On this 4th of July, and every day, let us remember that true patriotic duty is expressed not by proclaiming our great country to be flawless, but to recognize and work together to strengthen her weaknesses. May we open our minds, our eyes, ears, and hearts so that we may know the truth when we encounter it, even when it pains us to do so. Only then can we protect and nurture the principles upon which our republic was founded.
Long may our land be bright with freedom’s holy light!
words: Samuel F. Smith, 1832; Music: Thesaurus Musicus, 1744
We did something this spring that has become very out of character, in recent years, for us. We threw a party. An actual gathering, not on Zoom. With real people, at our house. Well, outside.
For many years, we hosted a neighborhood party in early December to kick off the holiday season. Covid put an end to that. About a year ago, my husband decided we should try something totally different: an outdoor concert party, with a live appearance by one of our favorite groups. I didn’t share his enthusiasm at first. I wasn’t sure we were up to the challenge. In fact, I was fairly certain that we weren’t. But I agreed wholeheartedly with his musical choice: the husband and wife folk duo, Robin and Linda Williams.
I discovered their music during a hot, humid New Jersey summer of intense study as I was preparing for my general exams as a grad student. One Sunday night, back in my New Grad College room after yet another long day at my art library carrel, I tuned into the college radio station, WPRB, and heard the unmistakable sound of home. Not my midtown Atlanta home. This went far deeper, back to something elemental and essential. It took me back to my maternal grandparents’ beloved farm among the rolling hills of central Kentucky. It summoned the rugged landscapes of the Appalachians and the Cumberland Gap. It stretched back to colonial Virginia. And back across the Atlantic to England, Scotland and Ireland. It echoed the footsteps of my ancestors as they progressed farther west in a new land after making their way from Europe. It was the sound of my roots.
I became a regular listener to the weekly local show that often featured the Williamses, which was called “Music You Can’t Hear on the Radio.”* The pair is known for their original compositions and for new takes on age-old traditional classics. Their voices are richly, warmly unique, and their harmonies sublime. Each is a skilled instrumentalist, with Linda on banjo, Robin on harmonica, and both on guitars. Fiddles, mandolins and the occasional dobro round out the sound when they’re accompanied by other artists. There’s an easy give and take between the two as they alternate vocals.
Robin and Linda’s songs are vivid with a sense of place. They call forth hills and hollows, mountains and prairies, small towns and family farms longed for by city folk who were forced to leave them behind. They sing of heartache, longing, love and joy during hard-scrabble times. They root for the underdog. They empathize with those who are down on their luck. With a few colorful details, they tell memorable tales that speak to universal themes. They’re masters of the evocative, haunting lyric, as well as the nicely phrased, comically insightful observation. Though some songs are suffused with melancholy, they’re never maudlin. Many overflow with a rollicking zest for life in all its messy glory.
I recently found my first recording of music by Robin and Linda. This was before the internet and smart devices, so I’d written off and ordered a cassette tape that first summer, through June Appal Recordings. It’s Dixie Highway Sign, recorded in 1979. With the advent of CDs and streaming services, I’d boxed up my old tapes, and hadn’t seen them in years. But I couldn’t forget the cover photo, and there it was again: a smiling young couple, Robin in a black cowboy hat, Linda with a mane of curly hair, and Peter Ostroushko, who joined them on this album, standing behind the two, looking studious. In the background is a lush green landscape. The plastic case was cracked, just as I remembered. Would it still play? I was hesitant to try. But after digging out my old boom box from the basement, I popped the cassette in and pushed Play. The title track is from the perspective of a trucker, reveling in the challenges of the drive, while missing his southern home. The exuberant, familiar fiddle opening was as bright and buoyant as when I first heard it in 1987. Amazing, considering how much use this little tape has seen.
Not long after I met H, I heard that Robin and Linda would be playing in Philadelphia, about an hour away. I didn’t expect their music to resonate with him. As a boy from Rochester, New York, he lacks ties to the Appalachians and the heartland of which they so often sing. But he feigned enthusiasm, because back then, at least, the pleasure of my company was worth it. He told me recently that one of our friends, a banjo-playing fellow engineering student, had encouraged him to bow out. “You won’t like that music,” he said. “Let me take her to the show.” After that offer, there was no way that H wasn’t going to accompany me. So we went to Philadelphia, and saw Robin and Linda in person at The Cherry Tree Music Co-Op. An intimate, chapel-like venue, located inside St. Mary’s Church, it hosted folk artists from 1975 – 2003. The live performance cemented my appreciation of the Williamses’ music. Apparently, it did the same for H. For over thirty years now, we’ve been fans. Our daughter has grown to love them, as well. Other interests have come and gone, but our affinity for the music of Robin and Linda has been a constant. For me, their songs will always prompt treasured “memories that glisten and shine” (to quote from Dixie Highway Sign) and visions of my old Kentucky home.
*Despite the title of the WPRB show, Robin and Linda were, and are, quite often heard on the radio. They’ve been frequent guests on Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion, from 1975 on. They appeared in the 2006 Robert Altman-directed movie of the same name.
More later about our concert party with Robin and Linda!
Four more people were shot dead on Wednesday, this time at a hospital in Tulsa. Yet again, the gunman used a military-style semiautomatic rifle. He bought it that very day. This is the 233rd mass shooting in the U.S. so far, in a year that’s not yet at the halfway point. Guns have replaced car accidents as the leading cause of death for children. In the light of our country’s ceaseless gun violence, the need for real progress toward a solution becomes ever more urgent.
Is there really no common ground? I continue to pray that it does exist. We might find it if only we could step out from the confines of our ironclad political ideologies for a moment. Of course, this is difficult because we don’t want to leave the safety of the familiar. Maybe imagining ourselves in a hypothetical situation can help. Let’s say we’re students, working together on a final group project. We’re tasked with arriving at a plan to curb gun violence. We don’t agree with, or like, everyone in our group. But we all could really use an “A.” Our teacher reminds us that no plan can possibly stop all gun violence, humans being what we are. She suggests that we pretend, for the duration of the exercise, that the two major political parties as we know them do not exist. A fellow classmate suggests that a real solution may be hiding in plain sight. He proposes starting with some basic questions for discussion. Here they are:
You’re a parent, and you learn that an active shooter is threatening your child’s school. Which incites your greatest fear?
To hear that the shooter wields a small handgun capable of firing a limited number of bullets before reloading is required, or
To hear that the shooter wields a semi- or fully automatic assault-style rifle capable of quickly firing hundreds of rounds of ammunition
2. You’re a police officer, responding to a call about an active shooter at a school. Which gunman would you prefer to confront?
One wielding a small handgun, as above.
One wielding an assault-style rifle, as above.
3. Does it really seem good, right, and appropriate that any eighteen-year old, unable to legally buy a beer, is able to purchase not one, but two AR-15 rifles for immediate use?
4. Think of a particularly immature, hot-tempered teenager whom you know. Would you want this person to have easy access to multiple such weapons and a huge cache of ammunition?
5. Would you feel comfortable knowing that the volatile teenager above is armed and roaming your neighborhood regularly?
4. Is it really likely to impact your rights as a responsible gun owner to protect your home if the person mentioned above is unable to purchase an AR-15 or similar gun without a background check, waiting period or any red flag laws in place?
5. Do you lock the doors of your home at night and when you’re away? Or do you not bother because, if someone wants to rob or harm you, they will find a way?
The next victims of gun violence will likely not be members of our own families. But let’s act as if we expect them to be. Let’s quit bickering, acknowledge our shared humanity, and take real steps toward lessening this horrific epidemic.
Another Memorial Day weekend has come and gone. Every year around this time, fresh new memorials to lost American lives appear across our country. They commemorate the growing number of civilians forced unwittingly to serve as soldiers in our ongoing hometown wars.
Among these most recently fallen conscripts are the nineteen fourth graders in Uvalde, Texas, who almost made it to the end of the school year. These nine and ten-year old kids might now be relishing the start of summer, had they not been shot to death in their classrooms after returning from an awards ceremony. They include two teachers, both mothers, brave women who did their utmost to protect their students. They include ten people of various ages, from twenty to eighty-six, who had the misfortune to stop by their neighborhood grocery store in Buffalo for snacks, or strawberries, or a cake, at the wrong time.
We should also grieve for the traumatized survivors of these urban battles, whose lives are forever altered. They include the Uvalde children who evaded death because they chose an effective hiding place, or because they smeared their clothing with the blood of their dead and dying classmates. They’ll never see many of their little friends again. There is the young woman in Buffalo who eluded the gunman when another woman lunged at him and was shot dead in the process.
To these survivors and to the families of the lost, we are quick to offer our “thoughts and prayers.” This phrase, if uttered automatically, has little meaning. But we should, indeed, be thinking about, and praying for real solutions. Solving a problem requires opening our minds in order to approach it from various viewpoints. Prayer, to be effective, needs a similar attitude, a willingness to consider answers that might push the boundaries of our comfort zone. Prayer should prompt us to release our tight hold on notions we cling to simply because we have always done so. I pray that we can find some common ground, and that it will move us to take strategic steps toward stopping our country’s epidemic of gun violence.
And as we think and pray to find this common ground, let’s remember that, at any time, we might find ourselves, or our parent, grandparent, child or spouse, forced suddenly into battle. We’re all in this dangerous lottery together; we don’t know when or where our number may be called. Medical exemptions or wealthy parents will no longer keep us from the fight.
For the past few years, it’s been an Easter season custom to pile our family collection of big stuffed bunnies into my VW convertible with Kiko for a photo shoot. It’s a tradition inspired by the Halloween joyrides that my dog enjoys with Slim, our skeleton friend. Naturally, a ride must follow the photo session, or Kiko is crushingly, achingly, disappointed. I wasn’t sure I’d bother with the Bunny/Beetle pics this year. With the persistence of the chilly weather, there was no need to rush. And there was this: in recent months, my elderly Shiba Inu clearly derives increasingly less pleasure from his once-favorite activity, a cruise in the car.
Gone are the days when my little dog would snap out of a deep sleep at the most tentative metallic jingle of keys, when he’d pop up with eager enthusiasm at the question, “Wanna take a ride?” Kiko has, since puppyhood, been too coolly aloof to display marked interest in the things that stir the hearts of most dogs, such as the arrival home of a pack member, a ringing doorbell, or feeding time. But a car ride was something else. It used to spark an excitement that even he couldn’t contain. I loved seeing him bursting with anticipatory joy. What a feeling that this beautiful furry creature was willing to put his complete and wholehearted trust in me! That absolute trust one tends to find only in a dog, or a child. Wherever you go, I’ll go! I don’t care where, just let me go with you!
As he ages, Kiko is apparently losing that old sense of trust, in me, and in everything in general. I guess this isn’t surprising, because his world isn’t what it used to be. Only through sleep does he appear able to attain a state resembling contentment. Fortunately he sleeps for many hours at a time. At fourteen and eight months, his compact little body must be achy, as he moves slower and with growing stiffness, especially on stairs. It takes more pacing in circles to get comfortable in any of his beds. His eyesight is less clear, his hearing less acute. He has trouble negotiating his way through our house. This doesn’t stop him from wandering tentatively, restlessly, from room to room, as though searching for something he never finds. Doors are particularly problematic: where are they, and on which side do they open? We may find him staring into a corner when indicating a desire to go out.
I still occasionally invite Kiko to ride along with me when I’m going on a quick errand. Sometimes, after several repeated attempts to get his attention, I glimpse a flicker of his former eagerness. He meets my gaze and works his way to his feet. He used to jump with easy confidence into my Beetle and up into the relatively low seat. Now he’s hesitant, uncertain at the prospect of entering the vehicle. He wants to climb in by himself, but he can’t quite remember how. When I attempt to pick him up, he struggles. Kiko used to settle quickly in the seat, facing forward, as though ready to take in the scenery. Or, on sunny days, with the top down, he often curled up, fox-like, rested his head on the center console and soon drifted off to sleep. Now, more and more, he’s anxious. Should he sit, should he stand? No position seems to offer comfort or security.
A dog’s life moves ever so quickly through the stages. There’s a fleeting infancy, a long period of toddlerhood, a few brief teenage years, and then, suddenly, old age. My feisty baby boy has become a tottering grandfatherly figure.
But, on a pleasant day, with old friends, even an elderly grandfather can still enjoy a ride in the car. Kiko showed me that he still does, as well.
It’s Palm Sunday. A day that begs to be called out, to be distinguished from just any other first day of the week. It launches the period known by Christians the world over as Holy Week. Palm Sunday sets an expectant, celebratory tone, one that contrasts, shockingly and painfully, with the shattering disappointment of the terrible day we call Good Friday. In between falls the oddness of Maundy Thursday. So much is packed into the events of these seven days, which lead up to the triumphant culmination of Easter. Indeed, without Easter, the story of new life, hope and possibility would have been one of failure, death and despair. I’ve written about the days of Holy Week several times before. What else can I add? No doubt there is something. But for now, the various demands of life, including several painting projects, prevent me from writing any more.