Wednesday, April 25, 2012

After the War

I was a young child at the end of World War II, so I remember men who were said to be “shell shocked” walking around town speaking gibberish and gesturing oddly. I learned right away from Mother that these men were to be venerated and not thought of as strange. We were absolutely not to mock them or even show the least amusement at their antics. “Because of them, you remain free,” was the message. I remember the big parade of heroes marching proudly, with smiles of relief on their faces, and ecstatic adults cheering and waving flags. Someone gave me a little flag and I kept it in my room for ages. I think I still had it when I went into the service myself. I remember Mother showing me the new Franklin Roosevelt dime. I was six and it had just been released, a year after that long-serving president died. I remember air shows and demonstrations of flame throwers and pill boxes at the fairgrounds. I remember brightened spirits and an aura of optimism. The dark days were over. I remember the housing boom. My step-father was a carpenter and there was plenty of work for him. He had been a Sea Bee during the war and it must have been a joy to be back home prospering after years of sacrifice. Young veterans were working and buying their two-bedroom, one bath houses, some even with a one-car carport. In fact, Pop built us a house like that in a new neighborhood. Even though my brother and I shared a room and there was certainly no air conditioning, we thought it was a mansion. Mother convinced Pop to pour a concrete slab for a front porch so we could sit out there summer nights and talk to neighbors who were attracted to our presence (and our metal lawn chairs). I remember playing many games of fling the statue, leap frog and mother-may-I in the front yard. I also remember unorthodox, made-up games and other entertainments designed to amuse our parents and neighbors. It seemed laughter came much more easily after the war. There were a few veterans in our neighborhood who didn’t laugh much, but you could tell they were glad to be home. Then I remember the outbreak in Korea. We prayed for “our boys overseas” in church every time we gathered. Some who had served in World War II were called upon again and some from our community gave the last full measure. One of these was a young person from our church named Bobby. I remember when his mother got word from the stranger in uniform that drove up to her house in a brown vehicle. She collapsed at the news. Days later a banner with a star appeared in their front window. The word was he had stepped on a land mine. There was a lot of that in Korea. I’ve been thinking about the importance of gratitude lately. How grateful we should be for those who gave up so much, some of them life itself, for a future of peace and prosperity!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Gratitude is Richess

The statement, “I do,” in a wedding ceremony assumes a kind of granting of our entire being to another. It doesn’t take long in a marriage to feel taken for granted in the relationship because, indeed, each one is “granted,” by mutual agreement. In the light of this, what does it really mean in a marital relationship when one says, “You take me for granted”? It means, “You don’t appreciate me.” In other words, it’s fine to be taken for granted so long as there is a deeply felt appreciation coming from the other.

And appreciation is much more than just an occasional “thank you” or a random compliment. It is an abiding and unshakable attitude. I have a close friend with early onset Alzheimer’s. Even at his worst, he is always able to say of his wife, even if he can’t remember her name, “That one there is a good woman.” This conviction, ebbing so freely from his disabled brain, makes his wife know she is appreciated. Thus, being “taken for granted” as caretaker spouses so often are, becomes tolerable because of her husband’s deeply engrained appreciation of her as a person. Gratitude is easy when we look at our husbands or wives as gifts to us on a daily basis.

The same principle is true in child-parent relationships. Nothing warms a parent’s heart more than to receive expressions of gratitude from his or her children. Gratitude often seems to be a natural response that gets dulled as we grow older. I recently heard a story about a child just under two who was more or less apologetic for a having a poopy diaper. As the diaper was being changed, the baby looked into the eyes of the one doing the dirty duty and said, “Thank you.” That is a touching story because the child did not take anything for granted, but appreciated being cared for.

Brother Dave Gardner, the late country comedian, used to say, “Gratitude is riches and complaint is poverty.” There is a great truth embedded in that statement. The more grateful we are for our possessions, for our friends and family, our spouses, the beauties of nature, our very lives, the richer we are. Likewise, when we begin to complain about anything, our worn out cars, a perceived insult, a family member doing wrong, bad weather, and some would even go so far to complain about ever being born, the poorer we become.

Henry David Thoreau wrote that our riches are defined by what we can do without. To a certain degree I agree with that old precursor to hippies. We certainly don’t need all the accouterments to life that the media bombards us with. But we do need gratitude and the more of it we have the richer we become. It is lovely when we hear people say of a deceased loved one, “He (or she) lived a good long life and we are grateful to have had him (her) with us for as long as we did.”

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Poisoned Kingdom

One reason Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark has maintained its popularity for over 400 years is that most of us see ourselves in the characters of that play, especially in Hamlet himself. This young man is too contemplative or too rash, too cautious or too reckless, too loving or too cruel. In other words, he is a character full of conflicts and so are we.

Early in the drama, Hamlet’s father’s ghost appears to him and tells him his Uncle Claudius, who now wears the crown and has married Hamlet’s mother, the queen, murdered him. The ghost gives some details: he was taking his customary nap in the garden when his murderous brother came and poured a potent poison into his ear, thereby killing him before he could repent of his sins. So, the ghost is doomed to wander about at night as a spirit until his unabsolved sins are purged. He commands Hamlet to avenge his murder and Hamlet vows to do so quickly.

But he begins equivocating, much as we all do when we are faced with a difficult task. His thought process leads him to the conclusion that the apparition may not have been his father at all, but the devil, trying to trick him into killing an innocent man. He must, he feels, figure out whether or not that was really his father’s spirit and, when a troupe of actors shows up, he persuades the actors to put on an old play that he changes to resemble the poisoning the ghost described. He will secretly watch Claudius and if he reacts badly, showing guilt, Hamlet will know the ghost was indeed his father’s spirit. At the performance, Claudius reacts very badly and Hamlet is sure he has to kill the king.

His first opportunity to do so is when Claudius is praying. He reasons this way: so I kill him now while he is praying and he dies and goes to Heaven while my father roams about in agony. No, I’ll wait and catch him in his sins and send him to Hell. The next opportunity comes when he assumes the movement behind a curtain is Claudius and he rashly plunges his sword into it, killing not Claudius, but his girlfriend’s father, the old snoop Polonius. So, Hamlet is either too slow to act or too rash.

Such complications abound and intensify as this poisoned kingdom is depicted in the play. Hamlet’s equivocation is his eventual undoing, by a poisoned sword, no less.
In a sense, we all live in a poisoned kingdom and we are all conflicted people. Our motivations may be much less complicated than Hamlet’s, but we see in ourselves the same tendency to think too much sometimes and to act too swiftly at other times. In my worldview, the metaphorical poison that entered our kingdom was plucked off a tree at the urging of a serpent. The fact that we have choices in our poisoned kingdom often makes us prone to either rashness or contemplative inaction. That’s what being human is all about and that’s why Shakespeare’s magnum opus remains popular to this day.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Wisdom in Dallas

I was singing in the rain in downtown Dallas last week when I heard some nice tenor harmony behind me. When I turned around, I discovered the wise old man, soaked to the skin, but singing with gusto. We ducked under an awning in front of a storefront church and had a conversation.

“I didn’t expect to find you here, sir. What brings you to Dallas?”

“I’ve been studying tornadic activity in the region and it looks as if we are fixing to have one here. Isn’t this a toad strangler, though?”
I replied, “More like a gully washer, I think. Anyway, I think I felt a hit or two of hail.”

“Hail yes,” the wise old man said with a chuckle. “It will hail very soon and very hard and then the tornado will come. Don’t let it blow you away, Dan.”

“What do you plan to do to be safe from the storm, sir?”

“I’m staying in the homeless shelter in the basement of this church, Full Gospel Temple, and I think we’ll be safe there, if you care to join me.”

I thought about it for 30 seconds, evaluating my response. My pride did not want me to go down there with him. I didn’t want to be identified as homeless. But when I saw a vortex forming over the First National Bank building, I decided to follow my old acquaintance down there. As we walked down the shoddy stairs, he began to sing a variation of “All my Exes live in Texas.” It went something like this, “All these vortexes come across Texas; that’s why Dan hangs his hat in Arkansas.” I smiled at his quirky humor, but, quite frankly, I was worried about the storm and concerned about our destination.

We were greeted by a slicked up preacher in a wash-and-wear suit at the entrance of a huge room with army bunks, about half of which were occupied by sun-burned men in clean blue jeans and tee-shirts. The preacher shook my hand firmly and said, “Welcome to FGT. We have some sandwiches back there and a fresh urn of coffee—we’ll be having supper in just a moment. Make yourself at home and be blessed, my brother.” He called the wise old man by name, which I cannot divulge here, and asked if he would say a few words before we ate. This is what the wise old man said:

“The storm is raging in Dallas. We are safe down here below the Full Gospel Temple. If you are full of the gospel, I mean way deep down into the gospel, you are safe. You are in the secret place of the Most High. I’d like to introduce you to a friend from Arkansas, Dan Ford, who is not accustomed to this kind of place. Please let him know that to go up, you have to first go down deep where there is nourishment.” Weathered, bloodshot eyes were on me and I felt sorry and serene at the same time. While the storm was tearing things up outside, something on the inside of me got put back together. The wise old man has a way of accomplishing that kind of thing, spiritual repair, I mean.