Have You Been Saved?

          “God lets thousands of people die in an earthquake, but he helps them win bike races?”  Laura said in her best, her very best and cutting sarcastic voice that ended the conversation for then and forever, and made the Tour de France winner look like a fool.  God did not exist.  Which is really fine because that means this is all we have.  That’s what I tell the Elders when they come around.
          “I live each day as though that’s all there is.  I have no idea where this day came from or if there will be another.  And I sure as Hell am not waiting for Heaven.”  Or something like that.  I realize the Elders and Jehovah’s Witnesses who visit are sincere and concerned for my soul.  I am polite, but firm.  We are responsible for the world in which we live.  I am focused on this life, not an after-life or another life.   I believe in my fellow humans on this planet, not a deity. Why wait for Heaven, when we could transform our Earth here and now?
          And faith?  An atheist has more faith than all religions combined.  If there is one tenant of any religion it is the ability to provide an answer.  A mystical answer, a spiritual answer, but an answer nonetheless.  The answer to where we came, where we are going, what we must do.  Being an atheist is like flying on a trapeze without a net.  It is the freedom and exhilaration to accept the unknown, and faith that there will be another day, another chance and someone to catch you.   
          I rarely think of God anymore.  And when I do, I think that the idea of God has caused more misery than peace, more hate than love.  Why do people thank God for curing their cancer when he allowed them to develop it in the first place?  Why pray to be saved when God could have prevented the disaster at the start?  I don’t believe it anymore.  Nearly kills you to save you?  I would rather believe that God doesn’t exist than believe in a God who is sadistic and fickle. 
          I lament all the Sunday mornings I worshipped a God who exhibits nearly every deadly sin.  He is greedy, vain, selfish, wrathful, and envious.  I don’t, however, regret learning about Jesus.  His life remains an example of the best qualities of which we are capable.  And, like Jesus, many a son and daughter have devoted their lives to others and have died to save others.  I don’t see how God’s sacrifice was greater.  “He gave his only son, so that you could be saved. Have you been saved?” 
          Yes, yes I have.  It happened at dusk one January in Vermont.  I was driving home with Laura.  It had started to snow, a slushy slippery snow that had accumulated on the road. I was going down a hill and had to take a hard left.  I stepped on the brakes to slow, pumping the brakes, but the car kept sliding past the turn and veered right nearly into a steep ditch.  I couldn’t move the car.  I didn’t want to end up in the ditch.  We stayed in the car for several minutes until a car stopped behind us.  It was our neighbor, Leonard Hammond, an old time dairy farmer.  He tapped on the window and I explained what happened. 
          “Well, you can’t stay here.  I’ll move the car for you.  I’m kinda dirty and smell a bit of manure, though.”
          He didn’t smell a bit of manure.  He smelled a lot of manure.  But I didn’t care. “That’s fine.” I said, “I just didn’t feel safe moving the car.”
          Leonard told us to get out of the car and wait across the road while he turned the car around.   We did as instructed and watched as he drove the car out of trouble and stopped beside us.  He then went back for his car and made the turn onto our road. As I went up to the driver’s side window to thank him I watched the plow go over the hill at a good clip.  It had a huge plow, as plows do in the winter in Vermont, and it plowed through the space recently occupied by my car as though it were a train speeding on  tracks.  Had we been in the car, the plow would have forcefully hit our car.  There would have been no time to avoid us after the plow crested the hill.  There is no question that we would have been killed or seriously injured if Leonard hadn’t come along. 
          So, when a religious type person asks if I’ve been saved, my answer is always the same,  “Yes, yes I have.  Leonard Hammond saved me.”  We are not alone, we have each other.

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Fate and Faith at the Gardner Museum

          The Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum in Boston is my museum.  When I first walked in those many years ago I felt that I had returned to a place I had never been.  The museum is a reproduction of a 15th Century Italian palazzo with imported marble and a mosaic courtyard.  Each room is decorated and filled with art from a specific period, style or country in livable spaces with tables, chairs, couches, lanterns, art objects, letters.  The paintings on the walls are by Titian, Rembrandt, Bellini, Botticelli, Sargent, Velazquez, Raphael, Rubens and other renowned artists.  By her will, Mrs. Gardner specified that nothing in the museum could be moved or changed, ever. The rooms are exactly as they were when she was alive and will remain that way always. I found extraordinary comfort in this.  Every time I visited, everything would be just the same.  I would change, the world would change, but not this place. 
          When I visited periodically over the years, I could find the objects I loved exactly where they had been before, waiting for me.  At night I would conjure the paintings, the Rembrandt, the Vermeer and the Botticelli, my favorites, and picture them where they were fixed in the dark.

Rembrandt_Christ_In_The_Storm_On_The_Sea_Of_Galilee
          “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee” is a large canvas in a gold frame that hangs directly in front of you as you enter the Dutch Room.   When I first entered the room I noticed it immediately.  It seemed to glow – the spray of the water radiating like the sun.  The painting depicts the twelve apostles with Jesus in a boat on the Sea of Galilee taken from the Gospel of Mark 4:35 – 40.

 

And the same day, when the even was come, he saith unto them, Let us pass over unto the other side.
And when they had sent away the multitude, they took him even as he was in the ship.
And there were also with him other little ships.
And there arose a great storm of wind, and the waves beat into the ship, so that it was now full.
And he was in the hinder part of the ship, asleep on a pillow: and they awake him, and say unto him, Master, carest thou not that we perish?
And he arose, and rebuked the wind, and said unto the sea, Peace, be still.
And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm.
And he said unto them, Why are ye so fearful? how is it that ye have no faith? (King James version).

 

          Jesus had fallen asleep, exhausted from a day of preaching to the crowd.  In the passage before the storm scene, Jesus tells the parable of the mustard seed.  The colors of the painting are shades of blue and gold and appear luminescent.  You can see Jesus asleep and sense the fear of the apostles.  All the apostles are accounted for – five frantically attending to the sails, others surrounding Jesus, asking, “should we wake him?”  And one, a self portrait of Rembrandt, calmly looks out at the viewer.  “I am here and I am not afraid, would not have been afraid. You come, too.”  Standing there looking at the painting you believe you can enter.  Standing a few short feet away the painting seems large enough for you to believe you can.  Even though it is the height of the storm, you know the ending, you can join them in the boat. You have faith and believe.  Standing there you hear the water, the waves crashing so loudly that you hear nothing else.

Vermeer Concert

          Behind you now, by the window, is “The Concert” by Vermeer.  It is also displayed so you can see the painting as you walked into the Dutch Room, to the right of the door.  I heard tales of how its location beside the window vexed the curators. How dare Mrs. Gardner place the Vermeer where it would be exposed to sunlight, though dappled through the bamboo shade.  But where else could a painting by the master of light live?  The painting depicted above the singer in “The Concert” is “The Procuress” by Dirck Van Baburen, at the time owned by Vermeer’s mother-in-law.  “The Procuress” now hangs in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, a short distance from the Gardner Museum.  I enjoyed the thought.  The paintings were close, nearly reunited – like old friends long separated who may at any time discover they live but a few streets away from each other.  I loved the room in the painting; the distinctive and sharp black and white floor.  I never see a black and white checkered floor without thinking of Vermeer and then  . . . .  I never thought “I want a painting like that, as beautiful as that.”  I thought, “I want a room like that.  I could live in a room like that.  And look, Vermeer left space to dance.  I could dance in a room like that.” 

Botticelli

          “The Madonna of the Eucharist” by Botticelli is upstairs on the third floor.  First you pass through a grand red room with “The Rape of Europa” by Titian, a large dark and violent painting.  If you then take a right into a long, narrow room, you will miss the Botticelli.  It is to the left, behind you.  It seems small after the grandeur, light and air of the room you just passed. The space is intimate.  There are three figures in the painting.  An angel presents the baby Jesus with a bowl of grapes and wheat.  Mary cradles Jesus in one arm and touches a sheaf of wheat with her right hand.  Her face is gentle and her expression seems one of gratitude and bewilderment as she looks at the gift.  Jesus has an expression of understanding beyond his age and a hand raised in blessing.  The scene is heartbreaking.  The angel and Jesus know that the grapes and wheat will be transformed to the wine and bread that will become his Last Supper.  Both Jesus and the fruits of the earth will grow and fulfill their destiny and become one.  But Mary doesn’t know.  She doesn’t know that her child is destined to be sacrificed to save mankind.  She doesn’t know that the two objects she tenderly touches represent the beginning and the end.  I hope she does not know. I am comforted that she doesn’t yet know.  But no one can save her from the pain that is to come.
          On March 18, 1990 the Gardner Museum changed.  The thief did not stand and enter Vermeer’s enchanted room or the boat on the Sea of Galilee.  He did not see.  He did not believe.  He cut, he took, he stole. 
          I have gone back to the Gardner Museum with my children and seen the empty frames on the wall.  I describe to them the ghosts I see.  My son’s eyes grow wide when he learns of the five million dollar reward and his face lights up with hope of riches as my eyes again fill with tears.  They will never know the museum as I did.  They have grown up without the paintings I believed were eternal; their legacy shadowed by the theft and empty frames.  But I bring them to the third floor.  We walk past the Titian to the Botticelli in the long gallery.  The thieves did not touch the Botticelli. 
          My daughter sketches in the courtyard filled with cascading nasturtiums while still, Jesus sleeps.  Somewhere in the world he sleeps. When will he wake and calm the storm?  Have you no faith? 

 

For more on the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum visit www.gardnermuseum.org

For more on the theft at the Gardner Museum see The Gardner Heist by Ulrich Boser or visit: www.theopencase.com

Lest Ye Be Judged: The Murderer

          When I met the murderer he hadn’t murdered anyone yet.  He was a physician, a respected member of society that most mothers still want their daughters to marry.  He was thin, a bit awkward with dark helmet hair and shiny skin.  I later learned, as we all did, that his glow was caused by birth control pills, at about the same time we learned about his cross-dressing, shortly after we learned that he shot his wife in the stomach with a shotgun.
          At the time we met though, I did not know this would happen. I could not see it.  I am not perceptive.  I never see these things.  Or rather, I don’t look.  I don’t take in the world and measure it.  I don’t make judgments. I take and accept the surface – what is exposed. I thought he might be nervous and sweating.  Birth control pills, cross-dressing and nascent murder did not enter my mind.

Cross-dressing Dr. Richard Sharpe found dead in cell

Boston Herald, January 6, 2009, Michelle McPhee, Joe Dwinell, Jessica von Sack.

The cross-dressing Harvard-educated millionaire dermatologist who murdered his wife in their North Shore home in 2000 was found dead in his cell at MCI-Norfolk last night after he hanged himself, prison officials tell the Herald.
Dr. Richard Sharpe – who was also charged with hatching a plan to escape from jail shortly after he was charged with murder – was found in his cell at 7:26 p.m. last night, said Department of Correction spokeswoman Diane Wiffin.
Wiffin said Sharpe, who blasted his wife in the chest with a shotgun, hanged himself with a bedsheet.
According to a prison source, a correction officer had just made the rounds past Sharpe’s cell and had delivered mail to him about an hour earlier. Sharpe’s cellmate was out of the room when Sharpe knotted his bedsheet to the top of his bunk and around his neck, the source said.
Sharpe was taken to Norwood Hospital where he was pronounced dead at 8:11 p.m. last night. The suicide is now under investigation by DOC, Wiffin said.
Wiffin added the death triggered a full emergency medical response by the guards at the medium-security prison in Norfolk.
The Sharpe story garnered national headlines after it was revealed that the dermatologist was a cross dresser who made a fortune opening laser hair removal centers. He was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole in 2001 and attempted suicide within months of his incarceration.
He was temporarily sent to Bridgewater State Hospital, a prison for the criminally insane, but has been in general population at MCI-Norfolk for years, the source said.
A Norfolk Superior Court jury acquitted him in 2007 on charges he tried to hire a prison hitman to kill Robert Weiner, a former assistant district attorney. Prosecutors alleged Sharpe believed that having Weiner killed would increase his chances of overturning the murder conviction on appeal.

 

          At the time I met Richard Sharpe he was the dermatologist on a series of medical malpractice tribunals.  I was the attorney on the tribunal.  In Massachusetts each medical malpractice case must be reviewed by a tribunal to determine whether the plaintiff’s offer of proof presents evidence which, if substantiated, raises a legitimate question of liability for judicial inquiry.   The tribunal, as the name suggests, is made up of three members – a judge, a lawyer and a medical practitioner in the same field as the defendant.  The clerk generally groups tribunals once a month on a given day.  The judge and lawyer remain all day, the medical member changes according to the nature of the case.  By statute the lawyer and medical professional get $50.00 a case.  I signed up for the tribunals after an Offer of Proof I drafted had been found insufficient, but then overturned on appeal.  I vowed to spare others that experience and, at the time, I needed the money.  The monthly tribunals were a good gig.  Besides I got to hobnob with the judges which is always useful.  I didn’t know then that Sharpe was a millionaire.  Was his service altruistic?  I have no idea. 
          When the story broke and his picture was in the paper, my first thought was “Oh, my god, I was on a tribunal with him.”  I called Mary, the tribunal clerk, at Salem Superior Court and asked, “Is this guy who killed his wife the same person as . . . .”
          “Yes, and now I need another dermatologist.  He was my only dermatologist and they aren’t easy to get, you know.”  Everyone has priorities.
          The judge on the tribunal had been Judge Brady.  He was old.  Even though in Massachusetts the mandatory retirement age for judges is 70, Judge Brady looked older. He was the type of person you think must have died of old age until you see them again. (I think he is dead now, but he could surprise me.) 
          That day the set of dermatology tribunals consisted of two or three cases.  One was about a woman who kept pulling out her hair.  I remember Sharpe being careful,  indecisive and shiny.  He was soft-spoken and seemed nervous.  Judge Brady took charge and we got through them.  We deliberated in the judge’s chambers.  When the set ended Sharpe left and Judge Brady and I were alone.  He asked what I thought of Sharpe.  I remember thinking that this was an odd question, as we usually don’t talk about members when they have left.  Ever diplomatic, knowing which side my bread was buttered, I would not speak ill of a tribunal member to a judge.  I may be oblivious, but I’m cautious by nature.  Was this a test?  I’m generally deferential except when it comes to issues of law.  Then I analyze and speak my mind.  My impression of a person I just met and will likely never meet again, however, is something I keep to myself.  I made noises about “a bit indecisive” and “seemed nervous.”  I may have mentioned shiny, as this attribute was overwhelming my mind.  Judge Brady nodded at my assessment and said, “He’s a FREAK.”
          I don’t know what he saw.  I did not ask, “What makes you say that?”  I remember the shock and thinking that was the strangest comment I had ever heard a judge say about anyone.  At the time, I thought a little less of Judge Brady.  I did not know then that his strong reaction was precise and astute. I wonder if even Richard Sharpe knew then.

The Devil and John W. Webster

          There is a scene, often repeated in detective fiction and film, where the suspect is seated in a small gray or beige room at a table with two chairs and a single light dangling overhead.  A police detective is seated in the other chair across from the suspect; another officer paces.  After the police present the evidence with appropriate pauses and photographs, the suspect leans back (or forward) and states, “It’s all circumstantial. You don’t even have a body.”
           In 1850 Dr. John W. Webster, professor of chemistry at Harvard Medical College,  was hanged following his conviction for the murder of his colleague Dr. George Parkham.  The evidence was entirely circumstantial and, it remains questionable whether Parkham’s body was found.  But both, the crime and body, were proved “beyond a reasonable doubt” and Dr. Webster went to the gallows. 
          The case of Commonwealth v. Webster, 59 Mass. 295; 5 Cush. 295 (1850) definitively sets forth the concept of  “reasonable doubt.”  The language on reasonable doubt, written by Justice Lemuel Shaw, who was also a trial judge in the case, is used verbatim to instruct the jury in every criminal case tried in Massachusetts to this day.
 

         “Then, what is reasonable doubt? It is a term often used, probably pretty well   understood, but not easily defined. It is not mere possible doubt; because every thing relating to human affairs, and depending on moral evidence, is open to some possible or imaginary doubt. It is that state of the case, which, after the entire comparison and consideration of all the evidence, leaves the minds of jurors in that condition that they cannot say they feel an abiding conviction, to a moral certainty, of the truth of the charge. The burden of proof is upon the prosecutor. All the presumptions of law independent of evidence are in favor of innocence; and every person is presumed to be innocent until he is proved guilty. If upon such proof there is reasonable doubt remaining, the accused is entitled to the benefit of it by an acquittal. For it is not sufficient to establish a probability, though a strong one arising from the doctrine of chances, that the fact charged is more likely to be true than the contrary; but the evidence must establish the truth of the fact to a reasonable and moral certainty; a certainty that convinces and directs the understanding, and satisfies the reason and judgment, of those who are bound to act conscientiously upon it. This we take to be proof beyond reasonable doubt . . . .” at 320.

            

          I imagine the Devil visited Dr. Webster in a moment of weakness when temptation was easiest.  The Devil, like disease, is opportunistic.  The Devil offered Dr. Webster a deal beyond all imagining.  He would rid Dr. Webster of his miserly colleague to whom he owed money and give him years of prosperity in exchange for his soul.  Dr. Webster considered the offer.  As he thought, he developed a plan.  Surrounded by cadavers at the medical college he loathed the fragility of the human body; each corpse reminding him of his destiny. He wanted immortality.  Surely the Devil could make him immortal.  And if he was immortal, the Devil would never be able to cull his soul.
          When the Devil returned Dr. Webster proposed trading the offered years of prosperity for immortality as long as he would be allowed to keep his wits until judgment day.  “You can never be too careful when dealing with the Devil,” he thought. “If I am to live forever, I must be able to make my way in the world.” 
          The Devil agreed. “So be it, the death of Dr. Parkham and immortality, for your soul. Done.” Dr. Webster believed he had outsmarted the wishmaster.  
          By all accounts when Dr. Webster heard the verdict of guilty he stared frozen for several minutes supporting himself with the bar.  The moment must have seemed an eternity.  But he lived to read the decision on the appeal that had been his last hope.  
         The “Webster charge,” as it is known, is an astonishing work of literature, art and law.  It is musical with repeating p’s and hard c’s, and alliteration.  It is balanced, swaying from side to side – first this then that.  It speaks of lofty ideas, the mind, the soul, the truth.  And it has guaranteed Dr. Webster immortality.

The See-Through Dress

          Other people don’t see my daughter.  They see a generic teenager.  The shop clerks follow her in stores expecting she will steal and the waitresses sigh expecting she won’t leave a tip.  Her teachers don’t see her either. They don’t see the Jane Austen heroine she is.  Someone who flaunts social conventions and is stubborn, flawed, artistic, loyal and loving.  Teachers do not have time or patience for revolutionaries.  They don’t want an Anne of Green Gables, a Romana or an Elizabeth Bennett unless they are neatly packaged in a book, able to be admired from afar, glorified as unconventional, reduced to nothing more than a convention and complete with a happy ending. 
            It was not the first PHONE CALL I had received from the Vice-Principal about Laura.  And my prior tendency to defend her rather than apologize and be obliging may have accounted for the tone of her voice.  She said they believed Laura was a leader but was leading the other students to be disruptive.  Could I come in to have A TALK?  “They” were Ann, the Vice-Principal and Scott, the new Middle School director.  I had hoped that when Scott started off the year he might be the one who would appreciate Laura for who she was, but that was not to be.  Within a month I had received a PHONE CALL about how Laura had defied his refusal to allow her to accompany her friend, Liz,  to see the school nurse during study hall.  He believed this was a direct challenge to his authority.  When we got into the PROBLEM it seems that Laura could not see any reason why she could not accompany Liz to the nurse, he couldn’t provide a good reason and so she went.  He continued that he could not provide every student with a reason for every decision and order.  Couldn’t she just do what he told her?
           I responded with sympathy, “I’ve thought the same thing myself.  Sometimes it would really make things so much easier.”
           Then I told him that Laura thinks for herself and is loyal to her friends. I would discuss with her that she should consider his position and responsibilities for keeping the Middle School orderly and safe.  If what she did had consequences at school then so be it.  I would not go further.  I would not do his job for him.   Not the response he wanted.
            I went in to TALK.  It was near the end of the school year and Laura would be leaving the school and starting high school the following year.  Why so late in the year?  Couldn’t they just hold on a little longer?
          “We are concerned about some of the choices Laura is making.” Ann said.
          Translation:  Laura is not doing what we want her to do.
          “What choices?”
          “She is not making productive use of her time and interrupts other students when they are working.”
          “Could you give me an example?”
          “Well,” Scott said, “We just want to make sure that the end of the school year goes smoothly for everyone.  And we want Laura to participate in that.”
           I have my issues with that type of expression. Even lawyers aren’t that  intentionally vague and convoluted.
          “What choices?  I thought you said she was a leader.”
          “Yes, and that is what concerns us.  The other students look to her and we don’t believe that she always sets a good example.”
          Translation:  The other students look to her and are being independent, too.
          We went back and forth for a while.  I didn’t see the problem. I was even willing to concede that it was entirely my fault and failing that I could not see the problem.  Which is when they brought up THE SEE-THROUGH DRESS.  Scott mentioned it first. 
          “I won’t even go into what the students have been saying about the see-through dress that Laura wore on the trip to New York.”
          That has got to be one of the best sentences ever uttered by a middle school administrator to a student’s mother.   There’s rumor, innuendo, a see-through dress and absolutely no information.  It is perfect.  At the same time I reveled in its perfection I was thinking “You’ve go to be kidding,”  I should just walk out,  “you better not be getting any mental visions about Laura in this dress, what did the students say?” 
          I said, “Laura, doesn’t own a see-through dress.”
          A bit more discussion revealed that the offending dress was the white cotton baby doll dress with black trim that Laura had gotten just before the trip.   I had seen the dress.  It was cute.  To my knowledge it did not have any see-through properties.
          “She was wearing it with red underwear.”  Ann added.
          Now Laura may be and do a lot of things.  She may be a rebellious teenager.  She may have her scrapes with the powers that be.  She may want body piercings and tattoos, but I know my girl.  She would NEVER wear red underwear with a white dress.  I said as much.  They said I should talk to the teacher that had been on the trip.
          It was not long after that Ann was standing in the middle of the road in a long white cotton skirt directing traffic at dismissal with the sun behind her.