Memorials

On Memorial Day, 2021 I read an article about the WW I War Memorial in Durham, NC, and it caused me to remember a WW I memorial in Magdalen College, Oxford that my friend Druin showed me.  Located underneath the ground floor arch of Founder’s Tower of Magdalen College, the stone memorial lists the names of college students who died in WW I. The one in Durham is similar but different.

Erected in 1921 the stone pillar in Durham was the first piece of what became a statue garden in front of the old county courthouse, and it listed the names of Durham County men who were killed in WW I. The names of white soldiers were carved on the front which faces Main Street, and the names of the Black soldiers were carved on the back facing away from the main street. This past March the city placed a plaque in front of the memorial with an alphabetical listing of men killed in the war and an explanation of the names on the pillar. Now the names of men who fought and died together are not separated by race, but presented by their sacrifice.

Our country is embroiled by race issues. Many cities and towns still have statues honoring the traitors of the Civil War. Some Confederate soldier statues, like the one that was in Durham, have been pulled down by protesters, and others have been removed by local civil authorities. However, the names of leaders from the rebellion and its symbol are still used to designate military installations, as street names, names of schools, flags, holidays, and other landmarks of modern American life. Even after many protests against public memorials and countless efforts to remove other glorification of the traitors, there are many folks who still adore its failed efforts to destroy America.

While I commend the leaders of Durham County in the erecting of the plaque which gives an accurate accounting of its soldiers who died fighting for our freedoms, the battle to correct that wrong dates back, according to the Observer article  I read, to at least 2003. That seems to give support to the thought that America is a nation suffering from racism. If not, why would it take since 2003 to correct such a wrong.

The Durham pillar was erected a hundred years ago, and the argument for it and ones like it is that our nation was different then, that racism was more overt and accepted then so that is why the names of Black soldiers were listed on the back of the memorial. But voices say that things are different now: We are told by friends, neighbors, relatives, and leaders that racism like that does not exist  in America today; we are told that movements like BLM are divisive; we are told that if young Black men would be submissive, then less of them would be shot by police; we are told that Confederate flags represent heritage, not hate; we are told that CRT does not examine history correctly; we are told by several state legislatures that new voting regulations are not shadows of Jim Crow, but needed to make elections safer and more democratic and American. What happened in 1921 is one issue, but what happens in 2021 is of more importance because it tells us still who we are as a nation. And what I hear is that we are not united because we refuse to unite by allowing things to separate us instead of using them to bring us together.

When Druin showed me the WW I Memorial, I noticed a German name listed along with the others. He explained that while the man was a German in the German army, he was a student of Magdalen, so for that reason his name belonged on the list of fallen Magdalen’s sons.

It seems like such a simple decision and act—to include in the list of fallen soldiers all of the names-English, American, Scottish, German or whatever- of the Magdalen students who were killed in the “War to end war.”  Now all these years later the Durham plaque places all the names of its sons from those trenches as they fought: Together. Such a simple decision that recognizes the honesty of their service, not their race or nationality.

What You Deserve Went Missing

An internet server in the Charlotte area airs a commercial touting the advantages it offers consumers. After the usual hype with an attractive person talking, the over voice says (to paraphrase), “It’s time to get what you deserve.” My hardback dictionary states that “deserve”  means “to be worth of” or “merit.” That first meaning has two connotations: to gain something positive, such as an award; or to receive a negative response to a particular action. Thus, a studious student may be awarded with academic accolades while a spiteful person may be ill-treated by another person. So in general, we use “deserve” to denote being awarded for hard work, courage, or other such positive acts.

Now, I know that language changes over the course of years because of our usage of it. In fact, several academics will argue that it must change in order for us to communicate effectively. Thus, the verb “quote” is now used to designate the noun “quotation”, and the longer form seems to have suffered a slow death. But my favorite new grammar usage, used by even the best of written sources, is “went missing.” A sentence such as, “The toddler went missing over the weekend” is as common as the sin of lying. I do not know why writers use two words when one, such as “disappeared”, would suffice, but “went missing” is here to stay. Furthermore, the verb “went” is a transitive which means that if it has a direct object, that object must be a noun or pronoun. However, that may be too complex, so let us just suggest we all use one simple word for the awkward phrase “went missing” because “missing” is not a place but a modifier.

It is no surprise that a television commercial maligns our language since its purpose is to communicate to the consumer. But I think we are headed down that “slippery slope” of misunderstanding each other if we continue on the path we are following. For example, I am old enough to remember the flap over a popular cigarette advertisement that stated, “… taste good like a cigarette should.” Our world has survived that confusion between like and as, but I  wonder at what price.

Not too many years ago, I was teaching 12th grade English in a school in Woodstock, VA. The position was provisional for that spring semester, but would become full time the following fall, so I applied for the full-time position. During the interview, the principal asked me why I was requiring my classes to read Macbeth in the original and not in a translation. Shocked by her ignorance, I answered that we read Shakespeare for many reasons, but especially for the language. More recently when I shared with a friend one more article by an English teacher arguing that there was no need to teach Shakespeare, he responded, “Soon Shakespeare may be offered as a way to satisfy a foreign language requirement.”

Language matters and if we shift too much in its use, we will create confusion instead of clarity. To defend incorrect usage by, “Well, you know what I meant,” is a lazy excuse. As a reader and/or listener, all I know is what I read and/or hear. Anything else is a guess and if you don’t want my attention to go missing, then be precise. We both deserve it.

Maggie

The morning broke full of bird song and sunlight breaking through the pine trees at the lake. Not even the interstate’s distant noise interrupted the beginning of this new day. Watching the new day arrive, I remembered some particular words of my mother. Whenever one of her children would complain about the heat or the cold or the wet of a day, she would answer: “Don’t worry ‘bout that. That’s His business.” Her seven-word response revealed her faith in her god, but it also offers a philosophy for non-believers or followers of another religion.

In our world of high technology, we have come to believe that we control or can control a great deal in our lives. That is true to a degree like any other issue. But sometimes, it seems to me, we carry too far the adage, “Those who fail to plan, plan to fail.”  Any prudent person should plan for retirement or a sports contest in which he or she is a participant. However, there are moments, like when drinking coffee or tea in the early light of day, that need to be savored, just as the hot drink should be. The joy of that moment cannot be planned for, but it can be missed.

This savoring is easier now that I am retired. But when working as an educator, I tried each day to find a time, a comment by a student or fellow teacher, or a witnessed event to savor. If I could experience that one moment of exuberance, I believed, then that day was of a special consequence. Yet it was also easy to get captured by the grading of papers, the planning of lessons, and more that would prevent the capture of a savory moment. Now, while I have no papers to grade, I still am in danger of being captured by “things to do” instead of fully living each day.

Many words have been spoken or written about ways to accomplish a full life. One is the Latin expression “Carpe Diem” which became so trite during the mid-1990’s that coffee mugs and tee shirts with it printed on them became popular. Those who used the mugs or wore the tee shirts with this aphorism blazed across them carried themselves with a new-found arrogance as if to say that they knew something the rest of us did not. I suppose Horace would not object to the oft-used translation of his quoted words, “seize the day”, but I wonder what he would say concerning the belief that one should enjoy today and let tomorrow worry about itself?

Another suggestion for living a full life comes from an internet server where I live. Its latest commercial flaunts it newest system and says that consumers should switch in order to get “what you deserve.” That is a common sentiment expressed by many commercials lauding a parade of products. Gosh! I always thought we each deserved whatever we had earned through service or merit, not what we had purchased or wished for. Deserve,  like so many words in our language, is in danger of becoming trite.

All of this brings me  to Maggie, a medium-sized brown dog with beautiful, pale brown eyes. I met her when we moved here four years ago. She would visit me at my shop when she and her mistress took late morning walks. Angelique, her mistress, would release her leash, and Maggie would inspect the shop and the desk on which I worked. We had to be careful that she did not eat the few raisins on the stump that were for Atticus the mockingbird, but Maggie obeyed. After a polite time, Maggie would saunter away, a signal to her mistress that it was time to continue their walk. Often, in the late afternoons, I would see Maggie taking her master on a slow walk down our road as if to give him time to relax and unwind from his busy day in Charlotte. Yesterday afternoon when I went out  to close my shop, I saw the three of them on their last walk. As she always had done, Maggie came over and visited, but she then began walking across our lawn with her owners as they held hands. Too soon her veterinarian would come to administer the shots and Maggie would be at rest.

For the first morning in sixteen years, Angelique woke without Maggie lying next to her on the floor. Emptiness? Yes, the space on the floor did not hold their beloved dog. But there was a moment for them to grasp, to pluck, to hold dear in honor of Maggie.

The popular translation of Horace’s phrase is “Seize.” However, I read that the more correct translation is “Pluck.” I like that verb better because it is what we do, or should do, with those life moments—see them like a fine fruit that we take for our nourishment and pleasure.

Maggie gave many moments for all of  us to pluck. And with that action, we each will keep her forever in our individual memories.

Cycles

The camellia bloomed first; the azaleas came next and are now empty of their bright, white flowers; as are the dogwood trees; and the rich purple flowers of the rhododendron and irises at the gate are limp imposters of their former selves. But the hydrangeas form small bubble-like features that will soon burst into balls of blue-yellow and lime; both gardenias are poised to burst forth to slather the garden air with fragrance; and the lyda roses grace one garden wall with their pansy-like opened faces. As if all of this is not enough, while riding my stationary bike yesterday morning a whisper of scent from the large Ligustrum across the road floated by me.

Nature is composed of cycles and sometimes, as described above, cycles within cycles. That is one way to describe birth and its conclusion—death. So yesterday, on May 11 at 4:46 pm, Nolan the noble hound “went the way of all living things.”

Fourteen years ago when we were living in the Shenandoah Valley, my wife Mary Ann took some items to the local animal shelter. It was there that he found her and won her heart with his “Whoo, whoo” each time she passed his crate. The next weekend we visited him and the adoption of us was completed.

He was a stray that had wandered up to a local man’s kennel. Fortunately for us, the man had many dogs, so he brought him to the animal shelter. While he appeared to be an ordinary black and tan hound that had gotten lost or had been abandoned; a young hound that carried buckshot in his hindquarters delivered by a cruel person,  he proved over time to be much more than the sum of his first two years.

At that time, we were dividing our time between Washington and the Valley, but Nolan slipped effortlessly into our schedule. During that first car ride to our home in the Valley he did vomit from car sickness, and he did mark the smoker on the screen porch when he marched into his forever home. Oh, and later that weekend he pulled too hard and turned my wheelchair over, tossing me to the ground. But after that, he began life with us and our beagle Callie and our cat Katie Kitty. During the week while in town he enjoyed walks on the leash with us and Katie Kitty, and each morning if we were not vigilant he would take Callie’s stuffed dog  out of her crate and attempt to escape to the backyard. He never harmed Buddy the stuffed animal, but he gained pleasure from slipping him out of her crate, for whatever reason.

During the weekends in the Valley, Nolan was freer because we had an acre that was fenced in by an underground wire. While Callie respected the fence, he would sometimes be overcome with the hound urge to roam. He had chosen a back corner of the acre and would crawl on his belly to “slip” below the fence. His yelps alerted us to his escape. But he never wandered too far, just enough to satisfy his roaming instinct.

Nolan never met a person or animal that he did not like. After we moved to the Valley full time, we adopted another beagle and a stray mother cat with her kittens. He shared the house, yard, and family room sofa with them all, restful and at peace in his life. However, he would grab in his mouth any squirrel or groundhog that Callie chased his way. Oh, and he would chase thunder across his acre lot, howling and jumping as he repelled the invading noise.,

In his youth Nolan enjoyed slices of an apple or tomato as a treat. However, as he grew older, he came to dislike the tomato while retaining his love of  bits of an apple, but he  remained Mary Ann’s “My sweet boy” who would obediently eat his medications wrapped in a pill pocket or a slice of salty ham.

When the moving van was loaded and headed to our new home on Lake Norman, Mary Ann and I packed our vans for the five-hour ride to the lake. The cats rode in her van, and the three dogs rode with me. Callie slept on the passenger seat, Mickie in the back between plants, but Nolan sat erect between the front seats for the entire ride: My noble co-pilot on our new adventure.

Just as he did all those years before, Nolan accepted and adapted to his new life. He slept on the library sofa with cats and dogs; and he learned to drink his water from the bird bath so as not to stress his aging knees. He loved his mistress as always and shared life with her. But after almost four years on the lake, and sixteen years of life, he aged out and yesterday made his last car ride.

Nolan’s cycle has ended. But like the plants in our garden,  he lived and bloomed and graced Mary Ann and me and all around him. His early years of lonely roaming the Valley do not define him. His long life—lovingly  lived—does.

A Nest, A Web, A Friendship

The pre-Romantic poet William Blake wrote “The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship.” That quotation from the English mystic carries much wisdom and is more complex than it first appears because a nest, a web, and a friendship are, while necessary for a life of quality, also fragile and perhaps dangerous.

            In Acts 13:13 Luke tells us that in Perga John Mark leaves Paul and returns to Jerusalem. In Acts 15:38 Luke writes that Paul thought better than to have John Mark continue on with them on the missionary journey. We are not told what happened to cause Paul to send John Mark away, but we can surmise that something powerful happened. A fragile friendship is disrupted for a reason of philosophy or temperament or whatever. For instance, until Paul decreed that circumcision was not required for a gentile to join Christianity, it was a hotly debated topic and other church leaders, such as James, wanted the Law followed. The fact that 1st Century Christians were so absolute concerning circumcision may seem odd for us today, but for Peter, James, Paul and so many other members of the early church, it was of great significance.

            When Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses on the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany he gained supporters and attackers. The Protestant Reformation was on, and it would change Christianity. One of Luther’s early supporters was Caspar Schwenckfeld, a 16th Century reformer. However, the friendship between Luther and Schwenckfeld collapsed over a philosophy difference, like the one between Paul and John Mark.

            Alan Olsan has written a somewhat fictional account of the relationship between Luther and Schwenckfeld. Caspar Schwenckfeld: Between Tyranny and Anarchy is an easy and informative read examining the friction over one belief: The Eucharist. The book shows the human side of Luther and how he turns against any who question his doctrines. “As liberating and far-reaching as Luther’s ideas were, he was still a man of his times”, writes Olsan. The same is true of Schwenckfeld and all leaders. And that fact must be held in check or all reformers will cause undue pain and sorrow.

            I recommend Olsan’s book because it is an interesting and honest look at the struggles inside any mass movement. The people are not glossed over, and we see them as true as possible all these years later. Perhaps Luther’s movement became a web that not only caught him but others. However, while Schwenckfeld escaped here, because of his doctrines he was forced to live a life in hiding.

Creating Her Own Room

In his fine memoir, The Old Man and the Boy, Robert Ruark recounts his grandfather’s explanation of aging: “ A man don’t start to learn until he’s about forty; and when he hits fifty, he’s learned all he’s going to learn. After that he can sort of lay back and enjoy what he’s learned, and maybe pass a little bit of it on. His appetites have thinned down, and he’s done most of his suffering, and yet he still got plenty of time to pleasure himself before he peters out entirely. That’s why I like November. November is a man past fifty who reckons he’ll live to be seventy or so, which is old enough for anybody….”         An admirer of Ruark and his two books about the older men in his life, I am reluctant to disagree with his grandfather, but I must because of Florence (not her real name).

The first time I met Florence was when my wife introduced us. She was a new member of a support group for widows in which my wife assisted. When we were introduced, Florence held her Bible close to her chest but could not hide the hollowness in her eyes. Her soft voice and softer demeanor caused me to think that she was having a most difficult time concerning her husband’s recent death. Her disheveled dress spoke of her emotional state. Over time, however, as Florence and I established our own friendship through church and our writing group, she shared much of her earlier life and of her marriage to her deceased husband, who was highly regarded in our small community.  She had lived in his shadow, known as “Lou’s wife.” (not his name) I watched as she struggled with the issues concerning a spouse’s death and admired her grit as she sold the house they had shared, donated his tools and clothes, and all the other things that must be done following a death. My wife and I were elated when she found an apartment in a modern complex of homes, restaurants, shops, and that was near her children and us. Florence settled into her life, but she did not stop growing. In fact, she bloomed.

According to the web site Grammarist, the phrase time heals all wounds may be first attributed to the Greek poet Menander, who lived around 300 B.C. and said, “Time is the healer of all necessary evils.” Geoffrey Chaucer’s poem, Troilus and Criseyde, written in the 1380s contains the phrase: “As tyme hem hurt, a tyme doth hem cure.” However, no matter how the sentiment is expressed, the pain of a deep wound never disappears, but time and life may lessen the sadness of past pain. And Florence, as she embraced her new surroundings to create a new, full life, contradicted  Ruark’s grandfather’s observation about being seventy.

Florence is no longer any man’s wife, pushed back into the shadows. She is known in her community through her part time work in a shop, for being encountered during her early morning walks around the complex, for her group that meets weekly to share conversation on a veranda, and her patronage to a cigar bar. Into her seventh decade, she is now herself. Yes, she is still a mother and grandmother, but she also has a life in her community that is hers, and not one that she shares with her family. Her family knows of that life’s existence, but Florence denies them entry because it is hers and not one to be shared with them.

Florence shares her new life with my wife and me, and we are happy for her. She told us not long ago how she was planning to smoke a cigar in the near future in the cigar bar and might even get a small tattoo. Not bad for a past seventy-year-old grandmother whose hands still bear the creases from work as a young girl on a North Carolina tobacco farm.

Florence, like all of us, carries certain sadness. But unlike so many folks, she took stock of where she found herself and decided for life. Much like the Phoenix, Florence rose from the ashes of her former life to smoke a cigar, to get a tattoo, to build her own nest.

Spring Petals and Crosses

Last night’s wind left dogwood blossoms covering the walkway of our back garden. When I exited the screen porch, I tread on a blanket of still-white petals from the tree next to the walkway. None of the other dogwood trees had lost their petals, and this one particular tree still had many of them left on its limbs, but for whatever reason, it had showered a spring dusting that caused me to think about death. Especially the death that Christians celebrate this time of the year.

Crucifixion most likely began with the Assyrians and Babylonians who tied their victims to a tree or post, leaving their feet to dangle. The Romans, after learning of the punishment during the Punic Wars,  began using crosses to perfect the punishment. The Roman Empire used it especially in the Holy Land, and in 4 B.C E. the Roman general Varus crucified 2,000 Jews, and the historian Josephus writes that there were mass crucifixions during the first century A.C.E.

 The victim was scourged, forced to carry the horizontal beam to the upright post, stripped, then either tied or nailed through the wrist to the cross beam before it was attached to the upright post. The victim’s name and crime was posted above his or her head. It was a slow, painful, and public death. Viewed as a shameful way of death, it was reserved for only the worst of criminals, and no Roman citizen would be executed in this manner.

Christians wear crosses, churches attach them to high steeples, and the symbol is used in a myriad of other ways that represent our belief. Yet, the crosses we use are sanitized images of what was used to kill. The Christian crosses have no representation of blood, mucus, pieces of torn flesh, urine, feces, or hair. Nothing that is evident from such a brutal death is on any part of the gold cross worn around the neck of many Christians or on the silver crosses that are present in all Christian churches. They are pristine, and I suggest that is where we delude ourselves concerning His death.

Through our art, music, architecture, jewelry, and more, we have created a false image of what His death was. While we read and say the words of it, we deny its reality by our accepted images of what His execution was. What  I am suggesting is that we can be honest of its brutality by our language of His ordeal and the images we use for it. Each of us, for instance, can discard the neat, golden cross worn around our necks and wear a small, rough, and irregular wooden one that would be more representative of the cross on which our Savior tasted death for us. I appreciate that houses of worship will not and perhaps can not remove their crosses. But we individual Christians can make a small change to remind us of His death on a tree and the brutal pain He endured.

Our Pine Forest

Almost four years ago Mary Ann my wife purchased our house on Lake Norman. I had not physically seen it, but the photographs supported her wisdom in choosing this house that would become our home. Some months later when I first drove into the driveway, I noticed  the many large longleaf pine trees in the front yard and resolved before I had parked the car that as soon as possible I would cull them. After all, forty-two of any type of tree is too many for one yard, especially trees that drop an abundance of pine needles, cones, and pose a potential danger to our house. Because the yard had been neglected by the previous owners, I first began removing the layers of pine needles on the edges of the driveway and lawn. Before that first fall, the front yard had been cleaned of the mat of needles that had taken residency under the trees, on the driveway, and even sections of the walkway. Now it was time to turn my attention to the removal of some of the looming pines. Fortunately, some decisions are changed before damage is done.

When I made inquiries about removing some of the trees, a contractor told me his price. I swallowed hard at the monies it would take to do what I wanted, but he also told me that all the trees looked healthy and that they supported each other’s root system. They, he said, hold each other in place, so he saw no danger of any falling except in a storm such as the destructive Hugo long ago. Relieved by his advice and the unspent dollars, I went about my business settling in our new house on Lake Norman. I began riding my stationary bike on a part of the driveway, picking up pine cones and small limb debris each morning after my ride. I collected bird nests blown out of a tree by powerful wind. I became accustomed to the sound made by squirrel claws as one chased another up, down, and across the thick bark of a pine. I sat in their shade of the pines and thought of Thomas Merton’s words: ““Nothing has ever been said about God that hasn’t already been said better by the wind in the pine trees.” Over time I came to admire and value all the pine trees. Each day bird song of titmice, robins, mockingbirds, and others filled the air under the trees. By the arrival of our first winter here, I realized that the abundance of trees was more valuable than I had realized. One morning as I rode under the canopy I remembered my visits to a small, English village made famous by a poem.

Binsey is a small village upstream of the Thames River from Oxford, England, opposite  Port Meadow. Saint Margaret’s Church, a small Medieval church, is a short walk from the village along a quaint lane. The church has been a place of pilgrimage for centuries and many people still visit St. Margaret’s which is thought to be the resting place of St. Frideswide and her maidens as she fled from her aggressive suitor Prince Algar. The adjacent ‘Treacle well’  is believed to contain healing waters. While I enjoyed many visits to the church and the great village pub, The Perch, Binsey changed my life when I was introduced to a Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem. Written in 1879 by the Jesuit priest and poet, Binsey Poplars may well be the first ecological poem. In the poem Hopkins laments the felling of a row of poplar trees that had lined the lane leading from the river to the village. Hopkins writes, “O if we but knew what we do/ When we delve or hew —/  Hack and rack the growing green!”

Riding, cleaning, resting, or working under all those pine trees is a blessing that I almost ruined because of my desire to control nature instead of living with nature. That is a lesson re-learned and worthy of all living.

Danger in the Garden-Revised

As an amateur watcher and feeder of birds, I have had my disagreements with squirrels, the rodents that many folks, unlike me, enjoy. However, after years of battle I have reached a reluctant peace with the varmints. Our bird feeders are as much “squirrel proof” as possible, and I begrudge any squirrel the seeds on the ground under the feeders. A tree rodent, in my view, the squirrels have their place in nature. Just not in my garden hogging the bird seed.

But last evening in the back garden was special, and not just because it was one of those early spring ones when budding life emerged from every shoot, limb, and blade. The dogwoods in our back garden offered early buds that would soon be white petals, and Carolina chickadees, blue jays, nuthatches, and titmice fed at the three feeders while the rufous-sided towhee shared ground morsels with the brown thrashers and a lone, grey squirrel. The returning pair of chickadees had already established a nest in their bird box fastened to the far dogwood, and we had seen the thrashers bringing nesting material to the large azalea beside the back gate. The camellia in the berm had been taken by a pair of cardinals for season residency; and we sat on our screen porch enjoying the end of a grand spring day watching the fading sunlight rest on the far shore and the animals eating from the three feeders.

Then every bird was gone. An uncomfortable silence descended on the garden, covering it like a shroud. Every bird had flown to a safe limb or rushed into one of the two azaleas for refuge. The squirrel hopped to the dogwood truck, alert with its head erect, but near the ground and observant-poised like a statue. Following the stare of the squirrel, I saw the invader. The resident Cooper’s hawk had lit in a dogwood in the berm, about thirty feet from the back feeder, bird bath, and poised squirrel. Not even the blue jays, who will attack a snake, stayed to battle with this intruder.

We watched the hawk, one who is a frequent visitor because of the bird feeders. It was a beautiful animal to us, but the birds had fled because their view of the hawk was different from ours. They saw death while we saw primeval beauty. We watched the squirrel, almost frozen to the tree trunk with its head erect, watching the cooper’s hawk across the fence. We witnessed a scene of nature’s way as the hawk glided to the top fence rail within a few feet of the squirrel who then wisely bounded into the thick foliage of the azalea. The hawk bounded to the ground and began hopping in the bird awkward walk toward the thick bush as if to peer inside it for a meal. It was then that the squirrel came out of the azalea and took a stance next to the dogwood.

If you watch nature enough, even in a small back garden like ours, you will soon enough see death. It may come from a predator, an accidental falling from a nest, or any other result that I have come to realize is “Nature’s beautiful way.” We sat frozen in the safety of our screen porch as the squirrel faced the attacker. Then, as if scripted, the squirrel lept at the cooper’s hawk, who made one hop backward. The squirrel lunged again, and the death threat turned and flew away to other hunting grounds.

All the grey squirrels that frequent our back garden look alike, so the brave heart one will remain anonymous. However, since witnessing such an act—whether foolish or brave—I have become more tolerant of them. While I still have some issues with their antics, even I cannot deny the act of that lone, grey squirrel against the Cooper’s hawk.  

In nature, death happens so that life may continue. Even a dead limb of one of our longleaf pine trees provides food and shelter for all kinds of creatures. In nature death is part of life. But many humans seem unable to come to any type of accord with death. That, in itself, is a form of early death because a fear or denial of the way of all living things, to paraphrase King David, is death at an early age. One should always strive to see things as they are, even if it means acknowledging having underestimated the spirit of squirrels.

Holding Onto

We all hold onto a variety of parts of our lives: A favorite mug; a cherished memory; a position or job; a life plan; family; friends; or even our self-images. We hold, even grasp, what we see as worthy parts of our lives. Thus, April Stace writes a memoir of all that she holds or held dear as true in her life.

In late 2015 she moved to New York City to become a minister on the senior staff of the Riverside Church, one of the largest and oldest churches in Manhattan. Thinking of her new position at such a religious institution as validation for her chosen life, she brings her husband and young child to NYC, prepared to demonstrate to all that her life is one big success. The vision she had held onto of herself and her life, however, would soon wither under the weight of her true spirit. Early on in her new life and job, she admitted to herself that she was, and always had been, a lesbian.

White Knuckle Love, A Memoir of Holding records the first year of Stace’s life without a husband, job at the historic church, and the other life rudders that had, until her acceptance of herself, steered her life’s course.  Sleeping on the living room sofa in her ex-husband’s apartment, she flounders before becoming a chaplain intern at St. Luke’s Hospital, a refuge for the ill indigents of NYC. However, after her year as an intern, the woman who holds a PhD in Religion writes, “Spending time with the sick and dying has not been a fresh, new bandage on a damaged life. It has been more like the tearing off of old and rotten bandages that have been holding together infected parts of my spirit for years.” Placed in the context of her year of discovery, the quoted words are not as rough and raw as they at first read, but like all of her memoir,  Stace’s words tell of her honest examination of all that her patients and she hold onto. She discovers in the “untamed moments” in St. Luke’s that while “The hospital is a place where people are defined by their physical problems, … by sitting next to people in their beds, I help them remember that they are human beings, not health problems to be solved and discharged.” And as she writes, she discovers that her spirit and identity are not a problem, but a truth about her life.

Stace has written a moving and powerful memoir. The rawness of her words carry truth. When she recounts being told one night that a young woman is asking for a priest and could she come to the ER because Isabella, the young mother’s, baby boy had died shortly after birth. Going into the curtained-off part of the ER, Stace meets a young mother who says, “I just wanted someone.” The baby, who had been named Aiden, lies in a small, plastic box at the foot of the bed. Stace holds the baby, who is still warm, and gives him to his mother. Stace describes that moment as “A momentary breath of life, barely begun before it ends.” Alone because Aiden’s father could not bear the pain of his death and left the hospital, Isabella asks Stace to baptize Aiden. With the help of three nurses, Stace writes, “I hold baby Aiden against my body with my left arm as I sprinkle water on his tiny head with the fingers of my right hand. His head, still warm, glistens with water made holy by our gathering. The only community this young human had ever know, a community of people who worked the night shift in a New York City emergency room, has gathered to affirm his place in our lives.” In such moments as this, and more, Stace writes, “I am re-learning what it means to have faith.” (Stace italics)

Read this memoir and perhaps re-learn having faith, which will always benefit any of us. And in your year journey with Stace, meet many people. Some, like Jack, who belonged to AA, will teach you how to “white-knuckle” life along with him and so many others.