Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Rickwood Field

Here's a nice review of  RICKWOOD FIELD: A Century in America's Oldest Ballpark, by Allen Barra. The review is written by Gary Presley. Gary's blog is on my reading list. He often has interesting things to say. I was pleased to see his review of Birmingham's ball park. I was displeased when the Birmingham Barons moved from Rickwood field to the new Hoover stadium over 20 years ago. Now there is talk of bringing them back to Birmingham. But at least Rickwood stadium has been preserved so far, and has not suffered the unfortunate fate of Birmingham's grand railroad station which was demolished back in the 1969.


Monday, November 29, 2010

Just the Two of Us

25 years ago today my wife and I officially tied the not, and thus began a magnificent journey. I shudder to think where I would be without her. Today is a great day! It was a wonderful day 25 years ago, and a wonderful day today! When I look into her eyes, I know that it is definitely not dark yet.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Wendell Berry and the Sacred Task of Writing

There are many things that I would describe as sacred. Hearing a choir sing a favorite anthem, resting in the woods by a creek bank, witnessing the birth of one’s own child, listening to a person tell their own story – all of these things become sacred moments. Anytime we can stop and realize the essence of life in its beauty, love, hardship and struggle we are engaged in sacred time. Whenever I am privileged to listen to someone read a poem that they wrote themselves, I regard that as sacred time.

Today I managed to catch a discussion of Wendell Berry’s book, Hannah Coulter on the "The Diane Rehm Show" which airs on National Public Radio. I hold Wendell Berry in high esteem as one whose writing truly exhibits a sacred task. I first learned of him back in 1981 when I was teaching English at Hong Kong Baptist College (now Hong Kong Baptist University). A friend and colleague, Steve Fox, gave me a little book of poetry by Wendell Berry titled A Part. Steve knew that I had a love for poetry and had been writing poetry. I think Steve was in his fourth year teaching at the college, and I was in my first year. “I think you’ll like this guy,” he told me. I did enjoy reading A Part. I felt that I found a kindred spirit in someone from rural Kentucky whose love for the forest and the land came through as an ever present backdrop for the images of love, friendship and community that he expressed in his poetry. His poetry brought to mind days I spent growing up in rural Alabama.

A few years later, I read some essays that Berry had written about ecology, the environment, and the need to preserve the small farm in an age of ever encroaching large scale mechanized and industrial style farming. I was even more impressed with the man. Then a friend gave be a book of fiction, That Distant Land. It was the first work of fiction by Berry that I had encountered. I was deeply moved by his prose. That Distant Land is a collection of stories of different people from various time periods, all centered around the fictional town of Port William, Kentucky. From the very first story in the book, I saw people who were so very much like the people I grew up with in rural Alabama. I read of a life that resonated with stories that my own father and mother had told about family and neighbors in the farming communities they had grown up in. The book provides a clear view of life in rural Kentucky that spans from the late 19th century when farming was central to the community up to near present day as changing times bring new challenges to family and community. Reading That Distant Land was sacred time to me.

I haven’t read Hannah Coulter, but it also takes place in Port William, the town that figures in to so much of Berry’s fiction. Listening to the discussion on the radio today became sacred time for me as well. I was in the midst of getting ready for our Thanksgiving celebration, and spent most of the time in the kitchen preparing the dough for the homemade potato rolls. Those rolls have been a family tradition. My daughter says that it doesn’t matter what we have for Thanksgiving dinner as long as I make my rolls. I follow a recipe that my mother used for holidays and special occasions. So the act of making bread put me into a place that transcended time and connected me with past generations. Listening to people on the radio talk about Wendell Berry only heightened the sacredness of that space. You can listen to and read about the broadcast here.


Saturday, November 20, 2010

That Could Be a Stretch

It certainly would be a stretch for me to try to pass myself off as an artist. I did once have my work on display, but most of my pieces came down from the bedroom door by the time I was in third grade. On a serious note, I have always been impressed with people who could take a pencil or a paint brush and put recognizable images on paper. I tried my hand at it from time to time in school, but never had the knack for it. My daughter is one of those true artists who can represent things on paper using all kinds of medium. She is, in fact, studying art in college. Now she is into abstract art and sculpture. Like I said, I have always been impressed with people who can draw and paint, and I've been particularly proud of my daughter for some years now.
It was a few years ago that one Christmas my daughter gave me a set of pastels and a small sketch book. I enjoy playing around with words and dabbling in music, but I had long ago given up any attempt at the visual arts. My daughter apparently wanted me to expand my artistic interests. Or perhaps she wanted to share some of her world with me. I decided it would be fun to give it another try. I scribbled out a few images that winter, then put the pastels aside. I came across that sketchbook this week. The first two pictures I attempted were things I was looking at in the back room where I take my morning coffee and do a little reading and meditation. The picture you see at the top of this entry is the chair by the window where I usually sit in the morning.

Here you see what I see when I look out that window. There is the lattice fence that I built 20 years ago (which I replaced with more lattice this past summer - you may remember seeing the cypress vine and moonflower growing on it in an earlier post). Then there are the bird feeders that attract finches, titmice, chickadees, cardinals, doves, the occasional grosbeak, and from time to time a marauding band of grackles who come through like Hell's Angels in their black jackets, all others fleeing until the wide-eyed black birds move on. Beyond that it the tree in our neighbor's yard across the street.

After I did those first two sketches, I decided to try drawing something from my head instead of an actual image I was looking at. I came up with a pond, much like the ones you might find in the country out in a pasture in rural Alabama where a farmer has dammed up a creek to create a pond for watering the cows. I didn't see any cows in my head - only trees, grass, a cardinal on the ground and some birds flying in the distance.

Then there is this scene, perhaps somewhere out west, with mountains in the distance and sparse vegetation except near the spring and oasis that rise up in the midst of a barren landscape.
The point of all of this is really that I am out of my comfort zone. I am not doing art that would be seriously presented in public, but by moving out of my comfort zone, perhaps I am allowing myself to see things a little differently. Perhaps I can gain a new perspective. What do my images tell me about what is going on inside? Do they reveal anything of my nature or interests that I might not otherwise see? What about the physical act of drawing, which is not natural to me - could that stretch my capacity or my awareness? Could I develop some new creative muscle?

The further point to this examination is that perhaps everyone should step out of their comfort zone from time to time. Those who know little about music might attend a concert by the local symphony. If you are into pop or rock music, maybe you could force yourself to go to the opera. City dwellers might go for a hike in a wilderness area. Hikers might consider a change and come into town for a latte and a tour of the museum of art. People who have never been comfortable with animals could spend some time at a petting farm or a children's zoo. There are any number of avenues available to expand our horizons if we just look around. Most communities have classes available for things like art or photography. Our local community school sometimes offers lessons in home repair, knitting, yoga, or tai chi.

I'm not knocking comfort. Comfort is good - do not forsake it. However, we can stretch ourselves from time to time and make new discoveries. What are your comfort zones? What activities might you consider to be a stretch, given your skills level? Are there things you've had in the back of your mind? Things you've thought you might like to try, but just haven't gotten around to it? Maybe it is time to give some new things a try.

Now that I've got these pastels and sketch book out again, maybe I'll do some more work with them. No matter how badly I do it, at least it will be a different perspective. Furthermore, it will always bring my daughter to mind as I think of her talents and admire the ease with which she practices her art - and that is probably the greatest and best result of any of my meager attempts at drawing.

And the road goes ever on... 

Thursday, November 18, 2010

My Back Pages

"I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now."
A veritable Who's Who of musicians were on hand to celebrate Bob Dylan's 30th anniversary in the music industry back in 1992.

My Back Pages
by Bob Dylan

Crimson flames tied through my ears
Rollin’ high and mighty traps
Pounced with fire on flaming roads
Using ideas as my maps
“We’ll meet on edges, soon,” said I
Proud ’neath heated brow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now

Half-wracked prejudice leaped forth
“Rip down all hate,” I screamed
Lies that life is black and white
Spoke from my skull. I dreamed
Romantic facts of musketeers
Foundationed deep, somehow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now

Girls’ faces formed the forward path
From phony jealousy
To memorizing politics
Of ancient history
Flung down by corpse evangelists
Unthought of, though, somehow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now

A self-ordained professor’s tongue
Too serious to fool
Spouted out that liberty
Is just equality in school
“Equality,” I spoke the word
As if a wedding vow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now

In a soldier’s stance, I aimed my hand
At the mongrel dogs who teach
Fearing not that I’d become my enemy
In the instant that I preach
My pathway led by confusion boats
Mutiny from stern to bow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now

Yes, my guard stood hard when abstract threats
Too noble to neglect
Deceived me into thinking
I had something to protect
Good and bad, I define these terms
Quite clear, no doubt, somehow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now.

Copyright © 1964 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1992 by Special Rider Music

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Tibetan Sand Mandala: Precision and Prayer

Mandala from Loseling Monastery brochure
Tibetan monks from the Drepung Loseling Monastery in Atlanta came the University of Alabama at Birmingham this week. They came to present "The Mystical Arts of Tibet" throughout the week. On the first day, following and opening ceremony of chants, music, and mantra recitation, they began construction of a sand mandala in the lobby of the Alys Stephens Center for the Performing Arts. One of the monks explained to those of us gathered that the mandala would be a tool for resolving conflicting emotions. The sand mandala would then be swept away after its completion (which would take several days) to symbolize the impermanence of all things.

At the opening ceremony the monks donned their hats and brought out horns, drums, and bells to accompany their ritual involving chants and prayers. It was the first time I had witnessed first hand the Tibetan chant, which involves a quite unusual vocal phenomenon involving a deep rich multiphonic voice. Each chant master simultaneously intones three different notes (don't ask me how they do that!). The group of nine monks filled the room with sounds and tones that for me seemed to have a centering and cleansing effect.

Before the ceremony began, the different colored sands and instruments used to place the sand were on display. A monk explained to one of the spectators that the sand is made from white marble that is ground to a fine consistency.

The monks began the mandala by setting out lines using something similar to a carpenter's chalk line. Then a large compass was used to mark chalk circles. Smaller compasses were then used to lay out smaller circles.

Lines were meticulously plotted out across the table. The monks had several rulers on hand, just like the ones used by students in algebra and geometry classes. 

While some engaged in the careful and steady preparation for the mandala, other monks were on hand to answer people's questions. I noticed a string of wooden Buddhist prayer beads. I told the monk that I was familiar with rosary beads which I use in meditation and asked him how the Buddhists use their prayer beads. "It is a system of counting," he told me. "We move one bead as we say each prayer or mantra. When we have done many prayers with the beads, then they contain a spiritual power that can protect us when we carry them. For example, if I put these beads around my wrist (the string of beads was the size of a bracelet), then if I become angry with someone and want to hit them, the beads remind me, 'No, I must practice compassion.' "

I had to leave to run some errands. When I returned a couple of hours later, I found that the monks had completed an inner circle at the center.

I went back three days later (Thursday afternoon). They had made great progress, still with some work left before completing the mandala. I asked them the name of the mandala. "Medicine Buddha," one of the monks told me, "also called Healing Buddha."

According to the local newspaper report earlier in the week, the monks never decide which mandala to do until they arrive, get a feel for the place and its energy, and come to a consensus. The mandala which was begun on Monday will be completed on Friday. Following a closing consecration ceremony, the colored sands will be swept up. The sweeping away of the beautiful and intricate mandala symbolizes the impermanence of all things. Half of the sand will be distributed to the audience for personal blessing and healing. The rest of the sand will be carried in a procession to a body of water to disperse healing throughout the community and the world.                                                      


Here is a view of a mandala that some Tibetan monks did in Chicago. 

The Mystical Arts of Tibet tour, in addition to the sand mandala, involves presentations of music and dance. The purpose is to share Tibetan culture with others. The Drepung Loseling Institute was formed in Atlanta, Georgia in 1991 and is affiliated with Emory University. Its objective, according to their brochure, is to promote trans-cultural understanding and scholarly exchange.

Photo from Loseling Monestery brochure


[For additional reading I would recommend:

1. The Jew and the Lotus, by Roger Kamenetz. This is a fascinating account of a delegation of rabbis who travel to Dharamsala, India for dialogue with the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama had invited them for a visit because he wanted to learn from them “the secret of Jewish spiritual survival in exile.” The book is a wonderful discovery of Tibetan Buddhism and Judaism.

2. The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton. Thomas Merton had studied Buddhism and felt that it was possible for a Christian monk to learn form the Buddhist discipline and experience. This is the journal he kept while on pilgrimage to Asia. It also includes other writings of his, including the address he gave at a conference on monasticism in Bangkok shortly before his untimely accidental death. Here one finds lively insights into Buddhist as well as Hindu thought. I read with great anticipation his journal entries leading up to and chronicling his visit with the Dalai Lama in India.]


Tuesday, November 9, 2010

An Ordinary Life

"People who live with disabilities have something very important to say about what it means to be human"
St. Andrew's Episcopal Church

I found myself getting a bit teary-eyed last Sunday during the closing hymn celebrating All Saints Sunday. The hymn was “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God.” In the old 1940 Episcopal hymn book it was listed under “Hymns for Children.” I knew it had been a favorite of my friend, Meg Parker. Hearing the song made me think of days past, and so I decided to post this essay I wrote several years ago after Meg’s death.

An Ordinary Life
by Charles Kinnaird

Meg Parker lived an ordinary life, which was quite an accomplishment given the obstacles that she faced. She lived in an apartment and had a daily routine with friends and colleagues. Meg had loves and conflicts. She knew joys and sorrows, gains and losses. The fact that she lived the life that she did is a tribute to her family, to the community at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, and it is especially a tribute to Meg herself.

Meg Parker lived with developmental disabilities and a seizure disorder. St. Andrew's Foundation provided group homes for adults with mental retardation. It was there that Meg was taught daily living skills and was able to acquire some measure of independence. Eventually, she was able to move into an apartment with a roommate. There, with supervision, she was able to live a normal life with a normal routine. She was also able to move from a sheltered workshop to her own job in the community. She had a good life, and she was determined to enjoy life in spite of the difficulties.

At her funeral, the priest, Father Marc Burnett, said just the right things to commemorate the life she had lived before that final seizure "shook her from this life into the next." As I sat there listening to the eulogy, I could not help thinking about the day, eighteen years earlier, when I first met Meg Parker

I first visited St. Andrew's Church in March of 1984. I was a Baptist seminary graduate trying to figure out what to do with the rest of my life. Meg was the first one to welcome me to the parish that day. Little did I know how my life would change after that encounter in 1984. Within the year, I had joined the Episcopal Church and had begun working at St. Andrew's Foundation (which was later named St. Andrew's Place). The parish and the group homes would become central to my life for the next twelve years. It was Meg Parker and others at the group homes who caused me to re-evaluate my worldview and to reassess my ideas about what things are important in living a meaningful life. I came to see the importance of ordinary things: a simple meal shared, a conversation about little things, an outing in the park.

So much happened during those years. I was able to immerse myself in Anglo-Catholic liturgy, social service, and progressive theology, all of which were a break from my Baptist roots. It was also there that I met my wife and our daughter was born. All of these things were changes for the better. I shudder to think how life might have been otherwise.

My life took a dramatic turn on that day back in 1984, and Meg Parker's welcoming of a stranger played no little part in its turning. It was at St. Andrew's that I came to realize that people who live with disabilities have something very important to say about what it means to be human. How we respond to people with disabilities says something very important about who we are as human beings. When I look at the ordinary life that Meg lived, I see it as a sign of hope. In the final analysis, is that not what we all want – an ordinary life? All of us achieve that ordinary life the same way that Meg did, only with help from our friends.

[Note: The group homes and supervised apartments of St. Andrew's Place are now under the auspices of The ARC of Jefferson County]


Saturday, November 6, 2010

Surprised by Horticulture

Every summer I enjoy getting out and doing yard work around the house. My wife knows a lot about planting shrubs and flowers, so she usually supervises the yard plans and planting arrangements. This summer was particularly harsh with some very hot, dry weather. Some of our plantings did well for the first half of the summer, and other things either languished or withered completely. We bought two oak leaf hydrangeas but only one has survived through the summer. Daises and begonias seemed to fare the best. We do have some perennials: three varieties of rose and a stand of red calla lilies.

We had a few pleasant surprises. The first big surprise was a group of volunteer vinca flowers (periwinkles). We had a pot of them by the back porch last year. This year they sprang up in the gravel on the ground just below where the pot had been last year. They did well and are still blooming now in the first week of November.

Along our back fence we planted some morning glories and cypress vine. The morning glories did fairly well...

but the most abundant blossoms were on the cypress vines. The small red trumpeted blooms were beautiful, and an even greater joy was the sight of so many humming birds and butterflies that were attracted by the flowers.

The moonflowers were one of our biggest surprises. They grew along the fence beside the cypress vine, but yielded no blooms throughout the summer. We had actually forgotten that we had planted moonflower. We thought it was a morning glory vine that for some reason would not bloom. Then all of a sudden, after we had a brief cold snap, the beautiful white blossoms burst into bloom! It was a last hurrah for our floral endeavors.

The cold is now causing most of our flowers to wither, but my wife has already made plans to put some winter color into the yard. Here are some violas ready for planting. All they need is for my wife to tell me where to plant them. And if the violas are here, pansies cannot be far behind!

Monday, November 1, 2010

Writing in the Margins

On Easter Sunday, 2001, my wife and daughter and I entered into communion with the Catholic Church. We had been attending RCIA (the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults), led by a very gifted Benedictine nun since September of 2000. The following is an essay that I wrote during that process.

Writing in the Margins
by Charles Kinnaird

Not long ago I read a commentary by Roger Rosenblatt in an old Newsweek magazine. The title of the article was “Marginalia.” The article talked about the common practice of writing comments in the margins of books that one is reading. In some cases, the author pointed out, it is annoying, in other cases interesting to read the comments someone has made in the margins of a book. At any rate, Rosenblatt points out that marginalia alters the nature of the book. What was set in print with the idea of being permanent, becomes dialogue and perhaps impermanent with the reader’s comments, either questioning or affirming the printed text.

Since I am in the process of converting to the Roman Catholic Church, it occurred to me that Protestantism has served as marginalia to Catholicism. Certainly, the Roman Catholic Church would not be what it is today without having had to respond to the comments and questions of Protestantism. Catholicism has had to make itself accountable for its teachings and practices. As a result, it seems to me that the Catholic Church, while remaining constant, is not as stodgy, not as ethnic, not as unbending as the Eastern Orthodox Church. Vatican II is a great example of the Church responding the world around it. Consequently, it is more universal, more relevant, and more dynamic.

Looking back at my pilgrimage from Baptist to Episcopalian to Catholic, I have never felt that I was turning away from anything. Rather, I have been moving toward faith. I have been responding to that same faith that was nurtured from the beginning in my parents’ home. All of my major moves in life (including school, marriage, and career changes) have come with the sensation of stepping into a broader place -- a sense of opening up to wider views and greater possibilities. It is the same with the process of coming into full communion with the Roman Catholic Church. I am tempted to say that I am moving from the marginalia of Protestantism to the complete text of Catholicism, but in the whole scheme of things, I know that it is all marginalia.

February, 2001

[Note: in the almost ten years that have passed since I wrote this brief essay, I would not want to imply that all has been sweetness and light in the Roman Catholic Church (you may have noticed some of the headlines in the news). I find that among thinking Catholics, there is a lot of tension (which I see as a healthy tension) in terms of how to respond to authority and in reactions to Vatican decisions.

Moreover, I am not evangelistic about the Roman Catholic Church. I would never say that Catholicism is for everyone. There has to be a place for everyone. There must be room for many expressions of faith and practice so that everyone can find a meaningful community. You have seen and will continue to see in this blog favorable comments about exemplars of other faiths as well as criticisms of some occurrences within the Catholic Church.]

Further Reading:
For anyone interested in reading more about the Catholic faith, I would recommend
Practicing Catholic, by James Carroll and Why I Am a Catholic by Gary Wills (Carroll is a poet and Wills is a historian). You won't find any schmaltz or schluck in these two volumes, but you will see how thinking individuals can experience faith and doubt in the modern world. Carroll's book is a memoir that gives the reader a view of developments within the Catholic Church from WWII to present day, with particular emphasis upon Vatican II. Wills' book tells his own story and also provides valuable information about the history of the Church, the Church Councils, and other important documents of faith.

And until next time, everyone please continue to write in the margins!

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