Winter Woods

It’s the Fourth of January and somehow in North Alabama it’s an amazing sixty-five degrees with bright early afternoon sun and the deepest blue sky I have seen in months.  As I step out of my car after arriving at our family farmstead, I know for certain that I have to take advantage of this beautiful opportunity God has provided today.  What a great day for a walk in the woods!

Little did I know that my planned thirty-minute walk on the farm would turn into a three-hour adventure!  It was to simply be a short walk across the pasture and into the grove of pine trees that my dad had had planted several years ago.  But life has a way of altering our plans.

These were the pine trees we could see on the hillside across the pasture as we sat at the morning breakfast table looking to the east whenever I had visited my parents over the last twenty years.  Oh, the conversations we have had while looking across at those pines!  The days of row crops on the farm and cattle in the pastures were long gone.  But my dad, forever the farmer at heart, loved to see things grow.  Each year as I visited, he would point out how those trees had grown, and repeat the story of their planting in detail.

As I arrive at the house this day, no one is home as my sister and mom are at her doctor’s appointment.  I quickly go inside and pull on some old clothes suitable for the walk.  Finally, I lace and tie the pair of desert boots that I had brought back from my short tour in Iraq almost twenty years earlier.  Despite their age, they have held up well and are simply the most comfortable boots that have ever graced my feet.  More importantly, and something I will only share with you, they impart a secret power to me every time I wear them.  When I put these boots on, the world changes around me…my confidence increases and a ‘no fear’ sense of peace comes over me.  It’s a strange indescribable feeling, but a very pleasant feeling at the same time.  Lots of memories are connected to these boots.  These boots and I experienced both good and bad days together, and we are still going strong some twenty years later.

The walk over to the pines across the pasture is an easy walk, as the hay had been harvested in the late fall.  The pasture now looks as neat and groomed as our local high school football field.  I decide to save several steps by not walking down to the gate of the cross-fence, but I decide instead to climb over the ‘hogwire’ cross fence.  A word of caution to other seventy-year-olds out there, this is not the same experience as it was when we were younger.  That’s all I’ll say about that.

We had a ‘toad-strangler’ rain the night before and the ground is a bit mushy, but my ‘desert’ boots don’t seem to mind.  A sizeable stream of water flows in the small branch as I cross over it to ascend the hill toward the pines.  As a kid, this little branch had seemed so much larger.  I recall having to search for a place narrow enough for me to jump across, but today is somehow easier.  I quickly walk up the hill into the thickness of the pine trees.

This is the same hill that was open pasture land when I was a kid.  As a ten-year-old I would stand up on this hill my trusty little fiberglass bow and shoot an arrow straight upward into the sky.  I would ‘carefully’ watch that arrow and see how closely I could position myself to see how near it would land as it stuck into the ground nearby.  I suppose it was something of a ‘chicken’ game, and it sure developed my skill and ability to track those high fly balls later in my teen years on the softball field.  Then, there was that day that I lost sight of the arrow.  I suppose I was never one to think things through to possible unpleasant endings, and I found myself without a contingency plan for this specific event.  But as a ten-year-old invincible kid, I suddenly discovered that I had an incredible ‘superpower’!  I could instantly make myself ‘small’, giving the arrow a much harder target to find.  And just as an added level of security, I strategically placed my hands on the top of my head.  Needless to say, it ended well.  After all, I’m sitting here writing this today.  That would not be the last close call in my life.  But those are other stories to tell.

It’s at this point where I deviate from my original thirty-minute walk plan.  The usual thick underbrush and briars are practically non-existent.  Unlike the woods of our northern neighbors, winter woods in Alabama seldom involve snow.   But much of the undergrowth still retreats in these winter months.  My walking is so easy, I head deeper into the woods.

Moving on to the old hardwood growth on the next ridge, I first make my way across the stream that feeds the farm pond down below.  This crossing proves more difficult as the combination of beaver dams and last night’s rain unnaturally widen the stream.  I convince my desert boots to temporarily become swamp boots, and they faithfully comply with my respectful request.  I’m amazed at the beaver’s work ethic, persistence, and engineering skills and I more closely examine their work.  Definitely a nuisance, but I admire their God-given instinctual talent that they put to good use for their community.

As I walk onward to the east, the southwest sun behind me is brightly illuminating the old growth woods.  I’ve forgotten just how tall these hardwood and old growth pines are, and they tower majestically upward. The bright blue sky above provides a vivid contrasting background to their stark presence.

The winter hardwoods and lower saplings are bare of leaves that would have obstructed my view in summer. Today I am surprised at how far I can see, since only the bare tree trunks are obstructing my view.  The layers of leaves on the ground are soaked, wet, and cushiony soft.  I make very little sound as I walk, even at a brisk pace.  As I stop and focus more intently through the distance, I catch an unexpected glimpse of a youthful deer bouncing and bounding off over the top of the hill.

My senses are suddenly overloaded and I’m taken aback. I quickly find my mind wandering off into deeper thought…Maybe my life is a bit like these winter woods.  So much of the time in the vibrant summers of life, when life is busy, the leafy undergrowth of activities and distractions get in the way of me being able to clearly see the larger and more important “trees” in my life.  Without the leafy and prickly briar undergrowth, it’s so much easier to see and move among the important ‘trees’ of my life.  The cliché of ‘less is more’ pops up like a billboard in my mind. 

As I gaze at these woods removed of their clutter, my thoughts instantly zoom to six thousand miles around the globe twenty years ago to the northern Iraqi desert, where for almost four months all my possessions fit inside three simple olive drab duffel bags there.  My only real ‘need’ there was to satisfy Maslow’s lower hierarchy of food, shelter, and safety.  Once those were met, I was completely free to focus on and perform my critical mission there, the thing I desired to accomplish.  Without the complicating distractions of ‘normal’ cluttered life, I was amazed at how easily my team and I could focus and accomplish much in a very short period of time.

I am reminded too of how often my most valued spiritual growth and awakening came through the winters of ‘life or death’ situations.  When the minutia of life was suddenly stripped away, I was forced to reassess and face the few things that really mattered in my life.   In doing so, I realized what little control I can actually exert over my life as a human being.  I saw other people recognizing this during COVID.  We saw this more recently when an NFL player’s life suddenly hung in the balance for us all to see on live TV.  With little hesitation people dropped to their knees, desperately appealing to a God they had often failed to recognize at all just the week before.

Pardon me for wandering off my story, but those thoughts somehow seemed important for me to share with you.

Back to my walk in the woods…I continue to walk eastward until I come to another small branch.  I know from past experience that this stream is very often dry.  But with the rain last night, a vibrant ribbon of water is flowing through the streambanks, hurrying off toward its eventual fate.  I try to imagine where that may be.  What is the life of this stream’s water?  The walk is easy alongside the small stream, and I decide to follow it a bit.

This stream is an infant, having just been born a few hundred yards upstream as the recent rainfall now drains into the ravine.  The stream has youthful energy and moves along quickly as its mother earth pulls it along with her gentle but persistent tug of gravity.  The stream meanders along like a young colt in an open field as it gathers more strength, weaving back and forth and occasionally jumping over small obstacles.  As the ground’s slope increases, the water suddenly rushes into its wild teenage years, throwing caution to the wind.  With little advance warning, the speedy teenage stream suddenly careens over a forty-foot cliff cascading downward into thousands of beautiful drops of water and free-falling toward the rocks below.

With a violent and noisy splash, the water somehow survives its fall and quickly gathers itself together again. It flows gently into a larger pool of its expanding universe, before gliding downward to join the larger stream that we call Rock Creek.  Nature and the divine plan continue to move the water along toward its final destination.  Its journey will be slow but destined for a certain ending, one ultimately beyond its control.  Yes, much like my own life.

This small being of water now in Rock Creek will soon join the waters of Sandy Creek just before it marries the Sipsey River.  As part of the Sipsey, it will soon settle in for a long life in Smith Lake where it will support the lives of millions of fish and provide enjoyment to thousands of us as we cool and play in the lake’s deep waters.  Eventually, our little stream of water may make it through the dam, out of the lake, and join forces with the Mulberry Fork of the Black Warrior River.  As part of the Black Warrior, our little water gets to flow through Tuscaloosa before flowing on southward to become one with the Tombigbee River.  The Tombigbee then makes a new acquaintance with the Alabama River.  It merges and becomes the Mobile River and empties itself into Mobile Bay where it is welcomed into the blended family of the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean.  All in all, it’s quite a journey to its final eternal home.

What a kindred spirit I feel with that little stream now flowing through our winter woods!  Though much of my journey is already complete, my origins were similar to the little stream.  We were both born in this same wild area of the world.  My youth sped by, and sometimes my life felt out of control as though I was plummeting over a waterfall.  I survived the turbulent falls and entered into the still lake of humanity and vocation, spending many years treading water and serving others in my chosen profession.  With my retirement I felt as though I was finally able to escape the dam that was holding back my progress and calling. 

Today, I am once again able to freely flow toward the destination my creator has laid out before me.  I know my final destination, and I desire to flow toward it every day.  The only great mystery and question that remains to be answered is, “Who will I get to meet and join along the way?” 

What about you?   


Selling Your Wares in Another Man’s Business

A Lesson From My Dad in a Volkswagen Dealership

I needed cash, I needed it quickly, and I had a plan.

Out of college for over a year at twenty-four, I now had a good job that provided me stable income. My little Volkswagen Karman Ghia that had gotten me through many trips in my college days was on its last miles. My job required me to have dependable transportation and I longed to have a new car. I had my sights set on a brand new silver Toyota Celica!

As good fortune would have it, a football teammate from my high-school days was now selling Toyota’s at the dealership in Birmingham. With his help, I found the perfect car…but it sold for a whopping $3,900 and I didn’t have that kind of money. No worries he told me, we can fix you up with a loan. That sounded like a great idea to me! I now had stable monthly income, I needed to establish a credit record, and I definitely wanted that car! There was one unresolved issue, though. To secure the loan, I needed to put down a small down payment. I didn’t have enough readily available cash, and to prove my independence I didn’t want to borrow from my friends or family.

My plan was to take the Karman Ghia to the nearby Volkswagen dealer in hopes they would buy the car outright. That would give me enough cash to pay the down payment on my shiny new silver Toyota dream car. As this was all new territory for me, I convinced my Dad to go along with me for emotional support and advice.

Mr. Hoagland, owner of the dealership, was kind enough to speak with us personally and assured me that he thought we could do business after his mechanic checked out the car. I had already explained to Mr. Hoagland that the car needed some work. His mechanic quickly observed and reported (as I already knew) that the car needed new transaxles…a pretty costly repair. Mr. Hoagland took a few minutes to discuss this privately with his mechanic, and then he promptly presented his cash offer to me of $550. I needed a little time to think on the offer, so my Dad and I found a secluded corner of the showroom to talk.

No sooner had we begun to talk than another high school friend from my small hometown (and also a football teammate) walked into the dealership showroom. We immediately stuck up a conversation.

“What are you up to here?” he asked.

“Just trying to sell my Karman Ghia to get some cash”, I replied.

At this, my friend seemed interested. “How much they offering you?”

“They’re willing to pay me $550 in cash”, I replied with a bit of reluctance in my voice.

“Oh man! I’ll give you $600 for it right now!” was his quick reply.

His sudden reply caught me off guard and I intentionally shifted the conversation to something else as I considered his offer in my mind. My Dad had said nothing during this entire exchange…he had just been observing. Dad quietly got my attention and suggested we talk a bit between ourselves before making a decision. Out of the corner of my eye I also noticed that Mr. Hoagland was observing this chance meeting with my friend.

My Dad was not a ‘directive’ kind of person. Instead, he would give you background information and discuss possibilities in such a way as to gently guide you into making a rational decision yourself. He used that same approach here.

“Jim, let’s think about this situation for just a moment. We came into this man’s place of business and asked to do business with him. He’s provided the building and facilities to attract customers who wish to buy or sell a car and he’s given you an offer. He has invested a lot of money to build up this business, advertise to attract customers, and offer his services to people like you.”

By this point in the discussion, I already understood where Dad was headed with his line of thought. Mr. Hoagland’s dealership (that he had invested in and built from the ground up) was the only reason my friend was able to see me and give me his offer. If I accepted my friend’s offer, he and I would undeservedly benefit at the expense of Mr. Hoagland’s efforts and financial investment. That seemed unfair and was obviously disrespectful to Mr. Hoagland. If I had wanted to sell my car privately, I could have easily done numerous things on my own (e.g. spread the word to my friends, placed a classified ad in our local paper, listed it on the bulletin board at a local grocery store, etc.).

But, the decision to sell (or not to sell) the car to my friend was still up to me. There was no law or rule that said I couldn’t…I had every right to sell if I wanted. But it came down to respect. It would be disrespectful of me to take advantage of Mr. Hoagland here in his own place of business. It would be unfair for me to come into Mr. Hoagland’s dealership and sell my own ‘wares’ to one of his customers for my benefit, and possibly knock him out of his own sale.

Growing up in a small rural farm town with few neighbors, I had been taught to respect each of our neighbors. We all needed each other from time to time and made it a point to maintain good relationships. I had also been taught by my Dad that you couldn’t earn respect for yourself by disrespecting another.

You’re probably wondering what this long story has to do with anything of relevance now. Well, what if I applied this simple lesson to the professional athletes of today who are using someone else’s platform to ‘sell’ their personal views and messages?

Just as I had every right to sell my car there at Mr. Hoagland’s dealership, these athletes have every right to voice their opinions through their words or deeds in the stadium or on the court. But, isn’t it disrespectful for them to do that in another’s place of business? Not only are they disrespecting the team owners, they are disrespecting the fans who provide them financial support as well. I fully support any pro athlete running a paid full-page ad in ‘USA Today’, the ‘New York Times’, or any other widely circulated publication. They are totally free to advertise their views all over their own social media sites (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc) with no backlash nor disrespect to another. That’s the beauty of living in this free country. These athletes have ample finances and resources to get their message out to the general public by multiple means freely and personally available to them. Many of them have millions of followers. They don’t need to hijack someone else’s platform and steal customers.

Perhaps I was just raised differently, but taking advantage of another man’s platform/place of business (although legal) just seems morally wrong and very disrespectful. In a further related action being exhibited by some athletes, they demonstrate even more disrespect when they refuse to honor the symbolism behind our flag, by not standing during the anthem. The flag is a very precious and personal symbol to millions of Americans who have sacrificed “blood, sweat, and tears” to secure the price of freedom that all (even these athletes) now enjoy. For some, that sacrifice meant giving their very last breath of life for the freedom that flag represents.

In looking back at my life, I can see that the lessons my Dad taught me did not exist in isolation on our small farm. His lessons have been reinforced and validated by countless other respected influencers and mentors in my over sixty years of diverse life experience. To express these relevant lessons in the simplest of terms today, I believe they can be condensed to two simple core lessons:

  • Strive to place honor above desire.
  • One never earns respect by disrespecting another.

Oh, how I wish these athletes could have known my Dad!

Thoughts on Memorial Day 2020

This year’s 2020 Memorial Day is much different than past Memorial Days for me in two distinct ways. First, this is the first Memorial Day I will experience without my Dad. Secondly, all of us find ourselves in a struggle that may even rival the threat that World War II posed to my Dad’s generation, as we now face the global COVID-19 Pandemic.

As my thoughts turn solemn, I wonder if these two realities may somehow be related. And if so, what lesson might they hold for us?

Earlier this month I received a certificate from the ‘United States of America’ bearing the signature of the ‘President of the United States’ that honored the memory of my Dad. These words in the document caught my immediate attention:

“…in recognition of devoted and selfless consecration to the service of our country…”

The term “selfless consecration” stood out from the rest of the words. “Selfless” I understood, but “consecration” is not a word I hear used much today. If you look up the meaning, you’ll find that it most often applies to a spiritual commitment to God, as in…

“Making a conscious, willing decision to dedicate your soul, mind, heart, and body to God. This decision must be one of will, intelligence, and affection. Only you can make the decision to consecrate yourself to God.”

But my Dad, and other service members from his generation, are recognized for their consecration to the service of “our country”. Think about that. Our service members are recognized for their conscious, willing decision to dedicate their soul, mind, heart, and body to the service of our country.

My Dad was fortunate; he never was exposed to combat during the war. But as he completed his training for maintenance of carrier aircraft, his next assignment would likely have been aboard an aircraft carrier supporting the invasion of mainland Japan. But the atomic bombs brought a sudden end to the war. Nevertheless, he and his mates had already made their conscious, willing decision to dedicate their soul, mind, heart, and body to the service of our country. Over 400,000 service members were required to give their last full measure (for the service of our country) and they did not return to their families or loved ones.

So, fast forward to today as we are faced with the national threat posed by the COVID-19 ‘enemy’. What are we being asked to “consecrate” in service to our country? As we progress in our own war against COVID, I come to believe that we are engaged in battle on two fronts: 1) the battle to preserve physical life, and 2) the battle to preserve our ‘way of life’ (personal and collective freedom).  But this battle should not pose an “either-or” choice but instead a “this-and” strategy.

I am confident that our battles on both of these fronts will be fought smartly and employ the best strategies we can devise using science and human knowledge. But let’s be honest, there are (and will be more) casualties on both fronts. That is the nature of war. The more looming question may be, “How do we as a society handle the fear associated with these losses?”  For the answer to that, maybe we should again look to the examples offered from our service members.

This past week I received an email written by an Army Chaplain that reminded me of one of those examples.  The chaplain relayed in a very personal story of how he had given “Shields of Strength” dog tags to a young Captain. These dog tags have a flag logo printed on one side and a scripture on the other. The most common verse printed on them is Joshua 1:9, and they are designed to be worn next to your heart at all times. That Captain was later the first U.S. officer killed in Iraq.   I too had received similar dog tags when in Iraq, and the Chaplain’s story brought back memories of how my own personal faith had brought comfort and encouragement to me in fearful times. (“I will be strong and courageous. I will not be terrified, or discouraged; for the Lord my God is with me wherever I go.” Joshua 1:9)

I know some of you are turned off by the thought of a faith in something you cannot see or touch. And for many, faith in a higher power is not found until all else is lost. One’s faith is entirely a personal and individual decision for each to choose. But, for me, my faith in God frees me to focus more on ‘living life’ than on ‘fearing death’. Wouldn’t less fear of death be a good thing for us to have as we deal with COVID-19?

My Dad’s WWII generation was known as “The Greatest Generation” for their sacrifice, courage, and endurance. How will our COVID-19 generation be remembered? Perhaps we all need ‘Shield-of-Strength’ dog tags for strength to face the fear that pervades our nation. My Dad lived his life to the fullest and his generation serves to remind me that our ‘not living’ dishonors those who have sacrificed or will yet sacrifice in their dying. Maybe it’s time for our own “selfless consecration”.

Making a conscious, willing decision to dedicate my soul, mind, heart, and body. This decision is one of will, intelligence, and affection. Only I can make the decision to consecrate myself to my country…or to God.

“What’s Your Favorite Song?”

“What’s your favorite song?” Many have asked me that question at one time or another. It’s a simple question that I’ve always been able to avoid answering. It’s a fair question…so why not answer? Why did I always sidestep giving an answer?

Oh, I can give the usual lame excuses: “I don’t have just one favorite”…”I have favorites in many genres”…”It depends on my mood”…”What decade are you talking about?”… etc, etc. Throughout the years, most have accepted those answers and let me off the hook. But how do I answer the question for myself?

Any introvert like me is all too familiar with that truism “what you say about another says more about you than the other”.  For an introvert, revealing something like a favorite song is akin to opening my soul for others to see. My definition of “favorite song” is the song that stirs my innermost soul the most when I hear it and most impacts my total being.

Well, it’s time to take a stand. Vincent by Don McLean is my favorite song. There…I’ve let the cat out of the bag.

Picking that ONE song was even tougher than I thought. At my age I have quite a few personal decades of great music to draw upon and it is not getting any easier with age. But over my many years, I have noticed that this particular song has consistently moved me each and every time I’ve heard it. Why is that? Well, it turns out that’s been an interesting question for me to explore. I wanted to “hear” the answer myself. And this time to move beyond my normal introverted self; I’ll share my thoughts with readers along the way.  Another personal journey – let’s see where it takes me.

The bottom line up front: “Vincent” represents the “complete package” to me. I view it as more than a song…it’s a piece of art in the complete sense of the word. And what’s the definition of “art”? For me, it’s a creative work that transcends the senses beyond its mere physical makeup. Sure, it stimulates my senses…but goes far beyond and touches something deep inside that is not defined by our five senses. It conjures up the mystical and awakens the spiritual. In short – It touches my soul. “Vincent” does all that for me better than any other mainstream popular “song”.

You see, “Vincent” manages to fuse it all together. The usual is there: words and phrasings that rate as poetry, the simple but perfect guitar & strings make it pleasing for anyone to hear, and the human voice (the sacred harp) that is completely convincing in its sincerity as the writer bears his own soul to us. The magical ingredient is the inseparable joining of another artist and art form completely independent of the audible. By including both the life and work of Van Gogh, the music and lyrics take on purpose, meaning, and creates a visible realm to add an unparalleled fullness for the song. And for the final part that forces me to bare my own soul if I am to remain faithful to the truth I see, the complete life and work of the main character of Van Gogh is subtly woven to form a spiritual analogy that creates for me an everlasting sense of wonder and reverence.

Please bear with me as I walk though my thoughts on each facet of the work.

The music. I must admit, I liked the song from the very first time I heard it. It stood out as something completely different for the ‘seventies’ with a reverent quality that begged me to listen more closely. It was easy for me to imagine McLean “painting” the song through his musical brushstrokes. I loved the simple guitar work and how it literally pulled me into the song.

The words. Right out of the box, I cannot think of any three opening words of a song that is so deeply ingrained into my memory…”Starry, Starry Night”.   So powerful are these opening words, that the song itself is sometimes known by that three-word title. The perfect blend of guitar with those words right away creates a one-of-a-kind fingerprint for the song…unique for all time. Don McLean is so poetic in his songwriting…and I think much underrated. I must admit, I liked the song before I even understood that it referred to the Van Gogh painting.

The painting (Starry Night). Wow! What an iconic work to build into a song. This image is one of the most viewed and recognizable pieces of art in the world. Now, whenever I see the painting I think of the song, and when I hear the song I think of the painting.  It’s open to multiple interpretations, including spiritual or religious overtones. It contains a mysterious combination of dark and light, punctuated with the image of a church & steeple front and center in the painting.

The artist Vincent Van Gogh.   Clearly misunderstood in his own lifetime. It’s reported that he sold only one painting in his lifetime. His fame spread only after his death.

The spiritual dimension. The spiritual aspect of the song creates the most important takeaway for me. I know that many may convincingly argue there is no spiritual story to the song, but I see it differently. And for you who know me well, you may conclude this is just another case of me adding spiritual connotations where there are none. But this topic is worthy of discussion.  Doing so will reveal many of my core beliefs…and that is the sensitive part.

The historical context. In my opinion, I think McLean uses the image of Starry Night and the life of Van Gogh to paint a clear analogy to the mysteries of the spiritual world, and more specifically the life and work of Christ. I recognize that’s a pretty bold reach, but consider the life and times in which McLean wrote the song and when it rose to popularity.   McLean wrote the song in 1971 at age 26. This was smack in the middle of my generation’s most impressionable period. We had seen our President and other moral leaders shot, we had rebelled against the establishment, many experimented with drugs, witnessed the civil rights struggle & violence, suffered through Vietnam, and finally saw the hope of coming together in peace at Woodstock through music. Music was the moral voice of the day.  Lyrics of that day often carried a deeper underlying meaning. And it seemed our generation had turned itself to the pursuit of the true meaning of life…the spiritual. The “Jesus Movement” was at its peak and many were also exploring the Eastern religions to fill their spiritual void. Many songs of that period carried spiritual connotations (e.g. Let It Be-Beatles, Bridge Over Troubled Waters-Simon & Garfunkel, Spirit in the Sky-Norman Greenbaum, Fire & Rain-James Taylor, My Sweet Lord-George Harrison, I Don’t Know How to Love Him/JC Superstar-Helen Reddy, Put Your Hand in the Hand-Ocean/Anne Murray, Woodstock-Joni Mitchell, There is Love-Paul Stookey, Day By Day-Godspell, Morning Has Broken-Cat Stevens and even a traditional hymn in the Top 10 with Judy Collin’s version of all things – Amazing Grace. Within that day, Jesus was sometimes portrayed as the true “Revolutionary” as in the best-selling Jesus Revolutionary poster and even in a Broadway play – Jesus Christ Superstar! After all, Jesus had ‘called out’ the establishment of his day, attracted a loyal band of followers, and taught a message of love and peace rejected during his lifetime.   He started a movement that literally changed the world (after his death). So, I think “Vincent” was written with intended religious overtones as well.

Musical artists of McLean’s day. Artists rarely create a work that is specifically definable in simple black and white terms. Rather, a good piece of art opens itself up for many interpretations perhaps not noticeable at first glance. It often becomes a reflection of the one viewing the work.   So whether if we’re talking about Vincent Van Gogh, Don McLean, Bob Dylan, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, Cat Stevens, Harry Chapin, John Denver, John Lennon, Carol King, Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, Jackson Browne, Van Morrison, etc, etc – you’re talking about artists who created “stories” we are still interpreting and appreciating today. My point…I find it very conceivable and believable that Don McLean wrote his poetry/lyrics with that same awareness and intent. (Think Mumford & Sons today!)

Now for the nitty-gritty, soul bearing part – my interpretation of the song.

Vincent (Starry Starry Night)

Starry starry night, paint your palette blue and grey
Look out on a summer’s day with eyes that know the darkness in my soul
Shadows on the hills, sketch the trees and the daffodils
Catch the breeze and the winter chills, in colors on the snowy linen land

McLean sets the hook here by introducing Van Gogh & his work. McLean let’s you know that Van Gogh has already ‘exposed his soul’…”with eyes that know the darkness of my soul”. The painting is a story full of wonder…the moon and stars filled with light, the swirling motion of the clouds, the spiritual aspect with the church steeple front and center. But yet there is that dark shadow that overpowers and obstructs this view of wonder. It reminds me of life itself. Yes wondrous, but full of contrast and mystery in the light and the dark, good & evil, and the dark shadow of our soul (sin) that obscures the light.

Now I understand what you tried to say to me
How you suffered for your sanity How you tried to set them free
They would not listen they did not know how, perhaps they’ll listen now

Notice how personally & directly McLean speaks – “Now I” and “to me”. And now today I can say the same for the artist McLean’s work. It speaks so directly to me in a very heart-felt way. To me, this verse really brings in the analogy to the life of Jesus. How he “suffered while trying to set them free”. The people of his day did not understand, but maybe people will listen now. Just as the writer (McLean) has come to ‘now understand’ what Van Gogh was saying, we now have the possibility of understanding what Jesus tried to say. There is still hope.

Starry starry night, flaming flowers that brightly blaze
Swirling clouds in violet haze reflect in Vincent’s eyes of china blue
Colors changing hue, morning fields of amber grain
Weathered faces lined in pain are soothed beneath the artist’s loving hand

The artist has seen and understands life firsthand. Through his eyes we are able to see the suffering of others (weathered faces lined in pain). Yet, he can help (are soothed beneath the artist’s loving hand). Again, here are more commonalities to Jesus – perhaps the ‘artist’ of the universe.

For they could not love you, but still your love was true
And when no hope was left in sight, on that starry starry night
You took your life as lovers often do,
But I could have told you, Vincent,
This world was never meant for one as beautiful as you

The analogy to Christ continues. When his love was rejected, he took/gave his own life. Perhaps McLean understands that a love so beautiful cannot co-exist in a world of darkness. To me, this represents the contrast of the perfect one offering true love within an imperfect world. It would be quite easy for me to insert a reference to John 3:16 here. And of course the chorus is the meat of the song, repeated for added effect.
Starry, starry night, portraits hung in empty halls
Frameless heads on nameless walls with eyes that watch the world and can’t forget.
Like the stranger that you’ve met, the ragged man in ragged clothes
The silver thorn of bloody rose, lie crushed and broken on the virgin snow

For me, this verse for some reason conjures up the imagery of old stone church buildings (like the cathedrals in Europe) now mostly empty, but with their paintings/images of the saints lining the walls, almost like museums. Their eyes “watch the world and can’t forget” to give us a historical link to those who have gone before. “The ragged men in ragged clothes” remind me of the homeless or all whose lives are ‘rough and damaged’. The contrast of the bloody rose on the virgin snow takes my thoughts to the biblical “though your sins are as scarlet they shall be washed white as snow” concept of redemption.

Now I think I know what you tried to say to me
How you suffered for your sanity How you tried to set them free
They would not listen they’re not listening still
Perhaps they never will.

McLean repeats a previous verse but adds a zinger in the closing…”They would not listen, they’re not listening still, perhaps they never will.” I think this just captures the reality of life. No matter how loving, how talented, how much you may have served others, how much you bare your soul – others may never really understand or accept you. In fact, they may totally reject you and your message. This choice in the spiritual realm represents the ‘free will’ concept of belief. Each person is empowered to accept, reject, or believe as they choose. As we each are ‘spiritual artists’ in our own unique ways, all we can do is to paint and expose the truth as we see it. It is totally up to the observer of the art to accept or reject what they see. Like an artist, God does not force His work on anyone. His “art” may lie dormant for a generation (much like Van Gogh’s) before being ‘discovered’ as something quite remarkable and valued.

So, to wrap this up with my own thought – “Vincent” is a masterful work of art in a second generational sense as McLean wisely builds upon the shoulders of Van Gogh. In a very small way, I hope my writing adds now a third generational aspect for you as well. Please excuse me for piggy-backing on Van Gogh and Don McLean to reveal more about myself to you. I have painted my story with amateur but sincere brushstrokes. It will be up to you to ‘listen’ and interpret as you choose. And like I said at the beginning, what I said about Vincent probably says more about me than Vincent. And that’s OK…especially if at some point in your life you can say “Now I understand what you tried to say to me”.

Footnote:  I originally wrote this in personal form as a ‘letter’ to my children in 2009 in hopes that someday they will also “understand what I’ve tried to say”. 

As I post this, today’s date is March 30th – the birthday of Vincent Van Gogh!



American Presidential Politics (and the Tokyo Train System)

Are you like me…totally frustrated and perplexed by the U.S. presidential race this year? Faced with two choices between highly questionable candidates, I have tried my best to come up with an acceptable path forward with my vote. After searching my mental database of all my past experiences that could advise me on the matter, I have concluded that (believe it or not) this year’s race bears much similarity to the Tokyo Train System.


Looking at the included train map, the first thing you may notice is that it is complicated! So complicated, in fact, that upon my arrival years ago in Japan my employer required me to take a “train class”. Little did I realize at the time that the class would prove to be a lifesaver over my next eight years in Tokyo!

One thing I have observed in recent years is that our American political process is a lot like a train headed down the tracks. Our unique check-and-balance feature created by our Executive, Legislative, and Judicial Branches keeps our government running along established tracks year after year. No branch, person, or party has complete control. Our two major political parties (Republican and Democratic) are like trains that run on their established routes. Their big difference is that they generally run in opposite directions. The engineers ‘driving’ the train have little control over the route of the train…the train’s direction and route is already established. Never during my eight years in Tokyo did I ask, “Who’s driving this train?” I trusted each train to go in the direction of its rails.

Just as the Republican and Democratic parties often have similar multiple candidates running in the primaries, the Tokyo train system has multiple lines that run in the same general direction operated with different engineers. That certainly adds complexity to the map. But to get to where you eventually want to go, taking any of those ‘party line trains’ will move you in the right direction. From my early experience riding the Tokyo trains, I learned that getting on the wrong train was a mistake relatively easy to correct, as long as it was moving in the general direction I wanted to go. Similarly, in this year’s presidential race I saw multiple candidates that could have taken me in the direction I wanted to go. But now, that once complicated train map has been reduced to two lines running in opposite directions…Republican and Democratic (discounting the role of any realistic third party possibility).

My own worst mistake in riding the Tokyo trains was once to hastily hop on a train while standing on the wrong platform! The unnerving result was that I traveled miles in the totally opposite direction I wanted to go, taking me far away from my desired destination.

From that simple personal lesson, I get my perspective on this year’s presidential race. Contrary to the media message, the engineer sitting in the front of the train is not the gravest of our concerns. Instead, I am much more concerned about the DIRECTION of the train I am about to board. To ensure I get on the train headed in the direction I want to go, I must first make sure I am standing on the platform where the departing train is moving in the direction I want to go. If I happen to board the wrong ‘political train’, then four years from now I will find myself ‘miles’ from the place where I really want to be. And to correct that mistake, I would have to make my way back to the right platform, wait for another train going in the right direction, and then travel twice as far to get back to my original desired destination.

So, here is my new perspective: All this American political hoopla about picking the best ‘engineer’ to ride in front of the train is of little importance in the big scheme of things. But boarding the train from the right platform is much more critical to get me (and my country) closer to the desired destination.

What’s my take-away from all this? I need to make my decision wisely after studying the political train map in light of where I want this country to go. At the voting booth I will “board the train from the platform” that will take me in the direction I want to go (and the direction I want this country to go)! I hope you will do the same. Do your part and trust our American political process to work.

A caveat…this political analogy only works for trains! J If either of our two major presidential candidates were piloting an airplane that I wanted to board, there is no way I would take even one step down that jet-way!  The plane analogy would better fit a dictatorship form of government. Fortunately the U.S. is NOT a dictatorship where its ‘pilot’ would have complete control and could easily run this country into the ground at any whim.

What You’ll Find Under This Flag


What will you find where this flag flies?    The simple answer is – FREEDOM.

Unless you have spent significant time in any country that does not enjoy the extent of our freedoms, you will likely never fully appreciate our flag’s symbolism. Enjoy your freedom this and future July 4th Independence Days, and never take it for granted.

This flag flying in the midst of a July 2003 dust storm at Camp Speicher, Iraq was an unlikely sight for our convoy traveling from Baghdad to Mosul. But for us, it was a welcome reminder that we could find freedom, security, safety, and help within the camp’s borders as we stopped to get a vehicle repaired.

Just as that small American Flag in a tiny desert outpost represented safety and refuge to the few in our convoy, I can just imagine what it now means for those around the world fleeing violence and desperately seeking its refuge.

Although the concertina wire is unsightly, it serves as a stark reminder to me that freedom must be protected from those who oppose it, much like our own nation’s borders.  At the same time, gates are included to allow for reasonable access.

The lesson I took away for myself was to cherish my “Independence Days”.  And as a reminder, those days can be both national and personal.

A favorite quote:   “What is living if I can’t live free? What is freedom if I can’t be me?” – Bonnie Raitt

Memorial Day – A Life Cut Short

Today I visited the grave of a young soldier killed in Iraq, buried in Northern Wisconsin. This trip was somewhat of an act of closure for me. I did not know the young soldier (Paul), nor did I know any of his family members, or any of the soldiers in his unit. In fact, I only learned his identity a few years ago. But this trip was still meaningful for me.

Cemetery Wide

Paul’s tombstone was one of thousands that dotted the Northern Wisconsin’s Veterans Memorial Cemetery. It sits in the newer section and looks very much like the rest of the tombstones. If you look at the picture of the tombstone, you will learn a bit of information about Paul (I’ll not use his full name here.) He was an Army Specialist who served in Iraq. He died young, just eight days past his twenty-first birthday. He had received the Bronze Star and been awarded the Army Commendation Medal and the Army Achievement Medal. And…he was “loved by his family”.

Tombstone cropped

When I look at his birth date (Sep 14, 1982), I realize I was already thirty years-old then, but I can recall exactly where I was on that date. I had just started a four-year assignment in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia – nineteen days before he was born. I imagine neither of us never expected to end up in the middle-eastern deserts of Saudi or Iraq.

But it’s the date of his death that brought our random paths together, and brought me to his grave site today. On Sep 22, 2003 we both flew out of Mosul, Iraq in the back of a C-130 aircraft headed for Kuwait. We were both headed home, but it was Paul’s final journey. I sat along the side of the rear cargo bay as Paul’s body-bag was placed gently into the back of the C-130. It was dark except for a small red light in the back of the plane’s bay. Not a word was spoken by me or the other few on the flight. A quiet reverence filled the entire flight.  That time has seemed forever sacred to me. The flight was long, and it provided me a serious and somber time to reflect on my own few months in Iraq. What if…What if…What if?

At that time, I had no idea who the young soldier was that had been killed that day in Mosul. Male or female?…Someone I knew?…Someone who had provided security for my civilian team? Who? The ‘not knowing’ haunted me. It was years before I learned of Paul’s identity and that he had been killed by an accidental discharge of a fellow soldier’s weapon that day. The cause of death made little difference…Paul was still dead.

So, what’s my take-away thought today? Paul died young. Young…just like the overwhelming majority of men and women who have died in all our wars. I think that is what makes the death of our soldiers so tragic for the families. Lives were cut short, denied their full potential. Time has now marched on for Paul’s family without him in their lives for sixteen years.

I was reminded of just how young our soldiers are when last summer I had the opportunity to talk with two Vietnam vets from my small Alabama hometown. One had served in the Army in Vietnam just out of high school, only nineteen years old. The other (with the Navy) commanded a small river patrol boat in Vietnam at the age of 20, and was responsible for the lives of his three crew members. I also recalled that my uncle was only 22 when he was killed in Okinawa in 1945. By contrast, at the age of 19, 20 and 22, I was enrolled in college and safely preparing for my career and future.

As a closing thought, it is obvious to me that we should never forget these soldiers who sacrificed and who never returned. Nor should we forget their families who must endure the pain and separation of a life cut short. Likewise, we should honor those who served and did return…for their lives were forever changed and cut short in their own way.

Please remember them all this Memorial Day.

Jim Peak

Fear vs Love (and Terrorism)

Fear vs Love

“Of course I was afraid, but not living is worse than dying.” Did I really hear myself just say that? That was not like me at all. Without thinking, those words just rolled off of my lips. That was my off-the-cuff response when a friend asked me upon my return from Iraq, “Weren’t you afraid something bad would happen to you?”

It took me quite a while to sort out my true feelings that lay behind that response. By using the phrase “not living”, I meant letting fear prevent me from living the positive life possible for me. If I kept letting my fear prevent me from doing what I wanted to accomplish, I would essentially give my life over to my fear – “dying” one day at a time doing something I did not really want to do. We are all going to die. Choosing to not live any day because of fear is like dying for that day.

I find myself from time to time asking the critical question…”Am I still living, or just marking time?” I think a lot about that question and the root motivators that drive each of us to act. Much has been written about the two primary emotions that drive humans: Love and Fear. All other emotions seem to be sub-categories of these two.

Love-based actions carry positive connotations such as life, truth, trust, joy, goodness, and service. Fear-based actions are better associated with negative words such as death, lies, suspicion, sadness, evil, and selfishness.

Many religions address the love-hate dichotomy, especially Christianity through statements like these: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear”, “For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control”, “We love because He first loved us” and many more.

As you read this, there is likely recent news of another shocking and violent attack…we choose to label it terror. The media puts it front-and-center into our consciousness through their twenty-four-hour news coverage. Where does the terrorist fit into the love-hate equation? What is the motivation and goal of a terrorist?  The goal of the terrorist is to instill fear into the multitude through heinous violet acts to a few. As a proponent of fear, the terrorist strives to herd a panicked society over the cliff of fear. If we succumb to the fear and panic, we ourselves unintentionally propagate fear. Our actions then are driven less by love or caring and more by the fear motivators such as hate, prejudice, and anger.

I would argue that America was founded upon and prospered through the love/caring motivation, and not through fear. Our self-declared link to the principles of liberty and freedom for all is the fruit of love, not fear.  We should all be able to choose because we want to…not because we have to. Isn’t that what freedom is all about?

My hope is that my fellow American citizens will not be so gullible to take the terrorist’s bait in his attempt to push our society into a state of fear.   Allowing ourselves to be controlled by fear only breeds additional fear-based actions. These actions can appear as good intentions, but they are rooted in fear. Actions born out of fear reflect a temporary desperation instead of sustained and lasting goodness.

The opposition of some in our nation to receiving Syrian refugees, now fleeing obvious danger, is a clear example of fear-based thinking. Without the terrorist’s fear-induced spell, I think our response would be much different. At our best, we are a caring nation. We would be prone to reach out and help others in such a dire state of need as the Syrians.  Are we now choosing to let the terrorist control our rational caring thoughts? Look at how the terrorist has transformed our thoughts into stereotyped rejection of the needy thousands, for fear of the unknown dozens? We have moved away from the love-based caring for humanity and toward the slippery slope of hate, prejudice, and mistrust. My question: Have we allowed the terrorist to win?

For the segment of our society who calls ourselves Christians, I see this as an especially shocking and disappointing surrender to the dark side when compared to examples from the Bible. In Jesus’ classic story, the Good Samaritan acted out of concern and did not hesitate to stop and help the stranger that had been beaten and robbed by ‘terrorists’ (even though his own life was likely in danger)! Jesus also chastised those who would not receive strangers, saying “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me…”

Using the word “terrorist” today to describe a premeditated killer of innocents gives him more power over us than he deserves. Let’s take that power away from him and call him simply what he is…a murderer – A murderer to be held accountable for his actions. In a civil society such as ours, we have laws, law enforcement officers, and armies to deal with those who commit such atrocities.

Every day we face a choice. Do we want to live a life rooted in the light of love and freedom or cower under the darkness of fear and bondage?

I still say, “Not living is worse than dying”!

Join me in living today, tomorrow, and the next. Let’s not give up our freedom of life choices!



John Kennedy, Liberty, and Iraq

A quote of President John F Kennedy near his grave at Arlington National Cemetery.

A quote of President John F Kennedy near his grave at Arlington National Cemetery.

“Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”   John F. Kennedy

I went to Iraq in the summer of 2003 with those words in my back pocket…literally.  Immediately prior to my departure to Iraq, a good friend, mentor, and Army Chaplain gave me his business card with those words printed on the back.  That card remained with me throughout my days in Baghdad, Mosul, Irbil, Dahuk, Kirkuk, and Sulaymaniyah.  Those words gave me purpose and motivation as I sought to contribute in my own very small way to give liberty a foothold for the people of Iraq after their years of suppression under Saddam Hussein.

Kennedy uttered his bold words in support of liberty in the same address as his “Ask not…” challenge in 1961.  Setting political leanings aside, most would agree that Kennedy’s speech was one of the most inspiring presidential inaugural addresses ever given.  That address ignited a generation and got us started on our way to the moon.

Today we are left to wonder if those were just hallow words, or can they still reflect America’s resolve in the support of liberty.  The commitment to “oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty” has never been an easy task.   Yet we met the challenge in Germany, Japan, and South Korea.  In each of those situations, we committed to a long-term presence to permit the new flame of liberty to grow, mature, and develop that could withstand perpetual threats of outside elements.  Leadership of high resolve and profound human sacrifice underlies each success.  And the citizens of each of those three countries enjoy the fruits of liberty to this very day.

But today I am left utterly disappointed with the state of Iraq.  America clearly failed to carry through with our promise to “assure the survival and the success of liberty” for the people of Iraq.  By ‘walking away’ from Iraq we allowed their flickering flame of liberty to become a raging uncontrolled wildfire fanned by violent outside winds that now destroys everything in its path.  We were Iraq’s firemen until they could develop their own capability.  Iraq didn’t stand a chance after we pulled out.  Our ‘firemen’ did everything asked of them while there.  Pulling them off the job resulted in a disaster it seems anyone could have anticipated.  The real failure was a failure of leadership and resolve to stand behind our national promise.   And while Iraq ‘burns’, the world’s trust of America burns in the ashes alongside it.

And we are left to ask…Now what?  Perhaps Kennedy also provided the answer in the same speech:

“In your hands, my fellow citizens, more than mine, will rest the final success or failure of our course. Since this country was founded, each generation of Americans has been summoned to give testimony to its national loyalty.”

Freedom Inspired by the “Free State of Winston”

This blog at its core is influenced by one of the strongest human desires…the quest for freedom.  The freedom simply to choose, to do, and to say what you think is right.  I admit I have been influenced by my upbringing, as I grew up in a rural county commonly referred to as “The Free State of Winston“.

This was an Alabama county whose citizens at the start of the Civil War desired to remain neutral and wanted the freedom for each to choose.  Since that time, people from the county have always been viewed as a bit different from their southern neighbors.  Harper Lee even comments on Winston County in “To Kill a Mockingbird”, speaking of Scout’s school teacher from Winston County:  “Miss Caroline printed her name on the blackboard and said, “This says I am Miss Caroline Fisher. I am from North Alabama, from Winston County.” The class murmured apprehensively, should she prove to harbor her share of the peculiarities indigenous to that region. (When Alabama seceded from the Union on January 11, 1861, Winston County seceded from Alabama, and every child in Maycomb County knew it.) North Alabama was full of Liquor Interests, Big Mules, steel companies, Republicans, professors, and other persons of no background.”

Maycomb County was a fictitious county in south Alabama but Winston County in north Alabama was real and we all knew exactly what Harper Lee meant.  The county’s unique legacy still lives within it’s sons and daughters and inspires me to choose freedom, even if that means being different.

The Free State Barn

The Free State Barn