There is a bizarre and surreal place at the intersection of the Mojave and Colorado Deserts in Southern California that was several million years in the making. It was worth the wait. With massive rock formations rising up from the flat desert floor, Joshua Tree National Park is like a geological museum that is slightly larger than Rhode Island. It is hard to imagine that these stone towers, created from magma rising from deep below the surface and eventually hardening as it cooled, are what is left behind from millions of years of soil erosion. Boulders the size of boxcars are miraculously balanced on top of each other, like rock piles left behind by the children of gods.
There are also large masses of rounded granite that have been altered and even sculpted by rain, wind, ice, chemical reactions, plant roots, and other forces to form fantastic shapes and configurations. Set against the backdrop of nearby mountain ranges and surrounded by the desert floor, these structures are truly impressive. Throw in a developing thunderstorm billowing above (yes, it does rain in the desert) and you have all the makings of a classic Thomas Cole masterpiece.
Then there is the namesake of the park, the Joshua Tree, which would fit perfectly into the backdrop of almost any picture book by Dr. Seuss or on the cover of a paperback book about planets on the other side of the galaxy. Belonging to the same family of Agave plants native to tropical South America, Joshua Trees are a type of Yucca, which we often associate with the short, dark green spiky plants of the tropics and deserts. Joshua Trees have an almost whimsical character, proving yet again that nature has a sense of humor. The plant takes on many different shapes and sizes, as if taking its cue from the rocks around it. Joshua Trees have a rather limited range within the deserts of California, Nevada, Utah, and Arizona.
There are several places in this wonderful park where visitors can get breathtaking panoramic views of mountain ranges and valleys that stretch out for miles. At just the right position and vantage point, the scene is reminiscent of something out of a science fiction movie. At the very least, these vistas could serve as inspiration for visual art depicting imaginary worlds. Joshua Tree National Park is one of those natural wonders of the United States that is somehow liminal, neither here nor there, but somewhere between.
The reversal of a Supreme Court decision from at least one full generation in the past demonstrates that the United States is determined to claw its way back to the Middle Ages. We can now expect to see an increase in birthrates in America, along with an increase in dead pregnant women – a small price to pay for lots more babies though. It’s similar to having very few restrictions on firearms, which results in the mass slaughter of children in classrooms, but then again, we are going to have more babies, so we’ll have children to spare.
We should be thrilled about this new wave of infants on the horizon. Who doesn’t love a baby, right? I mean, deadbeat dads really love their kids, but just not enough to help feed, clothe, shelter, and educate them. And then there are all those devoted meth-head parents whose brains are so completely fried that they leave their little crawlers alone in the kitchen to pick up a bottle of Drain-O for a quick swig – not on purpose of course, so that doesn’t count. I guess it’s also unfair to lump all rapists in the category of men who don’t love the bambinos they end up siring. But none of the women in these situations would have considered getting an abortion anyway, so it’s all irrelevant. Besides, the good congressman from Missouri helped us all understand that if a woman is raped, she has the miraculous ability to “shut that whole thing down.”
Certainly all 11-year-old girls have matured enough to understand parental love. They’re ready; it’s built into their DNA, for heaven’s sake. And they can help the 12-year-old fathers along if they need some pointers, because those boys will no doubt be eager to learn and happy to give up little league and video games. Even better if the man who got her pregnant is actually her father. He clearly already knows how to love and take care of children. Everybody wins!
Thank goodness the only females who indeed get pregnant and have babies are the ones who come from fine, upstanding families who can provide the support and guidance young mothers need. Think how awful it would be if all those people on government assistance were the ones giving birth instead of the sweet white girls who live in gated communities and are married to young urban professionals quickly climbing the corporate ladder to success. Poor people have plenty of access to free birth control, so no worries about an unwanted pregnancy or welfare babies bleeding the taxpayers.
Now, I suppose it would be irresponsible to close this discussion without addressing a potentially troublesome and even tragic dilemma that can arise during pregnancy. Occasionally, for reasons beyond our limited understanding, the amazing transformation of a fertilized egg to a precious baby somehow gets interrupted, sometimes resulting in catastrophic failure. In these situations, the fetus can die in the womb or shortly after birth. In rare cases, the mother’s own life may be at risk while she carries the poor little one to term. But here in the greatest country on Earth, we put our trust in God first and medicine second. We know that God’s plan is the best plan, even if the mother’s life is sacrificed in an effort for us all to enjoy more babies, because that’s exactly what we need. Amen?
In late 2018, my wife and I moved from Georgia to Springfield, a town of about 170,000 people in southwest Missouri. It’s a great location for us because we have family and close friends in Georgia, Kansas, Texas, and Arizona. We really enjoy traveling, especially to the desert southwest, but we like the Florida beaches and places like New York City, Chicago, and Nashville. Living in Springfield strategically positions us near the center of the country and makes it easier to get to family, friends, and fun destinations. The icing on the cake is the small national airport that is a mere twenty minutes from our house, which is serviced by three major airlines and a few budget carriers.
Southern Missouri and northern Arkansas make up the bulk of the region known as the Ozarks. It as an area of the country defined by a variety of factors, from geology and topography to culture and customs. It is also quite beautiful. It is rich in natural resources, especially water, minerals, and forests. It is a complicated region in almost every category imaginable. Although it boasts no major cities, it does have some bustling urban centers. There are some wealthy people in the Ozarks, but there are far more families living in serious poverty. On the political spectrum, it is largely conservative with pockets of progressivism mostly in and around the cities.
Admittedly, I knew very little about the Ozarks. I had never set foot in Missouri and only visited once just a few months before we moved here. To get “learned up” about our new home, I did what I always do when encountering something new and unfamiliar. I started reading. The following is an annotated list of books I have read about the Ozarks over the last three years or so. My bibliography is in no way intended to be comprehensive or even representative; however, these books have given me greater insight into the history, culture, and people of the Ozarks. All of these titles are nonfiction, but I have also read fiction by Ozarks writers or stories set in the region. Perhaps sometime I will write a post reviewing those books as well.
A History of the Ozarks, Volume 3: The Ozarkers by Brooks Blevins Brooks Blevins is the uncontested authority on the history of the Ozarks. He is a professor at Missouri State University in Springfield, where I am also employed. But his full-time residence is in northern Arkansas, so he has his feet planted in the two main states of the Ozarks. He is a fine writer, a serious scholar, a respected teacher, and an all-round nice fellow. I have only read this 3rd volume of his trilogy, but I intend to at least go back and read the 1st volume covering the early history of the region.
Blevins is at his best when he is dispelling many of the misconceptions and over-generalizations of the Ozarks as a place full of backwoods hillbillies with no connection to the modern world. He also does a great job of pointing out the most attractive features of the region without romanticizing or falling into the trap of exceptionalism, which is always tempting to do if you are so identified with a place, which I believe he is.
The chapters on “Ozarks Society” and “Putting on a Show,” along with his “Conclusion,” were the most interesting to me because they highlight how much the Ozarks have changed over the last 150 years and are continuing to evolve. I’m not sure I agree with Blevins that the specific location of the Ozarks, a topic of serious debate for generations, is best defined by where the Ozarkers live; however, there seems to be a strong sense of place appreciated by so many people who live here, quite similar to sentiments held by many people in the Deep South about their region. This is a solid historical overview of a complex and fascinating part of the country in the modern period.
Living Waters: The Springs of Missouri by Loring Bullard This book is well documented and researched. The photographs of the springs and streams they feed are stunningly beautiful. The layout of the book makes it easy and enjoyable to read. However, aside from the technical aspects of the book, Bullard clearly has a passion for his subject that is both personal and professional, which is demonstrated in the text of every page.
The organization of the book is especially fine, with chapters focusing on features and functions of springs rather than on individual locations. Bullard incorporates a considerable amount of history to offer context and appreciation of how past generations have understood and valued springs in the state and have taken advantage of them as valuable natural resources. Of course, the environmental message throughout is of paramount importance — we must take good care of our state’s springs because of the vital role they play in providing clean water for the ecosystems they feed.
White Man’s Heaven: The Lynching and Expulsion of Blacks in the Southern Ozarks, 1894-1909 by Kimberly Harper Harper presents a thoroughly researched and well documented scholarly study that helps explain why the southwestern Ozarks is such a white region of the country. Lynching occurred in many places across the South, and obviously, into the Midwest. Many white people who had lived during the time of slavery, whether they actually owned slaves or not, resented the new autonomy of black people in their communities during Restoration. Over the decades, resentment evolved into a fear. “While blacks may not have been true economic, social, or even political competitors in the region, whites viewed blacks as a threat to their wives, daughters, and police officers.” Obviously, much of the fear centered on the perceived sexual predation of black men. “It was believed that women were not safe in the country or the city, so long as African American men roamed free.”
However, Harper goes beyond the acts of horrible white mob violence to explore why African Americans were driven out of communities, often at the same time lynching took place. Similar action was taken in other parts of the country — Forsyth County in north central Georgia comes to mind. Other areas of north Georgia, especially in the Appalachian foothills, still have small black populations to this day.
In the Ozarks and in the north Georgia mountains, the economy in the early 20th century was primarily subsistence farming, which did not require much labor outside the extended family of the farmer. As Harper observes, “This was in contrast to the black-majority regions of the South, where inexpensive and readily available black labor composed a significant segment of the local economy, making African Americans indispensable to local white employers.” One could easily make the same argument in recent decades for why white farmers have not been so anxious to deport undocumented Latinos from regions of the South where industrial agriculture is dominant and depends on vast numbers of inexpensive laborers.
This is a fine addition to American history and African American studies. Harper’s book joins more recent work on lynching by prominent African American scholars. Highly recommended.
Hipbillies: Deep Revolution in the Arkansas Ozarks by Jared M. Phillips I had the opportunity to hear the author speak on a panel with two people who were involved in the Back To Land movement in the Arkansas Ozarks at a conference in West Plains, Missouri, in September, 2019. The people who decided beginning back in the 1970s to trade in urban dwelling for a rural, subsistence lifestyle among the hills and “hollers” of the Ozarks are often referred to as Hipbillies — a hybrid of hippies and hillbillies.
Phillips does a good job of placing this movement in the context of 20th century back-to-the-land and counter-culture philosophy characterized by the works of people like Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder. He gives proper credit to the successes of the Hipbillies while also recognizing their failures and some of their less-than-pure intentions. He credits them for fighting for environmental health, sustainable agricultural practices, and social justice issues. One of their greatest accomplishments was succeeding in modest changes to how the US Forest Service approached the management of timber.
Phillips admires how the Hipbillies, especially the pioneers from the early 1970s, faced overwhelming odds and even life-threatening circumstances yet still persevered to make it as homesteaders in a part of the country where the land is not so forgiving. He dispels some of the myths about how native Ozarkers rejected the Hipbillies. Instead, they often embraced them and even saved their lives during harsh winters and unpredictable farming seasons. There were clashes in places like Eureka Springs, but that was more a conflict between counter-culturists and town leadership.
The Hipbillies had big dreams when they landed in the Ozarks. “What was sought, then, was a rehabilitation of American culture — one that began in the dirt and grew over time like the forest that slowly reclaims and heals a ruined field,” Phillips writes. He contends that the Hipbillies took themselves seriously as revolutionaries. They “came to the Ozarks seeking refuge and a place in which they might build a new world for themselves, and hopefully, all of humanity . . . . While they did not always succeed, the story is not over — they are still alive and are still powerful cultural, political, and economic forces in the Arkansas highlands.”
Hillbilly Hellraisers: Federal Power and Populist Defiance in the Ozarks by J. Blake Perkins The myths and stereotypes about the Ozarks are deeply ingrained in our consciousness, but they never have painted a true picture of the people and their culture, desires, needs, problems, etc. Perkins’s book reinforces one essential truth about Ozarks people: they tend be proud and fiercely independent, even in the face of long-term adversity.
There is a strong tradition of tension between individual rural families and individuals and/or institutions in authority. Poverty has always been a dark shadow hanging over the Ozarks, even when other parts of the country were climbing out of it. Although many people here petitioned for government assistance in the past, there is a history in this region of distrust of government programs, which ended up being administered and exploited by local and state officials. Law enforcement was fine as long as it didn’t try to stop individuals from scraping out a living, even through illegal means. More than anything, native Ozarkers have always just wanted to be left alone. When their autonomy was threatened, especially by outside forces, they sometime became violent.
Ozarks Hillbilly by Tom Koob and Curtis Copeland Koob and Copeland do a good job here of presenting the stereotypes of the Hillbilly as the term has been used in literature and other art forms to describe many of the rural folk in the Ozarks. The authors argue that, contrary to the traditional image of a lazy, shiftless, ignorant, depraved character, the Ozarks Hillbilly is quite industrious, shrewd, and highly skilled. Hillbillies are survivalists and generations of them have struggled to provide for themselves and their families in a harsh and unforgiving environment.
I found it odd in a book about the Ozarks how much time the authors spent on discussing Appalachian Hillbillies. They seem to have keen interest in the way Hillbillies were presented in Deliverance, the novel by James Dickey and the popular film adaptation starring Burt Reynolds and Ned Beatty. There are definitely similarities between the two regions of the country, which have been explored by numerous scholars. The stereotypes of the rural residents of both areas also share commonalities. Perhaps a comparison/contrast book would have been even more helpful and intriguing.
Where Misfits Fit: Counterculture and Influence in the Ozarks by Thomas Michael Kersen For Kersen, the town of Eureka Springs, Arkansas, serves as an archetype for his thesis of how counterculture distinguishes the Ozarks and is among its more charming and sustaining features. As he states it, “The magic of Eureka Springs is that the town is a mass of contradictions and microconflicts that breed [sic] creativity.” No wonder that the book’s title is also the semi-official motto of the town: Where Misfits Fit.
Kersen does a good job of weaving the eccentricities of the people who occupy the Ozarks into the history of the region. He first offers his identification of the region, defining it by geography and culture. He then proceeds to outline its countercultural characteristics through popular myths, artistic expression, supernatural fixations, cult activity, musical influence and inspiration, and the back-to-the-land movements primarily of the 1970s (the author’s parents brought him to the Ozarks from Texas as part of this larger movement).
A thread running throughout the book is Kersen’s use of the adjective “liminal” to describe the Ozarks – a place that is difficult to box in and that continually crosses lines. He writes that “the Ozarks defies boundaries of all sorts — it is a work in progress.” Here again, the contradictions of the area come into play. For instance UFO enthusiasts that have been drawn here for decades rely on scientific knowledge about astronomy and space exploration but scorn scientists who fail to validate their paranormal claims. Kersen recognizes that “eccentric places attract eccentric people — people willing to live and think in the margins.” He also believes the Ozarks “offers something unique for its inhabitants and even American culture at large.”
I found some of the most valuable information in the Conclusions chapter, especially about the impact of in-migration into the Ozarks from countries around the world. The author wonders how Ozark identity will change as the racial and ethnic profile of the region continues to change. The book has extensive end notes, an impressive bibliography for further reading and study, and a decent index. Just a few points of criticism: the book could have benefited from skillful editing. There are too many typo kind of errors for an academic press book. Also, I suspect this book is a collection of separately-written essays because there is considerable repetition of information in the chapters. Otherwise, it is a fine book that is both accessible and informative.
Lake of the Ozarks: My Surreal Summers in a Vanishing America by Bill Geist I was drawn to this book primarily because I visited the Lake of the Ozarks just a few months after settling here. I didn’t know anything about Bill Geist as I never watch Sunday Morning on CBS. I may have read his columns before but am not aware if I have. I can relate to many of the references Geist makes to growing up in the 1960s and 70s, although he is a bit older than I am. Some readers will no doubt be put off by the political incorrectness of the author’s perspectives, language, and the circumstances from his adolescence, but I suspect he is being perfectly honest and straightforward with his recollections and descriptions of his life and times working for his uncle and aunt at their lakeside lodge. There are some really laugh-out-loud passages in this book, which made it an enjoyable read.
Footprints in the Ozarks: A Memoir by Ellen Gray Massey This is a pleasant read. It isn’t challenging; the text is straightforward; it doesn’t reveal anything new about the Ozarks region; it gets a bit sentimental in places; and it is so bucolic that the reader can almost smell the cow manure on the farm where Massey lived and raised her family. She also worked as a high school English teacher, and apparently quite a good one. She supervised her students over a ten-year period as they produced a quarterly journal titled Bittersweet. The value of this book lies in Massey’s descriptions of the social mores of her community, the relationships of family and friends, the tragedies her family faced (including the death of her husband), and how life in the rural Ozarks was fulfilling and rewarding to her, as it has been for so many others for many generations.
I have written several posts about waterfalls because they are among my most favorite elements of nature. I have driven, hiked, and climbed on many occasions to reach them. I have seen everything from little trickles of water falling from rocky ridges in the mountains of Appalachia to white misty veils crashing from great heights at Yosemite, Yellowstone, and the Columbia River Valley. I have been mesmerized by all of them.
When my wife and I had an unexpected opportunity to visit Niagara Falls as a result of being in Erie, Pennsylvania, we both agreed it would be worth the two-hour drive around the Lake Erie coast to see this iconic natural wonder. Like the Grand Canyon and so many other magnificent landmarks around the world, photographs and videos simply cannot capture the grandeur of something so massive and powerful. Seeing the scope of the falls, hearing it, feeling the moist air and spray on your face, and even feeling the rumble of the crashing water is impossible to replicate electronically.
With almost 76,000 gallons of water pouring over the edge of the American falls every second, the volume is quite hard to imagine. Yes, that’s over 4.5 million gallons a minute! The water is about two feet deep at the crestline, which gives the edge of the falls a deep emerald hue. It is stunning. The deepest section of the Niagara River is just below the falls. It is so deep that it equals the height of the falls above, which is 170 feet. Upstream from the falls between its northeastern banks and Green Island, the Niagara River rumbles and rolls as it makes its way to the main attraction.
Niagara Falls has never been on our bucket list of places to visit, mainly because it seemed too much like a tourist trap. However, we were pleasantly surprised. There are plenty of chain restaurants, souvenir shops, and other retail vendors nearby, but the American side of the falls is bordered by a state park that makes no attempt to outshine the headliner. The Canadian side is full of high-rise hotels and some casinos, which is probably an enticement to cross the border for some visitors. We were perfectly content with the marvelous wonder of Niagara Falls with very few distractions. If you can stand on the observation deck beholding that vista and not say “wow,” I’m not sure what would impress you.
The Ozarks is a region of the North American continent that includes portions of five of the United States. It is defined both by geography and by culture. In terms of geographical features, the bulk of the region is in southern Missouri and northern Arkansas, but it also includes the northeast corner of Oklahoma, a small section of the southeast corner of Kansas, and a sliver of southwestern Illinois along the Mississippi River. Most of the Ozarks is characterized by rolling hills and deep ravines or hollows, heavily forested in some areas and rich with rivers, creeks, and springs. It is a major portion of the U.S. Interior Highlands, and its features are the result of a deeply dissected plateau. It is a beautiful part of the country.
The geography of the Ozarks has had a significant influence on its culture, primarily because so much of the area was isolated from the more populous regions east of the Mississippi until the late 19th century. Although farming was and is difficult here because of the terrain and the rocky landscape, there has always been a strong connection to the land and rural living by its inhabitants. The major exception to this rule is the rapidly growing urban sprawl along a north-south corridor extending from Springfield, Missouri, down to the kingdom of Walmart and the flagship university in northwest Arkansas. In general, Ozarkers are fiercely independent and tend to distrust government. Much of the population is made up of white people of Scots-Irish descent who are religiously and politically conservative, especially in the more rural portions of the region.
Throughout much of the 20th century, the people of the Ozarks were represented in popular culture as poor, backward, shiftless, and uneducated. Similar to the inhabitants of parts of Appalachia, the Ozarkers were considered a bunch of hillbillies by the sophisticates of the east and west coast. Even in modern times, many Americans still think of the Ozarks as a place of mystery, perhaps dangerous. In books and movies, Ozarkers are usually poverty stricken, which in some cases is true. Those who have wealth acquire it through lawless activity. They are depicted as depraved folks delighting in illegal and deplorable lifestyles with virtually no moral compass. Netflix created a sensational and wildly popular series, Ozark, based on these stereotypes.
Not all Americans buy into this ridiculous assessment of the Ozarks, but it still prevails among many people in the country, mostly those who have never spent any time in the region. It is true that most Ozarkers have a rural mindset and still have an appreciation for simple pleasures like homegrown music, small-town festivals and fairs, church gatherings, school athletic events, and outdoor recreation like fishing and floating on rivers. But they are anything but lazy. It takes a lot of muscle and sweat to make a living in these hills, which helps explain the high rate of poverty. However, it is a mistake to assume Ozarkers are all a bunch of stupid, immoral hillbillies. Perhaps a few examples of some amazing people in the Ozarks provide the best evidence to make this case.
Tom Akers is from one of the poorest counties in the Ozarks, Shannon County, located in south central Missouri. He worked hard as a young man and earned a degree in mathematics from a branch campus of the University of Missouri in the Ozarks town of Rolla. He joined the U.S. Air Force, got his pilot’s license, and eventually decided to take a shot at becoming an astronaut with NASA. He became a mission specialist and logged an impressive number of space walks with the Shuttle program. His missions included deploying the Ulysses Spacecraft, repairing the Hubble Space Telescope, repairing a satellite, and visiting the Mir Russian space station. He eventually moved into administration with NASA and became a spokesman for the administration. Not bad for an Ozark hillbilly, wouldn’t you say? I had the honor and privilege of interviewing Col. Akers for an oral history project and can personally attest to his intelligence, integrity, and character. Oh, and just for the record, the Hubble Space Telescope was named for the astronomer Edwin Hubble, who was also from the Ozarks in Marshfield, Missouri.
Pat Johnson went to the 1st through 8th grades in the 1950s at “Pocahontas Colored School,” a small, one-room structure in Pocahontas, Arkansas, on the eastern edge of the Ozarks. Ms. Eddie Mae Herron was the only teacher for that school and all its students for over 15 years. Pat recalls as a 10-year-old going with some of her white friends to a local ice cream store, but when she walked inside with them, the manager quickly approached her and told her she could not come in. She had to pick her ice cream up from the window outside. She went on to graduate from a high school in the next county. She wasn’t allowed to attend the segregated high school in Randolph County where she lived. Pat got married and started a family shortly after high school, going on to work in the local hospital and then later for a government agency in Pocahontas. In the late 1990s, she spearheaded an effort to preserve the old one-room schoolhouse. She garnered support from the city, the Chamber of Commerce, outside government agencies, and the community. Now, the fully-restored little school house is the Eddie Mae Herron Center & Museum, which brings together people of all races and ethnicities for educational, civic, and cultural programs. Pat Johnson is about as far away from being a hillbilly as I can imagine. She will be the first to say that she doesn’t really identify with the Ozarks region, because it has largely been unwelcoming to African Americans. But she has moved past that rejection to bring people together, regardless of the color of their skin, because she knows that communication is the key to acceptance and understanding.
Noel is a small township in McDonald County at the southwest corner of Missouri bordered by Arkansas and Oklahoma. In the late 1990s, Tyson Foods took over and expanded the operation of a poultry processing plant in Noel. To meet the demand for workers in this labor-intensive industry, Tyson began to recruit foreign-born people who would endure the grueling conditions in the plant for year-round employment and relatively good wages compared to seasonal migratory jobs. At first the non-native workers were exclusively Hispanic, but moving into the 21st century, Tyson began to employ immigrants and refugees from around the world including Central America, Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific Islands. In a few short years, Noel’s population went from predominantly white to almost 50% nonwhite, which also introduced new and unfamiliar languages, religious practices, and cultural norms. These rapid changes strained the governmental and educational resources of the town. Some local leaders and many of the native inhabitants were less than welcoming to their new neighbors. The most disgruntled of the locals sold out and moved away to nearby towns or left the county altogether, which presented its own set of problems by lowering the tax base.
Fast forward twenty years and the situation is looking different and in a good way, thanks in large part to two community leaders who refused to give up on the town. Angie Brewer grew up near Noel. She moved to Texas with her first husband and started a family while working as an elementary school teacher. The marriage ended in divorce and Angie moved her children back home where she eventually remarried and became the principal of Noel Elementary School during the tumultuous period after the initial impact of the immigrant population shift. Angie and several of her close friends made an important and life-changing decision. They were going to buck the trend of distrust and alienation to live out the Christian faith they have claimed all their lives by loving their neighbors regardless of race, faith, or origin. They became social media soldiers, quickly shooting down disinformation and rumors about immigrants and refugees. They petitioned government and business leaders, including the suits at the Tyson home office, to assist in helping foreign-born families assimilate into the community. Officials at the county level obviously recognized Angie’s leadership efforts, promoting her to principal of McDonald County High School and Assistant Superintendent of the county school system. She has made a tremendous difference in the lives of so many students and parents, crushing the Ozark hillbilly stereotypes of isolationism, xenophobia, and even white supremacy.
Joshua Manning was working at Walmart in 2017 and contemplating becoming an overseas missionary when he was called to be the minister of a small Baptist church in Noel, not far from where he was born and raised in Southwest City. The congregation had dwindled to only a few families. They had no pastor. Many of the white members had abandoned the church and moved to other churches in the county during the drastic shift in the town’s racial and ethnic balance. And although Manning and his wife initially thought their time in Noel would be brief, they ended up finding an opportunity to share their faith and reach out to immigrants and refugees, giving them a place to gather and worship freely – a place where they are loved and welcome. Today, Community Baptist Church facilitates several different worship services in multiple languages. The church sponsors a food pantry and provides a variety of goods and services for anyone in the area in need. Manning is the first to admit that building this ministry has been a struggle and that Community Baptist is anything but a normal church. But he and his family have found their place of service and seem to be content. Rev. Joshua Manning’s moral compass points straight and true. Thankfully, there are many more like him and Col. Akers and Pat Johnson and Angie Brewer in the hills and “hollers” of the Ozarks.
During the early stages of the COVID pandemic in 2020, I wrote a pop song as a tribute to Flannery O’Connor’s brilliant short story, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” Those who know me best will not be surprised that I would do such a thing. She is my favorite author, and I think she was a comic genius – far ahead of her time.
If Flannery O’Connor and Cormac McCarthy had a love child delivered by Neil Young, I can imagine this is what it would sound like when the baby cried. The title of the song is “I Just Don’t Fit.” I decided on a western-style tune to give it some distance from O’Connor’s South, but the darkness is still there. It’s probably enough to turn Bruce Springsteen’s stomach, but it’s the best I can do with what I have.
Me – vocals, lyrics, music, and acoustic guitar Justin Larkin – harmony vocals, electric guitar, bass, drums, mixing, and recording. (Lyrics and performance copyrighted 2021; all rights reserved)
Here’s to clean spectacles and parrot-print shirts.
“I Just Don’t Fit”
(Verse 1) My father called me a different breed, and I guess that’s what I am I must have done a mighty evil deed that even Jesus can’t comprehend You think that if I pray You can walk away But everything’s out of balance now with too many debts we can’t pay
(Chorus) Something must be missing ‘cause I just don’t fit No reconciliation so I shoot from the hip If you’re looking for a good man you might as well quit Something must be missing ‘cause I just don’t fit
(Verse 2) I’ve tried my hand at so many things, and I’ve seen my share of pain You’re gonna need more than common blood if you want to wash away that stain Can’t accept the fall Until you lose it all The undertaker never gets a tip; the remittance is always too small
(Chorus) Something must be missing ‘cause I just don’t fit No reconciliation so I shoot from the hip If you’re looking for a good man you might as well quit Something must be missing ‘cause I just don’t fit No, I just don’t fit
(Instrumental verse solo)
(Chorus) Something must be missing ‘cause I just don’t fit No reconciliation so I shoot from the hip If you’re looking for a good man you might as well quit Something must be missing ‘cause I just don’t . . .
(Final Chorus) Something must be missing ‘cause I just don’t fit No reconciliation so I shoot from the hip I can walk away and leave you bleeding in the ditch Something must be missing ‘cause I just don’t fit No, I just don’t fit
I lost someone recently, and the space left behind seems unimaginably large right now. For over 30 years Rick was my close friend, longer than anyone has been a close friend to me. Others were probably friends with him longer than I was, which is quite fortunate for them. I don’t remember the first conversation we had when he came to my church as minister of music and youth. I can’t really say why we forged such a close bond. We had some things in common. We both loved BBQ; we liked bike riding together on farm roads back in the day; we both liked to travel, especially out West; we liked reading and occasionally made book recommendations to one another. In fact, I was reading a book that he had recently recommended when his sweet wife called to tell me Rick had suffered a serious incident with his heart.
We both loved music, but our abilities in that regard were not equal. I’ve always been a lazy musician, learning how to play something just well enough to get by, and he certainly knew it. He never said it, but he knew it. Rick was anything but lazy. He was quite accomplished at the piano, but that’s because he worked and worked at a piece until he got it right. He was like that with a lot of things, which made him so good at what he did in ministry, and then later as a piano technician.
We also shared a similar sense of humor, and for those who know me best, I hope they won’t hold that against him. He was so patient with my endless disruptions during choir practice. We ribbed each other mercilessly, and Facebook was just like . . . fuel. I consider myself so very fortunate to have had the opportunity to talk to Rick less than 24 hours before he passed away. I had texted his wife asking about his condition, and a minute later he called me. He told me he’d had a good day and was feeling much better, which is such a deceptively cruel but common occurrence with critically-ill patients. During the conversation, I said something — I don’t know what — but it was most likely ridiculous, as I am wont to do. Rick chuckled lightly and said, “They’ve got me hooked up to all kinds of monitors here, so I can’t laugh, or I’ll set off the alarms.”
Rick and I certainly didn’t see eye to eye on everything. But that’s not what defines true friendship, is it? One of the many qualities I admired in Rick was how honest he was. He would give it to you straight – always. And if he were able to speak right now and I could hear him, I have no doubt he would say, “The least you could do in my memory is get a haircut.”
I don’t really know what Rick got out of our relationship over the decades. I hope somehow I made life better for him, because he definitely did that for me. What I do know is that I became friends with Rick at a pivotal point in my life. I had serious questions without a lot of good answers. He was only a few years older than I was, but his maturity far exceeded his age. On those Thursday mornings we got together for coffee before heading into work, we had some really deep discussions that I will never forget and for which I am eternally grateful. I told my wife and his, I can’t imagine the world without Rick in it. I’m not going to get used to that. I love you Rick, and I’m going to miss you for as long as I’m still around.
In 1967, a German sculptor named Fitz Koenig received a commission by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to install a work of art to be featured on the Austin J. Tobin Plaza situated between Word Trade Center’s twin towers, which were being built at the time. Koenig created a 20-ton cast bronze sphere 17 feet in diameter mounted on a disk pedestal positioned in the middle of a water fountain. Anyone visiting the plaza could pause to witness the largest bronze sculpture in the world at that time. After the twin towers fell in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Koenig’s Sphere, though seriously damaged, was the only work of public art at the World Trade Center that survived the destruction.
The sculpture was removed from the wreckage and brought back to Manhattan six months later and reinstalled in Battery Park, several blocks from its original location. It was later moved to Liberty Park. Ironically, Koenig’s Sphere was dedicated in 1971 to “world peace through trade.” The Sphere represents a remarkable example of how a work of art can take on a whole new meaning for the public based on outside forces that transform the piece, literally and figuratively. Upon its rededication, Koenig’s Sphere was recognized as “an icon of hope and the indestructible spirit of this country.”
I have written in a previous blog post about the value of public gardens, which I define as those that are open and free for everyone to enjoy at no cost. In a similar fashion, public art offers an opportunity for people to experience creative expression in almost endless media, shapes, sizes, colors, and settings. Large cities all over the world are adorned with magnificent art in public places, but even the smallest towns and villages show pride in their communities with various art installations, modest as they may be. They may take the form of a sculpture honoring a benefactor of a local garden, which is a wonderful way of celebrating two different treasures available to the public.
Municipalities often use statues or murals to draw attention to important figures in the history of their communities or significant events from the past. Then again, statues can be whimsical or can portray a particular type of character, including those from works of fiction or fairy tales. Wildlife is a frequent subject of public art too, which all ages tend to appreciate. Some businesses install works of art in front of their locations for the public to enjoy, which also attract customers and can even assist with brand recognition. Sometimes a statue or other work of art can have a dual purpose: as a stand-alone piece that also serves as a planter, an entrance, a directional sign, or any number of other functions.
Museums and galleries that charge admission fees will often have several pieces of art located outside their buildings for people passing by to see. Better yet, some of them include free walking trails on their grounds featuring artwork that is usually quite spectacular and impressive in size and concept. Most valued and valuable works of art in the world are kept in secure, climate-controlled buildings and guarded closely. Access to these treasures is primarily limited to those who can afford admission fees; however, many of the world’s most famous art museums open their doors to the general public for free, at least several times annually. How fortunate are the folks who can take advantage of opportunities to see first-hand the works of the masters from centuries past. But we should never take for granted the art that surrounds us wherever we go. It’s there, and some of it is absolutely amazing.
Without fail in late November and into most of December, I begin to see social media posts from convicted souls proclaiming to us all what Christmas is really about. These gentle reminders are often delivered in the form of worn and faded phrases such as “Jesus is the reason for the season” or “Keep Christ in Christmas.” Are any of these folks celebrating the Holy Day one bit different than most everyone else? They are most likely rushing around for weeks – enduring thick traffic, unruly crowds, unintelligible websites, and supply-chain woes – trying to get just the right gifts for family, co-workers, and the people they love. How many of these defenders of the faith are spending more time with worship and liturgy than they are all the secular trappings of the holiday season? Very few if any, I suspect. So, with respect to Christians who feel the need to defend Jesus and the commemoration of his birth, here is a list of gentle and not-so-snarky suggestions for future Christmas seasons.
1. Please don’t get offended if someone wishes you Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas. Accept the greeting as an example of someone who understands that Christianity isn’t the only religion that celebrates holy days near the end of the year. God rest ye merry gentle people, let nothing you dismay.
2. Please stop insisting that the word “Xmas” is a communist plot to take Christ out of Christmas. For the love of God (you know, Jesus’s father), Google it and stop that nonsense. How long did you sing the phrase “in excelsis Deo” without having a clue what it meant?
3. Please don’t get irritated with people in the service industry at any time during the holidays, for just about any reason at all. They probably have a much suckier job than you do. Tip them extra and spread some of that joy to the world we like to sing about every year.
4. Please resist accusing the government, social media, the press, Bill Gates, or anyone else in this country of trying to get rid of Christmas. It ain’t happening, even if some of the new atheists would like to see it go away. If you still believe that thick slice a bologna, your gullibility score is flying higher than the angels we have heard sweetly singing o’er the plains.
5. Please rethink the idea that the only way to honor the advent of the baby Jesus is to spend a few hours in a church listening to choirs, singing carols, lighting candles, reciting Bible verses, praying, and taking Holy Communion. All of these traditional rituals are perfectly appropriate and meaningful to millions of believers; however, when people choose to celebrate the occasion by spending their time and sharing their love with family and friends outside the formal walls of worship, it doesn’t mean they are getting it wrong or missing the point. Perhaps the reason for the season is to find new opportunities for expressing compassion, grace, and charity, which should happen no matter where we are. If we ever get that part right, maybe more people here and around the world can sleep in heavenly peace.
Thanksgiving Day and the religious holidays that follow tend to make me more conscious of how fortunate I am to have a spouse and partner who adores me and who means the world to me. I also have two sons that I love dearly who are independent and responsible people, finding their own path in life. I am proud of them. I have an extended family that loves me; we have a lovely house in a good neighborhood; I have a great job; and as far as I know, we are in pretty good health for our age and habits. I know how lucky I am to live in a country that is mostly prosperous, reasonably governed, and quite beautiful. In so many ways I have lived a charmed life, which I cannot necessarily attribute to wise decisions or abundant skill sets. On too many occasions to count, I have been in the right place at just the right time.
What I am also reminded of at this time of year is the contrast between my comfortable existence and the plight of so many people here and around the world. I know that living conditions have improved for most of the world’s population over the last hundred years, but the disparity between the haves and the have nots has only widened further. Throw in a pandemic, a few civil wars, wide-spread political unrest, and several natural disasters, and the last two years have presented a setback for a whole lot of people. Those of us who never have to worry about our next meal, a place to sleep, or adequate healthcare have a moral responsibility to share from our abundance with those who struggle just to survive.
I have spent a good portion of my career trying to raise money for charitable causes, mostly associated with education and historic preservation. For me, philanthropy was a commodity I peddled. As important as these activities were, they did not address the most serious challenges that people face. My wife and I also work with and financially support organizations that provide services to people in our community and elsewhere who are in need. We enjoy being involved in directly helping local folks, mostly through our Episcopal parish. On the rare occasions that I pause and give it much thought, I know I’m not doing enough.
If all goes according to plan, we will be retiring in a few years, which means that our schedules will drastically change with a lot more free time on our hands. Like many retirees, we hope to travel and enjoy leisure activities that entertain us. But we also have talked about the desire to volunteer for local organizations, and I am feeling more compelled these days to concentrate my efforts on helping the most vulnerable people in our town. I haven’t been generous enough with my time and resources through the decades. Promoting philanthropy is fine, but I need to spend the last chapters of my life living it.