Uncle, Brother, and Friend

Even in the busy holiday season as Ecclesiastes tells us “There is a time to be born and a time to die.”  My uncle Gary was one of those whose time to die just happened.  He did not want a funeral service, but I felt a need to write a brief tribute here to mark his passing. 

Because my mother had five younger brothers I have always been blessed with lots of uncles.  As of this week only two of those five uncles are still living.  I have not been geographically or emotionally close to any of the five for many years, but the death of the youngest, my Uncle Gary, this week has touched me more than expected.  I have only spoken to Gary a few times in the last 50 plus years, but there was a time when he was more cousin/brother/friend than uncle to me.

You see Gary, who was “Butch,” as he grew up was only four years older than I.  When she heard about Gary’s death my sister Sue said, “Ouch, Gary was awfully close to being a part of our generation.”  Technically, she’s right.  My sisters and I are all baby boomers, and Gary was not, being born in 1942.  But personally Gary/Butch felt like he was part of my generation as we were growing up.  He was the only one of my mother’s siblings who was still at home as I grew up.  So when we visited my grandparents Butch and I would explore the barn or the woods on their farm together.  Because he was always there the nickname my sisters and I had for our grandmother was “Grandma Butchie.”  

My mom’s family was big on nicknames.  Her dad, Alma, was ”Hooker,” although he was just “Grandpa” to me.  In addition to “Butch;” my mom, Sarah, was “Sadie” or “Sal.”  Carl was “Bud;” John Franklin, “Hank;” and Forrest, “Frog;” Now, only. The latter two are alive, but this blog is about Butch.

It’s funny what memories survive over 70 years.  I’m sure there were many other things that Gary and I did, but here are the recollections that have stuck with me.  I had a great big problem with homesickness until I was at least 12.  In truth it was still hard when I went away to college when I was almost 20, but at least then I didn’t have to call my parents and ask them to come get me.  My earliest memory of time with Gary was probably when I was 8 or 9.  I was supposed to spend the night at Grandma’s farm.  When my mom delivered me to the farm one afternoon Gary and I ran off immediately to explore the woods that was maybe a quarter of a mile from their farmhouse.  My mom was talking with Grandma when we took off for the woods, and all was well until I saw her driving off from where we were in the woods.  I’m sure she was thinking it might be better to leave without a big good-bye scene, but I was devastated she had left without letting me know and started running toward the road in a futile attempt to catch up with her.  Later that night I was so homesick my grandma had to call my parents to come get me.

Another memory seems like a scene out of time so far removed as to be hard to believe.  My grandparents did not have indoor plumbing until I was in my teens.  Their water came from a pump outside and their bathroom was a two-holer outhouse.  You heard that right, and yes I remember sitting side by side in the outhouse with Gary doing what people do in a privy.  By this time I’m guessing he was about 14 and I 10.  It was in that outhouse that I got my first sex education from Gary.  Living on the farm, he had the advantage of first hand learning about sex from the animals they raised.  I doubt that the education I got from him was 100% accurate, but it was better than any I got anywhere else till I got to a college biology class.  I also remember running naked from the outhouse to the house, something my parents would have been horrified about.  But my grandma who had raised 7 kids, 5 of whom were boys, just smiled as she watched us from the kitchen window.  

Gary and I actually attended the same school for a couple of years.  When I was in Jr. High our Jr. and Sr. High Schools were housed in the same building, which as an aside was the same building my mother graduated from almost 20 years before.  Old Blume High School was showing its age, but our very far-sighted school board had planned very well for the baby boom that my class initiated; and they built a brand new high school that opened when I was in 8th grade and Gary was a senior.  By that time Gary was nearly an adult and I was still his much younger nephew.  At least that’s my speculation based on how he appeared to be too “cool” to acknowledge his scrawny and too smart for his own good little nephew when our paths crossed at school.  

After that Gary and I lost touch with each other.  I’m embarrassed to admit I don’t even know what he did after high school.  I was much too busy with my own life and plans to go on to college and beyond and unfortunately turned my back on that part of my life and family.  My parents moved 60 miles away from my home town while I was in college, and I am sorry to say I felt superior to my relatives because I had two degrees and most of them did not have even one.  I think Gary was also a victim of a family feud that occurred when my grandmother died.  I never knew what it was all about, but it left in its wake a never-healed division resulting in brothers not speaking to brothers.  

And now as my parents’ generation is almost all gone I realize the loss is mine for not staying more connected to those family members.  The education they could have given me about a blue collar life style would have been at least as valuable as any grad school class I took in helping me connect and communicate with a diverse and important part of the larger community we all belong to, even if we fail to realize it.  

So Rest In Peace, Uncle Gary.  Regrets for the connection we lost, but much gratitude for the good times we had as carefree youth.  

Mental Meaderings

Sometimes memory is a curse. I’m fast approaching some milestone memories, the kind that end in zero or five. My 55th high school reunion is next month and the 50th anniversary of my ordination is also. Such milestones give me pause to remember the highs and lows of my 70 plus years of life experience.

For example, for some reason I decided to add up how many U.S. Presidents there have been in office during my lifetime. From Truman to Trump adds up to 13 occupants of the White House since I was born. What shocked me about that number is that it means that I have been alive for almost one-third (13/45) of all U.S. Presidents ever. I wish I hadn’t done the math.

One of the most interesting courses I took in seminary back in the Nixon administration was a course called “Theology in the Modern Novel” taught by Professor Don Webb. In that class I began to learn the power of fiction to reveal a truth deeper than fact. That experience was the beginning of my life-long appreciation for the power of narrative to touch people at an emotional level that rational-logical discourse can never reach. I had not realized till I started writing this piece that my whole appreciation and dedication to narrative rhetoric began in that class and shaped my preaching and teaching ever since. Thanks, Don.

Remembering today the work of the author I studied in that class on narrative theology I found this quote that resonates with my own intellectual and theological journey and may explain how I was drawn to his writing. “Having seen that I was not capable of using all my resources in political action, I returned to my literary activity. There lay the battlefield suited to my temperament. I wanted to make my novels the extension of my own father’s struggle for liberty. But gradually, as I kept deepening my responsibility as a writer, the human problem came to overshadow political and social questions. All the political, social, and economic improvements, all the technical progress cannot have any regenerating significance, so long as our inner life remains as it is at present. The more the intelligence unveils and violates the secrets of Nature, the more the danger increases and the heart shrinks.” (As quoted in Nikos Kazantzakis (1968) by Helen Kazantzakis, p. 529)

As an aside let me throw in here an observation about the mystery of memory and how it leads to different and I hope deeper reflection than expected. By the way, that only happens if we take the time to explore our inner journey—and more importantly to learn from the insights we uncover there. It is a rare journey we don’t usually take time for in our hectic 5G world, and that may be an excuse, at least it is for me, because I may not like what I find if I go spelunking down memory lane. As Barbra Streisand sings in “The Way We Were:” Mem’ries, may be beautiful and yet, what’s too painful to remember we simply choose to forget.”

This all started because I’ve been feeling my age more than usual this week as a head cold has been added to my “normal” aches and pains. The memory I thought was going to result in a light-hearted blog post about the joys of aging was the lyrics to a song in the musical “Zorba,” called “Grandpapa.” The setting for the song is one where the elderly Zorba is being ridiculed for his age by some younger men in a bar. The banter back and forth between Zorba and his tormentors goes like this:

“A young man with no money is better than an old man with no money. Goodbye, Grandpapa!

Grandpapa? Grandpapa? I’ll show you who’s Grandpapa! Zorba! Zorba! Listen! There are two Zorbas. The inner Zorba is as slender as a reed!

Look at that, look at that, poor old man is weak and fat!

He has thirty-two teeth!

Look at that, there’s no doubt, every tooth is falling out!

He wears a red carnation behind his ear!

Look at that, over there, golden beard but long white hair.

This is the outside Zorba!

Look at that, old and feeble Grandpapa”

Trust me, I know the many joys of being a grandfather; I just wish it could come at an earlier age when I could play ball and shoot hoops and get down on the floor to rough house or play like I used to. But all that aside, that “Grandpapa” song led me down a memory trail that resulted in this much longer rambling about the influence on my life of the creator of Zorba, Nikos Kazantzakis.
I don’t remember how I chose Kazantzakis to focus on for that seminary class, but I’ve always been glad I did. My life and thinking have been and continue to be enriched by that decision. Yes, Kazantzakis died in 1953; so many today would not consider his work “modern,” but remember this class was in 1971, just 18 years after Kazantzakis’ prolific writing stopped. I only scratched the surface of Kazantzakis’ work in that class, reading “Zorba the Greek,” “The Last Temptation of Christ,” “The Greek Passion,” and “Saviors of God: Spiritual Exercises.” The latter is described this way by Simon Friar, the English translator of many of Kazantzakis’ writings, “Saviors of God” occupies a central role in the work of the Greek author….where in a passionate and poetic style, yet in systematic fashion, he set down the philosophy embedded … in everything he has written.”

One of the thoughts that has stayed with me all these years from “Saviors of God” is this one about prayer: “My prayer is not the whimpering of a beggar nor a confession of love. Nor is it the petty reckoning of a small tradesman: Give me and I shall give you. My prayer is the report of a soldier to his general: This is what I did today, this is how I fought to save the entire battle in my own sector, these are the obstacles I encountered, this is how I plan to fight tomorrow.”

I have often turned to that passage for inspiration when I am weary of the struggle for social justice, even though I don’t like the military metaphors. Too often human struggles to comprehend the mysteries of existence have led to violent conflict because in order to manage our discomfort with ambiguity religious and political get hardened into concrete symbol systems that must be defended at all costs. But the struggle Kazantzakis is talking about is not for one ideology or belief structure about God and the universe. Kazantzakis says in that same work: “We do not struggle for ourselves, nor for our race, not even for humanity. We do not struggle for Earth, nor for ideas. All these are the precious yet provisional stairs of our ascending God, and they crumble away as soon as he steps upon them in his ascent.

In the smallest lightning flash of our lives, we feel all of God treading upon us, and suddenly we understand: if we all desire it intensely, if we organize all the visible and invisible powers of earth and fling them upward, if we all battle together like fellow combatants eternally vigilant — then the Universe might possibly be saved.

It is not God who will save us — it is we who will save God, by battling, by creating, and by transmuting matter into spirit.”

One of the things that keeps attracting me to such abstract thoughts and images is how my finite little mind is stretched by Kazantzakis’ spiritual language. And like my muscles I often resist such stretching. Even as I write this I kick myself for starting down this path. I am feeling cornered by the impossible notion that I need to somehow wrap this post up with some neat summary of what this all means. But of course I can’t. Any God I could “explain” or capture in human language would be woefully inadequate.

So I will leave you here with one of Kazantzakis’ most mysterious quotes that has tugged at my soul for all these 50 years. This one is also from “Saviors of God.”

“Blessed be all those who hear and rush to free you, lord, and who say: “Only you and I exist.”

Blessed be all those who free you and become united with you, lord, and who say: “You and I are one.

And thrice blessed be those who bear on their shoulders and do not buckle under this great, sublime, and terrifying secret:
That even this one does not exist!”

I can’t explain why that image appeals to me, but I recently found another quote from “Saviors” where Kazantzakis at least hints at what it meant to him:

“Nothing exists! Neither life nor death. I watch mind and matter hunting each other like two nonexistent erotic phantasms — merging, begetting, disappearing — and I say: “This is what I want! I know now: I do not hope for anything. I do not fear anything, I have freed myself from both the mind and the heart, I have mounted much higher, I am free. This is what I want. I want nothing more. I have been seeking freedom.”

Most appropriately that passage was used for Kazantzakis’ epitaph: “I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.”

Drum Beat of Life

This picture has been special to me ever since I took it. My dad was very resistant to doing any of the activities organized for the patients in his nursing home. He never did care much for anyone telling him he needed to do something. So I was very surprised the day I took this picture. We had been sitting in the atrium visiting when the activity director he couldn’t stand began to gather some patients for a drumming circle. I could tell Dad was curious about what they were doing; so as I was getting ready to leave I asked him if he wanted me to take him back to his room or if he wanted to stay there. He surprised me by saying he wanted to stay and even more so when he agreed to join the group, took a tambourine and drumstick and began tapping out a rhythm.

I didn’t know then that it would be the last time I would see him alive. He died two weeks later on February 12 of this year, and that final photo became priceless. I came across it while scrolling through the photo roll on my phone today and realized with a start that it has been 6 months this week since he died. The months have flown by, but every once in a while I stop and think, “I need to go visit Dad.” Those difficult visits as he was failing physically and mentally were often very challenging, but even so there’s an empty place in my life that he filled for over 70 years.

That last photo seems so right in retrospect. Music was my dad’s life for 80 years. He played his tenor sax until he was 90 and sang in several choirs and ensembles at the retirement community he lived in. He had his own dance band when he was a young man playing all the Big Band standards of the ‘40’s and ‘50’s. He was in a church choir for as long as I can remember and had his own group called the Harsh Notes at the Otterbein retirement community. When he was no longer physically able to sing or play his sax a few years ago most of his reason for living was gone.

For my last image of him to be making music and to be doing so in a drumming circle is also special to me for one more reason. I know my dad was disappointed that none of his children inherited his passion for making music or his musical talent. Because I can’t carry a tune in a bucket when it came time for me to join our school band in junior high our band director suggested I could play the drums. My band career only lasted a year, but I enjoyed the drums and have a warm spot in my heart that my last earthly glimpse of my dad was of him drumming. Life changes and ends, but the beat goes on.

Memories and Prayers

A year ago this week I posted a prayer for my 50th high school class reunion. Of the 122 posts on my blog in 4 years, it continues to be the most read piece by far. It is viewed multiple times weekly and almost every day, and I am pleased but curious why that is. I have some theories about that, but would love to hear from anyone who has read that post from September 24, 2014. Why did you click on it? What feedback do you have about it? Did it speak to your life situation or not, and if so what in particular did so?

And if you haven’t read it and would like to, please go to peacefullyharsh.com and leave a comment. Thanks.