Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Friedman at His Best

I have cut out this article and plan to keep it handy throughout 2007, to measure any and all commentary on the Middle East.

The New York Times
20 December 2006

Mideast rules to live by

For a long time, I let my hopes for a decent outcome in Iraq triumph over what I had learned reporting from Lebanon during its civil war. Those hopes vanished last summer. So, I'd like to offer President Bush my updated rules of Middle East reporting, which also apply to diplomacy, in hopes they'll help him figure out what to do next in Iraq.

Rule 1: What people tell you in private in the Middle East is irrelevant. All that matters is what they will defend in public in their own language. Anything said to you in English, in private, doesn't count. In Washington, officials lie in public and tell the truth off the record. In the Mideast, officials say what they really believe in public and tell you what you want to hear in private.

Rule 2: Any reporter or U.S. Army officer wanting to serve in Iraq should have to take a test, consisting of one question: "Do you think the shortest distance between two points is a straight line?" If you answer yes, you can't go to Iraq. You can serve in Japan, Korea or Germany -- not Iraq.

Rule 3: If you can't explain something to Middle Easterners with a conspiracy theory, then don't try to explain it at all -- they won't believe it.

Rule 4: In the Middle East, never take a concession, except out of the mouth of the person doing the conceding. If I had a dollar for every time someone agreed to recognize Israel on behalf of Yasser Arafat, I could paper my walls.

Rule 5: Never lead your story out of Lebanon, Gaza or Iraq with a cease-fire; it will always be over before the next morning's paper.

Rule 6: In the Middle East, the extremists go all the way, and the moderates tend to just go away.

Rule 7: The most oft-used expression by moderate Arab pols is: "We were just about to stand up to the bad guys when you stupid Americans did that stupid thing. Had you stupid Americans not done that stupid thing, we would have stood up, but now it's too late. It's all your fault for being so stupid."

Rule 8: Civil wars in the Arab world are rarely about ideas -- like liberalism vs. communism. They are about which tribe gets to rule. So, yes, Iraq is having a civil war as we once did. But there is no Abe Lincoln in this war. It's the South vs. the South.

Rule 9: In Middle East tribal politics there is rarely a happy medium. When one side is weak, it will tell you, "I'm weak, how can I compromise?" And when it's strong, it will tell you, "I'm strong, why should I compromise?"

Rule 10: Mideast civil wars end in one of three ways: a) like the U.S. civil war, with one side vanquishing the other; b) like the Cyprus civil war, with a hard partition and a wall dividing the parties; or c) like the Lebanon civil war, with a soft partition under an iron fist (Syria) that keeps everyone in line. Saddam used to be the iron fist in Iraq. Now it is us. If we don't want to play that role, Iraq's civil war will end with A or B.

Rule 11: The most underestimated emotion in Arab politics is humiliation. The Israeli-Arab conflict, for instance, is not just about borders. Israel's mere existence is a daily humiliation to Muslims, who can't understand how, if they have the superior religion, Israel can be so powerful.

Al Jazeera's editor, Ahmed Sheikh, said it best when he recently told the Swiss weekly Die Weltwoche: "It gnaws at the people in the Middle East that such a small country as Israel, with only about 7 million inhabitants, can defeat the Arab nation with its 350 million. That hurts our collective ego. The Palestinian problem is in the genes of every Arab. The West's problem is that it does not understand this."

Rule 12: Thus, the Israelis will always win, and the Palestinians will always make sure they never enjoy it. Everything else is just commentary.

Rule 13: Our first priority is democracy, but the Arabs' first priority is "justice." The oft-warring Arab tribes are all wounded souls, who really have been hurt by colonial powers, by Jewish settlements on Palestinian land, by Arab kings and dictators, and, most of all, by each other in endless tribal wars.

For Iraq's long-abused Shiite majority, democracy is first and foremost a vehicle to get justice. Ditto the Kurds. For the minority Sunnis, democracy in Iraq is a vehicle of injustice. For us, democracy is all about protecting minority rights. For them, democracy is first about consolidating majority rights and getting justice.

Rule 14: The Lebanese historian Kamal Salibi had it right: "Great powers should never get involved in the politics of small tribes."

Rule 15: Whether it is Arab-Israeli peace or democracy in Iraq, you can't want it more than they do.


Sunday, December 24, 2006

Christmas Thoughts

Also, for those with young children, Terry Mattingly has good thoughts on that whole Santa thing, here.

And this ad in today's NYTimes from CNI.

Wishing everyone a blessed Nativity.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

What I Like

Last week, we observed the second Divine Liturgy held at our mission, with 27 in attendance. An adjacent small portable building serves as our temporary "hall." Needless to say, some of us had to spill over outside during and after the fellowship meal. I chanced upon an ongoing conversation among 3 of our young men. What were they discussing? Sports? Hardly. Pop culture? Please. Work? Nope. They were comparing their favorite Flannery O'Connor stories. I just love Orthodoxy.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Spengler on Jenkins and Global Christianity

Recently, I have caught up on my Spengler. His regular columns in the Asia Times , unfailingly insightful, are collected here. I took particular interest in his review of The New Faces of Christianity: Believing the Bible in the Global South by Philip Jenkins. The work, which charts the shifting locus of Christianity from the Northern to the Southern Hemisphere, has been generally well-received, and for the most part, Spengler concurs with the consensus. He finds it "indispensible not only for its understanding of global change, but also for its understanding of what Christianity implies." Indeed, Spengler concludes that the "new book is a source of astonishment. One cannot quite make sense of today's world without it."

Spengler does level some criticism at Jenkins, finding him a much better demographer than theologian, whose work sometimes "maddens as much as it informs." For instance, the author views the general uncertainly of life in Africa as the major factor in the explosive growth of sub-Sarahan Christianity. Spengler argues that life in Africa has always been fragile, and even in the face of the AIDS epidemic, the drastic reduction in child mortality has in fact, made life more certain than before.

Also, Spengler faults Jenkins when comparing Christianity and Islam. Most irksome among Jenkins' omissions is a failure to explain the often brutal antagonism between Christianity and Islam throughout Africa. Where he compares the two religions, Jenkins invariably sees common features rather than fundamental differences - yet the vast amounts of Christian blood shed by African Muslims suggest that a great gulf is fixed between the two faiths. Jenkins notes that Christianity is winning the battle for souls in sub-Saharan Africa, but even so, is at a loss to explain why. Here Jenkins is no help at all. In matters of theology and religious practice, he calls attention only to similarities between Islam and Christianity.

Jenkins infers that Africans feel an instinctive cultural affinity with the Old Testament, with its stories of nomadism and polygamy. Spengler dismisses this as so much condescension, indeed the same attitude taken by America's liberal elite towards African fundamentalism (witness mainstream Episcopal hand-wringing over Archbishop Akinola).

Spengler sees other factors as work. First, a more convincing explanation of African identification with the Old Testament is that African Christians identify with ancient Israel because they desire to become part of the People of God, as tribal society disintegrates.

He also credits the role of American evangelical missionaries. US evangelical Christianity…is …unique in its identification with Israel, for Americans selected themselves out from among the nations, and crossed the oceans to come to a New Land in emulation of the Tribes of Israel crossing the Jordan into Canaan. Evangelical Christianity centers on the rebirth of the individual out of his sinful, Gentile origin into Israel, into the People of God, by the miracle of Christ's blood.…Appropriately, American evangelical religion, with its central notion of being saved in the blood, has exercised immense appeal in modern Africa. Even here, however, Spengler believes Jenkins does not follow through fully with his premise. The reason that blood is so important to Christianity (and not just evangelical Christianity) is that the Christian undergoes a change of ethnicity. As Africa emerges from tribalism - if it is to emerge at all - this is decisive. It is the Gentile flesh that is sinful by its nature, and to overcome sin and gain the Kingdom of God, the Christian must be reborn into a new flesh, the flesh of Israel. The blood sacrifice of Jesus Christ is what makes that possible.

Yet, in the end, Spengler finds this to be a seminal work. Some choice Spengler quotes, as follows:

Westerners have spent the past 400 years in a grand effort to make the world seem orderly and reasonable without, however, quite suppressing the strangeness and wonder of life. Now come the new Christians of the Southern Hemisphere, who confound enlightened Western prejudice. The Bible, and above all the Hebrew Bible, speaks immediately to the new Christians of the global South ...unlike the complacent and secure Euro-American Christians who find disturbing the actual Bible of blood and redemption. Southern Christians will dominate the religion within a generation or two and, if Jenkins is right, will bring it closer to its original purpose and character. Southern Christians hold to biblical authority not because they are backward, but because they have embraced the Bible for what it really is. Euro-American Christians who interpret Scripture to suit their evolved cultural tastes are soon-to-be-ex-Christians.

The conclusion suggested by Jenkins' report is that the people of the Southern Hemisphere increasingly are willing to substitute a universal Christian identity for their ethnic or tribal identity, choosing Christianity over Islam. If that is correct, we are witness to one of the most remarkable things to happen in world history.

Reflections of a Humble Heart (continued)

The elder, addressing his monastics:

...I greet you and say to you, "Rejoice!" Rejoice, because you are a Christian and you bear the name of Christ. Rejoice, because, for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ, God has numbered you with His sons, and you daily turn to Him with the words, "Our Father." Rejoice, because the Son of God and your Saviour calls you His brother (John 20:17; Heb. 2:11-12). Rejoice because you are redeemed (Gal 3:13, 1 Tim. 2:6). Rejoice, because from the foundation of the world the Kingdom has been prepared for you (Matt. 24:34), if only you apply yourself in the course of this life to inherit it in eternity. Rejoice, because you are always numbered among those who are saved (Eph. 2:5), and your name is already written in the Book of Life (Rev. 3:5), and of you is required only that you confirm this and that you hold to this great height. Rejoice, because God has called you to please Him in this monastic life. He has clothed you with the robe of salvation (by which you are to understand your baptismal robe) and He has covered you with the garment of joy (Is. 61:10), which is how you should revere your monastic habit. Likewise, rejoice and know that the Mother of God herself and the host of saints protect and watch over you, if only you do no fall into despondency and do not become careless or indifferent towards your calling. If you should stumble, they will help you up, if only you are determined to continue your path and to avoid the mire from which there is no salvation. If we have many enemies along our path to salvation, we also have many friends and helpers....Know that time does not wait for you. Love the time of your life, for this is the time that the Lord has entrusted to you in order that you labor on the salvation of your soul, and there will not be another time....Rejoice, that you are alive and are given the opportunity to manifest love for God, to please God, to labor, to show yourself His faithful servant--and not merely a servant but a son, according to the Gospel (John 1:12). And if you are called to such an honor, to such a joy, well then, endure all trials and misfortunes steadfastly and courageously. In no case hang your head in sorrow, because you have no grounds for doing so.

Reflections of Humble Heart, pages 24-26

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Reflections of a Humble Heart

I have recently enjoyed reading Reflections of a Humble Heart, a small book of Orthodox spiritual writings. The title was new to me, and I chanced upon it at the Holy Archangels Monastery bookstore in Kendalia, Texas. The work is taken from an Byzantine manuscript discovered in the Vatican library, then translated into Russian, and only recently into English. The writer was a monk Basil, who recorded the teachings of an unnamed priest. Either the elder was so well-known that his name did not have to be mentioned, or it was recorded in the portions of the manuscript now lost. The great interest for me was that the writings date from early 15th-century Constantinople. By that time, the greatest city in the world had been reduced to a hollow shell of its former self, and the empire--if you could still call it that--extended little farther than the city walls. Written under these dire conditions, I was intrigued to see what it had to say.

I was also curious to discover just how the book would sound to me--and by this I mean that as a 21-century reader, how exactly would I hear and receive the wisdom of 600 years past? I know that for Protestants reading the actual writings of the Reformers, the teachings can seem odd and stilted in light of current beliefs (which ought to be a clue). It was refreshing to discover that the Reflections read as though one were reading a contemporary Orthodox theologian or author. Maybe this is due to the translators, but then maybe it is something a bit more basic; a confirmation of the successfull trasmission of doctrine from generation to generation. I am not saying this to try and score points, or indulge in Orthodox triumphalism, but merely noting my overall impression of the work.

Later on, I will post excerpts from the elder's writings. First, however, I found his thoughts on the impending doom of Constantinople, as well as the relationship of eastern and western Christianity to be of interest. I might note that this is not at all the thrust of the book, merely an aside to his readers in the first few pages.

The enemies of our Lord Jesus Christ will take captive our earth and the Great Church [the Hagia Sophia] will cease to be a temple of God. Great tragedies will overtake the land of the Romans [the "Byzantines"], and by God's great judgment it will cease to exist. People will die, cities will perish, even whole nations will perish, because there is nothing eternal under the sun except the human soul, which is created in the image and likeness of the eternal God. Do not look for help from Western Christians, expecting that they will take up arms in defense of the common Christian heritage. Do not expect this. Because the Western Christians are not Christians; they are pagans.

Before one dismisses the writer as just another knot-headed anti-Latin Greek, the elder goes on to explain:

Even we Orthodox have a lot of things that are pagan....Yes, brother, we have much that is pagan, because we Orthodox are sinners, both as individuals and as a people. However, we are pagans on the surface, while in the depths of our souls we are Christian, because in our humility we have Christ in our hearts....Western peoples are Christian on the surface, but in their hearts, in their souls, they are pagan. We Orthodox grieve that we have idols living in our souls, and in humility we fall prostrate before Christ, desiring with our whole heart to belong to Him. In the case of Westerners, however, Christianity is like a thin gilding over copper; the rest is wholly pagan, because within their souls they bow down before their idols and these idols reign over them. They are proud, and Christ does not dwell in their hearts. For this reason, we Orthodox are truly pagans--on the surface--but deep within we are Christians; while the Western Latins are Christians on the surface but pagans underneath. Therefore, do no expect that they will help us. We Orthodox are strangers to them. Of course, in every nation there are good and humble people who bear Christ in their hearts and in their way of life.

I find his 15th-century analysis of what separated East from West interesting, to say this least. Of course, the elder realized he was speaking in broad terms, and he qualified his judgment in the last statement. I would be curious to know if anyone finds merit to the distinctions he draws.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Return to the Hill Country

Part 7 (final)—The Monastery

This subject may seem an odd choice for my last observation in this series. But the Texas Hill Country is also home to Holy Archangels Greek Orthodox Monastery, located between Kendalia and Twin Sisters (or between Blanco and Boerne, to put it in a slightly larger context). Going to monasteries is what Orthodox people do. I am no exception.

The monastery occupies 155 acres at the end of a dead-end road. Frankly, it took me a while to track it down. Holy Archangels is one of the 15 monasteries founded across America by Elder Ephraim, and has been in existence for about 10 years. As I understand it, there are presently 3 priest and 7 monks in residence. A number of Orthodox faithful come for services on the weekend, and the homes along the little road leading to the monastery are lined with the vacation and/or weekend homes of Orthodox who wish to be close by.
I inquired about the metal framework for a large dome that I saw lying on the ground behind some building supplies. The monk informed me that the property had been previously owned by a Muslim group who had a mosque here, and that was their dome. So, he concluded, it was a double blessing: a mosque was destroyed and a monastery established. At the risk of engaging in a brief moment of triumphalism, I couldn’t help but agree.

The church at Holy Archangels is simply beautiful, the intricately carved iconostasis (made in Greece) is as impressive as any I have seen. A large amount of construction is underway at the monastery. A 3-story dormitory is being built around the church, large enough to accommodate 100 monks, as well as providing for an iconography studio and other needs.

All in all, I was impressed. The monks are unfailingly friendly and hospitable. I have seen discussions among Orthodox bloggers, with various insights pro and con about the role of monasteries in American Orthodoxy, and their influence in Orthodoxy in general. Some may believe that these monasteries perpetuate a perceived Orthodox “exoticism,” and worry that Orthodoxy will never really fit in, so to speak, to American society. God grant that we never “fit in.” Our country is saturated with that "fit-in" style of religion. But really—and I hope I am not setting up a straw man, here—I think this argument approaches the issue from the wrong angle. I view these monasteries as healthy, and while they are certainly a new addition to the landscape that doesn’t mean that do not belong here. We are a mongrel, polygot nation. We are, and have always been, in the process of becoming. I recall a magazine cover from several years back with an artist’s conception of what the average American would look like in the year 2050. And unless you are already part Caucasian, part black, part Asian and part Hispanic, then this average future American will not look like you, or like me. That is our future, as a nation. And in this particular part of the world, any concern about Orthodox "exoticism" just falls flat. We WASPs have only been here 160 years, hardy long enough to make an indelible stamp; and even from the beginning, heavily diluted with German Lutheranism and Hispanic Catholicism. The monks in their black cassocks, going about their work and worship at Holy Archangels Monastery look as natural in this rugged hill country as anybody else who has come along. In fact, maybe more so. The region has just a hint of Greece to it.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Return to the Hill Country

Part 6--Luckenbach on a Friday Night

Back in 1970s, the little German village of Luckenback, Texas became something of pop culture icon, or at least among Willie Nelson/Waylon Jennings/Chris Kristofferson aficionados. I hated all the hoopla back then. I have since mellowed, and let's face it, Luckenbach has always been mellow, so we are now a good match. This local watering hole persists, with a dogged determination to preserve a unique take on life. The old store has been there, almost forever. But the main attraction is the shed on the back--a 25' square room with a bar around 2 sides, a cookstove for heat, a smattering of benches and stools, with every inch of wall covered with memorabilia. On this particular Friday night, 6 musicians sat in a circle, taking turns picking and singing. Some 25-30 of us were huddled around, backing up to the stove for warmth when need be, listening to such classics as "Watching the Fire Go Out," and "I'm the Lonliest Man in Town." Or, at least with the obligatory Shiner Bock, they seemed like classics.

Return to the Hill Country

Part 5—Enchanted Rock

Enchanted Rock is a noted landmark between Llano and Fredericksburg, Texas. If a foreign visitor were to ask me the one place that is quintessentially “Texas,” this would be the spot. Although a huge granite outcropping, to call it a mountain would invite ridicule from those who live where there are real mountains. Yet, it is certainly something more than just a large hill. I have climbed it 5 or 6 times—so far. After spending most of this fall on crutches, scaling the peak was something of a personal vindication as well. My healing foot made it just fine, and gasping for breath as I approached the summit was not as embarrassing as expected. I enjoy the view, and watching the sunset from here is a special treat, though this day was noticeably chilly and overcast.

Captain Jack Hays was the hero of a famous Indian skirmish here in 1845. He was working on a survey party, became separated from his group, and soon found himself confronted by about 20 Comanche. He sought refuge on the peak, as the war party followed. Hays was able to keep them at bay, without ever firing a shot. As they would approach up the bald, unprotected face of the mountain, he would rise to fire off a shot, and they would retreat back. This standoff allowed his survey party time to discover what had happened and come to his rescue. Hays went on the have a distinguished career, which included becoming mayor of Oakland, California.

Conditions remained dicey here, even 20 years later. The Civil War wiped away whatever defenses that the U. S. Army and/or Texas Rangers had afforded. My great- grandmother’s brother, Charles, was a young man of 20 years, just home from the war in July of 1865. He volunteered to help his uncle and family move from Honey Creek down to Mountain Home, a two-three day journey. On the return, Charlie stopped off in Fredericksburg, refreshed himself in a local saloon and then pushed on. About four miles out of town, he stopped at a creek to water the team and camp out for the night. He was ambushed by a party of Comanche, tied to a wagon wheel, tortured and then scalped. Neighbors overheard his screams. When word reached his family's ranch on Sandy Creek, his father, brother and brother-in-law set off to retrieve his body. Before leaving, they dug a hasty grave for him next to his mother. The heat and the time delay, however, dictated that they bury him where found, south of Enchanted Rock. In 1923, my granddad and his uncles sought to relocate the grave, but to no avail. Soon after the tragedy, my family abandoned their home of 13 years and moved 75 miles northeast to a safer area. They would remain away for 12 years. The murder (and the subsequent murder of another uncle nearby some 4 years later) has always made me take a somewhat jaundiced view of the “noble red man” school of revisionist American history. I realize that it was 140 years ago, but generationally (merely my grandfather’s uncles), it was not far removed at all, and the stuff of my childhood stories.

Looking out from Enchanted Rock, I recalled this saga, and pondered how life seldom works out the way we envision. And thank God for that. Most of our envisioning is motivated by our selfish wants and whims of the moment. Somehow this story causes me pause, even at home when I walk down our hallway and the honest, confident, clean-shaven and youthful face of my Uncle Charlie stares out at me from the old daguerreotype on the wall. If my family had not been chased off by the Indian depredations, my great-grandmother would have never met my great-grandfather (himself, ironically, part-Indian). Their love, and the years and obstacles that stood in the way of their marriage, is another story. But somehow, this twisting tale is all God’s grace, and part and parcel of who I am.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Return to the Hill Country

Part 4 -- The Grove

The family of my great-grandmother Nannie was the last of my relatives to settle in the Hill Country of Texas, arriving in 1879. Her parents lived in a 2-story house on a flat stretch of high ground. Nannie lived there in later years, as did my dad, one year. The school in his neighborhood went only through the 10th grade. He lived with his grandmother so that he could attend the 11th grade and graduate from high school. The little rock schoolhouse down the road had a graduating class of 8.

In 1882, Nannie’s little brother, Willie, died. My great-great grandparents laid him to rest in a live oak grove a couple of hundred feet west of the house. The cemetery took on the name of Nannie’s family, even though it soon grew into a community burial ground. The house is long gone, marked only by a cistern and a straggling fig bush. In fact, the cemetery is now so large that most of the house site is within its fence. The oldest area, under the live oaks, is filled with my kin. I remember hearing accounts of my grandmother’s funeral in 1934--the casket being carried directly from the house to the grove, the waves of grief and incomprehension of the children, the uncomforting words of the preacher—as they laid her to rest, next to her father and near her Uncle Willie. The effects of her untimely death still ripple down through the generations.

From the early 1980s through the mid 1990s, I would visit my favorite uncle, who had retired to nearby Georgetown. Our Saturday morning routine would never vary—after a pot of coffee and pecan waffles, we would hit the road. Sometimes we would visit this or that family landmark. Sometimes we would drop in for a cup of coffee with another uncle, though always leaving before the war-stories could begin. We would often check on various older relatives, with my uncle being the self-assigned caretaker. We might even stop by Jimbo Davis’ roadhouse on the way back. But always, we would stop at the live oak grove.

Here we would perpetuate an age-old country tradition. Neither of us knew why it started, or why we continued to do it. We would keep our family’s graves “mounded-up.” Grave sites here are rocky by nature, and seldom grassed over. Old-timers would keep the graves slightly mounded. The cemetery association maintains a pile of rough, course sand just for that purpose. So, we would remember to throw a wheel barrow and shovels in the back of the truck before leaving, and we would, if needed, “mound-up” the graves of my grandfather, grandmother and grandmother’s father. This must be a central Texas thing. It is certainly not done in East Texas, or other parts of the South.

My favorite uncle himself now lies in the grove, as does another uncle and his wife. I try to attend the cemetery work-days whenever possible, though there is little to do. The association does an excellent job of maintaining everything. But we meet out there anyway, and rake the acorns and leaves away. And when need be, I mound-up the graves, and most especially that on my uncle.

Return to the Hill Country

Part 3 -- The Road

My grandmother’s people lived across the river from my granddad’s farm. Though only a few miles apart, as the crow files, the road twists for 7 or 8 miles around the rugged, hilly terrain to connect the two communities. Other than paving, the road has changed little since my dad’s youth. I rarely drive it without seeing deer or turkey. As one travels south, the road unwinds into a long straight-of-way, stretching nearly a mile from one hilltop to the next. This is known as “Seven-Mile Hill,” though I am unsure of which of the two peaks is so named. This stretch of road is the setting for one of my dad’s favorite stories. Whenever he would begin the story, my mother would always roll her eyes and claim that it “grew” with each telling; much the same way my wife does when I tell it. For it was on this stretch of road, in the summer of 1919, that my dad saw his first automobile.

My granddad was very much the stereotypical old-time Texan. Dark-complected and square-jawed, he stood 6’ 4” in his stocking feet. With boots and Stetson, he seemed 7’ tall. He died when I was 8 years old and he has been my life-long hero. My granddad and his mother-in-law never quite got on, as they say. Nannie was so tiny that she wore a hatband as a belt. She stood 4’ 8” and never weighed over 90 lbs. She kept her hair pulled back tight and wore spectacles over huge, piercing eyes. This gave her a something of a hen-like appearance, and in fact, she looked much like an even tinier version of Granny Clampitt from the “Beverly Hillbillies.” Nannie had been widowed when only in her mid twenties, and never remarried over the course of her long life. And she was tough as a boot. She and my grandfather were evenly matched.

Nannie was not above using a little maternal manipulation. Her three daughters were overly protective of her, and I suppose that they somewhat “petted” her. If things were not particularly going her way, she could pout and throw a "Smith fit," as my grandfather later dubbed it. She imagined herself subject to "heart flutters,” as she put it, particularly in those times when she needed to get her way. The “heart flutters” did, in fact, finally carry her off, but at age 84. My grandmother loved her mother, but she also loved my granddad. They married when she was 19 and he 24, and she left home in a sense that her 2 sisters never did. I suspect Nannie somewhat resented my granddad for taking her oldest daughter away. He, on the other hand, had little patience with her carryings-on. And herein lay the root of their low-level war of wills.

Nannie would come for extended visits. My dad recalled that once, in the midst of a “Smith fit,” she exclaimed, “Well, I’ll just kill myself.” My granddad coolly replied “Well Lizzie, the strychnine is on the mantle, next to the clock. But if you take it, make sure you take enough because if you don’t, it will just make you sick.” Such was the nature of their relationship.

And so on that summer day in 1919, my granddad was carrying Nannie back home. It was a family affair. My granddad was driving the team with my grandmother sitting next to him, holding the baby. My dad, his older brother and his next youngest brother were sitting on the back of the wagon, their bare feet hanging off. And in the bed of the wagon, in a cane chair, sat Nannie. They were nearing her home, when they topped Seven-Mile Hill. In the distance, on the far summit, an automobile was chugging their way. The boys were craning their necks to get a better view of the approaching vehicle. Meanwhile, my grandmother began to admonish her husband to stop and hold the team until the vehicle passed. He, like most of my gender, took a dim view of such sensible instructions. My granddad just keep on his way, as the dust and noise from the car came closer and closer. Sure enough, right before the two travelers met, the jittery horses spooked and reared straight-up. Grandmother clutched the baby and screamed. My dad and his brothers were yelling with excitement, while my granddad was attempting to bring the team back under control. In this midst of this commotion, Nannie’s eyes got “big as sauces,” and without a word, she leapt over the wagon wheel and landed in a bar-ditch. My grandmother turned to my granddad and said, “Now look what you’ve done. You’ve gone and hurt Mother!” It would take more than a tumble in a bar-ditch to do serious harm to Nannie, but I suspect my granddad never heard the end of it;, from either his spouse or his mother-in-law.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Return to the Hill Country

Part 2—The Bridge

Much of my family story played itself out along the Lampasas River of central Texas. The area remains somewhat remote, but with relentless sprawl marching north from Austin, and a smaller version of the same moving south from Fort Hood, the rural nature of this part of the world will ultimately give way. But for a while yet, progress is at bay. In all my returning, I try to visit 3 touchstones: the bridge, the road and the grove.

The old iron bridge over the Lampasas River was brand new in 1914, the year of my father’s birth. I have crossed the rattlely old bridge dozens of times in my life. In recent years, it has been closed to vehicular traffic as a new, low concrete replacement has been opened downstream. At some point, a do-gooding entity of some sort will undoubtedly declare the old bridge to be unsafe, and recommend that it be dismantled. But until then, I retain this link with our past.

It has even gained a bit of fame in its last days. The movie “Second Hand Lions,” starring Robert Duvall and Michael Caine, was shot on location in central Texas. The 2 bridge scenes in the move were shot here. The background scenery was digitally altered, but there is no mistaking the bridge.

My great-grandparents’ farm lay about 1 ½ miles north of the community which was clustered on either side of the bridge. My dad was born in the village and lived there until he was about 6. He was a natural horseman, even as a child. By the time he was 5 years old, my grandparents would set him atop old Star--their gentle mare--and point her in the direction of the general store. There would invariably be a cluster of men gathered around in front of the store, located just north of the bridge. One of them would go in, get the family’s mail, hand it to my dad, and then he would head the horse toward home. The community cemetery (perhaps one of the most beautiful in Texas), lies just south of the bridge. My great-grandparents are here, lying beneath massive Woodmen of the World grave monuments. The old Baptist Church is a little west of here, though now a non-denominational something or the other. In my dad’s youth, there would have undoubtedly been a Presbyterian Church somewhere in the area.

The Lampasas River is not much of a river, actually. The banks are high and wide, but the river is sometimes shallow enough that one could walk across without getting unduly wet. A huge sandbar hugs the south bank, just east of the bridge. This, more than anyplace else, served as a community center for the now vanished village. Large enough to accommodate quite a crowd, the sandbar provided the perfect venue for picnicking, swimming, wading, and perhaps some low-key fishing. The rocky bluffs above were also popular. Granddad’s two sisters came of age in the Edwardian era. I recall the faded old hardback pictures—they, with hair piled high beneath wide-brimmed hats, posing with the other area young people on the bluffs.
My dad remembers one gathering from about 1919 or 1920 in particular. Grandmother’s mother, Nannie, and her two other daughters had just returned home from Dallas. I have always been incredulous that Nannie ever lived in that city, for she was notoriously old-fashioned, even then. They had left the Hill Country after the debacle of my youngest great-aunt’s rather thrown-together marriage. The baby died and the husband bolted. The whole saga was a little scandalous for that day and time, and so they decamped for the anonymity of the city for a while. My aunt would recover. She would marry again. And again. And again. But at that time, friends and family were just glad to have them back where they belonged. As my dad recalled, everyone was down on the sandbar. His younger brother (not much past toddler stage) had captured a horned-toad that he was carrying around in a shoe box. He was chasing his aunt, both of them running barefoot across the sandbar. My great-aunt was something of a tomboy and hardly afraid of a horned-toad. But she was glad to play along with her nephew. Standing on the old bridge, looking down, I can just about see it all, in my mind’s eye.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Return to the Hill Country

Part 1--The Farmhouse

I am going to stray a bit from my usual topics and take a break from fretting about our foreign policy, George Bush, Pope Benedict, the Armenian Genocide, the banalities of our popular culture, as well my various observations of a religious nature, etc. Rather, I want to flesh out some jumbled thoughts and impressions that are never far from my consciousness. They are all of a family nature. Whether the writing of them will be therapeutic, or merely self-indulgent navel-gazing, remains to be seen. But I do apologize in advance, so don't feel compelled to read through all these ramblings.

In recent weeks, I have had the opportunity to spend time in the Texas Hill Country--that ruggedly beautiful region than fans out northwest, west and southwest from Austin. As much as I enjoy the scenery, the real treat is the approach to life one finds here—straight-forward and honest, little given to pretense, egaliterian, lively, yet laid-back. My own region of the state, by comparison, appears cramped, uptight and often given over to superficial pettiness. I recognize the romanticism in all this--there's clearly good and bad all over.

My roots are here, at least on the paternal side of things, though my immediate family has been gone for 70 years now. My dad’s leaving had everything to do with the cold, hard necessities of the Depression era. His life (and as a result, mine) was played out elsewhere, and in the measure of the world, done so with some degree of success. And yet, I have always believed that something special and meaningful was lost along the way. And so, I return here, time and again, whenever possible; looking for that intangible, and on occasion, catching a glimpse of it.

A distant cousin invited us to a Christmas barbeque at her ranch, which served as the excuse for the most recent excursion. Although she lives in Austin, she lovingly maintains the old 1870s farmhouse, and drives out several times a week. And her holiday get-togethers are always done up right—this year being a catered, chuck wagon barbeque out on the hilltop homestead. The connections are now remote—my closest kin there being a few remaining 2nd cousins of my dad. But my surname removes these gradations, and I treasure the time spent with these easy, gentle souls. I allow myself a little pride here, noting that the adjoining “mountain” (more like a butte, actually) bears our name and still gives testimony to the role we played in this place.

On the drive out, I made a quick detour by my grandparent’s last farm. My granddad had sold the earlier, old family farm in 1920. With his sisters living elsewhere and owning a 2/3 interest in the place, the decision was made to sell. And so they did. A succession of rented places followed; first by grandmother’s people, and then later among granddad’s, until he purchased this 160 acre farm in the late 1920s. There's no getting around the fact that it is something of a forlorn and melancholy site now. Yet, in my mind I can see the bustling farmstead in its day. They grew crops of all kinds--cotton, as well as row crops--raised beef cattle, kept dairy cows, sheep, horses, mules—altogether as diversied and self-sufficient a farm as could be. My granddad served on the board of the little school house located two miles south. And, most importantly, grandmother had a church of her faith within riding or driving distance. Theirs was a happy home.

My granddad was a forward-looking, optimistic sort—perhaps foolishly so. After the Stock Market Crash of 1929, agriculture and cattle prices dropped sharply. While prices were low, he figured that this would be a good time to expand. The leading local mercantile firm was happy to oblige and gave him more than enough rope. But agricultural prices had not stabilized, they had just paused before dropping off the precipice into nothingness. My granddad was a proud man and concealed their plight from his children, who really did not realize they were poor. My dad thought he was going to college. Granddad talked him into putting it off a year or two, and by that time it was out of the question. During this time, my dad when out to the Texas Panhandle (in the fall of 1933) to earn extra money by picking cotton. Some cousins were becoming well-established out there, and had a job waiting for him. He returned home for Christmas, only to find an empty and deserted farm. The lender had pulled the plug—taking everything, even my dad’s personal horse and saddle. This event, in turn, led directly to my grandmother’s untimely death 3 months later, which completed the tragedy. My dad had just turned 20 years old; his baby brother had just turned 3 weeks old. My dad and his younger brother had to go to work to support the younger children, wo were more or less farmed out among various relatives. So, the farm became a melancholy place in our collective family memory.

The little box house still hangs on, after a fashion. The porches are long gone, and recent owners have covered the structure in tin and used it as a barn and/or storage building. I stopped to have a look around. The back was more or less off the house, so I just hopped in. Since I was trespassing, I didn’t linger long. The wood floors remain firm and strong. The ceiling and some interior walls have been removed to facilitate storage. The room that must have been my grandmother’s kitchen lay next to the back porch. But I couldn’t tell where the stovepipe into the parlor had been. I recall the story vividly. My dad’s older brother, who always took him self very, very seriously, was entertaining his girl friend in the parlor. My dad and his younger brother snuck up to the attic room, taking along one of the family cats. Somehow, they managed to open the stovepipe and shove the cat down the pipe going into the parlor. The mayhem which ensued from a screaching, clawing cat, frantically trying to extricate itself from the stovepipe, brought a swift halt to my uncle’s wooing. My dad, ever quick-witted, made a hasty retreat down the stairs and out the back of the house. His younger brother, convulsing in laughter, was a little slower on the getaway and, unfortunately for him I suppose, by that time my granddad was waiting for him at the foot of the stairs. I smiled as I jumped to the ground from where the porch had been. As I walked back to my vehicle, I noticed narcissuses coming up in the surrounding pasture and wondered if my grandmother had planted them. And I also paused to wonder what all of our lives would have been like had they not lost the farm, had she lived to a ripe old age and if the family had stayed together? But such thoughts are not helpful and are not productive of anything. And worse yet, such thinking discredits and discounts the very real providence of God. And so I drove off, for my cousins, and the barbeque, were waiting.