Thursday, December 2, 2021

2021 in review, or as I like to call it "just another year in paradise"

You've heard it all before (read, throughout 2020). "We are never going back to the ways things used to be." And, "Little by little things will get better." Then along comes 2021 and the gradual getting better runs head first into the proverbial Mack truck of reality. 

Thankfully stories, songs, and images can provide moments of escape, clarity, solace, reflection, and joy. Following is my list for 2021. This is something other than a favorites or a "best of" list. Some of my mentions will be frequently recalled for the lessons learned and encouragement discovered. Others will soon be forgotten, but in the moment they were a gracious gift. Maybe you'll find a few for your journey. 


MUSIC


Allison Russell and Outside Child
are my choice for album of the year (I know I said this wasn't that kind of list, but this is that kind of album). Russell sings of her childhood enduring sexual abuse and parental mental illness. Her music is beyond beautiful as she flows across styles giving us more than what we deserve, but certainly what we need.

Leslie Jordan, Company's Comin' - Hoping to bring some respite in the midst of the pandemic Jordan goes to their roots resulting in an album of traditional hymns. The supporting cast is a bonus, think Dolly and Brandi (Carlile) for starters. I love the sense of timelessness. Jordan has lived a many faceted life and now in the dark days of a pandemic and national upheaval he returns to the music of his childhood and family.

Mary Chapin Carpenter, One Night Lonely - In November of 2020 Carpenter performed a live, retrospective, acoustic set at the legendary Wolf Trap Theater in Maryland, to an empty house. "...a stunning performance. Thoughtful, thought-provoking, consoling, and utterly involving." Liz Thomson, theartsdesk.com

Shelby Lynne, The Servant - With her mix of swagger and soul Lynne released an album perfect for the pandemic moment (it was recorded before Covid arrived). Further proof that less can be more. Lynne says that this album, "..saved her soul." It might be interesting to see what it does for us.

Sara Watkins, Under the Pepper Tree - Watkins continues to expand her reach in style and context resulting in music that fits the moment in her life and maybe our cultural moments as well. Under the Pepper Tree is a sharing of music from her childhood with her daughter. Another opportunity for pandemic comfort hearing music from times past from a new voice.

Willie Nelson, That's life - Willie does what only Willie can do. He takes songs associated with Frank Sinatra makes them new all over again. Another opportunity to breath deep, rest, remember and hope.

Grace Pettis and Nobody's Girl - Grace is the daughter of one of my longtime favorite singer songwriters, Pierce Pettis. Her career has been blossoming in recent years, including her collaboration with Nobody's Girl. They display a healthy sense of respect and adventure in taking on Tracy Chapman's Fast Car, resulting in a version that I have listened to over and over. Also, Grace released Working Woman in 2021 to strong reviews. 

The Milk Carton Kids and Haley Heynderickx - Finally a live concert, September 5 at the Mount Baker Theater. Heynderickx opening was fresh and inviting. We had seen the Milk Carton years ago as an opening act in Seattle. The show was a perfect mix of great music and refreshing banter and presence. An oasis in the continuing storm. 

Nanci Griffith 1953 - 2021. I have long been captivated by the music and life of Nanci Griffith. We saw her once in concert on the Pier in Seattle. Her music provided a comforting presence over the years and her death brings a great sadness. 

Extra - Alison Krauss & Robert Plant, Raise the Roof - arrived late, but gonna be great. 


BOOKS


How The Word is Passed by Clint Smith and Caste by Isabel Wilkerson - Two of three on this years list that I will label "must read." Not to instill guilt but to encourage a greater understanding for us all. Both give a unique historical understanding that can help us (the people of the USA and the greater world) move toward whole, healthy and just lives, relationships and communities. Each is beautifully written and while sweeping in scope both relate to the individual reader.

Jesus & John Wayne by Kristin Kobes Du Mez - The third book I note as "must read." Any understanding of American Evangelicalism without this book is left wanting. Personally, it was like a journey through my life in church and ministry settings. The bad news is Kobes Du Mez reveals the bleak reality of what evangelicalism is and how it got to this place. The good news is she gives light to a possible better future.

Last Chance Texaco by Rickie Lee Jones - A engaging memoir. I was drawn to read this following years of enjoying her, sometimes edgy and obtuse, music and her somewhat cryptic and unusual spiritual journey. My interest was deepened by discovering she was born in 1954 (a great year) and learning that she has significant life connections in the Pacific Northwest.

The Light of Days by Judy Batalion - I thought I knew about WWII and the resistance. I was wrong. The Light of Days is a heroic retelling of the lives of women (usually young women between the ages of 15 and 30) who strategized, organized and implemented actions to undermine the Nazi's while caring for their families and communities. It was hard to believe that any would survive, but a true gift of grace to learn of many who did.

Leaving Isn't the Hardest Thing by Lauren Hough - Go ahead, read it and you can explain it to me. Memoir, humor, tragedy, the ugliness of humanity mixed with kisses of grace. 

Decolonizing Wealth, Indigenous Wisdom to Heal and Restore balance by Edgar Villanueva - An inside look at the world of philanthropy and a call for change. 

The Cold Millions by Jess Walter - The early 20th century, a pacific Northwest setting, the pace and impact of cultural shifts and an intergenerational view of a family. 

Winter Counts by David Heska Wanbli Weiden - A gritty thriller that continues to press on toward justice and peace.


MOVIES & TV


The Flight Attendant - Tried it once, gave up. Tried again and got hooked. Near the end there is a moment where Cassie, the lead character, has a personal awakening that was strikingly similar to something I have experienced in a crucial life moment.

The Kominsky Method - Great characters and storytelling. Every seeming unimportant detail came together for a perfect conclusion. 

Schitt's Creek - Oh my, love conquerers all, over and over again.

Jeopardy - The final week of shows with Alex Trebek, the off air drama in search of a new host, multiple hosts and a number of 5+ win streaks.

Midnight Mass - If you haven't seen it you don't get it. Downright scary and creepy. But with whispers of something beyond, something more. The true depth and hope of life revealed. 

Searching for Italy - How many weeks can you follow Stanley Tucci around Italy eating local foods? Appears enough that season two is coming next year. True "comfort food" as the pandemic lingered on.

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom - 1920's, the Blues, Chicago, Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman (in his last acting role). 

Only Murders in The Building - Steve Martin, Martin Short, Selena Gomez and an unending flow of great cameos. Two old guys and a young adult woman discover a murder and make a podcast. Seems normal for 2021. The cast shines, each in their way. Martin and Short bring both their history and new things for a new setting.

Reservation Dogs - My favorite show for 2021 (I know, this is not a favorite's list). Labeled as a comedy, Reservation Dogs is so much more. From the writing to production and acting indigenous people make this happen. The characters, the relationships, the moments and the story arch all unite resulting in a great experience. 


PODCASTS




Offbeat Oregon History - It's Oregon, it's history and it's a bit quirky. What's not to love?

Ask Me Another - I guess it may have been pigeonholed as Wait, Wait junior, eventually resulting in its cancellation. The hosts had great chemistry and the mix of music, humor and trivia was fresh. 

American Prodigy, The Kid - A deep dive into the life and career of Ken Griffey Junior. A must listen for any Pacific Northwest baseball fan (maybe any baseball fan).

The Last Archive - Season Two: The Rise of Doubt. I love an honest exploration of doubt. An overall great season with an ending episode for the moment and the ages.

Throughline - This keeps making the list because they keep telling the stories of history by reminding us the, "The past is never the past." 

Embedded - The Capitol Gazette - The story of five murders in an Maryland newsroom. Investigative storytelling at it's best.

Plain English - Tech, politics and culture. I'm hooked. the November 23 episode, Buy or Sell Pandemic Trends is a gem. 

Gangster Capitalism, Jerry Falwell Jr. and Liberty University - This confirms many of my prejudices (this may not be a good thing). It is either a guilty pleasure or cautionary tale. Maybe both.

The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill - The proverbial train wreck, It's an ugly mess but I can't quit looking (listening)...







Friday, November 27, 2020

thanks and goodbye 2020 (finally)

In the midst of the pandemic I found support from family, friends, long walks and good tea. Additionally I either lost myself or found myself (depending on the moment and medium) through video, film, books, music and podcasts. This is not a "best of" list, yet each of these grabbed my heart and/or mind in a needed way, at the right time. Maybe you'll find some gems for the next steps of your journey.

BOOKS
  • That All Shall Be Saved, David Bentley Hart - In my earlier life I would have refused to read this book knowing it would be so far from "the truth." Now I read it and find hope in the expanse of possibilities. 
  • Fight For Our Lives, Saeed Jones - The best kind of memoir where a life is explored with a focus on terse reality of daily struggles while reaching for the possibility of love and hope. 
  • The Dearly Beloved, Cara Wall - Friendship forged by sharing life in ministry (even Presbyterian). It reminded me of much that I have lived and some that I wished for. Caity, thanks for the recommendation and loan. 
  • Tightrope, Nicholas Kristoph & Sherly WuDunn - Kristoph grew up in the rural area west of Portland at about the time I was growing up 50 miles east in the shifting suburbs. His insights into how America does not work for so many is heartbreaking. His suggestions for change are essential for a better future for all. 
  • The Depositions, Thomas Lynch - Reading the words of this poet, undertaker the week my Mom died was a true gift. Lynch has a gracious way in helping me wake to better understanding death and thereby gives me the gift of life. 
  • My Dark Vanessa, Kate Russell - A complex story of the journey to adulthood and self discovery shrouded in an abusive relationship. Something of I Am Charlotte Simmons for a new era.
  • Stamped: Racism, Anti-racism and You, Jason Reynolds & Ibram X. Kendi - While written for a young adult audience it begs to be read by many, if not all. I am, again, reminded that I have much to learn, grow and change. 
  • Carry, Toni Jensen - The voice and perspective of indigenous Americans is often overlooked or quashed. Jensen tells her story with a power we dare not ignore. 
  • 1919, Eve L. Ewing - With the backdrop of the explosive Chicago summer of 1919 Ewing uses poetry to capture the moment and remind us that there is still much to remember, reconcile and learn.
A few others not to miss are How the South Won the Civil War, Heather Cox Richardson (her daily evaluation of politics and news were the source of sanity throughout the election) , All the Real Indians Died Off, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Being Mortal, Atul Gawande, Later, Paul Lisicky, White Rage, Carol Anderson and the Myth of the American Dream, D. L. Mayfield (I promise, I'll stop...soon).

MUSIC
  • Mavis Staples (concert Edmond Center for the Arts, January 16) This was the second time we had seen Mavis with friends Rick and Heidi. As always Mavis brings an energy that creates a sense of community and passion that is the best sense of "church!" 
  • Over The Rhine (concert Songbirds, January 28) While in Knoxville for an annual visit with the Crossings community, I was told to get ready for a drive with an unknown destination. We eventually arrived in Chattanooga at Songbirds and I saw that OTR was on the bill. A surprise to see one of my favorites perform with close friends (Mark and Monica) and in a new (for me), great venue. We sat in the middle a few rows from the stage with a small crowd of maybe 50. A great gift from great friends! 
  • The Music of Cream (concert Wild Buffalo, March 1) One of the last public events I attended (with my good friend Erik and what appeared to be all the other aging Bellingham boomer's able to stay up past 9 PM) before the quarantine. It was an amazing show with offspring of the original artists bringing some of my favorite music and memories of the 60's, recreating sound that fed our souls. 
  • Songs of Our Native Daughters Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah, Leyla McCalla & Allison Russell -  Together they explore historic roots speaking to current challenges through beautiful music with an impacting message.
  • Old Flowers, Courtney Marie Andrews - I'm still obsessed with May Your Kindness Remain, 2018. Her honest struggles with post-breakup life expressed in this new album proved the perfect balm for the daily realities of COVID and cultural upheaval. 
  • Bonny Light Horsemen, Anais Mitchell, Eric Johnson and Josh Kaufman - Another balance of music, cultural history and traditions being brought to the moment by accomplished folk artists. Thanks for the heads up, Bobby.
  • Soul Soothing Sunday Songs, Allison Moorer - Every other Sunday during the pandemic Allison has been live online. Her sets mix childhood church memories with songs of encouragement from pop culture over the years. Many songs repeat weekly, as does a brief appearance for a story and song with her husband, Hayes Carll.
  • Susie on Sundays, Susan Werner - Every Sunday during the pandemic Susan Werner has put on a show, online. She has mixed it up with differing themes and guests. She has covered a number of her albums and taken requests, even dedicating Fly Me to the Moon, Frank Sinatra style, to Connie on the weekend of our anniversary.
  • It ain't over yet, Rodney Crowell - My song and video for solace in the pandemic. Crowell joins with John Paul White and Rosanne Cash to tell of his life and hopes past, present and reaching forward. Painful and beautiful.
Also, don't miss The Rope Walker Radio Show on Facebook or YouTube. Difficult to explain, easy to love. 

FILM & VIDEO
  • The Kominsky Method, season 2 (Netflix) Growing old, life shifts, the "D" word (death), friendship, family connections...guess what stage of life I'm in. The perfect balance of reality and humor. 
  • Unorthodox (Netflix) What could been have another all too common story of growing through and beyond religious traditions and upbringing is told with acting grace, story and pace to carry it beyond the cliches.  
  • Watchmen (HBO) The series opens with the story of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre. This, somehow, little known historic event sets the stage for a chaotic journey to find the truth and move toward justice in our current world.
  • Douglas, Hannah Gadsby (Netflix) Gadsby challenges predjuices and fixed mindsets. While the laughs are appreciated, we would do well to listen to her insights however delivered.
  • Parks and Rec (NBC) True pandemic binging. We made it through all seven seasons and loved it all. We connected with characters and enjoyed the storylines and that was enough.
  • Da 5 Bloods (Netflix) A story from my generation, but one that opens my understanding to the African American experience that I often ignored or misunderstood. Clearly, we need to make amends for our cultural transgressions, understand each other, support each other and take care of each other.
  • Just Mercy (Cretton) As the teenage ticket-taker said as I entered the theater, "Every high school kid in America should have to watch this movie." I agree.
  • The Crown, Moondust, Season 3, episode 7 (Netflix) Mid-life crisis meets spiritual awakening. What more do you need?
  • Homeland (Showtime) I'd seen bits over the years. Being stuck at home allowed me to take it all in. Watching it in a tight time frame necessitated frequently checking, "What year are we in now?" Great acting and story telling throughout.

PODCASTS
  • Code Switch (NPR) Direct conversations about race, often focused on issues being lived out across America this year. 
  • Who Are We (Vox Media) Each episode focuses on a different period in American history and how it links to systemic racial injustice today.   
  • Driving the Green Book (Macmillan Podcasts) First, this goes beyond the movie. With the backdrop of the Great Migration, Host Alvin Hall explores the historic realities African Americans experienced, especially related to life opportunity and travel safety.
  • It's Been a Minute (NPR) Sam Sanders makes thing happen. His energy, insight, curiosity and interviewing skills open learning opportunities in refreshing ways. 
  • No Compromise (NPR) My choice for podcast of the year. Gritty look into extremist gun rights activists that bleed from Christian Nationalism. This dangerous movement will continue long after any a single election is settled.
  • Embedded (NPR) Do not miss the "Mitch McConnell" episodes.
  • Very Presidential (Apple Podcasts) Perfect for my US history geekiness. An weekly insiders look into the life of a president. By better understanding the people, the office and the times I am better able to understand our history and the why of where we stand today.  
  • the Last Archive (Pushkin Industries) The tagline is "Who killed truth?" A weekly journey through history tracing evidence, proof and knowledge. The journey challenges common beliefs and deep-seated perceptions.
  • Throughline (NPR) A weekly journey back in history to understand the future. The 2020 topics would be an excellent curriculum for any civics or US History class.

THE WRAP
 
I'll close with a poem I wrote in May that captures some of the pressures and hopes of the year:




Shalom





  


Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Obituary revisited for me, JRLS (advance copy)

 



James Richard Lester Schmotzer

born: March 18, 1954

 

Portland born and raised

childhood of neighborhood adventures and friends

with unpredictable episodes of haunting, lingering secrets

youthful awakening brought craved for hope and direction

young love became young marriage with Connie in ’74

Michael and Kyle arrived in the early ‘80’s

family, career and faith merged

exhilarating, confusing and, at times, a train wreck

struggles with institutions said as much about him

as about the organizations

privately always a bit overwhelmed while often

publicly perceived as calm and steady

thankfully family and friendships outlasted jobs

anxious, reactive certitude gradually morphed toward reflective acceptance

faith and mystery became central guides and supports

relationships, conversations, stories, laughter, heartache, songs and poems

became air and water, bread and wine, daily sustenance

hoped, worked and waited, often impatiently,

for the day when justice and peace would embrace

and bring the fullness of shalom

 

died: although his death date may be established it is not yet widely known

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Obituary revisited for my Mom (BLSH)

Barbara Lester Schmotzer Higley

born: March 21, 1932

 

raised in “the country”

Daddy died and Mama went cold in’41

family never quite recovered

moved to “the city” during “the war”

married JES in ‘53

he argued (fought?) with his mother,

at the reception, then drank the evening away, alone

while Barbara was crying, alone

first son born in ’54 and second in ’57

worked so hard to be

the friend of the friendless

while always on the edge of her own despair

grasping for that which she could not have or hold

unmoored by divorce, fears confirmed, again,

gradually regained her footing,

new work, new friends,

eventually a new home and husband

until age and failing health brought a

darkness too soon, too long before the end,

again affirming the sense of never holding

that long desired love and security

which perished with her Daddy,

oh, so long ago

 

died: June 26, 2020

 

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Obituary revisited for my Dad, JES




James Eldon Schmotzer

born: July 23, 1932

 

Portland born and east side raised

by teen years he had distanced from his parents,

maybe his choice, maybe theirs, probably both

followed his brothers dropping out

and joining the military to “see the world,”

got stuck in Guam

returned home and reconnected with Barbara

she broke her engagement, to another,

and agreed to marry in ’53

after an argument (fight?) at the reception

with Estelle, his mother, he spent the night alone, drinking

Barbara spent hers alone and crying

first son born in ’54 and second in ’57

settled in the suburbs

changed jobs…frequently

eventually into management, relative stability

known for being honest and hardworking, at work

unpredictable, at times irresponsible, at home

climbed the ladder, leaving Barbara behind, far behind

the inevitable second marriage,

to Barbara’s one time best friend

quit smoking and drinking

became attentive to kids and grandkids

heart attack in ‘96 ushered in a pain filled year

with cancer having the final word

 

died: August 1, 1997

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Sure taught ‘em (the Corona Chronicles)

Black Lives Matter Protests In Small Towns Are Important

News spread that teenagers had organized a “Black Lives Matter” March. Never before had such things happened in this small “Christian” town.

Sunday about 200 locals walked from the high school toward downtown. Hecklers roared by in big trucks while others stood on porches and under awnings, many flashing rifles, taunting the teens with, “Blue Lives Matter,” “USA,” and “Go back home.” Some stooped to, “Black Lives Don’t Matter.”

The kids held together, chanting in unison and encouraging that all, “Love one another.”

As marchers dispersed an old timer was heard saying, “Sure taught ‘em what Christian America is all about.”


Fiction 101: The goal is to tell a story in 101 words or less.

Friday, June 12, 2020

Running away


After reading books I ran away to join the circus but couldn’t find it anywhere.

Jumped a train, headed west to see whatever it was that Greely promised. Discovered it was long gone and sadly forgotten.

I found a Montana ranch and tried to be a cowboy. But it was nothing like TV promised.

Stowing away on a plane was my last hope. Finding myself with hypothermia in an unknown hospital was my crushing disappointment.

I went to college, got a job, married and had kids. Like they said I should. And this is where my story ends.


Fiction 101 - The goal is to tell a story in 101 words or less.