Saturday, July 30, 2016

Saturday Haiku: River Mist

when clouds fill the sky
and mists cover the water
the trout sees clearly


Photo by Rick Watson: "Smoke on the Water"
Mist over the Sipsey Fork of the Warrior River


Friday, July 29, 2016

A Portal to the Rhythm of Life

Mary, Martha, and Lazarus

I am thankful for a blog post a couple of years ago at Kirkepiscatoid which introduced me to the feast day of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus (July 29). I am fascinated by the concept of depicting three approaches to life, all bound up in a single icon. I have often thought about the images of Mary and Martha showing us two ways of being (active and contemplative). Years ago I came to see the Mary/Martha pathways not as either/or, but rather both/and. While it is true that some people are more suited to the active way of living and others more attuned to the contemplative, I came to see both as important in the rhythm of a healthy life.

Then when I was introduced to the this icon of Mary, Martha and Lazarus, I saw it as a portal to an even larger approach to life. Holding these three together -- Mary, Martha, and Lazarus -- can give us an avenue for contemplating something greater than both/and or either/or in our approach to life. One can contemplate doing, being, acting; listening, dying, living -- all in one single icon.

A Monastic View

I found a homily for the feast day at the website of the Genesee Cistercian Abbey (Trappist) in upstate New York. Here is a quote from the brief homily:

Our monastic fathers understood well the importance of Jesus’ relationship with Martha, Mary and Lazarus for our Cistercian way of life. St. Bernard in particular developed at length the meaning of this family friendship with the Savior for our Cistercian community. Martha, Mary and Lazarus are symbols of the three kinds of living that are to be found in every community of our Order. Martha is the type of those who serve in a more active way as officers or heads of departments. Mary is a type of those whose attention is given chiefly to prayer and contemplation, while Lazarus is a symbol of those who concentrate more on the hard labor of penance. It is essential that we remember that these three are united in a single, loving family.

I invite you today to spend a few moments with the icon pictured above. See what concepts, thoughts, and impressions come your way.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Flashback: Open Wounds and Soul Distress

While I'm involved in another project, I am re-posting some of my favorite essays. This essay was originally posted on August 19, 2014. I thought at the time that the the country would surely become more aware of a broken justice system and that police would be more conscious of responses toward African American citizens. We are still hearing reports, however, of unfair treatment of black citizens. What I thought would be a wakeup call is not doing much to bring us out of our slumber.

Police in riot gear watch protesters in Ferguson, Mo. on Aug. 13, 2014.
Photo by Jeff Roberson--AP
  (Featured in Time Magazine)

When events unravel, such as we have witnessed over the past week in Ferguson, Missouri, some of us wish that such sorrowful events were not our present reality. My first reaction to the police response was that we do not need such military styled police forces in this country. The move toward the military outfitting of local police came after 9/11 with certain provisions of the Homeland Security Act. In essence, out of fear we sold our freedom and headed toward a police state. Is it too late now to turn back? I hope not.

The crux of the unrest, however, in Ferguson and across America goes deeper than oversized military-styled police responses. It runs through our history as a wound that we have not been able to heal thus far. I cannot pretend to offer any solutions. I cannot even pretend to claim understanding. I have been trying, however, to listen. The only recommendation I can offer is that we stop and listen.

His Name was Michael

Here are two voices, past and present that we can listen to: Ralph Ellison and Michael Twitty. I will let these two gentlemen offer a perspective that I cannot give. Michael Twitty calls himselfa food writer, independent scholar, culinary historian” who preserves the food ways of his antebellum slave ancestors and who is an interpreter of how America’s history with slavery affects us all. Ralph Ellison was an African American writer who lived from 1914 to 1994. He wrote The Invisible Man, from which I will share an excerpt, but first I would like to share Michael Twitty’s commentary from his blog, Afroculinaria. It is raw and from the heart, and it is something that so many of us need to hear.

I have been asked by many people to take a close look at the Michael Brown shooting case in Ferguson, Missouri and offer my opinion.  I felt it best to take a step back and really absorb all the circulating currents of opinion and matters of fact before I made any personal pronouncements.  This is my best attempt to answer that call, hopefully soberly, responsibly and with as much restraint as I can muster in the face of this deeply American tragedy. (Please continue reading here)

His Name was Clifton

I spent some time last summer with Ralph Ellison’s, The Invisible Man. Near the end of that existential 1952 novel there was a passage that I was particularly struck by. The passage is the protagonist's eulogy for a fellow member of “The Brotherhood” who was shot in the street by a policeman:

“...His name was Clifton and they shot him, and I was there to see him fall. So I know it as I know it.

 "Here are the facts. He was standing and he fell. He fell and he kneeled. He kneeled and he bled. He bled and he died. He tell in a heap like any man and his blood spilled out like any blood; red as any blood, wet as any blood and reflecting the sky and the buildings and birds and trees, or your face if you'd looked into its dulling mirror -- and it dried in the sun as blood dries. That's all.They spilled his blood and he bled. They cut him down and he died; the blood flowed on the walk in a pool, gleamed a while, and, after awhile, became dull then dusty, then dried. That's the story and that's how it ended. It's an old story and there's been too much blood to excite you. Besides, it's only important when it fills the veins of a living man. Aren't you tired of such stories? Aren't you sick of the blood? Then why listen, why don't you go? It's hot out here. There's the odor of embalming fluid. The beer is cold in the taverns, the saxophones will be mellow at the Savoy; plenty good-laughing-lies will be told in the barber shops and beauty parlors; and there'll be sermons in two hundred churches in the cool of the evening, and plenty of laughs at the movies. Go listen to 'Amos and Andy' and forget it.Here you have only the same old story. There's not even a young wife up here in red to mourn him. There's nothing here to pity, no one to break down and shout. Nothing to give you that good old frightened feeling. The story's too short and too simple. His name was Clifton, Tod Clifton, he was unarmed and his death was as senseless as his life was futile. He had struggled for Brotherhood on a hundred street corners and he though it would make him more human, but he died like any dog in a road.

"All right, all right," I called out, feeling desperate. It wasn't the way I wanted it to go, it wasn't political. Brother Jack probably wouldn't approve of it at all, but I had to keep going as I could go.

"Listen to me standing up on this so-called mountain!" I shouted. "Let me tell it as it truly was! His name was Tod Clifton and he was full of illusions. He thought he was a man when he was only Tod Clifton. He was shot for a simple mistake of judgment and he bled and his blood dried and shortly the crowd trampled out the stains. It was a normal mistake of which many are guilty: He thought he was a man and that men were not meant to be pushed around. But it was hot downtown and he forgot his history, he forgot the time and the place. He lost his hold on reality. There was a cop and a waiting audience but he was Tod Clifton and cops are everywhere. The cop? What about him? He was a cop. A good citizen. But this cop had an itching finger and an eager ear for a word that rhymed with 'trigger,' and when Clifton fell he had found it. The Police Special spoke its lines and the rhyme was completed.Just look around you. Look at what he made, look inside you and feel his awful power. It was perfectly natural. The blood ran like blood in a comic-book killing, on a comic-book street in a comic-book town on a comic-book day in a comic-book world.

"Tod Clifton's one with the ages. But what's that to do with you in this heat under this veiled sun? Now he's part of history, and he has received his true freedom. Didn't they scribble his name on a standardized pad?His Race: colored! Religion: unknown, probably born Baptist. Place of birth: U.S.Some southern town. Next of kin: unknown. Address: unknown. Occupation: unemployed.Cause of death (be specific): resisting reality in the form of a .38 caliber revolver in the hands of the arresting officer, on Forty-second between the library and the subway in the heat of the afternoon, of gunshot wounds received from three bullets, fired at three paces, one bullet entering the right ventricle of the heart, and lodging there, the other severing the spinal ganglia traveling downward to lodge in the pelvis,the other breaking through the back and traveling God knows where.

"Such was the short bitter life of Brother Tod Clifton.Now he's in this box with the bolts tightened down. He's in the box and we're in there with him, and when I've told you this you can go. It's dark in this box and it's crowded. It has a cracked ceiling and a clogged-up toilet in the hall. It has rats and roaches, and it's far, far too expensive a dwelling.The air is bad and it'll be cold this winter. Tod Clifton is crowded and he needs the room.

'Tell them to get out of the box,' that's what he would say if you could hear him. 'Tell them to get out of the box and go teach the cops to forget that rhyme. Tell them to teach them that when they call you nigger to make a rhyme with trigger it makes the gun backfire.'

"So there you have it. In a few hours Tod Clifton will be cold bones in the ground. And don't be fooled, for these bones shall not rise again. You and I will still be in the box. I don't know if Tod Clifton had a soul. I only know the ache that I feel in my heart, my sense of loss. I don't know if you have a soul. I only know you are men of flesh and blood; and that blood will spill and flesh grow cold. I do not know if all cops are poets, but I know that all cops carry guns with triggers. And I know too how we are labeled. So in the name of Brother Clifton beware of the triggers;go home, keep cool, stay safe away from the sun. Forget him. When he was alive he was our hope, but why worry over a hope that's dead? So there's only one thing left to tell and I've already told it. His name was Tod Clifton, he believed in Brotherhood, he aroused our hopes and he died."

One More Voice

In this re-post, I am adding another account of a black college professor telling his chilling account of being racially profiled in Massachusetts. His essay is titled, "I Fit the Description."

...“For the record,” I said to the second cop, “I’m not a criminal.  I’m a college professor.”  I was wearing my faculty ID around my neck, clearly visible with my photo.

“You fit the description so we just have to check it out.”  The first cop returned and handed me my license.

“We have the victim and we need her to take a look at you to see if you are the person.”

It was at this moment that I knew that I was probably going to die.  I am not being dramatic when I say this.  I was not going to get into a police car.  I was not going to present myself to some victim.  I was not going let someone tell the cops that I was not guilty when I already told them that I had nothing to do with any robbery.  I was not going to let them take me anywhere because if they did, the chance I was going to be accused of something I did not do rose exponentially.  I knew this in my heart.  I was not going anywhere with these cops and I was not going to let some white woman decide whether or not I was a criminal, especially after I told them that I was not a criminal.  This meant that I was going to resist arrest.  This meant that I was not going to let the police put their hands on me.

If you are wondering why people don’t go with the police, I hope this explains it for you.

Something weird happens when you are on the street being detained by the police.  People look at you like you are a criminal.  The police are detaining you so clearly you must have done something, otherwise they wouldn’t have you… (to read the entire essay, go here)


* Please also see my latest post on the subject, "A Southern White Boy Takes a Look at Ferguson  Again."


Monday, July 25, 2016

Monday Music: "Old Joe Clark" Country Store Jam Session

Time for a Virginia country hoe-down!
Senator Tim Kaine joins an old-time jam session on the tune "Old Joe Clark"
(that's him with the harmonica)


Saturday, July 23, 2016

Saturday Haiku: Mountain Stillness

old rock cliffs
ancient pine forest
stillness comes


Photo: Mountain landscape in China by Kristoffer Fredriksson
(Courtesy of Stocksnap)


Friday, July 22, 2016

Favorite Moments at the 2016 Alabama Writers Conclave

The Alabama Writers’ Conclave met July 15-17 at the Alabama School of Fine Arts in Birmingham, Alabama. It is always an enriching time. The weekend was filled with information, inspiration, and good food. It was a time of meeting new writer friends and talking with old writer friends. I left with a writer’s buzz that took a while to settle down from, and there were a couple of especially memorable moments.

Open Mic

Open Mic became what I considered to be a sacred gathering on Friday afternoon at the Alabama Writers' Conclave. Eighteen people got up to read poems and stories they had written; each had three minutes at the mic. Hearing just a snapshot of other people's lives, experiences and encounters was moving on so many levels. A sacred circle of time it was!

Exploring Imagery and Language

There were a number of helpful workshops for poetry, memoir, fiction, and creative nonfiction.  In one of the sessions, "Exploring Imagery and Language in Poetry,"  Shanti Weiland led us in examining some of the "challenges of anchoring abstractions with concrete language." The most memorable piece we read in that workshop was one by Billy Collins, former U.S. poet laureate:
Introduction to Poetry

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem's room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author's name on the shore.
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

                                             ~ Billy Collins


Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Flashback: Hope in the Midst of Trajedy

While I'm involved in another project, I am re-posting some of my favorite essays. This essay was originally a guest editorial in the Sunday edition of The Birmingham News (October 30, 2005). It was posted on the blog on August 31, 2010, five years after Hurricane Katrina. 

When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, many lives were disrupted and displaced. Our commonly used superlatives paled in our attempts to describe that event. I re-visit it here today as a reminder of one way we find hope when tragedy strikes.

Finding Hope After Katrina

by Charles Kinnaird

“What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn… that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us.”                                              

                                              ~ Viktor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning

The Problem of Evil

Christianity has a problem that arises from three basic precepts:
·        God is all-powerful and all-knowing
·        God is loving and good
·        Evil is real

This is a recipe for dissonance. In two thousand years, these theological concepts have never been reconciled nor have they been abandoned. I am in no position to try to debunk any of these three notions, but I am in a position to feel the ache and the loss for words in response to that perennial question, “How could a loving God allow such devastation and loss of innocent life?”

Hurricane Katrina is the latest tragic event that causes many to ask, is there really is a God out there, or is this just a barren, meaningless universe? It has even prompted some to claim that God is punishing sinners. Preachers and theologians have always felt the tension of trying to communicate faith and hope to people in light of intellectual honesty and trying times. Harold Kushner’s popular book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, managed to affirm that God is a loving God and that evil is certainly real, while rejecting the idea that God is really all-powerful. Some religions and sects will question whether evil is real, or just an illusion in order to explain the presence of suffering and evil. Many preachers like to remind us of the fact that someone brought sin into the world, and don’t forget that old chestnut of free will. Theology likes to create nice tidy boxes to put things in, but the problem is that life is not nice and tidy.

Working Through the Sorrow

It would be a cruel understatement to say that Katrina was an untidy incident. I’ll be honest, for days I tried to avoid the emotional impact. I tried to keep some distance as I viewed the news reports. Then the reality began to hit, and along with it, the tears that one tries to fight back, the deep sighs, the heaviness that weighs upon the chest and the brow. There came inevitable shock and the sorrow of so much devastation. I returned to a book that I had found very helpful when I first read it many years ago. Viktor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning came out of his experiences in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II. His was the only voice I could think of that might be appropriate to listen to in the wake of our current storm. The core of that book for me was a passage close to the middle of the work which is quoted above. Frankl goes on to say, “We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead start thinking of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life – daily and hourly.”

Responding to Life’s Questions

If we are being questioned by life, what is our response? Here are some things I heard in the week following the storm: I heard anger that response was so slow. I heard outrage that the poor, the handicapped and the needy were being overlooked and neglected. I saw bitter tears over the loss of life and the suffering of children. I saw responses from some individuals who were determined to do whatever they could to help. I heard scorn heaped upon the comfortable wealthy bureaucrats in Washington who seemed literally unmoved by the massive suffering. When I read the words of Jesus and the Hebrew prophets, God is described by these very same responses.

I cannot put this into a tidy box that will resolve all questions and ease the tensions of living, but I can say that in the midst of the chaos and horror that followed Katrina, I saw and heard God in our midst. I saw God in your face and heard God in your voice when the sorrow and outrage was expressed. As real people began to move to care for the evacuees by offering help, refuge, and hope, I took heart. There were people showing great care for life, even lending aid to pets that were displaced. I saw how we respond when we are questioned by life, and that response gives me hope in the midst of tragedy.


Monday, July 18, 2016

Monday Music: Paul Simon Live on A Prairie Home Companion

For those missing A Prairie Home Companion (though the repeats are still airing), here is Paul Simon performing on their February 6, 2016 broadcast. The song is "Duncan," and Paul is accompanied by some fine musicians, including Chris Thile on the mandolin (Chris will be the new host of A Prairie Home Companion).

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Saturday Haiku: Starshine

trees wait for the night
rejoicing in the starshine
no need to give shade

Photo by Michael J. Bennett
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons


Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Flashback: Liminal Space and Sacred Time

While I'm involved in another project, I am re-posting some of my favorite essays. This essay was originally posted on September 24, 2011. Last week I read a meditation by Richard Rohr on Liminal Space which prompted me to go back to my own essay on the topic. The event that I wrote about was My Favorite Poem, sponsored by the Birmingham Arts Journal. This September, I will have the privilege of reading a poem at that annual event.

(Alabama School of Fine Arts logo)
Liminality (from the Latin word līmen,meaning "a threshold") is a psychological, neurological, or metaphysical subjective state, conscious or unconscious, of being on the "threshold" of or between two different existential planes.
Psychologists call "liminal space" a place where boundaries dissolve a little and we stand there, on the threshold, getting ourselves ready to move across the limits of what we were into what we are to be. 

My wife and I had a wonderful evening last night as we listened to 16 people from various walks in life read at the annual "My Favorite Poem" poetry reading. The event was co-sponsored by the Birmingham Arts Journal and the Alabama School of Fine Arts. Local TV newsman Mike Royer was on hand as emcee, and did an outstanding job introducing each reader and helping the event to flow smoothly.

I have long considered poetry to be a sacred process and poems make available to us a body of sacred writing. It is a canon which has never been closed and which continuously arises to speak to the human condition. To sit and read a poem is to be open to a sacred time where life and mystery is celebrated. Even more important is the public nature of poetry.  Long before human communities were even literate, people gathered in public spaces and around fires to hear the sounds and the rhythms of that unique language of poetry.

Last night was such a time and I am grateful to Jim and Liz Reed of the Birmingham Arts Journal and to ASFA for creating that public arena for the reciting of poetry. I am also grateful to each of the readers who stood before us to read their favorite poem.

We heard stories of humanity that echoed the joys and sorrows, the struggles and triumphs of life.  There were light-hearted moments, there were occasions for laughter, and there were moments of somber reflection. We heard stories of war time, poverty, and family. We heard from poets who affirmed every aspect of life, each in his or her own unique style.

After the readings, there was a grand reception hosted by ASFA’s Creative Writing Department. Off to the side was the school’s art gallery which was open with installments from the Visual Arts students. My wife and I took the time to walk through the gallery to see the exhibits. Our daughter graduated from ASFA with a specialty in Visual Art, so we enjoyed seeing once again the creations of those high school students. As always, I was amazed at the creativity expressed in the sculptures and paintings within the gallery. It was yet another occasion to walk within that liminal space that gives us cause for wonder and hope.

All in all, the evening was a great celebration of creativity, life, love, longing, and community. It was a reminder of the importance of bringing people together to publicly set aside sacred time and liminal space to celebrate life together as we navigate this hopeful but unsure path.

*    *    *    *    *

You may be interested in reading:


Monday, July 11, 2016

Monday Music: Blossoms on a Moonlit River in Spring (Traditional Chinese)

When I lived in Hong Kong years ago, one of the many treats was to be able to hear a traditional Chinese orchestra live. According to the the YouTube notes, "Blossoms on a Moonlit River in Spring" is an ancient tune arranged by Qin Pengzhang & Luo Zhongrong. It is performed by the China Central Chinese Orchestra (Lead Pipa: Yang Jing).


Saturday, July 9, 2016

Saturday Haiku: Nightscape

near the ocean’s shore
a midsummer tidal pool
large as the night sky

Image: "Jupiter" (Chadds Ford Gallery)
Artist: Andrew Wyeth
Medium: Giclee (pigmented ink on paper)


Friday, July 8, 2016

A Great Lesson in Haiku

Here is an excellent ten-minute introduction to writing haiku. You will learn all you need to know to appreciate haiku and to try your hand at writing it. Here is the statement from the YouTube notes:

Learn how to write a traditional haiku, including the 5-7-5 rule, subject matter, and structure. Learn what a "kigo" is and why your poem must contain a shift or movement of some kind. Learn also what you should do when you disagree with the dictionary about how many syllables a word contains.

Writing haiku is a great learning activity for kids, but it's also an adult poetic form written by and for adults. And it's fundamentally different from Western poetry in that it doesn't attempt to contain any sort of narrative thread or train of thought. Haiku is about capturing a single moment and allowing the reader to see what you see, feel what you feel, and to suddenly understand what you, the poet, understand. For the reader, it isn't like talking to the poet; it's more like inhabiting the poet's mind for a single transcendent moment. It's a bit like magic


Thursday, July 7, 2016

Robert's Cancer Treatment

My brother-in-law is to undergo surgery for prostate cancer. He is opting for a less expensive, non-invasive treatment that unfortunately is not covered by his insurance plan.

In his words, "In 2010 a doctor discovered a small spot after a routine checkup. It was positively diagnosed as prostate cancer. I have struggled with doctors since, they want to perform a quick fix, to cut, burn and poison my body to eliminate the problem- but I did my research. I followed the newest techniques from Europe and outlying countries and waited for these procedures to come to America. It has finally come to the point where I can’t put off more aggressive treatment any longer.

"There is a new repair and rehab procedure that is non- invasive and requires less recovery time and costs ¼ the amount of its’ predecessors but for some reason is not currently covered by my insurance. They classify it as experimental, even though it’s been FDA approved. The cost for the procedure is $25,000 not including travel and lodging. The procedure will be performed 12 hours away in Sarasota FL and require a 2 night stay there. I will have 2 weeks of hard recovery and then another 2 weeks before I will be allowed to return to work."

You can read his story and catch a glimpse of his remarkable life by checking out his website at There at his Go Fund Me site you can also find out how to help out.


Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Flashback: Brave New World ... at Breakfast

While I'm involved in another project, I am re-posting some of my favorite essays. This essay was originally posted on March 31, 2014.

... That is how our “brave new world” level of distopia has come upon us. It was not evil dictators, it was not the communists, it was not some fearful atheistic socialist government. It was the promise of a dollar that caused us to slowly and willingly hand our lives over to someone else’s control. The result is a poverty of will, a poverty of ideas, a poverty of community spirit, and a deep indebtedness to the corporation.

During the summer of 1974, I took my first job away from home. I was one of those college students who sold books door-to-door with the Southwestern Publishing Company. My roommates and I found a room to rent and we set out to make our way in the world. It was a great time to get a taste of the work-a-day world and to test our mettle. That summer I discovered for the first time the small private restaurants that were open for breakfast and lunch. My buddies and I found a couple of nice places to start our day with a hearty breakfast. These were homey spots. They were often Mom & Pop operations equipped to get breakfast orders out quickly to people who were on their way to work. Often, when they got to know your breakfast preferences, they would begin preparing it when they saw you getting out of you car so the wait time was almost non-existent.

 A Loss of Community?

There was something else about those breakfast spots. They were places where friends met before starting the day. They provided a sense of community where you could keep tabs on how folks were doing and what the latest happenings in town were. “Fast food” breakfast was virtually unknown. I can remember when McDonald's first ventured into the breakfast market with the “Egg McMuffin.” It seemed a little weird, but we began to get accustomed to the idea of a “hamburger joint” selling breakfast food.

All of these thoughts came back to me this morning when I saw on television a news piece about the “breakfast wars” as Taco Bell attempts to take some of that breakfast revenue from McDonald’s which, according to the news report, has the lion’s share of the breakfast business. All of this highlights where we have come and how we go about life in the city. We are people who are serving the corporation, are informed by the corporation, and are fed by the corporation.

Finding Hope at the Drive-thru Window

That same corporate mentality fuels our fantasy of democratic ideals as big money influences “grass roots organizations” to support candidates and legislation which favor the big-moneyed corporations. Since those days in the mid 1970s when I was first venturing into the work world, we have slowly been handing our lives over to the corporation even as we warned ourselves of the evils of totalitarian government. That is how our “brave new world” level of distopia has come upon us. It was not evil dictators, it was not the communists, it was not some fearful atheistic socialist government. It was the promise of a dollar that caused us to slowly and willingly hand our lives over to someone else’s control. The result is a poverty of will, a poverty of ideas, a poverty of community spirit, and a deep indebtedness to the corporation.

To quote, Pink Floyd, all in all we're just another brick in the wall -- a brick in the wall of a system that controls our choices and actions. Not by way of totalitarian government, but by way of a pervasive media that keeps happy faces on the air to assure us that we are free. We buy our breakfast alone and on the go as we head off to office cubicles and other similar shackles to work for “the man.” All the while television jingles reassure us that we are buying hope and value at the drive-through. 


Monday, July 4, 2016

Monday Music: American Tune

An incomparable duo! Here is Paul Simon's "American Tune," a song that is introspective, contemplative, and truly patriotic. Performed by Simon & Garfunkel at their reunion concert in Central Park in 1981.


Sunday, July 3, 2016

Garrison Keillor Was Telling Our Story

(Prairie Home Productions Photo)

This weekend saw Garrison Keillor's final broadcast as host of A Prairie Home Companion. His weekly program that began in 1974 has certainly had a positive influence on Public Radio. My brother said many years ago that "Garrison Keillor has done more for Public Radio than even Jennifer and Ted Stanley have!" (Long time NPR listeners will get the reference).  Many in the news and broadcast media have been weighing in on Mr. Keillor and his career. I would like to share a bit of my own experience as a frequent listener.

A Wonderful Discovery

Every fan of Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion probably has their own story about how they personally connected with the program. I first discovered his radio show in the fall of 1983. I had recently returned to the States after having lived in Hong Kong where I taught in the English Department at Hong Kong Baptist College. Hong Kong was still a British Crown Colony at the time, and one thing I had come to enjoy was BBC Radio. Unlike the U.S., Britain had maintained a wide variety of radio programming with documentaries and radio drama as well as music and news broadcasts. I found that there was something about radio that opened up the imagination in a way that far surpassed the images seen on television or in the movie theater. Radio engages you in a different way. Perhaps it is linked to that ancient art of storytelling that is engrained in our psyche.

Coming back to the U.S. had been an adjustment, and finding a vibrant radio broadcast led by Garrison Keillor helped to ease my transition. No one else was doing radio like that, and it was a wonderful discovery.  As I tuned in to A Prairie Home Companion each Saturday evening, it was a nice two-hour respite at the end of the week. I came to realize that as I listened to the music, the skits, and the news from Lake Wobegon, I was being re-introduced to “middle America.” More important, I was becoming reacquainted with my own story.

A young man who travels the world sometimes tries to shed the old provincial ways that he grew up with. While broadening one’s perspective, becoming more cosmopolitan, and being more open to the world has its distinct advantages, one can also lose one’s moorings in the process. Garrison Keillor, with his humorous quirky style and a rich mellow voice that was perfect for radio, told stories about where he came from. As we all listened each week to those stories, whether we knew it or not, we were also hearing our own stories. In hearing my own story in Keillor’s thoughtful, reflective manner (always made safe and accessible by an ample supply of laughter) I came to have a greater appreciation of my own version of Lake Wobegon. My own version was the small county seat town in Alabama where I grew up. Change is a necessity, but remembering where we came from keeps us real.

Keeping the Music Real

And then there was the music. A Prairie Home Companion always brought a variety of music to the stage. We heard local choirs, bluegrass bands, opera singers, and classical musicians. There have been well-known stars like Chet Atkins, Emmylou Harris, James Taylor, Yo-Yo Ma, Sheryl Crow and Neko Case. The music was always live and always real, with The Guy's All-Star Shoe Band on hand each week for musical accompaniment.

I have always loved music, especially singing in choirs and glee clubs (we never actually had a glee club in our small high school, but I always loved it whenever the music would happen). I was enthralled and amazed when I would hear Garrison Keillor have an entire audience at the Fitzgerald Theater in downtown St. Paul singing some old song like, “Tell me why the stars do shine, Tell me why the ivy twines…” It was sentimental, but it was happening at the moment, which made it real. It gave me hope, like when Pete Seeger would manage to turn his concert audience into a massive choir.

Shy Person Alert

The New York Times recently ran a story, “The Garrison Keillor You Never Knew,” by Cara Buckley. While never quite reaching the level of exposé, the point of the article was that the persona that Mr. Keillor created for radio is not at all who he is in real life. As I read the article, though the term Asperger's syndrome was never used, the descriptions she gave of the person she encountered were definitely in line with Asperger traits. She noted his being ill at ease with small talk, not at all the garrulous person seen on stage, and quoted the former associate at The New Yorker saying, “He is certainly the strangest person I know.” I wonder if she was even aware that she was describing Asperger traits. I wonder if she knows how many of us shy persons can relate to those traits she was describing?

Just last week on CBS Sunday Morning, Jane Pauley interviewed Garrison Keillor (“Garrison Keillor signs off”). In that delightful interview, Ms Pauley did use the term autism in her conversation with Mr. Keillor:

Keillor may owe his gentle gift for story to his belief that he's on the autism spectrum. Undiagnosed as a child, he was allowed to be himself, a little apart. Noticing, listening ...

"If you weren't high-functioning autistic," Pauley said, "you would've not had the blessings that your childhood gave you, that you are still investing in now as a 73-year-old man."

While I had long suspected that he knew on a personal level his many references to shy people, I had not been aware of the level of his experience. In the past, terms like "painfully shy" and "socially awkward" were often used to describe odd people. Even now, we often hear those terms bandied about without stopping to consider where someone might be on the "autism spectrum." [On a side note: Mr. Keillor spoke at the Minnesota 19th Annual Autism Conference in 2014. For a memorable review of his presentation, go here]

Even Non-Minnesotans Can Be Thankful

We can all be thankful, all of us fans of the long-running NPR broadcast, that Mr. Keillor not only stood where shy persons often fear to go, he graced us with his observations of our lives. Perhaps he was giving courage to other shy people (as well as offering insight to all of those “normal people”) with his humorous ad for Powder Milk Biscuits: “Made with whole wheat grown by Norwegian bachelor farmers…Whole wheat that gives shy persons the strength to get up and do what needs to be done.” Not that there is actually a biscuit for shy persons, of course, but that their plight is acknowledged; the recognition that some of us introverts have to call upon that extra reserve to move out and interact with others in order to do what we have to do. It is also therapeutic to be able to laugh about it.

Thank you, Garrison Keillor, for going where shy persons tend not to go. Thank you for telling us stories, for making us laugh, for getting us all to sing along, and above all, for keeping it real.


Saturday, July 2, 2016

Saturday Haiku: Hawk Rises

when the hawk rises
even the king takes notice,
covets his freedom


Photo by Peggy Farmer


Friday, July 1, 2016

Taking Advantage of Interfaith Opportunities

The following post is one from January 5, 2010. I re-post it here as part of my appeal during the holy month of Ramadan for us to reach out to our Muslim neighbors and learn more about their lives and their faith. The Birmingham Islamic Society, as it does each year, is inviting the community to share an iftar meal. There is information at their website. There may a few days left to participate. Here is an excerpt from their invitation letter (also found on their website):

"We would very much appreciate the opportunity to host you, your family and friends, or your
organization or group on a weekday or a weekend evening between the dates of June 7 and July
4, 2015. We warmly welcome you to observe our evening prayer at sunset. Dinner will follow
with a brief presentation on Islam and a question/answer session. The program usually runs
about 2 hours in total, depending on the visiting group and their questions."

Interfaith Opportunities

This past Sunday afternoon there was an excellent documentary, Different Books, Common Word, which aired on our local ABC station that probably went unnoticed by many. I was alerted by a friend that it would be airing at 3:00 pm. The newspaper TV log had it listed as “Paid Program,” so I think it is unfortunate that it didn’t get better publicity. I learned from an online review that the documentary was produced by in Nashville.

The documentary heralds the positive interactions and cooperation between Baptists and Muslims in such places as Oklahoma City, Memphis, Lake Charles, LA, Columbia, TN, and Orange, TX. We learn through some of the dialogue in the film that certain Baptist leaders were motivated to speak out and reach out to counter the inflammatory, derogatory remarks about Islam made by some other prominent Baptist leaders. They wanted people to know that Jerry Falwell and his ilk did not represent all Baptists.

Different Books, Common Word is an important documentary for two reasons. One, it shows individual Baptists and Muslims coming to know and appreciate one another, finding a common humanity while acknowledging differences. Two, it is a lesson and an image that many of us in the United States, especially in the South, need to hear. We need to cool down the dogmatic, inflammatory rhetoric and get to know our Muslim neighbors.

Local Opportunities

There are opportunities for all of us to do some bridge building between faiths. Our local Islamic Center for several years has extended an offering for dialogue with the community during the sacred month of Ramadan. Each year during Ramadan, which is a time of fasting from sunup to sundown, the Islamic community has invited non-Muslims to come join them for prayers and a meal. It is a time when they can explain their faith to their neighbors who may have limited knowledge (or misinformation) about Islam.

Last year I took them up on the invitation and joined them at the local mosque one night during Ramadan. I believe that we must find ways of living together, because none of us – Christians, Muslims, Jews, or anyone else for that matter – none of us is going to go away. We are all here on the planet, and we owe it to ourselves and our future to learn to live in harmony.

When I arrived at the mosque in the Rosedale community of Homewood, Ala., it was not dark yet, so things had not gotten underway. There were children running around – some tossing a ball. Men were talking on the steps while women in the kitchen busily preparing the evening meal. It reminded me of sights I had seen years before while working and travelling in Southeast Asia, but it also looked a lot like what I had experienced growing up as a Baptist in the rural South.

A couple of gentlemen came up to welcome me. They told me that Abdullah would be there shortly. Abdullah was the one in charge of talking to visitors about the faith. While we were there waiting for things to begin, an older man from India was explaining to me that Islam is the only religion that tells you everything you need to know in life “It even tells you how to go to the bathroom and how to have sex with your wife – what other religion does that?” Then the old man led me to a room where water, soup, and dates were offered as the first breaking of the fast before evening prayers.

Abdullah arrived shortly before the first prayers began. He was a young man of dark complexion, but not as dark as the Indian man I had spoken with. He spoke perfect English and looked like he probably had some African heritage. Abdullah lead me into the mosque where a man stood at a microphone and began leading prayers. After a period of time, he made a few announcements that had to do with general housekeeping procedures (so, they have those announcements during worship too, I thought to myself). Then the man announced some certificate awards to people who had successfully memorized and recited books of the Qur’an. He took delight in pointing out that the one who was best at recitation was a woman.

Finding Common Ground

After the first evening prayers, we all went to partake of the feast that had been prepared. It was then that I had opportunity to talk with Abdullah. He escorted me to the dining area. We sat down to eat and he began to explain to me some of the customs of Islam. At one point in our conversation he asked me about my faith.

“I’m Catholic,” I told him, “but I wasn’t always Catholic. I grew up Baptist.”

“Well,” Abdullah replied, “I grew up Baptist as well.” Abdullah was a hometown boy! And a former Baptist at that!

We laughed a bit about the fact that we both grew up Baptist and converted to another religious expression. You just naturally celebrate whatever commonality you find, and Baptist just happened to be one of our commonalities.

I haven’t seen Abdullah since then, but I’m hoping to continue dialogue with our Muslim neighbors in the city. Just last month, a local imam came to do a presentation on Islam at the hospital where I work. It was an in-service for us health professionals to learn how to better provide for our Muslim patients. I got his name and contact information. Perhaps that will be another opportunity for dialogue and cooperation.

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