Archive for the ‘Essays – Personal’ Category

Rattlesnakes Are Scary but Fair

June 8, 2017

 

A soft-spoken older guy stopped me in the store and I thought asked me if we had potty. I figured he had been watching his grandkids a lot lately. So I pointed him toward the restrooms in the front corner of the store. “No,” he says, “P-a-t-e.” Oh. Pâté. I hadn’t thought about pâté in years.

When I was a kid in Indiana, my family liked to eat at a place called Strongbow Turkey Inn. No question about freshness. They had the turkeys wandering around in a fenced yard right behind the restaurant. It was a great place for a full turkey dinner. One of the things they served with that dinner was a pâté made from turkey liver. I liked it.

Years later when I was living in Kansas, I worked with a woman I’ll call Betsy Parker. Betsy had moved up to Kansas from Arkansas. She was a settled, inconspicuous woman. Our co-workers hardly noticed her. Her one claim to fame was that she was a third cousin to Bonnie Parker of Bonnie and Clyde. She said the older members of her family still talked about meeting Bonnie and Clyde. Said they were a pair of hissing rattlers you knew you had to walk around. Nothing like quiet Betsy.

Betsy had a girlfriend from Boston that liked to make fun of Betsy and her family for eating squirrels. Wow, I can still remember the aroma of my mama’s browned and baked squirrels. Good eating. Well, Betsy invited her friend’s family over one time for a beef pot roast dinner. And for an appetizer she served them pâté. She said they thought it was great. It wasn’t until later she told them she made the pâté out of squirrel brains.

Worth remembering. Copperheads don’t rattle before they strike.

Copyright © 2017 by Michael B. Smetzer

You want a garden here? - photo by Vera Lisa Smetzer

You want a Garden here? – photo by Vera Lisa Smetzer

Great Aunt Ada’s Gifts vs. the Trump Presidency

June 2, 2017

 

Watching the Trump presidency unfold is one amazing performance after another. It is entertaining. It is riveting. It has comedy. It has dramatic suspense. And it is personally frightening. Frightening because Trump’s theater is the real world and all of our lives hang on his lines.

I wish watching the Trump presidency were more like opening presents from a great aunt I’ll call Ada. Ada either sends English regimental ties when I haven’t worn a dress shirt in years. Or creative hand-knit socks that are like nothing I’ve worn since my mod phase in the sixties.

Aunt Ada means well and she loves me. She’s just out of touch with my life. When my aunt sends a useless gift, no one’s life is destroyed, democracy is not undermined, and the very continuance of civilization is not threatened. The only note of suspense is “will it be a tie or socks?”

Aunt Ada does no harm. I toss the tie or socks in a bag for Goodwill. Then I write her a little thank-you note, adding I hope she likes the present I sent, which I suspect is equally useless to her. And we both get back to our separate lives. Sort of like my relationship with Trump when I just saw him for a few moments on The Apprentice as I was clicking through channels on a dull night.

 

Copyright © 2017 by Michael B. Smetzer

Detail from "Sunset" - Acrylic Painting on Wood by Mike Smetzer

Detail from “Sunset” – Acrylic Painting on Wood by Mike Smetzer

Sharing

May 31, 2017

 

One summer a few years ago, I poured some old bird seed, a mixture of sunflower seeds and millet, into a child’s wagon in our back yard. I regularly saw five or six squirrels in the area and I thought they would enjoy it. What happened, however, was not the general feeding I expected.

One squirrel soon arrived and began to eat and eat and eat. Other squirrels arrived too and hopped frantically near the wagon. If they got close to the wagon, the squirrel inside jumped out and chased them away. When he was full he set about hiding the rest of the sunflower seeds, still not letting any other squirrel near the wagon. In squirrel world, it seems, there is no sharing even in abundance.

When I went out the next day I found only millet seeds in the wagon. I decided to scatter more seeds around and between our two large maples. Our bully squirrel could hardly defend the whole area. This worked to some extent, but there was still no doubt about who was lord of the bird seed and who had to sneak in and run. Eventually all the sunflower seeds were gone and only the millet remained, which the squirrels seemed to ignore.

Enter a dove with a taste for millet. He was a stranger. No doves had been visiting in our yard. He went contentedly pecking about the millet leavings while the boss squirrel chased the other squirrels about in the trees. As it happened the boss squirrel chased another squirrel down one of the maples as the dove was ambling about at its base. The boss squirrel altered course to jump directly on the dove, sending it flying. In the squirrel world, I guess, there is no sharing even of what isn’t wanted.

But it is not a great thing being a boss squirrel. You generally get enough to eat, but you must constantly fight off intruders. These squirrels seemed to spend half their time chasing each other up and down and through or flipping their tails at each other. No truce is ever called in squirrel land.

But that is squirrel nature. A generous spirit can hardly be practiced when the next month may bring starvation. Any sunflower seeds conceded to a fellow will be missed when there is nothing more to dig up. And millet is really much better than starvation. Squirrel survival depends on a selfish nature.

At first I shook my head at the squirrels because I like to share, within reason. Sharing has great social rewards and it makes me feel good, and I can be pretty confident that I am not going to starve. I have the luxury to share, just as I have the luxury to write these words rather than chase my neighbor Jerry around the trees. Well, all right, he would probably be chasing me. Or he and his wife Judy and their kids would probably be chasing me and my wife Vera and our parrot Walter. The point is it would all be very tiring if I lived a squirrel’s life and I don’t think I would be pondering how to live well.

You can’t concentrate on philosophy if you have to constantly guard your seeds. So I am grateful that I have so much leisure in my life, that I have the option of spreading some seeds around without starving to death. I could share everything I’ve got and still get by. Human society makes that possible. And I thank you all.

Fortunately being generous doesn’t absolutely require asceticism or washing the sores of lepers. I’m not ready for that. But I think I could give up some of my seeds and make more space in my tree. I have always wanted to be more consistently open with people. That’s why I write. And personal openness is probably the kind of sharing that people with full stomachs value most.

I am going to try to be more open when there are actual people around, not just while constructing sentences on the page. But don’t expect too much. I’m just a holiday hiker on the road to spiritual fulfillment. If I really knew where the answers lie, I wouldn’t still be squirreling up all these verbal seeds.

 

Copyright © 2017 by Michael B. Smetzer

An earlier version of this essay was published in 2010 in Brother Michael This Morning.

Detail from "Sunset" - Acrylic Painting on Wood by Mike Smetzer

Detail from “Sunset” – Acrylic Painting on Wood by Mike Smetzer

Spiritual Signs

May 28, 2017

 

Have you ever asked for a sign?

When I lived out in Kansas, a Chicago-raised friend reported seeing a red-tailed hawk while driving from Lawrence to Eldorado. She interpreted the sighting as a sign that a major positive development was about to happen in her life. She turned around mid trip and went back to her apartment to wait. Nothing happened. Native Kansans laughed about this, since on the plains you can hardly look out a car window without seeing a hawk.

Hawks in Kansas are nothing remarkable. But this person driving to Eldorado was focused on her inner struggles, on her unforgiving past, on her unreachable dreams. The existence of hawks outside her car was nothing special, but for her to look out and actually see a redtail was indeed magical. It was a legitimate sign for her on her journey, although for native Kansans it was just another hawk on a post.

Now my friend received many signs in her life. She followed her signs into one disaster after another. Signs are magical but they are seen with human eyes, the eyes you bring to the seeing. You cannot trust the signs you see unless you can trust yourself. My friend was not spiritually grounded or emotionally balanced. She was confused and desperate.

During the Peloponnesian War the ancient Athenians sent a massive expedition to Sicily. Things went badly. Confused, divided and disheartened, they prepared to return home. That was when they saw their sign: a lunar eclipse. Not auspicious in the ancient world. The priests understood this to mean that they should not travel at that time but stay another 27 days, until the start of the next lunar cycle. A carefully reasoned conclusion but wrong.

True, it seemed very reasonable to people who did not want to return home as failures, to people who still longed for heroic victory. The result of this delay was a disaster in which the entire force was destroyed, eventually contributing to Athen’s defeat in the war. If the blotting out of the moon foretells imminent disaster and your city state is at war, wouldn’t a wise person hightail it for home? Since when is it a good plan to dawdle in the face of danger? Off balance and emotionally stressed, the Athenian priests must have experienced spiritual confusion. Or perhaps their approach to signs was simply too rule bound.

A sign is not like a prescription we can take to any pharmacy and have filled. A sign is like a mirror. It shows us something in ourselves we would not otherwise see. To apply the sign we need wisdom. Without wisdom, we are misled by what we see.

Miracles are different. Miracles may come to anyone regardless of preparation or merit.  Consider the unclean man whose demons Jesus cast into swine. He was stripped of all merit and hopelessly unprepared. But he was miraculously restored to humanity by God’s grace.  Understanding and wisdom followed.

Signs require a fertile and wholesome ground before they can bear fruit. In chapter 5 of Daniel, King Belshazzar and his advisors were befuddled by the writing on the wall, but Daniel had the spiritual preparation to understand the sign. He not only saw the writing on the wall, he knew it in the unity of his heart and mind. This sign wasn’t really for the debased King Belshazzar. It was too late for him anyway. The sign was for Daniel. A sign opens itself for the person who has clarity of vision. Its meaning comes freely, without struggle or effort. For those who are prepared, signs are transparent; for those who are not, they are opaque.

Most signs are also personal. I can’t know for certain what my friend’s redtail hawk meant. The sign was for her. I do know that when I last saw her, some years later, she was still not at peace with herself. I wonder if she ever found out what her hawk meant.  Did she see her hawk again? Did she go back and finish her trip to Eldorado?

 

This post is a revision of a personal essay first published in 2010 on Brother Michael This Morning.

Copyright © 2017 by Michael B. Smetzer

 

Swimmers, painting by Mike Smetzer

Ordinary Meats

December 4, 2016

We have had a variety of meats lately, but I have been missing something this fall. As squirrel hunting wanes back home and rabbit hunting gets underway, I have been missing those seasonal rodents of my youth. Mom would brown them in a pan and then bake them in the oven. Squirrel and rabbit had distinctly different flavors. I liked them both.

They were ordinary meats. Not grand meats like the Thanksgiving turkey or the Christmas ham. And not trophy meats like venison or moose or elk. They were everyday fare. Each a part of its season. Squirrel in the fall, rabbits in the winter once their tracks could be seen in the snow. They fit into the calendar like the progression of vegetables in the garden, from the greens and radishes of spring to the squash and carrots and potatoes of late fall. Sitting here in my city apartment, I miss the taste of squirrel and rabbit as a part of that progression.

Getting Published

October 27, 2013

Copyright © 2013 by Mike Smetzer

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I spent this morning organizing my poems, stories, and essays to send out to magazines. I updated my Word files, clicked on Poets & Writers in my Favorites list, opened the classifieds and then the little magazine database and began noting the most auspicious listings.

It is a ritual I have performed since I was an undergraduate, whenever enough happy and unhappy responses have piled up in my inbox. Pondering those listings and then the simple mechanics of formatting the letters and attachments, well, it takes a lot of time, and it reminds me that, after all these years, I am still struggling for recognition. That depresses me.

They say when anything you do depresses you, you need to examine your behavior. Something probably needs to change. I have decided that I need to change two things: my voice and my expectations.

I find that I have shifted inside and my old voice seems strange to me. What I am doing when I write is not really as important as I used to believe. My writing is no more sacred nor profound than anything else I do in life, and neither are the problems I write about. I am a good writer, of course, but I am also good at cleaning out a cooler at work, and the two are pretty much equal as accomplishments.

I also realize that I am probably much happier being unimportant. It means that I am free from all that baggage of pretense and seriousness that important writers have. I don’t have to impress anyone. Which means I don’t have to follow literary fashions or write up to academic “standards.” I can write as myself, in as common a voice as I like.

Which leads to my new expectations. I now expect and hope to be an amateur writer for the rest of my life. I don’t need to be in Paris Review or have a book published by Graywolf Press. I don’t expect to hold a creative writing chair at some university or even teach a class or two at a community college. I don’t expect to make my living off royalties and readings. I simply expect to sit down in the evenings after supper and write. I simply expect to be free.

I’ve had some grand visions of myself as a famous writer. But famous writers often seem trapped in the aura of their success and by the expectations of their followers. I have always been thankful to those editors who accepted my work. Perhaps I should also be thankful to those who rejected me, especially at crucial moments when I might have crossed over to become a professional. I don’t need to march down a paved path following one literary flag or another, not even my own. I can wander, unkempt and little seen through the fields and forests, wherever my old legs take me.