A walk to the river became a New Year’s Day tradition when I had my golden retriever and lived in Fieldstone Farms in the late 1990s. I continued the tradition with my first cocker spaniel. A branch of the Harpeth River snaked across the northern edge of the street next to mine, and there are walking trails in Fieldstone, so I’d walk the dog first on the trails and then through an open field of dead, brown grass and dried stalks of weeds to the tree-lined rocky river. We’d stand on the hard-mud bank and watch the trickling flow.
Why a walk to the river? I suppose because a river is a good symbol for life—for the journey we take over the years from one point to a far point in the future, from beginning to destination. A river is good inspiration and shows us how to journey on.
The river has movement. Water keeps flowing onward. No matter what, it keeps going. It doesn’t stop—doesn’t get distracted, doesn’t get down and quit, doesn’t lose its focus and purpose. I wish people were made like that. I’d stand on the path at the edge of Lynnwood Branch and watch the water rush westward, and I’d get caught up in the thought that I should keep moving forward, too, and hopefully, with the same momentum, the same compulsion to “get there,” wherever “there” is.
The river finds a way. Slabs of rock sit beneath the flow, and big rocks and boulders stand in the way of the water, but the river peels off around or over the obstacles, driven to move on. The river keeps going around fallen trees and strainers. The river doesn’t stop at the obstacles and give up. I wish people could do that. People tend to look outside themselves, at others, at a higher being for rescue from obstacles, and not to the power within, like the river does. The river has its own energy and draws from it to get around. We have our own power source, too, without and within at the same time. At the river’s edge, I’d stare at frothy-white riffles pouring around rocks and look for meaning for me.
The river has highs and lows. Just like people do, like I do. Sometimes the river is full, deep, and faster moving, and other times it is low and trickling. Either way, it still has a push to get to its destination, to complete its purpose, to be and do. I need the river’s inspiration.
I live in a section of my new neighborhood that is in a U-shape, bordered by Aenon Creek. So today, January 1, I will continue the tradition of going to the river seeking an example for the new year. Even though upon awakening it was one degree outside, with a chill factor of a negative five, I will dare to get out of my Cuddl Duds pajamas, wrap up, and walk to the river with my new cocker spaniel. I need to see the creek moving on and finding its way, even though today it might be at a low.
Happy new year to all, and may you find hope and example at the river.
Twenty Seventeen. You brutal taker. You evil manipulator. You kicked, pushed, and machete-hacked at me. You tried to knock me down and shut me up.
I stood up for Christian values, and you sent a Christian bully attack. I lost maybe a hundred friends because of it. I can’t go home, I couldn’t go to my class reunion, I lost my past. But I am strong, and I know when I am right, and so I keep standing. It’s the way I’m made. Nevertheless, it hurt.
You took Neil. And one by one you gave my friends challenges to deal with.
You broke me, Twenty Seventeen. You broke me.
Instead of sliding away, though, I chose to push back. I made decisions that have changed my life. Good things began to happen. Appropriately, my essay “Pushing Up the Sun” was published in A Second Blooming, and I did a book signing at Barnes and Noble in May with editor Susan Cushman and author River Jordan.
“God uses broken things. Clouds break to give rain, and seeds break to produce new plants that make fruit or flowers. The seed comes from a plant that thrived in a season now gone. It lies dormant, tender parts packed inside a hard shell, all folded up. It needs water to soften it, needs warmth and sunshine, needs time. For the seed to achieve its ultimate purpose and become what it was destined to be, it has to come undone. The shell breaks, and the insides come out, and unfoldment occurs.” . . .
“By nature and need, I pushed the walls until they cracked and broke and fell into destruction, and parts of me began to come out into the new. Unfoldment was what I experienced. Growth didn’t happen in a fast burst of activity. It was a process, and it was ongoing as I walked further into the light to see the person I was becoming.” . . .
“Like the seed parts, I was standing up, reaching out, and growing stronger. And like the plant, I was establishing a leaf system to absorb power and nutrients from the sun and strong roots to draw water from the source and hold me firmly through the winds.” . . .
“I’m not going to sit around in the darkness after sunset, not going to linger in what was. I am going to follow the beam of light home over the smashing water. I am standing under the sun and pushing it up.”
Because of that, I still have me. I have me!
Many people can’t legitimately say that now. But as far as growing-up principles, ground-in values, and a Christian worldview, I think I am still the person I was before Twenty Seventeen. I didn’t let a political representation or party skew my views, alter my right and wrong, and change my spiritual perspective. My beliefs now and all through 2017 are the same as what they were in 2007 and 1997 and 1987 and so on. If anything, I am more open and more accepting and more in search of enlightenment, which is the way it should be. I should still be growing and seeing with more light and love the people and issues of my world. I should be calling out the hard things as right or wrong, good or bad, I should be seeking truth, I should be reflecting my inner light and the person I am instead of falling in line with the masses and excusing the wrongs in the world. It is what I was called to do.
Immanuel Kant said, “Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity,” and that immaturity comes from the lack of courage to use his own reason, intellect, and wisdom without the guidance of another, such as church and government leaders. I so much desire to use my own mind and voice and not be one in the “great unthinking masses.”
I am more perplexed, impatient, and angered than ever at those who have acquiesced, condoned, and normalized wrong beliefs and behaviors—in other words, given up their spiritual values. I don’t understand those who follow blindly; those who pick up any extreme statement or belief because it falls in with what they want to believe, even if that belief is not consistent with what they proclaim; those who try to make a visibly and obviously bad political representation into something good. I still need to work hard at understanding and loving those who do this, those who are unable to discern right from wrong and who readily reach out and reel in the bad words, actions, and behaviors, those who can’t speak in their own voices and are part of the unthinking masses. I admit I have not been good at understanding and accepting those people. I am a failure at it. I don’t cut people much slack. You either are or aren’t a Christian. And if you are, you should act like it. You can believe the Bible all day long, you can be a “prayer warrior,” you can sit on a pew every Sunday, and that’s all good, but if you proclaim it, then your beliefs and behavior should reflect it. Twenty Seventeen took that away from many and rendered them incapable of seeing it.
On Christmas Eve at my son’s in Asheville, I took my dog for a walk and saw an image of light that stays with me:
At the top of Maney and Fenner I
Stand at eye level with mountain peaks off in the distance,
Pisgah, Cold Mountain.
Above blue tops the sun
An aberrant glow ball behind a film of clouds,
It’s not a star that shines this eve
But a sun, with filtered light, giving
Hope that the world will clear and the
Sun will shine true and new on all.
Now, on this last day of the year, I’m ready to step into the next the happiest I think I’ve ever been in my life. So thank you, Twenty Seventeen, for not only were you a brutal taker, but a blessed giver. You gave me some goodness and some light, and you gave me me. And I want more of it all in the next to come.
I want enlightenment. I want to keep standing up for good, truth, and the right values. I am committed to keep calling wrongs out. Maybe I can be softer about it. I don’t know how to be hard and soft at the same time in a hard world.
Maybe I can find a velvet hammer to use in my efforts.
My son was five when, unbeknownst to me, he retrieved used Tampax applicators from the bathroom trash, put four or five together like a long, white telescope, and went on a back yard adventure. A giant yard of big, old trees, sand box with trucks and buckets, a two-story playhouse, and a swing set, but all he could see through his invention were a few oak leaves, the wheel of a Tonka in the sand, the yellow seat of a glider. Yet he was intent on his narrow scope of exploration.
I kept watching him out the back door—focused, looking for treasure, a mind full of pretend. I kept asking myself, “What in the world is he looking through?”
I think he was smart to invent an instrument for viewing his surrounds, but I don’t think those white cardboard applicators joined together gave him a complete view of the world around him. Looking through that long narrow tube, my little boy could only see what that little round hole at the end of the applicators showed. He had tunnel vision.
Tunnel vision is extreme narrowness of viewpoint resulting from concentration on a single idea or opinion, to the exclusion of others.
I can’t help but notice that there are many adults in this world now walking around looking through Tampax applicators. They see one idea or one object at the end of the tube and pick on it, scratch it raw, and then beat on it until it bleeds. They have no peripheral vision, none whatsoever, and concentrate to a fault on one grain of sand out of all the world’s beaches—one tiny inanimate object over all of humanity. I keep shaking my head and saying, “What is wrong with them, and why can’t they see more?”
We live in a time of tunnel vision and tangibles. People like tangibles—real things, palpable, things you can see, touch, even hear, pick up and hold or easily wrap your mind around. Simple and familiar tangibles attached to one meaning and experience include: a football, a tuba, trumpet, drum, cymbal, banner or flag.
People just can’t see beyond the viewfinder of the Tampax applicators; they can’t see intangibles or abstract things. They attach to the material item single-mindedly and focus on its color, sound, texture, and what they personally think about it. They build anger and hostility as they look to hammer and hurt everyone else who doesn’t see the item like they do. There’s no understanding or empathy outside that one object, even though there’s an infinite world of possibilities. I keep shaking my head. “Why can’t they see the big picture?”
I remember the movie Patch Adams. My other son (the one who was given a real Fisher-Price Adventure Tool Set after it was discovered what his brother used for exploration) was in that movie. I think of the scene in which Arthur Mendelson, an elderly, eccentric, intellectual patient ran up wildly to Patch and held up four fingers. “How many do you see?” The staff thought the old man was crazy, but Patch pursued his question. Mendelson told Patch to look beyond the fingers, to look at him, and by gazing through, Patch saw the fingers double. By looking at the four fingers, Mendelson said, “You are focusing on the problem. If you focus on the problem, you can’t see the solution.” This was a charge to see more, to look at the whole, to see what no one else sees, to see an answer. “See what everyone chooses not to see … out of fear, conformity, or laziness.”
My friend, writer Chance Chambers says, “I will not hold flags and ceremony (tangible items) in higher regard than human lives. A song doesn’t mean more to me than freedom and the right to live without fear.”
I don’t have a lot of hope that a lot of people can embrace this. Most are very content with their Tampax applicators, and we’ve just got to let them play, pretend, and cry in their own little, narrow worlds.
AUGUST 1944 – 73 YEARS AGO – ANNE FRANK WAS FOUND BY NAZIS IN SECRET HIDING PLACE IN AMSTERDAM, SENT TO A DEATH CAMP
“Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart.” ~ Anne Frank
The Diary of Anne Frank. I read it every year as a teen. I was a post-war child, born of a father who fought against the atrocities of Adolph Hitler in Europe, ended up at the base of Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest, and spent a year in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, two hours from Hitler’s mountaintop retreat in the Bavarian Alps.
I was fascinated by the genre, by the first-person voice of a girl my age recording real-life experiences. As a college student, I went to Amsterdam and took a tour of Anne Frank’s house with its secret annex and hidden staircase. I remember the swinging bookcase and the stairs up to the secret room—narrow, steep, and dark. I remember walking around in the large room that hid Anne and her family. It was filled with windows letting in sunlight when I was there. It was hard to picture that once, the windows were blacked out for secrecy and protection. I stood at one window and looked out at the city teeming with people and life. The most meaningful image was that of a church steeple.
If Anne could’ve looked out that window, she would’ve seen hope and help.
The steeple image has stuck in my mind for almost five decades. I’m now trying to make meaning of it.
It’s the Westerkerk, the West Church. Rembrandt was buried there in 1669. It’s old. It’s a church with a steeple that towers above the city, marking its location so people can find it, pointing upward, and portraying its purpose as a place of God, of believers, of love, of hope and help.
The steeple serves as a visual testimony to all who walk in its shadow.
What happened in the shadow of the steeple seven decades ago when Anne Frank was a twelve-year-old?
There were surely good and God-loving people in the church. As they sat under their steeple, surely, they sang, prayed, took of the Body and the Blood. And then what? When they walked out the front doors, on the sidewalks by the canals, to their homes in the shadow of the steeple, did they live out the church’s mission, their mission?
When I read Anne’s diary as a young girl, my underlying thought was of the people, the good people, who let this happen to her. I mean, how could they? Why didn’t they do something? I realize some did help—provided protection and a path to fleeing the insanity that was. But many did nothing.
Were they unaware? Were they afraid? Of taking a stand? Of carrying out the church’s mission? Did they hide in the shadows?
Ultimately, young strong men—soldiers, like my dad—from other countries were called in to save them from the madness they’d allowed.
Life experience has taught me that good people are mostly silent. It’s easy, better that way, more acceptable to stay quiet in the darkness, to align with similar others, to hold inward vigils, and to excise those who stand out of the shadows.
Anne’s is a tragic story, because hope and help never came.
Irises have rich historical meanings, and when given as gifts, they convey deep sentiments: hope, faith, wisdom, and courage. The flower takes its name from the Greek word for “rainbow.” Another Greek word, “eiris,” means “messenger.” The Greek Goddess Iris acted as the link between heaven and earth. She delivered messages for the gods and from the Underworld and traveled along rainbows as she moved between heaven and earth. Purple irises were planted over the graves of women to summon the Goddess to escort the dead on their journey upward into the afterlife.
I like to think this is symbolic and that the flower also inspires us with courage to rise up and reach out above our darkest times into growth and newness of life.
The purple iris also denotes royalty. During the Middle Ages, the purple iris was linked to the French monarchy, and the Fleur-de-lis design, inspired by the flower, eventually became the recognized national symbol of France.
The iris is also the state flower of Tennessee.
I have iris rhizomes from friends in Tennessee, from my grandmother’s farm in Mississippi, from William Faulkner’s house, Rowan Oak, (white cemetery iris) in Oxford, Mississippi. I dug up some irises from my old house in Fieldstone Farms and brought them to this new house on the hill. They fill in my landscape with their showy spikes and their flowing, silky, spring colors. I am surrounded by hope and faith. By wisdom. And courage.
The iris provides the perfect cover image for Editor Susan Cushman’s anthology, A Second Blooming: Becoming the Women We Are Meant to Be. My essay, “Pushing Up the Sun,” is included in this new book, released in March 2017. The flower is soft, delicate, in a silky, flowing design—feminine. But you better believe she is hardy, and no matter what she faces, whether being pounded by snow, rain, or hail, being slept upon by rabbits or stepped on by children or mowed down by a careless landscaper, she comes back. And she comes back bigger and stronger. Every year, those spikes strengthen and rise up and reach high, producing wrapped blooms that grow tall and open into flowers, repeating in second bloomings, and more.
What a perfect gift of hope and faith and wisdom and courage for Mother’s Day! And a book signing for this anthology will be held at Barnes and Noble Cool Springs in Brentwood, Tennessee, the day before. May 13, 1:00. I welcome you to come! Susan Cushman, editor, will be there. River Jordan, local author and contributor, will join us.
And a big shout out to Barnes and Noble — the best book store a local author could hope for!
I hiked two miles yesterday on the freshly mulched trails of a Class II Natural Area, saw native wildflowers in white, pink, and purple, saw birds, frogs, turtles lined up on logs in the lake, snakes swimming, and chipmunks jumping around. The color green across the forest floor was new, fresh, and yellowy. The pitch of bird sounds was high and expectant. It is newly spring, when cycles begin again. Life comes around every year.
The last short segment of the hike was on an old road, closed to driving and crumbling at the edges into the lake. The center line spoke to me, and I snapped a picture.
Old road surface, rough, hard, harsh, cracked, hidden under thick trees, away from sun and light, always dark there, always, no light gets through, not ever. Yellow line at the center of the path to follow home. Straight, unlike life. And jagged, winding cracks have opened up all down the line splitting the yellow paint, itself marred and chipped away. Life finds a way up through the openings in the gray. Tender new green, fragile, flowering, pink, finds a place in the hard, cold road. Keeps doing it every year, coming back, coming back, coming back. Even blooming.
Why? What is the purpose? I wonder when it will tire of this.
My friend Neil O. Jones lost his long battle with lung cancer the last day of January 2017. The Roundtable Writers Group, of which he was a member, spoke at his funeral service on his behalf, doing readings by his favorite authors, as well as original works.
I am honored to have written and read a poem with my friend Susie Dunham. I’m sharing it below in honor of Neil, a fine man who had friends all over the country who came to pay respects. He was blessed to have his writer friends, his “brothers” from the 173rd Airborne Brigade, fellow college professors, the Muletown Hog Chapter of motorcycle friends (a 20-bike tribute! Thanks to Jerry Knox who organized this!), Gerald (T-Bone, childhood friend from Dallas), local friends, children, and grandchildren to gather to celebrate his life.
January 31, 2017
We Lost a Friend
Susie Dunham and Kathy Rhodes
We lost a friend today.
We’ve lost other friends and family to cancer,
but we’ve never lived it so close.
Close enough to see week to week
month to month
year to year.
We saw how it took pieces of you.
Teasing and testing you to
fight harder than you did in the
jungles of Vietnam, to
fight harder to stay alive.
Fifty years ago in that January,
your worst battle of that war,
Operation Junction City,
you fought to keep your brothers safe.
Now in this January,
your worst fight of this war,
you battled with bravery and honor
to stay with the people who
will miss you
that the battle is lost.
This ain’t Nam.
From Neil’s book Brothers, All
“It was then I knew,” you said. “Nothing would ever change. I would get out of this life whatever I could and think of Vietnam only when it attacked me [whenever] it … chose. It was the ghosts of my brothers … It was Agent Orange. There was no escape,” you said. “The mark of the Beast would keep coming back.”
“It is the cancer coming back and building in me that I can’t get away from,” you said.
“Now there is a new way to fight it—a new drug … approved … twenty days before my cancer in progression receives it.
Another battle ahead.
Five decades of war, college, love, children, grandchildren, work, teaching American literature in college, now this—more war,” you said. “I am trying desperately to save myself from the enemy, firing with every weapon I’ve got. I face the deep, unfathomable abysm.
And so it begins.”
And so it ends.
We lost a friend today.
You fought the war back then,
and now near’ four years of battles,
one after the other:
surgeries, chemo rounds, radiation—
new wonder drug!
you left this world
fifty years after you left that old war.
You got out of life what you could.
“Half scholar, half rube,” you said.
Renaissance man, country boy.
You taught the classes.
You rode the mules.
You rode the scoot.
You told the stories.
You wrote the book.
You fought the battles. You did your part.
It’s that, sometimes, in life, what’s supposed to save you does not.
The beast, it turns on you.
Many battles won, but the war rages on.
Maybe you, first in that new cancer treatment,
can help those who come behind.
For in life, what matters most is doing for others, all brothers, and
You won before you lost.
You won before you lost.