BELIEVE….

BELIEVE IN MUSIC, BELIEVE IN BALTIMORE…AND BELIEVE IN OPPORTUNITIES

I recently watched Meredith Vieira. Ordinarily this is something I rarely do, much less admit to doing. I was not really paying attention until my wife forced me to watch a segment. I am an old, set-in-his-ways, white guy and am rarely moved by anything other than my bowels…AND young people doing well. It is likely to be the retired teacher in me. I was moved this morning as I watched a group of young people of color singing about their belief in Baltimore and their white teacher explaining how they had managed to rise above the fear and hatred derived from the riots which occurred in the Baltimore Protest this past April. Their manner of elevation? Music…and opportunity.

To quote from their web site, “’Believe in Music’ is a Living Classroom’s program that aims to uplift underprivileged Baltimore City students academically, culturally, and spiritually, while promoting self-expression and community awareness through music education. Through the program, students will foster a deep connection with music in their own lives, and gain the tools to be able express their culture, struggles, and triumphs through music. It is our hope that students will come away from the program seeing music as a way to uplift themselves as well as their community.” This program began with seven students in a closet and has grown to over seventy-five per day…no longer in a closet. Someone is doing something right.

These kids are the same “thugs, savages and killers” TO BE who are maligned by racist trolls on social media and quite possibly by certain presidential candidates. These particular children were simply looking for an “opportunity.” This is something that those of us with “white privilege” believe they, the students, already have.

The word “opportunity” continues to resonate in my mind. I had opportunities. Those opportunities were part of my “white privilege.” Before you attack me, my grandparents began their married lives as famers “on the lien” and my parents were textile mill workers. My father actually drew his last breath on a weave room floor. I had a very humble upbringing and had to work to help put myself through college. No one gave me anything other than an “opportunity.” Despite my lack of privilege, I do understand white privilege has nothing to do with wealth…and lack of wealth and hard work does not eradicate it. White privilege has more to do with “opportunity” than with poverty and hard work. I doubt seriously a black kid with my grades or upbringing would have been given the time of day…much less an “opportunity.” According to the Oxford on Line Dictionary: privilege is “a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people.” White people take their privilege of being white for granted. Being able to take it for granted IS white privilege. We take it SO for granted we ignore the fact our white privilege actually exists. Because of ignorance we believe that all children have the same opportunities when in fact, many don’t. We further invoke all types of aging stereotypes to explain it away instead of working together to provide “opportunities” for all.

Being an old, set-in-his-ways, white man, I also believe that you can’t solve problems by throwing money at something hoping it will go away or by ignoring that a problem exists. I have had plenty of practice ignoring problems and they do not go away, they only get worse. I would ask the question, “What opportunities are we providing?” What opportunities actually help people rise above whatever holds us back, whether it be social, economic, racial or cultural? If some program doesn’t provide for those opportunities maybe we should re-think it and quit throwing money at it in favor of something that does.

We can pay now or we can pay later. There is going to be a price tag on good or bad government, good choices or bad. Investing “good money” in our youth and providing opportunities now may make it possible to invest less “bad money” in the future. I would rather our government invest our tax monies in opportunities that programs such as “Believe in Music” provide rather than investing in new prisons to house those who fall through the cracks because they have no opportunities. But everyone has equal opportunities, our government says so. No that is just our white privilege showing its racist petticoats.

PATHWAYS by Don Miller

Some thirty years ago the seed that would grow into this book was planted in my head when my wife Linda and I took pre-school daughter Ashley, now a mother and wife in her own right, to play in one of the many streams that cut our property. Frogs and their pollywogs, crawdads and minnows were in abundance along with a watermelon that I had placed into the dammed up stream to cool …just like my grandparents had done many, many years earlier. I had warm memories of picking red, vine ripened tomatoes and eating them whole for lunch before having a stream cooled watermelon split open for a sweet and refreshing mid-afternoon snack. I wanted Ashley to have some of the same experiences…without having to hoe the tomatoes or watermelons. Later as I struggled to get the watermelon out of the stream she pointed out, “Wouldn’t it been easier just to put it in the refrigerator?” Yep, and she doesn’t eat raw tomatoes either. Are you sure you are mine?

Closing in on my autumn years I find that my own footprints seem to wander back to the same paths that my parents and grandparents laid out for me…no matter how much I have resisted following them These are stories of my youth and reflect the era that I grew up in. They are what shaped and define me. American Exceptionalism of the Fifties, cotton fields and textiles mills, Civil Rights and “with all deliberate speed,” the Cold War and our involvement in Viet Nam in the Sixties. These are stories of a time now past that still affect us today. I hope if you take the time to read PATHWAYS that it will trigger the memories that you hold dear.

You may purchase PATHWAYS at the following link http://goo.gl/QsTE8r both through Kindle or Amazon.

PATHWAYS by Don Miller

Excerpt from PATHWAYS

I have a habit of “woolgathering” when doing repetitive tasks. I have always allowed my mind to wander to wherever it might and today’s woolgathering session (insert weed eating) took me back to my childhood home. I have read so many stories by southern authors where hometowns are described as “sleepy, little southern towns.” I cannot describe mine that way. I did not live in a “sleepy, little southern town.” With no signal light or post office, I lived in a scattered, unincorporated rural area that was made up of even smaller, scattered unincorporated communities with the now socially unacceptable name of Indian Land, South Carolina. Home was a brick veneered single story home located on the corner of one of the many unnamed dirt “river roads” that followed a meandering path to the Catawba River and the Charlotte-Lancaster Highway. One of just a smattering of single family homes, with the exception my grandparents’ home and farm and two uncles’ homes and farms, we were the only ones living on the Catawba River side of the Charlotte-Lancaster Highway, on the mile long stretch between “the old cotton gin” and the Van Wyck highway.

Indian Land is located in what is called the “panhandle” of Lancaster County, which to the northwest, juts more like a small accusatory finger than a panhandle into North Carolina, with the “Queen City,” Charlotte to the north and the small railroad town of Waxhaw to the east. To the south, inside of the borders of South Carolina, you will find the city of Lancaster and to the west Rock Hill. To get to Rock Hill, some five miles away as the crow flies, you must cross the Catawba River which early in my life required a scary ride on a ferry. Today it is a congested eighteen-mile car ride that makes me wish for the ferry.

Many small communities were scattered along Highway 521, the Charlotte-Lancaster Highway, and Highway 160 which runs west of 521 to and through Fort Mill, SC and on to Rock Hill. Names like Osceola, Pleasant Hill, Pleasant Valley, Belair, Miller Bottoms, Possum Hollow (pronounced Holler), Yarborough Town and Camp Cox were just some of these small communities that populated the area. During my childhood, the population density became much sparser as you traveled away from these highways, with homes giving way to farms of varying sizes or large tracks of forested areas where wildlife outnumbered the people in the area, especially the area that bordered on the Catawba River. The now socially unacceptable yet historically accurate name of Indian Land comes from the fact that the area continued to be populated by Native Americans, mainly the Catawba and Waxhaw tribes, well after Europeans had arrived in the area. The Catawba Indian Reservation is still, to this day, located across the river from Indian Land but so thorough was their assimilation into the population, the most “Indian” sounding names might be Smith or Jones.

I would not characterize Indian Land as being “sleepy” either. Off of the main thoroughfare, 521, it was as slow and sleepy as a hibernating bear but the two-lane blacktop that connected the trade center of Charlotte, NC with the textile town of Lancaster, SC was always bustling with traffic, especially during those periods of time designated as “rush hour.” At the time there was no industry other than agriculture or a couple of general mercantile stores so people commuted to the larger cities. In addition to commuters, traffic included everything from John Deere tractors to tractor trailer trucks along with the Ashe Brick dump trucks that made their back and forth sojourn from the red clay dirt pit located a mile or so east of 521 to the brick-baking ovens located in the small town of Van Wyck to the south.

What I miss the most about my home, other than family who have passed away, are those dirt and gravel roads that cut through the area leading to the forests, fields or to farms, many on the river bottoms that lay near the muddy rock-strewn waters of the Catawba. Those roads were slow and easy on both the legs and eyes, leading me to adventure or work or sometimes both at the same time. Those dirt roads no longer exist anywhere other than my memory as Charlotte has sprawled across the state line, devouring farm and farm lands like a monster in an old Japanese horror movie. The house that I grew up in along with so many other familiar structures no longer exists and the land it sat on is now covered in condos belonging to an upscale retirement community. Most of the cotton fields that fed the area cotton mills are gone, as are the mills themselves. They are not only gone from my little part of the world but they are gone from the country itself and I feel great sorrow because of it. When I visit family there, if I close my eyes and concentrate enough, I can still see those dirt pathways and in my head, at least, feel the powdery dust between my toes. I now realize that no matter how far I have traveled, I have never been far from them and home.

AN EMPTY CHAIR AT THANKSGIVING

I am giving thanks at Thanksgiving despite the “true” history of the holiday. Thankful to be seeing family members I have not seen in far too long. I am thankful for my “steroid driven, humming bird of a wife” …most of the time. My daughter is a neo-natal emergency room nurse and I am thankful the she made the decision to throw away her MBA degree and two “other” careers in order to take courses and become a nurse, all while pregnant and working. Pregnant with Miller Kate, now two, a red-headed little ray of sunshine who has taken after her Grand-mommy Linda in that she is a humming bird on steroids and has stolen her Popi Don’s heart. I also am thankful Miller’s father, Justin, is a father and husband most should aspire to be. Finally I am thankful for my brother, Steve, who saw a need in his community and began a soup kitchen, thereby “walking the walk instead of talking the talk”…something he is quite able to do. “What a mouth that boy has!”

Thankful to, we are still standing as a country despite the “trolling” that goes on. I have actually come in to contact with like-minded people and am thankful to find there are realist still out there who believe “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” should be for all regardless of “race, creed or color.”

Despite the joy I feel at not being served “eel or small bird” at Thanksgiving dinner, I cannot help but feel loss. Lost friends and family members from not only this past year but from a life time. I always lament the loss of parents and grandparents, regardless of holiday, but as I ran this morning it was as if they and others were haunting me…in a good way. Tim Brights’ big grin lighting up the world around him and Jeff Gulley’s much repeated question, “you still love me don’t you?” Brian Kuykendall’s quiet strength and straight path. Bob Crain’s, “Miller come get a liquor drink,” always accompanied by a big smile. They are not the only ones, the list has grown too long. Many I have written about and many I will write about. In some ways even bad memories are good ones.

This Thanksgiving I am going to suggest that we all set a place with an empty chair in memory of our loved ones. Those not in attendance for whatever reason. We want to especially remember those whose physical presence we will never feel again. Those whose memories we will always hold and feel in our hearts until, we to, join them.

FROM SHRIMP AND GRITS TO WORLD PEACE

Laud have mercy! I vacillate on favorite foods. Not much really, I just enjoy eating. If I were on death row facing my “last meal” my decision would come down to either Dutch Fork barbeque or low country shrimp and grits. I hope I never have to find out which I would choose but with the politics of today…who knows? If my worst fear were to come to pass today, it would be shrimp and grits.

I have discovered that Yankees have the wrong idea about grits. My former teaching chum Frankie, who is from Ohio I think, says, “OOOOH! Grits are too bland. I would much rather eat polenta.” UUUH, isn’t polenta boiled cornmeal? Grits are boiled ground corn…smaller grains than cornmeal but the source is the same. Yankees need to realize that grits to a cook are what a blank canvas is to an artist. If you have had bad grits, it ain’t the grits’ fault any more than a bad painting is about the canvas. It takes a master’s touch.

I have eaten grits all my life…as a kid usually for breakfast swimming in fresh churned butter and a hunk of hoop cheese melting in it. My grandmother tried to substitute oatmeal or milk toast on occasion but I was having none of it. As I got older I realized grits made a wonderful “canvas” for many meals. I have grilled it as a cake and served it with a gravy alongside chicken, pork, beef or fish. I have even made it as a dessert in the form of grits pie that is as good as any egg custard. I HAVE NEVER SERVED IT JUST AS GRITS. Grits must have butter and cheese. You may take your pick as to which kind of cheese. I also like a little chives, green onion tops or just plain old onion chopped up in it. BE CLEAR! I am not talking about grits that come in a package and are to be cooked in a microwave.

I discovered shrimp and grits, first in Charleston and later in Georgetown, some thirty years ago. Shrimp was a luxury at my home during my childhood and teenage years and I just didn’t know that heaven could come in a big bowl. This delicacy is an orchestration of stone-ground grits bathed in a broth, fluffy with heavy cream or creamed cheese, drowning in a dark roux gravy blessed with Tasso ham or Andouille sausage featuring chubby pink shrimp topped with chopped chives. “Heaven! I’m in Heaven!”

In 1999 my baseball team made the trip to Georgetown and were lucky enough to win the state championship. When I got home I found a Styrofoam container sitting on my kitchen bar with a congratulatory note from my wife. Inside was a double portion of shrimp and grits. I couldn’t begin to fathom a better way to celebrate.

I truly believe we could solve the world’s problems if we could get all of the world leaders to sit down with my Southern trifecta of shrimp and grits, sweet Southern tea and Jack Daniels. Yeah, you could make it a duo by adding the Jack to the tea with a bit of mint for garnish. If you feel the need for a salad, be my guest but I don’t believe that one is demanded. I would wait until after the meal and serve the Jack Daniels with a fine cigar. I’m sure we would be able to work out our world-wide differences…just don’t tell our Muslim brothers there is ham or sausage in it. They will enjoy it much better without knowing.

LOOK UP

“I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.”

Sunday morning I awoke with a start, my mind as troubled as the world I was dreaming about. My already feeble brain resembled an unfinished jigsaw puzzle with several dozen pieces missing from the box. I was also in pain. Arthritis and sciatica…aging is not for the faint of heart. Instead of making the noises my father made I bit my tongue to keep from waking my wife and made my way down to the den. It was 4:30 in the AM and both of my puppies decided to follow asking with their paws to go outside.

Stepping outside with them into the crisp predawn air, I was struck by the dark beauty of a bright moonlit night. I remembered similar mornings from my past, previous life…my working life. For the ten years since my heart attack I have been, more than less, religious about running or walking. Recently, due to knee pain, it’s been more about walking but I find either exercise is a better pain killer than Advil. During my working days I would roust myself out of bed at 4:30 and hit the pavement by 5:15. Since my retirement I try to run or walk at a more civilized 7:30 or so. With nothing of interest on TV and a mind too cluttered to write, I decided to relive “those days of yesteryear, Hi Hoh Silver, Away!”

It was dark and cold as a made my way up the steep, half mile hill to the drive way at Lookup Lodge. This stretch is the darkest and most fearful part of my jaunt because of heavy timber forming a canopy over the road. Despite the bears, coyotes and wildcats who share my habitat I have never been too concerned about running into wildlife. I am much more concerned about the spirits, ghosts and haints that are just out of the range of my head lamp. This time of year I would always pause at the top of the hill before entering Look-Up Lodge and “look up.” This morning was no different. The constellation Orion waited above me to protect me from harm just as it always had. As I continued to gaze at my protector a shooting star flew across the still night sky reminding me to make a wish, one that I doubt will come true. Shakespeare wrote, “Whenever a mortal falls in sin, tears fall from angels’ eyes. And that is why at times there fall bright stars from out (of) the skies.” My guess is there will be more stars to fall.

A mile long downhill would lead me to the athletic field at Look-Up were I would again “look up” seeing Orion nipping at my heels before a short, slow uphill trek leads me to the lake and a view of an electrically lit, bare cross below the small mountains beyond. As a small child I would stay with my grandmother while my parents worked. Under her tutelage I memorized many Bible verses including one of her many favorites from Psalms, “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.” The memory reminded me to pause and say a short prayer for humanity before beginning my mile and a half journey home.

My knees still ache, not as much as they did when I arose this morning, and judging from the morning news, the world is still just as troubled. My mind is clearer and less jumbled, I think I even found those missing jigsaw pieces. I may continue my predawn runs and walks…along with prayers at the lake at Look-Up.

“DIVIDE ET IMPERA”

No one knows with certainty who said it first…”Divide and Rule.” Philip of Macedonia, father of Alexander the Great, King Louie XI of France and Machiavelli all used it. It has been attributed to Julius Caesar and Sun Tzu’s ART OF WAR. It has also been misquoted in translation to mean “Divide and Conquer.” For my purposes, this particular translation works fine. You might want to consider another famous quote, this one from Abraham Lincoln, “A house divided cannot stand.” They are both related.

We are up to our chins in a metaphorical swamp loaded with hungry alligators and we are doing nothing to drain it, except to point fingers and blame each other for not draining the swamp sooner or causing the swamp to fill up originally. Honestly! Does it matter how the alligators got into the swamp or who is to blame? We are past the point of blame but we continue to feed the alligators anyway.

Has anyone thought that our “Islamophobia” might be doing exactly what ISIS wants? Driving a wedge between the people of the United States. Dividing and possibly creating more “soldiers” for ISIS and more fear for rest of us, domestic Muslims included. ISIS would not want to do that would they? I have read so many divisive post that are being shared by people that I thought were good Christians and intelligent people. Good Christian BIGOTS it would seem. RACISM in the name of Christ. Towel heads, goat fuckers, jokes about burning Mosques and “bed sheets” burning. Reminds me of the Fifties and Sixties and WE, AS GOOD CHRISTIANS, should be ashamed. Actually it reminds me more of Nazi propaganda films produced prior to World War Two designed and well executed to turn the German population against Jews. Even our presidential candidates are proposing closing Mosques or forcing Muslims to wear identification. How very Nazi of them. I know there is no law, other than Christ’s law, preventing someone from being bigoted or racist but we need to understand our enemy and focus on defeating him. Turning our own Muslim population against us does not provide us with a means to that end. Should we consider where these post are coming from? ISIS has proven to have the technological expertise to introduce such division although I am not sure they need to. I still believe our greatest enemy is ourselves and someone’s propaganda machine is working overtime.

We have myriad of problems facing us and most are of our own creation, including ISIS. How do we solve them? One at a time and it must begin with the defeat of ISIS and not the alienation of our population. It’s not about Muslims, Christians or Jews, blacks, whites or any other race. It is not about protesting college students or about abusive rhetoric, nor for that matter…any rhetoric. It’s about humans becoming unified as Americans against one enemy that is not us.

THE NEW NORMAL…AND IT IS QUITE ABNORMAL

Several decades ago I would find myself sitting in a freshman English class trying to translate the Old English of the Canterbury Tales into country redneck. I was having no success when the air raid siren in downtown Newberry began to blow. It was a test that was repeated every weekday at noon. My English professor, a sometimes not quite sober and always irreverent guy, looked out the window and stated to the class, “If the Rooskies have enough bombs to waste on Newberry, we are f@#$ed. Class is dismissed!”

As I think back I would have to agree with my old professor and also admit that I miss the Soviets. We thought we knew who our enemies were back then, where they were, and how far we could push them. They wore certain uniforms and lived in certain countries. We knew that we were here and they were somewhere over there. It was our government against their government. Our ideologies versus their ideologies. We had theaters of war where an army would be on a particular side.

Then came Vietnam and the end of our “American Exceptionalism.” Even though the Russians were still involved and were our greatest enemy the Cold War environment began to change. Suddenly all uniforms were made of the same camouflage material that looked for the world like pajamas and camouflaged to look like everyone else BUT US. We wore the same colors and hats we always had worn but in jungle camo. The fighting took place in a jungle where you could never be quite certain where or who Charlie was. Having said all that we started to sense a blur between the two sides and two sides became three…or more. It was harder to determine just who the enemy was and now the blur has become so exaggerated, it is extremely difficult to separate the “good” guys and the “bad” guys, EVEN ON OUR OWN SIDE.

We cannot really look around and identify our enemies with any certainty with sleeper cells, pretenders, spies, double agents, and even refugees. And we must not forget the US involvement in the formation and training of so many of these groups. There is possibly only one place where we can identify the real troublemakers…we can look in a mirror. To quote Pogo and his creator Walt Kelly, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

At least back in the 60’s there were air raid sirens that let you know something might be getting ready to happen. If you were lucky enough to be near a bomb shelter, you has some small semblance of safety even if it was just in your own mind. You knew that the Russians were coming…and still might. Today, we do not know who, how, when, or what may happen. I think I liked the sirens better.

CITY OF LIGHT…HEART OF DARKNESS

The lights are still on in Paris…and in Beirut… all over Nigeria…and all over “most of” the globe. We must make sure they stay on. Before early man controlled fire, and therefore light, he fled the darkness and hid himself in caves, hoping to survive until the return of the sun. Early man knew predators of all types hid in the darkness and hoped to simply hold on through the night. We must keep the lights lit and brightly shining. There are predators hiding in the darkness today. We cannot flee the darkness that attacks us. We cannot hide, quivering in fear as our own shadows dim while the light fails…hoping to endure until the sun shines again. We must keep the sun shining.

We must end the arguing among ourselves over issues that allows the light to grow weaker and the darkness to fill our hearts. There is only one issue. Our survival is a human issue and not a political one. We have a righteous goal, maybe the first since World War Two, to keep the lights burning. It should not be used to emphasize our own selfish political positions or prejudices. This is not about elections, marriage, gun control or racism. It is about the darkness that surrounds us. It is not about democrats or republicans, not blacks or whites, not gays or straights, not students protesting on college campuses or who is being too politically correct. It’s not about how we got to where we are. It’s not even about who is right or who is wrong…it’s about how we keep the lights in Paris and in the world burning and the darkness at bay. One candle puts off very little light but millions of candles will light the world. We must come together and share our light with each other.

“A thousand candles can be lighted from the flame of one candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness can be spread without diminishing that of yourself.”….Gandhi

THE CHICKENS COME HOME TO ROOST

I stood in confusion as I wondered why there were sheets strung like hammocks between the hemlock trees in our front yard. When we first moved to the foothills of the Blue Ridge I made the mistake of commenting that since we had a chicken coop we needed to get a few laying hens. The mistake was saying it in front of Linda Gail’s dad, Ralph. “You know? There’s a guy down the street from me trying to get rid of a couple of chickens.” Thirty hens and two roosters later I had to say “Enough with the poultry.” A mixed bunch from several different sources, our game hens took offense to our robbing their nest for eggs and decided to take advantage of our free range farming techniques. They just disappeared. After a while we believed that they had been kidnapped by Br’er Fox who had been shopping for dinner. Imagine our reaction to hearing the “peep, peep, peep” sounds of baby chicks emanating from the squirrel nests high in our hemlock trees. Temporarily struck stupid in amazement we never considered how they would make their way to the ground. Their mothers hadn’t considered it either. Chickens at best are not the brightest animals God created and they fly only slightly better than rocks. Chicks? They don’t fly at all but simply make a sound reminiscent of a nut being cracked when they hit the ground. My wife, Linda Gail, decided that sheets strung under the trees was a better option than running around trying to catch them with a butterfly net that we didn’t have. She is one of the brighter animals that God created and was able to save most of them.