Walking Each Other Home

In the movie Mary Poppins the grand nanny by that name says to her young charges, “Enough’s as good as a feast.”

In Walking Each Other Home, subtitled,  Reflections about Living a Christian Life from an Older Dad to His Daughter, Dr. Peter C. Wilcox takes 108 pages to share the wisdom he has gained over 74 years with his grown, therapist daughter Colleen. He uses literature, personal experience as a therapist, his own life experiences, movies, and more to illustrate his lessons for living a Christian life. He quotes writers as diverse as Robert Coles and Maggie Ross. He offers boundless anecdotes. He goes on and on and on for those mentioned 108 pages.

The advice Wilcox writes is not to be faulted. Section 5 of Walking covers such noble topics of life as living with compassion, being kind, be a good listener, clothing others with respect, and more such good suggestions for living a Christian life. But enough, as Nanny Poppins said, is enough.

Wilcox is honest and thoughtful, but I think a good editing could have helped his too long of a letter to his daughter. Also, I question some of his interpretations. For instance, Wilcox states that Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the Catholic priest/scientist, ministered to the people of China. That is wrong! Chardin was in China as a renowned scientist who was part of the discovery of the Peking Man. He was not a missionary in China.  Wilcox’s overuse of BraineyQuotes is also irritating since he is only pulling up chosen phrases instead of the entire source. That seems to be cheap scholarship. All of this  add up to good advice being ruined by too many words and misinformation. Such is the case of Walking Each Other Home.

A Name for Herself

The recent election of a woman, a child of immigrant parents from India and Jamaica, demonstrates the possibilities in America. Her parents met in a study group while in college, and Vice-President elect Harris credits her mother’s influence for much of her success.

Strong women had a big part in our country’s development, and as demonstrated by the election of Kamala Harris, they still influence it.

            Kent Van Til tells the story of his grandmother who landed on Ellis Island in 1898. The youngest of the four Recker children, Hermina would become an American along with her family and be eternally known as “Minnie.” Van Til’s story follows her from New York to Chicago to Montana and back to the mid-west. His story is a tribute to the grandmother who told him at age ninety, “Well, I sure haven’t made a name for myself; maybe one of you grandkids will.”

            Minnie’s story is such an American one, and not simply because she became a citizen, but because she, like so many other immigrants to America, pioneered, married, fought in wars, loved, and labored for a life in this great land. Without women such as Minnie and their counterparts, we would not be the country we are today. Immigrants we all are, and while all our names may not be known over the land, all our names ring in its history.

            A Name for Herself is a loving tribute to a woman who was not special in a national way, but so important for her determination, grit, and love for her family and country. Minnie did not complain, even when confronted with the early death of her beloved husband Pete and other griefs of life. Instead of offering excuses, she gave love. Instead of grumbles, she gave effort. Her quiet work is a reason for celebrating her life and all the others like it.

            The only complaint I have is that the book is too long on some information, such as the history explaining why Minnie did not especially like Catholics. I found this type of information became a bit “preachy”, overshadowing the story. However, I recommend A Name for Herself as a good read about a remarkable woman, one of many. Just ask Senator Harris.

The Unnamed Women

The recent election of Senator Kamala Harris to the Vice-Presidency of the United States of America has elicited many remarks about a woman, a black woman, a child of immigrants, being elected to such a position. In her speech last night,  Madam Harris paid tribute to her mother who inspired her, and she applauded the possibilities for young girls made possible by her election.

The list of women mentioned as trailblazers for such a moment is long, and there are too many names to list here. But rest assured that it is a list of female warriors who fought for their rights and the rights of all who would follow them. They are legion.

As I watched and listened to the celebrations yesterday and the two speeches last night, I named names of all the female warriors I could remember. But one name kept returning, and I scanned a bookshelf for In Search for Our Mothers’ Gardens. The 1972 book is the first of non-fiction by Alice Walker, and I was searching in it for a particular poem that Walker introduces by these words: “This poem is not enough, but it is something, for the women who literally covered the holes in our walls with sunflowers.” She then shares her poem titled Women.

They were women then

My mama’s generation

Husky of voice—stout of

Step

With fists as well as

Hands

How they battered down

Doors

And ironed

Starched white

Shirts

How they led

Armies

Headragged generals

Across mined

Fields

Booby-trapped

Ditches

To discover books

Desks

A place for us

How they knew what we

Must know

Without knowing a page

Of it

Themselves.

Madam Harris said in her speech last night that while she is the first female to achieve the Vice-presidency, she will not be the last. The path she and all the other females is lined with the names known, but Walker’s poem reminds us that there were many “Headragged generals” who led their children across fields “To discover books” and to find “A place for us.”

So yes, let the known names be called across the land. Their work and success needs to be recognized and celebrated. However, let the battles of the unnamed be remembered as well. They, too, contributed, and Madam Harris stands on their shoulders.

Hearing and Learning

            In April of 1963 as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. languished in the Birmingham jail, eight local clergymen published a letter in local newspapers in which they denounced Dr. King as “an outside agitator”, and they ended their appeal with these words: “We further strongly urge our own Negro community to withdraw support from these demonstrations, and to unite locally in working peacefully for a better Birmingham. When rights are consistently denied, a cause should be pressed in the courts and in negotiations among local leaders, and not in the streets. We appeal to both our white and Negro citizenry to observe the principles of law and order and common sense.” Their advertisement prompted Dr. King to pen his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” in which he explained why waiting for racial justice any longer was not an option.

In 2006 and ’07, Joe Bageant, a resident of Winchester, wrote Deer Hunting with Jesus. Several  years ago when a good friend loaned me his copy, he said, “If you want to understand many people of the Shenandoah Valley, read this book.” I did, and I have just finished my second reading of this fine examination of class in America.

Bageant, who is deceased, returned to his native Winchester, Virginia in 1999 after a thirty-year absence. He moved to the North End where he had grown up, and he found it as it was in his youth–”the most hard-core of the town’s working-class neighborhoods, where you are more likely to find the $20,000-a-year laborer and the $14,000-a-year fast-food worker.”  He continues, “It didn’t take too many visits to the old neighborhood tavern or to the shabby church I attended as a child to discover that here in this neighborhood in the richest nation on earth folks are having a hard go of it. And it is getting harder.” With that, he began listening to what he referred to as “my people”, and they trusted him to tell their stories with empathy, not pity, and brutally honest as when he writes, “…my people are a little seedier than most;…” He quickly sees that the preferred avenues of escape for his people are alcohol, Jesus, or overeating.

Writing before “the crash” of 2008, Bageant sends a warning as he writes about American Serfs, Republicans by Default, The Deep-Fried, Double-Wide -Lifestyle, and more. He goes to the guts of the working class of the North End where two in five of residents have no high school diploma. He writes of his childhood friend who carries seven credit cards in order to “build up my credit” so that he can buy a double-wide trailer that will decrease in value before he parks it on a rented lot. He writes of “Dottie”, his favorite karaoke singer who lives in Romney, West Virginia. Disabled, Dot lives on her Social Security Disability Insurance, uses an oxygen tank and wheelchair, and is forceful in the way she deals with her doctors. She tells Bageant, “I learned that damned towel-head doctor of mine has only four years of college someplace in South America.” Bageant goes on to explain, “No doubt you [the reader] are wincing at the racist term towelhead.  But people do talk that way, and if we use it as an excuse not to listen, we rule out listening to half of America.”

For me, those words about Dot’s vocabulary are the message of Deer Hunting with Jesus, which is sub-titled, Dispatches from America’s Class Wars. He is telling us, long before Trump and his evil appeared, that there is an entire class of people who are poorly educated, poorly prepared with soft skills, have poor health, possess no or little health insurance, and have children which will continue the cycle of their lives.  Bageant pulls no punches in faulting political leaders locally and nationally,  mortgage companies, our health care system, and others for the condition of “my people.” But, most of all he blames their poor education for their plight. Having escaped the North End, he attended college, fought in Vietnam, traveled, and wrote before returning home. He knows the value of education and knows that a good one will give “his people” a door to walk through.

But Bageant could have been writing of the eight clergymen of Birmingham that I quoted above. We still have people like them who want to proceed slowly in any cause, especially in the area of racial equality . We still have subtle and overt racist.  We still have Dots. Right here among us we have extremes, and it seems to me that we must find a way to hear what is being said from those extremes.  

Bageant sees the lack of  education as the biggest obstacle for “his people.” But, the clergymen from  1963, by their plea, show a lack of education concerning what Dr. King was trying to achieve. If they had had a better education concerning the plight of blacks in the Jim Crow South, they would not have written their pathetic letter. If they had had an education on this topic, they would have developed understanding and empathy. Yet they, like Dot, are voices that need to be heard because they tell us what we need to change. We cannot use their language as an excuse to not listen to them.

On the surface we are an educated society. We have degrees. Yet, too often we refuse to educate ourselves regarding topics or issues we find uncomfortable. I often think of Robert Kennedy who in May, 1963 asked James Baldwin to organize a meeting at his New York City apartment with black and white activists.  The meeting lasted about two hours as the invited guests attempted to explain to Kennedy the plight of blacks and other disenfranchised people. The meeting did not go well, but Kennedy must have heard some things because he soon became a champion for all disenfranchised Americans. He got himself an education concerning racial inequalities in America, and he began working  for change. But he first had to sit in that meeting, hearing words that undoubtedly made him uncomfortable.

Like Kennedy, we must listen to each other—the plodders, activists, the uneducated, the educated-all must be heard. In doing so we will work to create a country of purple by blending our red and blue. If we refuse to, we will have a divided house and lose it all.

Hope

The pandemic rages across every level of world lives. Even isolated villages and towns now feel its presence. In the United States we are a few days from electing another cycle of government leaders, including a president, while European leaders try to make hard decisions to combat the virus. We are bombarded by noise that is masked as news worthy information. The editorial in our local paper today asked: “Are you tired of…?” and then went on to list many of the noises we have be subjected to during the pandemic and its consequences.

Yes, we are tired, but we have quite a distance to travel. In a marathon, racers train to be able to maintain pace and form during the last 6.2 miles, the crucial last miles which begin at mile 20. Metaphorically that is where we are: Mile 20 of a marathon and where our preparation and resolve will now be tested. 

As a teacher of literature, I always chose to expose students to stories and poems and novels and plays that taught a lesson. A brief poem such as Earl carries a lesson that, once learned, will help in difficult times that we all will encounter. Like the well-trained marathoner, a well-read person will have an arsenal to call upon during tough times as now. Having digested such great literature as The Odyssey, a person can use lessons gleaned from Homer’s words to help him or her to carry on; to  “Get on with it,” as the English haberdasher told me one summer  in his store on Oxford’s Turl Street. The list of such literature is long, but sadly forgotten it seems to me. But that is another matter for another essay.

Like all people, I am tired of the turmoil and the uncertainty of this pandemic and our dithering leaders. However, a retired man of 74 living with his wife, five cats, and two hounds on Lake Norman, I have had to cope with only some inconvenience, but nothing like that of a parent with school-aged children and a job or, worse, not a job. These people are facing a difficult circumstance which I am happy not to have to navigate. But I still was reminded of the poem Ithaca by C.P. Cavafy this week because of the death of  Sean Connery and his connection with the poem, and the lesson it carries for us during the pandemic.

Sir Sean said years ago that his big break came when he was five years old, but it took him seventy years to realize that. The break he told of was that he learned to read at age five, and reading then changed his life, opened doors, gave him insight, and more. He said, “It’s the books, the reading, that can change one’s life.” 007! Bond! James Bond! He was a reader. He read newspapers, books, magazines. He devoured it all, changing his life.

I knew none of this until my wife, after reading an obituary of Sir Sean, shared some of it with me, especially the above quotation. He was a man after my heart, but I was aware of one instance of his reading and it is a fine example of literature, of reading and how that changes lives. And it is right there on the You Tube channel. Type in “Sean Connery and Ithaca” then listen to him reading the words of Cavafy. Hear the music of Cavafy’s phrases and allow their meaning to become part of your  soul. See the visuals and  hear the canned music, but most of  all allow Cavafy, through Connery’s resounding Scottish accent, assure you that the trials we face during the pandemic are just another part of a journey we face, and they, and it, too shall pass. Allow Cavafy’s lesson to give you comfort that you, like Odysseus and us all, can gain Ithaca, our safe harbor, our restful home.

“Iron Sharpens Iron”

After retiring from my educational career in D.C., Mary Ann and I moved full time to our postage stamp of land in the Shenandoah Valley. Our drives to and from each weekend now ended, and we settled in for our “golden years.” However, before long a small, public high school near us needed a wrestling coach. I returned to teaching with Mary Ann’s enthusiastic support.

The wrestling program suffered from lack of support, and I asked some of my former students/wrestlers from D.C. for help. A generous fund was established, and I purchased new singlets, warm-ups, and tee-shirts. Every activity in the schools I worked had used the simple “tee” as a way to help build camaraderie and team spirit. But every good “tee” had to be printed with inspiring words, not just the name of the school and team. I decided on “Iron sharpens Iron” which is taken from the King James translation of Proverbs 27:17. Although the school was a 2-A public school, no one ever questioned the words and once at a tournament a father from another school commented that the verse was one of his favorites. The team understood the importance and reason for the words: Each day for the season they worked to make each other better people, students, and wrestlers. For the three years I coached there, each wrestler demanded of himself and his teammates.

During the pandemic, I have been watching the role of sports—professional, college, high school, and even club-try to maintain a pre-pandemic level. Just last week, the Super 32 Wrestling Tournament was held with about 1500 wrestlers competing. The NFL tries  to flourish and even MLB held a sort of World Series.  When the Connecticut scholastic association cancelled football games, some parents with the money formed a league for clubs. The Power 5 continue to push against the affects of the COVID-19 disease. And because of reduced revenue from televised football games, many colleges and universities have cut less lucrative sports, such as indoor track and field or swimming or wrestling or baseball. It is obvious what the objective of sport is—money. That is supported by the way in which we as a country and culture have reacted to the pandemic. The only excuse for the forced continuous of play that I have not heard is that it is someone’s Constitutional Right. But, given time, that may come.

I fear where we will end. We have yet to accept the reality of COVID because we keep trying to deny it. In the midst of a pandemic, we act like the athlete who has not scouted his or her opponent. We are the batter in softball or baseball who does not know what pitch is likely to be used when the count is 2-1. We are the offensive line that does not know how many linebackers will be used on a 3rd down conversion attempt. What I mean is  that we do not understand this virus as well as we need to, and we slowly learn more about it. For instance, we are now realizing some its long-term effects on the brain and other organs. Yet we continue to expose our athletes to it.

We are not iron sharping iron. Instead we rattle about as we commit dangerous athletic events as if we are in control. We have become like a herd of lemmings, full of herd mentality that will take us over the edge. Like the mother in The Rocking Horse Winner, we will discover the lure of lucre leads to doom, not happiness. Let us toughen up and be iron that sharpens iron, not blind lemmings.

Shame

As a boy growing up in NC during the 1950’s, I learned the power of a few biting phrases or words used by my mother and other adults. A single mother of six, Flora A. Barbee knew how to use a privet switch, but her words offered a stronger correction for bad behavior. Her use of the word “shame” carried force. “Shame on you”, was used to draw attention to a transgression involving deeds or words. Another rebuke was that probing question, “Have you no shame?” which placed all the responsibility for a misstep where it belonged—on my young shoulders. My mother, like so many other adults of that era, had a good command of what was called “The King’s English” which carried power without being vulgar.

The shame I am writing of is that of the noun, not the verb. The verb form, as any one knows who has had that frightful dream of  being naked in a crowd, is of no use in changing behavior as is the noun. To be shamed serves, in my view, little worth except to emphasize inequalities. That type of shame is external. The internal shame is what changes behavior.

I have been thinking of shame recently, especially when I read the report concerning Davidson College’s  graduate Greg Murphy, who is a U.S. Representative, and his comments concerning Senator Kamala Harris. During the Vice-Presidential debate on October 7, Murphy tweeted: [Kamala Harris] “is a walking disaster…she was only picked for her color and her race. Is that how we pick our leaders now in America?”

Other graduates of Davidson asked that the college issue comments concerning Murphy who has been honored by Davidson and served on its board of trustees. Obviously, the college, a non-profit, is prohibited from commenting on a political candidate, which Murphy is.

I appreciate the position of Davidson concerning the racist, cowardly rant of one of its graduates. But what can it do in such a situation except issue a standard-bearing comment like the one its president did? I suggest, however, that the college can take a powerful stand against such beliefs by refusing to accept donations from Murphy, not naming him to any board, and continuing to speak out for justice by its actions. When a small, private college refuses funds, that sends a statement much like the question of my mother: “Have you no shame?” It is asking the wannabe Wildcat (Davidson’s mascot) to self-examine his or her words and acts. It is a question that is almost the worse act against a member of the tribe—exile. It is an act forcing the offender to  go away for a while and ponder his action. It requires responsibility beyond deleting words from screens.

Words carry weight by what they represent and acts they cause. Yet, our ears are assaulted by vulgar words in print, on screen, and on television. Our shame is non-existent and its lack enables the cowardly a place to hide and do their evil.

Spark

Because of some poor life choices I had made before the fall of 2005, I was working through the emotional pain my choices had left me.  I was talking with a counselor once a week, and I had a cadre of friends who supported me. My siblings proved invaluable. Having some days better than others, I decided to treat myself to a small gift to encourage my mood on October 18, 2005.

Years before that day,  a dear friend had given me a Saint Christopher’s medal that I always wore, and it was held around my neck by a wire that I had fashioned for that purpose. I now wanted a proper chain for my medal, so after school I went to a jewelry store near where I lived. It was one that I knew I could make a purchase without depleting my meager account.  

Because it had been Spirit Day at the school where I taught, I was wearing my favorite Hawaiian Shirt.  I wanted and needed to continue the joy of that day, so I was eager to buy myself a small gift.  Going to the glass counter that was chocked full of rings, jewels, watches, and other items usually for sale by a jeweler, I waited my turn to be helped. A woman dressed in a green pants suit asked what I needed, and I explained that I wanted a chain for my medal. She showed me several chains. Because my key chain hanging from my neck had “Saints” printed on it, she asked if I taught at a near-by school.  I told her that I had worked there, but that I now worked at a school in D.C.

            As I looked at the chains I could afford, she asked if my medal had ever been cleaned and offered to have the store’s repairman clean it for me. Removing it from around my neck, I gave it to her and told her she could dispose of the wire that had served me for years. When she returned to the counter, I had chosen my $30 chain, and she wrote the ticket. Because we were chatting so much, she suggested we move away from the store’s cash register while my medal was being cleaned. The flirt, or spark was on! We exchanged soft information to each other that revealed, but did not divulge facts too personal for a stranger.  However, forty-five minutes later my medal was clean, and the lady in the green pants suite offered to fasten it around my neck because “This chain has a difficult clasp.” I gleefully let her, and I placed the card with her phone number next to the sales receipt in my wallet. Soon after that we had dinner and talked more. She shared how that day was her deceased mother’s birthday. I shared that when I arrived home after my purchase,  I had called a sister and said, “I met a woman.”

The following July we married. We share life. We age together. All of this joy after being unable to see the beauty of many October days. But now one of my cherished gifts from Mary Ann is an antique child’s school chalkboard on which she wrote: “Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be, the last of life, for which the first was made….”

I have kept the sales receipt for that chain as a reminder of what life can be. It reminds that life’s sparks are all around us, but we must be prepared to see, accept, and grasp them. And those sparks come anytime, but they are especially good in “the last of life, for which the first was made…,” when all else seemed doomed.

Late Friendships

We moved to Lake Norman three years ago and are now comfortably settled in our home and neighborhood. We know people. They know us. Each day someone stops for a visit in the shop and a myriad of topics are discussed: Children, grandchildren, religion, politics, sports, reading, and so much more. Our life here on LKN is made richer by these friendships formed late in our lives and the lives of our new friends.

However, friendship is usually thought of as something from childhood or college or a time when folks were younger, such as when rearing children. Those friendships formed during the struggles of youth and learning are invaluable as we travel through the paths of later life; we depend on those people because they have, over the years, become permanent posts in our lives on which we lean. They are now part of our root system because they, years ago, helped form us. But since retirement, my wife and I have discovered new friends in our late years. These new friends are retired as we, and they are intricate parts of our lives whether individually or as a couple. Yet, I sometimes wonder what these newfound friends were like thirty or forty years ago. I wonder if, had we met at age forty, would we have been friends. But I do not wonder too much, I just cherish the friendship because those types of questions never can be answered. To wonder about such things is as useless as holding onto regrets of a past action. Although each new friend late in life has a past, as do I, the present is what I know unless I learn when the friend shares some of his  or her past.

But one new friend is different, however, because she was in a writing group with me. She, at the bidding of her two children, was writing her life’s story. So each week during writing group, she shared parts of her life. All of it: The despair when the custom-built home that she and her husband had built burned to the ground. The shock of her divorce. The early life on a southern Georgia farm. Her love of classical music. Being the wife of a medical student in Washington, DC. Life as a single mother for her son and daughter. Her sister’s schizophrenia. Her love of literature and painting. And more.

Yvonne’s rich life from a Georgia farm to New York City to D.C. to Florida and finally to Mooresville interested the writing group and me. Her’s was quite a story, but I was most impressed by her late life, when she, my wife Mary Ann, and I became friends.  Every Sunday she sang in the church choir. Each Wednesday she shared the communal meal before joining the writing group before going to choir practice. Her life revolved around family, music, painting, reading, and telling her story. All as she battled her cancers. But if one did not notice her dry mouth as she read or sang or spoke, her cancer did not show itself, yet it presented itself in many ways, and she gracefully stiffed armed it like Thurber’s Rex: Her resolve is legendary with those who know her and she is not to be defeated except on her terms, which have now arrived.

            In 1st Kings, at the end of his life, King David says to his son Solomon, “I go the way of all the earth.” Yvonne’s journey is now where that kings was, and she has asked her daughter to move her from Levine in Concord to her home-to her library. A simple request that will offer dignified death surrounded by family, cherished books, her two loving cats, her paintings, and the last revision of her word-processed story that her children and grandchildren will read, and through which come to know and appreciate her well-lived life.

Herd Mentality

During my forty-year career in education I witnessed too often the damage of peer pressure. In order to “belong” to a group, a student would adopt behavior and dress to demonstrate they had reached the threshold of being “one of us.” This pressure was mostly negative and even dangerous because it required a student to follow imposed mores and not his or her own morality. At times this acquiescing to demands made by a group could result in serious circumstances, such as when a young female would “give it up” so that she would belong to the group of cool.

We all want to belong; to be a member of something larger than ourselves. Belonging to a group gives us a sense of worth, a sense of safety, and a sense of justice. If we become a member, then we become validated by the group and whatever price paid for membership becomes secondary to the belonging. This herd mentality, we hope, will lead us to herd immunity, the place where all members of our herd are protected by our experience and exposure.

 When I coached a high school wrestling team, I had team tee shirts with “Iron sharpens iron” printed on the backs.  I told the wrestlers that they were to help sharpen their teammates during every practice. I explained that they were each responsible for helping their teammates become better wrestlers and people. Iron sharpens iron. While the wrestlers were part of a team, a herd if you will, or a tribe, even, they were individuals most of all. They were parts of the whole, but they were required to be individual wrestlers, just like the individual strands of a rope. If they were not independent wrestlers, the team suffered because they were not being the best that they could be. Iron sharpens iron. The phrase I used comes from Proverbs 27:17, “Iron sharpeneth iron; so a man sharpeneth the countenance of his friend.”

But if one becomes trapped in herd mentality then he or she relinquishes individuality and is not sharpened by others. Instead of challenging and making each other sharper, the easy life of following the herd takes over. The price does not matter anymore; all that counts is the sense of belonging to the group. The aspiring member will now do anything to belong to the herd–even expose his or her children to possible infection of a disease that is rapidly spreading. Such illogical acts feed the self-serving aspirant. Membership in the herd has now taken over.

The trap of herd life is all around for Christ followers, and always has been. However, we are reminded to be wary of false leaders and ideas. The 1st Century Christians had to battle against tempting ideas such as Gnosticism. They had to use the discernment we are all given. They had to be aware! And we are to be aware as well for temptations that come in attractive packages. Such temptations are not only of the flesh, but of the lure of power, money, and belonging to a herd that offers only the allure of riches. After all, we can never be fully immune to any evil. That is perhaps the biggest lie of all.