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

Three Milestones by Jamie Kirkpatrick

Milestones may speak a silent language but they do tell us two important things: how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go. Last week, I passed three more milestones on my own road to somewhere.

The first one was along the road leading from grief to recovery, from unutterable sadness to happy memory. I sat in Dar’s small apartment as I watched my wife, three of her sisters, and one of her brothers pack their mother’s long and loving life into boxes and bags, sorting out the remains of her day. There was furniture to pass along to the next generations, artwork, books, clothes, and maybe hardest of all, a thousand photographs that marked the passing years. It was a sad but necessary task as are all tasks in death’s aftermath, but at the end of the day, amid the leftover detritus, Dar’s life had been marked and thoughtfully transferred to her children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. There were a few tears and a great deal of laughter, new memories and stories carved out of the one that had just been told. My job was to sherpa Dar’s belongings to the cars that would carry them to new rooms in new homes, new walls, new shelves. As a family outlaw, I suppose I was entitled to claim some of the memories but I didn’t want much: I asked for an orchid that graced a sunny windowsill, a letter opener and magnifying glass with netsuke handles that came from somewhere in Dar’s travels, and a set of cufflinks engraved with the Presidential seal. They were a gift to her from Ronald Regan and if you were to tell me that I would one day treasure a set of his cufflinks, I would have laughed. But I do. In fact, I wore them to a gala event the very next evening…

That was the evening that I was witness to my second milestone of the week. Many personal milestones, in fact. Our family turned out en masse at the annual Bosom Buddies Ball in Annapolis to honor one my wife’s sisters at a black tie event celebrating women who had survived or were surviving breast cancer, along with their friends and families who made up their essential human support systems. There was a lot of pink mixed in with all the ball gowns and tuxedos—I was sporting pink socks and a pink pocket square—the bright battle flags that color the field in the fight against a fierce enemy that claims far too many victims. As I listened to the stories of survivors, it struck me that each new day was one more milestone in each of their lives and that none of these days would ever again be taken for granted. Cancer may reek of death but that night, I witnessed a celebration of life and the power of people coping with and overcoming a terrible disease, women turning tears into triumph. I was glad Dar’s cufflinks were there with me.

The third milestone of my week is the one you’re now reading. This Musing is number 156 in a string of consecutive weekly essays spanning three complete years. I call these Musings my happy discipline for in writing them, I have come to find my own voice—something every writer eventually hopes to hear. I’d like to take this opportunity to say, “Thank you!” to Dave Wheelan, editor of The Chestertown and Talbot Spies, who has graciously encouraged me to muse right along in this space since I first wrote about Geese and Groundhogs three years ago this week. And I also want to say “Thank you!” to all of you who have read these Musings and stopped to pat me on the back at the grocery store or on the street or wherever our paths cross. Your kind support means more than you can guess.

My RR cufflinks are now tucked away, awaiting their next event. My pink socks are in the laundry. And now I’ll go put one ice cube in the orchid’s pot—Dar said to do that every Sunday. Then I’ll head on down the road toward my next milestone wherever that is. 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

The Power of Love by Jamie Kirkpatrick

My wife is one of nine children. Last week, her mother, the tour de force we all called “Dar,” passed away peacefully at 94. It was not unexpected but still a shock. We all thought she would live forever.

One of my favorite John Cheever stories is the tale of The Worm in the Apple. It’s about a family (the Crutchmans) who are all so outwardly happy and loving that the narrator assumes there must be a worm hiding in their apple. He searches through all the nooks and crannies of their lives, lifts every little tea doily looking for the telltale dust bunny that would prove that not all was as spotless as it seemed, but try as he might, he isn’t able to find the worm in their apple. Along the way, however, he does uncover some sad chapters in the Crutchman’s otherwise merry saga but in every instance, the family is able to swallow each bitter pill like an elixir that only makes them stronger. They cross every bridge in their lives with truthfulness and grace and in the end, the narrator is forced to grudgingly admit that there really is no worm in the Crutchman’s apple.

Well, the fictional Crutchmans have a lot in common with the real-life Conleys and Dar was their indisputable and vital matriarch. Her original nine children produced twelve grandchildren and that generation swelled the family with eighteen great grandchildren. If you add the spouses to the mix—I currently count fifteen “outlaws”—that brings the total number of diners at the family table to fifty-three. (If you’re checking my math—and you should!—one of the original nine offspring passed away in 2015.) And now the place at the head of the table is empty.

Dar was twice married. Her first marriage lasted thirty years and produced those original nine children. Her second marriage lasted twenty years and gave all her grandchildren and great grandchildren someone to hold dear and remember as a grandfather.

Dar was elegant, entertaining, and energetic, traits she passed down the family tree. With such a titanic and lively crew to manage, she also needed to be both a boss and a drill sergeant, more DNA she contributed to the family gene pool. She was a devout Catholic with a sustaining faith that contained a firm moral center but she was also able to find enough latitude and flexibility in her belief to accommodate the changing times. She was also a devout Republican (a bit less so of late!) but thankfully broadminded enough to tolerate a modicum of Democrat dissent from a few of us. She loved all the family shenanigans and chaos and insisted on a dance-or-go-to-bed philosophy that still permeates every family gathering; I can testify to its power because the Conleys have kept me up way past my bedtime on many an occasion.

Which brings up an interesting dichotomy within the family circle. I’ve come to understand that the Conleys and their offspring need each other like yin needs yang; without one, the other would be incomplete. Together, the Conleys make a whole that is far greater than the sum of their individual parts. At the same time, they are inclusive to a fault even though at times the family circus can become a bit overwhelming to the uninitiated. I’m speaking from my outlaw perspective when I confess this, but I admit that as the years pass, what seemed absolutely loco at first now seems almost—almost!—normal. When it gets too crazy, I just sit back, relax, and enjoy the show.

Dar fell and fractured her hip last Sunday. Knowing the risk involved, she underwent surgery to repair the break and the next day, when she asked her physical therapist if she would still be able to do her Michael Jackson moonwalk, we dared to hope. But broken bones and major surgery took their toll on her frail ninety-four year-old body and she took her last breath later that afternoon. Dar left this world the same way she inhabited it: beautifully, gracefully.

Dar was a shining star to her children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. Everyone adored her. She was our mentor, model, and guide—a gifted natural teacher who taught all of us—inlaws and outlaws both—a million different life lessons. The most powerful one she taught me was the power of love.

Now she can dance until dawn if she wants to; she never, ever has to go to bed.

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” will be released in June 2018.  Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com

New Beginnings by Jamie Kirkpatrick

And suddenly it’s 2019. It’s high time for new beginnings, new ideas, new solutions. Yet, sadly, we’re stuck in old patterns: a shuttered government, a divided congress, a polarized people. But even if for just a moment, let’s imagine we can create a new beginning, one built on common interests (not partisanship), on hope (not fear), on love (not hate). I know it’s a far-fetched notion, but it’s worth a try.

2018 was a tough year. We lost good people, some to time, others to violence. We bickered over everything. It never stopped raining. Even the stock market that had soared to new heights crashed and burned. OK; there were a few bright spots—a temporary flicker of hope for the Korean peninsula, the Winter Olympic Games, the Washington Capitals, a glamorous royal wedding or two—but all in all, as years go, 2018 was pretty dismal. It sure seems to me we’re ripe for a new beginning.

But if I were a betting man—and Eggman knows I’m not—I don’t much like the odds for a happier 2019. Our government is stymied. Profanities fly. Foreign policy lurches down the street like a drunk. The White House is a madhouse, the aisles of Congress are impossibly wide, and the Supreme Court is turning into a carnival side-show. Financial markets are on a rollercoaster ride. This never-ending conversation about a wall threatens to take an even uglier turn with a presidential declaration of a national emergency that simply doesn’t exist. And lurking overhead are all the shoes in Robert Mueller’s closet waiting to fall.

When I was a baseball coach and one of my players made an error, I would tell him, “It’s OK; turn the page.” Easy enough to say, harder to do. Life is easy when things are going your way, but running uphill requires a lot more effort. The first step is to overcome gravity by believing that change can happen and that the future can sweeten the past. It won’t happen overnight and it will require hard work and sacrifice. The tide will inevitably turn. There will be a new beginning.

The irony, of course, is that a new beginning always requires a previous ending and those have been precious hard to come by of late. It seems there is always another shooting, another wildfire, another resignation, another tweet. We seem to live in one continuous and impulsive moment, an inane run-on sentence without any punctuation or a period. It’s even difficult to know when we’re nearing this crazy symphony’s coda so that we can begin to contemplate a new and gentler movement. It makes for one of those frustrating continuous loops, the kind of bad dream that just goes on forever.

And yet, somehow, I remain optimistic. I guess that’s just my nature. There is always a way forward, a new path, a new beginning. The boat in the photograph that accompanies this Musing sits on a quiet stretch of beach on the west coast of Barbados. As far as I know, it hasn’t been to sea in years, and yet there it sits, promising “jus’ de beginning” we so desperately need.

Take heart.

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” will be released in June 2018.  Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com

Hogmanay by Jamie Kirkpatrick


Back where my people come from, Hogmanay is serious business. Although we Scots don’t need much of an excuse to celebrate anything, the ending of one year and the beginning of a new one seems like an awfully good time to throw a week-long bash. The crescendo comes on December 31 when crowds spill onto the streets of every city and town in the country to parade by torchlight, to dance, to sing, and possibly—just possibly—to enjoy a wee dram or two of that distinctly Scottish elixir, the one we call the ‘water of life,’ all under a brilliant canopy of fireworks. It’s Canada Day, the Fourth of July, and Bastille Day all rolled into one monumental hangover.

There are as many theories about the origins of Hogmanay as there are ways to celebrate it. Some believe it derived from pagan fire celebrations surrounding the winter solstice; some say it was imported from Normandy with the invasion in 1066. Up in the Orkneys, Hogmanay is just a good excuse for men to play ‘Ba,’ a medieval type of rugby played with a large leather ball and absolutely no rules. In the Shetlands, Hogmanay spills into into another local festival called Up Helly Aa which recalls ancient Viking raids on northern Scotland by burning a replica of a long boat. And in one small highland town, Burghead, the locals even discard the Gregorian calendar and celebrate Hogmanay on January 11 by parading the “clavie”—a large barrel filled with wooden staves—through the town before setting it on fire on a nearby hilltop where it burns and smolders for days.

But for all its madness, Hogmanay celebrates the good in people and the hope for a prosperous new year. One of its most hallowed traditions is ‘first-footing’ by which one strives to be the first foot over the threshold of a home just after the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Day. A first-footer bears traditional gifts: a silver coin for prosperity, bread for food, salt for flavor, coal for warmth, and, of course, whisky for merriment. It’s as good a way as any to keep last year’s party going well into the new year.

And then there’s that song—the one everyone knows, perhaps even the most-sung song in all the world—‘Auld Lang Syne.’ Originally published in 1788 as a Scots language poem by our beloved Robert Burns, it was set to the music of an old folk tune to fondly recall days gone by. But Auld Lang Syne is more than a song; it’s a celebration of our shared bond, our larger human family. In Scotland, it’s traditionally sung in a large circle facing inward, hands clasped until the beginning of the last verse at which point everyone crosses their arms, turns out, and, still holding hands, sways in time to the music. Maudlin, maybe, but sung in good spirit or spirits, Auld Lang Syne is always a moving hymn to days gone by and the good times we’ve shared together.

So for my dear friends back home, I know that seas between us may broad have roared;

For trusty friends here, I give a hand and I take a hand o’ thine;

But for this one day, let’s all tak’ a right gud willie-waught

For auld lang syne!

Happy New Year!

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” will be released in June 2018.  Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com

Shepherds (The second of three pre-Christmas Musings) by Jamie Kirkpatrick

“And there were, in the same country, shepherds, abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night.”

Shepherding. It seems a simple enough assignment: abide; keep watch; count every so often; if necessary, rescue and protect. Moreover, I imagine the requirements for the job are relatively few: an introspective nature; willingness to withstand dark and chilly nights; maybe the ability to retain a good staff (sorry; couldn’t resist). And yet—however humble—it’s the shepherds who are the strings of the Christmas story. The angels may get the trumpets and players yet to come will have their solos, but it’s the unsung shepherds who stand in for all of hungry humankind—the watchers, the waiters.

The ones on duty that night must surely have been startled out of their slumber. Suddenly, there was an angel delivering a terse message, then suddenly more—“a heavenly host”—joyously singing a preposterous telegram sent from on high about a baby born in a stable who promised nothing less than “Peace on Earth!” Right.

But here’s where the story really gets interesting. The shepherds don’t discount their eyes and ears; they actually go. They pack up, flocks and all, and go down from their lonely hills into that little town of Bethlehem to search out this new-born lamb whom, as the angels foretold, they would find “wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” Maybe it didn’t seem so strange to them after all for who would know more about mangers than a shepherd?

Now, just for a minute, consider the other side of this story. An exhausted new mother, a dazed new father, and a temporarily sleeping baby in this very first nativity still-life. A moment of wondrous peace and quiet after what must have been for all concerned a rather traumatic birth, when all of a sudden, in barge all these strange shepherds with their noisy sheep—“Sssh! Pipe down! Don’t you dare wake that baby!”

“They told us to come.”

“Who told you to come?”

“The angels.”

“What angels?”

“The ANGELS!” (And now the new father looks at the new mother, more dazed and confused than before, and whispers, “You didn’t mention anything about angels…”)

Of course, with all this commotion—this unexpected, fulsome, and noisy intrusion—the baby wakes up but (and maybe this is the true miracle of that night!) “no crying he makes.” And that is the moment a hush falls over the holy tableau, everyone staring at the babe, fully expecting him to squall, but he just blinks back at them, taking them all in as if he knew all along it would be like this. The mother, hair still damp, looks to the father who shrugs and shakes his head and looks from one shepherd to the next hoping one of them will explain to him what the heck is going on here.

As for the shepherds, they are transfixed. For reasons they cannot begin to fathom, they adore this tiny creature. They stare at the baby and at each other in wonder and disbelief. Even their flock is still. Who is ever going to believe this miraculous night back up on the hillside?

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” will be released in June 2018.  Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com

Angels by Jamie Kirkpatrick

(Christmas is but a fortnight away. This is the first of three Musings in anticipation of that wondrous day.)

The problem with angels is that they defy belief. We’d like to think they exist, but we’re just not sure. Sometimes they’re depicted as celestial, benevolent, cherubic creatures who appear when we need them most to extract us from some self-inflicted earthly jam. Some angels appear to fly out of thin air, bearing a divine message: an annunciation, a warning, a prophecy. Other angels are sword-bearing and vengeful; some, like the ones seen in mid-February, are armed with arrows of love. And some are even bumbling novices, desperately trying to earn their wings—right, Clarence?

Whatever their angelic stereotype, angels are messengers from another realm—intermediaries between the sacred and the profane. They’re all over and above the Christmas story: announcing a most unexpected pregnancy to an incredulous young girl; appearing to those shivering shepherds abiding in their fields, directing them to a stable in a nearby village so they could bear witness to a baby’s birth; warning three itinerant wise men to return to their exotic homelands by an alternate route so a desperate king wouldn’t spoil the story. Angels intentions are almost always good; they move the story along, trying to help us see beyond ourselves so the next chapter can unfold. Come to think of it, without all those angels flying around, our cherished Christmas story wouldn’t amount to much more than a page seven read in The Bethlehem Star: “Innkeeper Claims Family Left Without Paying Bill.” Sad!

Yep; angels defy belief. But for a moment, let’s just suppose that angels really do exist, maybe not as traditionally depicted but in more updated form and attire. No wings, no trumpet fanfare, no halo or radiant light. Let’s even imagine that angels are right here among us: teaching our children, tending our sick, sitting with the lonely, keeping our rivers clean, cooking meals for hungry folk. Or maybe they’re of the guardian angel variety, protecting us from very real dangers both here at home and overseas, or putting out fires, or rescuing stray animals. Maybe they’re artists or musicians or writers who show us new ways to see, to listen, and to think. Maybe they’re Muslims or Jews or Buddhists or Hindus who volunteer to work on Christmas Day so their Christian neighbors can celebrate at home with their families. The point is there really are a million quiet angels among us, certainly not invisible, but not always acknowledged or appreciated either…not that they seek or need acknowledgment or thanks.

I like to think I’m surrounded by angels. Some are visible, some are not. Some inspire, some protect, some are just there when I need a friend. Some help me laugh, one or two can move me to tears. And maybe some are still waiting their turn to come to my aid when I stumble, a Clarence to my George Bailey.

Wait…I thought I just heard heard something. Sounded like a bell.

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” will be released in June 2018.  Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com

Kinder. Gentler. By Jamie Kirkpatrick

 

They’ve been on the road for several days now, plodding along with everyone else, going back home to enroll. All these animals, all these people; the dust clogs the woman’s nose and her eyes are red and dry. She’s exhausted; she feels a constant pressure in her belly. The man is worried and not a little confused; his hands are calloused and chapped and he is chewing his nails. Their swayback donkey looks ready to drop, but there is still a long way to go before nightfall. It’s too noisy to talk. Heads down, the couple just keep moving forward. They are hoping for a kinder time. A gentler time.

At this time of year in the desert, the days are chilly; at night, the temperature drops sharply and there is nothing to block the wind. Finally the man and woman reach their destination and make their way through the deserted streets of the little town, looking for some shelter, a safe place to spend the night. They’re hungry; their money is almost gone. It’s getting late. Finally, they come to a humble little caravansary but all the rooms are taken. The innkeeper looks at the woman—he notes the slump of her shoulders and sees the dark circles under her eyes—so he takes pity on the travelers and sends them around back where there is a crowded little stable. It noisy and it smells of animals but at least the roof and walls will block the wind and the hay on the floor is still clean and fresh. The woman slides down from the donkey and sinks into the soft hay. The man does what he can to make her comfortable, then steps outside and leans back against the mud wall. It’s very cold; the stars blink and glisten like a thousand tiny lanterns. He is exhausted. He hopes tomorrow will be a kinder day. A gentler day.

Some time in the night, she feels a sharp pain. She knows it is her time. She tells him the baby is coming. He is terrified and doesn’t know what to do. He runs around to the front of the inn and bangs on the door but no one answers so he hurries back to the stable. There is blood on the straw, but she is holding a child, wrapping it in strips of fresh linen she has kept clean just for this moment. Before she finishes wrapping the baby, he lifts a fold of cloth and sees the child is a boy. The man kisses the woman’s forehead and arranges himself behind her so she can lean on him and rest. He rubs her shoulders and wonders. She has never felt so tired but she is filled with love for this helpless child. She holds the baby close to her breast and prays that he will live in a kinder world. A gentler world. They all drop into a deep and dreamless sleep.

We all know this is just an old story. But the hope for a kinder, gentler future endures. For us here now, we still long to be a nation without rancor or deceit, a nation without hatred or fear, a nation without racism or narcissism or corruption. A kinder nation. A gentler nation.

Rest in peace, George Herbert Walker Bush.

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” will be released in June 2018.  Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com

 

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