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.

Monday, June 01, 2020

President Powerless

Cities reeling from violent riots tighten restrictions, implement ...

Something's happening here that our President can't tweet or bully, lie or sue or buy his way out of. Two things actually--well, three. One is a pandemic that has taken 100,000 lives. He can pretend it's not there, urge his MAGA crowds to liberate us from oppression, and thereby undercut the CDC guidelines his own White House has created. But with the general populace and the majority of the American people, it's clear that nothing he does or says cuts any mustard. He's a clod of cold ground, and he's the President of the United States.

That Covid-19 has ransacked his precious economy goes without saying. More Americans are out of work than at any time since the Great Depression, and the numbers continue to rise. Small businesses by the thousands will not be what they were; lots of mom-and-pop start-ups are simply gone. His ace-in-the-hole--"the economy, stupid"--can no longer be, well, trump.

And now insurrection all over the nation, protests morphing into bedlam, riots, looting and burning and destruction all around, all of it growing out of an issue whose reality Trump has emphatically denied in order to secure his place among his people. For months in his presidency, Colin Kaepernick was the Devil incarnate, a quarterback whose cardinal sin was taking a knee during the National Anthem. "Get that son-of-a-bitch off the field!" Remember that? Kaepernick hasn't played a quarter since.

What the nation witnessed in a video last week was a white man, a cop, taking a knee on the throat of a black man. Trump cut his teeth on vilifying Black Lives Matter. After Minneapolis, Kaepernick, once the Devil, seems Jeremiah, and the President, with no leg to stand on, is locked into his own powerless rhetoric.

Last weekend he spent time in the bunker beneath the White House with his precious phone, berating what's happening all over America in his tried-and-true fashion, threatening "vicious dogs and ominous weapons" all over his (our) front lawn, flailing away as he's done every last week of his Presidency, trying to call up the ire of his own MAGA-capped military.

Three immeasurable problems have left America's Bully King naked as a jaybird. Things are falling apart, and our tough-guy POTUS is a paper tiger. He can blame Antifa or whatever anarchists he can name, but he can do nothing to unify people he was elected to serve, He's spent the last four years serving up raw meat for the 40 percent who've stuck with him, including t-bones of overt racism.

Yesterday in the Washington Post, Michael Gerson, a conservative Republican, and a Christian, said about Donald Trump: "He simply lacks the capacity to talk about our shared humanity." Gerson says Trump truly believes deep within the core of whatever soul he has that "no one who supports him can really be bad," and that includes "angry racists." They've become his core.

What's become vividly clear in the last three months--what's obvious during this last horrible, horrible weekend--is that three forces far beyond his control have left him flailing and failing, blaming the WHO and Antifida, and clearly ineffectual at doing anything himself about our problems, only making things worse by his infernal tweeting.

He can't buy his way out. He can't bully. He can't lie. He can't sue. He's met forces he can't demean or squash. Given the yes men he's lined up around him, I just hope things don't get worse.

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Reading Mother Teresa--"the holes of the poor"

Carry each other’s burdens, 
and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. 
Galatians 6:2 

“Come, come, carry Me into the holes of the poor.” (44) 

I must admit that if I were Christ’s English prof, I’d suggest He find some alternative to “the holes of the poor,” language he used, says Mother Teresa, when he told her about the new mission he had for her, language which, these days, to say the least, lacks politically correctness. Holes makes the poor seem like pocket gophers – moles maybe, or, worse, rats. “Think of the image you’re creating,” I might say, professorially.

But some history is in order. If in your imagination, you see Mother Teresa’s work among the poor the way I do, the backdrop is a U.S. slum landscape, circa 1980 or so. Think Chicago, New York, LA. But Calcutta in the 1940s was a slum of wholly different magnitude.

In the Great Famine of 1942 and 1943, somewhere between two and four million people – I’m spelling those words so you don’t think them typos – died on Bengal streets for reasons which that are, trust me, still hotly debated and more than fiercely remembered. Two and four million people. Chicago’s population, in total, in 1940 was 3,400,400. Consider them gone.

Once the Second World War ended, the battle for Indian independence from England resumed mightily until the British partitioned the country into India and Pakistan, one predominantly Hindu, the other Muslim, on Partition Day in August of 1947. At the very heart of the liberation movement and the division between national religions sat Bengal and its central city, Calcutta.

National pride and religious hatred notwithstanding, there is no way to describe what happened in Calcutta in August of 1946, other than sheer madness, just a year before Partition Day. For four days and four nights Muslims slaughtered Hindus, and Hindus slaughtered Muslims in a holocaust of religious madness called today, “the Week of the Long Knives.” Exactly how many people died is almost anyone’s guess – hundreds, thousands.

In September of that year, 1946, just two weeks or so after “the Week of the Long Knives,” Mother Teresa heard Jesus’s voice on the train and at the retreat at Darjeeling. She was cloistered, of course, a teacher in a girls school; but she had to know that just outside those religious walls, hell itself had come to earth.

But there’s more. In the time that surrounded Indian and Pakistani liberation from English rule, the time of national independence, the largest migration of population in the history of the world was taking place, millions of Hindus leaving their homes in Pakistan to take refuge in what would become Hindu Indi – and millions of Muslim Indians leaving their homeland for refuge in what would become Muslim Pakistan. Millions became homeless and hungry, and right there at the heart of the suffering once more was Calcutta.

I don’t claim to know what kind of language Jesus uses in his interlocutions, and I certainly don’t know what’s appropriate for the Savior of Mankind, if and when he speaks to any of us, to you or to me.  But because I know some history, I am not about to critique the language Mother Teresa claims he used to tell her he was calling her to service to the poor, right in their very “holes,” because the world she saw and experienced outside the fortress of the school and convent where she lived was a suffering place unlike anything I can imagine.

The patio door is open now, and a beautiful breeze is coming into my study. It’ll get hot soon once again, and I’ll have to close it all up to keep the sun out, temperatures arising. The truth is, I know absolutely nothing about the suffering Mother Teresa saw every day on the streets of Calcutta – absolutely nothing in my life comes anywhere close.

When he told Mother Teresa to go to “the holes of the poor,” he used language that couldn’t possibly have made the situation more horrible than it actually was. She must have known something of that herself. All that suffering came to her as the voice of the Lord, horror and death happening daily all around.

In 1975, Paul Theroux wrote of Calcutta, “The city seemed like a corpse on which the Indians were feeding like flies.” That was 30 years after Mother Teresa heard the Lord tell her to go to the poor, the ones who lived in holes. The task was not just daunting, it was impossible – without faith.

Friday, May 29, 2020


I liked this photograph before I took it, surreptitiously, at a cathedral in Honduras, liked it because I respected the personal and silent quality of the man's piety. It's impossible to say he isn't sincere. He's praying, all by himself, at a place he believes God is near--or at least the Virgin, who he's asking to come to his aid in his request for God's hand. Here, knees on the bench, he believes he's in the blessed company of the saints. Look at that incredible altar. I admire him and feel for whatever anxious motives bring him into church. 

"Surreptitiously" because at this point I don't think I was aware of the ban on cameras or camera phones in the cathedral. Eventually I was, and I put the phone away. But whether I knew the rules or not, I did feel as if I was violating the man's privacy by snapping a picture for the sake of what his silent penitence would say in a photograph, this one, the one I took just then. And still like.

All of that is in this picture, maybe even the guilty sense that I shouldn't have taken it at all. Maybe that particular forbidden-ness is part of whatever noteworthy-ness this photograph owns in my scrapbook of shots of our time in Honduras.

And there's this, too, an ancient confessional in the same cathedral, the furniture of piety in his faith. I didn't grow up with this apparatus. It's something foreign, except for the righteousness of the transaction it heartfully signifies--confession of sin and forgiveness. There must haven been a tabloid full of sins recounted here through endless years, but the walls--and those intervening screens--are sworn to silence. 

I remembered this ancient, storied thing just now, when I read a poem by Connie Wanek, who was raised with a piety born here and with such transactions. I was too, of course, but without the furniture. Still I couldn't help thinking of my own sins in that old cathedral. .  .

Confessional Poem

I never told him anything
he didn't expect--
the white lies of a small girl, 
a week's accumulations
related in halting, mouselike whispers.
He blessed me anyway
and gave me my penance
and bade me go in peace.

I suppose all acts of piety, of righteousness, risk becoming rote or knee-jerk, even when you're a child, a little girl seated in that hard seat of confession. Then, Connie Wanek remembers thinking what I couldn't help imaging myself when I stood there at the booth.

Perhaps the next penitent
would offer him what he came for,
a great, meaty, mortal sin like adultery
described in gorgeous language,
words that lit up the confessional
like a flashlight in a closet:
a silk cuff missing its button,
sheer stockings coiled on the floor,
shoes with heels like wineglass stems--
the hypnotic black-and-white images of film noir,
wherein all eyes followed a bad star
with uncontrollable longing. 

End of poem. 

Maybe we aren't so different as the varied apparatus of our one catholic faith might seem. I could be a Catholic. In truth, I suppose, I am. 

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Silas Soule and moral courage

As much an adventurer as anyone else from out east, Silas Soule went west when what was back home just wouldn't cut it anymore, not when what he knew was, out there, challenged spirit and truth. His father was an abolitionist, and not just in name. Amassa Soule grabbed his family and headed west when the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854) ruled popular sovereignty, the popular vote, would determine whether Kansas would be admitted to the Union as slave or free.

Like other members of the anti-slavery Emigrant Aid Society, Amassa Soule didn't know what he was in for when he left Massachusetts. He assumed they'd arrived close to Kansas when they came to St. Louis, only to find, he said later, that the hardest passage was ahead, on the Missouri, "that river of mud, crooks and shoals." The Soules came to Kansas, the frontier, under the moral imperative to stuff the ballot box, so soul-deep was their hatred of slavery.

When Si Soule was just a kid--maybe 15 years old--he was leading runaway slaves up the Underground Railroad in midnight darkness in eastern Kansas. Blessed with an endearing personality, he shined up to a Missouri jailer and thereby helped spring an abolitionist doctor from a Missouri jail in one of the era's most famous and defiant acts of freedom. Si Soles' father was as doggedly religious as his friend John Brown. In fact, after the Harpers Ferry slave rebellion went down, son Silas worked hard at creating yet another jail break, a plot Brown himself ended because in the end, Soule was told, John Brown sought martyrdom. 

Somewhat disillusioned, Si Soles went farther west with a fervent case of gold fever, worked the mines for a year or so, then joined the Union Army out west and fought, hard, hand-to hand, at Glorietta Pass, New Mexico, part of Colorado's First Regiment, where his valor was noted by the preacher turned Union's field commander John Chivington. 

He was one of several officers in the command of Major Edward Wynkoop who brokered a peace deal with Broken Kettle and the other Cheyenne and Arapaho headman, and led to their coming into frontier Denver, where someone with a camera got this historic and wonderful shot. Once a deal had been determined, the Calvary escorted the Indians into town to ratify the peace. 

And this--the U. S. military and those chiefs at the historic peace conference. Si Soule, hat and pipeless, is front and center.

Chivington too wanted peace too, but he wanted to punish the Indians for the violence they'd perpetrated on the whites who'd homesteaded or were simply travelling through the west. Chivington was the boss. That's how it was Lieutenant Silas Soule came to Sand Creek on November 29, 1864. The night before, he'd made perfectly clear that he didn't intend to have anything to do with the slaughter, claimed anyone who did to be "a low-lived cowardly son-of-a-bitch."

And that's why Lieutenant Silas Soule told his troops not to fire on the Cheyenne village on Sand Creek, told them he'd shoot them if they went along with the carnage. Just about all of the rest of the Colorado cavalry butchered, literally, Native men, women, and children that day.

On the next, Soule wrote a letter to Major Wynkoop, telling him everything he'd seen. Inquiries were held both in Colorado and Washington, Soule was a major witness, despite death threats. 

When he came back to Colorado, he became a town marshal. Just two weeks after getting marryied, he was gunned down in the streets. Back then--and even today--people can't help but believe that the gunslinger responsible for Silas Soule's death was one of Col. John Chivington's many, many supporters. Silas Soule's own moral courage, it seems, didn't create many friends. 

He died at just 26 years old.

He's not disappeared from history. You can google him--I did. You can read his biography, and Sand Creek and Chivington will most certainly turn up in any recitation of the long and painful history of the Plains Indians. They didn't forget.

Didn't take long, and we did. 

But someone asked about heroes. To me and many others, Silas Soule should be on the list.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Morning Thanks--even those that are no more

It's gone now--an old farm house I stumbled across one Saturday morning. Abandoned farm places disappear quickly in Sioux County, where good, wooden shoe capitalists know the land is far too valuable to dedicate to memories. You don’t need to go too far west or east to find many more of them scattered around a section, monuments some farm folks can't push themselves to bulldoze. There's something eerie about 'em, something, well, abandoned. 

They speak a language of another time, a time when there were more here, when farms were smaller and families were bigger. When children's voices carried endlessly across the treeless prairie,, when everything people did out here cost more time and sweat and perseverence. It was no golden age. Never has been. 

This house had a mousetrap on the back door frame--probably a homemade "leave a message" sort of thing. I have no idea why the silly mousetrap grabbed my attention the way it did, or why it sticks with me somehow, begging a revelation or a moral to the story. There's no deeply embedded truth in some long-gone farmer's nailing a mousetrap to the doorframe of the back door. 

There it is. Maybe it speaks of a neighborliness long departed. After all, today the place has no neighbors. For that matter, it’s no longer a place. Today, it's beans. Six months from now, it'll be bare naked, maybe a bit of snow. Today, there on the door there is no mousetrap. There is no door.
It's all gone--house and barn, out buildings, trees and weeds and mousetrap. 
Sic transit gloria mundi? Ah, that's pushing it.  Probably never was any glory there. And after all, what I'm talking about is nothing more than a repurposed mousetrap. 

Still, once upon a time someone made a life here. Once there were children. Once there were cows probably--and pigs. Once chickens ran helter-skelter across the lawn and cats slept like a ball of fur in a sun spot on a tractor seat. 

I'll never know who, and few will because it's all gone, even the barn and the barbed wire. See that mousetrap. It ain't. No more messages.

I'm always thankful for mysteries, even the little ones that, like a repurposed mousetrap, hold you fast when they are no more. 

Monday, May 25, 2020

Memorial Day

It's in poor repair, the government says, which is not surprising, given its age. It was built in 1907 just outside Hot Springs, SD, for the specific purpose of treating our veterans, many of whom, back then, could sit around a coffee table and spin yarns of Shiloh, Gettysburg, and Lookout Mountain.

I drove in early one summer morning several years ago, in awe at the massive, ornate architecture, so unlike anything built today. I didn't know the place was there, but just up from the old hospital is a national cemetery home to what remains of hundreds of vets who died here after years of residence at this storied old hospital. 

I've been in national cemeteries before, a World War II military graveyard in Belgium where acres and acres of perfectly manicured lawns create an emerald carpet for  thousands of white stones marching in hushed silence all around. The graveyard at the Battle Mountain Veterans Hospital is nowhere near as immense, but just as thoroughly stunning. 

I've been to  Gettysburg, to Vicksburg,  Lookout Mountain, twice to Chickamauga. Battlefield parks are moving, but one warm summer morning in August, alone in the hilly cemetery behind old Battle Mountain Hospital, just me and a couple hundred Civil War dead, was a moment I'd never forgotten--no artillery, no statues with swashbuckling officers wielding swords, no towering monuments. 

Just small graves in perfect order whose faces wouldn't let me forget that an entire regiment was just as certainly here too, men who'd long ago seen death first hand in fields all over the South, then, years later, had come here to die too, often alone. 

I'd gone out early to shoot some pictures of the buffalo herd at Wind Cave National Park, just up the road. I was lucky, caught them when they were all around me. I'd done well. It was still early, so on my way back to the motel, I stopped at a veterans hospital I hadn't even known was there, found the cemetery out back, the dead in rows up and down the hills. 

This Memorial Day that memory was in me when I got up, the cemetery at Battle Mountain, the men who died there, not on the battlefield at all, except the one many of them, if not all of them had likely never left. 

That's what I was thinking about this Memorial Day morning and that's my morning thanks.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Reading Mother Teresa--Guilt

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart 
and with all your soul and with all your mind 
and with all your strength.” Mark 12:30 

The very first Dutchman I ever met – I mean, someone from the Netherlands – told me that my people, Dutch Calvinist Americans, were the kind of uptight people Holland “got rid of,” the kind, he said, who couldn’t ride bikes on Sunday.

I couldn’t ride my bike on Sunday.

My people were Sabbatarians, big-time Sabbatarians, a word my spell checker doesn’t recognize. What I mean is, I had a list as long as my arm of things I couldn’t do on the Sunday. We were orthodox Jews in wooden shoes, although we nailed down the first day of the week, not the last.

I don’t regret my religious childhood. It may well have been, well, strenuously spiritual, but that’s okay. Besides, most people my age – Catholic, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Church of Christ – had their own firmly established principles of right and wrong, a code, often only vaguely understood, by which they, as believers, defined themselves.

Many reasons exist to explain why my people were strict on Sunday (my mother-in-law couldn’t use a scissors), and piety was one of them; but another, I think, was identity. Maintaining Sabbath purity separated us even from other Christians and allowed a good heavy dose of assurance about who we were in a polyglot society where you couldn’t count on your neighbor having a pocket full of peppermints.

Codes sustain identity – I know something of who you are if I understand how you spend your Sundays. But to know thyself, as honorable as that is (saith Socrates), also implies knowing who isn’t you – and knowing (tsk, tsk) what isn’t, well, proper. If I know what the word impropriety means, it suggests I know guilt.

Guilt, Garrison Keillor says, is the gift that goes on giving, and I’m as much an unhappy recipient as anyone. Up until July, I was the only member of my family who went to two Sunday services, even though we were all raised that way. I’ve now decided enough is enough. Sound impressive? – come six o’clock Sunday night, I’ll be hiding somewhere, not from others, but from my own thorny guilt.

More confession: I feel guilty when I read what Mother Teresa told the Archbishop in a letter begging him to allow her to create the mission that Christ himself, she claimed, had commanded her to do. “I have been longing to be all for Jesus and to make other souls – especially Indian, come and love Him fervently,” she wrote, “– to identify myself with Indian girls completely, and so love Him as He has never been loved before” (47, emphasis mine).

Striking, I think – really striking: “So love Him as He has never been loved before.” I find that a gargantuan mission. If I honestly didn’t believe her a saint, I’d think it was posturing, wouldn’t you? Rhetoric. Talk, talk, talk. How can anyone really believe that he or she will gain a level of love for Jesus that no one – NO ONE! – in the history of mankind has ever reached?

I don’t envy her. I don’t think I’d ever, ever say anything like that, and yet I believe that in life and in death, in body and soul, I belong to Jesus. Okay, I feel a species of guilt scratching at my throat when I read that line because it’s something I’d never ever considered – that my love for Jesus might possibly be greater than anyone else’s. I’ve never aspired to become the Champion of the World in love for Christ.

But she thought so, and, I believe, she thought so purely.

Here and there MT’s writings suggest what she was made of and how what she was made of nurtured her into what she became. Right here is one such moment. The pledge she sets for herself is way beyond reason: to “so love Him as He has never been loved before.”

Yet, I don’t doubt her. Okay, I doubt myself most every day, but I don’t doubt her.