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Joseph E Bird

Let's talk about reading, writing and the arts.

If you want to be a better writer, read these books.

I’ve always read a lot. Maybe not voraciously, I’m too slow for that. But I’ve read a wide range of books. When I began writing, Joe Higginbotham gave me books. Books that he bought for the sole purpose of sending to me so that I could experience good writing.

He was a big fan of Kurt Vonnegut so he sent me some of his books.  Slaughterhouse Five. Breakfast of Champions. Vonnegut is so different, so unique, it’s hard not to be influenced by his work.

He also introduced me to one of my favorite authors, Chris Offutt. Offutt is from eastern Kentucky, close to my neck of the woods, and his stories connect with me for that reason alone.  There is also a simplicity and directness in his writing.  The characters in his stories are not overly complex and their journeys are not epic, but they’re real people. Joe mailed me three of his books, The Good Brother, The Same River Twice, and No Heroes: A Memoir of Coming Home.  I’m glad he did.

He encouraged me to be a better business person and said I should read Fierce Conversations, by Susan Scott, Never Eat Alone, by Keith Ferrazzi, and Selling the Invisible, by Harry Beckwith.  I did. As well as many others that he recommended.

And the first book he said I should read – well, study really – was Louis Berkhof’s Systematic Theology.  Heavy stuff, man.

But that was Joe.  He knew what he was talking about and challenged you to be better. That’s a good friend.

This is how you write.

Joe Higginbotham was a great writer.  In 2010 he wrote a piece about his father, who had just passed away.  In doing so, he not only managed to tell us what was special about Emery Higginbotham, but he also took us inside the world of professional music and back in time to the British Invasion of the 1960s.  It’s timely, inasmuch as we are currently celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

If you want to know what good writing looks like, click the link below.

Emery Higginbotham

Joseph Higginbotham

From the Charleston Gazette-Mail is this:

Joseph Higginbotham, 62, of St. Albans, died Friday, June 2, 2017. If you are a family member or know the whereabouts of any family member of Mr. Higginbotham, please contact Bartlett-Chapman Funeral Home, St. Albans (304) 727-4325.

Joe was a friend for many years.

We had so much in common; we had very little in common.

At one time we shared a common faith.
And he taught me.
He taught me about theology.
About church history.
About caring for other people.
He was a great mentor, teacher, friend.

Things changed.
I don’t remember how or why.
We were all young and when you’re young,
life is constantly changing.
He moved away.

After many years, he became
whatever happened to?
I found him living in Lexington.
He had married.
He had divorced.
He had changed.

Our views of faith had diverged.
He no longer believed
as I believed.

Nonetheless, our friendship persevered.
I was writing a novel.
So was he.
And he taught me.
He taught me about story structure.
About voice.
About having something to say.

He moved back to St. Albans.
I was involved in community development.
He had been involved in Lexington.
And he taught me.
He taught me about the dynamics of community growth.
About seeing things from a different perspective.
About looking beneath the surface.

He was always doing that.
He had a great analytical mind.
He could provide so much insight.
He could be funny.
He could be maddening.
But he would always be your friend.

In his last years, we had diverged too far.
Conversations became more stilted.
So we just quit trying.
Maybe we shouldn’t have.
He deserves more than an obituary
that says nothing.

While we wait,
I’ll tell you about
Joseph Higginbotham.

 

 

 

 

Youth.

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GIVE THANKS for the blessings of youth. It’s good to remember the old days, to think about those on whose shoulders we stand, who made us who we are today. To look back at all the grainy black and white photos.

But there is pure joy in youth and in witnessing the cycle of life.

The newborn crying one moment, and wide-eyed with wonder the next.

The toddler taking those first precarious steps.

Then there’s the challenge of adolescence. Maybe we’ll just skip over that. But all that angst makes us who we are.

And then the flower blossoms fully. It’s a sight to behold.

The photo is of Hannah, my niece.  I could have chosen any of my nieces. Or nephews, for that matter. They all represent the best of life. But this is a great picture. Absolute contentment in the moment.

Here’s hoping we can all find that peace wherever we are and in whatever we do.

 


 

By the way, Hannah is the pre-teen deftly balancing a piece of cake while helping my mother on rollerblades.  Photo credit (I think) goes to Hannah’s brother Micah, an award-winning filmmaker. Micah is the toddler in the crazy shorts also helping my mother.

Knock knock.

r and l 1 15
My mother’s first — and last — time on rollerblades.  

When was the last time you went roller skating?

When was the last time you ran?

When was the last time you rode a bike?

When was the last time you threw a ball?

When was the last time you swung on a swing?

When was the last time you danced?

When was the last time you told a knock-knock joke?

When was the last time you flirted with someone?

When was the last time you watched Bugs Bunny?

When was the last time you flew a kite?

When was the last time you did a somersault?

Pick one.

Do it.

While you can.

Body shaming in the 19th century.

tida
My great-grandmother, Tida, with my sister, Adele.

When I was born, my great-grandmother, Tida, was 72. By the time I was old enough to form any memories about her, she was well into her 80s. I’m sure she had the usual trouble remembering things that older people have, but she had no problem performing at least one amazing feat of memory.

When she was a child in the late 1800s, she learned many things by simple repetition, what they used to call rote. When she was in her 90s, she would sit on her porch swing on a hot summer day and, recalling her lessons of decades earlier, entertain her great-grandchildren with the story of Nanny, a poor girl who ate too much.  In today’s culture, we are more sensitive to eating disorders and those who struggle with controlling their weight. And really, the story of Nanny is more about greed than it is about being overweight.  Nonetheless, my apologies to anyone who may be offended by this old school-house poem.  My presentation of this is not intended to be any kind of commentary about eating or obesity.  It’s about my great-grandmother’s amazing mind.

Again, she was in her 90s when she would recite this entire frightening poem by memory.  Thanks to Adele for transcribing the poem.

Greedy Nan

Nanny was a glutton,
not a pretty word, oh well.
But the actions of a glutton
are even worse to tell.

Perhaps there are some children
who know the meaning not.
Well, a glutton is a person
who eats an awful lot.

Nan was fat and chubby
as folks should be who eat.
Her cheeks were like big apples
and she had fat hands and feet.

At the table Nanny always
ate up her own large share.
Then she would eat her brother’s
and hang around his chair.

If anything was left,
twas eaten up by Nan.
All her family said of her,
We don’t see how she can.

She’ll make herself quite sick some day,
her family all said.
She eats of every kind of food,
rather than wholesome bread.

One day some guests her mother had.
She cooked a supper good.
Then she set the table,
and placed on it the food.

But ere the guests should sit them down,
in ran greedy Nan.
She gathered all the nice food up,
and put it in a pan.

Then to the barn she ran away
and hid behind the gate.
She put the big pan in her lap,
and ate, and ate, and ate.

Her mother came and found her,
and sent her off to bed.
“I would not care if shadowbees
came after you,” she said.

As silent on the bed
lay greedy, greedy Nan.
She heard a voice say loudly,
“Get up now, if you can.”

She looked around,
her room was full of many shadowbees.
She wondered much what she could do,
their anger to appease.

“We’ll have to stop you. Hurry up!
This greed we cannot stand!
You are the greediest girl
there is in all the land.”

They put her in a towering room,
and filled it up with food.
“Stay here until you eat it all,”
cried they in language rude.

Now Nan was nothing loath to eat,
so straightway she began
to nibble doughnuts, cakes, and cheese,
and bread bespread with jam.

Till all at once the sight of food
made her so very ill.
“I never can eat all this up.
I never, never will.”

“Go on and eat!” cried shadowbees.
“You must eat more and more.
You haven’t made a passage yet,
but halfway to the door.”

“If I eat more, I’ll surely die.”
“Eat on!” cried shadowbees.
“While you’re eating your way out,
we’ll dance beside the sea.”

So Nan was forced to eat and eat.
She grew so very stout.
That when she reached the little door,
she hardly could get out.

“The time has come,” cried shadowbees.
“To roll her out like dough.
We cannot leave her as she is,
she’s much too fat, you know.”

So off they hurried luckless Nan
and down upon the plain.
They laid her like a heap of dough
to be rolled flat again.

They took a huge, huge rolling pin.
They rolled this way and that.
They rolled her up, the rolled her down,
til she was smooth and flat.

“We’ll round her off about the size
she really ought to be!”
The King said, “I’ll attend to that.
Please leave it all to me.”

So he rounded Nanny off, nice and trim and clean.
She jumped up with a scream,
and found that all this wretched tale,
was just a horrid dream.

“Oh, shadowbees, oh shadowbess,
I will, I wll give heed
to this dream that you have sent me,
I will stop this horrid greed!”

— Author Unknown

The kitchen.

tida in kitchen

I love this photo for many reasons, but the thing that intrigues me the most is the honesty.

The photo itself is a basement shoebox relic.  It’s old.  It’s bent and cracked. No Photoshop effects, here. Just a snapshot.

The subjects are familiar faces, but the photo was taken probably close to sixty years ago, before I really knew them. Maybe before I was born. Even in the older women there is youth I never saw in later years. From left to right, my Aunt Shirley; my grandmother Bettie Pearl, who I knew as Mom; my great-grandmother Tida, who we called Tidy; and my mother, Gloria, who looks to be with child.

The place, I believe, is my great-grandmother’s kitchen. If I had to guess, I would say it was breakfast.  There’s the coffee pot and toaster.  But I can’t imagine them gathering so early just for breakfast. Maybe lunch, which they called dinner.  Dinner would have included fried potatoes and tomatoes from the garden. Supper was the evening meal.  There would have been men in the picture by then.

There’s tension evident in the photograph.  Not a one could manage a smile, which is very unusual for my mother and Aunt Shirley, especially in front of a camera.  There’s a weariness, too.  Maybe they had been working.  Maybe canning tomatoes or beans.

They were all different.

My mother was the free spirit, enjoying every moment.

My aunt was sophistication personified, full of grace and elegance.

My grandmother, hardworking and kind, ready to share with everyone.

My great-grandmother, the strong, independent woman living by herself.

Maybe that was the source of the tension. Around the table love and respect, yet each one not quite understanding the other.  One dreams of this, another of that. And dreams, what are they for, anyway? another may think.  And Tidy, who has already seen enough heartbreak for all of them, keeps it to herself.

I’ll never know. They’re all gone now.  Not that any of them would give me a straight answer anyway.

I think that’ s the wonder of old photographs.  They tell a story, but never the entire story. A moment frozen in time that forces us to think about those who have gone on, to see if we can fill in the blanks. It forces us to remember them as they were, beyond the smiles and laughter. It forces us to remember who they really were.

Even the marble fades.

cemetery 1 for web

“Like the vast bulk of people, the captives would pass from the earth without hardly making any mark more lasting than plowing a furrow. You could bury them and knife their names onto an oak plank and stand it up in the dirt, and not one thing — not their acts of meanness or kindness or cowardice or courage, not their fears or hopes, not the features of their faces — would be remembered even as long as it would take the gouged characters in the plank to fade away. They walked therefore bent, as if bearing the burden of lives lived beyond recognition.” – Charles Frazier, from Cold Mountain

IN THE LATE 1860s, a tradition of decorating the graves of fallen Civil War soldiers began. In 1868, General John Logan formalized the tradition by declaring May 30 as Decoration Day.  Decoration Day gradually become known as Memorial Day, and after World War I, Memorial Day began to commemorate soldiers who had died in any war. In 1968, the U.S. Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, and in 1971, Memorial Day was established as the last Monday in May. 

Although the emphasis of Memorial Day is still to honor those who died in service to their country, graves of all loved ones are now traditionally decorated on Memorial Day.

Many of my family and friends have their final resting place in Cunningham Park, a pastoral cemetery in the rolling hills of my home town of St. Albans. But as beautiful as it is, visits are always times of quiet reflection. My mother is there. My grandparents are there, and my great-grandmother, who passed away when I was 21, is there. My sisters and my cousins are the last generation to have known her personally. When we’re gone, my great-grandmother will likely have no more visitors. The memory of her, like the marble etching at the top of the cemetery stairs, once so vivid and clear, will fade away.

stairs for web

The stairs are a long, hard climb. Do they symbolize life’s struggles? Or the final path to the hereafter?  At the top are symbols of the Christian faith. But time is no respecter.  Even the marble fades.

marble plaque

Every day is a gift and every memory a blessing.

 

hoofin’

This is how it’s done. Or was done. Back then. They called it hoofin’.

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