Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Anticipating the Kingdom

Tikrit Stadium #1



An e-mail to Jim Forest while I was in Iraq regarding something posted on the Orthodox Peace Fellowship (OPF) listserve in regards to a lady’s comments about the slow seep of Orthodox views on peace into our modern American mentalities.  The picture was taken at a bombed out track and field stadium on our base in Tikrit.  I was able to get such a clear low light shot by using my rifle as a monopod, ie, putting the barrel in the ground and resting my camera on the flat butt.

***

5 December 2006

Jim,

I really appreciated the lady from Alaska's posting on the OPF about our (converts in America) unfolding understanding of issues pertaining to peace and peace-making in the Orthodox Faith. It is something that has grown inside of me since that moment 10 years ago when I heard my priest explain to someone at an OCF retreat the Orthodox practice of requiring confession of a soldier who had killed in battle and prohibition from Communion for a time. It shocked me by just how much good sense it made and that it was not just a gloss over of "well, you did it in self-defense or for your country so it's alright" or even worse, "what you did was brave and commendable."

My commitment to the Army was made in these early stages of becoming Orthodox and I can't help but think I would have made a very different decision if only a few years later. As it is I gave my word to serve in the Army for a prescribed period of time and I plan to honor that. If I were required to "fight" or act in any way contrary to my calling as a physician and Orthodox Christian it would be a different story. So now I find myself away from my family and part of this war that I opposed from day one, when our President was first testing the waters and trying on different justifications to put us on the road to war in Iraq.

Something that really eats at me is the requirement that I carry a weapon around with me everywhere I go. Like in Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" it is an albatross hanging around my neck continually reminding me of where I am and the decisions I've made to bring me here. One way I deal with it is by thinking of it as something other than a weapon. For example, I injured my knee before deploying and it has given me trouble so that I use my rifle to get up and down from my chair at the chow hall, like a crutch. I also sometimes have to navigate across a large graveled lot with various barriers and vehicles in almost pitch black darkness. I swing my rifle back and forth in front of me like a blind man's cane to keep from running into things. In this way I have tried to turn something as ludicrous as a doctor carrying an M16 into something helpful, if not equally absurd.

I distilled all of this into a poem, "Anticipating the Kingdom?"

And in the Kingdom of God
They shall beat their swords into plowshares
And the lion shall lay down with the lamb

But in the kingdom of Man
Munitions plow the earth violently
And the eagle strikes down the weak.

In the kingdom of me
A rifle functions as a crutch for my sore knee
And a blind man’s cane when walking at night

In doing no harm
Am I at least
Anticipating the Kingdom?

Saturday, January 03, 2015

The Free Throw

And so it begins... Go Hoosiers!


***
It was a thing of beauty

my ten year old
at the foul line

two sharp dribbles
and a pause
right arm perpendicular
to the ground
left hand resting lightly
on the side of the ball
a fluid movement
from crouch
to full extension
a flick of the wrist
ball rotating backwards
in an exquisite arc
nestling into the net
like a baby
in its mother's arms

***

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Green Mosque

The Green Mosque illustrated

It's been eight years since my deployment to Iraq and I've been revisiting some of the "letters home" I sent at that time.  They are all quite melancholy and have an undercurrent of homesickness.  They, along with my photos, were a lifeline for me and a connection to the wider world.  The thought occurred to me that I should start posting some of them on my blog as a kind of historical record.

***

At the northern end of FOB Diamondback in Mosul where three roads intersect one can find "The Green Mosque".  It was the airport mosque here in Mosul prior to the Army taking control of this area and separating it from the rest of the city almost four years ago now.  It has not functioned as a mosque since that time.

It is a melancholy place.  The grounds are surrounded by a short wall with a spacious courtyard in front full of various kinds of trees, shrubs, and bushes that have grown out of control.  Lamp posts dot the area inside the walls, rusty, glassless, with light bulbs that lean at odd angles and no longer function.  The only visitors these days are the birds that like to perch on its ledges and in the trees.

I imagine one day when we are gone it will once again become a place of worship.  But for now it sits isolated inside its walls with paint peeling and the greenery growing unchecked.  I think it will be better when we are not here.  This is not our home.

February 14th, 2007

***












Monday, December 08, 2014

Masterpiece

image


My love for art began as a kid in a small Midwestern town.  It was the 1970's when there was no such thing as an internet opening a window on the wider world.   Experiences followed a narrow groove worn smooth by a bicycle tire and a boy's imagination.  Museums were far away in big cities that we never visited and the best we could muster on our walls were Home Interior pieces of plastic and colored glass bought at house parties.

The library was a potential stepping off point for this kind of exploration, but it was a bifurcated building with the kid's section flowing to the left and the adult section flowing to the right.  The librarian's desk sat midstream as a kind of command and control center and resembled a judge's bench.  I remember on at least one occasion wandering over to the right side and having the librarian suddenly materialize beside me, asking what I was looking for.  There was something in the way she asked that insinuated that I might be doing something wrong and should skitter back over to the kid's section if I knew what was good for me.  My exposure to great art was not going to come from that direction, though we did have a set of Childcraft books at home that had some illustrations that tickled my fancy.

***

The beachhead to this unexplored world of fine art came in the form of a board game, "Masterpiece."  My parents would have friends over to our house from church to play games around the dining room table in the evening hours.  My first memory of Masterpiece was when I was six or seven and the adults were playing it while the kids played elsewhere.  I can clearly see myself standing next to my Dad's chair and watching them play with a peculiar energy.  I loved to see them so animated and hear their laughter.  I picked up some of the painting reproductions my Dad had acquired and looked at the value cards clipped to the back which told you how much the painting was worth and was known only to the person who owned it.  The strategy is to cash in the most expensive ones when the opportunity arises and try to auction off the cheaper ones at prices that exceed their value.  One of the value cards wasn't a number, but a word that I did not know, *forgery*.  "Hey Dad, what is a for-gary?" I asked, and everyone burst out laughing as my Dad snatched the painting back from me.

A few years later I was able to play the game with the neighborhood kids at the dining room table in the light of day, either on a lazy summer afternoon or a bleak winter weekend.  I learned the artists' names and their distinctive styles by playing this game.  By the time I reached High School I had stopped playing it for the most part, but I purchased my first oil painting from an artist from the Smoky Mountains at our local festival when I was a freshman.  It was an exhilarating idea that was made possible when the artist recognized my interest in a particular framed canvas and offered to let me pay him bit by bit on the honor system.  I made a passionate plea to my Mom to let me do it and convinced her that a fifteen year old could and should acquire a largish framed oil painting.  I gave him twenty dollars cash for a negotiated price of two hundred and fifty dollars and floated home with it on a cloud of wondrous disbelief.  I faithfully mailed him a twenty dollar bill every few months over a two year period until it was paid off.

***

Over the years I've had opportunities to visit some of the great art museums of the world in cities like London, Paris, Amsterdam, Moscow, St. Petersburg, Mexico City, Seoul, New York, Washington DC, and San Francisco.  I was able to see many of those paintings I'd loved as a kid, firsthand in all of their full-sized glory.  And beyond that I found new favorites; the elongated form of John the Baptist wrapped in a blue sky by El Greco in the Pushkin Museum of Moscow, the terrible melancholy of "Wheatfield with Crows" thought to be Vincent's last painting at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, the massive canvas of Ilya Repin's "Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks" from the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg, and Frida Kahlo's surreal self portraits in Mexico City.  Now, at forty five years of age, my prized possession is an oil painting lovingly dappled with brilliant colors of a scene at Winslow Farms in Fairmount, Indiana by Kevin McCarty, a dearly departed friend and my godson in the Orthodox Faith.  I first laid eyes on it at the Indiana State Museum as part of the 2000 Hoosier Salon and now it hangs over my fireplace in a place of honor and remembrance.

***

The impetus for this reflection on my love of art over the years came from an unexpected find a year ago and then a rediscovery this past weekend.  One year ago I was with my son at a local Catholic Church festival and while he ran off with his friends to play the games, I wondered into a tent full of garage sale items to putter around.  My gaze wandered over an old board game that turned out to be the original edition of Masterpiece.  I didn't recognize it at first because it was the 1970 edition and my parents had the 1976 edition with a different box cover.  When I realized what lay before me I could hardly contain myself.  I snatched it up and went through its contents with a huge grin on my face, finding it mostly intact.  I paid the preposterously low price of two dollars and carried it around the festival under my arm, protecting it like it was a newborn baby (an internet search from yesterday revealed that it is selling for 100+ dollars these days).

It has sat on a basement shelf with other games since that time, untouched until just a few days ago when it piqued my son's curiosity.  We pulled it out and I explained the rules to him as well as shared some stories of playing it with friends when I was his age.  The next day he got his Mom and Sister to join us in playing it.  As the game progressed, old friends found their way to the top of the stack to include the one that intrigued me the most as a kid, Grant Wood's "American Gothic."  Elias mentioned that he wanted to show it to his neighborhood friends and I had the queer feeling that time was somehow resetting itself.

image
Master Dice Roller

image
1970 Edition

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Circus in the Sky

Morning Commute

***
The sky was immense,
a massive canvas
unfurled across my windshield
on my morning commute.
It was nearly impossible
to concentrate on
the broken line of cars
flitting in the darkened
lower margins of this
magnificent spectacle.
I felt like a circus spectator,
plopped in a bleacher
for the greatest show on earth.
Wisps of a burning tiger
leaping over a blood red sun
sitting heavy on the horizon.
My exit arrived and the scene
scrolled off the screen
as my car headed
in a different direction.
***

Saturday, November 15, 2014

You are a Person

image

***

You are not an individual,
rugged or otherwise.
You are a person
connected to people,
living or dead,
it does not matter.
Love is everywhere
and fills all things.
Of this, and only this
can you be certain.
Set it as a judge
over your thoughts
and actions.  Do they
pass the test of love?

***

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Empty Shelves

Empty Shelves

***
The shelves of his mind
had been emptied of memories
and no amount of rummaging
could change that.
All that was left
was the action itself,
pacing those empty rows,
rubbing his hands
over the dust that was left.
He heard voices,
warm tones meant to reassure him.
"Remember me?  It's so and so,"
cruel in their strange familiarity.
Where is this place?
Who are these people?
The shelves lie bare,
leaving him scared and alone.
***