Brian Spears

Poet, Editor, Teacher, Blogger.

Writing and Crochet

Last night, my left wrist hurt really badly. Sharp, searing pain through the joint, bad enough that I put down the project I was working on and started searching for connections between crochet and carpal tunnel syndrome and wrist braces. They’ve been hurting more or less for months now. I didn’t want to stop crocheting. This is a big project and the first one I’ve ever built from scratch (well, as from scratch as any piece of crochet can be, given that, like writing, you’re often doing a variation on a theme that you saw or learned from before) but I could barely hold the fabric and yarn, so I put it down for the night.

I started crocheting last year while I was rehabbing my left elbow that I’d shattered in a fall. I was also looking for a way to distract myself from social media, from my phone, from everything that was taking me away from life around me. I chose crochet because it was something that I had to focus on solely. Especially at first, I couldn’t count stitches even with music playing, and I certainly couldn’t read a news feed or watch a tv show. It helped some, though I often found I would get just as absorbed in making stitch after stitch as I did in doom-scrolling my Twitter feed. At least I didn’t hate the world when I was interrupted from crochet.

Crochet also meant that I was alone in my head a lot more, which put me on the path to writing again, at least a little. I’m still working on improving that, but I have more drafts in the last year than probably in the three previous. I need that enforced silence. But the poems aren’t right yet, though I may have found something in my wrist pain that will at least give me something to think about.

See, when I got up this morning, I picked up my project again, determined to get at least a couple of rows done before I started searching for wrist braces again. But I held everything gingerly, almost falling out of my hands, letting the hook do the work. I relaxed into it, and I realized after a couple of rows that in all my projects lately, I’ve been trying to muscle through, making the stitches really tight. I was building my stress into the project, and the project was feeding that back into my hands, causing them to cramp. But when I gentled my grip, not only did my wrists not hurt, but the stitches came more easily.

The last six months have been a test of letting go for me, of recognizing that I can’t control the world around me, that people I know and love, maybe even me, are going to get sick and die even if they/we take every precaution. But if I hold it all too tightly, I’ll just cramp up and lose what I love. I have to hold things gently. And I think that’s what I need to do with my poems too. I’m holding them too tightly, and not trusting that they’ll stay in my hands if I loosen my grip on them. I don’t know what that’s going to look like yet, but for the first time in a long time, I at least have a sense of how I’m going to approach it.

July 10, 2020 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Coming up next

A friend posted this on social media. I don’t know who the original maker of the image is or I would credit/thank them for it.

This is the one time of year I regularly miss south Louisiana, but maybe not for the reasons people who’ve never lived there would understand. Mardi Gras has this somewhat deserved reputation for being a day dedicated to hedonism and debauchery, no matter the attempts by many monied interests to make it “family-friendly.” But the thing I remember from growing up down there, even though I didn’t “celebrate” it for most of my life (as I was a Jehovah’s Witness until I was in my mid-twenties), was the way the holiday helped me come down from that frenzy of the end of the previous year. I’m sure that sounds weird if all you know of Mardi Gras is the spectacle of the day itself or even of the weekend running up to it, because it looks like nothing but frenzy.

But really, Mardi Gras is a slow build. For example, this year, Mardi Gras day is going to hit on February 25, but the first parades are on January 6. There’s kind of a pause until February when the season gets going—not even south Louisiana folks can keep it up nonstop from Halloween until Lent—but even if you count from the time that the Krewe of Chewbacchus rolls on February 1, that’s 3 1/2 weeks of celebration, first mostly on the weekends, but then ramping up until there are parades every night for the last week. And the whole time, the music is everywhere. Professor Longhair, The Meters, Irma Thomas, Galactic, Dr. John, Fats Domino, The Rebirth Brass Band, Rockin’ Dopsie, The Nevilles, Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Al Johnson, The Hawkettes—most years I start listening to it in early-December as counter programming to the Christmas music everywhere.

I don’t have any proof of this, but I suspect that the slow-burn aspect of the holiday is one reason why it hasn’t expanded much beyond the deep south. (The weather is another, obviously—here in Iowa, where I’ve lived for 8 1/2 years, I do my best to not be outdoors more than necessary in January or February.) When I’ve seen places try to bring in a Mardi Gras, they only do Fat Tuesday, bring in some beads, beer, and some under-seasoned food. (I’ve had boiled crawfish here that would get you stabbed in Ponchatoula.) But the problem is that by the time Fat Tuesday gets here, we’re maybe a couple of months out from New Years, we’ve sweated through Valentines Day, and there’s nothing ahead but doing your income taxes until the weather hopefully breaks. No one’s ready for another explosion.

Unless you’ve been training for it for weeks. That’s what the season lets you do. Listen to some music, hit an early parade or two, remember that some red beans and rice won’t fix the world but you’ll probably feel better once you’ve had some. You go do your job(s), love your family and friends, remember that your neighbors are people and not just words on a screen waiting to piss you off with their opinions on stuff, maybe catch some beads and drink a beer or two.

And you don’t try to do it all, not even if you’re in your early twenties and still in school. You pace yourself. In a way, the season is a reminder that the year is long and there’s always something else coming up, so enjoy this moment now, and if that means getting a little loose, so be it, and if that means staying home, so be that too. And then give a little something up for Lent, no matter if you’re Catholic or not. Let it be a detox of sorts. Besides, the way the Christmas season keeps expanding, it’ll be time to shop for presents once Lent is over anyway.

January 1, 2020 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Year in Review?

I can’t even remember most of the year, and I don’t really talk too much about personal stuff anywhere online anymore, but I do have two pieces of writing news to share here, both of which meant a lot to me personally. The first is that one of the poems from my collection A Witness in Exile was selected by filmmaker Ged Murray to be part of Season 10 of Motion Poems. Here’s a link for your viewing pleasure.

The best part of this experience for me was seeing how Murray and Erin McGathy (called The Worrier in the credits) interpreted my poem in a way I hadn’t really considered before, with that sense of frenetic terror. I was in a much more contemplative mood when I wrote it, and they took my musing on the vastness of time and the universe and survival and shrunk it down to this day, this moment of near panic. It really drove home for me, even though I’ve known this for a long time, how little control any writer has over how their work is perceived by the audience, and how a poem, as Miller Williams once wrote, comes into existence when the imagination of the writer and the imagination of the reader come together inside an act of language.

The other news was the publication of this poem in Crab Orchard Review’s special food issue.

It’s titled “Praise Song for Peppers,” and it’s from a set of poems I started working on last year where I’m exploring my own relationship with food which started with something I wrote for Vinegar and Char, an anthology put together by Sandra Beasley where I wrote about making my own muffulettas because I can’t get them here in Iowa.

This publication meant a lot because I’ve long admired Crab Orchard Review and its editors Jon Tribble and Allison Joseph, and I was really excited to get the acceptance. But it was only a few days after sending back my final approval of the proofs that Jon died, which was a tremendous loss both to the poetry community and the world.

The biggest non-writing news of the year was me breaking the shit out of my left arm after falling on some ice at work back in February. If you run into me in person, I’ll show you the surgery scar. I got a small sense of what my dad lived with his entire life, and how challenging it is to do every day tasks with one functional arm and hand.

See you next year (?)

December 30, 2019 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Something Something Guns

This morning, I saw a person I follow on Twitter quote-retweet to this tweet from James Woods about being the victim of gun violence with his own story about how he’d been victimized and yet still didn’t own or carry a gun.

I did the same, in two tweets, talking about my own experience of being robbed at gunpoint in my late twenties, and then about being very close by when Dr. John Locke was murdered at the University of Arkansas. I did it at first because I wanted to offer a public rebuttal to what I read into Woods’s tweet about how his being victimized led to his desire to arm himself. It’s not that Woods said you’re wrong if you don’t do as I did–that’s the impression I got, but upon reflection, that’s more due to Woods’s public persona. What he said is that you can’t really understand if it hasn’t happened to you, and I think there is some truth to that.

What’s not universal, though, is the way people react to those moments. Woods’s response was to arm himself, presumably because he felt like if he were ever in that position again, he would be able to fight back. And if you look at the replies to his tweet, you’ll find a lot of people agreeing with him. That’s not really a surprise, given the place guns hold in this society.

That’s not how I reacted, obviously. I’ve never been comfortable around guns. I’m not scared of them–I’m just hyper-aware of the damage they’re capable of, and so I’m very cautious around them. They’re a tool which, if used in the manner they’re designed for, ends a life, whether we’re talking about a human or an animal. All the other claims about their use, whether for self-defense or home protection or hunting, stem from that central power to end life. Any honest gun advocate will tell you that a gun is useless for self-defense if you’re unwilling to use it to kill your attacker if need be. That’s the responsibility you take up when you own a gun: you are in possession of a tool designed to end a life. And that’s not a responsibility I’ve ever been comfortable taking on.

Not even when I was robbed at gunpoint. I didn’t spring up from that hot street where my face had been pressed into the concrete by a gun barrel at the base of my skull and start figuring out how I was going to get hold of a pistol to make sure that never happened again. I waited until I was fairly sure they were gone, walked the several blocks back to where I was living, called the police and made a fairly useless report, and had a friend take me to get a beer because I was afraid if I didn’t leave the house right then I might never leave it again. What I wasn’t conscious of at the time, but what I came to realize later, was that I never wanted to make another human being feel the way I felt laying face down on that street, afraid they’d never see the people they loved again. Not even if I was angry with them. Not even if they’d hurt me first.

And I want to make something clear here. I’m not saying my response was more right or more moral than the reactions anyone else has had to an incident like this. It’s just mine. I can understand what motivated Woods and the people in his feed who agreed with him to arm themselves, and while I might think they’re overestimating their abilities to fight back if they were in actual danger, or while I might think they’re doing some questionable math when comparing the relative protection a gun could provide versus the damage it could do, what I’m not doing is saying they’re wrong for feeling the way they do. We all react differently to trauma. I think it’s important we remember that.

January 16, 2019 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

War Memorials

The student union at Iowa State University is, as at many state universities, also a war memorial. It’s in the name: Memorial Union. The main entrance is what is known as Gold Star Hall, and carved into the stone walls are the names of Iowa State students who were killed in the wars and other military actions the US has been involved in since World War 1. This is a picture of the wall above the doors to the Gold Star Hall.

It reads “A memorial to the six thousand Iowa State College men and women who offered their lives during the world war in the cause of human liberty and free government.”

I’ve walked through here a number of times before on my way to somewhere else–the university bookstore, the food court–but yesterday I saw this part of the memorial, really saw it, for the first time.

These are the names of the ISU students who were killed during the Global War on Terrorism, which started over 17 years ago now. It says something that there are only two names on the list even though the war has been going on long enough for US children born at its start to be entering their senior years of high school, perhaps even going through early enlistment for military service at their next birthday. One thing is reiterates is that, in the US, we only honor our own soldiers in this way. We’ve refused to even number those killed at our hands in this “war,” much less memorialize them

But there’s something else important about this part of the memorial. It’s not permanent. It’s a piece of wood fastened to the wall, and the statement at the bottom, in case you can’t read it in the picture, reads “To be cut in stone after conflict ends.”

When George W Bush gave his war that name, the Global War on Terrorism, I remember thinking (and I was not alone) that this meant perpetual war, because you can’t win a war on a tactic, but you can certainly keep one going against anyone you want to demonize. This image really drove that feeling home for me, because we’re now into our third president since this war started, and I feel pretty confident that this one won’t be ending it, and neither will the one after that, regardless of which political party he or she claims. Because we are the United States. This is who we have been for a very long time, and the people in power have little to no desire to change that. I imagine that, at some point, more names will be carved into that wood slab, but I don’t have to imagine that people in other countries who our government has decided are terrorists or terrorist-ish or just in the way will die, and most of us, even those who do the actual killing. will never know their names

December 7, 2018 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Confronting Racism

I ended my class a little early and hurried back to Des Moines today because I had to join my partner and her colleagues and students at Drake University in a show of solidarity against racism. I say “had to” because I considered it a moral obligation. I wish it weren’t necessary. But some anonymous student or students have decided again (because this is not the first time) to try to terrorize the relative handful of students of color who attend Drake. Just over a year ago, someone carved a swastika into an elevator wall and left a racist message on a student’s whiteboard outside her dorm room door. And this semester it’s escalated. Students have twice now received threatening messages slipped under their doors and a white supremacist “group” out of Idaho robocalled the university’s phone system with racist messages. (Group is in quotes because there’s reason to believe it’s basically one guy trying to build a following.)

When the first note appeared, the administration and student leaders made an immediate show of solidarity with the students of color on the campus. The provost took the unusual step of cancelling all school activities for an hour today so this gathering could take place and so any student who wished to attend could do so without suffering any academic penalty. The turnout was impressive.

So why did I go? A couple of reasons. One is that I used to teach there, and some of my former students are among those threatened by these actions. I also went in support of my partner and her colleagues who are now having to help their students navigate these attacks just a couple of weeks away from final exams.

But I also went because one of the claims of white supremacists is that they are brave truth tellers and that all white people secretly agree with them, they’re just too afraid of the social penalties they incur if they say so out loud. The sad thing is that they’re not completely wrong. You don’t need to look any further than the last two sets of elections to see that there are plenty of white Americans who are perfectly fine with racists holding power.

This tracks with my personal experience. I’m 50 now, and I was raised in the deep south. One of my early memories from when we moved to Louisiana when I was 7 is of a newsletter from the Klan which appeared in our mailbox, and my dad’s anger as he threw it in the garbage. It wasn’t unusual to hear racial slurs in public, not even used in anger, just in casual conversation. And of course the structural racism was everywhere, but it’s only in hindsight that I recognize how toxic my childhood was.

But here’s the thing. While the situation has improved some, it’s only done so on the margins, and recent events both locally and nationally show that any advancement made toward ending or even reducing racism can easily be stripped away unless people stand up, and when I say people I mean specifically white people because it’s on us to end racism in the US.

Racism is about power, and white people still have most of it. Marginally less than they did when I was a kid in the 70’s, but still most of it. And it’s not like we earned it either. It was bestowed upon us by structures built and maintained by our ancestors, structures so old that they are part of the landscape now, more mountain than mall, more sky than skyscraper. But even though these structures may look, at first glance, to be both permanent and indestructible, they are not. Any structure can be pulled down. It takes people with power willing to do it.

Power is relative. I don’t feel powerful most of the time. I’m not famous. I’m not a boss. I don’t have a fancy job. But I can walk into a room of strangers and be seen instead of ignored. I can walk through a department store and never feel security watching me. When I speak, people don’t assume I have an agenda, and if I pretend to be an expert on a subject, no one ever questions my credentials, no matter how dumb my opinions are. That’s power, and I did nothing to earn it. I have it because these structures we all grow up in send the message that I look the part of a person with power and should be treated as such.

So if I want that to change (and I do), I have to use my power both to pull down those structures and to stand against those people who want to maintain and strengthen them. And I want to be clear about something–going to a show of solidarity or a protest in itself doesn’t do much. It has to be part of a much larger effort.

But it’s an important part all the same, because messages matter, symbols matter, public statements matter. When white supremacists say that they are brave truth tellers, it’s my job, and the job of my fellow white people, to tell them that they are liars in the loudest, most public way possible. That’s what Drake University did today, and I was proud to be there.



November 15, 2018 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Shakespeare in Translation

I decided a number of years ago that I wouldn’t pass judgment on poems or collections other than to say that they didn’t work for me for whatever reason. I try to articulate those reasons when I review books or talk about poems, but sometimes the answer is as simple as “I am not the intended audience for this work.” Sometimes what I mean is that the poems aren’t making me work enough. That’s not to say I need poems to be deliberately obscure or hermetic or syntactically disjointed (tho I don’t often mind a bit of that), but I want to engage with the poem, and that means it can’t all be spelled out for me.

So I got this book in the mail a couple of days ago, and man, am I not the audience for it. That’s not unusual–I get a lot of books because I’ve been editing at The Rumpus for almost 10 years now, and I’m basically on every mailing list there is at this point. It’s titled Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Retold, and it’s a first book by a British writer named James Anthony who, based on the bio in the book, doesn’t have much in the way of formal training in poetry or writing. And I want to give him credit here–he did a lot of work on this project. He “translated” all 154 of Shakespeare’s sonnets into contemporary English, and kept the iambic pentameter and the three quatrains + closing couplet structure intact. But my problems with this work can be summed up by the description of the book on its back cover.

That third paragraph starts “This collection of masterful reinterpretations brilliantly demystifies and breathes new life into Shakespeare’s most personal work.” And that’s a completely fair description of what this book does. For example, see if you can guess which sonnet this is from the translation:

Don’t let me say two people cannot wed
By false constraint: love really isn’t real
If, when life changes, love becomes misled,
Or when apart, one doesn’t love with zeal.

Those are the opening lines of Sonnet 116. And yep, it demystifies the hell out of that poem. And this is what I mean about not being the audience for this poem. I’m sure there are people out there who have to read Shakespeare’s sonnets and are intimidated by it because of the language or because they think they don’t know how to read poems and this could be an entryway into Shakespeare’s sonnets for them. And fortunately, this book has the Shakespeare on the facing page for comparison, so said reader could possibly compare the two and perhaps recognize where the original has more subtlety and room for interpretation. At least that’s how I hope this book will be read, if someone is going to read it at all. I’d really rather people read Shakespeare and dig the mystery.

November 4, 2018 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

What’s Historic?

We live in a historic neighborhood, as in a named-on-the-National-Register-of-Historic-Places neighborhood. It’s the only neighborhood we’ve lived in during our time in Iowa. We didn’t rent or buy here because it was historic. We chose this neighborhood because it’s convenient to work and downtown, and because it’s walkable to both areas.

The big thing you quickly learn about living in a historic district is that it’s a massive pain in the ass to do any improvements to your property, at least any that are visible to the public. You can’t just get a permit to get a fence put around your backyard, for example. You have to get a Certificate of Appropriateness from the Historic Commission, which meets once a month and which will often tell you either no or yes with some very specific qualifications. You can try to bargain with them, and to their credit, sometimes they’ll even concede points depending on the specific situation, but all this takes time. Time during which your furnace and then your AC goes out and whatever money you were thinking on spending on a fence evaporates like spit on a June sidewalk.

I’ve been to a few of these meetings. They can be interesting, if you have the energy for it. The people who serve on the commission know a lot about the history of the city, of its architecture, of how the city grew and evolved, and that can be fascinating to learn about. But what becomes immediately clear about their conversations and decisions is that they have a very specific notion of what historic means, and they don’t vary from it much. Maybe they have reason. I’m not even a layman when it comes to urban planning or preservation or any of those subjects, so I’m not here to challenge their practice in any way. But I do still have questions about what gets to count as historic in a neighborhood and what is disposed of.

That picture is of the lot that what is locally known as “the old Planned Parenthood building” used to sit on. It’s in this neighborhood, on the north west corner. I think it’s been mostly vacant for a while now, perhaps since we moved into the neighborhood. In the last couple of years, I think, there have been 2 or 3 projects discussed for the location, all of which involved tearing down the building and replacing it, some commercial, some residential. I was at the commission meeting for one of those, a proposal by a local union for a new Union Hall. They had preliminary plans drawn up and there was a lot of talk about facades and the desire to have the outside of the building look like what commercial buildings from the early 1900’s would have looked like.

But what struck me about the conversation was the way it started. The City Planner, in his summary about the lot, described the old Planned Parenthood building as having no historic significance. And I know what he was saying in a way. It was a fairly nondescript brick set of offices, built in 1985 according to this story about the demolition in the Des Moines Register. Nothing about it stood out or shouted “I am unique and worth preserving!” It’s the kind of building you can find almost anywhere, and I’m not particularly heartbroken that it’s gone now.

However, while the building wasn’t anything special, it’s hard to argue that it didn’t have historic significance. In the 22 years that Planned Parenthood inhabited that building, there were numerous protests against them, and the fact that the Register identifies it as the “former Planned Parenthood building” even though they’ve been gone from it since 2007 tells you how strong the association is. And given that we’re in a time where there’s a real threat that the Supreme Court of the US could overturn Roe v Wade or find more ways to chip away at the ability of women to get abortions in this country, it’s particularly important that we recognize the importance of both groups like Planned Parenthood and the places they inhabit(ed).

And it’s that division, I suppose, that got me wondering whether or not this method of historic preservation of neighborhoods is such a good thing. Because while there are a lot of very old houses in this neighborhood (ours being one of them, originally built in 1889 with the basement to prove it), there are also some older houses which were moved in from other neighborhoods, and there’s a lot of new construction meant to look like it’s older (to a pretty unconvincing degree). It would not surprise me if that kind of construction pops up on that parcel of land, honestly. And that’s fine, because neighborhoods are organic, living things. The apartment buildings from the mid-20th century which sit next to these old Victorian houses help give this neighborhood life, and more importantly, they’re evidence that this neighborhood didn’t stop evolving in 1912. (They also make it possible for the area to house people of vastly different income brackets, something that some members of the neighborhood association are less fond of than I am, but that’s another discussion.)

But there’s another reason why I’m always suspicious of what I see as attempts to preserve too much of bygone ages. For too many people in this country, the past is a hellscape where their ancestors were denied basic rights of autonomy as human beings. When this house was built, women in most parts of this country couldn’t own property on their own and couldn’t vote. Black men had the right to vote in theory, but Jim Crow laws made it a practical impossibility, and segregation was the law of the land. Chinese immigrants weren’t allowed to naturalize and become citizens (though their children born in the US were automatically citizens, despite claims from certain right-wing activists and politicians that they should not be). I could list examples of this sort of thing for days, but I think I’ve made my point. History is important, but fetishizing particular time periods and privileging them over others can lead to nostalgia and a very limited and inaccurate notion of what the past was like.

I’ve experienced this already. I was raised in the south in schools that taught The Lost Cause version of the Civil War. I was taught that slavery wasn’t all that bad and that many slaves were actually happy with their lives; that the war was about tariffs and self-government and slavery was a minor issue; that Robert E Lee was the Marble Man and that Grant was a lucky drunk and a corrupt president. And architecture played a big role in that fetishization of the pre-war south. Those restored antebellum mansions with the oak trees dripping with Spanish moss were a source of pride, a symbol of a time when the South was powerful and graceful and glorious and let’s not talk about the slave quarters on the back of the property. In fact, let’s tear those down and never talk about them again and accuse anyone who does bring them up of not being able to get over the past.

I’m not suggesting that’s what’s going on here with the demolition of the old Planned Parenthood building, not by any means. Planned Parenthood has 3 locations in and around Des Moines and they’re not going anywhere despite the best efforts of right-wing activists and politicians. But I do think it’s worth re-examining just what we’re trying to preserve when we talk about historic neighborhoods and places, and not just do it because it’s old.

October 31, 2018 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Facebook Killed My Blog

It didn’t. I didn’t even kill it, though I apparently put it into a long-term coma. And maybe this isn’t a full awakening, though I think I’d like it to be.

So why snark on Facebook in the title? Because somewhere along the way, I stopped writing for myself, and for the smaller audience I had here and at my first blog, and I started performing more for social media. Like, I wrote on my blog to learn and think things out and yes, occasionally make big public statements about issues and make Jokes of Questionable Quality like I did/do on social media, but mostly that first thing. And often I would write about things that I never really expected anyone to read. I did a NaNoWriMo on my blog once, which I will never do again, but it was a really interesting experience, and I lost all that when I put this place to sleep and spent more time on social media, especially Facebook.

It’s taken a long time, but I’ve realized that Facebook particularly, and maybe social media generally, is not a place I want to write for anymore. Some of this is about ownership. I don’t like the fact that Facebook and Twitter and the rest have an ownership stake in my words and images, and that my only real recourse to get it back is to basically erase everything I’ve written in those spaces for the last decade. That’s a “you live, you learn” lesson at this point, because I don’t have the time or energy to go through it and see what’s worth keeping and what I can permanently let go of. But I can say that I’m not giving them any more of what I consider the good stuff. And eventually, maybe I won’t give them anything else at all.

That’ll be a hard final choice to make, because there are a lot of people I’ve gotten to know a little because of social media, people I wouldn’t have met otherwise, more than likely. But there comes a point where you have to decide whether the price of admission is too high, and I’m getting there.

I don’t know how often I’ll be able to update here, or if anyone will be reading. I’m going to fight the urge to look at the traffic tool on the back end of WordPress because that desire to be seen is one of the things that sent me to Facebook in the first place. But I’m going to try to write semi-regularly, hopefully about ideas that interest me, poems I love, books I enjoy, and so on. I have one more post mostly planned out, and I’ll go from there.

October 29, 2018 Posted by | Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Sam B Spears Jr 1940 – 2014

My father died while I was in the sky between Seattle and Denver Sunday morning. He was, as all people are, complex, and my feelings for him reflect that.

He never should have survived to adulthood. He was dropped on his head at delivery, a moment he joked about his entire life, never knowing until he was in his 60s that his brain had been divided by that blow. One side of his brain was dead tissue from the first moments of his life onward, but his brain rewired itself so that no one could tell from just knowing him. Once he learned this about himself, he joked about it as well, just as he joked about his left arm crippled by childhood polio. And yet he not only survived, he thrived, becoming a husband and father, and serving as an elder in congregations wherever he lived.

We were estranged for most of the last 16 years because I left the church he loved so much, and which loved him back without reservation, but I still loved him, admired and respected him even when I disagreed with his decisions. Fortunately, I was able to talk to him, have an actual conversation with him, even though his memory was ravaged by dementia, just a couple of weeks ago, not long before he slipped into the coma that presaged his death. It means a lot to me that we were able to have some small moment of reconciliation right before the end, that I could hear him cracking the same sorts of jokes he’d made when I was a boy.

A few years ago, I wrote a poem about him, titled “Jubilate Patro,” which roughly translates to “in praise of the father.” Or rather, my father. Here’s some of that poem as a final praise of him. I hope it captures some of that complexity I mentioned above.

Jubilate Patro

For I will consider my father Sam
For he praises God in his mumbles and circular stories
For his left arm is crooked to remind him of original sin
For half his brain was cut off from blood when he was a baby
For it rewired itself
For his right arm is mighty in exchange
For with it he did not spare the rod
For he was an elder until Alzheimer’s took away his memory
For he was an accountant until Alzheimer’s took away his memory
For he praised God in his mumbles and circular stories before Alzheimer’s took his memory and thus it is a part of his soul
For he is still a storyteller even though he gets lost in his stories sometimes
For with his right arm he taught me how to snap off a curveball
For with his left arm he taught me to drive a stick shift
For with his half-brain he taught me to praise God among strangers
For he never explained football to me, but made me learn it myself
For he is taller than me even with the curve in his spine that causes him pain
For I will never know another man greater than him

For Sam Bennett Spears Jr.
Born October 3, 1940
Died March 2, 2014

March 5, 2014 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment