Chapter 2

 

Chapter 2

Terra Incognita

Sir Thomas More invented the word ‘Utopia’ for his classic work of that title (1516), borrowing from the Greek ‘u’ (no) and ‘topia’ (place). Utopia, the perfect society, is no place; it does not exist, except as a fiction in the dreamer’s mind.

Irving Robertson-Fowles
Building Heaven on Earth: Man’s Quest for Utopia

 

As with my marriage, the Church and I had parted company some years earlier, citing irreconcilable differences. As a human institution, the Church has always been a compromise between heaven and earth, but I found that it had compromised too much—too much earth, too little heaven. In seminary, we had joked that, following Jesus’ example, our mission was to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. But once out of seminary, we saw how the world really worked. Comfort the afflicted, yes, where possible; but our bishops would prefer that we not afflict the comfortable, for it was the comfortable who paid the bills. And the bishops themselves had become quite comfortable. Then serving in the parishes, it had soon become apparent to us that most people did not want to hear the call of the Gospel anyway; what they wanted was their favorite hymns sung on Sunday and for the sermon to be kept to twenty minutes—fifteen during football season, if possible, Father. It was not the Good Life they sought so much as a life of goodies, and the Gospel’s call to “live life abundantly” (John 10:10) had become interpreted to mean simply getting more.

So, over the years, I had watched many of my colleagues in the clergy, fellow Episcopalians, Roman Catholics, Lutherans, or Presbyterians, leave the ministry; and many of those who stayed had turned from the meditations of St. John of the Cross to St. Johnny Walker. Eventually, I, too, left and went into the social services, that last refuge for disenchanted clergy, still seeking a way to do some good, to make some positive difference in the world. But here, too, I faced the paradoxes of my society. We feed the hungry, rather than challenge why there are hungry in a land of such abundance; we clothe the naked and give shelter to the homeless rather than question a system where people are made naked and homeless. According to my agency’s mission statement, we “empower the powerless.” I once believed that. Now I’ve come to see our services as just part of the overall system that keeps people disempowered. In Cam’s contemporary vulgate, it’s the system that’s fucked up.

“Give a man a fish and he eats today. Teach him how to fish, and he eats for the rest of his life.” That’s what Rollie, our executive director, likes to recite as he speaks out in the community, raising money for the center. It plays well with the Rotarians and the Kiwanis and the Lions. Rollie’s a very effective fundraiser.

“Fuck fishing!” said Cam the first time he heard Rollie’s little bromide. We were in a staff meeting and all heads turned toward the new kid.

“I beg your pardon?” said our executive director.

“We’re talking about an obscene distribution of wealth—between the have-nots, the have-somes, and those who want to have it all.”

Typical of the young, Cam was highly critical, very opinionated, and quite often dead-on in his assessment of society. The people we worked with were lucky to find minimum-wage jobs, with wages so minimum that, hard as they might work, they couldn’t escape their poverty. Staying with Rollie’s metaphor, they couldn’t afford a fishing license, couldn’t get to the good fishing grounds, and what they could catch were chum and bottom fish while others dined on salmon, crab and caviar, caught and prepared for them. From the start, I liked Cam’s fire. I liked his impatience, his refusal to accept how things are, and his conviction that they need not be this way. He was angry and easily outraged on behalf of those too broken and beaten down to be angry for themselves. I remembered once feeling that outrage, feeling that fire burn within me.

“You need to rein in that young one, Adam,” said Rollie following the staff meeting. “Teach him the rules. His heart’s in the right place, but he’s going about it in all the wrong ways. He needs to learn how the world works.” Rollie knew how the world works. He raised big bucks for the agency and made a very comfortable salary for himself. Something about that still didn’t sit right with me—making over a hundred thousand dollars a year, working for an agency dedicated to helping the poor. What’s wrong with this picture? In many ways Rollie represented the world—even physically, he was roundly plump (Cam called him ‘Roly’); he dressed in expensive suits, drove a Mercedes, and reminded me of the fat, well-fed, richly robed bishops in church history. As the program director, I myself made a good salary, which also did not sit right with me. But I had my child support payments to meet. And my daughter would be needing braces soon. I could take a vow of poverty and live on a pittance, but I had my obligations. I wondered what rationalizations Rollie used.

Honoring his request, I had communicated the ‘rules’ to Cam. I could pretty much predict his response.

“Fuck the rules! Whose rules are they anyway?”

I explained patiently to my young firebrand that Rollie raised a lot of money for the agency, and with that money, we were able to help a lot of people.

“Blood money,” said Cam. “Guilt money. The scraps the well-off toss to the poor.”

“Well, until the perfect revolution comes, we still need those ‘scraps’ or the poor have nothing.”

Cam understood this, of course, but he was too passionate to accept it. He wanted to be Robin Hood, and it galled him beyond bearing that his salary was being paid by the Sheriff of Nottingham.

And now we were going to have to ask Rollie for yet more money. I oversaw twenty programs at our social service agency, but this didn’t really fit under any of them. This was going to have to be a special project. Upon returning from the hospital, I had Cam go on the Internet and research where exactly Rachel’s island was located, and the quickest and least expensive way to get her back there. Then I started calling around, seeing if any charities, churches or service clubs would help fund this mercy operation. Most said, sorry, it didn’t fit with their mission statements and they didn’t have extra funds to expend; a couple of service organizations said I could submit an application and they would consider it for their next grant cycle in several months. I doubted that Rachel had several weeks.

Within an hour Cam got back to me. He had printed out several pages. Renting a seaplane for the day, up and back, would be quickest. We would need about $5,000 for the plane; Det was working with his connections at the medical center for an ambulance to transport Rachel from the hospital to the marina, and for a private nurse to accompany the girl on her journey home. Five thousand dollars could buy a lot of food for our food banks and homeless shelters. I knew this was going to be a hard sell to Rollie. I wasn’t sure I could justify it to myself.

Cam handed me the printouts. “It’s very remote, about 130 miles north of Vancouver Island.” As I studied the pages, he said, “I found something interesting about Rachel’s home. It’s a closed community, kind of like the Amish. The island was purchased from the Canadian government in 1901 by some eccentric—Friedland or Friedlander.”

I looked up. “Friedrich Friedlander?”

“Yeah, that’s the guy. You know about him?”

“A little. I took a course on utopian communities when I was in college. Friedlander was an industrialist in the late nineteenth century. From Prussia, I think. He corresponded with H.G. Wells in England and other intellectuals who were interested in the idea of a utopian society.”

“H.G. Wells? The Time Machine dude?”

“Right. As I recall, Friedlander came from a wealthy aristocratic family who had made their fortune in armaments. He took his share of the inheritance and used it to buy an island and establish a community based on utopian principles.”

“Yeah, he named it Innisfree.”

“That’s right,” I remembered. “Innisfree.”

“Doesn’t sound very German.”

“It’s not. It’s Gaelic. Irish. There was some connection between Friedlander and Yeats, though I don’t remember what exactly.”

Cam stared blankly at me.

“W.B. Yeats? One of the greatest poets of the twentieth century?”

“I was an econ major.”

“Well, anyway, Yeats has a poem that begins

’I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there…’”

I lay the papers down on my desk, murmuring, “And I shall have some peace there,” then looked back at him. “I forget how the rest goes.”

“What happened to the community?”

“I don’t remember. Probably like most, it was a noble experiment that ended as a noble failure. I think I’ve still got the course textbook somewhere if you’re interested.”

“Yeah, I’d like to read it.”

With this information, I called Rollie’s secretary. Could he see us immediately? We were in luck. Yes, he had five minutes. I put down the phone, wondering what I was going to say. Cam was studying the map of the island he had printed out. “It’s pretty much blank, like how the map makers used to show unexplored territory.”

“Terra incognita.”

“Yeah. They don’t even show a city or town. I’m wondering if they’ll have medical facilities to nurse Rachel back to health.”

“She’s not returning to health,” I told him. “We’re taking her home to die.”

“Oh.” He suddenly looked embarrassed, then whispered, “Fuck.” I hadn’t told him that part. I thought it was obvious, but forgot that he was still young and inexperienced.

We met in Rollie’s office and explained the circumstances and Det’s request. Cam had asked to join me, to offer moral support. I agreed, on the condition that he not open his mouth.

“Why were you out making a delivery to the food banks?” Rollie asked.

“Brady didn’t make it in today.”

He shook his head in exasperation. I tended to hire those whom others wouldn’t—the homeless, recovering addicts, ex-felons—and they tended to not be reliable. I knew he wanted to chide me. Was I never going to learn? No, probably not.

“I’m paying you to be a program director, not a van driver.”

“I know, but Northgate needed the food today and no one else was available to help Cam.”

“That’s no excuse.”

“You’re right. You’re right,” I said, hanging my head in a semblance of remorse. I found it most expedient at such times to appear contrite so we could get on with the matters at hand. I told him about the girl and her condition. “We need $5,000 to get her back home.”

His response was typical. “Do you have the money in your budget?”

“C’mon, Rollie. Of course I don’t have the money in my budget. I don’t have the money in my budget to pay for my programs now.”

“So what, you think I can just make money magically appear? And besides I’m not giving you time off to go exploring the great outdoors.”

“I’ll take vacation time—I’ve got plenty coming. I need to make sure that she reaches her destination. I promised Det.”

“So can’t your detective friend come up with the money?”

“No, but he’s going to attend our annual fundraising dinner. And he’s inviting the whole police force to come.” Det didn’t know this yet because I just thought of it.

“It’s not in our mission statement to get people back to their homes.”

“No, but our mission statement does say that we are here to assist those ‘in need.’ She’s in need, Rollie. And she’s dying.”

He was standing at his desk, shuffling through the pages Cam had printed out. Cam stood silently behind me, not making a sound. “Have you checked with the Salvation Army? Maybe they could help. Or Catholic Community Services—Is she Catholic?”

“I called. They can’t help.”

“Maybe you could write a grant—you know, to Walmart or Target. They’d love this kind of publicity.”

“We don’t have time. We need to get her back home this week.”

He continued shuffling through the papers, frowning.

“C’mon, Rollie. Five thousand dollars. That’s pocket change to some of your pals.”

He was shaking his head. I couldn’t let him utter his refusal; once he made a decision, he rarely changed it. “Please, do it for me.” I dropped to the floor in front of him, my hands open. “Look, I’m on my knees. I’m begging you.”

“Oh, Christ.” He turned away with a look as if he had just bitten into something sour. “Okay, okay, I’ll get you the money. Just get up off your knees, okay?”

“Thanks, Boss.” I got up, smiling. “Trust me, this is going to look good on your resume when you get to heaven.”

“Yeah, yeah, like you believe in heaven—God, I hate it when you do that. It’s so irritating. I don’t know why you do it.”

“Because it works?”

He handed back the papers, shaking his head. “Give me two days. Maybe I do know a guy who can manage this ‘pocket change’.”

“I’ll make arrangements to fly her up there on Thursday.”

“Just remember I need you back here on Friday for the senator’s tour.”

“It’s a one day trip, up and back. I’ll leave Thursday morning and be back by evening.”

“I just hope I’m not paying for some goddamn Lear jet,” he grumbled.

The two of us left and went back to my office. Cam was elated. “That was so fucking great!” He was bouncing on his heels. “You did it!”

“Yeah. Here”—I handed him the paper work—“you charter the seaplane. I’ll start making arrangements with Det and the hospital for Rachel’s transfer.”

“What time do we leave on Thursday?”

We don’t. I need you here. There’s four food bank deliveries scheduled that day and it’s rumored that Brady can be unreliable.”

“Oh, c’mon, Adam, let me go along. I’m part of this.”

“No. We’re short staffed as it is. Besides, I’m not sure I can legally take an Americorps volunteer out of the country.”

“Jeez, it’s a day trip across the border. It’s not like we’re going to fucking Mongolia.”

I was standing at my computer, clicking through my emails. “No.”

“Please.”

“No.”

“Pretty please?”

“No. No.”

He fell to his knees, stretching out his arms. “Please, Adam. Look, I’m on my knees. I’m begging you.”

“Careful. I patented that move.”

“C’mon, let me go along and I swear I’ll never say fuck, or fucking, or fuck-all ever again.”

I turned back to him, intrigued. “You can really control it?”

“Fuck, yeah.” He winced. “Well, I can try.”

I sensed the possibility of a moral victory here. “Okay. If you can get Thursday’s deliveries out on Wednesday, and stop using your favorite word, you can go.”

He sprang back up onto his feet and hugged me. “Thanks, Adam!”

“Sure, sure. Now go make the arrangements for the plane.” I turned back to the computer. “Rollie’s right. That is irritating.”

“Yeah, I gotta remember that,” Cam said as he bounded out of my office.

Within two days, Rollie had the money, and we were ready to leave for an island somewhere off northern British Columbia.

-> Next: Chapter 3