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, July 23, 2014

Hell to pay (2)

Not so long ago, I told myself I should really change the little picture that identifies me somehow on Google+. It is a shot like this one, a silhouette on a winter morning in a pasture, a kind of self-portrait. It was cold and crisp and pure that morning, and my shadow formed a dark outline against the snowbanks shouldering a creek. It like this one. (It shows up mysteriously if I make a comment below--check it out.)

I saw myself in this picture, even though neither subject nor setting is the same.  Why would someone take it? One answer is "because we can."  Digital photography makes three-year-olds into photographers. But why this particular shot? Some kind of mystery, maybe?--after all, there's something both real and insubstantial about a shadowy silhouette. It's as if we're there and not there simultaneously.

I think I was 17 or so when I sensed something of the odd brevity of life for the very first time. There was no sudden death, no lingering disease, no horrible accident; it was nothing more than a walk on some lonely section of Lake Michigan beach, my footsteps disappearing behind me. Something felt astonishing, the eternal beauty of the lake shore erasing, oddly enough, and in seconds, whatever trace of me I'd left behind.

I stole this silhouette picture from a Facebook site, same one as this picture, the first installment of what appears to be a series documenting a project--the rehabilitation of a backyard.  Look for yourself.

Obviously--I hope you can see it--it was raining or maybe snowing, long white lines veering toward the wet earth. Some work is being accomplished, a couple of tarpaper-covered holes have been dug in the ground.

Then, there's this one. Same backyard, same holes, one of them now holding a kid in a New York jersey, work tools slung hither and yon. Something's going forward here.

And then there's this one, thick with the pride that issues from accomplishment. Same two butterflies on the wall, but flowers everywhere around a little grassy infield.  Seagulls maybe?--on a big portrait hung from what looks to be a patio screen. The backyard is done, finished, and now livable. That's the story.

I don't know if it's legal to lift pictures from a Facebook site that isn't yours, but if it isn't, FB shouldn't make it as easy as they do. I know, I know--I'm blaming FB for my thievery, and I shouldn't. I'm the one who clicked the copy button. 

Here's the woman whose site I raided.

And here she is with her son.

I don't know her life story. It seems there was no husband. At least no appropriately-aged male appears in her photos, only her son.

And even though Facebook doesn't tell us that this big kid is her son, we know as much today because we know that the two of them (big-time travelers, by the way, if you look at more of her pictures), were on their way to Malaysia for some kind of conference for single parents and their children, just the two of them and 296 others aboard a jet zooming along at 33,000 feet in the air when it was shot out of the sky by a damned Russian missile. 

Her name is Petra H. van Langeveld and her son is Gary Slok. They're citizens of the Netherlands. He's 15. Was. They're both gone, no longer with us.

The sudden tragic loss of 298 lives in a plane crash perpetuated by drunken, mindless murderers is a devastating horror that makes us all reach for revenge. 

But they were 298 men and women and children, each with separate lives, individual human beings who loved and won and lost and laughed and cried together, who redid back yards to make their homes more warm and inviting, human beings who smiled on mountain tops and saw something worth remembering in sandy silhouettes. And they were, each of them, somehow cast in the image of their Creator, no matter where they stood and how they were clothed. 

Evil erased their footsteps. Once they were us; now they are gone. 

John McCain wasn't all wrong. There should be hell to pay.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Book Review: Latinos: The Next Wave

There are richer, more nuanced, far more serious studies, of course, scholarly books that are tomes, huge theoretical arguments and expansive histories. This one isn't even a book; it may be what we call a "booklet."  Well, maybe it's a little big for a booklet, but it offers some thoughtful and playful insight into one of our most difficult problems, our meaning Anglo-America.  

And that is, of course, the sudden and overwhelming presence of so many Hispanic neighbors. Last week's Wednesday "Night in the Park" here in Orange City was a mini-festiva--food, games, a local Mariachi band--all kinds of fun set up and run by a growing ethnic community that, 25 years ago, didn't even exist here; and most of us, back then, wouldn't have guessed it ever could. Today, Hispanics are everywhere in the neighborhood.  It think Sioux Center, Iowa, has five Mexican restaurants, and that's not counting Taco Johns. 

Several of my friends, pastors all, Hispanics all, put together a booklet titled Latinos: the Next Wave:  You Don't Have to Speak the Lingo because they felt, as do many others, that a good many Anglos need to be formally introduced to the new families down the block.  Formally may not be the best word here because The Next Wave is not formal. It's graced with lively humor and a charming personality, and it's not afraid of spoofing itself.

It's an easy read and a good read, mightily beneficial for Anglos who find themselves surrounded by people  who chatter in Spanish and laugh and hug and carry on with none of our characteristic, upper-Midwest stoicism. None of them worship at First Church of Iceburg either. They're not like the rest of us, with one major exception: they're human. The Next Wave won't let you forget that. 

Republicans--many of them, even Karl Rove--were shocked when Barack Obama won a second term. One of the reasons was the Hispanic vote, which Obama won overwhelmingly and they simply hadn't factored into the equation. They didn't, Hispanics went to the polls, and Obama won. Decisively. 

That surprise led to a regular festival of hand-wringing by people like Reince Priebus, the head of the Republican party. Whether or not there's change amid the Republicans remains to be seen, but Priebus might do well to assign his party regulars this book, if for no other reason than it's become impossible to avoid the Hispanic presence all around us. It behooves Priebus's Republicans--and all of us--to know our neighbors better than we do.

Rev. Pedro Aviles did the heavy lifting on The Next Wave. Aviles, who is Puerto Rican and a true Chicago-ite, pastors Berwyn Ebenezer CRC, the only CRC to stay in the community during the neighborhood's long and sometimes difficult and even dangerous ethnic and racial transitions. Today, Ebenezer finds itself in a lower-middle class community of homeowners, right next door to burbs that each have their own ethnic and racial flavors. It does what it can and what it must and what God asks to be a good neighbor. 

Aviles's The Next Wave is like a Q and A. He sets out to answer questions an Anglo audience might have about their Hispanic neighbors, questions like "What Do I Need to Know about Showing Respect?" Hispanics, like Native Americans, frequently defer to others by not looking at them, a behavior Anglos can easily misinterpret:  "Don't be surprised if Hispanic kids look away when you speak to them," he says. "Non-Hispanics frequently misinterpret lack of eye contact as a sign of concealment, deception, and/or dishonesty." In truth, Aviles says, nothing could be farther from the truth.  "In a Hispanic culture [looking away] actually results from a recognition of authority, a sign of respect, a means of giving deference." 

What this wonderful little book does is introduce Anglos to the history and the life and the personality of the whole catalog of ethnics we sometimes impolitely gang together under titles like Latina/os and Hispanics. As Aviles points out, most of our Spanish-speaking neighbors think of themselves first of all as Mexicans or Puerto Ricans or Guatemalans, the countries of their origins.

Let me perfectly racist here. The Next Wave is for white folks. In it and with it, you'll discover everything you wanted to know about your new Hispanic neighbors. It's published by the Office of Race Relations of the Christian Reformed Church, and I am proud to have had an editorial hand in its production because The Next Wave does a task that needed--and still needs--to be done: it makes all of us more neighborly.

One story from my own ethnic past.  Only recently have Dutch scholars been able to name all of those Dutch passengers who died in the flames of the Phoenix ship, just off Sheboygan, Wisconsin harbor, in November of 1847. Only recently. For years, no one in America really cared who or how many died, even though the sinking of the Phoenix was the greatest Great Lakes disaster of the 19th century. No one really cared back then because those passengers were immigrants, and who on earth really cares about immigrants? 

Once my people too were strangers in a strange land. That's worth remembering.

Use Latinos: The Next Wave with church groups, in small groups, and adult Sunday Schools programs, or just read it yourself. It's goal is nothing more or less than understanding, which is to say, peace.

Monday, July 21, 2014

An epic battle

For most of last week, it's been me and the weeds in a battle for the ages. I won't say I won, but right now I'm ahead by a half a yard, if you can trust my judgment (I'm hardly an objective observer).

The weather, thank goodness, was perfect. This week's temps promise oppressive summer heat. I don't know that 90-degree temps will change the outcome, but I can't help but worry. Advantage: weeds.

The landscaping crew convinced us that a brand new lawn would start better if they waited until fall. I was okay with that, but the decision left us with as fine a crop of weeds as you'll find in Siouxland, in Calvinist Siouxland, I might add, where weeds, glorious blossoming weeds, are as much a public sin as an illegitimately rounded female belly. Weeds like ours speak for themselves, and what they say is sloth---yes, Sloth of the Seven Deadlies.

Now the backyard soil is sandy and gravely, a blessing from our neighbor to the north, the river. The front yard is blessed with decent topsoil, so the enemy I'm facing is somewhat varied lot-wise, as has been my military strategy. We sprayed once, took most everything out. Agent Orange'll do that. 

But when our garden started producing mutants, guilt raised its ugly head. To some of my friends, 24d is a curse word--I get that. Drifts can kill you and your neighbor. 

Still, when panicked last week, when it looked as if the cause was lost, I sprayed again, not shock and awe, like the first round, but here and there some surgical strikes. I'm sorry, but it felt and looked as if I was in a strangle hold. I had no choice. I had to up the fire power.

But I prefer conventional arms like this guy, adept at both beheading the enemy and improving your golf swing. However, like its descendant, the gas-powered weed whacker, ye old scythe secures a temporary win since it leaves the roots and therefore multiplies enemy forces in something less than a fortnight. The yard looks almost righteous for a couple of days, but when sin returns it's legion.

Really, the most sure way to fight is hand-to-hand.  Jerk 'em, all of 'em, pull 'em up from the roots one at a time. When the ground is as sandy as ours is, that's not hard but it's really tedious. If, like me, you've already had one back surgery, it also means emptying the Aleve just to get out of the chair into bed at night.

But here's the glory--when I pull 'em, they're gone. 

Look at these two shots:  

BEFORE clean-and-jerk

And after.

Viola! See what I mean? That's why jerking 'em, roots and all, is the nuclear option.  And that's what I did.  Mostly.

Now multiply this square inch of God's creation by a whole acre, and you'll begin to understand the pitched battle I'm in. When I was a boy in the Cold War, wave after wave of Chinese soldiers kept me awake at night because a couple of kids in a pillbox just couldn't keep mowing them down. It's like that. I may have won the battle, but the war is far from over because somehow they just keep coming. 

And this week, heat too yet.

Now all of this is of biblical proportions. Pulling weeds is God's work--well, Adam's anyway. It's all the fault of the fall, right? If we lived in Eden, there'd be button weed, no Aleve in the cupboard. It's that simple, right? Cleaning up weeds is our mutual calling.

But I've got friends--good friends, good Christian friends, good Christian friends who are scientists, in fact--who like to say that without a doubt humankind was deeply affected by Adam and Eve's dalliance with forbidden fruit, but nature wasn't, which is to say that weeds aren't somehow sin. I'm not making this up.

Listen, all week long I picked 'em and I've still got a yard full--all week long by scythe, by whacker, by Roundup. But mostly I pulled 'em, one at a frickin' time; and this mastadon-shaped pile, once yellowed, will soon be deliciously devoured in hellish flames.

So I don't want to know it's not sin I'm fighting here in my own square inch. Don't tell me I'm not subduing the earth. If that's in any way true, I don't want to know. The battle is too big, too epic, too biblical. 

I won't hear it. I won't. It's blasphemy.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Sunday Morning Meds--Enduring Inheritance

“. . .and their inheritance will endure forever” Psalm 37

I’m told that one of the all-too-human urges behind a desire to write is a somewhat unconscious wish to create something timeless.  We want to be a Hemingway or a Dickinson, a Milton or a Shakespeare.  We want to speak, long after our voice box has been dusted away from whence it has come.

Maybe.  When as an undergraduate I stumbled on a love of literature I never knew I had, I’ll admit believing that one of the perks of the writing life was the possibility of being included in those fat lit anthologies.  That was before I knew the word “remaindered,” and long before I realized how many of us actually sit here, fingers curled over the keys, shooting for immortality.  

A friend of mine, the book editor of a major American newspaper, gets 100 books a day to review.  There’s lots of competition to get a place in those anthologies.
Some time ago, I corresponded with two antiquarian book sellers in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.  Years ago, I stumbled on a moldy cardboard box of old Dutch books in an antique store.  The woman up front told me she’d just as soon get rid of them.  “Five bucks,” she said, shrugging her shoulders.

Inside, I found ancient theological tomes, literally hundreds of years old.  Simply to hold one is a thrill.  But they have no vital relationship to me, even though my own DNA wears wooden shoes on both sides of the family.  My great-grandfather came from Holland to teach theology in the 1870s; I’ve got many of his books too.  Those I wouldn’t sell.

When finally those booksellers got back to me, I was amazed at how little those books were worth. The cost to ship them to Holland would, on its own, devour whatever those old books promised. They’re back on my shelf.

What real value they have derives from their age, not their authors.  The most ancient was published in 1655.  It’s a bit smaller than a paperback, has an abundance of bronze, liver-spotted pages, and is some kind of theological study—De Yverigan, Christen, den Hemel door Heyligh Gevvelt:innemende.  I have only a faint idea of what that means.  I’m not even sure there is an author listed.
Most books published today won’t endure like Christen, den Hemel—it’s a matter of physics, I'm told, of the quality of ink and paper.  Okay, I admit it—that’s a bit unsettling.  Somewhere in me I must have this jaded wish to live forever by way of the words now appearing on my screen.  However, read ‘em and weep, because these old books say, “Listen, brother, don’t count on it.”

And then there’s David, whose words are animating every last key stroke I’m making right now, thousands and thousands of years after he sat down with the parchment. But the promise he’s giving us in this verse of Psalm 37 has nothing to do with his poetry or his music, even those softly plaintive tones from the harp, the ones that calmed King’s Saul’s soul.

The enduring inheritance David promises in this line is nothing more or less than eternity, life forever, the gift of God to those the psalm calls “blameless,” recipients of God’s own grace.  We will live forever.

And that, I’ve long been convinced, is mine.  Even if these words slip away from the cloud after a decade or two, even if nothing I ever say lasts any longer than an hour or two after lunch. 

Eternity, by grace, is mine. 

That, no matter what I say or write, is an inheritance that endures.  Forever.            

Friday, July 18, 2014

Hell to pay

Why not ask John McCain? A Malaysian airliner goes down over disputed Ukraine territory, and 298 are dead, totally innocent victims of war. Why not ask Senator John McCain what he thinks? No one in Washington knows war quite like he does. 

And no one else seems so ready, willing, and able to pull triggers.  Here's what he told MSNBC yesterday:
This was an airliner headed towards Russian airspace and it has the earmarks — and I'm not concluding — but it has the earmarks of a mistaken identification of an aircraft that they may have believed was Ukrainian. If that's true, this is a horrible tragic event which was certainly unanticipated by anybody no matter who they are. And there will be incredible repercussions if this is the case. If it is the result of either separatist or Russian actions mistakenly believing that this is a Ukrainian warplane, I think there's going to be hell to pay and there should be."
Just what "hell to pay" actually means isn't clear, of course. Might it mean American boots on Ukrainian ground? I doubt it. Might it mean American weapons in the hands of the the independent Ukraining forces? Possibly. McCain isn't in a position to determine military ramifications; he's simply indicating to the present administration what he's going to expect once the truth is known--and that's hell to pay.

McCain is a war hero's hero. Few men or women suffered as greatly as he did during the Vietnam War. That he can even stand up is a miracle. That he can continue to lead his Arizona constituency and the American public is a tribute to his desire to serve his country. That he has never stopped serving the U.S. of A., is simply incredible.

But he's always the first to show a fist. Given what he's been through, you might think he'd be last.  

Yesterday's news was simply awful all around. Smoldering wreckage strewn over three miles of Ukrainian farmland, and Israel, tired of those needling Hamas rockets, sends ground forces into Gaza, just a day or two after four kids were killed playing on a beach. Yesterday's news was once again dominated by war on two fronts, so much news that there was no time for Afghanistan, Somalia, Egypt, or South Sudan, not to mention the 28,000 to die, just this year, in Syria.  

Violence is an equal-opportunity employer, and the propensity for doing it seems universal. If you listen to the Bible's account, the world's first baby boy turned out to be a murderer. Makes you wonder about peace, really, doesn't it? Is it simply a pipe-dream? Remember that one Chinese gentleman standing, front and center, in front of that tank? Remember the hippie girl putting a flower down the barrel of some reservist's rifle? Remember Jesus? Maybe exceptions simply prove the rule.

There's a little of John McCain in all of us, a goodly chunk of easily offended human spirit that wants to fight back, to raise a fist, to smash somebody's head, to take revenge, to watch someone else, some perp, suffer or squirm or sweat.

You want absurdity? Try this line on for size:  "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

Are you kidding? Not on my watch. There'll be hell to pay.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Beneath Siouxland skies

According to Robert Swierenga, the Dean of Dutch-American scholarship, immigrants from the Netherlands were serious clusterers:  not only did they originate in the same Dutch communities, they arrived in America with folks from those communities and then stayed in communities they created in America. We were--at least the 19th century Calvinist brand of Dutch immigrants--quite unashamedly clannish, even tribal. 

To anyone who knows us, that's not news.

Take the immigrant Schaaps, seen above.  Old Cornelius C., the bearded patriarch, took his family over in 1868, when, family lore has it, he could no longer abide the scandalous liberalism of the State Church, the Dutch Reformed Church, in Midsland, on the island of Terschelling, where he lived and where there was no pious seceder church. I doubt his reasons were totally spiritual--that is, I'm guessing economic motivations prompted the move as well; but when the Schaaps came to America, they came with a whole gang of like minded folks, malcontents the local Terschelling parish was probably happy to see depart. 

Once in America, they didn't go their separate ways. They got on a train for German Valley, Illinois, because a woman they knew back home knew the preacher there, who said he'd do what he could to get them acclimated, the whole bunch.

It was three years after the Civil War, and free land was to be had not all that far west (what paleface gave a thought to the Native people?). So when C. C. and Neeltje Schaap got a hankering for a chunk of their own land-of-the-free and home-of-the-brave, they lit out for the northwest corner of Iowa, where a bunch of Hollanders claimed good land was to be had. Once again, en masse, they settled in just a bit north of here, between Newkirk and Hospers. All of them. Most anyway. They stayed together. 

They left together and stayed together, maybe more than the other European ethnics, even though the rural Midwest is still mapped with their footsteps--Brussels, Luxumbourg, New Prague, New Berlin, New Holland, New Glarus, and etc.

When we moved to Siouxland (was there ever such a terrible misnomer?), the Schaap bloodline was, in essence, returning. Not one of my father's generation ever set foot on Siouxland soil, even though C. C. and Neeltje are buried right here. Their son, a preacher, left children sprinkled hither and yon in the pilgrimage of his pastorates. My father, born in 1918, never knew his Schaap grandparents, who'd died a decade before. 

But C.C. and Neeltje's great-grandson--me!--grew up in Dutch-American America; and even though I never knew a soul who wore wooden shoes or wore orange during World Cup soccer, my world was almost totally Dutch-American. When, after college, I lived among Swiss folks from southwest Wisconsin, I knew I wasn't what they were--but I also knew that they weren't much different--except their cheese of choice was. . .well, you guessed it.

Last night in Siouxland (note name), in windmill park in Orange City (note name), a mariachi band played for an hour or so, eight or nine men in fancy, traditional outfits, a couple of fiddlers, three or four guitars, two trumpets--you know the sound. Thousands of mariachis sing and play and make weird noises all over this country today, but, listen to this!--this one was local. They were from here. Their address is Hawarden, Siouxland.

I'm not making this up.

At the turn of the 20th century, my great-grandparents, who died here, could never have guessed that a gang of local Mexicans would make the music they did--and not a psalm all night long. When C.C. and Neeltje's great-grandson moved to Siouxland, 75 years later, I still would not have guessed that would happen. A gang of men's quartets wailing out gospel faves--sure. Mariachis, no way. 

When my father-in-law started farming, horses did the heavy work. He had a car, but he'd never been on an airplane. Rural electrification came along during his lifetime--poof! just like that there was light. Most people his age couldn't afford books. They ate food they grew, had basements shelves lined with canned goods, and kept their houses warm--through mean winters--with coal, and sometimes corn cobs. They did their business outside; if they were rich, they had a two-holer.  

But no neighborhood change, I'll assert here, is quite so dramatic as today's immense Hispanic presence. 

Some would move them all back, line up buses from here to Hawarden, fill 'em up with gas, and point them south. The bottom would fall out of the economy in a day or two.

Last year, when this house was going up, I liked to stop by and watch craftsmen do their work. I'd been in a classroom too long, never really knew people who framed a house or hung drywall. One day the insulators came in, a gang I knew were Netherlands Reformed, a particularly staunch and clannish form of Dutch Calvinism (not redundant).  

I stepped up into the house, looked around, had to hunt a bit, but finally found them, filling every nook and cranny with insulation. All--every last one of them--were Hispanic.

There we sat last night, in our lawn chairs, out front of the band shell, listening to a mariachi band from just down the road in Hawarden.


One more thought.  Here's this morning's dawn.

Just up the river from here, just behind those trees, the Floyd takes a hairpin turn and circles back on itself. Right there at the crook of the stream, an old vet says he once found Native American artifacts from a time--say 1800--when the Yankton Sioux lived right out here on the bank. 

It's interesting, isn't it, that some July morning this sweet pastel sky might have looked exactly the same to them, long before C. C. Schaap and before his grandson and before those mariachis. 

It's His, you know, this world. Not ours.  For clusterers, that's humbling.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The ghost of Robert Ray

Honestly, you've got to feel a little sorry for Governor Terry Branstad.  

Iowa's "governor-for-life" really stepped in it last week when, in a press conference, he said things that, with a bit of a nudge or a twist, can sound freakishly fascist. Let's face it, with an issue like illegal immigration, there's a whole lot of "it" to step in, as the Gov discovered.

"Iowa doesn't want illegal children," or so read some headlines. While that interpretation of the governor's remarks isn't far afield, it's a spin. The line, quoted extensively by the way, was far less ugly.  Here's the way Breitbach reported it, quoting the AP: “The first thing we need to do is secure the border. I do have empathy for these kids,” Branstad said. “But I also don’t want to send the signal that (you) send your kids to America illegally. That’s not the right message.”

That he began with "I do have empathy for these kids" makes him sound human. And he is.

However, in a state with a history that includes another Republican "governor for life," Robert Ray, Branstad's words, no matter how they're spun, do sound more than a little bitchy. It was Ray, after all, who took in thousands when no one else would. It was Ray who said he really didn't care what people said about his taking in all those refugees--he'd do it anyway because it was the right thing to do and Iowans were the kind of people who'd help. It was Ray who took all kinds of excrement from the same people who are saying the same things today about "them people" finding a place in the tall corn.

They're illegal, dang it, and Iowans believe in the rule of law. So there.

For what he said in that news conference, lefties may well make Branstad look like a redneck oaf, but he isn't. It's Robert Ray who makes Branstad sound like a moral midget.

The situations are not the same, I know--illegal immigrant kids are not Tai Dam refugees. Their histories are not the same, and neither was or is their motivations to come to this country. But to any Iowan who remembers Governor Ray's greatest moment, Branstad
 comes up wanting no matter how his news conference answer is spun.

"The first thing we need to do is secure the border," Branstad said. I've never understood what Republicans and Fox News means by "secure borders," unless it's what Herman Cain suggested, a Great Wall of China secured with electric wires, like Dachau. We have a problem with 50,000 kids from Central American countries right now because we have secure borders, right? They got caught. Just how exactly do we make them more secure?

"I do have empathy for those kids," Branstad said. He didn't say, "Keep them the heck out of Iowa." Never did, even if that's the way it sounded.

Still, my guess is Branstad won't look back on that press conference his finest hour, not with Bob Ray looking over his shoulder.