A Great Lake State of Mind

Reflections on the seasons of our mortality, by L. E. Taylor

Fall comes early to my home state. It’s a fact of life’s rhythm that we carry with us wherever we roam.

Driving north out of Ann Arbor in August with the summer sun behind you, it’s not unusual a couple of hours out to suddenly spy a patch of red leaves high up on the deep green of a passing forest.

For a mile or so you work to reengage your denial of what that means. ‘Nipped by a freak night frost,’ you think. ‘Must be the lake effect,’ you mutter.

Inland seas on three sides define and temper our two peninsulas. Air off the fresh deep water cools and hydrates in the summer, moderates the frozen inland in winter. The bracing harshness of ever changing elements can invigorate and nourish. Then again, too much of any good thing can also kill you. In life as in poetry, that’s where the drama lives. The risk of joy too soon. Of inevitable disappointment.

‘Seasoning’ is an apt word for the wisdom we acquire along our way.

Thanksgiving has been a favorite holiday of mine since childhood. Cozy warmth in a candle- and hearth-lit house, jammed with young moms and dads and kids with a World War just over-with, a future ahead of them, and much to be thankful for. The cliché always dwells on the turkey and stuffing and cranberries; the pies and the glorious fragrance of it all.

I, outlier that I am, tend to remember instead the primal contrast of a warm, safe home secure against the bleak November winds that threatened, always out there howling but never gaining entry. Praise God.

One of the best of those Thanksgivings blessed me not as a child but as the father of two nearly grown teens, as the brother of a young Navy veteran with two of his own, and as the son of a gloriously young and funny 65 year old Mom. One late November, we were our family’s only survivors of loss and disappointment, of failures both unavoidable and self-imposed. We had decided to trundle ourselves Up North to gather in a modern retreat where I used to own a condo. It was tucked into a great native-growth forest of pines and cedars right on the dune-fed shore of the “Big Lake.”

The drive up began in a steely overcast. A two-car caravan held the folks and the supplies. Snowflakes began as soon as the night came. Soon dense flurries swirled hypnotically past our headlights. Just two hundred more miles to go, give-or-take.

Still rollicking in high spirits, our two carloads finally crunched through the untracked snow of a winding forest road and we came to a halt before the darkened summer retreat, now silent witness to the winter’s first snowfall.

We had landed.

The silence was palpable. Even as powerful lake winds troubled the giant pines overhead, the building itself shielded our merry band and baffled the roar of storm and surf as we trudged through the drifts to our door. Quickly the ancient midnight woods echoed with honest, rowdy gaiety, produced mostly by the youngest and the oldest of the last of the Taylors.

The Thursday feast, home cooked with everyone either helping or staying out of the way, was wonderful. The blizzard howled steadily out of the northwest, straight off the Lake. Next day, we drove the deeply plowed state road further north to “Fish Town”. We bought fresh caught white fish for dinner and smoked lake trout for Saturday lunch.

Firewood was stacked and sheltered outside so the hearth was always going. Nearly the entire western wall was of glass; tracked doors floor to ceiling. We kept them ajar for the pure air and as draft for the fireplace. The view framed the wild dark sea, an ever-present context to our doings. Even in the full black of night, we could step out onto the deck and in the moonless void could make out fearsome white-caps rolling in and crashing on the beach. We played poker and gin rummy. The youngsters, each bright with their own quirks and personalities, read and entertained each other. I don’t recall any television, but it must have been there. Somewhere.

As I revisit that November thirty years ago, I’m heartened. With years of bleak winters and lazy summers and crisp autumns in my wake, I’m reassured that much was learned from the dramatically changing seasons that would have been diminished without them. Summer is a brief chimera; winter, the norm. Live with it.

Onward.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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Notes & references.

Hemingway, Ernest; The Short Stories; Scribner; New York
- The Three Day Blow (one of the “Nick Adams” stories)
Hemingway, Ernest; A Moveable Feast; Scribner; New York
Wreck of the Edmond Fitzgerald (ballad; performer: Gordon Lightfoot)

Love, Hate and Half-baked Writing

Observation & Opinion By L.E.Taylor

The opposite of love is not hate.

The opposite of love is indifference. I heard that somewhere and after a lot of thought – and a lot of living, it made sense. Indifference means not caring. Hate is something else. Hate cares.

Hate is focused. It has a purpose, a target. Just like love. Passionate, sensual love (eros); brotherly, congenial love (philos); spiritual, selfless love (agape). All are bred into us. The Bible tells us, and I’ve had an inspired moment or two that assured me: God is Love.

Well, if you acknowledge that hate is also focused, and has an objective, then you may come to understand the problem good people have when confronted with evil. They are looking into the mirror. Darkly.

Tricky stuff when you’re trying to write truthfully and you want to keep it positive and sunny.

I found myself down this rabbit hole a couple of weeks ago when I was organizing some old books on my shelf and came upon the 1950s classic The True Believer by the magnificent Eric Hoffer.

I always play a trick on myself with a “new” book – I flip the pages without looking and let it stop at random. (Try this with your Bible some night instead of staring at X-Factor.) The True Believer is a slim little paperback, a mere 168 pages and deeply footnoted. The book fell open to a passage on page 95:  Chapter XIV, Unifying Agents. Subtopic, “Hatred.”

Hoffer was no sissy academic; he was a tough, lifelong drifter, for 25 years a San Francisco stevedore (longshoreman) of rough Middle European peasant stock, and he looked it. By 1953, his cerebral musings had brought him fame as a learned, articulate mid-century commentator on the times. Eric Hoffer wrote four treatises “in his spare time, while living in the railroad yards.”

The premise of True Believer, his most famous book, is that there is a common thread that runs through all obsessed advocates of causes, political, religious, humanitarian, revolutionary. He explores what attracts ready followers to such monsters as Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and their great predecessor, Napoleon. Common people are persuaded to surrender their freedom to the will of an angry sociopath who has provided them with something to hate.

So? What’s the point?

Lately, I’ve found myself leading a series of workshops for people who’ve stored up a lot of life and are motivated to write about it. Call it “memoir writing” or “family history”. I keep the topic simple: Great Storytelling.

Because these seasoned veterans of life are mining their own memories for stories, the product is by nature, subjective. Lots of judgments, revelations, emotions, and conclusions. No study. Just honest “remembrance(s) of things past.”

Before long, though, an honest writer finds him/herself staring at a sentence that is true, but troubling. An answer is needed. A moral resolution. As promised five months ago, this series of anecdotes and essays will not be a soapbox. But it is a forum. You are expected to comment. But…

To help make sense of what we writers are moved to send out for others to read, I believe our wits are sharpened by reading what others have written – not merely for the craftsmanship, but also to observe the spiritual wrestling match that informs quality thinking.

Eric Hoffer is one of those clear thinkers. There are countless others.

Also, please consider C. S. Lewis; among his finest contributions (beyond The Chronicles of Narnia) are Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, The Four Loves. Two anthologies gathered by Bill Bennett are Our Sacred Honor (verbatim letters and notes by America’s Founders); and The Book of Virtues (stories, myth, cultural lore about our moral and intellectual past).

These are not dry tomes. They are full of the juice of life. Their content  used to be taught, not only in colleges, but also in high schools, and – read it and weep – elementary home rooms across these prairies.

Look around you. Do you see a vibrant world of bravely energetic seekers? Or somewhere along the line, has the nourishment of wisdom and virtue been scrubbed from the cultural memory and replaced with tasty junk food with lots of calories and no nutrition?

Loving to read is one thing. Hating to think is part of human nature that must be defeated in order to produce writing that’s worth reading. The consequences are all around us: half-baked conclusions, drift, and indifference.

Onward.

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Let’s Blog

Green Kid Heroics

Veterans Day Reflections By L.E.Taylor

The historian, Stephen Ambrose, author of Band of Brothers, said in an interview, that on D-Day, June 6th 1944 the men who took the Normandy beachheads were mostly privates and corporals led by sergeants and other corporals, because within an hour of landing most of the officers were dead.

Those privates and corporals and sergeants were in their teens and early twenties. When I was a small boy, these men were my heroes.

A twenty-year old in 2013 may not think he’ll find common ground with men and women who occupied his place on our mortal stage a century or two ago. Regrettably, in too many respects, he’d be right. But this soul-stunting myopia is not a flaw in the DNA of today’s youth; it’s born of ignorance. Misconceptions about history can beget a hubris that childishly crows, “We are who we’ve been waiting for!”

History books are not about old, dead people. They are mostly about young people.

The green kids of 2013 have neither experienced, nor been educated about the heroics of green kids who came before. My regret is not that these young men have no wars to test them, certainly today’s troubled society has no shortage of need for creative energy and youthful valor.

Young people who’ve read my book, Elgan and Grace, A Twentieth Century Saga, have remarked (with maybe a tinge of doubt), how different from their own friends, these Americans of earlier generations seemed to be. Still, the anecdotes that comprise that carefully crafted book are true; otherwise, why bother?

The heroes of my childhood were not all conscripted warriors. They were mostly the tough-minded men and women in my life who held together the home front. But for all their virtues, neither those who went to war nor those who remained Stateside were perfect. They simply did their best in a time of peril.

As 2014 approaches, who are society’s heroes that will grace the pages of our history? What are their great accomplishments that reflect our American values and esteem our sacred virtues as a civilization?

We’ll see. Say your prayers.

Which brings us to your Veteran’s Day treat for having so patiently stayed with my ramble. Get comfortable now, good reader; turn on your speakers, and enjoy a few minutes with Spitfire 944, and a green kid who really was a hero. Click here –> American Spitfire Pilot in WWII .

Onward.

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References:

Ambrose, Stephen E.; Band of Brothers; Simon & Schuster; NYC.

Ambrose, Stephen E.; D-Day; Ibid.

Ambrose, Stephen E.; Citizen Soldiers; Ibid.

Taylor, L. E.; Elgan and Grace; Friesen Press; Victoria B.C., Canada