A Reluctant Blessing

On the Sunday following Pentecost,
I stood in white shirt and jeans
beside a white-haired woman
who was wearing a simple print dress.

She lifted her hands toward heaven
voicing with many others yet another song
I didn’t know even though the words
showed clearly on the screen.

In the midst of the singing
I caught some scent of poor hygiene
that put me on the verge of nausea
and almost sent me toward the door.

Each swirling of her hands
in joyful praise
sent another souring
spreading my way.

I looked over at her,
saw clean scalp showing through thin hair,
a gentle face washed
with the pure presence of adoration.

I closed my eyes
and remembered my own mother
and the way that dementia
took away some good habits of personal care.

As we moved toward the middle
of the next song,
I felt a strange sense rising within me,
a need to speak a private message.

Afraid of her fear
or the judging of others near us,
I hesitated, waited
for some stronger stirring.

With each verse,
a terse urgency built
until I feared I might choke
if those words remained unspoken.

I leaned over close,
my face against her short hair,
my voice low and quiet
only inches from her ear:

“May the hand of the Lord be upon you;
may he fill you with the longing of your heart.
May his mercy and honor be yours;
may the hand of his blessing be upon you.”

When the song ended a bit later,
we sat down and she leaned over,
reached a thin-skinned hand toward me,
“Thank you for that,”

she whispered softly, “Thank you.”
I smiled, softly squeezed her hand and nodded,
wondering if I might feel some new prodding
as we settled into the sermon.

We often walk in the fringes of others’ lives,
having no idea of each other’s’ confessions
nor of how much good can come
from the obedience of a murmured blessing.

H. Arnett

Posted in Aging, Christian Devotions, Christian Living, Poetry, Relationships, Spiritual Contemplation, Worship | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Grindstones & Gratitude

Yesterday, I held an end-of-the-school-year debriefing with some of my key administrators. These are the people whose work helps assure that classes are scheduled, that students get enrolled, that our technical programs operate, that our online, on-campus and outreach activities take place. These are the people who work long hours handling complex tasks that are essential to the functioning of our college. They are not the only ones—they are the ones with whom I met yesterday.

We had some preliminary semi-formal conversation about a few issues, including the monumental task of transitioning from an often dysfunctioning and occasionally collapsing student information system to a new one that we are hoping will lead us directly from Egypt into the Promised Land. Frankly, some are worried there might be a bit of wandering in the wilderness time. It has been a more challenging than usual year: the SIS issues, key changes in several administrative processes, a predatory move by a large university threatening the concurrent enrollment program we’ve operated for two generations in area high schools, a heavy cloud of threatened funding reduction from the state and dramatic turnover in staff and faculty. We talked about some of those for nearly forty-five minutes.

After that, I handed each one a sheet of paper and asked them all to write their name on the top of their sheet. Then, we passed the sheets to the person on our right. Each person was instructed to then write down something they liked, admired or appreciated about the person whose name was listed at the top. By the time the sheets got back to the original owner, there were several positive, appreciative comments, each signed by the person who wrote it. Every face at the table softened for a few moments as we each read our individualized support document. Then, there was a series of “thank you’s” and meaningful looks across the table.

After that, I had each person write down something from this academic year that brought them a sense of pride, satisfaction or accomplishment. “You don’t have to share these if you don’t want to,” I directed, “But you will be welcome to do so.” Everyone opted for the sharing, to which everyone responded with nods of agreement and expressions of support, “Oh, yeah, that’s a good one,” or something similar.

The next part of the meeting was something I stole from Zig Ziglar. “Write down five things you like about your job.” As we went around the circle, I added a few more things to my list. But the first thing everyone else mentioned was already the first thing on my list: the people we work with.

These are not the only people to whom I owe a great deal for their work, dedication and commitment. That longer list would include the department chairs, other members of the administrative group, our teachers and a host of other employees at the College, all of whom I trust already know that I love and appreciate them. I am blessed to be working with a core group of key people who share a consistent professionalism, an unswerving drive for excellence, commitment to students and a strong but unpretentious faith.

I wanted us to close out the year with an awareness that their colleagues support and appreciate them. I wanted us to focus for a while on the positive and to remember that even in our challenging times there are good things going on.

I could have finished up the year without doing this with this small group but I have learned that people need to know they are valued, respected and supported. They need to know, not suspect, presume or wish. If I do not deliberately show my appreciation to those around me, they will assume that at best they are taken for granted or that I just don’t care. Even if neither is true, how will they know?

H. Arnett

Posted in Christian Devotions, Christian Living, College, education, Higher Education, Relationships | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

He Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere (Guy Clark)

I will sing a song of sadness
for a man I didn’t really know
although it seems as though
I knew him pretty well.

I knew many of his songs
and some of his stories.
Most of them were good;
some of them were incredible:

a rare blending of a poet’s eye,
a craftsman’s heart,
and an absolute familiarity
with the dark hours of love and loneliness.

I never understood—
and still don’t—
how a singer could be that talented
and still be unknown by so many.

He sang about south Texas,
the people and the land,
dark rooms and tunes,
love songs that made me weep and smile.

My best friends,
my own kids,
my wife and I
sang his songs

and grew closer for the singing.

Randa and I did meet him once,
in a back room after a concert in Kentucky,
thanks to the creative conniving
of a son not as timid as me about such things.

While Sam grinned like a possum eating briar berries,
Guy autographed my vintage Gibson
in a neat hand just above the very end of the neck.
He hesitated with the fiddle, though,

“What a beautiful old instrument!”

He paused, held it up,
tilted it against the light,
“This is too beautiful for me to sign on top,”
he said softly, reverently.

Then he turned it and signed it on the spine.
You could play it for hours
and no one ever know or notice
that Guy Clark had autographed that violin.

I’ve met men
who seem to think
nothing is more beautiful
than the sight of their own name.

And here was a man
known in the highest inner circles
of Americana’s blending
of country, folk and bluegrass,

a man whose passing will be mourned
by such names as Vince Gill,
Emmylou Harris,
Ricky Skaggs and countless others,

whose own humility
and love of craftsmanship,
beauty and art,
made him turn to the side

to find a place
where he could honor an autograph request
without marring the face
of a stranger’s fiddle.

So yes, I will sing a song of sadness.
I will sit in a dark and empty room
with an old guitar
that won’t ever stay in tune.

And I will sip bourbon and cry
and be thankful that I came to know
so many songs,
be thankful for my wife,
my kids,
for Bill and Brenda Jolliff,

and for the best songwriter
you’ve never heard of,
a man who knew
what it was

to love a place
that you can never go home to,
to love people
who’ve already ridden that long, slow train

that takes us all
and all we know.

H. Arnett

Posted in Death & Dying, Music, Poetry, Spiritual Contemplation | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Tree Trimming

After assisting with Cowley College’s GED graduation event Saturday morning and before attending two graduation parties, the grand fund-raising Duck Dash and another party, I thought I’d relax by cutting down an elm tree. Seemed like a good idea since this particular elm tree has been working on destroying our wooden fence for about twenty-five years or so.

At some point in the past, it seems that someone topped the tree at about five feet above the ground, just above the top board on the fence. The tree responded by sprouting three main branches at that point. These had in turn been allowed to grow for about fifteen years or so, with each reaching a diameter of eight-to-ten inches. Not too long ago, someone had cut out two of those, leaving the third one to continue growing. It was about thirty feet tall.

As you may know, as long as a main branch is growing, so is the trunk. A foot above the ground, that tree is now about sixteen inches thick. The tree grew up through the middle of our plank fence. Most wooden fences do not benefit appreciably by having a tree nearly a foot-and-a-half thick grow up through them.

This particular fence was built with twelve-foot planks on a horizontal weave pattern. In between the end posts of each section is a center post. The planks bend around the center post on alternating layers to create the weave effect. A four-inch center post provides a functional space for creating the desired aesthetic effect. A sixteen-inch tree does something else.

It tears the fence up.

Thanks to the slow growth of the elm, some of the planks bent to a greater arc. One of them popped loose from the post at one end, splaying out toward the neighbor’s house. Another plank broke and yet another one is now embedded in the tree trunk. The fence is ruined. And I declared war on the remaining branch. And I won.

With a hand axe, I notched the tree with the intent of felling it beside rather than on top of our small storage shed. I waited until the wind was out of the north so it would be less likely to fall across the neighbor’s fence and hit his storage shed. Or house. Then I took my battery-powered DeWalt reciprocating saw and set in to work. Just in case you’re wondering, elm is fairly dense. It takes a while to cut through. But, when the cutting was done, the tree fell exactly where I’d hoped it would. After two or three more hours of cutting, stacking, loading and hauling, nearly every trace of the tree was gone.

Except for the stump, five feet tall and sixteen inches thick, still standing in the middle of the fence. Along with a dozen other smaller trees that were allowed to grow up through the fence at various places around its perimeter. Every one of those could have been pulled up by hand at one point. The fence could have been preserved and protected with only a small amount of effort. Pulling up sprouts is easier than cutting down trees.

I’ll need to remember that next time I take a look around inside my life.

H. Arnett

Posted in Christian Devotions, Christian Living, Gardening, Metaphysical Reflection, Spiritual Contemplation | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Charlie Two Shirt Helps with the Hay

On that particular day, things did not go the way a particular little nine-year-old boy in West Kentucky wanted them to go. It was not a matter of weather. The weather, in fact, was quite pleasant, sunny and somewhat mild for July. So, no, it was not the weather. Nor was it a matter of not being allowed to play. It was, oddly enough, a matter of not being allowed to work.

Roy Morris was baling hay on that particular day and little Charlie Two Shirt wanted to help with the hay even though he was short and small. His dad introduced him to visitors at church as “the runt of the litter.” Compared to his two older brothers, the description seemed accurate enough; they were both tall, handsome and muscular. Charlie Two Shirt was strong for his size but neither of the other two words was ever used to describe him. An overbite exaggerated his large front teeth and his blond crew cut did nothing to hide the various scars on his head. He hated the annual school pictures and the teasing of his classmates when they called him “Bucky” or “Beaver.” But he loved to do farm work.

His dad and his older brother Paul were getting ready to go over and help Mister Roy with the hay. His dad was nearly fifty years old and though he was only five-eight, he was muscular and in amazing shape for a man his age. He could haul hay or cut tobacco all day long and still have plenty of strength and energy left for doing the milking. Charlie Two Shirt’s brother was already nearly six feet tall even though he was just thirteen years old. He and their father finished tying on their shoes while Charlie Two Shirt went down to his basement bedroom to get his gloves.

When he came back upstairs and walked outside, the pickup was gone. A trail of dust drifted above the long gravel driveway that led to a longer gravel road. He ran to his mother and asked, “Where are Dad and Paul?!”

“They’ve gone to help Mister Roy with the hay.”

“I wanted to go help, too!”

His mother looked down through her glasses, wiped the dishwater from her hands and patted his shoulder, “Well, I guess they didn’t know you wanted to go. You can help me with the green beans after I finish the dishes.”

Charlie Two Shirt walked back outside and stared at the gravel road and the last wisps of dust drifting into the fencerow in the curve a half-mile away. It was three miles to Roy Morris’ farm and he knew it was pointless to ask his mom to drive him over there. She was in the middle of washing dishes and after that she would be canning beans. He didn’t want to can beans; he wanted to haul hay.

So without another word and hoping his mother would stay in the kitchen in the back of the house, he walked very quietly across the driveway. He decided a shortcut through the pasture would save him at least a tenth of a mile. So, he ducked between the strands of barbed wire and headed over to Roy Morris’ place.

An hour later he was helping Mister Roy drive his old Popping Johnny across the field while Paul threw bales up and their dad stacked them on the wagon. “I can’t believe you walked three miles of gravel road to come help me haul hay,” Mister Roy chuckled, rubbing Charlie Two Shirt’s head with one hand. “Now you keep this tractor going straight between these two rows of bales.”

For a little while, Charlie Two Shirt forgot about his big bucked teeth and his scarred head and his runty little body. He gripped that old black steering wheel tightly with both hands and grinned from ear to ear.

H. Arnett

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A Mid-Week Blessing

May this good day bring you good
and may you bring good
into the moments you share with others.

May the moments you share with others
and they share with you
leave you both the better.

May this good morning find you focused
on things that are good and pleasant,
things worthy of praise,

and may such things as are pure and lovely
bring good into your heart
and give you cause to bid good to others.

May the work of your hands
on this good day
be blessed and fruitful,

bearing witness
of the Light that lives within you,
yielding proof of a changed nature.

May your words on this good day
be anointed with wisdom and grace
and may every situation that you face

find its ending in peace:
healing where healing is needed,
a gentle surrender to a better nature.

May all that rages around and within you
be calmed by that Greater Knowing,
a deeper humility that understands

that gentleness controls the stronger hand,
that the good of others matters more,
that love conquers all things,

and that good is in rich store
for those who bring good
to others.

H. Arnett

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Mother’s Day

I did not call my mom yesterday. Nor did I send her flowers or a card. Not even a phone call. To the best of my ability to recall, it is the second time in over fifty years that I did not wish her “Happy Mother’s Day.”

I did think of her, though. I thought about cookies and cakes and roast beef and mashed potatoes. I thought about homemade shirts and patched jeans. I thought about her operating the tractor, milking the cows and driving the two-ton farm truck to Russellville to pick up a load of concrete blocks.

I thought about picking blackberries, staking up pole beans and peeling apples. I thought about homemade rolls and fried pies. I thought about chili suppers for the church folk and birthday cakes for each of six children. I thought about aprons and sun bonnets, crochet and embroidery and biscuits at breakfast.

I also thought about spelling words and history facts and report cards that she’d sign. I thought about “Tuffy the Tug Boat,” “Duck and His Friends,” and almost endless stories about Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox and Brer Bear. I thought about her drawing pictures at church during Dad’s sermons to keep me still and quiet. I thought about the first set of paints that she bought me when I was fifteen and the incredibly bad picture of pheasants in the snow that she kept on the wall until she was taken from those walls.

I thought about all the ballgames she came to, all the letters she wrote and the very few long trips she made to come see me. I thought about the years she raised children, read to grand-children and great-grandchildren. I thought about the meals she prepared and shared with family and friends. I thought about the miles of singing gospel hymns while we traveled the dark backroads of West Kentucky, coming home from church or just going somewhere. Anywhere. Anywhere with Jesus we could safely go.

It doesn’t seem possible but it has been nearly two years since she went on with Jesus, across Jordan. She was not perfect, had her share of flaws and her own dark moments. But she was faithful, she was loving and she was devout. She enjoyed her share of blessings and endured her share of deprivations. Among the more saddening of those losses was the old age dementia that began in her mid-nineties and then worsened.

Her mind slipped away a few years before she passed, leaving a frail and failing body behind. Even though she did not recognize me the last three or four years, she still seemed to appreciate the very few visits I made. The last time I saw her alive, I sat on the bed beside her and she held my hand for a while. Her knuckles were large and swollen by decades of advancing arthritis, so I held on as gently as I could. We sat for several minutes, saying little or nothing.

And when the time came for leaving, she steadied herself as best she could and stood to hug me goodbye. I stroked a strand of white hair away from her eyes and kissed her forehead, looked one last time into those pale blue eyes and said “We love you, Mom.”

We still do.

H. Arnett

Posted in Aging, Christian Devotions, Christian Living, Death & Dying, Family, Relationships, Spiritual Contemplation | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment