Well Before Dawn

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I am drawn toward the early morning hours of dawn, when I feel ahead of the world, and I can sense some small whisper of…what….hope, I suppose, or wonder maybe. To hear life around the river in those moments motivates me, awakens in me possibilities which otherwise lie dormant. Before the sun rises, often just after the first sliver of light reaches up across the bay, I can hear osprey and other sea birds who at that hour never seem to mind my presence.

But earlier, when that glimmer on the eastern horizon is still merely a possibility, I have taken to walks by moonlight, sometimes not even that. In the woods where I live and down along the water, something is going on. There is life out there wide awake and moving through the dark hours like spirits who need to finish their errands before the sun gives them up. Like sneaking up on some grand behind-the-scenes operation, or suddenly discovering the dark web and meddling around a bit, those hours when the rest of our lives are at rest, motionless, recharging, the world around us is in full swing on the midnight shift.

Generally, this happens for me just before the wild life around me packs it in for the night; just before I watch the horizon for illumination.

Fox come about the edges of the woods looking for scraps of food or the peels and rinds of bananas and melons. I can stand patiently off the side of the drive and one fox will wander across the yard from the woods behind me to those on the south and stop before disappearing again beyond the laurel, and he will stare at me, relaxed, nosing around the base of a tree I occasionally put food. Then he’s off—not swiftly or in fear, but nonchalantly, demonstrating that he lives here as well and has decided to stretch his legs. That’s all.

Owls, too—some barn but mostly screech owls, perch in the oaks and elms, sometimes swooping down and moving through branches with precision. But my favorite are the geese which cover the night sky in flocks sometimes so enormous the swoosh of their wings alone creates a breeze, and their call to “Go! Go! Go!” is startling.

Closer to home, out front near the edge of the trees, deer nearly always feed on the dew-soaked grass and often the hostas, and if they sense me sitting on the porch or standing in the clearing, they will look up, briefly, ears turned forward—just for a moment—and then return to their grass, not minding me, aware just the same.

And it is then, when I am well acclimated with the night and my eyes have adjusted, and my soul too has adjusted, that I think of my way in the world, the motivation behind the turns and hesitations, my purpose of this passing in time. Oh, do I ever have an internal monologue underway with others gathered in my nocturnal imagination! There’s one friend nodding his head and insisting I follow my own path. I can hear him clearly when I’m out there, see his small sardonic smile as he says, “Come on Kunzinger. You know how to do this, stop waiting for approval or it’s never going to happen.” And there, too, is another friend whose smile is as wide as dawn pressing his sense of adventure into my spirit with an “all or nothing” carelessness about him which brings me up short yet livens my ambition. In one brief moment I am eased by no longer thinking of them in the past tense, but just as quickly, we all move on.

And sometimes sitting there on one of the benches is another friend, subconsciously rubbing her neck and looking at me with wide brown eyes saying, “Someday I will,” and then laughing and repeating, “Honest, someday I will,” and it makes me sad, deeply sad like liquid, but that moment too passes.

And then the distance across the reach lightens ever so slightly, from dark, almost Navy blue to something slightly more pale, like powder, and I’m alone again—the fox rushing off into the woods, the geese at rest in the harvested field or at the river’s edge, and the murmurs of chickadees and wrens and cardinals chase away what’s left of the stillness, and even my friends bow off, and I have trouble separating memory from imagination. So I go inside and wake my son so we can head to the bay to catch the sunrise.

It’s as if time lets me manipulate her however I wish just by heading outside at just the right moment; as if time has been neglected, ignored, or taken for granted, but for some of us who stay up late or get up early to gather as much out of our moments that we can, it offers a small reward, and I can bend her ever so slightly. Then, just briefly, it eases the almost vague pain in my soul which gathers around loss, which surrounds emptiness, and which almost always seems to visit during those late-night hours.

But predictably and somehow simultaneously surprisingly, dawn returns with that hope I need and says, “Wait, watch. Just watch.”

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To Plant a Garden

…is to believe in tomorrow. –Audrey Hepburn

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In the garden the peppers gave up for now, yielding enough to cover their cost, making them worthwhile, of course, for the fresh taste and the seasoning of satisfaction.

The cucumbers, too, have let me know they’re growing weary, pulling it together enough to hand over a few last small ones, but their withering leaves and the absence of new growth announce it’s time for me to head to Merryvale in the village to get the vegetables.

The tomatoes were the blowout. Early on I harvested bowls of cherry tomatoes, but they grew smaller and more tart, and now they seem to be spitting out just one or two here and there from behind brown vines, as if to say, “Wait, here’s another. You might as well eat it here. No point in ‘gathering’ them.” I haven’t yet done the accounting on the tomatoes but in the end each one might have cost me more than I care to admit. It reminds me of the man who grew a garden and kept an accounting only to find out each tomato cost about fifty-four dollars.

The eggplant win. I only had four plants, and one of them was behind what turned out to be a snake-sunning spot, but in the end, I harvested a whole bunch of eggplants, and while I can only eat so much of the stuff, it is rewarding nonetheless, which is why a garden to begin with.

I like taking from the earth—harvesting fruit and finding soil beneath my fingernails, the dirt under my feet, the unmistakable aroma of tomato vines, and cucumbers. I start the season with visions of baskets filled with big, ripe tomatoes, a row of peppers of various colors next to the bowl of string beans, which it turns out deer rather enjoy. Clearly reality digresses from the virtual image, but I never tire of spending time back there, behind the shed, noting the heat and feeling the hot sun on my back. There is always a buzz of flies and the occasional sound of a bee, and when I go back inside I have a sense of abandonment if I don’t get back there soon. And sometimes there are storms, downpours, but even in the rain—sometimes especially in the rain—I enjoy the peace, the absolute presence, of the garden.

It gives so much more than fruit. I have worked in my mind on more than a few writing projects there, and worked out some worries, burying them forever beneath the mulch and compost. I don’t listen to the news there, and I stopped listening to music. I prefer the eternal sensation that I am gathering from the garden in a fashion not unlike Thom Jefferson, Voltaire, or Cicero, who said if you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need. I spent my Sundays out there not in conversation, but consultation with George Bernard Shaw who said, “The best place to find God is in a garden; you can dig for him there.” And, of course, Monet, who said, “The garden is my most beautiful masterpiece.”

It is art. Writing is not unlike the work in the soil outside. The high hopes before starting, the impatience, the need to weed and prune (Hemingway must have done a lot of pruning), and water. If we give well to the garden, it tells us stories, it feeds our imagination and seasons our lives, deliciously. Someday when I can no longer tend to the plants and vines, I’ll long remember the sun on my neck and the feel of taking a tomato or cucumber off the vine and resting it gently in the basket, and then its sweet taste that afternoon.

And I hope the garden remembers me. I wonder if someday when someone else clears out the area to garden, or even perhaps build, or plant grass, when someone has long impressed his own identity on this land, will some piece of me stay behind? Maybe someone will find an old rusty wire from the bean vines, or the rotted-out bottom of a basket I left too long in the soil one winter. Maybe someone will find herself humming a tune I left there in the spring air while turning over the ground for lettuce and squash. We try hard not to leave our mark in nature, allowing it to remain its trusted and pure self, but a part of me prays that if someone excavates the area that used to be “my” garden, he will find some inspiration.

 

Dr. Russell J. Jandoli

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Dr Russell J. Jandoli–he would have been 100 August 16th

The first class I ever took in college was Media Law and the professor was my advisor, Dr. Russell Jandoli. He was one of the reasons I went to St. Bonaventure. This seasoned journalist had worked with everyone in the business and did his time with Stars and Stripes. He introduced me to the work of Ernie Pyle, and spent several hours with me in the basement of the library talking to Fr. Ireneaus Hirscher, who had known Thomas Merton, and we talked a long time, the three of us. On the way back to his office his simple comments about what to listen to and what I clearly wasn’t paying attention to helped me through all the writing courses at the college.

Dr. Jandoli would have been 100 years old Thursday. He seemed older than his years even four decades ago, yet had a laid back way about him that indicated he could handle, and probably had already handled, anything and anyone. He was a gentle man; a pure soul who was straight out of central casting for old time journalists. The first class on my first day in college, Dr. Jandoli walked in, called roll, and said quietly, “There’s no such thing as objectivity. It doesn’t exist,” and walked out. We sat quietly for a few moments until one student walked to the window and looked out and saw the professor walking away. “He’s gone!” he said, and we all walked back to our dorm rooms.

He caught my attention.

The following class he told us he didn’t want that information—essential for journalists—to get lost among all the other information we had no intention of remembering or caring about.

A few years later he was very sick in the hospital. When I visited, he told me that teachers talk too much. “We have two hour classes for one hour of information,” he said. “No wonder everyone stops listening.” He believed writing did the same thing. “Too many words. Your essays need to thin out as you rewrite. Leave some words behind as you go.” It was like sitting on a hillside with some prophet—his legs crossed, a long beard, the strength of ages in his straight and sturdy back. Instead, Dr Jandoli’s fragile frame lay eroded and weak in a hospital bed. We talked about things I was writing and then we sat quietly for a few moments before his wife would come and chase me out. Then he laughed and said, “Mr. Kunzinger—leave death for the poets.” His skin was transparent, and his once keen eyes that stared at ages of students from behind thick black glasses sunk subjectively into darkness.

He recovered from that stay, of course, returning stronger and then retiring. Just a dozen or so years later he wrote me a beautiful letter when a colleague of his and a friend and mentor of mine, Professor Pete Barrecchia, died. It was a beautiful letter, precise and deep. Those two were the journalists who set the pace, established the essential integrity necessary for the Fourth Estate to exist at all. And as a teacher he was the type who quietly demanded attention when he talked. He was the professor who we didn’t take advantage of simply because we couldn’t live with disappointing him.

Every time I write an editorial for the paper or a piece for a journal or magazine, I think of him, can see his deep, humble, and cunning smile. I think I moved away from journalism and toward personal narrative because I understood too well how difficult it can be to remain objective. It was rare then, and today nearly non-existent.

Happy Birthday Russ. Your influence is still present, and more necessary now than ever before.

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Racism at the Hartfield, VA YMCA

Yesterday I published a piece on this blog about how disappointing humanity is in the grand scheme of history and potential. It was a simple piece, and it barely scratches the surface of my thoughts in the matter–I need more philosophy first. But early this morning I experienced a moment of how pathetic humans can be. 

This is the first of what might be several writings about the subject in other more notable publications. But for today, thanks for reading this: 

I don’t even know how to write about this. It is one thing to address the horrific conditions of the planet and of humanity in large terms—noting the genocide and hatred which has permeated since the beginning of it all—and question how we can continue to believe we are anything worthy of redemption. Individually perhaps, but as a whole? There is no proof.

It is something else altogether to experience this hatred, or better explained, overhear the small-brained among us converse.

This morning at the Y I rode my favorite bike which has no headphone jack. I don’t mind it so much since at this hour the news shows remind me of things I go to the Y to forget for a while, but today I was subject to a conversation of two men on other bikes. Since this just happened an hour ago, this dialogue is close to exact:

“Did the Skins win this week?”

“I don’t know.”

“I was wondering if last night everyone stood for the flag.”

“I hope so.”

A brief pause while the second man (I almost called him gentleman) looked around to note the three of us, all white, were the only ones around.

“The problem is the n……”

“Exactly!”

“They’ve been a problem since we brought them here.”

“Damn right.”

“I heard something like sixty-five of those n….. were killed in Chicago this past weekend, and I thought, ‘well that’s a good start.”

Laughter among them both. At this point I couldn’t decide whether to say something, leave, or get on the treadmill and plug in my headphones to watch something less stressful, like the Manafort trial update.

Then this:

“I need to start attending meetings again.”

“You should. We miss you there.”

“I wish I could be up in Washington this weekend.”

“Yeah, especially now with Trump. He’s gonna get rid of those colored. Every last dang one of ‘em.”

I read once to never suppress anger; it isn’t healthy. So, okay…I had to say something.

“Wow.”

“What’s that?”

“That’s really pretty repulsive, the way you guys are talking about other people.”

“We aren’t talking about other people. We talking about n…..” “Yeah, mind your own business.”

I can’t figure out which is worse, that they are ignorant, or that they actually went to school.

“You know, Bob, you can just…”

“I was going to mind my own business. I can’t figure out if I should just keep my mouth shut and let us all think the way we want to think, which is absolutely how it should work in this country, or if I should go home and do what it is I do and write about you guys for the Sentinel (local paper) or the Washington Post, or anywhere to show that racism is alive and well in Deltaville.”

“Why don’t you mind your own business.”

I thought of Marley’s ghost when he stands up and screams at Scrooge, “Mankind was my business! The common welfare was my business!” Instead I apologized for interrupting but continued to talk to myself, loud enough for them to hear, while I rode the bike, and occasionally I directed my quiet tirade at them:

“Unbelievable. Unreal. I’m here with two grown, mature men who are stupid enough to think they’re better than others. Geez I’m sick of this. (to them) How is it possible that you can be so ignorant!? Where’d you learn to hate like that?! (to myself again) unreal. I’m writing about this, I’ll send it to the Washington Post. Geez, (to them) You guys read the Washington Post (I laugh). I’m writing about you guys. Someone’s got to shed light on how wide spread this problem is.”

I rode the treadmill for a while with one headphone in, the other dangling, and they were silent the whole time except to talk about the Redskins. I wanted to leave right away to get some work done so I went to them before I left and said, “Hey, Guys, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be so rude, I really didn’t. Just caught me at a bad time.” And they laughed and said of course and they weren’t awake yet either and no problem and blah and blah and felt very fine and good and all that, and I said, “But seriously, with no due respect at all, I’m writing about this. I’ll give you a head’s up when I know when and where it will be in print. The way you two talk and think about brothers of ours is repulsive. Have a good workout.”

And I left. Is it too early for a drink?

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Step Back

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A white-supremacist group is about to gather in Lafayette Park across from the White House. It is just one year since a similar group gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia, and violence broke out killing one person. It’s been three years since the riots after the death in Baltimore of Freddie Gray. That was just a year after the riots in Ferguson, Missouri, after the death of Michael Brown. It’s been nine years since the 2009 riots in Oakland after the shooting of Oscar Grant. It’s been twenty-two years since the riots protesting racial profiling in St. Petersburg, Florida. That was three years after the LA riots after the acquittal of police officers in the beating of Rodney King.

That wasn’t unlike the Miami riots of 1980 after the acquittal of four police officers in the death of Arthur McDuffie. He died while being arrested by four white police officers after a high-speed chase.

Forty-seven years since the summer of riots throughout the country.

Fifty years since the riots in 125 cities after the assassination of the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr.

Fifty three years since the Watts Riots.

That was a year after the Civil Rights Act.

Which was one hundred and one years after emancipation.

In 2016, 38,658 people were killed by a gun in the United States, either in an assault, suicide, or accident.

According to a report out of Stockholm in May of this year, the world’s military budget is $1.7 trillion a year. Human Rights Watch notes a minimum of 50 million people were killed in the twentieth century because of their race or religion.

Wars currently active in the world accounted for, in 2017 alone, 14,000 deaths in Afghanistan, 13,000 in Iraq, 14,700 in Mexico in drug conflicts, 39,000 in Syria, and 17,000 in Yemen. I’ve left some off. Those are just the conflicts where over 10K have been killed; more than a dozen more are out there right now with more than a thousand deaths last year.

This is us. This is who we are. The human race, noted for being just slightly below the angels. Hell yeah.

Humanity’s default position has become assertive, aggressors. Power and greed have always been in control, but it used to be the other side didn’t have to lose for one side to win. It used to be when both sides of a conflict benefited, it was better for the world. No longer.

No wonder suicide is higher than ever; depression is diagnosed more than ever; the number of heart disease and stroke victims are higher than ever.

No wonder I have tried to turn off the news, turn toward nature, turn back my expectations of administrations around the world and their ability to solve any—ANY ONE—of the problems. Something has been missing. We need Superman. If Christ is coming back, now’s good.

I’m wondering more and more lately if there are any Mother Theresa’s alive and well, any Schweitzer’s, any King’s or Gandhi’s. It certainly doesn’t feel like it. In the years between my birth and turning ten, we saw the initiation of the Peace Corps, Earth Day, NASA’s moon launch, the Civil Rights Act, and more, including idealistic events like Woodstock. It is hard to find hope now. It is difficult to put a finger on possible solutions. I understand the world was a bit too idealistic in a time that also brought us so many riots, the Vietnam War, assassinations of heroes, and more. But just a little more idealism wouldn’t be so bad, would it?

I spend most of my time near water; maybe because of its constant unpredictability; maybe because of how true it is. It is cleansing; it is purifying. I really am finding it difficult to believe in much else anymore, but when I look out I remember what Gandhi said:

“You must not lose faith in humanity. Humanity is like an ocean; if a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty.”

I’d like to believe that.

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I’ll be Outside

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In Isak Dinesen’s story “Wings,” she and Denys Finch-Hatton come upon a dead giraffe, shot and abandoned by poachers. Two lions are feeding upon the carcass, and they’re the same two which have been terrorizing villagers, so they decide to go out one night and kill the lions. They do. It’s tight writing and exciting narrative with just enough philosophical digression to make the piece not solely about 1920 Kenya.

Last night I thought about them out there, nothing but a gas light and one long gun, facing down two not-so-hungry-anymore lions. I came across a turtle trying to make it across the road before some wild car came by; and a great blue heron on top of a tree, sitting up nervously as we went by. He stayed; we aren’t that threatening.

While I live in what in some quarters can be considered wilderness, I don’t live in the wild. Even domestic preserves like Myakka in Florida had more dangerous wildlife than I ever saw in Africa.

In the story Denys points out that the lions were just doing what lions do. To which Karen Blixen (Dinesen’s real name) replies, “and we are just doing what we do. Shoot them.”

I would like to blend in to the wilderness more, go unnoticed. Some deer will stand still while I walk by, ready to run, determined to stay. Dogs, cats, and even squirrels seem attracted to me, and hummingbirds have taken to zeroing in on my bloodshot eyes. But I’d like to rest along the river or at a pond while wildlife calmly go about their business. I like to observe, to note how they handle the passing of time. I like to watch the osprey glide then find their way to their nest to feed their young. It would be a pleasure to do this without them wanting to fly away. It has certainly made me more stealth.

I believe I’d be more like Karen than Denys. The man had nerves of steel, but Karen was nervous, even scared, but nonetheless enjoyed the adrenaline rush that often accompanies life. Some endeavors come at a cost, but that cost—what at the extreme can be called a Death Wish—is what Denys was doing out there to begin with. I think he just wanted to experience the very happening of life, not its passing.

It is one thing to understand we are alive, here, now, resting on the passing of time. It is an entirely separate situation to be in tune to the pulse of life, to watch its chest rise and fall, to feel the breath of life on the back of your neck.

To a certain degree I find that in nature, in my version of wilderness, which seems to be rapidly retreating from the suburbs which have spread out like a flair on a paper towel. Maybe if I didn’t head down to the city every once in a while I might not appreciate as much the vibrations of life in nature; I don’t know. In the city when I get used to the sounds and the life I can predict its next move, and this is not so interesting, almost futile. In nature, every single time that deer does not move as I walk by is a surprise. Each osprey that dives for a fish and carries it to its young in the nest is nothing short of miraculous.

And so too the Carolina wrens when they sing; and the goldfinches, or the indigo buntings.

It has become difficult to be somewhere unarguable, somewhere absent of shallow conflicts, questionable motives.

I’ll take the wilderness, quietly.

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