Many a wise person throughout the ages has written that the thing we profess to hate the most or over which we obsess the most, is often the very thing we become. Take the relationship between the USA and Russia. Since the Second World War, most American leaders–and particularly the Republican Party–have railed against Russia’s communist/dictatorial regime. The Cold War, the nuclear arms race, the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, the Cuban Missile Crisis and numerous proxy wars are just a few exemplars of the uneasy relationship between the USA and USSR/Russia. Yet now, many in the Republican Party not only support Vladimir Putin as a great leader and “genius,” they even applaud his country’s unprovoked invasion of the Ukraine and the untold suffering it has caused. When American Putin supporters talk about ‘freedom’, they usually mean the freedom to do whatever they want, without extending the same right to those who disagree with them. Too many Republicans admire the ‘strong man’ autocracy seen in Putin’s Russia, wherein no dissent (freedom of speech) is tolerated, and they think it would suit America–until, of course, they fall afoul of the system.

And so it has come home to me that I will probably never again set foot in the land of my birth for the very same reasons I will not visit Russia. Simply put, I believe that a euro, a dollar or a pound is a vote. When we spend money on something, we are at the same time saying ‘I believe in the product.’ For years I have wanted to visit Leningrad–primarily to visit the Hermitage, but for other reasons as well. Now I wouldn’t go there even if someone else paid the cost. Why? Simply because Putin has brought to the world the same sort of evil as every dictator before him. He is George Orwell’s “newspeak” incarnate: war is peace, invasion is liberation, and of course, Ukraine’s democratically elected president, Zelensky (himself a Jew) is referred to by Putin as a “Nazi”. What a sick misrepresentation of reality. Why would I choose to ‘vote’ for Putin’s regime by visiting and spending money there?

Meanwhile in America, the country of In Guns We Trust and the most weaponised society on earth, public safety is interpreted to mean more weapons in the hands of everyone. If the fuel can in your garage caught fire, would you see more petrol as the answer to the fire? If your answer is ‘yes’ then you belong in the Republican Party…and to Putin’s Russia. But in any case, the frightening rate at which Americans kill their fellow citizens, and particularly children–all in the name of the sacrosanct Second Amendment–have turned American society into a reign of terror equal to Putin’s blood-soaked hands. No thanks. France learned their lesson during the “Terror” of the Revolution, when the excesses of the guillotine turned the cobbled streets of Paris into rivers of blood. Life here now is much more peaceful. I vote for liberté, égalité, tranquillité!

The Half-Life of War

The above photo isn’t very exciting, is it? I took it only a few minutes ago, because the subject matter has been weighing on my mind of late. It is the road bank next to our fence, but it could be just about anywhere on our property. At first glance it looks simply like a rubbish tip–until one considers that in 1944, this area was a battlefield. I live in Basse Normandie, an hour south of the D-Day landing beaches. Nearly every inch of Normandie was contested by both the Germans and the Allies in the summer of ’44. Thousands of civilians died; tens of thousands of soldiers. When planting trees or flowers, when digging the vegetable patch, etc, it’s easy to find the detritus of war, nearly 78 years after the fact. The above dishes and pottery are harmless enough, but this time of the year, when the farmers are plowing, up comes the unexploded ordnance. In our area, it’s from the Second World War; further north, it’s from both world wars (see photo below).

WW1 shells in a field in Picardie

Sadly, unexploded ammunition is not that hard to find. I went for a ramble with two friends north of here and when we stopped to consult a map, I noticed something lying at our feet: a 25lb shell. We took our map to a safer location. The farmers stack the upturned shells at roadsides and call for the French sappers to come and take them away for disposal. When I was working in Lille, about 20 years ago, two sappers were killed by a WW1 gas shell that exploded in the arms of the man carrying it to their lorry. He died instantly, and his companion the next day from gas inhalation. So the dirty work of war carries on, years after the shells were fired in anger. An astounding 2000 tons of unexploded ordnance is plowed up every year in northern France. Let that fact sink in.

Then there is the human cost of war, which is still in evidence in my village. My next-door-neighbour (who was born in the room where I am writing this) was ousted from the family home, along with his mother, by Germans in WW2. His father had been deported to a prisoner-of-war camp, probably for forced labour. He was seven at the time, but he clearly remembers the depridations of their occupiers, who purloined the best farm animals, their food stores, etc, leaving the native inhabitants to live off the land as best they could. The German officers lived in what is now our house; and what is now our back pasture held a barracks, kitchen and a barn. Only the barn has survived, but again, the foundations and rubble remain from the battle that swept through here. (Don’t ever walk barefoot in this region!) There are many other people here whose childhood and memories remain scarred by war.

Now turn your thoughts to Ukraine. Yes, we all want the war to end and for the Russians to withdraw…well, those of us who think beyond the current cost of fuel and know that the images are not fake. Yet the cessation of active fighting doesn’t mean the effects of the war are over. Lost loved ones, lost homes, landmines, unexploded ordnance, PTSD and more are the hidden half-life of war. Emotional and psychological scars don’t disappear when the shooting stops. In fact, that’s when they begin to show themselves. And if French sappers can be killed removing death’s hardware from a century ago…well, need I say more?

Counting the Cost?

Everything I write, I try to write with complete honesty. Today I’m writing with blunt honesty and trepidation. Trepidation because my wife and I have opened the door to a future we had in no way anticipated in France. For one, we had not anticipated a war with Russia; and like most of the world, apart from the filthy rich, we are experiencing a personal cost to the war in Ukraine: with prices rising daily. And now Chris and I have added another, as yet, unknown cost: we have agreed to host refugees from Ukraine. They are on their way as I write this and are in Romania at the moment.

For their part, our guests (mother and daughter), are coming to live with complete strangers in a country where they do not speak the language. It’s reciprocal, as we have no real knowledge of them either. Chris and I ran a B&B for nearly three years before Covid shut it down, so we are used to having strangers in our home. We also took in refugees from a hurricane in 2018 and became fast friends with them…but it was only for a week. Hence my trepidation. Our guests might be with us months …or years.

Truthfully, I like my solitude. I enjoy our goats and hens more than most human beings. As a former prison chaplain, pastor and university teacher “I gave at the office.” But this war on Europe’s doorstep has blasted me out of my solitude. Ironically, three weeks ago I even contemplated going to the Ukraine to help or fight, but decided that a 70-year-old might be more of a hindrance than a help. But watching the ruthless assaults on civilians ignited, what a friend once described as, my “over-developed sense of fairplay.” I hate bullies. As a bookish lad, I suffered enough at their hands.

As so here I am, worrying about “What if they can’t sleep or have night terrors? They’ll be in the studio apartment over our heads.” “What if they won’t leave me alone?” (I am not alone in this, for my wife has similar concerns…I just have a need to express mine!) Happily, at this moment, money is not a major concern. We have been bowled over by the kind offers of friends in different countries. And yet…what the hell else are we meant to do? Jesus’ admonition to “welcome the stranger” rings round in my brain. And so Chris and I made the decision to offer hospitality without counting the cost. We are not special people or heroes, so please, no more comments like that on Facebook. We are doing what our God-given humanity has called us to do. And we might be asking some of you for your support.

Finding Your Voice?

Writers and literary critics often talk about ‘voice’. A writer’s having ‘voice’ is a positive statement, meaning that there is authenticity to what the author is relating–particularly with fiction. Many years ago I was talking with a chap who had recently finished his PhD dissertation and was trying to find an academic post. I suggested that getting some or all of his dissertation published would be a big help in the world of ‘publish or perish.’ He averred it was a good idea, but then stated that he would defer trying to get published as he hadn’t yet found his voice. It was a sad statement…and his academic career actually ended there. In my previous blog I quoted Oscar Wilde’s aphoristic: “Be yourself; everyone else is taken.” So if one cannot find one’s own voice…well…any other would simply be imitation.

Without wanting to sound puffed-up, the voice with which I write–fiction or scholarly articles–is the one I’ve always had. I don’t mean my vocal chords and speaking voice, as in the above diagram, but the voice which plays inside my head. Most of us experience a voice which narrates our lives, thoughts, amusing stories, angry narratives, etc. Writers simply write things down: stories, histories, poetry, sermons and the list goes on. The ‘trick’ for any writers-to-be is simply to trust the voice you have been given. It’s the same voice with which you tell jokes, relate sad events and speak words of endearment to a loved one.

Now I invite you to take the next leap with me: vocation. Vocation is a term which, in English, has usually been reserved for religious professions or trades. But that is a much reduced usage of its original and full meaning. The Latin vocatio literally means a ‘calling’ and applies to anything we feel we are made/created/built to do: art, engineering, farming, parenting, etc. The idea of calling is theological: God calls us into being and endows us with specific gifts, talents, abilities. Vocation is that inner voice which sings with delight when we live, act and do what we feel we were made to do. In Carl Jung’s Psychological Types, he writes that each of us has a type which is essential to who we are. But he did not mean this as some sort of limiting determinism, but rather that we are meant to develop within the type we have been given. There are certain aspects of our lives that we cannot essentially change: height, hair colour, inherited traits and more. (And, yes, I am ignoring all of the many ways we try to change our appearance.) The point of this life is to take what we have been given–our talents, interests, abilities–and use them to make us into the best selves we can be. No one else has your voice or your calling; no one can take it from you; but only you can free it to blossom into the life you want to live.

Being Who We Are

Oscar Wilde famously said, “Be yourself; everyone else is taken.” That was both a pithy and witty way of putting what so many philosophers and spiritual greats have discovered and shared over the millennia. Most of us waste a lot of our years trying out different personae mostly to gain acceptance with others–usually in our work and our relationships. We are driven by existential questions such as: How do we want others to see us? What will help us to succeed? What will help us to ‘get ahead’…but ahead of what or whom? (And what would happen if we actually got ahead of ourselves? Then where would we be?!)

I spent most of my life as an ordained minister in various contexts: prison chaplaincy, parish ministry and academic teaching. In my second novel, No Good Deed, one of my characters says to a friend considering parish ministry: “Being a minister in a church could be likened to being the screen in a movie theatre…except it’s made out of toilet paper—people project onto you all of their hopes and fears about life…and God. And when you don’t live up to their expectations, they tear you up and flush you.” Well, that was my experience, in any case. If one tries to live up to the various expectations of others, one becomes nothing to anyone. For the record, prison chaplaincy was by far the most natural setting for me. (Make what you will of that! Many have.) Working with people who have had their names dragged through the press, police and court records, and have been tried, convicted and sentenced creates an overall atmosphere of brutal honesty–nothing like the tea and crumpet, go-lightly superficiality in most churches. The longer I was in parish ministry the more my clerical collar felt like a noose: ‘be like our former minister’, ‘don’t joke around so much’, ‘don’t ever discuss politics’, etc. In other words: ‘Just be nice to us and have no strong opinions about anything.’ No wonder Jesus never worked in a parish! But then, had parishes existed in his day, he wouldn’t have been ‘selected’ for ministry in the first place!

So back to me…that’s me in the photo above: the guy holding the goat (Rocky). I like that picture more than most any other of me in recent years, because I was just being me. Just being me usually means wearing trousers with muddy hoof prints on them, an old jacket which also has the hoof prints (I’m thinking of starting a fashion trend called ‘Off the Hoof’) and Wellingtons…covered in goat and chicken shit. I LOVE animals (wild and most domesticated). I love animals more than most people because they meet you fully as who they are. (I once held a lost, newborn fawn and it was one of the purest, most joy-filled moments of my life.) People usually take longer to grow on me. I own that some of that is probably because my personality is a mix of Kierkegaard, along with Groucho and Harpo Marx.

I think I will be inclined to revisit this topic in the coming days and weeks; but as this is the first day of 2022, I want to put these questions to the handful of inquistive types who read my blogs: What does it take for you to be truly yourself? How much time do you spend hiding the bits you think other people won’t like? (And do you really need to spend time around those people? If not, then why do it?) And most importantly do you have friends or family with whom you can truly be yourself? I hope so; if not, work on it! There is only one you.

Kyle Shittenhouse

It’s time to express my bile, so that I might experience some peace during Christmas. Yes, as so many of us feared, Kyle Shittenhouse (I refuse to use a photo of his smug, homicidal face) has now become a political hero among America’s right-wing, neo-facist population. He has been greeted as a celebrity in an event which resembled the Oscar ceremonies…all for killing two fellow citizens and maiming another. (What a different picture had he been black!) Ah, but among the Republican party of today, such people deserve to die, as they are among those from whom they must “take back their country.” No longer is it ‘our country,’ as in e pluribus unum, comprising differing viewpoints, faiths, political parties and races. Now ‘our country’ equals those who wish to kill, eliminate, erase all those who are different from them. Of course, were their perverse dream-war to be realized, and all ‘others’ were eradicated, it wouldn’t be long before they would find the differences within their own cult of death–and then start to eliminate each other. But sadly, that would only come after any sensible opposition had been destroyed. What a nightmare has the American dream become. I now seriously doubt whether I will set foot in my home country again, but at the same time, I give thanks for the land of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, which has given me and my wife asylum. Perhaps our greatest Christmas present arrived yesterday: our titre de séjour, or residency visas. God give sanity to the American people. Joyeux Noel.

The Rittenhouse Solution

Are you one of the 1/3 of US citizens who are finding it increasingly difficult to share the same air, water, streets, laws, voting rights–hell, even country!–with people whose skin colour, beliefs, voting tendencies, accents, sexuality, etc. are different from yours? Do you believe that black lives really don’t matter; that police shouldn’t be held accountable for killings such as George Floyd; that black people shouldn’t jog in predominantly white neighbourhoods; that Jews invented the Holocaust, that Covid is fake news and vaccines make you magnetic? If so, then Good News! You can now invoke the Kyle Rittenhouse Solution! That’s right, now you too can pitch up at an offensive synagogue, AME church, LGBTQ rally or legal protest armed with an assault weapon of your choice. All you have to do is take aim at the offensive soon-to-be-victims (Oops! Musn’t use that word!), take aim and, when the worthless scum try to defend themselves (with bare hands, skate boards, Bibles–whatever), you can BLOW THEM AWAY because you are only defending yourself! God save the Second Amendment and God help those who get in your way!

To the other 2/3 of Americans, white vigilantism is now officially sanctioned, so watch out. The defendants in the Ahmaud Arbery murder trail must be rubbing their hands with glee. Their plea of self-defense will now be strengthened by the Rittenhouse Solution. I mean, come on! Three armed white men against a lone black man? Those poor white guys only had a shotgun and a pistol–not much against the strength of character of one lone black man. (Hey, if being white is such a great thing, then why are black men so goddamned scary? Shouldn’t simply being white put one above such petty fears?)

To the other 2/3 of Americans, be careful not to disagree with Trumpublicans–they will take it as an assault on their person/freedom and kill you in self-defense. Don’t argue over parking spaces, Covid masks, vaccines, sports teams…well anything! If you have opinions, don’t express them. The Second Amendment now trumps (pun intended) the First. America is well and truly fucked.

Ruben et Moi

A few days ago, Chris and I went for a walk with Marie-jeanne and her grandson Ruben, nearly 5. Well, in fact we all went for a walk with Ruben. That is not Ruben in the above portrait; rather it’s his portrayal of me. Not bad, eh? It hangs on our fridge, as I promised him it would, after he drew me a few months ago.

For a lad of nearly five, Ruben is rather small—although you’d never know it from his voice or energy. His hands are tiny, yet dexterous, which he proved as we hunted bugs, toads, worms and one particular grasshopper. Ruben had decided that I was okay on the day he drew my portrait. In fact, he offered me juice and a biscuit whilst completely ignoring his grandparents, his mother and Chris…truly an honour. And he took me to see his room, replete with pirate ship bed, a toy pirate ship and many other fun things. Nous sommes copains.

Our walk was along la voie verte, a disused railway line that is used for walking, cycling and exploration. La voie verte is actually comprised of thousands of kilometres of former railways. We managed about four kilometres that day because we were overwhelmed by discoveries. For example, as Ruben put it,  « Il y a beaucoup d’arbres! » Certainly, the forest is composed of many trees—a lot of them. This can escape the notice of busy adults. And then came THE grasshopper, which Ruben caught and then gingerly carried between his thumb and forefinger. In fact, we all had the opportunity to guard the treasured grasshopper—who, in fact, survived all of us and even managed to escape just before our expedition was finished.

Oh, Ruben gave me a stick, which is indispensable on an expedition such as ours. We used our sticks to push aside tall grass, dig holes, etc. Ruben’s little hand was engulfed in mine as we slid down the river bank to search for stuff…and things. I also hauled him back up the slippery bank (and he still had the grasshopper in his left hand!). Although he yowled two or three times when a bug bit him, he was never put off from finding the next critter. My townie grandkids would have abandoned the hunt long before the third bite. But Ruben lives on a farm, where things bite and peck and butt. And despite living on a farm, he still finds interest in EVERYTHING. When we three adults walked too far ahead of Ruben, we heard a VERY loud  « ATTENDEZ! » And so we stopped. We knew it would be important. When I saw two ladies approaching us with a pram, I informed Ruben they were probably pirates. He gave me that knowing look which said all: «Pirates? Really? They are only found on the high seas. » I suppose he was right, for just as we greeted the supposed pirates, the grasshopper escaped and one of the ’pirates’ caught it and returned it to Ruben. Real pirates would have kept such treasure—as Ruben well knew. So I went back to looking for bugs, which by this time were safely carried in his cap.

If this story has bored you, then it is clear that you need a Ruben in your life, to (re)introduce you to this fascinating planet on which we live. There is so much to discover!

If we live long enough, we eventually come to retirement. This author has, over the years, discovered that no two retirement experiences are exactly alike. For too many people, retirement is simply a long ending. But not so for the characters in my latest novel, The Woods. Here’s the blurb from the back cover:

Carolina Woods— “Where You Live Your Dreams.” After years of work and routine, isn’t this what retirement is all about? And Carolina Woods seems to have it all: situated alongside a thriving university town where one can find culture, leisure activities, intelligent companionship and more. “And more,” aye, there’s the rub; for Carolina Woods is no run-of-the-mill retirement community—it is enchanted. Something not mentioned in the brochures or by the staff. The Woods, as it is known by staff and residents, has a way of revealing everyone’s underlying nature. Be it the inner, playful child, the political fascist, or sex machine, The Woods will peel back the protective layers until all is revealed, to the joy, bafflement, fear or delight of all—and especially for you, the reader. Come take a walk in The Woods. 
Available from 1 October 2021 on Amazon or from Wings ePress.

I’ve known Jack Lawson for forty years. To spend  time with him is to watch his towering intellect, his soulful altruism and his wicked-dark sense of humor spar endlessly with each other. Sometimes it’s inspiring. Sometimes it’s challenging. And sometimes it’s just twisted fun. Welcome to his novel The Woods.—Jim Borgman, Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist and co-creator of the comic strip Zits

Calloused Hands

I have been noticing hands more and more since moving to rural France. We live in Lower Normandy, where nearly everyone–female or male–works with his/her hands in some fashion. We are surrounded by farmers, mechanics and engineers. The mayor of our commune is an engineer for Eaux de Normandie. And just try to find a household which does not have a substantial amount of vegetables and fruit growing–and then come the animals!

Thus, it naturally follows that many people have calloused hands–including myself for the second time in my life. When I was young–beginning at about the age of eleven–I managed about ten lawns/gardens for neighbours. I cut their grass, raked their leaves, shoveled their snow, chopped wood for fireplaces, etc. When I went to college, I worked on construction sites. I also was an avid tennis and racquetball player for decades. Even during seminary I managed the woodland (60 acres), lawn and flowerbeds for a wealthy couple. Thus I had calloused hands…until I finished seminary.

Once ordained, my work was more from the head and heart, and much less from my hands. After my doctorate it only got worse! Preaching, teaching, doing research and writing gave my hands the pallor of a privileged white guy. To some degree I forgot about the simple joy of manual labour. Now lest you think I am going to write a paean to the ‘working class hero’, let me be clear: manual work is hard; and not to be entered upon lightly. It is no less noble and no more noble than any other work–however, there is something different about ‘sweat equity’ and its rewards. Having grown and harvested your own food, having built something with your own hands–or having simply put in hours pulling weeds in a flower garden–all of this yields a tangible sense of accomplishment that pure mental/desk work can never provide. Never. And the only way to prove it is by doing it!

And so, after 40+ years, I’ve come full circle in my life (and not for the first time!). I live once more in a house heated by wood, work on fences, tend goats and chickens, pick fruit and more. And I have calloused hands. But it’s really not come as a surprise…about 50 years ago I took a mind-altering substance while sleeping in the open loft in one of our barns with a college companion. I liked the fact that I could look out at the night sky while listening to the background music made by a mountain stream which gurgled nearby. At some point during that ‘trip’ I looked at my hands, only to see that they had become gnarled, arthritic and wrinkled–just like the ones typing this blog today. The experience wasn’t ‘freaky’ but fascinating–and it was a foretaste…a very accurate foretaste. My point? I’m not exactly sure! But start studying the hands of other people and then you can draw your own conclusions.