Sunday, October 19, 2014

Gone Fishing

Before they split for good, my parents gave their disintegrating marriage one final go. My mother joined my father in Louisville, Georgia. As a result, the first portion of my elementary school years was spent in a small town surrounded by farmland, forests, and fishing holes. 
My father supervised a shirt factory in Louisville. Eventually, he owned and operated a series of apparel-making plants around Central Georgia. None of them thrived for long.
Manufacturing shirts and pants and shoes was what my father did to make a living. But that’s all it was. A way to pay the bills. He had no passion for the business. Fishing was his passion. When he looked in the mirror, Sam Owensby saw a fisherman.

Nicholas Roerich's "And We Continue Fishing"

My father spent the better part of his life on Kelly’s Lake. Before the Civil War, the Kelly family had formed a small body of black swamp water by erecting an earthen dam across the Ogeechee River.
Bass fishing was what my father loved best. Before the days of sonar fish finders, he knew every inch of Kelly’s Lake: the river current’s course through the lake; every fallen tree and submerged stump; sudden drop-offs, unexpected shallows, and creek feeds. 
Most importantly, he seemed to understand the fish themselves. He knew where they would be at different times of day and in different seasons of the year. He selected bait and lures to appeal to their shifting tastes. And, as his work schedule allowed, he planned his time on the water to coordinate with what he believed to be mealtime for bass.
He never said it this way, but my father followed his own fisherman’s creed. Know your lake. Know your fish. Go to where your fish are, don’t expect them to come to you. You’re not going to catch many fish waiting for them to jump in the boat with you.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Spiritual Spanx

During my early childhood my family did not attend worship services. My father was Baptist and my mother was Roman Catholic. Their spiritual differences partly explain our Sunday absence from the pews.
My introduction to Roman Catholic Mass came when I was in fourth grade. Eventually I was baptized in the Roman church and attended Catholic schools. But my early lack of a faith community did not deter my mother from buying Sunday clothes for me.
In the autumn of my third grade year my mother bought me a tan, three-piece corduroy suit. We had traveled forty miles from little Louisville to what seemed like the big city of Augusta. At Belk’s, my mother put the suit on layaway and paid for it over time. We picked it up after the final payment sometime around Thanksgiving.

Camille Pissarro's "Woman Putting on her Stockings"
That suit hung in my closet until the last day before Christmas break. Since we were having a party in our third grade class, my Old World mother encouraged me to wear the suit. I was sort of reluctant. Austrian kids might have dressed up for school parties, but the kids from rural Louisville were going to show up with blue jean legs rolled up so as not to drag the floor and brogan boots. In other words, everybody else would be wearing what I normally wore.
Not wanting to disappoint my mom, I wore the suit. If you’ve ever worn a corduroy anything, you know that the fabric is stiff when it’s new. You have to wear it quite a bit to break it in. A whole suit made of corduroy felt like a suit of medieval armor. I couldn’t properly bend my arms or my legs, so I walked sort of like the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz seriously in need of his oil can.

Sunday, October 5, 2014


My dear, late friend Earl taught me everything I know about money. He was immensely successful in business. Making money came as naturally to him as composing music came to Mozart. However, his principal lesson was not about how to make money. He showed me how to live with money. You can either learn to give it away, or it will own you. Completely.
Here’s a story he told once that turned my way of looking at things upside down.
There was an elderly widow that lived on one of the large farms down the road from Earl’s own spread. Her home needed some minor tending to, so she hired the young man who showed up one day looking for work. The young man had been honest with her. Just days before he had gotten out of jail, and he was down on his luck.

Paul Gauguin's "Grape Harvest at Arles"

Once all the small repairs had been done, the widow paid the young man a generous amount and he went on his way. The following weekend he appeared again at the widow’s front door. This time, he demanded money. The widow was alone in the house, and he knew it.
The woman refused. Apparently, the man barged in and went for her purse. She struggled. The young man killed her and fled. In a matter of days the police apprehended him. He had gotten only $400.
My initial response may resemble yours. Outraged at the robber, I also had a kind of sorrowful admiration for the old woman’s pluck. She wasn’t about to let that young punk push her around and take what was hers. She stood her ground. Sadly, it cost her life.
Before I could say anything, Earl shared a very different lesson with me. He said something like this. “It’s so sad. She could have given him a thousand times that amount of money and never missed it. She gave her life away for $400. That’s what happens when you let your money own you.”
I just stared at Earl. Nothing like that had ever occurred to me. But apparently, it’s just this sort of thing that Jesus keeps trying to tell us.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Forgiving Way

Ed remembers bits and pieces of that day. Just a toddler, he recalls playing on the floor with his mother, Jane. She had bought some cheap plastic dinosaurs for him at the dime store (or the Dollar Store in today’s language), and she looked on as he marched them around and pitched them in battles with his little hands.
It was hard for her to get down on the floor. She was pregnant with Ed’s little brother. Very pregnant. He and his mother were always talking about having a little brother, how they would play together, what to name him.
“Take your toys and play in your room.” His mother said this abruptly. Maybe he argued. He’s not sure. The next thing he remembers is playing with those dinosaurs in his room and hearing his father’s loud, angry voice.

Otto Dix's "Pregnant Woman"

Some time elapsed. His mother Jane came into the room, closed the door, and sat down with him. “It’s okay,” she said, “it’s okay.” It didn’t feel okay. There was something menacing in the air, and although that invisible menace sometimes receded, it would never vanish altogether. It always threatened to flood the air again.
Years later Ed’s older sister told him what she had seen hiding in another room. Their father had come home drunk. He had struck Jane and knocked her to the floor. While Jane was lying there, he kicked her repeatedly in the stomach.
His sister’s account of that day connected some dreadful dots for Ed. Memory being what it is, Ed had no further recollection of that day or how it fit into the days that followed. Instead, he recalls being told some time later that there would be no baby brother. He had gone to heaven.
Once Ed had heard his sister’s story, he knew that his little brother hadn’t simply gone to heaven. He had died that day or soon thereafter at the violent hands of his own father.
It took Jane almost ten years to leave her husband. She worked on forgiving her abuser for the rest of her life. Ed’s still working on it.
Forgiveness doesn’t happen all at once. Especially for deep, enduring injuries to our hearts and our souls, we forgive again and again over time.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Imperfect Together

Will Simpson turned us in, as I remember it. Maybe it wasn’t Will, which is why I’ve changed his name.
All the boys in Mrs. Farmer’s second grade class at Louisville Academy had engaged in an epic dirt clod battle before school. The sandy soil on the edge of school property formed itself into small, soft projectiles that burst on contact (or in your hand if you didn’t hold them gently). Well, all the boys except Will.
Will stood at a spectator’s distance, telling us to stop. We were going to get in trouble. “I’m going to tell!” he said.
School authorities had sternly warned us about the dangers of throwing dirt clods. We might lose an eye, shatter a limb, or even damage our brains. Severe punishments awaited anyone caught throwing nature’s little hand grenades.

Karol Ferenczy's "Boys Throwing Pebbles into the River"

We were undeterred. And that’s why every single boy in the Mrs. Farmer’s second grade class—with the exception of Will—found himself standing in line outside the vice principal’s door. One by one each of us entered his office and bent over to receive what I remember as three largely symbolic whacks from his paddle.
Setting aside a conversation about the appropriateness of corporal punishment in schools, I have to admit that we were caught redhanded breaking a clear rule. As harmless as our play may have been, we had no defense. Not a single one of us thought to justify our behavior.
And yet, every one of us resented Will for turning us in. Now resentment is not a good thing, and I’m not defending this emotional response anymore than I’m defending that dirt clod fight long ago. But the resentment we all felt toward Will tells us something. Before I explain what our resentment tells us, you need to know a little more about Will.