The Sound Post

We all have ways that we remember dear folks who have died: Photographs of the deceased may sit on a piece of furniture or shelf or hang from a wall;  a cut flower or other small object may be placed in a book; a plant may occupy a place in a garden; the ways to remember someone are only limited by the griever’s need and imagination.

Yesterday I heard of a Carolyn’s death, and the person sharing that news asked that well-used question/statement, “You know Donnie (her husband) died from COVID this past January?, a full eight month ago. Not much news from the Valley reaches us since we moved to Lake Norman five years ago, but some does, just not news of his dying. So when I was told of his death, I went to my shop and opened a particular drawer just to check. The bone with a place where a small piece had been cut away was still there. I held the porkchop bone in my hand and remembered.

Donnie and I met when my wife and I began attending Antioch Church of the Brethren. Over time I learned much about Donnie, such as his devotion to his family, but before long I was also exposed to his musical gifts. I don’t think he could read music, but he sure could play and sing it, especially his fiddle and mandolin. Once he asked me if I could  help him with some repairs with his violin because he had been told that I worked with wood. I told him that while I had a small woodshop, I was in no way a luthier. He said that didn’t matter, and we agreed on a day for him to come to our house.

He came early on the chosen day, and he left after lunch, but before supper. The pace of the  day was easy as we talked, getting to know one another better, and he showed me a few soft repairs that he wanted to do for his violin. I honestly don’t remember the repairs we made, but he guided me and walked me through each. At best, they were cosmetic ones because I was not qualified to do any major repairs to such an instrument.  But I vividly remember the sound post.

We had shared lunch, talked a great deal, done a bit of repair when Donnie said, “Now we need a sound post.” I asked what that was, and he explained the sound post, its function, and showed me where it was to go. He looked around my shop and commented that he saw lots of wood, but did I have any bone because bone was best for that part of a violin. I motioned to the large yard outside the double shop doors and said, “We have three hounds, there must be a bone out there somewhere.” Donnie walked out to the yard and started looking. Soon he returned with a pork chop bone and said,  “This’ll work.”

I cleaned the bone and under his patient guidance I cut a piece from it to his specifications. We then inserted the bone sound post,  and he picked up his fiddle and tuned it.

Most days in my shop were good ones, but that day was one of the best as I learned about violins. But best of all was that a new friendship was formed, and Donnie picked up his violin, saying, “Let’s see how we did.”

My shop was just a wood shop, but for the next few minutes it was a grand concert hall as Donnie played his fiddle. Few songs have seldom sounded so sweet.

The Last Carver

When I first began working on the Close of the National Cathedral in 1995, a rather shabby looking building occupied a small space between the Cathedral and the school building in which I worked. There was a gravel parking between them that was used by school’s faculty, and the building was called The Carver’s Shed. Oh, it was a shed! Because of its shabbiness, many folks connected to the Cathedral found its appearance offensive and wanted it removed. But I liked it for what it was—a shed in which carvers for the Cathedral practiced their ancient art. In that plywood structure the gargoyles, pinnacles, parapets, crockets, finials, and so much more functional, but artistic parts, of the grand gothic National Cathedral were created. In that shed, carvings of Darth Vader and Medusa were imagined and then created out of limestone blocks; and now they decorate the Cathedral’s exterior while serving an architectural function. In that shed form and function merged in an art developed over years.

 However,  I also liked the building because after each Friday’s Cathedral Service, I would stop in and chat with Vincent Palumbo, the last carver for the Cathedral. Sometimes he would stop his work when I entered his space and at other times he would continue working, all the while talking and explaining his work. Vince was always patient and gracious with me, and he smiled when I gave him a handmade roof slate, complete with wooden peg that anchored it to the roof, that I had collected from a  14th century building of Pembroke College in Oxford. But my Friday visits with Vince in his dust-filled, creative, and magnificent work space ceased when leukemia worsened, and he had to quit creating for the Cathedral;  Vince died in December 2000.

I hold close these memories of Vince and a bit more. The Cathedral’s head mason, Joe Alonso, gave me two of Vince’s chisels and a dove that he was carving before his death. The chisels have the small initials VP cut into them, and the dove is outlined in the small block of Indiana limestone, and it was to have one more piece to grace the Cathedral, had Vince been able to finish carving it. His craft is evident in the small carving, and I treasure it for the spirit and hands that began to create it out of a block of stone. Now it and the chisels sit on a low boy in our living room as a reminder of him and of those Friday visits and of the Cathedral.

While my days of working on the Close are gone just as is the Carver’s Shed, the memories of my Friday visits with Vince are some of the many that carry me on. And the art of the Cathedral carries still, like the memory of Vincent Palumbo, the last master carver.

Seventy-Six

There was a time when I thought 76 was old. But not today. I turn 76 and am blessed with good health, a fine wife, and full life, so 76 seems fine. But still, ….

To explain: the first was William, my college roommate, who I always called Willie or Charlie. He died twenty-five years ago when his testicular cancer of our college days returned with a vengeance. Then Dave, who all of us called by his surname Hooper or even Hoop and a fellow teacher/coach, died of another cancer eighteen years ago, and James, who I called Jim, was a good friend killed by a heart attack fourteen years ago as he was readying his boat for his yearly two weeks on Lake George. These three from my early life and three others who came later have been with me all day.

There is Helen the Oxford poet, the lover of her annual, late summer visits to the Isle of Skye, her hats, and her poetry; Bill the Oxford artist who walked miles of Oxfordshire with me, all the while teaching me about history, geology, butterflies, good pints, and more. Then there is Clare, the Canadian with whom I worked in Oxford and for whom a garden bench in Corpus Christi is dedicated. The bench plaque reads, “And here I still am.”

For reasons I do understand, and for some beyond my comprehension, each is with me today.  Their presence is not a haunting one, or one causing regret and its companion sadness. Their presence does, however, cause reflection, sort of an interior reckoning of me by me. Their presence causes me to take an account for the years I have lived beyond theirs, and it forces me to think about all that I have had that their diseases did not allow. Finally, I see their presence as the gift it is; a reminder to live each day the words on Clare’s bench—“And here I still am.”

The Gospels and Rome

Jesus and the Empire of God

Warren Carter

Cascade Books, 2021

Carter wastes no time in explaining his use of cultural intertextuality avenue for reading and studying the Gospels. He reminds us that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John composed while Rome ruled: “The empire does not disappear from the Gospels just because an emperor or  governor or soldier or tax is not mentioned.” He then uses selected Gospel texts alongside Roman texts to create an opportunity for the reader to “make meaning in the intersections among them.”

Intertextuality is an interesting way to read the Gospels and while I had unknowingly done it in the past, I had not been aware of its wide range. For instance, one of the Gospel stories that Carter uses is the scene where Jesus instructs two disciples to go into Jerusalem and they will find a donkey with here colt tied. If asked, the disciples are to say that the Master needs them. Jesus then rides the donkey into Jerusalem.

Carter shows how this well-known arrival by Jesus, where he is greeted by the screaming crown, is like the manner a Roman ruler or victorious general would enter a city.  He cites many historical accounts to support and then compare the entry of Jesus with that of Augustus, Gaius, and Titus into Rome or other locations.

I enjoyed Carter’s examination of the Gospels by intertextuality because it directly shows the Roman world that Jesus lived in with all its problems: “Rome-sanctioned, Jerusalem-based local leaders, pervasive sickness, food insecurity, occupied territory, language of sovereignty, fantasies of revenge, and visions of a new and just world all interact with Roman imperial structures and [practices.” Carter in those words shows us the world in which Jesus walked and preached. It should give us encouragement for the world we face.

Land with Little Rain

While reading some news reports concerning the diversion of water from the Mississippi River to the arid and drying up West, I thought of Wallace Stegner and his warnings about our misunderstanding and misuse of the arid region beyond the 98th Meridian. He wrote several books concerning our history of living in the arid West, but in this essay I refer to his collection of three speeches (The American West as Living Space) he made in 1986 at the Law School of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Stegner tells that all emigrants going west wrote in their journals that when they passed Grand Island in the Platte Valley, their nostrils dried out, their lips cracked, and their wagon wheels began to shrink and wobble. After this point in their long walk, they became aware that the air became so dry their “estimates of distance began to be ludicrously off the mark”, which was a vital skill for a wagon train’s emigrants. Mary Austin, a later emigrant, would title her 1903 book about this space, The Land With Little Rain.  

Some explores and settlers of this land learned from it and accepted it for what it was. People such as Ivan Doig, the mentioned Austin, Stegner, and John Wesley Powell encouraged adaptation to the West’s dryness. However, folks like William Gilpin (the first territorial governor of Colorado) and that foolish booster of the west, Cyrus Thomas (“rain follows the plow” theory) helped open the west for what we now know is a threat instead of a man-made paradise. While we quickly learned that rain did not follow the plow it seems that we have yet to learn that we can bend nature just so much.

A writer in the Desert Sun in Palm Springs, CA observes that “We just need to get an amount of water similar to that which goes down the California aqueduct (100,000-125,000 gallons/second) to Lake Powell and then on down to Lake Mead.” To accomplish that the writer suggests digging a trench across several states to hold a pipe to carry the needed water. The writer points out that between August 1942 and August 1943 the American government built two pipelines to carry oil from Texas to refineries in New Jersey. So, the writer continues, let’s get on with it and correct mother nature’s distribution of water.

The writer quoted above and others who agree with this type of thinking should read Stegner’s books or any of the other good examinations by many writers of our failure to appreciate the “liquid gold” beyond the 98th Meridian. I do not doubt that American government and ingenuity could build a pipeline to divert water from the Mississippi River to the drying up Lake Mead, Lake Powell, or anywhere else the water is wanted.  But we may want to heed Stegner’s warning: “The solution of western problems does not lie in more grandiose engineering.”

Perhaps we need to learn how to live in a land with little rain.

            Dual Citizenship

David McCullough’s The American Spirit is a timely read. A 2017 collection of fifteen of his speeches covering several years and settings, it is timely because its sub-title, Who We Are and What We Stand For is a reminder that 2022 is a good time to re-examine our character.

The selected speeches scan from 1989 to 2016 and were delivered at the White House and the United States Capitol and Monticello and other such settings, but, as fitting for a scholar like McCullough, most were shared at colleges and universities. As expected, each speech gave some history of the occasion, information about some of the people behind the occasion, and as he writes in the introduction, he always came away from each speaking date “with my outlook greatly restored, having seen, again and again, long-standing American values still firmly in place, good people involved in joint efforts to accomplish changes for the better, the American spirit still at work.” But, best of all, he gives a lesson or lessons in each speech.

 At Hillsdale College in 2005, for instance, he quotes Daniel Boorstin, Barbara Tuchman, E.M. Forster,  John and Abigail Adams, and speaks of such Signers as Benjamin Rush. Not surprisingly, all of his words are spoken from his love and appreciation of our history, which he implores us to learn. He shares how his friend Daniel Boorstin thought that “trying to plan for the future without a sense of the past is like trying to plant cut flowers”,  and he cautions us that, “Citizenship isn’t just voting.” And he shows us how to be more than just voting citizens.

“Read. Read, read!” A command from a fellow citizen who knows the necessity of being informed.

Now, I am sure that when McCullough delivered these speeches he was thinking of our secular citizenship and the debt we owe our country. He is correct that a good citizen does more than vote in every election cycle. A good citizen reads and studies and thinks of history and the events and people who came before. And a good citizen understands that those folks were like us-fallible humans.

But McCullough’s words are applicable to another citizenship role in many of our lives—the role of citizenship in Christ. Just as we are told to read our secular history, we need to read and study not only the Bible but other sources concerning Christianity.  Read the histories of Jesus’ world and better understand the forces He encountered. Read modern day Christian writers such as Clarence Jordan, Howard Thurman, C.S. Lewis, Samuel Wells, A.W. Tozer, or any number of the good writers available. Their words are reminders of how a Christian life should be lived, and when attending Sunday service do not act and think like the secular voter McCullough warns us against who believes that showing up is all that is required.

McCullough tells us that being a citizen requires more than voting just as Jesus tells us that being a Christ Follower requires more than sitting in a pew on Sunday.  Both citizenships require action: Acts of study, thought, and deeds. Anything short is false.

                                                                   My First Buechner

My first Frederick Buechner arrived this week;  Speak What We Feel (Not What We Ought to Say)  is his reflections on literature and faith.

Now, I have always been a reader. Not a good student, it is my reading that helped me salvage my academic and intellectual self. Because of my reading I managed to attend college and even read through to obtain an MA. My modest library contains books about literature, biographies of writers and other leaders, examinations of religion, political studies, investigations of nature, and more. As a life-long learner, I subscribe to the words of Abigail Adams quoted by David McCullough in his 2008 speech at Boston College’s commencement: “Learning is not attained by chance. It must be sought with ardor and attended with diligence.” McCullough goes on to tell the graduates to “Read! Read, read…. Read for pleasure, to be sure. But take seriously-read closely-books that have stood the test of time.” Those are words I followed, taught my students, and still follow in my retirement. And I especially like Adams’ use of ardor and diligence. However, I share my reading history not out of arrogance, but so that the reader can better appreciate my feelings when a good friend recently asked me had I read Buechner. My friend, also a retired educator with whom I worked, shared with me how Buchner had influenced his teaching, faith, and life. Interested, I later typed in Frederick Buechner on the Internet search engine only to read that he had died a few days before. I read of  his peaceful death at an advanced age, but I was swept away by the tributes to and the deeply felt appreciations of such a writer/thinker that I only had not read, but one of whom I had never heard. I wondered, as I read, exactly where had I been while Frederick Buechner was being such an influencer of all kinds of folks. Feeling ignorant and a bit self-cheated, I ordered two books—the one mentioned above and my friend’s favorite, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC.

          To the present, I have only read the first two writers Buechner reflects on in Speak, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Mark Twain. His reflections of the writers at first encouraged me to rush on into this thinker’s words. Yet, reading a sentence such as the following one he writes to describe Hopkins cautions me: “Again and again Hopkins chooses words open to so many interpretations that, like prisms when the light touches them, they cast across the page a whole spectrum of possible meanings.” That is a sentence to chew, taste, and savor for what it says and how it says it. If you doubt Buechner’s insight, read The Windhover and then wonder at his depth of compassion and understanding for Hopkins and Twain.

I will read and study Buechner in the same manner that Abigail Adams advises to approach learning–with ardor and diligence.

Mark Robinson’s Majority

The Lt. Governor of North Carolina, Mr. Mark Robinson, has written his autobiography, We Are the Majority: The Life and Passions of a Patriot, which will soon be available to the general public. While I have not read the autobiography, I trust the reports of it that I have read and am concerned about two of Robinson’s ideas.

 According to the web site Public Schools First, NC, 1,429,275 students attended traditional public schools in North Carolina during the 2020-2021 school year, and charter school enrollment was 129,389 students for the same term. Robinson writes “I would get rid of it [the State Board of Education]. We need to have one entity, one person, where the buck stops. Right now we have at least three: the school boards, the state superintendent of education and the local school systems—and none are truly answerable to the others. We need one entity to be in charge of education in the state so that when the legislature has questions and concerns, they can go to that single institution and expect to influence the way education is done.”  Perhaps Robinson, like so many politicians, is thinking of an authoritarian system where he or one of his flunkies can “influence the way education is done.” A state legislature certainly is not qualified to “influence the way education is done.” And his idea of abolishing the state board does nothing about school boards, local systems and many more overseers of our public educational system. This idea of Robinson’s shows that he is a vote seeking politician masquerading as an educator.

.But what I find most disturbing is the above quotation from Robinson’s book. He would remove science and social studies from the 1-5 curriculum. He writes  “In those grades, [1-5] we don’t need to be teaching social studies. We don’t need to be teaching science. We surely don’t need to be talking about equity and social justice.” He writes that he would stress reading, writing, and math.

I guess Robinson sees no need in a democracy having citizens well informed about its way of governance or its history or its geography. In a country that grows smaller and smaller because of the Internet, we will need future citizens to be founded in those three areas of the social sciences, and even in more of them such as economics. And how can our future citizens be expected to participate in a democracy without a foundation in the sciences? The study of science teaches critical thinking skills, and every democracy needs citizens who have that skill. All of these areas of study are best when introduced and built on at an early age, like the study of languages.

Robinson shows his ignorance of early education. Imagine how, for one instant, a 1st grade teacher can explain the importance of raising hands, taking turns, standing in line, and not bullying a classmate without raising the subject of social justice. Public education is built on equity and social justice and is the foundation of our democracy.

Robinson’s ideas for public education are blubbering bluster that show his lack of knowledge about helping our children become tomorrow’s citizens and leaders. I suggest to Robinson this observation by an unknown educator responding to such silliness as his: “Just because you live in a house does not mean you are qualified to build one.”

Standing Corrected

Many years ago a fellow member of a church I then attended gave me a small piece of paper. As he handed it to me, he said, “I’ve always tried to live this poem.” On the paper was printed “A Better Way”  below which were twelve lines of rhymed poetry. At the bottom of the  page was printed Edgay [sic] A. Guest. While I did not like the poetry in and of itself, I did like the message by Edgar A. Guest.  I tucked the small rectangular piece of paper in my Bible and read it or referred to it often. Recently I even used all twelve lines of A Better Way in an essay. Until yesterday.

Yesterday our pastor used a poem in his weekly message to the congregation. He shared how he had read the poem in the 7th grade and was influenced by it. The poem he referenced was Live Your Creed by Langston Hughes. My wife noticed the similarities between Guest’s and Hughes’ poem, and she asked me about them. Oh, what I discovered about the poets and me.

 Edgar Guest was born in Birmingham, England in 1881, and his family moved to Detroit, Michigan when he was ten. When his father lost his job, young Edgar worked odd jobs after school and in 1895 was hired as a copy boy for the Detroit Free Press, where he would work for almost sixty-five years. When he was seventeen his father died, and he began working full time for the paper. He slowly worked his way up and his first poem appeared in the paper in 1898, and by 1904 his weekly column, “Chaff” was published. Eventually his verses became the “Breakfast Table Chat” which was syndicated to over 300 United States newspapers.

Guest broadcast a weekly NBC radio program from 1931 to 1942, and in 1951 his show “A guest in Your Home” appeared on NBC television. He published over twenty volumes of poetry and has been called “the poet of the people.” Concerning his poems, he said,   “I take simple everyday things that happen to me and I figure it happens to a lot of other people and I make simple rhymes out of them.”  Edgar Guest died on August 5, 1959.

Now, I was more familiar with Langston Hughes and his poems. I had even taught some of them and admire his work. However, after much looking on the Internet and reading the listed poems in the PDF of The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, I can find no poem titled Live Your Creed composed by Hughes.  I did find many praises to the poem for its inspiration written by ordinary folks like me, but no references from serious scholars.

The two poems are too similar: The Sermons We See begins: “I’d rather see a sermon than hear one any day”, and Live Your Creed, as quoted by several admirers,  begins: “I’d rather see a sermon than to hear one any day.” One word (in bold) difference. I found that Guest wrote his poem in 1926 and that the poem I had carried all these years was just the first two stanzas of Guest’s four stanza poem and “A Better Way” was not the title. The original poem had been all hacked, and I had blindly accepted the fake. Now I know better, but I still have not found out all I want to know about the poem alluded to Hughes. I now stand corrected and better informed about Guest and will continue reading and searching more about Hughes.

Senseless  Chatter about Clothing Chains

The pejorative phrase “Banana Republic” was used to describe a small, poor country that often relied on a single export or other limited natural resource. Such a country was usually governed by an authoritarian, corrupt regime. Such a regime often conspired with a foreign corporation for economic gain at its citizens’ peril.

The phrase has been used by some critics to describe the FBI search of Mar-a-Lago, President Trump’s hotel/home. Using it in this way, critics of the search imply that it demonstrates how America borders on being ruled by an authoritarian regime. Not only is the phrase offensive for countries and their citizens south of the United States, but it also reveals the ignorance of Bo Hines who is a candidate for the NC district 13 Congressional seat.

Recently, candidate Hines was discussing the FBI search of Donald Trump’s hotel home with John Fredericks on a conservative radio talk show. In response to the observation by Fredericks that some Republicans think the search makes the US look like a  “banana republic”, young Hines pontificated, “I think that’s an insult to Banana Republics across the country. I mean, at least the manager of Banana Republic — unlike our president — knows where he is and why he’s there and what he’s doing.”

The only good thing about Hines’ words is that they do not offend any Central American countries. But his blundering attack on President Biden does tell us about Bo Hines, the 26-year-old graduate of Yale University. His campaign writes that Hines was joking during his reference to the retail store. However, all that sorry excuse does is to offend any thinking voter. Hines, who played football for many years, will understand these word s, “A busted play.”

We seem to be beset with candidates who do not exhibit the best skills needed in order to lead by policies. I suggest that Hines was so intent on blabbering the same old criticisms of President Biden that his mouth and his brain disconnected. His words show that he is just one more puppet of an anti-Christ figure. He offers no solutions, just complaints. Any ninny can do that. Just ask Cawthorne.

We need leaders who have policies and principles. Following an orange-faced buffoon is neither. And never forget the words of Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan:  “You are entitled to your opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts.”