Merry Christmas To My Grandchildren

Look at this picture, below.  This ancient house (in the background)  in Bir Zeit [pronouce: beer zite] sits in disrepair, as do many of the houses in ancient Palestine.  I took the picture on a visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories in 2008.  Bir Zeit is very close to Bethlehem where Jesus of Nazareth was born.  Notice that there are 3 floors.  The third floor is enclosed on top.  This is very much like the house Jesus of Nazareth was born in.  Christmas is in celebration of this event.

If you remember the story, there was no place for Mary to have her baby and so she and Joseph (her husband) stopped at a local inn or house and asked for a place to stay for the night.  As you can see this is not like the Holiday Inn you see on the Interstate.  It was very basic with no running water, electricity or indoor toilets.  I don’t even think they had a microwave. 🙂 Continue reading

A Parable of the Tomato, Tobacco Leaf and the Worm

The horned worm (stock photo in public domain)

In the beginning of time God made the tobacco plant, the tomato plant and the horned worm. (Read Tobakkuk: 55:15-20)

The tobacco plant said, “I can give you great energy, but alas, you will lay down in rest and not worry about anything.”

The tomato plant said, “I can give you a wonderful tomato and a whole wheat sandwich to nurture your body and soul. You will have culinary peace.”

But alas, the horned worm, the evil of all good eating said, “Give me tomatoes or give me death.”

And so God said, “Very well then horned worm, you can choose. Restful death or nutrition.”

So the horned worm said, “Let me have both, but let me start with the tobacco so that I may eat the tobacco and have my tomato, too.”

And God thought, “Is this the beginning of gluttony, and bad habits? I think I will call this a ‘sin’. But go ahead horney worm. Your choice.”

So the Horned worm, began with the tobacco and grew anxious with excitement. But before he could make it to the tomato, he died of lethargy. And thus, to this day the tobacco plant is the protector of the tomato plant and subsequently gives a little kick and relaxation, too.

As with all my stories and musings, this one is true, well mostly true and possible. I posted this on FaceBook after my friend and neighbor farmer Denise, who was aware of my two tobacco plants growing in pots on the back deck, wanted to know where I got tobacco seeds. Her tomato plants had many insects eating the plants and their fruit. Doing research on plant pairings she discovered tobacco could be a good pairing. It is called a trap plant. The pairing was not intentional for me. I was growing tobacco to relearn the curing process, along with tomatoes in a raised bed garden.

As a young teenager, I spent a summer cropping tobacco on my Grandfather’s farm. It was hot and hard work. Yet, Amerindians have grown, cured and used tobacco in rituals for centuries. Knowing the history of the cabin, and doing research for another writing project, I wanted to learn more. By the way, there is no Tobakkuk: 55:15-20. I have seen no horned worms this year and both tobacco and tomato plants are doing well.

Coming This Year

It started as a simple retirement project of renovating an old worn down cabin in the Appalachian backwoods of the modern Riverbend Development in Lake Lure, NC. It quickly became an ancient travelog of a backwater mountain home full of artifacts, local stories and historic cultural conflicts. Growing up in Western North Carolina an hour from the cabin, the author expanded his construction hobby skills, and utilized historical research, aided by new friends, family, and neighbors to reflect on the process from his cabin’s front porch. Written in three parts of practical restoration processes, historic documentation, and life reflections, the author invites the reader through text and photos to go along for the journey.

The expanded and edited book will replace these blog posts. It will be offered in print and electronic formats.

At this moment, The Volcano Erupts

A quiet protest in my neighborhood. On a morning walk in our neighborhood, this morning.

At this moment, hunkered down from COVID-19, because I can, in part because of my retirement and my privilege, I am watching CNN and the reflecting on the underlying causes and tragic events leading to a crisis in Minnesota and the U.S.

I have returned to reading again. Today I am reading This is What America Looks Like by Ilhan Omar, and The Abolition of Man by CS Lewis. Both speak to the state of our country, in their own way.

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A man with diarrhea has no fear of the dark

A goat to be slaughtered and roasted in my honor on Rusinga Island, c.1988.

I am a very private and modest person.  I don’t like public displays of emotion or affection–something that has always irritated Vickie–especially when I didn’t want to kiss or hug in public–let’s do that in private, please.  Nor do I like public disagreements or arguments, especially when I have to stand and watch without the ability to make a difference–please stop embarrassing yourself.  I am a rather modest person, as well, inheriting this from my mother who never, ever wore a pair of shorts or a swimming suit.  She always dressed for the day, unlike my father–in his later years–who enjoyed walking around the house and yard in boxer underwear shorts and a T-shirt (I am beginning to get that). You will never see me without my shirt and I don’t like exposing my long toes so I always wear socks–with my sandals.  But one learns to get over those kinds of things with age and experience and enters into the who cares stage of life. 

Many years ago I had the opportunity to visit a remote and small island called Rusinga.  It is in Kenya and juts up in Lake Victoria and looks across into Jinja, Uganda, the source of the Nile river.  Lois and Richard Leakey discovered some very early Proconsul remains there in the 1940’s.  Yet, even today, aside from a small tourist hotel, it remains rural and remote.

I was visiting a student.  I stayed in his house.  It was a basic mud and stucco house with no real shower, and cooking was done in an open kitchen.  It had been a long day.  I had recorded children singing folk songs and to show their appreciation the community slaughtered a goat–in front of me–and then barbequed it for our meal.  I like roasted goat.

It got dark quickly, that night.  It had been very hot and I was beginning to smell my own sweat.

The women heated a large pot of water and led me to where I would take a dip bath.  I took off my clothes, hung them over a large bush, and began to pour the warm water down my back.  There was no light but the moon was full and very bright.

After I was fully naked and fully wet and soaped down, I began to hear giggling behind me.It was then that I realized the village had lined the road that encircled me–I could not see it in the dark–and they had been watching me bathe with an excellent view of my SWA.

I did not scream or run.  I just thought to myself, ‘well, if that is the best entertainment they have in this village, I guess I am the best in show.

The Panic Roll or Not


Boarding a Marco Polo bus in Colombia

On my first excursion to Africa in 1980, Malawi more specifically, we were hosted by veteran missionaries living in a remote part of the country.  I remember our first journey into the “bush” as it was called, meaning a remote rural area. “Here, pack some toilet paper in your bag, you may need it.” he advised.   

In my youth my grandfather had an outhouse behind his main farmhouse.  Until he died at 85, he used the outhouse.  Though he installed an indoor toilet for my grandmother and her guests, he believed there was something unclean about defecating in the same place where you ate and slept.  You could find a roll of toilet paper in the outhouse, but also pages of an old Sears catalogue, but more often old corn cobs.  Rural America has a lot in common with rural Africa, as in rural anywhere.

In the following years when we lived in Africa and I travelled extensively in the African countryside, I kept a “panic roll” of toilet paper in my back pocket.  Why you may ask?

Briefly, several experiences taught me so.  The first was deep in the msituni (Swahili for in the bush) where I had a BIG need.  There were big needs or haja kubwa (meaning a bowel movement) and haja ndogo or small needs (to urinate).  On the occasion I remember most I entered a grass hut with a dirt floor and a hole in the ground.  I squatted and did my business and looked around for toilet paper.  [I’ll add that on one occasion I had a large snake who lived in the grass roof crawl above the exit of the toilet and stay there. And I shat some more while I waited for him to leave!  “That’s the end of that toilet!” my friend declared when I told him of the snake. 

But on this occasion, I looked around for toilet paper undisturbed by critters and found a bowl of water and a small bar of soap.  I surmised correctly that I was to clean myself with my hand with the use of soap and water–not too comforting as at meal times we all used our hands to take food from the same bowl.  “Where have their hands been?”

I quickly learned that your left hand is the bathroom hand.  It is a cultural rule in many countries and I understood the origin of the left-hand as the sinister or evil hand.

I better keep a panic roll in my back pocket.

Traveling remote and rural roads one must find a way to meet one’s big and little needs beside the road and away from passing cars or walking people.

On one occasion, after eating some food that definitely did not set well with my stomach (it called to me from inside myself–”get to a place of safety quickly–like NOW!), I stopped by the road and literally ran to a clump of small trees and squatted to relieve myself in a thunderous explosion.  I had not looked around me for danger.  Surrounding me were a great cloud of Giraffe witnesses, all of whom were smiling and giggling at my misfortune.  

I better keep a panic roll in my back pocket. It is a lesson I should have learned.

Not too long ago I was on a survey trip to Colombia in South America.  A beautiful country with lakes, trees and pastures, the best way to travel is by local bus.  So early in the morning, our hosts drove us to the bus stop.  We were headed to the northern part of the country where there had been much violence as a result of political conflict.  The night before we enjoyed some excellent Colombian cuisine with some good spice and heat.  All was well.  Or so I thought.

Thirty minutes into the trip, on a winding road, the evening’s meal began to wrestle with my intestines.  It was turning into a war zone down there and I needed to make some peace or evacuate the area.

Fortunately, there was a bathroom toilet on the back of the bus.  The road was very rough. I made my way quickly to the toilet, I grabbed rails to keep from falling as the bus jostled back and forth.

I made it to the toilet just in time, and unloaded, literally, the warring tribes within my body.  Now came cleanup.

Wouldn’t you know it,  I forgot my panic role.  I panicked.  There was no toilet paper in the bus toilet. Only one thing to do.

But there was water and some soap.  

So I dropped my pants and began to clean myself, with my left hand, using my right to steady myself amidst the swaying bus, as I bumped against the wall of the bathroom.

I was feeling pretty confident, until I realized that I was bumping up against the closed door of the toilet.

In an instant, the door flung open and there I was, my shiny white ass was there for all the passengers to see.  Pants down.

At least it was clean.

Amazingly no one, no not one person even looked.  This must have happened before.  I grabbed the door, shut it and made sure it was locked and brought myself to decency–even trying not to laugh out loud at myself and my situation. I opened the door and walked back to my seat with all the dignity and self-pride I could muster.  

So thus ends the story of my shiny white ass.  And the lesson.  Carry a panic role no matter where you are. And the old African proverb, A man with diarrhea has no fear of the dark.

As a postscript, sometimes I walk naked around the house–but not for the neighbors to see–like when a house load of guests left after a long holiday visit.  I walk nudely in each room and reclaim my territory.  And you may also not see me in my underwear as I walk around the outside of my cabin in the mountains at night and early morning–thanks Dad, I am beginning to get that. And for public displays of affection; well, I’ve learned that holding hands, a gentle hug, and a small kiss goes a long way in keeping Vickie happy.  If Vickie’s happy, I’m happy.

The Magnificat Miracle On the E Subway Line to Manhattan

Ecce (Look), Et exultavit spiritus meus, (and my spirit hath rejoiced).

It is a mecca of American sport, music and theater, fashion, and finance.  Flying into New York City late on Thursday evening, our eyes opened wide to watch the sunset throw its rays eastward, bouncing around glass filled skyscrapers, disappearing in Atlantic ocean vistas.  As the Lady Liberty Anthem filled my head with dashed hopes of seeing her, we began to descend into the most populous city in the United States. There is an old African proverb that goes something like, “The guest has big eyes and big ears,” which is not much different than what Jesus warned, “you have ears and do not hear and eyes that do not see”.   We were about to descend into the bowels of the city’s humanity at its best, and worst.

De Profundis Clamavi Ad Te Domine (From the Depths, I Have Cried Out to You, O Lord) Quia respexit humilitatem (For he hath regarded the low estate)

We were a group of twelve who chose to fly with our director the fabulous Dr. Lorna Barker, her entourage.  The other thirteen of our Christ Church choir had already arrived dispersing with friends and family living in and around the city.  In the depths of the subway, we approached the city with some travel anxiety and humility. Our big eyes were opened wider. We were a bunch of white-haired southerners climbing over the subway stiles because we couldn’t figure out how to use a transit card. We needed a miracle–more on this later.  My friend who I discovered grew up in India and had visited Nairobi in his youth, and who never had a thought he didn’t express, summed it up perfectly, “Our cover is blown. They now know we are tourists.”

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The Guardians: Living up to a Name

Part One: Nimrod the Mighty Hunter

Be careful what you name your dog, or your children for that matter. Names have meanings and I personally believe they can have consequences of self-fulling prophecies.

Nimrod with my Mother and Son. Nimrod loved people.

Had your name been related to Tutsi, you would have suffered death in the Rwanda Genocide of 1994 as the Hutu sought to eradicate the Tutsi from Rwanda. And think of African Americans with surnames like Smith or Davis taken during the time of slavery and representing their slave masters–forever to live with an oppressive identity history.  

For over a decade of living in Africa, and studying her many cultures, names and stories were always at the top of my list.  Family names, just like most everywhere, were always important and used to define family and ethnic identity. African tribal names of Masai, Hutu, Kikuyu, or Shona gave a sense of origin and self-identity. Your own name gives you a sense of family, history, and culture–some positive and some tragic.  

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Who could not love this woman! A Tribute.

As Valentine’s Day approaches and I realize that I don’t have a suitable gift,  I thought I would share one reason why I love this woman–Vickie–the embodiment of resilience.

For the second time in our married life our house was destroyed by fire.   In this instance in 1987, we were driving across town in Nairobi and saw smoke bellowing in the distance.  “That’s our house Vickie.” I shared with her, before we were even close to home.  Apparently rats had made a meal of the tattered electrical wiring in the ceiling of the old house we called home in a rather nice suburb of the city. Cross two bare wires and you get sparks.  As we arrived, scores of police encircled the house–to keep looters at bay. Fire fighters poured water on the house with blazes still reaching above the tall avocado trees that usually shaded the house from the heat of noonday sun.
Okay, so Vickie wasn’t that “together” when we arrived.  And she would have rather me hold her instead of grabbing my camera to document the fire for insurance purposes.  But, within a few short hours, she was quickly going through the cooling house collecting anything salvageable.  Who knew tupperware could survive all that heat!  What is remarkable in this photo is the ever smiling face of Vickie who has the ability to laugh in the worst of circumstances.  Humor is one of the best attributes to combat trauma, crisis, stress, catastrophe, and just plain hard times.
We are all stronger because of laughter and Vickie is an example and encouragement of a loving and resilient woman.  If there is any quality I see in all of my children, it is this ability to laugh, look for the positive amidst the worst, and to keep moving on–they come by it honest.
So maybe we will go to a movie together on Valentine’s Day, and have a nice meal.

Sometimes Caged Birds Don’t Sing

Took this photo at the Mt. Pleasant Pier near Charleston. This bird didn’t sing either–didn’t need to.

The other day a friend came over and asked me to go into an apartment with her.  Her neighbor had gone on a camping trip with a church group and left my friend to feed her two pet parakeets.  My friend is afraid of the birds (and most living creatures) and she wanted me to do the feeding while she watched.  It wasn’t a big deal really. The birds politely moved to the back of the birdcage while I lifted the door and placed the seeds in the front of the cage.  “That was easy.” She sighed.  The experience reminded me of story about my father, a somewhat eccentric person.

When I was in the first grade we lived in Illinois in a pastorium next to the church where he was pastor.  He loved animals and took every opportunity to fill our yard with an array of dogs, the garage with Persian and Siamese cats, and in that year one of the bedrooms of the house with canaries. I am not sure where my 3 sisters slept, but I remember this bedroom lined with cage upon cage of pretty little yellow and other brightly colored birds.  There was one problem–other than the obvious one of crowding his children into spaces so he could have the birds–the canaries wouldn’t sing.  He specifically bought the canaries so he could have bird sounds around the house. What to do?

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The Spirituality of Music

[Note: This was published first in Xtreme Music: Exploring Music and Spirituality edited by Justin St. Vincent]

Music has the power to transcend the mundane. Through the musical experience, one enters into the presence of Otherness; a presence that unifies outside of the boundaries of self, race, class, and difference.

Several years ago, BuildaBridge, an arts-education and intervention organization I co-founded in 1997, was providing a summer concert series in a local homeless shelter in Philadelphia. We asked a local concert pianist to provide the music, and here I begin to show my bias. Not that he was a bad pianist. He wasn’t, but I learned that his concerts where mostly in nursing homes.

The shelter where he was performing is the largest in Philadelphia with nearly one hundred and fifty homeless children and their parents in residence. The location is depressing enough. The former mental hospital is in very poor repair with one wing closed because of broken floors and ceilings. Only the resident rats call it home. The once stately gates now provide a façade of safety in one of the toughest areas of the city, surrounded by vacant houses often home to equally menacing drug dealers and gunshots. Continue reading

A Worm in Horseradish: Awareness and Ignorance

A number of years ago I met a man from Bangladesh. I have traveled widely and consider myself a global citizen. Unfortunately, during an evening meal I kept referring to his country as Pakistan. I had been reading a novel by Salman Rushdie on the separation of India and Pakistan and had not yet created new geographic categories for that part of the world. Throughout the evening my ignorant, unmindful, and unaware reference became a barrier to our communication. His perception of Americans as ethnocentric and ‘ignorant was reinforced. Fortunately, he was kind, and I was able to learn a great deal from him. However, most of our conversation was a geography lesson–he the teacher and me the student. Continue reading