Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Remembering Martin Luther King, Jr.

Forgive me for not posting blog entries lately. I apparently have a fierce and inexplicable case of writer's block. But I did want to write a brief post today on Martin Luther King, Jr. A few years ago I wrote a piece in this blog on what I was doing the day MLK was murdered. What was left out of that posting was the impact of MLK on me--and on the world.

I was just becoming awake to the world when Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered on April 4, 1968. I was a 19-year-old college sophomore studying for the year in Salzburg and Innsbruck, Austria. That year in Europe put America in a different light for me. Europeans were very aware and concerned about the poverty and racism in America. And they seemed very worried about and opposed to the Vietnam War. I should have cared more about these issues, but I guess I was still somewhat insulated from them. I grew up in Euclid, Ohio. During my high school years, Euclid had a population of some 70,000 people, none of whom, as far as I knew, were Black. The Vietnam war had affected Euclid, but even that didn't penetrate my consciousness much--even though a St. William's and St. Joe's classmate, Raymond "Buddy" Chasser, had been killed in Vietnam. A year after MLK was murdered in Memphis, my own cousin, Tommy Fitzpatrick (again, of Euclid, St. William's, St. Joe's, and Euclid High School), was killed in Vietnam. So I quickly woke up, with all these deaths, riots, and war all around us.

MLK's murder left me bewildered, and eventually led to my study of nonviolence, my own fight against racism (which continues!), and my involvement in both the Civil Rights movement, the protests against the Vietnam War, and, indeed, resistance to war in general. After college, I moved to Cincinnati and roomed with Chris Cotter in the poor Over-the-Rhine neighborhood. We both studied nonviolence, learned about poverty first-hand, and met many courageous people involved in both the Civil Rights movement and the movement to nonviolently resist war and the tools of war. That's when Chris and I met Marion and Ernest Bromley, Juanita and Wally Nelson, and Maurice McCrackin--and later, Dorothy Day. And we met a lot of Peacemakers and Catholic Workers--Peggy Scherer, Greg Haas, Henry Scott, John Luginbill, Kenny Przybylski, Dan Bromley, Richard Gale, Tim Jenkins, Chuck Matthei--and so many others. In Chris Cotter's last two years at Notre Dame, he was in the Peace Studies Program, working with great teachers like Jim Douglass, Charles McCarthy, John Howard Yoder, and many others. I got to meet Jim Douglass and Charles McCarthy--and I know Emmanuel Charles McCarthy, now a Melkite-rite Catholic priest, is still a profound influence on Chris and my friend Tim Musser (and really hundreds and hundreds of other people).

Some years after leaving Cincinnati, I decided to write a biography of Rev. Maurice McCrackin, the great peace and Civil Rights activist. I soon teamed up with Judith Bechtel (now Judith Blackburn), and were able to publish a bio of Mac through Temple University Press in 1991 (a 2nd edition is still for sale on the Beloved Community: Maurice McCrackin's Life for Peace and Civil Rights. Daniel Berrigan, SJ, wrote a foreword to our biography.

All of that was thanks to Martin Luther King, and yes, to his death, which opened up my eyes to the evil in the world and what could be done about it.

Of course this is only part of the story and omits the influence of people I encountered in Berea, Kentucky, like Mike and Peggy Rivage-Seul, Guy and Peggy Patrick, Anne Weatherford, and many more. And the marvelous people I have met, and still work with in Painesville and Cleveland, Ohio--like Kathy Flora, Dan and Kathy Philipps, Brian Rice, and many many more. Not to mention the impact of my wife Linda and my daughters, Julia, Carolan, and Emily.

There are many courageous allies out there. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." There's work to be done, there are allies out there, and "we shall not be moved" by the forces of hatred and despair.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

A Poem on the 6th Anniversary of the Chardon High School Massacre

Can you believe it? School massacres are becoming routine in the USA! Here is a poem I wrote this week on the 6th anniversary of the massacre at Chardon High School--in Geauga County, Ohio, my home. My nephew Dillon Coughlin was in the cafeteria when this happened.

The Chardon High School Massacre—6 Years Later

It doesn’t even count as mass murder,
Only three children dead, another paralyzed,
Another gravely wounded, a sixth nicked.

The shooter, T.J. Lane, an insecure boy from a destroyed family,
Shot up his table in the cafeteria before classes began.
A 22-caliber handgun—almost quaint in this brave new world
Where children are mowed down with weapons of war.

At least two hero teachers, Frank Hall, chasing down the shooter,
And Joe Ricci, running in to a hallway where bullets were flying,
Rescuing Nick Walczak, the boy permanently paralyzed.

Three boys lay mortally wounded, Danny Parmertor,
Russell King, Jr., and Demetrius Hewlin.
Joy Rickers wounded, Nate Mueller grazed.

Two funerals at St. Mary’s Church, across the street from the high school,
Thousands of people forming a human chain to protect the funeral mass
From threatened protest by Westboro Baptist Church.

The community did everything it could think of to support the students,
Their families, and the families of the deceased, but . . .
The spirits and bodies and dreams and hopes of so many

Were shredded by unfeeling bullets fired
By the desperately unhappy boy, who

Will spend the rest of his days in prison.

                                    Robert M. Coughlin / February 27, 2018

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Two Poems for Ash Wednesday--one old, one new

First, an old one--thinking about my Mother and her last Ash Wednesday on Earth:

The Last Ash Wednesday (February 2003)

After teaching my classes,
I drive over to Kevin’s house
Where Mom now lives after moving from Euclid
Our family home for fifty-one years.

It’s getting harder for her to go out,
So I come to her house,
Burn last year’s palm fronds in the ash tray

And anoint her forehead with the Sign of the Cross.

I find myself unable to utter the ancient words,
“Remember, Woman, from dust thou art,
And unto dust thou shallt return.”

The words are too painful, too real,
The abiding dust
too close.

Then Mom anoints my own forehead,
Again leaving the words unspoken:

No one can ever know . . . .

After the little ceremony,
We both laugh, and Mom says,
“Let’s drink a beer!”

“Not on Ash Wednesday,” I tease.

“The hell with that!” she retorts.
“I’m old enough now to be above the rules!”

We both laugh, and I pop open two beers.
We drink to Mardi Gras and to Lent,
And to the ashes on our foreheads.

                                                             Bob Coughlin
                                                                        February 21, 2007
                                                                        Ash Wednesday

And this evening, I went to St. Gabe's in Concord Township for mass and ashes. To my astonishment, there were about 400 people there. I thought about how much I love my Church and my fellow Catholics (and, by the way, I love people in other traditions very much too). This poem came to me after mass:

Thou Art Stardust

As a child, Monsignor John Fleming
Made the sign of the cross on my forehead
With the ashes of palm fronds, saying,
“Remember man, from dust thou art,
and unto dust thou shalt return.”

At St. Gabe’s this evening, 400 people came on a Wednesday
For mass and to celebrate this strange ritual of ashes—
Almost astonishing in this year of cruelty, 2018.

I wished I could have spoken different words
While anointing their foreheads with the cross—

Something like, “You, my friend, are stardust! Never forget that!”
Or, “You are my beloved son, daughter,
Mother, father, wife, husband, friend!
Anoint your beloved’s forehead
With your burning love!”

This Ash Wednesday, I think of
All those I love, the dead and the living,
From my Mom and Dad, long in the ground,
To my little grandchildren, one brand new.

You are stardust!
I love you!

                        Bob Coughlin
                        Ash Wednesday / February 14, 2018

[By the way, two inspirations for this poem, besides the reality of being there tonight at St. Gabe's--Chet Raymo's writing; and Joni Mitchell's song "Woodstock." Raymo, an astronomer, once wrote that every molecule in our bodies was forged in a star. We are quite literally stardust.]

Monday, February 5, 2018

Reprise: Two Poems for Late Winter/Early Spring

I wrote these in Kentucky 39 years ago. In Northern Ohio "February's Dream" probably becomes March's Dream or April's Dream--ha ha.

February’s Dream

the snow lies thick upon the earth
the groundhog saw his shadow
the nights are long and bitter cold

but I have watched closely
and have seen some signs:

the morning concert of chirping birds
tree twigs turned a shade of red
silver maples’ pregnant buds

I have felt the quickening
first hope in this hard winter

I look for the crocus
and remember the birth
of a love

(Pippa Passes, Kentucky
February 1979)

Song of the Turtle

“and the song of the turtle is heard throughout the land.” Song of Songs 2:12

our spirits hibernating
like our brothers the bear
our sap slow and deep
our thoughts turned in

but what’s this?

a turtle coos victory over death
the earth quickens
sends out magic crocus
forsythia explode
ecstatic mirror of the sun
redbud promise
dogwood dance under the April moon

our sap is running
our love is blooming
our spirits dancing
to the turtle’s magic song

(Pippa Passes, Kentucky
February 1979)

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Reindeer/Epiphany poem--for my Grandson Robby

(Rein) Deer Epiphany
                                                (a poem for Robby Kleppel)

In the little remnant woods behind my daughter’s house,
A buck deer appears in the deep snow, eating the brambles or small trees
In this hungry winter.

Twenty feet behind, a doe reclines in the snow,
Munching on twigs.

I say, “Look at the deer, Robby!”
My grandson Robby, just turned four, sees them.

He says, “They’re reindeer. They’re Santa’s.”

Then he adds, as simply and straightforwardly as
One plus one equals two—

“They can fly.”

I don’t know what to say next.

Then something startles the deer,
And they’re up, just like that, and
Flying over the neighbor’s five-feet tall fence.

                                    Bob Coughlin
                                    Feast of the Epiphany, 2018

Note: The word “epiphany” can mean “manifestation; sudden appearance; sudden insight.”

Friday, December 29, 2017

(Grand-) Child of Mine--Happy Birthday Robby!

Tomorrow is my grandson Robby Kleppel's 4th birthday. I can't tell you how much I love him! Robby is so smart, so much fun--an energetic intellectual and emotional and physical whirlwind. In some ways I think of him as my own son--maybe that's the way grandparents always feel. His mother (my daughter Julia) and his father (Ed Kleppel) have done such a marvelous job raising him. And I guess Robby should himself get some credit for raising his parents--and grandparents.

Robby is full of so many wonderful enthusiasms. He loves his family, he loves his uke and guitar, he loves his grandparents, he loves his trains and trucks, his diggers and excavators (and he is quick to point out--a "digger" is not necessarily an "excavator"). And Robby is amazingly smart. Not yet four, he is deft and precise with language. And his brain is like a sponge (just like his older brother Colin and his baby sister Ava).

It has been such a blessing to be a grandparent to Robby, Colin, Ava--and now, Baby Lillian. I am so full of gratitude and wonder.

Here is a song by the folksinger Bill Staines that expresses some of what I feel about Robby, the day before his fourth birthday:

Robby with his new "Gorny Pig," Mr. Smiles.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Winter Solstice--A Poem

A poem for the darkness and cold, where Hope is a distant memory, a distant hope. Of course you've never felt like this!

Winter Solstice

The chill creeps into the bones:
December 21 and sun gone long before 5 o’clock;
huge gray clouds roll in off Lake Erie
riding the Witch’s gale, spitting sleet and

fears as real and as organized as the swirl
of pin oak leaves down Lakeshore Boulevard.
This day, shaken by nameless fears,
seems to last forever:

I wonder how I will get through the next minute,
and the minute after that,
and the minute after that,

wonder if I can make it
until hope returns

until peace-which-surpasses-understanding,
as mysterious as winter solstice’s fear--
my heart standing still, turning cold,
my spirit abandoned--

until peace returns like grace like unexpected


                Bob Coughlin