Christmas As a Promise

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Merry Christmas, everyone. I’ve been thinking about storylines lately. The writers of the Gospels were determined to cast Jesus into a particular story structure, one that meant a lot to them but which today, in all likelihood, doesn’t resonate nearly as much. That’s the story of the Messiah, a rather enigmatic character who shows up now and again in the Hebrew Bible. The idea of the Messiah (Greek translation: Christos) for first-century Jews is that he was a future king, who would be sent by God to set things right and restore the lost Jewish kingdom. For a nation that had endured oppression, periodic religious persecution, and mass relocation, the Messiah was a significant figure. The arrival of the Messiah would be a sign that despite considerable evidence to the contrary, the Jews had not been abandoned by their God.

So the Gospel writers went to great lengths to make the case that Jesus was in fact the Messiah. They retrofitted an elaborate genealogy to claim that he was a descendant of King David. They borrowed tidbits from other religious traditions to heighten the mythological significance of Jesus’ birth story: a big star that suddenly appears. Celestial beings – angels – showing up and making announcements. Religious leaders from far away who come to pay homage. In other words, it was very important to them to show that Christmas – the birth of Jesus – was the fulfillment of an ancient promise.

Nowadays, we don’t think much about the concept of a Messiah. Apart from Christmas, the most frequent use of the word is in the phrase “Messiah complex,” describing somebody who is under the delusion that they are specially called to solve everyone’s problems and who think they have all the answers. Frankly, we don’t need any more Messiahs these days. We have plenty.

But we do need something at this moment of the calendar. Many people feel deep sadness at this time of year. I think of one of the great nineteenth-century Christmas songs, with words from the poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” It starts out with the sweet sound of the bells, but by the third verse of the song (sixth verse of the poem) the speaker has reached the realization that “hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on Earth, goodwill to men.” Only at the very end does the speaker achieve a measure of hope that “God is not dead, nor doth he sleep.” The message of the poem is essentially this: Things are a mess but they will get better. The poem’s origin in the heart of the Civil War, made clear in the verses that are omitted from the Christmas song, helps to explain why its message of comfort is so muted.

Many of the modern Christmas classics have that same theme. Things are a mess but they will get better. The older songs celebrate the triumphant arrival of the King of Kings, Lord of Lords. But nowadays we have a more modest aim. As the Merle Haggard song puts it, “If we make it through December, everything’s gonna be all right.” Think of the beautiful but melancholy 1943 song, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”: “Someday soon we all will be together, if the fates allow. Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow.” Believe it or not, this version of the song was actually lightened up from the original version the songwriter presented to Vincente Minnelli and Judy Garland for Meet Me in St. Louis. They found it too depressing, with lines like “Have yourself a merry little Christmas, it may be your last. Next year we may all be living in the past.” How’s that for some good tidings?

At this time of year, we bring lights into our houses and out on our lawns. There was a news story on television recently about a homeowner in my town who had lit her house so brilliantly that it was showing up in satellite images. We search for gifts for our loved ones, just the right thing that will show them how much we love them. We find the people and organizations that are doing good, and we help them out. The Food Bank, the homeless shelter, the refugee center. All of this comes from a place of longing and of hope. In the absence of a messiah sent by God and foretold by prophets, we step in. We are not here to restore the Kingdom of Israel. We are not here to fulfill a promise. We are here to make a promise. And that promise is: I will look out for you. I will care for you. We will bind ourselves together in large ways and small ways. Things are a mess right now, but I will work to make them better. The promise is not from a distant and historic God to us, but from ourselves to ourselves, and we make it now and looking into the future.   

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The Pull of the Old

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This is from Roger Deakin’s book Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees:

“It was the eve of Oak Apple Day, and the annual reassertion of rights to collect wood in the Royal Forest of Grovely by the villagers of Great Wishford in accordance with a charter granted to them in 1603. The charter affirms that their rights to the wood have existed ‘since time immemorial,’ usually taken to mean since well before Domesday. In all seriousness, it requires the whole village to ‘go in a dance’ to Salisbury Cathedral six miles away once a year in May and claim their rights and customs in the forest with ‘The Shout’ of the words ‘Grovely! Grovely! Grovely! and all Grovely! Unity is Strength!”

I’ll admit that my first reaction to this story was Is-he-pulling-my-leg incredulity. But a quick bit of research soon told me that Oak Apple Day is a real thing. The Great Wishford celebration is unique among the few English celebrations of Oak Apple Day in that it dates back farther, but a few other towns in the U.K. also observe it. If you’d like to hear more about the Great Wishford celebration, here’s a video.

I love a small town celebration and have attended many – some by accident and some by intention. Our American festivals often focus around a local product (the various Apple and Blueberry and Salmon festivals, etc.), or something more generic, like the “Freedom Fest” in my hometown of Annapolis that celebrates, well, freedom I guess. Hey, any excuse for a parade. But few of them could claim anything near the heritage of that festival. According to Deakin, there have been recorded conflicts between the villagers and the local nobility over their right to collect wood in the forest since 1292. So the charter of 1603 sought to lay to rest a dispute that had been going on for more than three hundred years already.

Ancient rituals with obscure origins. Our minds turn to Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” but perhaps instead we should contemplate the power of the past, the hold it has on our imaginations. Every generation imagines itself to be facing the world in a new way, and to some extent that is always true. But every generation is also the inheritor of its predecessors’ struggles and triumphs, and feels the pull of the old.

And in case you’re wondering what an “oak apple” is, it’s the colloquial name for an oak gall, the hard round protuberance that grows on an oak branch or leaf when a gall wasp lays its eggs there. So it has nothing to do with actual apples at all.

Speakers Bureau

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One of the real great pleasures in writing books is getting out and talking to people, and for years I’ve been doing speaking engagements in a wide variety of places (this is me at the Ozarks Studies Conference in West Plains a few years ago).

But my favorite venue is a library. Whenever I speak at a library, I always come away having learned something new myself. Library-goers are a varied and curious bunch, knowledgeable about many things, and eager to share that knowledge.

So I’m excited to rejoin the Missouri Humanities Council and State Historical Society of Missouri’s joint project, the Missouri Speakers Bureau. This project provide a wide range of speakers to libraries and other nonprofit organizations around the state: civic groups, historical societies, you name it. And if your organization is located in a rural area (defined as any county outside Jackson, Greene, Boone, or St. Louis City/County), the speakers are totally free! As a kid who grew up in small-town libraries myself, I love the experience of visiting a library and meeting new people who have a love of learning and history similar to mine.

The link to my page on the Speakers Bureau website is here. I’ve put together a presentation on Missouri utopian communities that should be interesting, and am adding new material to the presentation all the time. If you have a group that needs a speaker, get in touch!

The Farmer Is the Man

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Folk music fans will likely remember “The Farmer Is the Man,” the rather scathing song from the 1880s that described the plight of the farmer:

The farmer is the man, the farmer is the man,

Lives on credit till the fall;

Then they take him by the hand and they lead him from the land,

And the middle man’s the one that gets it all.

The more things change, the more they stay the same, as the saying goes. Today’s headline: “State lawmakers approve $40M in tax breaks for farmers.” In the story: “The measure includes tax credits to benefit companies involved in meat processing, biodiesel, ethanol fuel and urban farms. It also expands government loan programs for farmers.”

So the headline might better have read, “State lawmakers approve benefits for lenders and agribusiness corporations.” Whether actual farmers get any of those benefits is anyone’s guess. And by directing the tax breaks to certain industries, such as biodiesel and ethanol, the state is supporting a monoculture model of agriculture based on massive investment in corn acreage, intensive fertilizing and irrigation, and industrial scale of operation that turns the act of farming into something much closer to factory work.

I’ve written on this song before, but every few months or so its relevance slaps me in the face again.

The Missouri Library Association

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Accepting the Missouri Author Award at last night’s Missouri Library Association annual conference. That’s Kaite Stover, the Author Awards Committee vice chair, behind me.

The Missouri Library Association is the umbrella organization of all the libraries in Missouri – public, private, academic, and otherwise. They’re a great organization, and they speak out strongly in favor of information access and freedom of expression.

They also give out two Missouri Author Awards each year, one for fiction and one for nonfiction. This year, I was honored to have Scattered Lights win the fiction award.

Receiving this award from the MLA is extra special for me. For one thing, the books that have won it before are really terrific, and I’m honored to be in their company.

But additionally, libraries have always been special places to me, even sacred. My mom worked in the Fredericktown library, and when we moved to Annapolis, she was instrumental in establishing the Annapolis branch library, which today is named in her honor. At the dedication of the newest building that houses the Annapolis branch, my brother and sister-in-law had buttons made celebrating Mom’s commitment, and that button is what you see on my lapel. Here’s a closeup.

What she saw in libraries was their immense potential for improving people’s lives, without regard to wealth or background. When you walk into a library, you are equal to everyone else there, and the knowledge of all the planet is available to you. She loved to cultivate that curiosity. Whenever a kid came into the library, she made careful note of what that kid was interested in. And the next time that kid came in, there would be a new book pulled from the revolving collection, just waiting, to satisfy that curiosity and perhaps nudge it along a little.

A library represents the potential in us all. The existence of free public libraries is one of the great advancements of civilization. So receiving an award from the state library association is, well, pretty much the best thing I can imagine.

I’d like to comment particularly on my co-winner this year, The Last Children of Mill Creek by Vivian Gibson. I’ve been reading it over the past few days, and it’s a marvelous book. It’s a memoir of growing up in the Mill Creek Valley of St. Louis, a large Black district that was demolished and emptied out in the name of “urban renewal.” The story of Mill Creek is one of the tragic chapters of Missouri history, and it’s not well enough known. This memoir is beautiful and heartbreaking, and you should get a copy. Or tell your library to buy one!

Art and Influence

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In the car the other day, the Animals’ classic “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” came on the radio, which prompted a cascade of thoughts and memories.

The Animals were never among my favorites of the British Invasion bands, although you had to give them credit. In their short initial incarnation, they produced a string of unforgettable hits and had a distinctive sound. Their version of the folk standard “House of the Rising Sun” is the one that most people remember today.

But “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” has a curious history. It was originally recorded by Nina Simone, in a slow, somewhat jazzy version that focuses on the subtle lyrics. You can hear the ache of the lyricist in her version, the apology and the explanation for foolish behavior, the longing to improve. The memorable guitar hook that the Animals led with is hidden in a violin section, partial and barely noticeable.

When the Animals recorded it, they turned it pretty much into straight-ahead blues rock, capitalizing on Eric Burdon’s gritty voice to make it a perfect anthem for the moment, echoed by teenagers throughout the decades who are dealing with complicated emotions and a sense of disaffection.

But the version that has stuck in my mind the most is the one by Santa Esmeralda, and I remember the first time I heard it. I was in the basement of Douglas Pokorny, a friend I have written about before, and he put the album on. Keep in mind, this was the late ’70s in the eastern Ozarks, where musical variety was hard to come by. How he came to possess the Santa Esmeralda album I’ll never know. But when I heard the flamenco-influenced Latin rhythms of the song, overlaid on the clearly recognizable template of the Animals version, I knew I was hearing something memorable. And the song just went on and on for more than sixteen minutes, filling up the whole second side of the album, the phrases repeating and building into some kind of pop-music ecstasy. In later years I learned that it was a disco favorite, which makes sense, given its propulsive beat and infinite energy.

Three different artists, the same material, three entirely different versions. Whose is the best? Don’t ask me. Each song fits its performer and its moment. The later versions are influenced by the earlier ones, but it would be wrong to say that they were unoriginal.

I’ve been asked several times lately about who my favorite writers are, or who the writers are that have influenced me. I can’t honestly say. I think the best answer is all of them, and none of them. I pick up things from many writers, but I don’t think that I’ve ever consciously copied or been directly influenced by one in particular. I’ve read that there are only [x-number, take your pick: 3, 5, 7, whatever] plots in narrative, the Journey, the Revenge, and so forth. So of course stories will bear resemblance. I think my essential plot is People Who Are Trying to Make Some Sense of Their Lives, but They Keep Getting Thwarted and It’s Usually by Their Own Damn Selves. Not sure if that’s one of the 3.

Favorite Ozarks Books – 17

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I’ve been reading the new book of poems by Dave Malone in bits and pieces over the last month. Like most books of poetry, it rewards dipping in and out.

I suppose you could say it’s not technically an “Ozarks” book, since there are sizable sections of it that are set elsewhere, when a place is specified, and many of the themes are not Ozarks-specific. But there are a lot of Ozarks poems in here, and a lot of Ozark sensibility, too. In one of my favorite poems from this collection, “Pentecostal Ladies,” he writes: “Their skirts bloom sunflowers, / a decade or two out of favor. / I wave from my front porch / though I know one day they’ll sidle up / in their ballet flats and tell me what for.” And it’s that “what for” that slaps down so delightfully true.

A few things I note about Malone’s work: first, it’s very precise. This is poet who does not just throw in the expected word. Often he leads us into a phrase then turns it ninety degrees, shifting the mood of the poem unexpectedly. The poems are best read slowly, because you never know when that turn is going to happen.

Second, Malone’s poems do two things that I don’t always see in contemporary poetry. For one thing, they are sometimes unabashedly emotional. So many contemporary poets feel restrained by some sort of unwritten rule of decorum to be clinical in their presentation of situations, but these poems don’t shy away from their feelings. But also, these poems can be funny. Sometimes the wit is verbal, sometimes situational. In either case, it’s nice to read a book in which every poem does not feel compelled to be Serious. There are plenty of serious poems in here too, poems of grief, loss, and longing. But seriousness is not the only key this instrument plays in.

Dave Malone lives in West Plains and has published a number of books of poems, each with its own tonal register (or key signature, if I want to push that musical metaphor). If you haven’t run across his work yet, I highly recommend checking it out.

Counting Time

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Not long ago, I had the opportunity to take a walk in one of my favorite places, the Gans Creek Wild Area in Rock Bridge State Park, just south of Columbia (sample landscape pictured above).

As usual, I quickly lost track of time. One of the great pleasures of walking in the woods is the sense of being freed from ordinary time, of entering a different kind of clock, one in which things are not measured by hours or minutes. Instead, I think of tasks to be accomplished, distances to travel. The answer to the question “How much longer do I have?” is not necessarily a half hour or forty-five minutes, but “Up a little rise, along the ridge for a half mile, and then up the last steep slope.” Float trips are similar. Time becomes, if not irrelevant, at least a secondary thing to think about.

I remember reading a book a few years ago that noted the shift that took place in the Ozarks when the economy moved from subsistence farming to manufacturing and larger farm operations. Instead of the rhythm of the seasons governing people’s lives, the clock took precedence. Many people had difficulty adjusting to the change in how life was ordered, employing various strategies of resistance against the tyranny of the clock.

Even though I’m officially “retired” from my day job, I still live a pretty ordered existence, as if an invisible timekeeper somewhere is punching me in and clocking me out. But I do love those occasions when I can stop counting time and simply live in the eternal moment.

Favorite Ozarks Places – 20

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Amidon Memorial Conservation Area, Missouri

When I was a kid, our parents would occasionally take my brother and me to what we called the “Castor River swimming hole” or alternatively, the “Castor River Shut-Ins.” Mom, as usual, fretted about our safety, while we boys just enjoyed the sweep of water through the tight passages of rock, bouncing downstream to where Dad waited to catch us.

There are a couple of swimming holes on the upper Castor, a river that receives much less attention than its more famous cousins to the west, and I honestly can’t remember which one we visited in my childhood. But one of the most unexpectedly beautiful places in the Ozarks is what is now the Amidon Memorial Conservation Area in northeast Madison County.

If you’ve visited Elephant Rocks, you know the remarkable pink granite that crops up in places across Iron, St. Francois, and Madison counties. At Amidon, that pink is lighter than at other places, far more sculpted, and shaped by the flow of water into a remarkable display.

Why doesn’t the Castor get more attention? It’s shorter, for one thing, and it quickly traverses from dramatic shut-ins to a relatively uninteresting, muddy stream, with lots of debris and agricultural runoff. But for several stretches, it’s as beautiful as anywhere in the Ozarks. Its lack of fame means that you’ll probably have the place almost to yourself, although do note that most of the ownership along the Castor is private. So you have to look for access points. The pink granite is unearthly in its strange beauty, and the flooding and debris has created a rich alluvium that lends to the growth of wildflowers in abundance.

I don’t think I’d let my kids bounce down through the shut-ins, though, unless the water was pretty low.

Another Good Year – Part 2

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I mentioned earlier this month that the year was off to an excellent start in Ozarks writing. This book is not technically an “Ozarks” book, but its author, John Mort, grew up in southern Missouri and has written several fine novels and story collections based in the Ozarks. So, close enough.

Oklahoma Odyssey is, if you’re looking for a descriptive category, a novel of the West. It mainly takes place in southern Kansas and northern Oklahoma in the time leading up to the Oklahoma Land Run of 1893, with briefer forays to Kansas City and elsewhere. But it toys with and re-imagines the stock characters and situations of the Western genre. We have a hero, love interest, sidekick, and villain, but none of these people turn out to be what you would expect. There’s a killing and a call for revenge, but again, don’t expect it to go the way you have been conditioned by decades of Westerns.

I have a complete review of Oklahoma Odyssey coming out in the next edition of OzarksWatch magazine, so I’ll leave my discussion for there. If you’re not already a subscriber to OzarksWatch, what are you waiting for? But for now, I’ll just say that this novel is a real gem, with rich characterization, historical insight, and a compelling story.

Here’s a purchase link.