A Life Song

The other day I came home from visiting a friend who is in hospice. His wife is with him, sharing his next journey. But the cancer death he is forced to endure, and she by extension of her devotion, is a grim one. A once athletic body and powerful mind is now reduced to drains and a port and pallid flesh covering bone. His dying does not romanticize death, but instead shows the way, as King David wrote, that all living things go. However, the hospice staff know how to comfort the ones in exit, and he is at ease, even comfortable.

Driving home from visiting a man who did not know that I was there, my mood moved from bitter to sad to mad. Somewhere as I crossed the interstate I even felt guilty because I was out in the world while he lay dying with his wife holding his hand. Such a combination of emotions followed me into our home, and I went to my computer for a diversion, something to take me away from an event none of us can honestly comprehend or certainly not one we can or  should change. Fortunately, unlike his wife, I could divert my attention.

Earlier in the day I had saved a chess lesson that I wanted to watch. I felt that the ten-minute lesson on chess openings would be a calming distraction and maybe even somewhat entertaining. However, the You Tube channel offered more than a chess lesson.

 The Song Remembers When was written by Hugh Prestwood and next to my chess lesson on the You Tube bar was an unexpected message: A recorded 1993 performance of Trisha Yearwood singing his song. I clicked on the arrow and read the lyrics as Yearwood brought life to them and I thought of my friend Mike;  not of his dying but of his wonderful life and the parts of it which I was blessed to share. While I do appreciate the song as a lament for a past romantic love, it also reminds me of our selective memory and how even a song or smell or sound can trigger a piece of the past that was thought to have been buried and placed in a box high on a shelf. The song also speaks to the sometimes chance linking of our lives and how that can produce a pattern woven across years and experiences.

Mike and I competed against each other as high school wrestlers during the 1960s. We then travelled our future paths never having known that we were both from two North Carolina mill hills-his in Mooresville, mine in Kannapolis. But six years ago after I returned to North Carolina our lives once again were woven together like cotton threads on a loom. We shared weekly lunches, we worked to improve my yard, we travelled around Lake Norman; and we finally learned how much we had had in common. Because he had been an engineer for Duke Energy I once asked him what the most difficult thing was in creating Lake Norman. With no hesitation he answered, “Getting it level.” But our best “chats” centered around politics and religion, neither in which we shared much agreement. Once as we argued over our taco lunch about some finer point, he looked at me with a baffled grin before asking, “Are you that naïve?”

A random phone call six years ago by my wife Mary Ann led to Mike and me re-discovering each other. And Mary Ann’s phone call was not, I believe, a coincidence. It was, instead, one of life’s “old familiar” songs that weaves our lives into the connected fabric that life sometimes offers us.

Prestwood ends his song with the refrain, “Yeah, even if the whole world has forgotten/The song remembers when.” The time that Mike and I have shared these past six years is not long in the annals of life, but we grabbed much in our weekly sharing, and I now carry all of it. As long as I still remember, so will the “whole world.”

Returning to Eden ( A Field Guide for the Spiritual Journey)

Quoir Publishing, $19.99

Heather Hamilton

Heather Hamilton has written a book that will challenge evangelicals and encourage non-literal readers of the Bible and other Christian theology.

Hamilton was reared as an evangelical and held to that as a young adult, but when she had to confront an emotional crises as a mother and wife, she concluded that what she had been taught by her church was a “toxic theology” where “Certainty is a very potent force that’s hard to pull yourself away from, expecially7 when that need for certainty is motivated by fear.” She goes on to write that “Fear is viral.” Her book is one aimed to release those who “are still living life with clinched fists? Afraid of hell. Afraid of God. Afraid to question any of it [religion].”

The sub-title of the book is a hint to what follows because Hamilton does take us through the garden of Christianity using her book as a type of field guide to better grasp the complexities of the Bible. She writes, “Reading the Bible literally, like a news report, robs us of understanding its intrinsic depth of wisdom and saddles us with a rigid, fearful, and lifeless understanding of God.” Thus, because of her willingness to see mythology in the Bible, she is able to write about the Abraham and Isaac story, “I insist that Christ is revealed here in Isaac.” Why? Because like Jesus it is Isaac who willingly goes to his death.

Hamilton uses many thinkers and writers to explain her use of mythology. She quotes writers from the Bible, Julian of Norwich, Joseph Campbell, St. Francis of Assisi, Marianne Williamson, C. S. Lewis, and many more to support her thesis. Her book kept me busy searching Google for some of the varied people she quotes but perhaps my favorite is from Thomas Keating, O.C.S.O., “Only the Divine matters,/And because the Divine Matters,/Everything matters.”

Much like St. Paul does, Hamilton warns us of our False Selves (the Old Man of St. Paul) and encourages us to look inward to our True Selves, where heaven and Christ wait for us. Hamilton offers encouragement to us and challenges us; she asks us to question and not rely on dogma and its tribalism; and she writes, “Don’t settle for fake intimacy with yourself, others, or the Divine.”

Hamilton’s book deserves to be read by non-Christians, atheists, agnostics, and every person who carries a fear of God in his or her Christianity.

Segregated Still

The 1950s world in which I grew up was White. The 1964 graduating class in which I was in the lower quarter was White. The workers in the cotton mill in which I earned college tuition were White. Anyone or anything not White in our cotton mill town was located across the kudzu filled ravine near the White and Black high schools or secluded in lone hamlets of a few houses and perhaps a store and a church. In those areas Blacks lived and they only ventured into the White world if summoned to do menial work for the White folks. Isolated from the other, neither world was part of the other; whatever contact that took place between the two was superficial. Separated according to historical prejudices, neither culture knew or cared to know the other.  Any mingling was done for the economic benefit of Whites, as when Blacks were hired for menial labor tasks such as hauling trash.

All of this came to mind when I read an opinion piece in a North Carolina  newspaper. I copy the following paragraph of that perspective:

            “North Carolina Rep. Jeff McNeely had a Freudian slip on the N.C. House floor this past week because what he said was perfectly emblematic of a GOP mindset that is dragging the Tar Heel state back to the 1950s. McNeely, a white Republican who has served in the House since 2019, directed a revealing question to Rep. Abe Jones, a Black Democrat, during a debate about private school vouchers. Before he was cut off McNeely said: ‘I understand that you went into public schools and you went to Harvard and Harvard Law. And the question I guess, is, would you have been able to maybe achieve this if you were not an athlete or a minority or any of these things, but you were a student trapped in a school that the slowest — you know, in the wild we’ll say the slowest gazelle does not survive, but yet the herd moves at that pace. So the brightest child sometimes is held back in order —‘” Since that exchange on the House floor McNeely has apologized and said that his words did not come out right, but he is still being attacked as a racist.

As a citizen I have the luxury of reading McNeely’s words instead of hearing them spoken during a debate. I get to read them, think about them, then read them as many times as I need to in order to make sense of his jumbled statement. They are far from eloquent, and they demonstrate a lack of knowledge about the Black experience in America. They also show a basic nervousness when McNeely says “I guess” as he attempts to explain his question to Jones. I see McNeely’s “question” as one not expressing racism but ignorance. I don’t know if McNeely is a racist, but I see his jumble of words as his pathetic way of asking Jones, “How do we help ensure success for our more capable students like you were?” I suggest that he could not ask that of Jones because he, like Whites in the 1950s world in which I grew up, has no meaningful relationships with people of color.

Maybe McNeely, as widely written, had looked at Jones and his black skin and his Harvard degrees, and thought affirmative action or an athlete. Perhaps he, however, was asking Jones how we use his experience to help our students. I don’t know McNeely’s heart, nor do others; but I do know that if he took the time to hear the stories of his other legislators he could, along with them, be better public servants. And I suggest that Jones spend time with McNeely and his cohorts in order to hear their stories because we all have our story that has shaped us.

Not too long ago I heard Rev. Al Sharpton remark that on 9-11 the aggressors were not attacking Jews or homosexuals or Blacks or conservatives but Americans. The jihadist who used our planes to kill were attacking our community.

The McNeely “question” of Jones demonstrates to me that we are still too much of a segregated culture that does not realize how to discuss race and other differences. In too many ways we are still isolated from each other. We need not always agree, but we must become a community built on mutual trust and understanding. After all, we are all Americans.

Heroic Lives

We like and even need heroes whether they are real people or figures from literature. They are examples of right living, and the most enduring heroes are the ones who are most human, the ones that remind us of ourselves.  Whether ancient or modern or real or fictional, heroes set a pace and serve as an example by how they live their lives to overcome strife and obstacles.

Elliott Rabin has given us a thorough examination of some heroes in his The Biblical Hero (The Jewish Publication Society, 2020). Rabin examines the lives of Moses, Samson, Esther, Abraham, Jacob, David, and God. He concludes his fine book with a chapter on The Biblical Hero Today.

Rabin’s choices of Old Testament lives is, on one hand, to be expected. After all, how could one write about heroes in any time or culture without writing of Moses, but I wish he had omitted Samson who I see as a spoiled gifted child who did more harm than good.

However, Rabin places all his chosen heroes in the light of other heroes from literature to illustrate their humanity and weaknesses and strengths. When the reader sees Abraham compared with Odysseus, he or she is given a broad stroke by which to understand them fuller. After all, viewed in one way, these Biblical people are just more literary figures to be studied and followed. Rabin gives us a fine study, one that informs as well as entertains


The house in which we live was constructed in 1996, but it is not completed. Yes, the builder planted shrubs and flowers, paid all the workers, and placed a For Sale sign in the front yard. In that way, our house was finished. However, anyone who has ever lived in any dwelling for a length of time, knows that it will always need attention. It may need a repair because something breaks; it may need preventative maintenance like painting; it may be given what my wife refers to as “upgrades;” and it will need regular cleaning to maintain its fabric and perhaps, if the inhabitants are so inclined, its luster.

Everything deemed important or necessary in life needs and even requires maintenance. Relationships, vehicles, health care, pets, and even the most unsightly lawn will need some care. Thus, as a person who came of awareness during the 1960s and was a member of the brigade of young people who fought for civil rights and against the war in Vietnam, I have been thinking of maintenance for the past several months because it seems that we of that generation have become lax in our maintaining of what was gained during those years.

While I won’t write for others of my generation, I admit to becoming too busy elsewhere and forgetting to continue the struggle. As I aged my interest became focused on things such as my career, my marriages, my children, and other facts of my expanding life. You could even say that life replaced my passion for equality and change and my “No more war” philosophy. I went on to a career and family, thinking that the work was done. But through the years certain situations, such as the horrible response by President Reagan to the AIDS epidemic, would ignite the old flame; or sometimes a child’s question or comment would illicit a fevered response; yet generally all my energy was placed elsewhere, secure in the false sense that what had been accomplished those fifty-odd years ago was still alive and thriving.

            It’s not.

            Many issues face our country and require serious actions. Gun safety; abortion; voting rights; the influence of big donors in many facets of political life; the integrity of our elected officials and jurists; the rise of would-be autocrats; and the use of gerrymandering are just a few of the issues that have risen to threaten our Republic.

            We need a  political revival to move us back to a more central way of governing and it matters not which “side” you are on. After all, we all are Americans and unless we stand united, we will fail. Yet, while some of us dozed off in false security, self-serving and autocratic forces gained control by questionable means. We now have super-majority state legislatures that have absolute control over their states and the decisions of such bodies fill many parts of life from appointed boards to local school boards. A supermajority is akin to when a child knows which parent will “give in” to his or her pleads and thus conquers and divides the family by such one-sided decisions. And that holds true for any legislative body that is overly controlled by either Republicans or Democrats. It is not healthy.

            During my active days of the 60s, we mobilized and held protests. While some of those events were sadly violent, most were peaceful, and those peaceful marches were the ones that changed minds and eventually policies. While much has changed since then, the basics of how to change policy have not; but we must act before more damage is done. A mass mobilization is needed to correct our ship and help our Republic thrive again instead of withering on the vine of its past successes.

            A political revival in which we older radicals of the 60s participate could lead to us hearing secular altar calls that ignite a fire, and we form or join a cross-generational brigade much like the Tennessee Three and begin working to repair the damage. We need the fervor of the secular altar call to get us out and active in helping to correct America’s course. Many good policy changes came out of the 60s and now basic maintenance for those and other needed programs is vital for our country’s health.

Last Lunch

Yesterday, the first Tuesday of May 2023, was the last lunch date that Mary Ann and I would share with the A.L. Brown class of 1964. We began attending the monthly gatherings six years ago when we returned to North Carolina, but the Wonders had been sharing food and friendship long before our joining. Under the leadership of Gail, about two dozen high school classmates and some spouses arrive in China Grove at noon once a month and gather round a long table to talk, listen, share, and remember.

The word used for these lunches-gather- is chosen carefully. The folks do not meet because to meet implies an order or an agenda. They do not assemble because to assemble has the connotation of purpose or intent. The folks gather, much like a flock or herd does, and for some of the same reasons.

Yesterday as I drove us along state Route 152 towards China Grove, I commented to Mary Ann on how the world had suddenly come alive and how fresh and green the earth was. The bright green of spring complimented the blue of sky. It was a wonderful time to be alive, and I looked forward to the last lunch. Over my many years of springs and summers and falls, I have glazed back and wondered about my “last” of some things. I vividly remember my last marathon in Big Sur but can’t find in my memory my last training run.  Was it a long one, a short, easy one, or a workout on a track, I wonder. While I know the facts about many of my classes I instructed, I have no knowledge of the last class I taught. But I hope it was a good one for my students and for me.  It seems as if certain events important in my life were not marked in my memory, and while not a monumental part of my life, I ponder that and wonder why I have no memory of certain times in my life. I surmise that I did not mark some of those “lasts” because I did not know it was the last one of any number of activities.

But yesterday, May 02, 2023 was, in a way, a significant day because I was ready to, as much as possible, mark the lunch gathering, cutting it into my memory much like a stonemason scores a stone in order to shape it for something bigger. And this last luncheon gathering was larger than food, news, laughter, and friendships.

As I sat waiting for our table to be readied, I watched as classmates arrived in the familiar waiting room. One came using his cane; one’s wheelchair pushed by a spouse; one when asked about his gleaming Corvette that we all watched him park said, “It’s just a Chevrolet”; most walking with purpose and varying paunches of weight that long since had become a permanent resident of the bodies; and all chattering like members of a flock just happy to be present with others of their kind. It was a gathering that supported the words of Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” As I watched my classmates, I saw a tide of humanity with the range of human experiences mentioned by Dickens. Everything was present in that waiting room, but they all as individuals and as a gathering had persisted and will persevere against things to come.

Our long table ready, we entered and laughed and listened and shared and ate and remembered those absent and those no longer able to attend. “It was the best of times….”

      “It’s Already Wednesday”

Moving is a knot of conflict.

Six years ago my wife and I moved from the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia to Lake Norman in North Carolina. Despite being only a five-hour drive south, our new home on LKN was thought to be our last, but as a thought may do, it dissolved into change. Now for various reasons we are moving back to the community we left.

Years ago in one of my frequent phone chats with my mother, she said, “It’s already Wednesday.” Then in my forties, I thought her remark just one more of an elderly person who lived alone. Now, about the age she was when she spoke those words, I see what she understood and shared with me in her way.

I remember Saturday mornings or other bits of days that seemed to be made of eternal time. However, those hours-long packages did not bore but were, instead, full of activity and life, and each was wrapped in one long envelope of a time slot that appeared not to move but when it did, it moved like the waters of a wide river and just rolled along. The foolish lament uttered by all children, “There’s nothing to do,” tells how the young and unknowing view time and its passing. The youthful, and not just children, should, because of their age, see a long and wide horizon of time packed with opportunities and possibilities; and I, a 76-year-old man, should see my horizon narrowed by my years. That is not, by itself, bad, but is just the reality of having more in the rear-view mirror than through the windshield.

So our return move is one looking forward through that windshield because we are going to a community in which we lived for eleven years. It is one of friends; it is one closer to grown children and older grandchildren; it is one of our previous church; it is one of home.

But our LKN house is all of the above, too. It, too, is one of our church. It, too, is one of friends. It, too, is one close to family. It, too, is one of home. During our six years on Isle of Pines we have formed friendships, have shared monthly lunch with high school friends, have received wonderful and warm medical care, have worshiped in a great church, have created flower gardens, and have witnessed many beautiful sunrises over our slice of LKN.  The years have not dragged but have been a rich, blessed bundle of time.

And there lies the knot of conflict.

For the past few weeks, after I cleaned out my workshop by giving away or selling its contents, I have emotionally worked to separate myself from parts of this life, such as the forest of forty-two pine trees that is our front yard. Sure, they are just trees for strangers, but for me they are part of our home and home for a variety of animal life.  A separation also had to be made for the small back garden and our view of the lake, but that is easier because we will have an open view of sunrises over Massanutten Mountain and much space for planting flowers and bushes. But it is still an emotional separation that requires time.

In his essay about Time in This I Believe, An A to Z of Life, Carlos Fuentes writes, “The past occurs today, when we remember. And the future occurs today, too, when we desire.”

So as I marvel at the blooming purple irises next to our back garden gate, I remember how my friend Mike helped me plant them; but I am also planning where I will plant them next to one of the back garden gates of our new Valley home. Caught in that present time of Fuentes I remember, and I desire. One pulls the other pushes. Both are part of my present time and of my conflict, and I realize that “It’s already Wednesday.”

The 1960s and Now

The 1960’s carry much weight. Some folks see those years as the beginning of America’s demise because of “free love,” and the “hippie culture;” some folks see that decade as one of political upheaval that forever changed our republic; and more ills from that era are still discussed, but I see those years as magnificent ones.

Graduating high school in 1964 I went to the only college I could get into because I had no choice. Not a good or even mediocre student, I went to where I was accepted, a small state college in eastern North Carolina. However, it was there that I learned and grew under the guidance of some wise teachers, good friends, and some of the folks of that rural community. And the Civil Rights Movement as well as the Vietnam War were powerful teachers during those four years and afterwards.

Those years recently came back to me as I read Robert Coles’ Lives of Moral Leadership in which he examines lives that he sees as ones of moral leadership. He writes of Dorothy Day, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Lillian Smith, Robert Kennedy, and many others; however, it was the profile of a New Orleans teacher that caused my memories of the 1960s to arrive like a sweep of fresh breeze.

Elaine Vogel was a well-heeled daughter of the Garden District in New Orleans. The daughter of a successful banker and socialite mother, she shocked her parents when she decided to be a teacher; and to make her decision worse, she would teach in a public school, not in one of the private schools approved of by the social elite of New Orleans.

In the fall of 1960 while Ruby Bridges, Tessie Prevost, and two other young Black girls integrated Frantz School and McDonogh 19, two public schools in the Crescent City, Elaine Vogel taught her all-White 5th grade students in another McDonogh school. One of her first lessons was teaching the correct pronunciation of Negro and to use that word to describe Blacks. However, that proved to be a tough lesson because the parents of her students were White citizens living deep in Louisiana during 1960. Vogel told Coles concerning the correcting of her students, “I’d overlooked the fact that when you start going after the way children use or pronounce certain words, especially a word meant to describe—well, Negroes—you’re touching on their home life, the way their parents think, their values.” Her teaching this led to parental complaints and meetings with her principal who cautioned Vogel on what she was teaching and said to Vogel, “Elaine, you’ve been protected by your life, and you can speak as you like—but for a lot of people here, it’s not so easy.” Yet Vogel chose to teach what was right, and she taught her children about C. Vann Woodward’s Tom Watson: Agrarian Rebel, and Ralph Bunche and the United Nations, and before long her students and she were holding lengthy class discussions on moral leadership.

What Elaine Vogel did was put the words of Albert Jones, a Black man, into action. Speaking to a church group debating whether to drive their children from Boston’s Black Roxbury to better schools across town, Jones said to the group, “You’re all busy. It’s important to be busy, but if you don’t find the time to change the world, then you’re busy keeping it the way it is, and that’s the truth Jesus knew, and that’s the truth we’ve got to find for ourselves, right here.”

Vogel and Jones are voices out of the 1960s, and for me they are the voices I heard as a college student active in the anti-war and civil rights movements. While there was noise in such places as Haight Ashbury during those years, it was not what I heard. Instead I heard and witnessed moral leadership from Dr. King, Robert Kennedy, Dave Mixner, Gene McCarthy, Joan Baez, John Lewis, and many more folks-both well-known and ordinary. Other voices and actions of such actors as “Bull” Connor and George Wallace reminded us of what we were fighting against.

I believe (or hope) that we still have teachers like Elaine Vogel who challenge their students. However, in an article in the May issue of the Atlantic, some teachers attending a conference on teaching the Holocaust share how they fear parental complaints and have to trim what they teach about the Holocaust because of state laws enacted by non-educators. The article asks whether, in fact,  the manner in which the Holocaust is now taught encourages anti-Semitism.

In my forty plus years as an educator, I came to see that two types of teachers existed. One teacher was an Elaine Vogel who challenged herself and her students. The other was a “busy teacher” who was so busy being busy he or she could not find the time to change what he or she was doing and modeling for the students. That teacher lived what Albert Jones warned his church group against-“busy keeping it the way it is.” But like many politicians do,  some teachers also find it easier to keep the status quo. After all, the status quo is what put them where they are, so why change.

It takes courage to be a teacher like Elaine Vogel. But in this climate of non-educators like state representatives and school boards and loud groups of local parents managing our schools, we need courageous educators to become moral leaders. To be less is to rob our children.

Supposed Rights

Three killed by gunshots on March 30, 2023; two arrested soon after for the murders, and another suspect a fugitive. The ages of shooters to victims range from 12 to 17. Think of that: A 12-year-old, a 16-year-old, and a 17-year-old kill two 16-year-olds and a 17-year-old.

However, Sheriff Billy Woods of Marion County, Florida, where the murders occurred, has an explanation. He said in an April 8th news conference that, “There are individuals out there viewing, and includes some of you media, that want to blame the one thing that has no ability or the capacity to commit the crime itself, and that’s the gun. These individuals committed the crime,”  He went on to parrot that tired logic that bad guys will always get guns no matter the law and that, “Our school districts, not just here, across this state and nation need to quit minimizing the actions of their students. Hold them accountable. That’s where the failure is,”

Not long ago much of our attention was on “babies having babies” and now that scourge takes a back seat as our babies kill other babies. And Sheriff Woods gives us the reason but not the solution: It’s the fault of the school districts and the shooters who pull the triggers.

According to Sheriff Woods the boys stole the guns from cars they broke into and all six of the teenagers were connected through a crime wave, of sorts, but how and why the killings happened is not exactly known. However, Sheriff Woods explained in his press conference that there is no honor among thieves, suggesting that a disagreement of some type may have led to the shootings.

When a 12-year-old shoots and kills a not yet 18-year-old, the responsibility lies deeper than a finger on a gun trigger or a poor school system or the law enforcement in the area in which such a horrific deed takes place. To quote Pogo for the first Earth Day in 1970, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” With those words, the cartoon sage criticized our polluting of the earth, and over fifty years later we continue to pollute the earth as well as our children.

I find it convenient to point my finger at reasons for three babies killing three other babies. Parents not parenting. Police not policing. Schools not schooling. Communities in multiple layers of conflict. Rancid role models in sports, entertainment, and politics. In other words, we may be close to being without anomie-those shared traditions and values that serve as guardrails to keep individuals and their communities on the path and out of the woods. ,

Anomie is a term used in sociology, and its concept goes back to ancient times. Today it is used in criminology to explain that a person chooses criminal activity because he or she believes that there is no reason not to, and feels alienated, even worthless. Thus, crime does not matter, it is a means to an end. Even for a 12-year-old in Marion County, which could be any county in America.

For me, it is obvious that we have lost our guardrails and there is no single fault. We all are responsible, but we all must be responsible for re-gaining the path to productivity not destruction. In his 1994 book In Defense of Elitism, William A. Henry, III writes,

“The missing element in every phrase of American life, from education to culture to the thicket of identity politics, is what used to be called rugged individualism….The emphasis on the dangers of individualism has obscured the virtues it offers, from the creation of jobs to the creating of art, from the awakening of ambition to the taking of risks to the imagination of new ways and new forms. Taking our identities from groups stimulates us to be like others, and therefore by definition not to be creative. Looking for equality of outcomes rather than equality of opportunities means relinquishing responsibility and control. Obsessing about justice and fairness too readily leads to succoring the disadvantaged instead of urging them to make the best of their circumstances. Individualism maximizes human potential and ultimately propels the whole human race forward, albeit admittedly at different rates of progress.”

For me this means expectations-expectations of our institutions, of our traditions, of our leaders, of and ourselves. In what should be required reading/discussion in every American high school, The Bill of Obligations (The Ten Habits of Good Citizenship), Richard Haass shows us how to re-gain what we have lost as a country and as individuals. His bill of obligations is: Be Informed, Get Involved, Stay Open to Compromise, Remain Civil, Reject Violence, Value Norms, Promote the Common Good, Respect Government Service, Support the Teaching of Civics, and Put Country First. Haass does not write about our individual rights but stresses our ten responsibilities to our communities and country.

Any supposed right comes second to our obligations.

  Palm Sunday on Lake Norman

The appearance of the morning from inside belied the truth of this Palm Sunday, the last in our Lake Norman home. Before letting the dog out for his morning romp, I had seen the intense sunrise held in a blue sky that lit the white dogwood petals; but upon opening the door I was reminded of Eliot’s words about April.

The morning held not a spring chill but instead a sharp coldness that speaks to the falsity in the naming of seasons. Spring. Easter. Solstice. Passover. Full moon. All suggest an end to cold months and the emergence of blossoms and buds and new life. But nature does not work that way, on a paper schedule created by man. Instead, nature wanes, its seasonal faces fading smaller then growing larger, never remaining the same during its transition from one season to the other. But we know that it will change, even when jolted by the cold upon opening a door for a thirteen-inch beagle to venture out.

The cold of this morning quickly drove me back inside, and I left the beagle on his own to navigate the day’s arrival. However, before long he clawed at the screen door, announcing both his dissatisfaction with the spring morning and his empty stomach. Eating breakfast, I watched the day come; he watched my toast, each of us wanting what will only come in small bits. His want is filled before mine because I share tidbits of my peanut buttered toast, but I will have to wait until early afternoon for the rawness of the day to fade.

It is not that the morning was so cold, but that the sight of blooming dogwoods and azaleas bursting in spring arrival and so many more signs of newness deceive us into thinking that warmth is here. Some folks, as I did above, will describe such a morning as “raw”, but it is not. Raw is a wet January day that carries a wind; the morning I ventured out into is only a surprise to the system, but one that will be gone in a day or less. By calling such a day as “raw” it is almost as if we are blaming the weather for not meeting our selfish expectations.

However, the day did change as anticipated and by early afternoon the sun had heated our patch of earth. More birdlife glided onto and under the three feeders and would perch on one of the three birdbaths for a drink or bath. The boattailed grackles dominated the limbs of the middle dogwood tree, their blackish and purple plumage gleaming in the midst of white petals. Some returning brown thrashers ate dropped sunflower seeds and picked dried grass for their nests. And smaller birds like finches, brown-headed nuthatches, and Carolina chickadees milled on the sidelines waiting their turn. And the beagle went forth into his garden to chase squirrels and then nap on the warm pine straw next to the brown St. Francis of Assisi statue.  

In 1922 when The Waste Land  was first published, the horrors and destruction of WW I were still fresh memories, and Eliot begins the poem with “April is the cruellest month, breeding/Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing/Memory and desire, stirring/Dull roots with spring rain.” While Eliot was describing the aftermath of “the war to end all wars,” his use of April is perfect because it is the month of breeding and mixing and stirring of rebirth. Yet, it can also have raw, freezing days and wet snows and too much rain. It is unpredictable; thus the poet sees it as the cruelest because it has the capacity to tease us.

Palm Sunday 2023, over one hundred years after The Great War that redefined modern life. But the earth still breeds and mixes and stirs winter dullness to fresh life on its schedule, not man’s. And in spite of our destruction across our only planet, we await, and even seem to expect this miracle each year. Like the Man who rose from the dead all those years ago.