The Color of Water

“Nothing has done more to bring people of different races and different backgrounds together than athletics, certainly more than politicians have done. It’s why the Greeks invented the Olympics” Mike Leach, Washington State Football Coach

Coach Leach is probably wrong about the 2nd part, but the 1st part rings true, at least in my experience. Of course, in defense of politicians you have Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln and the Civil Rights Act and…well, anyway, makes one think.

Although for me, an English French Dutch Cherokee Indian American (don’t call me white) my first friendships with African-Americans began on a basketball court. A flat hard space that asked not your color, although I remember feeling inferior, that those friends were better than me and I had to prove myself to them.

I came from an all-white grade school into a junior high that exploded my world of sameness, suddenly understanding how different I was, that I wasn’t normal, that I was indeed the odd one, because of how little I knew about the beliefs and traditions, the myths and stories of people who didn’t look like me, who didn’t sound like me, amazingly, my new friends didn’t even play basketball like me.

My understanding of African-Americans had thus far been limited to my television set, seminal moments, mostly athletic, involving African-Americans, including the Black Power salute by Tommy Smith raising a black gloved right fist and John Carlos raising his left gloved fist while standing on the award pedestal after finishing 1st and 3rd respectively in the two hundred meter dash at the Olympic Games in October of 1968. I once sensed defiance in pictures of Tommy Smith and John Carlos. Now I understand defiant posture as a plea for justice, the animation of prayer in the oppressed, two men standing together with a white sprinter from Australia name Peter, asking God to set right the world, a world inhabited by red, yellow, black and white, a world that presented a gold medal to Tommy Smith but told him he was excluded from certain hotels and restaurants, country clubs and conversations.

There is a grand tradition of fists raised in the name of justice, some might even name it wrestling with God, times where prayer is more of a dialogue rather than monologue, spirited debating with God Almighty. Abraham questioned God’s promise and his own virility, Moses argued incompetence and asked God to send a more eloquent man to Pharaoh, Job ranted, David’s mouth grew parched calling for help, and Jacob transformed wrestling with someone you love into an art form by calling on God to bless him before he was beaten to a pulp. In the United States of America, African-Americans have prayed for many years with emotion, prayed with faith, prayed with belief that someday life will be better and not just better, just.

My upper left front tooth was chipped when I was fourteen years old by a raised fist, a shadow boxing match gone awry between Walter and me. Walter was different from me. He was from across the tracks, African-American, and the best athlete that I ever competed with. We were in the locker room feigning machismo, seeking affirmation, someone to tell us we were men.

We weren’t really fighting, just horsing around, he could have slammed dunked me and mopped the tile floors with my raggedy head. No, it was more like a big brother patronizing a younger, letting him get in a blow, shadow boxing playfully, just throwing punches with the intent of saying I could take you if I wanted, but not really wanting to hurt you. Except he miscalculated and busted my tooth.

Walter Reece 35th reunion

Ron Williams, Brent Taylor, Scott Stuart, Walter Reece, Kevan Mueller at 35 yr reunion

During the winter of our ninth grade year, I watched from the bench as Walter and Mike and Myron and Ricky, all African-American kids along with a white Catholic kid named Chet, led a team of otherwise short white guys to a rousing basketball win over our cross-town rival across the river, the all-white team that hadn’t been beaten in their entire three-year junior high career.

That was a surreal moment for all of us. I thought we had no chance to win. I never really thought about those four African-American starters, about how it made them feel, how it may have empowered them, helped them become stronger in a world still dominated by white teachers and coaches and principals and mayors and governors and presidents. Perhaps this tension was unspoken but visceral, resulting in many wildly thrown punches at something unseen, undefined, not yet born in our social consciousness.

I hadn’t heard Martin Luther King, Jr.’s I Have a Dream Speech. I didn’t know much of letting freedom ring. I was just trying to get along as best I could. But I did know that the world in which I had been introduced left me uncertain, timid, unsure. The basketball court, however, was the place of refuge for me and for kids of all color, the place we lost our fear and found our competitive pride and spirit. For many of us who defined each other by sport, a basketball court was where we found freedoms ring.

I don’t really think of those days as the “good old days”. They were difficult, awkward, we didn’t even know we were punching and ducking, bobbing and weaving. We were, in fact, living out the words of the old Negro spiritual reconstituted by U2, I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, believing in a Kingdom where all the colors bleed into one.

James McBride was the son of a black father and white Jewish mother and when he was young, he asked his mother about her being different. She would simply say ‘I’m light skinned.’ Then he began to think himself different and asked his mother if he was black or white. ‘You’re a human being,’ she replied. Then James asked her, “What color is God?” For years he asked this question and his mother declined to answer. Finally, one day he asked and she told him, “God is the color of water.”

These days I’m reminded of the surreal nature of this earth and that I’m a stranger in a strange land. But I’m grateful for those awkward days of youth and thankful for a slightly broken smile that reminds me of the way it used to be when we shadow boxed one another in the halls of our school bobbing and weaving and swinging, challenged to understand what it meant to live in a kaleidoscope world, in a Kingdom where all the colors are bleeding into one, in a Universe created by a God who is for all I know, the color of water.

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The Unfolding Highway…part 1

I remember watching my Dad fold a road map on vacation while driving the highway. It is a lost art and the original texting while driving. Those maps had memory, and if you ignored the memory creases, there could be a thousand ways to fold the map, but only if you got in a hurry. So you looked or felt the memory at the fold line, the crease.

My family has always loved maps and the great American car vacation. Sometimes we unfold that highway map and see Mount Rushmore and Yellowstone, the Gateway Arch, a Disney cup in a small world after all and a runaway mine train in Silver Dollar City. I saw the folded paper and squiggly lines as a treasure map and the longing for the highway was passed down from the ghosts of Okies travelling route 66 to California. Dad and Mom have always enjoyed driving vacations and seeing the country and the sights.  

This love came mostly from Dad because he was afraid to fly. That was my theory anyway, but he would insist that driving the highways of these United States is a love affair, topographical intimacy at 70 MPH that goes deeper than asphalt, into the soil of our nation and those who have built cities and bridges and monuments and National Parks. I inherited this love like a dog in a Norman Rockwell station wagon, head out the window and tongue flapping in the breeze.

Although, I must confess my sins of omission, that I skipped a family frontier photo shoot at Worlds of Fun and I also skipped a Washington state vacation to play in the Little League state championship. Once, while vacationing in Orlando my junior year of high school, I flew back alone to Tulsa for a golf tournament. That first airline trip was a rite of passage, a happy moment. And even as I felt a bit alone leaving my family in Orlando, I felt a sense of independence, that my Dad and Mom had confidence in me to let me fly back on my own. I flew Delta Airlines and listened to canned airline music on my headphones, Eric Clapton’s Layla and Marry Me Bill by the Fifth Dimension. It wasn’t as manly as the Inuit Indians sending off a sixteen year old brave into the Arctic Sea in a sealskin canoe to hunt for caribou on a distant island, but it made me feel grown up.

My penance though, for missing those vacations is to write about the moments I remember.

I remember vacationing with the Davis cousins in Washington state and playing whiffle ball with Mark, Brooks, Greg and Toby, and riding a pony. Listening to Mom read doses of literature, her medicine from Reader’s Digest or the Bible was enabled by captive attention, our ears within the sound of her voice for extended hours as we drove. This was her highway pulpit encased in steel and glass, and as we listened, we were oblivious to the fact that the fuel needle was below “E” and Dad had speeded up to accelerate the resolution of out-of-gas suspense. Mom used teachable moments before anyone thought to call them teachable moments.

Sister Terri two-stepped and fell down the steps in front of 35,000 fans at Busch Stadium, the same place a $5 bill was pilfered from my 9-year old fingers at the hot dog stand. I was fascinated by a thousand cars leaving a stadium parking garage descending a corkscrew driveway, and addicted to chocolate malted ice cream frozen like arctic ice, and the ubiquitous lyrical serenade of wandering vendors, “Hey, ice cream…hey, hot dogs, hey cold beer.” At the Houston Astrodome I snagged a foul ball hit by Jesus Alou on a pitch by the Cardinals Nelson Briles.

Before Ralph Nader and the NHTSA, all 7 of us could fit in a red 1967 Ford Mustang driving to church and we piled 8 into a Chrysler Imperial for a vacation to California. We drove west a lot in those early years, to California, Colorado, Texas, and we once calmly watched a twister travel across a plowed field in west Texas like it was an antelope running across the prairie.

Once in Texas, after staying overnight at the Cochran’s in Spearman, Texas, Mom left a 10 dollar bill stuck in the door as some kind of tip or bed and breakfast fee and Aunt Nordeen took offense and they passed back that 10 dollar bill back and forth, screen door to wiper blade, through the mail slot and back to the car visor…I thought we’d never leave because these two children of the Depression were fighting over $10.

To be continued (part 1 of 2)

Judgement and Grace in a Rubber Stamp

It’s difficult to comprehend all the political jousting about immigration policy. And even something as simple as people yearning to breathe free seems to be smothered in sound and fury. Sometimes it helps to hear a story from someone you can relate to…here is one by Rich Little.

I was detained by immigration at Miami airport. I was returning from a mission trip to Jamaica leading a group of 18 Harding University students. I had applied for my green card several months earlier and was unable to leave the States. If I left while my application was being processed (which took one year) my application would be canceled. I had to apply for a special exception to this rule called “advanced parole” (yes, the same word used for prisoners and detainees).

After expediting my advanced parole application with the help of U.S. Senator Hutchinson whose son attended Harding I felt confident in my ability to re-enter the US. 18 Harding students and Heather waited in the U.S. Citizens line while I lined up with the Foreign Nationals. I handed my Australian passport and advanced parole papers to the immigration officer. He looked at the papers and scanned my passport. He then reached under his desk and pushed a button. He took my passport and papers and placed them in a sealed envelope. I asked him if there was a problem. He said I needed to speak to a supervisor.

The supervisor arrived and escorted me to a separate room. He told me to take a seat. I was panicked because we had a one hour connection and I was the leader of a group of 18 students who had just been detained. I had no way to contact Heather. A man sat beside me. I asked him where he was from. “Antigua,” he said. He told me he didn’t have the correct visa. An immigration officer called him to the desk and told him he would have to return to Antigua unless he purchased a visa immediately. The visa cost $80. He didn’t have the money. I approached him and told him I had the money to give him. He refused it. I told him if he didn’t take it he would be returning to Antigua. He knew. He didn’t like the thought of someone else giving him money. He was escorted out and placed on a plane back to Antigua.

I was then called to the desk. 45 minutes had passed. I was hoping Heather and the group had gone to their gate and would leave without me. Rescheduling 19 people to fly together on the next flight would be virtually impossible. The immigration officer opened my envelope and asked me why I was entering the US. I wanted to say, “Because I live here!

Because U.S. Senator Hutchinson expedited my parole. Because all my papers are in order and I shouldn’t be in here!” I didn’t. I said, gently and calmly, afraid of being escorted out and placed on a plane to somewhere, “My wife and I live in Arkansas and I’m returning to my home and work.” He said, and I quote, “We don’t have to let you in, you know. But by the grace of the INS you have been allowed to re-enter.”

He took a rubber stamp and stamped my papers and passport and handed them back to me. I can’t tell you the feelings of loneliness that comes over someone in that situation. Alone. Unable to contact anyone. Unsure of the outcome. Feeling like a criminal. And my papers were in order! I ran through the airport and to the front of the security line to enter my departing terminal.

I discovered our flight had been delayed by thirty minutes. I approached the gate and everyone asked what happened. I simply said “paper work.” I boarded the plane and slumped down into my seat. I look out my window and saw a plane next to me wondering if my Antiguan friend was on there on his way back.

I am an immigrant. I am a wealthy, white, Christian, immigrant from a “safe” country who had access to power. Because I am a wealthy, white, Christian immigrant from a safe country who had access to power I can only begin to imagine how a non-Christian refugee family from Syria must feel when they learn that their application has now been denied.

I can only begin to imagine how the Iraqi businessman green card holder feels now sitting in a hotel room in Berlin unable to come home to the States to be with his children and wife.

There are many great evils in the world. Confronting these evils while crushing humanity in the wheels of despair has never achieved the greatness my new country has modeled. It breeds a harmful and inhumane result, the scars of which are born on the thousands and millions of innocents whose lives are damaged as a result.

There must be ways to confront evil while continuing to honor and protect and elevate the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

Bona Fide Creative Plagiarist

Bernie Sanders is the grandfatherly hippie from a generation that is stealing Facebook from the young and dancing to the Beach Boys at 50 year high school reunions. Why does Bernie resonate with young voters? Perhaps grandparents are easier to relate to than parents, and are thought to be more “themselves”, more real, more authentic, than their career chasing money-jaded baby-boomer parents. This helps explain how the oldest man in the Presidential race appeals to the youngest voters.

Most of us long for the authentic, the real McCoy, the bona fide, just as we are repulsed by the deceitful, the veiled, the mala fide. In the movie, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Everett, after escaping prison, discovers that his wife is planning to marry another man, because according to his wife, Penny, he is not bona fide, and to accelerate the demise of his reign as paterfamilias, she tells the children their Daddy was hit by a train.

Ulysses Everett McGill:  Why are you tellin’ our gals that I was hit by a train?

Penny:  Lots of respectable people have been hit by trains. Judge Hoover over in Cookville was hit by a train. What was I gonna tell them, that you got sent to the penal farm and I divorced you from shame?

Ulysses Everett McGill:  Uh, I take your point. But it does put me in an awkward position, vis-à-vis my progeny.

Bona fide is not as easy as it sounds and is difficult to find in public figures who intentionally conceal their devils while displaying their angels. In another scene from the movie, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the wandering protagonists, Everett, Pete, and Delmar, stumbled upon an African-American guitar player by the name of Tommy Johnson, who explained to them what the Devil looks like.

Pete: I’ve always wondered, what’s the devil look like?

Ulysses Everett McGill: Well, there are all manner of lesser imps and demons, Pete, but the great Satan hisself is red and scaly with a bifurcated tail, and he carries a hay fork.

Tommy Johnson: Oh, no. No, sir. He’s white, as white as you folks, with empty eyes and a big hollow voice.

According to Tommy Johnson, Satan could be Rush Limbaugh, Michael Moore, or a Presidential Candidate.

Being true, original, authentic, or real, sounds easy enough, but it isn’t. My brother Greg once reminded me while I was complaining that I couldn’t find anything original to write, that everything has already been written, so don’t waste your breath trying to write something new. Just do it again, but say it in your own words.

Understanding that there is nothing new or original helps assuage my guilt because I confess to sometimes stealing stories. Sub-creation is what I do. I take what is already created and rewrite it…I’m a bona fide creative plagiarist.

Presidential candidates, like writers, are creative plagiarists. They take what is already created and rewrite it for good or evil. Politicians take the great Constitutional ideas of our forefathers, Jefferson, Washington, Lincoln, and sprinkle in the good sense of Martin Luther King, Jesus, and their favorite Supreme Court Justices, or they re-write the ideas of Machiavelli, Adam Smith, and Walt Disney, while stirring in some Scripture for good measure, “Anyone who refuses to work should not eat.” 2 Thessalonians 3:10, or, “All the people had everything in common, sharing their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need.” Acts 2:42

presidential candidates 2016

To pick on Bernie Sanders as an example, he isn’t saying or proposing anything new. He’s been saying these things for many years. He simply stuck around long enough for an electoral cluster of young voters with no political memory to sprout like winter wheat in the greenhouse gases of polarizing politics. “He (Bernie Sanders) doesn’t seem to have ulterior motives,” said Alison Sanderlin, a 26 year old who works in a photo lab and believes the GOP message has fallen flat.

Today, our country’s youngest block of voters are searching for their own truth, their own verity, their own authentic voting souls. I remember a recent conversation with my son, Brandon, who is a 23 year old meteorologist from Norman, Oklahoma. We were watching television and had a brief political conversation. He asked me who I was voting for in the Presidential Election and I asked him the same question. I didn’t fully reveal my hand, but simply said, “Not Trump.” He said, “I’ll probably vote for Bernie Sanders.”

That was a revealing moment for me as a white middle-aged male with socially compassionate, fiscally conservative, and bureaucratically libertarian leanings. I’m not sure if that makes me liberal, conservative or whig, but I do sense the deep alienation that exists between the young in this country and the entrenched.

Exit polls in New Hampshire and Iowa confirm that Millennials from the age of 18-29 prefer Mr. Sanders by 84% to 16% over his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton. WSJ page A6 Tuesday February 16, 2016

So I’m wondering, among the candidates, who appears to be ulterior in their motivation? Or to say it backwards, who are the overt, the revealed, the fully disclosed? Hillary, Ted, Marco, Donald, Jeb, Bernie? In other words, are we able to discern underlying or private motives behind a candidacy? Isn’t politics in it’s very nature a blending of the overt and the covert, the hidden and the revealed, the undisclosed and the divulged? Are the Millennials saying that Donald Trump isn’t bona fide? How dare they! Perhaps the Donald sold his soul to the Devil like Tommy Johnson.

Ulysses Everett McGill: What’d the devil give you for your soul, Tommy (Donald)?

Tommy (the Donald) Johnson: Well, he taught me to play this here guitar real good and to evade the real question by ruthlessly attacking mealy-minded political opponents.

Delmar O’Donnell: Oh son, for that you sold your everlasting soul?

Tommy (the Donald) Johnson: Well, I wasn’t usin’ it.

John Della Volpe, who as director of polling at the Harvard Institute of Politics has been surveying millennials since 2000, says young voters generally seem less interested in politicians resumes than in their candor. “Young people are really less interested in past accomplishments and more interested in today and the future,” he says. “They look for candidates who are focusing emotion, talking about the moment, being authentic.” Janet Hook WSJ Tuesday February 16, 2016 Millennials Unsettle Race

Authenticity seems to be what my children, all three now in their mid-twenties, listen and respond to. Socrates would have called this verity. Policies and philosophies matter, but only if they are sustained by truth. The bona fide, the real, the authentic, is something to consider when you enter the polling place next November. Otherwise, you might discover that you’ve been hit by a train, like Ulysses Everett McGill, and placed in an awkward position, vis-à-vis your progeny. I’m not sure for whom I shall cast my vote. I’m just suggesting that we heed the words of Abraham Lincoln who said, “I am not bound to win, but I am bound to be true. I am not bound to succeed, but I am bound to live by the light that I have.”

Barely Getting a Leaf Out

My good friend Ralph Rowand once told me something in college that made me look at him with a tilted head like a dog that’s been given kale. “Our generation got cheated out of a war.” said Ralph bemusedly. Once my head leveled back, I understood him to mean that the cheated part was the glory, the John Wayne and Sands of Iwo Jima stuff. Those of us who never served in combat often think just of the glory and flag waving valor dismissing the reality that we can never fully understand, the price paid for freedom. David Brooks writes about victims of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, “The victims of PTSD often feel morally tainted by their experiences, unable to recover confidence in their own goodness, trapped in a sort of spiritual solitary confinement, looking back at the rest of the world from beyond the barrier of what happened.”

Ralph, nevertheless, wanted in the battle. Which reminds me of the perseverance of my Dad who also missed out on military service, although he did play tailback for the Bluejacket High basketball team. His coach admonished him, “Get your tail back on the bench!” After enduring 26 consecutive losses, coach told him to get in the game after one of the starters fouled out. Terrel swished several late free throws to ice the victory and break the losing streak. I’ve heard Dad tell that story dozens of times and have always wondered what it was like to sit there for 26 consecutive losses, and then get carried off the court as the game winning hero.

My Dad tells another story which helps me reflect on heroes who are sometimes only honored after languishing on the bench for years. I hope those who have served understand the value of what they have done and that in the grand scheme of life, they are part of a tapestry of sacrifice that is bigger and more powerful than they can imagine.

But before I tell that story, let me tell you about JRR Tolkien, a soldier in World War I who became a writer to a large degree because of what he saw and felt and heard at the Battle of the Somme. His book, Tree and Leaf, contains a story about a man who could barely get a leaf out. The author of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, wrote about a painter named Niggle, who spent his whole life trying to paint a very beautiful tree with snow-capped mountains and forests behind it. In spite of his efforts, when the Niggle dies he has finished painting only one leaf.

Tolkien’s story reminds me of the story my Dad often tells with a shaken voice like he was the redeemed one. An American soldier in Vietnam shot a North Viet Cong soldier who had lined up a South Vietnamese family with intent to execute them including their children. Many years later, he was playing golf in Bartlesville and he happened upon a couple of younger golfers. Since play was slow they decided to play together. The older man noticed the younger man stealing glances at him, like he knew him. After several holes the younger man looked the old soldier squarely in the eyes and said, “You saved my family, many years ago in Vietnam. I was a child then. You saved us. Thank you!”

What happened to the painter in Tolkien’s story? Disappointed that he only finished one leaf, he goes to his reward and sees something in the distance. As he approaches, he realizes that there is the completed tree he was trying to paint all along!

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/9477541-tree-and-leaf

Whether its everyday life or a bloody battlefield, we often find ourselves disappointed, discouraged, even disillusioned, at how little we’re able to accomplish. We feel like there’s so much unfinished, so much still to do.  The one leaf that we paint often goes together with leaves that others paint to create a beautiful tree. The tree wouldn’t be complete unless we did our part.

John Garth writes about Tolkien’s time spent on the battlefield in World War I.

In the ordinary soldier – an inspiration for Samwise Gamgee in The Lord of the Rings – he saw astonishing resilience and courage on a battlefield swept by machine guns. Autumn rain made it all a mire, with corpses afloat in shell holes.”  John Garth, ‘Battle of the Somme: the ‘animal horror’ that inspired JRR Tolkien.’

Tolkien’s first dragons are surreal hybrids of beast and machine. They lumber against the elf-city of Gondolin, spouting fire and clanking, with orctroops hidden inside. This was in the first Middle-earth story, begun by 2nd Lieut JRR Tolkien in hospital straight after the Battle of the Somme, where Britain’s own secret weapon, the tank, had just been rolled out. War had caught him at 22, marking the end of the world as his generation knew it.

Tolkien believes that our vision of what we want to accomplish is often inspired by God, and that in the end God can weave our leaf together with the leaves of others to create the beautiful tree.Battle of the Somme

God bless the few, who have given so much, for so many.

A Choir of Donkeys and Angels

Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.  

~  Victor Hugo

I had a reputation as a youngster that enshrouded me like cigar smoke hovering over Churchill on a still summer evening. I sang pretty well. I sang because my church sang a capella and everyone sang. If you stole our hymnals we would sing, because we knew the words and music by heart.

We sang during chapel at Harding University for an entire semester sans songbooks when a guy I know but won’t incriminate hid 3,000 hymnals in an obscure corner of a storage area near the Benson Auditorium. The books were discovered by the Secret Service detachment of former President Gerald Ford as they did their standard facility search. It didn’t stop the Christians at Harding University from singing in chapel in the days before Powerpoint. We sang from memory. We had no choice. If we didn’t sing, the rocks and the pews would burst forth in song.  And so we sang using only the song leaders pitch-pipe as a mechanical helper, although there were some who viewed that instrument with suspicion along with pianos.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E4ww1LLr4NM   Our National Anthem at Harding University and everyone is singing!

That reputation for singing brought with it expectations, responsibilities, and pressure. Because of the reputation my church esteemed for singing simply and beautifully, those who knew us well, believed singing must be passed along to each congregant like holy elixir. This wasn’t true. Our church sang with a common passion but with a diversity of talent, like the host surrounding Jesus in the manger. Donkeys bellowed, cows mooed, chickens squawked. But while the barnyard animals made a loud noise, many of our church sang like angels hovering over baby Jesus, beautiful, surreal. And most of us were painted with the same reputational brush, “Hey, those Church of Christ folks can sing.”

My music teach knew this about me, this reputation for hanging out with the church of unadorned singing. I was loitering in the hall outside Mrs. McDonald’s 7th grade music class at Central Junior High, waiting for my 4th hour class while 3rd hour was still in session. Suddenly the door opened and Mrs. McDonald pointed a crooked finger at me. She said, “Come in here, I want you to sing.” I sheepishly shuffled into the room and stood beside her piano. Her music was open to an Irving Berlin song, “Mary’s a Grand Old Name”, and she jauntily began playing as I sang for the 3rd hour students. I finished and walked back out into the hallway. I was shy but never felt uncomfortable during the impromptu exhibition, perhaps because singing is easier than talking to a beautiful cheerleader. My heart seemed bigger when I sang, my mind calmer, my feet no longer mired in clay.

There is something evocative in the way our souls mournfully waltz to music when we bury our dead and stand taller when we sing the Star Spangled Banner. Our souls burn to the beat of rebellion and the disharmony of revolution when we are stupidly young, our souls soar sublimely as we sing to our children. Music gives voice to the broken, courage to our warriors, and megaphones to our injustices. And all of this articulated in tones which softens the calloused and awakens the indifferent.

Music strums and hums and changes us in keys that sound more reasonable and beautiful than words alone. Music is the stuff that comes out of us when we can’t speak, notes shaped like the essence of our unspoken emotions.

Music does something that logic cannot, it changes me, softens the edges, and raises my hackles. My creative nature affirms the lyrics of Chris Martin singing “The Scientist”…”I was just guessing at numbers and figures, pulling the puzzles apart, questions of science, science and progress, do not speak as loud as my heart.”

Holy Scriptures also affirm this in Ephesians 5:19, “…speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord.”

Ray Charles speaks of music in the biological sense, that it was a body part, or perhaps an organ or one of his senses. “I was born with music inside me. Music was one of my parts. Like my ribs, my kidneys, my liver, my heart. Like my blood. It was a force already within me when I arrived on the scene. It was a necessity for me – like food or water.”

I wonder if music ever goes away? Do songs from our lives hang in the air forever, the shaped notes hanging in the ether? I still hear Sunrise, Sunset from our wedding day, and my wife singing Hush Little Baby Don’t You Cry to our mortally injured dog Cocoa just hours before we took her to the vet and said goodbye. I hear pastel smocked teens singing Up With People at the old Bartlesville Civic Center in the Sixties, and the screams of teenage girls on the Ed Sullivan show as The Beatles sang, I Wanna Hold Your Hand. Like hot air balloons hovering over our world, musical memory shapes and influences our thoughts, our legacy, our souls.

Music notes in space

My earliest musical memory came from furniture. My parents RCA stereo console doubled as fine furniture and music savant. I cut my teeth and the living room rug on Al Hirt’s Fancy Pants and Herb Alpert’s This Guy’s in Love, which led me to a love of big brass and Chicago’s Beginnings.

I remember walking down the aisle between scarred metal chairs at Green Valley Bible Camp to the strains of voices singing Just As I Am before I was baptized in the camp swimming pool. I hear Paul McCartney and Wings, Band on the Run driving west on Highway 60, travelling to a junior high golf tournament in Ponca City. The next year in Norman at the state high school golf tournament, I played the worst round of my competitive career, 88, and trudged down the seventeenth fairway, head down, distraught. From the open window of an apartment near the fairway, the Beach Boys soothed my sagging competitive soul with the soaring Help Me Rhonda.

And I sang when my daughter Lauren was born, alone in my car on a pastoral New Jersey highway, driving home from the hospital on a December night, “You don’t know what it’s like to love somebody, the way I love you.” I sang with the Bee Gees as I drove and thought about how happy I was to be a father, serendipitous happiness, like I had found a secret door to Heaven. So I sang, although the sentiment with which I sang wasn’t what the Bee Gees sang about. I didn’t care, that’s how I felt, like nobody understood the joy of having a daughter like I did in that moment, so I sang like Pavarotti in the shower.

I have a good friend and old college roommate from Harding University who can’t sing but does anyway. He drove a white 1970 Dodge Charger and called it The General. We sang Jimmy Buffett’s, Son of a Son of a Sailor, while driving in The General and sang Marshall Tucker Band’s, Can’t You See What That Woman is Doin’ to Me, on Friday nights in our living room when we had no female companionship.

And when we attended ball games, we sang only the last line of the Star Spangled Banner, …’and the home of the (Atlanta) Brave.’ It was funny that Ralph loved music. He didn’t seem the type to love music, but I often thought of Ralph later in life when I sang to my kids before I put them to bed. I sang An American Trilogy: Dixie, All My Trials and The Battle Hymn of the Republic, a trio of songs arranged by Mickey Newbury which originated as American folk songs from the 19th century and popularized by Elvis in the seventies.

I thought of the stories Ralph told me about being young and hearing about the Confederacy from his Mom and listening to songs about the South before bed. I was from the Great Plains and thought all Americans were like me, and yet one of my best friends still spoke of the South, and he spoke of the War of Aggression Against the Southern States and he laughed when he said it but I knew the truth buried in the humor was complex and textured and layered with pain, heartache, pride and honor.

And of course I married a beautiful Yankee from New Jersey. And so I sang that Trilogy of songs to my kids and thought about how great our country was and is and how we are all different, yet the same, and how many have died for that ideal. And that Ralph and I are friends despite being cut from different bolts of geo-political-cultural cloth.

We are unique, we are the same, and I sense that every time I hear An American Trilogy and every time I see the Stars and Stripes waving in the breeze while singing our National Anthem, which Ralph and I now sing with a different understanding, with the correct ending, standing older, but taller, more proud and respectful, and grateful.

Grateful that many have died fighting for the principle of freedom and liberty and the United States of America. And grateful that floating out there somewhere in our memory ether is a jukebox of music carved from our voices, hovering around us like Winston Churchill’s ubiquitous stogie smoke that magically never blows away.

Abraham, Martin & Me

David Schribman recently writing in the Pittsburg-Post Gazette shared these thoughts about the 50th anniversary of the Martin Luther King Jr. “I Have a Dream” speech.
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With a black man in the White House, has Martin Luther King’s dream been realized? …
The civil rights movement, lasting roughly from 1955 to 1968 but with antecedents reaching far earlier and with effects cascading far later, produced a profound transformation — and has itself experienced just as profound a transformation.
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It has been transformed in American memory from a much-reviled outsiders’ movement making what seemed to be extremist demands into a much-beloved popular uprising that almost seamlessly extended the logic of American values to a broader base of the nation. Many of its roots were in the effort to open the schoolhouse doors, and today its goals are so widely embraced that schools are closed in the middle of each January to celebrate its aspirations.
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It began as a terrifying assault on broad, commonplace practices, led by the bold and the brave, steeped in civil disobedience, prosecuted on buses and at lunch counters and at the violent end of the fire hoses of the powerful. It evolved in memory into a proud, broad-based surge of honor whose principal genius is celebrated with a holiday and a Washington monument. Abraham Lincoln today has only the monument, no longer the holiday.

In history’s long view, Lincoln and King — one white and one black, one a 19th-century martyr and the other a 20th-century one — might be remembered as relay runners in the same long-distance race. Indeed, long before it was the backdrop for King’s speech, Lincoln’s memorial, its Doric columns symbolizing ancient and eternal values, was the backdrop of Marian Anderson’s contralto in a celebrated 1939 episode of defiance and determination to the strains of “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.”

In the pitch-perfect symmetry afforded by the decimal system, we mark the 50th anniversary of King’s dream in the same year as the 150th anniversary of those other hinges of history, the Emancipation Proclamation and Battle of Gettysburg, and of the only other speech in all of American history that changed the American character, the Gettysburg Address, whose anniversary is but a dozen weeks away.

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But before the self-congratulation becomes too hearty, let’s remember that this is not a “mission accomplished” moment and that all this was prompted by one of the greatest injustices in all of human history, a stain on the American story that begs a different question, still without an answer: Why did it take so long?
It is difficult to remember today, when that march is a monument in memory — cast in stone, you might say, like the Lincoln and King memorials — that the genius of it all wasn’t only in the careful planning of A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin. It also grew out of the improvisation prompted by Mahalia Jackson, once so well known that it wasn’t necessary to identify her as the Queen of Gospel.

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King was deep into his oration when Jackson, who had sung at a rally to raise money for the Montgomery bus boycott of 1956, worried that he was losing his forward momentum. She urged him: Tell them about the dream, Martin.

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King had given his “dream” riff many times — it wasn’t a new element of his repertoire when he stood on the Lincoln Memorial steps. Then again, Lincoln’s speech at Gettysburg, with its biblical allusions and rhythms, wasn’t a complete original either. The result wasn’t only history. It changed history.

Bespoke

It was the first time I ever prayed with my face touching the earth…and the first time I have ever had a prayer interrupted by a President of the United States. I lay prostrate on the green grass surrounding the Washington Monument, praying with ten other men in a tight circle, and a half million men all along the Washington Mall. It was October 4, 1997, a Saturday afternoon, and the Presidential helicopter with William Jefferson Clinton aboard, had just powered over our prayer huddle flying barely higher than the Washington Monument peak as if by governmental mandate.

Washington DC October 4, 1997

As dusk neared, I looked behind where we sat, and I noticed the reflecting pool leading to the Lincoln Memorial. This was near the place Martin Luther King stood and delivered in his sing-song style perhaps the greatest speech I’ve ever heard, the I Have a Dream speech of the civil rights…

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