To Rise Above Still Waters

Slow arcs spread across the river—
a muted green barely rippled by the passing
of empty tour boats and other strangers.

Reflections move along the street
unanchored beneath the feet of people
walking along the rail, crossing the bridge.

Pale sprouts of leaves
and the first hints of color
trim the limbs of elm and redbud.

A soothing of light rain
and the low haze of foggy clouds
shrouds all but the lowest floors

of high rise buildings
bordering the channel
and lifting mist-glazed panels

toward a gray-dimmed dome
that bends toward earth
in an embracing fog.

Should the clouds come low enough,
perhaps even the roughest edges
will become smooth.

If I could walk through glass,
I might pass right over this river,
and rise right into heaven,

absent the leavening thoughts
of lost voices and wrong choices,
broken body healed by the waters,

cleansed by the christening mist
and easing up through heavy air
to some new place

where seasons are not defined
by sun and rain
and the distances caught between

gentle words and soothing thoughts.

H. Arnett

Posted in Christian Devotions, Metaphysical Reflection, Nature, Poetry, Spiritual Contemplation | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sharing in Chicago

Eleven floors below me,
twin parallels of six flags
on each side of the hotel drive
ripple slightly in the lights and breeze.

A few cars and people move
on or along the street lining the river.
Reflected lights, stone pillars
and the steel frame of twin lanes
across the water mirror their images
in the lightly brushed surface
where river and lake become one.

About twelve miles out beyond the Navy Pier
and the near, small lighthouse,
long layers of a low gray sky
join the seemingly endless waters
of Lake Michigan in a monochrome horizon.

Just beyond my window,
long lines of steel and stone
frame sections of glass
rise fifty floors and more
into the shared space
that connects earth and sky
in the soft light of suppressed morning.

Last night, a few close colleagues
joined in that curious blending
of debate and joking,
sharing stories and laughter
after the finishing of food
and before the mood turns to leaving.

In black suits and white shirts,
wearing our sunglasses at night
we take a few pictures with the backlight
of high-rise city, laugh at ourselves.

Checking messages back in the hotel,
I learn that lives dear
to two other people that we love
have passed into that changing
between this life and the next:
a few decades too soon for one
and the other at the long end
of covering miles and days
and the ways this world has
of bringing both joy and pain.

We weep with those who weep,
rejoice with those who rejoice—
sometimes the one so close to the other
it seems as if with one voice—
and continue our sharing
of the spaces in between each,
trusting him who also lived and died
upon this same though deeply changed earth
to be with us from death to birth,
praying his peace and comfort
to be within, between and upon us all.

H. Arnett

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

Embracing the Difficult

It is not always easy to speak words of grace and peace,
and yet speaking grace and peace brings relief
to ourselves as much as others.

It is not always easy to give the soft reply
and yet it is the soft reply that I long to hear
when the nearness of my own anger
leads me toward danger rather than the good
that I ultimately seek.

It is not always easy to show the meekness
although it is the meek that will inherit the earth
when the earth has been made new
and the fresh dew of heaven
will bring the blessing of God’s own nearness
to those who hold his name dear.

It is not always easy to return good for evil
but easy has never been the path
of faith and righteousness
and if not one soul ever sinned again
there has already been enough evil in the world.

I have learned, too,
that even things that are not easy
become much more likely
the more they are practiced.

Help me, then today, O Lord,
to breathe grace and peace,
to be gentle with both the least and the greatest,
to walk humbly before you,
to bless those who have cursed me
and to seek the Light
even in the midst of darkness.

H. Arnett

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

Masters of Their Craft

Browns Grove, Kentucky had its own village blacksmith. Instead of some swarthy dude with big burly arms and thick moustache, we had Alvie Farris. He was in his sixties when I moved there. Short and thin and a bit hollowed by years of hard work and a touch of emphysema, Mister Alvie could nonetheless manage to shape or repair pretty much whatever was needed. Even if he had to make it from scratch or scrap.

I loved to watch him work between the forge and anvil. He’d lay the steel into the glowing coals, wind the crank of the bellows until the metal took on the color of summer sunrise. Holding the hammer in one hand and tongs in the other, he’d turn and tilt the workpiece against the anvil, swing the three-pound force of tempered steel. Blow by blow, clang by clang, the slightly softened mass took form. Whether repairing some piece of farm implement or making tobacco knives for the harvest, Mister Alvie shaped with his hands what was needed by his neighbors. I marveled at the way he could bend and fashion a strip of metal, admired the skill and surprising strength of arms that seemed so frail.

There’s a pleasure in watching the work of someone skilled at their trade. The smooth swing and push that lifts a hay bale off the ground and onto the growing stack of the wagon. The endless motion of hands knitting yarn into a scarf. The nimble flashing of fingers fretting a mandolin and picking an Appalachian dance tune. Even something as simple as hanging laundry with graceful motion. In such things as these I find a pleasing efficiency, a fluency so infused into the doing that one could easily overlook the years of practice and the true degree of the skill involved.

Every now and then I get to see something like that in classroom. Yesterday was one of those times.

For nearly ninety minutes, I watched a veteran teacher move seamlessly from one segment to another. From the opening welcome to the closing “Now next time…” she modeled a variety of teaching behaviors with such dexterity that they seemed effortless. Asking questions, giving directions, checking understanding, making suggestions, reviewing information, shaping performance. While the students worked on their projects, she moved around the room, spending time with each one, reacting to their humor and sharing her own. All of the unspoken cues of body language, facial expression and proximity clearly conveyed an atmosphere of mutual trust and respect. There was nothing grandiose or staged about any of it and yet everything about it was immediately impressive to anyone with a solid understanding of effective teaching skills and positive learning environment.

I wanted to stand and applaud.

In teaching—like a lot of other things—some of the differences between good and great are simple and subtle. Calling on non-volunteers instead of the eager beavers whose hands shoot up after every question. Using probing questions instead of pure recall to stimulate critical thinking. Building drill and review into the lesson. Fast paced questions that help anchor information into memory. Checking for understanding before students begin the next task. Greeting students by name as they enter the room and as they leave.

A lot of things go into being a great teacher, into being a master of one’s craft. One of the key ones is caring and another is the relentless pursuit of excellence. Whether one is standing in front of a classroom full of computers or beside the weathered planks of an old shop in a place too small to be called a town.

H. Arnett

Posted in College, education, Higher Education, Metaphysical Reflection, Spiritual Contemplation, Teaching, Work | Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

Sunday Swim

On a warm and breezy March day,
I biked my way along the levee trail,
thankful for sunshine and the easy shift
of multiple gears to help compensate
for the sixty-plus years and a strong head wind.

Just west of Ark City and south of the bridge,
I eased my bike down the ridge
and across the trail of dried dozer tracks,
follow the path back toward the edge
of the Arkansas river.

As soon as narrow tires hit the sand
I shift to walking and have to use
both hands to push the bike through
the loose grit to get over to the river’s edge.
I lean it against the soft dirt ledge.

I stand for a moment,
see the sun glinting the ripples
that push back against the current.
A couple of thin shallow streams
and a hundred yards of deep sand

stand between me and the main channel.
I grin to myself
and shuck off my shoes and socks,
brace myself for the sting of cold water
and begin to walk.

The water is not as frigid as I expected
and I cross the wide strip of sand,
socks and shoes still in hand,
careful of broken glass
and sharp rocks.

The sun plays in my mind,
stronger than the current of the river,
and I soon find myself
peeling off my shirt
and wading in.

With the water rising up to my thighs,
I wade against the push and pull,
moving upstream for a while.
I turn and launch myself into the flow.
Absent any search for meaning,

I am a child again.

I will rise later from these clear waters,
thinking of sons and daughters
and wishing all were here
to share this unexpected fun
on the first Sunday afternoon of spring.

Drying myself with my shirt,
I feel the strength of cleansing sun,
the sting of wind-driven sand
and the blessing of God’s own hand
on a Sabbath day afternoon.

H. Arnett

Posted in Christian Devotions, Christian Living, Exercise, Family, Metaphysical Reflection, Nature, Poetry, Spiritual Contemplation | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Beyond the Madness

I haven’t watched an entire game thus far into this year’s version of “March Madness.” I can’t even tell you what teams are in the Final Four. I can tell you that Kansas and Kentucky are both out of it. And I can tell you that there’s only one team that won’t end the season with a loss.

Remembering my own years of competition and my frequent failures as a player and then later as a coach, I’m deeply thankful for grace. I’m glad that my salvation doesn’t hinge on every shot, every pass, every decision. I’m glad that someone else loved me enough to pay the price of my guilt and take that kind of pressure off of me. I’m glad that no one can steal my crown of life, and that no one else has to lose for me to receive mine.

But I’m also aware that in life, the choices that we make and the actions that we take—even when it seems there’s no real pressure—really do matter. And the more that we practice making wise choices in simple situations, the easier it is to make them when the pressure really is on and the stakes are high.

It helps, too, to know that the coach and the ref are pulling for you.

H. Arnett

Posted in Christian Devotions, Christian Living, College, Spiritual Contemplation, Sports | Tagged , , , , , ,

Return to Paradise

On the surface, the boys and I had been waiting for the John Prine concert for a couple of months. But in a deeper way, we’d been waiting for thirty years.

My kids grew up hearing his songs—on the tape player during road trips in our old Ford van and in person with me playing the guitar. Sometimes we’d sing “Please Don’t Bury Me” or “That’s the Way the World Goes Round” in the living room and sometimes in their bedroom right before they went to sleep. On our trips back from Columbus, Ohio, we’d drive across the Green River into Muhlenberg County and I’d show them the world’s largest shovel and the Paradise steam plant with its nuclear-like cooling towers. Sometimes I’d cue up John Prine’s strip mining protest song that had made all that somewhat famous for a while back in the early Seventies.

Eventually, my sons would play guitar and sing those songs to their own kids. So when we made our way over to Kansas City just over a week ago, it felt more like we’d been waiting all our lives to go to a John Prine concert.

We found our seats in the luxuriously ornate Midland Theatre in Kansas City, then gawked a bit longer at the architecture and furnishings. After a forty-five minute stint from the warm-up duo, John and his band came out to an enthusiastic welcome.

About an hour into the show, he sang “Souvenirs,” a haunting song about loss. The crowd quietened quickly. Jeremiah reached his arm around my shoulders and gave me a one-armed hug. As I reached over and patted Jeremiah’s thigh, Daniel gave my knee a squeeze. I hugged Dan with my right arm and then stretched a bit and squeezed Sam’s shoulder. A little later, as John played the tender and sensitive guitar prelude to “Hello in There,” a powerfully poignant song about aging parents, loss and loneliness, Jeremiah again initiated that same sequence. That theatre full of strangers seemed more like a cathedral. A sense of respect and appreciation not entirely unlike reverence spread out from the soothing familiarity of old lyrics freshly breathed into new life.

I drew in a deep breath, welcomed the warm rising in my throat that seemed to fill my chest and my mind. “You know that old trees grow stronger/and old rivers grow wilder every day.” I squeezed Jeremiah’s knee, hugged Dan’s shoulders and then rubbed Sam’s back gently but firmly.

In my heart, I gave thanks for all the lessons, all the years and for this incredible night and for all the healing and forgiving that made it possible. For this grace, for this glorious place, for all the sharings that transcend years and wounds, and draw us together. For the values that may sometimes seem blurred but in the end shine even brighter in each life to which they are passed. I gave thanks for this wonderful weekend and for the years of memories that we will carry, both from our own singing and this new expression of listening to John Prine together.

I felt like we’d rounded a big curve on that old West Kentucky Parkway and were rolling right across the Green River. I was pretty sure we’d found our way back to Paradise.

H. Arnett

Posted in Aging, Christian Devotions, Christian Living, Family, Relationships, Spiritual Contemplation | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , ,