Diddy Wa Diddie and a Lovely Daughter: A Summer Rerun

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The key in question–honest!

(Note: the following post originally appeared in slightly different form on May 17, 2013, back when A Napper’s Companion had a dozen readers–give or take six. If you’ve already read this, forgive the clutter. If not, enjoy. Peace, John)

Yesterday. Weird. Wonderful. I had just finished praying, propped up in bed, when daughter Elena’s dog ringtone barked. 8:01 a.m. I had intended to set my Zen bell app for another fifteen minutes, but duty called. Elena (almost twenty-five) locked her keys in her house. Could I zip up and let her in with my key? Of course. I would be there in ten minutes.

“Don’t rush, Daddy,” she said. “My boss knows I’ll be a little late. I’ll be at [mother-in-law] Janine’s,” which is two-minute walk up the street. (As it happened, Janine couldn’t find Elena’s key either.)

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Photo Credit: waferboard

So I dressed, fed the animals and, well, rushed, but it still took me twenty minutes to get there. I figured Elena would be on the porch pacing and drumming her fingers on the railing. Nope. She was inside sipping coffee, talking with Janine and cute-as-an-acre-of-daisies niece Shaylee, and so disgustingly not in a hurry that she immediately brought me to myself.

Shamatha—calm abiding. Habit energy’s anxious gravity eased up. I breathed in, breathed out.

“I walked up here, Daddy,” Elena said when we got into the car, “and said, ‘I’m going to have myself a cup of coffee.’”

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Elena with Her Handmade Cupcake Piñata

I waited in the car as she let herself into the house, brought back the key, and headed to her car. In the three seconds it took her to get from my jalopy to her (and princely son-in-law Matt’s) Subaru wagon, joy settled inside me. Her ponytail bobbed and bounced; her flowing dress swayed. What a lovely daughter! She seemed in that instant like a five-year-old again—sweetness and light, giddy in the sunshine and wind.

I drove back home to pick up son Micah (twenty-one) and get him to a couple hour’s of community service yanking weeds and slinging peat moss. Along the way I pulled over on South Shore Drive to witness the sun coming through the spring trees on the boulevard.

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Micah’s body clock has goofed itself into third-shift mode, so I woke him three hours after he’d gone to bed. In year’s past when he was in the midst of mighty struggles, he would have been a winey little witch, but he got up, ate a bowl of Raisin Bran, hopped in the car, lit a cigarette, and joked with me till I dropped him off. “Wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles!” Boy is becoming a man.

Before driving off, I texted chemo-nurse-wife Kathy, who had told me she expected a crazy day at work. Every now and then I send her what we call a Pocket Note, a taste of gladness she can read over lunch. “Kathy Coleman gets tired and is very busy,” I wrote, “but she genuinely cares about her patients. And that’s wonderful.” As I hit send, I heard the voice of Jack Nicholson in my head: “Well, aren’t you the little ray of sunshine.”

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Jack Nicholson (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

On my way to the church, I plugged my snotty iPhone into the car speakers and listened to Leon Redbone’s rousing version of “Diddy Wa Diddie” on You Tube. (Yes, I know about the song’s double entendre, but don’t care. Want a song that’ll make you want to laugh and dance? Have a go.) It was so good I listened to it twice.

And the day went on like this, blessings lining up on the road before me. Micah’s last-minute therapy appointment forced me to abbreviate my siesta, but even this alteration to my plans didn’t take the shine off the afternoon.

While my son unpacked the meaning of life, I perched two minutes east on West 26th Street on Brick House Coffee Bar’s porch, nursed an iced latte, and did some church work—what a gift to have a flexible schedule and technology that lets me get work done literally anywhere!

I could go on, but you get the idea. “Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.” That’s how John Lennon would have described yesterday. If Elena hadn’t locked herself out, the day might not have glowed as it did.

Thanks, my dear, for inspiring Thursday, May 16, 2013, to be full of gentle, mindful sanity!

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By the driveway

Looking at the Back of the Lord

Then the Lord said [to Moses], “There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.”

(Genesis 33:21-23)

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Moses and the Burning Bush (Credit: Eugene Plushart. Source: Wikimedia Commons)

I’ve spent my adult life trying to be at peace with this arrangement: Sacred Glory may pass by, but, like Moses, I’m permitted only a glimpse of it. Were I to take in the face of Eternal Love, I would probably die from beauty—or to borrow from the poet James Wright, “My bones [would] turn to dark emeralds.”

Acceptance is coming slowly. I can spend my days frustrated and anxious about the earthly deal—I don’t get answers until I’m dead, and maybe not even then—or I can keep watch for the back of Yahweh. I’m going with the latter. Standing in the cleft of the rock, I want to let this world be this world and receive whatever it offers. Lately, my trifocal eyes are catching sacred glimpses that bring my fragile soul to tears, and I’m grateful. God’s glory passes by as if on a loop. My calling is to breathe, keep vigil, and give thanks.

Julie was frustrated because her six-year-old daughter Cora was doodling during a baptism, but because her hands were full with little peanut Lena, she let it go. On the way out of church, Cora crumpled up the doodle and tossed it in the trash. Julie fished it out and stuffed it in her purse. The next day she smoothed out the little ball of paper and read this:

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Author of the baptismal account below (left) comforting Great-Grandma with the help of her little sister.

A little kid and a toddler got baptized. The little kid was four I think and the baby is two maybe. The kid weared a tie and the tie was tucked in his shirt. His pants had red scribbles and the rest was black. The little toddler dipped his hand in the little bowl full of water after he got baptized. Everyone laughed hysterically. Then it was time for them to sit back and while they were getting baptized we had to say a prayer.

“Do you sing in honor and caring to your family and pray?” Asked Pastor John.

“I do” answered the boy.

“Are you care and love about your friendships love?”

“I do”

“Do you love have sins of you?”

“I do” the prayer was.

“I thought that the boy was proud of himself and happy and free. Now what could be happier than love?”

Julie ended: “I have so much to learn from her.” I say: Cora’s words doodled here and there, but she understood the moment. A boy proud of himself, happy and free. What could be happier than love? And would that we all sing in honor and caring to our family.

Glory: a sweet, sensitive girl and a scrap of paper.

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Cora’s doodle

Next-door neighbor Patrick abides in a relentless now. The twelve-year-old sage of Shenley Drive, he happens to have Down’s syndrome. No kidding, the boy is my teacher. I watch him navigate the world and learn to get outside my own squirrelly head and—for the love of God—live! When Patrick is playing, he’s playing. When he’s eating, he’s eating. And, as was the case last week, when he’s sad, he’s sad. He’ll go to a new school next year, and when it came time to say goodbye to the teachers and friends he loves, he did so with all of himself.

Glory: a boy cries holy tears.

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Time for Patrick to say goodbye. Not all glory is glad.

A few days ago I received a text message from son Micah. “Can u email mom for me?

“Sure,” I said. “Message?”

“Ask if she wud help me make another sock puppet tnight?”

This hardly seems like a glimpse of Yahweh, unless you know that Micah, who’s twenty-two, has quite a history: heroin addiction, felony conviction, teenage years filled with rage. But he’s been clean for almost two years and gainfully employed for about one. And he loves being Uncle Micah to six-month-old Cole. This is where the sock puppet comes in. One day he got the idea of making one for his nephew. When he showed me what he came up with, I saw it from the cleft of Moses’ rock.

Glory: when goodness crawls out from a rancid cave and “stand[s] upright in the wind,” the universe blinks back tears.

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Micah’s sock puppet. I suggested the name “Mr. Miggles.” Notice the necktie.

Last week I drove south on I-79 in Pennsylvania, windows down and the Beatles up loud. A couple lines into “I Want to Hold Your Hand” the road got blurry. I thought of wife Kathy, of course, and how as years pass, nonsense and clutter wear away to reveal the deep emerald green of joy—in this case, the simple joy of holding Kathy’s hand. When we both land at home in the early evening, we walk gimpy dog Watson and hold hands off and on. Driving wherever, I take her hand and kiss it.

Glory: there’s room for two in the cleft of Moses’ rock, especially when they stand close together and watch for the back of God . . .

which sometimes looks like a girl’s crumpled up doodle, a boy’s goodbye tears, a healing uncle’s puppet, and a middle-aged woman and man who still hold hands.

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Kathy with Watson. I still want to hold her hand.

The Dandelion Doesn’t Command the Sun

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God spoke through my daughter Elena in 2006, wearing monarchs about to take off for Mexico.

Over twenty years ago I attended a class taught by Sister Rita Pancera on centering prayer: silence, abide with the Loving Mystery. I told Sr. Rita that sometimes in prayer I feel like God is telling me something, but I hear the message in my own voice. The point of centering prayer isn’t to latch on to thoughts or images—anything—but who wants to turn down Divine Assistance? I asked her, “How can I be sure that the words come from God and not just from myself?” Her answer continues to shape my spirit: “What makes you think God wouldn’t use your own voice to tell you something?”

That was the wisdom of a woman who had spent years in prayer, and I’ve not only shared it with others, but also let myself be liberated and humbled by its implications. In every place and at all times, God might have something to say. And I’m in no position to put limits on how God speaks and through whom. (The dandelion doesn’t command the sun.)

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So . . . I suppose I shouldn’t insist that God speak to me in voices of my choosing. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

I heard God on blogging friend Melanie Lynn Griffin’s post about her past career, in which she and a group of colleagues met with a Navajo group to teach them about persuasion. Turns out they have no such word in their language. The young listen to their elders and don’t argue with them. After a moment of beautiful laughter and understanding, one of the elders said, “This persuasion must be a job for our young people. It is new to learn and they must lead us.” God speaks through a Navajo man. (Thanks, Melanie.)

I heard God on Winding Road when blogging friend Kerry, whose family recently lost nearly everything in a flood, charted her grieving and recovering with a moving insight: “Reclaiming order sometimes means deconstructing first and one cannot build back up until walls have been torn down.” God speaks through a young mother who got knocked down and is trying to get back up. (Thanks, Kerry.)

I heard God yesterday while reading this: “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” God speaks through Mahatma Gandhi.

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Mahatma Gandhi in 1942. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

And during morning prayer, I heard God use my voice. It was a mind-whisper: Enjoy. It seems I’ve been turning damned near everything in my life into a program, something to be worked at, a goal to be pursued with one eye on the clock. I haven’t been enjoying my present embarrassment of blessings in my blood and in the cavern of my chest where anxiety has been an intractable squatter.

“Enjoy,” my spirit says. I’ve come to believe in a peculiar miracle: I don’t think God speaks to me directly, though that would be something. Rather, God helps me to hear myself—but only if I sit still. And what I heard in merciful silence was a cardinal calling out to his mate. “Listen,” I said. “Receive this song, this beauty.” In an instant I understood what God longed for me to hear.

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If you sing, I’ll try to enjoy.

The people I love and the gorgeous world exist for their own sake, but they also exist for me. “Enjoy,” God said in my throat. “All of this is for you.” And so, sitting propped up in bed before sunrise, my spirit flew open like a door caught by the wind. As if on cue, I began enjoying.

Micah’s alarm went off. Because I could sleep, I didn’t go through the routine: stopping at his door at about 7:15 and making sure he is awake. “You up, Scooter?” I sometimes say. Or “Cupcake.” Or “Your Royal Dudeness.” Or “Fart-breath.” I go with whatever pops into my head. He always answers, “Yup.” But praying, I listened to him clomp around downstairs like a camel in wooden shoes. I didn’t mind. He was off to work, being a man, propelling his own ass out of bed. My son is well.

Because Kathy didn’t have to be to work until 9:30, we went out for breakfast. She savored sleeping in, and I savored our kiss when I dropped her off.

I took lunch to daughter Elena and got to hang out with her and grandson Cole. “Enjoy,” echoed in my chest, and darned if I didn’t. Vegetarian hippie food. We talked. I got to hold Cole, place my lips on his bald head, breathe in the perfume that still lingers from when God kissed him in the womb. And I snuffled his neck like a dog, which made him laugh. The whole time, I watched my daughter be a stunningly good mother. I’m so proud my eyeballs want to go flying out of their baggy sockets.

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God never has to help me enjoy this guy.

The afternoon offered itself to me. I napped, prayed for forty minutes, cleaned up the kitchen, and made the dining room presentable.

Micah got home from work. My God! My son, just two years ago a heroin asshole, blesses me every day with his goodness. On Mother’s Day, he came home with a bright bouquet and card for Kathy. A quote: “To the Mom who invented fun, creativity, and a wonderful imagination in me. And taught me 50% of what I know about love and compassion.”

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Happy Mother’s Day from Micah

A couple weeks ago I raged at God about some grievous assaults on children. I didn’t enjoy my rant, but as I sit here now I give thanks for the sense that prayer is about offering to God whatever I am. So glad or furious or quietly depressed, I fall backward into God. It’s the trust game kids play: fall and I promise to catch you. My game is a little different, like letting go into forever. If God’s catch isn’t unconditional, my soul will shatter. I don’t have much choice here. I don’t know any other way to be with God, so I fall and try to trust. Enjoy isn’t a sacred enough word for the safe landing.

Of course, even if my soul doesn’t shatter, other things will: sickness, disappointment, floods. So for now, I receive the cardinal’s call, my wife’s kiss, the sweet breath of God on Cole’s head, and every other way God shines on this fifty-two-year-old flowering weed named John.

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Micah’s Mother’s Day bouquet still hanging in there with Baby Crash

A Sad Bird Looked Back at Mary

Mary Birdsong, my photographer/writer friend, has a fierce love for . . . well . . . birds. She, Erie Times-News features writer Jennie Geisler, and I met Friday morning at Starbucks and covered a lot of territory: skunks, writing (of course), the assault on laws protecting endangered species, birds, tuna casserole, and more.

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Mary, Jennie, and I all made tuna casserole recently. A harmonic comfort food convergence during a long winter? This one is Mary’s. (Credit: Mary Birdsong)

We laughed a lot, but Mary was swimming upstream. In recent days she’d rescued an injured red-necked grebe, took all the right steps to give it a chance at survival, and returned it to the water. When she checked on it the next day, it was floating. Damn.

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This red-necked grebe looked good, but didn’t make it. Watch out for that beak! (Credit: Mary Birdsong)

As Mary talked, I remembered the story of a man who traveled to Calcutta to volunteer with Mother Teresa. He presented himself to the future saint, who took him out to the streets, where they came upon a destitute man curled up on the ground. She asked the new volunteer to pick up the man. As he did so, he found that the man had lain so long in the same position that his skin was stuck to the pavement. As the volunteer held the dying man, Mother Theresa said, “The body of Christ.”

Terrible—and lovely! The story is redemptive only because of the denouement: the man, who left skin behind, died surrounded by love and care. Not alone. Not forgotten.

“You’re the Mother Theresa of birds,” I told Mary. That’s much of what Teresa of Calcutta did. She and her sisters gave the forgotten gentle deaths.

I didn’t blame Mary for being down. Her last three rescues didn’t make it: the grebe, a herring gull, and a turkey vulture, whose story she shared on her blog. Here’s an excerpt:

Sitting on the ground, unable to fly, was a young Turkey Vulture, with some white down still visible on its back and sides. It was huddled at the base of a tree, obviously injured and barely moving around. I called Tamarack Wildlife Rehabilitation and Education Center, they agreed to take it and with their help I hatched a plan for catching it. Anne Desarro, a park naturalist generously agreed to help and soon arrived with gloves and tarps for securing the bird. I had a box in the back of my truck. After several attempts, we eventually cornered the bird and I wrapped it in the tarp. It calmed down in my arms. It felt much lighter than anticipated. In the process of the catch we both discovered that its injuries were far worse than we first thought; most of its right wing was missing. We both knew that Tamarack would probably have to euthanize it due to the severity of its injuries, but we agreed that I should still take it.

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A turkey vulture, soon to be granted a peaceful end. (Credit: Mary Birdsong)

We put it in the ready box, secured the lid and I headed out for Tamarack. When I arrived, the rehabber on duty agreed when I explained the injuries. They deftly and gently prepared the bird for its last. 

The rehabber asked if I wanted to stay. I learned many years ago that I should always stay at moments like this. I had a cat named Buster who was one of my greatest delights. He developed cancer and at the tender age of three needed to be put down. Thinking that I could not bear it, I elected to not be in the room with him when they injected that shot. I still regret that decision and will always feel that I abandoned him at his most vulnerable moment. And I learned that love is not selfish.

I said yes and reached out, putting my hand on the vulture’s chest. It was breathing hard. Slowly, though, it became more shallow. Eventually its chest stopped moving. The room was quiet and filled with respect for such a magnificent bird that did not get to live very long. Eventually, the rehabber said to an intern, “you can let go of its legs now.” 

As I re-read Mary’s account, I’m alone at home on Saturday. The only sounds here are a warm hiss and crack from the fireplace and Watson making old dog smacking noises with his mouth. I read again: “They deftly and gently prepared the bird for its last.” “My hand on the vulture’s chest.” “Love is not selfish.”

Am I morose for receiving these words as a gift? In my particular vocation I see lots of lasts, so when a mindful, loving, gentle death reveals itself, I close my eyes, breathe in and breathe out. How many earthly endings look like a crushed beer can by a dusty curb? This vulture died with a reverent sister blessing its chest. My joy is gray, but it’s joy all the same.

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Joy can be gray. Presque Isle on Lake Erie. (Credit: Mary Birdsong)

Since coffee yesterday, a detail about that red-necked grebe has kept returning. Mary found the bird on a driveway late at night. Who knows why it was there? She said birds sometimes mistake concrete for water. She also said that a grebe can poke out your eye with one swift stab, which is why she approached it from behind. As she drew close, the bird looked back at her—no strength for defense.

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The grebe looked at Mary.

On a winter night, a wounded grebe glanced over its wing at Mary. The image won’t leave my grateful imagination alone. Maybe it’s just me, but world news lands heavily on my heart. (I understand that we—the United States—have flown fighter jets to Ukraine to say hello to Putin. Sigh.) The grebe died, but that’s not the point.

All the birds Mary tries to help can end up floating or put down, but each one is still saved. When Mary and her fellow birders tend the healthy and rescue the languishing, they lay a tender hand on creation’s shoulder. This isn’t poetry! When the grebe looked at Mary and she looked back, the planet saw and whispered, “Thank you, bird. Bless you, sister.” I’m sure of it.

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Grateful for a dying grebe and a woman connecting? A vast planet? Absolutely! (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Misgivings of a Cosmos Hugger

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Carl Sagan, who had “billions and billions” of fans. (Credit: Wikipedia)

Good old Wikipedia tells me that “tree hugger may refer to a slang, sometimes derogatory, term for environmentalists.” If people consumed with ecosystems are dismissed as tree huggers, then you can write me off as a cosmos hugger. I’m in love with and worried about our whole existential collect: ginkgo bilobas, Carl Sagan, black dogs, harvest moons, avocados, even my neighbor who scraped his shovel as loudly as possible across the street in front of his house to clear 1/8 inch of snow—at 6:40 this morning, while I was enjoying in-breaths and out-breaths in the Ultimate Presence. Breathing in, I hear my neighbor shoveling. Breathing out, I smile at my $%#@ neighbor.

Because of my cosmos-huggerly love for neighbors of all shapes and sizes, all animals, vegetables, and minerals, all solar flares and black holes, I’ve had misgivings about the implications of several news stories in recent years. The following goodbyes and greetings have me stroking my beard and raising a cautionary finger.

Pluto Is No Longer a Planet.

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Computer-generated impression of the Plutonian surface. (Credit: Wikipedia)

The demotion of our distant neighbor Pluto is actually old news, but I still haven’t accepted it. Back in 2006, news.nationalgeographic.com reported that “the distant, ice-covered world is no longer a true planet, according to a new definition of the term voted on by scientists.” And what is a planet? “A full-fledged planet is an object that orbits the sun and is large enough to have become round due to the force of its own gravity. In addition, a planet has to dominate the neighborhood around its orbit.” Pluto, it turns out, is a scrawny hunk of ice with an “untidy” orbit.

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Mickey Mouse’s dog Pluto. (Credit: Wikipedia)

The scientists’ definition is based on buff rather than character. The report notes the trouble ahead—I’m not sure how/when it was handled. Now a dwarf plant, Pluto will have to be written out of textbooks, an expensive proposition. I’m ambivalent about other important, but cheap problems. 1.) We can no longer remember the planets in order by saying, “My Very Excellent Mother Just Sent Us Nine Pizzas.” Now we’ll have to go with the same sentence with nachos or nectarines at the end. Either option is feeble. And 2.) What are we to do with Mickey Mouse’s English Pointer? Call him Neptune? Harrumph. So if the eighth planet is exiled, we’ll have a dog named Uranus? Imagine children at Disney Land pointing and shouting that. I vote we consider Pluto at least an honorary member of our solar system.

Okay, Who Made Off with My Cents Symbol?

I’m not such a grump as to expect to find the cents symbol, ¢, on my MacBook Air keyboard. There’s not much use for it anymore. Charlie Anderson offers on his website a detailed explanation for ¢’s disappearance—too detailed for this appreciation. In short, with the advent of computers in the 1960’s, engineers started fussing with keyboards, and pennies weren’t the only layoffs: “Three handy fractions were [also] cut: ¼  ½  ¾. This makes sense, especially when you consider that the ASCII [the American Standard Code for Information Interchange] committee was composed of engineers. I’m sure they thought, in their engineer’s way, ‘Why have ¼ but not 1/3?  And if we have 1/3, then why not 1/5?  Or 3/32?’ Similarly, the committee apparently found $0.19 an acceptable, if somewhat obtuse, way of expressing the price of a Bic pen. At any rate, the popular and useful cent sign didn’t make it.”

I have two kvetches about the ¢ issue. First, including “¢” in this text required over ten minutes of noodling around on the Internet for instructions. Yes, there is a generic cent symbol, but it’s clunky; it fits in like a welder’s mask with a prom gown.

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Rolling into the sunset. (Credit: Wikipedia)

My second misgiving hasn’t come to pass, but it’s inevitable. Now that ¢ is becoming obscure, its main tenant faces eviction. RetireThePenny.org is leading the charge. MIT Professor and site founder Jeff Gore says, “The penny has outlived its usefulness. Let’s retire it.” His suggestion deserves consideration. If, as Gore argues, a penny actually costs 2.4¢ to produce, and if, all angles considered, “the penny drains almost $900 million from the national economy every year,” then, well, points taken. Here are my cautionary fingers: 1.) Any time financial decisions get made in the land of the free, the wealthy seem to benefit. Just saying. 2.) This may be quack economic theory, but if the penny disappears, I bet nearly all costs will be rounded up to the nearest nickel, dime, quarter, or dollar. Price tags won’t get rounded down. Watch and see. And 3.) Penny wise and pound foolish would slide into oblivion along with a penny saved is a penny earned and other useful expressions. So let’s keep the penny, even if children born today won’t learn what ¢ means in grammar school.

Goodbye to John Hancock?

“Is Cursive Writing Dead?” So barks cbsnews.com, and with good reason. “The recently established Common Core State Standards, the standardized educational benchmarks for U.S. public schools, omit cursive as a requirement. Some states, including Indiana and Hawaii, had dropped cursive from their curricula in favor of keyboard proficiency as early as 2011.”

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“I don’t read cursive.” (Credit: Wikipedia)

I get this decision and can go with it, but my cosmic Spidey sense tingles. Yes, handwriting as a whole is diminishing, while cents-less keyboards take over. And I admit, writing with a pen or pencil for any length of time now hurts. Still, consider a devil’s advocate. At the trial of the neighborhood vigilante George Zimmerman, witness Rachel Jeantel was asked to read a letter. With “her head bowed, [she] murmured with embarrassment, “I don’t read cursive.” So when we no longer teach cursive in schools, we’re leaving behind not only writing in that script, but also reading it. Someday, the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address will be as accessible as cuneiform—sad. Also, learning cursive may nurture patience and attention to detail in young, attention-strapped minds.

Starbucks friend John disagrees with me on cursive, and he’s usually right. We’ll all just read translations. I won’t go down swinging on teaching curls and loops.

Name Public Places That Are Quiet.

The first place that comes to mind is the library, right? Not anymore, at least at my beloved local library. Ed Palattella of the Erie Times-News is only the messenger, so he’s not in my crosshairs. As he reports, because “it often does seem quite noisy and loud in Blasco Library,” Mary Rennie, the Erie County Public Library’s director, is “looking to set a little bit of ambience.” We’re talking “mostly ‘soft classical’ and jazz” over “the library’s overhead speaker system.”

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Shh! Burlingame Library, Burlingame, San Mateo, California (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Rennie is probably a bright, thoughtful person, but noooooooo! True, libraries tend to be soaring spaces in which sound echoes, but for once in my life, I’m in favor of stern figures with furrowed brows and zero tolerance. Palattella ends his short piece with this surrender: “Music at Blasco. It is a tune of the times.” I’m going to the mat on this one—not that it matters. In monasteries and libraries, silence is foundational. Posses of inflexible librarians should be sent as missionaries to convert the rude and blathering with tough love. Shhh!

Glassholes, Glassholes Everywhere?

Good Lord, if the Google Glass site I’m checking out right now is legit, residents of the First World are either doomed or blessed. You probably already know the idea: put on a pair of these techno-glasses and “Say ‘take a picture’ to take a picture.” Or “Record what you see. Hands free.” Or “Speak to send a message.” Or “Ask whatever’s on your mind.” Want to know how to say “half a pound” in Chinese? You’re covered.

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Please look at me when I’m talking to you. (Credit: Wikipedia)

I’m all for immediate access to information, but my cautionary finger points down another path. Google warns us not to be glassholes: in other words, with wondrous technology propped on our noses, remember to “respect others” and “be polite.” Yeah, right. With the cosmos’ current text-messaging drunkenness, can we really expect ourselves to pay attention to our fellow human beings when the next message or the latest swimsuit edition of Sports Illustrated pops up in our face?

Could any technological advance be harder to manage? Well, yes. Consider the smart contact lens currently in development. “Imagine texting while driving,” writes Brian Snyder of Reuters, “or placing a call while showering, without holding your phone in your hands. It’s not sci-fi any more – a new technology allows information like text messages and driving directions to be projected onto a contact lens.”

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Bionic contact lens. (Credit: Wikipedia)

Imagine what’s next. (Warning: I’m pushing the envelope!) You and I are making love, and I’m looking into your eyes. Only I’m looking into someone else’s eyes, a projection. And I look down and see another body. It’s flawless. Each mole and stretch mark is gone. Wow!

Enough. You get the idea and might call me a worrywart. Maybe so. But this cosmos hugger has misgivings. In a universe where the humble ¢ and icy Pluto are unworthy, where music passes for silence, are scarlet scars—they’re lovely, actually—on mothers’ bellies sacred? Won’t it be irresistible to eliminate saddle bags by seeing them with artificial eyes?

What good is the cosmos when we can see constellations without looking up at the sky?

A Poem: Exodus

Exodus

March: these three

song sparrows

head in a line–

wing to wing

and keeping their counsel–

toward the leafless hills,

which themselves follow

one another

into the distance.

Trailing this delicate

gray exodus,

I hear the wind

for an instant

unburdened by

trucks or voices.

Only the mist

from my own lungs

offers the necessary

whisper in the silence.

Sparrows far off now,

I watch for others,

praying they’ll sing

me a route I can

thoughtlessly recall.

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When you take off, please sing to me. (Credit: Patryk Osmola / National Geographic My Shot / National Geographic Society / Corbis)

Note: This poem originally appeared in slightly different form in Southern Poetry Review (Fall 1991).

Micro-Post: The World Is Pulling My Leg

At the Millcreek Mall, Micah and I pass the Food Court and a pet store on the way to the E-cig kiosk. Smells: from Subway to General Tso’s chicken to pizza to a chemical cleaner that’s no match for pet poo.

A couple of kids play with a pup–maybe a Weimaraner, not sure–through the glass. The transaction seems friendly. The kids aren’t taunting; the dog’s having fun, spinning, reaching its paws toward them.

As I wait for Micah to pick up his cappuccino-flavored liquid tobacco, I begin to feel as though I’m from another world. Earth is pulling my leg.

In front of me is an establishment devoted mostly to eyebrows and eyelashes.

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“Oh,” I think, “you can get some kind of fabric woven into your eyebrows if you want them darker or you can make a weak mustache sturdy with facial threading.” But an eye-hair business? In this world, gracious, what you can buy!

After Micah pays, we head back the way we came. “Can you believe it,” I say, “a place where all they do is weave fake hair into your eyebrows and grow your lashes?”

“Uh, Dad,” Micah says, “I think with threading they roll thread over your hair to pull it out.”

Ah. Duly noted.

Back by the pet store, the kids are gone. The dog is lying in its cage–looking for more kids?

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In this world, animals that we consider friends are for sale. Dozens here alone, like sofas or flat screen televisions.

We sell what can love, fear, even save. And we micro-manage our eyebrows.

Dear World, please stop fooling around. Some of these jokes make me tired and sad.

Poem: “The Myth of Embracing”

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“Like pines and doves unable to hug completely.” (Credit: Laurent Hamel / PhotoAlto / Corbis)

The Myth of Embracing*

Even in this furious sunlight,

the pine’s long arms form the promises

of circles, incomplete and longing for the sky,

where a mourning dove leaves curve trails

as its wings suggest huggings of the world

that just keep coming up with air—travel

is incidental. Our bodies curve, too.

The longest laugh, like pain, eventually

bends chest to knees, everything surrounding the heart.

When my daughter was born, her shocked eyes,

smeared face, jerking arms wanted something,

one perfect thing to calm the frigid light.

She screamed, like pines and doves unable to hug

completely. Embracing is a myth:

our arms grow strong for all we cannot hold.

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“Our arms grow strong for all we cannot hold.” (Credit: Stewart Cohen / Blend Images / Corbis)

*Between 1986 and 1995 I published mostly poems. This one appeared in slightly different form in The Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review (Winter, 1991).

A House with Shaman Doorknobs

For over thirteen years the Coleman family has lived in a white house in Erie, Pennsylvania. If ever there were a house with soul, it’s 322 Shenley Drive. In its rooms wife Kathy, daughter Elena (twenty-five, now a married mother ten minute’s away), son Micah (twenty-two, working full-time and living at home), and I have known joy that wouldn’t let us stop laughing and sadness that had me, at least, looking at the bedroom ceiling at bedtime and praying: “I’d never take the life you gave me, God, but if you’re merciful, I’d be okay with not waking up in the morning.”

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A house with soul

This is a vulnerable admission, but as a pastor I’ve talked to so many people who have thought the same thing that I’m prepared to cut the crap. Some stretches in life are wretched enough to make you hope for a personal appointment with the One who promises to wipe away all tears. You can quote me on that.

But lately days are many stories above despair. (Did you just hear a rapping sound? That’s me knocking on every wooden surface within reach, including my own head.) As the blessing of being a rookie grandfather keeps pulling my lips into a smile, I’m finding it possible to glance backward without feeling a leaden weight in my chest or anticipating an ambush.

This morning–I’ve no clue why–I thought about doorknobs and what a rickety, inadequate collection we have in the Coleman house. I’m betting that among you indulgent folks reading this, nobody has such a crummy home full of doorknobs. What an impotent group! But as I went through the house studying doorknobs, I found myself visiting the last dozen Coleman years–tough years, but not without gladness. It was like looking at the jewelry of a loved one long gone. There was a fullness in the moment. That’s what the doorknobs were for me.

Front Door

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I don’t remember when the actual knob fell off, but for reasons I’ll never understand, we’ve never actually corrected the deficiency. Sure, we could get a whole new knob assembly, but that would make too much sense. Fortunately, this stump does allow you to exit, but there’s a technique involved. Years ago, it occurred to me that getting out required the exact movement used in giving somebody a counterclockwise purple nurple. Once during a particularly sophomoric evening, a guest looked at the stump and wondered what to do. I said, “Look, you want to get out, you have to pinch the nipple.” I said this without guessing that in our inappropriate home, my instruction would become a mantra. 

I’ve stopped hoping for a fix. In the Coleman story, the front door reminds me that some problems never go away, some simple inconveniences become squatters. I can live with this.

Bathroom Door 

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Ah, yes, one of those good, old-fashioned glass doorknobs. Let me tell you, they’re hotdog water. I’ve lost count of how many replacements I’ve installed, only to have them go to pieces in a month. I don’t even know where the model shown here came from. It just appeared up one day, and so far it has held together. Long after the house is gone, this doorknob may still be intact. It’s so tight a few days ago I heard Kathy shout after a shower, “Help! I’m trapped!” She’d put on lotion and couldn’t get any traction.

At various times we’ve stuck a pair of scissors in the empty hole, a slick solution, but understandably pathetic to visitors. I looked at this knob this morning and thought, “Yeah, well, you do what you can and laugh along the way.”

Upstairs Closet Door 

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I love this one. It works perfectly–no shimmying. And it’s the doorknob equivalent to power steering. Mmm. It’s also attached to one of the least used doors in the house. I suppose that’s Murphy’s Law of Doorknobs.

One of our cats, Baby Crash, is fond of sneaking in this closet when the door’s left ajar and then gets marooned inside. The teaching: a tool can be fantastic, but if I don’t make use of it, what’s the point?

Dining Room Double Door 

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Natural wood. Man oh man, am I a natural wood guy. Varnish, stain, polyurethane, oil: do whatever you want, just don’t slap white paint on every wooden surface in the house like my dad did. The only drawback to this door is that it’s nearly impossible to keep it closed. You hear it click, think it’s good, but next time you check the door has yawned open by its own will. This door and its knob remind me of having an easy-on-the-eye chef who overcooks your salmon. We have a couple other doorknobs that don’t do their jobs either, without the merit of being pleasing to look at.

Too many times over the years I’ve been cowardly and said, “Just let it be. Maybe the problem will get up and leave on its own.” At least in the case of the dining room double doors, I’m right. The door won’t close because the floor has heaved slightly, and I’m not about to fuss with it. The solution: the door and knob are attractive, even if they don’t work. Guess I can love them the way they are.

My Study Door 

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I come from a family of door slammers. When I was ten years old, my mother got really pissed, walked over to the basement, opened the door, and slammed it shut. Then she walked a few steps away, turned around, stomped back, opened the door again, and slammed it shut again. When Micah’s bedroom was in my present study, he did something to piss me off, but I didn’t engage in slamming. I just rammed the door open with my forearm. Who knows what set me off? All I can say is my study door won’t close until I do surgery with wood putty.

When I take responsibility for the damage, I’m quietly grateful. Who am I to scold somebody for poor choices or a destructive temper? I’ve got no business looking down on anybody.

Micah’s Bedroom Door 

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When son Micah was hooked on heroin, I refused to condemn him. I stood at his bedroom door as he slept this morning and remembered that in the shitland of active addiction, he was still quick witted, hilarious, and decent. I still crack up when I walk by Wilfred Brimley, “official sponsor of diabetis.” In my worst moments I despaired of Micah’s healing, but I always knew that if he came around, an exceptional young man would rise from the ashes. His doorknob is altogether missing these days, but who cares?

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Micah closes his bedroom door with a rope tied to a twenty-pound dumbbell. He’s content with this arrangement, and in our present doorknob context, so am I.

Kathy and John’s Bedroom and Closet Door 

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Bedroom and closet doorknobs put to good use

Elena and son-in-law Matt have now given Kathy and me a grandson, Cole. Micah, still under our roof, has his own life. We rarely close our bedroom door, so we hang clothes on our doorknobs.

In the end, I don’t give a rat’s rump about doorknobs. I care that loved ones can open needful doors and aching stories can be told.

Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln: Appreciations on Their Birthday

February 12, 2014: If Darwin and Lincoln were among the quick, they’d celebrate their 205th birthday today. I have a special love for both men and share these appreciations. This post is long, so you might need to consume it in two sittings. Hope it’s worth your time.

Happy Birthday, Charles Darwin, My Brother in Complaints and Conflict!

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Charles Darwin’s grave: a little less grand than I would have thought (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

David Quammen’s excellent biography, The Reluctant Mr. Darwin, notes that when the father of natural selection died, “the world . . . swooped in and claimed his body for history and posterity and the glory of British culture.” And the world “decreed that Charles Darwin be buried in Westminster Abbey,” which was ironic, since he was an atheist.

Biblical literalists would like to exhume Darwin and hose down his bones with holy water, but I consider him a planetary brother. Quammen describes the parallel development of Darwin’s transmutation of species and the onset of his health issues:

Darwin’s work on the transmutation notebooks coincided with his early complaints about what became chronic bad health. The symptoms were mysterious—jumpy heart, nausea, vomiting, headaches, nervous excitement, inordinate flatulence—but real enough to make him miserable and to slow his work. Was he a hypochondriac? A neurasthenic? Had he been bitten and infected by some nasty disease-bearing bug during a Beagle [the ship Darwin sailed on from 1831-36] stopover in Argentina? Many guesses have been made but nobody knows, to this day, what ailed him.

Inordinate flatulence–bummer. Fabienne Smith immediately and dryly states her theory about Darwin’s deal in her article “Charles Darwin’s Health Problems: the Allergy Hypothesis”: “The purpose of this paper is to buttress the evidence given in ‘Charles Darwin’s Ill Health’ [a previous article by the same author] for the theory that Darwin suffered from multiple allergy arising from a dysfunctioning immune system.” Sounds plausible, but I’m not about the read the whole thing. History.com presents its own list of guesses along with a few attempted remedies:

During Darwin’s lifetime, England’s most prominent physicians failed to decode the ailing naturalist’s jumble of symptoms. Their diagnoses ran the gamut from gout to appendicitis to hepatitis to mental exhaustion to schizophrenia, while the remedies they prescribed—lemons, Indian ale, hydrotherapy, arsenic, strychnine and codeine, among countless others—provided little relief.

An admirably researched Wikipedia article, “Charles Darwin’s Health,” lists “many hypotheses” for the man’s agony, including Crohn’s disease, panic disorder, Chagas’ disease, Meniere’s disease, lactose intolerance, lupus erythematosus, arsenic poisoning, hypochondria, migraine, cyclic vomiting syndrome, and chronic fatigue syndrome. That Darwin might have been cursed with even a couple of these conditions is frightening to imagine.

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Editorial cartoon of Darwin, 1871 (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The winner of my Scary Darwin Scholarship Award goes to Jerry Bergman, Ph.D., for his article “Was Charles Darwin Psychotic? A Study of His Mental Health,” which appears on the Institute for Creation Research website (icr.org). Bergman’s thesis is that mental health issues not only ruined the scientist’s body, but also led him to develop wacky theories. The article is part legitimate catalog of Darwin’s complaints and part smear job ala Lee Atwater and Karl Rowe. “Some speculate,” the author writes, “that part of Darwin’s mental problems were due to his nagging, gnawing fear that he had devoted his ‘life to a fantasy’—and a ‘dangerous one’ at that (Desmond and Moore, 1991, p. 477). This fear was that his theory was false and there was, in fact, a divine Creator.” (No, I’m not going to read the cited work, Darwin: the Life of a Tormented Evolutionist by Adrian Desmond and James Moore, but I did check the Publishers Weekly and Library Journal review excerpts on Amazon.com, and both sing that biography’s praises. I might be wrong, but I bet Desmond and Moore wouldn’t appreciate the use Bergman makes of their words.)

Bergman also hits below the belt when he implies that Darwin’s scientific conclusions are flawed because he passionately loved shooting birds as a kid, which points to a “sadistic streak” that “may have, in part, motivated his ruthless ‘survival of the fittest’ tooth and claw theory of natural selection”; because he referred to committing suicide when writing to fellow scientist Robert Hooker about his upset over the writing quality of one of his books; because author Clifford Picover wrote that Darwin treated his wife and adult daughters like children; because “Darwin exhibited the obsessional’s trait of having everything ‘just so’; he kept meticulous records of his health and symptoms like many obsessional hypochondriacs. Everything had to be in its place; he even had a special drawer for the sponge which he used in bathing.”

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Darwin’s wife wrote him a letter in 1839 expressing her fear that they wouldn’t spend eternity together. After his death, the following addition was found at the bottom of her letter–a loving atheist’s attempt at comfort? “When I am dead, know that many times, I have kissed & cryed over this. C. D.” (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The article’s final sentence nails down what the author has been getting at all along: “To understand Darwin as a person and his motivations, one must consider his mental condition and how it affected his work and conclusions.” Bergman’s claim that Darwin’s scientific conclusions are flawed because he had mental and physical issues is like saying that a singer has an unappealing voice because he sleeps around: non sequitur. What singers do with their junk has nothing to do with their vocal cords and breath control; and the fact that a scientist needs therapy and meds doesn’t mean he’ll do biased research. If anything, in Darwin’s case I’m betting Bergman has the situation backwards. Darwin’s troubled constitution and psyche didn’t skew his scholarly work; rather, his health went into the chamber pot in part because his thinking was so contrary to the assumptions of his day, not to mention deeply troubling to his wife, a devout Christian; Quammen’s speculations, in fact, head in this direction without coming across like a conspiracy theory.    

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Charles Darwin at 45 years old. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

In the end, as Quammen writes, “nobody knows . . . what ailed him.” I’m looking at a photograph of Darwin at around age forty-five, seven years my junior, and feeling a connection. If only he could have picked up Atenolol, Prilosec, Zoloft, Xanax, Beano, and other modern medications at the apothecary, his suffering might have been manageable.

And if only Darwin could have enjoyed a daily siesta rather than taking to his bed for months at a time. Illness leeched years of work off of what was already an amazingly productive life. What’s worse, more profound discomfort still resided in a place microscopes can’t get at. Employing quotations from Darwin’s letters, Quammen playfully describes the scientist’s fragility—and mine:

[Darwin’s] doctors had advised him to quit work and get a country vacation, he added, and he was taking their advice. ‘I feel I must have a little rest, else I shall break down.’  After a few weeks home in Shrewsbury, with his father and sisters [in the fall of 1837], he reported again . . . that ‘anything which flurries me completely knocks me up afterwards and brings on a bad palpitation of the heart.’ Social gatherings flurried him. Intense conversations flurried him. Conflict, or the very idea of it, was highly flurrisome.

The last part makes Darwin my kin: the slightest prospect of conflict is nearly incapacitating, flurrisome—spot-on for both of us. Flurrisome Charles had the brains. Flurisome John has the meds and the afternoon nap.

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The Darwin we all know and love. (Credit: Wikipedia)

The part of Darwin’s story I love best takes place when he was near death. As he suffered through the final stages of heart disease, he continued to work as his body permitted. Quammen explained that a colleague who knew of Darwin’s interest in the migration of plants and animals discovered a clam attached to a beetle and wondered if this oddity might indicate that a sea creature could migrate by attaching itself to a bird. The colleague mailed the beetle/clam to Darwin so that he could look for himself. By the time he received the box, the clam and beetle had separated, and the former was dead, the latter languishing. As Darwin wrote the sender, he placed the dying beetle in a jar with torn up laurel leaves, which exuded a chemical that would help the poor thing relax and die in peace. Darwin himself followed the beetle into eternity about two weeks later. So even as one of the most brilliant minds in history was dying, he took time to ease the suffering of a beetle. Darwin considered himself an atheist. So be it. I call him “brother.”

Happy Birthday, Abraham Lincoln, My Weary, Burdened Brother!

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Abraham Lincoln about two months before his assassination–such tired eyes. (Credit: Wikipedia)

A couple years ago on this day’s A Writer’s Almanac, Garrison Keillor told me a couple facts I didn’t know about Abraham Lincoln—facts that make me doubly grateful for his stay in the White House.

The first has to do with Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address,” which is one of the most beautiful pieces of prose in the English language. Since it’s short—only 272 words—I’ll include it here:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

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Abraham Lincoln’s “life mask” from 1860–better than a death mask. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

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Lincoln at Gettysburg just after delivering his address. (Credit: Wikipedia)

I already knew that Lincoln wrote this address on an envelope during his train ride to Gettysburg. What I didn’t realize was that the dedication of the cemetery, situated on the ground where hundreds of soldiers were buried quickly in shallow graves after the battle, was a grand, carefully planned affair with fifteen thousand people attending. Edward Everett, who was famous for his speeches about battlefields, went on for over two hours cataloging the battle’s endless instances of bravery and valor. When he finished, Lincoln read his slender 272 words. By the time the event’s photographer got set, his subject had already sat back down; he managed one blurry shot.

So restrained was the audience’s applause that Lincoln assumed his speech was a failure. Little did he know a century later school kids would be required to memorize his address, and English and history teachers would regard Lincoln, a politician, as one of the most gifted writers of his generation. Everett, however, knew a great speech when he heard one. The next day he told Lincoln, “I wish that I could flatter myself that I had come as near to the central idea of the occasion in two hours as you did in two minutes.” Of course, maybe Everett was mainly stroking the President’s ego.

The second Abraham Lincoln story Garrison Keillor told had to do with a letter the President is thought to have written to Mrs. Lydia Bixby, a widow who supposedly lost five sons in the Civil War:

Dear Madam,–

I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant General of Massachusetts that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle.

I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save.

I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.

Yours, very sincerely and respectfully,

A. Lincoln

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Retouched post-mortem photograph. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Oddly, Mrs. Bixby didn’t lose five sons. She lost two in battle; one deserted, one was honorably discharged, and another either deserted or died as a prisoner of war. Don’t misunderstand! This poor mother deserved every condolence she received, but the facts differ from those that inspired the President—if he wrote the letter at all. Some historians now believe that Lincoln’s famous letter to Mrs. Lydia Bixby was actually written by one of his White House secretaries, John Hay. Whatever: if Lincoln had such a gifted writer on his staff, I’m willing to call that moving letter co-authored.

Do any of these historical facts matter? They do to me. And I bet Lincoln would have cared on November 19, 1863, as he sat down after giving his 272-word address, to know that his speech was much better than he first thought and that history would judge him a courageous President, a wise man, and an elegant writer. But how could he have known, that man in the grainy photograph with the weight of millions of Americans on his tired shoulders?

I pray today that in repose he hears me call him brother.