The Tennessee Democratic Party and Mark Clayton

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The Tennessee Democratic Party disavowed its own candidate for the United States senate in Tennessee, Mark Clayton. The party claimed that Clayton was a member of “an anti-gay hate group,” Public Advocate of the United States, based in Falls Church, Virginia. Now Clayton is a member of Public Advocate, but there is nothing I have seen when looking over their website and Facebook pages that indicates this it is a “hate group.” It defends the traditional view that marriage is between one man and one woman and opposes the agenda of the homosexual rights groups. While to the liberal elite, those may seem to be extreme positions, much of middle American and the majority of Evangelical Christians would accept them. However, numbers do not make a position true or false. The problem is that the left labels any group that opposes the homosexual agenda to push accepting their lifestyle as morally acceptable as a “hate group.” The Southern Poverty Law Center, a group composed of Marxists and radical leftists, has a history of labeling legitimate organizations as bigoted. The SPLC has labeled Public Advocate as a hate group, but it does not follow from their labeling that it is a hate group. There is no evidence that Public Advocate hates homosexual people. They do believe that practicing homosexuality is morally wrong, which was the position of the Christian Church from the beginning until the late twentieth century–and even now, the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, and most Evangelical Protestant would agree that homosexual orientation is unnatural and its practice sinful. Is the SPLC willing to label the Roman Catholic Church as a “hate group”? What about the Orthodox Churches? Evangelical Protestant churches? In the case of Public Advocate I would take the SPLC’s condemnation with a grain of salt. “Hate” has become a political tool to try to silence opposition to the radical left’s attempt to reconstruct society in its own image. The Tennessee Democratic Party has become part of that radical leftist agenda by condemning Mr. Clayton. I am a registered Republican, but if I lived in Tennessee again, I would vote for Mr. Clayton above the Republican candidate Mr. Corker, not just due to this issue but due to Mr. Clayton’s consistent small government position. It is a sad day when a major political party can slander a man and an organization due to the party’s radicalism.

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On a the Publication of my Novel, END OF SUMMER

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Farmhouse, Dent

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The feeling after a novel is first published is different from the feeling when an academic book or article is published–at least for me. There is a greater sense of accomplishment, perhaps because a novel is the product of a different kind of creativity than is involved in academic writing. I can say from experience that creative and academic writing involve two different skill sets. Now before I forget it, here is the link to the site where the novel is offered for purchase: https://www.createspace.com/3719267. It will be available on Amazon in both hard copy and e-book format in a few days. Crass advertising out of the way, I continue….

Novels are works of love, or at least they should be. Anyone who writes a novel for the sole purpose of making money will most likely write a sorry novel. Fiction writing delves deeply into the author’s heart and is a highly emotional experience. An author must bare himself emotionally to the world since fiction, though made up, by necessity is based on events, thoughts, and feelings from a person’s life, sometimes deep feelings. End of Summer is a coming-of-age novel, a fictionalized account of my childhood. I feel guilty for killing off the parents when the main character is two-years-old, but in my first novel I wanted to have fewer characters–and the death of the parents fit the plot of a young boy obsessed with death. The boy has Asperger Syndrome, but has no idea since the story is set in 1968, long before Asperger Syndrome was known in the United States. He desires things to stay the same in his life, but has to face the sickness of his grandfather and the threat of the ultimate change, death. But there are funny moments and moments of great beauty in the main character, Jeffrey’s, simple rural life. Without giving away the ending, the book ultimately affirms meaning and transcendence in the face of a world that all too often changes for the worst. It is Southern fiction with Southern Gothic elements, literary and nonpreachy though Christian in world view, and valuing rural life without falling into sentimentality. I think it is a good read–it was the distillation of my heart, not my mind, going into the depths of the reasons I eventually became a philosopher through the main character I named for my twin brother who died two hours after he was born of pulmonary hemorrhage. When I wrote the first draft, it was as if I had been transferred to another world, living it, with my surroundings in my small room at the beautiful Weymouth Center disappearing and the world of Jeffrey’s childhood surrounding me. The editing later helped refine what had already been written from the heart. If you read it, you will discover it is a novel written from the heart in more ways than one. I am thankful to God that it has finally been published.

The Homeless, Brentwood, Tennessee, and the Arrogance of Wealth

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If the sin of the poor is envy, the sins of the rich are arrogance, snobbery, and a lack of compassion for those less fortunate. No where has then been more in evidence recently than in Brentwood, Tennessee‘s treatment of the homeless from the Nashville area. The Nashville homeless have an innovative program in which the homeless sell a newspaper, The Contributor, produced by the homeless and formerly homeless. The paper costs a dollar and the vendor can keep most of that dollar plus any tips. Not only has this initiative empowered the homeless, it has led to many of them finding homes and jobs. In Nashville, most people have no problem with the homeless selling papers at intersections.

Not so in Brentwood, Tennessee, a community known for its wealth. The town of Brentwood has given tickets to several homeless vendors, claiming that their actions violate city law. The ACLU is supporting a lawsuit against the town of Brentwood. Even though the legal issues are an interesting topic, I would rather focus on the ethics of the rich who do not want their community “stained” by the poor and less fortunate. People who are taking responsibility and engaged in a legitimate business are banned because Brentwood believes such will lower the quality of life within its sheltered community. The upper middle classes and wealthy are becoming more isolated from the rest of their local communities, often living in self-contained gated communities with their own shops for groceries and consumer goods. They are, in effect, hiding from the real world. But no one can ignore poverty except at great moral cost. Too often the rich, like those rich condemned by both the Old Testament prophets, Jesus Christ, the author of I and II Timothy, and the epistle of James, either exploit the poor or ignore their plight, desiring to hide behind a facade of wealth and McMansions. Such a denial of reality has gone to the extreme in the past of one North Carolina town banning death–the town passed a law that no one could die in the city, and the body was taken out of the city before death was pronounced. While this law was later changed, it illustrates the unnatural desire of some of the wealthy to ignore unpleasant facts of life–poverty, disease, and death. The latter is the lot of all people–but the rich can at least reach out to help those who are poor and homeless. Surely paying a dollar to a homeless person for a paper is not a blight on Brentwood’s quality of life. “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to go to Heaven.” Jesus’ statement does not absolve other classes of moral responsibility, but it does point out that with greater blessings come more, not less, responsibility to reach out to the less fortunate. This is not to say that every person in Brentwood lacks compassion for the homeless, nor am I claiming that Brentwood has no programs for the homeless. But banning sales of The Contributor cannot but reflect an underlying attitude in at least a good portion of Brentwood.

Sacred Memory

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Downtown Murfreesboro, Tennessee Image copylef...

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Summer 1972. I rock in a wood chair on a porch that will soon be filled in to form my new bedroom. Sunlight brings out the dark green bluegrass and lighter fescue that fades into red clay under two oaks that border Shirley Road. A green 1962 Oldsmobile slows, and Granddaddy waves me inside. I jump from the rocking chair, sprint to the open door, sit in the soft seat in the back. Granny sits to the right as Granddaddy drives to the square in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. There we stop at Great Aunt Flora’s shop, a thrift store in a building so old that its upper floor had bars bordering the street. I ran up the steps and pretended that the musty room was a jail as I looked outside as legs and feet passed. The high hells, some topped by shoes so red the glint from the sun hurt my eyes, fascinated me. Then I was downstairs, found an American History book from the 1950s, and began to read. I asked Aunt Flora the price. “Just a quarter,” and Granddaddy paid.

“It’s good to see a boy interested in books,” she said, and I was proud.

“Let’s go to the courthouse,” Granddaddy said, and we walked across Church Street toward the center of the square, stopped under a grove of large oaks. On wood benches sat old men whittling cedar blocks; the odor of the shavings slid into my nose, pleasant as a cat’s fur. The old men talked, small talk, but I took in the moment, stored it as we entered the courthouse, found Aubrey’s candy stand, Aubrey who was blind, from whom my mother and aunt bought candy as children, from whom Granddaddy bought a Zero Bar for me. Then we walked back to Flora’s, left the square for the IGA store, where I cooled off by the freezers, their fresh vegetables and fruit a feast for the eyes. It was after five, time to go. I was staying overnight at their home, a large log house covered with wood siding. At twilight I sat on concrete steps, watched lightning bugs flash, feeling the cool of evening take the day’s heat. Later, bath and bed, windows open, cool breeze, sleep. That was the best day of my life.

Why do such memories seem so sweet. Philosopher Peter Kreeft says that memories sanctify the good things that happened in life, making them a foretaste of Heaven. No day could be as perfect as I imagine that day in 1972 to have been–yet my memory makes it a piece of sacred space and time. It is a hint of what is to come by God’s grace. And if should die in such grace, it would be so good to wake up in my grandparents’ house, hearing the mockingbird’s song, feeling the rush of wind through window screens, smelling bacon cooking in the kitchen, the radio on to WGNS. I walk into the kitchen, Granny taking bacon out of the pan, Granddaddy at the table’s end. There will be an eternity to explore God’s creation and explore the mind of God. Who knows? But sacred memory may be the start of an adventure that is both continuous and different than this life, an unending time for growth in love for other people and for God. In a way, I hope that God starts small, grants each of us a sacred memory that is no longer just a memory, but reality realer than this world, reality without evil, reality given by grace, undeserved.

Haunted (Creative Nonfiction Essay)

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The essay below won the 2007 Rose Post Creative Nonfiction Contest of the North Carolina Writers’ Network. It originally appeared in the NC Writers’ Network Newsletter. I own the rights, so I am posting it below. I hope you find it meaningful.

Haunted

I am haunted—not by graveyard ghosts rising as white fog over desolate tombstones or by eerie voices heard at midnight from a bedroom window, but rather by my twin brother Jeffrey, who died the day we were born.

As a child, I knew that Jeffrey had died, yet the story remained a mystery to me. But recently I secured Jeffrey’s death certificate and learned that he had drowned in his own blood.

Department of Public Health, Certificate of Death, State of Tennessee, Division of Vital Statistics. Name: Jeffrey Potts. Date of Birth: December 25, 1961. Date of Death: December 25, 1961. Age: 2 hours. Death was caused by: Immediate cause—pulmonary hemorrhage, bilateral, severe, etiology unknown. Other significant conditions contributing to the death: erythroblastosis fetalis, minimal. Was autopsy performed? Yes.

I have no memory of the first time I heard about Jeffrey. Mama or Daddy may have told me, or I may have asked, having heard them speak his name—but I remember once at five, just before Easter, sitting on the tiled living room floor that had become slick and yellowed with overwaxing. I watch the old black and white TV as “Davy and Goliath,” a claymation series about a boy, Davy, and his dog, Goliath, begins. I find the brass rendition of “A Mighty Fortress is our God” stirring as the episode, called “Happy Easter,” starts with Davy visiting his old but vivacious grandmother who has black hair and wears horn-rimmed glasses. She and Davy are having a wonderful time in the attic, finding and playing with old toys. All seems well, idyllic as my own world, living with my parents and grandparents in the country, every nook of our house holding the promise of new adventure. But the next day, Davy returns home after a neighborhood baseball game and walks into sadness; his mother and sister are crying. Davy asks, “What’s wrong?” and his father answers, “Grandmother died this morning.”

I feel my stomach sink. I’m lying on the cold floor, my face inches from the screen to which I’m glued. Then as Davy’s father explains the concept of the resurrection, all I see is blackness. I run into the kitchen, sit on a chair beneath the bright florescent light and hold my head in my hands, sobbing, “When will I die?” My mother, peeling potatoes over the kitchen sink, doesn’t even look up. “Probably not for a long time,” she says.

Although I don’t often consciously think of Jeffrey, he seems to lurk just behind  my obsession with death. He is the ghost who whispers what might have been, who fills me with unexpected moments of grief and regret.

Fast forward twenty-one years to 1988. I’m in the office of a pastoral counselor with whom I meet for weekly sessions. We talk about my long-time fear/fascination with death, and I tell him about Jeffrey. When he asks if it ever bothered me that I had lost a brother, I say, “No.” Then he asks, “But did you ever wonder about losing a twin brother with whom you would have played, shared, grown up?” and I burst into tears.

Growing up, I didn’t think of my brother often—not once a day, not once a week, not even once a month. Usually, his ghost visited only when Mama mentioned him, though there were some rare instances when I wondered how much Jeffrey would have been like me, whether we would have had the same interests, whether I would have confided in him. Sometimes I imagined him looking down on me when I did wrong, like the time in third grade I lied to the teacher about staying outside past play period to watch two boys fighting. I had climbed near the top of monkey bars to watch them, cupping my hands over my eyes and squinting into the sunlight. The boys’ silhouettes leapt as though they were boxers exchanging blows. The bell rang for class, but I stayed outside before finally returning to class with other tardy students. The teacher asked which students had disobeyed the bell to watch the fight. I didn’t raise my hand. Several classmates yelled at once, “Michael Potts is lying.” I turned red, and for some reason thought about Jeffrey, felt him as a visceral presence.

Even today, when I catch myself lying or doing wrong, I think of him and if he’d be ashamed of me. Or if he’d be proud of my accomplishments: my Ph.D., my academic articles, my published poems. Is it a sense of loss, of  buried grief that rises, insisting to be acknowledged? But what kind of loss can I feel about someone I never knew?

Jeffrey Potts…died Monday at Rutherford Hospital shortly after birth. His twin brother, Michael, survives. Graveside services were held at the family cemetery near Smyrna….

Jeffrey’s remains were moved—twice. Once from the family cemetery, near the Stones River in Smyrna, Tennessee due to the construction of Percy Priest Dam to Mt. Juliet, thirty miles from home. Then family visits were rare, though I remember riding with my family one Sunday (I must have been seven or eight), the drive punctuated by the rolling hills of middle Tennessee which seemed to run forever by my car window. The motion was disorientating, making me sick to my stomach, and I was glad when we finally stopped. I don’t remember the grave itself, a small patch of grass and a curved headstone. But many years later, as an adult, I drove to the graveyard alone, looked for almost an hour before finding the tiny headstone. I wept openly. No one else was around—no person, no squirrel scurrying up and down trees—just a breeze which briefly interrupted the stifling July heat.

Mama wanted the grave closer to home, and the family all agreed. And even though I had moved out of state for graduate school, I still wanted to be able to visit when I returned to my parents’ home. They purchased a new gravestone, casket, paid the fee to move the remains. I wanted to be there for the reburial, but Mama and Daddy didn’t tell me, so I missed  it. Later that week when I phoned for details, Mama described the scene: how the old black casket was carried out of the grave and placed on the grass. Decayed, the lid had collapsed. A cemetery worker needed to scrape out tiny bits of bone amid the earth; what was poured into the new casket was mainly dirt. I remember thinking of God telling Adam, “Dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return.”

Jeffrey’s remains now lie in the “Babytown” section of our hometown cemetery. A small but attractive stone marks the grave. Whenever I visit, I clean off the excess dirt, pull grass where it has overgrown, say a short prayer, cross myself before I leave. Then I walk over to Granddaddy’s and Granny’s graves as well as to my Uncle Lytle’s and do the same. Looking across the Tennessee countryside—filled with Eastern Red Cedars, sugar maples, farmer’s fields full of alfalfa and fescue, good food for cows—I imagine such beauty lasting forever. But then the ghost of death, like a cold, unwelcome wind comes, and I must leave.

Jeffrey’s death, or rather the idea of Jeffrey—the sense of the other self, the doppelganger, the secret sharer, the person he might have become and how he could have influenced what I might have become—still haunts me, especially on Christmas Day, our birthday, or when I visit my parents. I take the short drive to the cemetery, stand on the cold ground, look down at his marker, say “Happy birthday.” I close my eyes, sense the missing space in myself where Jeffrey would have been, try to imagine it filled. But my mind remains blank, and I open my eyes to find nothing staring back but brown grass and cracked earth.

Sometimes, I’m troubled by a recurring dream—I’m walking behind the wooden garage that Daddy and my Great Uncle Bill built when I was ten. I squeeze my way between the black wall and the vine-covered fence until in darkness, I bend and touch something soft and squirming. Then I shoot awake, often in a sweat.

And recently, not long after receiving Jeffrey’s death certificate, I remembered rabbit hunting for the first time with my father; I must have been nine. We walk steadily out in a sun-blanketed field, shotguns slung over our shoulders. Suddenly, Daddy spies a single gray rabbit, nibbling at something in the distance. He stops, takes his shotgun, aims, and shoots. The large rabbit pops back and falls. When Daddy quickly, deftly skins it, I ask for the heart, carrying it off to study alone near the edge of the woods—its tight red muscle glistening as I squeeze and squeeze, trying to get it to pump again.

“Progress” and its Problems

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Rutherford County Courthouse in Murfreesboro

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I am originally from Smyrna, Tennessee, although I live in North Carolina now due to my university teaching job. Until I graduated from Smyrna High School in 1980, the town’s population was slightly over 5000. Murfreesboro, the county seat, had a population of around 30,000. Rutherford County’s population was small enough that anyone who drove to one of the grocery stores in Murfreesboro would find someone he knew. As a child, Granddaddy and I went to the courthouse in the center of the public square. Several old men would be sitting in the shade on benches, whittling cedar blocks. The odor of the shavings wafted through the air. The sense of order, of a continuity through change, was palpably present, even for a child. School also reflected that order; I had several of the graduates of Smyrna High in my classes through all twelve years of school.

Today the square remains, along with some of the shops that were there thirty years ago. The same barber I had gone to since fourth grade is still there–when I visit my parents once or twice a year, I make sure to stop by and get a haircut there. Thankfully the city leaders decided to keep the square occupied and in good condition. But the whittlers are gone. Years ago, someone had the bright idea to move the benches out of the shade. Perhaps the old men had died. Perhaps some “progressives” thought Murfreesboro was “too good” for the whittlers. But the worst changes are in the countryside. Scores of housing developments fill the county with “McMansions.” Historic homes, some dating back to the War Between the States, have been sold and torn down in the name of “progress.” When the Nissan plant moved into Smyrna shortly after I graduated from high school, it brought jobs, but it also brought a flood of job seekers who had not grown up in the community with its rich history and tradition. Smyrna has over 30,000 people; Murfreesboro over 80,000. It is more rare to see someone recognizable in stores. Traffic is worse than ever, and there are miles of land where only shopping centers exist. “Progress” had remade Rutherford County. I congratulate it on such success. And the sarcasm drips like acid.

Communities are organic structures that must have continuity within change to survive. The rapid growth that pleases the Orcs (excuse me, the developers) destroys the continuity of a community. Today I go to work in a military city, Fayetteville, North Carolina, near the mega-base, Fort Bragg. There is very little continuity here, and outside of a few neighborhoods people rarely know their neighbors. But the military is not the only force that harms local community; a rapid business expansion does, too. Murfreesboro lacks the home town feeling it used to have. And I would prefer Smyrna the way it used to be; it had its faults, but at least people knew each other. The social in-crowd may have turned their noses at country families like mine, but at least they’d speak to you if they saw you in town. Most of Smyrna is the same artificially created “community” that began with the suburban explosion after World War II. I almost cry when I consider the old trees pulled down, old graveyards moved–or perhaps worse–I hope not. Saruman and his orcs have overrun the town. A few natives (and expatriates like me) mourn the loss. The barbaric majority rejoices. Time only moves one direction–unfortunately.