Top of Piedmont: To Watch, Listen and Ponder — Then Write!

April 2012Monthly Archives

The Line

My father was a responsible man.  He didn’t play much, worked hard, and was bushed at the end of the day.  The “St. Paul Pioneer Press” usually ended up laying flat on his chest about eight at night as he dozed off.  The grind of pleasing people all day at the bank was wearing.

Moving from Gilman to St. Paul was meant to provide more opportunities for his children than the little farming community could.  This came at a cost.  Education needed to be paid for.  Hard work was the price.  Like most parents, he wanted to give his children a better life than he’d had.

Today many kids don’t have the man in the chair dozing off at the end of the day.  “Family” in our time is understood in a lot of different ways.  Blended, step, single parent, and single sex parents are all considered to be articulations of the family.  Tons of books have been written about these new families and how they’ve come to be.  What is missing in many of them however, is the father.

There is a line through the generations.  This line can be seen at family reunions most easily in the eyes, noses, hairlines, and wrinkles of older aunts and uncles.  As people sit around picnic tables recounting stories from the past, the genetic messengers lodged in aging bodies push similarities and common characteristics to the front.  We are more like one another than we are different.

Parents give more than their DNA to their kids. Themes played in families are like movements of a symphony.   The blend of notes makes sense and gives direction to the piece.   There is a beginning, middle and an end.  There are two conductors in this symphony however, directing often in harmony, and at times out of tune.  Most times it is predictable.  Other times discord prevails, outcomes change, but the music is still music.

Learning to be responsible comes from watching.  Watching only one of the conductors leaves part of the music unplayed. The song is frequently good, but it is unfinished.

The message sent repeatedly by the banker was strong.  It came through to a second grader pushed to the front of a group of boys who had been acting out on the playground.  No excuses, “I did it.”  It also came through to a 14 year old who took the family car and promptly put it in the ditch on the way to a friend’s house one wintry afternoon.  He told the friend’s father, “I did it.”

Many children have no father to learn from.  He leaves, was never there, or is present in body only.  The preoccupations of career or self-interest whirl him away from active involvement.  A message is sent and received very clearly, “You are not important.”

The need to have a direction, to have a sense of one’s self still remains.  So the quest continues, often times ending up with peers, who are basically facing the same dilemma.  They also have no one to watch.  So they watch each other.  Unclear limits, no direction, no one to ask, “Who are you?”

Or the media bombards the young man or woman with messages about what they are to be.  This shoe, this jacket, this scent, this tight-fitted pair of jeans points the way.  Watching here serves the interest of the ad executive’s bottom line, not the underpinnings of an identity.

There is a line, from generation to generation. While new families give direction, an important part of the song is missing when the father is absent.  The line is broken, free fall begins.  The safety net has a hole.  Some children fall through.

Christian Brothers

 Becoming a decent human being is part heritage and environment, with good luck thrown in the mix.  We can’t pick our relatives, but nurturing surroundings and good fortune takes the stuff of our lives and twists and turns it in ways we could hardly predict.

I spent my adolescent years under the guidance and tutelage of a group of celibate men in Winona, Minnesota.  The Christian Brothers of St. John Baptist DeLaSalle were founded in 17th Century France to teach poor children.  There are many groups in the Catholic Church who call themselves “Christian Brothers”, but this group had its origins in Rheims, France.

Brothers are not Priests.  They are celibate, choosing not to get married, live in community where things are held in common, live under a rule and in the case of the Christian Brothers, take a vow of stability which ensures those who join don’t jump ship and go to another like-minded group.  They do not administer the sacraments like priests do.  They are kind of like male nuns.

I lived in a house with seventy young men ranging in age from eighteen to twenty-one in the late 1960s.  I was a “Monk” as we called ourselves for four and a half years.  The first year was an extended retreat.  I was quiet, prayed a lot (honest to god had calluses on my knees), and developed a spiritual life.  The last four years I was a college student with my confreres in a building on campus, pursuing a degree.

The Catholic Church has undergone and will continue to undergo a lot of self-examination as a result of the sexual abuse of kids.  This cauterizing process will give it a chance to get back to the original mission of the gospel if it chooses to listen to the pain of the victims.  While many suffered from these crimes, my experience living with seventy young idealistic men with dedicated adult mentors was nutritive and growth producing.

The men who lived in our house were role models of compassion, teaching the ability to listen and empathize, instilling spiritually humane values and engendering a sense of emotional and intellectual honesty I have rarely found in other places where men gather.   Above all else, these men liked kids and wanted to see them thrive.  And that above all was why they did what they did.

Helen Mirren’s Tempest

Wild, Wild the Dreams,

      shouting light in evening’s shadow, shattering the door where sleep confines.

The dark spectre intrudes thrusting light into the gloom,       

      where sensibility’s breached containment gives way to delicate revealing incandescence.

The inner eye now amenable, grasps word upon word, upon word, upon word,

     waking somnolent recollection, cleansing this evening’s apparition.

 Why illumination sent here by the Bard’s quickening seed

       driving spectres with luminosity from the turbid depths?

Fair Ariel lifts this mundane voice by her inspirited musings.

This messenger of light improvises and my wish to join in harmony seeks an instrument to speak the

        Poet’s moment anew, giving voice in this present time.

Your every word joins with the mythic drivers whose chariots seeking the sun, cast aside the bonds of     

       histories’ limitation and give exhilaration where stands the briefest wink of light 

             and expiration, beckoning, beckoning.

Walk this shining path, walk slowly – but walk nonetheless – freeing the restless heart that beats, beats,

       yearning to see melody in the song of light’s design.

 This pen never rests, wresting from chaos words thrust forward,

       with pressures not sought but given the vehicle of recognition and articulation.

I weep at this gift bestowed, tilting on the edge of succorance from depths unplumbed.

Words, words going on forever, as forever has not an end

        and words no easy duty to spill the universe into this night.

I would speak poetry to your ear but poetry’s gift’s already sung by your presence.


I would recommend rereading the play before seeing the movie. The movie is stunning.

Lunar Launch

Dark shadowy splendor!

Light cascading through the shimmering wind-stroked Maples.

A sultry brilliance caresses the room,

     radiance engaging the gears of longing

          playfully pouring from the sky

               in this naked room, on this naked floor.

 Wake not – the shining cataract

      nourishes this demon as she plays.

Dance, sing — she has her way,

      drawing from the cove of primordial night

Metro Mindset

The state legislature is grinding along.  There is little cooperative effort this session.  Democrats and Republicans agree on little, fiddling while Rome burns.  What is apparent however, is the way rural folks and city dwellers view everyday life.

I’ve lived both the rural and big city scene in the last 50 years.  There are differences in perception when it comes to what is needed, what is convenient and what doesn’t count.

These differences in perception have to do first of all with where you live.  “Bemidji? Could you spell that?”  As I talk to some wet behind the ears sales clerk in Macy’s in downtown Minneapolis.  “B-E-M-I-D-J-I.  Where is that?” she says in her Starbuck’s cheery voice as she’s scanning my Master Card. “In Northern Minnesota?” I say. “Oh, near Brainerd?” she says. “No.” I say, “Closer to Mizpah.” A blank stare – the electronic surveillance device says I’m not a dead beat – I sign my name and split.

Then there’s the professional meeting that gets started late because someone didn’t get there on time.  You drove 4 1/2 hours through 4 inches of snow and slush and made it and they live in New Brighton and have a hard time getting to the Midway area of St. Paul.  I have a friend who is a middle school principal in Elk River.  He operates on the 45 minute principle – any trip in the metro area takes 45 minutes, no matter where you’re going.  Maybe my colleague didn’t take that into consideration.

The Minnesota experience of “going to the lake” strikes me as representing a different view also.  Recently I attended a conference in Minneapolis later in the week.  Friday night I had to come back to Bemidji.  Grid-lock, starting about Elk River to Motley.  Any size vehicle you could imagine was represented in the lines stretching out before me.  Varying rates of speed on the interstate were in evidence also as well as different degrees of stress tolerance.  If it’s so great in the metro area, why does everyone try to leave on the weekend?

Over the years I’ve talked to some of my friends in the Twin Cities about rural living.  Small town politics they say appears to be occasionally mean spirited and personal.  That it is, but politics and power based on personal relationships seems to me a much more benign way of doing business than the nodding of heads of the big city councilmen who say, “I hear what  you are saying.” and then do what they want anyway.  It rarely works that way in small towns, too much is intertwined.  Bad blood created in one venue is too easily carried over into the success or failure of a business transaction or an interaction in a school or church meeting.  People’s memories for good or bad are a lot longer in rural America.

It’s often said that money flows to where the most people are.  In the play of power, politics and cold hard cash, that’s understandable.  But the very things that are everyday events for us are greatly desired by city folks.

Recently I took a break from work and in between clients was staring out the window toward the lake a block away.  Suddenly a couple ducks took flight and a second later a bald eagle did a turning dive to the lake.  Think I’d see that out of an office window  in downtown Minneapolis?

Scroll Up