My wife’s father, Joe Nelson, and his older brother Morris, as boys in North Dakota, spent a couple of years in an orphanage. They were not orphans.
Their father, an itinerant small-town newspaperman, struggled to make a living. The eldest son, Bob, could work and augment the family income. The youngest, Lou, was too young to be away from his mother. So Morris and Joe, in the 7-to-10 age range, were placed in a Catholic orphanage. The family was Protestant, but beggars can’t be choosers. You could “go to the Sisters” or live in the county poorhouse.
Many of our families have stories like this, often just a generation or two back. Times were tough. People did what they needed to. Many children in orphanages were not orphans. Sometimes, they were collateral victims of family troubles or fiscal hardship, perhaps temporary.
Buy the Little Ones a Dolly
Rose Bingham’s memoir starts at Thanksgiving—“a very special Thanksgiving” in 2013. Rose’s large extended family has come to her house in the woods near Wisconsin Dells. Plates are full; cups runneth over. They give thanks. Thanks for the strength and grace that have kept their bond strong through decades of pain caused by a dark mystery.
In 1952, when Rose was a teenager, her loving, luminous mother disappeared, vanished without a trace. The family was devastated. Through the years that followed, emotional and economic turmoil plagued them. As Rose’s father, a talented sign painter, struggled to keep things together, she and her six siblings were placed in St. Michael’s Orphanage, miles from home—a strange, unfamiliar place run by nuns.
The woes that brought the family to this point; Rose’s lifelong battle, as the eldest, to keep her family together; and unexpected light shed only in recent years on the decades-long mystery of her mother’s disappearance, form a riveting and inspiring story.
It is a story told in the authentic, down-to-earth voice of a wise and humane survivor. I highly recommend Buy the Little Ones a Dolly. You’ll get a lot out of reading it.
’Tis the Season
And now, for something completely different: A series of Christmas stories from veteran Wisconsin writer/guru Jerry Peterson. Peterson is the creator of James Early and many other memorable Americans—some stalwart, some eccentric—whose doings and undoings are guaranteed to please you and sometimes tickle your funny-bone.
’Tis the Season, hot off the press, collects eleven of his best Christmas stories, written over the past 26 years. Some are excerpts from longer works. Others were originally written as short stories. This book puts them in one place for the first time.
If you’re a member of “Jerry’s Army,” you may have read some of these, but others may be completely new to you.
If you are NOT familiar with Jerry Peterson’s work, you have been missing out on something special.
Only just now have I received my copy of this handsome volume. I will plunge into these stories in the very near future. But as a member of Jerry’s bi-monthly Tuesday night writers’ group, I have previously read some of this work in early draft. I have also read lots of Jerry’s other stories. Therefore it is with confidence I say, get this book. You’re in for a treat.
“[A]mongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others.”
—Edward Winslow, December 12, 1621
This well-known event was not “Thanksgiving,” even though we remember it that way.
We know it was not Thanksgiving because if it had been a special time of Thanksgiving, the Scrooby Separatists would have treated it like a designated time of Repentance: with fasting, prayer, and humiliation. Not with feasting, fun, and games.
Humiliation? What’s that got to do with thanksiving?
A friend of mine, who happened also to be my boss, boggled when he read a presidential proclamation by John Adams that called for fasting, humiliation, and prayer.
“Humiliation? Why would the president of the United States call for our country to be humiliated?”
My friend/boss was a soldier and a patriot, proud of our nation’s achievements. He was also a classic narcissist, the star of his own show—a show in which all the rest of us were bit players. Humiliation was a concept that did not appeal to him.
His question was not rhetorical. He was sincere; he wanted an answer. Sadly, other matters more pressing at the time pre-empted the long talk it would have taken to justify the role of humiliation in the psyche of our infant nation.
Of all the presidents who have called us to prayer and thanksgiving, only one embraced the “h” word—John Adams, a staunch old Puritan. His proclamations of 1798 and 1799 urged national, as well as individual, humiliation. That need was seen by the Calvinistic Adams, and perhaps by most New Englanders of that era, as an absolute prerequisite if there was to be any hope for a people mired in original sin.
My boss scorned old John’s advice, I surmise, because he equated humiliation with defeat. After all, the Packers routinely humiliated the Bears. Victorious allies humiliated Germany at Versailles. Saddam Hussein suffered abject humiliation by Norman Schwarzkopf.
The Upside of Humiliation
“Humiliation” also signifies a path to remembering our creaturehood. Humans are inclined to hubris, yet our proper attitude—the realistic attitude in the full context of God’s world—is humility. That does not come easily to us; thus we require humiliation. Such humiliation could be seen as a victory, not a defeat. I think that is what John Adams meant.
If we ourselves are the center of the universe, we thereby occupy the whole. Where is there space for gratitude? What is there to be thankful for? Who is there to thank?
It has been a very long time since anyone of Great Importance in our general life ventured the faintest suggestion that humility might be a good thing; or, even better, modeled humility as a public virtue.
Rather, those who dominate our headlines and our consciousness reliably turn out to be monsters of pride and arrogance. Their toxic self-absorption trickles down to the public at large. Or, could it be that it seeps upward to them, from us?
On the day we call Thanksgiving, we gather around the groaning board. We honor a tradition begun in 1621 with a feast and various entertainments, including football (our most military game).
Because the name of the day is Thanksgiving, we try to remember, amidst all revelries, to give thanks. Our thanksgiving may take the simple form of each person around the table, in turn, stating what he or she is thankful for. That’s not a bad thing to do.
Humility, if nothing else, might suggest it is also important to mention Whom we are thankful to.
A little humiliation could be a good thing. Happy Thanksgiving.
His name is known to most of us, but it’s unusual to hear it spoken, except around Thanksgiving. Each November, we briefly recall that Squanto taught the Pilgrims how to plant corn, thereby saving their colony from annihilation. We honor him for giving our English ancestors a warm welcome.
There are no true pictures of Squanto. Photography had not been invented; no artist drew him from life. The image above—adopted here mainly for its freedom from legal encumbrance—shows a man with intelligent eyes and open smile, demonstrating the use of fish to fertilize a planting. But Squanto’s story goes far beyond that.
Our knowledge of history can be ten miles wide and one millimeter deep.
“So Squanto helped the Pilgrims get started when they landed at Plymouth. Why, for crying out loud, do we need to know more?”
The Rest of the Story
It’s a fair question, and here’s the fair answer: The full story of Squanto informs us beyond the familiar triumphal tale of European colonization. We heirs of the Pilgrims should desire this information, not to dim the luster of our own history, but to remember it with wisdom and grace.
Squanto never aspired to be the native mentor to the Pilgrims. That role came about because when the Pilgrims arrived at Cape Cod in 1620, Squanto was already quite familiar with the English and even spoke their language.
Six years earlier, he and about twenty other young men of the Patuxet tribe had been snatched in one of many kidnappings by English explorers and freebooters ranging in those days up and down the Massachusetts coast. He was shipped across the Atlantic to Málaga, Spain. In Málaga he was freed by Spanish friars, or escaped on his own, or somehow avoided the life of slavery to which he had been consigned. He made his way—we know not how—to England, where he lived for some time in London.
After a few years, he managed to return to Massachusetts with an English voyage of exploration. When he returned on foot, alone, to the site his old village, he found it abandoned. All of his people were dead or scattered to the winds.
“Virgin Soil Epidemic”
Squanto’s Patuxet tribe had been utterly wiped out by an illness that swept the Northeastern seaboard in those years. Because that illness did not afflict the many Englishmen and other Europeans mingling with the natives at that time, historians consider this great plague a “virgin soil epidemic.” The kind of epidemic that occurs when new disease organisms are brought by outsiders into the midst of a population which lacks prior exposure to them. Nobody knows for sure what single disease, or combination of diseases, rampaged the Massachusetts coast in those years, but the result was a region cleared of former inhabitants. Thus, when the Pilgrims in 1620 arrived on the Mayflower, in foul weather, desperate for a place to hunker down, there was a choice spot of land recently vacated: Squanto’s former home.
One could hardly blame Squanto had he showed hostility to new English settlers. Not only had he been abducted and forced into years of exile far from home, while his friends and family suffered extinction by disease. Many similar kidnappings and other atrocities had been worked upon the local inhabitants in the years preceding the Pilgrims’ landfall. Despite all this, Squanto befriended the Pilgrims.
We would like to think the Pilgrims’ character, which stood out from these toxic relationships, vouched for them; that remaining Indian tribes, such as the Pokanoket under Chief Massasoit, discerned their peaceful and honorable intentions, well enough at any rate to trust them and form an alliance. In this context, Squanto was far from a “noble savage” who innocently befriended newcomers with a great white vessel and strange ways. Rather, he was a capable, worldly man, acquainted with European technology and customs. He consented—given his footloose status on his former soil—to become a kind of diplomat for the neighboring tribe in its calculated attempt to forge an alliance with the least-threatening and most promising band of Englishmen in the region.
After about twenty months of generally satisfactory service in that role, Squanto himself succumbed to illness, leaving the Pilgrims bereft of one important man who had been their friend in adversity. Governor William Bradford, in Of Plimoth Plantation, writes approvingly of Squanto and his influence on the young colony.
Squanto was a complex individual. The Pilgrims were, like many of us, saints but also sinners. Chief Massasoit and other Native Americans sought to advance their own interests. Latter-day champions of the Pilgrims and other Puritans who poured into Massachusetts starting in 1630 point out that the lands occupied by these English immigrants were acquired in fair, legal purchases, duly recorded in colonial archives. It is also true that white European immigrants—legal niceties aside—began to displace the original inhabitants of the land, who retreated ever further westward. This trend eventuated in King Philip’s War of 1675-76, the first real “Indian War” fought in the English colonies. More than 600 colonists were killed; thousands of Native Americans were killed or displaced. The ultimate effect was the continued advance of English civilization and progressive decimation of the American Indian population.
The Moral of the Story
Nobody can undo the past. The people of the past had their own motives, praiseworthy and otherwise, for everything they did. Wisdom for us in the present requires owning the full truth of the past in all its messy–sometimes inconvenient–complexity.
I noticed last Thursday that the world is going to hell. You say, “The world has always been going to hell.” I say, “Yes, but now it is going straight to hell. Rapidly to hell. Immediately to hell.”
Do not pass “Go,” and do not bother with a handbasket.
Senior citizens have long known that civilization is on the skids. The knowledge comes free with age. You have seen too much. You remember how things were. The good things you remember keep sliding down into the dustbin of entropy. Meanwhile, bad things come up out of nowhere and metastasize across the evening sky.
However, God says:
See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.
—Isaiah 43:19 (NIV)
God is preparing Something Completely Different, and it’s on a channel our sets can’t pick up. The Great New Thing of the Future is already here, but we’re looking the wrong way. (Theologians have been known to call this “eschatological tension.”)
Eternity crashes down about our ears in more ways than Chicken Little could ever count.
War. Plague. Famine.
Inflation. Depression. Hard-heartedness.
Dissension. Criticism. Hurtfulness.
Pick your poison.
Whenever things come crashing down, a whole new arrangement waits in the wings.
The old order changeth, yielding place to new, And God fulfills himself in many ways, Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.
—Tennyson, Idylls of the King
We waste ourselves attacking visions that diverge from our own. History shows that diversity of viewpoints is a kind of “rocket fuel” that has propelled our society to greatness. We can’t be bothered with that. The deplorable politics of others, we take for our bête noir—perhaps because we face no real existential threats.
The Bible tells us, more than it tells us any other thing, “Fear not.” Yet we continue to be governed by fear. What if we were governed by confidence that the next new wave of things will bring the perfect, peaceable Kingdom of God that much closer to fruition?
My irascible sometime friend and former work supervisor, Tim, once went ballistic in my presence over the historic fact that U.S. presidents including George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and in the twentieth century Woodrow Wilson on various occasions had issued public calls for “fasting, humiliation, and prayer.”
Tim—alas, now deceased—was a military man. He was quite intelligent, tolerably well-educated, and always in the grip of a steamy anger that was never far from the surface. He had been raised in a Catholic family but in adulthood described himself as “agnostic.”
He made no quarrel with presidential calls for fasting and prayer. He understood that even in a nation that prohibits “an establishment of Religion,” a leader may give voice to the general religious impulses of the people. But he did not think a chief executive should call for the country to be humiliated.
Tim was a notable narcissist, full of pride in himself and esteeming pride as a general virtue in all cases. He considered humiliation as the one thing to be avoided above all. Therefore, to call for humiliation of the whole nation was tantamount to treason. After all—the British, the Germans, and the Japanese had tried to humiliate us and we had not let them get away with it. Why, then, do it to ourselves?
With more time and more patience, had I been wiser and deeper, I might have helped Tim understand the concept of national humiliation in a larger context. But I did not.
In his sensitivity to that issue, Tim inadvertently put his finger on a key dimension of America’s church-state relationship. If we understand our nation’s affairs to fall within the Providence of a Power who calls each of us to approach life with Christ-like humility, then it seems proper for all of us, as a body politic, periodically to be humbled. To be reminded, that is, of our proper place in the world under the overarching care of God.
“Humiliation” in this sense may be what Lincoln had in mind when he said, in his Second Inaugural Address,
“If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him?”
That kind of thinking, I believe, is what Washington, Lincoln, and others meant when they called for national “humiliation.”
Past generations have mostly understood and assumed a close kinship between our lives as Christians and our lives as citizens. Alhough the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment has always forbidden the government to prescribe forms of prayer and worship, nobody construed it to prevent Americans from expressing our religious affiliations and sentiments in our public lives.
Under such a general understanding, it seemed perfectly natural to Americans of the mid-twentieth century to salute our national sovereignty by displaying flags in our houses of worship and recognizing national holidays during regular worship services. But expectations and understandings are much different today.
Our pastor—no bomb-throwing activist, she—called our attention to three articles in the current online Alban Weekly dealing with churches’ sometimes uneasy relationship with Independence Day celebrations. She wanted to know what we thought about them. The leading piece, a nine-year-old reflection from Duke University’s Faith & Leadership website, titled “What to do about the 4th,” written by a retired Methodist minister named Ed Moore, mentioned some “local traditions” that he called “affronting.” These were: “an American flag draped over the Lord’s Table, the Pledge of Allegiance included in the liturgy, or the choir expecting to deliver a patriotic anthem.”
I suppose these “local traditions” must exist somewhere in Christendom, or Rev. Moore would not have called them out. But they must be exceeding rare. In all my years I have never seen any of these “affronting” cases included in the worship of any churches I have attended. Using the U.S. flag as a communion cloth or a chancel parament? Such a practice must be abhorrent both to Christians and to patriots (bearing in mind that many of us aspire to be both).
Some patriotic expression in worship space, however, has been a commonplace in most churches since the dim past. It might take the form of red/white/blue floral decorations on July Fourth (a practice Rev. Moore okays, faintly); or the display of the flag somewhere in the worship space; or the singing of a patriotic song such as “America the Beautiful” by the congregation on the Fourth, in place of a regular hymn.
The reason such practices come under the microscope of critical examination now is not that we somehow are better educated than our grandparents about the implications of the Establishment Clause. Rather, it’s because we now live in a society that is markedly less religious than theirs was. I believe we are the poorer for that. But it does not follow that those who still keep the faith must embrace a sharp divorce between that faith and our inner sense of national identity. There can be room for both.
In the church where I have been a member for the past forty years, we have never practiced extreme liturgical patriotism. Sometimes we sing a patriotic song or two on national holidays. We used to display a U.S. flag and a “Christian flag” in our sanctuary. We retired those flags a while back; I am not aware of any complaints about that.
But should we, at some future time, choose to restore flags to our worship space, that would not show that we had sold out our Christian faith to some crypto-fascist conspiracy. It would only signal that fashions, or group preferences, had shifted slightly.
Some wise person once decreed that sleeping dogs ought to be permitted their slumber. Despite any number of learned articles that may be written, already or in the future, I doubt that most American church people feel any great tension between their devotion to Christ and their loyalty to our country.
I’ll bet my combustible friend Tim, if he were here today, would at least agree with that.
The boatman bends to his oars. He guides his sampan with the ease of a sage, gliding by a large gate, toward a three-masted junk that looms beyond. Shadows and ripples tether him to water, yet he hangs suspended, the center point on which the misty harbor turns.
“Look at this, Ralph.”
My drinking-, carousing-, philosophizing-buddy peers through the shop window at the row of canvases. “I can’t believe the same guy painted all of these.”
“Me neither.” Six oils in sepia monochrome. Five show stark village streets, all sharp angles, hard lines, crisscossed phone wires; the sixth reveals a dreamscape that evokes the timeless China of peasants and poets. All six have the same name at the bottom.
“Good afternoon, you like these paintings?” A man stands at my elbow. A smiling man, a chubby Chinese with a servile aura. (Hen heqi,“very affable,” his mother might say.) He wears dress slacks and a gray short-sleeve shirt, stands before the storefront, shares our perspective on the art.
“Not bad,” I say.
“These are my paintings.” He smiles full wide. “I am Peco Yeh.” He shakes hands, gives us each a small card. On one side, Chinese characters; on the other, in English, “Peco Yeh, Traditional Chinese Artist.”
Sidewalk commerce, typical for Chungshan North Road. I downplay the boatman in his watery realm, feign attraction to the sterile village scenes. But Peco Yeh homes in on my real interest. “This, Tamsui River,” he says.
“Local scenery, huh?”
He waxes lyrical on Taiwan’s mountains and rivers. Besides his fawning attitude, typical for Chinese pitchmen, there is something else. One can’t mistake Peco’s effeminate manner. It suggests he is queer—a surprise, in broad daylight, here in Chiang Kai-shek’s Methodist/Confucian state. However—to each his own. He’s trying to sell his paintings, that’s all.
Ralph bad-mouths the artwork. I walk away twice; both times Peco Yeh shepherds me back to the storefront for “one more little look.” Eventually I make the watery scene my own for three dollars American, twenty-two less than his original price. The artist smiles, gives us a good-bye wave, bends his head, palms together, in the timeless Asian gesture.
A fictionalized account of true events.
Larceny at Twice the Price
My only defense: It was a different time and place. The event narrated above is fictional only to the extent that I have invented bits of dialog I can’t recall, word for word, from fifty years ago.
Ralph and I were U.S. airmen stationed on Taiwan to monitor radiocommunications of the Chinese Communist Air Force, who flew operations just across the hundred-mile-wide Taiwan Strait. We had been taught Mandarin Chinese for eavesdropping purposes; it also came in handy when we mingled with the people of Taipei.
Young men on our own in a place where most prices are negotiable, we took haggling to extremes. We prided ourselves on the discount we could wring from anyone selling anything. The sum of three dollars in those days was equivalent to about twenty-two of today’s dollars. One U.S. dollar bought forty NT (New Taiwan dollars), the local currency. You could get a nice restaurant dinner for half that or less. So Peco Yeh got more purchasing power from me than may be apparent. Still—when you consider that Peco’s asking price of twenty-five U.S. dollars would be less than two hundred today—I feel chagrin at having driven such a hard bargain, in the service of youthful pride.
The value derived from this picture is far beyond the three dollars paid. That price, by the way, included the wood frame that the canvas still wears today. I took the whole thing to the U.S. Navy’s Headquarters Support Activity just up Chungshan Road. They crated and shipped it to my mother and father in Kenosha, Wisconsin, for fifteen dollars—five times what I had paid for the painting, but a worthwhile expense.
The canvas graced my parents’ living room wall for decades. It came back to me when they died. Now it hangs in our house, where I pass it every day, oblivious to the quiet beauty it radiates. When I do stop to notice, I can’t believe my good fortune in having encountered Peco Yeh fifty years ago in Taipei.
In Search of Peco Yeh
Who was Peco Yeh? It seemed he spent a lot of time on the street, promoting his art to any American who happened to walk by. His effete manner made him the butt of ridicule. “That guy’s as queer as a three-dollar bill,” one of my fellow airmen said. In 1968 “queerness” was not accepted. Homosexuality, although common and known of (even in the military), stayed under cover.
A Google search on “Peco Yeh” yields thumbnail photos of a few pictures attributed to him on various online auction sites, at modest prices. The paintings shown do not much resemble my boatman in style or substance, any more than did the stark village scenes with which it appeared in the store window. Peco, I think, dabbled in many styles.
Some sites give an unattributed, apocryphal biography of the artist:
“Peco Yeh is/was a Chinese man living in Taipei Taiwan during the 1970s. He came from Chengdu, China with the nationalists in 1947 with his mother. His mother was the mistress of the last court artist of the Qing Dynasty. When Empress Dowager Cixi was poisoned, the court artist went to Chengdu and took the mistress.”
A romantic tale. It seems farfetched. Could it be true? Yes. Stranger things have happened.
China was in turmoil in the late 1940s. Communists under Mao Tse-tung defeated Kuomintang (Nationalist) forces under Chiang Kai-shek. In 1949, the Nationalists fled the mainland, occupied Taiwan, became its government. Wikipedia says, “The Kuomintang (KMT, Chinese Nationalist Party), its officers and approximately 2 million troops took part in the retreat; in addition to many civilians and refugees, fleeing from the advances of the Communist People’s Liberation Army.” Most civilian escapees came from Sichuan or other southern provinces.
The thumbnail bio puts Peco Yeh on Taiwan two years before the main exodus. That’s possible; or it could be a misprint. He is said to hail from Chengdu, which happens to be the capital of Sichuan. Many civilians who fled with the Nationalist Army were members of, or related to members of, the upper crust. The mistress and child of a former imperial court artist could have been among them. So this narrative, though extravagant, may be true. Hard to tell.
I pray that Peco Yeh lived out a long life to its proper natural conclusion. And may God forgive me for appropriating his fine artwork at such a mean price.
Mountains and Water
Whatever the merits of his other works, the one that hangs on my wall seems to me a fine example of a modern impressionistic work that embodies important elements from classical Chinese art: Careful composition, calligraphic brushwork, and the suggestive use of negative space—areas of the canvas that seem occupied by nothing at all yet contain the universe in that nothingness. The effect is of beauty, tranquillity, eternity. The masters of the Southern Song would recognize an affinity with their landscapes.
Chinese people use the term shan-shui(山水), “mountains and water,” to mean both natural scenery and the landscape painting that depicts it. They also have an old maxim, “The wise delight in the mountains; the good delight in the waters.”
I can only hope the delight I now take in Peco Yeh’s Taiwan waterscape, purchased in 1968, suggests some upward evolution of my soul in the intervening fifty years.
At last month’s UW-Madison Writers’ Institute, I met Barbara M. Britton, author of a growing series of Bible-based romances, published by Pelican Book Group. Astounded to learn that there even is such a thing as Biblical historical romance, I bought a copy of Providence: Hannah’s Journey, the first of the series.
Providence opens in Jerusalem in 849 B.C. It tells the story of Hannah, daughter of the Levite priest Zebula. Hannah is cursed with congenital deformities which, though not very visible, bring her great grief. She lives in a society that interprets such things as frowns from God. Her priest father seeks a miracle cure at the hand of “the Prophet of Israel,” but the Prophet declines, saying only, “It is not her time.”
Shamed and forlorn, an outcast from her family and community, Hannah goes on a quest to track down the wandering prophet and press her case with renewed urgency. She meets a virile protector named Gilead, a young hero whose own uncertain parenthood is the burden he must bear in life. Hannah and Gilead are captured by the mighty military state of Aram and undergo severe trials on their way to a new encounter with the Prophet.
This compelling story is based (loosely) on the case of Naaman, an Aramean army commander who suffered from leprosy (now called Hansen’s disease) and had his life change by an encounter with the prophet Elisha, as told in the fifth chapter of the Second Book of Kings. It’s worth reading that chapter of the Bible either before or after reading Providence, for the sake of context.
Most of what happens in Providence is pure invention by Britton but is based on her view of the ancient Hebrew and Aramean societies. In that sense it is “Biblical” though obviously not literal. Is Barbara Britton’s depiction of that setting accurate and authentic? Who am I to say? Old Testament scholars would find a bone to pick soon enough—that’s why they’re scholars. But the story is moving and fast-paced, with a lot of heart, and with a firm foundation of faith at its core. Hannah and Gilead are strong and interesting characters, the kind of people we want to cheer for, and if this is an example of romance, it makes me want to read more.
We show up for choir rehearsal fifty minutes before the Good Friday evening service, ready to do our time-hallowed chore.
Our pastor, with a smile, points out something new. In the entry hall, on exactly the corner of wall where your eye would naturally expect it:
It is astounding. Our Strategic Planning Team has installed signs to assist first-time visitors. They give just the information that visitors have been needing ever since the church opened its doors!
This sudden case of our old congregation Doing Something Right For a Change, and with only six months’ prior discussion, lifts a corner of my spirits, unexpectedly. Our church has been shrinking for at least thirty years; I have lost hope for its survival beyond the next crisis. But now, this new lettering stands against my creeping despair, stuck boldly on the wall, staking a claim on the Kingdom yet to come.
When the shock of it subsides, we go ahead and rehearse our music.
At seven o’clock the service begins. We are thirty-one souls, counting the pastor, the music director, the guest musician, the ten choir members, and two small children. The twenty-nine adults are mostly grayhairs, but there are also a few middle-aged stalwarts and even a college student home for the weekend.
Good Friday Worship
Good Friday is the most somber day in the Christian year. We’ve been remembering the death of Jesus on the cross for two thousand years. There is nothing light or hopeful in it. But we mull it over with God in worship once a year. It’s always pretty much the same.
Our church’s usual Good Friday evening service is a modified “Tenebrae” service. Candles will be extinguished, one by one, amid scripture readings and music. When all the light has been snuffed out, we will go our ways in silence, to wait for Resurrection morning.
This year’s Good Friday music includes five hymns for all to sing: “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” “Beneath the Cross of Jesus,” “What Wondrous Love Is This?”, “Ah, Holy Jesus,” and “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” There are two piano solos from our music director, Robert Eversman; and oboe and English horn solos by Claire Workinger.
About the middle of the service, we regulars in the choir sing “Worthy Is the Lamb.” Accompanied expertly by Robert on piano and Claire on oboe, our anthem reaches a solemn grandeur two steps above the potential of our imperfect voices.
Church members stand in the pulpit and read scripture—familiar words from Matthew, Luke, Isaiah, and John, telling of Jesus’ sacrifice for our sake. The pitches, the tempoes, the accents and articulations of their voices are all different, but their seriousness of purpose is all the same. Terry’s old voice wavers and weaves its way through the text, suggesting more truth and light yet to break forth from ancient verses; Becky’s young voice is clear and declarative, grounded in the present, looking forward.
When Jesus has once again been crucified and prepared for burial, we turn out the remaining lights and go home.
From my seat in the choir I have watched and listened to my friends in faith. Most are people I have known for years or decades, in holy covenant with the Lord. Two or three are more recent friends, but as a general thing I have many years’ accumulated exposure to the diverse outlooks of our members.
Their approaches to religion—the private religion deep in one’s heart—are quite varied. Some are conventionally pious, all the way through (yes, that really is who they are). Some are imbued with a secular outlook that largely conceals the “religion” or “spirituality” living in their souls. There are many blends of the sacred and the profane. Some members may be just confused; others, awestruck observers of life.
What strikes me tonight is their steadiness in attending to the task of worship. Liturgy is said to be “the work of the people” in worshiping God. And so it has been on this night. Each member of this tired, dwindling, cranky, much-loved church—from the freshest/tenderest to the oldest/most battle-hardened—came here to voice a shared agenda of ancient worship, right smack in the midst of all the uncertainty and mayhem of life. Just to do what we have always done, because that’s what we do . . . because God matters to us.
Thank you, Lord, I hear myself pray—thank you for these people, my friends, who come at your call to worship even in the darkest times.
However few in number, however poor in spirit, there is something real, authentic, and perpetual—not duplicated elsewhere in our lives—when we gather for worship.
“In my dotage, I am reduced to bloggery.”—King Lear, Act VII, line 4,926
Perhaps the best way to tell you about that, as Michael Hauge would say, is to tell you how I came to write this blog.
I was a happy, successful septuagenarian. But—from the time I wrote a detective story on a pencil tablet in third grade, when I was supposed to be doing something else—I had always meant to be a writer of fiction. What with one thing and another, I just had never gotten around to it.
So I quit my day job to write fiction. I had something to say. Just didn’t know what it was. Now, if you have an itch like that, nonfiction won’t scratch it. Something about fiction gives you an opportunity to tell the truth.
My approach to writing fiction is what the psychologists call a “projective technique”—akin to journaling, role-playing, or inkblot-guessing. I just thought, “I’ll start writing, and see what comes out.”
What could possibly go wrong? 🙂
Within a couple of years, I was lucky enough to get a few short pieces published: a dog essay in Fetch! magazine and three “Izzy Mahler” stories, about a young boy growing up in the 1950s, published electronically by the Saturday Evening Post.
Meanwhile, I started thinking about a historical novel based on Anders Gunstensen and Maria Nybro, my great-great-grandparents, who came from Norway to Illinois before the Civil War.
Fast forward to Now, and I have a good first draft of that work, Freedom’s Purchase. All I need to do is make it a lot better, and then pitch it to agents and publishers.
The Writer’s Life
But—STOP THE PRESSES! It turns out that to be in the writing game in a serious way, you must become a Major Literary Figure before the ink is dry on your first paragraph. You can’t simply write something great, publish it, become rich and famous, and then go on to your next triumph. That’s not How the World Works.
You must let other talented writers see your work and critique it. This is a vitally necessary step, if you want to avoid writing unprintable dreck. But when others spend time and effort to read and critique your stuff, you must do the same for them. Reciprocity rules. That means that from the outset of your writing career, you’re sending drafts to fellow writers, receiving and responding to drafts of theirs.
For researching subject matter and for familiarization with the literary landscape, you find yourself reading more and more books—things you would not have read otherwise. You write and submit thumbnail book reviews on Amazon and Goodreads.com. You subscribe to writers’ magazines and literary market websites.
You’d better attend a writers’ conference now and then. Two great ones are hosted every year in my home town by the University of Wisconsin–Madison. They cost money and time, but it’s necessary money and time. Writing can be a lonely business, and a solid bond with your “tribe” of fellow writers will help see you through.
And what of querying and pitching—researching agents and publishers, and learning the best ways to approach them? The material they receive is so voluminous that you need to find ways to make your submissions stand out.
“You and what army?”
And finally—or, perhaps, initially—you need an “author platform.” Platform is a code word for a large band of fanatical followers. (This could include you, Gentle Reader!)
Book publishers try not to take unnecessary risks. They do want to publish great writing. But, as between a Great Writer with an Army of Rabid Fans and a Great Writer who is just, well, a Great Writer—they’ll take the former. It all but ensures a certain number of sales. If you were a publisher, you’d feel the same way, n’est-ce pas?
There was once a golfer with a platform that just wouldn’t quit. His name was Arnold Palmer. His fans were known as “Arnie’s Army.” I could use an army.
“What’s it All About, Alfie?”
At some point, a writer starts thinking like this: Why am I doing this? Writers don’t make fortunes, unless their name is James Patterson. Writers are lucky just to get advantageous publication. Still: If one must write, one writes. And it would be good to have lots of people read what one writes.
So, hoping to zero in on why people might want to read what I write, I plumbed the depths of my psyche (both inches) and concluded that what I have to say to people is always rooted in a general awareness of our common past.
A noted poet, T. S. Eliot, wrote
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
That sense of better-late-than-not-at-all recognition of the world is what I seek, in personal memories from my long life or in the delving into events that no one is still alive to remember.
To cultivate my author platform, therefore—so that people beyond my family may take an interest in my books when they are published—I hereby launch this website, larryfsommers.com, including this blog, titled “Reflections.”
If you come back from time to time you’ll encounter various kinds of content:
Ruminations on “the writer’s life.”
Narratives of past events, sometimes written as fictional vignettes.
Mentions of good books recently read.
News and chat from my widening circle of fellow writers.
Tales of success (or even of well-curated failure!) in the literary lists.
Pretty-much-brilliant observations and insights on the passing scene.
Occasional adumbrations of the Judeo-Christian faith that informs and animates all of these things in my life.
Be brave enough to stick around through several posts, and you’ll catch on. I’ll try to post something new every Tuesday. Hope to see you often.