The Last Warm Day of the Year?

Like an episode of Seinfeld, this post isn’t about anything. Just some musings as I sit on the front porch in the middle of October, wearing a t-shirt and shorts, with a temperature in the 80’s at 9 o’clock. When Tate and I returned home with our pizza (another gourmet dinner), the digital gauge in the SUV of the external temperature read 88°. Global warming, I suppose. A cynical person might say the planet has been warming since the last ice age. Guess it’s a good thing I don’t know any cynical people.

Whatever the reason, I’m enjoying the evening here in famous Ferguson. The katydids, crickets and tree frogs are in fine form, serenading me as I’m enjoying what may be the last warm day of the year. The forecast is calling for a low of 44° tomorrow, that’s quite a drop.

There is slight smell of ash in our 1890 house. I don’t know for sure, but I’m wondering if because the outside temperature is warmer  than the inside that  the air is not flowing down through the three chimneys on the first floor rather than up. Having said that, the entire summer would fit that description, so that doesn’t explain it. The smell is not so unpleasant as to spend any more time contemplating the cause and it is a reminder of fires to come. If winter has any redeeming value, it is the joy of a warm fire on a cold evening.

I know all to well, that it won’t be long before I step out on the front porch, and there will be silence. The tree-top musicians that are still providing the soundtrack of summer, tuned into the temperature rather than the calendar date will be dormant. Until then, I will enjoy their symphony.

Mrs. G, our semi-feral cat has decided to join me on the front porch. How we came by Mrs G is a whole different blog post, but I should at least explain the name. We simply tired of calling her, “that grey cat” and she became Mrs. G.

I spent most of the day working outside, rebuilding the fence around the pool, yes I know, a first world problem if there ever was one, but Mrs. G enjoyed the company. Like most cats she wants some attention, but not too much. A brave man would draw parallels to women about now. Guess it’s a good thing I don’t know any brave men.

Poppy

Funerals, Faith and Fog

The sun rose before Mrs. Poppy and myself. By the time we left Sikeston, Missouri the sun had been up an hour or more. We woke to a foggy landscape that would stay with us through most of the day. The fog was not so dense that it made driving dangerous. We had at least a half-mile of visibility down the road. At that point cars traveling in our direction, would abruptly disappear into the mist. On the opposite side of the highway, cars would suddenly appear as if emerging from an other-worldly portal.

Even knowing we were headed north, I could not locate the sun that bathed the landscape in a warm glow, softening the edges of everything it touched. The vista outside our windshield became an impressionistic painting as the fog settled into the valleys and low-lands that we passed, creating lakes and rivers of swirling grey mist.

I wrapped my fingers around a paper cup filled with hot coffee, courtesy of the motel we had stayed at the night before. It was better than expected for a complimentary cup of coffee, but mostly I appreciated its warmth.

The atmosphere outside the SUV fit the mood inside. Mrs. Poppy and I sat in a comfortable silence, each with our own introspective thoughts that required no conversation. The music of Leonard Cohen would have achieved the right level of melancholy for our frame of minds, but the situation required a level of purity that Leonard could not have provided. Perhaps a fugue by J.S. Bach would have been in order, as he slowly and mathematically created a musical world and then brought it crashing down, but that was not to be had, so we rolled on through the mist in silence.


We were returning home from a funeral. Funerals are always tough, but this one was particularly difficult. Dying is as much a part of life as being born. Intellectually  we know this, emotionally when it happens unexpectedly and at what we think is the wrong time, it’s a struggle.

This service was for a family friend, taken shortly after her 60th birthday and just a few weeks after her retirement. She had just started the next phase of life, devoting herself to her family, her art, her hobbies, and then unexpectedly in her sleep, she is gone. Her family and friends are left reeling and this huge question hangs over everyone’s head, … WHY?

I know there are people who think it’s wrong to question God. Personally, I think it’s a healthy thing to do. It is better to voice your concerns to God than to ignore him. He is not so fragile as to be wounded by our questions or diminished by our doubt. The Bible is littered with heroes of the faith, who have questioned God.

Every parent has experienced the questioning phase, where every other word from your child is, “why?” We do not disown our children for questioning, we understand this as a phase of learning. Neither does God disown his children for questioning.

Having said that, I have never received a direct answer when I question God and don’t know anyone who has. Instead I get the feeling that he’s saying, “Let’s continue this conversation as we walk along.”

Sometimes after a few miles and a few years, we look back and say, “Oh yeah, I get it now.”

Often though, we never get an answer and this is where faith enters the conversation. Faith enters because it is needed in times where there are tough questions but seemingly no answers.

Everyone understands faith is a virtue. How we come by that faith is a matter of debate. There are those of the belief that faith is something you make a decision to have, that if you concentrate hard enough, clench your jaw and are absolutely determined, than you will have faith. I have a suspicion that those who claim an absolute, unshakable faith are also proud of their humility.

I have a much more pessimistic view of myself and by extension, of humanity. I don’t see a lot of goodness naturally occurring within me. I’m not sure I want the type of faith that I can generate.

I believe faith, like grace, flows from God, measured out as we need it. Faith is not an anesthetic that numbs the pain that we are feeling, rather faith and its sibling, hope, walk with us, guiding us through the darkest times. Faith knows of paths that human logic can’t find.


We have driven an hour and the fog is still with us. I can’t see everything that lies ahead down the road. I can only see a short distance in front of me … but I can make the entire journey like this.

I have just enough faith to know that if I stay on this road, it will take me home.

Poppy

…………………………..

“I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You are yourself the answer. Before your face questions die away. What other answer would suffice?” – C.S. Lewis

The Sun Also Sets

When Mimsy and I went for our walk tonight, you could tell the season was beginning to change. Sure it was October 1st, you would expect it by that date, but we’ve had a run of very hot days at the end of September. Tonight though you could believe in autumn. For a few moments the breeze picked up and the sound of rustling trees and fallen leaves skittering across the sidewalk drowned out the hum of distant cars and the rhythm of persistent nocturnal insects. Not only could you feel the change in the air, you could hear it.

We had just finished the quintessential Sunday dinner of pot-roast, potatoes, carrots and warm bread. When we returned home, I gave Mimsy the option of staying on the front porch with me as I finished my glass of wine, but the lingering smell of roast and activity inside the house was too much for her so I had the porch to myself.

The sun had set without fanfare, but the sky in the western horizon remained a brilliant blue. It silhouetted the trees and houses along Elizabeth Avenue. As it’s glow slowly faded,  I rewound the events of the previous hours. By any measure, it had been a wonderful day. The weather was perfect, we needed the rain, but today I don’t think anyone was willing to trade the weather we had for a rainy day. My grandson had spent the night before with us and stayed through most of the day. After I took him home, I stopped by to see my mother at the skilled nursing facility where she lives.

When I tell someone that my mother will be 102 in a few months, the usual response is, “Oh that’s wonderful.”

I nod in agreement, but inside I’m thinking, “No it’s not wonderful.”

It’s not that I want to lose my mother, but her quality of life has deteriorated so badly and Alzheimer’s has robbed her of most her memories, that I wish for her the peace she seeks.

As I talk to her, I search for events and places that she can recall. It’s as if her mind is being slowly wiped by a computer virus, starting with the most recent memories and proceeding relentlessly backwards. I speak of a town where she lived as a young girl, and for a moment her eyes will light up and she says, “I haven’t heard that name in a long time.”

After telling her multiple times, it bothers me slightly that she doesn’t know who I am. I console myself with the knowledge that she is grateful for any visitor. But what crushes me, is that she doesn’t remember my dad, her husband, at all.

They were married for 78 years and were inseparable. They set the standard for me of what a married couple should be, always faithful, always loving, and now she doesn’t remember him.

This is when I question God.

I search for answers, for knowledge … is there something I should be learning here?

No answers are forthcoming, so I resolve myself to do this:
I can’t bring back my mother’s memories but I can honor them. I can try to remember everything my parents gave me. Not the material things but the values, the principles, the love that was modeled before me everyday. I can do my best to pass down the memories to my children and grandchildren of the artist and pragmatic businessman who had 78 wonderful years together.

This I can do.

Poppy

 

Kneelers, Sappers and “We the People”

I guess I should start by saying what the National Anthem means to me. It transcends politics, rising above our human and national imperfections. It is owned by neither Republican or Democrat. For generations it’s been sung at civic and sporting events. It has tested the vocal range of many a singer. But even during those off-key moments,  we stood, hand over our heart as it swelled with pride, knowing that we were part of something larger than ourselves. We were Americans! Our National Anthem is a celebration, not of political parties or policies, but of, “We the people.”

Love him or hate him, Donald Trump is not America. Our senators and congressmen are not America. Our mayors and our alderman are not America. At best they are temporary servants of America’s citizens.

Look in the mirror, look at your family, your neighbors, your co-workers, the people in the check-out line at the grocery store. Look at the people you agree with and those with whom you have differences. You are looking at America, you are looking at, “We the people.”

The last line of each stanza of our National Anthem, ends with this, “O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

Today across America, we saw a rash of professional football players deciding not to stand for our National Anthem. Living in the “land of the free,” they have that right. But as a very small part of America, one little guy in “We the people,” I’m offended. Disagree with policy all you want, if you see injustice, work to see that corrected. That is your right and obligation as an American. But burn our flag or kneel through our anthem, then you have insulted your neighbors, your co-workers and even yourself as a part of “We the people.”


Let me tell you about the “sappers.”

During the invasion of Omaha Beach on D-day, the sappers job after they landed was to charge up the hill to find the land mines and clear a path for their comrades.

Tom Brokaw, in his book, The Greatest Generation, recorded the stories of some veterans who came back years later to visit Omaha Beach, this is what they said.

” … that hillside was loaded with mines, and a unit of sappers had gone first, to find where the mines were. A number of those guys were lying on the hillside, their legs shattered by the explosions. They’d shot themselves up with morphine and they were telling where it was safe to step. They were about twenty-five yards apart, our guys, calmly telling us how to get up the hill. They were human markers.”

They described the scene as calmly as if they were remembering an egg-toss at a Sunday social back home. It was an instructive moment for me, one of many, and so characteristic. The war stories come reluctantly and they almost never reflect directly on the bravery of the storyteller. Almost always he or she is singling out someone else for praise.

2,500 American soldiers made the ultimate sacrifice that day. 2,500 brave individuals would never see their families and loved ones again. They would never again have the privilege of standing when they heard the line, “Oh, say can you see.” They charged up the beach, knowing the odds were not in their favor. They sacrificed themselves for their country and comrades. They knew they were part of something greater than themselves. They knew they were part of “We the people,” … it never occurred to them to “take a knee.”

Poppy


In case you’ve forgotten, this is the preamble to our constitution.

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Remembering Maurice

Mimsy and I went for walk tonight. There was nothing unusual about that, it’s a daily occurrence. Tonight though there was an abundance of thunder and lightning, but very little rain. A big production, lots of special effects, but at the end, nothing of substance. Shakespeare said it best in Macbeth, “sound and fury, Signifying nothing”. Lots of commotion, but very little good came of it.

Tonight in St. Louis we have another round of protests over the not guilty verdict of officer Jason Stockley in the 2011 death of Anthony Lamar Smith, a heroin dealer who was fleeing the police. I’m not here to pass judgement, I don’t know what happened. There are only two people, only one of which is alive, who knew the details of what transpired.

As a 30 year resident of Ferguson, Missouri, this brings back a lot of painful memories. It also brings back memories of Maurice, whom I wrote about in, “Having Skin in the Game.”

Maurice was a young black man who I had the privilege of knowing for a  few moments. The intersection of our lives was brief and I’m pretty sure, I’ve thought about him more than he’s thought about me. When he told me what high school he was entering, I knew what part of town he lived in. I knew the odds weren’t in his favor. Maurice is now at an age to be looking for a job. I wonder if those protesters that are hoping the kill the economy of St. Louis are thinking about Maurice. Are they concerned that Maurice has never been taught how to fill out a job application? Are they concerned that Maurice is more likely to be killed in a drive by shooting than any other cause of death in his part of town?

Whether Anthony Lamar Smith was innocent, I don’t know. I do know that Maurice and others like him are truly innocent. Where is the outrage for the Maurice’s of St. Louis who are trapped in a cycle of poverty? Where are the protests that address the lack of basic life skills being taught to Maurice. Where is the acknowledgement that our economy has changed and that good paying blue-collar jobs are rare? Where is the acknowledgement that Maurice has little opportunity? Where is the national/state/city/individual will to change this?

Protesting is easy, posting on social media is easy, being politically correct is easy, and I’m as guilty as anyone.

Do we have the will to have painfully honest discussions on race? Can we accept that there is enough blame to go around on all sides? Do we really want to solve this?

Mimsy and I head back home, the thunder is crashing, the lightning flashes, but we are barely damp.

Feeling Small

At age 23, I pretty much knew everything. At age 63, I believe a few things with certainty, but many other things have fallen into areas that I question. I don’t think this is a sign of weakness, a lack of faith or early dementia., at least I don’t want to believe that.

I have become wary of people who are sure about everything. I am wary of people (and politicians) who only see things along party lines. My guard goes up around people who are sure that God is on their side, whatever side that may be. To be honest, I don’t trust them. Life is not that simple. Life is complicated.

I came across this great quote by Paul Tillich,  “The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.”

I didn’t get that at first, then I started to understand. God is not threatened by our questions or diminished by our doubt. But our certainty, our smugness can keep us from approaching God. Why do we need God when we know everything, when we need no answers, when we are certain, when we rely on ourselves.

Commander Randy Bresnik, who is currently on board the International Space Station, took this photo of hurricane Irma from 250 miles above Earth. I look at this and I’m feeling pretty small. I don’t know what the next few days will hold but if the forecasts are true, they will be days that test our faith.

Bad things will happen, good people will suffer, I know this for certain. Why does this happen, why does God allow this … I am uncertain, I don’t know.

What do I know? I am certain for a while we will forget who is a Democrat or Republican, we will forget who is black or white, who is Christian, Hindu, Muslim or atheist. At least for a few moments, we will forget who has offended us on social media.

I know that selfless acts of heroism will be performed. I know that the willing will carry the weak through floodwaters. I know that our focus will be on families and loved-ones and not on the material. I know that those not directly affected will give generously to those who were.

I also know that after this crisis is over, we will return to bickering, we will have the luxury of pettiness once more. We will again see people as members of political parties, religions, races, factions and forget we are all children of God.

This I know.

God have mercy and never let me be certain.

     Poppy

Late Night Porch Meditations

It was a beautiful Labor Day weekend in famous Ferguson. The temperature dropped and I took the opportunity to retire to the front porch after dinner. The katydids, crickets and tree frogs were in fine form, serenading me with the background murmurs of the cars running up and down Elizabeth Avenue. The air had a hint of autumn, a foreshadowing of seasons to come. The trees in our neighborhood had long abandoned their frivolous bright green hues of spring and donned more somber shades of deep green with hints of brown. The maids of May Day had become dowagers in just a few short months.

Earlier that day, I sat on the same porch, finished reading a book and laid it on the table in front of me. It was Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley. When I decided to change the focus and name of this blog to “Poppy Walks the Dog”, I thought the least I could do was review some real writers who had a focus on dogs.

James Thurber was the first to come to mind, His “Snapshot of a Dog” remains one of my favorites. If you are not familiar with Thurber, check out his writings and cartoons.

Steinbeck was next on the list. It has probably been 25 years since I first read, Travels with Charley. It recounts Steinbeck’s 1960 lap around America, with his dog, Charley. The motivation was in Steinbeck’s words, “To find our what Americans are like today.” Like many of Steinbeck’s writings, it is both melancholy and hopeful. His journey was around the edges of the United States and encompassed nearly 10,000 miles.

What are Americans like today?

As one little guy sitting in the heartland, with my own perspectives and prejudices, I’m not qualified to answer that. We are certainly more diverse than we were in 1960. Our technology has certainly changed. We are blessed/cursed to have the internet and social media. We have the ability to be petty much more efficiently than in 1960.

Are we more divided? The media keeps telling us how we are such a divided nation. We are certainly just as political. Part of Steinbeck’s journey took him back to his hometown of Monterey, California, where he had time to spend with his sisters. This was against the backdrop of the upcoming presidential election, pitting Kennedy against Nixon.

Civil war is supposed to be the bitterest of wars, and surely family politics are the most vehement and venomous. I can discuss politics coldly and analytically with strangers. That was nor possible with my sisters. We ended each session panting and spent with rage. On no point was there any compromise. No quarter was asked or given.

Each evening we promised, “Let’s just be friendly and loving. No politics tonight.” And ten minutes later we would be screaming at each other. “John Kennedy was a so and so …”

“Well, if that’s your attitude, how can you reconcile Dick Nixon?”

“You talk like a Communist.”

“Well you sound suspiciously like Genghis Khan.”

It was awful. A stranger hearing us would have called the police to prevent bloodshed. And I don’t think we were the only ones. I believe this was going on all over the country.”

What are Americans like today? Are we better or worse than in 1960?

I believe the answer is a resounding, yes! We are better and worse than in 1960. Part of Steinbeck’s lap of America took him through the deep south at the beginnings of the civil rights movement. Many of those affairs make the recent Charlottesville events look like a Sunday School picnic. We have made a lot of progress since then. We are not perfect, but we are certainly moving in the right direction.

As a race, we humans are fundamentally flawed. We will never be perfect, hate will always be a force to be reckoned with. It won’t matter who we elect or what laws we pass, utopia will never be achieved.

But for tonight,  I’m just a guy sitting on his front porch on a Labor Day weekend with his dog and I’m okay with that.