Sunday, May 26, 2013


Photograph of Korean War Memorial in Washington
Chris and Ann Collins/

When will our consciences grow so tender
that we will act to prevent human misery
rather than to avenge it?
Eleanor Roosevelt

My father grew up on a small farm in a community called English Crossing. Not a town but the intersection of railroad tracks and a dirt road that wound through the piney woods and fields of Telfair County, Georgia. I never met my grandmother, a huge loss according to all who knew and loved her. Widowed early, she raised three boys to manhood and sent all three to war...while she fought breast cancer, alone on the farm. My dad went first. Then his brother, Hardwick. Finally, Uncle George was shipped over.  In a different sort of English crossing, my dad landed at Omaha Beach on D-Day. Uncle Hardwick, on Utah Beach. The last of the brothers to go, George was placed in a non-combat zone. They all came home before Grandma died.

Uncle George remained in the military, later serving in Korea and several tours in Vietnam, before he retired, a lieutenant colonel. Daddy was discharged on Christmas Day, 1946, and both he and Hardwick returned to civilian life. He loved the men with whom he served. Tears flowed when he read the rolls of the dead he'd never met. He would answer my questions about his experiences during WWII. Mostly anecdotal stories of taking cover during a bombing only to discover afterward that he had been underneath a fuel truck. Or finding that his helmet harbored a bullfrog when he plopped it on his head during another attack. I watched, at his request, Eisenhower walk the beaches of Normandy with Walter Cronkite, unaware that my dad had been there. He would speak of it once, ten days before he died. Never told me that he fought in the Battle of the Bulge. Uncle George revealed this. Inevitably Daddy would say about the Brits, the French, the Germans, the Dutch, the Belgians he encountered, "I loved the Brits/the French/the Germans/the Dutch/the Belgians/etc." He sailed home from a port in Norway. Loved them, too.

Here we are...another Memorial Day. I honor all who have been sent to war, who are fighting now. But I don't think I will ever honor war. I agree with Margaret Atwood: "War is what happens when language fails." [Change "language" to “communication" perhaps? Non-verbal methods are pretty powerful.] As another young writer, Jarod Kintz, wrote, "I once asked an old Japanese man why Japan decided to team up with Germany during WWII, and do you know what he told me? Well, you would if you speak Japanese, which I don't." Between peace and war is a listening...or not. Before people have chosen sides. Before order has broken down. Is war inevitable? Smarter people than I have been debating this for a long time.

So I invited some folks for a dialog. A few surprised me.

Moi (AKA Celeste):
"Mr. Camus, I agree with your words: 'There are causes worth dying for, but none worth killing for.' Excuse me, General Patton, what's did you say?"

General Patton:
"When in doubt, ATTACK."

Jon Stewart

"Yes, Mr. Stewart, you disagree?"

Jon Stewart:
"[Well], here's how bizarre the Iraq is, and we should have known this right from the get-go: when we first went into Iraq, Germany didn't want to go. Germany. The Michael Jordan of war took a pass."

General George S. Patton, Jr.:
"Battle is the most magnificent competition in which a human being can indulge. It brings out all that is best and it removes all that is base."

"We have several other military and political leaders here. I'm curious. What do you think?"

General Dwight D. Eisenhower:
"Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who hunger and are not fed; those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the clouds of war, it is humanity hanging on a cross of iron."

Benjamin Franklin:
"Excuse me. Might I interject this thought? 

"Please do."

Benjamin Franklin:
"There was never a bad peace or a good war."

Aristotle, nodding in agreement: 
"It is not enough to win a war; it is more important to organize the peace."

Eleanor Roosevelt:
"No one won the last war, and no one will win the next war."

Grumbling to my left and right.

"Gentlemen and ladies, please, you will get your turn. First, though, Mr. Tolkien. You indicated a desire to speak."

J.R.R. Tolkien:
"War must be, while we defend our lives against a destroyer who would devour all. But I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend."

Harper Lee:
"I thought my father, who hated guns and had never been to any wars, was the  bravest man who ever lived." 


General George Washington:
"In politics as in religion, my tenets are few and simple. The leading one of which, and indeed that which embraces most others, is to be honest and just ourselves and to exact it from others, meddling as little possible in their affairs, where our own are not involved. If this maxim was general adopted, wars would cease and our swords would soon be converted into reap hooks and our harvest be more peaceful, abundant, and happy."

"You have certainly paid for this wisdom, General. Perhaps we could hear from more of our literary guests."

Ernest Hemingway:
"Never think that war, no matter how necessary, nor how justified, is not a crime."

"Did you just say what I think you said, Mr. Hemingway? [He nods.]

John Steinbeck:
"All war is a symptom of man's failure as a thinking animal."

Fred Rogers:
" When I say it's you I like, I'm talking about that part of you that knows that life is far more than anything you can ever see or hear or touch."

"You're speaking of that which cannot be quantified, correct?"

Fred Rogers:
"[Yes. I am talking about] that deep part of you that allows you to stand for those things without which humankind cannot survive. Love that conquers hate, peace that rises triumphant over war, and justice that proves more powerful than greed."

Dalai Lama XIV:
"Take into account that great love and great achievements involve great risk. And remember that the best relationship in the world is one in which your love for each other exceeds your need for each other."

Leo Tolstoy:
"The strongest of all warriors are these two - Time and Patience."

"So we're back to the daily walk. Yes, Mr. Lewis, you look as if you have something to add."

C. S. Lewis:
"...Out of [the] hopeless attempt [to be like gods] has come nearly all that we call human history - money, poverty, ambition, war, prostitution, classes, empires, slavery - the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy."

Martin Luther King:
"A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom. And never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was legal.” 

Adolf Hitler:
"If you tell a big enough lie and tell it frequently enough, it will be believed."

George Lucas:
"And the ability to speak does not make you intelligent."

“Gentlemen, please remain seated. What is that, Mr. Einstein?"

Albert Einstein:
"I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones."

More silence.

Mahatma Ghandi: 
"[Truly] what difference does it make to the dead, the orphans and the homess, whether the made destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or in the holy name of liberty or democracy?"

Haruki Murakami:
"Listen up - there's no war that will end all wars."

A quiet spell.

"Let's not forget that we are here to think of those who have gone to battle, who fight now, not just war itself."

General George S. Patton, Jr.:
"It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. Rather, we should thank God that such men lived."

"I accept the latter part of your statement but not the first. I agree with Elie Wiesel who sent this note: 'For the dead and the living, we must bear witness."

I bear this witness. My dad returned alive but not unscarred. His wounds were not physical. The war he fought was deemed a righteous one, as wars go. But much that led up to the war was anything but. Can we at least aim higher? I think Mr. Einstein was right when he said, "[We] cannot simultaneously prevent and prepare for war." Many I love were willing to die. None that I ever met wanted to kill. I think Daddy wanted me to fight daily injustice. To choose hope rather than cynicism. To love my neighbors. To know the cost of freedom. To stand up for those who are mistreated, who need an advocate. I would prefer to pay these small tokens daily than drop billions and bombs later. But I do not have the last word, only a call to do the next right thing. And what is that? Neil Gaiman says, "There's never been a true war that wasn't fought between two sets of people who were certain they were in the right. The really dangerous people believe they are doing whatever they are doing solely and only because it is without question the right thing to do. And that is what makes them dangerous."

One of my heroes, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, wrote of cheap grace but lived an exquisite walk, all the way to death in WWII. A Lutheran pastor who stood against the Nazis, he openly opposed Hitler, spent two years in a concentration camp before being killed twenty-three days before the end of the war. Stripped, marched to a gallows, hung with piano wire. He who had written, "If you board the wrong train, it is no use running along the corridor in the other direction" chose a harder but better way. Willing to die. Unwilling to kill.

Life isn't for sissies. And I guarantee you somebody's granny said that first.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

...of friends and odysseys, dreams and truth

Things need not have happened to be true.
Tales and dreams are the shadow-truths that will endure
when mere facts are dust and ashes, and forgot.
People think dreams aren't real just because they aren't made of matter, of particles.
Dreams are real.
But they are made of viewpoints, of images, of memories and puns and lost hopes.

Neil Gaiman

My friend, Eileen, took this photo a few weeks ago. A complete moment in a silent tableau. She wanted one more shot: "I was gunning for an HDR version, but then the little goober grabbed his bike and cycled off. Definitely a zen moment." 

Eileen's depth and talent would be deplorable if not for her self-depracating humor and love of irony, her great heart and her loyalty. She is, after all, the same one who snapped the following shot, aptly titled "Manhattan Scratchpad".

And this one, of which she said: "This morning in Exchange Place we bump into Frank's co-worker and head toward the WTC. The co-worker says Captain America is on this train and I'm thinking: 'Buddy, there were more than Wheaties in your breakfast this morning.' I turn around and gosh darn."

One afternoon she walked and searched until she found Chaplain Mychal Judge's name on the WTC memorial. I had told her about the impact of watching as the priest's body was carried from the rubble. So she sent me this:

I am one lucky woman to have such a friend. Understand, Eileen and I appear to be quite disparate creatures. I am tall; she, petite. She is of Asian descent. My family tree roots run through Europe with nary a drop of Eastern blood coursing through our veins. [I am, however, the more Zen-nish.] She is brilliant. I am so not. An incredible pianist, she recently finished the third song, "Thelxiepeia's Lament" of a trilogy, Haunted Dreams. [The links to all three pieces can be found at the end of this post.] I sang in the shower yesterday. In a most unlikely setting, we found each other. In the intervening years, we have laughed, cried, and kvetched together and the relationship has grown dearer for all of this.

Like my friend and I, these photos are markedly dissimilar. One is quiet in its stillness. The others shout. NYC overwhelms in volume but speaks volumes through individuals and communities measured in city blocks. Together the pictures tell stories unfettered by facts, rich in Truth.  

Much like a good Cabernet Franc, Truth is distilled. The process involves stomping, crushing, and waiting through long seasons, often harsh and cruel. But the vines survive these periods by sending their roots deep into the earth. Hmmmm. Is there a lesson here?

I've never taken a step in the city, other than to land at JFK and take off again. Hard to believe. The city that never sleeps is high on my bucket list, higher now that Eileen and Frank are there. I remember flying over NYC at night. A late flight out of Boston tracked down the congested northeast corridor. Our pilot gave us an aerial loop around New York, with a running commentary. Lady Liberty shone in the Hudson and, just beyond, the Twin Towers surged above the other rooftops. I would recall that night and weep less than a year later when those buildings fell. 

Now the new World Trade center stands in Manhattan, its spire in place. Fears of isolation due to stringent security measures in the complex are being voiced. Rest assured, this iteration of the WTC, like the rest of us, will have a finite existence. Another child will speed along on training wheels, with brief stops for potty breaks and ice cream. Other grafitti artists will speak on new surfaces. Or, as in the case of "Manhattan Scratchpad", scrawl their messages over earlier ones. We don't need to know the names of the child, of the artists, of those who ferry to work and ascend the towers to know the truth: life goes on. Gaiman is right:  Dreams...are made of viewpoints, of images, of memories and puns and lost hopes. From these dreams, hope is re-born. Every time a baby howls at birth. Every time a weary worker gets up and suits up to feed a family.

Eileen and I have been pruned. We've over-wintered more times than we can count. But our roots run deep in the subtext of our lives. My palimpsest pal, I love you. Go forth and shoot. Play that piano. Tell me more stories and I will tell you mine. 

By the way, Frank and Eileen are now official Humans of New York, as documented in this photo by Brandon Stanton. [NOTE: One day I will document this couple's unofficial photos of "Signs of New York" but I'm fresh out of Depends at the moment. I laugh every time I look at them.]

Tales and dreams are the shadow-truths that will endure
when mere facts are dust and ashes, and forgot.
People think dreams aren't real just because they aren't made of matter, of particles.
Dreams are real.

Thank you, Eileen (and Frank, too) for helping to keep my dreams alive.

Now, ya'll, I highly recommend that you take a listen to Eileen's work. 
The songs of the trilogy are named for the Sirens of Greek mythology.
Born of Eileen's own odyssey.

And, as urged by Neil Gaiman, go forth and make some art.
(Thank you, Denise and Martha, for reminding me this morning.)

Saturday, May 11, 2013

...happy mother's day, mama

Aleene Kirkley
1922- 1924

She was almost three when it happened. They had gone to town for a family grandparents, Uncle Raymond, my mother, Vancene, and her identical twin sister, Aleene. The happy outing was cut short when Aleene became feverish. A single photograph of the three children was snapped, then they left. Two hours later the doctor rode to the farm in a horse-drawn buggy and stayed until the early morning when he pronounced the toddler dead. Diphtheria, fast and furious.

My grandparents had dodged the bullet when both of them became ill with influenza during the deadly pandemic that followed WWI. Uncle Raymond, less than a year old, never got sick as he crawled circles around them. This time they were not so fortunate.

The original portrait of all three children, in a wide oval frame with convex glass, hung in my grandparents' bedroom. When I was eleven, my mother carried it to photographer Kimball Thomas' studio. I read a book while they talked, then watched Mother choose another oval frame. Weeks later, she came home with the original framed portrait and another package. Inside the brown paper wrapping, a hand-tinted portrait of Aleene alone. Kimball had enlarged the original picture and Mrs. Thomas had worked her magic with the tinting. I'd expected a copy of the original, not this haunting portrait of a fragile child, eyes already weakened by a fever that would grow in a firestorm of intensity and ravage her tiny body for hours. Before she died, my grandmother talked to me about the twins. Mother, to my amazement, was characterized as the dare-devil of the two.

Don't get me wrong. Mama had spunk. She was fearless in the face of weeds that threatened to encroach upon her beloved flower beds. Slugs and aphids didn't stand a chance. Once, when our radiator sprung a leak while we drove along country roads, miles away from a gas station, her quick thinking saved the day. She stopped at a farmhouse. Handed me two packs of gum and told me to start chewing while she got water. A large blob of Juicy Fruit plugged the hole and held the well-water she added until we made it back to town.

But Mama was also afraid. A senseless, crippling fear. Hidden, sort of. How, I wondered, could a woman - so bright and talented - be riddled with such insecurity? Unable to acknowledge the demons that haunted and isolated her. This year her story became a little clearer through conversations with a cousin. And Aunt Aleene. The mute child in the portrait whispered to me in my dreams. And a friend named Mary translated.

I woke up one morning with a clear image written across the back of my mind. On another morning, almost a century ago, another young girl had awakened, ready to embrace the day. Next to her, an empty spot, where her twin should be. She had gone to sleep with her inseparable playmate nearby, a sister who was her spittin' image. Now her sister/playmate/soulmate was gone. Forever gone. Mama was too young to understand death. No words could reach that childhood void just as none would fill the gaping hole throughout her life.

But Mary's words in an imagined dialog between my mother and me reached me:

Me: What is the first thing you can remember?

Mother: My sister went away. I was so young I can't really remember us being together. We were twins and she was such a part of me that she was like my arm or elbow, always there to play with, her heartbeat a part of mine. One night I went to bed and the next day she was gone. I never understood it, no matter what they said. Little girls can disappear. I could see her in Momma's eyes when she looked at me. Two reflections of myself. Sometimes I would run through Momma's room past her mirror, real fast, and look over. She always looked over, too. I didn't lose my elbow or arm, but there was a hole in my heart I could never mend. It grew so big when I was young that, when I got older, I never even knew it was there. I sealed it closed because I was afraid to open it up. I was afraid I would disappear into it too. 

Today when I look at the old portrait that now hangs in my son's home, I ache, Mama. A solitary child, siblings removed from the picture...I should have seen this sooner. You saw yourself in that portrait...vulnerable, lonely. You tried to tell us in the only way you knew. Perhaps you didn't really understand yourself.

We humans can survive almost anything life hurls at us if we know that we were wanted. Love - even love that seems far from perfect - sows seeds that take root. You were always loved, Mama. Across deep chasms. I sense your presence whenever I see a beautiful flower. [Except for African violets. That's a story for another day.] You taught me to say "please" and "thank you". To identify silver patterns from twenty paces. To appreciate beauty, if not imperfection. Acceptance of imperfection came through you, though. Your pain pointed me there. I'm glad that you awoke from the fog of Alzheimer's long enough to answer me when I asked you if you needed anything: "No," you said, smiling, eyes still closed. "God's right here, taking care of me." Peace, blessed peace.

The dialog continues. Granted, it's a little one-sided, word-wise. But I hear you, Mama, more clearly than ever before.

Me: I'm sixty-two now. I think on good things for the most part. I don't want to give the darkness permission to steal another ounce of joy. And I hope I honor the great gift I received because of you, one you found hard to accept. You made me afraid of just one thing: living in fear. A ironic road to faith, perhaps. Daddy gave me the words. You gave me the push. Here's to forever spring, Mama. I love you