Our Road in Winter

{Forty days of Lent 2018, and forty images prompting a writing exercise. Proceed at your own risk. I’m pretty ticked off that WordPress didn’t save my previous draft and I am about to rewrite with a chip on my shoulder. As I said…your own risk.}


I was a good scout growing up, not the official Boy Scout goodness, but honest, loyal, and kind. And I obeyed the rules. Mostly. I wasn’t sinless, but I tried to do the right thing.

Most of us aren’t big fans of rules. We don’t like to be limited or to be told what to do or how to do it, even if the rules mean well. Yet, rules are important to set some moral, ethical, or organizational standards. Or, safety standards. Imagine highways without speed limits, a government with laws, Presbyterians without that “decently and in order” thing.

Many of life’s rules are unspoken, but some are made perfectly clear in words. The first rule I remember wasn’t, “Don’t play in the street.” That may have been said, or shouted, but the one I remember very clearly was spoken by my Dad when I was in about second grade.

I had learned the “choosing rhyme,” eeny-meeny-miney-moe. Because it contained the racist “n-word,” I doubt I was taught it in the classroom. I probably heard it from classmates on the playground. But when Dad heard me saying it in the front hallway of our house (see? a clear memory), he told me that in our family we didn’t ever use that word. “Well, what should I say instead?” I asked. He repeated the rhyme to me saying, “Catch a doggie by the toe.” And that’s the rule I kept forever.

A few years later, when we had moved into a house only three blocks from the Susquehanna River, I heard another rule stated plainly. “Don’t go near the river.” Dad couldn’t swim, and he didn’t want us kids anywhere near deep, flowing water. Since I hadn’t learned to swim either, it was an easy rule to follow.  Within a year or so of that rule, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built a flood wall between our street and the Susquehanna. That meant it was easier to follow Dad’s order.

When even later in my senior year of high school I took driver’s training, not only did New York State have some strict rules of the road to follow, it was Dad again who suggested his own rules. Among them, when you drive down the street, be aware that at any moment a child could dash between two parked cars. And keep your car in gear at stop lights, not in neutral, in case you have to move quickly in an emergency situation. Dad’s rules I drive by even today.

As we grow older, we realize that some rules no long apply. They are suspended because they are archaic (the Apostle Paul’s rules to women: keep your heads and mouths covered in church), silly (no whistling on the Sabbath), or were wrong-headed to begin with (“whites only” restaurants and drinking fountains).

I finally broke that rule about the river when I was an adult with children of my own. I visited my hometown with my young son and we found our way to the banks of the Susquehanna, and watched the river run. I realized that I had missed something in my childhood, the calm beauty of that place that looked across to an island I had never seen before. I guess we might say that some rules do wear out. (Credit Dad though: I never fell in!)

And there are the misfits and rebels who escape the constraints of rules by bending, conveniently forgetting, or just plain breaking the rules in order to “go where no one has gone before.” Steve Jobs no doubt broke a few rules along the way. Someone has said that though rules may not have been made to be broken, they were made to be tested.

Essayist and critic William Hazlitt (1778-1830) wrote: “Rules and models destroy genius and art.” The photo that heads today’s entry and prompts this essay of mine may signal proof of Hazlitt’s theory. What do you see in that panoramic photo? Our semi-rural road, winter thaw, looking west toward the golden glow of sunset. Looking into the sun. That breaks a long-held rule of photography. The first camera I ever owned was a Kodak Brownie Holiday Flash that used 127 film. And the first rule I learned was, “Always keep the sun at your back.” That way, your subject will be well-lighted.

What a dull photo that wide shot would be if I had followed the old rule. We’d never see a picture of a sunset or sunrise. Here’s still another example of shooting right at the sun. There’s a cairn (see a previous entry here) as seen in the Canadian Rockies. Backlighted. I love it! To be sure, theIMG_0741re are still some reasons to avoid pointing a camera directly at the sun. You can permanently damage the camera’s image sensor, melt something critical, or just flood the film (film?) with too much light. But still, that first photographic rule is one I’ve often left behind.

Jesus certainly broke a number of rules. The beloved story of the “Good Samaritan” illustrates the bending of a couple of rules until they shattered. In his ministry he was accused of breaking the Sabbath rules, touching the untouchables, and, eventually, committing the crime that got him crucified: sedition.

Martin Luther, Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, Tutu… breakers of rules…and heroes.

What am I advocating here? Nothing. I’m just saying that God gave us heads and minds inside those heads, so that we can measure the alternatives that life brings, and make good choices that contribute to the common journeys we share along roads like the one pictured above. Before the sun sets on our lives, let us consider what guidance is truly helpful and just, what leads to civility, yes, but also to peace, the Shalom that is the best rule of life.

{Another rule I must abide: back up your work, Jeff. It’s a simple step really. Save it!}





{Wednesday of Holy Week, and another of the forty mugs of Lent 2017. If this is your first time here, and the mug thing seems odd, welcome to the cluSONY DSCb.}

This is the CinemaScope mug in the cupboard. Wide-mouthed. More for soup than for a hot drink. But it is a mug, so it fits the theme. It’s chipped and cracked, indicating some age. I’ve held onto it all these years because I like the earthy design. I see a landscape: sky above, blue-ridged mountains, green forests, and some brown woods, or soil. It’s the kind of view one might have after hiking up a neighboring peak, a gentle vista, a terrene panorama.

Unlike the phone-camera digital collections of “pics” that rarely if ever make it beyond the tiny device’s screen, my first photos were transparencies projected on a 50″ X 50″ movie screen in the family living room. My very first slides held no landscapes to speak of, at least not the view I imagine on the soup mug. Those pictures told the story of a large family, its everyday life, special occasions, the neighborhood. Even the summers we spent a week on Cape Cod didn’t produce photos of the Catskills or the Berkshires. We didn’t stop long enough to take in the views, and truth be told, as a kid I just wasn’t paying attention.

But once we traveled as far south as my grandmother’s home in western North Carolina, I started aiming my camera at the mountains, the lesser hills, and the landscapes that I had overlooked earlier. The cameras I had early on didn’t have many adjustments. They were inexpensive forerunners of today’s “point and shoot” cameras, and the cheaper color film I bought had little “latitude.” In other words, it wasn’t very forgiving, exposure-wise. Thus, my washed out scenery, a very pale representation of what my eyes had beheld. O beautiful for spacious skies, for kind of grayish waves of grain. So much for purple mountains’ majesty; my mountains were more mundane than majestic.

As I grew into adulthood, the cameras and film became more sophisticated and I traveled more. Living then in Virginia brought many landscapes into sight, and neighboring states had their own breathtaking vistas. When I started shooting video, I could pan and zoom (always slowly, always judiciously), and I could capture the breadth and width and depths of hills and valleys and rivers and lakes. Now in the digital age, if I have to, I can even improve upon the natural beauty of the earth’s scenic gifts.

One of my favorite movies is “Grand Canyon.” Danny Glover plays a lead character whose challenging urban existence in sprawling Los Angeles moves him to dream of going to the Grand Canyon. Not to merely escape the violent gangs in his neighborhood or to run away from personal and family issues, but to stand on the canyon’s rim and gaze into the wondrous spectacle of the river-carved panorama. Film critic Roger Ebert referenced L.A. as ominous and threatening, “an alienating landscape.” And the Canyon? For Glover’s character, and eventually for others in the story, the Canyon is that which is so immense in its grandeur that one’s own insecurities and worries seem petty and small. The dream is not a real escape, but the imagination’s way of seeing beyond, way beyond, present reality to a landscape of liberation. 528-1

I’ve stood there, on that rim, and while I wasn’t battling any demons at the time, I can attest that as you gaze out over the expanse, you are lost in wonder, almost breathless with awe. And you are the last thing on your mind. That was the power of the grand landscape for the characters in the film.

A recent journey west took us to three National Parks — Glacier, Grand Teton, and Yellowstone. Each breathtaking in its own way.  But I have to say that the vistas I’ve seen hiking the Appalachian Trail or having climbed Lookout Mountain in Montreat, NC were more literally breathtaking, because of the difficult paths we had to follow to reach the peaks. Rocky trails, switchbacks, steep climbs…expending energy, exuding determination. And once you have reached the mountaintop, there is no way you turn around right away and head back. You survey the broad geography of hills across and valleys below, of rivers that created canyons and of towns and farms and people below, people who may well be looking up at your mountain peak and thinking wow!

So, you linger. And catch your breath. And pray your gratitude for the beauty of the earth, for hill and vale and tree and flower, as the hymn goes.

We lived in northern Vermont for almost ten years, and never took the landscape for granted. I once asked Albert Urie, who had farmed there for sixty years or so, if he had gotten so accustomed to the scenic views that they were hardly worth a glance. “Never,” he replied. And then he pointed out and named each distant mountain range and peak seen from his front steps.

Whether snow-covered or bathed in summer greenery, the rolling hills and stony pasture land, the walks down the wooded Cemetery Road and the evening vigil we’d keep on Betty Patterson’s hill, looking toward distant Mount Mansfield —  that was our spiritual geography, akin to that found in the Dakotas so admired by Kathleen Norris.

I write these reflections in Lent, not always tying up theological loose ends as we head toward Resurrection Day. But today, I have to wonder about the landscape of Holy Week. Talk about hills and valleys! Palm Sunday was definitely a mountaintop experience for Jesus’ disciples. Everything was working out as they had hoped, and people, their people, their fans and followers, shouted acclamations of praise and prayer-songs for salvation. Hosanna!

But by mid-week, the tide had turned. Heading down the road, there was a deep, darkening valley looming. By Friday, they would see a garbage heap of a hill, a skull-like landscape for the execution of those who had violated or, better, crossed the ruling empire.

Saturday’s landscape will be empty. Just empty.

And on Sunday? It’s too early to tell. But there might be a garden. So full of life, it will be hard to believe. And a straight road to Emmaus we can walk together.

DSC07357.JPG{Another day in Lent, and another mug. Yes, it is a mug.}

This is the newest mug in the Kellam kitchen cupboard. Joan gave it to me for Christmas, having chosen it from similar ones that weren’t quite as realistic. On the plus side, it IS realistic, and it’s insulated so it keeps coffee hot. On the negative side, look at the narrow bottom. But it’s not supposed to be practical. It’s fun!

And it’s so me. I’ve been taking pictures since I got my first camera for Christmas, maybe 1957? It was a Kodak Brownie Holiday Flash. Then, an Ansco Color Clipper. And on to a variety of 35mm and digital cameras. Add the video cameras, and you can imagine how much fun it is to travel with me. If I can’t pause to capture memories…why even go?

My brother Kim is also a photographer, and is far more artistic than I, more creative, I could say without being redundant. Kim pointed out not long ago, in complimenting me on a Facebook-shared photo, that I had a way of seeing things in the moment, noticing the potential of a glimpsed scene, and capturing that picture on film, or digitally as is the case these days. Kim, too, has a keen eye for such potential. He can make a manhole cover into stunning photographic art. I agree that some of us do have a way of looking at things and seeing something special in the ordinary.

Isn’t that true of every artist? A certain grain in granite or mahogany inspires the sculptor or carver. The curve of the river suggests a painting. An iris’ soft color insists it be preserved by pastel chalks. Someone else just walked by and glanced (or didn’t), but the artist saw something enticing, and responded. The words occurred to the poet; the musician heard a rhythm. Pen, brush, shutter, chisel, chalk, fabric. A scene, a moment, a vision, a risk.

It occurred to me just now that I know many artists! Judy makes jewelry in her basement. Joan and Bill are musicians. Matt and Bob write stories and publish books. Carol, Joanna, and Kim are wonderful photographers. Jack is a fine poet. Some artists are twice blessed, now that I think about it. Joan is also a quilter and Matt is a musician. Oh, I could go on, of course. I don’t have room or words to list every person I know who has a way with words (Pat), music (Mike), or even flowers (David)!

I used the word “potential” in a preceding paragraph. The artist sees potential in a piece of metal, in the way light strikes the snow, in a chance encounter at the market. A pendant, a photo, a poem results. Potential: latent power. Art is power awakening. And the open-eyed artist is powerful. Art is political, and can change the world one perception at a time.

For me personally, photography and videography are usually just ways to preserve enjoyable times, as on vacations. I want to relive, remember, even restore the good times by looking at my albums, my computer files, my DVD “movies.” But now and then, and not often enough, I am startled to see some beautiful thing I had overlooked in the 1/60th of a second. The bee in the aster or the twinkle in the eye of a child. IMG_20170304_115812297_HDR[1109]Or, just recently, the color, the light, the angles, the sweatered dachshunds staring up at me in my daughter Wendy’s kitchen. It’s a memory. Is it art? Why not?

Imagination feeds art and art returns the favor. We see things in new ways, refreshing ways. Art enlivens us, informs us, inspires us. (Thus the essential National Endowment for the Arts, to help preserve that which so enlivens, informs, and inspires!)

Now, Kellam, how are you going to tie this into Lent? Look! During this forty day time of turning around, reflection, and preparation for the new life to come, isn’t it a good time to keep our eyes open to potential, to see old things in new ways, to imagine how a moment of insight might have lasting benefits? We needn’t have the ability to paint a portrait of Jesus in the wilderness, or to write a cantata for Holy Week. It may well be enough to glimpse a vision of peace. And to create the space or the energy in which that peace grows from potential to lasting wonder, when the Spirit moves…or muses.

During Lent, open eyes and perceptive creativity can lead us from shadows to Easter. Focus on that for awhile, that art is theological.





When I wrote the first in this series of forty photos from my files, I mentioned that I’d been taking pictures for almost 60 years. Today’s photo, a scan of the original print, may be the oldest one I’ll be posting. Kodak did me the favor of date-stamping the print on the back: “Week of May 24, 1958.” The camera was the Brownie Holiday Flash; the film 127 Kodacolor.IMG

So I took this when I was thirteen. The scene doesn’t look much like this today. You can see that there is that cream-colored wall running the length of the photo, a temporary structure shielding construction work taking place at what was called at the time “The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.”

If memory serves, this is the first picture that I had enlarged into an 8 X 10 print. I was very proud of it, though I regretted that someone’s hat intruded on the lower corner. Still, it was a perfect blue sky day, I got the soldier right there in the middle, and the two trees provided some symmetry. Since we are looking at a scene from 58 years ago, I don’t remember why I was in Arlington National Cemetery in springtime. My family didn’t travel very often, so here’s my best guess: this was a church youth group trip to Washington, D.C.

What memory hasn’t faithfully recorded and played back, the mind sometimes makes up. For example, I’ve always thought that my earliest memory was that of a younger brother being brought home from the hospital after his birth. I can picture the scene: the room, the blue blanket he was wrapped in — or was it green? — and I am on the floor as my parents come in the door. I’ve been playing, my grandmother (which one?) keeping me company. If this were my first brother, I would have been two and a half years old. If this had been the grand entrance of my second brother, I would have been three and a half.

Sadly, no one can confirm if this memory is true, fairly factual, or if I have, as they say, “manufactured” the scene based on a) things I was told decades ago, or b) what I imagined the scene must have been like. No matter. It is now my memory.

At the Tomb of the Unknowns (as it is called today), we keep alive the memory of those lost in war, those whose remains were never identified. They have no other marker. No names, dates, details. But they are remembered solemnly, and as the crowds view the changing of the guard, there is silence. And should the silence and reverence be broken by some thoughtless nonsense, the reprimand is quick and stern. Nothing must intrude on the gravity of that memorial.

Admittedly, some memories are frivolous and not worth spending much time with. Some are troubling and we wish they could be forgotten. Some are holy. Some are lessons. Some are the stuff of nightmares. Some pop into mind after years have gone by, prompted by an aroma, a glimpse, a name. Some are the only way we can hold on to someone beloved.

When I worked with teenagers on what we referred to as their “confirmation journeys,” one early activity we enjoyed together was sharing the “stepping stones” of our lives. We’d trace the outline of one shoe, cut some paper into the shape of soles, and label those with what we decided were the most significant events (or steps) we had encountered along the way so far. The teens recalled and noted the birth of a younger sibling, moving to a new school, the death of someone close, perhaps an especially significant spiritual encounter or new understanding (that with some prompting). Those were the memories that helped shape who they had become. And we adult leaders would always say, “Remember your baptism!”

Maybe one of those confirmands would remind us, “But I haven’t been baptized yet!”

“Then you, among all your baptized-as-infants friends, will surely remember yours!” The day, the water, the blessing. Good for a lifetime!

The other sacrament among us Reformed Christians has some memory attached to it too. There, carved into the Communion table, are the words, “Do this in remembrance of me.” The bread, the cup, the memory…the keeping alive of Jesus in our midst.

Lent is as good a time as any to remember who we are, and whose we are. Lest we forget. Lest the un-knowing become our undoing. Or, to put the more attractive and positive spin on it: let us nurture the best memories of our best selves!


Each day during Lent (2016), I am going through some sixty years of photographs and choosing some images to write about. I’m not working through any grand plan here, just beginning each day by looking through some photos, choosing one that particularly draws my aDSC02286.jpgttention, and then letting the Spirit lead as I write a few words.

This is a Lenten discipline for me. Not sure what it will be for you. Maybe a curiosity. Helpful in some way, I hope.

So, today’s image: nothing breathtaking…just a picture of a camera. I bought it sometime in my “junior high” years, to replace my first camera, which had been a Christmas gift from my parents. I don’t know if I had asked for that first camera for Christmas, or if Dad and Mom just thought I’d like it. I was thrilled. I also don’t remember why I needed to replace the first with this Ansco Color Clipper. But both cameras enticed a young kid to start seeing life through a viewfinder.

The vast majority of cameras these days don’t even have viewfinders. People hold up their cell phones, camcorders, and digital cameras a foot or so away from their faces and frame their pics with electronic LCD screens. But there are advantages to a good old-fashioned optical viewfinder. That’s the little “window” above the lens on my ancient Ansco.

A theme for today could be the idea that looking through that viewfinder blocks everything else from view.  The photographer is focused only on what can be seen through that small tunnel of lenses. Yes, tunnel vision. While life happens around us, we who look through the viewfinder to center on one thing of interest. We compose our view, ignoring all but that central focus, and when we are pleased with the potential result, we push a button, and hope for the best.

Now in years past, way past, the cameras didn’t focus themselves automatically. Looking through the “range finder” (as it was called) didn’t guarantee good results no matter how carefully and/or artistically one had framed the subject. Focus with that Ansco meant some guesswork: how far away was the subject? Close-up, or distant? My little sister in her crib, or the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington? Only when the film was developed did the photographer know if the picture had been worth taking.

So, I guess where I’m headed here is the idea of focus. Centering. Looking carefully. Ignoring for a time the surrounding culture, its clutter and clatter, and finding that one important object or subject, that single thing that calls to you to be kept, saved, held.

I’ve saved hundreds of the big square transparencies and prints I took with that range finder camera as a teenager. Looking back, I see that my focus — once brief moments I wanted to preserve and share — became, in time, a mixture of history, nostalgia, and memories of beloved relationships.

There must be a metaphorical lesson in here somewhere. How about this: Lent is that forty day period when we can focus on what’s most important.

Easter is most certainly the light at the end of our darkest tunnel, a vision of life we might overlook if we don’t focus on the main things that vie for our attention.

Look around. Something good will come into view. Something really good.