On Kierkegaard and Backyards

(photo by m.a.h. hinton)

(photo by m.a.h. hinton)

MontanaWriter has been on a bit of a hiatus again… a stepping back. Work on other projects and trajectories has been taking time and energy. The end result: there has a been a weariness in my bones I have not been able to shake.

Writing requires a peculiar kind of energy… an introspective enthusiasm. As a recalcitrant introvert, introspection usually comes naturally to me. It is social interaction after all that wears the introvert down. A lifetime battle with melancholia just complicates the whole matter.

In a bit over a year, MontanaWriter had 200 posts… a nice round number. Round numbers appeal to the very human desire for order and symmetry. Today’s post makes a not so tidy total of 201… a number that also appeals to our very human desire to stir things up every once in awhile with a bit of disorder.

In preaching class, they used to say that the role of the preacher in any sermon was to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” In art the goal is only slightly different: sow order where there is disorder and disorder where there is order. The result is remarkably similar.

Summer has come, after a fashion, to the North Country. The pessimist in us cannot help but mark the fact that in less than a week days will again begin to grow shorter. The optimist in us ignores the whole issue and concentrates on the joy of being outside again and in the feeling of warm sun on our skin again.

My daughter Dylan has now graduated. She has been down already to register for her first semester classes. Like her father, she is a learner. She is energized by learning new things. Flipping through the catalog of classes she finds one course after another that she wants to take. Like me she is also energized by possibility and worn down by necessity.

Kierkegaard talked about the “despair of infinite possibility” and the “despair of infinite necessity.” In our family, there is a even divide between Dylan and I who feel constantly the despair of necessity and my daughter Morgan and my wife who easily feel the despair of too much possibility.

Sue will not go shopping in a large department store. She needs smaller stores where choices are limited. Morgan is the same way. They are both happier also when they have schedules and things on a checklist that they can and need to accomplish. For Dylan and I, schedules, like checklists, are only another burden. They make me restless… her listless. Her last year of high school was a constant chafing at necessity. I am happy for her upcoming life of possibility. I also envy her.

MontanaWriter it seems will continue. I have had a few more inquiries about guest posting. Some of them seem legitimate. I am happy to offer the opportunity to someone who wants to write. I admire their willingness to send their writing to a stranger… their willingness to risk rejection.

June is half gone. Summer in full swing. The Twins are finally playing well and Mauer is due to be back in the lineup by the end of the week. Jeff Gordon won another race this week and the best NBA season in over a decade finished strong. Next year seems like it could be as good.  Outside in my backyard all the landscaping I have been doing is finally paying off. Soon I hope there will be time to sit on my deck and drink a cold beer and waste time watching my neighbor’s cottonwood tree again. My soul could certainly use a little less necessity and a lot more possibility.

On Cottonwoods and Writing

cottonwood-seedsIt has been a quiet week for MontanaWriter. A couple of other projects have been occupying my time and energy. And now a week has gone by without a post.

As a writer and thinker, I have never lived under the delusion that the world needs anything I write or think. It spins on its axis quite well enough without my “insights.” And yet I feel the compulsion to write anyway.

One of the things occupying my energy has been a mystery novel. At last word count, I am currently at 56,000 words at about the two-thirds or three-fourths point. I have promised myself that when I finish this one I will not shit-can it, or just toss it in some metaphorical drawer to languish for awhile and eventually be lost.

Depending on how you count things, this is my 3rd or 4th mystery novel attempt. I have to say I like it so far… but I have thought that of the others as well. I will keep readers of MontanaWriter updated as I move toward the finish line of this particular marathon.

The other “project” occupying my time and energy has been yard work and preparations for my daughter’s graduation open house. All things considered, I prefer writing to yard work… or any kind of manual labor for that matter. But try as I might, I can’t live in books.

A cool spring has settled upon the North Country. My neighbor’s big cottonwood is fully leafed out and shimmers again in the lightest breeze. When I finish mowing the lawn, I love to sit on my deck with an ice cold beer and meditate upon that cottonwood. It makes me think, for awhile anyway, that I am home again.

Harmon Killebrew – in memoriam

The famous swing

The famous swing

This week the upper Midwest and true baseball fans everywhere have been mourning the loss of baseball great Harmon Killebrew… one of the greatest home run hitters ever. In my way of figuring things, number 4 on the all-time list.

Golden Era Home Run Leaders (500 or more)
Hank Aaron         755
Willie Mays        660
Frank Robinson    586
Harmon Killebrew    573

Minnesotans were well aware that Killebrew had just been moved into hospice care, and so the news did not come as a surprise to us. I heard about Killebrew’s death in an email from my friend Jerry, which seems appropriate because Jerry is as great a baseball fan and mind as anyone I have ever known.

I have spent the week listening and reading tributes to Killebrew… and talking to friends who grew up in Minnesota watching him play.

Those who are not sports fans quite often criticize those of us who are for what they perceive as a fundamental shallowness on our part… making such a big deal out of something that really does not matter. Besides being bewildered by such people, I have always felt sorry for them. Like all who are truly ignorant, they do not really know what they do not know.

Of course it can be said that we make too much of sports and sports heroes at times. But in the case of Harmon Killebrew, we do not. By all accounts he was that great rarity, a great man who really was great.

The last time I saw Harmon Killebrew was at the Minnesota History Center at the opening night of the Baseball Hall of Fame exhibit. My friend Dave, who is a member, took me with him. Killebrew was there, along with Paul Molitor, Ryne Sandberg, Tony Oliva, and a host of Twins.

We were not allowed to ask for autographs, which was fine, but we could have our pictures taken with the players. I had mine taken with Sandberg. I did not have mine taken with Killebrew, but I ened up for awhile being the unofficial photographer for those who were having theirs taken with him. A number of people gave me their cameras to snap pictures for them. I hope I did a good job.

It was not that I did not want my picture taken with Killebrew. It was only that I had meet him before and I was having so much fun watching those older than me meeting and talking with him. It is fun to see a 6o year-old woman become an excited girl of 12 again… a 65 year-old man become a beaming little leaguer again as he meets and greets his childhood hero.

Baseball as a game has been diminished this week. We have all grown older.

requiescat in pace Harmon Killebrew.

“Box Canyon” a Short Story by Mark Hinton



Regular readers of MontanaWriter know that I have been working to break my bad habit of writing something, sitting on it for awhile, then just throwing it away. As a marketing plan for a writer, it has not been a successful strategy.

Recently I decided to start sending a few things out instead of just sitting on them… and so I have. My short story “Box Canyon” is now available atTheWesternOnline.com. It is, as the title of the website indicates, a western story.

Westerns are, admittedly, anachronistic. At first glance they may seem to belong to another time. Yet as a writer I find myself fascinated with the possibilities and promises of the form… and I also enjoy writing them.

I have always loved westerns. They remain my favorite genre of both film and popular fiction. Westerns are what I find myself turning to when I am feeling lonesome or restless… when I am feeling a need to reconnect with my roots, with the best part of myself.

My original plan had been to put a number of my western and noir stories together in a separate volume entitled Montana Noir and publish it with Montana Poems on kindle. Recently I decided to go a different route and so started re-editing the stories and sending them out.

Thank you to the folks at TheWesternOnline.com for liking my story enough to publish it.

You can find TheWesternOnline.com and my short story “Box Canyon” here.


On Life and Death

(photo © m.a.h. hinton)

(photo © m.a.h. hinton)

May has been a cool month so far… and wet. In the North Country, we have at last said goodbye to winter. Driving around town this past week I have seen swans, ospreys, assorted ducks, and even a fox hightailing it across a busier road. At the feeders in my backyard, there have been goldfinches and warblers, along with the usual house finches, sparrows, and chickadees.

We do not take the time to plant bulbs at our house. But around our neighborhood I see tulips and daffodils and flowering trees. Spring is at last here… and its coming lifts a burden off of us.

Knowing about death is a burden. Winter is, if nothing else, a seasonal reminder to those of us who live in northern climes that decay and death are an inevitable part of life. It is as inescapable as the north wind, as falling leaves. But for now we can put such thoughts behind us – to pretend for awhile that we do not know what we know we know.

In May we watch the sky for signs of spring and the ground for signs of green. We search for life… and find it.

The search for life is as ingrained in us as the knowledge of death. They go hand in hand after all… hope and despair, belief and doubt, growth and decay, life and death. Eons ago, from ancient plains and darker caves, the first humans set out in search of life. We living today are a living testimony that they found it, and a living reminder that the search needs to go on.

In the fall, most birds head south, only a few like cardinals stay. Moving between trees and feeders, cardinals fight the cold and snow to stay alive. Against winter’s whiteness they look gloriously red, lighting up even the bleakest day. In early spring we have the tulips and daffodils to lighten dreary, rainy days… hope blooming in despair.

On Daughters and Time

Canyon Ferry Grass (copyright © m.a.h. hinton)

Canyon Ferry Grass (copyright © m.a.h. hinton)

This past month my eldest daughter turned 18, she is officially an adult. When I turned 18 in Montana 33 years ago, the drinking age was 18. So besides being able to vote, I could also walk down to The Mint Bar and have a ditch (the Western term for a whiskey and water) or a Rainier beer. And I quite often did. Though to be fair, since I already had a beard and was living in Montana, going to a bar was something I had already been doing for awhile anyway. But at 18, I was official.

Times have changed and the Midwest isn’t Montana. But for that, Montana isn’t really Montana anymore either. Now you turn 18 and all you get to do is vote… and get a tattoo. That is what my daughter’s friends and cousins have done, that is what she is planning to do. I think I would prefer that she went to a bar and had a whiskey and water. But so it goes.

My daughter has grown into a smart and interesting young woman. When she was 2 or 3, my mother-in-law summed her up perfectly in a christmas card she sent to family and friends: “a tiny mite with a mind of her own.” And so she remains.

At no point in her life has she wanted to be told what to do. It is a trait I admire… but also one that leaves me to worry at times. Since that kind of stubbornness and contrariness is an ingrained Hinton trait, I know the darker side of that tendency. I point to myself and my brothers and say, “sometimes things work out better if you are willing to jump through hoops.” But since it is not natural to learn from other people’s mistakes, she will have to learn things on her own.

Growing up in a house of boys in the West, a world of sports and drinking and fighting and the outdoors, having only daughters has always been… a delightful challenge. One I am continually thankful for. That my two daughters have turned out to be smart, interesting, well-balanced, and beautiful is… a delightful gift I am also thankful for.

When I turned 18, I had biked to Canada and been to Washington, Idaho, Wyoming, Oregon, and California. That is it. My daughter has been to Europe twice. She knows so much more about the world and things than I ever could have at that age… at twice that age. But that is yet another way the world has changed.

18 years goes by quickly. When she first entered my life I was a skinny, young man of 33. My hair was thick and my beard still red. Now I am planted in middle-age. I promised myself when she first came into my life that I would try to pay attention every day and take nothing for granted. I hope it has made a difference in her life that I have tried to do that. I know it has made a difference in mine.

In the fall, she will head off to college… something she has been wanting to do for a long time. She has been ready to be her own person for years. And so she is. She loves talking about politics and current events and music and literature… and occasionally, though reluctantly, theology or religion. She is more than ready to take on the world. So in the fall, I will need to let her go.

But for this summer, when she is around… not doing the thousand things that occupy her time, I will continue to work on paying attention, to taking nothing for granted. For if 18 years have passed so quickly… how quickly will 3 months?

On Dandelions and Other Erratum

(photo by Henry K. Kaiser)

(photo by Henry K. Kaiser)

Each year it catches us by surprise… this change in seasons. One morning we are standing at the kitchen window and we notice that it is full spring, green and alive. It is like someone somewhere flipped a switch and winter – cold and dark – is gone… already forgotten.

In the North Country, where gradual changes in seasons seem an anathema these days, we went from snow to 80 and full humidity in less than two weeks… and the dandelions are out in full force, celebrating.

I have never made peace with the whole suburban lawn thing. Grass seems to me a peculiarly fragile thing to hang so much hope on…so high maintenance, so easily corrupted. And yet I spent the last two days after work in the heat and humidity pulling dandelions… yet another battle in the war between nature and order.

It may be heretical to say, but I happen to like dandelions. They always make me smile. Bright yellow and friendly looking, they light up the ground and the day like bright yellow stars. And when they turn to seed… what child does not love picking a full-headed dandelion and blowing it away? One of life’s first glimpses into the mysterious wonder of nature.

And yet social convention and Midwest conformity say I must do my best to rid my yard of these bright yellow erratum. And so I do my part, though my heart is not the least bit in it. Another obligation I have found hoisted upon me by where I live.

Spring blooms beautiful
our hearts
like dandelions

like stars

The Art and Science of Poetry Reviews

stackA reader recently sent me an email critical of my poetry reviews. She said she found MontanaWriterwhen she was doing a paper for school. She did agoogle search of a poem she was working on… and my review of that poem – she did not mention which – came up. She said she was writing to me to let me know that she was disappointed with my review because I did not “analyze” the poem per se, but rather talked about “everything but the poem.” Upon further investigation, she said, that was true of all my “reviews.” She said I should call them something else. She did not, however, offer any suggestions.

I have never been comfortable with poetry analysis in the same way that ultimately I have never been able to make peace with that peculiar discipline called “biblical criticism.” Though I suspect that there is much merit in both, most of the time what passes for literary or biblical criticism/inquiry is merely another self-congratulatory exercise in academic mental-masturbation that only succeeds in missing the point of whatever is being examined. To me, poetry… and the bible… matter too much for that kind of bullshit.

Having gotten that little rant off my chest, I will say that my emailer does have a good point. Looking back over my poetry reviews I see that I do go far afield in my “reviews,” as I go far afield in most of what I write here. It is, alas,  in my very nature to wander and to wonder about things.

In my defense, however, a quick internet search for a definition of the word review comes up with these two definitions, among many:  1. To look over, study, or examine again. 2. To consider retrospectively; look back on. Certainly my reviews fit that definition quite nicely since many are retrospective in nature… or more properly, “reminiscent.”  But in the end it hardly matters. My emailer was looking for and expecting to find poetry analysis and, of course, my reviews are anything but that.

I sent a nice response to my emailer… I have so few readers that I cannot afford to offend any. I wished her luck with her paper and thanked her for taking the time to read MontanaWriter and to write to me. She wrote back and said that she had found some real “first-class” analysis at some other sites. She did, however, say she liked the picture that I had with my review and that she was going to use it. I wrote back and said, “I am glad that I could help.”

Poetry Review: “Endymion (Stanza 1)” by John Keats


John Keats by William Holton

Of the five major poets of the Romantic period (I am not counting Blake as a Romantic), Keats is the most beloved. His poems… and lines from his poems…  are also the most universally recognizable. This famous first stanza from “Endymion” is evidence of this. These lines of heroic couplets(paired rhymes of iambic pentameter) are as familiar to us as any lines of poetry ever written.

Keats, of course, only lived to the age of 26. Though age, like everything else, is relative, 26 seems younger and younger to me with each passing year. And with each passing year his poetic accomplishments seem more and more staggering.

It is said that true prodigies only exists in three areas… math, music, and chess. In all other disciplines and endeavors, what we call genius comes from the perfect and serendipitous marriage of intellect, ability, effort, and experience: Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Picasso…. That all those things could come together so quickly in Keats is more than serendipitious.

I am thinking now of other short lived artists who had their stars burn brightly but quickly… most are musicians, prodigies: Mozart (dead at 35), Schubert (dead at 30), Hank Williams, Sr. (dead at 29), Jimi Hendrix (dead at 28).

Beauty is Keat’s theme. And what better day to think about beauty than a bright spring day in May.


Endymion (Stanza 1)

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.
Therefore, on every morrow, are we wreathing
A flowery band to bind us to the earth,
Spite of despondence, of the inhuman dearth
Of noble natures, of the gloomy days,
Of all the unhealthy and o’er-darkened ways::
Made for our searching: yes, in spite of all,
Some shape of beauty moves away the pall
From our dark spirits. Such the sun, the moon,
Trees old and young, sprouting a shady boon
For simple sheep; and such are daffodils
With the green world they live in; and clear rills
That for themselves a cooling covert make
‘Gainst the hot season; the mid forest brake,
Rich with a sprinkling of fair musk-rose blooms:
And such too is the grandeur of the dooms
We have imagined for the mighty dead;
All lovely tales that we have heard or read:
An endless fountain of immortal drink,
Pouring unto us from the heaven’s brink.

On Authority and Truth

JohnPaulIII have been trying in my mind to link the two events that are drawing millions this weekend to Europe: the royal wedding and the beatification of John Paul II. From an American point of view, both events seem utterly anachronistic… unfathomable.

In a land with no kings, built by a faith with no Pope, Americans are ultimately in our own minds our own monarchs. We have built the best political / economic system the world has ever known on the principle that an individual’s life and conscience is subject to none. This is a truth we hold sacred and dear.

And yet… eyes turn toward Europe. Toward ancient traditions of authority.

When John Paul II came into his pontificate in 1978, I was an 18-year-old boy going to college at a Midwest Lutheran Liberal Arts College. For some serendipitous reason, even there on the vast Lutheran prairie, I became intrigued by this new pope and all the things he represented: politically, historically, theologically. And so, looking back now, began my conversion, like so many who consider themselves JohnPaul II Catholics.

The final hurdle for me in the long “conversion” process that took years and multiple and contradictory trajectories, was ultimately to wrestle with… and come to an uneasy peace… with the whole concepts of authority and obedience.

When I was in college, I used to wear a button that said “Question Authority.” And so I did, as I had my whole life… and as I continue to do. A psychologist might say it was the result of having such a “weak” authority figure in my father and such stern and uncompromising authority figures as my Mother’s Germanic uncles. Others would say that a boy coming to age in the 1970s…in the shadow of Vietnam and Watergate… will by definition be suspicious of authority.  But I know that it is deeper than that. My daughter, who turns 18 years old today, displays the same pathology and has since birth. Her sister of 16, makes much easier peace with authority and indeed seems to find it at times a comfort.

I have been asked by those who have known me over the years, including my own daughters: “how can someone who is as anti-authoritarian as you are, join the most authoritarian of all churches?” The short, and admittedly glib answer I finally arrived at to keep from talking about myself, which in person always makes me uncomfortable, is: “I questioned all authority until I found the one authority that is, ultimately, unquestionable.”

Radical Monotheism is based on the premise that there is one God, not many. From that flows the obvious assertion that there is one truth, not many. Our neo-pagan contemporary culture in tremendously uncomfortable with either assertion. For Americans especially, it strikes us as quite an undemocratic concept in every way.

Politically and religiously John Paul II was unpopular with with liberals and conservatives within the church and around the world. I would routinely tell my friend Keith, “If both liberals and conservative hate you… you must be doing something right.” That right thing is called Truth, with a capital “T.” Political and religious parties, political and religious discourse, is seldom interested though in Truth. It is interested in power and winning. That is why political and religious parties can easily hold such obviously contradictory views without any apparent shame: Republicans and the Fundamentalist can say they have respect for life but want the death penalty, a hand-gun in every kitchen, a strong national defense, and a decrease in funding to help the poor; Democrats and Progressives can say they are against the death penalty and for a more just society for all, but support abortion rights. In the modern Western world where neo-paganism reigns, where there are many gods and may truths (small “t) it is easy to make peace with such obvious contradiction… and we do every day.

When John Paul II came out of communist controlled Poland, he told the West two things: Communism is evil and an obvious threat to the Church and to Truth. It is what the Western world wanted to hear. He had something else to say also, though. The neo-paganism of the West is also evil, a more subtle…. and hence, perhaps greater threat to the Church and to Truth. This was not at all what the West wanted to hear.

I have long compared in my mind the Dalai Lama and John Paul II. The similarities are obvious: exiled by communism, morally upstanding, world religious leaders, sign and symbols of the respective religions and for religion in general. But in one way they are quite different… the Dalai Lama has remained popular in Hollywood and popular culture  because he makes absolutely no demands on us in any way. He does not criticize our way of living, our way of thinking. He does not assume, in any way that he has authority over us.

In the West we want our religious leaders to be like the Dalai Lama… something that we can choose to cherish or ignore with no consequences. In the end, we will decide what parts, if any, of his teaching or way of life we will pay attention to. In the end, we decide what is truth.

In Veritas Splendor (The Splendour of Truth), John Paul II wrote of the beauty and responsibility of truth. The freedom we all covet, he wrote, is rooted ultimately in Truth: the truth will set us free.

This weekend the eyes of millions are looking toward Europe. Part of the fascination in this country with “the Royals” is, I think, rooted in this idea of true authority. In a country where we vote on leaders, on representatives that make the laws that rule our land, we are… when we are honest enough with ourselves… occasionally uncomfortable with the idea that truly important things like rights and truths are decided merely by whichever flawed political party is in power. So too often we dedicate our energies and time not to trying to find the truth, but to making sure that what we already think is true, wins out.

It is the same for the millions who are looking toward Rome and the Beatification of John Paul II. Ultimately they are trying to make sense of true authority. This mere man from Poland, had the audacity to proclaim himself the Vicar of Christ, proclaimer of Truth (with a capital “T”). He spoke with authority but lived humbly. He did not hide his humanity or his sufferings. He irritated conservative and liberals alike. He was criticized for being too mystical (praying for many hours a day) and at the same time for being too worldly. In short, he lived the life of a saint. A life of true obedience, suffering, and humility. A life that points us all toward the Truth. That is the nature of true authority… authority that cannot ultimately be questioned.