Monday, November 4, 2019

Heartstrings and Heartache: 
The Meaning of  "Dismayed"

Two weeks ago, we had a wonderful 40th Anniversary Banquet. In preparation for some brief remarks about our theme verse: I Chronicles 28:20,  I was thinking about the phrase “ not be afraid neither be dismayed...”, and I wondered what the difference between those two words was. We sometimes fear things that we know to fear and we can  also fear "the unknown," but what does it mean to be "dismayed"? 

looked it up, and while being dismayed is similar to being afraid, it happens when we're caught off guard and at are a loss for what to do.  One cannot be dismayed in advance. Whatever it is that dismays us, we never see it coming.  Life is like that sometimes. "Sometimes a plank in the bridge gives way... and we who tread are frozen fast with fear."  I chose not to include these thoughts about "dismayed" in my remarks at the banquet, but they came back to me a few days later... and 
I needed them

On Monday afternoon, our family received some news of a serious nature from my second daughter who is mid-term in her second pregnancy. (It's a boy. Due in March. We had the "reveal" party just three weeks ago.) I will not go into details, but the discovery came during a routine doctor's visit when she was alone. That made it much harder. The doctor called for an immediate follow up visit two days later with father and mother and doctors and surgeons and counselors. Those difficult sessions would come on Wednesday.

At my Tuesday morning teachers, the morning after we learned the news, I was not yet at liberty to tell any of this to our teachers. I chose to share my unused thoughts about the "dismayed" from our theme verse. I knew if I explained why, I might break. It has happened before, and everyone understands, but I could not yet be that transparent. As I looked across the chapel, eyes met with each teacher as I spoke, I thought back over the many years I have spent with with this group since 2000, and I recalled the many times when we have collectively and individually been dismayed by unexpected trials to difficult to talk about in real time. I paused, took a breath, and moved on to the second part of the verse: "...neither be dismayed, for the LORD God, even my God is with you. He will not leave you or forsake you..." And on that positive note, we each began our days at Calvary.

But later that afternoon, in the quiet of my office, I inadvertently slipped back into "dismayed mode." I wrote a note to a prayer partner that ended with: "There is a lot of information for them [my daughter and her husband] to process. One of the options the doctors presented is not option for them at all (and yet by law it must be presented). Yet even from a firmly "pro-life" position, the strain between facts and faith is deep--the tension between the mind and heartstrings takes time to tune." The next morning the word-picture about heartstrings crystallized into these lines.


Sometimes the tension
between the heart
and the head…
strains beyond
what string can bear.
The tie that binds
is stretched like gut
across the frets—
too tight to tune
the anguished cry
of twisted  time.
But just when it seems
the strand will snap,
there comes a turn
that trues the tone
into a steady note
played soft and low
by the gentle stroke
of God’s almighty hand.
© Tom Kapanka 

I should clarify that the original draft written the day before the Wednesday visit ended with "...The gut is drawn / outstretched on frets / and fear the strand / will break / before a single note / is played."  Before the second consultation, the doctors provided little hope, but on Wednesday, once the non-option was again presented by counselors and again taken off the table by the parents, the focus turned to a plan of action--a difficult plan to be sure--but one that has been successfully done upon birth. It gave them and all the family reason to hope and brought specificity to our prayers. Mostly this news has provided more frequent moments of peace as God works His will in this situation.

Note: There are 19 lines in this piece, and the first 13 show the stress that comes when we are dismayed. Words like "tension," "strains," "bear," "binds," "stretched," "gut," "fret," "twisted," and "snap" depict the human anguish that results from ignoring the rest of the verse: for the LORD God, even my God is with you. He will not leave you or forsake you..." Gut (our deepest sense of being) refers to both the visceral feeling we experience during stress but also the fact that for thousands of years stringed instruments were made from animal intestines. (It's still true today.)

Likewise, the word "fret" has two very different meanings. First it means debilitating worry ("Don't fret about it"), but it is also a part on some stringed instruments ( especially guitars ) that bring certainty to the pitch and tone of a note. Only in the last six lines comes a "turn" of trust... toward faith (like the turn of tuning peg on a guitar) that changes the meaningless screech of stress and the "fret" of worry to the clear tone of certainty that comes when we stop fretting and become instruments in God's hands. It's true that strings must be drawn tight to create a clear tone, but the difference between heartache and harmony comes in knowing we are never forsaken.

It may seem strange that I would write during such a time. We all cope in different ways. I write mostly to myself as the header of this blog suggests.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Taken As A Child

I first wrote a post on this topic in 2008 at a blog called Patterns of Ink (click link),

It's no secret that I tend to be a bit nostalgic--especially when it rains, and it's been a volley of drizzle and downpour all day.

I had an unusual request this morning.

There is a "bug" going around our halls, and each day we are seeing a few absences. Until today, it has not taken a teacher, but this morning our secretary told me our music teacher was home with the bug and asked me if I could think of a worthwhile "educational video" to show to three music classes. We don't typically like to "fill" with "filler" when "filling in," but with an active class like vocal music, it is sometimes the best option--especially when a great title comes to mind that is just the right length. So I searched on line and was happy to find what I was looking for here: The Red Balloon.

I was first taken as a child by this short film in 1962. It was a first at many levels: I was in first grade; it was my first "school-wide assembly" at Huron Park Grammar School in Roseville, Michigan; it was my first glimpse of Paris; it was the first time I identified so thoroughly with an on-screen character. It was in that sense that I was taken by the film.

As we made arrangements to show the film in the chapel to our vocal music classes (upper elementary, middle school, and yes, even high school), I had to wonder: would this simple film still hold an audience fifty-five years after I first enjoyed it? A lot has happened in those fifty-five years: a president was assassinatedcolor TV came; the internet engulfed us;the Cold War thawed; Y2K came and went, 9-11 broke our hearts, "smart phones" stole our minds, and flat TVs hang on our walls like a picture of Aunt Millie.... after so much change, could a foreign film about a boy and a balloon still capture the imagination of 21st Century kids?

The answer is yes. It did, and it made me smile to watch it happen through the chapel window.

Was it every student's favorite movie ever? Probably not. But I peeked in on each class and they were enjoying it at a quaint level not often observed nowadays. They were amused at the funny parts, and sad at the sad part, and impressed by the surprise ending when the little boy is taken as a child for the ride of his life.

The true test, I suppose, is whether or not any of the 100+ students who watched "The Red Balloon" today at Calvary Christian Schools will remember it in fifty-five years--in the year 2064--as I and many baby-boomers my age do.
One week after posting this, I saw this Mazda commercial during a Michigan football game. It is the first obvious hat-tip to this classic film that I have ever noticed in pop culture.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Nothing Better to Do: The Power of Dull Moments

From far away the strange sound came—
like the drone of distant dragonflies,
but we knew that couldn’t be.
Louder and nearer it grew
as three approaching bikes on the sidewalk  
flashed in the dappled shade of elms.

Slowly the riders came into view—
unknown boys with peddling feet
and blowing hair and happy smiles,
amazed at the speed of their “motor bikes”
powered not by pistons nor pumping legs, it seemed, 
but by the sound of something roaring in their wheels.

As the three bikes passed, we saw
the secret of that summer day
was a Jack and a Queen and an Ace of Spades
flapping ‘gainst their spinning spokes.
Just playing cards from some abandoned deck
fastened to the fender brace
with clothes pins from the line.
But what a wondrous sound!

What joy to know that bikes gained speed
when motorized with cards and clothes pins—
and better yet to know with certainty
that all around the block those first to try
this feat met not one mocking laugh
but rather awe from youthful eyes of admiration.

"We could do that!" We said amazed as if
it were the answer to the question of the day.

Soon the sound was everywhere
from other boys on other bikes
whose coming and going and jumping of curbs
would last for days and weeks on end
but not for years it seems,,,
for it has been a lifetime since 
I’ve heard that sound of cards on spokes...
And years, I fear, since youth have looked for fun
made not by Mattel...
and powered not by batteries...
but by the pent-up energy of dull moments
and the sweet imagination of a summer day…
with nothing better to do.

These lines are a first draft,  but I wanted to post them before I forgot the image and memory. They are triggered by two passing bikes of boys at a campground. They had empty water bottles wedged on the front fork and rubbing on the tire. It was quite a different sound than cards flapping against spikes, but it was a similar idea, and it made me laugh because I’d forgotten about the cards. I was happy to see kids being kids—but keep in mind: these were not random kids; they were children of parents who go camping. That alone gives them an edge and makes their childhood slightly more like mine.

Here is a clip of my grandson who, like me at his age, found the sound a great addition to an otherwise quiet ride at the campground.

The reference to Mattel is a hat tip to their battery-operated “Varoom” motor that mounted to the frame for kids whose parents had money and no imagination. Today’s children of course know nothing about “Varoom” motors (which at least encouraged riding the bike outside), but I used it as a metaphor for “screen-time” and all the other distractions that keep kids indoors with “something to do.”

Our bikes were not the “Stingray” style of the early 60s that forever changed the look of bikes. (It would be years before we could save the money for a Schwinn “Typhoon” and many more years before demand for 10-speeds outpaced supply.) No. Our early bikes were old hand-me-downs from the 1940s brought to life by cards and clothespins.

It may take a century to know what we've lost from childhood's past. "Screen-time?" Oh, we watched our share of TV in the 60s--it was from the TV screen we borrowed scripts for countless hours of outside swashbuckling play. Screen-time today, however, takes the place of play itself. It's in that sense that it may take a generation or two to assess the creativity, motor skills, and work ethic our culture has lost from having fewer kids with nothing better to do... nothing better but to think...and wonder....and create good wholesome fun from the resources within their reach.
See “The Virtue of Reality” at POI.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Thoughts of my Father on Father's Day 2019

Today is Father's Day, and we are in St. Joe, MO, taking care of Julie's father who is recovering from a set-back (at age 87, "set-back" is a broad term for any event that requires assisted living until strength is regained). We are happy to be here to help him. Julie's mother is a huge help with meals and meds and encouraging conversation, but she is unable to do the more physical aspects of the daily routines. Such is life when you're in your eighties.

I have been blessed to have two wonderful fathers. My own dad, and Julie's. They have both taught me wonderful things about life and living and the Lord.

There is a place where I write about these two men. It's a personal blog I started fifteen years ago called "Patterns of Ink" (the title is explained at the blog).  Finding these stories is not not like reading a book  because at a blog the chapters written last end up on the top of the heap, so you have to scroll down in the month or click back to earlier months to find the first chapter, and that's where the story begins.

Personal blogs are like old barns--a hodgepodge of old and new. You may find a mower still warm from work or something so rusted it has no practical use but the magic of holding a memory.  Naturally, there are far more stories at my Patterns of Ink about my own father than my father-in-law, but they are both remarkable men in their own right.

In this post, I will direct your attention to the man who built the barn in this video, and the man who left this earth too soon it seems to straiten out his barn for strangers to see.

The story behind the video is this: My father died just weeks before turning 67 in the year 1995, but my mother lived on at the old homestead until her passing in 2007. Then for several years, the five children (all grown with families of their own) waited and wondered what to do with the place we all called home. It's strange how five adults who all have homes of their own can call another place "home" without the slightest hint of incongruity. I suspect many readers here know exactly what I mean. Perhaps, you too have experienced that final letting go that comes years after letting go of those who made a farm, or a cottage, or some other plot of land feel more like home than anywhere else on earth. Then comes the dreaded decision to sell because, after all, life is lived in the present even when made meaningful by our past.

A few weeks before the estate sale, I went back to the old barn with a video camera to capture these images to use as backdrop to a poem I had written for Dad many years before. I used the instrumental song by Randy Newman called, "A Father Makes a Difference" in the back ground.

To some the barn may look a mess, but to me it is beautiful because so many things are just as my father had left them all those years before. The only thing missing was the tractor (which we sold to my Uncle Bob.) Toward the end of the short video, you'll see an aluminum canoe in the rough-hewn rafters. That canoe was presented to him at his retirement party many years before. If you look closely, you'll see that the video "double exposes" at that moment to show Dad building the barn way back in 1969. Of all the poems I've ever written and all the videos I've ever compiled, these are probably the most meaningful to me. To read one of the chapters and the story behind this barn Click here.