Introducing Cheryl Seely Savage: “We Have Time”

True or false: People talk about love all the time, but no one writes much about it. On one hand, it could be argued that love is all there is (apologies to various lyricists), with all art and life based on it. On the other, an entire volume of love poems has the look and feel of a rarity in our day. We welcome, therefore, “We Have Time” by Cheryl Seely Savage.

This volume is the poet’s third, following “Give Me a Fragment: Glimpses Into Motherhood, Depression, and Hope” and “Carve a Place for Me.” Praise for those volumes has been high: commenters admire Savage’s love of words, her ability to connect, and her use of the common to show a universality of feeling. Melissa Dalton-Bradford notes that she “achieves that delicate balance between uplift and density.”

Diversity is a good word to describe the poems in “We Have Time.” Some are just a few lines long. In “Longing,” we have “If I could kiss you/ All my gathered questions would/ Answer to your touch.”

Six full pages are needed for the explanation of a trip to Jane Austen’s home in “Pilgrimage: A Narrative.” This is not a prose poem, however, works better than a travelogue because of the rich language and depth of mood. Savage describes not only her feelings but also the history of England, not just as a journey but also as an homage to Austen. Savage clearly loves Austen (“Love Like Austen, “too), but her reasons reflect a density difficult to summarize.

Two elements are notable in her regard for Austen. First, time plays a crucial role both as a limiting factor and as a gift. In high anticipation, Savage reports arriving at the village of Chawton only 30 minutes before the museum was to close. Yet, “Museum workers gave us 45 minutes,” she writes. Memory couples with time. Her husband (unnamed here) takes a bit of mud from the garden and swipes it on the title page of Northanger Abbey: “Grinning at my surprise: ‘You now have a part of her.’” A symbolic action, but a beautiful testament to the influence of a brilliant writer on a modern heart.

One common complaint about modern poetry is that it can be abstruse (difficult to understand). An object lesson there—sometimes writers choose unfamiliar words to reflect everyday reactions. There’s no reason to. “Omphaloskepsis” just means “navel gazing,” after all. Savage avoids this pitfall. “Holding Hands” begins simply: “Some say love begins with a smile.” She then recounts a night of dancing and stars, with a concluding “My hand never leaving yours”. That image captures a moment universal in its appeal and, importantly, immediately accessible.

Finally, a few words about the title “We Have Time.” Often, we ask, “Do we have time for a quick trip to the store?” or “Do you have time to start dinner?” By making a short declaration, Savage captures something almost indefinable in love relationships—the play between time and eternity. We are reminded with every loss that we don’t know the time we have. In our faith, we know that eternity is to be our inheritance. Applying these two concepts to our love lives, Savage finds a side of humanity to explore on many levels. A love that is sure, that is deep and abiding—that is indeed the love for which we have time and will, perhaps literally, make time.

So, “We Have Time” is recommended! Available on Amazon…

On “Trees”

This is MoPoWriMo (Mormon Poem Writing Month), organized by a well-known LDS poet and supported by 132 writers, some of whom do write a poem a day in February and some who don’t. The writing is excellent, mostly by those who are not me.

Late last evening, I asked the second oldest of the Taylor Demolition and Wake-up Service for help. Just a word can spark an idea. A spark can spark an idea. Anyway, of all the words he could have chosen, he offered one within 3 seconds, with a bit of a smile, that I did in fact write about, though it was quite the humbling experience. The oldest of the Service (without immediate benefit of the original poem) allowed that my effort was, and I quote, amazing.

The CEO had already gone to sleep, or I might have had another prompt. To catch up on him, a brief exchange: If I don’t hear the toilet flush, I’ll remind him with a “flush the toilet.” Recently, he said, “I always do, Grandma, thanks to your persistent reminding.” Another of them said something virtually identical about handwashing, but it didn’t seem so final.

A poem doesn’t have links, but blogs do. Needed, I think, for clarity. In addition, per a response to my poem, someone said he’d never read it though he knew the famous couplet. I’m expecting knowing it for so long means that I read it a very long time ago.


On “Trees”


“Give me a word prompt for a poem,”

I ask the precocious teen.


I sigh. He’s being funny.

“Oh no,” says I. “There is one already.”

The dad says, “Why’d you ask if you aren’t…”


“I have always hated it.”

They listen to my poor reading—

The last couplet is famous:

“Poems are made by fools like me,

But only God can make a tree.”

They shrug, say nothing.

Rabbit holing, I learn:

Joyce Kilmer insisted on fighting in WWI

And died. As did so many. No Dulce, the old Lie.


The poem is widely parodied (I knew)

But was set to music by Oscar Rasbach

And sung seriously by Patti Page

And Paul Robeson in his exquisite bass,

Available on YouTube. I still don’t…

Writer/critic Guy Davenport said,

“(It’s) the one poem known by practically


Turns out Davenport was brilliant; he wrote

J.R.R. Tolkien’s obituary for National Review.

So, humbled, I must repent. It rather stings. Here’s why:

I must meet Joyce Kilmer in heaven and apologize.

I must read more Tolkien and Pound (Davenport’s friend, our Dante).

I must try (for the millionth time) to think before I speak.

What I do know, and did before I asked that question of the teen,

Is simply this:

I shall never make a poem

As rich in history

As “Trees” or

Known by practically everybody.

Meet Jen Furlong!

The best thing about people (especially the ones you don’t know) is that it’s easier to learn from them. I don’t work with Jen Furlong because we are on the same team. Although that doesn’t seem to make sense, it means that we are both right-leaning analysts for Ad Fontes Media. Pods of left-, right-, and center- analysts work together. So I actually know her less than I do workers of the other leans. But I subscribe to her podcast and chat with her occasionally when the right-leans meet together.

We’re also on Facebook, along with others from Ad Fontes. And that’s where I saw Jen’s inclusion in the Cracking the Rich Code, a series of personal inspiring stories and insights from individuals who are “top thought leaders around the world.” Yes, there is a connection to money, but not as directly as you’d think. Jen’s chapter is amazing. She begins with an “origin story” that I found riveting. Her writing is excellent; the story, inspiring.

Her five keys to empowerment are worth repeating:

  1. Keep looking for opportunities. When the original plan doesn’t work out, find another one. (Some of us are bad about giving up…)
  2. Focus on what’s in your control. Lots of things aren’t, so don’t worry about them.
  3. Become your own advocate. Clarity in goals is essential. (Some of us would like a personal assistant/mentor/literary agent to take it all over. Not gonna happen.)
  4. Embrace the suck. Lean into the difficulties. Don’t give up. (This one surprised me perhaps the most. It’s more specific than the usual “What doesn’t kill me” advice.
  5. Extend grace to others. Forgive, in a word. Jen includes a personal example of people talking about how to get rid of her when she wanted to become a Marine. It’s so easy to nurse a grudge. It’s harder to just get on with life, smile, and not let them get you down.

On her website,, Jen offers all kinds of business model applications. I need to get serious—communication is my worst thing. Students in my class used to have interpreters: “What she’s trying to say is…” I was a great teacher, probably, maybe, but not a good communicator.

On her site there is a link to a TEDx Talk that she calls The Platinum Rule. Yes, she says there is something beyond the Golden Rule. I won’t tell you what it is, but she is offering an important insight that is perfect for our day. Plus, she’s a really great communicator. Check it out.

Triptych Plus One


Three funerals in two days. Three remarkable men, completely different. Three interpretations of how to live. One force of nature to conclude.

Thomas Lane Nelson died August 27. His obituary reflects a long life—military service, business acumen, family. His beloved Jean had been gone only four months. Not that his children were ready, but he was. Imagine 66 years of marriage. As bodies age, happy or not, they sometimes acquire the residuals of pain—a surgery not healed, an infection detected, an odd organ out or in. At least 10 years of that, a wheelchair, hearing aids.

When I saw him last, he was going into a sealing. I’ve known him since January 1985 when we moved to Dallas, though he and Jean moved probably eight times afterward. Unless you’re close, catching up on kids usually happens first. He’d ask about mine, and there might be a little bragging. Brennon Nelson, his grandson, said he would always call you “the second best…” whatever. Brennon received his JD with honors from The University of Chicago last year and sang “O My Father” as nearly perfect as I’ve ever heard it perhaps because his undergraduate degree is in music performance. Best, not second.

  • From Tom Nelson I’ve seen how powerful the loyalty of love can be. He didn’t see life as an easy glide upwards. He shared successes and failures alike. He knew Jean loved him, he’d say, even if he knew nothing else.
  • He was a Navy pilot, a top gun, who flew 300 combat missions. He’d tell of landing on a flight deck with no lights, and I felt I was sitting him in that cockpit, praying for all we were both going to live. Fear passes.
  • And it’s the trivial things we sometimes remember. He loved candy corn, and today when I saw a fancy dessert plate that looked like a piece of it, of course he came to mind.

Douglas Eugene Shields died August 24, unexpectedly after a recent diagnosis of heart disease. His obituary is short; stories from his brother gave us much more. Doug was born with cerebral palsy. He needed special care to eat, to play, to crawl. His mother, Lri, a nurse with an inventive mind, fed him Three Musketeers because he would lick the chocolate and then consume more food because he had been able to move his mouth. She placed toys just out of reach so he would have to put forth real effort to reach them. Once on a Christmas Day, at age 3, he began to walk, but just for the day. It would be months before he would again.

He was someone to whom I said “Hello! How are you?” With a little low wave he would say “Hi” if we were too far apart. His mother and I have talked for years. She has had many losses, a baby son, a husband too soon, a barely out of toddlerhood granddaughter. Lori is British, and she made it through World War II bombings of her village. And nursing, always nursing, having arrived in Dallas in the 1960s with her American husband who moved the family all around the two countries. I learned that he was a long-time movie buff with a sideline as an extra. Once there was a film cast and crew in and around the house. They’d had a very long night. When Lori strolled through the next morning in her nightie, she was surprised to see the living room full. Later, as Michael Douglas was going out the door, he called to Doug, “Tell Mom goodbye!” She was livid. “Don’t ever neglect to tell me WHO is here!”

  • From him I saw a mother’s love, first. It was her fight to give him a life, and so she did.
  • The ability never to say anything unkind about someone—nor let anyone else—is rare. He had it, in an unassuming way.
  • Most of the time, just being quiet is the greatest gift, to yourself and others.

Muhammad Ali Mazidi died August 30, sitting in his chair. His obituary is also short. No cause is known. Word flew through the Baha’i community locally and from them to their friends. I met Ali, as he was called, in January this year at a Baha’i observance of Martin Luther King Day. He came up and said, “Hello! I’m Muhammad Ali.” Most people, in most contexts, are quiet and waiting. I couldn’t help but smile, of course. He assumed I knew the same people he did through the international dinners held in the area, and he’d just never met me before. Those dinners ended when their venue closed. I suggested I might have a way to help.

From January to July, I met Muhammad a time or two when he asked about the international dinner planning. He also introduced me to a handy man, brought him over and then texted me to check on him many times. In that time he went from being a complete stranger to a friend to meet at Costco who would then insist on buying me the hot dog lunch. And he enjoyed the international dinner although it was with a different group of friends and an unfamiliar location. A pleasant surprise.

His services were in the Baha’i tradition. He was born in Iran and had spent years helping others immigrate. Few knew all that he did. His accomplishments were not part of the service except for letters read from the pulpit (Ali has a Wikipedia page). The readings from the Baha’i service, though, were sublime. This from Baha’u’llah: “Wert thou to attain to but a dewdrop of the crystal waters of divine knowledge, thou wouldst readily realize that true life is not the life of the flesh but the life of the spirit.” Throughout we heard of grace and glory, enduring beauty and goodness, compassion and light. One young Iranian woman sang “O Son of Man” in English, using a melody her friend had written. This version shares photos of the tender moments of the family of man. The melody is different than hers, of course, but watching this, I could feel that the truth was here—and looking not unlike what might appear in my faith tradition—giving hope and peace to all. Her version was perfection—like Brennon’s would be on Monday.

  • Work is one thing, but life is about helping. As his obituary said, “(Ali) dedicated his life to serving others and working towards a more peaceful and just world.” He was friendly immediately, shared our acquaintance, and championed a handyman.
  • His neighborhood walking friend Chris said she isn’t a writer but gave a completely eloquent, elegant description of Ali as a nugget of gold. She realized it the day before he died, after their walk, and didn’t get to tell him. I immediately told two friends they were my nuggets. There are many more. It’s good to tell, and perennially we are reminded to do so. Don’t worry if you don’t. People can feel it.
  • Opinions form and then re-form. Ali wasn’t sure how the international dinner would go. He came anyway and helped. He changed his opinion in support of the dinner and will be ever the more keenly missed for it.

They say deaths come in threes. It’s not true, of course. They just come. We count three and hope we get a break. Queen Elizabeth II died today as I write this, a fourth. Funerals can be of all sorts and sizes because they are for the grieving who at that moment will be able to attend. Millions will watch the Queen’s services, as will I, for the music mostly. They say she was a devout Christian, but she knew how to be quiet and never drew attention to herself. She cared about her family. In spite of scandals and more in 1992, she gave this gracious speech, famously referring to that year as Annus Horribilis. All of us have them but few remember to give them Latin names.

The”nugget-ness” we share may be the power of example, whether we know/realize/understand people do notice us. This YouTube charmingly pairs the Queen with a personal favorite, Paddington Bear. He is rather a klutz, but she is completely gracious. And not only that. She has her own marmalade sandwich “for later” in her purse. Something in common to share. He concludes, “Thank you…for everything.” And that is what I say in farewell to all these four. We are better for having known you.

Standing and Its Prepositions

Standing on/for/near/by/in/up to/in front of…

The actual thesis/lede/point should come first. I’ve taught and been reminded of that. Before the real point, however, today we will examine other adjacent points based on a single word: standing. It turns out to be more interesting than I thought. (The real point begins third paragraph from the last with “So…”)

Used by itself, “standing” has many meanings. Do you have any standing invitations? What is your team’s standing? At their game, did you stand at the drink stand (which your friend can’t stand doing) and stand a Coke for her since she also didn’t have her card? Is there standing water nearby (danger!)? In the theater, you may have gotten a standing ovation from a standing room only (SRO) crowd. It might even be your last name (very rare, #45312 in the US). This information and more! here. And here. What you won’t find is any particularly compelling root word; whether used as a noun, a verb, or an adjective, it’s popular.

This song got me thinking about the word: “Standing on the Promises.” Its history is explained briefly here. Russell Kelso Carter made a promise that he would consecrate his life to God, whether or not he was healed from a life-ending illness. (John Newton, who wrote “Amazing Grace,” had a similar occurrence when he cried out for deliverance during a storm at sea. When I visited St. Paul’s Cathedral in London one lovely Sunday spring morning to attend services, the ushers were dressed in white ties and tails, and the only hymn I remember was “Amazing Grace.”)

A second song comes to mind: “Stand By Me.” Most know it from the movie of the same name, but it has a longer history. Written in 1961 by Ben E. King, it was inspired by an older gospel song, “Stand By Me Father” by The Soul Stirrers. An even older spiritual named “Stand By Me” was copyrighted by Rev. Charles Tindley in 1905. The King song is secular because a “darlin’” instead of God is standing by him. But one version on YouTube has over 526 million views. This one, with the lyrics, has 13M. It’s been recorded in over 400 versions. (That’s not the record; Guinness gives that place to “Summertime,” by George Gershwin, over 67,000 versions. This one, by Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, is great…sorry for the rabbit hole…again.)

Next, most of us want to “stand for” something. Are you honest? Loyal? Generous? All other good adjectives? Would you rather—or rather not—stand out?

What would you advise the younger ones to “stand back” from? Who would your “stand in” be?

So obviously this could go on forever. My point will now be this: Who is important enough to you that you would stand in front of them?

When I was little, my grandmother was protective of me. Not that my parents weren’t, but I don’t remember them in the same way. Riding in the car, for example, could turn dangerous if she needed to stop quickly. Her right arm flew out, hard, against my chest. It’s called “The mom arm.” You’ve seen the meme: unless you’re of a certain age, you’ve worn a seatbelt all your life, thank goodness. We didn’t.

Cars aside, my grandmother would sometimes talk about killing someone who was trying to get us kids. Sounds no less odd now than it did then. That’s not mom arm; that’s MamaBear. I believed her. If an intruder came for us, he was going to die.

I would stand between the boogie man my children and grandchildren. For one in particular, there would be a reality of actual, intentional, prejudiced harm. Without details, know that there is a real and present danger to one of mine. From the beginning, my response was “I am prepared to stand in front of this person if someone is threatening.” I have not done it physically yet, but I have done it verbally, more than once. The physical might be easier.

People not related? I was standing near someone in a grocery store recently. Age, race, gender, religion—none of these matter. I had the impression that I should be willing to stand between that person and harm. It’s one thing, and surely a good thing, to walk with someone. It’s good to stand with someone. Standing in front of them might take something more. All this is theoretical, and I hope I’d have the courage if the situation arose. When I began typing the word “courage,” the c didn’t take so we had the o. The autofill for that o is opportunity. Odd, that. One might make a poem of such things…

“The right hand knowing what the left is doing, for such a time as this.”

We aren’t encouraged to tell about our good deeds. In fact, they are to be done in secret (no trumpets announcing our glorious works) so that we can be rewarded openly. It’s where we get the phrase “the left hand doesn’t know what the right is doing” when it was a good thing (Sermon on the Mount) and not now, usually, when it isn’t.

But there I am, with Tonya Stafford Manning, and a stepstool. She needed one, so I bought her one. When the women at church (Corsicana through Dallas) gathered up hundreds of new towel sets for her safe houses, we packed them in her car one Sunday afternoon. There was a single folding chair in the back seat. Somehow it came out that was what she stood on to change lights or adjust security cameras.  Since I am now my grandmother (You don’t have enough light to read! Make your bed! Don’t stand on that—you’ll break your neck!), I went to Costco where I bought her a Cosco brand step stool. It was delivered last night after her presentation on human trafficking.

Now, why “for such a time as this”? We just finished the book of Esther for Sunday school. I’ve read it, listened to it, heard three podcasts on it. So much I didn’t know or understand. The key lines have to do with her decision to approach the king in order to save her people. To protect him, this action is forbidden when uninvited unless he extends his scepter to the one who approaches. Esther, even as his queen, can’t break this law. Her people are in danger of annihilation, so her cousin Mordecai says to her, “…and who knoweth whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a btime as this?” She finds her strength, she accepts that she may fail (“If I perish, I perish”), and off she goes.

So, I believe, Tonya is an Esther: a queen in her own time who has risked much, even her life, to save people. And it’s not just young women. Anyone can be a victim. Old, young, pretty or not, any race or gender or orientation. Here I interviewed her for another site and included links to sites and a documentary used for training Texas workers get about trafficking. The film Be the One starts at 5:30 and is well worth watching.

One young woman said she wanted to do just what Tonya is doing. Tonya’s answer was surprising: “No. You can do something better, something more. I could die tomorrow, but this has to go on.” It’s about love, after all. Esther didn’t want or seek death. She chose life and love. Loving these victims is not easy, for many reasons, but it will go on.

What else can be done? Lots. Her non-profit, It’s Going to Be OK, is privately funded. Accepting federal money means accepting federal rules, not an option for several reasons. So, yes, money. And towels. Panties. Time. The occasional step stool. The link includes information about the Hope and Pearls Gala, coming January 21, 2023, for the first time in a while…something about a pandemic, you know. It’s a massive effort that includes law enforcement at all levels, now Homeland Security, therapists, physicians, hospitals, courts. And Tonya, sitting with rescued victims at every stage—from a driveway in Cedar Hill to the grounds of the capitol in Austin where she launched House Bill 2290 designating January as Human Trafficking Month. Last night, she told us she’s now off to Nebraska.

Things are hard these days. The heat, the price of eggs, you name it. Most things you can’t affect at all. This is something you can. Protect yourself first (turn off open tracking on your phone) and speak frankly to others about the dangers of victimhood. It’s real. If not trafficking, then falling for some scam or another. A police chief when I worked with CPS said he’d learned there’s not a single thing one person won’t do to another. It’s real, but you can help. Tonya will let you know what to do.

Meeting Opal Lee

Last year, after the 5th year my church shared a Juneteenth celebration with our friends at Lifeway Church, I had a column about the history of that friendship in The Dallas Morning News. My blog the next day was not the column but a history of the newly-minted holiday and its champion, Opal Lee.

When I received an invitation to a scholarship program with Opal Lee as an award recipient, I was thrilled with the possibility of hearing her in person. True, she does live just next door in Fort Worth. And Karen Hollie, who pastors Lifeway, did meet her last year. It just never occurred to me that I would. My expectations were for a huge crowd in a megachurch. It was neither: perhaps 100 people in a neighborhood chapel with much of the time spent on the lives and accomplishments of the young graduates.

Ms. Lee sat across the aisle from us with her granddaughter and my long-time friend, Marzuq al Jaami. Before the service, I went over to meet her. Marzuq introduced me by religious affiliation, our interfaith connection, and my desire to have a picture with her. She was charming, took my hand in both of hers, and graciously agreed. A few hours later, mission accomplished.

Bud Kennedy, writing for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram last year, noted, “She is never resentful. She is resolute.” No, she is not resentful of the white rioters who burned down her home when she was 12. It did change the direction of her life, though. And “resolute”? An understatement. Here are Merriam-Webster’s synonyms: bent (on or upon), bound, decisive, determined, do-or-die, firm, hell-bent (on or upon), intent, out, purposeful, resolved, set, single-minded. Maybe all of those together would be enough. When Bishop Harold Edwards, pastor of The Church of the Living God, introduced her—and several more times during her talk—he asked if she wanted to sit down. Her answer was always, “No.” Resolute, direct, simple.

Last year, I had some her details out of order. She graduated from high school at 16. Her mother wanted her to go to college right away, but she got married and had four babies in four years. She then discovered she was going to have to raise her husband as well, “So I cut my losses and took those babies and went back to my mother.” College was a challenge, of course. She had to work, and hard. Part of the time, she worked back in Fort Worth, though sometimes her mother worked in her place “since we all look alike.” At 25, she graduated from Wiley College in her hometown of Marshall and began her career as an educator, later entering school counseling after earning her master’s degree at the University of North Texas.

Her first message to the graduates: You can achieve anything if you work hard enough at it. Listen to your parents. They have your best interests in mind.

After retiring, Ms. Lee learned that of all the accomplishments from the Black community in Fort Worth, not a single thing had been written about the people who had lived there for decades. So she helped found the Tarrant County Black History and Genealogical Society. She worked on Ann Richard’s campaign for governor. She walked 2-1/2 miles every year to commemorate the time it took the Emancipation Proclamation to arrive in Texas. At 89, she walked from Fort Worth to Washington, D.C., hoping to promote Juneteenth as a national holiday. Last year at 94, she was there when President Biden signed that action into law. Next week, she told me and Marzuk, she will be in Philadelphia.

Her second message to the graduates: Vote. Vote for change when and where it’s needed. Never give up. You can do what you set your mind to.

And, perhaps, never sit down. Keep going. You may be only one, but you are one. Keep going. Someday you, too, may get to meet a modern hero. Or be one.

“Everyone knows…”: Reviewing Free Guy and The Burying Man

Recently a person-on-the-street survey found that not everyone in America knows there are 50 states. Some think New Mexico is not a state but part of Mexico. It’s easy to make fun of something “everybody knows” when they don’t, but there is something troubling about such a profound lack of awareness.

The interplay between what people know, what they think they know, and what they don’t know at all forms the basis of two works that could not seem more different. A closer look, however, suggests that the ideas that unite them—awareness and freedom—are shared regardless of superficial backgrounds.

Free Guy (2021) stars Ryan Reynolds as a non-player character in a massive video game. As a sub-genre called action comedy, this film is reminiscent of Zootopia (2016): serious allegations amid humorous action. Both feature other characters involved in conspiracies. Guy repeats the same day, a trope used in such films as Groundhog Day (1993), Edge of Tomorrow (2014), and Dr. Strange (2016). He gains self-awareness when he accidentally shoots the bank robber who arrives daily where he works as a teller. Putting on his sunglasses, Guy discovers that the world is not what it appears.

The conflict involves the exploration of corporate greed; the programming code for the game was stolen by Antwan (Taika Waititi), CEO of Soonami. He plans to replace it with a second version but has never given original credit to Millie Rusk/Molotov Girl (Jodie Comer). It isn’t immediately clear to the programmers that Guy is sentient, so thinking he is a rogue player, his presence diverts from the new launch. Guy has no idea what his reality is until Millie/Molotov Girl explains it to him. A battle ensues, Antwan sends avatars to destroy him, and Guy goes about telling the other NPCs that they have choices. In one scene he changes his coffee shop order, or tries to, horrifying the barista. Spoiler alert: Things work out, as happens when the word “comedy” inhabits the genre.

Cleudis Robbins grew up a child of the mining culture in Harlan County, Kentucky. His step-father was killed in a cave-in, and the family suffered after that, with his mother Guynith struggling to support seven children. The stories from those years culminated in a novel, The Burying Man, which Cleudis finished in 2012 with his daughter, Janene Nielsen, just before his unexpected death. And the work is a novel, with all the art, structure, and theme that it suggests, rather than a memoir. (Available on Amazon and Kindle; see Goodreads.)

The Burying Man does, indeed, have much to do with death. The epigraph: “Whatever you tell yourself by an open grave or fireside, the dead do not sleep, are not at rest and, above all, are not gone.” The opening lines of this first-person narrative come from Rose Grace, nicknamed Bud: “My daddy always said that death is just like opening a door—but it ain’t, you know. Death is more like a curtain that gets finer and finer until suddenly, with your last breath, you realize Heaven is all around you and it always has been.” Bud begins this story as a ghost herself, though it’s not until near the end of the novel that we understand what happened to her. As with the film, this isn’t a new technique. A deceased narrator works in The Lovely Bones and (spoiler alert) The Sixth Sense (1999). Somehow, because of the richness of the story, its power and detail, even a child’s death is forgotten until confirmation when her father finds her body.

The setting is a Kentucky mining community around the fictional Emerita Coal Mining Camp during the 1930s. Bud’s father, Oakley Grace, lost his father in a mining accident when he was a boy. He, too, has a nickname, Mournful. The seventh son of a seventh son, he has the power of seership but also of healing and preaching. He marries young and in the course of the novel loses all his family. There is an inevitability about his fate even apart from his name. The authors conclude the book with a list of hundreds of men who lost their lives in Harlan County mines from 1913-1939, so there is a feeling that Mournful not only preaches their funerals but encapsulates the sorrows of all those lives.

Besides the father and daughter, two other characters are carefully drawn. Keziah Grimwood lives back in the mountains, coming down only rarely when she senses Mournful’s needs. A member of a small ethnic group called Melungeons, she seems to have access to all sorts of folk wisdom. Her age? “Between 35 and 60.” Her complexion? She has “a dark pool of a face.” Her eyes? The color of Virginia bluebells. Her ways are based on a view of the world informed by layers of mystical understanding. When dressing Mournful’s father for burial, she sings the words of one hymn to the melody of another, “It keeps the bad spirits guessing.” The title above is based on a phrase that reflects her kind of knowledge. Over and over throughout the novel, we hear “’cause everyone knows…” In the father’s funeral preparation, for example, Keziah stops the clock so that no one else in the home will perish.

The villain of the novel, Cork Markham, begins as a bully in childhood but a friend “of sorts” to the young Mournful. Their lives were worlds apart. Cork’s father was the mine company’s superintendent. As time goes on, he progression into evil reveals a profound lack of character. Greed and lust motivate his actions toward Mournful’s family as well as the rest of the camp. But he’s neither simplified nor cartoonish, making him a remarkable study in how not to be. Everyone knows this, too, and they either fear him or take his hush money.

The crisis in the novel concerns the coming of unions. Unsafe mining practices were one thing. Another was the system of scrip for payment. Miners did not receive pay. Instead, there was a voucher system which gave them access to the company store and housing the company owned. Cash was almost non-existent. Tennessee Ernie Ford’s rendition of “16 Tons” has the lyric “St. Peter don’t call me ‘cause I can’t go—I owe my soul to the company store.” It was a long struggle that began in 1890. This brief history from the union’s website includes information about Harlan County. We may feel long removed from the miners’ struggles and only vaguely aware of what conditions were, yet it is barely 100 years since laws attempting to limit the ages children could work in mines were designed, and widespread observance of the laws didn’t begin until the 1930s.

These two works, so superficially dissimilar, have in common the lack of freedom for the characters within them. Guy and his friends are living in blissful ignorance…until they’re not. Mournful Grace has no real chance to leave his world either but is keenly aware of all the pain that causes those he loves. The world of computer gaming is, sadly, much more relatable to our day, but when we see the pictures of children in mineshafts a mile below the surface, we should not forget those realities either.

Free Guy is clever and makes for an enjoyable escape. The Burying Man offers a serious exploration written so beautifully, so poetically, that the stories will resonate long after the last page is read. The events are based on real events but not limited by them. Little Bud’s life on earth ends tragically, but she gives hope of more to come, of love that continues, and of the purpose of struggle.


What I Fear

Intolerance, first. 

June 24th’s decision to strike down Roe v. Wade should not have come as a surprise because the drafted decision was leaked weeks ago. Indeed, once the court was 6-3 with conservative justices, it was inevitable. Yet, as soon as the announcement came, declarations of shock that such a thing could happen began to appear. Promises to fight for the cause have been loud and dangerous (a murder plot against a Justice, firebombings at crisis pregnancy centers).

Roe was never a law; it was a prohibition about prohibition, the banning of bans. Within the frameworks of Roe and later Casey, abortion could not be restricted beyond a certain point. States brought case after case to press for changes, but until the Court struck down the ruling, only variations could reflect the states’ choices. Here is an explanation of those choices: Colorado, for example, protects abortion throughout pregnancy. Texas has a relatively new law that forbids it after the detection of a heartbeat, usually about 6 weeks.

It’s the personal level of intolerance that I fear. The country is observably divided. All of that is public and removed from most of us. Is this to be the issue over which personal relationships will fracture? The last presidency certainly had that potential, but it ended. Opinions are different from votes, however. Will there be respect for them whether opposition to abortion is based on religious beliefs or humanitarian concerns? Will the concept of choice extend to opposition, or will shunning take place?

The swing of the pendulum, second.

Words seem to have little sway in convincing either side of the wrongness of opinion. What proponents call a right is contested by those who do not believe such a right exists. What may happen next, then, is a codification of abortion as a federal law, taking away the states’ ability to modify the former ruling. 

It was originally the fashion to use the phrase “legal, safe, and rare,” but “rare” was never the case. Since 1973, the accepted figure is 63+ million abortions in the United States. The difficulty with polls reflects the complexity of the topic. While there are respondents on either edge who say “at any stage, for any reason” and those who say “never, for any reason,” most responses lie in the middle with allowances for the life of the mother, rape, and incest.

Although proponents accept the view that most Americans support abortion, the conclusion that it should be available “without bans or restrictions” is not accurate. Polling data do not support that conclusion. Yet, the Women’s Health Protection Act would forbid all bans and restrictions. While there is general (but not universal) support for the restrictions named above, what will happen if there are no restrictions at all? Will the pendulum swing to gender selection? All genetically determined characteristics? Inconvenience? And, further, to any stage of pregnancy? “Slippery slope” arguments are flawed by nature; one thing does not automatically lead to another. But the Act is plain, and while it did not pass in 2021, it is the vehicle currently touted as a solution to the overturning of Roe.

Finally, fear.

At his inauguration, FDR repeated the idea that “all we have to fear is fear itself.” Times were terrible in 1933, but the phrase does seem more rhetorical than explanatory. Are not the things we fear more important? Loss of relationships, hardening of hearts, devaluing of life, undervaluing the importance of children, disrespect for the order of civilization even–all these are named fears. What about those yet unknown? Will there be no recourse to mercy once words and logic, science and faith are gone? Death is not the solution, and life is the key to peace. 

It is my fear that the passions which seem so high now will threaten more than the obvious sources of order, that there are dreads yet to come that we don’t even suspect. Will there come a time when choice is removed from individuals and given to institutions? Will abortion of some children (Down’s to dyslexic) be required? Will the elderly be the next logical burden? The injured? Will conscience no longer be a distinction?

I do not want to be afraid–of people, of laws, of loss. This is not a war of words, and there is no reason to say I am not allowed these fears. Walt Whitman said, “Seeing, hearing, feeling, are miracles, and each part and tag of me is a miracle.” Life–the obvious miracle.

Sometime Behave So Strangely

Speech has both pitch and rhythm. It is not, however, singing. Except for sometimes. And in my opinion, all the time.

As with most opinions, the idea isn’t new. Dr. Diana Deutsch accidentally discovered that speech begins to sound as if it is sung after several repetitions. She called this an illusion, but I’m not so sure. Deutsch’s illusion is known as “Sometimes behave so strangely” because that was part of the sentence she was recording when, heard on a loop, it becomes a clearly heard melody. It begins, “The sounds that appear to you are not only different from those that are present, but they sometimes behave so strangely as to seem quite impossible.” Here a small class listens to her say the sentence, then only the phrase. So to explain my premise, the music is there all along. Unlike the many optical illusions which do use neurological tricks.

Deutsch is a psychologist studying the brain as it reacts to music. Other scientists explore the anthropological connections. This article in Futurity takes what seems like the opposite position: we like music because it sounds like our voices.

But enough science. On to experience. There were three.

First, at the temple a few weeks ago, someone was struggling to pronounce a complex Spanish name. Frustrated, he asked the woman he was helping to say the name. The contrast was startling. Not only was it made beautiful; it was made music. She smiled, and there were tears in her eyes. This short article from a Stanford grad is light-hearted and explains formation of names in Spanish cultures. This YouTube features three young women—from the US, Mexico, and Spain—talking about names. The American is trying, and her chief concern is that Spanish goes by so fast! It’s instructive, but at time mark 4:01, she says, “It sounds like a song almost…” They are having fun, no tears involved.

Second, that same day, I helped another woman, in Russian. She had been able to listen to a translation of what she was doing but at a certain point, she needed to make responses in her language to questions in English. Although I don’t speak Russian, I can read the pronunciations. It was an unusual experience, hearing two languages at different purpose points. Russian names also have a formula for formation, as did the Spanish ones. This young woman explains.

Third, the next evening, I attended an iftar, the meal at which Muslims break their daily fast in the holy month of Ramadan. Although the event was at a church building in Waxahachie (in the so-called Cultural Hall, a basketball gym actually), the food was provided by a group of Turkish friends from Richardson. The timing had to be precise, after sundown. The prayer at that time is called a dua. This example is a call to prayer, quite beautiful because it’s set in a remote park in Australia. And 14.5 million viewers. That evening, a member of their community offered a dua that I can’t replicate via YouTube. I couldn’t find an accurate example. When I asked someone I was sitting by if it was a song, he said no, not really. But as with speech, our current topic, there was surely pitch (melody) and rhythm. Furthermore, it was physical, with the human form, the person, coming alive to the music with vibrations from the bones of the skull, the reciting person holding his hand to his head. It was transfixing, with no words from my limited skill to describe. But do listen to the link above.

I’m wondering if my theory of language as music (melody and rhythm) may prove helpful to memorize. Vast, long, epic poems were sung/spoken/performed. Here is Benjamin Bagby performing Beowulf, 10 minutes of which I used to share with world lit students. It begins at 1:40 with the word “HwÆt!” which means Listen! And other possible attention getters. In fact, come to think of it, I may need to start singing things…a lot. For memory purposes only.

Notice, too, how often commentators will get the response “Listen” as the first word an interviewee will say. And then the music begins…