Back To Mesquite Days After The Festive Days Of Cedar And Fir

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for December 27, 2018, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

            Finally, we move on from the cedar and fir of Christmas joy and jubilation to the mesquite reality of mundane, even harsh, everyday life. Just about everybody experiences the let-down feeling of the blah’s the days following Christmas, don’t they? Well, maybe there’s something good to be said about the mesquite reality of life, too.

            Of course, I’m using “mesquite” as a metaphor here, and I think it is a well-chosen metaphor. W. T. Waggoner, one of the pioneer ranchers in Texas once said the mesquite is “the devil with roots. It scabs my cows, spooks my horses, and gives little shade.” To his description of the mesquite tree/bush/shrub, I should add that its long, extensive root system uses up too much water in areas like West Texas where water is scarce. The Texas Almanac tells us that its tap roots are even longer than oak tree roots. It is of course the mesquite’s thorns that injure cattle, horses, and cowboys.

            Today, in the drier areas of our State, ranchers still fight “Mesquite Wars.” To do so, they use chemical spray, bulldozers, diesel oil, root plowing, and burn-off, — if you travel in those areas, you will see that mesquite is still winning the war.

            But it’s not just in West Texas and the Panhandle where mesquite grows amok on the lone prairie; this scrub is all over Texas, — north to south, east to west, mesquite trees cover one-third of the State (absent only in the piney woods of East Texas). The Texas Almanac also tells us that 76 percent of all mesquite growing in the United States grows, — yep, right here in the Lone Star State! So, for us Texans, it’s very ordinary and often a nuisance.

            A huge corner of my maternal grandfather’s farm in Dime Box was covered with mesquite, a mesquite grove, if you will. It was bounded on one side by a County Road, on another side by another gravel road, and on a third side by the lane to the farmhouse. The fourth side was chicken yard and barn yard, — I suppose that’s how my grandfather kept it contained. The mesquite grove provided the least fun for grandkids on the farm.

            And yet there’s a good side to mesquite, too. Where water is scarce, it’s more or less just scrub, but where there is more moisture, mesquite can grow up to 40 or 50 feet tall and spread about 40 or 50 feet wide. It forks just a few feet above the ground, and, with enough moisture, the limbs can grow pretty large. Grandpa’s mesquite trees/bushes/shrubs were about 10 to 20 feet and not that wide, and the limbs were fairly thick. I mention these facts, because wood artists and furniture makers love mesquite wood for its color, its texture, and its irregular patterns. Sculpture made from mesquite is some of the most beautiful wood sculpture seen in the world, and tables and chairs carved from mesquite wood are extraordinary!

            The huge attendance at the Texas Mesquite Art Festival, held this year in October, in Fredericksburg, Texas, proves how popular mesquite wood art and furniture really is! Sometimes there is not a clear distinction between “art” and “furniture,” as some of the exquisitely carved mesquite wood bases for living room lamps would indicate. And the irregularity of the table tops and chair backs are loved for their irregularity, and thus, artiness, proving almost no distinction between art and furniture.

            Another case in point to which any Texan will attest is that when mesquite wood, chips, charcoal, and logs are used in grilling or barbecuing, the result is delicious-tasting meat and fish. My father, and a lot of other old-time Texans, used to insist that mesquite wood made the best tasting barbecue in the whole world.

            As you can see from this, there is quite a demand for mesquite wood, both from artists and furniture makers, as well as from thousands of home grilling and barbecue chefs. Mesquite is not so mundane, ordinary, useless, and even vexing, after all. Just like going from the joyful cedar and fir Christmas tree season back to the reality of mesquite days is not so bad either. The Spirit of Christmas is in your heart and soul, not in the decorations, gifts, and lighted trees; and it should live on after the festive Day is gone. Jesus is the reason for the season, but He is also the reason for every day of our life!

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Ray Spitzenberger, a retired college speech and English teacher and a retired Lutheran pastor, has recently published a book, It Must Be the Noodles, on sale at amazon.com.

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The Joy Of Christmas Singing…Or Making A Joyful Noise

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for December 20, 2018, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

            It has been noted many times by many people that churches are filled twice a year, — Christmas and Easter. While not all churches have services on Christmas Day, for those that do, what is it that members want on that day in church?

            It would take months to research the answer to that question, and I’m sure the answers would be as varied as the backgrounds and personalities of the people themselves. However, if I take a look at friends, relatives, and parishioners in my parish, I think I can safely answer that one of the main “wants” is the joy of singing or hearing Christmas music, both on Christmas Day and the weeks preceding.

            Over the years, that too has been a major “want” of mine. Of course, the Christmas hymn which has always meant the most to me is “Silent Night” (“Stille Nacht”) sung in German. After all these years, I can still remember (but not sing) the tenor part to “Stille Nacht.” I love to HEAR music, and I listen well, but singing has never been one of my talents. In fact, my wife used to signal me to turn my clip-on mike off during the singing in church.

            The other two hymns which I remember and cherish from my childhood are “O Holy Night” and “We Three Kings of Orient Are.” We sang these two in our little Lutheran church in Dime Box every year at our Sunday School Christmas Program on Christmas Eve. Since the original “O Holy Night” was written by a controversial theologian and “We Three Kings” considered a tad “unbiblical” (the Bible doesn’t say how many Magi there were), our pastor did not approve of them. Although he told us what to sing in church, the Sunday School Superintendent (who was my cousin) decided what was to be sung at the Christmas Program, and she liked those two songs.

            At home, my family, including aunts and uncles, would gather around the piano, with either my mother or me (rarely) playing, and we would sing such family favorites as “The First Noel,” “Hark the Herald Angels,” “Away in a Manger,” “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” and “Oh, Come All Ye Faithful,” the top family choices. Those of us like me, who couldn’t stay on pitch, would make a joyful noise!

            In spite of a number of years of piano lessons, I was a very mediocre (actually, terrible) pianist, and we all preferred by mother’s accompaniment. One thing, however, my piano lessons did do for me was to take me in new directions of musical tastes.

            You see, my piano teacher was an old German Lutheran high brow lady from Giddings, and she would let me learn to play only classical music (simplified versions, of course), — Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Wagner, etc. As a consequence of her tyranny, years later I came to love Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, sung in German. When/if I hear it at Christmas, it brings tears to my eyes.

            As a Lutheran pastor, one of my greatest joys during Advent and Christmas was found in selecting the music for those seasons. Even though Seminary professors discouraged singing Christmas hymns during Advent, especially since there are so many beautiful Advent hymns, my congregation wanted to sing Christmas music. They argued that everyone loved to sing Christmas hymns during the weeks before Christmas and not after December 25, even though Christmastide doesn’t end until Epiphany. Agreeing with them, every year I added more and more Christmas hymns during Advent.

            In recent years, it became a tradition for my family to form a quintet and sing a special song on Christmas Day at our church in Wallis, the quintet consisting of wife, two daughters, and two granddaughters. All five have angelic voices, and their singing must be added to my store of Christmas nostalgia.

            Since we have less than a week left before Christmas, we need to create more opportunities to sing those wonderful, joy-filled Christmas songs. Or, if you are like me, to make a joyful Christmas noise!

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Ray Spitzenberger, a retired college speech and English teacher and a retired Lutheran pastor, has recently published a book, It Must Be the Noodles, on sale at amazon.com.

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American Poets are Alive, Well, and Perky

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for December 13, 2018, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

            The earliest poems created in English were composed by male warriors in beer halls. Beowulf is a case in point. In Anglo-Saxon England, composing and reciting poems about bravery in battle was a man’s job. Who would have thought that many, many centuries later, poetry would lose its prestige, and to some extent, its “manliness.” Has it recovered?

            When I was in college in the 1950’s, “pseudo-intellectuals” like me would gather in groups and read “Beat” (Beatnik) poetry aloud, and real Beatniks would read or chant their poems in coffee houses to the background moan of a lonely saxophone.

            By the time I began teaching in college in Texas in the late 1960’s, local poetry societies began forming, most of them local branches of the Poetry Society of Texas, which had been established in 1921. Their purpose was good, to promote the writing and reading of poetry, but too often the local branches of PST were made up mostly of elderly ladies writing neo-Romantic Victorian poetry. Many men poets felt a little out of place.

            In those days, poets and poetry lovers also joined the Poetry Society of America, founded in 1910, and the American Academy of Poets, founded in 1934, or the Haiku Society of America, founded in 1968. These groups sponsored poetry-writing contests with monetary rewards for the winners, and also published poetry journals. Such national groups, I believe, contributed greatly toward the preservation of American poetry.

            There were also international groups, like the World Poets Society and the Poetry International Foundation, but, in the end, poets felt they got more out of forming and/or joining local poetry groups not connected to any larger body, State, National, or International. Those are the groups, I’m convinced, that did the most to maintain the survival of the art of poetry writing. It seems to be that the poet as a “loner” is a myth, as creative people who love to write poems want to be with others who have the same proclivities.

            This was especially true on most, if not all, college campuses. From the late 1960’s until 1987, I served as faculty sponsor/advisor to the campus poetry group at Wharton County Junior College. We called ourselves “The Bards of Pegasus,” and we published a poetry magazine entitled TRY (the title is an American English translation of Montaigne’s Essais). About midway between 1966 and 1987, the then current crop of poets changed the society’s name to “Try-Pens,” arguing that “The Bards of Pegasus” was old-fashioned.

            Over the years, the issues of TRY and the individual poems were as good as the students who wrote and edited them, — some years, great poets, some years, not as great, — but it is truly amazing that a junior college in a small community could maintain a sizeable group of “Bards” for 21 years, and, I might add, a rather equal number of men and women.

            Now, in my later, retired years, because I’m not a “loner,” I am a member of the American Academy of Poets, and the Tanka Society of America (I would like to belong to more, but the membership dues make that impossible). I am also an honorary member of the Perky Poets Society of Bellville, Texas.

            I can never remember exactly why the group is called the “Perky Poets Society,” but I think it has to do with their meetings being held at a coffee house, which I think is called “the Perk.” As an honorary member who is a shut-in, I can’t be with them for coffee. The Perky Poets Society works hard to encourage and promote the reading and writing of poetry, — they are currently publishing a CHAPBOOK of poems by local poets, and they have just finished conducting a poetry-writing contest for high school students.

            What is amazing to me is how many local students entered the contest and how good the poems were. Both the CHAPBOOK and the High School Poetry Writing Contest will make a significant impact on the community.

            If the individual poetry societies, like the one in Bellville, all over Texas and all over the United States, sponsor activities like those of the PPS, then I’m confident that poetry is not only surviving but thriving, and we can affirm, “Poetry is alive and well in 21st Century America!

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Ray Spitzenberger is a retired college speech and English teacher and a retired Lutheran pastor.

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The Long Life Of An Old Fat Lamp

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for December 6, 2018, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

            When my wife and I married, we had about four nondescript lamps, a couple from each of our single-life apartments, and mostly desk lamps. Shortly after we moved into our permanent home and our first child was born, we bought our first lamp, which soon left this world after being knocked off the table (the lamp, not the child).

            Though money was tight, we immediately bought a new lamp, because there were no ceiling lights in our very large living room/dining room. Forty-three years later it doesn’t seem that large, but in 1975, when we had about four pieces of living room furniture and one lamp, the room was so empty it echoed.

            Even though this was not literally our first lamp, it was our first memorable lamp, with its huge red and black belly and enormous shade. I never really liked that lamp, but we got it for an affordable price, and it did at least light up a section of the living room. It also became the decision-maker for our color scheme. Red and black “thises” and red and black “that’s” plus any other color which would go with red and black.

            A number of years later, after our parents and several aunts died, we were handed down an assortment of lamps, all sizes and shapes. These inherited lamps were put to good use in other parts of the house, but none of them seemed appropriate to replace the fat “Mother Lamp” in the living room, And lamps tend to be part of your household, like your cats and dogs and hamsters, no matter how mongrel-looking they are, — they have personalities like people. So the red and black fat lamp continued to live with us in all its bright, luminescent glory.

            That is, until last week!         

            My wife had come to the conclusion, after all these years of life with THAT lamp, we needed a new flagship lamp. Never having really liked the old obese light-provider (the lamp, not my wife), I immediately suggested giving her a new lamp for Christmas.

            OK, she says, except we really need to purchase it before Christmas so that it will be in place when our family members arrive for our Christmas celebration.

            Fine, that’s good, and, of course, she should choose the lamp, and we could order it from Amazon. We don’t need to go to a furniture store and buy it, because anyone, even an idiot, can take a lamp out of the box and put it together.

            Amazingly, she picked a lamp that rang my chimes as much as it did hers! Yay! Order placed!

            Order received well before Christmas! It was breath-taking in its beauty! Since it was a gift to her, I volunteered to remove it from its box and put it together. No problem! I’m not a genius, but I can put a lamp together.

            The lamp was tightly packed inside a Styrofoam case, which was tightly squeezed into the box. I had to cut the box off the Styrofoam, and then the Styrofoam broke apart as together we tried to extract the lamp. No sending it back after we destroyed the box and the Styrofoam.

            The instructions showed how easy it was to connect the bottom of the lamp to the top. You simply screwed “A” into “B,” but, alas, “A” wouldn’t screw into “B.” I tried to do it again. My wife tried to do it. I tried yet again. Won’t connect. What do we do?!

            My wife decided to take the lamp to Vacek’s Hardware, because Tommy had rescued us from several catastrophes in the past. To make a long story short, Tommy fixed the problem in no time, God bless him! However a new problem arose in that one of our daughters was sad because she had “grown up with that lamp,” and was not happy to see it hauled off to the aisles of Good Will. She was happy enough when I told her I gave the lamp a new home in my studio.

            The other daughter, who thought it was fine for us to get a new lamp and fine to give the old one to Good Will, came over the day after our new, beautiful lambent acquisition replaced the fat one. When she finally noticed the newly acquired, she said offhandedly, “Hmm, it looks just like the old one.”

            Argh!

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Ray Spitzenberger is a retired college speech and English teacher and a retired Lutheran pastor.

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The Magic Month Is Almost Here

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for November 29, 2018, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

            November ends in two days, and then the “Magic Month” begins. The month of December seems to ring everybody’s chimes, whether it’s Christians looking forward to celebrating the birth of the Christ Child, or worldly folks enchanted by the colored lights, the Frosty and Rudolph delights, or the widespread festive spirit. That’s why I call it “The Magic Month,” as the entire month of December seems to change the attitudes and activities of all people.

            In a way, I suppose my opening paragraph doesn’t exactly sound like words coming from a Lutheran pastor who is more likely to encourage everyone to remember the “Reason for the Season.” It does fascinate me, however, that the “magical” part of the Advent/Christmas Season for followers of Christ is actually “Spiritual,” whereas the “magical” aspect of Christmastide for non-believers is more like “entrancing, enchanting,” and “beguiling” (in the positive sense of the word), and in a strange way, akin to “spiritual.”

            Perhaps that might help explain the enormous popularity of the movie, “The Polar Express,” which was based on a children’s book by Chris Van Allsburg. Adults and children alike love this movie, which is about a boy, skeptical of Santa Claus, who takes a train, the Polar Express, to the North Pole on Christmas Eve. The theme of both the book and the movie is essentially this: “The wonder of life never fades for those who believe.”

            While some folks think that promoting the belief in Santa Claus is rather pagan and not Christian (though St. Nicholas is a Christian Saint), the broader meaning of the movie refers to “faith” in anything. A person can have faith in his President or Prime Minister, he can have faith in the American Dream, or in his parents, or in his pastor, church, etc. And, of course, it can mean faith in Christ.

            The 21st Century has been a century wherein “faith” seems to have abandoned many people, — don’t have faith in the American Dream anymore, don’t have faith in our education system anymore, our judicial system, etc. And it seems to me that prohibiting Nativity Scenes in public places and saying “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas” encourage us to lose our faith in God as we perceive Him to be. Those are a few of the things which make “The Polar Express” so compelling.

            If December is the one month in the year when people in general are more cheerful, kinder to one another, more caring, more giving, more joyful, more inclined to laugh and sing, more considerate, compassionate, and sociable, that’s an incredibly good thing.

            The 21st Century is also a century wherein affluence has led us away from those good things, wherein affluence has led to us be way too blasé and to taking our God-given abundance for granted. This week I saw a cartoon posted on Facebook picturing a couple living in an upscale home. The husband is holding up a diamond necklace, and says, “Honey, I’ve brought you a present,” and she replies, “Oh, a diamond necklace, — put in on the table over there, and I’ll look at it later.”

            Maybe the problem with the 21st Century is that we have become too indifferent to so many things in so many ways, and we’ve become too blasé to offer praise and thanks to God for every single thing we have, much less to think about those folks throughout the world who have little or nothing. That’s why I like the “magic” that the month of December brings to our world. If even for one month, the coldness and indifference would disappear, mean-spirited attitudes would vaporize, old animosities would heal, and people would reach out to one another, what joy that would bring! You see, God is in charge of the world that He created, and so the “magic” of December triggered by the birth of His Son will lead, I believe, to not only faith in the magic of Christmas, but also to faith in the One Who Created us.

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Ray Spitzenberger is a retired college speech and English teacher and a retired Lutheran pastor.

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