Category Archives: Best of Spiritinpolitics

The Poetry of Chance and Loss

Newburgh Lake, Michigan

The windows of the student union looked out through the overhanging branches of  stately elms.  Through a gap in the trees, Lake Mendota appeared, sparkling in the sunshine.  The breeze had kicked up some whitecaps on the blue-green water and a sprinkling of sailboats coasted with the wind.

At first, I thought it was just my imagination, but a familiar tune floated above the hubbub of the crowd.  This song, the poetry of chance and loss, sung to the chords of an acoustic guitar, had been one of our favorites in the dorm a few years back.  Catching the lyrics of the last verse, I smiled and said to myself, “Yep, back in Madison.”

The dark wood paneling of the room absorbed the light coming in, so faces were vague until my eyes adjusted.  When I scanned the room again, I noticed her sitting alone, apparently engrossed in a book.  She was wearing jeans split to create bell-bottoms and a black blouse, open with a v-neck, a choice I had always appreciated, as it set off her violet-blue eyes.  She wore her dark brown hair longer than I remembered, not loose but tucked beneath a silk lavender scarf.   On the wooden table, a coffee cup sat off to one side, next to an open notebook.  A leather purse, decorated with jade jewelry, apparently of some American Indian design, hung from her chair.

A long minute’s hesitation, then I found myself walking in the direction of her table, turning over in my mind whether to say hello—pretending to myself that I had a choice.  After closing the book, she put down her glasses and rubbed her eyes.  She untied the scarf and then ran her fingers through her hair.  Slipping the scarf inside the purse, she started to get up.

I blurted out, “Hi, Natalie.” The beer on my tray chose that moment to slide and I had to manage a neat balancing act to avoid dousing a girl at the next table.

Natalie Mariposa looked in my direction.  After a moment, she smiled as if she had been expecting me.  “Well?”  She gestured to the empty spot next to her and eased back into her chair.

Natalie had made up my mind for me, as it seemed she always had.  As at our first meeting, she still reminded me of a young Elizabeth Taylor.  Since nothing profound or even the least bit cool came to mind, I said, “This is quite a coincidence.”

“Howdy, stranger.  I saved a seat for you.” Again the smile. “For three years.”


But the Greatest of These Is Love

kensington park, michigan
Reaching into the past, happening upon a few words of American sports’ toughest competitor,  we find  a harmony to calm our time’s discord. “What is the meaning of love?” iconic coach Vince Lombardi once opened a team meeting of his Green Bay Packers. Doubtless, these words had never before been spoken in a  pro football buzz session and have not since. Just where was the old man going with this one, linebackers must have wondered while exchanging glances with running backs. What the hell did love have to do with beating the Chicago Bears next Sunday?

Even today, it is remarkable that  this complex leader could drive his men to excel in the bare-knuckled combat of American football while he pondered the meaning of love and its place in his sport.  What might explain how an implacable dictator of his team could single-handedly integrate housing in Green Bay, or offer to buy a bus ticket out of town for the first player he heard bashing gays—and this over 50 years ago.

Lombardi once unabashedly told a reporter on national TV, “My players don’t just like each other, they love each other.” This expression came from someone who had once played on a defense nicknamed the Seven Blocks of Granite. The Super Bowl trophy bears his name. His storied Pack won 5 league championships in 7 years, not with finesse, but by physical intimidation. His team endured the Ice Bowl, and triumphed in those brutal Arctic conditions. One player said that in the minus 20 degree weather the ball felt like a brick in his hands and the frozen turf like a slab of concrete as the Packers drove for the winning touchdown. Coach Lombardi’s was a macho world, yet he felt deeply, and said often, that there is love for each other in the game of football.

The coach explained to his warriors what he meant by love. “Anybody can love something that is beautiful or smart or agile. But you will never know love until you can love something that isn’t beautiful, isn’t bright or isn’t glamorous.” Love among teammates always came back to one simple question, Lombardi said. “Can you accept someone for his inabilities?
Accepting someone for his inabilities is a concept lost in the haze of hostility hovering over our society. In today’s politics, where anger and contempt reign unchecked, Lombardi’s precepts about love and its place in an aggressive world ring like a bell, clear and true. Only a strong, positive emotion can counter the negative emotions that pervade politics. An appeal to the better angels of our nature is the alternative.

It is possible to envision a political world where an opponent’s weaknesses are not derided and distorted to raise cash, or to score cheap partisan points for the next election cycle. Differences could be respected within a fair contest where rules are adhered to, not cynically bent. In Lombardi’s era, American politics was a contest often played this way, though after the last four decades of descent into the maelstrom that might be hard to fathom.

The experiences of two famous political rivals in 1850s America suggest a path forward. The United States would have broken apart if these men in 1861 had not put aside their personal differences, which were considerable, for the love of their country. Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas had been longtime foes in the back alley politics of Illinois, fought an election there in 1858, waged the most famous debates in American history, and met in the bitter presidential contest of 1860. They were a pair of determined adversaries whom Lombardi surely would have appreciated.
Yet, when the South seceded after Lincoln took office, Douglas approached his former rival and offered to embark on a speaking tour to enlist Democrats in the Union cause. Lincoln did not treat him as the vanquished foe, but as a respected partner. Without Douglas’ selfless act (his fragile health was ruined by the exertion), it is doubtful whether Democrats would have rallied to Lincoln’s leadership. A purely Republican effort to preserve the Union was doomed to failure; only with substantial Democratic support was success possible.

Following this brief detour to the Civil War era, we return to face Lombardi’s enduring question. During grueling and often brutal practices, the Packers would curse Lombardi under their breaths. Back in the locker room, they would tell each other what a son-of-a-bitch he was. As they matured and looked back over their lives, some of his best players told a different story. Forty years after Lombardi’s death, in a distant echo of the coach’s question at that team meeting, Hall of Famer Herb Adderley told an interviewer, “I love my father. But Coach Lombardi I think about every day.” Such is the legacy of love, even in an aggressive corner of the world.

Let He Who Is Without Sin Cast the First Stone

let he who is without sin cast the first stone

Reclaiming the spirit of the law


A feverish look shines from the eyes of a young woman as three men in cloaks  of fine linen march her into the village square. Her skin is the color of olives; her long, dark hair is not plaited.  She wears a plain robe woven from wool and on her feet sandals of leather. Derisive catcalls and cries of “Adulterer!” “Harlot!” greet her from the gauntlet through which she is pushed and prodded. The white disk of the noonday sun allows no  forgiving shadows.

 The local Inquisitors are using the young  woman as bait, setting a trap to ensnare an itinerant rabbi from far-off Nazareth, who teaches in parables and dares to question their authority. They confront him as he stands near the well, observing the trial about to begin. The laws of Moses command that adulterers be stoned, they taunt him, what say you about this one?

Jesus knows his foes well, these thin-lipped dogmatists of the letter of the law. In all their studies of the prophets, they have forgotten nothing and learned nothing. He has foiled their stratagems before, and he regards them with an expressionless scorn. The crowd impatiently awaits his reply.  Stones in hand, they have their work to do. Jesus does not speak immediately, but instead writes on the ground as he composes an answer to reclaim the spirit of the law. Rising to his feet, he looks over the crowd and says in a voice that carries to the far side of the square:

“He that is without sin among you, let him cast a stone at her.”

Jesus fixes a steady gaze on the Inquisitors, as their smirk of arrogance fades. Those among the crowd who a minute ago were crying for the woman’s blood now have silent tongues. The faintest of breezes rustles the leaves on the sycamore trees. Somewhere in the distance, a child cries. The  Pharisees are reduced to shuffling away in silence; not a word of response have they spoken. They are convicted by their own consciences. The crowd disperses, pondering Jesus’ words. “What does it mean?” a voice asks. No one has a ready answer.

The young woman alone remains with Jesus. She stands silently, in a daze. The cold sweat trickles down her back. I do not condemn you, Jesus says, and she feels the strength returning to her legs. She begins to weep, as relief flows  through her like a river. But Jesus is not one for situational ethics.    He places a hand on her shoulder and says,  “Go, and sin no more.” Before leaving, the woman gets a cool cup of water from the well and offers it to Jesus. He smiles, but with sadness in his eyes, and thanks her.

For one sun bleached afternoon, the law tempered with mercy is redeemed from the ones with bloodless lips who would see it etched into stone. Jesus has spared a woman who broke one of Moses’ laws; in so doing, he has invited the wrath of the patriarchs.  Jesus knows that soon they will have their day.

Family History Whispered from the West

Cascade Mountains

Mountains Primeval

Canadian Pacific Railway

Canadian Pacific track, 1881, Fraser Valley


            The green Armstrong plaid once had been a fearsome sight along Scotland’s southern border, as it was the tartan worn by rustlers and ruffians.  Reluctantly adopting a more settled life, later generations of Armstrong men descended into the coal mine dungeons near Edinburgh to eke out a precarious living for their families.  The course of my family history began when my grandfather glimpsed brighter days in Canada’s West.  His sense of adventure may have been inspired by his cousin’s letters back to the old country from the Canadian frontier, filled with yarns spun from scouting a passage for the Canadian Pacific Railway through the forbidding barrier of the Rockies.

            Tam Armstrong secured passage for his family on a ship out of Glasgow, bound across the wine dark sea for Nova Scotia.  Along with various Stuarts, McEwens, and Smiths, they traversed the Atlantic, the convoy dodging U-boats during the First World War.  Upon arrival in Halifax, they took a train across the verdant, settled farmlands of eastern Canada to Toronto.  From there, the CPR tracks reached to the north shore of Lake Superior, left that great inland sea behind, and struck out through the tractless pine forests and muskeg of Ontario’s wilderness.  Finally, the train took the Armstrongs over the vast prairie, golden with wheat waving in the summer winds, to a coal-mining town on the eastern slope of the Rockies.

My mother often reminisced to me about her home town of Nordegg, an outpost of human activity encircled by the dark silence of the forests.     Overthe years, I heard a hundred stories, andremainfirmly convinced that a few at least were true.  Cougars sometimes strayed into Nordegg’s streets, and family legend held that one cat chased Uncle Andrew into his house.  The Stoney Indians often showed up in town, and later disappeared back into the wilderness after having beguiled the white man in the Indian barter.

Yet, this mining town’s frontier brashness often yielded to Old Country courtesies.  Nordegg was no rough-and-tumble mining camp, my mother insisted.  A golf course, albeit with sand “greens,” followed the Saskatchewan River, grey with silt from melting glaciers at its headwaters.  My mother’s Uncle Jock soloed on trumpet, when he was not anchoring the Nordegg brass ensemble.  Proudly, my mother recalled the Literary Club, where miners discussed novels and plays, naturally with a Scottish burr.  As her anecdotes sparkled, I imagined that the cultural life provided a welcome tonic for the deadening drudgery of mining coal.

But not all her memories spoke of the promise of spring.  One October day, the mine’s whistle had screamed.  Terrified wives and mothers ran to discover what they really did not want to know.  Twenty-six families mourned.  Nordegg wore black.   Uncle Jock, a pit boss whose warnings on hazardous conditions went unheeded, was among those who did not come up from underground.  The newspaper articles about the disaster mentioned that Jock himself had lost a brother to a mine cave-in.

Beneath an autumn sky the color of lead, the funeral procession descended the hill along main street, black flatbed trucks each bearing six flower-draped coffins to the special cemetery plot.  The entire town turned out, many trudging behind the trucks, while others mutely watched from the sidewalk, men and women with bared heads bowed, their faces ashen.

Sometime after the empty trucks returned to the mine, and the sidewalk witnesses retreated to the privacy of their homes, to the privacy of their sorrow and despair, the mine workers’ union built a monument at the cemetery.  The simple stone sentinel bore the names of those lost.  Thirty years later, on a family vacation, I had watched my mother weep at the gravesite.  “Jimmy McLaughlin, he was only eighteen,” was all she said.

The Nordegg mine, no longer profitable, closed after the Second War.  The town soon followed, and cougars met no people in Nordegg streets.  My grandparents, hoping to start anew, moved to nearby Edmonton.  Neither my grandfather nor his descendants ever went into a coal mine again.