The Early Years, From Gutter Sandpile to First Grade: Twilight Musings Autobiography (Part 3)

The Early Years, From Gutter Sandpile to First Grade

A Twilight Musing by Elton Higgs

If we stay long enough in one place, our personalities are affected by where we have lived.  I spent my first 24 years in Texas, and Texans absorb certain outlooks and perspectives.  For example, we smarted from Alaska’s joining the Union and becoming technically the largest state.  After all, one can travel 1,000 miles from border to border and still be in Texas.  The sky itself is bigger in Texas.  Everybody’s your neighbor in Texas, and we are a generally friendly bunch in casual interactions with each other.  Texas is so big, it has at least four distinctive topographies within its boundaries: “piney” forest in the east; flat, semiarid plains in the west and north; “hill country” in the central part, and hot, humid coastland in the south.  I grew up in the part of the plains called West Texas, mainly in a town called Abilene (named after the one in Kansas), in a region of cattle ranching and oil production. 

I lived with my family in Abilene the first four or five years of my life  My earliest memories (late 1930s, early ‘40s) are connected with the little house my family owned on Locust St. in Abilene.  A couple of them were traumatic, like getting into a red ant bed, or waking one morning to find that the city had cleaned the gutter outside our house, thus depriving me of the sand pile I had delighted playing in.  I was greatly offended by the maintenance workers’ arbitrary decision to take away my sand pile!  I flew in to tell my mother, with indignant tears, about this abuse of municipal power.  But in a happier vein are pictures of me in my overalls playing outside the house, or sometimes posing with my brothers.  One showed me in a little cart pulled by a goat, so there must have been enough money to give me a treat once in a while.

A couple of vivid memories from the house on Locust St. had to do with my paternal grandmother.  She was a wizened little lady who sat in her chair chewing snuff and spitting nastily into a receptacle at her feet.  When she died sometime around 1940, we went to the funeral and burial in Nugent, TX, a little town north of Abilene close to the family farm where my father had worked until he got married.  It had rained heavily the day before, and we had to drive carefully through a creek flowing high enough to cover the running board in order to get to the burial site.  As we sat in the car at the graveyard, my father wept freely, the only time I ever saw him do so.  

While we were at Locust St., my mother suffered a complete psychological meltdown (what was then described as a “nervous breakdown”).  I remember her spending whole days in bed, unable to get up and function normally.  I was sent to stay with my uncle Oby and Aunt Sarah, out in the country in the little village of Nugent.  This was rather fun for me, a change of pace from town life.  I enjoyed my aunt Sarah’s home cooked meals and going with my uncle on his rounds in a pickup to check on the large oil pumps that took the crude oil from the ground and pumped it into big tanks nearby.  I remember the cigar that he kept in his mouth most of the time; he must have put it out when he went to check the oil pumps, since we never experienced a conflagration on those trips.

As I look back on these earliest remembered experiences, I realize that in the midst of feeling secure with my family and feeling that I belonged, I was also being forced to deal with the realities of pain and loss.  Indeed, introduction to that mix of pleasure and unpleasantness is typical of our early years, and the places we have lived form a significant context for that stage of our education, both informal and academic.

We moved to Stamford, TX, when I was about 5 or 6, because of my mother’s felt need for some change in our situation.  My dad hoped that moving to Stamford would help her, and he was able to continue his bread delivery route from there.  Mother was a lifelong hypochondriac and was much pampered by my father, according to my brothers.  She was certainly focused on her illnesses and seemed always to be under physical and psychological stress. 

My earliest memories in Stamford were associated with the fact that my brother Otho had joined the Army Air Force and was stationed in Delaware, with the result that his wife, Lucille, came to live with us while he was away.  While there she gave birth to my oldest niece, Linda, and I had my first opportunity to observe an infant first hand.  That was my introduction to the anatomical differences between the sexes and my first lesson in sex education.  I knew nothing, of course, of the implications of those differences, but it made a deep impression on me nevertheless.  Socially, I was informed that I was now an uncle, and I was told later that I was very proud of the fact.  At some point we went to an event involving the Red Cross (related to war time, I imagine), and I was given one of their little pins.  So now I bragged that I was an uncle and a member of the Red Cross!  My sister-in-law was much amused.

Lucille was attended by a Dr. Metz, who sported a little mustache (rather resembling Hitler’s), and she drew a caricature of him on one of my Tinker Toy pieces (all wooden, no plastic) that gave us both a chuckle.  Lucille took a special interest in me at that time, and we continued to have a special relationship until she died many years later.  I was to her like an adopted son.

My memories of those early days in Stamford include playing on the sidewalk outside our house (a quite safe thing to do in those days) and encountering a girl with golden curls as she walked home from school with her mother.  Her name was Gwendolyn Rogers, and she was the object of my first crush.  I evidently had an early attraction for older women!  To her I was no more than a little boy on his tricycle whom she walked past on her way home, but she was my chosen one.  The attachment must have come to an end when I started to school, but I remember no trauma attached to the separation.

I have other memories of Stamford during my pre-school years.  We were within walking distance of the town square, and my brother Thavis took me sometimes to the drugstore, where we would drink a limeade at the fountain.  On the way there and back, I remember going by a shop that had a partially assembled small airplane, probably a military one, visible through a big window..  I don’t know the function of the shop, but the image of the plane stuck with me.  The town was evidently safe for kids to play in, even a little way from home.  I remember going down to the railroad tracks to watch the engines go back and forth, switching cars.  I have a vague recollection of meeting another little boy in that area, because he allowed me to read his Captain Marvel comic books, and I tried to see if the magic word that turned little Billy Batson into Captain Marvel (“Shazam!”) would work for me, but it never did.

On perhaps my fifth or sixth birthday, my mother made me a cake that lasted a few days after the party.  On the day when only one piece was left, my dad wanted to share it with me, but I said I wanted it all for myself.  That little act of selfishness haunted me for years afterward.  I’m not sure when the guilt faded, but the memory has stayed with me all this time.

I have vivid memories of playing indoors at our house in Stamford during my pre-school years.  My toys reflected the context of wartime.  I had a bomber model that dropped marbles, with which I destroyed imagined enemy installations.  One Christmas I was given a model electric train by Otho and Lucille, and it engaged me many hours with its electric engine and circular track.  It was operated by a transformer box with a lever that made the engine go backward or forward, and I often derailed it with my rapid changes in direction and speed.  I can still smell the oil with which I lubricated the wheels of the train.

Most of our news came from the radio, supplemented by the newspaper, and though I don’t remember listening to any of President Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats, the family must have listened to some of them.  One program that I do remember my mother listening to faithfully was the commentary of Gabriel Heater.  I can hear even now his soft but confident voice, delivering his opinions on the news of the day, particularly of the war.

My first-grade experiences in Stamford were dominated by respiratory illness.  I was sick so much during my initial enrollment that my parents decided just to pull me out so that I could concentrate on getting well.  Consequently, I started again from scratch the next school year.  Since I had learned the basics of reading in my first enrollment (including phonics, an exercise in audial perception that has helped me throughout life), I spent much of my convalescence time developing my reading skills, and consequently, when I went back to school, I had a head start on the other students.  In fact, I read so well that the teacher asked me to listen sometimes to students reading and to correct them, while she worked with still another group. That spotlight on my advantage was, I fear, unhealthy food for my ego—I enjoyed it overmuch.  However, being one of the oldest in all my classes thereafter contributed materially to my academic successes.  Being held back in early primary school is often a good strategy for an initially struggling child.

I should note several other memories of my first-grade years.  My family bought a milk goat because someone had said that drinking fresh goat’s milk is good for ailing children.  The nanny goat my father milked became a pet, and it was great fun to play with her baby when he was born.  We took the goat with us when we moved back to Abilene around 1944 and created a shed and pen in back of the house.  I remember going out with my dad to milk the goat, and he taught me how to do it, though I never became really proficient at it.

I had significant interactions with my brother Thavis (eight years older than I) during our stay in Stamford.  He was a builder of model airplanes, and he spent hours meticulously cutting out parts of the plane from sheets of balsa wood and gluing them precisely together.  His room was off-limits to me, but I sneaked in when he wasn’t home and looked over his work.  I don’t remember seriously disturbing anything, but when he caught me in his room, his displeasure was strongly expressed.

Another of his wartime activities was to collect tin foil from chewing gum wrappers and roll them into a ball to convey to a recycling center for the war effort.  I can still see and feel the process of starting at the corner and carefully peeling back the foil from its wax paper base. I helped with building some of the balls of foil, and they became rather large, say about the size of a hardball or larger.

While we were in Stamford, Thavis got a job at a little grocery store owned by a man named Earl Stagner.  He and Thavis became good friends and remained so for years after we moved back to Abilene.  Another of his jobs in Stamford was working at a little café, where he learned to cook some of the dishes he served.  As a result, he introduced me to an egg and jelly sandwich which was made with three pieces of bread, with a hole cut in the middle of the middle slice to fit over the fried egg resting on the bottom slice.  Jelly was added to make it a memorable taste experience.

My most traumatic experience with Thavis was his trying to teach me to swim.  After a few rudimentary instructions, he decided that it was time literally to let me sink or swim, and I sank.  I was very frightened and swallowed some water, I think.  The swimming lesson failed, and much to his disgust, I refused to try any more.  It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I made any progress in learning to swim.

Thavis decided to run away from home after we moved back to Abilene, in order to finish his senior year in high school at Stamford.  Our time together in Stamford created a bond between us, and he continued to be a special big brother to me even after we were separated.

These scattered memories attached to places lived make me aware of how important seemingly insignificant details of experience can be.   Being stung by the red ants and being deprived of my gutter sandpile were my introduction to loss, but it took the brief, isolated event of watching my father weep at his mother’s death for me to have my first limited understanding of the grief attached to death.  I had the dawning of conscience in the small incident of not sharing my birthday cake.  Early experiences with my sister-in-law and my brother Thavis were not dramatic, but they were the foundation for more mature relationships later on.  My illness as a little boy actually resulted in my having an advantage when I finally started school.  So it was that my early years in Abilene and Stamford contributed significantly to who God has enabled me to become.    

 


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Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)


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Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

Assessing One’s Parents: Twilight Musings Autobiography (Part 2)

Assessing One’s Parents

Twilight Musings Autobiography (Part 2)

  

          Not all people have siblings, but we all have parents, and their presence (or absence) in our lives exerts an irradicable influence on who we turn out to be. I once heard of a college counselor who regularly told his undergraduate counselees that “We all have to come to the point of forgiving our parents.”  That is to say, whatever our relationship to our parents, to some degree or other, usually by the time we become adolescents, our parents’ faults will have become obvious to us, and we have to deal with our perception of their failures. 

            That may seem an ungenerous introduction to talking about my relationship with my parents, and I must make clear at the beginning that I suffered no abuse at their hands, and indeed they loved me and provided for me as they were able.  But their age when they were raising me, the last of their brood, meant that they did not have the energy or the health to be very actively involved with me.  Nevertheless, I received some significant guidance and nurture from them.  Sorting through this mixture of influences from my parents challenges me to honestly identify and evaluate their effect on me, being thankful for the good things they gave me and gracious about any deficiencies I thought they had.  It takes God’s help to review one’s upbringing clearly and to take responsibility for what we have become, whatever the advantages and disadvantages of our early home life.

I remember my father as a generally kind man.  He certainly went extra miles trying to make my mother happy, and he seemed to be well liked by his customers and fellow workers during his long employment as a bread delivery man.  Women responded well to his gentleness, and one of my sisters-in-law adored him as a surrogate father, having lost her father early in her life.  Dad was a Bible-reading man and a steady Christian, qualities that led to his appointment as an elder in our congregation of the Church of Christ we attended in Abilene.  He had strong convictions.  I remember that when the Revised Standard Version of the Bible came out in the 1950s, he was adamant in upholding the greater authority of the King James Version because the RSV rendered the quotation of Isaiah that “a virgin shall conceive” a child (Jesus) as “a young woman shall conceive.”  To him, that was changing the very Word of God; he had no conception of such a rendering being justified by a scholarly appeal to the meaning of the original Hebrew.  Neither he nor my mother went past the 8th grade in formal schooling, and neither of them had traveled beyond Texas, so they had no experience that exposed them to any culture except what they had grown up with.

My father and I didn’t share much at a deeply personal level.  When I was small he took me along with him on his bread route sometimes in the summer, but I don’t remember hanging out with him just to engage in some mutually satisfying activity, like attending sporting events or making visits to a park.  He was a hard-working man, and our only regular family activity was going to church and having an occasional extended family meal with my brother Otho and his wife and children.  Things were financially tough for my father and mother and me after he became ill with throat cancer.  After his employment with Mead’s Bakery came to an end, he took up selling Watkins Products from door to door, and I would sometimes go with him on his deliveries and his trips to the warehouse to purchase products to sell.  That ceased when I began to have jobs of my own to pay for my personal purchases and to add to the household income. 

My mother’s health was always precarious, and she had several operations to correct internal problems, including a hysterectomy.  Sometime during my early childhood, she had an emotional meltdown, or what was then referred to as a “nervous breakdown.”  For a period of weeks, she was unable to take care of household chores; I think I was sometimes taken care of by some of my aunts and uncles during this period.  She frequently felt bad, and though there were some real physical problems, my brothers and I, and several of our close relatives, I think, considered her to be a hypochondriac.  From the time I was aware enough to make an evaluation, I responded to her perpetual health problems by wishing that she could be more stoic in enduring them.  I can remember overhearing her telephone conversations with her female friends discussing clinical details of her ailments and medical treatments.

Merely by token of my being at home alone with her after she had sufficiently recovered from her meltdown to be active again, she exerted a kind of environmental influence on me.  I was a rather sickly child up through my primary school years, often having to stay home from school.  Indeed, I had to drop out of school during first grade, starting again the next year.  (Incidentally, this gave me an ongoing advantage in my subsequent years in school, always being a year or so older than my classmates.)  My mother took good care of me when I was ill and was very solicitous of me when I was well, insisting that I always wear a cap in cold weather.  I have some very vivid memories of being treated when I was ill.  As I recovered from upper-gastral problems, I was fed mashed banana and saltine crackers as soft food to re-accommodate my stomach to eating solid food again.  When the problem was constipation, the remedies were always unpleasant and awkward, involving either milk of magnesia or non-orally administered water to loosen things up.

All of this care could have established a close emotional bond, but my mother’s wearing her emotions on her sleeve actually effected a determination in me to repress my emotions, and that early development has been manifested in my adult life.  It took me years to learn to share emotionally with others, including my wife.  Even now, I remain governed more by rationality than by emotion.  That has probably been good for my scholarly pursuits, but less so for my personal life.  I was especially turned off by my mother’s frequent appeals in my teen years for me to tell her that I loved her.  The more she appealed, the less inclined I was to respond in the way that she wanted.  I loved her dutifully, but not fervently or deeply.  I honored my mother according to the commandment, and I saw to her needs to the end, but I did not weep when she died.  Indeed, I rarely weep at all, which is probably a deficiency in my life.

I remember being envious of one of my closest friends during my post-high school years.  His mother had heroically continued as mother to her two sons and a daughter as the family tried to make a go of their farm after the father had left them.  She was a warm, affectionate woman, who welcomed guests and always had a treat ready when her children’s friends visited.  I admired her for her combination of strength and warmth, and I wondered why my mother was so different from her.  I can’t remember my mother ever acting with that kind of spontaneous hospitality toward my friends.

More than balancing out any deficiencies in what my parents gave me was our religious life together.  We went to church three times a week and took it for granted that all of us would be there if not hindered by illness.  We lived close enough to the church building to walk there, which took about 15-20 minutes.  The routines of our household also reflected commitment to serving God.  I remember vividly our custom of praying together every night before retiring.  My father and I would kneel, and he would lead the prayer.  This time was called the “family altar,” and my parents told me that it had been their custom to do this from the beginning of their marriage.  Prayer came naturally in our family.  We gave thanks at every meal, and that’s where I first learned to pray aloud.  My mother was especially dedicated to prayer and had great faith that prayer was a spiritual privilege that produced results.  Her great faith and readiness to pray anytime conditioned me to see prayer as a natural part of everyday Christian living.

My Christian walk, then, was undergirded by the example and teaching of my parents.  Their lack of bitterness and their strong faith in the face of my father’s illness and loss of income encouraged me to work alongside them to supply the family’s needs.  I might not have learned the value of hard, honest work if we had been better off financially.  Their faithfulness to one another during over 35 years of marriage was another powerful working out of their desire to honor God and one another.

On the other hand, my lack of strong personal connection with my father and reaction against my mother’s excessive emotionality resulted in my taking a long time as an adult to learn emotional sensitivity to others, particularly my wife.  I am by temperament strongly inclined toward a rational outlook, and my upbringing did not contribute to tempering that inclination with appropriate emotional expression.

In sum, God gave me parents with both virtues and flaws, like most people.  I thank God that the benefits I received from them outweigh in significance those things I wish they had been able to give me.  I can’t blame any of my deficiencies on them, for I am responsible before God for what I have made of their gifts and how I have compensated for any disadvantages they might have passed on to me.  I must be as charitable and merciful toward them as I hope my children will be toward me.


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Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)


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Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

My Family: Twilight Musings Autobiography (Part 1)

My Family

Twilight Musings Autobiography (Part 1)

Elton Higgs

Prologue

          In February of this year, I did a Musing justifying writing an autobiography.  My reasons were that every life has a story that will be interesting to somebody; that if one has lived as a Christian, his or her life will reveal what God has done in that process; and that people should have access to a record of their forebears’ lives.  My own notes for an autobiography were experiencing a long pause when I had a lengthy conversation with the manager of this site, David Baggett.  He encouraged me to get back to the notes and the drafting of the treatise because (bless his heart!) he wanted to see it come to completion.  And he had the concrete suggestion that I use material from the autobiography to do my Friday Twilight Musings.

          I will try to comply, but I don’t want these very personal Musings to be the undisciplined ramblings of a garrulous old man, and I want them to have something of take-away value.  I trust that my wife and David and his wife Marybeth will prevent my using this venue for mere self-referential satisfaction.

 

My Family

          My life began with my being different from my three older brothers.  I was born in Hendrick Memorial Hospital, Abilene, Texas, on June 14, 1937, the youngest of four sons and the only one to be born in a hospital; the other three were all born at home. There were eight years between me and my closest sibling, so I was raised pretty much by myself, and some of my brothers saw me as rather pampered, which may have been true.  At any rate, I avoided the kinds of problematic development that made things difficult for my brothers.  I believe that God’s hand was in my being born the youngest of the four and in my coming as late in my parents’ lives as I did (I doubt that my arrival was expected).  Let me expand on how my life was significantly formed by my being last in the birth order.

The oldest son, Ordis, was born with cataracts on both eyes and was sent off at an early age to a school for the blind to learn how to make his way in the world.  He engaged in some rebellious behavior at the school, resulting in his being sent home before he graduated.  In spite of that rocky beginning, he eventually married, had children, and became a responsible Christian citizen. Although he was designated as legally blind, he was able to transcend his limitations through learning braille (which he used mostly to read the Bible) and taking advantage of jobs for the blind supplied by the state he lived in.  For many years he operated a stand selling newspapers, snacks, and other items in the state capitol building, and he was able to take up a similar job when he moved to another state. 

The two middle brothers were also rebellious. The second in line, Otho, got married before he was out of his teens, and he and his wife had to live with our family for a while—a complicated beginning to an enduring but troubled marriage.  However, he managed to achieve some stability by joining the military during WWII, gaining enough G. I. benefits to fund some training in watch repair and electronics.  He eventually had his own store selling home electronic devices and repairing watches.

The third son, Thavis, ran away from home when the family moved back to Abilene from Stamford, because he wanted to finish high school in Stamford.  He ended up joining the army so he could finance his college education after he finished his army stint.  Having played an instrument in an Army band, he determined to get a degree in music education. He was ambitious and determined to have a life with more opportunity than had been available to him at home, and he wanted the same for me.  He had a variety of music-based jobs after he graduated: teaching band at the high school level, being a traveling sales representative for a band instrument company, and owning a music store.  He earned extra money during most of his life playing the saxophone for dance bands.  His vocational life was rounded out by a decidedly non-musical job, doing rural mail delivery.  That gave him some retirement benefits, along with a bit of social security income.  

All my brothers, then, worked at a number of jobs, and the middle two were very entrepreneurial. I was the only one of the four who led a fairly normal and conformist life.  I was a “good” boy and unduly proud of it, I fear.  Perhaps the lack of adventuresome activity in my early life was attributable in part to my parents’ being already in their decline by that time; they were less restrictive with me and and I was less dependent on them than my older siblings had been  It was also true, however, that my temperament was more sanguine than that of my older siblings, particularly the middle two.  Whatever was the cause, my upbringing was more peaceful than that of my brothers.

The lesson that I draw from these circumstances in my childhood and teens is that they laid the groundwork for my later life going in more conventional directions than my brothers had.  I also had the advantage of being encouraged in my development by the two closest to me in age: Thavis urged me to equip myself intellectually and socially to have a better life than my parents had, and he furnished me with the model of completing a college education.  And during my senior year, Otho gave me some hands-on instruction in basic service to electronic devices.  However, after seeing my ineptitude for applying what he had taught me, and seeing that I excelled in academics, he gave me the memorable advice to “stick with your books.”

So it was that God helped me to avoid the difficulty of a rebellious early life and provided a push toward my pursuing an academic career.  But more about that in another Musing.


Elton_Higgs (1).jpg

 Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)


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Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

Gracious Forbearance

Dr. Matt Towles has taught English at Liberty University since 2007. Before coming to Liberty, Matt taught at every level, from elementary school through high school to college. He also serves as Elder and as Lead of LifeGroups at Blue Ridge Community Church.

It’s a kind of confession, I suppose, to say it like this: the death of Luke Perry horrified me. The news alert from TMZ had me fishing through my memory. I realized that I’d never seen a single episode of Beverly Hills 90210, but I had certainly seen him in the movies 8 Seconds and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He wasn’t a stranger, but he was just a celebrity—I knew him, but I didn’t. Yet there I was, horrified. Luke Perry died of a stroke at the age of 52.

It’s embarrassing, really; the death of a teenage heartthrob from my high school years troubled me more than it probably troubled most married 43-year-old men with a full-time job and kids. I have a mortgage for mercy’s sake. I can’t go in an afternoon funk over the death of a celebrity that I’d never met. I have work to do, a wife to cherish, children to love.

And that’s where my connection to him clarifies. When I was 42, I had a couple strokes of my own. A year and a half later, there are times when I don’t move very well, I get tired easily, or my emotions rise to the surface more quickly than they did before. I’m not conspicuously disabled, though my physical abilities are truly blunted in ways that I notice and mourn over: my left side doesn’t work as well as my right, I get tongue tied easily when I’m tired, and my memory for names (though I was never all that great) has gotten worse.

And it occurred to me: Luke Perry got the easy way out. He didn’t have to work through emotional or relational issues like I do. He didn’t have to face life after nearly stroking out in a McDonald’s parking lot like I did. He got to die and not deal with the rest. Of course, it’s terrible to think like that. Death isn’t usually seen as the easy way out. But there I was, horrified by the death of a stranger, and in a terribly selfish way.

Millions of people heard about Luke Perry’s death by stroke and probably did what I did: they searched their memories, found one, and remembered. They put it all together to form something rational, real. (The word [re] member means, quite literally, to put it back together). Trauma disregards the normal process of piecing things together, so when I put my memory of Luke Perry together, I immediately made it personal, without so much as a straight logical thread to follow into or out of my fog of horror.

Even now, though, I really can’t make a step-by-step rational argument for why I was frustrated that Luke Perry got to die from his stroke, but I didn’t from mine. To crib from Blaise Pascal, “The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know. We feel it in a thousand things.” (Pensees 277). I have emotions, brand-new, strong emotions, and I have no idea why. Like, none. My wife, on the other hand, handles emotions like a professional—really. She is in training to get her license in Professional Counseling (with a concentration in trauma, no less). Yet in our conversations, she has made the real and consistent choice to be my wife, not my counselor. I’ve been to counseling. I’m not very good at it.

“What were you thinking when that happened?”
“I don’t know.”
“How did you feel?”
“I don’t know.”
“That must have been terrible.”
“I know.”

Just multiply that snippet about a thousand times, and you’ll begin to understand why I’m drawing up papers to recommend my wife for sainthood.

“Luke Perry. The 90210 guy.”
“I remember that show.”
“He died of a stroke.”
“Oh, no. That’s terrible.” Silence. “You going home?”

Going home. That’s our code for leaving work and driving home and taking off my shoes and sleeping. I’m not sure why being barefoot clarifies my thoughts, but it does.

I didn’t want to tell her I couldn’t think straight. I didn’t want to admit that my afternoon was ruined by the death of that guy in that one show that neither of us had ever watched. I didn’t want to tell her that living was harder. I wasn’t suicidal, but I still lived in the daily shadow of a life I still needed to live. As John Cougar Mellencamp put it, “Oh yeah, life goes on. Long after the thrill of living is gone.” I didn’t want to die, but I certainly didn’t want to live this way. And I was horrified by the reminder that there were other options, besides fighting each day for a life as a dad, husband, teacher, brother, son, elder, and friend.

But she already knew that. She knew that having a stroke and then not dying is tough. It’s one thing to be thrilled to be alive (which I am) and also to see someone die and think he got the easy way out.

That’s terrible. She meant it was terrible for me to face. My horrified response to Luke Perry’s death is most certainly human—the death rate is 100%; we’re all going to die—so each of us must cultivate some appropriate response to death, even the death of someone we do not know. John Donne’s now-famous proclamation that “No man is an island, entire of itself,” assumes the positive comfort of a community of people marching toward its individual and collective demise. Yet, Donne reminds us that though death is a human reality, there isn’t much comfort in the dreaded reality of our lives, no matter how good life may be: “any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee." According to Donne, we live in the midst of the caroling of the bells, announcing the death of another human. As a consequence, we are not only reminded of our death, we are diminished by the death of someone else.

Terrible, indeed. Yet the person I knew who could best help me when I needed it the most might also be hurt the deepest by my confession. I had nothing, really, but a scattered mind, mixed with embarrassment that such a shallow pop-culture icon ruined my day. That, and a phone.

She probably could have done all kinds of things. Reminded me that I should have this handled by now. Reminded me of people with REAL trauma who have had to deal with much WORSE things than a couple strokes. Reminded me that a little prayer and a spoonful of sugar…

She could have done all kinds of things.

Yet she answered the phone. And she didn’t try to fix it or counsel me or anything like that. She listened. And then she gave me grace, even if it meant for her hearing something that was incredibly painful to hear. She listened. She took the time to give me grace. I was trying my very best to be the very best husband and person I could be, but the only thing I could muster up the energy to do was to call her. I couldn’t even think about going home and taking off my shoes and napping.

Where I live in the United States, the Christian faith puts quite a bit of emphasis on having a “personal relationship with Jesus.” Though I’d like to admit that I believe that truth—a relationship with Jesus is important—it’s an incomplete truth. We need a community of believers who have the courage to proclaim, however they may, a paraphrase of the Apostle’s Creed: “This is my faith. I’m proud to profess it.” The locus of our faith is in the resurrected Christ, but the evidence of our faith is found, quite often, in how we interact with one another.

We should not wonder, then, that there may be times when the pain of someone else becomes the focus of our ministry for that hour, that day, or even that season. We serve a risen Christ whose body carried the horrors of the cross in addition to the horrors of humanity. It’s no wonder that we ourselves might recognize the pain that each of us carries. We know how to pray and to serve and to carry those burdens. I know my wife knows, because she has learned from the man acquainted with grief, Jesus himself.

Why Write an Autobiography

A Twilight Musing  

Recently I felt moved to write an autobiography.  You may ask why I think an account of my life is worth recording and who I think would (or should) read it.  Those are questions worth asking and answering, so I will proceed to do so.  (Perhaps we could call it my apologia autobiographica.)  My basic reasons for undertaking this task are three: (1) Everyone has a story, and the best time of life to tell it is from the vantage point of advanced years, and my four-score and one qualifies.  (2) An account of my life, if written from a Christian perspective, should be a testimony to God’s goodness and faithfulness, so it has the potential of being an encouragement to others.  (3) Recording the events of my life will provide some documentation for our children and grandchildren to understand better their relationship to the past.  And in a more personal way, I want to leave some information about myself that enables them to know me after I’m gone.

One of the stereotypical characteristics of older people is their being inveterate story tellers who patch together episodes in a kind of stream-of-consciousness manner.  I want to tap into this inclination to look back and recall events, but give it structure and thematic unity.  My theme would be to recognize, acknowledge, and give thanks for the many people whose lives contributed to the formation of my character and the development of my skills.  Some of these may be obvious and stand out, while others rendered their services so unobtrusively as to be easily forgotten.  A carefully written record will assure that even my quiet benefactors are recognized.  I remember, for example, the loving attention given to me and others by “Miss Addie,” my first Sunday School teacher.  She never drew attention to herself, but she introduced scores of little children to Bible stories and the love of Jesus over the years.  In contrast, my mentor and sponsor in college days was a larger-than-life professor named James Culp.  Dr. Culp took me under his wing and held out the vision of pursuing an academic career.  I worked as his student assistant in my senior year, and he nominated me for a graduate fellowship that paid my way for the first year of a doctoral program.  After I completed my Ph.D. and was employed as a college teacher myself, he continued to be interested in what was happening to me and rejoiced in my successes.  Miss Addie and Dr. Culp differed greatly in their visibility and the sophistication of their help to me, but I owe them both a significant debt of gratitude.

It has taken a full lifetime for me to come to the state of confidence I now have in the absolute reliability of God.  He has, so to speak, rolled up an overwhelming “track record” of meeting my needs and giving me the strength and resources to do the tasks to which He has called me.  Some account of these experiences is appropriate to share with others—not to brag about, but to give praise to God.  Some of my examples were epiphanies of God’s goodness and dependability, but others were more diffused blessings, like having godly parents who taught me the Word of God and moral responsibility, and having educational opportunities that fostered my intellectual development.  Prominent among the notable instances of God’s provision was His identifying an adult foster care home for our daughter, Cynthia, whose Huntington’s Disease-generated behavior had exhausted our mental and spiritual resources.  Thanks to our being unexpectedly connected by a politician with some influential people, Cynthia was placed in a foster care home within a week of the initiation of procedures.  I hope that more examples of both kinds of God’s good gifts will be of benefit to others and bring Him praise.

Nobody has requested that I write this treatise, so there is no guaranteed audience for it, but I hope that my children and grandchildren, in particular, will see its value once it’s done (a point in time that seems to recede farther the more I write!).  My efforts will have been rewarded if their eventual personal interest in this record morphs into a broader appreciation for the larger history that concerns us all.  Valuing the records of the past is a much-needed perspective in the present Western culture of chronological snobbery.  Our society places so much value on the present and on the supposed advancements of the future that the past seems irrelevant.  Whereas the truth is that we don’t even know who we are without some serious attention to understanding the past.  Even more important for Christians is the fact that their faith is founded in the history of God’s work with His people, and that history is the substance of the Gospel message.

In writing about oneself, it’s difficult to strike a balance between egoistic projection and transparent honesty.  I hope there is something to be gained in reading about both my supposed successes and my failures.  I will do my best neither to exaggerate the one nor to gloss over the other.  Beyond the mere relation of events, I want to present to potential readers some sense of how I see my life experiences and how my understanding has changed over the years.  Of one thing I’m sure: For my having reached this point in my long journey with mind and body pretty much intact, God is greatly to be praised.  I hope that my account of that journey will supply more evidence of His goodness.


Elton_Higgs (1).jpg

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

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Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

Three Poems on the New Year: Perspectives on Time

Photo by  Alex Guillaume  on  Unsplash

          The measurement of time is so ingrained in our society that we take it for granted.  On a daily basis we have schedules that mark the beginning and ending of assigned or chosen tasks.  On a larger scale, we track the progress of each week, month, or year.  Our annual celebration of the transition from one calendar year to another invites a summary and evaluation of what has been accomplished or merely taken place in the past year.  In a more personal way, we celebrate birthdays as milestones in the progress of our lives.  Underlying all of this measurement of time is an awareness that we humans, along with our social and political institutions, have limited lifespans.  We are all on the path to death.

          It has not always been so.  When God created the Earth to be an environment for living things, especially for his ultimate creation, human beings, there was no sense of limited life, and so no need to measure time.  But all of that changed when Adam and Eve chose to disobey God, thereby incurring the promised penalty of death.  Very quickly after the two of them were banished from the timeless Garden of Eden, the narrative about their offspring began to be marked by the passage of time: how many years between the births of their children and how old each person was when he died.  How different the human and divine perspectives on the passage of time had become.

          I have imagined in “Adam’s first New Year” how he might have ruminated about his new perception of the passage of time on the anniversary of his and Eve’s expulsion from Paradise. In this monologue, Adam, though keenly aware of the sad new world he and Eve have brought about, realizes that God is still with him, transcending His own edict of judgment, just as He had done earlier when He clothed the just-realized, sin-conscious nakedness of the pair. 

Adam's First New Year

 

Adam paced the field

Made rough by tilling,

Unwilling ground since God

Withdrew His Presence from it.

The sun itself, now cyclic,

Gave only partial beams

To warm the stubborn soil.

 

"No need in Eden's bounds

To think of ebb and flow,

Of patterned change

Which gives us markers

For the progress of decay;

But now each day reveals

That something more of what we were

Is lost,

And nights accumulate

Until the sun comes back

To mark the point where death began.

 

"That day, I made a world

Where beginnings add up to ends,

And cycles are incremental.

Can God be heard in such a place?

Can timeless Love be found

Where time feeds hateful death?

I know only that breath,

Though shortened now,

Is still from Him;

And though I sweat for bread,

He feeds me yet."

 

            The next two poems show the same paradoxical way that God goes beyond our

time-limited understanding of the flow of events.  He sees without the restrictions of past, present, and future.

Tying Up Loose Ends

 

Accumulating year-ends is a purely human occupation:

Piling up tinsel monuments

And stacking shards of shattered plans.

Only the illusion

That things which matter have beginning or end

Spurs mortals to wrap up one year

And open another.

 

Celestial perception

Tolerates imperfection,

But gently urges us not to mistake

Our clocks for absolute.

We will accept, then,

The fragmentation of experience,

And search for the splices of God

By which the worst of the past

And the promise of the future

Are always joined.

           

            Finally, I offer a poem that reflects the perversity of our fallen wills in opting so often for the immediate, but temporal, pleasures of our mortal world, rather than the eternally significant treasures of God’s grace.

Bankrupt

Borrowed time

Is what we all live on.

Profligate spenders,

We purchase the gauds and trinkets

Of Vanity Fair.

We prefer our own

Purchased pain

To the gift of suffering

Which is beyond our means;

Our own indebtedness

To the solvency of Grace.

 

Kyrie eleison,

Christe eleison!

 

Lord, have mercy!  Christ, have mercy!  Grant us the eyes of eternity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

Mailbag: Thoughts on Saving the World

In a literature class this semester, we read Misha Nogha’s “Chippoke Na Gomi,” an intriguing and provocative science fiction story exploring the repercussions of atomic weaponry and the responsibilities we have to each other. It’s a weighty tale whose pathos pulls at the reader’s heart strings and reminds us of the interconnectedness of the human race, that the harm imposed on others will not—cannot—stay contained. For those readers already predisposed toward empathy, the story’s charge to care for the world can feel overwhelming, which was exactly the case for one of my students. What do we do, she asked me, seeing the world in such need of help and knowing ourselves unequal to the task? I’m grateful that she asked the question because it gave me the opportunity to wrestle with it myself. Here are a few of the thoughts I shared with her, posted here with her permission:

What you bring up is so important and crucial to wrestle with. We can’t let go of either conviction—that the injustices of this world must be rectified and that there’s only so much we can do to fix them. But putting those two realities side-by-side seems to create an intractable problem—the world’s ills will not abate, nor will our resources to solve them suddenly increase exponentially. I think sometimes the response, then, is either to become callous to the problems of the world (understandably so, if only for sanity’s sake) or to run oneself ragged, attempting to care for any and all comers (this, too, is understandable because otherwise it feels like we’ve abdicated our humanity and failed to take seriously the demands of justice).

Neither option is desirable or, truth be told, even tenable. What do we do then? Are we stuck always having to choose between our humanity and our sanity? I think what’s important to keep in mind is that while justice—for all, not only for some—must be served and while we as Christians must participate in that process, the full enactment of that justice is not dependent on us. It is God’s to fulfill, his redemption to enact.

If you’re wanting a biblical reminder of this truth, the Sermon on the Mount might be a good passage to revisit, especially Matthew 6:33: “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” We long for heaven, for a world redeemed; your empathy, I think, taps into the truth that human beings are infinitely valuable and deserve so much better than this world and other human beings can offer (themselves included). But such empathy must be tempered with an awareness of our creaturely status, as we are as much in need of redemption ourselves as those other creatures we long to see restored and valued rightly.

The good intention of loving others and wanting to help them can easily be twisted into pride and self-reliance. The better way is to surrender yourself to God’s will, your love of others and unique insights about suffering to his service, and your gifts and talents to his purposes. He will use you as he sees fit; it may take a little time to find your specific calling among the many worthy tasks before us (and, especially relevant for your question, among the many, many needs of this world). Some helpful resources along those lines include this Andy Crouch article, Kevin DeYoung’s Just Do Something, and Tim Keller’s Every Good Endeavor.

I do think ultimately, though, it’s absolutely essential to keep in mind that the promise of salvation, for redemption of the world, is God’s to give and to fulfill. I think sometimes, if we’re honest with ourselves, that might be a bitter pill to swallow because doing so absolutely requires us to face our own pride and delusions of grandeur. But it’s good to do—to be honest with ourselves about those impulses—because only then can God expose that hidden hubris, camouflaged though it is in something good, allowing us to confess it and surrender it to him.