Friday, August 7, 2015

The Nine

This summer was pretty traumatic for Heidi and me...  and for many in South Carolina.  Of course I am referring to the Charleston Nine.  It took me a while to write about it.  And when I did it was scrawled in my writer's notebook, on napkins, in church bulletins.  We went to church services, went to the Rally to Take Down the Confederate Flag.  Heidi and her grad students walked from campus to watch as the Confederate flag was lowered from the State House.  We read and reread accounts in the paper, op-ed pieces, letters to the editor.

I don't care about Dylan Roof (who agreed to plead guilty if he could be assured of not getting the death penalty).  I do care that he got a gun so easily.  I care that this wasn't just an isolated case of one mentally ill person who raged against another race.  Sadly he is a symbol of something much greater.  Racism exists and has existed since white people came to this continent.  This will not end it - even with the Confederate flag coming down.  Some people are obviously angry about it.  One over-the-top Ku Klux Klan woman ranted something about, "Well if they can take our flag down, we should TAKE DOWN THEIRS!" (?)

There have been churches and conservative pundits who don't want to admit that there are race issues in our country that, "This isn't a race problem.  It's a SIN problem!"

No, it is a race problem.  I'd like to think that the killer of the Charleston 9 was a single deranged mind who accidentally got a gun that he wasn't supposed to by law.  But to me, the killer is a symbol of a hatred that has existed for centuries.  Anyone who thinks that we are beyond race issues is blind.

At first I OVER-wrote this song. It was about 9 minutes long, then 7 1/2 minutes long (after leaving out many of the emotions and thoughts I had about it).   With some coaching from Heidi I got it down to about 5 minutes.  Still too long maybe.  But I can't say/sing all that I feel in fewer words.

Thanks to my friend James Woods for inspiring me to get off my reading butt and get into writing again.  Some day I'll get on Sound Cloud or get a recording on Youtube.  For now here are the lyrics.

The Nine – Tim O’Keefe 7-15

Charleston in the month of June                        Am C
At Mother Emmanuel                                        G Am
Good people met to share their prayers
But one man came to kill

They invited him to share their time                     F C
To pray, to learn, to teach                                    G Am
They welcomed him with open arms
But his heart was out of reach

Maybe some good will happen                        Am C
Maybe some kind of spark                               G Am
Maybe we’ll move a little closer to the light 
Maybe come in from the dark
Maybe we’ll seek some honest answers            F C
That would be so fine                                       G Am
Maybe we’ll speak some truth to power
We owe so much to The Nine                            E* Am

He shot and killed those precious ones
To start some kind of war
He thought his hate would conquer their love
But he’ll get no reward

‘Cause when the families of the victims spoke
Their strength came from their faith
Forgiveness was the message they shared,
“There’s no room in my heart to hate.”                        

Maybe some good will happen                        Am C
Maybe some kind of spark                               G Am
Maybe we’ll move a little closer to the light 
Maybe come in from the dark
Maybe we’ll seek some honest answers            F C
That would be so fine                                      G Am
Maybe we’ll speak some truth to power
We owe so much to The Nine                           E* Am

It was no trouble for that young man
To get himself a gun
Like chains and whips and ropes of old
He carried a Glock .41

They prayed and talked that mid June night
A young stranger in their midst
Singing those old Halleluiah songs
They couldn’t know what to expect                       

We met this evil man before                                         F C F C G
His face was there on Africa’s shore                            Am F C G
In the Dark Middle Passage and Hate’s awful course  Am F C G
We’re familiar with his terrible face
His gun and his rope and his hanging place
His Jim Crow laws, his higher race
We know this wretched man all right
His tired flag, his speeches trite
His endless battle against Civil Rights
His chains, his whip, his hate, his gun
He’s been in this land since we’ve begun
Now let us pray that his time is done

Along with the Birmingham girls
Mississippi and young Emmett Till
The Freedom Riders back in ‘61
We remember their stories well

“Come Ye That Love The Lord,” they sang
And, “We are marching to beautiful Zion”
We sing their songs, we raise our voices
To the memory of The Nine

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Life In A Woodpile

Being a teacher, my life for most of the summer is somewhat unstructured.  I have gotten some letters form my kids – which I dutifully answer the same day I receive them.  This little bit of old fashioned writing is a pleasure for me.  The whole act of putting one’s thoughts down on paper, finding the envelope, affixing a stamp, writing out the address, getting it to the mailbox, putting the flag up…  however antiquated, it is still a worthwhile process for me. 

I read more fiction during the summer.  One of my favorite times of day is just before the sun comes up.  I don’t think I’ve slept past 7AM all summer.  Old habits are hard to break.  The summer has had some sweltering temperatures, but at 6 in the morning it’s not so bad.  I usually sit on the back porch with our big yellow dog and read before it gets too hot. 

I have been doing some work for the university making classroom videotapes into DVDs with logical chapters.  I enjoy getting to watch good teachers doing their best work.  I’ve seen quite a few of these little scenes over the past few weeks.

But the work I love to do best in the summer is outside.  Because it’s been so hot, watering our outdoor plants is critical.  A lot of this is done by hand with the hose.  Most of our flowers and shrubs really can’t be seen from the road.  But they make us feel good.  I know some people would scoff at the amount of time and effort it takes to keep our landscaping alive – but it is a form of art for us; living art.  If something gets too much sun, I dig it up and move it to another spot.  Putting out pinestraw.  Mowing.  Watering.  Planting.  Re-planting.  We spend a lot of time at it.  It is a labor of love.

There are always other projects to do outdoors if you live in the country.   We burn a lot of wood in the winter.  So, stockpiling wood for our fireplace is something I think about often.  We don’t have to buy wood.  There are plenty of casualties in our forest to keep us supplied.  As a consequence, at times we have too much wood.  We took down a big old yellow oak a few years ago.  It became our burning wood.  That woodpile was a thing of beauty, for that tree was amazing.  We had a fire almost every cold evening for the last three winters and still a lot of that wood has gone soft. 

Luckily, another big old oak has fallen and is waiting to be cut up into fireplace lengths and added to our woodpile.  But the old stuff has to go.  I have been lugging it out into the woods and placing it into crevices that are eroding.  It’s been hot, sweaty work.  Not too easy on this 58-year-old back either. 

But it’s good work.  Honest work.  It is gratifying in the same way that painting is.  1.  There is the task before you.  2.  You do the task.  3.  You see the outcome of your labor clearly.  It’s good stuff.  Nothing very heady.  You can sort of meditate while you are doing it.  Roll.  Lift.  Load.  Move.  Unload.  Rinse and repeat. 

Digging into an old woodpile is a zoologist’s dream.  If you haven’t done it, you might not believe the amount and variety of animals you’ll find.  I couldn’t begin to list all of the animals I’ve found in the last week or so.  Some of them I know only generically such as centipedes and millipedes and worms.  But the variation among those animals alone is pretty fantastic.  Of course there are termites (better there than in our home).  There are many varieties of ants from fireants who would love to sting, to great big black ants with red thoraxes.  When I disturbed one colony, there were hundreds of cocoon-like eggs and each ant rushed to find one and drag it to safety. 

There is a tremendous variety of beetles including one of my favorites  - the bess beetle.  If you live in the south and have ever turned over an old log in the woods these are familiar.  Large and shiny black, these guys are wood recycling factories.  They are slow and clumsy when out of their environment, but they do their job of breaking down wood very well. 

I saw slugs and snails and rolly pollies (isopods), small wiggly worms that literally jump off the ground when touched, along with the big fish-bait night crawlers.  And reptiles.  There are little green anole lizards, 5-line skinks with beautiful bright blue lines running down their tails, and fairly big, fierce looking broadhead skinks.  The heads of the males are reddish orange and, I can tell you from experience, can bite pretty hard if you are stupid enough to try to catch one. 

You have to be careful of snakes when you are rooting around in a woodpile.  I found a large garter snake, which startled me and caused me to yip and pull back.  

A few weeks ago when I was uncovering those old logs, there was a beautiful big king snake.  These are the snakes you want in your woodpile, as they eat the
venomous ones (like the infamous copperheads) when they can.  They are surprisingly docile with humans and my son Devin (a snake whisperer if ever there was one) picked up that snake with slow ease and carried it around for a few minutes before releasing it right back where we found it. 

My favorite find of the day was my old friend Angelo, the eastern box turtle.  He was wedged between two rotted logs on the bottom tier.  If you have read my blog over the years, you may remember that he was my classroom pet for about 23 or 24 years.  I brought him home for the summer and built a snazzy pen for him in the woods.  The next day he was gone.  was sad to lose my old friend and when I blogged about him, I got a response from the editor of Ranger Rick, a nature magazine written for kids.  She assured me that it was right and good for him to be in the woods.  I was at peace with it and then rediscovered him.  Of course we set him free for good.  He shows up a couple times a year.  One predictable time is when the peaches fall off our tree before we can pick them.  Angelo trundles out of the woods to eat the soft ones from the spongy earth beneath the tree. 

Just to look at that old woodpile, it wouldn’t seem like such a marvelous ecosystem.  I do feel a little sorry for city folks who don’t have access to real woods, real dirt, and real animals in their natural environment.  Some lessons for me include: that it pays to look carefully, to get down on your knees and get your hands in dirt, to appreciate the beautiful, intricate web of life that surrounds us. 

If you look at little kids and wild animals, these are two groups of things that whenever I'm with them forces me to be in the moment.

Monday, June 22, 2015

The Confederate Flag is Coming Down!

WE WON!  Nikki Haley said there would be no winners.  No Losers.  She was wrong.  All of South Carolina has won a state that will be a little closer to accepting and celebrating our beautiful diversity.

As for her motives, she wants to come down on the right side of this issue historically - as she has been on the wrong side all along.  It couldn't be clearer that the flag would come down fairly soon.  The momentum has shifted that way.  Even a few Republicans have been starting a movement to get it off the statehouse grounds.  By making her announcement today, Governor Haley gets to look like a real "take charge" leader, someone who is compassionate and in touch with the people and the issues.

This is from on October 14th of last year.

Nikki Haley:  It's OK to have the Confederate flag at the statehouse because not "a single CEO" has complained

Republican Gov. Nikki Haley defended the Confederate flag’s presence on South Carolina’s statehouse grounds, declaring in a debate Tuesday that the flag isn’t an issue because “not a single CEO” has complained about it.

Parting ways with Democratic challenger Vincent Sheheen, who called for the flag’s removal, Haley acknowledged that the flag was a “sensitive issue” but rejected the notion of removing it.

“What I can tell you is over the last three and a half years, I spent a lot of my days on the phones with CEOs and recruiting jobs to this state,” Haley said. “I can honestly say I have not had one conversation with a single CEO about the Confederate flag.”
Conceding that South Carolina had suffered an image problem in the past, Haley asserted that the state had moved beyond those days.
Nikki Haley: It's OK to have the Confederate flag at the statehouse because not "a single CEO" has complained

I couldn't be happier that she changed her mind on this issue.  Heidi and I wept as the Governor read her speech.  Almost certainly the flag will be removed from the South Carolina Statehouse grounds.  We should never stop fighting for social justice.  God knows there is a lot to stand against.  For example, the statue of Ben Tillman is still within sight of the Statehouse steps.  That statue represents the very worst of the Old South, the old ways.  But for now we can pause, catch our breath, be amazed at this historic moment, and celebrate this strongly symbolic gesture that things are indeed changing in South Carolina.

It is crushingly sad to know that it had to take something so tragic as the murders at the Emanuel AME Church to inspire this change.

I'll post more of the pictures I took at the rally to bring down the flag at the Statehouse on Saturday.

We won, you guys.  WE WON!

Take It Down Rally in Columbia, SC

We went to the rally to take down the Confederate flag on Saturday night.  I'll let the pictures speak for themselves.  But one poem was read during the speeches.  It was by the poet laureate of the Confederate army after the Civil War ended.  His name was Abram Joseph Ryan.  It's called The Conquered Banner.
By Abram Joseph Ryan
FURL that Banner, for ’t is weary;
Round its staff ’t is drooping dreary:
    Furl it, fold it,—it is best;
For there ’s not a man to wave it,
And there ’s not a sword to save it,        5
And there ’s not one left to lave it
In the blood which heroes gave it,
And its foes now scorn and brave it:
    Furl it, hide it,—let it rest!
Take that Banner down! ’t is tattered;        10
Broken is its staff and shattered;
And the valiant hosts are scattered,
    Over whom it floated high.

Oh, ’t is hard for us to fold it,
Hard to think there ’s none to hold it,        15
Hard that those who once unrolled it
    Now must furl it with a sigh!
Furl that Banner—furl it sadly!
Once ten thousands hailed it gladly,
And ten thousands wildly, madly,        20
    Swore it should forever wave;
Swore that foeman’s sword should never
Hearts like theirs entwined dissever,
Till that flag should float forever
    O’er their freedom or their grave!        25
Furl it! for the hands that grasped it,
And the hearts that fondly clasped it,
    Cold and dead are lying low;
And that Banner—it is trailing,
While around it sounds the wailing        30
    Of its people in their woe.
For, though conquered, they adore it,—
Love the cold, dead hands that bore it,
Weep for those who fell before it,
Pardon those who trailed and tore it;        35
And oh, wildly they deplore it,
    Now to furl and fold it so!
Furl that Banner! True, ’t is gory,
Yet ’t is wreathed around with glory,
And ’t will live in song and story        40
    Though its folds are in the dust!
For its fame on brightest pages,
Penned by poets and by sages,
Shall go sounding down the ages—
    Furl its folds though now we must.        45
Furl that Banner, softly, slowly!
Treat it gently—it is holy,
    For it droops above the dead.
Touch it not—unfold it never;
Let it droop there, furled forever,—        50
    For its people’s hopes are fled!