I Was Wrong!

I’ve sat at this keyboard for 30 minutes trying to compose a compelling opening sentence to get you to read what I have to say. I don’t know how to begin! What I have to say is a simple and heartfelt corrective to misconceptions and an injustice I have perpetuated (however unintentionally). Please hear me out!

Virtually everyone in our family knows that our cousin (my first cousin’s son, Pete) has been incarcerated in Nebraska for the past 41 years, 23 of which were on death-row. I reached out to Pete a couple of months ago and we began a mutually satisfying email correspondence. All this came to an abrupt halt after I shared with Pete two blog posts I had written a few years ago in opposition to the death penalty. I had referenced him with the presumption of his guilt.

Pete politely but curtly asked that I give him the courtesy of not contacting him again. I had no clue of the pain my naively well-intentioned posts had caused him. We have had no correspondence since.

I had never taken a close look at the evidence in Pete’s case or the specifics surrounding his conviction. His trial was conducted just as I was preparing to enter the Jesuit novitiate in 1978. That was the last time I have lived in Nebraska. But I do not mean these as an excuse. The truth is I remained blissfully ignorant of the facts, “bought” the findings of the jury trial and placed unfettered confidence in the veracity our judicial system. I was wrong to make these presumptions.

Over the last couple weeks I have taken a much closer look. I’ve concluded that Pete’s conviction was the result of a legal system desperate to wrap-up an unsolved two-year old murder case, an unscrupulous assistant county attorney, nefarious interference by the victim’s family, and the contrived testimony of a key witness manipulated by fear and a desire to save his own ass. I now believe Pete is not guilty and wish to correct the falsehoods I have presumed and spread over the years.

I come to this conclusion for various reasons. Here are a few that I found compelling:

Pete had inadequate legal representation from the start. Though he benefitted from the skillful defense of Dave Lathrop (counsel to the other man charged with the murder) after the cases were combined for purposes of trial. Pete’s court appointed attorney was inept and would later be arrested and convicted of drug offenses and child molestation.

The so-called “testimony” of the prosecution’s key witness had been thrown out as tainted, “poisoned” or otherwise unreliable by the judge in evidentiary hearings prior to the trial. It was reinstated by the Nebraska Supreme Court in what appears to me as an internally contradictory argument.

Subsequent appeals by court appointed attorneys were urgently and understandably focused on protecting Pete from imposition of his death sentence rather than digging into the case for further exonerating evidence.

Advocates for those unjustly imprisoned have for decades shown special interest in Pete’s case. My review of the facts was greatly assisted and inspired by New York writer and advocate, Doug Magee. He has poured over Pete’s case for more than thirty-years and comprehends the facts, and untruths, like no other. I owe him a special debt of gratitude for kindly but clearly correcting my ignorance.

In early 2014 the Innocence Project of Nebraska, the state affiliate of the highly successful national Innocence Project, agreed to take Pete’s case.  Even though there is no DNA evidence (a mandate for their advocacy), evidence of Pete’s innocence was simply too compelling for the Project to ignore.

So what do I believe? I believe Pete was framed! The victim had his enemies. He was known for shady deals and had even done time in federal prison for a kickback deal. There was talk in the media of a hit-man from Phoenix in town around the time of the murder. I’ve concluded that this — combined with an unscrupulous prosecuting attorney, the manufactured and coerced lies of the key “witness”, and the illegal and corrupt dealings of a private detective hired by the victim’s family (their third) — is a much more reasonable explanation to the murder than the travesty of justice seen in the Pete’s trial. I believe Pete was scapegoated by an unscrupulous legal system that wanted a conviction — any conviction — to close a high profile murder case from its books.

So what now? Well, first of all, we need to know the truth. Scripture says, “The truth shall set you free.” Well, what do you think?  Does it?  Our 64 year-old cousin has been incarcerated for more than 40 years for something I no longer believe he did. Will the truth set Pete free? If not, how truly “free” are the rest of us?

Please remember this story as you would all significant family stories! I ask all of our Nebraska relatives and friends to be especially vigilant. Learn the truth. Speak the truth. Correct falsehood. Decry every injustice that would be perpetuated in our name.

And, of course, share this message with any others you think would be interested in it or have a need to know.

Monumental

Purchasing a tombstone is inevitably a sobering experience, especially when its your own. That’s what I did during the last week of 2017. Seemed practical… with no children, who’s going to do it? Besides, it gives you the opportunity to select what you want. Or, better, what I don’t want — no “Praying Hands”, thank you very much!

I’ve often mused that I wanted my epithet to be “He made good soup.” It’s simple, descriptive, accurate. Conjures hospitality, creativity, frugality, a melding of many pieces into one grand symphony. Mom worked miracles with her clean-out-the-refrigerator soups as Dad awaited his next paycheck. What better could be said about someone’s life?

My cremains will be interred in a plot next to my parents in a Nebraska town of 1600 people where we haven’t lived for more than 62 years. We have four generations of family in that cemetery. Though I haven’t lived in Nebraska for more than forty years, the prairie remains my home and where my soul, even now, finds rest.

There is a fitting and delightful irony in that my final resting place will be more than 300 miles from where I now live but less than a quarter-mile from the house where my parents lived when I was conceived.

Proximity has never characterized our relationship! A lively sense of adventure and curiosity necessitated that I move on, travel the world, shed the provincialism I naively ascribed to my origins. Even being interred next to my parents was unimaginable for a time. As required in adolescence and young adulthood deep existential longings beckoned me beyond, always on to new horizons. Parents symbolize origins; I sought the world, and as much as of it I could get.

Parents frequently become a convenient and easy receptor for all we want to leave behind, their deficiencies an easy target for our ire. After all, we recognize at some deep level they are the only ones we get and that’s never going to change.  For better or worse we are irrevocably hitched. So we let ’em have it. They’re always our parents!

If we are especially fortunate we may find an abiding confidence that they may even love us unconditionally (even if not in the way we’d prefer). Though I have no personal experience, I’ve come to wonder whether the best parents can hope is for their heartache to be balanced with the consolation and joy children periodically deliver.

Perhaps herein lies the real gift — in our living we discover that anguish and joy are not an either/or proposition. Rather, they converge into a single, swirling vortex. In that swirling rough’n’tumble we discover as good a definition of love as any.

Here’s something I do know. In our youth a certain insatiable longing and expansiveness necessarily drives us outward and we need to dispose of the identity our parents and origins conferred upon us. Like the vast Nebraska prairie we envision limitless space and fix our eyes on the expansive horizon, ever captivated by whatever lies beyond. We eventually move from being pioneers to becoming homesteaders of our own.

Then, there comes a time we discover our deepest longings, most profound hungers, insatiable appetites cannot be satisfied. They need not be satisfied. Oh, we may try! But the horizon always recedes beyond us! The especially privileged among us will attempt to find satisfaction in what will ultimately be found insufficient to the need. Acquisitions of all sorts easily slide into consumerism or fetishes at best and obsessions or addictions in more desperate extremes.

Perhaps one key reason children and parents inevitably clash lies in the fact we engage one another at two different stages of life. One driven by an expansive, limitless trajectory; the other drawn deeper into an awareness of life’s complexities. We are destined to reside in different universes though never apart.

To the uninitiated, the Nebraska prairie appears barren, flat, featureless. Life on the plains carries a certain emptiness, longing, loneliness. That is precisely what beckons my soul. But cannot this be said of every place of human habitation? Ultimately, wherever we reside, we must find satisfaction beyond our dreams, beyond place, beyond selves.

The Nebraska prairie is the place where my soul finds rest. One way or another, we are all drawn deeper than we could have seen or imagined into discovering our most authentic selves. Horizons expand beyond the geographical. Life transcends the individual. Our trek paradoxically takes us, not just beyond, but ever deeper — deeper into emptiness, longing, yearning.

Fulfillment comes when we enter, or are plunged, more deeply if not willingly into that vast expansiveness. The hard and perplexing invitation to a full and happy life lies not in our futile efforts to fill an existential emptiness. Rather, our happiness and wholeness is discovered when we welcome, probe and embrace the wisdom this womb-like cavern holds for us. Therein lies life’s destiny and fulfillment.

My parents’ memorial sits inconspicuously atop a windswept hill in Nebraska. Mine will stand aside it — same size, same shape, same granite stone. Only difference being that Mom and Dad’s “Praying Hands” will be replaced by my simple cross. My husband asked, “Will your monument say, ‘He made good soup’?” My response, “No, it says something even better and more distinguished… ‘Son of Arthur and Gertrude’!”

My two Godson nephews have been instructed to simply place my cremains into the ground. The only graveside service I request is that they read aloud the conclusion to T.S. Eliot’s Little Gidding. In part it says:

With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
__________________

Eliot’s poem Little Gidding may be found at: http://www.columbia.edu/itc/history/winter/w3206/edit/tseliotlittlegidding.html

“What Do You Want For Christmas?”

Many are familiar with my banana story. A few years back on April 5, my mother’s birthday, I was slicing a banana over my morning Raisin Bran. A warm consolation suddenly transported me back nearly 60 years. I was a little boy and Mom was slicing a banana over my breakfast cereal. She gave me half. To my protestations of wanting the whole banana Mom simply said, “Richard, you can have your share but you need to leave some for the others.”

This morning her words again hit me with a jolt. Sitting in my recliner, French Roast in hand, I felt a sudden, final “drop” of an elevator settling upon arrival on a lower level. For years I have been focusing on only half of her wisdom — “you have to leave some for the others.” That’s essential counsel for a 5 year old, especially given Mom’s challenge of feeding ten kids. But Mom was also saying, “You can have your share.”

These days — and many decades beyond 5 years old — its easy to deflect our loved ones’ queries about what we want for Christmas. “Oh, honey, I don’t need a thing! A pair of socks or underwear would be just fine.” How deflating is that to their holiday spirit! The temptation to take less under the pretense of appearing “loving” lurks just below the surface in many of us. Such pseudo-humility still leaves its focus on me. More insidiously, it risks gutting our inherent value as persons.

It’s taken decades for me to glean the gentle, compassionate wisdom elders have been quietly modeling. To be truly humble means to be grounded, like humus, in the richness of our true selves. Humility has little to do with making ourselves less than we are. Rather, humility lies in the honest acceptance of our true selves as blessed creatures with legitimate desires and needs — as well as faults — woven into relationship with others within this magnificent creation.

Yes, in a consumerist culture fixated on “self” and “stuff” there are enormous pressures to buy, binge and indulge. Powerful forces easily subvert moderation, balance, equilibrium. Needs get inflated, desires distorted. But for mature people intent on doing good, the more pressing danger is much more complicated and fraught with peril — that we make too little of ourselves!

Mom unwittingly conveyed another bit of essential wisdom. Born before women had the right to vote, cultural norms continued to constrain her options and proscribe her self-initiative. Weighed down by ten kids (as her tenth child I have a distinct right to state this), Mom was further coerced into putting others first.

This morning, over my cereal, I hear her saying, “Richard, you have to have a self before you can give it away.” In this, too, she remains one of my best teachers and most humble human beings I will ever know.

Too many are still prevented by social norms and unjust structures from discovering and celebrating the fullness of their God-given dignity. Is there any question about what should be on our Christmas wish list?

The Paradox of Parents

Mom and Dad had tough lives! Married in 1931 as the Great Depression and drought was overtaking their Nebraska farming community, they wouldn’t leave the farm until 1945 at the end of World War II. I’m the youngest of ten kids and how they managed to feed, clothe and educate us all in Catholic school remains one of the great miracles of our family history. Naturally, my parents and the life they passed on conjures special memories at Thanksgiving.

Dad dropped out of school in the 10th grade because Grandpa needed help on the farm. Grandpa was known to have said, “After you have reading and can work numbers, what more do you need?” Cultural norms presumed that every girl was destined to become a farm wife. These values precluded Mom from even beginning high school despite earning the top score in Cedar County on the standardize 8th grade exams.

There was a time while pursuing professional and advanced masters degrees that my parents lack of formal education was an embarrassment. I lived in fear that if my “sophisticated”, upper class friends really new of my humble, uneducated heritage they would see me as the fraud I was. Clearly, my exaggerated ego and fragile self-image was a powerful force in all this pretense and hiding of factual truths. No more!

This weekend I’m savoring The Sage’s Tao Te Ching, Ancient Advice for the Second Half of Life by William Martin. It’s been news to me that Lao Tzu is said to have been the teacher of Confucius more than two thousand five hundred years ago. Unlike his much more prolific student, Lao Tzu left us only about five thousand words. Most of these are in his Tao Te Ching. His is not esoteric, academic “book learning” as my Grandpa might have said. Rather Lao Tzu passes on practical wisdom, the sort of genius I now recognize my Mom and Dad had in abundance.

Today’s a case in point. I’ve been mulling over #52 of Tao Te Ching‘s ninety-one brief teachings:

The world has said

that those who do the right things,

choose the right careers,

work hard,

and avoid mistakes,

shall satisfy their desires

and be at peace.

The sage knows

that this is an illusion born of fear.

Great accomplishments do not bring peace.

Massive failures do not bring despair.

The choice between peace

and despair

is an inner choice

that may be made at any moment.

***

I see much despair among the aging

that is so unnecessary.

Our history does not determine our present.

Peace is always available to us.

It is a matter of choice.

William Martin’s new interpretation in The Sage’s Tao Te Ching is masterful for the way it captures the nuanced polarities of our lives some sevenhundred generations after being composed. He captures the perplexities and paradox of success and failure, gain and loss, love and fear, sickness and health, life and death embedded in Lao Tzu’s genius.

Mom and Dad probably knew very little about Confucius. I’m certain they had never heard of Lao Tzu. But they seemed to have known every bit as much when they’d pass on such aphorisms as, “Life is pretty much what you choose to make of it!” or “You are about as happy as you make up your mind to be!” Yes, their lives where tough! Yet, their lives were distinguished by generosity, love, faith, determination and hard work. Circumstances didn’t often lend themselves to having fun, but they even indulged a bit of that from time to time.

This Thanksgiving weekend, kicking back and relaxing as we are able, I am immensely grateful and proud to have been raised by ones so learned and wise. Mom and Dad passed along the best education I could have ever received.

A Place for All

“You know, it’s about a hundred yards past the old Morton place.” Dad grew up where the one-mile grid of roads went unnamed. Didn’t need to be! People knew where they were by relationships and landmarks. “No, Dad, I never knew the Mortons and don’t have a clue where they lived.”

I grew up in a city where I depended on house numbers, street names and quantifiable directions to a location. “You do too! The Morton place is about a quarter of a mile south of the farm.” Though vague, at least Dad’s reference to “the farm” gave me a clue I could understand.

An orientation to place — a sense of where we originate, stand, belong — seems vital if not essential. Although driven to America by the Irish potato famine of the 1840s and the failed democratic revolutions of 1848 in a region we know as Germany, my ancestors were typical of most. They came together in multi-family units while clinging  tenaciously to their language and religion.

On a recent visit to my mother’s ancestral village of Weiberg in the North Rhineland region of what was Prussia we were struck by how that terrain mirrors the land near St. Helena, Cedar County, Nebraska where they settled in 1861. Just makes sense — as one Nebraska author writes, we know such land by heart.

That became abundantly clear yesterday. In playful banter an eleven year-old neighbor accused me of not being a very good Minnesotan. Without even a hint of forethought I retorted, “I’ve never aspired to be a Minnesotan. I’m a Nebraskan.” Though I enjoy living here and have sunk deep roots, I know my place. My heart and sensibilities rest most happily and assuredly deep within the Nebraska prairie.

On our annual trek back to Cedar County earlier this month, my Florida brother and I reminisced, visited relatives (at least the few who are left) and said a prayer at the graves of grandparents going all the way back to Ireland and Germany.

Tending the grass of my parents grave, I stood atop the spot where my cremains will one day be interred. It felt right. Felt like home. It felt like the place where I want to be laid to rest — amid four generations of family in a land I know by heart.

Yes, my family moved from this place 62 years ago and I admit a true disinterest in whether any Mortons remain. Still, it all comes down to knowing who and whose we are! That takes years, decades even; involves traveling vast distances and engaging rugged terrain; nothing short of a lifetime.

Nothing is more humbling and challenging than moving toward diminishment, even dependence. Earlier this month my brother and I visited cousins in a nursing home, stayed at the home of our brother’s widow as well as placed flowers on many more graves. In time this is the place we all find ourselves (if we are among the lucky ones).

What we depended upon for our identity and livelihood — houses, careers, bank accounts, reputations, responsibilities — prove not to be solid or even essential, loved and good as they were. Finally, it all comes down to knowing who and whose we are, where we really belong.

Recently I came upon this by Brendan Freeman. It pretty much says what I have come to believe:

Our true homeland is not here; our true monastery is not a building or a visible place. It is in the heart, in the center of our being — a space that can never be diminished or demolished. It is eternal and everlasting as the heavens. …the soul lives where it loves.

And, I might add, our true homeland is as all-embracing as the Nebraska prairie.
__________________
The precise and perfect image of “knowing the land by heart” comes from Ron Hansen in his short story entitled Nebraska, in his collection of stories with the same name.

Trappist Fr. Brendan Freeman, OCSO is Superior ad Nutum of Holy Trinity Abbey in Huntsville, Utah. His experience of assisting the community through the process of closing is shared in Cistercian Studies Quarterly, vol 52.2 (2017) pages 221-29. “…the soul lives where it loves” is from John of the Cross in his Spiritual Canticle (8.3).

Grandma had a Grandma, Too!

Going to Grandma’s house was never much fun. I didn’t have the words then but now I’d describe her as austere, rigid, stoic, an old woman for whom life had been a disappointment. Memories make me wonder if she was ever truly happy.

There are no photos of her smiling, no family stories of joviality, no warm hugs like those we enjoyed from our other Grandma. A snapshot taken in front of the house on their 50th wedding anniversary in 1954 shows a couple standing at attention, conspicuously separate from the other, Grandma taller than our retiring Grandpa.

Dad always sympathized with his Dad. He’d recall from time to time, “There was no question who wore the pants in our family.” More than once, Mom said, “It’s really a shame that a son would feel that way about his mother.” Well after Grandma died in 1967 Dad would rehash such memories. For a long time they seemed to still hold him bound.

One account suffices to capture how these memories could slide into resentment. At the height of the Depression, Mom and Dad were struggling farmers trying really hard to hold on to the farm (they succeeded). Grandma, on the other hand, made a big production of buying a new fur coat. Mom and Dad were buying the farm from Grandpa and Grandma and knew they dare not be late with a payment. Dad was desperately trying to feed an ever-growing brood not buy his Mom a new fur coat! Really, what kind of Mother or Grandma would act like that?

Well, this week — fifty years after Grandma’s death — a flood of insight, compassion and affection has taken me off-guard. It came in the form of an even older family story unknown until it seemingly appeared out of the blue through the wonders of the Internet. It’s an obscure story recorded in her native German by a Franciscan Sister from LaCrosse, Wisconsin that tell of events from 1826. The story is about Grandma’s grandma!

Sister Colomba, OSF tells how her mother, Anna was born to Johanna Druffner on July 26, 1826 in Rottweiler, Schwarzwaldkreis, Wuerttemberg, Germany. Her father is listed as unknown on birth records. The family would dismiss his anonymity with the facile explanation that “he had an accident in the forest.” But Sister Colomba tells more!

Citing a man with knowledge of that time and place, Sister’s story recalls “a rover who would work for a farmer, get a daughter in trouble, and escape into the woods.” According to her source’s account this happened on numerous occasions with numerous young women. When area farmers concluded this was the same man perpetrating these crimes, “they went searching for him in the woods.” There is no report that they found him, just a curt note simply stating he was never seen again.

Other genealogical sources combine to profile a woman who knew a lifetime of hardship, sadness and loss. Grandma’s grandma would leave her homeland, marry at 23, spend seven unsettled years with her husband in Philadelphia, all before moving on to rural Iowa. She would bear ten children, five of whom died in infancy. The sole photo we have of Anna and Wilhelm presents a sinewy, intense, tough woman peering somewhat blankly into the distance.

Widowed at 60, Anna lived for a time with her son, William on the home place. The story further explains that she “kept wandering away because she wanted to go ‘home’.” Eventually, Anna found her way to LaCrosse where her daughter’s Franciscan community reserved seven rooms on the top floor of their hospital “for people who needed a home.” There she died in 1908 and was buried, a final resting place separate from her husband who was buried near their farm in Iowa. She was 81. Grandma was now 24, married, had just given birth to her second child, building a home with Grandpa in Nebraska.

Scripture says the transgressions of the fathers are visited upon their children to the third and fourth generation. We say this more colloquially, “An apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” or “He’s a chip off the old block.” It’s been nothing short of revelatory for me to discover that the Grandma I didn’t like very much had a grandma, too!

A kind of liberation comes with this deeper appreciation for why Grandma may have been the way she was. What is still reverberating is the realization that I am alive as the consequence of a rape. Still unsettling is the awareness that one of my distant grandfathers likely killed the father of his granddaughter, my Grandma’s grandma!

Driving down the wintry parkway yesterday, ruminating over these new-found facts, sifting through sundry emotions, a fresh warmth and unforeseen love began to take hold. That previously tedious and obscure Gospel account of Jesus — the one about so-and-so being begot by so-and-so — came to mind. Jesus’ own genealogy contains harlots and murderers too. Ours is precisely the humanity God chose to embrace.

In retelling the story of our salvation, it remains essential that these accounts and people be remembered, named, and in so doing, embraced. I’m coming to believe this is what real love looks like!

For Better, For Worse

My marriage vows are meaning much more to me these days — not “wedding day” vows but the promises we live daily through the ups and downs of the everyday. Yes, I’m talking about “for better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health; until death.”

This deepening appreciation was set in place by a nasty sprain and ankle fracture two months ago. No weight-bearing use of the leg and inability to drive for nearly seven weeks almost drove me crazy. The hardest part was accepting my powerlessness and dependence on others, primarily my husband. I rued the day tables would be turned and questioned whether I’d be able to match his patience, generosity and kindness.

Well, the fates have a wicked sense of humor. The very day after I got out of my “boot” and was able to transition to a Velcro brace to support my fledgling mobility, my husband fell on an icy sidewalk just outside our house when taking Jeb the Dog for his daily afternoon walk.

The tables were more than turned — with a nasty sprain, two fractures and an actual break he will have surgery to implant a plate and numerous screws as soon as the swelling is sufficiently reduced. His injury was far worse than mine! As if the fates wished to place a huge exclamation point on the coincidence, his surgery is scheduled for the precise day and hour I was previously scheduled to begin physical therapy on my healing ankle. My injury? His injury? Distinctions collapse in marriage.

“For better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health; until death.” Familiar words, often expressed as a naive wager that things will always be okay if not easy. Words often spoken as an either/or, as if life proffers a dualistic one-or-the-other. Rather, we learn that what we profess is actually the warp and the woof of a single fabric and it’s our gift to weave it all into a seamless tapestry.

And there is more! From the cruel depths of this Minnesota winter — with the two of us hobbling around begrudgingly needing others for help, depending on the incredible generosity of neighbors, with Jeb the Dog thoroughly confused and bodily inconvenienced by disappearance of any semblance of routine — the worse, poorer and sickness part of the formula takes precedence. All the while reminding us that the horizon of death can not be ignored.

And, still more! The begrudging admission of powerlessness, the icy starkness of winter, our cruel fate and dependence on others, all yield another gift — the truth of love, the safe harbor of relationship, our reliance on one another. Who would know if the risk is not taken, the promises not made?

Strange, isn’t it! Love surely shines forth in the easy and happy times. Yet we discover an unplumbed depth, find an untested resilience, desire to affirm what we have vowed when we discover the face of love from that place of need, poverty and dependence. Such is the nature of love, it’s most sublime gift.

Amid the depths of winter we are taken off guard by the gift of Love, the presence of Love, overcome by the Presence of One who chooses to be with us precisely when and where we need love most.