Piazza Navona by Jamie Kirkpatrick

Long before Dan Brown made it a crime scene in one of his grisly thrillers, I had come to the conclusion that the Piazza Navona in Rome was a very “thin place.” In fact, I had even gone so far in my young (mind you, this was fifty years ago!) brain to think it was the really the center of the known universe, so perfect was it in concept, design, symmetry, and aesthetic harmony that everything else in the world must revolve around its sublime axis. Even now, all these years later, I think maybe I was privy to some cosmic secret.

I was lucky. I stumbled on the Piazza Navona one summer day having wandered through a warren of streets in a workingman’s neighborhood in Rome. Suddenly, in early morning light, the space just seemed to magically appear out of thin air. It was still a quiet time of day: no streams of gawking tourists, no caricature artists, just a pair of blue-habited nuns walking out of the old convent that used to overlook the square. I sat down to take it all in—the play of light and water and granite—lost in that ephemeral suspended moment of time that is the hallmark of a truly thin place.

Today’s piazza is an ancient place. Built on the site of the Stadium of Domitian in the first Century AD, it follows the oblong form of an open arena where ancient Romans used to congregate to watch games. It was officially designated a public space in the 15th Century. Today, art historians acknowledge the piazza as a superb example of Baroque Roman architecture, but I’m sticking with my own new-age designation: it’s a superbly thin place.

If God is in the details, then the Piazza Navona must surely be a part of heaven. In the center, the Fountain of Four Rivers (the Nile representing Africa, the Danube representing Europe, the Ganges, Asia, and the Rio de la Plata, the Americas) dominates the space. Designed by Lorenzo Bernini in 1651, the fountain adds a rather base human emotion to an otherwise divine vision. One of its stone gods faces the church of Sant’Agnese, designed and built by Francesco Borromini, a contemporary and rival of Signor Bernini. Apparently Signor Bernini didn’t think much of Borromini’s architectural acumen because the god of Bernini’s fountain has his hand raised in a cowering gesture as though one of Borromini’s Adam-and-Eve towers is about to topple over on his stone head. Today, that demeaning message would probably be delivered in a tweet.

There are two other fountains in the Piazza. The Fontana del Moro (the Moorish Fountain) is located at the southern end of the Piazza while the Fontana del Nettuno (Neptune’s Fountain) provides balance at the northern end. On a hot summer day, the splash and spray of the three fountains add a refreshing note to the cobblestones of the Piazza and the graceful facades of the surrounding buildings.

Be that as it may, it’s the life around and within the Piazza Navona that gives it a beating heart. There are bars and cafés, gelateria, ristoranti; people eating, drinking, talking, laughing, gesturing—after all, this is Italy. And yet, for all the buzz of the place (especially on a warm summer evening), there is a pervading sense of serenity and heavenly peace hovering over all the earthly activity in the Piazza. Even the jealousy and rivalry of some of the hands that created certain elements of the space seem to join in celebration of the gift they bequeathed to us. They must have had God whispering in their ears.

I’ll be right back.

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015.  A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was published in May 2017; a second volume of Musings entitled “I’ll Be Right Back” was released in June 2018.  Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com

Kilimanjaro by Jamie Kirkpatrick

 

Even now, more than fifty years later (sigh!), the memory haunts me. It was the summer of 1968—both Bobby and Martin were dead—and I was on my way to Africa. It was a last-minute destination. I had applied to my university for a summer study grant to spend a few weeks at the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Haiti, but something had gone awry there and I had to seek another location or forfeit the award. Fortunately, with my father’s help, I made contact with Lawrence Sagini, the Minister of the Interior in Kenya, and he agreed to sponsor my “research.” I really didn’t know what research I was going to do, but I’d figure it out when I got there.

Kenya was the crown jewel of Africa. Independent since 1963, it was essentially a single-party political state, ruled by Jomo Kenyatta and his KANU (Kenyan Africa National Union) party. But general elections—the first since independence—had been scheduled for the following year and Kenyatta wanted to consolidate his party’s hold on government. It was my host’s mission to spread the ‘Uhuru’ (Swahili for ‘Freedom’) message throughout the country and so I rode his political coattails listening to stump speeches in countless villages all that summer. I even met Tom Mboya, the charismatic rising star of Kenyan politics who was assassinated a few months later. It was all an incredible experience, but that’s not the abiding memory remains with me today. Kilimanjaro is.

I had taken a week off from the campaign to go on safari with my parents who had come to visit. (They did things like that.) We travelled to Tsavo East National Park to see the great herds of the Serengeti plains and maybe to catch a glimpse of Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak. The animals had cooperated, the mountain had not. Shrouded by cloud and fog, its summit had remained obscured for days and time was running short; I had to get back to Nairobi.

Before dawn on our last morning in the park, we drove out to watch the great herds graze. There were zebra, wildebeest, giraffe. But Kilimanjaro stayed hidden under a cloud bank. Still, it was a thrill to watch a scene that was both timeless and momentary and I felt a sense of peace and freedom unlike anything I had ever known or perhaps ever will know again. This was the world as it was in the beginning and I was whole in it, unencumbered by any thought of my brief past or of future that lay in wait.

Then it happened. As though an unseen hand parted a thin curtain, the clouds around Kilimanjaro’s summit suddenly lifted and I watched the sun rise on the mountain’s peak. Then, as now, I couldn’t stop the tears as the summit went from a blush of deep lavender to Midas gold to brilliant snow-capped white, all in the space of a few minutes. Time stopped and I was one with the universe—a very ‘thin place’ indeed. And then, just as suddenly as the curtain parted, the clouds descended again, shrouding all that glory for another day. It might have been a dream, but the tears running down my cheeks told me it wasn’t. I had, for one brief, shining moment, seen the hand of God.

I’ve rarely spoken of that moment since. It just seems too much to tell. Even now, all these years later, I wonder if it really happened. But I know it did. I can still recall the perfect stillness, the suspension of time, the awe and the wonder. That needs to be shared now.

When things get tough, I summon the moment I saw Kilimanjaro’s summit. It helps me get through the meanness and pettiness of these times because I know the mountain is still there. The herds still graze peacefully on the plains below and every day, the sun still rises on its summit. Fleeting and yet eternal.

I’ll be right back.

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015.  A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was published in May 2017; a second volume of Musings entitled “I’ll Be Right Back” was released in June 2018.  Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com

Thin Places by Jamie Kirkpatrick

I recently stumbled across a bit of old Celtic wisdom: the existence of thin places. Thin places are spaces in this world where heaven and earth don’t quite collide but almost touch. Places where time is suspended and you could live forever in the moment. Like in the photo that accompanies this Musing: a selfie taken a few years ago on an unseasonably warm day on the southern shore of Iona, a small island off a slightly larger island (Mull) off the west coast of Scotland. It captures a moment that captured me; an idyllic afternoon I will treasure forever.

As far as I know, there is no roadmap to, or listing of, thin places. They’re not in any London cabbie’s A to Zed. As I did on that day ten years ago—and again just yesterday in an article from a few years back on the Travel Page of the New York Times—you have to stumble upon a thin place. Better yet, perhaps it has to find you. Thin places may be natural or man-made. They may be encountered in the most unexpected of settings or at the least expected moment. Maybe it’s that place an athlete calls “the zone” although I happen to think a thin place is more than that. It’s where a window opens, a gauzy thin curtain parts, and suddenly, quietly, you are one with time and space. Maybe thin places are portals to another dimension, grander than wonder, greater than awe. The word ‘rapture’ might best express what I’m talking about if it hadn’t been hijacked by evangelicals. I’ll just say this: you’ll know a thin place when you are in it.

Thin places are both old as time and new as now. That’s part of their beauty but not all of it. They may be hidden or right in front of our noses. Like stars in the daylight, they are always present—we just can’t see them. They’re both mysterious and wonderful, sacred and profane, ephemeral and everlasting. I’ve often encountered thin places in areas surrounded by water, but I’ve experienced them in sere places, too. They are often announced by a subtle quality of light that seems to almost radiate or glow. I’ve tried to photograph thin places but it’s difficult; in the time it takes me to reach for my camera, they may already be gone.

If you haven’t guessed by now, I believe deeply in the cosmology of thin places. If I could, I would inhabit one at every waking moment. But I know that while life can be supremely blissful in a thin place, it’s only a transitory space, a safe pathway we are lucky enough to cross to get from one side of life’s busy street to the other. Sigh. The good news is that while we may come and go, thin places will always be within reach.

I hope I haven’t lost you. I promise I haven’t been eating mushrooms. If you thought this Musing was about a new fad diet, I apologize. I just think that my Celtic ancestors knew something wise and ancient that maybe we’ve forgotten and that deserves remembering.

I also think that over here on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, we live in a thin place—or very close to one—so we should always keep our eyes and hearts open. Whether it’s something as spectacular as the annual arrival of the tall ships or as simple as sitting on the porch surrounded by friends, I have felt heaven and earth meet here. I have always felt I didn’t find this town, that it found me. Now I’ve been given a name by which to call this phenomenon.

In times like these—times of turmoil, times of division—we need to know there are still thin places where we can find a measure of peace and comfort and stillness. A thin place of unity.

I’ll be right back.

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015.  A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was published in May 2017; a second volume of Musings entitled “I’ll Be Right Back” was released in June 2018.  Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com

March Madness by Jamie Kirkpatrick

Every year at this time, the NCAA Men’s & Women’s Basketball Tournament reminds us all how democracy is supposed to work. Sixty-four teams (sixty-six, if you count the play-ins) compete in each tournament: win and play again; lose and go home. The last man/woman standing is crowned our National Champion. Simple.

But that’s not the March Madness I’m talking about here. No; it’s Elizabeth Warren’s recent idea to do away with the Electoral College. Is it March Madness or March Genius? Let’s take a look…

The Electoral College convenes every four years for the sole purpose of electing the President and Vice-President of the United States. Each state is entitled to a number of Electors equal to the combined total of that state’s membership in the US Senate and House of Representatives. Additionally, pursuant to the 23rd Amendment to the Constitution, the District of Columbia is entitled to a number of Electors equal to the number of Electors from the least populous state(s) which is currently 3. (The other least populous states are North and South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Alaska, and Hawaii.) That adds to 538 Electors; and absolute majority of 270 Electors is required to win the election.

Additionally, Article II of the US Constitution (Section 1, Clause 2 for those of you who enjoy spending time in the weeds) specifies that the legislature of each state may determine the manner in which its Electors are chosen. After each Presidential election day (the first Tuesday in November or November 3, 2020 if you happen to be counting down), each state counts its popular votes and determines how its Electors will cast their votes. In 2016, Donald Trump received 304 electoral votes, Hillary Clinton received 278. (Three other candidates received electoral votes including Bernie Sanders who received 1 of Hawaii’s electoral votes and Spotted Owl who received 1 of Washington’s.) The irony, of course is that Ms. Clinton won the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes. And therein lies the Electoral rub.

It would seem that the Electoral College is an inherently anti-democratic institution, that it undermines the notion of “one person, one vote.” Proponents of the College argue that it is fundamental to American Federalism and requires candidates to appeal to rural areas as well as to larger urban populations. Opponents criticize the system saying it encourages candidates to focus on a few “swing states” and gives a few states with small populations a disproportionally large influence in national elections. They also rue the fact that the Electoral College may result in a one candidate winning the popular vote but losing the election. They may have a point: that confusing result has already happened twice in this Century (2000 and 2016).

In several polls taken since 1967, a majority of Americans favor with doing away with the Electoral College, calling it anachronistic, a relic of our nation at the time of the Founding Fathers (and Mothers). Yet it remains. Now along comes Ms. Warren’s proposal to abolish the Electoral College because she “wants every vote to matter.” Many agree with her: let the popular vote decide; don’t ‘delegitimize’ an election by declaring a candidate with fewer popular votes the winner.

Ms. Warren’s proposal has its critics, to say the least. Senator Lindsay Graham says Democrats “want rural America to just go away politically.” Senator Marco Rubio thinks the Electoral College is “a work of genius.” Not surprisingly, Mr. Trump defends the College by claiming that “cities would end up running the country…and we don’t want that!”

Which brings me back to the NCAA Basketball Tournament. It’s about clear winners and losers. Score more points and play on. Score fewer points and go home. Simple. But basketball tournaments and national elections in a Federalist Republic are not the same thing. Our Founders knew that the tyranny of the majority was a dangerous beast that had the potential to result in something more akin to mob rule than true democracy. They preferred a system with more checks and balances. The Electoral College may have its conceptual problems but it may also protect us from the beast.

I’ll be right back.

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015.  A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was published in May 2017; a second volume of Musings entitled “I’ll Be Right Back” was released in June 2018.  Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com

The Getaway by Jamie Kirkpatrick

Winter had us in its icy grip. Like actors midway through a performance, we needed a change of scene. Like bank robbers with satchels full of cash, we needed a quick getaway. But where to go? The Caribbean would be too expensive; Florida, too far. Three couples in search of just one night away: maybe a little retail therapy, certainly a good glass of wine, a tasty meal, a cozy fire…

Easton is only an hour from Chestertown, just on the other side of Queen Anne’s County. It’s almost our backyard neighbor, but still just far enough to qualify as a getaway destination. There’s a comfortable and accommodating inn right right in the heart of town (The Tidewater) with an attractive weekend package, a restaurant with a gastronomic reputation (Scossa), and an after-dinner spot with a clubby atmosphere, soft leather chairs in front of a romantic fire, and an almost endless selection of single-malt whisky (The Stewart). Done!

Now don’t get me wrong: I love Chestertown and all its friendly people and amenities. It truly is home sweet home. But every once in a while, it’s good to go explore new environs, make friends with the neighbors, and hoist the Kent County flag in another realm. So think of us as explorers, scouts, and ambassadors, not as traitors, renegades, or quislings. In other words, NO COLLUSION!

We arrived in Easton early on Saturday afternoon. The first item on the agenda—or at least the distaff half of the agenda—was the retail therapy component of the trip. That was ok with the guys because we knew of a couple of good stores with more manly merchandise on display. Alas! What we didn’t reckon on was that these shops close at 2 o’clock on Saturdays, presumably so the merchants can pursue manly pursuits of their own. That left the boys out of the retail equation and with only one good option—napping, or as someone put it, “reading with my eyes closed.” Now I’m not averse to an occasional nap—if napping was good enough for Winston Churchill, it’s good enough for me—so I made myself comfortable for an hour while the women browsed and bought. My mates did likewise. When the ladies eventually returned, there was a shopping bag or two, but nothing outrageous. However, it was closing in on 5 o’clock and you know what that means…

We gathered in the lobby in front of the fireplace. No, wait; that’s not quite accurate. Before that, we gathered in our room to share a bottle of champagne which had been chilling in the bathtub. It was only after that bottle was empty that we went down to the lobby and cashed in our tickets for complimentary getaway cocktails. We weren’t the only ones fireside: apparently, great minds do think alike as we met and chatted with other friendly souls on getaways of their own.

Our dinner reservation was for 7:30 which is late by my standards. But the company was excellent and the food at Scossa did not disappoint. For the first time since Chestertown’s beloved Blue Heron closed, I enjoyed sweetbreads. No wait; that’s not accurate. First I downed a pasta bolognese, and then I enjoyed the sweetbreads. Others followed suit, each in his/her own way. There was a bottle of good red wine, a Montepulciano if memory serves me. Maybe two. We even ordered dessert. Wait, that’s not entirely accurate; I think we ordered 3 desserts. My kindergarten teacher would have approved; she always said it was good to share.

After dinner, The Stewart (just around the corner) was ready and waiting for us. There’s nothing better than an after-dinner wee dram on a cold night, unless it’s two wee drams in front of a blazing fire in the pleasant company of good friends. Stories and laughter.

Sunday’s breakfast was copious and good, just what we needed. Plenty of coffee and all manner of good soakage. There were even healthy options available: fresh fruit and yogurt to absolve my biscuits and gravy. We lingered around the table, making plans for our next getaway—maybe in the summer, maybe to the beach. Then it was time to pack up, load the car, and head home.

We crossed the Chester early in the afternoon. Our little town was its usual quiet Sunday self. Although it was yet another cold and grey day, we didn’t mind because as refreshing as our getaway was, our homecoming was even better. Yes; Easton is lovely, but Chestertown is where I belong. And that’s why…

I’ll (always) be right back.

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015.  A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was published in May 2017; a second volume of Musings entitled “I’ll Be Right Back” was released in June 2018.  Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com

 

A Happy American Birthday by Jamie Kirkpatrick

“How many of you who are going to be doctors are willing to spend your days in Ghana? Technicians or engineers, how many of you are willing to work in the Foreign Service and spend your lives traveling around the world? On your willingness to do that, not merely to serve one year or two years in the service, but on your willingness to contribute part of your life to this country, I think will depend the answer whether a free society can compete. I think it can! And I think Americans are willing to contribute. But the effort must be far greater than we have ever made in the past.”

John F. Kennedy

A few days ago, a good friend of mine quietly celebrated its 58th birthday. I know the possessive pronoun in that sentence sounds a bit strange, but I do count the Peace Corps as a friend—a good friend, a friend I keep close to my heart. As for its birthday, President John F. Kennedy signed Executive Order 10924 establishing the Peace Corps on March 1, 1961, but the story really begins several months before…

October 14, 1960: it’s less than a month before the election and Democrat John F. Kennedy is running hard. And late. It’s 2 o’clock in the morning and the press corps has gone to bed—it has been a long day on the campaign trail and nothing more is likely to occur. But 10,000 University of Michigan students have been waiting for hours in the cold to see the young candidate and JFK, hoarse from a day of speeches, does not want to disappoint them. So before retiring for the night, he makes a few impromptu remarks on the steps of the Student Union Building and asks a simple question: “How many of you would be willing to serve your country and the cause of peace by living and working in the developing world?” Their reaction is immediately boisterous. An idea is born. (Kennedy’s full remarks on the subject—one paragraph long!—are included below.)

In the summer of 1970, two months after graduating college, I joined the Peace Corps. I had been expecting to go to Kenya where I had spent the summer of 1968, but when the recruiter called, she asked if I was interested in going to Tunisia. “Where?” I asked. “Tunisia,” she said. “Why? I asked. “Because you speak French.” I quickly looked at a map. “OK!” I said.

I joined a group that included sixteen other Volunteers comprised of coaches who would help develop Tunisia’s national swimming, basketball, and track and field programs in anticipation of 1972 Olympic games, and teachers who would be either teaching English as a foreign language to adults or kindergarten in Tunisia’s progressive pre-school program. We spent our first six weeks of training in the United States (including ten days of individual home stays in rural West Virginia to introduce us to crossing cultural barriers!) and another six weeks of intensive language training in Tunisia. A few days before Thanksgiving, I arrived in a small town in the mountainous region of the country, not far from the Algerian border. Kasserine; site of a famous World War II battle. I was home.

When Archimedes first fully articulated the principle of the lever, he was reputed to have said, “Give me a place to stand and I will move the Earth.” While I doubt I moved any earth, for the next two years, Kasserine was my place to stand. During my service there, I coached the town’s basketball team and taught Physical Education and English in the local high school. I also travelled throughout the country, learned to speak Arabic, and made friends that have lasted a lifetime. Perhaps most importantly, at the conclusion of my time in Kasserine, I brought a little bit of Tunisia home with me.

I wasn’t finished. I spent a total of six years with the Peace Corps: my two Volunteer years, followed by four more years as a staff member, the first two in Washington where I helped train new groups of Volunteers, and then two more years back in Tunisia as an Associate Country Director. It was during those years that my son was born in Tunisia.

The mission of the Peace Corps is based on fulfilling three goals: to help interested countries in the developing world meet their needs for trained men and women; to promote a better understanding of Americans; and to help Americans better understand other people and other cultures. Since its founding in 1961, more than 235,000 Americans have served in a total of 141 countries helping to fulfill this mission. I am a grateful drop in that bucket.

Happy birthday, Peace Corps!

I’ll be right back.

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015.  A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was published in May 2017; a second volume of Musings entitled “I’ll Be Right Back” was released in June 2018.  Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com

 

Mud Time by Jamie Kirkpatrick

This is a difficult time of year for me. I’m restless; I want to get out from under all these layers; I want Mother Nature to stop teasing me with a warm day or two followed by another stretch of dreich weather. I guess I’m just ready for spring. Persephone: where are you??

Daughter of Zeus and Earth Goddess Demeter, Persephone (as I’m sure you know) caught the eye of Hades, King of the Underworld. Now Hades knew a good thing when he saw it, so one day when Persephone was out picking spring flowers, he abducted her, took her back to his dark kingdom, and gave her something to eat—I think it was a pomegranate or maybe even just a seed from a pomegranate. (According to ancient laws, anyone who tasted even a morsel of food in the underworld was destined to remain there. I don’t know why; you’ll have to ask a Greek.) Whatever it was she ate, Persephone was now below ground for good, Hades’ consort in the cold, dark Underworld.

That might have been the end of the story but of course it wasn’t. You see, mothers don’t like it when their daughters are abducted so Demeter (Persephone’s mother) complained to Zeus (Persephone’s father) about Hades’ (Persephone’s newly minted husband) rude behavior. Hades preferred to keep Persephone in the proverbial dark, but powerful Zeus convinced him to allow her to return to visit her mother in the light for two-thirds of every year. As a result, Persephone—did I mention she just happened to be the Goddess of Fertility?—pops up around this time of year, bringing with her…drum roll, please…SPRING!

So, please, Persephone, let’s get on with it. It’s time for you to grab your cornucopia and come on home. Patience may well be a virtue but I’m running low on it; let’s get this party started!

There are some hopeful signs. Eggman has seen a red-wing blackbird or two. There are buds starting to swell on the rose bushes and hydrangea in the backyard. The geese are gathering. There are baseball games on television. But every time I think we’re beyond his frosty grasp, old man winter wags his bony finger and says, “Not yet, my friend.” Sigh.

The all-too-appropriately-named poet Robert Frost was well aware of what I’m talking about. He knew winter could play possum. But to Frost, the seasonal axis came in April, not February. Here’s how he rhymed it in “Two Tramps in Mud Time”:

The sun was warm but the wind was chill.
You know how it is with an April day
When the sun is out and the wind is still,
You’re one month on in the middle of May.
But if you so much as dare to speak,
A cloud comes over the sunlit arch,
A wind comes off a frozen peak,
And you’re two months back in the middle of March.

Maybe it’s this global warming phenomenon or maybe it’s because we’re well south of Mr. Frost’s beloved Vermont, but my axis—my personal mud time—is right now, late February, early March. That’s when I begin itching to get out on the golf course, to put away mittens. hat, and gloves, to move the hammock from its winter pasture behind the shed to its rightful place in the sunny backyard. And that’s why now, like Motel 6, every night before I go to sleep, I leave the porch light on for Persephone.

I know; I know. All too soon, we’ll be complaining about the heat and humidity, but right now that’s a chance I’m willing to take. Mud time be gone! Break out the shorts! Find the flip-flops! Bartender: pour me a gin and tonic!

Who’s with me?

I’ll be right back.

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015.  A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was published in May 2017; a second volume of Musings entitled “I’ll Be Right Back” was released in June 2018.  Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com

The Writing on the Wall by Jamie Kirkpatrick

In Chapter 5 of the Book of Daniel—so the story goes—Belshazzar, last ruler of the Babylonian Empire, throws a great feast to celebrate his victory over the Israelites and his army’s destruction of the First Temple. During the feast, he drinks from vessels looted from that temple and as he sips, a mysterious hand appears, writing these words on a wall of Belshazzar’s palace: “Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin.” For those of you who don’t happen to speak Aramaic, that translates to “Numbered, numbered, weighed, divided,” a phrase interpreted by the prophet Daniel to mean that God has judged Belshazzar and doomed his empire. As a result, ever since that ghostly hand appeared, the phrase “the writing on the wall” has always prophesied failure, doom, and destruction.

Fast forward to our time and another wall—one immortalized by the poet Robert Frost. One of his most beloved poems, “Mending Wall,” begins with these words: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” In simple blank verse, Frost recounts the annual task of two neighbors rebuilding an old stone wall that has always separated their property. At one time, the wall may have served a useful purpose by keeping the neighbor’s cows out of Frost’s orchard. Those cows are long gone (“He is all pine and I am apple orchard”) so to Frost, the old divide is no longer necessary. But his neighbor believes differently; to him, it’s a simple equation, an adage inherited from his father: “Good fences make good neighbors.” As a result, on a chilly morning every spring, on they go: two aging neighbors, limping along, stacking stones to repair an old wall that no longer serves any real purpose. To Frost, the old wall is nothing more than a neighborly habitual task—a crumbling remnant of a bygone era, a waste of time, an old-fashioned folly. But to the man across the wall, it still serves a useful purpose if only because “good fences make good neighbors.”

Frost knew that any wall is an imperfect barrier. Every spring, he and his neighbor would meet on the appointed day to repair what winter and hunters had undone. Nature conspired against the wall by causing frozen ground-swells to topple boulders, making gaps “where even two can pass abreast;” as for those pesky hunters, they did even more of the dirty work, rooting out rabbits and removing stones “to please the yelping dogs.” Frost knew in his bones that this annual chore—lifting and restacking stones to rebuild an old and useless wall—was a Sisyphean task, but every year, he did it anyway. Why? I guess only to please a neighbor who remained stuck in that deep old rut that stubbornly clung to the tired hand-me-down that “good fences make good neighbors.”

So what should we make of the wall that everyone is currently talking about; the one that shut down our government for more than a month; the one that is needed to resolve a supposed “national emergency” that apparently never needed to happen in the first place? I wonder if there will there be any prophetic writing on that wall. I wonder if perhaps we shouldn’t be asking ourselves the same question that Frost poetically pondered to himself: “Before I built a wall, I’d ask to know/What I was walling in or walling out.”

“Mending Wall” concludes with two clean lines: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall/That wants it down.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin.

I’ll be right back.

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015.  A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was published in May 2017; a second volume of Musings entitled “I’ll Be Right Back” was released in June 2018.  Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com

Soup for You by Jamie Kirkpatrick

Something strange is afoot in my universe. My past has started returning to me like chickens coming home to roost. Last week, I told you about three childhood ditties that have returned to haunt me…in a good way. This week, it’s soup that has reappeared on my horizon. It’s as though my life is a radio station I’ve listened to for so long that the playlist has begun to repeat. Everything is new all over again.

Here’s how it all started this time: a few nights ago, my wife and I went out to dinner and bumped into some good friends who were having a glass of wine. A lot of our things start that way, but in this case, the spark was when the conversation turned to our friends’ house renovation that was underway down near St. Michaels. John took out his cell phone to show us pictures of what appeared to be a major construction project and as he was scrolling through his montage of photos, his thumb quickly swiped across what looked to me like a recipe. Not just any recipe, mind you. It was a recipe for Chippewa Soup.

“Stop!” I said.

John dutifully obeyed and began to explain that the guest bedroom was going to have a picture window with a wonderful view of the bay…

“No; go back,” I said. “Not that. The recipe. Did I just see a recipe for Chippewa Soup?”

John looked at me the way people do from time to time but began to scroll back through all the photos and yes, lo and behold, there was indeed a photo of a recipe for Chippewa Soup. “Oh that,” he said, “it’s just a recipe for some soup that comes from Rolling Rock…”

“I know!” I was probably talking too loudly. “I’m from Pittsburgh, you know. That was my favorite soup! Only two places ever served it: Rolling Rock and the Duquesne Club, the twin pillars of Pittsburgh society! I loved it so much, I asked for the recipe and made a batch every Christmas Eve for twenty years!” I was definitely talking too loudly now. The renovation project was out the window. Suddenly I realized I had somehow forgotten all about Chippewa Soup. I mean, how does one forget something once so loved? Now there’s something to muse on for another time…but I digress.

First thing next morning, I went to the grocery store and bought everything I needed. It was going to be a cold day—a perfect day for soup!. I could already savor the redolent aroma that would again fill the house; I couldn’t wait to taste all the subtle flavors that would rewarm my belly.

There are two known recipes for Chippewa Soup: one is gastronomically complicated, the other is caveman simple. As a chef, I was trained in the Ocham’s Razor school of cooking: the simple recipe is likely to be just as good—maybe even better—as the fancy version. Now I admit that as a scientific methodology, Friar Ocham’s theory is not considered an irrefutable principle of logic; it’s more of an arbiter among competing hypotheses that states if you want to solve a problem, the most simple solution—the one with the fewest assumptions—is more likely to be correct than a more complex one. In my cooking methodology, especially when it comes to Chippewa Soup, it all boils down to this: KISS: keep it simple, stupid.

Interested? Getting hungry? Maybe if I were the Seinfeld Soup Nazi, I would now go and hide the recipe to keep you coming back for more, but in the true spirit of Musing, I’ve decided to share it with you so pay attention:

Combine two cans of tomato and split pea soup. (Campbell’s is just fine.) Add a smoked ham hock. In a separate pan (I prefer a cast iron skillet), dice and sauté in half stick of butter, carrots, celery, and onion. Add curry powder to taste—the more, the better in my book—and cook for 5 minutes. Add the curried vegetables to the soup and let it simmer on the stove for two hours before draining the soup through a colander. Mix in enough heavy cream to turn the color to gold. Garnish with fresh chives, a crouton or two, and a dollop of sour cream. Serve hot or cold…but hot is better.

Chippewa soup pairs well with your favorite glass of wine and a fresh, warm baguette from Evergrain. Soup for you! Yum! Let me know what you think.

So welcome to the clubs. I’m off to the kitchen but don’t worry…

I’ll be right back.

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015.  A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was published in May 2017; a second volume of Musings entitled “I’ll Be Right Back” was released in June 2018.  Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com

Three Little Ditties by Jamie Kirkpatrick

Funny, the things that stick in my head…

Neither of my parents was very musical—in fact, they weren’t musical at all—but mother often warbled a limited repertoire of old tunes to me and some of those ditties have remained in my head for all these years. I wonder why.

Maybe she heard “School Days” when she was a little girl and just wanted to pass it along. It’s a sentimental little song penned by Will Cobb and Gus Edwards in 1907—just two years after mother was born—and evokes that simpler time before school and education got so darned complicated, or to paraphrase Mark Twain, ‘before schooling got in the way of a good education.’ Anyway, it goes like this:

School days, school days,
Dear old golden rule days!
Reading and Riting and ‘Rithmatic
Taught to the tune of a hickory stick.
You were my queen in calico,
I was your barefoot, bashful beau.
You wrote on my slate
“I love you, Joe!”
When we were a couple of kids.

Her second favorite tune was “Around the Corner,” a song-without-end written by Ben Selvin in 1930. Mother only sang the chorus which was just as well because I’ve come to learn that the full version of the song tells the sad story of the ‘fairest maid in old Algiers’ who falls for a handsome, tall French soldier in the Grenadiers (rhymes with ‘Algiers’) who pursues her and woos her only to leave her waiting for him under the tree because (as he reveals in the song’s last line), he is already married and devoted to his wife back in France. Apparently mother decided I didn’t need to hear about jilted love at such a tender age so she only sang her own abbreviated version:

Around the corner and under a tree,
A sergeant major once said to me,
“I wonder who
Will marry you
Because every time I look at your face, it makes me want to go
Around the corner….”

And the song would repeat endlessly until one of us fell asleep. Needless to say, it never occurred to me that it was my face she was looking at when she was singing to me; that thought bloomed much later in life. (Don’t worry; I forgave her long ago.) However, I did learn one interesting fact about this song: the good people who work with dementia patients report that for many of those in their care, it’s this song that they often sing or hum over and over. Make of that what you will.

Finally, there was the tune that my little musical night lamp would play as I fell asleep. Rosemary Clooney (remember her in “White Christmas” opposite Bing Crosby?) made it famous when she recorded it in 1937. It’s called “The Teddy Bears’ Picnic.” The melody was composed by John Walter Bratton in 1907 (apparently a very good year for songs!); the lyrics—by Irish songwriter Jimmy Kennedy—were added in 1932. It turns out there was some controversy about Bratton’s two-step melody because it echos the refrain of the popular “Death or Glory March” that was written by Robert Browne Hall in 1895. No copyright infringement charges were ever filed so the Bratton/Kennedy teddy bears march on to glory (never death!) in my dreams just as Mr. Bratton composed it:

If you go down to the woods today
You’re sure of a big surprise.
If you go down in the woods today
You better go in disguise.
For every bear there ever was
Will gather there for certain because
Today’s the day the teddy bears have their picnic!

Like I said, it’s funny the things that stick in my head. I was going to tell you about another song I just remembered—“On The Sidewalks of New York”—but for some reason, ever since I started thinking about those teddy bears and their picnic, I’m feeling drowsy. Don’t worry…

I’ll be right back.

(PS: If you’re interested, you can still listen to all these little ditties on You Tube!)

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015.  A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was published in May 2017; a second volume of Musings entitled “I’ll Be Right Back” was released in June 2018.  Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com

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