Fred Was Right

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A father sometimes knows his son better than his son knows himself. Occasionally — but rarely — he knows him better than the boy’s mother. Parental conversations leading to decisions about a troubled child’s welfare are private. But the outcomes of  decisions are sometimes a matter of public record.

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Mary Anne

Imagine, for instance, a conversation between Fred and Mary Anne about their difficult son whose behavior at school was bringing shame to the family name. Mary Anne, a Scottish-born immigrant raised in a small fishing village on the Outer Hebrides’ Isle of Lewis, was aghast at her son’s rude behavior.

A product of her Scottish Presbyterian heritage, Mary Anne had a high sense of right and wrong, and a low sense of human nature — and of the British crown. “Fred,” she said, “I don’t like the Queen! Donald thinks he’s a king! I don’t like that! I didn’t raise my son to be a Brit, let alone a monarch!”

“Mary,” said Fred, “it is troubling and he’s troubled. He needs discipline. He needs boundaries. If we don’t act soon, he’ll be sent off to reform school by the end of the year.”

“Fred, if your strict discipline here at home hasn’t reformed him,” said Mary, ”a reform school won’t do any better. I think we need to think outside the box. I can’t take it anymore. I’m tired of his insults, and the faces he makes. He makes fun my work with kids who have cerebral palsy and adults with intellectual disabilities. They’re not ‘crips’ and ‘morons’! And I’m not ‘illegal’. He thinks he’s the Queen! If you don’t agree with him, you’re just a Scot from the Outer Hebrides, a chamber maid working in his palace.”

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“Well, dear, it’s hard to remember that you were working as a maid when we met at the dance. Donald knows right where to get you. He knows your Achilles heel. He’s taken that ability with him to school and that’s what’s getting him in trouble: finding people’s sore points, their weaknesses, and calling them names. The only times he responds to my discipline is when I call him a name.”

“Like what, Fred? I can’t hear your conversations from the kitchen.”

“I hesitate to tell you. I don’t want to hurt your feelings more than he’s already hurt them. I’ve tried different names. Some work; some don’t. I thought calling him ‘Adolf’ or ‘Benedetto’ might get to him, but he didn’t take it as an insult. He’s a chip off the old block. He likes being strong like Hitler and Mussolini. But he hates it when I call him ‘Scottie’! He thinks Scots are sissies — crossdressers, running around in tartan kilt and knee socks. Sorry to say, dear. He’s not proud to be a MacLeod.”

“That breaks my heart, Fred. I know he doesn’t respect me. He treats me like dirt. He treats me the same way he bullies vulnerable kids at school.

“There’s only one answer I can see, Mary. A military academy. I put in a call to New York Military Academy this morning. They’ve agreed to take him on probation on condition that we not interfere with their discipline. We can visit once a month on the weekend and take him to church.”

“He doesn’t like church, Fred. He hated confirmation class. He says church is for losers.”

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Norman Vincent Peale

“I know. We won’t take him back to First Pres. The neighborhood is changing. I’ll take him into Manhattan to hear Norman Vincent Peale. We’re dealing with some hard facts, Mary. So is Donald. He needs some positive thinking. Like Dr. Peale says, ‘Any fact facing us is not as important as our attitude toward it, for that determines our success or failure. The way you think about a fact may defeat you before you do anything about it. You are overcome by the fact because you think you 

“Norman Vincent Peale is President Eisenhower’s favorite preacher, Mary. Who knows? If someone like Donald learns to face facts by thinking positively about himself, he could become president.”

“God forbid, Fred! How could we have raised a son like that?”

Years later, the son returned to Scotland. Over dinner he paid tribute to his mother at the Turnberry Hotel of his Turnberry Golf Club.

“Her loyalty to Scotland was incredible,” he said. “She respected and loved the Queen.”

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  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, July 11, 2018.

 

Fireworks and a Fifth on the Fourth

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This Fourth of July we retreated from the parades and fireworks to the wilderness cabin by the wetland. Although the trumpeter swans left several weeks ago, heading north to Canada for friendlier, cooler climes, the loons and hooded mergansers are still our nearest neighbors — along with the newest arrivals: Yellowjackets!

Last night was quiet. The only sounds were the bull frogs, the loon calls and the faint rustling of the aspen leaves heard through the screen doors and windows. The only light came from the soft rays of the setting sun. It was peaceful. Quiet. Natural. Until the sun went down and the sound and flashes of firecrackers from distant neighbors preferring a noisy celebration of bombs bursting in air lit up, and echoed across, the wetland from afar.

As we were wondering how the loons and mergansers were managing the Fourth of July, we turned on the lights inside the cabin, and were joined by a Yellowjacket that had made its way through the screens that protect us from unwanted neighbors. While the fireworks exploded and flashed outside, the Yellowjacket was drawn to the reading light next to my chair. Reaching for the flyswatter, I took a swipe but missed, and then another before losing sight of the invader. Until, wham! I felt the sting through my shirt!

Suddenly I wished I had a Fifth on the Fourth!

Gordon C. Stewart, on the wetland, the Fifth of July, 2018.

Memories (Dennis Aubrey)

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Dennis Aubrey’s writing is as fine as his photography, fathoming the depth and height of the human experience. This Via Lucis piece on the power and complexity of memory shouted out to be shared on Views from the Edge.

Via Lucis Photography

Recognizing truth is a matter of experience because it involves distinguishing the real from the illusory. Experience itself is a product of memory. And memory is even more complex than truth. And so the pattern gets more multi-faceted the deeper we look, like one of Mandlebrot’s mathematical phantasms. What appears at first simple becomes infinitely complicated and intricate.

Side aisle, Basilique Saint Remi, Reims (Marne) Photo by PJ Aubrey

Some memories we remember as dreams, in the present tense; others as historical phenomena that stay safely in the past. Some memories carry their meaning with them. Others mean something because of their relationship with something that occurred in the past. Others depend on the future to reveal their significance. This is the web that is woven back and forth, across and through time.

North side aisle, Eglise Saint-Étienne, Vignory (Haute-Marne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Some memories lie dormant until something…

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The Whopper at the Burger King

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A friendly young man at the Burger King — I don’t eat Whoppers; I drive to the Burger King in rural Minnesota for the free WiFi — draws my attention. “What’s going on?” he asks, staring at the television monitor behind me and my MacBook Air. I assume he is responding to the breaking news I’d heard moments before on the drive from the cabin to the Burger King — the shooting of journalists in the office of an Annapolis newspaper. He is. He shakes his head; I shake mine. Then the words spill out. “I guess this is what happens when the press is targeted as public enemy number one.” He shakes his head again and walks away.

MARYLAND NEWSPAPER SHOOTINGA few minutes later he returns to speak his support for the Second Amendment and the president. “All this gun stuff . . . we’ve always had guns in school and stuff, only now the media’s making a big deal of it. They’re blowing it up.”

We’re coming up on July 4th weekend. Celebrating the nation’s independence feels different this year. America is different. It’s the First Amendment that is at risk, not the Second.

The free press, sometimes called “The Fourth Estate” — the people’s independent watchdog of government — has saved us from our worst selves many times. It was the Fourth Estate that brought into our living rooms Edward R. Murrow’s report that stopped Senator Joseph McCarthy’s pernicious attacks on the integrity of American citizens whose political stripe wasn’t his. It was the Fourth Estate’s publishing of the Pentagon Papers that exposed the dirty secrets behind the Vietnam War, leading Lyndon Baines Johnson to become a one-term president. It was the Washington Post’s publication of Woodward and Burnstein’s investigative report on the Nixon administration’s break-in of Democratic headquarters at the Watergate Hotel that led to the impeachment and resignation of Richard Nixon.

CapTimesThe Fourth Estate exists as the instrument of the people to hold accountable those we elect, and the government agencies they are responsible to oversee on the people’s behalf. The First Estate (the executive branch) and the Second Estate (the legislative branch) have often been critical of the Fourth Estate. Because the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment guarantees freedom of the press from state control, the Third Estate (the judicial branch) has protected it from the other two branches of government. The Supreme Court has been the court of last resort to protect free speech from Presidents and other elected officials have been wary of it.

There is a world of difference between wariness and assault. The current occupant of the Oval Office has used the nation’s Bully Pulpit to stir up good people like the guy at the Burger King to believe the minority party, once referred to as the “loyal opposition,” is out to destroy their freedom under the Second Amendment. Public perception has been altered. The public enemy no longer is communism, as it was in the McCarthy period. The target is much more in clear public view: the Washington Post, the New York Times, CNN, NBC, CBS, PBS. Every member of the Fourth Estate except FOX News and — who would ever have imagined it? — The National Enquirer. Joe McCarthy is smiling.

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A civil society has quickly become less civil. The Bully Pulpit we once expected to give voice to the unity that underlies our pluralism (e pluribus unum); appeal to “the better angels of our nature” (Lincoln); respect the public and private institutions that make us who we are; and mourn tragic events such as today’s shooting in Annapolis, is used to create the public perception that the president’s critics are America’s enemies. This is an abrupt departure from the commonly accepted norms and expectations for civil discourse on which I remember being raised.

Increasingly, we tend to shout in anger or fall silent. Between the anger and the silence stands a chasm of despair. To some, America is becoming great again. To others, America in 2018, feels more like the aftermath of a coup d’état than a moment of celebration.

1*wH41mwA4_K9A6Zr26Pq6_wThe young man at the Burger King was an adolescent when Donald Trump funded the Birther movement alleging that Barack Obama, America’s first black president, was illegitimate, a charge not based in fact, “faux” news that stirred the latent fear of poor white Americans to believe President Obama was out to take away their rights. Long before the Electoral College elected him President, Donald Trump had a bully pulpit of his own, and he bullied many into believing the lies about the need to rescue the country from the alleged black Muslim socialist who wanted to take away our guns —until the day he suddenly declared, without apology for his error, that President Obama had been born in the U.S.A, as though the Oracle of truth had spoken definitively — years after his false claim movement had accomplished its aim.

Earlier today, before news of the shooting of journalists in Annapolis, the free press informed the American public of U. S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy’s decision to retire, leaving the vacancy on the Court for the President to nominate and the Republican Congress to give, or withhold, its consent and confirmation. The Founders’ intention of a nonpartisan, independent Third Estate — the necessary third leg of the stool of checks and balances that make for the American democratic republic — was idealistic, to be sure, but an independent judiciary is essential to the architecture of the U.S Constitution.

As we prepare for this Fourth of July observance, we do well to remember the architecture meant to preserve the nation by means of legislative and judicial boundaries that put constrain a bully from running away with the country. Doing my best to be hopeful, I still wonder: can a Whopper accomplish a coup d’état without bloodshed — within the architecture of the American democratic republic?

The Fourth of July 2018 celebration goes down hard. Hold the onions!

  • Gordon C. Stewart at the Burger King

Four Tubes in a Wind Chime

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Ring the bells (ring the bells) that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack in everything (there is a crack in everything)

That’s how the light gets in

– Leonard Cohen, “Anthem”

Four old friends — we call ourselves the Old Dogs — descended last week on the Minnesota cabin by the wetland for our annual Gathering. The lyrics and recorded voice of Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem” became the focal point for reflection one week ago tonight. 

We gave up the illusion of a perfect offering years ago, though a stifled striving for it continues just the same. The “perfect offering” has gone underground where the sirens of perfection hide when those they’ve beckoned plug their ears to block the torment of lost ideals and shattered aspirations. None of us occupies a pulpit any longer, and the folks whose hands we once shook at the church door are shaking other hands where we once stood. Any dream of a perfect offering was cracked a long time ago, and it was the crack in our respective egos that let the light come in. 

Old Dogs from Arizona, Indiana, Illinois, and Minnesota know there’s a crack in everything, and we know we never were what we were cracked up to be. We’re not so sure the bells still can ring. Much of the social progress we worked for during five decades of ministry is being overturned. The separation of children from their parents at the Mexican border; the insults of neighboring nations and traditional allies; the admiration for Vladimir Putin; the twisting of fact and disregard for truth; the “fake news” war of words against the American Fourth Estate; the blatant encouragement of white supremacist movements; the shifting of blame to the opposing party and past administrations for present policies and actions; the resurgence of the Christian right and American exceptionalism, and so much more gave worn us down, leaving us wondering whether it makes any difference to still ring the bell.

Leonard Cohen’s gravely voice fills the cabin by the wilderness wetland.

We asked for signs

The signs were sent

The birth betrayed

The marriage spent

Yeah the widowhood

Of every government

Signs for all to see

I can’t run no more

With the lawless crowd

While the killers in high places

Say their prayers out loud

But they’ve summoned, they’ve summoned up

A thundercloud

And they’re going to hear from me

Leonard Cohen’s’ “Anthem” brought a sliver of light into The Gathering of Old Dogs. Leonard’s gone, of course, without his suit — gone home without his burden behind the curtain without the costume that he wore — but we heard his voice deep and drear and true — like a wind chime rung by a breeze from the far side of the wetland. Then came the thundercloud summoning the weary to ring the bells again while the killers in high places say their prayers out loud.

I love to speak of Leonard

He’s a sportsman and a shepherd

He’s a lazy bastard

Living in a suit

But he does say what I tell him

Even though it isn’t welcome

He just doesn’t have the freedom

To refuse.

– Leonard Cohen, “Going Home”

Four lazy bastards depart for separate states to ring the bells anew — four tubes of a larger wind chime.

– Gordon C. Stewart on the Minnesota wetland, June 20, 2018

You’re reading from MY book!

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Six trumpeter swan cygnets (babies) have joined their parents on the pond next to the cabin by the wetland. Their family is intact. It’s as beautiful to behold as separating children is ugly. The swans are lucky. So am I.

IMG_9456The cabin by the wetland is a place of privilege. There are no other humans here. But the news has a way of following me to this natural sanctuary that invites a deeper silence. The world doesn’t need another political honker, I tell myself. But my head hurts keeping inside me the need to cry out against cruelty, dishonesty, and bad religion in the nation’s capitol.

I respond to Attorney General Sessions’ twisting of the Bible (Romans 13) the way Jewish comedian Lewis Black responded to Christian televangelists who pretend to know the Jewish Bible: “You’re reading from MY book! If you want to know about MY book, ask a Jew, and he will tell you! You Christians don’t see one of my guys reading YOUR book (i.e. the New Testament) and telling you what it means. Do you?”

Like Lewis Black, I’m not big on televangelists who misuse the Hebrew Bible. I’m even less fond of institutional powers and authorities that use MY book, the New Testament, to justify a policy that is beyond justification.

Romans 13 commends to its first century C.E. readers a proper respect for the civil order represented by the office of the emperor. But it is respect for the office, not its occupant, and not an endorsement of illegitimate uses of the office, nor of unjust laws promulgated by the civil authorities. To presume otherwise, as Mr. Sessions does, ignores the location from which the Letter to the Romans was written and why its author was there. Paul was in jail. Paul was a prisoner of conscience.

The current U.S. Administration’s abuse of Holy Scripture hurts my ears, even on the wetland. If you’re going to use Romans 13, continue to read beyond what you claim supports your argument. “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves the neighbor has fulfilled the law. … The commandments … are summed up in this one rule: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law” (Rom. 13: 8-10). A thoughtful reader of the letter penned from a Roman jail cell might conclude that it was Saul of Tarsus (Paul), who gave Cornel West his definition of justice: “Justice is love made public”.

Love made public does not separate children from their parents. Love doesn’t do it anywhere in any century. Cruelty does. Fascism does. Hypocrisy does. White privilege does. National idolatry does. Willful religious ignorance does.

Before you site MY book as your authorization for cruelty, zoom in on the scene of Jesus’ rebuke of his mistaken disciples:

“When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.’ And he took them in his arms, put his hands on them and blessed them” (Gospel of Mark 10:14-16).

jesus-weptImagine Jesus taking the children on his knee again — the loving, crucified Jesus —in an ICE detention center on the Mexican border. Or buy yourself a ticket to the Minnesota wetland to spend a day with the trumpeter swans who do better than we at caring for children.

—  Gordon C. Stewart with the trumpeter swans on the wetland beyond our boundaries, June 20, 2018.

 

A Uniquely Grateful Graduate

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Some people’s stories are priceless. Austin Wu’s is one of those. Austin shared his last night at Chaska High School’s commencement.

Austin is a neighbor and friend recognized in Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness, published in 2017. He will begin his undergraduate studies at Macalester College in September.

– Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, June 9, 2018.

Wilbur and the New Neighbors

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We have new neighbors.

They poked their heads up from under the deck outside the screen door of the a-frame. Woodchuck (groundhog) pups making themselves at home.

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Woodchucks at the cabin

It was Groundhog day all over again at the cabin. Years before we inhabited the place, a woodchuck had decided to come inside the cabin. The humans were away when Wilbur  — we’ll call him Wilbur — abandoned the family under the deck to settle more comfortably inside the cabin. Maybe Wilber needed to get away awhile.

Kay and I come to the cabin to get away. Now we want to get away from the woodchucks — or have Wilbur and his family taken far away from us in traps baited with luscious carrots, fresh lettuce, celery, and other yummies that doesn’t grow naturally here along the marsh’s edge.

The pups are kind of cute, in a non-dog kind of way, if you love all Nature. “Something there is that loves a [woodchuck],” wrote Robert Frost one night, revising his “Mending Wall” poem when three woodchuck pups after he’d had too much wine. Or maybe Frost had just read Psalm 50, as I did this morning, the day after the pups introduced themselves to Kay: “All the beasts of the forest are mine…. I know every bird in the sky, and the creatures under your deck are in my sight” (Psalm 50:10-11).

Many years ago a woodchuck was eating all the lettuce in the Broomall Nursing Home garden up the street from my boyhood home on Church Lane. When Wade, the nursing home caretaker, complained about the disappearing lettuce, two excited eight year-olds decided to become the good stewards of Wade’s garden. With Wade’s help, Ted Bonsall and I built a box trap of wood and hardware wire, and caught the woodchuck. But, hey, what do you do with the woodchuck you just removed from the nursing home garden? Ted and I were advanced planners, we had built a large cage of wood and chicken wire in the backyard. Having succeeded as trappers, we turned the woodchuck loose from the box-trap into the large cage loaded with carrots, broccoli, and lettuce. The next morning, the cage was empty!

There’s a reason they call a woodchuck a woodchuck. It had gnawed through the wood and the chicken wire on its way to freedom, relieving us of having to answer the bigger question of what to do with a woodchuck when the snow starts falling. The woodchuck got away from us before we wanted to get away from it.

Sixty-seven years later, I wonder whether the Wilbur in Minnesota ever made a prison break in Pennsylvania.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, northern Minnesota, June 8, 2018.

She makes me content

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The marsh in northern Minnesota

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essays offer the perfect complement to the sights and sounds of the marsh at dawn. Like his contemporary Henry David Thoreau, Emerson expressed a profound reverence for Nature. His eyes and ears were tuned differently. Emerson’s essay “Nature” helps interpret my experience by the marsh here in northern Minnesota. It provides spiritual context to the breaking of the day.

He who knows the most, he who knows what sweets and virtues are in the ground, the waters, the plants, the heavens, and how to come at these enchantments, is the rich and royal man. Only as far as the masters of the world have called in nature to their aid, can they reach the height of magnificence. This is the meaning of their hanging-gardens, villas, garden-houses, islands, parks, and preserves, to back their faulty personality with these strong accessories.

Like Thoreau writing at Walden Pond, Emerson invites the common man and woman to rouse from our confusion of wealth with royalty. Emerson wrote, “When the rich tax the poor with servility and obsequiousness, they should consider the effect of men reputed to be the possessors of nature, on imaginative minds. Ah! If the rich were rich as the poor fancy riches!”

The public mind does a very strange thing. While despising the one percent who disdain the poor and steal the worker’s wages, something in us aspires to be among them. We envy their Mara-Largo’s and penthouses. We want to be the ones who hire and fire. Emerson stripped away the illusion that the rich are truly rich.

Yet, despite his praise of Nature, Emerson continued to believe that we humans stand atop Nature’s pyramid as the exceptional species. In this time of climate departure, I part ways with him and turn more toward Thoreau.

Thoreau gets closer to how I feel at the Walden Pond-like site next to the wetland. I’m glad to get away awhile to be among the trumpeter swans, wood ducks, loons, hooded mergansers, great blue herons, and redwing blackbirds.

I love Nature partly because she is not man, but a retreat from him. None of his institutions control or pervade her. There a different kind of right prevails. In her midst I can be glad with an entire gladness. If this world were all man, I could not stretch myself, I should lose all hope. He is constraint, she is freedom to me. He makes me wish for another world. She makes me content with this.

Narcissus has no place here. No “faulty personality” but my own. The trumpets are the swans’. I think I just saw a daffodil bloom where Narcissus once knelt! “[Nature] makes me content.”

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  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, May 30, 2018

 

 

Memorial Day 2018

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Views from the Edge has been silent for awhile. Given my state of mind, it probably should stay quiet longer. But Memorial Day gives the dumb a hook on which to hang some of what’s been banging around my weary head.

Flags are everywhere today. American flags. They decorate the graves of the fallen in our national cemeteries and wave in front yards across America. But things are different this year.

While driving to the cabin by the wetland here in Minnesota, I see a different flag — a blue one with the name of the current president — waving from a homeowner’s flagpole where the red, white, and blue stars-and-stripes rippled stood before 2017. The dead we honor on Memorial Day didn’t die for this substitution. They fought against it.


Trump flagThe dead are unable to see the American flags posted at their graves or hear the sobering “Taps” that honors their sacrifice. Nor can they see the other flag that has taken its place on the flag pole where Old Glory once waved on Memorial Day. They didn’t die for this.

Like the dead, Memorial Day 2018 leaves me speechless.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, May 28 (Memorial Day), 2018.