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Pure

I would be pure, for there are those who care.

This current series of messages is based on a 1905 poem written by a Princeton grad from the school of theology. That I found it in an old hymnal is understandable given its content. But it is the uniqueness of the content for a mainline Christian song book that caught my attention. Far from being about the usual praise and adoration for a beloved deity, or an homage to the joy of faith and fellowship, this poem focused on character and the reasons for developing and maintaining a godly one.

The poet was Harold Arnold Walter. It was written as a Christmas gift for his mother, while he was overseas teaching in a Japanese university. It reads like a personal pledge to someone on the earthly side of heaven, who he venerated in keeping with how a believer is supposed to regard with honor his or her parents. Moms tend to ultimately win out in the influence department as attested to by the recipient of the gift. We are clueless as to what dad received, though. Perhaps the proverbial tie.

The line at the opening of this message is the second line in the poem’s first stanza. Having pledged to be true in keeping faith with those who relied on him, Walter then pledged to be pure because there are those, like his mom, who cared about him. As with being true, the motivation for remaining faithful to this virtue is rooted in an awareness of others and how our actions affect them.

The significance of Walter’s pledge is likely lost on many of us. Purity is hardly a venerated virtue in today’s culture. The easy and perhaps kneejerk perception of its role in a person’s life is one of abstinence, which smacks of prudery at best and repression more than likely.  Abstinence for abstinence sake, though, is a base concept only in the way its opponents trivialize its merits.

For a theology student graduated from Princeton around 1900 the concept would go much deeper than the common attitude towards purity. Its root would naturally be in the Scriptures, which focus on how we are to treat others. This includes how those of us in the male animal category should respectfully think of and treat our female counterparts.

Based on Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount, Walter would have considered it impure to look on a woman lustfully, since thinking of her – using the current vernacular – as a sex toy was tantamount to sexual intercourse. And from the Apostle Paul’s writing he would have regarded older women with the respect due a mother and younger women as a beloved sister. Just think how those in the Me Too movement would have benefitted if their abusers had followed this virtuous course instead of yielding to the natural impulses induced by testosterone.

There is far more to purity than sexual restraint. At least in the theological worldview of Walter’s training. Purity requires refinement. This is not a pleasant prospect. Refining is a smith’s occupation in which a metal substance is heated to the point of liquification so the dross can be skimmed from its surface. It is a repeated act with someone having the skills of a silversmith could judge the metal’s purity by how clearly he could see his reflection in the molten metal. For the Princeton grad, the image Walter would have wanted to have reflected in the malleable mirror of his soul would be the face of God. His motivation was not rooted in self, but in an awareness of how his thoughts and deeds will impact others. As we have already noted, others who are important to him. This is assuring someone else’s wellbeing.

We are well beyond prudery here. It is about a commitment to a standard that ignores human nature and its whims in order to pursue what some have traditionally called higher ground. For Walter it was more. It was character establishing the guidelines for conscience so that his thoughts and actions would benefit others.

True

I would be true, for there are those who trust me.

This quotation is the first line of a 1905 poem written by Harold Arnold Walter as a Christmas present for his mother. It is just happenstance that I came across it recently in an old hymnal, but it seems to be a nice coincidence that I can use the poem as the source of a new web log series at this time of the year given the poem’s Christmas origin.

Its primary appeal, to me at least, is its essential theme about one’s personal character. Walter, a man of three first names, appears to have given the concept a great deal of thought and felt compelled to commit his conclusions to verse. Each of his composition’s twelve lines identifies a distinct character trait he felt worth cultivating. Each line also provides a concise reason for why this was so.

We see the relationship between trait and motivation in his opening line. Being true is significant as there are those who trust him. His mother, the recipient of the poem, would be an obvious case in point. Likely there were others, but it is easy to speculate that she was foremost on his mind and thereby representative of a hierarchy of concern by which we each function. Moms, parents, family, friends, colleagues possess an inherent power of influence that can span both time and space. Walter was literally on the other side of the world when he wrote his poem, being a teacher at the Wasada University in Japan. Distance had little meaning to him in terms of how he structured his behavior. For those of us of an advanced age, time has just as little meaning as we continue to mold our own behavior in conformity to what we know our deceased loved ones would approve.

Being true because there are those who trust us is a premise to which we can easily express our consent without giving it much thought since it evokes an altruistic sensation within us we can appreciate if not actually define or develop in practice. So it begs the question, what does it mean to be true?

We think of the word true as being about facts. It lends itself to an easy construct for an examination as in the presentation of a test question being either true or false. Just check the box for one or the other, no essay required, which means little thinking needed beyond one’s intellectual prowess for recall. This type of knowledge (or expert guessing) is not to be confused with the gift of wisdom, which requires insight and leads to application. You can personally be false and still know that a fact is true.

With a little bit of on-line research, I discovered that the words true and tree share the same root (pun unavoidable). Just as a tree stands firm and upright, so a person’s character shares those same attributes if they are true, as in plumb. True is not an answer to a quiz-show or college exam. It is a condition, hopefully of permanence during the span of a person’s life and legacy. Honest? Yes! Trustworthy? Yes! Dependable? Yes! Even when we are on the far side of the world or this side of the grave from those whose reliance on us spans every barrier providing us license to behave otherwise.

I Would Be True

I have been away for the past few weeks and have used my restricted access to the internet as an excuse not to write and therefore not to post any messages during my absence. A mistake admittedly and one which runs counter to the purpose of this week’s blog since the theme of my message is to announce a new series about personal character. This means that my lackadaisical approach for writing and posting these messages needs to be replaced with the disciplined attitude essential to my goals if my writing is to have the credibility I ultimately seek.

The source of this new series is a 1905 poem entitled I Would Be True, which ironically highlights my recent deficiency in fulfilling my own writing commitment. The author was a young Princeton graduate teaching English at the Wasada University in Japan. He wrote the poem for his mother and mailed it to her as a Christmas gift, since his commitment to his profession prevented him from making the journey home to be with his family.

The author was Harold Arnold Walter, whose brief life left this one creative legacy, which others have found appealing for pursuing their own creative sensibilities. Preceding me was Joseph Yates Peek, a Methodist lay-minister and self-taught musician, who put Walter’s poem to music, transforming it into a hymn of modest popularity. Ralph Harlow, a Congregational minister, followed. He added three more verses to the hymn, claiming that Walter came to him in a dream with an appeal to complete what was lacking in the original. Maybe so, but now there is me, no dream needed, just the audacity to piggyback on another’s work in order to keep faith with my own aspirations.

I discovered I Would Be True in an old hymnal. Its appeal was not in the tune, which I did not know and could not read, nor in Harlow’s additions.  Rather I was struck my Walter’s original message to his mother, written as if it were a pledge of assurance that her teaching would always shape his character for the balance of his adult life. This put his poem outside the mainstream of what we expect to see in a Christian worship service, where praise and adoration of a Redeemer God are paramount.

Walter’s three verses consist of four lines each, with each line containing a character trait essential to the type of service he sought to perform. And each verse contains a sub-theme, indicating that these traits found their significance in his relationship with others, his self and with the God of his theological training. His quest for personal depth has subsequently provided me with a road map for drafting my next twelve messages as we enter, appropriately, the Christmas season guided by a poem of Christmas origin.

It only remains to be seen if I can be true to both my intentions for writing and Walter’s vision for doing the same.

Chevy Chronicles: Part 2

I introduced this personal project in message one, regarding the work being done on my father’s 1963 pickup truck. It has been setting idle in California, my home state, since his death in 1981 and I brought it too Wisconsin in 2013 as part of a larger family resettlement program, which allowed me to take care of my brother during the remaining years of her life. She got my attention and the truck continued to sit idle. Until now.

Part one of this account described the work being done on the wheels. The greasy, grimy cleanup work, which composed my part of the process, was supported by a couple of photographic images to verify that I did indeed get my hands dirty for a good cause. Now I am pleased to provide something of a grand reveal as my friend and collaborator in this effort, Dave Lee, has completed the brake assembly for each wheel. He gets the technical credit for this achievement. I am just the duffer with dirt beneath my fingernails.

My one other accomplishment can also be verified at this time. This involves the removal of the bench seat and the cleaning of the cab. Beyond the usual accumulation of dust and dirt one can expect to find when cleaning an object or structure, whose lonely life of decades during has been outside, there was also a good collection of dead leaves, discarded parts, trash and the evidence of rodent infestation. Apparently some creature made good use of the truck as a habitat in the absence of human occupation.

As a child I was devoted to watching Saturday morning cartoons and an avid consumer of the sponsors’ products, especially those with a high sugar content. This was an age when one of my favorite cereals, Trix, only came in three colors; raspberry red, lemon yellow and orange orange. General Mills, the cereal’s manufacturer, promoted its product with the slogan that “Trix are for kids.” (Note: I left out the reference to the silly rabbit in the tag line as being inconsequential to my message).

I’ll gladly and faithfully follow the cereal peoples’ discriminatory lead in the promotion of my own manufacturing product, the repair of dad’s ’63 Chevy, by saying that trucks are for people, especially vintage pickup trucks, which feature prominently in one’s family history. No varmints allowed!

More as it happens.

Chevy Chronicles: Part 1

This past week a line from the Jethro Tull song Aqualung came to mind citing “Greasy fingers smearing shabby clothes.” In my case this was not about a destitute and homeless, street-wise existence but a labor of love as I have initiated the task of returning my father’s ’63 Chevy pickup to working order.

I will refrain from calling it a restoration as time and money will keep me from tearing the entire vehicle down to its bare bones for a full makeover. Instead it will get careful and caring attention to what needs to be done to make it road worthy.

It must be acknowledged right at the outset that I am not alone in this endeavor. My good and trusted friend, Dave Lee, has the mechanical skills needed to make the transformation possible. My value is doing the messy part of cleaning the grease, grime and rust off of frame and various components of the underside of a truck’s existence. Hence the reference to greasy fingers smearing my shabby work clothes.

To-date the truck is up on jacks. All for wheels have been removed as have the brake drums, brake assemblies and backing plates, leaving me with the less than glamorous parts that have accumulated the oil and dirt of decades. Their removal is my mission.

The tools of the trade include a putty knife, wire brush and an ample supply of mineral spirits as my attack weapons against the evils of filth. I have emerged victorious with only a few cuts from metal parts seeing the light of day for the first time in ages. My badge of success is the grime beneath my fingernails, which I proudly wear since they are harder to clean than the truck parts. One’s fingertips are just too sensitive to endure the onslaught of wire brushing.

My lack of mechanical skills should make it evident that I am not into this in order to drive a vintage vehicle for the fun of it. This is a matter of keeping faith with family and friends, especially dad, who have driven or ridden in this priceless artifact of family history. Just seeing it run again after more than twenty years of sitting idle will provide a fine sense of accomplishment for me. Maybe someday, though, when time and funds allow, it will receive the blessings of the full restoration I think it deserves for bearing a priceless cargo over many a mile.    

Like Father, Like Daughter

One of life’s rewarding experiences is finally coming my way at this late stage in life. One of my children is actually following in my footsteps in a couple of unanticipated ways.

My adult daughter is now playing baseball, my favorite childhood sport, even though she had shown no prior interest for it when she was young. The cause for this epiphany about the merits of America’s past time has little to do with me and everything to do with her employment. She is on the staff of a company called Life Styles, which serves a special adult community, whose members have developmental challenges of various kinds.

Apparently softball is a popular activity for them and my daughter, by virtue of her place on staff, is the manager for one of their teams. She doesn’t know the rules of the game and has little natural aptitude for the art of catching, throwing and hitting an orb of any size. Her childhood interest was always firmly rooted in the care and maintenance of horses. Still, she’s game to be a manager-player and mix it up with a unique collection of people, who find it pure joy in swinging a bat, running the bases and touching home plate, even if no one is officially keeping score. It is simply the love of the game that puts a little swagger in their step whenever they take the field.

My daughter knows that I spent time coaching her older brother in how to play the game. He had a bat, ball and glove not long after he learned to walk. And at dad’s insistence he learned to use them to the extent that I started talking to him about a professional career before he graduated from grade school. Somewhere along the line he developed other interests, which meant that all of his baseball paraphernalia found their way to the back of his closet, permanently. This fact prompted my daughter to observe all these years later that “You taught the wrong kid.”

O well. Such is the plight of being a parent. You never really know how your best of intentions will turn out as your children’s independence quotient comes into play in their lives. I have a second chance, though, since my daughter is following in my footsteps in a different endeavor, one I am adept at and can coach in lieu of never having taught her to cope with the curve.

She is in the process of establishing a non-profit organization, which I know something about since it is how I made a living all those years that I was neglecting her athletic education. To be honest, I did do a lot of chauffeuring when she was little, ferrying her and her four-legged charges to various equestrian competitions. Although I never really progressed beyond knowing a horse’s head from its tail, the fact that I came to appreciate my daughter’s aptitude for horse sense prompted me to encourage her to develop her knowledge and skills in pursuit of whatever dream might come from it.

The result is a new non-profit, incorporated earlier this year, where she lives in Arkansas. If interested, you can learn more about it by visiting www.gaitways.org. I had a part in helping to file the application with the state to obtain corporate status and then the one sent to the IRS to gain their much needed recognition for gait Ways as a public charity. This will allow my daughter to acknowledge all donations as tax-deductible gifts in support of her mission. And that mission brings us back to those special folks, who are an integral part of her baseball team.

My daughter’s vision is to partner the horses she has rescued with the special needs adults under her care. Since Life Styles is about helping people become contributing members to their respective communities, my daughter’s goal is to partner her horses, who have a natural instinct for being participants in a safe community of their own (aka herd), with their human counterparts in pursuit of building relationships based on trust. The skills and confidence gained from this unusual collaboration will last a lifetime for all involved.

It also has allowed my daughter to assume the mantel of being an executive director of this new non-profit organization. And that allows me to take credit for an assist, just as if I had hit a sacrifice fly into deep right field in order to advance the runner to the next available base.

Wounded Heart, Wounded Soul

I am a late arrival to the works of Dean Koontz. His production stretches back to 1968, which means that I am decades behind his output. To say he is prolific is the type of cliché he would likely avoid using. I’ll say it, though, because playing catchup to someone who has an audit trail of  more than a gazillion published works is intimidating. (I’ll avoid writing “to say the least” because that too is an over-worked cliché that is unworthy of my subject).

The only reason I started reading anything of his is due to the insistence of a friend, whose good intentions have resulted in a manuscript curse. Me being me, once I find an author that I like my OCD kicks in and I must read everything the marketplace can supply. And with Amazon possessing the capability of supplying me (for a fee) every novel, novella, short story and essay Koontz has written, I have a long ways to go before I can draw even with him.

My entry point is the Odd Thomas series. And even there I am only at the beginning. Two titles completed thus far out of nine that I know of and three graphic novels in reserve means that me and Odd will be buddies for a while.

Part of the appeal of reading about Odd and his other worldly buddies is the novels’ California setting. Being a Southern California native myself, there is a certain wish fulfillment that takes place whenever I encounter a good story with an old home setting. Think Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, Louis Lamour’s The Lonesome Gods, the last half of Lisa See’s Shanghai Girls and all the Kinsey Millhone stories by Sue Grafton.

The small community of Pico Mundo, where Odd lives is fictional, like his self, but not the Mojave Desert, where the town is located. I’ve been there in a long ago former life as a California free-spirit and can recall the sights, sounds, feel and smell of the terrain Koontz invokes with great clarity. So score one for the power of setting, especially as it befits the nature of the primary character and the mood of his haunted adventures.

Odd sees dead people. His relationship with them is compassionate at the core, even when they draw him into the kind of supernatural escapade that is life threatening for Odd and highly entertaining for those of us disinclined to put the book down until we’ve finished the last page. It’s in the second book of this series, entitled Forever Odd, where Koontz sets himself apart for other authors of popular mystery-themed fiction. It’s in the way he describes the relationship between Odd and the spirits, who desperately seek him out for consolation.

That I will touch them, embrace them, seems always to be a comfort for which they’re grateful. They embrace me in return. And touch my face. And kiss my hands.

You don’t have to be a ghost whisperer to identify with this statement. This is a caregiver’s experience, whether trained as a hospice worker or simply a family member thrust into an intimate relationship with the dying. Presence means everything, made all the more valuable by providing that last scintillating encounter with touch. This can be an uncomfortable challenge as the extremities grow cold, making the simple act of handholding a commitment defying our natural revulsion to death’s relentless demand to possess the last breath of a loved one’s sacred vitality. When sight dims, touch prevails. Where words fail, a caress transcends the need for communication.

Odd says of his spectral encounters, Sometimes it seems that to exit this world, they must go through my heart, leaving it scarred and sore.

Caregivers know the feeling. We have the exit wounds to prove it, both heart and soul.

Road Trip

I have been away on one of those journeys you understandably measure in time and distance. Only both quantifying factors have a double meaning for me. In terms of time I was away for eleven days. In terms of distance I covered by car more than 4,600 miles through eleven different states. Those are the objective measures of my travels. The subjective ones defy such quantification.

The road out was a somber one. The purpose was to attend a memorial service of sorts for my younger brother, who passed away earlier this year from the family scourge – cancer. His body had been donated to science for study by medical students and then returned to the family contained in an urn. Cremation was the fair exchange for the opportunity to dissect someone whose life was hard spent on tobacco and beer.

The time element for this part of my travels involved more than the number of ticks on the clock. It also involved a trip backwards as I reminisced about my own childhood and its intersection with family and friends who are no longer with me except in memory.

My brothers and I were born several years apart so we grew up as if we were only children. We did not share friends, interests or many of those life-shaping experiences, which comprise the rites of passage. Other than family and church attendance, we were like acquaintances to one another, known but not intimate. This family dynamic made my recent drive west a duty to be performed; my last as I am the sole survivor of that nuclear family, which defined nearly everything I have become.

The road back was of an entirely different nature. It was a time of discovery. Whereas the route out was as short and direct as possible, the way back meandered through various never-before-seen locales and subsequently took longer. The time spent was enjoyable, marked by the therapeutic qualities offered by natural and man-made landmarks. Both types of achievements can lay claim to being majestic. The Grand Tetons and Yellowstone National Parks were a wonderful compliment to the Crazy Horse and Mount Rushmore Monuments.

Still, it is great to be back. My version of the country roads which brought me home had too much on the interstate stamp on them due to my own time constraints. But there will hopefully be other paths to follow at a more leisurely pace made all the more valuable to me as my own sense of mortality rode shotgun during most of the venture. That’s probably an appropriate image to use when you have just traversed the Badlands at such a rapid pace.

There are few now who I will travel so far to mourn. There is much to see, however, and a diminishing amount of time in which to do it. The pathways to further revelation beckons ever on.

Have Maps, Will Travel

I am on the road this week, making a journey through both space and time. The space component is easy to chart. I have maps to consult for plotting a general course between my home and my destination. This aspect of my journey has a distant horizon determined by the breadth of states to be traversed for my arriving. I also have a phone to help me judge more discreet distances when the time comes to gauge the distance to the next relief station. Siri speaks kindly to me to help me effectively and efficiently find my way.

The time aspect of my travels is a little more daunting. Its maps consist of memory and memories, as many of my fellow travelers eventually come to realize, can be faulty. There is no Siri for navigating the pathway back from adulthood to childhood and that is the route I must take in fulfilling the true purpose for my journey.  We are gathering to eulogize the lost; lover, children, extended family, friends and the sole surviving member of my nuclear family, which is me.

My thoughts are not theirs. My perception of how a life was lived is distorted with those sinister moments the others cannot and likely should not know. Why disturb their search for solace by summoning up the demons that time alone has attempted to dispel? Limit truth and allow love to do its best work in covering a vast multitude of sins and sorrows and hopeless aspirations. Let delusion bury the dead once again.

I have maps and am willing to travel, just not this way again. There are places which exist expressly for me to locate with a passionate fascination among their vibrantly illustrated musings, while I dare to allow the unrepentant past to disappear in the rearview mirror. My only reservations will be those for securing another night’s lodging, with comfort in mind for body as well as soul. Life’s lessons cannot displace the past merely redeem it as long as our gaze is on the road before us with a determination to finish well by arriving safely.

Losing Walter Cronkite

One of the most enduring myths of the Viet Nam era is the role CBS newsman Walter Cronkite played in bringing about America’s disillusionment regarding the nature of the war. His February 1968 special report on conditions in South Viet Nam following the Tet Offensive questioned our ability to win the war, stating that we were “mired in a stalemate.” In response President Johnson supposedly told an aide that if he lost Walter Cronkite, then he would lose the support of Middle America.

W. Joseph Campbell, American University professor in the School of Communications, debunked the myth of Cronkite’s clout and the impact he had on both the nation and the president in his 2010 book Getting it Wrong: ten of the greatest misreported stories in American journalism. (If you don’t have time to read the book then do an internet search for “Q&A: W. Joseph Campbell” to see his C-SPAN interview with host Brian Lamb. He makes his case quite succinctly about the phenomena of the Cronkite Moment).

I was an avid watcher of the evening news with Walter Cronkite. I still hold a grudge against Dan Rather for forcing the most trusted man in America into early retirement. But I would not be surprised if Campbell wrote a sequel to Getting it Wrong, which would debunk the Rather myth of sending Cronkite packing. Still, my point here is to be very candid with anyone reading this message about my own investment of trust in Walter Cronkite as a source for all the news fit to broadcast. There is a corollary here that I must also acknowledge for the sake of full disclosure. I believe we were better served when news was limited to 30 – 60 minutes each evening instead of the current litany of opinions plaguing us 24/7/365.

I do have my own opinion, though, about what it means to lose Walter Cronkite. It concerns trust and over reporting over an extended period of time. Once it became known that America had “advisors” in Viet Nam, the Gallup folks annually asked people if they thought our intervention was a mistake. Survey results showed the nation strongly behind the Johnson administration in 1964. But the level of support gradually diminished until the nation was shown to be evenly divided (much as it is now) by the fall of 1967.

Cronkite’s special report in February 1968 was a latecomer to the growth of dissention concerning our involvement in Viet Nam. His influence was no doubt bolstered, however, by Johnson’s announcement one month later that he would not seek reelection to the presidency. Johnson’s decision was triggered by other events and other people. And what we tend to forget in our interpretation of those events all these years later is that we were well into the Nixon administration before the war was brought to an end.

With all due respect to Professor Campbell I think there is a place for accepting the thought of losing Walter Cronkite as a symbol of the change that takes place in public sentiment, which is often referred to as a paradigm shift (rightly or wrongly). We don’t handle depth and breadth too well. We need a defining moment, which can be expressed in a sound bite such as, “If I’ve lost Walter Cronkite, then I’ve lost Middle America.”  The Cronkite Moment, then, is not a matter of a single sentence in a television broadcast. Its significance must be seen as the culmination of a much longer process involving many more people, who never want or warrant an on-air interview, yet still have a role in forging policy and performance. We just need a certain someone, of hopefully indisputable trustworthiness, to tell us it is so. The Cronkites of the world serve that purpose, likely unintentionally.

I bring this up now as an uninformed but bemused observer of the current political scene. For the damage the Democrats are attempting to do to the current president’s political future, it seems to me that more attention should be paid to what is taking place at FOX News. From time to time one of their own makes a statement exposing a gaff, an exaggeration, a misrepresentation, a lie or a clearly defaming rant coming from the President for what it is, inexcusable.

As these pronouncements continue to take place I am wondering if Chris Wallace, Judge Napolitano or even Brett Baier is about the have a Cronkite Moment of their own and get credit for achieving what the Democrats can only contentiously dream of. There is plenty of time, after all, for the President to shock the nation, as LBJ did in 1968, by announcing his decision not to seek reelection in 2020. The true motivation behind just such a turn of events will likely take place because of the legal proceedings taking place in New York and not Washington, DC.