Monday, August 21, 2017

Monday Music: Eclipse (John Denver)

Here's one of my favorite John Denver songs. I learned to play it on the guitar many years ago. Today's solar eclipse that will cast a swath across the U.S. brought it to mind.

"I think it's kind of interesting the way things get to be,
The way that people work with their machines..."


Saturday, August 19, 2017

Saturday Haiku: Friends Gather

friends gather and wait
breezes rustle summer leaves
cares are forgotten

Photo by Peggy Farmer


Wednesday, August 16, 2017

The Best Cup of Coffee

A view of Lantau Island, Hong Kong

The Best Cup of Coffee I Ever Had

It might have been due
To the light drizzle we faced
As we disembarked from the ferry
Onto Lantau Island.

It could have been the camaraderie
Of good friends
Coming together for a weekend
Of hiking and camping.

We set out with our backpacks and folded tents
On the gradual incline of a path
That would wind its way
Above the bay
And up the gentle mountainside.

Cool air prevailed
As the light rain fell.
That coolness settled
Into our hands and feet
When the sun dropped down below
The crest of the low-lying hills.

I have had so many cups of coffee
In the courses of my days.
Coffee at home
At friends’ tables
In fine restaurants
At roadside diners.
I have sipped coffee from steaming mugs
On winter days,
From fine china
On summer evenings
And from the basic white cup
Of a sidewalk café in Paris.

My taste in coffee
Has covered many brands
And many roasts.
Sometimes it had to be a robust French roast,
Sometimes a mellow “house roast” blend.
There were seasons when I expected
That sharp edge of a dark roast
To pierce through the cloaking of cream
That I stirred in.
Other seasons required the light and buoyant taste
Of a “breakfast blend.”

There have been days upon days
When I endured the tepid results
Of a new brand of coffee with a great ad campaign,
Looking forward to the last scoop in the bag
When I could return to
The tried and true
Of the hardy favored brand
That I should have never departed from in the first place.

Many have been my days of coffee,
But it was on that first night
While camping on Hong Kong’s Lantau Island
That all past and future cups
Came into focus.
All coffee would henceforth be
At best, a valiant attempt to compare.

Just before the night began to step in
We decided that we had found our campsite.
There was a small creek for water,
And a level area to pitch our tents.
Our first task was to start a fire.

Wood was gathered and the fire was started.
“Now we need to get us some coffee,”
Our friend and hiking guide said.
He had some tablets
That would purify spring water.
Just to be safe
We boiled the water sufficiently
In addition to adding the tablets.

With water ready
My only cup was a plastic cereal bowl
And my coffee was instant powder stored in my bag.
Yet with the cold of night settling in,
Feet wet from hiking in the rain,
And good friends gathered,
That cup of instant coffee
Make from purified creek water
Drunk from a plastic bowl
Remains in my memory
The best cup of coffee
I have ever had.

                                                        ~ CK


Photo: "Beaches on Lantau Island, Hong Kong," from Peanuts or Pretzels travel site:


Monday, August 14, 2017

Monday Music: Glen Campbell sings Mull of Kintyre

The world lost an incomparable artist last week with the passing of Glen Campbell. He started his career in LA as a studio musician, backing up such notables as The Beach Boys. "Gentle on My Mind," written by John Hartford, was his break out hit that set him firmly as a solo artist. A native of Arkansas, he kept ties to the country music that he cut his teeth on, but his great success was in his ability as a crossover artist, appealing to pop and Top 40 as well as country. He teamed  up early in his career with songwriter Jimmy Webb to record a string of hits for many years.

While he was a virtuoso on the guitar, his musical talent is further on display in this clip where he sings Paul McCartney's "Mull of Kintyre" and then plays the bagpipes to boot!

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Saturday Haiku: The Goldfish Pool

fish swim in shallows
while deeper waters reflect
much more to the soul 


Image: The Goldfish Pool at Winston Churchill's Chartwell estate
Medium: Oil on canvas
Artist: Winston Churchill


Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Faith and the Liberal Arts

[Note: A version of this essay first appeared on this blog in July of 2013 under the title, "A Faith of One's Own."]

Samford University's Reid Chapel
(Photo by Charles Kinnaird)

Today's essay is a variation on the theme from last week about the benefits of a liberal arts education.  Today I take a brief look at my exploration of faith within a liberal arts curriculum. 

It is important to be a part of a faith community, but it is also important to have a faith that you can buy in to – one that makes sense within your worldview and the life that you live.  An important step in helping me to find a faith that I could buy into came when I was a college student at Samford University. 

I chose to pursue a double major in English Literature and Religion & Philosophy.  As it turned out, these two branches in my liberal arts education helped me begin to forge a faith I could call my own.  There was one professor in the Religion Department, Dr. Karen Joines, who was particularly controversial. His specialty areas were Hebrew, Old Testament studies, and archaeology.  He was seen by many as a “liberal apostate” who should be removed from our Baptist institution. It was my English studies that helped me to have a different view, and a much greater appreciation for our liberal professor.

Sacred Story

In Karen Joines’ classes, it was okay to believe what you wanted to believe, but he wanted you to grapple with the questions of faith and to understand why you believe as you do. He wanted us to understand the deeper meaning of the Resurrection story, asking questions like, “If you could have set up a video camera in front Jesus’ tomb, what do you thing you might see when you played it back?” and “If there were no afterlife in Heaven, would you still live the Christian life?” us to understand the deeper meaning of the Resurrection story, asking questions lik

The single most important lecture I heard during my four years at Samford was his lecture in Archeology class on mythopoeic thought. That lecture opened up new vistas for me. It affirmed my love of poetry, nature and spirituality. It brought to me a heightened sense of wonder seldom found in the classroom.

There were other things he said in his classes that have stayed with me through the years. They were the closest things to rabbinical sayings that I have heard first-hand. He talked about Jacob, emphasizing that he went limping after his name-changing encounter with the angel. Referring to the book of Daniel, he told us that in our life we will be asked to bow the knee to Nebuchadnezzar, “and if you know what's good for you, you will bow to Nebuchadnezzar – but you better not." (It didn't take me long in the real world to know the truth of that comment, which I came to see as a kind of “Jewish koan”). On another occasion told us about Micah, in the book of Judges, who lost his silver idols and declared, "They have taken my gods away, and what am I to do now?"

Perhaps his most controversial chapel lecture was his “Funeral for a Friend,” in which he described, again in quite poetic language, the death of God, or more accurately, the loss of our concept of God as real life unfolds. Dr. Joines challenged the assumptions that we brought from our Sunday school days, but he was showing us what sacred story is about.

Finding the Connection in Literature

While many were livid with what they saw as apostasy, it occurred to me that if Karen Joines spoke the same words over in the English Department, he would be viewed as a defender of the faith. You see, while my colleagues in Religion classes were having difficulty dealing with doubt and things that might challenge their faith, I was seeing the world of literature deal with much harsher crises.  My studies in the English Department showed me how to honestly deal with the questions and challenges of life. Literary people were not confined by doctrine and did not have to restrict life to theological boxes.

I was reading Shakespeare, who wrote more on the human condition than anyone else in the English language. More important, he dramatized the conflicts and struggles common to us all. I was also watching Huck Finn wrestle with the notions of race and slavery, I saw Atticus Finch strive for justice in the segregated South. Moreover, I was beginning to understand the beauties of poetry, which I have come to see as our own “open canon of scripture,” to which we continue to add with each passing year.ish language, and who, more importa

The result of grappling with questions raised by literary writers was a larger appreciation of life. There was no condemnation for stepping out of the boundaries, no call for the firing of professors. There was just the exhilarating process of examining life, love, joy, sorrow, struggle, and friendship.

My double major in English and Religion helped to open my eyes to a wider world as I wrestled with finding the meaning of the life I am attempting to live. I carry from my studies a particular treasure in that gift that Karen Joines gave in my religious studies – that vibrant sense of the poetic along with an honesty to face struggle and doubt within the context of faith.  He inspired a freedom to live unbound by outdated notions.

*    *    *

Post script: I have attempted to carry on the idea of sacred story, as Karen Joines demonstrated to us in his classes. I have recast some of the Old Testament stories in a kind of personal midrash in “Tales of Isaac: Part I - The Altar and Part II - The Blessing,”  “Discovering Esau,” “A Blanket for an Old Man,” and “The Mark of Cain.” I also tried to follow up on Dr. Joines’ lead in “When Your Gods Are Taken Away.”


Monday, August 7, 2017

Monday Music: Bluegrass and The Byrds

Fascinating footage of Roger McGuin and The Byrds mixing it up with bluegrass legend, Earl Scruggs in 1971. McGuin along with fellow musician Chris Hillman did the same kind of thing with the same song for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Vol. 2.

In this first video taken from the documentary, Earl Scruggs: His Family and Friends, you will see Roger McGuin and The Byrds performing with Earl Scruggs on the banjo. After a little bluegrass session, they do the song, "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere," by Bob Dylan. The song had been in The Byrd's repertoire, having been recorded for the 1968 album, "Sweetheart of the Rodeo." (To watch the entire documentary, available on YouTube, go here)

This second video features the recording from Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Volume 2, with Roger McGuin, Chris Hillman and The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.


Saturday, August 5, 2017

Saturday Haiku: Yellow Warbler

the fleeting warbler
stops on a swaying tree branch
bright song fills the air

* To hear the yellow warbler's song, go here.


Photo: Yellow warbler along the Natchez Trace Parkway (National Park service photo)


Friday, August 4, 2017

A Song from Sam Shepard

Last week we lost actor and Pulitzer prizewinning playwright Sam Shepard. (Singer Patti Smith wrote an eloquent tribute to Sam Shepard in the New Yorker)

From a post by American Songwriter Magazine:

R.I.P. Sam Shepard, one of our country's greatest writers. Though mostly known for his play-writing (to which he brought a rock and roll sensibility) and acting, he also co-wrote the song "
Brownsville Girl" with Bob Dylan.

Shepard was hired by Dylan to write the script for an experimental film during the singer's famous Rolling Thunder Revue in 1975. The film never really panned out, but Shepard's journals about the tour (published as the Rolling Thunder logbook) provide great insight into Dylan's world circa "Blood On The Tracks."

Shepard also played drums for the Holy Modal Rounders in the late '60s and co-wrote a play with Patti Smith called "Cowboy Mouth," when the two were living together at New York's Chelsea Hotel in the early '70s.

The song “Brownsville Girl” appeared on the album Knocked Out Loaded. It is a grand epic of a story with the dramatic flair indicative of a playwright's touch. Some critics have said that it is the only noteworthy song on the album.

Brownsville Girl

Lyrics by Bob Dylan and Sam Shepard

Well, there was this movie I seen one time
About a man riding ’cross the desert and it starred Gregory Peck
He was shot down by a hungry kid trying to make a name for himself
The townspeople wanted to crush that kid down and string him up by the neck

Well, the marshal, now he beat that kid to a bloody pulp
As the dying gunfighter lay in the sun and gasped for his last breath
“Turn him loose, let him go, let him say he outdrew me fair and square
I want him to feel what it’s like to every moment face his death”

Well, I keep seeing this stuff and it just comes a-rolling in
And you know it blows right through me like a ball and chain
You know I can’t believe we’ve lived so long and are still so far apart
The memory of you keeps callin’ after me like a rollin’ train

I can still see the day that you came to me on the painted desert
In your busted down Ford and your platform heels
I could never figure out why you chose that particular place to meet
Ah, but you were right. It was perfect as I got in behind the wheel

Well, we drove that car all night into San Anton’
And we slept near the Alamo, your skin was so tender and soft
Way down in Mexico you went out to find a doctor and you never came back
I would have gone on after you but I didn’t feel like letting my head get blown off

Well, we’re drivin’ this car and the sun is comin’ up over the Rockies
Now I know she ain’t you but she’s here and she’s got that dark rhythm in her soul
But I’m too over the edge and I ain’t in the mood anymore to remember the times
when I was your only man
And she don’t want to remind me. She knows this car would go out of control

Brownsville girl with your Brownsville curls
Teeth like pearls shining like the moon above
Brownsville girl, show me all around the world
Brownsville girl, you’re my honey love

Well, we crossed the panhandle and then we headed towards Amarillo
We pulled up where Henry Porter used to live. He owned a wreckin’ lot outside of town about a mile
Ruby was in the backyard hanging clothes, she had her red hair tied back. She saw us come rolling up in a trail of dust
She said, “Henry ain’t here but you can come on in, he’ll be back in a little while”

Then she told us how times were tough and about how she was thinkin’ of
bummin’ a ride back to from where she started
But ya know, she changed the subject every time money came up
She said, “Welcome to the land of the living dead”
You could tell she was so broken hearted
She said, “Even the swap meets around here are getting pretty corrupt”

“How far are y’all going?” Ruby asked us with a sigh
“We’re going all the way ’til the wheels fall off and burn
’Til the sun peels the paint and the seat covers fade and the water moccasin dies”
Ruby just smiled and said, “Ah, you know some babies never learn”

Something about that movie though, well I just can’t get it out of my head
But I can’t remember why I was in it or what part I was supposed to play
All I remember about it was Gregory Peck and the way people moved
And a lot of them seemed to be lookin’ my way

Brownsville girl with your Brownsville curls,
Teeth like pearls shining like the moon above
Brownsville girl, show me all around the world
Brownsville girl, you’re my honey love

Well, they were looking for somebody with a pompadour
I was crossin’ the street when shots rang out
I didn’t know whether to duck or to run, so I ran
“We got him cornered in the churchyard,” I heard somebody shout

Well, you saw my picture in the Corpus Christi Tribune. Underneath it,
it said, “A man with no alibi”
You went out on a limb to testify for me, you said I was with you
Then when I saw you break down in front of the judge and cry real tears
It was the best acting I saw anybody do

Now I’ve always been the kind of person that doesn’t like to trespass
but sometimes you just find yourself over the line
Oh if there’s an original thought out there, I could use it right now
You know, I feel pretty good, but that ain’t sayin’ much. I could feel a whole lot better
If you were just here by my side to show me how

Well, I’m standin’ in line in the rain to see a movie starring Gregory Peck
Yeah, but you know it’s not the one that I had in mind
He’s got a new one out now, I don’t even know what it’s about
But I’ll see him in anything so I’ll stand in line

Brownsville girl with your Brownsville curls
Teeth like pearls shining like the moon above
Brownsville girl, show me all around the world
Brownsville girl, you’re my honey love

You know, it’s funny how things never turn out the way you had ’em planned
The only thing we knew for sure about Henry Porter is that his name wasn’t Henry Porter
And you know there was somethin’ about you baby that I liked that was always too good for this world
Just like you always said there was somethin’ about me you liked
that I left behind in the French Quarter

Strange how people who suffer together have stronger connections than people who are most content
I don’t have any regrets, they can talk about me plenty when I’m gone
You always said people don’t do what they believe in, they just do what’s most convenient, then they repent
And I always said, “Hang on to me, baby, and let’s hope that the roof stays on”

There was a movie I seen one time, I think I sat through it twice
I don’t remember who I was or where I was bound
All I remember about it was it starred Gregory Peck, he wore a gun
and he was shot in the back
Seems like a long time ago, long before the stars were torn down

Brownsville girl with your Brownsville curls
Teeth like pearls shining like the moon above
Brownsville girl, show me all around the world
Brownsville girl, you’re my honey love

Copyright © 1986 by Special Rider Music


Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The Benefits of a Liberal Arts Education

Samford University Library
(Photo by Charles Kinnaird)
Last week on NPR's The Writer’s Almanac, Garrison Keillor read a poem by Faith Shearin, “Directions to Your College Dorm.” It is a wonderful poem that transported me back to those days of breaking away form home, meeting new friends, and learning of a wider, grander world. It also reminded me of how much I value having gone to a small liberal arts college where I could safely explore the wonders, joys, anxieties, and anticipations of a life moving out into the world. (You can read Shearin’s poem here.)

Thinking back on those days prompted me to repost an essay that I wrote a couple of years ago looking back on my liberal arts education which was published at AMERICAblog in May of 2015:

The Liberal Arts Pathway

It has been over 30 years since I received my first undergraduate degree at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. I have no regrets about the liberal arts foundation of my higher education. While the question “How can I get the best job?” has encouraged much of higher education to become glorified technical schools, to limit one’s education to employability for employability’s sake is to miss out on what education is supposed to be. What’s more, even in the context of employment, it limits ones opportunities down the road.

In my professional life, I have been involved in teaching, social services and healthcare. At each stage of my career path, my liberal arts education helped not only in opening some doors, but also in dealing with life once I walked through them. In today’s environment, with the speed of both technological and social change, one can expect to have to change jobs or to get some retraining for the workforce. A liberal arts education teaches you how to learn, allowing you to adapt to new challenges, requirements and settings.

I double majored in English and Religion & Philosophy, leading to all of the predictable jokes about my supposedly nonexistent job prospects. At the time, I wasn’t worried because I expected to either teach or enter the ministry. While those fields were good for me at first, I began to see that there were other professions that would suit me better. I eventually went back to get further training for my subsequent jobs, but my background in liberal arts was with me every step of the way.

Learning liberally

A view of Samford's Reid Chapel
(Photo by Charles Kinnaird)
I grew up in a small town, which led to my being a bit naïve when I entered college. I was surprised to find that my college professors were intent upon not only teaching me “things,” but also making me struggle with what those “things” meant. Whether it was history, science, literature, music, art or philosophy, everything was grounded in larger questions concerning what it means to be alive in the world. I was introduced to Shakespeare, who wrote more on the human condition than anyone else in the English language, and who more importantly dramatized the conflicts and struggles common to us all. I saw Huck Finn wrestle with the notions of race and slavery; I saw Atticus Finch strive for justice in the segregated South. I came to understand the intricate beauties of poetry, which I began to see as our own “open canon of scripture,” to which we continue to add with each passing year.

There was no condemnation for stepping out of the boundaries. There was just the exhilarating process of examining life, love, joy, sorrow, struggle and friendship. And when what you’re studying is life itself, your education naturally extends beyond the classroom. Some of my best memories from college are the debates and conversations with friends over lunch, about what Professor So-and-so said in class or a project that one of my friends was working on.

It was a wonderful and challenging milieu that fostered an appreciation for others and, in turn, a more progressive consideration of life itself — an outlook that was at once more hopeful than the provincial views I had grown up with and more aware of our past and present social inequities.

Living my education

That being the case, it still took most of my college career to get to the point of being able to think through the concepts I was being exposed to. Many are not developmentally ready to fully profit from their education in their late teens and early twenties. Education is a life-long struggle. For example, I had a conversation with a high school classmate whom I happened to meet years after graduation and who had become a successful banker. He mentioned our high school English teacher and noted that, “We really need what we learned in English class even more when we are in our thirties and forties — much more than we could realize at the time.”

A foundation in the liberal arts forces the student to grapple with the realities and vagaries of life, both before and after they receive their degree. This is especially important in the real world, which doesn’t curve your grades. In the ups and downs I have faced since graduating, I have always had something essential to fall back on; lessons that extended beyond employment and paychecks that could be re-applied to life as it happens.

So by all means, get all the training you can, but make sure you’re learning more than just what’s on the test. Life is more than your first job; educate yourself liberally, and you’ll be prepared to live accordingly.

Samford University Campus (courtesy of Wikipedia)


Monday, July 31, 2017

Monday Music: This Is My Song (Petula Clark)

Charles Chaplin was a man of many talents. He wrote "This Is My Song (C'est ma chanson)" for the soundtrack his last film, "A Countess from Hong Kong"(1967). I do not speak French, but I love the sound of the song. Ms. Clark also gives us the English version in the second verse.


Saturday, July 29, 2017

Saturday Haiku: Sunlit Forest

in streams of sunlight
water flowing over rocks
two streams yielding life

Photo: Kikuchi Gorge, Kumamoto, Japan via GANREF 光の歓喜
(uploaded from Pinterest)


Wednesday, July 26, 2017

The Play Is the Thing

[From my archives ~ a post from my first year of blogging,June of 2010]

There is something about a good drama. Live theater can have a remarkable effect upon members of the audience. The power of drama and its influence was brought home to me recently while watching a film biography of Pope John Paul II. I learned that the young Karol Wojtyla was a member of an underground drama company, the Rhapsodic Theater, in Poland before he began considering the priesthood. His mentor had been encouraging him toward the priesthood when at one point young Wojtyla realized the he could make a positive change in the world by being a priest. Prior to that point he had been assuming that drama would be the way to effect positive change in his world.

Drama During Hard Times

Upon hearing that drama had been Pope John Paul’s first choice for positive change, I tried to imagine what drama must have meant to him and his colleagues living in Poland under Nazi occupation. Immediately I remembered hearing about an acting company in Serajevo during the Bosnian War in Yugoslavia. Even amid the fighting and bombing that completely disrupted that once grand city, the actors were determined to continue, and the people were determined to see that the plays went on. Furthermore, consider Czechoslovakia. When the communist Soviet Bloc fell apart, whom did the Czechoslovakians choose as their first democratically elected president? It was a playwright, Vaclev Havel.

What is it about a play? Why is drama so important? I think that a good play helps us to visualize what life can be like. It is one thing to talk about how things are, or how they could be, but it is another thing to illustrate life with a good drama. For the ancient Greeks, drama was a central act of community religious life. Their plays provided both instruction and catharsis (Now it’s making more sense that a noble young aspiring actor would eventually become Pope).

Widespread Appeal

Drama has a universal appeal. Every culture has its own unique forms of dramatic re-creation. When Black Elk, the Lakota medicine man, was young, he had dream that was a visionary message to his people. As was the shamanic custom among his people, Black Elk staged a play. He called the community together and directed the people in acting out his dream in order to bring the power of the vision into the world. It seems that everyone knows that the play is the thing.

Even today in modern U.S. society, drama plays a vital role. While we have an abundance of live theater, perhaps most people are more familiar with the drama in film and television. We have seen how drama can highlight social concerns and can illustrate our hopes and values. A few years back, it was said of the TV drama West Wing, “This is the President we wish we had.”

The Continuing Role for Drama

I think we can still find instruction and catharsis in our modern drama. There is still that hope that through dramatic illustration, we can make a positive change in the world. There remains the idea that if we act out the vision, we can make it a reality. The medium still works for us today. Unfortunately, whereas in the past drama may have been used to illustrate the tragedy of hubris or misplaced honor, today on our TV sets we often use drama to illustrate the tragedy of carrying cash instead of traveler’s checks.


Monday, July 24, 2017

Monday Music: Man in the Long Black Coat Illustrated (Bob Dylan)

One of Bob Dylan's strengths as a song writer is his talent in telling a story. In the video, a graphic artist Andrew Colunga's illustrations highlight the storytelling element of "Man in the Long Black Coat."

Man in the Long Black Coat Illustrated from Andrew Colunga on Vimeo.


Saturday, July 22, 2017

Saturday Haiku: Geese at Sunset

at day's end
geese find their way home ~
safe waters

Photo downloaded from Stunning Views blog


Friday, July 21, 2017

Ubderstanding Marshall McLuhan

Today's Google doodle celebrates the 106th birthday of Marshall McLuhan, best known for his book, The Medium Is the Massage. I am reminded of a story I heard about McLuhan when he was a professor at the University of Toronto. He was angry when he found a student's car parked in his assigned faculty parking place. He wrote an angry note and placed it on the windshield telling the driver to stay out of the parking spot which was his assigned parking.

The student took the note and made an appointment to see Professor McLuhan. She handed him the note saying, "I just wanted to apologize for taking your parking place and to say that this is the only thing you have written that I can actually understand."


Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Don't Take My Word for It

[The following essay was first posted on July 7, 2010. I re-post it today as I think of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and and the difficult days that are upon us. As Harry Emerson Fosdick put it, "Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, for the living of these days.]

"Anything that contradicts experience and logic should be abandoned."
~ His Holiness the Dalai Lama

I love debate and dialogue. It is invigorating to be in an environment where the free exchange of ideas is welcomed. For some people, the need for security overrides the ability for dialogue. In an uncertain world with an unclear future, fundamentalism has an appeal for those who desire certainty and stability. We do not have to look far to see examples of Protestant fundamentalism, Islamic fundamentalism, Jewish fundamentalism and Catholic fundamentalism. All of those movements represent a loss of nerve and a lack of faith.

When creativity and security cannot be found within, we scramble and redouble our efforts to build a superficial structure from without. There is the hope that seeing things as black-and-white will give us security. The irony is that those external structures cannot offer the security and stability that most of us desire. Ideology becomes defined by boundaries, vilification, and demonization. Danger is at hand when people blindly follow any ideology without thinking things through for themselves. Those who fail to use their God-given reason are like the fearful servant in Jesus' parable who buried his meager talent in the ground.

The Dalai Lama is one of my heroes. I am inspired by what he has to say about human dignity, freedom, and compassion. I am encouraged and heartened by his joyfulness. I imagine that dogma and ideology are very important to him, but he has the inner security that allows him to hold dogma lightly. I once heard a story about an encounter that the scientist Carl Sagan had with the Dalai Lama. Mr. Sagan was privileged to meet with His Holiness while traveling in India. The scientist was impressed with the religious leader's knowledge and interest in science. At one point in their conversation, Mr. Sagan asked him, "What would you do if science were to prove without a doubt that there is no basis for reincarnation – that it does not exist?"

Without any hesitation, the Dalai Lama said, "We would abandon it. We would stop teaching it." He went on to talk about scientific contributions to the world.

Mr. Sagan was quite surprised by the Tibetan leader's answer and that he spoke with such candor. After some discussion, the Dalai Lama then asked Mr. Sagan, "By the way, how would you go about proving that?" Reportedly, Mr. Sagan was uncharacteristically speechless.

Several years ago on ABC's Nightline, Ted Koppel was interviewing the Dalai Lama. He asked a question on the same subject of reincarnation. "Do you remember any of your previous incarnations?" The spiritual leader chuckled in a self-effacing manner and answered, "At my age, I have trouble remembering what happened yesterday!"

As we search for truth, we would do well to look to role models who exhibit joyfulness, compassion, and inner security. They are the ones who can be open to dialogue, who can question the validity of ideas. They are the ones who have the freedom to examine, to reflect, and to abandon anything that contradicts experience and logic.

*   *   *

[You might be interested in reading an account of the Dalai Lama's visit to Birmingham, Alabama and his speech on secular ethics here)


Monday, July 17, 2017

Monday Music: Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key

"Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key," was among the many songs written by Woody Guthrie that were discovered after his death. Guthrie had not set music to the lyrics, so Billy Bragg wrote the music to go with the song. This recording is from Bragg's folk album Mermaid Avenue. From the liner notes of the album:

"In 1995, Nora Guthrie approached Billy Bragg with the idea of setting music to many of Woody's lyrics to which there had been no music. These lyrics/poems came out of the Woody Guthrie Archive. Billy joined with the band Wilco and they set music to these songs. The album was released in 1998 to critical acclaim, made bestseller lists, and earned a Grammy nomination. The album's title comes from the street in Coney Island, Brooklyn where Woody and his family lived."


Saturday, July 15, 2017

Saturday Haiku: Riverside


quiet riverside
summertime willow branches
suddenly a breeze


Image: "Willows and Figures in a Boat" (1880)
Medium: Oil on canvas
Artist: Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841 - 1919)


Friday, July 14, 2017

Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie

Woody Guthrie, born on this date 1912, died on October 3, 1967. His life and career were cut short by Huntington's Disease, but he still became legendary in folk music and in supporting the cause of ordinary working people. When Bob Dylan was 21, the young singer wrote a poem about Woody Guthrie and recited it publicly on April 12, 1963 at New York's Town Hall.


Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Book Review: Mockingbird Songs

  Treasures in Earthen Vessels

A Review of Mockingbird Songs: My Friendship with Harper Lee

Reading Mockingbird Songs: My Friendship with Harper Lee, by southern historian Wayne Flynt, is a sheer delight. There is so much of a “Southern feel” about it that it gives me a greater appreciation for my own Alabama roots. Moreover, it provides a truly endearing image of Nelle Lee both in her own written correspondence and in the author’s reflections upon their friendship. Wayne Flynt’s work will give readers a better understanding of the world of Harper Lee from which her celebrated novel arose. A lady emerges from these pages who is quintessentially southern while forever chaffing at the confines of her South Alabama hometown.

Of course, the backdrop of any discussion of Harper Lee is her influential novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. Having been translated into so many languages and made required reading in schools throughout the world, Ms. Lee’s impact upon our thinking and our living is without question.

Truman Capote, Harper Lee’s cousin, makes a “cameo appearance” in Mockingbird Songs as Dr. Flynt relates some of their conversations. Those conversations reminded me of a wonderful experience I had years ago. I went to a dramatic reading of “A Christmas Memory” at the Birmingham Unitarian Church. I had seen the film production with Geraldine Page on television, but hearing his words read aloud by just a few people that Sunday morning was incredibly moving. I had known of Capote primarily as that eccentric fellow who appeared now and then on TV talk shows. That morning, however, there were tears throughout the congregation. My thought at the time was that it is remarkable that such an odd little man could make me feel so good about growing up in Alabama. Maybe that is just another way of saying with St. Paul that “we hold this treasure in earthen vessels.”

Perhaps that is part of what Atticus Finch reminded us of as well, that we hold this treasure in earthen vessels. I was glad that Wayne Flynt included in his book the eulogy he delivered for Harper Lee at her funeral, “Atticus’s Vision of Ourselves.” It had been a speech that Dr. Flynt presented in 2006 when Harper Lee was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Birmingham Pledge Foundation. She told him at the time that she wanted him to give that same speech at her funeral.  “Atticus’ Vision of Ourselves” is certainly an important word for all of us, and needed now as much as any time before.

Mockingbird Songs is a loving “filling in of the blanks” of Nelle Harper Lee’s life, which we could not otherwise have known. 

Book Details:
Mockingbird Songs: My Friendship with Harper Lee
Author: Wayne Flint
Publisher: Harper, May 2, 2017
Hardcover 240 pages
ISBN: 0062660101
List Price: $25.99



Monday, July 10, 2017

Monday Music: He Was a Friend of Mine

"He Was a Friend of Mine" comes from a folk song that Bob Dylan heard from Eric von Schmidt. The first recorded version was in 1934 when folk musicologist John Lomax recorded James "Iron Head" Baker singing what was then known as "Shorty George." Dylan sang the song and recorded it in 1961, though that version was not released until much later with The Bootleg Series.

The Byrds recorded a version of the song to lament the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and The Grateful Dead recorded it in Road Trips, Vol 4. There is even an obscure Gospel rendition recorded by Dallas Holm in the 1970s which is patterned after The Byrds' recording.Willie Nelson's rendition was used in the soundtrack for the movie, Brokeback Mountain. Such is the life and influence of an authentic folk song.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Saturday Haiku: Open Field

open field
in morning light
lone tree waits

Photo: "After the Storm" by Randall Lewter, Limestone County, Alabama


Friday, July 7, 2017

Harper Lee and the Hero's Journey

[The following essay is not a review of Go Set a Watchmen but rather it is my take on how Harper Lee's own journey was similar to what Joseph Campbell described as the archetypal hero's journey. It was first published on July 17, 2015 at AMERICAblog and is re-printed here because it is always good to remember Nelle Harper Lee and her lasting contribution to literature and to the world. ~ CK]

Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in the screen version of TKAM
There has been an abundance of talk this week about Atticus Finch, the fictional character in To Kill a Mockingbird.  The release of Harper Lee’s earlier novel, Go Set a Watchman has created quite a buzz. Go Set a Watchman was Lee’s first submission which the publisher’s rejected and encouraged her to go back and rewrite, focusing on young Scout’s point of view. The publishing of that first draft has not been without controversy. The buzz now that it has been released is all about the portrayal of Atticus Finch as a racist. He looked upon blacks as though they were children, not yet ready for the full equality of citizenship. He was even a member of the White Citizen’s Council and didn’t like the idea of the Supreme Court meddling in the affairs of his Southern town.

Many seem to be feeling dazed over the fact that Atticus Finch, or probably more accurately, Gregory Peck’s cinematic version of Atticus Finch, could be so much a part of the Southern racist mindset. Much will be said about the literary value of Go Set a Watchman, and much analysis will be given regarding the protagonist of both of Harper Lee’s novels in light of the new information that has now been made public. Instead of literary criticism, I would like to take a look at the literary dilemma of Watchman in light of Harper Lee’s own journey. I see it as what Joseph Campbell has called, “the hero’s journey.”

The Traveler Comes Home

In Go Set a Watchman, Jean Louise (whom we knew previously as Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird) is a young adult woman who has been living in New York City, and returns to her Southern hometown to be dismayed by the racism she sees in her beloved father.  It has long been noted that the gentlemanly Southern lawyer, Atticus Finch, is based upon Harper Lee’s own father who was an influential lawyer in the small southern town of Monroeville, Alabama.  In Go Set a Watchman, Jean Louise’s experience is too similar to the author’s own life not to wonder about the autobiographical nature of the writing.  After all, Harper Lee had left Monroeville, Alabama to live and work in New York City.

Remember that this was the 1950s, when the South was still under Jim Crow laws, fully segregated, and resisting implementation of the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education. The paternalistic view seen in the Atticus Finch of Go Tell a Watchman is characteristic of many educated whites of the time, and a view that might have been considered “forward thinking” by fellow Southerners. The problem is that Jean Louise has seen the world and now sees her own town and townsfolk in a different light.

I am a Southerner, born and raised in a small town in Alabama, and I can speak to the effects that travel can have upon one’s perception of things back home. I first went to the big city to go to college, and then I went, not to New York, but to the San Francisco Bay Area for three and a half years. My trek was in the late 1970s and early ’80s, and I can attest to the feelings of shock and dismay when revisiting one’s hometown with a renewed vision and seeing the racist attitudes on display. Those attitudes had always been there, they were part and parcel of my own upbringing, but I could not see them clearly until having spent some significant time out of the South.

A Hero’s Vision

Joseph Campbell, in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, talked about a common archetype in mythology in which the hero makes a long journey to a distant land. He is changed in the process of that journey by the things he encounters (in mythology, it is often a magical realm of unsuspected challenge and/or danger). Eventually the hero returns home with a new vision and gives hope and courage to his people based upon the transformation that his journey has wrought within him.  Psychologists tell us that these mythological archetypes are present in all of us, and that we each live out these various archetypes to some extent.  I would submit that Harper Lee made that hero’s journey and while her initial return home is reflected in Go Set a Watchman, her transformative work is seen in To Kill a Mockingbird.

Having made my own journey out and back home again, I can attest to the dismay in realizing that the people I revered and who nurtured and taught me so much, could also exhibit racist tendencies.  I cannot claim to be on a hero’s journey, but I think I understand some of the things at work in that archetypal expression.  I can see how Harper Lee would have been frustrated by the mindset of her friends back home, but since these are her loved ones, there is more than frustration.  When our travels break us free from those regional bonds and drop the scales from our eyes, so to speak, our first impulse is to demand that that everyone else “see the light” just as we have. The problem is that they have not left home; they have not been on that long transformative journey. The returning hero, as mythology points out, must then find some way to open the eyes of his people.

The Transformative Power of Story

Harper Lee found a way to open the eyes of her people and was able to craft the transformative work that would enable all of us to see ourselves in a new light. In other words, she completed the hero’s journey when she wrote To Kill a Mockingbird.  She found something redemptive in that racist Southern culture that would give us all hope that things can be better than they are now.  When To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960, most Southern whites were denying that there was a problem. Resistance against civil rights was widespread throughout the South. Harper Lee, however, not only gave hope to the movement for racial equality, she also showed the white people in power that there was some decency within them which meant that they did not have to be trapped in an evil racist system.  Not only was there hope for blacks to throw off the shackles of oppression, there was hope for whites to throw off their own shackles of bitter racism.

We were not there in 1960. Though we have made some progress, we are still not there in 2015. Thanks to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (which we now see came about by way of wrestling with the harsh realities of a racist culture in Go Set a Watchman) we have a transformative gift given to us by that hero with a thousand faces. Harper Lee took a hard painful look at the racist South and she found that element within our own culture that could save us from ourselves. That gift, it turns out is universal – it is not just for the South. That saving grace in the midst of injustice and oppression that we see in To Kill a Mockingbird has resonated through the years all over the world.

Many have left the South and have been changed by the experience of living somewhere else – tracing the hero’s journey. Many left never to come back and some returned. While others have come back home and tried to make a difference, only Harper Lee has returned to the South and given us something so astounding as To Kill a Mockingbird.  Rather than mourn over the clay feet of a fictional character, or fret over the awkwardness of literary first drafts, I choose to be grateful for Harper Lee and the hero’s journey that she has demonstrated to world.


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