching English.

In short, she is anxious to go back and establish a place for herself in this new city. We all want to belong. We all crave community.   There is a Sacrament of the Group, through which we can feel that rush of the Spirit—some intimation that we are not just isolated bits of matter, but are part of the life of the planet. . St. Lucy’s has a big banner spread up over the altar proclaiming “We are called to be peacemakers.” That’s the message that will save Christianity from extinction, and you become a peacemaker by being a part of a group, then extending the warmth generated from that group to the outside world. Hats off to St. Lucy’s!

Canajoharie or Food for Thought

I had the good fortune to stop to eat in the village of Canajoharie, NY on my way back home on Father’s Day.   I like stopping at local restaurants and as the hunger pangs began to make themselves known, I pulled off of Route 5 into downtown Canajoharie to try my luck.   I parked opposite the Village Restaurant whose prosaic name promised no-nonsense, stick-to-your-ribs victuals, and made my way to the counter.   Most of the tables were occupied—a good sign. I noted the specials scrawled unceremoniously on a whiteboard and took a chance on the hot-turkey sandwich with fries. It was real food–just what the doctor ordered.

            I have to visit these kinds of restaurants on my own because others in my family are looking for a different dining experience.   What they mainly want is salad, and not just any salad, they want a fancy, 21st century salad to go with their gluten-free, vegan, locavore meals.   Many others of my fellow Americans would hasten to the sign of the Golden Arches that I could see shimmering in the sun just a few blocks up the road. But if anyone wants to know why I give my custom to the local diners and restaurants, the answer is clear in Canajoharie.

            As soon as I walk into the Village Restaurant I’m not just a nobody anymore. I’m special. I’m Hon. The waitress inquires after my health: “How ya doin’, Hon?” I feel like I’m wanted. I belong. When I compare those lifeless, bored faces of the teenagers who typically work at McDonalds with these matrons who are cheerily bustling about, greeting us, making us welcome, plying us with food made in this kitchen this very day (that tell-tale apple crisp in a 13-inch pan!)—well, there is no comparison. Those teenagers are part of a business plan that expects them to quit in boredom within 5 months, whereupon a new set of listless teenagers will take their place.   My waitresses and cooks have probably never heard of a “business plan,” but have made this job their calling, and it shows in the atmosphere they create. These ladies are laughing, they greet the regulars by name, they like working here and that makes us want to eat here.  

The conversation is lively and entertaining. When one of my counter- companions mentions that the current senior class put a live chicken in the principal’s office, my waitress confesses that when she was in high school she was just as bad.   She took some toothpaste, and smeared it all over … but I will not divulge what she did without her permission.

            I don’t want a restaurant where you’re given ketchups in little packets that you have to rip open one after the other. I want the feel of that red squeeze bottle in my fist. I want the freedom that it gives me to be-ketchup my fries to the degree I want, as often as I want.  We all want that. That’s the kind of freedom America was built on. And we all want to belong, no matter how far from home we are. We all want to find that comfortable corner where you can refuel the body and the spirit, too. And we all may not want the Stuffed Beer Batter Pretzel Bits that are advertised in capital letters above the coffee pot, but by God, if you did, you could get it here, Hon.