Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Melancholia and the one percent solution

with 2 comments

I was driving home recently…listening to a piece of music called ‘Melancholia’…a somewhat new age adaptation of the familiar folk song Greensleeves…streaming into my car via a satellite hovering above in low earth orbit. While listening to this ageless tune, it occurred to me that this melody had originated in someone’s mind hundreds of years ago. Some melancholy moment of reflection upon an unrequited love, perhaps. How tenuous that slender and fragile thought in its beginnings that, nevertheless, survived and made a remarkable journey far into the future to touch my thoughts and spin me into a reverie. It made me think about how the past still exerts tangible power over us…whether or not we’re aware of it. We like to think that our thoughts are original…that they originate with who we are…or who we think we are.

This past week…my sense of self-identity was forever changed. A few weeks ago…on a whim…I sent in a sample of my DNA to be tested through the Ancestry DNA program of By comparing and matching my DNA with countless other samples they were going to tell me where I came from. I wasn’t expecting any surprises…and it didn’t shock me when I received the results this week, revealing that I was 99% Eastern European (Polish, to be exact) in origin. In fact, the typical native of that region in Europe logged in at 82%…so it appeared I was even more native than the natives. What did take my breath away momentarily…was the remaining one percent. That one percent of my DNA was consistent with natives of Ireland. I already knew that at some point in the distant past, there had been migrations of Celtic peoples to areas throughout Europe, including southern Poland where my grandparents were from. So…this revelation that my bloodline…however small a part it might be…could be tied to those ancient Celtic peoples that roamed the continent, and stretched back in time to the Emerald Isle itself…was simply astonishing.

What makes us who we are? We like to think that we have the bigger hand in how our lives are shaped. But is this really true? The very thought that the actions of two people (among many, many others)…thousands of years ago in the neolithic period on an island at the edge of a vast sea…were instrumental in my even being here…is simply humbling.  Beside the physical connection…what other tenuous thoughts and feelings have filtered down through the ages to shape me into who I am? Do they account for the fact that the writings of John O’Donohue resonate in my soul? That I love the story of the Tuatha de Danann…a mythical Irish people who, when standing face-to-face with an invading army, turned sideways into the light and disappeared? Who knows. At the very least, it may offer some explanation for the rather illogical and somewhat magnetic attraction I have to the music of Enya…

Turn sideways into the light as they say
the old ones did and disappear
into the originality of it all.
Be impatient with easy explanations
and teach that part of the mind
that wants to know everything
not to begin questions it cannot answer.
~ David Whyte, Tobar Phadraic


Written by Jim

August 5, 2015 at 7:46 pm


leave a comment »

I could see it on the horizon…six miles distant…like a small sun rising over the pines. It was the Peachoid. Life is just not complete until the Peachoid is seen in all its resplendent glory…especially, now that it’s been freshly painted. For those of you who are fans of House of Cards…you’ll know of what I’m speaking. For those who aren’t…the Peachoid is a water tank in the town of Gaffney, South Carolina, that has, what Wikipedia describes as, an ‘enormous cleft’  made to resemble that distinctive characteristic of a peach. The water tower has also been, to the dismay of Gaffney residents who are extremely fond of the structure, the ‘butt’ of many jokes (visit the Peachoid link above to view some pictures and to draw your own conclusions).

But the Peachoid sighting was just a charming interlude on my way to Flat Rock, North Carolina, to visit Connemara, the former home of poet and writer Carl Sandburg, and now a National Historic Site. Sandburg moved there in 1946, when he was 67 years of age with his wife, daughters, and grandchildren. He lived there until his death in 1967 at the age of 89. Our tour guide attributed his longevity to the goat milk and cheese from the goats that his wife Lillian raised, and whose descendants can still be seen in the goat barn on this 246 acre farm.



The Sandburgs were said to have lived very simply. The most striking thing when walking through the house was the sheer number of books that were present. There were shelves in practically every room that held seventeen thousand books… in many of which could be seen small slips of paper that served as bookmarks…a record of when they were last consulted by members of the Sandburg household. I noticed many, many books on Abraham Lincoln that were most likely referenced by Sandburg during the writing of his own well-known works on our sixteenth President.

Carl and his wife Lillian, who was the sister of famed photographer Edward Steichen, were married for sixty years. Standing in the bedroom where Carl died in 1967, it was hard not to get misty-eyed when our tour guide mentioned that his last words, or last word, was ‘Paula’…a nickname for his beloved wife…

The Great Hunt
I never knew any more beautiful than you:
I have hunted you under my thoughts,
I have broken down under the wind
And into the roses looking for you.
I shall never find any greater than you.
~ Carl Sandburg, Chicago Poems, 1916


Written by Jim

May 24, 2015 at 5:05 pm

Southern gothic

leave a comment »

Late on Christmas Eve…I lay awake in bed…in the darkness, sensing its presence about me. In that moment, I knew that if I wasn’t careful…if I wasn’t mindful…if I let down my guard for even a moment, that I might be enveloped by the tendrils of this living organism.

I had first felt its grip when I approached over the high bridge that spans the river…a city floating upon…and isolated within…the low country of coastal Georgia. Holy spires rising above a soft green cloud of live oaks. Even then, I could feel the centripetal force drawing me in…tugging at my heart and soul.

Savannah River

I spent two days walking the streets of this city. Near River Street…carefully picking my way over uneven cobblestones that had once crossed the Atlantic as ballast for ships of the realm. Imagining the hands that had placed them here in this strange new world.

River Street

Walking through streets and squares gave me the impression that I was strolling though a cemetery…but one that still had the breath of life. This was not a city with remnants of a storied past, but one that was still very much alive. Most cities have been overtaken by modernity, perhaps preserving a few relics of days gone by. This city…tolerated modernity. Its spirit was unbroken, and continuous with its past. It is still alive. I sensed that the people who walked its streets and squares were the ephemera…that the city loomed…quietly and patiently…benignly accepting their presence.

Forsyth Park

I awoke on Christmas morning…and somehow…some way…made my escape. But, I will return…of that I’m most assured.  Whether of my own free will…or not…that…is quite uncertain.

Written by Jim

December 27, 2013 at 2:04 pm

Merry Christmas 2013

with 2 comments

…from Savannah, Georgia.
Old Sorrel-Weed House, 1840.

Written by Jim

December 24, 2013 at 7:20 pm


with 2 comments

I love the moon. It’s become a faithful companion.

It was in the spring of 1791 that George Washington embarked upon his ‘Southern Tour’…after having been elected the nation’s first president.  On May 27th, he stopped at Nathan Barr’s tavern, on the northern outskirts of Lancaster, South Carolina, where he had breakfast. It’s said that he  paid for his meal by cutting a Spanish dollar in half with his sword, and then giving the half-dollar to one of Barr’s young daughters.

He followed the highway north to Charlotte…on horseback in good weather…in a carriage when the weather turned foul. He passed within a mile of my house…on the road I travel everyday on my way to work. It must have looked very different then. All of the trees that I see on my daily journey are surely much younger than two hundred years. But…the lay of the land would have been somewhat recognizable…the profile of the rolling hills…Cane, Waxhaw, and Twelve Mile Creeks having to be crossed. Little else would have looked familiar, though. But up above…in the sky…George probably gazed upon a sight that appeared exactly the same as it does today.

I like the way that David Whyte, in his poem Faith, describes the moon as being,

“…faithful even as it fades from fullness, 

slowly becoming that last curving and impossible 

sliver of light before the final darkness.”

For me…the moon has become a guide…a mentor. A constant companion…that, every month, patiently takes me through the complete cycle of birth…to fullness of life…to fading away. A constant reminder not to grasp too strongly, onto that which will surely…and inevitably, disappear. It teaches me, as Whyte so eloquently suggests, to take seriously…and remain faithful to…my apprenticeship to my own disappearance.

Written by Jim

June 25, 2013 at 7:18 pm

Small wonders

leave a comment »

…at my feet. Alongside a ghostly remnant of last summer…tiny flowers lean in towards a star ninety-three million miles above.

tiny flowers

Walking through the woods yesterday…I spotted these half-buried rocks. They reminded me of the stone walls made by the Incas in Peru. The Waxhaw Indians, for whom this area of the Piedmont was named, were long gone before Europeans arrived on the scene in the 18th century. Perhaps, I’d stumbled upon some ancient remains of a lost civilization…within walking distance of my front door?


Careers in the field of alternative history have been built on less evidence. More likely, a natural occurrence of a rectilinear fractured rock. Although…I feel another walk coming on soon…perhaps with a shovel?

Ghost in the machine

leave a comment »

On a recent walk through the old city of St. Augustine, I ventured into the Lightner Museum, which is in what once was the old Alcazar Hotel. My brief visit resulted in a different kind of a ghost story. The museum houses the very large Victoriana collection of Otto Lightner, a Chicago publisher who purchased the hotel in 1946. He later gave the museum to the city of St. Augustine.

The sheer number of objects from the ‘Gilded Age’ of the 19th century was overwhelming…clothing, furniture, glassware, buttons, embroidery, stained glass windows and lamps. As I slowly walked through the three floors of the museum…at one point, the effect was dizzying. I realized that each and every one of these objects, whether a brass button, a shaving mug, or a beaded purse, had some story behind it…of the person who made it…of the person who used it. It was as if the presence of the past was made palpable. I could almost sense the great cloud of spirits…or energy…that seemed still to be attached to these mere things.

On one wall, my gaze was held captive by embroidered samplers…where every single stitch was once held in someone’s mind. In this case…a twelve-year-old named Diana…intent on showing her skills as a young needlewoman. I wondered what she thought about the spacing of the X…the Y…and Z.


In most of the rooms in the museum, there were old photographs of how the same room looked when the Alcazar was a working luxury hotel. Alternately viewing the photos and the real room, from the same vantage point, reminded me of the scenes in the film Titannic, where the images shifted from the derelict ship on the sea bottom at present, back to the time in the past when real people roamed the decks…and the ship was still alive.

Looking down from the gallery above the former hotel’s ballroom…echoes of a waltz, perhaps? And ghostly images of dancers swirling in elegant circles to the music…and all the hopes and dreams contained within these walls while the Alcazar was still alive.

ballroom gallery at Alcazar Hotel

As I was about to leave, I was hearing music…real music. A museum guide was giving a demonstration of some of the mechanized musical instruments that are in the collection. The largest…the Orchestrion…was playing a song. It was all a bit eerie…sounds from another age…guided by a roll of paper that some real person had created over a hundred years ago. At one point, the demonstrator had to stop the machine at a certain spot. She explained that the punched paper roll was getting extremely fragile in places…from repeated playing over the years. The memories of the music were getting thinner…the ghost in the machine was slowly fading away. It was an unexpectedly sad thought. I’m glad I had the chance to hear some of the music before it vanishes into thin air.

Written by Jim

January 5, 2013 at 8:33 pm