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.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016


If we actually lived in Orange City, what I'm about to say would be judged as heresy. We live in Alton, which has always been rather a somewhat embarrassing suburb of Sioux County's own citadel of righteousness, Orange City, the town Manfred always called "Jerusalem." Because we live in Alton I can say this and save my scalp. Here's the bald truth: I've never been all that fond of Tulip Festival. 

There, I said it. Hang me. 

But I'm learning. Last weekend I spent three very enjoyable hours as a tour guide through the Native American section of the Sioux County Museum, then half a gorgeous Saturday behind a Walmart folding table, selling books. Tulip Festival. I enjoyed being there in the middle of everything, just as I had last year. What's more, I sold books.  

For almost forty years, from behind the walls of Fort Sioux Center, Orange City's deadly serious rival in all things, I giggled, took pot shots at the dopey street dancing and idiotic costumes OC people don annually for their precious fest. And wooden shoes. We went once or twice when the kids were little and needed cotton candy, but mostly I did the lawn on Saturday and stayed away from the madness a dozen miles south and east.

On Friday, an older woman (a difficult phrase these days) came up to me in the museum, grabbed my sleeve, and leaned in toward me as if to whisper intimacy. "We love your town," she said, plain and simple. Things got all shook up in my head because she was talking about Orange City, which has never really been my town at all.

"So do we," I said. Not a lie, but not exactly heartfelt testimony. 

It's over now. Real Orange City-ans love to reminisce, to go over specs and dimensions, to tell each other stories of this year's pageantry, which inevitably leads to old yarns of hallowed festivals gone by. Last night, I listened to countless reminiscences, precious really, all of them. Three times, Mid-May, it actually snowed--did you know that? There were tales of peashooters, squirt guns, float mishaps. One guy said the first year they lived here, he went to every single parade--six of them in two days--and loved every one. Since?--well, not so.

Last night the combined choirs of Unity Christian High, Orange City, surrounded the crowd at the Knight Center, lined the rows and stairs in a kind of hug, and then sung "Peace Like a River." Some hymns pull my heart right out of my chest for all the world to see, the old Horatio Spafford hymn one of them. Mr. Spafford wrote out the text, the story goes, on a ship that was just then going by the spot in the wide Atlantic where, not long before, a killer storm had claimed the lives of all four of his children.

O Lord, haste the day
When my faith shall be sight--
the clouds be rolled back 
as the shore. 
It is well with my soul. 

That hymn's history doesn't stop with a tear-filled hymn-writer aboard a ship on the watery grave of his beloved children. It has become itself a lifeboat, holding up a dozen renditions in time and place that have sustained me like scripture itself through an entire lifetime. Something pulls at the corners of my eyes with every rendition. To say I know it by heart is itself a testimony.

This particular rendition was no different, with one exception. Somewhere in the lines of those choirs stood my granddaughter, brightening the earth's own darkness with a confession that has since Spafford wrote it been offered to the Lord God almighty millions and millions of time. 

No matter. That she was a part of that hymn in that beautiful way last night was a moment like none other. I hope she felt something of the rich privilege it is to make music that has brought so much eternal joy to so many sinners lavishly blessed by grace alone.

It is well, it is well with my soul. 

My parents, both of them deceased, would have loved hearing that hymn last night and seeing their own great-granddaughter as part of that choir holding a crowd of parents and grandparents, as it were, in their arms from all around the hall. 

But then, to be honest, what do any of us know about death? Absolutely nothing. 

So let's just say they were there, Jocelyn. Let's just say from some promontory somewhere, your great-grandparents were listening too, wiping a tear or two just the way your grandpa did. I bet they were. I know they were.

Don't get me wrong. I don't have to be a real Orange City-ite to say I really enjoyed Tulip Festival this year. 

But last night was something different. Last night was heritage

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

A Tulip Time Night Show

I may be wrong but I recognize some of our newest neighbors here as Guatemalan, distinguishable from other Hispanic newcomers by their height--among Frisian-American volley-ballers, they'd all be setters--and the long colorful dresses the women wear on city sidewalks.

If those cultural markers are accurate, the young mom standing in the grocery line ahead of me Sunday night was Guatemalan. At her side were three little clingy brown-eyed girls, the oldest of whom may have been in kindergarten, but not a smidgen older. That the Mom and kids were brand new to the community was clear by the way the clerk carefully explained the check-out procedure--what buttons to push, where to sign--all of it accomplished beautifully, by the way, in fluent Spanish. 

The tall high school kid at the register shyly told his bi-lingual co-worker that the Guatemalan mom hadn't answered the final question on the card reader, so the clerk who knew Spanish gently took the woman back four or five steps to be sure she understood the procedure, all of the explanations in Spanish. That little drama was, by itself, a thing of beauty.

But there were more acts to the drama. The oldest of the little girls--she could barely see up on the counter--had herself a Hershey bar and a crinkled dollar bill she laid out for that giant of a high school kid, who duly punched in the purchase. It came to $1.06, and there was only that crinkled dollar bill. 

The tall kid never flinched. Mom was being schooled at the end of the counter and the little girl with the Hershey bar was already starting to unwrap her treasure, so he just reached down and pulled out six pennies from the plate on the counter. I couldn't help thinking it was one darling act of love.

But more was coming. You couldn't help notice that when the younger sister saw her big sister's treasure and didn't get a bite, that little girl's bottom lip curled up in a fashion that needed no translation. 

And soon enough there was a whimper. 

Now the clerk who knew Spanish was oblivious to the offending Hershey bar, so she asked the Guatemalan mom how it was that her little one had suddenly turned sour. When Mom pointed to the chocolate, the clerk quite magically produced a big dish of what, decades ago, we used to call "penny candy." Where she got it from, I don't know, but just then it looked like five loaves and two fishes or some other miracle.

That little down-turned lip straightened out into one glorious smile once the little tyke reached into the miracle bowl of goodies. Goodbyes were said, and I just happened to be there, next in line with a couple of oranges and a little bag of stroops.

It was the Sunday after Tulip Time, a kind of sabbath all its own, a moment in time when most of Orange City sits down and takes one huge breath. 

But right there before my eyes a sweet drama went on, a ethnic play whose story line was perfectly universal, a midtown Sunday "night show" just as poignant as West Side Story, and maybe even more darling, a Sabbath blessing all its own.

Monday, May 23, 2016

What I think about Willa Cather

Don't get me wrong--I love Willa Cather. But anyone who can't make out at least some gender issues in My Antonia is wearing pretty thick rose-colored glasses. The voice of the story belongs to Jim Burden, who Ms. Cather appears to want us to believe is male, a man remembering his boyhood, specifically an old girl friend (two words there) named Antonia, someone he calls "my" Antonia. 

Maybe it's just me, but I don't think so. Jim, whose voice guides us through, just doesn't "feel" male. His perceptions and memories "feel" far more female. If Jim Borden, the fictional character and narrator of one of America's greatest novels, ever walked the streets of Red Cloud, Nebraska, Willa Cather's home town, he must have cut something of a unique path.  

The truth of the matter is, his creator, Willa Cather, did. For a time s/he cut her hair off and wanted to pass herself off as "William Cather." That kind of behavior is something s/he exhibited in his/her teenage years already, and if you think I'm pulling your leg, here's the famous picture of her affecting a gender switch that must have been more than passing strange in the late 19th century. 

For decades already, gay scholars--and not so gay scholars--have tried to bring Willa Cather into their already substantial list of LBGT writers and artists. There is no real proof; her sexuality is not something she openly discussed. She never came out of the closet, if, in fact, she was ever in one. What's clear is those who would argue for her being a lesbian have some grounds.

For several years, I took classes out to Red Cloud, Nebraska, always a delightful experience, in part because My Antonia or O Pioneers were almost magical books in class, almost always blessedly received. Getting off-campus for a long day (it took the best part of five hours just to get there) was a ball, of course, and the landscape of that old railroad town is unique and truly "Great Plains." 

The Willa Cather Foundation would set up tours of the region for us when we arrived--Willa Cather lived with her grandparents, who homesteaded ten miles or so out of town (I pulled a break from the prairie grass of the homestead--see above). Some local woman (I don't remember ever having a male guide) would jump into our van and talk about the Cathers and their era in Red Cloud. Always a perfect delight.

Inevitably, the gender question would arise: was Willa Cather a lesbian? Annually, it was asked and answered, always a bit different, depending on the guide. 

One year, the guide answered with an anecdote. She was real native Red Cloud-er, her family having lived in town for generations. She told her grandfather used to say that when he was a boy--at about the time Willa Cather lived in town (eventually her own family lived just a block off Main Street), his father had told him in no uncertain terms that Willa had a little of both male and female in her, a mix that made her just a bit "different," a catch-all adjective frequently chosen for a variety of eccentric behaviors in small-town America. 

But there was more. She said her grandfather had told her his father had made it very clear that Willa wasn't exactly like everyone else, but that she wasn't to be mocked or made fun of. There was two answers to the question the guide's grandfather had asked of his father back then on the dusty streets of a frontier town: one of them was, yes, she's different; but the second was, you respect her anyway.

I loved that answer. In subsequent years when subsequent town guides would answer the question about sexuality in different ways, I'd often bring that answer up on the long ride back to northwest Iowa. I'd be sure to tell the students in the van what a woman said a couple of years back about difference and respect.

I don't know that the story has anything to do with the Obama Administration's charge to respect gender differences, especially transexuals, by allowing them the rest room of their choice. I'm not particularly taken by the federal government creating a mandate that could cost every school district in the country major bucks because of the possibility of disrespect the rest of us pay to individuals who, according to Time magazine, make up significantly less than one percent of the population. 

I'll let others argue pro and con, but I think there's good sense in what some Red Cloud, Nebraska gentlewoman told my students more than a decade ago when we stood right there in Willa Cather's home, just off Main Street. People are different. Just remember, respect 'em.

2006 Red Cloud Excursion

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Sunday Morning Meds--"The Furnace of Doubt"

Hear my prayer, O LORD God Almighty; 
listen to me, O God of Jacob.”
Psalm 84:8

Woody Allen’s movie Match Point received truly mixed reviews when it was released. Some called it the best movie he’s done ever; some warned Allen’s legions of fans to stay away, “lest their idea of Allen’s genius become ever so slightly dented,” as one wrote.  

In Match Point, or so it seems to me, Allen’s interests are metaphysical, as they often are. In fact, the film is not so subtly crafted, prompting one to think the story is an object lesson in grace—amazing grace, in fact, but perverse grace, certainly not the species that prompted one-time slave-trader John Newton to write the famous hymn.

A handsome, ambitious and well-read tennis pro named Chris Wilton falls into the gravy when one of his students ushers him into the intimacy of a well-heeled family. He marries a beautiful daughter and soon finds himself at the helm of a family-owned multi-national. Sadly, however, his libidinous self won’t be suppressed, even though he risks all the blessings he’s received. Wilton can’t keep his hands off a woman who is not his wife, and when she gets pregnant, she threatens everything. He kills her and a neighbor. Double homicide.

Relatively ordinary potboiler, until the surprisingly metaphysical last few moments of the film. By sheer luck—a series of coincidences the murderer doesn’t even know himself Wilton gets away with his heinous crimes. As Allen makes visually (and somewhat painfully) clear throughout the film, fate is simply a matter of where the ball bounces. The trajectory of our lives has less to do with our designs than plain old luck.

All of which reminds me, in a way, of a famous Woody Allen quote: “If it turns out that there is a God, I don't think that he's evil. The worst that you can say about him is that basically he's an underachiever.” Don’t look for moral order in the universe, Allen is saying, just deal the cards.

In an opening scene, Chris Wilton is reading Crime and Punishment, a set up that’s irresistible, as if Allen is taking great delight in revising Dostoyevsky’s famous tale, taking the novel to task for its clear suggestion of the importance of faith and salvation.

And yet, perhaps, differences are merely a matter of degree. After all, it’s Dostoyevsky who once wrote, “It is not as a child that I believe and confess Jesus Christ. My hosanna is born of a furnace of doubt.”

Woody Allen has plenty of his own furnaces, I believe. Match Point is as memorable as it is because it takes on cosmic issues, the way Allen’s work always does. If we aren’t in charge, who is? Is anyone? Is there a God? If there is, is he an underachiever? Not many films ask such questions so openly; that he can’t untangle himself from the messy mysteries of existence suggests an eternal battle, here as elsewhere in his work.

 Faith may well seem the opposite of doubt, but I doubt it. In Psalm 84, the seemingly boundless faith of the psalmist is undercut, even deconstructed by the command form he employs, the vehemence, the raised pointer of his begging. “Listen to me, God!” he says, suggesting that the Creator of heaven and earth hasn’t always kept his end of the bargain. There are almost equal portions of faith and doubt in the words of this verse, as much joy in the promise of God’s presence as there is stiff fear of his absence.

Isn’t it amazing that a single line of scripture can hold so much tension, so much humanity, so much of what we recognize ourselves to be?

So much of who we are.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Book Report--Slave of the Sioux

There's no accounting for taste, and I'm not trying to sell a book. The fact is, I really loved Slave of the Sioux, not because it's riveting or factual or because it has any of the characteristics one might expect of a literary ancestor of the memoir, a genre greatly beloved by our age. It does, but that's not why I read it.

What's worse, I can't imagine anyone recommending this book. It's insanely politically incorrect. Fanny Kelly was kidnapped by a terrorist band of Ogallala (Sioux) after what some would call a totally unprovoked attack that killed several of her travelling companions as they, like millions of others, wagon-trained over what had been traditional Sioux lands. 

Once in the story, she seems to understand their anger; she stops and explains the hatred they harbor for those endless train of white men and women and children aboard thousands of prairie schooners. But for the most part what she suffers at the hands of her captives determines her attitude, and it's simple: they are savages. 

The s-word was universally appropriate in the late 19th century, and Ms. Kelly sprinkles it liberally--"savages here," "savages there"--and sprinkles is most assuredly too kind a word. That usage also earmarks the fascination I have, I guess, for a book like Slave of the Sioux.

As its genre-ancestor almost two centuries earlier, The Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mary Rowlandson, Fanny Kelly's story had to have been something of a best-seller back in the later decades of the 19th century, when the story of the West was vastly more interesting than it is today because people--red and white--were still living it. Kelly's story is set when it happened, 1864, when the white nation, for the most part, was far too taken by its own Civil War to pay close attention to what was happening in the great open spaces west of the Mississippi. 

But out here on the Northern Plains, a war was also going on, a clash between the armies of immigrants coming into the region and the red folks those newcomers so mindlessly displaced. Fanny Kelly is a casualty of that war. In the attack that led to her captivity, her small caravan of wagons and pioneers were murdered, massacred really, except for her and her adopted daughter. 

Ms. Kelly and her Christianized ways became something of a role model for disgruntled Ogallala wives; she simply did what her Native husband commanded. That compliance not only saved her life but made her so valuable that cavalry enterprises created to buy her back from her captors failed. She was, to her husband, too valuable. 

A community founded on violence as a virtue could not have been a happy home for her, and it wasn't. She found Lakota life brutal and merciless--and says so. To a contemporary reader who's adopted the "noble savage" characterization of Native America, what happens to Fanny Kelly will seem deliberately staged to make her white readership regard Native people as even more hideous. I'm sure it did in the mid-19th century.

But contemporary readers--no matter how they view the story of the American West--read a book like Slave of the Sioux in a completely different way 150 years later; and, for the most part, that's where my love of the book grows. What's of great interest to me is that significant difference. I can't help but read a story like Fanny Kelly's with a level of comfort and objectivity that, for the most part, wasn't available when it was first of all experienced and then subsequently published as a popular read (1871). The book is interesting in the way a thoughtful museum can capture our fascination.

Example? Easy. Fanny Kelly's family owned two slaves who traveled with them out west. Both were killed when in the Lakota ambush. Ms. Kelly doesn't really question the legitimacy of her family's owning servants, and when the survivors from the first attack have to bury the victims, they argue--seriously, she says--about whether or not Black victims can be buried with white victims. Finally, it is resolved that they will be, and when it is, Ms. Kelly notes it as a mark of their compassionate liberality. Amazing.

What happened in the American West--what happened in all of North America since the arrival of  this nation's first undocumented populace--was a cultural clash that had countless victims, the vast majority of whom were Native people. That raw fact is something that Fanny Kelly only obligingly understands and largely looks past. There was, after all, free land out west, land her husband and she simply determined offered for them and millions of others a far better life.  Call it "the American dream." That they could make such a blind determination still strikes me as greatly amazing as it is appalling.

But so it went with my people, even with my own family; all of which makes Fanny Kelly's story my story too, for all its sadness and horror. In a way, I was there too, just a bit downriver.

I don't need to apologize for reading Slave of the Sioux, and I'm not. To say I enjoyed it probably misses the point; but I did, not for the vivid action of the narrative (it is a 19th century action/adventure story), but for what it contributes to my own understanding of our own recent past and the story of America, a story I am very much a part of.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

How we remember

Major General Patrick Cleburne

Chickamauga was a costly Confederate victory. The total of 16,000 Union casualties was second only to the Battle of Gettysburg that summer, but the Confederate Army lost even more--18,000. No matter. After significant defeats at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, for a while at least, the Rebel army could hold their heads high after Chickamauga, the huge battle (the Rebel line stretched out for 15 miles) just south of Chattanooga. 

But then came Lookout Mountain, a big win "above the clouds" for the Feds, and Missionary Ridge, where an odd unplanned assault that probably shouldn't have happened, miraculously evolved into the rout it became. Soon enough, Sherman would begin his fiery march through the heart of Dixie. 

Regretfully, I'm sure, Confederate General Braxton Bragg assigned Major General Patrick Cleburne (an immigrant, by the way) to basically stall what he knew would be an imminent Federal advance that would likely follow the railroad through the Ringgold Gap, a narrow span of bottom land between White Oak Mountain and Taylor's Ridge. Cleburne's assignment was really nothing more--allow Bragg to get his legs beneath him after the stinging losses he and the Rebels had just suffered.

Patrick Cleburne was no fool. He scouted the area himself late at night, then deployed his 4000 troops or so as stealthily as possible, tucking them in around every nook and cranny to await the Union advance. Think of it this way: the line of Union forces is marching four abreast. It's November, and it's cold, and it's sickeningly muddy. What's more, everyone--Feds and Rebs--have been through hell in the last month already, losses have been awful, almost lethal. Sherman's "March to the Sea" didn't start with great ceremony, but already there at Ringgold Gap they ran into significant fireworks.

The numbers are telling. Cleburne's four thousand bravely held off the Union's fifteen. It was, for the moment, a clear Rebel victory, even if the Union advance, not to mention the direction of the war, was only temporarily sidelined.

Today if you want to do some shopping in the town of Ringgold, Georgia, you head on down to Cleburne Mall because the Irish commander is a war hero. His statue graces a commemorative park along Hwy. 72, the very route the Union Army took when it ran into withering fire from Cleburne's deftly placed troops and batteries. Hard as it is to believe Cleburne had been in this country for less than 20 years when he won a victory along the tracks here. But in Ringgold, as you can imagine, he's a hero. 

On April 27, 2011, a rare EF-4 tornado formed over Catoosa County, Georgia and stayed on the ground for fifty miles, ripping through the town of Ringgold, Georgia, where seven people died. It did immense damage and laid waste an old cemetery right there along Hwy. 72, where ancient stones tumbled and fences around gravesites got themselves hideously twisted. 

Someone mows the lawn in that cemetery today. It's not a weed patch, not totally unkept. Still, the place could use some TLC. Stones are down and scattered, but there's a memorial there that's unmistakable from the road out front, and it's intent is pure and sure. Look for yourself.

 The flags are brand new, still crisp enough not to have torn or shredded in the wind. They're here and they're elsewhere on graves throughout. 

I'm not interested in casting aspersions, but it's clear that what matters more to the residents is the identification of these graves with the noble cause of the Confederacy than who it is may be who lies beneath the stones. I've been on dozens of cemeteries in this country as well as Europe, seen hundreds--maybe thousands--of American flags on grave sites, including the flag on my dad's. But I'd never seen the Rebel flag on a grave before, never seen a stone marked "CSA."

Okay, I admit it. It was a bit startling, given the outcry over the stars and bars in South Carolina and the fact that Gov. Nikki Haley signed a bill taking it down from the State House after the murders in church at Charleston. Those fresh clean flags seemed to this yankee to be an outright statement of rebellion.

But there's still blood in the soil of the place where Gen. Patrick Cleburne's brilliant maneuvering meant 4000 Rebels successfully stalled 15,000 Union troops so Braxton Bragg could reassemble his routed army and live to fight another day. There were some 900 casualties at Ringgold Gap. Let the people tell their story, I told myself. Let 'em remember. No one should forget.

It's a forlorn place really, that little tornado-ravaged cemetery of ancient stones. The flags, on the other hand, are fresh and bright. Obviously, they mean something important to someone. Maybe more than they should.

After all, what Claborne did, no matter how brilliant or heroic, is only stall the inevitable direction of a much bigger story. 

In that old cemetery I didn't become more of a rebel, maybe just a bit less of a Yankee.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

A Rookie and the Darkness (ii)

(continued from yesterday)
John the counselor had never once struck me as a hard person to live with. That he could be telling me to temper my sense of mercy with an hard shot of justice seemed wholly uncharacteristic. “You kidding?” I said.
"Schaap," he said to me, "don't ever let him by like that again.  You want to help the kid?—then don't let him pull that stuff. I don’t care what he's got at home, he can’t get by pulling that song-and-dance anymore.  He’s using it, and he can’t.”

I felt green, perfectly green.

“You’re not the only one,” he told me, and then he put his hand on my shoulder, just as I had done two days before with a teary gymnast.

That night, I suppose the rookie felt he had some more evil to write home about.

Not long ago I pulled out some of the remnant memories of those high school teaching years, including a dozen stapled pages or so by a girl named Theresa, who wrote out some assignments on the topic of family.  That same year, Bob's junior year, I red-penciled the spelling on those assignments during Christmas break, just a week before hearing on the television news how Theresa's father had murdered her mother, then shot himself, the whole bloody business carried out in front of the kids right there at home on the northern edge of the city.

“I don’t ever want my mother to die,” she wrote on that paper. "But sometimes life is just that way.  Everybody’s got to go when their time comes.  I will always remember my mother for what she is—my mother.” Less than a month later, her mother was murdered before her daughter's eyes.
There's nothing particularly elegant about the style of those sentences, nothing stunning or profound about the sentiment. But I'm not about to throw it away. I too, like Frost, have been acquainted with the night. 

So I still have Theresa's assignment because those words were—and still are—of significant meaning to the rookie this old retired teacher was and is and probably forever will be.