A legacy that is still alive

MuesPicnicRecently my son Evan drove west to California for a new venture in his career. On the way, he stopped by the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Approaching the park, the snow was two feet deep, he informed us. He arrived in time to see the sun setting.

Back home, my daughter made note on her social media account that she misses nature. That can happen for all of us. But Emily has made a point of immersing herself in concern for nature. She’s learned the plight of bees and butterflies, and captures her instinctual love for these creatures in amazing photographs.

Their mother Linda Cudworth would have been 59 years old today. She would have loved to hear the enthusiasm of her son Evan as he sat on the canyon rim going Live on Facebook as his many connections shared the moment.

She would also have been appreciative of the fact that her daughter embraces those bees and butterflies with such verve and purpose. We all learned monarch ranching from Linda Cudworth during the summer months. In the years since she passed away from ovarian cancer in 2013, we’ve ranched a few monarchs of our own. One summer we released 50 of the insects back into the wild after raising them from eggs detected on the bottom of a milkweed leaf. They would eat their way through the caterpillar stage and emerge from a chrysalis into free-flying male or female butterflies. Symbolic, you might say, of so many transitions in life.

Tattoos 

My daughter has a tattoo of monarchs and bees on her shoulder. My son has a symbolic symbol of flowers on his chest. But the real legacy is the tattoo she impressed upon their hearts through her exceptional care as a mother.

In all those years of marriage, I observed her dedication to such things. She invited the neighbor kids over to catch bugs and to show them the secret faces of nodding spring wildflowers and summer lilies. Some of these beauties have been transplanted from the garden we started in Batavia two decades ago. I gathered up the lily bulbs and inserted their yellow and white forms into the soil behind the house now shared with my fiancee.

These symbolize the fact that life indeed goes on. My children and in-laws have shared many memories of Linda over the last four years. We keep that legacy alive. But I am also fortunate to have met a woman that is not threatened or jealous of that legacy. As a result, it never needs be denied.

Additional roles

I believe my children can feel that in their lives. I certainly hope they do. It has been difficult at times to know how much to insert myself into their lives. On one hand, it is important not to helicopter their thoughts or experiences. On the other hand, a father to children that have lost their mother has an additional role to play.

What we have all tried to do, and I include my wife-t0-be’s family in this, is honor the legacy of the life we’ve lived and find the honor of the legacy we’re creating together. This is the true cycle of life, where love is at the heart, and people gather around it to share in the hope and determination required to embrace this world.

The fact that my children are now drawing upon nature for inspiration is likewise an inspiration to me. It shows that those many walks in the forest preserves (or ‘forced preserves,’ as my son once thought we were saying) were for good reasons.

Ashes and prairies

Following my wife’s passing, my children and I took some of her ashes and distributed them in the heart of a massive prairie. The sun was setting and we all recalled how she loved the place for its open spaces and its prairie soul. I thought about those ashes as I biked through the prairie yesterday, and how strange it really is that we all come and go in our time.

That is reason enough to hold on to the legacies that matter in our lives. And to make new rejoicing in the fact that we are here, and alive, where the flicker of butterfly wings demand our attention yet so many people seem to deny their importance in favor of this virtual mess going on this world.

No fan of fools

I can say without hesitation that my late wife would have been disgusted by all that has transpired in the last four years. She was a keen fan of the former President, whom she simply called “Barack” with a touch of respect and love in her voice.

While she was a loving person, she did not suffer fools gladly. We all loved her biting sense of humor that emerged at often unexpected times. There was always a touch of leadership in such remarks. “Don’t be fooled by fools,” she’d often intimate. So you can imagine how disgusted she would have been at the election of Donald Trump as President. A part of me is honestly glad she does not have to abide the mortal offense.

Because her dedication to the needs of small children and the practicalities of public and private education were evident in her preschool teaching. I specifically recall her admiration for a mother from the Hindu faith that brought their child to the Christian preschool where she taught. “There are many paths to God,” the woman responded when asked if there were any concerns with the educational format.

Achieving

Likewise, my late wife’s training in special education revealed her deep concern for the humble and less fortunate in this world. Arrogance by principle she did not abide, nor false pride. She worked with high school students with learning disabilities that included profound degrees of autism. Yet she also guided one of her students through the challenges of high school to make it through college and earn a playing spot in the NBA.

Many a social evening were spent with our close friends who were also teachers. Few people outside the teaching profession can comprehend the many ways teachers go beyond their job descriptions to positively affect the lives of young people in public education. And while my late wife genuinely thought the athletic world a bit vain, she also volunteered to direct the Cheer Club at the high school.

False vanity

Her amused disregard for athletic vanity could have its humorous consequences. When I took up cycling, she made fun of my tight-fitting cycling “kits” and called me Lady Legs for the tradition of shaving my gams, as serious cyclists do. Heck, back when we were dating, and I held back from going out the night before a running race, she teased that I had Golden Leg Syndrome.

Yet I persisted in my pursuits despite this brand of teasing, because every couple uses the other for balance. It does not pay to be too co-dependent either. So we found our respective spaces in this life, and worked together to encourage that same self-confidence and hunger for growth in our children. I see that belief at work in them still, and pray that they can continue to find love in this world among people who support it. That is the legacy that is still alive.

 

A recycled life is worth considering

IMG_1287The choice to move from my home of twenty years was not an easy decision to make. It was the childhood home of my children, and a healthy degree of sentiment was attached to the place as a result. It was also the home where my late wife and I spent so many years, and she passed away within its walls.

For three years following her death, I tended the gardens and built new water features in the backyard she loved. My daughter and I ranched monarchs from the milkweed plants, just as my late wife had done. These were important remembrances and real-life transitions, symbolic and otherwise.

Home

So the significance of that home was not lost on me. Yet there grew in me a need to change and start anew, to recycle some things in my mind.

In fact, I had many dreams in which I was moving, or had just moved and was trying to make sense of what my values were about in those dreams. In some of those sleepy time imaginings, my late wife was actually present as an observer to my behavior. I took that presence to mean there was a responsibility to my children in my decision. Her memory was obviously precious, and her dreamtime presence still presided over the place.

Away

And yet, she had told me in many ways that she understood my priorities in life as well. There was one early morning, perhaps a month before she died, when she woke me with a sheet of paper bearing detailed descriptions of how she wanted me to work for myself, and try new things. That was not some hidden message. That was direct consultation. It was also a sign that a month out from her passing, she knew more than she was telling anyone else.

That courage in the face of death was also not lost on me. It emboldened me to be brave and forthright about her passing. I had to take care of myself in order to care for our children. Sometimes that strength was a disservice, and I missed important cues of need and hope. Yet it was also best for me not to sit home and brood. So I went out on dates not because I wanted to forget her, but in acknowledgment that I love companionship. It is how I am wired. It is why we were married for 28 years and why we dated four years before that. It is also why I eventually met a woman and fell in love again.

History

It should be known that all that history added into my decision on whether to keep the house or not. In the end, I felt like that chapter in life had completed itself. There was a period of grieving and processing that lasted three years after her death. Yet I did not think that staying in the home would add anything more to that line of thinking.

The tougher question was whether it was a disservice to my children to sell the home. I will admit that I made that decision based on my own mental health. The thought of “losing” the home caused some suffering to my kids. We gathered in our basement and went through their prodigious collections of things stored there, and determined that not all of it needed to be kept. So we chose some important keepsakes and those have moved with me into a new home.

Stuff 

When I dug deeper into the multitude of boxes and collectibles stuffed into closets and basements and under staircases, I realized that my wife had kept just about everything about their youth. Entire books of homework and certificates of achievement. Old music scores and massive books of drawings, notes and cards. These I sorted through over a period of weeks. In fact, the process had begun years ago, and there have been many waves of examination and trips to Goodwill, calls from Amvets and Vietnam Vets for clothes pickups. When my wife told me a few weeks out from her passing, “Chris, I’m sorry about all the stuff,” I had no idea what she was saying. I learned the hard way.

And I had to deal with the real deadline of selling the house when it came into being.

That had taken place in stages. First, my now-fiancee and I examined the option of building onto my old place. But that was expensive, and impossible in some ways without a difficult two years in construction plan. Instead, we decided to work together and build the financial credit and equity to look into another home, one we could buy together. Start fresh.

And that happened fast.  Then after her lease was up October 1, we moved her stuff into my home for 10 days and stored her furniture. Then we moved her stuff again down to the new house and most of my furniture with it too. All that was left were two outside lawn chairs and a whole lot of closets full of disjointed memories.

Digging out

I worked like a bugger to clear out all the remaining stuff. But in the end, I missed the closing deadline. That caused the buyer’s realtor to panic and get a little angry with me. I called my realtor and apologized to all parties involved. I’d done my best but needed more time because I’d had no idea how much stuff there really was to move out. So the lawyers talked and it was agreed to hold back $5K and charge me $125 per day until the house was completely cleared out and cleaned.

That cleanout turned into 12 yards of eclectic dumpster material hauled away at an early hour by the Waste Management Bagster truck. I begged them to come that Friday morning to take it away. They told me they could not provide any guarantees. So when they pulled past my headlights at 6:00 a.m. the day I’d targeted for actual closing I heaved a giant sigh and cried with my head on the steering wheel. But there was still a lot of work to do.

Decision-making

Because the decision-making that had gone into those big bags of stuff was not easy. It’s a difficult thing to throw away the drawings your kids did in childhood. Yet we can’t keep all this stuff. None of us can. Last spring I cleared out the home where my late father had lived for 38 years. We filled up two 15-yard dumpsters. It was a massive job. It also slammed the door on any sentiment we might have felt toward all but a tiny segment of belongings from his home.

I realized that if I had not performed the act of clearing out that home and cleaning it, someday my own kids would have had to do it. I can tell you, that’s not easy, and it’s not fun. It also can have a demeaning effect on the memory of your loved one.

Owning too much junk is not a virtue. Dispensing of someone else’s junk is not a joy.

Even my own collection of CDs went spilling into the maw of those green bags. When I called the Junk Genie to come help with the final stages of the cleanout, even more formerly precious possessions were tossed into the garage. Then my fiancee and her son swept through the backyard collecting garden stuff and all kinds of other detritus.

Pickers

Along the away, a phalanx of metal pickers made my house a regular stop on their daily routes to find marketable metal objects. I was a fertile source of those objects. Even the metal poles that rested in the rafters of my basement as well as an ancient Kenmore stove that had lurked beside the ironing board all twenty years of owning the home were collected by the pickers. So while I created a load of junk, some of it went to good use as well. I was grateful for these newfound and somewhat transient friendships. But I have kept their numbers as well.

In the end, it felt like I was recycled as well. New beginnings are not a bad thing to consider in life. While somehow I wish loss never had to occur in life, the fact of the matter is that it does.

Controlling your instincts to keep everything

Which means sometimes it pays to take control of the losses you need to create, and empower your own existence by moving things along. That example can help others clean up the debris in their own lives. Because while junk in an old home is a physical thing, those of us that have moved a few times also recognize that there is emotional junk we need to move along as well. A recycled life is worth considering. Sometimes real love of self and others waits on the other side.

 

 

Ana Zanic watercolors elevate and expand the mind

Zanic swoopOccasionally I see the work of another artist and feel compelled to tell the world about it. And while Ana Zanic of Geneva is doing quite well for herself with paintings now featured in shows that include galleries in Chicago, New York, Denver and Baton Rouge, that does not mean one cannot add to the discussion.
I first met Ana Zanic back in 2013 when she was working as a Resident Artist at Water Street Studios in Batavia. Our family purchased one of her paintings and it hangs in my home to this day. Her recent show Fluidity being show at the Fermi National Accelerator gallery is an expansion on all that she is doing with her watercolors. The work is on display in the second-floor gallery of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory through September 16.
Fluidity demonstrates why Zanic’s work is drawing so much national attention.Her paintings range from the intimate in size to the ultimate in spatial expression with watercolors. Grouped under categories such as Origins, Nebula and Arcadia, each passage suggests a thought process. Yet there are no confining qualities to her work that limit the viewer’s ability to explore and use their own imagination.

Her largest works in the show are stunning in size. Encountering watercolor paintings that stand taller than a human being is uncommon in this world. But that is the point. Her six-foot tall watercolors force one to stand back for a wider look yet draw the viewer close to see what else is going on within these organic forms.

Zanic must either possess a very broad brush or is able to sweep the flow of a watercolor glaze using other means. Her large paintings consist of washes fully one foot across that are drawn in washes similar in form to a Mobius strip. Infinity thus exists on paper. She uses this format to create space and then enhance it with wet-in-wet methods that suggest landscape or plant forms, woods or valleys.

Zanic watercolor.jpgSuggestively, these same shapes could well be the processes that invented and expanded the universe, and from within these massive forms come Zanic’s textural commentaries. Tiny drawn figures seem to vacillate between material forms and energy. Sometimes they appear to be forests emerging from the earth. At other times, they seem to convey a population of thoughts or recollections. This is what makes her work so pleasing, accessible and yet mysterious at the same time. To complete this journey from thought to form, she has also created a series of pottery pieces that bear the same conversational inscriptions.

Work like this enables viewers to get lost in very personal worlds of visual appeal and contemplation of the process that led to its creation. The title of the show Fluidity could be taken as a literal comment about a watercolor show. Yet there’s more to it than that, because every watercolorist knows that creating paintings is a process of both anticipation and happy mistakes. Every inch of surface becomes its own palette when watercolor flows across the surface. This becomes a conversation and some points even an intellectual argument in which delicacy and force of will are in constant engagement. The drips, runs and expansions all play a role in this universe created by a watercolor goddess.

Her special command of materials is best demonstrated in her ability to create tension and excitement through use of edges, which Zanic employs in work to define positive and negative shapes. In between she celebrates gauzy wonderment in the wet and marvelous world of water, pigment and paper.

Her works in the Origin series bear suggestions of geology or topography. Yet they could just as easily be considered in the context of space and time. One wonders if the physicists at Fermi have been wandering through this show considering the subatomic worlds they explore, which could very well be similar to the world of watercolor and the paintings of Ana Zanic.

Zanic watercolor too.jpgIt is high time that all of us come to grips with the fact that the world is not a “paint by number” place. Physics and evolution demand that knowledge. We also now know there is space between all matter, and dark matter beyond that. We even have the ability to shoot neutrinos through the earth.  As it turns out, the pigment of our vision exists as much by force of imagination as it does in reality.

And Ana Zanic paints that space between. That is how (and why) the watercolors of Ana Zanic call us to consideration of all that we see. It may well be more realistic to depict the world in abstract terms than it is to attempt a direct copy of it. In this regard, the setting for the show Fluidity at Fermilab is perfect. It stands to expand your concept of the world and what you see around you.

The Fermilab Art Gallery is on the second floor of Wilson Hall. It is free and open to the public Monday to Friday, 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Sign in a the Wilson Hall atrium reception desk. The show will be displayed through September 16.

For all those parents saying goodbye to kids headed off to school

IMG_1299It’s a gut-wrenching moment, saying goodbye to a child on a college campus. But some colleges really know how to handle it. To their eternal credit, I recall the method by which the University of Chicago manages that transition for parents and students. The entire crowd present for the opening remarks from the college president is marched around the block toward the Quad, where the kids are siphoned off and sent through a set of arches to be greeted by upperclassman who cheer their welcome. The parents are shunted off to a consoling feast of food and alcohol at the center of campus.

Tears dry quickly when the chords are so suddenly snapped. And the process is inevitable if you want your child to succeed. We work so hard as parents to teach them to be independent and then blubber like fools when we finally succeed? The world is so full of contradictions.

Facing challenges 

The more difficult transition for our family during my son’s freshman year in college was coaxing my wife through the initial rounds of chemotherapy treatment for ovarian cancer. She’d already been through procedures of hysterectomy and excision in the abdomen earlier that summer. We did not know what the results would be, or where the next steps would lead us. It would entail eleven rounds of chemotherapy, and it was tough. The poison drugs gave her a swollen face and a reddish complexion as if she were perpetually blushing.

Parent’s Night

Yet she was determined to attend Parent’s Night at the college. So we drove into the city with her mother and father sitting in the back seat of our car. Her father was a big fan of the entire University of Chicago experience. Years before my son became a candidate for admission, my father-in-law wandered Hyde Park and studied its history. He felt genuine pride at the fact that his grandson had worked so hard in high school and gotten accepted into the prestigious school.

So the trip down to UC was supposed to be a passage of joy. But my wife was sick as hell from the chemo treatments. She was so stubborn that I knew she could not be convinced to stay home. So I kept watch on her in the passenger seat as we drove down the Eisenhower Expressway into the city.

Her lip quivered a few times, and she had every right to be scared and exhausted from her treatments. But I still felt she needed to get a grip. I whispered to her quietly. “Evan needs you to be strong,” I told her. “This may be one of those times when you have to just suck it up.”

Tough love

It sounds cruel, but the message worked. She sailed through the evening like the trooper she was, keeping a smile on her face and dishing out hugs to the new friends and parents we met at the University. Evan was thrilled we could attend. And then it was time to go home again.

A few weeks later my son came home to visit the family over Thanksgiving, I was driving him back downtown when he confessed to a tension inside himself that he could not fully describe.

I asked: “Is it mom? Are you worried about her?”

“Well yes, but that’s not it,” he said. “I feel like I have this anvil on my chest.”

Coming home and coming out

That evening he did not attempt to describe what was going on. But I knew he’d eventually come to grips with whatever was vexing him. It took a couple months, actually. But during his trip home in mid-winter we went out to dinner with our family and shared the news that he is gay.

The news and perhaps the timing was a shocker to my wife, who was in the midst of eleven cancer treatments that were slowly eating away at her health. Ultimately the chemo drugs would clear her of cancer for two full years. The doctors would proclaim her cancer free. The treatments had worked. For a while.

Revelations

In the moment of our son’s revelation, my major concern was family stability in the face of all that challenge and change. My wife turned to my daughter and asked, “What do you think of this?”

My daughter was quick to reply. “I think we both like good-looking men.”

That evening after everyone was in bed, I reached out by phone to a gay friend for some perspective on my son’s coming out. My friend arrived at my door a half-hour later with a look of deep concern on his face. I shared the night’s events and told him about my son’s orientation. He smiled at me and said, “Oh, I was worried it was something serious, like Linda getting sicker.” That was a welcome show of assurance. I’d had hints that Evan might be gay over the years. The first showed up as early as fifth grade. I called my brother that day and told him, “You know, I think Evan might be gay.”

“If he is, he is,” my brother replied. That was the attitude of our entire family as the years went by. “Evan is Evan,” we all repeated. He’d grown up loving music and excelled at cello, earning top honors at the Illinois State Youth Music camp at University of Illinois. He ran track some, and played soccer a couple years. But he was ultimately drawn to acting and theater, an interest that carried all the way through four years of college. The roots of his being were there all along, in every respect.

Perhaps you understand the roots of your particular child as well. Sending them off to kindergarten or middle school, high school or college is however an admission that it takes more than a set of parents to help them become who they eventually will become.

Freshman year went generally well for my son. As for us, those quick tears the first day of school hardly affected our vision of what we wanted for our son going forward. His grades were good. He’d signed on to join a fraternity. He loved living in the city and would take off on a trip to China that next summer.

What it’s all about

Every step along the way is about more than just about going off to school. It’s not even about kids leaving home. It’s about growing to learn, and learning to grow. That’s true for the parents saying goodbye as well as those eager, perhaps frightened students.

You may feel split to the core at the feeling of loss. All those years of raising them around the house, hosting their friends and feeding them sloppy peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with lemonade on hot summer days. Time passes. We wipe the counter of their messes. Memories of diapers and bottles and pacifiers fade. They are replaced with smelly sneakers and college duffle bags tossed in the entryway on the day they come back home from school… and disappear again with friends to convene late into night. It can make you wonder if you matter. And you do. But you can cry all you want, this is life.

Wipe those tears and be glad for the normality of all that pain and loss and joy mixed together. Take pride in the fact that you help make it all happen. And thrive.

 

She still calls me coach

IMG_6262On the way back from the studio today by bike, I pedaled past a familiar home. It was the house of a former soccer player, a kid that I coached through middle school who went on to play a few years of high school soccer. He was a talented player. Grew up kicking the soccer ball with his Latino family. In fact, his mother made me promise that I’d never hold him back from playing with members of his family even if it conflicted with one of our scheduled games.

That only happened once, but it was a bargain that deserved respect. His mother is a person of strong family values. Not the faux Christian kind that are so popular in today’s political climate, trumped up with grandstanding and ulterior motives. This was a good Catholic woman who demanded respect for every member of her family.

Like any middle school kid, her son still struggled with self-image and played hot and cold in practice and on the field. As he matured, he grew handsome, and his confidence grew too. I still recall the afternoon a band of girls from the U-13 team we scrimmaged called out his name across the field after a game. “Enrique!” they called teasingly. “Becky loves you!”

He’s married now if I recall and works building high-quality cabinetry. So he wasn’t “home” the day I rode by on my bike. He has his own home now.

Yet the memories of coaching him and other boys on a traveling team built from a successful recreational league squad are still strong in my mind. There is no doubt I could have known the game better. Could have done a better job with coaching skills and teaching how the offense and defense should work. But my assistant coaches were a great help. I relied on them, and that’s as it should be. You can’t know everything or see everything in a game of soccer. Or any game for that matter.

Years after my son was done playing I began relating a play in which he crossed the ball during a match and a teammate performed a flying header of the ball into the goal. “That’s my favorite moment in coaching,” I told him.

“Dad, I don’t remember a single game we played,” my son said softly. “But the practices were fun. I loved hanging out with the guys and riding home in that Oldsmobile we owned with the seat that fell back and the bell kept going off for the door. I remember TJ laughing and telling jokes in the back seat.”

The practices were fun. We were assisted as well by a series of professional coaches from the organizations to which we belonged. Some were liked by the kids. Others were loathed for reasons I never fully understood. My team was not super-serious, for one thing. Despite a wealth of physical talent and some pretty good on-field thinking, for the most part, we played a Division or two down from the Classic or Platinum teams. Yet when we played them, it was usually only a 3-1 loss.

There was a tournament in which we advanced to the championship final. Unfortunately, we ran into a juggernaut squad from St. Louis that had us down 5-0 at halftime. With ten minutes to go in the game, it was 8-0. I was distraught and felt bad for the kids, for I felt I’d failed them in this opportunity for glory.

The kids saw it differently. They knew they’d been thrashed, and suddenly my tall defender got the ball and started doing some fancy footwork in the backfield. He stood 6’1″ as a 13-year-old kid and was still pretty fast and agile. But the sight of him doing moves worthy of today’s stars like Messi and Ronaldo was comical beyond belief. Our entire squad burst into laughter and even the other side got a yuck out of it. The match lightened up from there, and we all went home happy with second place.

Perhaps I could have skipped all that. Focused on my own career like some of the fathers I met along the way, who never coached or just dropped their kids off at this practice or that. Sometimes I felt inferior to those days, whose important titles and hard-ass jobs were definitely the mark of success. But I don’t regret a single day.

All this came back to mind when that mother of one of my players waved back as I pedaled by on my bike. “Hi Coach,” she called out. She still calls me coach.

There are far worse things in life, for sure.

 

Getting the full picture is tough to do

Sometimes events and images convene in a way that is meant to tell you something about life. It works that way if you are willing to listen. To hear. And hopefully, to understand.

Sunday while flying back from Tampa to Chicago, I sat in the middle seat of an airplane next to a man who slept most of the way, but fitfully. When we approached our destination and some turbulence began, he was visibly anxious and uncomfortable.

I waited through the landing, then turned to him and said, “You don’t like that stuff, huh?”

He smiled a quick smile and replied, “Well, I used to jump out of airplanes so it shouldn’t scare me. But it still does.”

It turns out the young man served in the Airborne in Iraq. “I was a camera guy,” he informed me. “It was my job to take pictures of what we were doing. Our unit.”

He told me that it was a difficult job. “I saw things people don’t want to see,” he said. “Like, I was taking a picture of a kid riding his bike and he just got blown up. Right there. But the military didn’t want to share that photo. There was an election going on and they wanted the news to be good.”

I asked him how he got involved as a photographer. “I spent three months training in photography and three months learning journalism,” he said. “Then they sent me over to Iraq.”

Did he expect to use his photography in civilian life? “I don’t think civilian life will take me,” he responded. “I got too many issues.”

On our way together through the airport I handed him my business card and offered to talk with him some. In turn, he pulled out an identification card that he called the Silver Ticket. “It takes twenty years of service to get this,” he told me. “I started when I was 18. Now I’m 41,” he said, and smiled that quick smile of his. The smile that says a lot, and yet seems to say nothing at the same time.

He still looks a young man. Yet he is now a man for the ages, and told me that he’d collect a certain amount of money for his time and service to his nation. Beyond that, his plans were flexible.

My encounter with that soldier came back into mind when I clicked on a link to an NPR story about the work of military photographer David Gilkey, whose compelling photos give us a small window to the world in which so many of our active duty soldiers live and work and sometimes, die.

“I consider myself lucky,” the soldier from the plane told me as we stepped off the moving belt in the terminal. Lucky indeed.

(Photograph from NPR feature on photographer David Gilkey)

Peach tree possibilities

Today is the day my father’s house is sold. It took several months to transition sort through the furniture and make decisions about belongings. There were no great surprises. No First Edition copies of To Kill a Mockingbird or anything dramatic like that.

In fact, the books I cleared out yesterday were Encyclopedia Brittanica volumes used to hold down insulation in the crawlspace. I remember those books from trying to make sense of them as kids. They were the Internet of an earlier age. Ostensibly they held a little bit of everything you might want to know from A to Z.

It was always a test to figure out how you could say what you found in those books without copying the exact same language. Never mind the fact that any translation would be less scholarly and likely less factual than the work of those who wrote and proofed the book. “You shall not plagiarize” is the rule of all students, writers and journalists.

IMG_4559.jpgNow we live in a world where virtually everything we consume in terms of information is shared and likely plagiarized in some form from some other content. Real journalists puke at this notion. Real photographers too. But that’s how the world has evolved.

Which is also proof that the world does not always evolve in the direction of what we like to call progress. It also happily regresses at times.

I think about these things because before my father lost his ability to speak due to a stroke 15 years ago, he was an iconoclastic thinker. Even after his stroke, he would work hard drawing diagrams and symbols to communicate abstract concepts. These were often designed to challenge our perceptions about some past or current event. This could be frustrating as hell to discern. Yet he would not give up. He was an iconoclast to his dying day.

There is a certain pragmatism to being an iconoclast. This fact frustrates  people who thrive on a conservative mode of practical thinking. There are many people who prefer to speak in plain language, and act the same. None other than William F. Buckley once stated, “The more complicated and powerful the job, the more rudimentary the preparation for it.”

Well, William F. Buckley was right about some things, and wrong about others.

For example, the person we know as Jesus Christ taught using parables. That’s an indirect way of speaking truth. Yet it was his goal engage people in thinking about spiritual concepts by giving them familiar examples to which they could relate. This might seem like an unnecessary step for the Son of God to speak the truth. Yet it was true that metaphor helped make the Kingdom of God much simpler to understand.

But Jesus met resistance to his methods even among his closest advisors. His own disciples complained about the complications of his parables, and he rebuked them. The following excerpt from the Book of Matthew shows Jesus explaining that it was literalism by the priests that was actually causing so much confusion among the faithful. Jesus rebuked these teachers, then added an explanation:

13 He replied, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots. 14 Leave them; they are blind guides.[d] If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.”

15 Peter said, “Explain the parable to us.”

16 “Are you still so dull?” Jesus asked them. 17 “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? 18 But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. 19 For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. 20 These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them.”

Let’s be clear. My father was not a religious man toward the end of his life. He would not likely have quoted Jesus to make the same point. In fact, at one point late in life, my father was asked why he’d attended church all those years. He just shook his head and said “Pooooh,” which was his post-stroke word for anything that was no longer useful. But he did like singing in the choir. He was an iconoclast.

There was a garden in my father’s back yard with a set of apple trees and one peach tree. The apple trees were hardy, but the peach tree grew dry and frail. During a storm one of the main trunks broke off and leaned to the ground. I was headed from my house with a saw to cut the limb off and arrived to find that my father had already tied ropes around the bent over branch. He did this even though he had use of only one arm. When I arrived, the peach tree looked like a traction patient. He’d grown up on a farm and knew the peaches might still grow if the tree were given a chance.

Indeed, the branch continued to bear fruit. My father then harvested peaches when they were ripe. Then when fall came, he instructed me to saw off the bent branch.

That peach tree stands in his backyard to this day, more than 10 years after the branch broke off. His seemingly impractical solution is a metaphor for how the man also dealt with the effects of his stroke all those years. He did grow angry now and then (the storm) but he also developed practical ways to get along in life. Our arguments were often like broken branches. yet when the harvest season came, he still offered me peaches of wisdom.

That is proof to me that peach tree possibilities are never to be underestimated. My father was neither liberal or conservative. But for better or worse at times, he was always determined to make us think about solutions. That’s what iconoclasts do.