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October 2009

A Promise for Exiles

DSCN0156 At the corner of my desk, just beyond the edge of my computer display, sits a digital photo frame.  Every day when I come into the office, I turn it on.  Almost 300 pictures scroll through its slide show as I work, practically all of them of the orphaned children of Kaihura, Uganda.  Mostly I do my work, focused on the screen, the lives of these children playing out on the margins of my day.  Occasionally, however, I catch a child's face and eyes out of the corner of my eye, and I stop and look at him, for a moment remembering what it was like to be in the midst of so many of them during trips there the last couple of years.

There are two "tough" guys, arms around each other; an older sister holding her infant sister; the black faces and dark probing eyes of four school friends staring back at me; a crowd of faces, some smiling, some steely, some inquisitive, some impassive; a grassy plain of elephants not more than 100 miles away from the village that most of the children will never see.  I can hear their laughter and chatter in Rotoro, their broken English, and their questions, feel the touch of their hands on my white skin.  Soon, however, I turn back to what I am working on, the words on a page, the faces relegated once again to the margins.

One of my favorite verses of Scripture is that contained in Jeremiah 29:11, where the prophet quotes God in a letter from Jerusalem to the exiles of Babylon, as saying "For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, to give you a reason and hope."  It's a verse of assurance, one I have often quoted to myself or an anxious friend to provide comfort that, despite the confusion of life at times, God is sovereign and has a plan, to "prosper," "not harm," to "give. . . reason and hope."  When I think about these orphans, however, the verse begins to lose its easy quotability.  What, after all, would it mean to say to an orphan that God will prosper him or her, give them reason (to live, to work, to become educated), and give them hope?  The average life span in Uganda is 43, so many of these children will die at what is for us an early age, either from cholera, malaria, AIDS, or some other opportunistic disease. Many will not complete secondary school, lacking funds to pay the school fees, and only a handful, if any, will make it to university.  And yet, even with such prospects, many have faith in the God of Jeremiah, the one who will prosper.  What can that mean?

Verses of Scripture, like newspaper quotes, soundbytes, and memories, need context to be understood aright.  Jeremiah said these words to a people in captivity, exiles who longed for the familiarity and freedom of their homeland.  However, the promises he gave them were not of immediate deliverance.  It would be another generation that would be delivered from captivity, as he told them it would be 70 years before they would see their homeland: "This is what the Lord says: 'When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise and bring you back to this place'" (Jer. 29:10).  He gave them a very practical message, telling them to live where they were, to commit themselves to life in the present: "Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. . . . Marry. . . . [and] find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage" (Jer. 29:5-6). Far from segregating themselves from the time and place in which they lived, simply getting by until their deliverance, He told them to "seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile" (Jer. 29:7).  And he told them not to listen to the pipe dreams of false prophets, people who made promises that could not be kept and gave false hope.

So what does Jeremiah 29:11 mean for the orphans of Uganda?  It means the same thing it does for all of us exiles in a foreign land, who long for a homeland where things are set right, for people who  sometimes cry out like Habakkuk, asking "how long shall I cry for help and you will not hear?" (Hab. 1:2).  For those who believe it, the promise is not that you can be whatever you want to be if you just work hard enough, or even that God will give you money, health, or recognition if you seek Him. Rather, it is the voice of a Father telling his children that they are not on the margins of his work but at the center of his mind and heart.  He's saying: "Live here.  Settle down.  Commit to the future of life here.  Work for the good of your community.  Wait for me, children.  I will deliver you, if not in life, then in death.  Much is at stake, more than you realize, but I will never forget you.  I will come for you."

One of the songs the orphans sing, in Rotoro and English, is "God is so good, God is so good, God is so good, He's so good to me."  I think it's the song of God's exiles, singing their way back home.  If they can sing it, so can we.

Fall Break, Day Five: Bits and Pieces

Stationwagon 8:10 a.m.  Every morning I vow to have only cereal, skim milk, and juice, a typical home breakfast.  Every morning I fail.  Up this morning: bacon, onion, cheese omelet; cantaloupe, strawberries, and honeydew melon; pancakes with maple syrup; bacon; sausage.  Could I possibly have left anything out?

Outside the breakfast window, a crow is dive-bombing a hawk's tree-top nest, repeatedly circling and dipping low, almost touching the nest, finally succeeding in rousting the hawk and then pursuing him as he flew away.  I'm wondering if this is prejudice, bullying, or what the offense to the crow was.

Visiting the Blackbird Frame and Art Shop on Merrimon Avenue, I tour one art gallery in which I like everything I see, including the works of abstract art by our artist friend Carol Bomer.  Carol uses biblical imagery and words of Scripture to accentuate her multi-media works.  Amazing to enter a gallery and not find the ugly and disturbing among the work there.

I enjoyed the prompt service, friendly help, and ambience of Jan Davis Tires, where I had my punctured tire replaced.  Walking among the rows and rows of tires, the smell of rubber and grease reminded me of regular visits as a boy to the tire store with my Dad, where we would watch the lifts go up and down, feel the tires, talk about the news with mechanics, and drink Cokes.  It was a fascinating place, full of men doing important, noisy things with drills and air pumps.  Jan Davis Tires has that same feel, with an outdoor lift where I could stand and watch my car go up and down (seen the underside of your car lately?), watch a swarm of mechanics work their magic (in less than ten minutes), and soak up the bustle and sound of a busy small business.  I'm not sure where the hipsters get their tires replaced, as I saw no tattooes, body piercings, or purple hair.  Maybe they ride bikes?  But I like it here.

Speaking of the hip, we had lunch on the outdoor patio of the local Mellow Mushroom, along with an annoying yellowjacket.  Our server had dreadlocks and body piercings, of course.  Another home of the hippie-techno-peasants.  Like Alice's Restaurant.

While my wife is shopping at New Morning Gallery in Biltmore Sqaure, in historic Biltmore Village, my kids watch Lord of the Rings in the car ON A BEAUTIFUL DAY while I play the old geezer on a park bench, reading an interview in Christianity Today with Christian Smith, entitled "Lost in Translation," in which he talks about his new book, Souls in Transition.  Asked about the traits of religious American teenagers who retain a high faith commitment as emerging adults, he lists parents as primary and, secondarily, says that "Another factor is youth having established devotional lives—that is, praying, reading Scripture—during the teenage years. Those who do so as teenagers are much more likely than those who don't to continue doing so into emerging adulthood."  I'm convicted by my spotty, on-again-off-again devotional habits.  Like Godward punctuation on my conviction, the church bells from the local Episcopal church chime.

Because the leaves are not at peak for Fall color in Asheville, south of Biltmore we pick up the Blue Ridge Parkway, hoping that the gradual change in elevation would reveal more colorful leaves.  It didn't.  Still, it was beautiful.  We made it halfway to Craggy Gardens before we reluctantly turned around.  At 5:00, it was what painters and photographers call "the golden hour," the slanted light giving a warm glow to leaves and meadows and stands of trees that stretch as far as I can see.  Everytime I come on the Parkway, I am thankful for the foresight of those who designed this road and left it commerce-free, for hard-working depression area men who cut the roads, built stone bridges, and sent money home; and for a Creator who made such a variegated lanscape simply for our pleasure.

I'm even thankful for Ike (Dwight D. Eisenhower) who, in the name of defense, created highways like the I-40 I now entered, that can carry me to this beautiful place with reasonable ease.

We stopped at Deweys Bakery in Winston-Salem to stock up on Moravian buns and sugarcake (and were the delighted recipients of extra sugar cakes, as the store was closing for the evening --- "good things come to those who wait, are late, and procrastinate"), and then had dinner at the Hero House, a place with the best souvlaki, heros, and chopped salads in North Carolina.

Did I tell you I  appreciated the interstate highway system? I lied.  I despise I-40/I-85 between Winston-Salem and Durham which, for most of its length, is like an extended strip shopping center framed by concrete parking lots.  What were they thinking?

Everyone fell asleep, but me.

As I turn the corner for home, I've got that happy-sad feeling of vacation over.  But Dorothy said it well: "There's no place like home."  10:30 p.m.

Fall Break, Day Four: Where Normal is Weird

Hip If you walk around for long in downtown Asheville, you will see some mighty weird people and be exposed to some strange ideas.  There are people with various unnatural hair colors, sporting dreadlocks, and having numerous piercings.  Browse artisans along Haywood Street, in the Grove Arcade, or in the old Woolworth's store and you can read artist statements that  appear to be from another planet, in some spiritual sounding language that is fascinatingly out of sync with reality ---like a religion someone thought up for themselves, not because it has a basis in reality but simply because they like the sound of it.  Why not?  They're playing reggae music on the corner.  An old lady passes me that looks like an elderly Janis Joplin, right out of Woodstock.  It made me feel out of place, like I wasn't even in North Carolina, like I had stepped into some alternate reality.

That's why I'm glad I had a flat tire tonight.  Pulling back into the parking deck at our hotel, a piece of stray rebarb sticking out of a bumper on a parking space cleanly punctured a brand new front tire, only three days old.  We called the hotel security guard.  We also called AAA.  Everyone was prompt.  As a result, I was able to meet Tim and Dave, two guys three years out of high school.  Come to find out, these guys went to the same high school and had not seen each other since graduation.  Tim had a motorcycle accident that put him out of commission for a year.   He's finishing up a criminal justice degree and thinking about law school.  Dave has a wrecking service and is also working repo.  He likes being a repo man.  No, he hasn't been shot at yet, he tells Tim.  I'm glad I could reintroduce Tim and Dave and, but for my flat tire, it would not have happened.

What I enjoyed best about this encounter was that Tim and Dave seem normal, that is, they seem like they live here and belong here in Western North Carolina.  They have blue collar jobs and, at least in Dave's case, a dream of something better.  They have normal hair (such as it is), no visible body piercings, and voiced no weird ideas.  In fact they reminded me of the flawed and yet quite normal law enforcement agents I work with everyday.

One of the t-shirts I saw in a store in downtown Asheville today said it best:  "Asheville: Where Normal is Weird."  I'm not prejudiced, but I have an affinity for places peopled by those who look like they belong in that place.  The people I saw in Asheville today look like they belong somewhere else and no doubt came here from somewhere else.  Frankly, I'd rather hang with the security guard, the repo man, and the mechanic who'll fix my tire tomorrow.  They live here, and they look it.  If I want California or New York, I'll go there.

Fall Break, Day Three: Losing Yourself

huge_22_114575 After breakfast this morning, I joined my wife in a loft bedroom with wood-beamed roof and windows that look out on a snowy mountainside, the wind stirring swirls of powder, the cold filtering through the window at my back. I did something I find almost impossible to do at home.  I am reading.  I don’t mean that skimming, flitting kind of reading you do before you go to bed at night, when it is all you can do to stay awake for ten minutes, when the day’s affairs still lurk in the corner of your mind.  I mean the kind of reading where you dive deep and come up breathless, having seen wonders in words of worlds, leaving behind your day and entering into someone else’s day.

C.S. Lewis said that reading should be about receiving, and that takes time.  He says that that “here [literature], as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; am never more myself than when I do.”  In other words, you have to lose yourself when you read in order to save yourself, to change, to be moved and transformed.

I felt that way after three solid hours of reading this morning.  If you read that long, it takes time to come back to yourself, to reality.  I’ve been reading a series of short stories from the last two issues of an excellent journal, Ruminate, and the characters that inhabited those stories are still restlessly haunting my mind, even as I pack to leave.  Overweight Bowen and body-pierced Candy are still stuck at the top of the Ferris wheel, the middle-aged man given a bit of hope by the questions and encouragement of a a teenage girl.  I imagine him walking off the page and back into life just a little stronger, a little more hopeful.

Winding through the Blue Ridge mountains, through valleys not fully touched by the hues of Fall, we’re quiet, each one in their own thoughts, mine thinking about Charlie Cooper, a middle-aged man still living until recently with his mother, who, on her death, is lost until he discovers bowling.  That’s right --- bowling.  Charlie discovers something he can actually do and do well, and it gives him new hope.  Eating lunch at a cafe on the main street of Waynesville, with some uppity name like Creviche, I’m not all there, still moved by the story of the unnamed 12-year old boy who has a Dad in a wheelchair but who is the fastest runner in his neighborhood.  There’s some kind of disconnect between he and his Dad that I can’t quite fathom, and so it still rolls over and over in my brain, even as I talk with my family.

Each story is like a window into another world, a window you can never quite close once you open it, the air of that other reality forever changing the world in which I live.  I’ll eventually forget most of these stories, of course, but certain images will stick, and when I think of them it’ll be like a visit with a friend I rarely see.  I’m glad to know them.  In some way or ways that I cannot fathom, much less express, I’m changed by them.

Up ahead is the French Broad River, then Asheville, birthplace of author Thomas Wolfe.  I should probably read his story: “Look Homeward, Angel.”

“Don’t miss your exit,” I hear.  And I don’t.  In a moment I’m back, back to a wife and two kids and Charlotte Street and the mountains --- back to this world, just a little different.

Fall Break, Day Two: Reverie in Cold

I can’t take it anymore.  Just leave me here.”

The tree stump we are looking at is what is left of an Eastern Hemlock tree which, because of disease, had to be cut down in 2008.  The tree was 350 years old, standing at the time of the revolution, still shading travelers along this trail at the time of 9/11.  There’s something comforting in that kind of longevity, of perseverance in one place (as if the tree had a choice).

We’re walking along a quite muddy, often rocky trail up the mountain, snow in our faces, through beautiful stands of red, yellow, orange, and gold maples, oaks, and spruce.  The name of the trail is Devil’s Britches.  Thus far the name means nothing.  The trail is only moderately strenuous, and it is early.  However, after my wife and daughter turn back (they were cold), we kept on and the incline grew, and grew, and grew.  It was nearly four miles of up, always waiting for down.  It’s really not true that “what goes up must come down,” at least not on Devil’s Britches.  But it was fun, a reverie really, full of daydreams and talks about what we could do, maybe, ignoring for the moment some of the practical limitations life might impose.  We never get to do this at home.  Everyone should have time to dream, to let the mind roam wild, so we did our dreaming.

At the same time, it’s bitter cold and wet, and we laugh about how hard it is, all this uphill.  I realize how few and far between these times of one-on-one times there are, with no distractions, and I relish the fact that we have this time.  We have no cell phone service.  No internet.  No sounds other than that of our own voices and the soft platter of the snowfall.  We did not pass another soul for four miles.  I think we both loved it.  And we don’t know why it’s called Devil’s Britches.

Fall Break, Day One: 15 Observations

home First off, didn’t someone say “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times?” Was he referring to family vacations? I will not elaborate, but I just want to state unequivocally that I love my family.

Second, why do events always conspire to keep you from ever leaving town for vacation on time?

I love Ike as much as any other person, but his interstate highway system is a blight upon the landscape, a magnet for the clutter of fast food restaurants, outlet malls, and NASCAR wannabees. (And if you don’t know who Ike is, do not pass go, return to American History.)

Best barbecue restaurant name: “Butts by the River.” (Ours passed without stopping, though a lot were at rest there.)

Daughter: “Can you do something about this road?” Son: “What has DOT been doing with our tax dollars?” Me: “Whose tax dollars?”

We parents have something in common with our children: Our music is always too loud for them; their music is always too loud for us.

wlf We have met the Wolfman (not Jack) and his wolf Mohican here.  I will never again confuse wolves (who are intelligent, do not bite humans, and rescue human children) with coyotes, who are worthless, conniving good-for nothing scoundrels who will flat eat you up. That’s pretty much what the man said. Pulled an elderly man off a riding lawn mower in his own backyard, is what he said.  Carry off pets and small children, he said.  He burst my bubble when he said that goldilocks and the three little pigs were just fairy tales.  So I’m not believing anything he says.

My wife and daughter are signing up for an advanced horseback ride, which means “you can control your horse in all situations.” My son and I will sign up for a beginning horseback ride, which means “your horse can control you in all situations.” I am very concerned about where the horse puts his feet (hooves) and find it difficult to enjoy myself and think about anything else when I am doing this.  Maybe I’ll hike, meet up with a coyote or something. (Excuse me, but my son has edited me, and he informs me that he is an advanced rider.  Move to the head of the class!  He’ll ride any horse that’s lit well and is aerodynamically well-designed. Yes, he got an education.)

Did you know “coyote” is a two-syllable word?  Did I mention that they eat people and apparently roam all over North Carolina?

snow We have no cell phone or internet service.  There has been much complaining about this, but in my opinion, we’re missing a whole lotta nothing that feels like a whole lotta something to us.  It’ll pass.  The lady at the lodge said we had an “ann-tinny” up here, but it appears it’s broke.  That’s really OK. 

Heat’s broke too.  We have some portable heaters and it feels like Las Vegas in here. Did you know sweat freezes?

I haven’t had any dessert for eight weeks.  Until tonight.  I had a piece of all four homemade cakes that were served.

Do you eat hominy? The only attractive thing about it was that it looked like marsh mellows, but it don’t taste like ‘em. I wonder where that word “marsh mellow” comes from?

I’m afraid my son may be a Libertarian and an Arminian.  Where have I failed him? (Actually, he may simply be in the “not-Dad-whatever-Dad-is” phase of life, or perhaps he simply toys with me.)

“I lift up my eyes to the hills/ from where does my help come?/ My help comes from the Lord/ who made heaven and earth.” (Ps. 121.1) I’m thankful that I can be here in the beautiful snow with a family that God shaped around my soul to remind me of my need for Him.

Steve West, reporting from Cataloochee Ranch, in Maggie Valley, saying “Good night.”

Beautiful Words: The Poetry of Mary Oliver & Jeanne Murray Walker

Evidence If you pick up a collection of modern poetry, you would probably not use the word "beautiful" to describe what you would find there.  The language can be coarse, the images jarring, the implicit and elitist assumption being that most people just won't "get it," so why bother.  At the risk of engaging in gross generalization (which it is), most modern poetry is dark and inaccessible and, even if you try to read it (which most people won't), the task is daunting and darkening.  However, there are exceptions, even wonderful exceptions, so if you do not read poetry and are willing to start, I recommend you begin with Mary Oliver or Jeanne Murray Walker.  Neither are prone to sentimentalism and both employ earthy imagery and craft words that scatter light from every page.

Oliver, now 74, imbues her poetry with images of the natural world informed by walks from her home in Provincetown, Massachusetts.  Walking is, in her view, a part of the poetic process.  Her latest book, Evidence, is no exception to this pattern, as it is filled with images of yellow finches bathing, swans, creaking wings of buzzards, snowy egrets, rain, clouds, and trees, just to name a few, with Oliver maintaining an inner monologue reminiscent of Emily Dickenson, though with more accessibility.  In every poem there is a subtle meaning, a reflection, powerful in its slightness.  Often, she addresses the "Lord," or God, and yet her religion is likely not orthodox but more the mysticism of Emerson, Thoreau or Whitman.  Here is one pleasing example of her craft:

The Trees

Do you think of them as decoration?

Think again.

Here are maples, flashing.
And here are the oaks, holding on all winter
   to their dry leaves.
And here are the pines, that will never fail,
   until death, the instruction to be green.
And here are the willows, the first
   to pronounce a new year.

May I invite you to revise your thoughts about them?
Oh, Lord, how we are all for invention and
But I think
   it would do us good if we would think about
these brothers and sisters, quietly and deeply.

The trees, the trees, just holding on
   to the old, holy ways.

Simple yet profound, accessible yet not pedestrian, Oliver's poems are rich with ponderings on the meaning of natural things and well worth spending time meditating on.  To truly enjoy them, read them aloud.  Poems become three-dimensional when you not only see but hear them.

New tracks While nearly all of Oliver's poems are rooted in nature, Jeanne Murray Walker's somewhat more complicated verse dips into relationships, emotions, normal everyday affairs like putting children on a school bus, as well as nature.  Reading through her latest offering, New Tracks, Night Falling,the first thing you notice is that the poems are often longer than those of Oliver, both in line length and total length.  This makes you slow down.  The other thing you observe is that the references to Christianity are more direct, though certainly religion is not the topic of most of the poems.

Staying on the topic of trees, you'll see some similarities and differences between Oliver and Walker:

What the Trees Say

At breakfast, the heart of the egg looks like pure
gold.  Sunlight lifts the morning like a lever,
and even before I step outside, I see a river
of sparrows rise and scatter through the dawn.

That's when I tell myself, Look here,
you don't have to hurry.  Don't have to arrive
anywhere on time.  Don't have to decide how far
to walk across the lawn or whether to carry on
into the woods. 
I pull on my jacket.  Breezes scatter
the yellow leaves.  The trees are whispering,

It's fall.  Got to strip down.  Got to let the sky in here,
make a place for birds.  Got to reach further
down in the earth.  Got to hunker, children,
got to hold still enough to feel the wings flutter.

"Reading a poem is like following tracks to an interior realm," says Walker in the preface, a realm of deep questions like "why I am so prone to do what I don't want to do," or "how is it possible to overcome the deep loneliness of being a seaprate, conscious human being," or "why does grace sometimes visit us out of the blue?"  She describes poetry as a "wistful groping toward the truth" and poets as "organizers of the hunt."  She's right.  If you sit long enough with good poems, they raise questions that lead to the mysteries that only God has the key to, that only He can reveal or absolve by His presence with us.  In fact, the main tool I would pack for the hunt is a mind filled with God's words, a flashlight for the journey.  Not only that, I want God along, because I know that though I may not find all or many of the answers, I will have Him, and in Him I have all I need.

Read poems.  Start with Mary Oliver and Jeanne Murray Walker.  Read God's words as well.  Sift the poets' words with the words of the One who made us.  It may take time, but it's worth it.

Please, Please Me: Reverie on My Childhood

200px-PleasePleaseMe "One, two, three, four. . ."

My sister is in the backseat with her best friend Jane, chattering away about boys and teachers and who knows what else, with their mini-skirts and go-go boots swinging back and forth, giggling and laughing at things indecipherable to me at five. "Oh, I love that song! Turn it up, turn it up," she says, and my mother obliges, the mono sound crackling through the car radio. My sister and Jane swoon in the backseat. I'm on my knees in the front seat, leaning into the backseat, trying to decipher their words. I don't get it. I don't understand sisters or girls or the music they love. I turn away, just disgusted and bored.

I didn't know it then, but the song was "Please, Please Me;" the band, the Beatles; the year, 1964. I wasn't thinking about the Beatles that year, and they weren't yet a household name in the United States, but they were coming. The album bearing the name of the UK #1 hit, having been released in 1963, didn't reach the United States that year, but the song came via another release, "Introducing the Beatles," in early 1964. I heard it, but I didn't know what I was hearing.

Listening to "Please, Please Me" now, in its newly remastered edition, it's almost understandable the sensation it caused in my sister and many other teenagers. When Paul reaches "four" in his countdown to "I Saw Her Standing There," the kickoff song for the album, it's almost a promise of things to come, a breathless "four" shouted into the mike. The boyish energy, the clean guitar sound, the working class British vocals, the driving bass --- they must have sounded exotic and exciting to my sisters and yet, to my parents and many others, bewildering. 


"Listen --- do you want to know a secret? Do you promise not to tell?"

Trina Payne and I had a secret. Despite our youthful stature, we were an item. I liked her, all six years of her. Or maybe I didn't. I wasn't sure. Or maybe it was just that she liked me so much. Sitting in my first grade class with Mrs. Teague, I'd catch her looking at me and smiling, and I have to admit that I enjoyed it. And yet I wasn't ready for the responsibilities that such affection entailed. For example, Trina insisted on hanging out with me during recess, when I was playing with the guys. I began to wonder what part of "secret" she didn't understand. Besides, I had no idea that this relationship brought with it a commitment to actually spending any significant time with each other. It was the idea of it and not its reality that captivated me.

So one day I'm exiting the cafeteria line with my tray of watered-down tomato soup, and I see a gaggle of girls gathered around Trina. it doesn't look good. I sit down at another table. One of the girls comes over and tells me Trina is saving pennies for our marriage! Good grief! This has gotten way out of hand, and so I decide I need to break it off and that I'll tell her just as soon as I can, but not today, and maybe not tomorrow, but soon, I promise myself, soon this will all end.

At nap time that day, we roll out our towels on the floor. Some kids actually sleep during that time. I never did. I look a couple of towels over and see Trina beckoning me. I go. I know this sounds crazy, and I don't know how it happened, but I let her kiss me. She said no one was watching. I know I made a promise to myself that I would break up with her, and so all this was very confusing. It was like the siren call of a mermaid, luring sailors to their death, nd that kiss was deadly. By the end of nap time, out secret was out. Everyone knew that Trina and I had kissed. Never mind that it was just a little kiss, on my cheek, a kiss it still was. I promised myself I would break up with her --- tomorrow.

At recess the next day, I did the deed. She cried. I felt like a heel. Her mother called my mother. And I learned that six-year old girls are terrible at keeping secrets.


"Well my heart went boom, when I crossed that room, and I held her hand, in mine. . . . Now I'll never dance with another, when I saw her standing there."

My friend Bobby and I had been looking forward to this day for a long time. We dressed up in shirt and tie and met out in the street after dinner. My Mom slicked back my hair. Exiting the door, I bounced down the front steps and took my hand and pushed my bangs back down over my forehead, like James Dean (who I did not know at the time).  I had adopted the concept of "cool," felt certain, confident, having nourished the idea of myself as a guy who could really make the moves on the 12-year old girls in the class.  Walking the quarter mile to the school, we were full of ourselves, gushing with possibilities for our evening out, checking off the girls we would sweep onto the floor.  We were deluded!

I guess we had visions of dancing with girls all night, and yet when we got to the school auditorium, we froze. We took our place along the wall with several other guys, watching the guys brave enough to dance. I never even got near a girl much less danced with one. I never even spoke to one.  I counted the lights above the dancers, tried to look above it all, drank a gallon of punch, and ate a lot of cookies. About 45 minutes into it, we left. Walking home in the dark, neither of us spoke about it.


"Come on, come on, come on, come on baby, twist and shout"

I discovered songs like "I Saw Her Standing There" or "Love Me Do" when I discovered popular music at the age of 13.  Until then, I listened to the music of my parents --- old-time country music and bluegrass.  Artists like Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, Jim Reeves, and Marty Robbins.  We watched the Glen Campbell show or even Hee Haw, more for music than comedy.

I don't know what the first bit of rock music I attached to would have been, but I know that the Beatles were among the first.  I bought Abbey Road and Let It Be when they were originally released, saw the movie Let It Be at least twice at the college theater on Tate Street in Greensboro.  I worked my way back through the catalog, an interesting process of going back to roots.  I love it all, but there is something raw and so exciting about this album of songs recorded live in Abbey Road studio in 1963, "whistled through" (as producer George Martin recalls) in a twelve-hour day, history in the making while I was busy being five.

I missed all this, of course.  It's all history to me, experienced vicariously via biography, documentary, and recordings, and yet it was there as a backdrop to my childhood.  In the wasteland of music in my college years (1976-1980), when disco dominated, I would come to believe that all the great rock music had already been made between 1963 and 1975.  That was a mistaken belief, of course, and yet I still feel like all my musical sensibilities were rooted in that era for which I was born to late.

The funny thing is my son says the same thing --- that he was born to late.

"In my mind there's no sorrow/ don't you know that it's so?/ They'll be no sad tomorrows/ don't you know that it's so?

[Like many other collectors of music, I recently bought the box set of all the Beatles' newly remastered albums, some (like Please, Please Me) in stereo for the first time.  I'm listening to them chronologically, one each week, and reacting to them.  What could I possibly say original about them?  Nothing, of course.  Except this is memoir, my personal recollection and reaction, and since no one has lived my life, maybe there is something unique about it.  Maybe it'll make you think about where you were and what you were doing so long ago, when these records were released.]