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So I’ve launched a newly designed website/blog…

All the content of this site has been transferred to the new site, so I won’t be posting any longer here. Please visit the new site, bookmark it, and subscribe to receive an email note when I publish anything new.

Click here to visit the new site, www.GivensCreative.com

The site was designed and set up by my son, Jon. If you need any help setting up a blog or website, check out his site, www.jongivens.com

Thanks for visiting and for your support…

Steve

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(for the 100th anniversary of Mark Twain’s death, April 21, 1910)

This poem recently won first place in the Big River Writing Contest sponsored by Chesterfield Arts and Stages St. Louis. The contest celebrates Mark Twain & the Missouri River Valley region.

It is you, the spinner and weaver, we see
big and brash and full of life
a painter with the finest and sharpest of tools
a splendid fool
squatting like a tired but ever-watchful sentry
on the corner of a raft of rough-hewn logs
floating freely down the mightiest of American rivers
in the dark of night
listening in on the quiet, guarded, late-night conversation of three boys
fleeing civilization in search of adventure.

It is you, the teller and singer, we hear,
winking and jabbing and nudging
a fiddler with a perfect and practiced bow
laughing low
giggling, nearly bursting like a child at church
at the voices delivering his own eulogy and the cries and tears of the women
or, it is you, silently and fearlessly hiding from an on-the-lam Injun
in a damp and ancient Missouri cave
fretting a world absent of danger and filled with school marms and Sunday school
and girls in white frilly dresses who will one day, no doubt, need to be kissed.

It is you, the bringer of gifts, we await
honest and true and simple
a Santa Claus of stories and pitch-perfect lies
grinning sly
knowing from practice and gut instinct
that if you filled a jumping frog named Dan’l Webster with buckshot we would laugh
or, we would learn from experience and so escape the ignorant wisdom of the day
sitting on another rough-hewn raft
listening to an illiterate, obstinate, good-for-nuthin’ boy
telling an escaped slave that he would rather burn in hell than give him up.

We been there before.

Window at Old State Capitol, Springfield, Illinois. Photo by Steve Givens

“Marilla says that a large family was raised in that old house long ago, and that it was a real pretty place, with a lovely garden and roses climbing all over it. It was full of little children and laughter and songs; and now it is empty, and nothing ever wanders through it but the wind. How lonely and sorrowful it must feel! Perhaps they all come back on moonlit nights…the ghosts of the little children of long ago and the roses and the songs…and for a little while the old house can dream it is young and joyous again.” – Lucy Maud Montgomery, Anne Of Avonlea

I do, in fact, believe in ghosts. But not in fleeting gauzy images and rattling chains and, God help us, ectoplasm. I believe in the worn and tattered memories of those who have come and gone before us. For if we do something with our lives that makes a mark and leaves an impression, isn’t there something to be said for the idea that the maker of that mark might linger, too?

If a person raised their family in an old wooden house in an early French and German settlement just to the west of the Mississippi River, if they gave birth there and toiled there and celebrated there and ultimately suffered and died there, shouldn’t there be something left of them besides a portrait or a name in a Bible? Shouldn’t the echo of their footsteps somehow reverberate down through the stairwell of the ages and find the ear of a willing listener?

If a person from another time wrote a book or composed a song or painted a painting that touched and continues to touch the lives of those who come in contact with their work of art, shouldn’t the very life force and soul that brought forth that work of art be, even in some small way, touchable and discernable to those who live today?

Have you experienced moments where that sense of a “ghost” has haunted your mind, your experiences, your feelings of “I am not alone here?” Have you ever tied those moments to real or imagined ancestors? Or to those who lived in your house, worshipped in your church, walked down your street?

I’d love to hear your stories. I’d like to maybe do something with them, like turn them into songs…or put together a web journal or a performance. I don’t know. What do you think?

“Truly the universe is full of ghosts, not sheeted churchyard spectres, but the inextinguishable elements of individual life, which having once been, can never die, though they blend and change, and change again for ever.”

– H. Rider Haggard, King Solomon’s Mine

Detail of historic house at St. Louis County’s Faust Park. Photo by Steve Givens

Footbridge on the path behind Faust Park. Photo by Steve Givens

I went for a short hike last weekend in the beautiful, hilly, wooded area behind St. Louis County’s Faust Park, located just off the busy, four-lane, suburban neighborhood-lined Olive Street Road. Less than a quarter-mile off the noisy road I slipped silently into the woods and back in time. Entering the canopy of ancient oaks and elms, I knew I could have been walking where Native Americans and pioneers tread hundreds of years ago.
The narrow, rough path through the woods is contemporary and no doubt made by park rangers and summer workers, but the land belongs to another time and to generations of walkers, workers, hunters and gatherers. As I completed the mile loop through the woods and emerged on the other side of the park and just a stone’s toss west of the traffic-filled road where I started, I came across a historic marker that brought me up short. It read:

Pioneer Path
Olive Street – Central Plank Road

This road was first a buffalo trace and a Native American Trail; then a widely used dirt road and a vital river-to-river connection for the early pioneers pressing westward. In 1851, first covered with oak planks to improve it and was called the Central Plank Road.
[I’m not responsible for the bad sentence structure on the sign…]

And here’s the thought that came to my mind: How easy it is in our age of constant movement and information to forget that others have come before us. How simple to believe that the “here and now“ is the only reality that matters. We like to think of ourselves as independent  — as individuals who create our own trails and invent our own lives. And that’s true only up to a point. For the truth is that we begin our own journeys at starting points created by those who blazed trails before us. Whether those people were our own ancestors, the pioneers and missionaries who “pressed westward” or the Native people who have called the land their home for much, much longer, we walk on ground every day made sacred by generations of blood, sweat and tears.

The more we drive our cars and sit at computers and the less we walk and really look at the world around us, the more likely it is that we will forget this obvious fact. The slightly scary part of this whole worldview is the crucial role that every single one of our ancestors played in getting us to today. If not for their lives and loves, their good decisions and their bad, their moments of both courage and cowardice, we do not live and breathe. If my Irish or German ancestors had gotten off the boat and moved south instead of west, their world and the people they chose to love and continue the family line with are different — and I do not exist. It’s mind boggling and, yet, in the midst of it all I see not chance but God and a life of meaning and purpose.

We’re all here because we have been called to be. What we do with that one life is our vocation, our response to the call of God and the echo of generations of those on the road before us.

Lyle Lovett writes of this interconnection of generations in his song, “Family Reserve”:

William and Catherine Eickmeyer, one of the sets of my great-grandparents.

And there are more I remember
And more I could mention
Than words I could write in a song.
But I feel them watching
And I see them laughing
And I hear them singing along.

We’re all gonna be here forever
So Mama don’t you make such a stir
Just put down that camera
And come on and join up
The last of the family reserve.

photo by Steve Givens

We are all waiting patiently, but spring has not fully sprung here in eastern Missouri. It has teased us a bit, has shown us a few sprouts and given us a handful of warm days, but it’s not quite ready to fully bloom. Or if it is, it’s keeping that secret to itself.

Yesterday, despite the gloom and the threat of rain, I decided to go for a walk, camera-in-hand, through a small conservation area just a mile or so from my house. It’s a beautifully simple piece of land dedicated to the state in the name of someone’s loved one (August G. Beckemeier) that occupies a virtually untouched 54 acres that lies between a busy north-south road and the bottom lands that edge the Missouri River as it cuts between St. Louis and St. Charles Counties. As I got out of my car in the parking lot and walked toward the footpath, I remembered well the last time I was there, late last fall, when most of the flowers had ceased blooming and the green was gone from the trees and grasses. Despite my spring-filled thoughts and hopes, it didn’t look that much different yesterday.  That thought, combined with the fact that the sun was hidden behind thick, menacing clouds, didn’t bode well for me as a photographer. Still, I trudged on, hopeful for moments of brightness and illumination, recalling the words of the wonderful Cape Cod poet, Mary Oliver:

photo by Steve Givens

Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still not half perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,

which is mostly standing still and learning to be
astonished.

The older I get, the more I think that is exactly my work and my call — to stand still and learn to be astonished a little more often. For our lives and our work rushes by us and whirls around us at dizzying speeds, and when we don’t stop to pay attention and be mindful the world around us never comes fully into focus. We may see well enough to get through our daily work without hurting others and ourselves but, oh, we miss so much.

If winter and early spring teach us anything, it’s that there’s so much out there that can only be seen when the world is trimmed back a bit. We see things this time a year that we never noticed before because they were buried in the underbrush, like a long ago abandoned piece of farm machinery now turned a miraculous shade of orange by the magic of time, water and air. Or the exquisite dried husk of a once beautiful wild flower. Or immaculately white fungi growing on a log far off the beaten path. Or distant water-filled tractor tracks streaming like molten metal through a farm field. All these gifted moments were mine just because I took the time to stand still and be astonished.

All of this led me to yet another poet, this one long dead, that priest-poet of the Oxford Movement, Gerard Manley Hopkins. In his poem, “God’s Grandeur,” he writes:

photo by Steve GIvens

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed.

And later in the poem…

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs –
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

By Your Side: A Way of the Cross for Teens, just released this week, is a re-issue of an earlier publication as a booklet and musical/spoken word CD by ILP Music, produced by Vince Ambrosetti with music by Ruben Galabeas and Msgr. Michael Heras.

By Your Side is designed to be used in a number of ways. It is, first of all, to be used as a communal gathering where music, prayer and readings come together to create an enriching and reflective experience for those gathered. By Your Side has been created specifically for teenagers and young adults. Like all Stations of the Cross, its purpose is to reflect on the passion and death of Jesus Christ, allowing those gathered to walk along beside him to Calvary, while contemplating both his death and their own lives and faith.

Each station contains three elements: a short song, a reflection on the station, and a prayer that invites the participant to enter into the passion of Jesus and–more specifically–address an issue pertinent to the lives of young people today.  The reflections and prayers can either be read by a leader or in unison. But By Your Side can also be used as a personal guide to the Stations of the Cross and used by individuals as they make their way from station to station.

Here’s a glimpse of the project, the seventh station:

Seventh Station: Jesus falls again

CONTINUING WITH CONFIDENCE

Sing:
By your side, you fall again.
By your side, you fall again.
Jesus, Lord, be ever near
As I walk, by your side.

Think:
Jesus has been wracked by pain, but has been comforted by the care of Simon and Veronica. He continues on his journey, feeling the rhythm of the road beneath his feet. As he falls again, all the pain is renewed. A jolt of agony shoots through his body. But he rises again and continues on his way. It is you he thinks about.

Pray:
Jesus, in this picture of you I see a man who knows what he has to do and, despite the obstacles and the pain, continues on the road with confidence. I don’t have that kind of confidence, Lord. Sometimes I’m just not sure of myself. Some of the people in my life have given me confidence, but others have filled me with doubts about myself and my abilities. I wonder who’s right? For some reason it’s easier to believe those who have filled me with doubt. So help me, Lord, to see the good in myself. Give me the strength and confidence to tackle the challenges in my life. And, when everything seems too much too bear and I just want to give up, remind me of this picture of you, rising once more from the dusty road. Amen.

To order directly from ILP Music, just click here.

The cover of my new book!

Just a quick post to say that my collection of essays about facing disease and treatment with faith is about to hit the virtual and physical bookstore shelves.

The publisher’s catalog reads:

Here, after three years of chemotherapy, Steve Givens describes his experiences of pain, sickness, confusion, and sadness, but also his profound sense of renewal and spiritual re-birth. He reveals that he has chosen the way of faith and God because he knows of no other way that brings peace and a reason to go on. This is a beautifully told story of struggle and pain, but ultimately of peace and acceptance, a wonderful resource for all who are facing chronic illness and its treatment.

For more information on the book, see the Faith & Chemo section of my blog or click on the chemotherapy category to read excerpts from the book.

More to come. Peace & healing…

Steve