Signs of the Times: “Low-Rent Chiselers” and Violence

There is darkness and terror all around us. Yet there are hope and joy as we revel in each others’ company, as we give thanks for life’s abundance nevertheless. I awoke this morning to the Fourth of July streaming in my window – to the reciting of the Declaration of Independence on NPR (that actually brought tears to my eyes, despite its familiarity) – to the news that North Korea has just successfully launched a ballistic missile that could … maybe … reach Alaska. And so I sipped my first cup of coffee while yet in my bedroom, and thought on all these things.

These are dark times, folks. The cover of the latest issue of The Atlantic shows a North Korean bomb display on parade with the headline story shown in blazing red ink that reads: “Can North Korea be Stopped?” And Trump meanwhile tweets as he wrestles CNN to the mat in a fake video display. Even the music idol adored by our teens – Melanie Martinez, a 22-year-old phenom – sings of darkness, loss and violence in her songs mouthed by 13-year-olds who are mesmerized by every word, every line … such as, “Of course it’s a corpse that you keep in the cradle” or “I’ll hand a flower to your mother when I say goodbye, ’cause baby you’re dead to me, I need to kill you. …” There’s a verse in the book of the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah that reads, “For I hear many whispering: ‘Terror is all around’” (Jer. 20:10). And so it seems that it is.

And yet nevertheless, despite much evidence to the contrary, such lyrics as written and sung by Martinez are not the whole truth, not our whole of reality, not the sum and substance of our human life. I don’t think it’s pollyannaish of me to insist that there also are such truths as friendship and love, generosity and loyalty, laughter and honor, and civility that are also our human lot, realities to behold and cherish and cling to in perilous times such as our own today.

Let me take a leap here because in my mind this is a case in point. A few weeks back I read a review of a book containing a collection of essays by Jim Harrison titled A Really Big Lunch. The book’s title is taken from an article he wrote for The New Yorker magazine – a description of a 37-course lunch that was held on November 17, 2003, in the French village of Vezelay. I was intrigued and immediately bought the book and took it with me on a little vacation trip with my friend, enjoyed it enormously, and promptly bought four additional copies to distribute to some of my favorite folks. Harrison (who died last year at age 79) was a gourmet cook, sportsman, wine critic and connoisseur – a sort-of scamp who enjoyed his far-flung life to the nth degree.

The book is sprinkled throughout with photos of Harrison across the years, and the essays are at times hilarious, at times sad – at times breathtaking descriptions of food feats, wine consumption, and travel around the world. The essays are also depictions of how to have a really full and enjoyable life in the process of living it. To give you a flavor:

I’ve noted that a large number of otherwise intelligent Americans believe that a particular combination of food and vitamins will produce miracles. Is living until eighty-one instead of seventy-eight a miracle? I have at odd times tried tofu and think of it as a gustatory self-laceration, well below boiled pig liver on my list of preferences. … Who wants to become yet another conscript in someone else’s world of limited ideas? This Sunni-Shiite quarrel has been going on since 632 A.D. … The pathetically undereducated members of the administration and the U. S. Congress now say re: Iraq, “It seemed like a good idea at the time.” In any of the dozens of countries I visit, people indicate to me the sense that they are being led by low-rent chiselers. … Oh well, what can I offer you but a few personal clues, mindful of my mom’s stern admonition, “What if everyone were like you?” (pp. 54; 145)
Actually, it might not be such a bad idea if more of us were a bit more like Harrison in our life’s outlook. Despite his outlandish and incredible diet, including his love of good French red wine, he lived amazingly well until 79 years of age. He lived a full life brimming with good friends and good food, and also led an active outdoor life hunting, fishing, and walking miles each day. The book’s cover notes that “this is a book replete with the humor, compassion, and full-throated sensual delight that made Harrison such a singular voice.”

Well, a little closer to home, but also offered as evidence of the goodness of life and love, last week my sons and their families gathered together for our annual reunion at my favorite mountain hangout, Wintergreen. As I believe I’ve said before in these blogs, we are a typical, far-flung family – one son and family in Riverside, California; the other son in Boca Raton, Florida. But we gather annually with kids in tow and spend five days or so hiking, zip-lining, swimming, playing tennis, and just generally hanging out – enjoying each other over meals and drinks in the evening. (Jim Harrison would be proud!) This annual gathering and other visits in between is, I believe, testimony of life’s deep well of goodness that is a gift and blessing to us all.

So yes, there is darkness, there is terror all around us. Yet there are hope and joy as we revel in each others’ company, as we give thanks for life’s abundance nevertheless. Let me end this blog by turning to two of my favorite poets; Christian Wiman and Isobel de Gruchy. Interestingly, Jim Harrison references Wiman in A Really Big Lunch and that prompted me to Google Wiman’s poetry (because I couldn’t find a book I have of his somewhere on one of my shelves). In his poem “Lord is Not a Word” he speaks thus:

To discover in one’s hand
two local stones the size
of a dead man’s eyes
saves no one, but to fling them
with a grace you did not know
you knew, to bring them
skimming homing
over blue, is to discover
the river from which they came. …
Lord, suffer me to sing
these wounds by which I am made
and marred, savor this creature
whose aloneness you ease …
Finally I turn to my friend and poet Isobel, whom you’ve met many times in these blogs:

I live in a between mode:
between wretchedness and glory;
between dark sin and bright goodness;
between blindness and vision,
falling and rising, woe and well, wandering aimlessly and pressing ahead …
And when I fail
and fall again into blindness,
I will cling to [God],
trusting in him to carry me –
in between.” (Making All Things Well, New York: Paulist Press, 2013, p. 98)
Martinez, Trump, and all the “low-rent chiselers” notwithstanding, we move forward in hope, nourished by friendship, good food and wine, and the beauty and love that surround us. And try to remember to say “thank you” along our way.