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Saturday, July 30, 2011

Ageless Beauty

  I wrote this a while back. I am grateful that I shared it with her before she left. The problem is that had I not been encouraged to do so by a dear friend of hers I would not have.
 Sometimes sharing of ourselves is uncomfortable, especially for the men. We are taught to hold tight to our sensitivity. I have made a commitment to try as best I can to see the beauty all around and share what I see.
 Yesterday I read in a funeral program and I paraphrase, "elevate our lives to a more God-like humanity." Only this would I hope to accomplish.
 The dear soul in this piece has left us now along along with others. We were at the church standing in line at a funeral service. I was whispering to a friend when she touched my arm and spoke softly, “Could you please finish signing my name for me? I just can’t seem to do it today.”
  I gazed into her shining eyes so full of pain and fatigue as my own quickly misted. She wore a scarf on her head in the fashion of a gypsy. She’s in her winter years and struggling with chemo. I put my arm around her and leaned in closer. “You know I can … I love you.” I assured her.

  She moved softly into the chapel as I looked where she had left off in the registry. The first letter was legible; after were two feeble attempts to form the second. I felt somehow blessed as I finished writing her name.
  Sunday she was sitting on the half pew that rests against the back wall of the sanctuary. I thought "she has changed her usual seat in case she becomes sick and needs to exit quickly."
   I crossed the aisle, took her hand and kissed it in the old way of gentlemen. I held on for a moment as I drank those dark eyes so full of memory.
  She wore a wide brim crimson hat that shaded her face. Her matching lipstick was striking as she smiled weakly up at me. She was stunning in her fragility, as we stood connected somehow in that hallowed space.
  It came to me later that I would like to ask if I could see a picture of her from when she was a young woman. I’ve decided not to though. I’ll simply treasure this haunting beauty, kindness and strength that I've stumbled upon. I shall forever see in my mind’s eye her quiet and determined struggle to comfort the bereaved on the white page of that funeral service registry. I shall forever see her move quietly into the soft glow of the chapel's morning light.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

A Band of Brothers

How does a brood of brothers arrive at tongue biting, rowdy, fighting assurance? What is it like to plow a field, baking heat, sweat foamed mule dropping his load in the sandy loam? You are twelve years old … about the age of my children now and you sweat. Rows never ending. Beatings and fear. No one to talk to. Nothing to speak if there were. How do you laugh when barefoot you grind through the hunger of poverty? The oldest responsible for all those behind. How do you learn and grow in the frigid snow, thin soles soaked through? Feet blistered from the cold. Must feed the animals. Must be a man.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Elwood's Idealism

Last summer as I multi-tasked at work my co-worker George shouted from out front, “ Scott … there’s someone here to see you and he’s asking for Scotty.”

Anytime someone says Scotty I know it’s from a long time ago. That would have to be high school or back, so I eagerly finished the task at hand and walked outside. There in all his glory stood an old running buddy from high school. “ Elwood friggin’ Costner. Will miracles never cease?”

I figured someone would have shot him by now for messing with their woman or he would have bought it by his own hand in a wreck or “accident” of some kind.

“Hehehe”, he snickered in that head ducking way of his. “Ole Scotty … man, it’s been a long time,” as we do the handshake, chest bump thing guys do to hug but not really.

I must say he looked pretty good compared to most I run into from high school. We are that age that transforms our appearance into something that looks like a pot bellied middle-aged man. I can’t understand it for the life of me.

Elwood was tan and still sported a longish, blow-dried coif that was reminiscent of the big haired rock and roll days of the seventies. He had managed to blend it with a contemporary prep look that allowed him to get away with it in a “Tommy Bahama” sort of way. As it turned out he’d spent a lot of time in Baton Rouge doing the lounge owner, man about town thing.

The thing is Elwood had a way of bringing trouble then sliding out the back door without getting any on him. For those of you who have lived this tawdry sort of existence, you know that the only way to do that is to “throw the snake” on the nearest victim. He wasn’t prejudiced about who that victim was either. A friend would serve just as well as any one.

So I checked to be sure my wallet was still in place. Because Elwood was always such a talker, I told George I was “going to lunch.” So old Elwood and I rode to the local cafĂ© and "hunkered down" to a blue plate special and some war stories.

As the pots and pans banged in the kitchen we sat in the maroon plastic booth and walked back in time to a place I had not been for quite a while. We were a product of the late 60’s in the South. His father had been a state trooper and mine was an authoritarian with a lot of personality.

Elwood and I had always identified with one another. We were the same color auburn except I was blue eyed with freckles and he had light brown eyes and tanned better. Both of us always had a sort of swagger style that was similar. The truth is we’d had a lot of fun going to the beach and clubbing during the disco days.

As it turns out both of us had what you might call a “conversion experience” at about the same period of life. It was probably the simple fact that the road dead ended in the same place but either way we ended up being of a like mind set. He was more fundamental in his religious thinking but I could find no real fault with the end result so I listened attentively to his proselytizing and managed to find corollaries to my more philosophical bent without actually contradicting him.

The next few months were a barrage of calls and emails with attachments consisting of devotionals and men’s retreats out west and such. Then election time came around and as was our habit we “discussed” the impending possibilities and our ideas about it all.

I listened to every right wing, neo-conservative platitude I could until one day I couldn’t hold back anymore.

“Elwood, you’ve spouted so called statistics and ideas for weeks now. Each and every source is recognized and self-promoted as right wing, neo-conservative and I’ve got to tell you most of it is no more than propaganda. Do you ever listen to the other side of the issues? When you garner all this information do you ever investigate the position or agenda of the author? You’re good at putting it out there but I don’t see any real fact checking going on and I’ve got to tell you that a lot of the stuff you’re stating as gospel is just plain false.”

Wide eyed he strode quickly to his car, opening the door on a small library of contemporary conservative literature. Now that the dam had burst I couldn’t stop, “ I didn’t say you didn’t read. I asked if you ever check the facts or consider the other side of the argument … do you check the sources of this idealistic dogma you so confidently put forth?”

I won’t bore you folks with the rest of the “discussion”. I will say that after a “trickle” of fundamentalist email with accompanying attachments I ceased to hear from old Elwood anymore. At first I thought I might have offended him but then I got to thinking about it. Elwood had always had an extremely thick skin. You had to when you were constantly throwing crap on people then having to run into them later. So I figured there wasn’t much possibility that I had hurt his feelings.

I’ve noticed that if you start to ask too many questions of a zealot they have a way of shaking their head and taking the stance of “I’ll be praying for you, brother.” Thing is I can’t help but wonder what it is that they are praying will happen to or for me. Another thing is, can anybody tell me why conflicting ideas should be the end of a discussion?

Seems to me like that ought to be the beginning. Oh well … so much for the “good ole days.”

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

A Saint That We Can See

. I remember the face of a dear and cherished woman whose career and good heart I revere. I have seen her recently gazing up at the cross. She is somewhere between here and another place. As I write and read of that vision of her rapture I am overwhelmed.

I wrote this as part of a piece called “Why Some Men Cry” a while back. This lovely woman passed away yesterday. I am much chagrined by the grief I feel. I believe that it’s because Dr. Jonnie McLeod was the embodiment of Christ’s message in human form. Some people “walk the walk” instead of “talk the talk”. Dr. Jonnie was like that.

I encountered her name long ago reading a plaque on a wall. I came to know her as a philanthropist and physician who devoted her life to unpopular causes. She gave herself to the service of those that society wanted to ignore. She reached out her hand and heart to those stigmatized by popular perception. I can’t help but be reminded of Jesus helping the lepers.

Drug addiction, sex education and AIDs became banners of light put forth so the world would have to look … would have to do something besides ignore reality. She would not let them sweep it under the rug. She was at times vilified. I know her family suffered and sacrificed as they attempted to live their lives under the gaze and attack of those who would let prejudices and fear rule the public discourse.

I came to know her as one of the kindest, gentlest beings I have ever encountered. I went to her once to express my discomfort and doubt about belonging. She invited me into her kitchen. She looked into my eyes as she touched my hand and she told me she loved me. She told me that God loved me and that not only was I worthwhile but that I was a gift. She gave me permission to love myself and reach out of my comfort zone for the grace that God has given to us all.

She need not have spoken a single word. Her touch and the love in her eyes said everything. Once in a while you meet someone that you know is a messenger. You will know them. You will see it with your heart. When they are gone you will grieve the loss of this light that was God’s love in human form.

Goodbye Jonnie. Thank God for allowing us to know you. We will listen for your song. We will save your seat in the pew and we will write your name in the history of our lives as a voice of truth and compassion.

May peace be with all who grieve this passing. May her message of love sustain you as it has sustained the brokenness of thousands who had once been cast aside.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Bare Spots

My wife wanted a new house. I had always liked the older ones in mature neighborhoods. Dappled light from the tree canopy seemed to lift my spirits. The musty smells and creaky boards are like stories waiting to be told.

So we bought the new, raw construction. The bare red clay disturbed me. I needed the austerity to be covered like you need to put on clothes when there’s a chill. I asked her to plant. She was always good at it; a green thumb if you will. She planted ivy of different kinds.

Now it’s everywhere. It’s climbing the trees and the house. Once there were islands of ivy. . Now they reach for each other smothering other growth.

So I worry a little. I’ve tried to pull it up but it resists mightily and is all bound together. The job is too big and will never end. I’m not at all sure I want to eliminate it or I’d spray with chemicals. That would feel too much like botanic murder though.

There’s a beauty in its running like when you spill grape juice on white Formica. You know you’ve got to clean it up but the spreading color mesmerizes you.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Backbone of America

The backbone of America is aching. Haunted eyes reach out a hand imploring for a job. The words are proud but the eyes speak the fear of children that feel the gnaw of hunger.

At the grocery store she examines her meager cart before she enters the line. Quietly she picks out one item, places it under her arm … then two more. She turns and walks back into the aisles, her cheap flip flops slapping as she shuffles stoically returning that which she knows she does not have the money to pay.

As I stride impatiently to the druggist counter to pay for some allergy medicine I am pulled up short by an elder couple with matching gray hair. His thick lens, gold frame glasses are dirty but his denim overalls are clean and pressed. She wears a print cotton dress. The colors are faded; the once vivid violets melted to a dingy blue. His hand shakes with palsy as he reaches the bills out to her steadier hand. The cashier matter of factly utters, “That’ll be $92.53, mam.”

She looks like a feeble school marm as she stares blankly at the cashier for maybe the count of three. The old man blanches and growls shakily … “Never mind. I’ll just have to do without it. The insurance is supposed to pay more. Somethin’s wrong. It’s them new changes the gov’ment’s makin’ with Medicaid, I reckon.”

“I’m sorry sir but there is nothing I can do.”

I’m frozen in place as she takes his arm and they slowly walk away somehow more stooped than when I first laid eyes upon them.

As I depart the store to go to my place of business I realize that my heart is heavy and my eyes have filled. Business has been slow for a long time now. Folks are hurting. They are hurting in a way that lives at the core of who we are. Once determined and confident people are reduced to a state of despair that is sadly similar to that gnaw of physical hunger but instead it gnaws at our heart.

Adding to the worry and doubt is the pervading fact that the neighbors are the same … and their families and everyone they know. This is deep and dark water and our limbs are weary. We question how long we can continue to tread water. We stopped swimming long ago because there was no land in sight and all that was left was to hold on.

We know the fat cats are still on the hill. The papers tell us the bonuses still roll on and the corporations are back in the black. Legislation saved those "too big to fail" yet left the backbone of America to ache. As the aching grow s... there is the looming need to marshal all energies … stand tall … walk slow … and keep our eyes on the Father we know is watching.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

"I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry"

A few years back, when asked by singer David Allen Coe to write the perfect country song, songwriter Steve Goodman wrote a couple of catchy verses. They were added to Coe’s hit “You Never Even Called Me By My Name” that attests to the importance of a broken heart, getting drunk, going to prison, mama, pickup trucks and trains. These are supposed to all be necessary ingredients of any successful country song. There is another kind of country music though that touches my soul like God’s finger reaching down to touch Adam’s on that ceiling in Italy.

Born in the twenties and raised through the Great Depression in south central Alabama little Hank Williams was poor as dirt and beset with what was only known at the time as a chronic spinal condition (probably spina bifida) that would torture him mentally and physically all his short life. His father died when he was seven. There was no reason for this guy to be anything but mean and pissed off: no hope, no peace, no education, no health and very little food on the table. Instead, he learned the blues and gospel from rural folks both black and white. The music sustained him. He combined those music forms with the country music of the day to produce a sound that was unique for his time. Unlike many he remained true to his musical roots until his death. The guitar fit him like those favorite blue jeans that make your butt look good.

I could spend time describing his tragic life to you. It would read pretty much like that country song I mentioned before. It was basically a train wreck. The thing is that out of that wreck sprung an American poet. He wrote many songs; even some hymns. I believe that from the throes of his alcoholic pain oozed the raw truth that punches us in the gut so that we remember the ache every time we think about it.

In one song he asked if we can hear life … “Can you hear that lonesome whippoorwill? It sounds too blue to fly.” He saw hope in a vision … “The silence of a falling star lights up a purple sky.” He painted loneliness with the brush of his heart …”and as I wonder where you are, I’m so lonesome I could cry.”

At first blush, you figure he’s talking about a woman. Then you have to wonder; maybe it’s God he’s looking for, as he howls at the moon in his high-pitched tenor wail.

When I hear Hank Williams cry his lament laced with feeble hope my eyes never fail to well up. My gut tightens. The top of my ears tingle and the hair stands up on the back of my neck. His yearning lays heavy on my soul.

I can see him now flying down a lonely country road in the back of a huge old 50s Cadillac just like in the movie “Your Cheatin’ Heart”. Mom, Dad and I saw it at the Monroe Drive In Theatre out on Hwy 74 when I was a kid. He’s drunk and strumming that old guitar and he knows he’s committing suicide on the time payment plan.

He also knows that he loves God but his demons are winning. He can still tell us though who he is and what his dreams are made of. He can still believe that somewhere in his loneliness a “whippoorwill sings … a falling star brings light” … and a poor country boy can share his poetic genius as true as any man. He can cry out in his pain and the world can hear him clearly.

I’m no expert on music or art. All I know is that when I can see inside an artist by experiencing his work I am closer to what God meant for us to be. When someone can show us his or her soul then we all walk on hallowed ground. It’s a shame country music has such a tawdry and simplistic reputation because at its best it can be as powerful a gift as any art form that has ever existed. If you get a chance … one day when you’re not too busy and no one is around … maybe “google” or “You Tube” ole Hank and take a listen. ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” is the title. Maybe … just maybe you’ll come away with a little different perspective.

I’ll close with a line composed from the heart of a simple backwoods troubadour they called Hank … “Did you ever see a robin weep, when the leaves begin to die? That means he’s lost the will to live. I’m so lonesome I could cry.”

Strikes me as living proof that “simple” doesn’t always make “dumb”.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Our Father's Call

One morning I was rushing to and fro caught up in what I had to get done, I was pumping gas, building up a head of determined steam when I heard a voice. “Excuse me, Sir. Would you like to read a copy of the Watchtower?” I turned my head and there stood a boy of about eight holding out a couple of thin magazines.

 He was clean-cut, hair slicked down with a blue oxford shirt sporting a yellow and blue striped, clip-on tie. His too big shirt framed his skinny neck. He appeared freshly scrubbed with light brown eyes. He was reaching up to me … hesitant, shy, and maybe even a little afraid of the weathered older man with the furrowed brow and deep voice. All I had to offer him was my knee jerk reaction to anyone “pushing” religion at me.”I’m good son. No thanks.’ I barked, as I turned back to the pump. Out of the corner of my eye I could see him walk away.

As a lifetime of sometimes small and sometimes not so small cruelties flooded into my heart I realized that I was ashamed. I stopped pumping gas, turned and stomped over to the mini-van where he had retreated. The van was full of folks of all ages, black and white, male and female. I spotted the small boy settling there in the back. Now it was my turn to feel a little shy, maybe even a little afraid. “I changed my mind,” I growled and again he reached out with the pamphlets and magazines, smiling that angelic grin that he had originally produced. As I turned there was an audible “awww” from the women.

Religious intolerance at the very least is an ugly beast. At its worst it robs us of our humanity. The greatest shame about that is our loss of the Father’s call. I can only hope and pray that each day as we all walk through our trials and tribulations we can be willing to meet the outreached hand of God as he speaks to us. I failed to get your name, my little friend. I failed to shake your hand. I hope you know somehow the power of your touch. I hope that you can receive the Father’s call as you so willingly gave it to me.