When a Book Ends Differently Than I’d Like

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Have you had this happen? You wanted a story to end a certain way, or you hoped it would. And it didn’t. Maybe it was something you didn’t want. Or maybe it was a surprise, like “I never saw that coming…”

How did you react? Did you throw the book across the room? Vow never to read another book by that author?

This happened to me recently. I just didn’t see the ending coming, and let’s just say, it was not what I was hoping for. I found myself going back and reading the key ending passage again, just to be sure I hadn’t misread it. And I just stopped.

And I realized afresh the reality of the reader’s relationship with the author (except in children’s “choose your own adventure” stories). The author gets to tell the story their way–or however they find the story writing itself–as is sometimes the case.

I sat with the ending for a while. Turned it over in my mind. I realized that there was something truer and richer that occurred than if it would have ended as I hoped. It was also more real to the broken conditions of human life and the arc of the story.

I found myself admiring the mastery of the author who pulled together strands of the plot and characters in ways that surprised me, disturbed me, and made me think afresh about the human condition at its worst and best. I found myself glad that the author didn’t just make me happy.

And I found myself thinking about our stories. We want them to turn out happy. We pray our lives go “smoothly”–a favorite word I find people (and myself) using in our prayers. Yet life doesn’t always go this way. Sometimes, things go badly sideways in an instant. And sometimes a choice “against the grain” plays itself out over years in pain and heartbreak–a nursed grudge or jealousy, a habit over which we lose control.

Perhaps in the end, what is better is not a happy end but a good one. How is that possible? All I have figured out is trusting the Author of our lives at whatever point we find ourselves. Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache teaches all his officers four statements that actually make a lot of sense in this regard:

“I’m sorry. I was wrong. I don’t know. I need help.”

I don’t think this will result in a “smooth” life, but rather one lived “with the grain” of how our life’s Author would write our story.

Review: The Long Way Home

The Long Way Home (Chief Inspector Gamache #10), Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur, 2015.

Summary: Gamache’s peaceful retirement is interrupted when Peter Morrow fails to return as agreed a year after his separation from Clara and they embark on a search taking them to a desolate corner of Quebec.

[Note: This review assumes readers who have read previous books in the series. While I try hard to avoid spoilers for the current book, some information here might “spoil” reading of previous books.]

Armand and Reine Marie have settled into what is hoped to be a peaceful and joyous retirement in Three Pines. Each morning, Gamache goes, sits on a bench above the village, pulls out a slim book, reads only as far as a bookmark, and gazes on the village. Clara Morrow has begun joining him and it is clear there is something on her mind. Finally she asks, and she dares to break into his peace, telling him that Peter had not come home. A year before, when it was clear he was deeply jealous of Clara’s growing success that was eclipsing his, she asked him to leave. For a year. When he returned, they would decide where the marriage went. On the day he was supposed to return, he did not come. No letter or contact. Days turned into weeks. No Peter and no word. Not like Peter.

Armand agrees to help, joined by his son-in-law, Jean Guy Beauvoir, and Myrna, the bookstore owner who has become his counselor. Slowly a picture emerges, in fact, a number, sent to Bean, who we met in an earlier novel. They are a veritable “dog’s mess,” painted by Peter, but unlike anything he’s ever painted. They reflect a long journey through Europe to a strange garden in Dumfries, Scotland, and a remote location outside of Baie St Paul in the Charlevoix region. Between those two locations, he had visited charming old professor Massey in Toronto, withdrew money from his bank in Montreal and disappeared.

How to understand the paintings and to make sense of Peter’s journey occupies much of the book. It seems that a controversial professor recruited and later dismissed by Massey, Norman or “No Man,” had created an artist commune or cult in Baie St. Paul some years back around the idea of the “tenth muse,” which was believed to be the muse of artists. Was Peter, whose career was eclipsed seeking the muse in some kind of crazed effort to regain eminence over Clara.

The foursome embark on a journey, led by Clara, not Gamache, at her insistence. They do not find Peter, or No Man, but find clues that take them to Tabaquen, a remote and desolate village along the St. Lawrence in the far eastern reaches of Quebec . The question is what will they find when they get there?

Throughout the book two themes recur: the balm of Gilead that heals the sin-sick soul and the idea of “a brave man in a brave country.” Will they find a sin-sick soul, corrupted by jealousy? Will they find one who has found balm, and become a brave man in a brave country? Will Peter find that what he has sought to the ends of Canada was something that was already his in the love and creativity of Clara? Or will he be a different man, maddened with jealousy, driven by a quest for a mythical muse to bring a fresh spark of creativity to his art?

The story turns on jealousy, the mystery of artistic creativity, and perspective, centered around both a painting that reveals different things depending on how it is turned and the identity of a mad figure in a yearbook drawing from the art school. Perspective will also figure in the emerging picture of what they will find in Tabaquen.

Unlike other books thus far, this has no side plots. From a peaceful beginning, it develops methodically, but not without its humorous moments, to an edge-of-the-seat ending. Savor every moment. They all matter.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Canfield Fair Beginnings

Attorney Elisha Whittlesey, Public Domain.

He was one of Canfield’s early residents, moving from Connecticut to Canfield in 1806 to practice law and teach school. In 1812, he answered his young country’s call and fought under William Henry Harrison in the War of 1812. He represented Canfield in the Ohio House from 1821 to 1822, and in the U. S. Congress from 1823 to 1838. He also served as the first Comptroller of the U. S. Treasury.

In local history, what he is best known for is his role in forming the Mahoning County Agricultural Society, the parent organization of the Canfield Fair. It was 1846. The Ohio Legislature had just created Mahoning County as a new county from townships in Trumbull and Columbiana Counties. Canfield, because of its central location, was chosen to be the county seat. It was only in 1874 that the county seat was moved to Youngstown.

During that year, Attorney Whittlesey spoke to a gathering at the Canfield Congregational Church. It had the impressive title of “Competitive Exhibitions as a Means of Awakening More Active Interest in All Industrial Pursuits” (the beginning of all those 4-H competitions!). The address had the intended effect and out of this meeting the Mahoning County Agricultural Society was born.

Since Canfield was the county seat, it was the logical choice for the county fair. The first fair was organized as a one-day affair held on October 5, 1847. Initially, livestock was tied up and produce displayed along Broad Street and meetings held at the Congregational Church. George Houk of the Mahoning County Agricultural Society described the early fairs like this, “People brought their ox teams in, their horse teams in. It was just an opportunity for the early farmers to get together and share their agricultural ideas with one another” (Source: WKBN27). The first fair turned a profit of $308.

In 1851, the Fair moved to its present location and expanded further in 1867. In 1896, the Main Hall (now the Floral and Fine Arts Building) was opened. In 1924 lighting allowed for night attendance for the first time. In 1936, the Grandstand was completed as a WPA project. In 1958 the Big Rock was installed and the rooster on the Grandstand in 1968.

There were war years when the Fair was not held. 1917–18, 1942–45. In 2020, due to the COVID pandemic, only the Junior Fair took place–honoring all the work those youth invested and returning in some way to the earliest beginnings of the Fair.

This year, the full Fair is on and celebrating the 175th anniversary of its beginnings at Canfield Congregational Church and an address by Elisha Whittlesey. All those Junior Fair competitions, all those exhibitions, the rides, the fair food, the grandstand shows, started with an idea set forth by one of Canfield’s early residents in the year Mahoning became a county. Thank you, Attorney Whittlesey!

To read other posts in the Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown series, just click “On Youngstown.” Enjoy!

The Joys of Reading in the Fall

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With the approach of Labor Day weekend, the days are shorter. The heat and humidity of August has given way to cooler, drier days and crisp evenings and the bluest of skies.

I love reading in the fall. Actually, I love reading every time of the year but fall has its own pleasures. Here are a few of them that come to mind:

Being able to sit outside and read without becoming a sweaty mess.

Comfortably gathering outdoors with your book group.

Resting your eyes from reading on fall colors.

Walking in the woods, stopping at a bench or lookout and pulling Walden out of your pocket.

Pumpkin spice drinks to go with your books.

Pressing leaves in your books to remember the season when you re-read that book ten years later.

Those gentle, rainy days when we can sit by the window and nestle into a novel as the rain streaks the window.

Reading scary stories to kids or grandkids as Halloween approaches.

Evenings cool enough to light a fire in the fireplace, while reading in your favorite chair, a warm drink at your hand.

Reading in bed snuggled under the covers that you once again need for those cool nights.

Every season has its joys for the reader. I think part of the joy of reading are the pleasurable contexts within which we read. There is something about the physical surroundings that complements the mental attention of reading–the coolness of the air, the rustle of blowing leaves, the smells of fallen leaves, the beauty of colors, the taste of a drink, the coziness of a comfortable chair, a warm fire, or a snug blanket. Happy autumn reading!

Review: Raft of Stars

Raft of Stars, Andrew J. Graff. New York: Ecco, 2021.

Summary: A coming of age adventure story of two friends fleeing down a river after what they think is the murder of the father of one of the boys, and the pursuit to save the boys from certain destruction from a danger unknown to them.

I would not have known of this book apart from an Ohio friend who put me onto this debut novel of Andrew J. Graff, a writing instructor at Wittenberg University. This was a delightful find.

The setting is the north woods of Wisconsin in 1994. It centers around two boys, Breadwin and Fish. Breadwin has a violent father he tries to stay away from as much as possible. Fish lost his father and his mother, Miranda lets him stay summers at her father Ted’s farm. Fish is concerned about the bruises he sees on his friend, and follows him home one night, to discover the father in the act of choking Breadwin. Fish spots a gun as the father spots him, fires, and the man collapses in a pool of blood. They think they’ve killed him and run for it, leaving a note at Ted’s, where they collect supplies. Fish proposes they take the path to the river that runs through the north forest to where it comes out at his father’s military post, not telling Breadwin he no longer has a father. Finding an abandoned shack by the river, they are able to turn it into a raft.

Sheriff Cal came from Texas. This little town was the perfect escape from a situation where he broke procedure in apprehending a bad character. He’s no longer sure about a career in law enforcement and drinks more than is good for him, but this seems to be the perfect place to get some peace and perspective–until he finds Breadwin’s father apparently dead and the boys on the run. He and Ted mount a search on horseback, kind of a series of mishaps for Cal, unused to tracking in a forest.

Then Fish’s mom Miranda decides to follow, along with Tiffany, a gas station attendant who colors her hair, has lived on the edge of poverty, but has come to appreciate the boys, and even the new sheriff. Miranda is a cross between a devout pentecostal and a mamma bear, the latter more urgent yet because she finds out Breadwin’s father had survived and her son was not a murderer.

The pursuit is urgent, not to apprehend the boys but to head them off from destruction from a river gorge they cannot raft through and don’t know is there. Much of the book is an account of how the boys elude capture while being pursued by their rescuers. Perhaps some of the best writing is the storm and tornado sequences, where one experiences the terror of encountering these phenomena unprotected.

What makes this debut novel so good? Is it the deepening relationship and resourcefulness of the boys? Is it the collaboration of people for whom life hasn’t been easy? Is it the lovable but seemingly ineffectual Constable Bobby (who plays an important role toward the end)? Is it the river journey, a literary trope featuring in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness? Only here, instead of people becoming stripped of the veneer of civilization, they summons the means to become better versions of themselves. This is an adventure story, a coming of age story, and a love story wrapped into one. And in a rare achievement, the author does it without sex scenes or profanity and through characters with flaws and grit, not plaster saints.

I understand the author has a sequel in the works, set in northern Wisconsin, where he grew up. Sign me up. I look forward to seeing how he develops as a writer. This was a very good debut.

The Month in Reviews: August 2021

The last full month of summer was full of good books. I roved the Red planet, went to space with Virgin Galactic, revisited Malabar Farm, remembered the life of one of my spiritual mentors, and witnessed a most wicked carnival! I remembered the past year of the pandemic, learned the rules of civility and retraced the history of the religious order that built the University of Notre Dame. I read about God’s agency, the two books in the Bible where God is not named, seven books at the end of the Bible that ought be read together, the theme of the servant that runs through the whole of scripture, and the emotional life of the ultimate Servant. Of course, I threw in a few mysteries as I continue to read through the Gamache series which just keeps getting better and another Ngaio Marsh mystery. I read about artful reading and hope I engaged in it. I’ll let you be the judge as you read the reviews!

How the Light Gets In (Chief Inspector Gamache #9), Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur Press, 2013. The murder of the last Ouellet quintuplet, a former client and friend of Myrna’s brings Gamache back to Three Pines which serves as a hidden base of operations as Sylvain Francoeur’s efforts to destroy Gamache comes to a head. Review

Conspicuous in His AbsenceChloe T. Sun. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2021. Adopting the approach of theological interpretation, explores through various lenses the significance of the absence of mentions of the name of God in Song of Songs and Esther. Review

Red RoverRoger Wiens. New York: Basic Books, 2013. An insider account of over two decades of space exploration culminating in the Mars Rover Curiosity mission. Review

Recovering the Lost Art of Reading, Leland Ryken and Glenda Faye Mathes. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2021. An invitation to artful reading, considering its decline, different kinds of literature and how we read them, and the art of reading well to discover goodness, truth, and beauty. Review

Hand in Glove (Roderick Alleyn #22), Ngaio Marsh. New York: Felony & Mayhem Press, 2015 (originally published in 1962). An April Fool’s scavenger hunt organized by Lady Bantling ends badly when a body is found under a drainage pipe in a ditch. Review

A Burning in My BonesWinn Collier. New York: WaterBrook, 2021. The authorized biography of pastor-theologian and Bible translator Eugene Peterson. Review

Something Wicked This Way Comes (Green Town #2), Ray Bradbury. New York: Bantam Books, 1963 (Link is to a currently in print edition). A carnival comes to Green Town out of season and two boys, Jim and Will fight to escape the clutches of the sinister carnival master Mr. Dark. Review

Test GodsNicholas Schmidle. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2021. An account of Virgin Galactic’s effort to become a space tourism company focusing on the intersection of Richard Branson’s vision and the work of test pilots and engineers to make it work. Review

Perhaps, Joshua M. McNall. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2021. Advances the idea of “perhapsing” that allows for the exploration of the space between doubt and dogmatism through close reading of scripture, asking hard questions, exercising imagination, and the practice of holy speculation. Review

Love in the Time of CoronavirusAngela Alaimo O’Donnell. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2021. A collection of poems written over the first year of the pandemic exploring the pilgrimage of those confined to their homes, exploring the ways we come to terms with endless days, the small gifts of love, and moment of hope amid the horror. Review

The Servant of the Lord and His Servant People (New Studies in Biblical Theology #54), Matthew S. Harmon. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2021. A study of the application of the term “servant” to a number of key figures in scripture culminating in Jesus, and the way these were used by God to form a servant people. Review

Rules of CivilityAmor Towles. New York: Penguin Books, 2012. The year that changed the life of a young woman in New York, remembered when photographs trigger a flashback twenty-eight years later. Review

Letters for the Church: Reading James, 1-2 Peter,1-3 John, and Jude as CanonDarian R. Lockett. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2021. A study of the catholic epistles, arguing that they ought be read together and exploring their shared themes and particular emphases. Review

The History of the Congregation of Holy CrossJames T. Connelly, C.S.C. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2020. A history of the Congregation of the Holy Cross, describing its beginnings, its focus on education and missions, its approval in Rome, the succession of Superiors General, and the growth of the Congregation until Vatican II and decline in more recent years. Review

Passions of the ChristF. Scott Spencer. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2021. A study of the emotional life of Jesus in the gospels, drawing upon both classical thought and emotions theory. Review

The Planter of Modern Life: Louis Bromfield and the Seeds of a Food RevolutionStephen Heyman. New York: W.W. Norton, 2020. A biography of novelist, screenwriter, and sustainable farming pioneer Louis Bromfield. Review

Leadership, God’s Agency, & DisruptionsMark Lau Branson and Alan J. Roxburgh. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2021. Argues that “modernity’s wager” has shaped the leadership practices of church leadership, leading to a reliance on technique-driven strategies rather than responding to God’s agency. Review

Best Book of the Month: Winn Collier’s biography of Eugene Peterson, A Burning in My Bones captures the character and congruency of Peterson’s life, thought, and ministry. He was not a perfect man, and perhaps his growing awareness that he was but a man called to follow in the “long obedience” that made it possible to speak to so many of us.

Best Quote of the Month: Joshua McNall proposes that a stance of “perhaps” is an approach cultivating the imagination of faith that lives between doubt and dogmatism. He cites Luther as an example when he ascended the steps of Santa Scala, to pray for his father in purgatory, troubled by doubts about the steps, the power of relics, and even the reality of purgatory. He observes:

“Luther’s attitude is one of obedience. The question does not lead him to depart for a weeklong bender in the Roman brothels. Nor does it correspond directly to a repudiation of church tradition. This shift would come later through his outrage at indulgences, and by reading Paul. At the moment, Luther simply walks down the stairs. He descends Santa Scala–because a willingness to walk and wait and pray is the best response to doubt” (p. 126).

What I’m reading. Once again I’m thoroughly engaged in a Louise Penny novel, The Long Way Home. Gamache is retired from the Surete’ and living in Three Pines. But his sleuthing days are far from ended. I just finished Raft of Stars by Ohio author Andrew Graff. An edge of the seat story with a satisfying ending. I’m also working my way through a really long book, really six books combined into a single volume, Majority World Theology. It is a delightful dialogue of theologians from throughout the world on the major themes of Christian theology. I’ve just begun Robert Tracy McKenzie’s We The Fallen People. He proposes the thesis that our nation was founded on the premise of human fallenness, but a shift to a belief in the inherent goodness of people actually imperils democracy. I will be interviewing him later in September and look forward to seeing how he develops this thesis. After a long hiatus, I’ve returned to Upton Sinclair’s Lanny Budd series, reading #3 in the series, Dragons Teeth. Not sure where this one is going yet or why it won a Pulitzer. Finally, I’ve at last dipped into a collection of Seamus Heaney’s poetry that has been on my shelves for some time.

I hope you will stay safe as the pandemic rears its ugly head once more. In most parts of the northern hemisphere, there is still time to enjoy a good book outdoors, or an outdoor gathering with some friends, maybe with conversation about the good books we hope to curl up with as the weather cools toward winter. If you check out one of the books here, I’d love to hear what you think, and tell me about the good books you’ve enjoyed. Blessings!

Go to “The Month in Reviews” on my blog to skim all my reviews going back to 2014 or use the “Search” box to see if I’ve reviewed something you are interested in.

Review: Leadership, God’s Agency, & Disruptions

Leadership, God’s Agency, & Disruptions, Mark Lau Branson and Alan J. Roxburgh. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2021.

Summary: Argues that “modernity’s wager” has shaped the leadership practices of church leadership, leading to a reliance on technique-driven strategies rather than responding to God’s agency.

Churches in the West are facing powerful forces of disruption, ranging from the pandemic to abuse scandals to disenchantment with political alignments. Many churches are witnessing declining numbers and financial support. We are in an age of the rise of the “Nones.” Suddenly the vision processes and church growth strategies are being turned on their heads.

Mark Lau Branson and Alan Roxburgh propose that what we are seeing is the failure of “Modernity’s Wager,” the bet that we can live well, and even build churches without God. Sure, we don’t say this, but often we believe we are working for God or even without God rather than trusting in and responding to the initiatives of God. They contend that this secular outlook has had a corrosive influence on church leadership.

They advocate for a different kind of leadership premised on God’s agency–indeed that the very disruptions we face may be invitations to step into and join what God is doing. Leadership is standing in the “space between” where we do not control but discern the ways of the Spirit of God.

They consider four biblical sources as case studies in this “space between” leadership in disruption. Jeremiah considers the disruption of exile and the focus on the local rather than the wished for return.. Matthew, writing to a Syrian community after the fall of the temple, sets forward action-learning communities with the teaching of Jesus. Acts models improvisational leadership. Ephesians confronts the disruption of Artemis worship and to live under kingdom authority amid empire.

This kind of leadership is the kind of making the path as one walks. It means finding and enlisting partners to work with, perhaps with limit scope experiments in one’s neighborhood. Such leaders start with where and who people are.

This is a book on leadership perspective rather than methods. In fact, it is an indictment of methods divorced from reliance upon the agency of God in our situations. So the book does not offer a program so much as a paradigm shift for leaders. Readers might feel this work is long on theory and short on practice. That is because the authors are seeking to shift the “social imaginary” that shapes contemporary church leadership. They want to encourage new habits and practices and a different way of conceiving of leadership.

This feels like the message Eugene Peterson tried to convey through his books. What Branson and Roxburgh are trying to do is call people back to the real work of pastors. The question is whether our church leaders are willing to give up on modernity’s wager for God’s agency. Or more simply, they are pressing us with the question, “do we really believe in God?”

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Planter of Modern Life

The Planter of Modern Life: Louis Bromfield and the Seeds of a Food Revolution, Stephen Heyman. New York: W.W. Norton, 2020.

Summary: A biography of novelist, screenwriter, and sustainable farming pioneer Louis Bromfield.

This happened to be a serendipitous find as I was shopping at an online book site. I was unaware of this recently released biography of Louis Bromfield. I will forgive you if you are wondering Louis who? Stephen Heyman, his biographer, acknowledges that this is not an uncommon reaction:

If Bromfield ever appears in a book today, he is shoved into parentheses or buried without ceremony in a footnote. If we remember him at all, it is only as a character in somebody else’s story. As Humphrey Bogart’s best man, say, or Doris Duke’s lover. As Gertrude Stein’s protege or Edith Wharton’s gardening guru. As Ernest Hemingway’s enemy or Eleanor Roosevelt’s pain in the ass. What is surprising is not that he has his own story to tell, but that, six decades after his death, that story suddenly feels important (pp. 2-3).

Louis Bromfield’s life began and ended in the Mansfield, Ohio area, and so he is well-familiar to this lover of all things Ohio. I’ve toured Malabar Farm and the Big House where Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall were married. I’ve learned about his farming ideas and even camped at the farm with my son’s Boy Scout troop (a story in itself!). I’ve read some of his farm writings, Pleasant Valley and Malabar Farm. Much of what Heyman mentions in the quote above had nothing or little to do with this part of Bromfield’s life.

It turns out that this part of the story of Bromfield is what Heyman believes to be important in our day. He does not rush to make this point but sets what he thinks Bromfield’s most significant contribution in the context of his whole life. He renders the story in two parts. The first centered around Paris, his very successful novels, the Lost Generation set of which he was part, and his gardens at Senlis. The second focused around his childhood home of Mansfield, and Malabar Farm in Pleasant Valley, where his work and revolutionary thinking about the soil and farming practices began a movement that continues to this day.

The first part picks up with his ambulance corps work during World War I where his love of France was born. After a few years back in New York working in the publishing trade, he published his own first works, to immediate success. Both The Green Bay Tree and Possession featured strong, modern, American women. And he married Mary, the antithesis of these women. Heyman traces his longing to return to France, realized in 1925. He fell in with the literary set, befriended by Gertrude Stein while Hemingway resented his success, including his Pulitzer Prize. Even amid the success, the glitter, and the parties, Bromfield loved the soil, creating a beautiful garden home along a stream in Senlis, which became a gathering place for his friends, including Edith Wharton, a fellow gardener. We also learn about the beginnings of his association with George Hawkins, his personal secretary, discretely gay, and responsible for at least some of his success in Hollywood.

With the rise of Nazism, the response of appeasement, and increasing longings for home, Bromfield organized a rescue and repatriation effort for the American Lincoln Brigade, fighting in Spain. Through his connections, he mobilized the means to get over one thousand sent home, winning the French Legion of Honor. But Munich closed the door on Europe, and in 1938, he moved back to the States.

The second half of the book describes his purchase of a worn out farm in the Pleasant Valley area outside Mansfield, and his work with agricultural efforts to restore the farm through green crops, contour plowing, and limited use of fertilizers and chemical interventions, crop rotation, and shunning the monocultural farming of so much of Ohio. I learned that he was one of the first to sound the alarm as to the dangers of DDT. Heyman captures the sheer joy Bromfield derived from this work in his chapter “Four Seasons at Malabar.” He offers a nuanced treatment of these years, highlighting the reality that Bromfield’s Hollywood earnings sustained the farm–and really didn’t do that, especially after Hawkins death. He was controlling and didn’t let his two daughters, who loved farming, take a share in the work. They and their husbands went elsewhere, Ellen to Brazil, where she and her husband far more successfully realized Bromfield’s vision.

While Bromfield’s own careless business practices, mistaken ideas, and endless experiments led to mounting debts, his books and lecturing inspired future generations of agricultural writers, and the organic food movement, all of which have challenged America’s business-agricultural complex. Heyman traces the lineage of writers and activists influenced by him including Wendell Berry and Robert Rodale, founder of Organic Gardening magazine and the organic food movement.

Heyman captures Bromfield’s essential message, that ‘{m}ost of our citizens do not realize what is going on under their very feet.’ Bromfield recognized the danger of not caring for the top soil, one of America’s great assets and that chemical fertilizers could never substitute for good soil management. Perhaps the time in France and seeing farms that had been owned for generations had something to do with it.

I welcome this work. Perhaps it is just Ohio pride, but I do believe Bromfield deserves to be better known as an important influence on our contemporary movement for sustainable agriculture and healthy food. His other writing work is another matter and I suspect the author’s inferences to its lack of enduring value are on the mark, though I still want to read more Bromfield. Bromfield was one of the first to practice and preach good soil management, testify before Congress on the dangers of pesticides, and attempt to return to sustainable practices. He also left a tangible monument to his work in Malabar Farm, a working farm where people can learn about his ideas and tour the Big House. The farm doesn’t fully realize his dream of a research center nor display all his farming practices, given its tourism focus as a state park, but one can learn about his life, and see the land he saw, and perhaps something of his vision, which Heyman captures in his biography.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Mill Creek Park Trails

Mill Creek Park Trail, Photo by Marilyn Trube, all rights reserved

One of my most cherished memories of childhood was going for hikes with my dad in Mill Creek Park. I think the first one I remember was the One Way Trail, which at one time was One Way Road, beginning near the Green House, occupied by park foremen, on Lake Glacier, opposite the Parapet Bridge and ascending to overlook the Lily Pond and coming out by Bears Den Road. I also remember class trips starting at the Lily Pond with park naturalist Lindley Vickers

Trails generally run along the east and west sides of the lakes and gorges of Mill Creek. I grew up on the West Side, near the north end of the park. So walking the whole length of the trails was a challenge. Before I drove, I’d often ride to a trail entrance, and then walk my bike on a portion of the trails. Some of my favorite were the trails along the east and west sides of Lake Cohasset, one of the most beautiful parts of the park. My other favorite was the West Gorge Trail between Lake Cohasset and Lanterman’s Mill. This stretch helps you see how the creek carved out the gorge over generations and seemed to me one of the most untouched parts of the park.

The climax of this walk came as you approached Youngstown-Canfield Road and the falls and mill just beyond, framed by the bridge. This was a view you could only see on the trail. Two other short trails, on either side of the Hemlock Gorge flowing north from Pioneer Pavilion are also quite scenic. The one on the west is appropriately called Artist’s Trail. One the other side is Slippery Rock Trail, leading to Slippery Rock Pavilion.

I most often traveled along the west side of Lake Glacier. It is a whole different view if you take the East Glacier Trail, which runs the length of Lake Glacier from Volney Rogers Field to Slippery Rock Pavilion, with a close up view of the Parapet Bridge.

There were no wetlands at Lake Newport when I grew up. The trails followed the lake on either side, coming out at Shields Road. Now there is a boardwalk wetland trail, allowing people to walk through the wetlands while keeping their feet dry. East Newport Drive is now only open to one way, northbound traffic, and serves as a paved walking and cycling trail. On the other side of Shields, the road on the east side of Mill Creek is now closed to vehicles entirely, making for an easy walking and cycling trail, arched by trees.

Looking at the current trail map of the park, I don’t see some of the trails I remember, such as the Bears Den Trail running from the parking lot to the rock formations, or the trail between the Lily Pond and the Rock Garden that followed a creek. I know there are quite a few trails in John Melnick’s The Green Cathedral (pp. 409-411) that I don’t see on today’s park maps. I wonder if these have been kept up. It would be interesting to go back and explore!

What walking the trails gave was a sense of the rugged beauty of the park. The trails were up and down, following the contours of the gorge. There was so much of the park you could not see just driving or walking along the roads. Nor could you listen to the burbling of the creek unless you walked along. In the fall, you could savor the smell and crunch of fallen leaves. It was part of the wisdom of Volney Rogers and those who worked with him to lay out trails, occasionally with bridges or stone steps, but mostly just packed dirt that gave you a sense that you were walking in the park, and not just through it. They are part of what make it such a special place.

To read other posts in the Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown series, just click “On Youngstown.” Enjoy!

The Freedom of the Christian

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I hear a lot of talk about freedom in our current pandemic situation where people do not want to accept mandates to wear masks or be vaccinated to hold a job or participate in a function. I don’t want to discuss that for the moment because I believe this reflects a different understanding of freedom than how I understand freedom as a Christian. When we discuss things from different premises, we often end up talking past each other–no wonder we disagree.

As a Christian, I understand freedom as freedom from and freedom to. Fundamentally the uses of freedom from in the Bible are either freedom from human bondage or freedom from sin. In the Old Testament, the outstanding case was the liberation of the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt. Exodus 20:2, the prologue to the Ten Commandments says “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (NIV). Even here, we see they are freed from Egyptian bondage for a relationship with God.

The other form of bondage is that to sin. The singular “sin” refers to the fundamental approach that says to God, “not thy will but mine.” Bondage to sin means a life of running from God, living under the tyranny of self, broken relationships with others, and the abuse of creation, fouling our own nest as it were. In one of the most famous passages, often misappropriated, Jesus said:

Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

They answered him, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?”

Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. (John 8:32-36, NIV)

Jesus says elsewhere that the truth that sets free is “to believe in the one he has sent” (John 6:29) or in the immediate context, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples” (John 8:31). Jesus says real freedom comes in believing and obeying him.

That brings me to the freedom for. Real freedom is to be freed for right relationships: with God, with ourselves, with each other, and with the creation. Instead of rebelling against and running from God, we love God and believe that our highest joy is found in “knowing and glorifying God forever.” Instead of seeing ourselves at the center of the universe, we find that our greatest dignity is living as beings who reflect the character of the God who is. It is a great relief to realize that God is God and we are not. When I realize I’m not the center of the universe, I can get along better with others. When we accept that we are creatures entrusted with the care of a creation that belongs to the God who made us, we cherish what he made and seek its flourishing. We gain freedom from poisonous water, polluted air, unhealthy food, and, hopefully, a climate out of control. And other creatures of God gain their lives.

Paul’s letter to the Galatians may be called the manifesto of Christian freedom. Here is what he says our freedom is for:

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.

Paul says that our freedom in the society of people comes not in seeking our personal wants but rather seeking for our neighbor what we want for ourselves. He observes that self-seeking at the expense of others is an exercise in mutual destruction. It deeply troubles me that people cloak this disregard of neighbor in an assertion of personal freedom against “tyranny.” Paul wrote these words under the tyranny of Rome that would one day take his life. The use of “tyranny” in our context is an insult to the sacrifice of martyrs to real tyranny around the world.

As I think about our present moment, freedom means freely choosing to do all I can to protect others from being infected by COVID. Masks block the spread of the virus to others. The vaccine can sometimes prevent infection, or if not, make me less infectious to others. No one has to require these of me. If they prevent my neighbor from getting sick, even if I do, that is love for my neighbor.

These verses challenge me in my response to those who differ. My temptation is to belittle their decisions, which I believe endanger themselves and others. I think my belief warranted, but my belittlement or angry reactions are also indulgences of the flesh and a form of biting and devouring. Where I have done this, I am in the wrong.

But I do want to question my Christian brothers and sisters who refuse to wear masks or receive vaccinations, despite their safety, for reasons of personal freedom, to explain how this freedom takes precedence over the love of neighbor and the humble service of others. I would love to know how you believe this is both love of God and neighbor for which you have been freed in Christ. I honestly would like to understand how an assertion of personal freedom that puts at risk the freedom, health, and possibly life of another is consistent with freedom in Christ. In our present situation, I am deeply concerned that this especially puts the children Jesus loves, and those with other illnesses, at greater risk.

My discussion is not with those who do not share my faith commitments but with those who say they do, who say they follow Christ. It seems to me that you are embracing a worldly rather than Christian definition of freedom. My concern is that when we embrace the worldly, we move away from right relationship with God, ourselves, our neighbors, and the world. Instead of freedom, we return to an embrace of bondage. That is even more deadly than COVID. I dare to raise these concerns not merely out of concern about a disease, but out of concern that you renounce the freedom that is in Christ for a poor substitute.