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, March 16, 2018

Thomas Paine, Sunshine Soldier

THESE are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.
To say that these are the words that lit a fire that became a revolution is not in the least overstated. Thomas Paine, a sometimes patriot himself, penned them in a pamphlet that jumped off the shelves in 1776, a year of some significance, you may remember. Every school kid ought to at least recognize those words, even if they don't know who set them down on paper.
Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value.
We call him an American, but he was, for the most part, an undocumented immigrant, arriving here in 1774, just two years before his best seller. He was here when the fire was hot, played a significant role in lighting it; once it was behind him, he left for more combustible environs. He loved revolution.
Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated. Britain, with an army to enforce her tyranny, has declared that she has a right (not only to TAX) but "to BIND us in ALL CASES WHATSOEVER" and if being bound in that manner, is not slavery, then is there not such a thing as slavery upon earth. Even the expression is impious; for so unlimited a power can belong only to God.
I'm not sure Thomas Paine has a right to talk about God. After all, Teddy Roosevelt called him "that filthy little atheist." One of his greatest works rips organized religion and establishes a universalist god most theologians of his time thought to be downright heresy. The Age of Reason sold thousands of copies. He wrote it in France, in jail.
I have as little superstition in me as any man living, but my secret opinion has ever been, and still is, that God Almighty will not give up a people to military destruction, or leave them unsupportedly to perish, who have so earnestly and so repeatedly sought to avoid the calamities of war, by every decent method which wisdom could invent. Neither have I so much of the infidel in me, as to suppose that He has relinquished the government of the world, and given us up to the care of devils; and as I do not, I cannot see on what grounds the king of Britain can look up to heaven for help against us: a common murderer, a highwayman, or a house-breaker, has as good a pretense as he.
Basically, he got along with no one, once dropped by at the home of an acquaintance, then ended up staying for five years. He ego left little room for anyone else in the room, and friendships too often ended in wreckage. People found him a tramp and a rogue. He wasn't nice, and he drank way, way too much too often.
But, his words were more than a spark to the creation of the Republic--they were the fuel. 

He's something of an embarrassment in the grand story of the American Revolution, a story which can't be told without his famous words.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Bob and the Rookie*

Bob, the gymnast, sat right in front, a kid with Popeye's powerful forearms and a saint's pale blue eyes. I'd never known a gymnast before. In my previous life as a high school teacher, I'd known cocky shortstops, thick-headed defensive tackles, thoroughbred point guards, and track stars of every shape and size. But I'd never taught in a city high school big enough to sport a gymnastic team.

I was a rookie, growing up as I had in the loving security of a Midwestern small town, where I had only one friend who ever talked back to his father, where I'd never seen my parents fight, if they ever did. I'd seen drunks, but they were all fun-loving kids with their fingers wrapped around shortie Millers. I'd read about bad things, but my Christian home hadn't prepared me for the lives some people live, day in and day out.

One day after school Bob told me that he didn't have a paper finished. He was a nice kid, quiet and unassuming, never bold.

“What’s the deal?” I said. "You need another day or two?"

He looked down at the books he had pinned up against his chest. "Don’t know if I can."

He’d already passed a test or two, but he’d never struck me as a kid who couldn’t do the work.

“When then?” I asked him. “Name a day.”

He eyes searched the rug as if there were some answer down there folded up in a note. When his teeth went down over his bottom lip, I knew there was more to the story. The buff kid who wore his shirtsleeves rolled above his swelling biceps cried.

“I can’t get anything done at home,” he told me. “I just can’t.” He brought his hands up to his eyes. "My parents," he said, "they’re on each all the time, and I just can’t take it.”

In my college English methods class. we hadn't talked much about guys bawling.

“Every night it goes on,” he said, “and if I go away I can’t get my work done. I don’t know what to do.”

I reached for Kleenex for him. Even now, forty years later, I don’t remember any other guy crying like Bob did that days, his eyes red and bruised by the way his hands constantly pushed at them, as if to stanch what he couldn't stop.

"It’s okay," I said. "I understand—I understand.” That was a lie. I didn't know what else to say. "Listen, get that paper in whenever you can, all right? I understand." I put my hand on his shoulder.

When he left, I felt as if I had something to write home about--how the world was an awful place, and how I really didn't understand darkness so well as I did now that I was there, in the city.

A day or two later I met one of the counselors coming up the walk toward the English building, rocking on his toes the way he always did, rolling along that way as if simply a smile weren't enough to show the need for happiness.

“Schaap,” he said, “this kid—Bob Ranzig—you got him, right?—short guy?—muscular?”

"I ought to talk to you about him," I said.

He turned his head away and looked down at the cracks in the sidewalk as if what he had to say wasn't going to be easy. "You're a saint—you know that? All you small-town Midwesterners are sweethearts.” Then he giggled. "He pulled one over on you the other day. He’s pulled that stunt before, and I've been trying to explain he can’t do it anymore. It’s a crutch, and he’s got to learn to live with who he is.”

“A crutch?” I said.

"Don't let him by. You want to help the kid?—don't let him pull that. I don’t care what he's got at home, he’s using that song-and-dance, and he can’t.”

I felt perfectly green.

He put his hand on my shoulder. "You're not the only one who let him by," he said.

That was just about fifty years ago, but I remember where on the sidewalk outside the building we were standing, remember the way that counselor, a friend, teased me. 

I felt naive, but in all those years in the classroom thereafter, I think I probably stayed a rookie, a small-town, Midwesterner.  I don't think I'd care to be who I would be without trust.
*Published first March 31, 2009

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Oprah and the farm up the road

Harry Herman Roseland, To the Highest Bidder (1906)

It's up in her house, she says. You can't miss it when you walk in. She keeps it there because it is a reminder of her roots, she says, and that kind of reminder is what she needs more than occasionally. Oprah is one of the richest women in the world.

That's not all either. She claims that when she gets depressed--don't we all?--she gets out a folder of slave narratives, stories about men and women who never tasted a day of freedom and didn't have a painting like this up on a wall where you simply can't miss it, or a house to put it in or a wall to hang it on. To the Highest Bidder triggers a human reaction that's only difficult to understand if you've never felt it--it brings her up by bringing her down. 

There's a farm down the highway from here, just on the other side of the river, that draws my attention every time I go by--and has, really, for a long time. I know the couple who live there, sweet people in every way. 

She's alone now because she lost her husband. They're younger than we are, but he's not dead, only gone. She brought him to a place, maybe twenty miles away, who'll take patients like him. I don't know if she goes everyday, but I'm guessing she does, right now at least. He's been there only a month or so. 

When I drive by, sometimes the garage door is open and I see the car. She's home. Alone. 

It just got too hard to take care of him, their friends say. She had to get up whenever he did because he'd wander. He didn't know where he was or where he was going, and it wasn't always easy to persuade him to come back. She tried to take care of him, but, over time, through the years, it just got to be too much. Still shakes my soul to think of her leaving him there. But it was something that had to be done.

"I had no shoes and I complained until I met a man who had no feet," or so my mother used to say. It's been said a million times, so often it's become a cliche, a joke. People laugh when they say it. I have myself.

That it is a cliche doesn't make it wrong.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Going to war

President Woodrow Wilson, like each and every President--and all of us--was a bundle of contradictions, his very soul a nest of hooks. From the time he was a kid, he wanted to be in government. A portrait of Gladstone hung in his boyhood bedroom, and he made no bones about it--he wanted to be a statesman.

In private he was an entertainer. He could dance a jig, tell hilarious jokes, imitate people with enough talent to put him on a stage. But he loved ideas more, and was, for better or worse, a no-holds-barred intellectual. His father, a Presbyterian minister, home-schooled him until he was 13 years old, took him all over, to museums and factories and cotton gins--and gave him thereby a sturdy understanding of the world of his time. He became a thoughtful scholar, a much beloved teacher, and, eventually, President of Princeton University. Prof. Wilson wrote highly acclaimed books on American government. 

He'd grown up in the American South, in the bloody maelstrom of the Civil War. His very first memory, he used to tell people, was hearing someone say that Abraham Lincoln had been elected President and now there was going to be war. He was four years old. 

Throughout his life, he remained a segregationist, a racist. His father's church became a hospital for the bloodied Rebel troops. What he saw in that church, he never forgot. Some call him the only President of these United States to grow up in a defeated nation. 

Still, what he experienced in the American South during and after the Civil War made him dedicate himself to peacemaking. It was difficult, very difficult for him to bring America into the trenches of the First World War.

But it became impossible not to when German U-boats sunk American shipping. The Lusitania wasn't the only vessel to go down with its innocent passengers. And when intelligence discovered Germany was attempting to enlist Mexico's help in defeating America and the Allied nations, the peacemaker understood that once again, America was going to have to go to war. 

Woodrow Wilson was the last President to write his own speeches. He didn't have a cadre of writers around to make his rhythms dance and his metaphors glow. Any lyrical sense to his words came from his soul. 

On April 1, 1917, the scholar-President pulled an over-nighter on a speech he would deliver the next evening to a joint session of Congress, one of the most important speeches in American history, the speech that would carry a single line to the practice of American foreign policy for generations: "the world must be made safe for democracy."

"The challenge is to all mankind," he said. 

Each nation must decide for itself how it will meet it. The choice we make for ourselves must be made with a moderation of counsel and temperateness of judgment befitting our character and our motives as a nation. We must put excited feeling away. Our motive will not be revenge or the victorious assertion of the physical might of the nation, but only the vindication of right, of human right, of which we are only a single champion.

A peacemaker was going to war. 

With a profound sense of the solemn and even tragical character of the step I am taking and of the grave responsibilities which it involves, but in unhesitating obedience to what I deem my constitutional duty, I advice that the Congress declare the recent courses of the Imperial German Government be in fact nothing less than war against the government of the United States. 

When he finished, Congress got to its feet and gave him a thunderous ovation. 

He was dumbfounded. "My message today," he told an aid, "was a message of death for our young men. How strange it seems to applaud that."

Then, at that moment, President Woodrow Wilson, having declared war on Germany, laid his head on the Cabinet table and cried. 

Monday, March 12, 2018

My mother's righteous bargain

1981--maybe 82. Right there somewhere, right there before the computer changed everything and shoved typewriters right out the door into obsolescence. I had a Sherman tank of a machine, a huge thing that printed beautifully but took up half an office desk and simply wasn't getting any younger. Got it cheap. Used. My dad found it. I don't remember the particulars.

But I was coveting something new. I was doing my dissertation, typing every day, every last day, all day, and I couldn't help but think my life would be greatly improved if I had a new Selectric. You know--one of those with the jumpy little circular print heads. Something 20th century at least. 

That's when my mother made me an offer I couldn't win. A IBM Selectric was not something our limited budget could handle. I was a graduate student, and Barbara was working part-time at the bank downtown. My assistantship was nothing to sneeze at in those days, but we weren't swimming in cash. 

We were already a family, two kids, and I was far too proud to ask my parents for a typewriter; but my mother must have picked up on my covetousness because she made a legitimate offer. She said she'd buy me the very best typewriter I could find if I would promise that no "naughty words" would ever emerge on paper from that little rotating ball. It was a righteous offer; but then, my mother was a righteous woman. 

Now had I known what was about to happen, had I known I'd get my first Apple (Magic Window software) just a year later, I suppose I could have been sleazy about it, taken her up on the offer, then sold that grand Selectric a year later for peanuts probably, and picked up a IIe. Could have done that. If I would have, I'd have been freed from the legacy she wanted desperately to leave me.

But I wasn't keeping up with what was coming down the pike technologically. I didn't see what was coming, so I was left only with my mother's saintly proposition, which really didn't offer alternatives because taking her up on her offer meant promising something I simply couldn't promise. So I typed all 300 pages of that dissertation--a novel, by the way--on that old Sherman tank (did a little cussing in the process). And, if you're wondering--yes, there were a few naughty words in that dissertation.

My mother died several years ago now, but she still sits here over my shoulder; and right now she's shaking her head and trying once again to determine exactly where she went wrong on her only son, because there's some significant cussing in Looking for Dawn, my latest. The truth is, I never used naughty words as wholesale as I did in that novel.

She knows it, and, what's worse, I know she knows it.

A new book, Swearing is Good for You, by Emma Byrne, claims, well, that it is. Swearing manages stress, after all--ask anyone who sorts hogs or once upon a time typed dissertations; it can be safety valve, restraining us from letting things get really out of hand, more violent, she says. As our President knows, a few choice words in a few choice places makes an impact, adds exclamation points, and, for better and for worse, demonstrates power. Cussing remains a dynamic signifier. For a writer like me, a realist, it's the vulgate. It's what we say and what we do. 

So there, Mom. 

I don't think she'll read that book. Once she sees the title, she'll never pull it off the shelf.

In case you're wondering, my dissertation--a novel--passed through my committee with fine reviews. The only moment I remember vividly was when one of the writers on the committee, a novelist himself, looked up at me and smiled. "You know," he said, "the cussing seemed almost out of place, a little awkward." I wasn't worried. He'd already indicated his appreciation. "You probably need to keep in mind that you're not that good at it."

I never told my mother that story, but I'm saying it now because, honestly, she is still here, right over my shoulder. And smiling.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Sunday Morning Meds--Still waters

“He leads me beside still waters” Psalm 23

I was 32 years old when someone at Bread Loaf Writers Conference called to tell me that my application for a scholarship had been accepted and they were offering me a position as a waiter, a waiter in the lunch room. I had no idea what that meant, but I understood clearly from the conversation that the offer was a good, good thing.

The house where we lived at that time is long gone, as is the tiny kitchen where I stood, phone in hand, listening. The call had come in the middle of the day, in the middle of a meal. Our two little kids were sitting beside us.

It’s now almost forty years later, but I will never forget receiving that call because I had the distinct sense that my being chosen for a waiter’s scholarship to the granddaddy of all writers conferences, Bread Loaf, was a sign that fame and fortune lay just down the road. I had just published a book, my first, with a tiny, local press; now, and now Bread Loaf beckoned. The New York Times Book Review was a year away.

When I flew into Burlington, Vermont, for the Conference—early, because I was a waiter—I met a beautiful woman, my age, married with two children, an aspiring but accomplished poet. She’d also be a waiter. Someone from the Conference picked us up, but we took the hour-long drive together into Vermont’s Green Mountains.

Ten days later, when we boarded a plane to leave, she and I stood on the stairway to a small jet, waiting to enter the cabin. She looked at me and shook her head. “I hope this plane crashes,” she said, and she meant it.

She’d been wooed by a celebrity poet, and she’d fallen. On the dance floor at night, the two of them looked like smarmy high school lovers, which might have seemed embarrassing if it hadn’t happened to so many others. Another waiter—also married with kids, two of them—told me it was important for him to have an affair because, after all, as an artist he needed to experience everything in order to write with authority.

I am thankful to God for sending me to Bread Loaf, but it wasn’t an easy place to be, for a waiter or anyone else, I’d guess. I’d lived most of my life in small, conservative communities who prided themselves on their church-going. Adultery was real, but a scandal and a tragic loss of trust and faith; it wasn’t commonplace.

The atmosphere in that mountaintop retreat was electric. Aspiring writers like me flirted daily with National Book Award winners, editors, agents, and publishers. Life—dawn ‘till dawn—was always on stage.

I am thankful to God for sending me to Bread Loaf because I learned a great deal about writing, but much more about life itself and my place in it. In the middle of that frenetic atmosphere, on a Sunday morning, I walked, alone, out into a meadow, away from people. Out there I found an unoccupied green Adirondack chair and sat for an hour, meditating. I tried to imagine what the soft arm of my little boy would feel like in my fingers, while I recited, over and over again, the words of the 23rd psalm.

I remember a beautiful mountain stream, but there were no still waters at Bread Loaf Writers Conference the summer of 1980. If there were, I didn’t see them. But that Sabbath’s very personal worship, right there in the middle of the madness, brought me—body and soul—to the very place David has in mind in verse two.

Honestly, I know still waters. He led me there.

Friday, March 09, 2018

The Signs of the Times*

I don’t remember much about coming into Sioux Center, Iowa, in August of 1966. I was 18 years old, and I’d never been to northwest Iowa so I was a little nervous, just about to start college. I certainly wasn’t sleeping, because, oddly enough, one of the only memories I have is a pair of glaring hand-painted signs planted firmly on both sides of the highway several miles north of town, someone’s personal roadside evangelism project crudely blasting out some prophetic exhortation, like “What road are you on?–-heaven or hell?” Huge signs, looming over the single-lane highway like doom itself.

That’s what I remember, coming into Sioux Center, 45 years ago.

I wondered if maybe this place was going to be too much for me, the elders of the village like the dark men on the cover of a Dutch Masters cigar box–black robed, unbending, zealots, duty-bound to scare the bejeebees out of any kid a foot off the highway of Sioux Center righteousness.

Those signs stayed there for years, some are still there in fact, and, not more than a week ago, I passed a new one, which is strange because I know that the man who once put them up there--and elsewhere around Rock Valley--is gone, moved to Michigan, where he died. I know because he doesn't call me anymore.

It took me several decades, but I came to know the man behind the signs, a man named Richard Gerritson--and his story. I visited with him and wrote up his story, something he always wanted published. Maybe it will be. Part of it is here. Read on.

On October 11, 1958, a Saturday, Richard Gerritson was ripping a house down twenty miles south of his home in Rock Valley, saving the scrap to sell, trying to make a few extra bucks, when a man drove up from the gas station down the block, asked him if he was Richard Gerritson, then told him he’d been called to get him because there’d been a terrible accident that involved his son, Larry Wayne Gerritson, just 12 years old. That’s all he said—a terrible accident that involved his son.

By the time Richard got home, cars were parked on the road in front of the little house on 15th Street. An elder from the church met him on the sidewalk, didn’t tell him the whole truth. But soon enough the preacher did. Once Richard stepped in the house, the preacher took him by the hand, Richard told me—it’s something he said he'd never forget, that preacher holding his hand. Just then he overheard his wife sobbing in the living room behind him. The news was bad—-the worst. Larry Wayne was dead.

The Gerritson family hadn't been much for church and only recently had started going. Not more than a few years before, they’d come along to worship with friends. He started attending for his wife and kids' sake, he told me, not for himself or because he really wanted to. But the family—-Mom, Dad, two girls and a boy—-were already members when Larry Wayne was killed just a hundred feet or so from Grandpa’s house, spilled on his bike on Highway 18 and broke his neck when he was hit by a car.

For three weeks after Larry died, Richard Gerritson couldn’t make it through a church service. For three weeks straight, he’d leave the pew in tears and walk home to that place on 15th Street. His wife took the car.

On that third Sunday night, sometime after two in the morning, he came up out of bed, wide awake, and picked up a Bible, something he’d rarely, if ever, done in his life, he told me. He read from the book of Matthew, 10th chapter, words that struck him right between those sky blue eyes of his. “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Jesus said, “Take up my cross and follow me.”

So he did. And part of that cross was twenty years with M-2 prison ministry, inmates with whom he shared the gospel that changed his life, one-on-one—-black, red, and white inmates, “who just made some mistakes is all,” he told me. Part of that ministry was three-times-a-week Bible studies, one of which—the one at the Town House restaurant—is itself more than twenty years old. And part of that ministry was annually changing those graphic, hand-painted signs on the highways in northern Sioux County, the ones I saw from the back seat of my parents' car the very first time I came to Sioux Center. For fifty years and more those signs have been there.

Richard Gerritson is gone, but I just noticed that now, on highway 75, someone else has put up a new sign where his old ones once stood, sentry-like, just outside of Hull.

There's always more to the story. A half a century later, at least some of what I've learned is that sometimes first impressions aren't greatly perceptive because, if you look and listen you might just learn there's more to the story.

*Republished from June 30, 2011. Richard Gerritson, 91, went to be with his Savior on March 12, 2008.