Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Book Review--Redeployment

War stories usually take on the motif of initiation because no one, thank goodness, is ever prepared for watching friends--buddies--die and die fitfully; war stories are always about men and women who are changed by warfare, changed forever. 

Experiencing the horror of war leaves those who do with memories as sharp as cut glass, stories you either tell or you don't. Many don't, but not telling them often means those stories create a din within the echo chamber one's mind and heart becomes. PTSD can result--at least that's the common wisdom.

The stories Phil Klay tells in Redeployment, a riveting collection of tales dug out of the Iraq war (does war used in that phrase get upper case yet, I wonder?) are not so much about not telling war stories. They're not about what veterans suffer for their silence. What Klay does so poignantly is explore the heartache one feels in telling them.

All vets, I suppose, are achingly conscious of the stories they have and can tell because they discover that some people somehow want to know them, for reasons that are both noble and ignoble, for everything from soulful empathy to sick entertainment.  Many want to know.

But the stories that changed the hearts and souls and minds of the vets who tell them can be manipulated or altered, reshaped for listeners simply because they hold such significant power. Tell them right and they can get you laid, several of his vets come to learn. But those storytellers also learn that toying with war experiences is its own minefield because manipulation risks discrediting both the stories and, they come to understand, the storytellers. 

What distinguishes Phil Klay's Redeployment from Tim O'Brien's Things They Carried has little to do with narrative power. Phil Klay had to have known and read O'Brien; his influence is everywhere. Some of Klay's stories, given a few deft time-and-place edits, would fit snugly within the covers of Things They Carried.

But Redeployment does something else: it studies war stories and their varied effects even while it tells them, which means it tells stories about telling stories; a hail of bullets becomes a hall of mirrors and, sadly enough, yet another form of PTSD. Klay's storytellers are haunted not only by what happened but also by how they try to explain what happened.

Redeployment creates its own echo chamber and the effect is stunning. Last week, Phil Klay walked away from the National Book Awards with the top prize, an award that is, to me, completely understandable. Like Things They Carried, Redeployment is not just a book you read, but a book you experience. 

Phil Klay was there in Iraq, a Marine, and it's evident throughout.  
When I got to the window and handed in my rifle, though, it brought me up short. That was the first time I’d been separated from it in months. I didn’t know where to rest my hands. First I put them in my pockets , then I took them out and crossed my arms, and then I just let them hang, useless, at my sides.
It may well be possible for someone who wasn't there to imagine that unique emptiness, but such sharp perception creates authority that's totally convincing. 

Redeployment takes us, time after time, into the equation all us experience when we are suddenly forced to grow up, and it does it with war, something none of us really want to experience.

That Phil Klay walked off with the National Book Award last week is absolutely great because his Redeployment is, quite frankly, a great book. The stories his storytellers spin--and what they think about and feel while spinning them--creates a hall of mirrors that's as fascinating as it is horrifying. 

This isn't a book for the beach. There are plenty of those. 

Redeployment's power is that it is, without a doubt, deadly serious, as is war itself.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Morning Thanks--Another Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving Day, 2005

Thanksgiving Day, 2007

Thanksgiving Day, 2014

It’s just before five on Thanksgiving morning in a dark house. My wife’s day-long preparations are ready. In a couple hours she’ll shove in the turkey, and then later we’ll feast—the whole family.

[Nothing's changed. We'll eat later because our son is flying home in the early afternoon--otherwise, same computer, same basement, same pix on the wall. And, of course, I'm now just two months from sixty.]

[We're in a new house, just a year old, and it's just after seven. It's a different computer, but same buy, really--Dell, refurbished. Sunrise is wide as the sky outside a huge window in a much different basement. There are tons of new pictures and things on new walls. Today, I'm two months from 67, which is to say, ancient. But we're all here, and there's a new member since my son was married. We love her too.]

I started this daily thanks business, betting on Garrison Keillor’s idea—with the hope that I’d smile more if I took a minute to thank the Lord almighty for something every day. He doesn’t need it, but I do.

[I don't regret doing the Keillor thing, spending an entire year in early morning thanksgiving--it was good for me. I really believed it was a wonderful concept for a book, but on that score I guess I was wrong. Been wrong a lot lately.]

[Often as not, I don't give morning thanks like I used to and, honestly, I think I'm missing it. Daily thanksgiving remains something as useful as fruits-and-vegetables and good hearty exercise. Better, in fact. I'm going to try to do it more often. Keillor is right.]

My son-in-law has a new job, my daughter is happy, and the two of them love each other and their kids.

[The new job has worked out well; lots of stress, but what else is new. They're still a happy family.]

[Oddly enough, he has a new job again--actually something of the old one. More important, he's happy, and, yes, they're still a happy family, although my granddaughter is no longer a child. She's become a young woman, a teenager.]

Our parents, despite their age, are doing well.

[But they're all two years older and two years closer to an end none of them fear and all wish would come quickly and easily.]

[Both of them are gone. Tomorrow would be my mother's birthday; she died just a year ago. It's a whole different world not having parents. There are no buffers between me and the grave. I miss them too. They're absence is itself a presence.]

Just a step out of the darkness for my son is hopeful, . . .

[he's doing very well in graduate school, even went to a big-time football game--he must like the girl who took him there]

[He's married, we love his wife, and all's well.]

--and those grandchildren—all they’ve got to do is show up and I giggle 

[well, these days I have to vie for attention, but they're still darling].

[They're great, but less ours than they ever were--or ever will be, I'm sure, seven years older than they were. Still, it'll be great to have them around.]

My wife and I have the loons on a lake in Minnesota

[although Bill and Nancy are selling, and while we'll get another summer, there will be no more northern Minnesota falls--unless we find some place new].

[We did, but we haven't been to northern Minnesota for three years now.  We miss it. But our new house still seems like a vacation home, way out here in suburban Alton, IA.]

This Thanksgiving morning I’m thankful that there’s always something, always hope, always the dawn.

[Amen and amen.]

[And amen again, and dawn is happening, for sure, right outside my window, as we speak, a glorious blessing, just one of a score.]

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Morning Thanks--Thanksgiving

There's no electricity this a.m. A car slid off the road and took out a pole that carried all our energy. It's been dark, completely, for an hour. I'm trying to type on a tablet, and it's not going well.

Thanksgiving can be spontaneous and often is. It doesn’t always require practice or dogged devotion. Hard times in our family are somewhat safely behind us, thank the Lord, but all I have to do is stumble over an image or walk along a familiar road somewhere, and the dark days find a way to sneak back in, my personal PTSD.

In days of old, I smoked a couple of cigarettes a day out in the barn. Standing there in the frozen cold, I remember the smoke drifting down, dissipating slowly in air so motionless that it seemed I was exhaling ghosts.  But what I also remember is that the spirit-like shapes of the smoke drew me back to an earlier time standing out there, a time when my nerves felt torn to pieces by bloody warfare in church. Just like that, total recall, uninvited totally.

I have no trouble saying I'm thankful all of that is ancient history, even if I wouldn’t mind a smoke. When I remember, I give thanks.

Still, I don't think it comes naturally for me--thanksgiving that is. I have to work at it. I have to discipline myself to do it because I’m hopelessly “Emersonian,” buoyed by self-reliance.

That pride is the first of the Seven Deadlies seems plenty obvious. There's some gluttony in me—especially this weekend; a bit of lechery I don’t like admitting; some greed, I imagine, but not a whole lot; lots of sloth, but, hey!—I’m retired. I'll admit to some envy--a really great camera, for instance; and okay, I get angry, maybe especially after elections. But none of those, in me, are capital offenses.

But pride? That’s huge. 

Me-firstness beclouds everything I do. Not arrogance--that’s a whole different thing; but the driving determination that what matters most about my life and my times and my fortunes are my life and my times and my fortune. That I got. In spades.

Most of us so cursed come off the factory line that way; it takes rugged heroism to bridle it, to love God above all and your neighbor as yourself. Such selfless regard is not human after all, it’s Godly, so much so that we know selflessness when we see it. And we remember it too.

That's why, speaking for myself at least, Thanksgiving turkey is medicine for the soul, a celebration of the discipline some of us have to be reminded to do--to give thanks. Gluttony may well be a sin this weekend, but tomorrow I say the end justifies the means.

Meanwhile, I'm still swallowed by darkness, tapping away at the tablet. The refrigerator isn’t running, the freezer isn’t either. Green lights from a dozen appliances are doused, and the darkness is appalling. Cold is creeping up my back as I sit here at the kitchen counter.

I’ve not panicked yet, although the power’s been out for close to an hour.  What on earth does one do when there is no power? You get out flashlights and light some candles, and in the curse of darkness you almost certainly give thanks for what you have when you don't, as I am now. 

There's always cause for thanksgiving, and the list is eternal. Tomorrow, right after dinner, we could go around the table and go on forever. 

I just need a nudge, like Thanksgiving.  You too?  You got my permission to take an extra helping of stuffing--if I've got yours.

This morning's thanks is for tomorrow's turkey or ham or spinach salad or those shocking cranberries. This morning's thanks is simple enough: it's for Thanksgiving.

And the light. Because it's back. The energy's on. Thanks, Lord, for that lineman in the hard hat just down the road, the one who spent a couple of cold hours up in the cherry-picker hitching up wires in the blowing snow. 

Make me good at it, Lord. Make it a discipline.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

"The threat was stopped"

"The threat was stopped," Darren Wilson told the grand jury investigating the death of Michael Brown on the street in Ferguson, Missouri. "The threat was stopped."

There's so much about the shooting of Michael Brown that can be understood in a very human way, in a way that doesn't even engage our nation's racism. There is, after all, Michael Brown's size--he was a big man, 6''4", 290 pounds. Darren Wilson claimed in his testimony that Brown came at him like Hulk Hogan. Brown was a big man; Wilson is no little guy, but Brown outweighed him by maybe 70 pounds.

And Michael Brown knew it, and when he said what he did after already being shot at, he poured salt in the wounds of Wilson who may well have seen himself as the wimp in this struggle. "You're too much a pussy to shoot me," Michael Brown said and came after him. 

Testosterone oozes from that line, and no one recognized that put down as deeply as the little cop holding a gun that had already misfired, the smaller guy with the big gun. 

Hulk Hogan is coming after him--Wilson says the kid looked like a demon--and Wilson's all alone in a street with a gun that doesn't work, and he's a cop--dang it!--he's not supposed to get beat up or worse by some Hulk Hogan kid who walked out of a store with a pack of cigarillos he didn't pay for. 

So, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang--and the last bullet goes into Hulk Hogan's head and tears out his brains. Hulk the demon goes down. 

And Wilson says, "The threat was stopped."

Yes, it was.

Take the racial stuff out, and you've still got an understandable story about two angry males-the big one mad, the little big one scared.

Once upon a time, a girl on a bike got hit on our corner. She lay there for a while until the ambulance came. Honestly, it didn't look good because there was blood, and it was coming out of her ear--that's what I remember most, that blood coming out of her ear. She was hurried off, and somewhere today she's just fine, all grown up, I'm sure, probably being a mom.

Not long after, two old men came out, neighbors on both sides of our house, retired gents. They came out with pails and brushes and cleaned up the site because her blood had stayed on the street and those two old codgers thought it proper that it not stay there. It was blood, after all, a little girl's blood.

Michael Brown's body lay in a heap inside a pool of his blood, stayed in the middle of the street for more than an hour. Every cop in the land knows that it shouldn't be moved--what was out there in the street was a crime scene, and crime scenes are not to be tampered with. Says so in the book, for pity sake. So Michael Brown's body stayed there, parts of his brains in a mess. 

Just imagine you're his neighbor, and you know the kid. He just graduated from high school. 

There's so much about that whole incident that's so understandable, even without race.

But if you're black and you know the kid and you heard the shots--twelve in all--and you see the white cop out there decked out in gizmos and badges and sidearms and whatever else, you can't help thinking that that the kid's body is out there forever, his blood flowing, for some other reason, something related to what you believe--that they all hate you, that they believe you're an animal anyway.

Throw race into it and the death of Michael Wilson becomes something much larger than some guy who's outweighed, the only guy with a gun, being scared to death of Hulk Hogan with a demon inside him. Throw race into it, and the whole story is a symbol of our nation's systemic racism. Throw race into the killing of Michael Brown and the story becomes mythic, and myths always take greater hold of our hearts than mere news stories. 

The protests--even the fires, the looting, the shootings--wouldn't have happened last night if, back in August, a big black kid hadn't gone after a white cop he outweighed by 70 pounds, a cop holding a gun that had already misfired, a cop who to this day says Michael Wilson was not Michael Wilson but Hulk Hogan, a demon, "the threat" that had to be stopped with ten shots from a sidearm. None of what happened would have if the wimpy cop hadn't filled that big body with bullets.

Darren Wilson even used the passive voice when he talked to the grand jury: "The threat was stopped," he said, with chilling remoteness. The 6'4" cop, the little guy, is still scared to death. "The threat was stopped," he said, as if the whole thing was exactly what the rioters last night claimed it was, something far, far bigger than a confrontation between a 210-pound cop and a 280-pound kid on a street in Ferguson, Missouri. Michael Brown wasn't Michael Brown; he was "the threat."

Lots of white folks would like to see the whole story in just that way--"the threat was stopped." Duty, facts, law and order.

The truth is, we all have sinned. We stand--all of us--in such great need of grace.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Morning Thanks--bare feet on a warm basement floor

Two or three days of cloudy respite, thick curtains of morning fog, yesterday's gentle surprise of a soft rain, and the snow just disappeared, stole away so completely it seems as if it hadn't arrived at all. 

But then sometime yesterday afternoon huge air masses somewhere far above rubbed each other the wrong way and kicked up northwest winds that stormed the neighborhood once again, making every thing shake and squeal and whine. 

We love our new house, but there's nothing out there behind us to fend off the beating we take whenever the wind turns terrorist, no tree line, nary a bush, so it comes in with a head of steam built up over miles and miles of open land. 

Winter's no picnic here, which is why it's just about time for the snowbirds to depart once more for warmer climes.

The Yankton Sioux pitched their teepees out here long ago, of course. The word is that just east of us, where the river takes a hairpin turn was a favorite place for camp because right there the land sits up high enough to see for miles and miles of what was then nothing but grassland, tall grass prairie. 

Fires burned inside those teepees, of course, but sometimes I can't help but wonder how they made it through so many Januarys when winds like the ones just outside our door maintained a siege. Whole families must have ducked under a ton of buffalo hides, as if hibernating.

The Reverend William Suckow remembers winters here during the 1880s, when, as a young pastor, he ministered to small gatherings of Yankee and German Methodist farmers who determined to make a life for themselves and their families in northwest Iowa. Here's what he remembers of a community of pioneers around Sibley.
In this community most farmers used slough grass for fuel. In the fall they built up big stacks of it. They would bring in a large armful at a time, throw it on the floor, twist it up and shove it into a small sheet-iron stove, or into the fire pot of the cook stove. It made a hot fire, but one of such brief duration that it took practically all of one person's time to carry and twist hay as fast as it was consumed, especially in cold weather. The condition of the floor and the room in general may be easily imagined. 
He remembers one family, the Widmans, "very humble circumstance, but warm-hearted and hospitable," where he'd stay when preaching in a nearby schoolhouse. It was early December, he says, when he'd determined to have a series of meetings, a revival. He and his young wife were staying at the Widman place. "The old lady fairly outdid herself in trying to make us comfortable," he remembers. 

But the family that cold winter's night was distracted. "They had just bought their first load of coal, and the entire family gathered around the kitchen stove to admire the blaze, commenting on the remarkable heat thrown out."

The image is just great, an entire family transfixed by the burgeoning heat of their old stove renewed by the the very first shovels full of coal. 

Nice people, affable, kind, and hospitable. "I conducted the series of meetings here," he says, "without being able to arouse much interest." 

I'm not sure how he thought he could compete with the rich blessing of a warm fire generated from the miracle of coal.

It's all of 23 degrees outside right now, but gusts of 35 miles an hour make it feel like single digits. We've had worse and we'll get worse, I'm sure. 

Down here in the basement of our new house, my only buffalo hide lies in state above the library, unused; and I'm sitting here with bare feet because the floor is heated.

I've got no reason to grouse about wind and temps, and all kinds of reasons this cold, late November morning for thanksgiving. 

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Sunday Morning Meds--"Ubi Sunt"

“These things I remember as I pour out my soul: 
how I used to go with the multitude, 
leading the procession to the house of God, 
with shouts of joy and thanksgiving among the festive throng.” Psalm 42

Those who don’t know David’s deep sadness in this verse are truly blessed, but I can’t believe there are many.

A decade ago or so I took a trip from Sioux City, Iowa, to Billings, Montana, up the Missouri River valley through the magnificent country explored 200 years ago by the Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery.  Much of that territory hasn’t changed dramatically; there are no cities to speak of, and most of the towns are dying and have been for a century or more.  Agriculture reigns throughout that region, even though making a living is just as tough as it ever was.  But the great joy of traveling the Lewis and Clark Trail a century after they did is that so much space, so much grandeur is still there waiting to awe.
I left the river and stopped at the 125th anniversary commemoration of the Battle of Little Big Horn, and then visiting a desolate place called “Wounded Knee.”  The whole trip was, for me, an epic journey, resulting in a novel—and more.  I fell in love with territory that keeps me dreaming of a life out there somewhere in the humbling reverie of so much open space and such a big, big sky.  These very words are part of that trip’s legacy.
One moment, however, was purely personal and unrelated to American history or wide prairie landscape, a moment in the Black Hills, where the Schaap family vacationed way back when our kids were kids.  Camping in the Hills was always a joy, the children so young they could spend all day on a beach no larger than a backyard and not complain a mite. 

I intended to drive through Center Lake campground, where we set up our tent.  But when I passed the lodge and store at Sylvan Lake, I was time-capsuled back to a moment when I stood in that very store and watched my two tow-head kids trying to determine which of the little Black Hills curios they were going to lug along home. 

The memory was crystal clear, almost a vision--their blonde heads, their innocent indecision, and myself, a young father who knew, honestly, little more than joy and pride and the wide horizon of expectation.  Back then, I too, it seemed to me, was an innocent.

I didn’t go into the store that day, just drove by; but when I came to the Center Lake turnoff a few minutes later, I didn’t go to the campground either but headed in the opposite direction. A visceral grief so profound I almost cried hit me like some unseen Black Hills bison, and I couldn't stop.

Ubi sunt, that grief is called in literature—a grief of soul at the transience of life, of my life and yours.  I know what what ubi sunt is. I taught literature for a lifetime; but that I knew it in a textbook didn’t heal the sad pain.

Today, remembering that moment, I can’t help but think about how much deeper Lakota grief must be for those Hills, the Paha Sapa, because Native memories are so much richer and so much more profound.  That’s another story for another day.

David’s lament in Psalm 42 has within it the same profound lament for how things were and how those things are no more.  His may well be the original ubi sunt.

Put yourself in a grand memory, a place and time now totally unreachable. Think of the Lakota at Pine Ridge, not that far away, remembering the joy of Paha Sapa.  Think of me turning away from Center Lake.  Think of David and that unforgettable mad dance of his before the ark.  That’s what’s haunting him, and that’s why he needs God. 

As I do.  As you do too.  As all of us do, I think. 

Friday, November 21, 2014

Acts of love and grace

Okay, maybe it's a fund-raiser, I'm not sure, but even if it is, I'm happy to say that tomorrow night my wife and I will be attending a gala feast spread before us and others by a local Spanish-speaking church. Like most of the rest of the world, I could eat Mexican food two or three times a day, even its cheesy American descendants--although Taco Johns is pushing it. So I'm going to enjoy this dinner, whether or not someone stands up and asks for bucks.

I'm not a member of this church, and I've only rarely attended. I know no Spanish at all. Count me among the ugly Americans whose lingual dexterity is a downright shame. Ever since high school German, I've been scared to death of foreign languages. No matter. I'm going to the dinner--we're going; and we're proud to attend because hands down, in the last 20 years what other Sioux County Christians have done for this little church and the people it serves is a portrait of grace.

A quarter-century ago 35,000 people without a tease of color lived here in monochrome with roots in Holland, Germany, and Luxembourg. Then, as if out of nowhere, all kinds of Hispanics showed up and tinted the portrait, taking jobs for a whole lot less pay than locals would have tolerated if they wanted to take those jobs at all. Last year, right here in Orange City's Windmill Park, hundreds of people were entertained by a mariachi band from Hawarden. You read that right--at mariachi band from Hawarden. Who'd a' thunk?

Just a month ago, in west Africa, I heard Muslim men and Muslim women praise local medical professionals. They'd look right into my eyes and tell me how wonderful it was that the Christian men and women right there in the office, taking their babies' temps, were a glorious blessing. That "They'll Know We Are Christians By Our Love" isn't my favorite hymn of all time, doesn't mean its intent is somehow skewed. "They" will. When believers aren't loving, they're dead, in every which way.

I know Navajo Christians who have come to the faith because long, long ago, grandfathers or grandmothers were blessed by the only hospital near the reservation, the one at Rehoboth mission. Native folks--Zuni and Navajo--came to trust the mission not because they understood or trusted the Christian faith, but because Christians showed them love, acted in a way those Navajos equated with what they believed in their own tradition was "the beauty way."

Christians win when they act in love, and I'm one who believes that what President Obama did last night was just that, a long overdue act of love.

Republicans grand-slammed a couple of weeks ago, sweeping the sweeps, winning everything in sight, thoroughly repudiating the President. This morning they're understandably angry because a man they so thoroughly despise gave five million undocumented workers and their families some room to breathe, some love.  

And when he did, he put the ball in their court. My own congressional rep swings one of the biggest racquets. His impeachment bluster has been wearying. Now Rep. King will have to get in the game, do more than chatter on the sidelines. But if he and his cohorts repeal what was done last night, they'll have to answer to a national electorate that, like Sioux County, is far less monochrome than it once was. 

Stay tuned. It'll be interesting.  

Me? I'll be at that dinner tomorrow night. It ought to be good. 

In every way.