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Joseph E Bird

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

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stories

ho hey, cleopatra

more music on this cool saturday morning.

the Lumineers, the band that may have started that whole ho! hey! thing a few years ago, tell pretty good stories in their songs. i had heard Cleopatra and was confused about what the song was about until I heard this.

here’s how it came together.

and here’s the song.

no place for a young girl

Every year about this time we go to the cemeteries and clean the graves of those who have gone before. It makes you realize how fast time flies. Has it really been that long? And then there are all those forgotten graves. What was their story? Maybe this.


she wasn’t supposed to go there by herself.
up the steep gravel road,
through the woods
to the clearing
where the old grey headstones
were covered in moss
and leaned toward the earth
as if they were too tired
to stand up straight,
for so long they had stood in testament to
the forgotten lives
of those whose names were
were worn from the stone
by the unrelenting and unforgiving
passage of time.

she wasn’t supposed to go there by herself.
because there were snakes
and yellow jackets
and maybe bears.
and at night
across the hollows
voices and laughter and music
and now and then
a gunshot
would echo
from neighbors unknown,
and though the graveyard
was close
it was no place for
a young girl alone.

she wasn’t supposed to go there by herself.
but along with the grey, rough tablets
of ancient men
and their wives
and their children,
were smooth slabs
of curved and polished marble
with praying hands
and crosses
and Bible verses
written in script,
and names her grandmother knew
of this cousin and that uncle,
and her grandmother’s husband,
the grandfather she had never known.

she wasn’t supposed to go there by herself.
under the deep shade
cast by towering oaks and maples
where grass wouldn’t grow
and moss and lichens
clung easily to the old stones
and left her grandfather’s headstone
untouched by nature,
save for the pollen in the spring
that she would wipe with her finger
from the smooth marble,
that also promised
that her grandmother would
someday
rest with him.

she wasn’t supposed to go there by herself.
but her grandmother worried too much.
she had never seen a snake
and stayed clear of the bees
and the idea of bears
just seemed silly,
and it was peaceful
always peaceful.
and she would talk to God
and ask why other kids
teased her,
though she knew
it was because her clothes
were old and
she was poor.

she wasn’t supposed to go there by herself.
and she sat beside the grandfather
she knew only from photographs,
and read Psalms
from his old Bible
and drew wisdom from the words
that would stay with her
all of her days,
and give her
comfort
through her pain,
and strength
through her weakness,
and courage
through her fears.

she wasn’t supposed to go there by herself.
and when she saw him
she knew her grandmother
had been right,
and she had been foolish,
and as he came toward her
he took a drink
from a bottle
and wiped his mouth
on his sleeve
and laughed,
and she knew
that he had come
from the valley
of the shadow of death.

she wasn’t supposed to go there by herself.
but she would fear no evil
and she always carried a staff,
the old iron pipe
from her grandfather’s workshop,
heavy and cool,
and she stood
and gripped it in both hands
and drew back
and stepped toward him
and swung,
and he screamed as it struck
against his ribs,
and his bottle dropped,
and she ran off the hill.

she wasn’t supposed to go there by herself.
she didn’t tell her grandmother
and she didn’t sleep
for days,
and when the kids
teased her because
she had to tape the soles
of her shoes,
and because she lived
in a shack with her grandmother
because her mother had
killed herself with a needle,
she cried into her pillow
softly,
so her grandmother wouldn’t hear.

she wasn’t supposed to go there by herself.
and it was weeks before she went back
to find her staff,
her grandfather’s iron pipe,
which had given her comfort,
and to find the peace
that had left her.
but it wasn’t the same.
she couldn’t read
she couldn’t pray
she couldn’t close
her eyes
because he might
be out there
still.

she wasn’t supposed to go there by herself.
and though she was afraid,
she still went there by herself,
because it was there
she had learned of
peace and strength and courage.
and she would grow
and live far away
from the hollows,
and the kids who teased her,
and she would become a woman
strong in her will and
strong in her faith
and though she was never alone
she went there by herself.


copyright 2017, joseph e bird
photo copyright 2017, joseph e bird

NPR – Station of Doom

Dear NPR:

A few years ago, you became my radio station of choice. I listen to all the great story-telling shows on Saturday. On Sunday afternoons, the cooking and travel shows fill the time as I drive through the mountains of West Virginia. I even dig most of the classical music shows. We have a local DJ, Matt Jackfert, who is always playing something interesting in the genre.

My job requires a lot of time in the car, and in the mornings, I usually tune to NPR to get news and commentary. I like the seriousness with which the news is presented and the absence of hyperbole from local radio personalities.

But here’s the thing: You’ve become sooo negative.

Nobody can do anything right. It seems like all your stories are about how somebody doesn’t get it, is incompetent, or just plain mean. If only everyone were as enlightened as the good, caring souls at NPR, what a better world we would live in. Yes, we need journalists to fact check and tell us the truth and I appreciate the work you do, but I can’t take it anymore.

I’ve found myself tuning in to the local commercial stations and enduring the screaming car dealers and the bad jokes and the shallow reporting just to get a break from the prophecy of doom that NPR is becoming.

Yeah, the world is a crazy place and it doesn’t seem to be getting any better. But I need a break. So NPR, can you lighten up a bit? Please?

In his book, Chronicles, Bob Dylan was looking back at the 60s and all the analysis that went with the events that were changing the world.  He said this:

“All the news was bad. It was good that it didn’t have to be in your face all day.  Twenty-four-hour news coverage would have been a living hell.”

I can relate.

 

Beginnings

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.
And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

–Genesis, Chapter 1

What evocative language. What a way to start a story.  What a choice of words.  The prose is so strong, it’s poetic.

Of course the original writing was Hebrew.  Does the Hebrew translation have the same effect on the reader?  I don’t know.  The translation above is the King James Version.  Here’s the New International Version.

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.”

Basically the same meaning, and probably more grammatically correct.  No sentences begin with “And”, which I know drives some people nuts.  And the last two sentences have been combined into one, which modern grammar-check software would undoubtedly suggest. It may be more correct, but as literature, it loses a little of its punch, a little of its rhythm, a little of its beauty.

The choice of words matter.  Subtle changes can make powerful differences.

Let’s look at another beginning.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
The same was in the beginning with God.
All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.
In him was life; and the life was the light of men.
And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.”

–The Gospel of John, Chapter 1

I find this language intriguing. If one were to pick up this story without knowing anything about it, the first two sentences would produce a shaking of the head. What??? A mystery right off the bat. Then the third sentence introduces the main character. Quite a powerful guy, it would seem. Then the talk of light and darkness. A sense of foreboding.  Yeah, this would be my kind of story.

Many of my favorite books begin this way. A sense of mystery. The introduction of an intriguing figure. And you know something is going to happen.

This week we’ll take a look at beginnings, and we’ll see that words matter.

 

 

 

 

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