Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Review of "Eggtown and Other Stories" by Zack Clark Allen

In his collection of op-eds and poems Eggtown and Other Stories, Zack Clark Allen gently reminds his readers of what ought not to be forgotten. He even writes of himself and his role within the family, “Looking back was a job that fell to me…” Look back he does.

Allen’s pieces, written when he was a thirtysomething, and the short introductions to them, written thirty years after that, are a remembrance wrapped in a reflection. He explores his own childhood, the stories of his grandparents, the mountains of Western North Carolina, Asheville, and its many citizens, both living and passed on, who he encountered in his years working at the Asheville Citizen-Times. Also, because he cannot help being an editor, he comments on his earlier writing style and gives contextual background for the many stories.

He freely admits what he writes is nostalgic, yet he deftly wields his clear images and poignant, everyday dialog so that he does not stray into the sentimental. The bad, along with the good, bear remembering and he includes both. Allen observes like a poet, seeing the connections, philosophies, symbols, and details in life—and plays with the best words to re-present them to his readers. Yet he pursues story like a newspaperman. Both qualities are evident in his writing: vivid brevity with a depth of emotion and meaning.

In the temporary newspaper world, much of what he had written might have become lost and forgotten but for this collection of his finest work. It puts one in the mind of Shakespeare’s words:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this and this gives life to thee.
By the time readers reach the final words of Allen’s last poem, they will be ready to take up his charge—or at least lend the book to a friend.
Now I pass it on to you;
Hold it, and its story
in trust for all of us.
Zack and I will read together on Thursday, November 11 @ 7pm in the Library Annex in Burnsville, NC. You are invited.

I would also like to make a recommendation as to how to read Zack's book. I read it straight through so that I could write the review, but I don't know that I'd recommend this as a one-sitting read. Spread it out, reading a chapter or two at a time, so that you have the chance to absorb and reflect on the stories. Additionally, it might not hurt to have a box of tissues close for some of them.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Kirkin' o' the Tartan

A few weeks ago our pastor led us in a Kirkin' o'the Tartan ceremony at our church. Coming from a German Mennonite background, this was all new territory for me. She explained it, and I've done a little research on my own aside from experiencing it:

The "Kirkin' o' the Tartan" is actually a bunch of brigadoonery. (I had to look that word up too... but basically it means faux-Scottish -- like the musical Brigadoon.) Nonetheless, it has become an important American tradition to honor Scots-American families.

It began in 1941 when Peter Marshall, Reverand of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington D.C., created and held a ceremony in which members of the congregation brought their tartans and they were blessed. Apparently this is not something that ever happened in Scotland, though it is widely practiced in the United States now. The purpose of the original service was to be a fundraiser to support Scottish churches and England during the early part of WW II. One is still held every year at the National Cathedral.

But for all its brigadoonery, it was a very meaningful service for our church in many ways.

First, many of the congregants are from Scotts-Irish decent and dressed their whole families in their family plaid (some even came in kilts). In particular, one of our older memebers who is 92 was actually born in Scotland, and I think hearing the bagpipes during the service and the having the blessing said over his family tartan moved him immensely. (At least it moved the rest of us thinking about it from his perspective!) But not all of us had tartans to hang. So, that's where we adapted a bit. The previous week, each family was given a square of cloth to make into a family banner.

Some families chose a symbol to represent themselves, some painted pictures or made collages, and several copied their family crests. We were all invited to bring our banners and they would be hung around the church during the service.

I was amazed at the level of participation.
It didn't take me long to figure out what our family "tartan" would be. Obviously it needed to be pieced and quilted! How Mennonite is that? Back when we'd lived in South Bend, I'd pieced curtains for our kitchen that I hadn't re-used yet, so I knew I had my background. (Yes. It's true, I just happened to have some spare pieced pinwheel quiltop laying about the house. That's how Mennonite I am.) But that wouldn't do by itself. It needed the peace dove apliqued on top and it needed to be quilted to truly represent. I had those materials sitting around the house too: batting, a big tension hoop, spare muslin, a thimble, and quilting needles. I felt quite pleased with the result, though admitting so is probably the least Mennonite part of the whole endeavor.

Secondly, though I hadn't realized fundraising was an inherent part of a Kirkin o' the Tartan, we had did have a special meal after. (No, there was no haggis served.) Since our church is much like a fusion restaurant anyway, it should almost be predictable we'd have a Guatemalan meal to raise money for scholarships of the students in our sister church there.
But it was more than that. Our pastor was retiring after 11 years of growing a church from a handful of members to a church body that has to split into two services in the summers because there isn't enough room in the parking lot for all our cars. In this service, she was able to bless our tartans, our families, and the larger clan we have formed as a church. Because each region of Scotland has different herbs which died the wool different colors and different weavers chose unique patterns, the tartan has long been a symbol of regional identity as well as love, togetherness, and protection.
Then, at one point in the service, she had us look around at our "tartans": There we all were, displayed for everyone. Each of us. We are the church. This is who we are. Yes, we were losing a leader, but look -- look -- we are here, all of our families choosing this place to worship, loving each other, loving God, and working to share that love with the world. That would continue.