Ken Smith

Ken Smith

When I drive up to South Bend’s Civil Rights Heritage Center, west of downtown in the carefully restored Engman Natatorium, I like the tidy brickwork and the old-fashioned stone lettering with its elegant curves and flourishes. When I go there to hear a public talk, a open-mic poetry reading, or a film screening, I like even better the feeling of community that people have worked on there. I walk into the building sure that the folks filing in came to think and talk about making our community better.

Michiana Chronicles: We Are The Cavalry

Jul 19, 2019

To our west, behind the white spot-lighted spire of the wide brick school building, an even wider sunset had concluded. For the passerby on the sidewalk, most everything about our house must have looked dark. The big maple in the front yard, the flower bed, the pale blue of the house’s front wall had all faded to shades of green-gray and blue-black. To one side of the dark red door, a square of window light, and in a small room bright with yellow walls, three people sat at a table talking. What was the conversation?

The two of us were at the Multiplex, seated in Theater 11, row G, halfway up the dark bank of padded chairs, swaddled by surround-sound, digging into our snuck-in Toffifay, and preparing to see a comedy about two studious nerds who, having declined on principle the debauchery of the American movie version of high school, finally notice that good behavior has gotten them exactly nothing, eg., Harvard or Yale, that the debauched high school kids around them didn’t also get.

Michiana Chronicles: Oxalis

Apr 12, 2019
Ken Smith

Forty years ago, on a spring day much like the ones we’ve longed for since December, my college friends Colleen and Jeff packed up their U-Haul and drove off, leaving me standing in their driveway holding their houseplant, an oxalis. I didn’t know that a person could own one potted plant across an entire lifetime. But now, four decades later, that same oxalis has spent the winter in our south-facing upstairs window, waiting like us, for spring, when it can go back outside.

Ken Smith

I came across a small, inspiring story this week, and then another, and another. I did not expect this. In our troubled times, with the climate rattling us up and down like a roller coaster we can’t get off, and politics pelting us like bad weather, I don’t often catch the aroma of fresh-baked inspiration. When I do, I slow down to take a look. First I noticed a page-long chapter in a memoir* by James Rebanks, a quiet episode where at the age of 17 he decided not to buy the car he’d been saving for. Interesting!

Ken Smith

I confess, I was seated at my mother’s dining room table not far from a big tin of Christmas cookies. There were tell-tale shortbread crumbs near me on the purple tablecloth, and a bottomless cup of coffee. From the living room TV came the muffled thunder of volume-turned-low Ghosts of Christmas Past, then Present, then Future, each one Hollywood made wilder that the last, but I ignored them. Much more interesting spirits were spread around us on the table. Not the cookies. We were sorting through a big box of family photos.

(Don't) Stay In Your Lane

Nov 16, 2018

Used to be you’d hear about news first by turning on the news. But this week’s “Stay in your Lane” episode unfolded on Twitter a day before it jumped to traditional magazine and radio journalism. However, none of it involved the ordinary way we use those four emphatic words.

At The Food Bank

Sep 28, 2018
Ken Smith

I drove to Missouri last week and while I was there I helped out at the neighborhood food bank session that an old friend and some of his neighbors have been running on Friday mornings for more than a decade.There’s a tidy old storefront that was a grocery store and later a tavern, but which in recent decades has served formally and informally as a community center. About nine-thirty Friday morning the volunteer workers arrived and a white van rolled up.

Something Happening Here

Aug 10, 2018
Toledo Blade

A friend was traveling on a crowded train in England, in the midst of their endlessly divisive Brexit political turmoil just before this summer’s drought struck that country. She had to stand in the aisle with no view really of the passing green valleys and hills, so she pulled a paperback out of her bag, hoping to read. A woman seated nearby spotted the title: How Democracies Die. My friend noticed an acknowledgment in the other traveller’s face, the tired way eyebrows furl and the measured, involuntary intake of breath that together signify recognition and weariness, fear and grief.

Mending Window

Jun 22, 2018

My friend is rehabbing a two-story brick house in the big city, renewing that sturdy old beast and contributing something of his own to an urban neighborhood that is making its comeback. I stop by once in a while to check out the progress. Cooler than cool but almost invisible are the twenty new solar panels up on the flat roof, with their web app that graphs how much electricity each panel generates on sunny as well as shady days.

At the Climbing Wall

Apr 27, 2018
At the climbing wall.
Courtesy of the author.

Driving south in the early spring is an excellent kind of time travel. In Michiana last weekend the magnolia buds were just thinking about opening and the tulips weren’t even close. But down in Bloomington on Saturday bulbs rioted on the street corners, the spring-flowering trees reached out gaudily on almost every block, and the grass needed cutting. Walkers and saunterers were out, uh, walking and sauntering, stylish patrons stood in lines in front of restaurants for the open-air seating, and I put on a baseball cap so I didn’t get a sunburn up there. 

Ken Smith

In the long echoing hallway between the O’Hare parking ramp and the airport terminal, a busking violinist’s sweet melody amplified my hopeful mood, so I dropped a little bigger bill than usual into his instrument case, for the karma. Upstairs, our guest writer and I shook hands, two strangers squarely on a first-name basis, James and Ken. It slowly dawned on me that the two of us were launching into an old-fashioned American road trip, just like in the movies. Only we didn’t rob any banks.

 

We Built This

Jan 19, 2018
James Rebanks

Long ago, when we’d drive around town, my grandfather would sometimes point to a particular highway bridge and say, “I built that.” And he wasn’t kidding. He and his crew of carpenters built the wooden forms that molded the poured concrete into sturdy bridge pillars. When I drive over that bridge today, I think of his proud words, “I built that.”

Ninety-nine days out of a hundred I’m too busy to notice, but if I tune out the modern static and take a long walk through town, I catch glimpses of our history and I hear voices. I start thinking that our past is just barely past.