Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Val Camilletti - Music's Angel

Val’s Halla: My Musical Education
Reflections by
The Reverend Kirk “Chief” Kubicek

In the beginning there was Little’s Music on Lake Street. Bins of 33rpm albums and 45 rpm singles, and listening booths where you could throw them on the turntable and listen. It was there that I first slipped Kinda Kinks out of the paper sleeve and gave it a spin. Step into the fantasy world of Ray and Dave Davies! The birth of fuzz guitar from the now infamous “green amp.” Little did we know then that to get that sound they had taken a knitting needle and ripped the speaker cone. “Who’ll be the next in line,” “I need you,” “Tired of waiting,” and the mind-bending and genre-bending “See My Friends.” I had to take it home and to this day I listen to all those songs and the entire Davies songbook every day. It should not go without mention that Chicago’s own Flock did a definitive cover of Tired of Waiting For You – and played at our Junior Prom at OPRFHS. Ray’s recent releases, Storyteller, Kinks Choral Collection and See My Friends are all worth running down to Val’s right now to get them all.

Meanwhile, my uncle Lee was schooling me on early Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, The Weavers, Woody Guthrie, Cisco Huston, Leadbelly and more. I would spend the night at my grandparents, sleeping in his room while he was away at Northwestern. There were those old pocket copies of Sing Out! And the Folk Box on Folkways (now from Smithsonian), a virtual seminar in American folk music. Lee kept introducing me to new music throughout his life, including the likes of Michelle Shocked, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Art Tatum, Bill Evans and more.

Soon there was a new game in Oak Park – Discount Records on Ridgeland under management by this amazing woman with a big Italian Fro. The albums all had “Demo” stamped on them, or had a hole cut in the corner. I am thinking my first purchase with Val was Dylan’s Blonde On Blonde, with a hole in the corner. The price was right – and who knew I was getting my first taste of Robbie Robertson and Rick Danko for whom I would be manning the follow spot when The Band played Trinity College in Hartford, CT! It also featured Al Kooper on organ (!), and the solid time keeping of the incomparable Kenny Buttrey, Nashville session drummer extraordinaire. Discount Records was just the warm-up act for what would become the legendary Val’s Halla.

During the Discount Record years, since I was already spending lots of time near Adams and Wabash for Frank’s Drum Shop (“Franks for the memories”), we would sometimes stop in Rose’s Records to find something new. One afternoon a few of us Cellar Dwellers went home with The Mothers of Invention Freak Out and Jefferson Airplane Takes Off in our hands – totally changing our understanding of what the possibilities of what rock music could be!

Then it happened! Life changed forever. Val opened Val’s Halla. No need to dwell on the Elvis Shrine –that is something you had to experience first-hand, on your own. First I bought all the Vanguard Chicago Blues Today volumes. Then it was John Mayall and early Buddy Guy and Junior Wells discs. Eventually Val would steer me toward some vintage Limelight recordings of Roland Kirk:  Rip, Rig and Panic and I Talk With The Spirits (with the original Serenade To A Cuckoo). Saw Tull open for Kirk, then Kirk came out, furious at having had to wait for what really did seem like forever, and then he blew the night away, and Ian Anderson with it! I first knew Kirk’s music thanks to Val. (How does a person get all those reeds into one mouth at the same time?) I also picked up the entire Siegel-Schwall catalog, including their collaboration with the CSO on the 1973 William Russo Three Pieces for Blues Band and Orchestra. And my mom would eventually give me the Corky Siegel Chamber Blues CDs for Christmas, also purchased at Val’s. And all of the “singing mailman” John Prine’s output, Steve Goodman, and Bonnie Koloc; those white Dylan underground releases; endless Grateful Dead underground releases; the Who, early, middle and late Clapton, anything with Mick Taylor, Harvey Mandel (The Snake!); and my first recording of the Mahler Ninth, a two disc box-set, under the baton of Sir John Barbirolli (Angel Records) that has sent me on a yearly Lenten discipline of listening to every Mahler Symphony (including the Baribirolli Ninth!) at least once during the forty days. All this and more could all be had at one place and one place only – Val’s Halla.

Let’s face it, Val has been my longest term and most important music teacher. She schooled us all, effortlessly, and at the same time promoted every single local musician who passed through her door. Mimi Betinis, Cliff Johnson, Jimmy Z, Bob Eul, Corky Theusen, John Pazdan, Dave Spence, Jim Erickson, Peter Constantine Cutsivitus. More than just a music store, it became a community gathering place, that long, narrow, barely more than a door’s width shop that might easily have fit inside an El car – how cool that would have been! A rolling rock and roll emporium making its way out of Oak Park downtown, rounding the Loop and back again all the day and all the night!

Val also led the first wave of selling used, that is “previously listened to” LPs, cassettes, 8-track carts(!), and eventually CDs, thus leading the way for the current vinyl revolution. Any serious collector could start right there, especially when the shop expanded into the room next door to house an entire universe of the history of music!

We all kept coming back for more. And the more was not more music. It was to be able to spend time with Val herself. She and Loki were Val’s Halla. The merchandise was just a front. Val is the main reason for going. She took and continues to take a personal interest in each of our lives. She not only wants to know how I am doing, what I am doing, always offering encouragement, always offering affirmation for budding young music careers, but she would ask how my mother and father were doing every time I came back to River Forest to spend time at home. She would ask about my sister. See, the whole family used Val’s Halla as the go-to spot for serious music.

Throughout my 40+ years playing with The Outerspace Band (“the band that played the East Room in the White House” for Susan Ford’s Senior Prom) in New England, Val was interested in every twist and turn of our time on the road, recording, where we were living, what was it like out there in the east. She always wanted to know. She always remembered to ask. At Val’s you are not a customer, you are a part of her life – she is a part of yours.

If it was not in the store Val would thumb through Swann catalogues until it could be found. Eventually the books of endless listings would give way to internet searches. You only needed the sketchiest of information before Val would nail-down what you were looking for and get it. “I heard a cut on the radio – a country singer – doing Christian music he had written – I think his name was Marty something…..” “You’re probably looking for Marty Stewart. Let’s see….here he is. How about Soul’s Chapel? Would that be it?” His singing Move Along Train with Mavis Staples, with Marty playing Pops’ Staples guitar, is a Gospel must to hear at least once in your life time.

When it hit the news that Val’s was closing, I first got word from my mother, who clipped a story out of the paper and sent it along. How could that be, I wondered? Forty-plus years of time returning over and over again to Music Mecca, forty-plus years of walking up and down that narrow aisle surrounded on both sides by everything one could ever want to hear, surrounded by promo posters, hand-lettered signs, a virtual history of music covering every available inch of wall space. I still have some hand-lettered signs on day-glow orange cardboard from Val’s announcing Beatle Tickets – 5$. Kirk Jr. has them hanging on his bedroom wall alongside a smiling picture of Bob Dylan off the cover of The Chicago Seed, an early  underground culture journal of the emerging hip music scene in the City Of Broad Shoulders that could be picked up bi-weekly at, yes, Val’s Halla. I had to make one last visit. I photographed the store inside and out, taking pictures of Val seated at the counter as she has greeted every one of us countless times throughout the decades, Val in front of the window on the street, “the Aisle” of music, the used LPs.

It seemed the end of an era was really upon us. She had weathered the competition of the big-box stores, the invading chains, to the point that when a customer at Barnes and Noble at the corner of Lake and Harlem could not find what they wanted, the staff at B&N would simply say, “Have you tried Val’s?” Val’s had withstood every commercial trend and all the competition, only to be driven out of her iconic location beside the rumbling iconic El track by some silly development scheme which itself would founder on the rocks of typical suburban red-tape and protest. Despair had set in for every girl and boy, mom and dad, sister and brother who had made the pilgrimage, the hajj, to music Mecca over and over and over again.

But then! Turns out the obituaries were premature. And I of all people should have known that, yes, there is Resurrection! There is New Life! There is another chapter to be written in the history of music. Joining the emerging Arts District in South Oak Park on Harrison, Val’s Halla was to be reborn! With O What A New Look! Wide open spaces to roam. Light, light endless light to replace the cozy womb-like darkness of the original store. A performance stage in the front window! Kirk Jr. and his indie-pop sidekick Sarah Fridrich played that stage summer of 2011! Vintage Vinyl is now the Rage. The trends have caught up with the leader of the band that was made for you and me - Val Camilletti. It may be a new look, but the heart and soul of Val’s remains, because she remains one of this Earth’s most wonderful people. She has been the Musical Mother for us all – the true Mother of Invention when it comes to musical knowledge and musical love - which is the operant word to describe Val’s – love. It shines through her endless smile. It is Val’s love for all things music, all things Chicago, all the things we would grow up to be – she wants to know us, has known us, in our many incarnations, and has been the mid-wife for so many of those of us who call Val’s home. For Val’s Halla is not the covered-over alley-way that defined the physical presence of the Val Universe in Oak Park for so many years. Val’s is not the endless rows and stacks of merchandise – if one can call music merchandise at all. Val’s in the end is Val – and her trusty sidekicks Halla and Loki – loving what she does and loving all of us who continue to make Val’s Halla our home away from home. We are all thankful to be a part of one of music’s great stories. To quote the incomparable late Sonny Bono, “The beat goes on….” Thank you, Val!

Epilogue: None of us ever considered the possibility, but of course it was bound to happen sometime. Last night, July 23, 2018, Val Camilletti moved on to join the Pantheon of musicians she had loved, mentored, promoted and archived for most of her mortal life. Thousands are in mourning. Yet, we rejoice in having our lives enriched by a true living legend. Val wrapped us all in her love for music, for all God’s creatures, and for humanity. We are grateful for all the moments she generously shared with us all. She brought us and will continue to bring us all closer to the light, dispelling all darkness the rest of our living days. Every note I play on my drums and guitar have been informed and infused with the life and spirit of Val Camilletti. She is now, as always, an eternal and foundational part of the history of music forever and ever. Amen.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Speak Truth To Power

Look At The Plumb Line - Live for the Praise of His Glory
To make clear once and for all that Jesus is NOT John the Baptizer, Mark gives us a detailed account of how John loses his head (Mark 6:14-29). It is a story drenched with all the political and religious intrigue, scandal and backstabbing violence as any that commands our attention in today’s social, political and pop culture scenes.

John had simply done what needed to be done: he spoke Truth to Power. As always, Power does not like be reminded of what it is doing that is wrong. He reminds Herod it is not lawful for Herod to have married his own brother’s wife. And yet, we are told that this particular Herod, for reasons unexplained, somehow enjoys listening to John. He likes having him around. Herodias, his current wife, formerly his brother’s wife, however, is tired of listening to John and employs the charms of her own daughter to have John’s head delivered on a platter.

All in the name of keeping a scandal quiet, although it rarely works to kill the messenger. The word is out, and reputations are already discredited.

The Prophet Amos is a prototype for John (Amos 7:7-15). After seeing a vision of God with a plumb line in his hand, Amos is sent to deliver a series of messages to King Jeroboam II, messages that are not at all encouraging. The message is that not only is the King going to die, but all the people of Israel”s northern kingdom, Samaria, will have to pay the price of his unfaithfulness. This unfaithfulness includes over-reliance upon military might, withdrawing the ten northern tribes from the Davidic alliance, a growing disparity between the very wealthy and the very poor, and a return to idolatry, setting up temples devoted to the Golden Calf in the northern kingdom. It is Amos who declares that what YHWH the God of the Exodus cares about is doing righteous deeds for those in need, not extravagant or correct worship, let alone idolatry.

One has to love the comical depiction of the King’s own advisor/protector and priest, Amaziah, as he attempts to head off disaster by running Amos out of town. Amaziah suggests that Amos could make more money back in the southern kingdom of Judah by issuing his prophecies there. That’s always the temptation: to follow the money.

Amos says, “Nothing doing. I’m not in it for the money! I am no prophet, nor am I a prophet’s son. I am a shepherd and a dresser of sycamore trees. The Lord took me away from my flock and told me to bring this message to you and your boss.”

Speaking truth to power: Amos and John the Baptizer, two of an endless series of such prophets in the Bible – and forerunners of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus: sent to speak truth to power.

God shows Amos a plumb line, after which Amos and John become the plumb line. God says, just put this plumb line next to the wall I have built – the wall being a metaphor for Israel and Judah, for God’s people, and as far as we are concerned, for the Church. Does it look plumb to you, Amos? Are the walls still as I built them? Or, are they out of line?

It interests us that between these two lessons lies the letter to the Ephesians. Ephesians might be said to describe the plumb line. It talks about our sole purpose: that we might live for the praise of God’s glory and to serve others.

That’s it. The rest is all about God’s doing, not ours. And what God does is substantial.

God blesses us with every spiritual blessing. Not some, not many, but every spiritual blessing.

God chose us as His Beloved before the foundation of the world. Before “In the beginning…”

God destined us for adoption as his children according to the good pleasure of his will!

God freely bestows his glorious grace making us his beloved!

God forgives us our trespasses.

God makes known to us the mystery of his will set forth in his prophets and in Christ.

God has a plan to gather up all things to himself, things in heaven and things on earth.

In Christ we have also received an inheritance, as we are marked with the seal of the Holy Spirit in Baptism.

God does all this so that “we might live for the praise of his glory.”

With cases like Herod, Herodias, Jeroboam and Amaziah, like all the well-publicized cases of our own time, it is easy to see when things are out of plumb; things are out of line. Hang the plumb line in the midst of our world and what do we see? Are we as a nation, as a community, as a church in line with the God who does all this for us without our asking? Do we live for the praise of God’s glory? If yes, Alleluia! If not, what needs to be done? Who among us is like Amos and John the Baptizer in speaking Truth to Power? Do we grasp God’s concern for alliances among the various tribes of God’s people? Do we grasp God’s concern for the growing disparity between the very wealthy and the very poor? And if so, what do we do about that? Do we yet grasp that it is right behavior every day that praises God, not some notion of right worship? Or, worse yet, turning to idolatry, which in the end is only religion cast as money?

We say we believe that everything we say and everything we do will proclaim the Good News of God in Christ. We say we will seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as our selves. We say we will strive for justice and peace for all people and respect the dignity of every human being (BCP 305). We pray that we have a reverence for earth as God’s creation, and that we will use its resources in the service of others and to God’s glory and honor (BCP 388). Our catechism says according to the gifts given to us we will continue Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world (BCP 855). Not in the parish, not in the church, but in the world. Does our encounter with Christ and engagement with the world show that we are a people who live for the praise of God’s glory? Dare we look at the plumb line, repent and follow Jesus?

As Paul writes elsewhere, the world is on tiptoes in anticipation waiting for us to speak truth to power and work to make the world right-side up again. Amen.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Dodrupchen Rinpoche

Dodrupchen Rinpoche. Following my time at Trinity College, and serious consideration to convert to Judaism (forever grateful to Rabbi Stanley Kessler and Bernice Saltzman who encouraged me to remain a Christian and to embrace my religious tradition), I began to explore some Eastern religions and philosophies. In particular, I had come across the writing of Sri Aurobindo who at the time (mid-1970s) led a community in India in Auroville. Sri Aurobindo incense was also widely available in those days when I would travel into Cambridge, MA with the Outerspace Band to play, most frequently at Jack’s on Massachusetts Ave, and Club Zircon in Somerville.

Space was living in Wendell, MA, a small town of about 700 people and half a dozen rock bands. Eric Weiss was our main manager and booking agent. One day Eric asked me to drive him to what we discovered was a small temple of devotees of he Tibetan Lama, Dodrupchen Rinpoche. Eric was going to purchase a car that was for sale in the paper. When we got there we discovered, much to our surprise, that Dodrupchen was visiting along with a companion, Lama Jingtse at The Mahasiddha Nyingmapa Center, in Chesterfield, MA at the time. Before buying the car we were introduced to the two Lamas, sitting in a circle on the floor in the meditation room. After a lively discussion, Dodrupchen taught us the Om eh ah hum vajra guru padma sidhi hum chant sitting in front of a shrine decorated with Christmas tree lights! I have used the chant throughout my life for over 43 years. It remains the primary focus of my mindfulness practice, and I am forever grateful for this chance encounter that has so enriched my entire life in ways that are simply inexplicable.

The meditation room in Conway

As we sat in the circle, Dodrupchen would ask what we did, while Jingtse would interpret. When I said I played drums, Dodrupchen seemed perplexed, so Jingtse began to wildly wave his arms and legs in the air, while still seated on the floor, making some noise to demonstrate! The Rinpoche nodded in understanding. Before purchasing the car, an Oldsmobile as I recall, we were invited to watch the Rinpoche eat his noonday meal, which we did. Such a chance meeting, occasioned by a classified ad for an automobile, resulted in one of the most important episodes in my spiritual journey. The chant is a fixed part of my very Being, and reconnects me with Dodrupchen and the eternal spheres of the divine every time I employ it.

About the same time, we met a young woman in Cambridge who went by the name P Susan, Susan McCaffrey, who was the first of several devotees of Meher Baba I would meet back in those days. It was Baba who coined the phrase, Don’t Worry, Be Happy, which later became, of course, a Top 40 hit with a bullet by Bobby McPherin. P Susan gave me a book of Baba’s teachings, and another devotee gave me a photograph of Baba playing a drum! Baba did not speak for the last several decades of his life on earth, but rather communicated with hand gestures and with a letter-board. It would be Pete Townshend of the Who, however, who would be perhaps the most famous of the Meher Baba devotees. And it was Baba who inspired much of the Who’s music, just as George Harrison was advancing the teachings of ISKON, the Society of Krishna Consciousness, and the guru Srila Prabhupada, through his music and that of the Beateles. Oddly, when Space moved out of the Big House in Wendell on the Green, the Hari Krishnas moved in! Since they shaved their heads, and I still had the barber kit my father, Robert A Kubicek, used to cut my hair through my high school years, and at the time I had not had me hair cut for some seven or eight years, I gifted the electric shears and scissors to them as a house warming gift of sorts. Although considered a nuisance at airports and on the streets at the time handing out copies of the Bhagavad-gita, years later I would find myself teaching the girls at St. Tim’s from that very same book of Hindu wisdom, which itself is a portion of the longer poem, The Mahabarata. In the Gita, Lord Krishna shares much of the same wisdom as our own Lord Jesus in conveying a message that we are all together and individually the Lord’s Beloved.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

The Jesus Movement Continues

Another Sabbath in his hometown synagogue, and the Jesus movement continues. At first the people are astounded at his words. Then the arguments break out regarding the wondrous things he does and says, but how dare he? He’s just one of us they say. We know his relatives they say. Yet, all this is exactly the sort of faithful response one should find in a faith that is named “Israel,” which we recall means “he wrestles with God” after father Jacob who spent all night long in such wrestling resulting in a life-long limp. To refuse to argue, to debate, to question, would be a sign of disrespect. The synagogue congregants honor Jesus with their arguments.

But still, it ends badly. They “take offense.” Jesus chews them out: “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” Then we are told he could do “no deed of power there, except to lay hands on a few sick people and heal them.” That’s all. For the rest of us to heal anyone would be a pretty good day’s work!

Then just like that, off they go to other villages. But not before Jesus calls them two by two and commissions them to do the work he has been doing: he gives them authority over unclean spirits. He also gives instructions: “Take nothing … except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts… wear sandals and not to put on two tunics… If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. “They cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.” [Mark 6:1-13]

Altogether this can seem somewhat bizarre to us unless we remember what’s going on in Mark’s gospel and what is going on in Israel at the time. For the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ the Son of God is a call to action. There is no cozy birthing scene of a wandering family among animals in a cave like stable as in Matthew or Luke. No shepherds and angels. No star in the heavens pointing the way for a caravan of Magi making pilgrimage to welcome the tiny baby who was born to reintroduce God’s shalom for and die at the hands of Rome in the process.

The good news begins with John baptizing outside Jerusalem, outside the corridors of power, issuing a call to action: Repent, for we have lost our way, the way, the way of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Our own people like the Herod family, the priests and the aristocracy, our historic leadership in the city of peace, the city of shalom, no longer are interested in working God’s purpose out, but have sold out to the brutality of the Empire, of Rome, of those who claim Caesar is God. The people are over-taxed, over-worked, and forced to worship and serve only the regime instead of the living God who had brought them out of bondage in Egypt. Now Israel is become Egypt and they are once again slaves of an Empire. The Empire. John says it is time to turn it all around, to repent. It is time to turn the world right-side-up again.

Thus it is in Mark the very opening scene is an adult Jesus making his way down to Jordan’s stream to sign on, to join with those answering the call of John. Thus it is, in Mark we find Jesus and his companions portrayed as a resistance movement to Roman pagan domination. His conflicts are with the those who have been chosen liaisons to the Romans: The Temple, the priesthood and the aristocracy in Jerusalem are on the payroll to keep law and order in the land. Against all this Jesus and his companions are portrayed as living out a deeply Jewish program of return to the life of the covenant with their God. A life of God’s shalom for all.

There’s a rabbinic saying: “A person’s representative is as the person himself.” Unlike Jesus who “could do no deed of power” in Nazareth where the force to repent and resist is not strong, the disciples are sent out two by two and they “cast out many demons” and “heal many who are sick.” They have been sent to fight against the forces that have been arrayed against Israel and humanity. Although it is not an overtly political mission, in Mark’s story demons are portrayed as allies of Rome, while diseases are foes that weaken the body of Israel. They are sent out to canvass the villages and towns to urge people to repent and join the resistance movement. It is a bold move. But business as usual will not get the job of God’s shalom accomplished.

We need to be reminded that this Jesus movement is no volunteer organization. This is a community called and commissioned by Christ himself. His representatives are to be as Jesus is himself. That is who we are: called and commissioned to be as Jesus himself, those people sent by Jesus to cast out the demons of the Empire and build up the body of the faithful.

Jesus’ instructions are for a lean and unencumbered corps of representatives. The call not to be burdened with an excess of clothing, money and food is a call to simplicity. As one commentary notes, traveling light leaves them free from bearing unnecessary burdens and free from the temptation to turn the journey into venture for profit. His instruction is worth reflection in these days when the church faces its own loss of status and power and struggles to know how to position itself for the future. Travel light and nimble; travel swiftly to recruit as many as possible into the Jesus movement. The mission is one of extreme urgency. Carry no excess baggage.

And finally, we are to take the reality of rejection and the dangerous nature of the mission seriously. There is no promise that people will want to listen as the disciples bear witness to the good news and echo John’s and Jesus’ challenge to the Empire. Not everyone will repent. So, don’t get bogged down in endless debate and chatter. Move on and shake the dust off your feet.

Feet. Such action with feet in the face of danger and rejection can still be seen in today’s middle east. Recall the Iraqi gentleman who hurled his shoe at President George W. Bush for starting a war in his land over the flimsiest of excuses. Or, those Iraqi men who took off their shoes and pounded them against the statues of the former rulers. Jesus is directing his representatives to insult those who do not receive them and their mission using their feet. Who knows, such a bold response to complacency may wake people up and rouse more people to the cause! And after all, as we have seen, Jesus received similar rejection from the religious officials, the people of his hometown, and even his own family.

The successes we hear of in the casting out of Roman demons and restoring the health of the nation Israel are set in stark contrast in the verses that follow in the sixth chapter of Mark, for they tell of the beheading of John by Rome’s stooge-in-Chief, Herod. And we listen closely as Herod ponders whether or not Jesus is the Baptizer come back to life. John’s body lies a-mouldering in a tomb, but his spirit marches on. Jesus and many of his followers will meet the same fate as John for their attempts to wake people up and spur them to action. Yet, we are those people who know the rest of the story. How after three day’s rest Jesus rises again from the dead. The Jesus mission of shalom for all people cannot be stopped and will not rest until there is justice and peace for all people, and respect for the dignity of every human being, every creature under heaven, and for creation itself. And the people say, Amen.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Poems for America

5 July 2018
John Shea tells a story of a teacher who gets presents from some of the students every Christmas. He comes to know that a long narrow box means handkerchiefs. He gets in the habit of stacking them up in the closet without opening them until one at a time he needs a handkerchief. Some years later he opens one of the boxes to find a gold pocket watch on a chain. It had been there all along for who knows how many years. Life is like that. We often don’t know what gifts we have been given.

Chris Staiger was a young man in our confirmation class one year, the same year as Kirk Jr. Chris was getting married and wanted to get confirmed in the church. Soon after came the marriage and then his father died. I had visited his father in the hospital in Carroll County, the same hospital where my mother years later would begin her journey home. When Gene Staiger died, I accompanied his wife, Janet, Chris’s mother, to a quiet little cemetery on a hilltop in western Maryland for the burial. It was a full day’s journey, but one could find no more beautiful and serene final resting place. While waiting for the funeral director to arrive, Janet and I watched Eastern Bluebirds flying around about the business of their day. 

After that, Janet began to volunteer in the St. Peter’s office, helping with the bulletins, the newsletter and such. She decided we needed new doors and got Pella to come out and install two new doors into the office as a gift to the church. After some time Janet became ill with cancer. I would bring her communion at home, visit in the hospital, and we would talk about God. She always wanted to know more about God and Jesus, until it was time for her to join her beloved Gene on that quiet hilltop far away.

One Christmas Janet, knowing of my love of poetry, gave me the gift of a book: Poems for America: 125 Poems That Celebrate The American Experience, edited by Carmela Ciuraru. The dust jacket has a picture of a somewhat tarnished 48 star American Flag, a paining by Jasper Johns from 1954. I sent my thank you note, and thanked Janet in person, but like the teacher in the story, laid it aside to be opened down the road apiece.

When I did, I was teaching American Literature and American History at a girl’s boarding school. The girls were from around the world; 24 different countries and across America. The book is pure gold. American history, its triumphs and its failures in verse. Three Hundred Years of what Billy Collins rightfully calls “the full chorus of America singing!” One learns on the first page that the first published poet in America was Anne Bradstreet. A woman, living in the seventeenth century colonies. Less than a hundred years later the first African American published poet is Phillis Wheatley, a woman, and a household slave. The last poem in the book is by the contemporary American Indian poet, Sherman Alexie. In between are the experiences of nearly every kind of American imaginable, offering deep insights into what some call the American experiment.

Time spent sitting with any one of these poems promises deep insights into what American has been and what it still can be. The chapters of this experiment have still to be lived, experienced and written. We rarely stop to take the time to do this in the ways that these 125 poems do. One needs more than one box of handkerchiefs to wander through the 300 years of poetic reflection on who we are and where we have been. Poems for America, edited by Carmela Ciuraru. Thank you, Janet, once again for the gift of your spirit as it lives in these poems. 

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Ode to the Fourth of July, 2018

Ode to the Fourth of July, 2018

Today the President suddenly acts all historical
While the immigrants on the border are hysterical
And divisions run rampant from sea to shining sea
Saying I must hate you and you must hate me
Philosophy that can’t be beat
In any town on any street
Black and white discrimination
Still flares up across the nation
While talking to the Russian oligarchs
Republicans morph into commie pinko-loving Meadowlarks
Singing Trumpian praises day and night
While gearing up for the next Supreme fight
Tear it down, tear it apart
Till there’s nothing left
But ashes, dust, and broken hearts
As the dream that once was America the free
Becomes ever dimmer for you and for me
So, its O say can you see
And America, America
God sheds her grace on thee
No more
For Free press is now the target
For Second Amendment zealots
Leaving nothing but blood on the bullpen floor
Bodies torn asunder, faithful servants of truth slain
While emails of glee only add to the pain
Denials that racism still is a sin
As both Dems and GOP swill their whiskey and gin
Once upon “The mighty mother of a mighty brood,
Blessed in all tongues and dear to every blood,
The beautiful, the strong, and, best of all, the good.”*
Now Lady Liberty’s torch is losing its strong light
Happy Fourth to us all
And to all a good-night….

*(from Ode to the Fourth of July, 1876 – James Russell Lowell)