Sunday, December 11, 2011

A Letter to Former and Present Members of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church, Columbia, Missouri


Dear Friends,

I learned today that you have called a new pastor. I am pleased about this and wish you and him every blessing in your new life together.

It was my joy to serve you as your pastor during some of the happiest as well as some of the darkest days of your history. I thank God for this. In His good Providence those times prepared all of us for the work we are now doing and shall be doing in His Church and Kingdom.

Kathy and I want to thank you for your generous gift upon our leaving Columbia, for all of the help that you gave us in our move (and in working on the house), and for all of the kindnesses you have shown to Emily since our departure.

We are settling in to our new responsiblities, to life in the city, and to life away from each of our children. We have found grace in time of need and much joy in our new work in the church and school here.

We join to wish you a very blessed Advent season and a Merry Christmas!

In the unbreakable bonds of the Gospel,

Thom and Kathy


Saturday, November 19, 2011

I am a Western Man


I am a Western man. My temperament, the shape of my mind and soul, have been crafted and formed by the land and sky of the American West. It has taken me most of my life to figure this out. I lived for twenty-three years in the mountains and hollows of West Virginia and it was there that I began to suspect the truth of my nature. While beautiful in the extreme, I was never quite at home there. I suffered from what Larry McMurtry has called "sky deprivation." I always felt a depressive, claustrophobic angst while living there. There were too many trees, too little sky. When traveling back to Oklahoma and Texas on visits, I always found my spirits lifting when we crossed the Mississippi, just as I experienced the opposite as we drove past Morehead, Kentucky, returning.

I had a brief love affair with England during the early 90s. We almost moved there in 1991. It was only after a visit to my family burial plot in southern Oklahoma in 2005 that I realized what had attracted me to the North of England. Apart from the blistering heat, the landscape- with its pastures and woodlands, and its enormous sky- was very much like the landscape of certain parts of Yorkshire.

When we moved to central Missouri in 2007. a new peace settled into my soul. I would sit for hours in the early mornings, the late evenings, and the nights, drinking in the unbounded sky. Upon our return to Texas this year, my joy in the Western landscape has been completed. The landscape of childhood is the landscape of the soul. My return to my childhood landscape has been a return to my deepest and truest self. It has been a return to an inner peace that had long evaded me.

My love for the Western landscape, however, goes deeper. As a child I traveled thousands of miles across the whole landscape of the American West. From Fort Worth to Los Angeles, from North Texas to Idaho and Montana. This was because I was placed in the care of family who lived in these places. In 2009,my daughter, Kate, and I drove from Columbia, Missouri to Yuma, Arizona. I was revisiting places I remembered from my childhood travels (and one adolescent "March hare" hitchhiking trip, when I thumbed my way from Okemah, Oklahoma to Boise, Idaho in twenty-three hours). In the Panhandle of Texas, the high plains of New Mexico, and the deserts and mountains of Arizona, the bones of the earth are laid bare under an omnipresent sky. It was good to see it all again.

So, the landscape and skyscape of the West is etched into my nature as surely as my mother's and father's genes.

But, there is more to it than this. My people are Westerners. My great-grandfather, J.C. Smith came from northern Georgia, first to Texas and then to Indian Territory before the turn of the 20th Century. He was a horse and mule trader and farmer. My maternal grandfather, A.T. Brown, began his working life as a ranch foreman, a horseman and cattleman. They both lived in Oklahoma before statehood when it was still a "wild and wooly" place. It marked them both, and though different in size and temperament, they were neither of them men you would "mess with"-if you had good sense. They were Western men. And while they owed much to their Anglo-Celt heritage and blood, the West had imprinted them early and left them marked for their whole lives.

My daddy was the inheritor of all this. From childhood, he collected the stories and the songs of this region and its people. Imbued with with a voracious curiosity and an infallible memory, he stored away the history, the myths, and the lore of these Western people. Charming and humble in the presence of others, handsome and cheerful, full of interest and humor and compassion, the people would open to him their hearts and their memories in a way that they would not and had not to anyone else. When in his late twenties he began to hunt and collect arrowheads, his love for and interest in the West compounded. This he passed on to me.

Not that I was a willing recipient at first. Like all young boys, I was caught up with my own "long, long thoughts." But he was insistent without being overbearing. Part of this was unintentional, being the overflow of his own enthusiasm for the matter.

Item: I began learning to read as my daddy would stop to read to me the cast iron historical markers of Jack and Young counties, Texas.

Item: I began to love old and strange tools and relics on a visit to a Mr. Weldon in South Bend, Texas. He had a room filled with Indian relics, cowboy gear, and snakes and lizards preserved in glass apothecary jars lining the walls. I was five or six at the time.

Item: I began to have a sense of American history and the struggle of the Western settlers on a visit to old Fort Belknap, north of Graham, Texas. I can still remember the cold, misty November day, and the displays in the fort's museum as daddy read to me the various explanations and went on to explain that dark things had occurred in and around this fort on the Salt Fork of the Brazos. This was in 1957.

Item: Daddy took me to the Cooke County Public Library in Gainesville, Texas when I was seven or eight and got me a library card. The first books I checked out were about the men who won the West, and about the tribes who lost it. I became a young ethnologist and even went through a time when I resented my daddy for being "a white man."

He had infected me with the germ he was victim to. I would never get over it.

The second most formative influence on my "Westerness" was my daddy's younger brother, Kenneth. While serving in the U.S. Air Force, he was stationed in Mountain Home, Idaho in the 1950s. While there, he met and married Nora Reed from a little railroad town called, Orchard. Having no children of their own, they took me into their hearts. It is because of them that I saw so much of the American Rockies. We camped in the mountains, fished in the streams and lakes, hunted jackrabbits and trapped badgers on the sagebrush deserts, and reveled in it all, the beauty and grandeur, the starkness and fastness.

It is they who took me to Jackson Hole and the Grand Tetons, to Yellowstone, and to the Snake and Salmon Rivers. It is they who traveled hundreds of miles out of their way, so that a thirteen year old boy could see Charlie Russell's studio and home in Great Falls, Montana. Once they took me into the mountains north of Boise to meet a family living without electricity and other conveniences in a cabin by a rushing stream. The father and husband was aged and had been a hunter and trapper from the early days of the 20th Century. We ate a fine meal of fried chicken and produce from their garden cooked on a wood stove by their spinster daughter. The raspberry's cultivated by that stream were the finest I have ever eaten and the water was cold and sweet. The stories, if anything, were even sweeter. I was formed and molded by these experiences and by their own enthusiasm for the West. They are still in Idaho, still in love after fifty-plus years, and still enthusiastic about the history, the landscape, and the promise of that big country.

Since my maturity the West has been one of the defining realities of my mind and soul. I have a wall of books testifying to this. My collections- of songs, of stories, of people, and of things- all connect in some way with this country. While I live, I wish to live here, and when I die I wish to be buried here in the family plot on the tip end of Love County, Oklahoma, formerly "IT" or "Indian Territory."

And, yes, I still have my daddy's arrowheads.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Brothers Simms, by E.D. "Shinbone" Smith, Bomar Oklahoma, formerly Indian Territory or "IT"


They used to be these two bachelor brothers that lived and farmed down in Addington Bend, east of Thackerville named Simms. They lived in a little old shotgun house with two rooms and a shed for a kitchen. Their given names was Larry and Clary. They wasn't much different from the rest of us in them pore days, except they was bachelors and they lived with each other.

Now by the end of the wintertime, they had spent a lot of idle time around the tin stove in the front room of that house and they would git on on another's nerves a considerable amount. Then they would begin to argue and fuss. They would argue and fuss almost about anythang, as they waited for the spring plowing to come.

Since they divided time cooking for one another, one of the thangs they argued about was each other's cooking. This would go on for days. One morning Clary said something belittling about Larry's biscuits and the ruckus began. Clary allowed that Larry's biscuits were so bad that the dogs wouldn't eat them.

"Well," says Larry, "let's jist put that proposition to the test." And picking up two of the items in question, went out on the porch and called old Blue up. He pitched the biscuits in the hound's direction, and, after sniffing them, Blue quaffed them down, but with some difficulty. Then, the way dogs sometimes do, he promptly licked himself.

"See there," says Larry, "he et 'em!"

Yessir! He shore did! But he had to lick his ass jist to git the taste outa his mouth!"

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

From John Graves...


"If a man couldn't escape what he came from, we would most of us still be peasants in Old World hovels. But if, having escaped or not, he wants in some way to know himself, define himself, and tries to do it without taking into account the thing he came from, he is writing without any ink in his pen. The provincial who cultivates only his roots is in peril, potato-like, of becoming more root than plant. The man who cuts his roots away and denies they were ever connected with him withers into half a man." Goodbye to a River, p. 145

Thursday, July 14, 2011

We're Having 'Company'"


I have been reading and rereading various accounts of the lives of the early white pioneers in their settlement of the frontier of Texas from the 1850s on. I am embued with an emotional attachment to them and their lives in that country. Some of my earliest and most lasting memories are of being taken by my daddy to Fort Belknap in Young County, Texas as a six year old. He rehearsed the old stories of the old people in my young ears; they stuck. To this day, after over fifty years, my blood gets up when I read or hear tell of that place and time.

It was a grim and harsh time in a stark and unforgiving place. Not that it isn't beautiful, because it is. The Texas Cross Timbers meet the prairie there. The sky is an azure bowl over it all. The bird life fills it with song. But, it is riddled with all manner of things that sting, bite, pierce, nettle, and generally aggravate the human animal. Some of these things can be deadly-it is filled with Western diamond-backed rattlesnakes- "coontail rattlers" the old people called them because of the distinctive black and white stripes on the end of their tails just before the rattles themselves start.

When the earliest white people came there it was the home of various Indian tribes, and the hunting raiding territory of two of the most dreaded and dreadful- the Comanche and Kiowa. The white people were, thus, intruders. And for this, they paid dearly. Attacks were common. The Comanche in particular indulged in brutal acts of blood-letting and rape. They also took young captives to raise and "Indianize," the most famous being Cynthia Ann Parker from farther south and east, who became the wife of Peta Nocona, and the mother of Quanah Parker, one of the last warrior chiefs of the Comanche. When she was recovered and returned to her surviving family, she withered away and died in East Texas, a relatively young woman. She pined away over her lost children and her lost life on the high plains of West Texas.

So, in addition to the brutish living conditions of 19th century pioneers, the harsh climate, the isolation that drove people mad, there was the constant threat of Indian raids and the sheer brutality these involved. Fear and caution were the every-day stuff of life.

One of the only sources of relief, of pure joy, of life-worth-the-living were the occasional social gatherings they were able to enjoy. Not that these allayed all the fear and caution. John Graves remarks that even at brush arbor revival meetings (that would sometimes go on for weeks), the Henry rifles and Colt's revolvers would be stacked outside these brushy temples of salvation.

Whether it was a birthing, attended by a few women, a hog killing, a counter-raid on the Indian predators, or a dance, the pioneers took every opportunity to be together when they could. These times, whatever their form, were times of friendship, joy, and play- in a word, "love." The old stories were rehearsed, the new ones told; food was shared; laughter, tears, sighs were exchanged. For a time, albeit brief, the troubles were pushed outside the circle of fellowship. We can understand, therefore, why the words, "We're having company," "We've got company coming," would brighten their eyes and relieve their spirits.

It is this, in the stresses of modern life which we face, that can bring a similar renewal of spirit. The "crazy little screens" that fixate us- the social networks, the video games, and all such-like, are paltry substitutes for real people and real friends, real "company."

"It is not good for man to be alone."

Thursday, July 7, 2011

It's In the "Seeing"


"It was a wonder to him now that he'd once failed to appreciate the beauty of this land. The trick of it, he'd lately realized, was to pay attention to the sky as part of the landscape. The rising sun was gilding high cottony clouds from below. In a few hours, as the light shifted upward, those clouds would send amethyst and turquoise shadows racing over the emerald ground, and their sweep across the land would reveal subtle undulations in the terrain that only appeared flat to the careless observer." Mary Doria Russell, Doc, page 287

Friday, July 1, 2011

Good-Bye, Columbia!




God willing, sometime in August Kathy and I will leave Columbia to take up new responsibilities in Dallas. Our feelings have been mixed in making this decision. We have loved living in Columbia and in central Missouri. We have made many lovely friends here and leaving them is painful. We have made a home here with studios and workshops. We have loved our church home and have known real joy in serving its people. When we came here- four years ago tomorrow- we intended to be here for the rest of our lives. But, we are never in control of our lives and our intentions often come to nothing, or better, they come to different ends. The Christian believes that an inscrutable providence directs and guides his life, and that while it is incomprehensible, it is also loving and wise in its intent. This, we believe.

We are going to Dallas to take up a new work in the Saint Timothy School of Chapel of the Cross Reformed Episcopal Church (Anglican). Kathy will be Lower School Administrative Assistant and Pre-School Director. I will serve as Assistant Head-Master and Instructor in the Humanities for the middle and upper grades. I will also be creating a department of Fine and Manual Arts for these grades. It is hoped that this will develop into a school of drawing, painting, and sculpture, as well as a school of woodworking and metalsmithing. Those who have invited us to take these roles believe that our knowledge and experience equip us for this work. More importantly, we shall be working toward the formation of persons, rather than just the information of minds, believing as we do that that formation of the moral imagination is at the heart of all true education. This is why we are glad that Saint Timothy's School is a vital part of the life of Chapel of the Cross Episcopal Church. Learning shall take place in an environment of liturgy and Christian teaching.

Moving is hard work. Leaving is painful work. Starting over is daunting work. We are engaged in all of this with a spirit of prayer and trust. For those of you who pray, we ask for your prayers. For those of you who do not pray, we ask for your good thoughts. You may rest assured that you all have both our prayers and good thoughts.

For every kind gesture, every encouraging word, every loving act that we have received from you- in the education and arts community, in the Christian family- we thank you with all our hearts. We love you and will never forget you.

In the 1820s and 30s many people in the East abandoned their homesteads and cabins to travel to a new land of promise in Texas. Often they would scrawl on the doors of these erstwhile homes, "GTT," meaning, "Gone To Texas." Without defacing the property here, that is my sentiment. Pretty soon, when you think of us, you can think in these terms

GTT.

Farewell!

Sunday, May 29, 2011

A Short Summary of My Life


"O LORD, Thou hast made me rich!"

Saturday, May 21, 2011

"On a Popularizer" Louis Untermeyer

Midwife to all the Muses, you grow rich
By making the immortal less divine.
With what finesse you trim, and cut, and stitch,
Feigning that every stitch---in time---serves Nine.

"On a Self-made Philosopher" Louis Untermeyer

"Life was my university,"
He boasts, and awaits approbation;
Revealing to the nth degree,
The sad results of education.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

"Thou Hast Made My Light Darkness"


I have before me a little book that measures approximately four and three-eighths inches by seven inches. It is bound in red Morocco leather with five raised bands on its spine; it is sewn on cords that make the raised bands and these testify to its extreme age. There are still remnants of gold leaf on the scuffed binding and its edges are marbled in blue and yellow and red. There is no title because it was made to be a "common-place" book or a diary, which, indeed, it is.

On the fly-leaf inscribed in faded brown copperplate is the following

the Reverend Octavius Winter
1801
"his book"

and on the pages that follow are a collection of daily personal thoughts, notes of events, quotes from old authors, and prayers and meditations. Occasionally there are snippets of newspaper notices pinned to the page, the pins rusty and causing rust stains to the pages to and fro. On one such page is such a clipping that reads

"Deceased on August 5th, Margaret, infant child of the Reverend Octavius Winter, and wife, Louisa, of Hawley."

Between these pages is a lock of fine blond hair, presumably from the child.

Sometimes, the page is covered with Scripture texts. Here is an example.

"Blessed are the undefiled in the way, who walk in the law of the Lord."

"The steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord."

"I know, O Lord, that the way of a man is not in himself, it is not in man himself to direct his steps."

"Trust in the Lord with all thine heart, and lean not unto thine own understanding; in all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy steps."

"His trust is in the Lord, none of his steps shall slide."

At other times, there are notes on his preaching:

" Dec. 6, 1801. Morning at Shelbyville meeting. Preached from I Peter 3:18. The wheels of the chariot did drive heavily."

"January 10th, 1802. Hawley. Very cold from a week of hard frost. The meeting-house very cold; the air blue with breath. Preached with liberty from Romans 8:28-30. The people very joyful despite the conditions. 'Bless the Lord, O my soul.'"

After losing the child mentioned before, the Reverend Winter went through several months of conflict with his church board. During this time, his wife, again pregnant, was in bad health. Four months into this pregnancy, she appears to have miscarried. She continued in poor health and at the end of the year, died. In the middle of a single left-hand page with nothing else recorded on this or the facing page is this:

"November 22nd, 1802. Buried today beside our dead child my dear companion, Louisa Day Winter, aged, 31 years and two months. 'She was life and light to me.' We were married for six years and seven months. In hope of the Resurrection."

This is surrounded with a faded inked border, once black.

Six months later, the church board terminated him as pastor of the church.

"May 26th, 1803. Today, I am relieved of my duties as pastor of the church in Hawley. I have no prospects, though I am told that one of the churches in the Ohio country is seeking a minister. I am thrown on the Sovereignty and Grace of God to provide for me and my two remaining children. Lamentations 3:21-24. His Will be done."

There is not another entry until November 1803.

"Nov. 22nd, 1803. On this dark day one year ago I buried her who was my life and light. Light has gone out of my life in the succeeding months. I despair of life and fight dark suggestions from the evil one to end my life. My faith and the needs of my small children aid me in resisting this temptation. But, my faith is without comfort and consolation. The Lord has deserted me according to the meaning of the Puritan divines. He has not forsaken me, but He has withdrawn His sensible Presence from my consciousness. Is this because of some sin or unfaithfulness on my part? I am like a dead man, like a bottle in the smoke. 'Return, O Lord, how long!'"

Then follows this prayer

"O Lord my God, Thou art my God.
I have trusted in Thee all my life.
I have loved Thee in prosperity and adversity.

I am sinful and weak.
I am frail and mortal.
Thou hast taught me these things.
Thou hast taught me to speak these things.

But, I am Thy servant.
From my mother's womb,
Thou hast been my God.

Lord, I have trusted Thee
And Thou hast not met me in the way.
I have trusted Thee
And Thou hast deceived me.

Thou has taught me to say,
"in all thy ways acknowledge him,"
And Thou hast not directed my steps.
Thou has promised to instruct
And teach me in the way I should go,
But, Thou hast not guided me with Thine eye.
I have trusted Thee,
And Thou hast crushed me.
I have loved Thee,
And Thou hast made my light darkness.

I am ready to die,
And Thou art not nigh.
My soul is impaled on the horn of a unicorn
And Thou hearest not my cries.

'My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?'"

This is the last entry in my beautiful little book. The rest of its foxy pages are empty. This is fitting. It is proper that this man's anguish should be testified to by the emptiness of what remains. As such, it is a dark book, but a holy book.

Sometimes our anguish and abandonment are the last word. There is nothing else to be said. Let the empty pages bear their silent witness to our loneliness and despair.

But, while despair may have the penultimate word, it must not have the final word. It does not have the final word in the life of the Reverend Octavius Winter.

For there is another book, of the same size and binding, this one dated, "1805."

Thursday, April 21, 2011

An Easter Meditation: Home


At a deepening
Of the Isinglass River
I lie down in stones and tea-colored water,
I think: be careful, do not say
Home,
The the bones of that word mend slowly.

This lovely little piece by the New Hampshire poet, Marie Harris, has plunged itself into me seizing my heart in its painful and powerful grip.

In thirty-two words (thirty-one if you count "tea-colored" as one word) it manages to touch some of our deepest human longings, fears, memories, and hopes. It catches us in our many acts of longing and fear, where we are balanced between the child-like hope for joy and the all too adult condition of recollection of shattered expectations.

And, it manages to cut into one of the profoundest and most atavistic yearnings of the human heart: The yearning for Home. This longing is the longing for the lost Eden of our primeval parents. It is the yearning of Israel by the waters of Babylon for the Holy Land. It is the homesickness of Wendell Berry in all his work for the land and people he glimpsed in his childhood seventy years ago. It is my own mental geography that tends backwards to the red clay and ancient post oaks of Love County, Oklahoma.

To state this theologically, we would be compelled to say that home-longing is the human heart's longing for God. "Thou hast made us for Thyself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee" Augustine. We are strangers and aliens- to ourselves, to others, to our place on the earth. Our anxieties, fears, sleeping dreams, and waking fantasies all tell us this. Our best writers (like Ms. Harris) confirm our suspicions. Listen to Stevenson

Under the wide and starry sky
Dig the grave and let me lie:
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.

This is the verse you 'grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from the sea
,
And the hunter, home from the hill.

Which echos Job's anguished cry, "Naked I came from my mother's womb, naked shall I return thither!" Job (like Stevenson), the earthy man, made of earth and returning to earth, sees her as his final earthly home.

All of which makes me think of Easter, of Resurrection Sunday.

The message of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is this: embodiment, earthiness, corporeality are our original state, the state for which we long, and a new embodiment is promised us in the reality and corporeality of his resurrection. The grave (our entombment in the earth) is not the final home of the Christian. What is promised is a new life, an embodied life, in a new heavens and a new earth where righteousness will finally pervade all things.

In this promise is hope: hope that assuages our longings, fears, and nightmares, hope that supports us in our homesickness, hope that assures us that death in all its forms shall be swallowed up in the victory of Jesus.

O Death, where is thy sting?
O Grave, where is thy victory?
The sting of death is sin,
And the power of sin is the law.
But thanks be to God who giveth us the victory
Through our Lord Jesus Christ.

This is the promise and assurance of Home.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Funny Little Man: A Meditation on the Middle Aged Male


Funny little man,
Peering in,
Looking out.
Calling up his dreams,
Staring down his doubts.
Counting up his triumphs,
Discounting all his routs.
Adding up his score-card
With his ego hanging out.

The Blessed God who made him
Smiles, at times, no doubt
At this funny little man He made
And his silly mental bouts.

Funny little man,
Peering in,
Looking out.
Staring at his face,
Sizing up his snout.
Quirky little grimaces,
Kinky little pouts,
Funny little person
With probos sticking out.

The Blessed God who made him
Laughs, at times, no doubt
At His funny little man he made
With his puffy little snout.

Funny little man,
Peering in,
Looking out.
Taking readings on his torso,
With its silly little spout.
Laying down its measure,
Sizing up its clout,
Funny little pear-shaped pot
With its spigot poking out.

The Blessed God who made him
Grins, at times, no doubt,
At the funny little man He made
With his funny, runny spout.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Granny and the Child


In the musty, musky cool
In the blue-gray half-dark
Of sanctuary, asylum
From northwest winds
That were the wrath of God-
But on hell-hot August days
Sanctuary became larder, pantry
With row upon shining row
Of greens and reds and ochers
Of beans and okra
Tomatoes and corn-
The only cool place in their world-
Sanctuary of another sort.

Daddy-long-legs kibbled
Across the mealy floor
And cow-hide bottomed chairs
Creaked and sighed.
Coal oil mixed with damp
And all mixed in a child's nose
With an old crone's
Powder, sweat, and snuff.
And unnameable things
As animal as a dog's damp pelt
When he buried his face in it.

Trunk.
Holding a few faded memories
Of a ragged courtship
And a rugged marriage:
Sweet memories soured by
"that's my husband, Mr. Smith's first wife."
Memories captured in images
Pressed within the shiny hard-shelled album
Its stiff, foxy pages coming loose
In the damp.
Fading sepia faces with eyes
That never faded in their button-blackness
That never blinked or smiled:
Dour stern men
With tired, severe women
Buttoned to the tops of throats
On hell-hot days.
Mouths razor slits dividing faces in half.
Black button eyes
That still burn into the mind
After half a century.
Women standing, always standing
Men sitting upright and stiff
In cow-hide bottomed chairs
(Giving rise to ribald jokes
Whispered under whiskey breath.)

"Your great-grand-daddy..."
"Mr. Smith" (always Mr. Smith)
"J.C. Smith"
"John Calvin Smith"
"Some called him 'Black John'
But I never cared for that."
"1857 to 1936"
"Gone, but not forgotten."
History, family, belonging, blood.

The hide of the chair bottom
With red Hereford hair
Still clinging to parts not sat on-
"My husband, Mr. Smith,
Went to feed that creature
On a cold, frosty morning in March.
The thing, being stroppy
In its hunger and its cold
Turned its bad-morning-mood
On its owner...
Pinned him to the cow-lot floor
Until with prodigious
Swearings and cursings
To raw for female ears
Fought off the wild beast of Ephesus
With a feed-scoop shovel,
And covered with red clay and cow shit
Went promptly into the Big House
For his .41 Colt's revolver.
And, returning to the beast-
Now feeling better for its morning romp-
Without compunction or doubt,
Shot the creature dead
With one brass cartridge
Its deadly nose pewter-colored.
Turning away from the blue-gray smoke
That filled the air with an acrid taste
He called to his hired men
Staring with saucer-eyes from their perch
On the corral fence,
'Butcher the son-of-a-bitch
And bottom my storm cellar chairs
With his hide!'"

I, the child, with the old woman
Sat in those chairs
Tugging at their remaining hair
Marveling at their feel and smell
Touched now forever with the wonder of their Story
Dangling legs from its hairy ledge.

***

Old woman singing.
Spidery voice
Wispy, haunty airs
"Barbary Allen"
"Old 97"
"In the Sweet By and By"
Old and forgotten
Like the songs
Old and ignored
In the daily routine
The endless drudgery of
"the Place."
Old woman:
"Granny"
"Granny Eller"
"Granny Smith"
With the small boy,
Motherless boy
Also ignored
In the sweat and grunts
Of the daily work.
Companions:
In songs, stories, smells,
And nasty words.
Once she unbuttoned her cotton bodice
From the throat down
Pulled her withered breast
Out for him to see, to touch.
He remembers
Its cracked-frosted-persimmon-wrinkledness
Her talcum powder filling its wrinkles
Transforming it into a strange, fascinating
Confection
Like a snow-ball cookie
From a brown paper bag.
Our secret.
Shared twice
And then, abruptly stopped
As the demand became regular and insistent.

***

The child, as children do,
Saw more, understood better
Than grownups would allow.
She lay songless,
Toothless
On a morning when not even a crow
Cawed.
She lay speechless
Rendering grown, stern men
Speechless.
Men cried.
Men, who had often said,
"Don't cry," to the child,
Cried with the embarrassing abandon
Of weeping men.

The funeral men came
In their shiny, black car
And carried her out of the Big House
Under a candle-wick cover
With blue satin letter
Advertising their trade
And soliciting the same.
Letters that followed the contours
Of the slight, withered form under them,
Letters that were an ill-mannered
Waste of money and effort
To those whose mother and granny
They mocked in royal colors.
No royalty here.
Calico and wool
And funny, dark stockings
Rolled to the bottoms of her knees.
Clothed in a royalty
She would had sniffed at with contempt
Not merely to the top of the throat
But over the head.
"Why over her head?" the child had asked
And received no answer.
Out of the house
They rolled her
Into the unforgiving cold
(a cold that froze the ground to stone
so that the funeral had to be postponed
until equipment could be brought in).
Gone.
Finally gone.
Gone, finally.
Final.
"Gone, but not forgotten."

***

The cold, hollow church house
Loud with even the smallest sounds
Pine planking on floors and walls
Varnished and shining.
A Methodist church.
Plain- but not so plain
As the Campbellite one-
A picture of "Our Savior" in front
Looking sad and sweet
For the occasion.
So she ended in the Methodist church,
She, who by degrees of examination, had been
A Baptist.
A Campbellite.
A Pentecostal
And a Baptist again.
Then a follower of the Wesleys
And their hymnal,
For she loved singing most.

The reedy singing.
The weedy sermon.
My father
Young and strong
And smelling of Old Spice
Lifted me over the coffin's edge
To see the child's companion.
All I remember
Is the black mustache
On the wrinkled, upper lip.
She had no smell at all,
Nothing I could identify as her
But the fragrance of carnations was strong.

Then, into the cruel cold
To the iron-hard burying ground.
"Mount Zion."
With its gaping red wound in the earth
Beside the monolith covered with letters
He could read,
But not the words,
Except for "Smith"
Which was his name, too.
The blue-gray stone topped-
Where snow had been brushed away-
With two hands clasped
(which he could read)
"Friends."

My Papa with snow-white head down
Snow against snow
White against white
Weeping again for his Mama.
"Now I am not the only motherless child."
And with a child's selfish abandon
And aloofness from all pain
Not its own
I began to run and play
Among the tombstones
Sticking my tongue to
Their frozen surfaces
Till its own surface was raw and unfeeling.
I played among the dead
Until an old woman dressed like
A big, shining crow
Caught me by the coat collar
And told me in a shrill hiss
That the dead are troubled
By the living
Walking on their graves.

***

And then home
To the Big House.
To the smell of fried chicken
And cakes and pies.
To laughter and
Whispered conversations.
To unusual displays of affection.
The fire turning
The andirons cherry red-
Irons forged in Black John's forge
From wagon tires
By one of his hired men-
Heating the room
Almost to the back edges
And far corners.

With stomachs full
And the exhaustion of
So much emotion spent
The child is forgotten again
For a time.
Left to himself
Seeking his friend
He goes to the back room.
Her room.
As so many times before.
Nothing touched.
Nothing moved.
Nothing changed,
Out of respect for the dead.
These things could wait for another day.

Whispering for her
In the blue-gray dusk.
Calling for her in the cold
That turned his breath into a blue delight
Of smoke or steam
His child's brain
Grasping, but losing.
Catching, but dropping
The fact of her absence.
When, at last,
He sees the cavity left by
Her rigid body in the feather bed
Only days before-
The concavity covered now
With sagging quilts.
"Granny?"
"Granny?" he whispers.
Peering under the covers
He sees that she is not here.
But, smelling her again-
Her hair,
Her snuff,
Her sweat and lavender-
He climbs into the cold space
Carved out days before
By her suffering,
And, then, by her dying,
And pulling the heavy quilts
To the top of his throat
Falls asleep
In the presence
Of all that is left of her.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

A Warning to Young Artists


There will always be those
Who envy you
Your life, your talents,
Your gifts.

They will see you
And define you by these,
None of which you define
Yourself by.

They will not see
The pain, the loss,
The grief
That attend such things.

And, because they see
The richness of your life
They will demand
That you apologize

For these riches
They covet.
And in their pain
They will add to your own.

Our First Summer by Marie Harris


At a deepening
of the Isinglass River
I lie down in stones and tea-colored water,
I think: be careful, do not say
Home,
The bones of that word mend slowly.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

My Katebird (To Emily)


Of all the birds
That fill the skies
With their color,
Their antics,
Their song,

My Katebird is
The brightest hue,
The jolliest flier,
The sweetest singer,
Of them all.

She flits across my eye,
She dives throughout my mind,
She fills my ear with joy.
She hovers to calm my heart.

Jim and Velda, 1949

Friday, March 4, 2011

"Daddy" Part V: "It's going to be alright."


Now, I am keenly aware of the fact that all of this can be explained from a purely psychological model. I have read William James and his followers. I have also seen plenty of religious conversions, good and bad. Moreover, I have examined my own religious conversion to paleness, trying to understand it and myself. People of faith will accept as valid what happened to my daddy, people who have no particular religious faith will explain it how they will. There is no reason for the believer to doubt both aspects of religious conversion, the spiritual and the psychological. Orthodox Christianity has always maintained that God meets us as human beings and addresses us in the complex of mind, emotion, and will that makes us uniquely human.

In his case, however, I must say this of my daddy: From that August day in 1974 he was never the same again. His life was turned around to a new and healthy direction. This would be true until he died in 2000.

Nor is any of this to say that the rest of his life was one long consistent trajectory. Far from it. It was marked by the same circuitous inconsistencies that characterize most lives. But, one thing is certain to everyone who knew him: From the mid-70's to the end, Daddy reordered his life in a new and overwhelmingly constructive way. He reinvented himself.

A large part of the credit of this goes to his new wife, Ann. Daddy and Ann married in the mid-70s- 1975? I don't remember the date, but I do remember the circumstances because I married them in a private ceremony in the living room of the Baptist parsonage Kathy and I were then living in just out of Tulsa. I also remember the Dragon managed to get our number and phone at two or three in the morning the following day. She was drunk and savage and she managed to push all the old buttons of fear and hate in my mind. It would be years before I was beyond that. When I finally learned of her death in 2007 I would be beyond that and would find nothing in my heart but sadness and pity for her.

Shortly after their marriage, Daddy and Ann moved to East Texas where they engaged in a semi-homesteader existence. They lived in a variety of settings, the most demanding being a utility shed bought from Wal-Mart and turned into a homesteader's cabin. The only running water they had was from a sole hydrant a few yards from the front door. By working and saving, the two of them were able to buy a few acres where they placed a very used trailer. While living in the trailer, Daddy build a sizable log house from the native pine trees on and around the place. The floors ran in every direction, but it was snug and comfortable, having a bathroom and plenty of running water. Daddy had been born in a log house and always said he wanted to die in his own log house. When the trailer burnt to the ground, Daddy was able to run into the burning structure to retrieve his arrowheads, but everything else was lost. He and Ann were great ones for starting over. They finally were able to purchase an old frame house and have it moved to the acreage.

During these years Daddy accumulated a large group of friends. He was always serving people, looking after them, especially the aged. He continued to collect their stories as he visited with them.

After settling in the area Daddy and Ann joined the local Baptist church where they were to remain members for many years. With work, church, and community, Daddy lived an exemplary life. He was liked, loved, and respected. Most of the darkness that had long plagued him was dispelled.

But, it is always a mistake to view people through tinted glass and it would be such a mistake to view Daddy in this way. One of his famous introductions to what he was about to say was, "I ain't going to lie to you..." His honesty about his personal demons was one of his most attractive (and disturbing) traits. Times of darkness would periodically fall upon him and when they did he had a ritual. He would buy a bottle or two of bourbon, give the pickup keys to Ann to hide, and go on a weekend "toot" as he called it. In the early stages he was a happy drunk. Ann once looked out the window to see him him stark naked, standing upright over the seat, driving the tractor round and round the yard- singing. Toward the end of such forays, he grew dour and maudlin. He would sometimes call me toward the end of his toots and talk about early days, pour out his grief over real and imagined failures, and declare his love for me over and over again. These were distressing conversations, but as I grow older and more self aware, I find it harder and harder to judge him for these times. On Monday mornings, he would be up early, bathed and shaved and smelling of Old Spice. He would be the earliest to work and covered his hangover and guilt with a flood of songs and teases. Months would pass before such a thing was repeated.

Our times together during these years were good, though too often few and far between. When we did visit, it was a time of unmixed happiness. We never had an argument or quarrel for twenty plus years. And while the visits were too few, the phone conversations were regular. He has been gone for ten years and I still occasionally think, "I need to talk to Daddy about this."

His love for me, for Kathy, and for his three grandchildren was devout. And it was returned. In his last illness, I came into the living room of his house to find his then lax, six-foot frame cradled in the lap and arms of his oldest grandson, Martyn.

During the last decade of his life, he and I made the pilgrimage to Washington, D.C. that I mentioned earlier. I have never seen him happier and more alive. It is a joy to be with a man who delights in everything he sees. And delight he did- in everything, from the new threshing barn at Mount Vernon, to the buffalo hide teepee at the Natural History Museum, to Jefferson's "little mountain," it was all a dream come true to him.

One morning, while there, we finally found parking near the Viet Nam Memorial. We walked past it to the Lincoln. He was very quiet and deeply moved as he stood on the steps looking at the great Emancipator.

When we returned to the car, someone had parked close to us and I had a tough time getting the car out. Finally, Daddy got out and began to direct me. I kept touching the bumper of a new Volvo behind us. A young well-dressed man came over and began to protest that I was damaging his vehicle while Daddy assured him to the contrary. As the exchange grew more animated, I rolled the passenger window down and quietly said, "Daddy, get in the car." After I had repeated this several times, he acquiesced and took his seat. But, the young man was persistent. He leaned over and began to tap on Daddy's window. Daddy began to roll his left shoulder and roll down the window at the same time with his right hand. Placing my hand on his agitated left arm, I said quietly, "Don't hit him." With a similar quietness, he replied, "I'm going to draw the son-of-a-bitch's picture in the sand!" "If you do," I countered, "we may be here in jail for a year." I finally managed to get the car out and away. After a pause, Daddy said, "You could tell he was a Yankee by the way he talked. They're all arrogant bastards like that." But, within seconds, he was back on the sunny side enjoying the marvels of our nation's Capitol. He was sixty-six or seven at the time. But the old embers glowed beneath the gray ash.

In the next years, the embers would continue to glow. He would read and study his arrowhead collection; he would serve others and drive his pickup through the community with his faithful Bassett hound, Magoo. He would become more relaxed, more at peace with himself and with everyone else. He would maintain his simple Christian faith and his devotion to hard work. All with the passion that had always marked his life. Things would go on as usual on that little patch of ground in the Piney Woods of East Texas until his last great trial came upon him.

And when it came he would learn to die.

...to be continued

"Daddy" Part IV: Back to the Light


It would be a mistake to conclude from all this that my daddy's personality regularly reflected the darkness I have been writing about. To the contrary, he was usually bright, chipper, and full of laughter. He was a great one to sing. An early riser, he would meet the day with a song, often one whose words he made up as he went along. I was not an early riser and could be quite surly in the mornings when he got me up for school. He loved this; it sharpened his musicality and his versifying. Here are some of his songs I remember:

Get up, Tom!
Get out of bed!
Or I'll pour cold water
All over your head!

or, again,

Little Tommy Tucker
He ain't no good,
He won't haul water
And he won't chop wood.

He was always teasing, always pestering, and (almost) always with good humor. It was the same at work. He would sing, he would nick-name his colleagues, he would shout and laugh. Sometimes he pushed it too far and surly, grown men would grow exasperated and threaten him. He was big and fit and he could be violent, so they were pushed beyond their limits when this happened.

I have often thought of this bright, sunny side of his with wonder. Maybe it was his generation. Maybe it was his genes. Maybe it was just his way to assuage his pain. Whatever it was, it was what it was. Too be sure, if he had enough to drink, he could descend into a maudlin self-pity, but I only witnessed this a few times in all the years I knew him. And he could get into towering rages. These were terrifying in the extreme. But, for the most part, he was his sunny self. This is why so many people never knew him as "the Hurt Man."

After moving back to my grandparent's home, I lived a charmed life. I hunted, trapped, and tramped the woods and fields along the western bank of the Red River where they lived. I lived out-of-doors almost as much as at home. I camped alone in the woods and hunted coons with hounds with a band of friends my age, as well as with older hunters. I learned to play the guitar and began to play with various country bands. I was an above average student and popular with my peers. Life was good.

From time to time Daddy would visit or I would visit him, but gradually we grew apart. My resentments peaked with my adolescent hormones. I nursed my grudges and hurts; those around me sometimes aided this. He knew this and it saddened him. His life was more and more coming apart at the seams. He moved his family back and forth from Texas to California where he worked off-shore on oil wells. These were the darkest days of all and the two daughters from that marriage suffered most. When we were together in his last days, one of them casually remarked, "Was that when Daddy threw the Christmas tree into the front yard?"

Little by little his marriage to the Dragon was wearing out, was wearing him out. They had divorced once and then remarried. I asked him once why he finally left. "Well, son, you don't remember this, but I bought a 1951 Ford roadster in '67-'68 and fixed it up. It was like the one I had when your mother was still alive. Well, she got drunk and went out in it and totaled it. I beat her up so bad that I knew if I stayed with her any longer, I might kill her some day. That's when I left-for good." He was coming apart and he knew it. The darkness was destroying him and he knew it.

I became a Christian in the late summer of 1967 and began almost immediately to "preach." I was full of zeal and aptness to speak, but I was as ignorant as a sack of hammers- ignorant of the Bible and of life. Daddy was not ignorant of either, but I made up my mind to convert him from his evil ways. He was very patient with me, but he was not ready to listen to a child, his child, talk to him from a position of moral superiority. We grew farther apart.

And then, he met my wife-to-be, Kathy. He was dazzled by her. And, I think he was transported by her to his life with my mother twenty years before. (He would sometimes, years later, say of her, "Oh, son, but she is a fine woman, fine like your mother was!") On the day he met her he told me for the first time the story of my mother and him, their happiness and tragedy. Daddy came all the way from Texas to Tulsa for our wedding. We were returning to one another.

I was preaching a revival meeting in Thackerville during the last days of August 1974. Kathy and I were staying with my grandparents. My grandfather's health was failing and he had to be hospitalized late in that same week. I took him to the doctor and then to the hospital. He would never come home again.

On the last day of the revival meeting, a hot Sunday morning, I preached from Genesis 25:8, "And Abraham breathed his last and died in a ripe old age, an old man and satisfied with life" NASB. I don't remember much about the sermon, except that I stressed that the only way to die "satisfied with life" is to die in faith in Abraham's God. The reason I stressed this particular point is that Daddy had come into the service after it began, dressed in his best suit, shirt, and tie and looking like a million bucks. He was not sunny that morning, he was grieving. I knew he was grieving over his dying father, but he was also grieving over his life, our lives.

When the pastor of the church gave he altar call, Daddy already weeping, came forward. The old women of the church were almost shouting and the old men were weeping and muttering loud "Amens." When I met him at the front he said, "I'm coming back, son, I'm coming back!"

As people prayed, we went into a little side room in the back of the church. When I closed the door and turned around Daddy was on his hands and knees, crying out to God and weeping. "O Mighty God..." he kept repeating, "O Mighty God..." And then, as his sobs racked his big frame, he began to cry out in grief and penitence, "I have been angry with you, Lord. I have hated you, Lord! I repent! I am sorry! I ask for your help to start over, to come back!" On and on he went like this for some time. I said nothing, but wept and agreed with everything he said. By the time he finished, there was a pool of tears beneath his bowed head the size of a dinner plate. Then he embraced me, squeezing the breath out of me. We held each other for a long time. "It's going to be alright, son," he kept reassuring me.

I had little doubt that it would.

...to be continued

"Daddy" Part III: Darkness Visible


The years to come would be years of darkness.

A great part of this is because my daddy had no real foundation under his life. While my mother had been building a personal character that dated back to her young years, daddy had been playing at life. My mother had become his foundation, but he had only just begun to build a personal, moral character. And remember, too, how young he was: only twenty-four at my mother's death.

Moreover, my daddy had embraced a Christian faith that coincided with the happiest brief years of his young life. It would be impossible for anyone not to erect the argument that he did. "I have lived a sinful life. I turned from that life to a life of faith in God and obedience toward God. That changed coincided with my marriage, my child, my family, the respect of others, bright hopes for the future, etc. Ergo, a life of faith and obedience produces happiness-in this life and in the life to come." I know from countless conversations with him that my daddy reasoned in this way, and that he struggled his whole life not to reason this way, even when he had come to know better.

To put in succinctly (and daddy would not have put it quite this way) my daddy's darkness was exacerbated by a theological conundrum, a theological conundrum at least as old as the story of Job.

Once in the 1980s we were walking together in the dark on the Young Place near Thackerville where we were both brought up. The sky was wondrous that night and, despite the glow of Dallas-Fort Worth seventy miles to the South, the Milky Way was luminous, overpowering. It was a numinous, mystic moment and we were both breathless beneath the immensity and splendor of it all. In the quiet daddy said, "I have tried to be happy in all the wrong ways...you know this. Women...drink...money. But, all I ever really wanted was to have a family...which I did for a while. And, then...then...God took it all away from me? Can you tell me why? You're the preacher, son, tell me why!" It was a unique, uncharacteristic outburst on his part.

And there was little I could say. There are, ultimately, no rationalistic answers to questions like these- at least, there are none that will finally rest the restless mind. The answer of faith, that can give rest to the mind, at least for periods of time, is that God has his purposes in all things, and that these purposes have a good and gracious end. Or, as one has said, "When we cannot trace God's hand, we can trust his heart." This will never satisfy those without faith, but it does bring peace to believers.

So the dark years that my daddy lived from 1952 to about 1972 were aggravated in part because of his own personal warfare with God, the God who had betrayed his trust, the God who "took it all away."

He waged this war by throwing away almost every moral principle he had embraced under my mother's influence. There were the girl friends, and the drink, and the language, all of which she would have found repellent. There were the marriages (four? five? six?) and the child out of wedlock that he would not claim as his own until she was twelve. There were the two other children that, finally, he left in despair with their wreck of a mother. And, there was the worst of the marriages to a woman who was the dark, abused addict, the depraved moral opposite of Velda.

And there was "Tommy."

After a year of traveling the country with Tommy in the front seat of a 1951 Ford roadster, daddy finally took me to his parents to care for me. There I would live until he entered the marriage with the one I would come to think of as "the Dragon." I would live with her and my daddy for the next eight years, years marked by her slappings and kickings, by her savage verbal abuse, by her drunken binges and countless infidelities, by her crude manners and exposures of herself, by their violent fights that sent me running home from school on Fridays to hide the shotgun shells and knives before the week-end drinking began. And on, and on...

But, enough.

It all became so bad in the end that my grandparents pleaded with daddy to let me return to them. And in time, I did. I have no doubt that I teetered on the edge of sanity in those days. My salvation was found in books, in weekends at my grandparent's, and by my personal space that I kept with the meticulous tidiness of a child whose other life is out of control.

All of which ate away at him. "Take care of my baby, Jim. Take care of Tommy!" It was daddy who later told me of this exchange. He had failed utterly and he could not forgive himself. Yet he could not help himself. Such guilt in such an over-heated conscience leads some men to suicide. In daddy's case, he just plunged deeper into the darkness.

But, it was during these days that we spent the time together that I spoke of earlier. He was always there. And he was always doing things for me, buying things for me. He bought me a Remington .22 rifle on my twelfth birthday that cost him the better part of a week's wages. He was his whole life the master of the grand gesture.

When he was dying and we were talking about some of these dark days, he began to sob and said, "I should have left you with Mama and Papa, but I wanted a little bit of you, too!" That moved me deeply, but the fact is, like many parents in broken marriages, he wanted it both ways. He wanted the child, but he also wanted a life detrimental to the child. I speak without bitterness, even if I speak bluntly.

Not that there wasn't bitterness aplenty during those dark years. He was a god to me, but a fallen god. There is no bitterness like a violated child's. The is no spring of bitterness like disappointment in a fallen god. Daddy knew this. I know this.

So I went back to Thackerville. It was heaven on earth to me. It was salvation.

And daddy plunged deeper and deeper into the dark. Even the light that I was to him was gone.

...to be continued

"Daddy" Part II: "Velda"


Her name was Velda which is Germanic and means "power." She had been born and raised in Love's Valley in Love county, Oklahoma, not ten miles away as a crow flies from where my daddy had been born and raised. They grew up not knowing one another existed and a score of years would pass before they first met.

She had moved with her family to California as a teen and would bloom there like one of the ubiquitous orange blossoms of her adopted state. The image is appropriate because every one who knew her remarked on her beauty and the sweet fragrance her life emitted.

In the late '40s Daddy was stationed at March Air Force Base in Riverside. He and Velda were introduced through his uncle and her aunt. Daddy at the time was young and handsome, and wild.

On one occasion, waiting to visit with her, he and his buddies were killing time in Ontario, sharing a bottle of Bourbon. When the time came to go to her home, Daddy told them, "Don''t bring that bottle to the Brown home." Dismissing this, the custodian of the whiskey carried it to the house and, sitting in Mr. Brown's favorite chair, stashed the half-pint bottle of Bourbon on one side of the cushion of the chair and a bottle of Coke on the other. When Mr. Brown arrived home from work, he took his paper to his favorite chair and began to read. Shifting in his seat, he noticed something strange and fished both bottles from inside the cushion. With a glare, he strode with the bottles to the front porch. Pitching the whiskey into the air, he threw the Coke bottle at it. Both exploded. Returning to his chagrined and embarrassed guests, his pulled up all of his one hundred and twenty-five pounds and said with a voice husky with anger, "Jim, don't you ever bring that stuff into my house again!" He would never have to say this again.

The romance grew, while Daddy's wild ways continued. Once, laughing, he told Velda of a night he spent in the jail in Big Bear for drunk and disorderly conduct. Velda did not laugh and sternly told him, "Jim, if you are going to continue to have anything to do with me, you are going to have to change your way of living." He did.

Shortly, thereafter, he professed faith and was baptized in the Ontario Church of Christ. And, soon after that, while the family was making plans for their wedding, the two of them traveled to Quartzite, Arizona, where they were married by a justice of the peace. I think this reflects a certain wildness, or, at least, nonconformity, in both of them.

They were unspeakably happy and they spread that happiness wherever they went. Velda, like Jim, was a happy, garrulous, gregarious person. Everyone remembers them as a couple who spread joy wherever they went. "There was always so much laughter wherever they were," my aunt remembers. That is how they are remembered: Two beautiful, happy people.

On October 25, 1951, their only child was born. Daddy always called me on my birthday, and he always began the conversation with these words, "It was snowing on Mt. Baldy the day you were born. It was the happiest day of my life." The happiness continued and the dozens of Kodak photographs from the period attest to this. There was only one shadow; Velda suffered from acute indigestion and it seemed to get worse and worse. Other than this, their life was full: Velda keeping their little house, loving her child; Jim working and occasionally preaching at the Church of Christ. It was a good life. It was a charmed life.

But Velda's suffering increased. After her doctor tried everything to relieve her symptoms, he finally referred them to a specialist in Pasadena. They made he trip to Pasadena together. They had been there before to enjoy the famous Rose Bowl Parade. After he had examined her, the doctor came to Jim in the waiting room and said, "I want to operate in the morning."

Jim was with Velda's parents in the hospital waiting room where the surgeon joined them after the operation. "Mr. Smith," he said, "I am so sorry, but your wife is suffering from advanced colon cancer. There is nothing we can do for her but make her as comfortable as possible in the coming months." Jim managed to croak out the inevitable question, "How long?" "Six months," the doctor replied. And six months later- to the day, Velda died.

The next six months were hell. Velda wasted away from her normal one-hundred-forty pounds to barely seventy-five. She was given more and larger doses of morphine for the pain, but toward the end, she was screaming with pain fifteen minutes after the last dose. Her grieving mother cared for her and for Tommy while Jim continued to work. At times, she would weep and say to Jim. "Take care of my baby, Jim. Take care of Tommy!"

On her last day, she was taken to the hospital in a white ambulance with Jim sitting, chatting with the driver. Thoughtlessly, making small talk, he said, "I remember the last time I rode in this thing..." Velda, with tears, uncharacteristically cried out, "Jim, Shut up!" They together had been bringing Tommy home.

She died in the night. She had turned twenty-four her last birthday. The funeral that followed, the friends, the family, the expressions of grief and love and sympathy were all a blurr. There are colored slides of the grave, covered with flowers. There were memories of how he grieved, how he keened out his pain at the grave and finally had to be pulled away, all of which trickled my way over the years.

But, for twenty years he would say nothing, would tell me nothing of my beautiful, engaging mother, apart from snippets like, "She was fine." "She was good." "She was better than I ever deserved." "She was beautiful."

On a March day in 1973, on the day when he first met my own beautiful wife-to-be, the floodgates of memory were opened, and as Kathy and I sat and listened and wept, he, also weeping, told us the beautiful and tragic story. I was twenty-one and for the rest of his life we would be best friends.

...to be continued

What is the Christian Gospel?



The Christian Gospel is the good news that the Creator has become a creature in order to recover a creation in rebellion against himself.

The Christian Gospel is the good news that the eternal God has become man in order to recover, restore and reorder fallen mankind.

The Christian Gospel is the good news that the Holy One has become so identified with human sinfulness as to cancel sin as guilt and evacuate it of its power.

The Christian Gospel is the good news that the Life of the world has died in order to render death powerless over mortal men.

The Christian Gospel is the good news that the Righteous One has through his obedience secured a righteousness that God's righteousness can accept.

The Christian Gospel is the good news that the God of grace has chosen to receive and accept those who deserved his wrath and cannot achieve his favor.

The Christian Gospel is the good news that those who receive the sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper in faith in Jesus are assured of life everlasting, the life of the age to come- now- and then.

The Christian Gospel is the good news that God accepts for Jesus' sake those who believe in him, with no regard for the best thing about them and despite the worst thing about them.

The Christian Gospel is the good news that the True Man by his Spirit is engaged in restoring our true humanity to wholeness, justice, and beauty.

The Christian Gospel is the good news that the Communal God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) is calling and cultivating a community of human sons and daughters who love him and one another, as well as their fellow humans.

The Christian Gospel is the good news that nations are being and will be brought to this transformative reality through the preaching of the good news.

The Christian Gospel is the good news that the present creation will be renewed in a transformation that will finally realize and participate in God's original purpose in creation, in glory, holiness, justice, and beauty.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Fear of the Dark


The child will fear the dark
And all the fears the dark contains.
The monsters the imagination makes,
The things unknown and unimaginable.
Such terror is real
In the presence of unreal things.

The dark holds terrors, too,
For those no longer young.
Their fears are fears of real things, things known,
Things half-forgotten and buried half-alive:
The foolish choice, the cutting word,
The act of passion or wrath.
Such terror is real
In the remembrance of real things.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Suggestions for Receiving Criticism


1. Realize that criticism is necessary for our growth as human beings and as Christians. Joe Bayley used to say, "Criticism is the manure in which the Lord's servants grow best." The Book of Proverbs is full of encouragements for us to receive criticism.

2. If the criticism is valid, then it is good for us.

3. If the criticism is invalid, it cannot harm us. Indeed, it may help us in a variety of ways. For example, Some of us are temperamentally, "thinned-skinned." This is not, in itself, a bad thing. Such people are, frequently (not always), more sensitive to others. But, to remain thinned-skinned is a character flaw. Receiving criticism, even when it is invalid, can help toughen us up.

4. Criticism helps us to see things more three-dimensionally. It helps us to get perspective. "He he trusts his own heart is a fool." "There is a way that seems right to a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death."

5. Criticism received can keep us from mistakes and disaster. There is a story told about the Indian women who were plundering the dead after Custer's defeat on the Little Big Horn. While Custer's body was not mutilated as the other fallen soldiers on the field, an old woman was seen pushing a sewing awl into the dead General's ears. When asked what she was doing, she replied, "Maybe he will listen better in the next life."

6. Develop a spirit that not only receives criticism when it comes, but invites and welcomes it as necessary for a better life.

7. Develop a spirit of self-criticism and a circle of friends who will lovingly criticize you when necessary. But, make sure these friends understand your perspective and personality. Flannery O'Conner said, "I am willing to receive criticism, but only from those who understand what I am trying to do." This is wise.

8. Do not let your own self-criticism and that of others degenerate into an unhealthy self-hatred.

9. Be slow to criticize others, but faithful to do so when it is needful and helpful.

10. Be open to the criticism of God by his Word and Spirit. "Whom the Lord loves, he chastens..." "As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten..."

11. Do what you know to be right with boldness and with little regard for the criticism your actions may generate.

Monday, February 21, 2011

"Daddy"


My father, James Patrick Smith, died ten years ago this past Thanksgiving week. I think about him every day and, perhaps because of this anniversary, I have been thinking about him more than usual. He was an intriguing, unique, and polychromatic personality, utterly unforgettable. And this is all the more interesting, given that he acted out his three-score-and ten-years on a small and obscure stage. I have written about him before in fragments, often tragic and sad, so I thought it might be good to give a larger, less tragic and more balanced picture of him.

In the sermon I preached for my daddy's funeral, I said, "Loving Daddy was never a problem to me, but I have spent my whole life trying to understand him." The quest for understanding goes on, though not so furiously as before, even now. Love seeks understanding, especially of those we love profoundly and totally.

That love is rooted in his undeniable love for me. In the young years that I did live with him, we were almost always together. If he could have me with him, I was there. He loved me- profoundly and totally. One can love profoundly and totally without loving perfectly- or let us hope so.

As I have said, my memories of my life with him are memories of being much with him. How many country roads we traveled together. How many country grocery stores we stopped at for cheese, crackers, and cans of Vienna sausages, (cans that had to be opened with a key soldered to their tops) and bottles of grape or strawberry pop. This was lunch. The roads led to "camp sites" of American Indians in plowed fields, or creek banks, or washed-out gullies. There he would patiently scour the ground flicking bits of flint with the walking stick he carried (the stick had been brought back from France by his gas-crippled uncle Pat after the Great War), occasionally stooping to pick up a shard, rubbing away the dirt with his fingers. He was, of course, looking for arrowheads, "projectiles," he sometimes called them. I found the whole thing a bore after a while. But he was there, I was there, we were there together. Arrowheads, "points," "projectiles," "relics"- these were his passion then. I know now that the cotton-headed boy was his greater, even his greatest, passion.

He was given to passion, my Daddy. I wonder if he ever did anything in his life without passion, except to die, and that because the tumor eating away at his brain had robbed him of his ability to do everything he loved to do. When he faced a life without work, without puttering, without thinking hard about things, he simply gave up. Not, that it mattered all that much; the tumor was more powerful than any of us, even than the doctors and the therapies.

Because of this inexhaustible passion for life, Daddy lived big, thought big, dreamed big. He gave of himself in a big way. And, as he would be the first to admit, his mistakes and bad choices were also big. That is the problem with passion. Unless it is wedded to prudence, it can lead to a big mess. And, in Daddy's case, it frequently did.

But, I want to reflect on the bigness of his soul that compelled so many people to love him. Because so many people did. The funeral home in Winnsboro, Texas was full that day, full to the point of standing-room-only. People had come from a two-hundred mile radius to be there and to honor the man in the casket dressed in a new pair of bib-overalls.

Part of the attraction was purely his physical good looks. Over six-feet, tanned, muscular, straight as an arrow, he was a presence. Strong features with a glorious smile, flashing teeth, and sparkling eyes. And a loud, friendly voice. I write in fragments-the charm, the winsomeness, the magnetism can only be caught in fragments.

And he never met a stranger, as the saying goes. He was always greeting people, introducing himself, engaging others in conversation, sometimes despite themselves. I took him to Washington once (Washington was Mecca to him, the Smithsonian the Black Stone), and as we waited in line at the Archives to see the founding documents of the nation, Daddy, in ball-cap, tee-shirt, and suspenders, engaged an, at first, dubious well-dressed couple in a conversation that ended in their telling him all about themselves. He was ebullient, effervescent, talking, shouting, laughing, teasing, and sometimes, darkly threatening. He was all over you and after you left him the fragrance of him remained. I have no doubt that the couple from the Archives still, remember, sometimes, that man from Texas.

He had a way of communicating love for people. He wouldn't have put it that way; it would have offended his sense of propriety. He would say, he "liked" people. Countless people he would describe in his highest praise, "He's a good old boy," or "a good'un," or, "a dandy feller," "She's a fine lady." And if you were his friend, as a handful of people inside and outside his family were, he would die for you-or kill for you.

He ended his formal schooling in the tenth grade to go and work in the oil fields of south Texas. But, possessed of a quick intelligence and a omnivorous curiosity, he made himself an amateur expert in the history of the American West and of Indian ways in his native Oklahoma and Texas. His love for reading was insatiable and his interest in things profound. I learned to read at his side on those country trips as he stopped to read the ubiquitous Texas Historical Markers that dotted Young and Jack Counties. One of my earliest memories is a visit to old Fort Belknap in Young County, where he read and explained the various "relics" to me-at age five. On our Washington trip, I had to pry him away from all the explanatory markers, saying, "If you do that, we'll be here for years." "Well, son, you've got to read if you ever want to know anythang," was his half-humorous reply. He taught me before I learned it again and again in the presence of the formally educated, that formal education does not make an educated person. "The educated fool was a fool before he was educated," he would sometimes say, quoting his own daddy.

He was the best early story teller I knew and one of the best that I have ever known. This was in part, because he was a natural collector of people and their tales. They relaxed with him and shared their lives. This had been true of him even when he was a boy. When his buddies would be playing ball or fishing, he would often choose to ride the old mare over to a family home-place, to eat dinner, and play cards or dominoes with the "old people," and hear and collect their stories. He also loved and collected their "turns of phrase," like the rest of our family. These enriched and colored his speech, and continue to do the same with mine. When we came together in my adult life, it was a time of rehearsing the old stories, made richer and sweeter by their re-telling. They are retold now by my own children.

Part of his genius as a story-teller was his encyclopedic, infallible memory. We would sit and revisit the old people and places and one of us would say, "What was that feller's name?" or "Where did they come from?" and after a moment, one of us would remember. Usually it was Daddy. He remembered where he found or traded for each of the nearly one thousand arrowheads in his collection. He could remember a tree in a vast woods that he had shot a squirrel from sixty years before, and could take you there. To be in the presence of this memory of place was to be on the edges of the visual memory of the plains-mountain men and scouts, red and white, that memorized the vast American West a hundred years before his birth.

Those who remember him remember him as the happy, funny man. He was always grinning, always laughing, always teasing. His stories were replete with humor. This was due in part to his penchant for "collecting" odd characters, discerning the traits that made them odd, and then rehearsing these things to others with a measure of exaggeration for comic effect. Wherever he was the place would ring with his laughter.

It may come as a surprise to some, therefore, to know that he was a deeply wounded, conflicted man. He carried within himself this large hurt, this colossal pain in all the years I knew him. And in some ways he will always be to me, "the Hurt Man." I want to try to talk about that hurt, that pain.

To be continued...

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Landscape of the Soul


"You will want to come home,"
My Daddy said, just before he died.
"You will want to come back
to where you were raised."

Like other things that fathers say
I dismissed it, outright.
I pushed it away.
But, it stayed somewhere
In my head.
He was right.
I was wrong.
The way that fathers and sons
Are.

The landscape of childhood
Is the landscape of the soul.
Something like this
I had read in an old book.

And now,
I long for open country
For big skies
Where the sun
Can be seen to rise
And to set
On a horizon clearly defined.

I long for a country of extremes-
A western country where
The drawl is soft.
I crave the booted walk of men
That carries a swagger
Of self confidence
Rarely seen in claustrophobic minds
Of city dwellers
And people of mountains and hollers.
Where a smile of welcome
Not a scowl of suspicion
Meets the visitor, the stranger.
Where the wind makes a sea
Of the tall prairie grasses.
Where the hint of Indian drums
And the memory of buffalo herds
Are in the sod and brushy timber.
Where the rattlesnake is still feared
And watched for at every country gate.
Where the rivers have a muddy cast
And dark, northwest clouds adumbrate
The wrath of God.

The landscape of childhood
Is the landscape of the soul.
My daddy knew this intuitively,
And never read it in a book.
I read it in a book
And learned from life
To trust my intuitions.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Ironies


When my beautiful, gracious mother died at age twenty-four of cancer, my father was swept into a vortex of pain, anger, and confusion. He lived there for the best part of the next twenty years.

After traveling with his infant son of thirteen months across the country for a while, he finally placed the child in the care of his own parents on a farm just outside Thackerville, Oklahoma. It was in that large, bustling household that I lived for the next four years. It was an environment of love and discipline and I thrived there.

Daddy worked the oil fields, fished the Red River, and, in his own words, "caroused." I have no idea where he lived at the time. There was a succession of girlfriends and working-fishing-carousing buddies. I remember him most in those years by his absences, though a child's mind has a way of distorting and exaggerating the reality of things. When he did come to the Big House, it was always with presents and exciting curiosities. I remember him coming once with a trunk load of writhing, flopping catfish, and I used to love to play with his oil field worker's hard hat. And he always brought his ebullient self, full of talk and laughter and stories.

When he left, I cried, but he always promised to see me again. "I'll see you again next Saturday."

I remember one such Saturday. I must have been three or so at the time. It was a warm day, so early in the morning I scooted my little red rocking chair out on the front porch that extended across the full length of the old house so I could sit and watch the long road for a first glimpse of his black Ford. And there I sat for the best part of the day. When evening fell, my heart began to fall with it. All day I had watched and no Daddy. After supper, I returned to my sentry post until dark, when my "Big Mamma," my grandmother, came and gently said, "He's probably not coming today, honey. Come on in." I do not remember crying or saying anything. I do remember the sense of loss and disappointment that filled my young mind. It would not be the only time that such a thing happened.

Fast forward forty years. I was living in West Virginia and literally traveling the world. My trips to see my Daddy, then living in East Texas, were infrequent, too infrequent.

On April 9th, 1998, Daddy turned seventy. I was, on that day, three hundred-odd miles north of him in Tulsa, Oklahoma, taking part in the ordination service of one of my pupils. It was an engagement that I could not excuse myself from. I had told my Daddy about it all and he was sadly resigned to the thing. I was conflicted and guilty about missing his seventieth birthday, but my sense of duty won out.

Late in the day, after the ceremony and services were over, I phoned him to wish him happy birthday and to send him my love. How was your day? How are you feeling? Who did you hear from? Were any of the family members there?

He was fine. It had been a day much like any other. No one had showed up. He had received phone calls from his brothers and sisters and some of the other children. He and his wife had eaten a dinner of catfish at home, alone. And then,

"I watched the road all day long, thinking you might come," he said.