Cabinet of Colloquial Curiosities, III: Aphercotropism
The inspiration for our Lenten Sermon Series at Kenilworth Union comes from Paul Anthony Jones’ The Cabinet of Calm: Soothing Words for Troubled Times (2020), where this British author compiles 51 mostly extinct English words that for various reasons faded from our common vocabulary over the centuries, but which might nonetheless speak a word of peace to us in chaotic times if we raise them from the dead.
"After this there was a festival of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, 'Do you want to be made well?' The sick man answered him, 'Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.' Jesus said to him, 'Stand up, take your mat and walk.' At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk."
IIn 1938, Congress appropriated funds for a new Naval Medical Center in the Capital, but the planned hospital got to be too big and too tall for the District, so they started searching for sites nearby and ended up considering 80 different locations.
Even President Roosevelt got in on the search. One day in July of 1938, his driver took him a few miles north of the District to a tiny leafy village with almost no people in it, and when the President learned that the name of the town was Bethesda, he swung open the car door, planted his cane in the earth, and said, “This is the place.” That Naval Medical Center eventually became known as The Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
Bethesda, Maryland, is named for a pool in Jerusalem where Jesus healed a man who’d been paralyzed for 38 years. Many of you have been there, including a group Kathy and I escorted in 2016.
Aptly, Bethesda, Maryland, has been a place of healing since 1940. It is where doctors and physical therapists and prosthetists make lame men walk and paralytics roll up their mats or wheel their hospital beds into storage.
This pool in Jerusalem is fed by subterranean springs which occasionally bubble up and roil. Legend had it that the waters were vexed by an angel of the Lord, and the first sick person to climb into the pool when the springs bubbled was cured of whatever ailed him.
John tells us that this paralytic had been lying next to that pool for 38 years. Now why does John tell us that detail and what does he mean for us to understand thereby? Is this an example of commendable persistence or abject sloth? I’ll let you decide.
On the one hand, this lame man has committed himself tenaciously to this ancient legend. He has hitched his wagon to the star of that angelic legend. He believes that legend, with a vengeance. He will not let it go. Maybe we should admire that.
On the other hand, you gotta wonder whether it’s way past time for him to try something new, either find a friend to pick him up and throw him into the roiling water at the right moment or wander over to the friendly neighborhood orthopedist or neurologist for an educated diagnosis. You know the famous definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results.
Even Jesus seems to question whether this paralytic really wants to walk. When he finds out that this man has been lying next to this pool for 38 years, he asks the man “Do you want to be healed?” I mean, what a lame question, right? (pardon the pun). He can’t walk. Of course he wants to be healed. But Jesus wonders if he’s really trying all that hard.
So I’ll let you decide: commendable persistence or abject sloth? Either way, it’s a story about how we confront the handicaps and obstacles that prevent us from living the fullest life we can possibly live.
And now once again, I am going to reach into my Cabinet of Colloquial Curiosities and fetch an eccentric word: Aphercotropism. Now bear with me, please. I know this is a hideous, sesquipedalian monstrosity that is impossible to pronounce, but it inspires me.
Raise your hand if you know what it means. Oh, wait, I can’t see you. Brag in the chat box if you know what it means. It’s a fairly new word in English, first appearing in 1899. Most of the other words in Paul Anthony Jones’ clever little book are obsolete; they’ve vanished entirely from English vocabulary, but Aphercotropism hangs out on the fringes of the English language; it’s missing from most dictionaries, and I’ll buy you dinner for four if you can show me a dictionary that contains it, but botanists and arborists still use it.
As you might guess, Aphercotropism is of Greek origin. It is composed of the Greek preposition aph, which means “away”, or “off”; the Greek noun erco, which means “fence” or “obstacle” or “barrier”; and the more familiar construction tropism, which means “growing”. We know tropism from something like “heliotropic”: plants that bend and turn to face the sun constantly as it makes it daily circuit across the skies to maximize the amount of light they get.
Aphercotropism refers to anything which grows away from or around an obstacle or a barrier. To get to the water beneath, follow the joints between the bricks.
Twenty years ago a seed lodged in a crevice of this ruin, not an entirely promising location, but its roots wandered down the cracks and its trunk found a meandering path up towards the sun. It looks like it’s flourishing despite being born and raised in a sketchy neighborhood.
This tree perched on a puny pedestal of rock got thirsty, so somehow it managed to thrust a root across 20 yards of empty space to the mainland where there’s more water.
These trees didn’t grow away from obstacles but swallowed them up, just kept going, just kept growing.
The sign said “Stop!” but this tree can’t read. This tree thought the sign said “Detour!” so that’s just what it did.
Aphercotropism is testament to life’s irrepressible urge to grow and thrive and keep going and growing, no matter what. If you run into a wall, you grow away from it or through it or around it or over it or you swallow it up and make it part of your constitution.
For instance, if your family treasures its reputation more than it treasures your children, grow away from them, 5,000 miles if necessary. Stop! Detour! Life, finally after two miserable years.
Recently the Boston Red Sox hired Bianca Smith to be a coach in their minor league system, the first Black woman to rise to that lofty pinnacle. Bianca is 30 years old. Her mother taught her to play baseball when Bianca was three years old. Growing up she wore a New York Yankees uniform with #2 on the back–Derek Jeter. At Dartmouth she was the manager of the baseball team and played varsity softball and club baseball, the only woman on the club baseball team.
After Dartmouth she earned two graduate degrees from Case Western, and with an Ivy League undergraduate degree and two Master’s degrees, she could have done anything she wanted in the back office of a sports organization, but she didn’t want to be back office; she wanted to be on the field.
Everyone told her that this was impossible not because she is Black—Jackie Robinson forged that path for her 75 years ago—not because she is Black, though she is, but because she is a woman.
She kept at it. She is aphercotropic. She just kept going and growing. She had all this student debt from three degrees and of course rent to pay. While waiting to get noticed, she worked eight jobs at a time; you heard me right; eight jobs at once: Amazon warehouse, Target, Dollar Tree, Uber Eats, tour guide, ticket taker at the soccer stadium, assistant baseball coach at the University of Dallas. Eight jobs, waiting to get noticed.
A college coach told her she would never get hired because she was a woman. That didn’t stop her; it just steeled her resolve. She just said, “I’m going to make my résumé so impressive that they can’t say no.” As a woman in that world, you have to be twice as good to be considered half as able.
Today, when she walks out of the dugout on the baseball field, people ask her, “Which player are you dating?” So what? Keep going and growing. She’s going to be a coach for the Boston Red Sox, never mind that growing up as a Yankees fan, she once hated the Red Sox.
Did you know that for the last 20 years, nursing has been named, year after year, as the most trusted profession of them all? At this ominous anniversary, after this harrowing year, we found out why. Recently The Times attached body cams to two nurses in a Covid-19 ICU in Phoenix, and we followed them as they brushed patients’ teeth and flipped them over and held their hands as they crossed over to whatever world comes next while their families watched and wept from afar, all for $35 an hour.
This year, we discovered that in a pandemic, leadership comes not from spiritual gurus, certainly not from politicians, nor even from doctors, but from undersung heroes who work quietly in the shadows. One of those nurses said through tears, “It’s in our DNA: we save people, and when on your shift, you face so much death, and you have to let go of so many people you’ve cared for, for weeks and weeks, it is just really, really hard.”
Those nurses are aphercotropic. They’ve faced Death, the most appalling obstacle of all. Guard life fiercely! Push forward toward goodness through the nooks and crannies in the flinty rock. Swerve around the Stop sign telling you, you can’t go any farther and strive ahead with compassion on a crooked trajectory, no matter what. Find a way! Keep going and keep growing! We have lost so much this last year, but we have been well-served by the undersung, and we’re going to be all right.
Juliet Macur, “The First Black Woman to Coach in Pro Baseball Thanks Her Mom for the Job,” The New York Times, March 3, 2021.
Alexander Stockton and Lucy King, “Death, Through a Nurse’s Eyes: A Short Film Offering a Firsthand Perspective of the Brutality of the Pandemic Inside a Covid-19 I.C.U.,” The New York Times, February 24, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/24/opinion/covid-icu-nurses-arizona.html