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, June 22, 2018

Morning Thanks--Sgt. Floyd shows his stuff

Here 'tis, yesterday at its worst. 

Waaaaaaaaaaaay too much rain in the entire region had put us on edge, but we've been in two 100-years flood already since we moved here, so we didn't really get jittery. The river named after a the only guy to die on the Lewis and Clark Expedition climbed out of its bed and swept angrily through the flood plane as if to remind us that we aren't in charge, at least not as much as we'd like to think. 

Yesterday, the Sgt. Floyd River broke its own records by a foot or more--upwards of 20 feet above flood stage. And it got close to us, a bit frighteningly close.

How high did it get?

High enough for us to stop in LeMars and pick up a sump pump. I'm embarrassed to say it, but we'd always had a hole but never had a pump. Just hadn't gotten around to it. When our neighbors called (we were in SCity), wondering if they wanted us to check our pump, they said the water had come up into the backyard. We own an acre, so that didn't mean immediate disaster; but during those two other century floods, the river never really threatened. 

We stopped in LeMars because five inches of rain in Orange City suggested that no Orange City stores would have any left (about that, we were right, by the way). So now we have a sump pump. Last night, thank goodness, it didn't have to work, but still. . .

How high did the water get?

When we got home at about three, it was in our backyard all right and still rising. We started to think about clearing things out of the basement. A couple dozen people at least were sandbagging at the neighbors', where things got much worse. But here, the water came up so high that Barbara grabbed the cushions on the grand old Morris chair and lugged them upstairs, leaving the thing bare naked.

How high did it get?

See that scum line? That's how close. I'm standing on our deck, and that's our rock garden in the lower right. Last night when we decided the day was done, Sergeant Floyd covered everything, smothered everything between that scum line and the water. Nothing from that point on peeked above the surface. On the far left is a renewed prairie that's got a ton of my sweat in it. We'll see what happens to all those pale purple cone flowers and so much else that had (sigh!) just started to bloom. 

Then, after sundown on the year's longest day, there was just enough break in the clouds to brighten the sky. 

You have to remember--what you see is a flood. But it's not hard to think of all that pink as a blessing.

But here's a much bigger one. This morning.

We made it. Everyone did in the neighborhood, but not without some wonderful, selfless help. A guy named Josh Van Wyhe and three others came in out of nowhere, took a look at our new sump pump, and sent me to the hardware store for a coupling we'd need. The woman there, bless her soul, jerry-rigged something out of alternative parts because, as you might guess, we weren't the only customers who needed sump pumps. Lots of people I know believe we don't give our own legion of  guardian angels the credit they deserve. 

So that makes three 100-year floods in the last five years, this one a foot worse than 2013, which had been the worst on record. It's called climate change.

Talk among yourselves. 

My morning thanks this a.m. is for a swollen Sgt. Floyd River right outside that's, thankfully, not right outside.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

"To walk humbly. . ."

The grand project for those of us who believe in a high-level, civilized world order is to find ways to restore social trust. It is to find ways to restructure power — at all levels — in order to reinspire faith in the system. It is to find common projects — locally, globally and internationally — that diverse people can do together.
So says David Brooks, whose advice is almost always find worth my time and interest. But I can't help but wonder if he doesn't have us all a bit out front of our skis.

I confess to watching too much TV news, maybe no more than I have throughout my 70 years, but probably too much these days, given the risks of horrifying acidosis. Fox is right there beside MSNBC and CNN on our dial, so I harken to them all; and lately, the differences are such that you could easily believe those networks' devoted viewers hail from different planets. Or should.

To Lou Dobbs, President Trump is the great savior of humankind. To Rachel Maddow--you can pitch them, one against the other every night of the week--he's Old Scratch.

I enjoy history a great deal, but when it comes to this cultural Grand Canyon, I don't know that it helps to retrace how it opened the earth between us. But something split us like an overripe melon.

The more interesting question is what human experience stands behind this un-civil war? How can a people be so radically divided.

I don't know where I got it, but I used to tell my students in early American literature that the Calvinism alive-and-kicking at this nation's birth was something we could most easily identify as an ideology with two deep-set twin towers: one, the sovereignty of God; and two, the depravity of man. For better or for worse, those two ideas are its core principles.

But they create a tightrope. To believe, one-sidedly, in the depravity of humankind minimizes faith in God's hand; the world turns to darkness. On the other hand, endless choruses of kum-bay-ya creates a cartoon vision of the world.

The human dilemma is maintaining balance--everything in moderation--and that's hard work because it requires equal doses of trust and distrust, of faith and doubt to be fair and balanced.

It's probably needless to say that precious balance requires a store of humility reachable, oddly enough, only on our knees, which is not a comfortable position for a 70-year-old man, even when picking strawberries. 

But then, for many of us, being on our knees is never all that easy. For most of us, really. Maybe even for all of us, especially now with the Grand Canyon between us.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Morning Thanks--Yesterday

I swear I got stuck on a bad row. That's all there is to it. My grandson's careening attention makes it a chore for him to keep his nose to the grindstone--and that's okay. But he got smart fast, and hung it up when he realized grandma's pail was filling faster than ours, much faster. Truth be told, our row had all the right colors--emerald leaves, scarlet berries--but the entire row was thin, balding and scraggly as an old man's pate.

Took forever to pick, and I'm not all that good at leaning over for long bouts of time. I'm not looking for another career as a migrant worker. While our basket was slowly being filled, I was dripping sweat after just a few minutes.

Wasn't exactly the strawberry fields the Beatles made famous. We've had rain, lots of it, and the wood chips laid down between the rows were so soggy I figured I'd have a wet pants in a minute if I sat instead of stooped. Let me put it this way: we've had better years out there, lots better years.

The thing is, the emotional heft of a tradition can dispatch annoyances as if they didn't exist. We've done our annual "Strawberry Day" for so long that the grandkids foresee the whole thing with enough clarity to enjoy the trip long before we get to the field. In fact, before we get in the car they're telling me what they're going to eat in the store when we're done--strawberry sundae, strawberry shake, strawberry donuts, strawberry whatever.

So for me to complain about my scraggly row is silly. Yesterday's annual strawberry holiday was a joy. Could have been sweeter, I'd like to suggest, if there were a few more bigger berries; but our "strawberry day" was, thank goodness, a good time. Like all rituals, it revisited yesteryear's strawberry fields and boosted the whole blessed tradition with yet another chapter to remember.

One of the grandkids is already too old. She's got her own job. Yesterday, while we were picking in fact, her brother got a call to interview at a grocery store. He's maybe a week away from being too old himself. We'll still have the little guy for a while, until he too finds his own job. Plain fact of the matter is, for us two old Beatles fans, strawberry fields will not be forever.

But then no one's rituals are, I suppose, are they? 

Besides, traditions get old. They can be wearying. You can get in a rut or pick berries in a crappy row.

It's a huge day, especially for grandma, who comes home overloaded, and then, with the help of her grandkids, fills a cupboard with sauces and jams and muffins; and yesterday, like last year, bakes a soufflé which became a poem while the boys scattered their own significant helpings with brown sugar and a healthy dose of maple syrup.

you say?

We'll hear that poem next year again, I'd say--
On berry day.
And that's okay. 

This morning's thanks, despite the sparse row out in the field, is for "yesterday" (yet another Beatles hymn) and all our blessed traditions.

So, now I'll quit, go upstairs, and bless my morning cereal with a handful of fresh strawberries. 

Just like last year.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

I can't help but wonder. . .

I've been working on the biography of a World War II nurse, a Lakota woman, for some time now, and yesterday, once more, I was going over the time in her life that she spent at a boarding school on the reservation where she lived. She's almost 100-years old, but she remembers the 1930s well, especially those years she and her sister spent at the boarding school. She says she had some teachers who were good and wonderful, but most all of the stories of that time in her life--she was just a child--are not good and wonderful. 
All schools were not alike, but for her and literally thousands of other Native kids, those boarding schools kept them from home and parents and family, not to mention heritage and culture. School years stretched out so long that by the end of the year some little ones didn't remember their mothers. 
I can't help wondering whether we white folks are at it again? 
Image result for indian boarding schools

Monday, June 18, 2018

Small Wonder(s)--Saint Catharine

We don't know much about the boy. Maybe he was everyone else's last choice. Could be. Maybe he wasn't much of a warrior. Maybe his parents set him up with this girl, or there'd never have been a marriage at all. 

Then again not. Maybe the kid was bold and strong. Maybe most the girls in the village would have loved to have him. Maybe he was a real catch. 

Remember, the girl was the daughter of the chief. I mean, she wore some scars from the smallpox plague that rampaged through her village, leaving her orphaned, her Huron father and Mohawk mother (her mom was booty in a raid) both died, as did a host of others. The truth was, the girl, Tekakwitha, was forever sickly thereafter. She couldn't have been a doll, but her adoptive father was important, the village headman. 

Truth is, no one knows much about the boy her adoptive parents wanted her to marry, but lots of people know lots about Tekakwitha, in part because she refused to marry the kid, whoever he was. She flat refused. She was only seventeen, but her age was no big deal because other Mohawk women quite regularly got married at a much younger age. In fact, her parents were almost distraught and more than a little angry when she wouldn't give the kid the corn stew traditionally considered her okay to the marriage. Just flat wouldn't do feed him, said she wasn't going to marry him because she was not going to marry anyone. Period. Full stop.

Gutsy, even a little feminist for a 17th century Native American in the forests of New York. But in refusing the poor kid's hand, she also determined she would become, thereafter, a Roman Catholic, and listen to the teachings of the Black Robes. In truth, her birth mom had been Catholic before her, but within the longhouse where she lived, her conversion didn't go over well. 

No matter. What Tekakwitha lacked in physical strength she made up for in steely resolve, eventually leaving her village for a convent just outside of Montreal, along with other Native women scorned for taking on the faith of white men in black robes. 

She was baptized on Easter Sunday, 1676, and, thereafter, in a typical white man's way, given a far less Native name--Catharine. People claim she was known to sleep on thorns and deliberately taint her food to make it taste horrible, self-mortification rituals as much medieval Catholic as traditionally Mohican. 

She'd been sickly for her entire life, often wore a blanket over her head to cover the scars from the smallpox she suffered as a child. And just four years after her baptism, she died. Those attending her death--and this is important--claimed that as her spirit rose, those thick scars across her face simply vanished as she grew radiant with her spirit rising to eternity.

You might just be wondering what on earth all of this has to do with Siouxland? 

Listen. There are good reasons to go to Marty, South Dakota, the Yankton Reservation. There's the gorgeous Missouri valley stepladder on your way for starters, and the historic town of Greenwood, with its old Presbyterian church. There's a hilltop treaty monument, and, somewhere hovering over the place, the ghost of Struck by the Ree, who a newborn, people say, was held by Lewis and Clark, camping right there along the river, who wrapped him in an American flag. 

By all means stop at St. Paul's Church in Marty--you can't miss it. When you walk around the grounds, stop at the statue of the Indian girl with an unpronounceable name, Tekakwitha. You can call her Catharine, if that's easier. Step inside, where two more of her likenesses grace the gorgeous old cathedral. 

You don't have to be Catholic. Maybe it helps a little, but this young woman is worth noting, the first and only, Vatican-declared Native American woman saint. 

Call it a pilgrimage. Call it a road trip. Call it what you will.  Whether you believe any of her story is up to you. But if you get out to Marty sometime, promise me you'll stand there for a while, inside or out, and look into the girl's face. I might even promise a blessing. 

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Sunday Morning Meds--Splendor and Majesty

“Praise the LORD, O my soul. O LORD my God, you are very great; 
you are clothed with splendor and majesty.” Psalm 104

            So we stumbled through Chicago, via its interstate system. We thought to avoid rush hour traffic by coming through the city mid-morning—and on a weekend. No matter. Those of us not accustomed to spending hours in traffic find being at the mercy of unending traffic snarls infuriating. All the way through—from the Indiana border to the Wisconsin state line—we were locked in.
            Just off those angry highways, people were laughing and singing, watching soccer games and eating fresh, crisp salads.  I know that.  Dogs were chasing frisbees, and park pools were teeming with happy kids.  But on the road, those highways were anything but super. Actually made me want to sing “Home on the Range,” top of my voice, in shameful self-righteousness.
            If Psalm 104 didn’t include so much about the sea, I’d like to think of it as a cowboy tune because in its range and vision Psalm 104 suggests a writer who is sitting beneath a big sky, the kind one can’t see from bottle-necked traffic, nor from city life itself (or so it seems to this country boy).  Which is not to say that all many farmers hum Psalm 104 in their air-conditioned cabs while pulling half-million dollar combines. 
            But I can visualize the splendor and majesty of the God of verse one best in nature. I suppose I could find him on a busy city street too, in the sheer breathlessness of immense human activity. But, like the Psalmist, I prefer the country. Give me a partly cloudy dawn from a chunk of highland prairie, and I’ll show you his splendor and glory.
            I once heard a Lakota healer talk about addiction, particularly alcoholism. He said that the indigenous way of dealing with significant problems was, basically, to honor them, because anything that carries the wallop of alcohol should not be hidden away but given a spiritual existence by acknowledging it, honoring it, even making it a relative. In the words of the healer, “you ask it to be your teacher.” When he did that, he said, alcohol became, in his view, the most important teacher he ever had.
            At that point in his description, it seemed clear that this man’s Lakota ways had morphed into verifiable human truth, his culture had become all cultures. The Chinese character for crisis, I’m told, contains both danger and opportunity. If our curses can become blessings, then it’s completely understandable how the horrors of alcoholism could become, for him and for all of us, not only opportunity but deep and abiding inspiration as well.
            It seems clear to me that the person who is not sorry for the things he or she has done wrong will never understand forgiveness—and thus, more significantly, grace. But this morning, with that Lakota healer’s talk about his alcoholism, I have a different kind of vision of God’s glory and radiance, his splendor and majesty; for in him alone can we find dancing even within our mourning—and that’s majestic. He uses our sin, the very worst of what we are, to teach us his grace. 
            In his splendor, even those loathful traffic jams can morph into emerald landscapes and unending azure skies. 
As the Psalmist says in the opening line of this memorable psalm of praise, you are, Lord, very, very great.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Dreams in June

A few years ago, a student of mine told me I should go out to a country cemetery I'd never seen because it was interesting. Once upon a time, the adjacent farm had been an orphanage, where some children had died and were buried in this out-of-the-way place. 

She was right. But there were other rewards that morning, both for me as well as the spirits in that old cemetery. I was there at dawn, a blessing.

There was so much to see.

You never know how much life there might be in a cemetery.