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.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

The cold waters of the North Sea*

This is the sad, sad story.

Last week Thursday afternoon, I was packed and ready to go. My students' assignments were all posted and ready for action in my absence, and I'd canceled my commitments elsewhere--several of them, in fact--because I was going to leave for Texas on Friday morning, where a couple of dozen Christian writers meet annually, as we have for quite a long time. It's a wonderful interlude in winter, a little confab that's high on thoughtfulness and intimacy, a good time.

By late afternoon, I was just about ready because we had a commitment at night, and I knew I'd have to leave early to get to the Omaha airport. My luggage was open on the dining room table, my Kindle and iPod touch juiced up and ready to go. I had everything in place.

I was leaving out of Omaha, and I remembered deliberately not getting too early a departure time--Omaha's airport is, after all, two hours' away. So I went to my files, clicked on the Expedia receipt, then stared at the date--the Texas meeting wasn't last week, it's this week.

Which would be hilarious, if my history didn't include, once upon a time, actually getting on the wrong blasted plane. You read that right. I'm over Lake Michigan, on my way to Detroit, when I realize I should be going west. Sheesh.

Which would be hilarious if I wasn't simply forgetting meetings, being late, behaving, most of the time these days, like someone--I'm 62--who is snuggling up way too close to senility or Alzheimers or whatever.

My great-grandfather, a distinguished Dutch dominie and professor, once pulled on his skates and set out for a church where he had to preach that morning. So obsessed he was with the fine points of his sermon, that some sentry out at the end of the canal had to skate up to him and remind him that should he push along much farther, he'd be afloat (maybe) in the cold waters of the North Sea.

Maybe it's his fault.

Whatever the cause, I'm thrilled to be able, once again, to take another shot at life, even at my age. I determined to write things down three places at least, and I ran off an extra calendar of the month of January, then magic-markered like mad and hung it up down here right in front of sightless eyes.

Yesterday, I called the dentist--check up, teeth-cleaning. Months ago I'd set the appointment, before I knew my teaching schedule. Wednesday at one wasn't going to work. "No problem," says the receptionist, happy to have some lead time. I told her a T or TH would be better. "How about this?" she said. It was 3:00, I think.

I just can't remember the date.

*from January 19, 2001, and still true, so true--and worse.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Morning Thanks--Look what I found*

I learned long ago that if anything can be better than giving a gift, it is the gratitude we feel in getting it. There is no other pleasure to compare with it--not sex, not winning the lottery, not hearing lovely music, not seeing stunning mountain peaks, nothing. Gratitude beats them all. I have never met a grateful person who was an unhappy person. And, for that matter, I have never met a grateful person who was a bad person.
I happened to read this aside in a wonderful little essay titled "God and Grateful Old Man," by the late Lew Smedes. My guess is Smedes wouldn't like me saying this, and it's not the kind of thing I say often, but when I read through the essay carefully yesterday, the voice rather sounded like the voice of the eternal.

I've been at this blogging thing for a year now--I think this is post #366 (makes me sound like the American Legion). But Lew Smedes, who isn't likely tuning in to this blog or any other these days, makes me think I ought to keep it up, not the blog itself, but the behavior: trying to give thanks for something--anything--every last morning of my life.

Garrison Keillor gave me the idea originally, but I think I'm going to stay at it because it's become, with me, a kind of spiritual discipline, a morning's soulful working out (I'm sitting here in my gym shorts right now, and I'll be off to the gym in minutes).

I'm not sure I'm everything Smedes claims about gratitude is on the money, nor am I sure that grateful people people are what he claims--nary a one of them bad or unhappy. But he and Keillor aren't all wrong about its benefits.
I picked up the essay in a book on my shelf--Best Christian Writing of 2004--when I was looking for some samples to show my class. Some guiding hand or other steered me there, I guess--and maybe that's my cue. I'm no mystic, but then again, really, we all are in one way or another.

So this morning I'm thankful for Lew Smedes and an essay he wrote when he was 80, thankful for stumbling on it and hearing within it a voice that reminds me to keep lifting the weights of my gratitude.
*Just stumbled on this old post this morning, written in September of 2008, long ago, and just about a year after starting a blog aimed at doing daily thanksgiving. The Smedes' quote is a beauty, and, by my reckoning, all the more true after a decade of "morning thanks." But it's hard--it really is--to be discipline yourself to be grateful every day. Trust me. I've tried. It's easier to pontificate, to argue, to belly-ache and entertain--that much I've learned. 

Anyway, this morning, 3000+ posts later, I'm thankful to have learned, first-hand, how right Smedes--and Keillor--are.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Basic Principles at Holland Center

You think I'm exaggerating when I say that from up there on the hill, you can watch your dog run away for three days in any direction; but Holland Center Christian Reformed Church, Lodgepole, SD, is so far off the beaten path, it makes northwest Iowa, my home, feel congested. 

Nothing but endless rolling grasslands all around. Perkins County is not just "big" country, it's gargantuan. When I pulled up to the church Sunday morning, I couldn't help wondering how often Holland Center gets a visitor in a place where there are probably more pronghorns than people.

The CRC's "find a church" list claimed Holland Center is five miles south of Lodgepole, then three miles west. That's where I found it. You pass just one ranch on those three miles of gravel over nothing but big-shouldered range land so barren cattle have to wander for forage. It's the deep freeze come January; scorching heat like you wouldn't believe in July. 

Only buffalo are suited for such a nasty climate, and you don't have to go far to find the place where a state historical marker claims the Last Great Buffalo Hunt went down in 1882. 

I wanted to go to church at Holland Center. Call me crazy. I was out in the far reaches of South Dakota anyway last week, so I got myself into the closest motel I could find, twenty miles away. I'd been driving all day, so I walked into a steak house/bar on a downtown street, a place jammed full of cowboys, so full I never got farther than the front door. I asked the woman at the motel desk about other places to eat. Only two, she said. The other one has a Thai cook, she told me, so they serve Thai food. 

Two huge men, my age, walked in the place after I ordered, obviously first-timers too. We were the only three customers in the place. Straight out of Hee-Haw they were, bib overalls big as army tents, seed caps on both their noggins, both slightly hard of hearing which made it clear they had no clue what to order from an odd menu. Neither did I. One of them said he'd been in Vietnam forty years ago, but he didn't know what to make of it either. "This is foreign food," one of 'em  said, shocked. When the owner walked in, an Asian woman, they were chuckling to themselves about only wanting hamburgers. "You a foreigner?" one of them asked. I'm not making this up.

I got up early on Sunday--the denominational listing claimed services start at eight (you read that right). Holland Center isn't exactly  seeker-friendly. I got there a touch early anyway, walked in past an entire family of greeters--five or six kids, grandpas and grandmas all in a line. Hearty smiles on handsome people who looked trim and scoured by the unforgiving country they call home.

I didn't expect people to get out of pews when I walked in, but they did, stepped right out to greet me. It was precious really. Pastor shook my hand warmly. They share him with a Methodist church down the road; hence, the meeting time: "he's got to get back to Prairie City." 

People told me he does far more than meet their expectations. "I call him a 'Reformed Wesleyan,'" an old man told me, grinning. He introduced himself by name, then told me that his grandad, more than a century ago, had moved out to Perkins County from Grand Rapids when his wife came down with asthma. He'd been furniture maker. They stopped near Lodgepole, which, likely as not, was actually a town back then. 

They started a church up out in the country, he told me, when they heard about a bunch of Dutch people (Dutch as in,"from the Netherlands") who had some land just west a ways. So they put the church in the middle and called it Holland Center. Made some sense, I guess.

I liked the "reformed Wesleyan" preacher, quite frankly. He tried his best to get out some baseline principles about being a believer, took scripture that morning from the very beginning, book of Genesis, because he wanted to establish some foundations in a manner that he gambled was a bit airy and even a little professorial. He apologized for not hitting a scripture in his usual fashion. He wanted to establish what was absolutely basic about the Christian faith. 

He held forth from hand-written notes, but hated standing behind the pulpit so much he'd come out in front time after time after time to explain a point more vividly. It was hard not like a preacher that earnest. 

But that Sunday morning, the real sermon was right in front of me, where an old man who'd gone out of his way to greet me sat in pew with his wife. He'd not introduced me to her earlier, made no mention of her, even though I stood right there beside him--and them. He didn't regard her at all, a gender attitude I determined was less chauvinistic than simply cultural. 

But once the pastor started defining basic principles, that old rancher laid his arm around his wife, held her shoulder, stroked her back, let her know he was there, almost as if they were kids again, spooning in that tempered moment in all of our lives when, try as we might, we can't go a minute without touching the person we love. A couple times, with his hand, he smoothed her hair in the back, and when he did I realized I'd never seen an old man do that before, not in church, not in public. It was moving, beautiful. 

When the worship was over, he looked for me again as he helped his wife into the wheelchair he'd left in the aisle beside them, a wheelchair I hadn't noticed. "The wife's got Parkinsons," he told me, smiling at her, at his love, as if they were newlyweds. 

There are two hymnals in the rack at Holland Center CRC, one of them, for the record, is the blue Psalter Hymnal in plastic covers that will keep them from harm for a ton of years yet. Music?--traditional. And get this: a male organist!--amazing. 

And the singing?--nothing to write home about, dominated, oddly enough, by men's voices. Somehow--maybe it was because last week was the week of Harvey Weinstein--somehow I found that beautiful too. 

Way out there in the country, where once upon a time the buffalo roamed and proghorns stayed alive in grueling winters by following those endless herds through snow that could well have killed them had the bison not stamped it down, way out there twenty miles from Tip Top Motel and Suzy's Thai menu, last Sunday morning, I worshiped the Lord in an old white frame church on a hill in the middle of nowhere, and was blessed by a sermon on some basic Christian principles.

What a joy.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Sunday Morning Meds--Understanding

“Great is our Lord and mighty in power; 
his understanding has no limit.” Psalm 145:5

I just emptied my trash.  There were 300 old e-mails packed somehow within, and, with nothing more than a key-stroke, they’re history.  All those words are simply gone, as if they’d never existed. 

But where do they go?—that’s what I’m wondering.  Isn’t there some law of physics that matter simply doesn’t disappear?  I suppose those 300 email notes had no matter; they were nothing but electronic impulses of some kind.  But even if they had no matter, they held matter.  I’m sure that sometime in the next few days I’ll remember something I should have done, go to the trash file to find some tossed note, and discover it and the horse it rode in on, gone.  At one time, they mattered. 

But now they’ve vanished, never to be seen again.  Strange. Almost scary.

An old friend called last night, just to check in.  He said his wife, who’s been fighting depression for years, has switched meds. “A scary time,” he told us, and I understand.  What I don’t understand is how a pill can actually change character, alter personality, replace the dynamo of whatever it is that makes us each who we are. That’s scary. But it happens, and it happens all the time.

And why is it that I feel so much, of late, that I’d rather be alone than in the blessed company of other people?  Once we were social.  Once we looked forward to weekends because they meant games and gatherings.  I still look forward to weekends, but the only frivolity I seek is peace and quiet and solitude. If the skies are clear, the dawn compels on Saturday morning. I go alone. That’s the way I like it. Why?

Or this. Yesterday in a crowded shopping mall I read a short story from a new collection, read it almost straight though.  I was sitting on a bench near the food court, at the very heart of things. Thousands of people passed me by. I saw few. It was a great story. I loved it. But I told myself that something had changed in me. Ten years ago—certainly twenty—I could never have sat there amid the thronging shoppers and focused so intensely on a single short story. What has changed in me, and why?

There’s so much I don’t understand.

Why do we suffer—honestly?  The older I become, the more Job appears, just off my shoulder, one hand raised to heaven in a fist. Three of my friends are dying of cancer; all of them would love to live. None of them are ancient. Yet, all over North America people are building nursing homes to tend the millions who would, any day of the week, volunteer tomorrow for a long-sought trip to glory. 

I was born after the Second World War, but I’ve spent more time reading the literature of the Holocaust than perhaps I should have.  Arbeit Macht Frei—there’s a sign in my mind that will never leave. I know where Mengele stood right there at the platform as the trains rolled into Auschwitz. I can see his hand determining. And even though I wasn’t there, I can hear millions of bootless cries to heaven.

There is so much I don’t understand about life and about death, about suffering and joy.  So much mystery. 

And the greatest of all is a gift because somehow, even though I don’t know, I’m confident He does. Faith is a sumptuous gift. I don’t know why his grace comes to me, but I believe this affirmation, that even though don’t get it, even though this flesh will corrupt and I will like those emails, simply vanish, in mystery, he knows. 

His understanding has no limit.    

Thursday, October 12, 2017

American stories

I'm sure there are those who will shrug their shoulders. After all, "history is bunk," right? James G. Whitman's new book, Hitler's American Model, is, after all, little more than a footnote, a story from long, long ago of use primarily to history profs and their obliging undergrad students.

The story Whitman explores--or so says a review in the Atlantic--is a trip taken by a goodly number of Nazi theorists and legal experts who, in 1935, traveled here, to the land of the free to study how America had canonized its systemic racism, its legal discrimination against people of color. Third Reich officials came here, to the U. S. of A. because they were greatly taken by the manner by which this country had been able to keep races separate.

Whether they used American models to construct their own racial laws or whether they found those laws simply to be helpful in carrying out racist designs they'd already fashioned and would soon implement isn't clear; but it's really shocking, at least to me, that they would look for help and guidance and direction from us, here, in "America the Beautiful."

For the record, history records the lynchings of 117 black men during the 1930s, although it seems quite fair to presume history doesn't record them all. What Whitman explains--and what the German officials must have known--was that no other country, not even South Africa, had such a fortified legal system of racial discrimination. 

In the late 1890s, when the first white folks put down roots here where I live, making one's way was just about all one could do. The deep economic crisis of the era was as devastating as the Great Depression would eventually prove itself to be. People here, right here along the Floyd River and throughout the region, simply had nothing.

Charles Dyke, in the History of Sioux County, tells the story of VerSteeg family, immigrant Dutch, whose stove gave out, mid-winter, in horrifying cold. Mr. VerSteeg took his sleigh to the Hospers store for a new one. The Dyke brothers, who ran the place, knew very well that the family had to stay warm, had to cook food, but they also knew that the VerSteegs had no money--zero, not a dollar to their name. 

Cold winter weeks pass, and the VerSteegs, like their other customers, still can't pay their bills--not because they're lazy crooks but because they simply have no money. The brothers determine they can't continue to exist without income, so Brother Charlie is given the thankless job of going out here to the farmsteads where their customers live and trying to collect something, anything. 

When he gets to the VerSteegs, the family seems to be thriving. "How do you do it?" he asks, and Mr. VerSteeg says they've got vegetables canned, and, blessedly, they eat all kinds of rabbits, trapping 'em, then pan-frying or baking them. 

It's an absolutely charming story of perseverance and determined human will to make do. Eventually, VerSteegs got some egg money or something to pay the bill for that stove (Dyke says he paid it off faster than he needed to). Eventually the wooden-shoes made it. Those children, raised on pan-fried rabbit, made good--became doctors and lawyers and veterinarians. It's a story that cheers the heart.

It's also a story we want to remember, a story of how we made our way in times so desperate they would otherwise beg to be forgotten. It's part of our mythology, our identity; it creates the images of how we see ourselves. It's an American story of an immigrant family whose persistent determination to succeed brings them the dream they were certain they'd find in America.

But there's other stories that belong in the American canon. One of them, sad to say, is of thoughtful Nazi theorists visiting here in order to understand just exactly how it was that we Americans could so neatly codify racism. They came here for a model of hate. 

Both those stories are ours.  Choosing to believe either one but not the other means living on half-truth, which is never the whole truth, so help me God.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Morning Thanks--Beauty

From an Iowan, there's no denying that it's not good ground. Sunday, when I took Dad back to the Home, he talked like he often does. We're passing through Alton, the pond along the road and the woods, and he says, "Too many trees." What he means is that it wouldn't be smart to farm the land.

We're up top of the hill, up at St. Mary's Church, a gorgeous old small-town cathedral, and he tells me that it's too hilly right here by the cemetery, that this wouldn't be good ground either. 

He's not priggish about it. He's not putting anyone or anything down. It's where his mind is stuck these days, his final days. We just get him out, and he's happy. Aside from a tour in Europe during the war, he farmed every day of his working life. In the Home, he's dying; but he gets out between fields of corn and soybeans, and, honestly, he can breath. He starts seeing again, making old-time judgments. They come to him quickly, joyfully even.

I thought of him often last week, passing through Utah and New Mexico, thought of him as if he were beside me looking at all this desert, because I know what he would have said. He would have talked about the land, would have to admit that it wouldn't be much good for corn and soy beans.

I know this desert environment has an lively ecology of its own, its own catalog of uses; but when I'm in it, mile after mile after mile, I hear his measurements. And I can't help asking myself why--why so very much land wish so very little use? 

It wasn't a question that plagued me all day because the answer came after an hour or so in the middle of all of that red rock beauty. God almighty keeps some places open for just plain awe. I don't think Dad could get a crop off most of the land I traveled, but oh, my word, can a man or woman harvest a blessing just to see His world.

They're clothed, as you can see. But this couple reminds me of Adam and Eve in the garden. Look at them--just bursting with awe. That's me last week in the middle of world created for beauty's sake.

All day I spent slack-jawed in awe that's good for the soul. 

This morning's thanks is for the sheer beauty all around.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Book Review--Katy Tur's Unbelievable

Once, just before an appearance on Morning Joe, Presidential Candidate Donald J. Trump ran into Katy Tur, the reporter NBC assigned to cover his campaign, and kissed her. Just up and kissed her. Out of nowhere, shockingly, he kissed her. 

Ms. Tur tells that story very well in Unbelievable: My Front-Row Seat to the Craziest Campaign in American History, tells it well and without animus. Given the rash of downright dirty old men in the news as of late (Roger Ailes, Harvey Weinstein, Bill O'Reilly), Trump's quick green room peck seems downright innocent, more goofy than gross. But it's a reminder of his "grab them by their. . ." line with Billy Bush, when he so joyfully confessed that, try as he might, he just can't stop kissing beautiful women.

Katy Tur's memoir will bring that all back again, a long with a ton of sludge from a campaign that, as she says, was "the craziest in American history." Tur, who was quite comfortably ensconced in NBC's London bureau, was selected--she still doesn't know how or why--to return to this country to cover the unlikely Presidential campaign of Mr. Trump, a campaign everyone thought would go belly-up within a month. When it didn't, and when Trump clearly wore more Teflon than Reagan ever hoped to, Tur found herself in a stunning position, the ace reporter covering a man who not only sucked the oxygen out of whatever room he was in, but out of the entire country, daily, hourly. For months, Trump was the news. Everything else--everyone else--fell away into zombie land, even men and women with dynasty written all over them, a Bush first, and then a Clinton.

Trump's real enemy (real means fake in Trump's world) soon became the national press. In a particularly delightful moment in the book, Tur describes quite painfully what it felt like to have Donald J. Trump call out her name abusively in the middle of his rallies--"Little Katy," he called her, pointing her out to the crowd. The first time he did it, she was astounded--and scared because Trump loves to militarize his base. Once, a man spit into her face. Regularly, his mobsters came up to the press area and assaulted her with profanity.

But the memoir captures her toughness. She spends some time describing and defining her parents, news freaks in LA, the first reporters to use a helicopter. The newsroom wasn't a foreign land to a little girl who flew along on big scoops, her mother hanging out of the door to get the shot, her father at the controls. She may be "little Katy," but she's tough.

And it's clear that "the Donald" didn't intimidate her, not in the least. Scare her?--yes, in part because of his vicious minions; but intimidate her?--no. It's a gutsy book, something of a tell-all, done in a rambling, journalistic style that captures the absolute madness of Trump's character. 

Why NBC chose her to follow Donald J. Trump isn't clear, but they did--and there lies the story she alone can tell. Trump's campaign didn't flop, even though dozens of journalists penned post-mortems dozens of times. Katy Tur's delightful memoir brings all of that back, the whole list of sins, of things he shouldn't have said, tweets he shouldn't have written. 

If you love the guy, don't read Unbelievable; Katy Tur doesn't worship "his majesty." If you hate him, be warned that running over the man's truly bizarre rise to power will trigger painful memories you'll wish you didn't have. 

Honestly, it's a book that will make you sick--not because of Katy Tur, but because of the madness that we've already forgotten in light of the latest Trump excesses, excesses that keep coming, and keep coming, and keep coming. Remember!--the man who so frequently vilified Katy Tur, kissed her. He calls the press "Public Enemy Number One," but he knows darn well he'd be nowhere without them.

He's our President.