Archive for the ‘Childhood’ Category

Angels in Spring Mills

(Here is a Christmas column from a few years ago.)

During the week before Christmas the rains came and washed away all the snow. It was a cold, dripping rain that only added to the early darkness and made the gloom of a hard year a little deeper. Rain in this part of the country at Christmas seems unnatural, like the presidential campaigns that continued right up until Christmas Eve. There was no good news and each candidate’s sound bites made you hope that this one, at least, would never be elected.

Everywhere I went the neighbors and friends with whom I exchanged more than a passing greeting seemed wrapped in apprehension. The cost of everything we needed was going up, while only things we could do without were getting cheaper. It was a good time to turn off the radio and forget about the stock market and the falling dollar, and not worry about how to pay for the gifts already under the tree. It was a good time to ignore the last campaigner’s desperate sound bite and go and look for a star and see the Christmas angels.

When we got to the church in Spring Mills at 5 pm on Christmas Eve, it was already dark and the parking lot was filling up with cars. The trees dripped rain and Penns Creek was a shadow beyond the grassy slope. Children streamed through the lit doorway of the little church to get on their costumes and prepare for the play. This year’s nativity play was more ambitious than in years past. Ms. Songer, the drama teacher at the high school, wrote parts for 20 actors, with entrances and exits, songs and rhyming dialog. There were second graders playing shepherds and sheep; teenagers in the roles of Mary and Joseph, the narrator, angel Gabriel, and the star of Bethlehem; and the middle-school-aged girls were the heavenly host of angels. Three adult men were singing Wise Men, and I was typecast in two small parts as the evil King Herod and the heartless Innkeeper who sent the weary couple off to the stable to bed down with the goats and donkeys, also played by young teenagers. Except for the bath robes and cardboard crowns, the play might have been performed without much change a hundred years ago, and the parents could have watched the young children and the beautiful angels with the same awe and delight as on this Christmas Eve.

There is a timelessness to this story that affects me each time I see it. The rest of the world shifts its shape around us, but we haven’t changed much on the inside since the days of Herod the king. Like Mary and Joseph, we are on a journey through a strange land, following whatever star we can find. But it is mostly an inner journey, and we cannot take our Blackberry or IPod for entertainment.

The world is too much with us, the poet says, and once in a while you need to step away, out of the darkness into the light, cross the parking lot and come in among the angels, follow the cardboard-and-gold-foil star along with the Wise Men. I made the most of my half dozen lines, basing both of my characters on Snidely Whiplash, the arch villain from the old Dudley Do-Right cartoons. Despite that, the show went off well. The sheep baaed on cue. No one dropped the baby Jesus.

And when the play was over the overhead lights were dimmed as we lit our candles, passing the flame from row to row, making small holes in the darkness. There were angels in Spring Mills this year, and shepherds, and animals that sing. They have all taken off their costumes, but they are still with us in their human forms. The winter is long and dark, but filled with amazing things.

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The past couple of months our little church in Spring Mills has been experimenting with an outdoor service on Sunday mornings. And because we set up our chairs and portable keyboard in the grass next to Penns Creek, we advertise the service as Creekside Worship.

I am not a very religious person, but I like the communal aspects of church going. I like the people, and the call to do good things in the community and in the world. I enjoy a thoughtful sermon and the hymns I remember from childhood. When our daughters were growing up, it was good to give them the experience of our religious traditions and the great historical and literary document that is the King James Bible. But I also exposed them to the other great world religions and let them make up their own minds about what they did or didn’t believe.

Growing up in the South, church was our social life, our meat and potatoes and green bean casserole. We went to services three times a week, ate potluck Sunday afternoon “dinner-on-the-ground.” We suffered through week-long revival meetings and learned what hell was like by sitting through heat-soaked hour-long sermons while beads of sweat rolled down our cheeks. So much of my childhood was spent in church that I cannot separate the idea of religion from the sense of family.

These Creekside Worship services added a new element to the usual Sunday experience. I generally get distracted watching the ripples in the stream and the leaves turning their autumnal colors, but being in the natural world for an hour is a good distraction. Then, last Sunday the distractions increased exponentially as we brought our pets to be blessed.

A dozen dogs were there, along with Charlie, our intelligent and attractive mixed breed something or other. The dogs sniffed and barked, or the well-behaved ones sat quietly at the feet of their family. Charlie barked at each of the dogs, and then during the hymns he howled along to the tunes. He was a bit of an embarrassment, but he didn’t seem bothered.

Many folks brought photos of their pets, both living and deceased. The pastor moved among the crowd, offering blessings to the dogs by name and to their families. Those with photos brought them forward to be blessed, and there was even an urn of ashes from some still beloved former family pet that needed blessing. It was hard not to be moved by the memory of pets gone bye – Scout, the abandoned and neurotic mutt we took in and tried to love, or Pookie, long-time cat friend recently buried under a flowering bush on the hill behind the barn.

We will outlive our pets, but we don’t forget them. I have never forgotten my first dog, Beauty, an Irish setter with long, flame-red hair, who wandered up the road one day and came to live with us until old age took her away. When the pastor asked during the silent meditation to call out the name of a beloved former pet, I thought of Beauty, friend of my childhood. We wandered together through the fields of summer, and now she lies at my feet again, if only in memory, on a Sunday morning beside the creek.

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Road Trip

My daughters are off on their first road trip without us this week, visiting the colleges they are interested in applying to. They left Thursday morning for Boston, where my older daughter is interested in the graduate school at Simmons. They planned it all out ahead of time, booked their lodging, wrote down directions to nearby restaurants, checked bus routes, arranged meetings at the colleges.

On Friday they drove across the state to Amherst, one of the liberal arts colleges my younger daughter is interested in. Last night they texted their mother that they loved both of the schools, that Boston was exciting and Amherst was beautiful. They attended a class, visited the library and this morning will take a campus tour before starting the seven-hour drive home. Yesterday afternoon they visited Emily Dickinson’s grave at a little cemetery in the town of Amherst.

They get along well together. They like the same music and read the same books. They rarely squabble, unless the younger sister borrows her older sister’s clothes and doesn’t give them back. They are, I would think, best friends. If we were to suddenly leave them orphans, they would take care of each other.

I got along well with my older brother, and we took the occasional road trip together. Only we never planned anything ahead of time. One long weekend in Miami, we got the idea to visit Tim in Norfolk, Va., so we borrowed a car and drove across to the west coast of Florida to pick up Richard, then north for another 14 hours to Tim’s apartment on Stockley Gardens in the beautiful old section of Norfolk. Tim, who hadn’t known we were coming, welcomed the three of us and let us sleep on his living room floor. I remember the songs playing on the radio that night from the tiny FM station a few blocks away as I lay sleepless and happy in the darkness.

My daughters’ trip to Boston also had me thinking about a road trip from Norfolk to Boston I took with a couple of friends not long after college. We were all fans of Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which is a deranged tale of a road trip from LA to Las Vegas fueled by hallucinogenic drugs and tequila, and along the drive we took turns reading the book out loud, laughing insanely and feeling reckless and alive.

In Boston, we stayed with my friend Judy, a nurse at Boston hospital, rode the subway to Cambridge, had a beer at an Irish bar across from Harvard and visited their bookstore, named, as I recall, The Co-op. I spent an afternoon in the first and only all-science fiction bookshop I have been in, called, now it comes back to me, The Million Year Picnic. Judy took us to a famous seafood restaurant on the harbor, and we wandered around the Boston Commons, a lovely green space busy with families and students taking in the sun.

These road trip memories stay in the mind for many decades, as I’m sure they will for my daughters. They are a break from our ordinary lives, and they come to define a certain moment in time when we were different than we are now. We were on the road to somewhere, but we knew not where.

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One of my favorite authors, James Agee, was born on this date in 1909, the Writers Almanac informed me this morning. I’ve read biographies of Agee and some of his writing on film. I’ve read the lyrical poem that accompanies Walker Evans’ photos of Depression-era rural poverty in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. But it is his autobiographical novel, A Death in the Family, that makes Agee one of the greats for me. It is the story of the death of Agee’s father in a car accident when Agee was a small boy, reimagined by the grown-up son. It is clear that this was the story Agee needed to tell, and he worked on it for many years. Finally, it was published after his death and won the Pulitzer Prize.

I often go back and reread the short introductory piece called “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” that the editor who worked on the book added after Agee’s death from a previously published story. It is the single most evocative piece of writing that I’ve come across – a beautiful description of family life on a suburban street a hundred years ago. Some people are so affected by the events of childhood, the memories of childhood, that they carry them very near the surface all their lives. Agee was like that and A Death in the Family was the wonderful result.

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I’ve been working a recent blog post into a longer column for this Sunday’s newspaper. In the process I’ve done more reading about JFK, the martyred president I wrote about briefly in that prior post.

Kennedy was a complex figure, who showed only parts of himself to friends. He was statesman to some and playboy to others. Racked by pain and disease, loaded up with drugs, yet he was the image of health and the physical life to the school children who took part in his national fitness program.

Most disturbing in today’s way of thinking was Kennedy’s attitude toward women. Feminism has very much changed the way most men think of women, and the way most women think of themselves. It’s a change very much for the better. Kennedy, from these accounts, thought of women as conquests, and did not much care for their company beyond that. It was the attitude epitomized in the lifestyle magazine of the fifties and sixties, Hugh Hefner’s Playboy magazine.

Hefner, though still living the life and publishing the magazine, seems like a dinosaur today. But he was quite the Martha Stewart of those decades when Kennedy was in his prime. Like Martha Stewart, he was all about the lifestyle, the material things you could surround yourself with to perfect an image, in Martha’s case that of the tasteful dinner party, weekend in the country upper class. For Hefner, it was the expensive stereo with jazz or Sinatra playing, good Scotch, and a beautiful, willing centerfold, the reward for polishing your exterior until it shone like the Cordoba leather on your couch.

My late friend, the writer Bernie Asbell, knew Hefner when he was starting out in a walk-up apartment in Chicago in the early fifties. Even then Hefner knew he was selling aspiration. Though he was putting out his magazine on a shoestring, he refused to take ads for products that didn’t fit his image of his lifestyle.

There was also a certain amount of seriousness going on with both men. Hefner paid top dollar to publish quality writers in his magazine. Kennedy invited Robert Frost to read poetry at his inauguration. Neither were intellectuals, despite their interest in the arts. They polished their surfaces until they glowed. That’s something we still remember about Kennedy, just how handsome and alive he seemed.

I’ve only read about the television show Mad Men, but I’ve heard it captures those pre-feminist times well. They were times of arrogance and ignorance, little introspection, but a kind of perpetual fear of losing out. A hyper competitive time when for the Playboy man, scoring was the only reason to play the game. Kennedy would have been so much better off staying home with Jackie and the kids in the evening, watching the Dick Van Dyke and Andy Griffith Shows.

But how many of us transcend our culture and our times? We are all made up of contradictions, showing a shining surface to the outside world, while on the inside we are full of confusion and doubt. Kennedy had more to hide than most, still, we mostly forgive him.

Kennedy’s legacy is in the Civil Rights Movement, the Peace Corp, and most importantly, in resolving the Cuban Missile Crisis successfully, without giving in to those generals and spooks who wanted nothing so much as to start a disastrous war. He was not who we thought he was, except in the ways in which he really was.

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Just over a half century ago, the world was poised to go to nuclear war. Today’s Writer’s Almanac reminded me that this is the anniversary of the day in October, 1962, that President John Kennedy appeared on television to announce the presence of nuclear armed missiles in Cuba, pointed toward US cities. It was the day before my 12th birthday, and I recall looking at the reconnaissance photos of hard to interpret evidence on the small black and white screen, and the young and serious president at his podium, and being afraid.

Just three years prior, Pat Frank had published his apocalyptic and completely believable nuclear war novel, Alas Babylon. As my family gathered in front of the TV, it seemed entirely possible that we would soon be seeing the white flash and the mushroom cloud over one of the nearby military bases that surrounded our small city and slowly feel the effects of invisible radiation raining down silently out of the sky.

My father was in the Navy then, and we lived in Key West, which soon became an armed camp. Though I did not realize it until much later, the troops who rolled in day after day along Roosevelt Blvd and camped beyond the barbed wire that now surrounded our high school football field were preparing for the invasion of Cuba, ninety miles away. If they had invaded as planned, Castro and his Soviet advisers were prepared to launch ballistic missiles, which could reach anywhere in the continental US, and 100 nuclear armed tactical missiles, which could have at least wiped out most of South Florida.

Just over twelve years ago, the entire country was frightened out of our wits by nineteen stateless terrorists flying planes into the World Trade Center. Not to diminish that terrifying day, but in this week in October fifty-one years ago, we were a hair’s breadth away from the deaths of an estimated 100 million Americans, and the complete destruction of the Soviet Union. There is no comparison between the two events, except in the way we reacted to them.

I reread Alas Babylon every few years, because it remains one of the best stories of its kind, but also because I don’t want to forget how fragile our existence really is. We were one step away from the edge of an abyss, and some in our government were calling for us to step out. Times have not changed so much.

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I remember the dark faces peering through the window of my bedroom when I was a child of four or five. First the scratching at the glass would awaken me. Then the faint starlight shining into the room would illuminate the terrible disembodied heads, gaping and mouthing.

I think now they were only the shadows of bushes shifting in the wind and starlight, but for me they were real as mean dogs and scorpions.

I would watch them in a sweating terror until I fell back into sleep. I wonder now at my ability to fall asleep when I knew there were monsters peering through the window, eager to break my bones and suck out my soul.

These nights when I lie awake at two in the morning worrying about the things that children rarely think about, the cost of health insurance, growing old, the unexplained twinges in parts of my body I had never paid attention to before, I wish I had that ability to forget the monsters and fall into a dreamless sleep.

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