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, July 03, 2015

American idiots

So, in a resoundingly idiotic performance premiere, Donald Trump descended to earth via shopping mall elevator to announce his aspiration to be the Republican Presidential nominee in 2016. Trump, who is mega-rich and media savvy, has almost been a candidate in the primaries previously, close enough anyway to secure the headlines he so richly seeks and simply gains. This time--2015--he's in.

He slings around some dingy remarks, glories in his own grandeur, spits out vitriol at those who don't think him a cultural blessing, then blasts Mexicans, and he's off and running. John Stewart can barely contain his glee. His writers will have no problem with material for as far as anyone can see on the horizon. Trump is a billionaire bozo whose shoot-from-the-hip gunslinging is going to create untold collateral damage. Just watch. Take cover, but stay tuned.

But he's Donald Trump, so he doesn't make mistakes--it's that simple. When the world thinks he's an idiot, he just bears down because Donald Trump is Donald Trump, don't you see?--he can't be wrong. Look at his empire, for pity sake. He's as rich as everyone wants to be in America. Just look what he's done in Vegas, man. If he says a whole ton of Mexican illegals are rapists and you say that's bigotry, hey!--you're some kind of butt-kissing idiot. If he says that gay marriage erodes the sanctity of institution, he should know. He's on wife #3. 

Okay. He'll be great on-line, where it's easy to read little more than sentences. Right now, it's early in the morning, but if he hasn't already, he'll certainly say something in the next few hours that'll earn him a soundbite, something shocking, something Hillary the wuss never would. 

Okay. He's Donald Trump, one of the most recognized names in America. Okay. 

But in a matter of 48 hours, what happens is "the Donald" skies. In just a day or two he moves from class clown to number two in Republican Presidential candidate polling, second only to Jeb Bush, the Jeb Bush he skewers unrelentingly on his way up the charts. 

Seriously? Among Republicans he's #2, passing Marco Rubio, Scott Walker, Chris Christy as if they were standing still, which they are. Passing Ted Cruz who really ought to filibuster him. Running over a whole host of vastly more legitimate candidates as if they were quack grass. 

Who likes this guy? You're serious? Are these people idiots? There are moments when I honestly question the legitimacy of American democracy. If people are that stupid, they shouldn't be allowed to vote.

I'm not alone, of course. Conservatives question democracy too. After all, they've passed significant legislation, gerrymandered bizarre voter districts with a dog whistle that doesn't say but most often implies or suggests keeping the ballot box away from voting blocks they know never vote Republican. Why not? Because, well, those people are idiots. 

Seems to me we all sometimes wonder about democracy, especially when the line in the sand is what it is today, a political Royal Gorge.

Even the founders drew lines, for pity sake. Even the writers of Constitution of these United States--Franklin, Jefferson, et al--never considered enfranchising slaves. Horrors! unthinkable! Or anyone from this country's First Nations. Or indentured servants--'t'would be inviting chaos, would it not? Or, for that matter, half the populace--women! Who on earth would believe that women have the right to vote? Idiots. 

The government passed the historic Voting Rights Bill only fifty years ago, for heaven's sake, twenty years AFTER World War II.  

Most all of us would love to keep those people with idiotic opinions out in the back forty somewhere way-the-heck-away from a ballot box. After all, you don't give this precious American right, the right to vote, to plain idiots. 

You know the old story. As he emerged from the constitutional convention, some eager beaver asks Ben Franklin what kind of government he and the rest of the signers gave us. "A Republic," he says, "if you can keep it."

No kidding. Democracy is still an incredible, revolutionary experiment. For the last eight years we've suffered through a bout of bitter paralysis brought on by factors no two of us would likely agree upon--Republican recalcitrance, socialist Democrats, an outlaw President, Elmer Fudd tea-partiers. Choose your banner. 

Democracy, it seems, is still very fragile, relying as it does on thoughtful voters unified primarily by their desire and ability to manage a country by getting along with people with whom they sometimes vehemently disagree--a government of the people, for the people, and by the people.

A dream really. An experiment. An ideal. A government sustained by idiots all.


Thursday, July 02, 2015

Freya Manfred, "Imagine This"

When you’re young, and in good health,
you can imagine living in New York City,
or Nepal, or in a tree beyond the moon,
and who knows who you’ll marry: a millionaire,
a monkey, a sea captain, a clown.

But the best imaginers are the old and wounded,
who swim through ever narrowing choices,
dedicating their hearts to peace, a stray cat,
a bowl of homemade vegetable soup,
or red Mountain Ash berries in the snow.

Imagine this: only one leg and lucky to have it,
a jig-jagged jaunt with a cane along the shore,
leaning on a walker to get from grocery to car,
smoothing down the sidewalk on a magic moving chair,
teaching every child you meet the true story
of this sad, sweet, tragic, Fourth of July world.

This morning's poem on The Writers Almanac caught my eye because it's a Freya Manfred, who has a new book out, Speak, Mother, which I just bought. The title is intriguing, given that she's written extensively about her father, Frederick Manfred. Now it's mom's turn I guess. I'm anxious to see what Freya and her mother are saying.

I don't know if she's using her mother's voice in these poems; in this one, she could be. But Freya herself is of age to be thinking what's in "Imagine This." And I get it. After all, ideas like these catch securely in my mind too. I can't tell you what joy I got yesterday from a wood thrush outside my window--a wood thrush when we're pure prairie here, all prairie and no trees. He shouldn't have been in our backyard, but there he was in his gorgeous shiny brown livery.

"The best imaginers are the old and wounded," Freya Manfred says. I hold only one of those offices, but believe me when I say I understand "ever narrowing choices." Yesterday, a bowl of my wife's strawberry soup--"let me count the ways." The black-eyed susans--dozens, even hundreds of showy dandies appearing right now in the field across the road. The gargantuan sunflower in our garden, big enough for Jack to climb if he has trouble with the beans.

Little things are so blessed. She says she used to dream of New York or Nepal. Today, she's overtaken by a stray cat. I get that--narrowing choices, narrowing joys.

What I don't get is "Fourth of July world." Saturday is the Fourth of July, of course. Her father used to say that all stories--and his daughter is telling a story here, even though it's a poem--should be shaped like c's, because all stories leave something open for the reader, that little space that's unconnected in the shape of a c. Some stories are i's--they leave a ton unconnected and sometimes leave us totally puzzled. Some are o's; they connect themselves and hold no mysteries at all. But the great stories leave space for us to finish, to wander in.

That gap, at least for me, is "Fourth of July." When I was a boy, what my grandma used to call "the doings" in the park made the Fourth a wonderland, a brassy medley of John Phillip Sousa all holiday long from foghorn speakers in the bandshell. Back then, a "Fourth of July" world was pure thrill, the night sky flowering with fireworks as we sat in the dewy grass. Maybe that's the connotation she's keying in that last line.

But she's a late-sixties type, and patriotism comes at a cost for most boomers, for me at least. Our war was, after all, Vietnam. Does "Fourth of July" suggest patriotic hype? Love it or leave it?

Probably both.

Some find art's very heart a test because it glories it what it won't tell us. Instead, it begs us in to participate, to think, to try to imagine something you really hadn't considered, the world as we know it in the in-looped flags of a Fourth of July.

I don't know what Ms. Manfred intended, but I know what I think: it's a crazy, mixed up place we live in, an abode as full of tears as it is of laughter, equal portions of joy and sadness, and sometimes sadness that's really just another form of joy. And vice-versa.

He's the bossiest character in the backyard, that beautiful wood thrush who really shouldn't be here. He runs grackles that are then-again bigger than he is right out of town. Even ground squirrels. Wearing that flekked vest beneath a almost pastel cape that's as red as it is brown, he's a gorgeous flat-out bully. He really is.

But I'm glad to have him in this "sad, sweet, tragic, Fourth of July world."

As her own father would say, "Even the pain and hunger were sweet to have. It was life, not death, and all moments of life are sweet."

I'll put my money on this--that what Freya Manfred is saying about this Fourth of July world in "Imagine this" is not all that different from what her father has etched on his tombstone.

I get that too, when just outside my door is yet another beautiful dawn.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Time's signatures

The moment we get in the car, she fiddles with the stations, gets the one she wants, sings along until she can't, then switches to another station to find some tune she knows.  A year ago it was Christian contemporary. No more. The diet is now is secular. She's older. When she left childhood, she put away those childish things.

It's noticeable in so many ways, these signatures of time. She's the oldest of three. When the other two want to do something, if she doesn't, she simply walks away, doesn't take the time or the effort to belly-ache about her little brothers, to taunt or to tease, just angles coldly for something else. There was a time when everything was worth a tussle. No more. She leaves them behind. And her grandparents.

It's as if she's in another world. She is. She's in her teens.

Her grandma says our granddaughter could have spent most of last night sitting out on the driveway in a circle with her friends, boys and girls, yakking--who knows what about? Life for the rest of us could spin out of orbit; as long as she's with them--her friends--she's in the world that really exists.

Just last week or so, her great-grandpa had to give up his car, his mobility, a bit of whatever little independence he still had. His eyes, at best, are uncertain, his hearing is long gone, his reactions are painfully slow. We didn't have to argue.  Even though he had it figured that driving to our place could require no left turns and mostly gravel roads where he'd meet no traffic and the only pedestrians were mourning doves and red-wing blackbirds, he understood driving was over. He had to hand over the keys.

It was Robert E. Lee at Appomattox.  He's 96 years old, but the look on his face I'll not forget soon--he was forlorn--a great word we don't use often. Forlorn--"pitifully sad, abandoned, or lonely," the dictionary says. If I were an artist, I could draw you a picture, but one is forming in your own mind anyway, I'd guess. 

Something is always over in life. The glass is really always half empty. One of my ex-students from years ago, announced to all her Facebook friends that she was pregnant. She's in her thirties. Yesterday, she said she'd miscarried. Breaks my heart as it did dozens of others who told her so. 

Dawn is rising later this morning than it did last week, and it will again and again from now until December. Somewhere in Saskatchewan a huge fire has clouded our skies for the last two days, dressed the world in something strangely gray and wispy. Lately, the night arrives more hastily than it did just a week ago.

Time is really little more than a fiction, Abraham Kuyper says somewhere in Near Unto God. And I know it is. Reality is eternal. Reality is timeless. 

But right now that idea doesn't much relieve sore muscles and an aching back.

Just a few days ago, I sat in a waiting room with my father-in-law, folks his age and a few escorts, like me, on four rows of padded chairs all around. A old man and woman came in together. He walked with measured steps that announce his intention not to break a hip. They sat across from us. She didn't bother with coffee.

Maybe she should have. In three minutes his chin was on his chest. 

The sadness I felt formed from the realization that I could nod off myself just as easily.

Time may well be a fiction, a novel with an end; but life is a story that's far more Dickensian than Hemingway-ish. Time's signatures are everywhere, over, around, above, and within hundreds of chapters.

But there is an end, which is, thank the Lord, really a beginning. Go figure.

I think I'll just sit here and watch the dawn. 

Monday, June 29, 2015

Last week's biggie

Well now, I guess the sky is falling.

Huge SCOTUS rulings last week thrilled liberals about as much as elections last November made them disconsolate, conservatives walking off with most every electable seat in the nation back then. As a country, we're as split as a ripe melon when it comes to some some issues, perhaps the greatest of which is gay marriage. To Republicans, upholding Obamacare was the first horror from the nine justices Huckabee called "activists" last week, but Friday it was Justice Kennedy who joined the libs for the most horrifying ruling of all: Romeo can now marry Jules. It's official. Mom used to say it was a sign of end times.

Yesterday, as we walked into church, my granddaughter simply assumed, I guess, that the sermon would be woe and woe and woe. I don't remember her exact words, but she made it perfectly clear that she expected to hear how awful gay marriage is. 

Maybe she was surprised--I don't know--but in the church we attended, it didn't happen. All over the nation, I'm sure it did because wherever the word "Christian" is a synonym for "conservative," onward Christian soldiers reupped for the righteousness crusade. What began with a ban on school prayer now has come to its demonic end with gay marriage, and "Christian America" simply is no longer such. So say some.

Will "Christian" America have to bend the knee? Will Christian cake decorators have to festoon their creations with two tiny brides? Will Christian pastors be forced to marry gays? Will Dordt College have to hire gay lab assistants? Will gay preachers bring the CRC to court if it doesn't put them in ecclesiastical office? Name your fear.

I don't think anyone knows what could happen, what might happen, or certainly what will happen. But where there is speculation, there's adequate opportunity for fear and fear is a solid political plank with people who consider themselves besieged. In politics, you can go to the bank on fear. Fear motivates. "They're taking over--the gays are. You got to be blind not to see it. It's either them or Sharia law. They're all coming to get us, the decent, law-abiding true Americans." 

I know people whose adult children are gay. What they say is something they don't even have to: "it changes things." When you know gay people, when you love gay people, it's really difficult to make them demonic.

And what seems clear from sturdy, conservative evangelicals is that something similar is going on right now, even among those who are not, under any circumstances, buying last Friday's historic ruling. What many of those on the right are saying is that even if you don't buy gay marriage for a minute, you can no longer shout about it. That day is over. You have to love. 

Today evangelical Christians, who make up a quarter of the American population, find themselves in a minority position when it comes to homosexuality. As long as they were in the majority opposing gay marriage, it was a whole lot easier to be condemning. No more. Some evangelical churches report that gay couples are actually coming to them these days. It's hard to outfit ordinary-looking men and women in hooves and horns when you're standing beside them singing praise songs.

Welcome to the new dispensation. Today, it seems, even really conservative Christians are reminding themselves that they can't just pillory those with whom they don't agree; they have to stop demonizing, have to learn to love. 

Loving those with whom we disagree is not easy; but it seems to me that the Savior who commanded it never once suggested it would be.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Sunday morning meds--"In His Feathers"

 “. . .in the shadow of your wings until the disaster has passed.” Psalm 57:2

The quotation marks in the title (incorrectly) designate that the title of the meditation is a book, not just a few words hung atop a meditation—but what you're about to read is not a marketing ploy.

Several years ago I published a collection of a woman’s letters and notes and journal entries, which is titled, on the basis of this verse from Psalm 57, In His Feathers. It was published in very low numbers because, try as I might, I couldn’t find a big publisher—well, let’s broaden that a bit: I couldn’t find an editor or an agent even willing to read the manuscript.

Why wouldn’t anyone look?  It's the story of a woman’s battle with cancer, ovarian cancer. Sharon Wagonaar Bomgaars died in 2003, just a few years after diagnosis, which means In His Feathers is, I suppose, to big publishers just another memoir by a nobody. If Sharon had been a celebrity—if she’d been featured on Good Morning America, or—the big enchilada, Oprah, we would have had no trouble finding a publisher.

Sharon was a loving wife and mother, a thoughtful, honest, committed Christian, an inveterate journal-keeper who recorded every last sorrow and joy. Listen to her thoughts as she sat at the keyboard for the very last time:

This morning [my husband] brought me a half-cup of pear juice with ice. I took a sip and a tiny piece of pear had slipped through the sieve. I caught it on my tongue. I squeezed that little gritty fragment lovingly. It smoothed into nothingness and it was so good! I squeezed each lovely sip and rolled it around on my tongue. Then I let it slide slowly down my throat. Pear juice, delicious pear juice, squeezed from pears grown on some tree in dusty California, and now bringing me all its sun-warmed sweetness. What a gift!
God is so good to give us such pleasures in this sin- sick world. I love God's gifts! I love his peaches, and pears, and grapes, and strawberries, and apples! I love his wet, sweet, juicy creations! What an awesome God!
Twenty-one days later, she left all the sweet, juicy creations behind.

Forgive my bitterness and even my jealousy, because I do wish the book would be featured on Oprah. But its failure to find a publisher may well be itself a reason to praise God. Thousands upon thousands of stories like Sharon’s exist, stories of real people who took or take abiding refuge beneath the wings of God almighty.

Somehow, I think Sharon would like me to say what’s in my heart—that the glory and power of this single line from Psalm 57 is that it is true, true until the day we die, and then on into eternity. And the proof is in the numbers: there are so many Sharon Bomgaars' stories.

The truth of Sharon’s story is in this plaintive song of the poet/king. Refuge, as David knew, even as he sang this line, is under his wings and in his feathers.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Saturday morning catch--a summer's dawn

She won, of course. When Shakespeare determined he'd do what he could to make her swoon, he compared her to a summer's day, and she won that one, big time. But could you expect any less from sweet talk? Most men will pull out all the stops when seduction is on the line. "A summer's day?--big deal."

I'm thinking his use of "day" was deliberate, because had he said "dawn," he wouldn't have been convincing. Like this:

Shall I compare to a summer's dawn?
(Pause. Longer pause.)
Nah. Let me try that again.

Summer mornings can be drop dead gorgeous. In fact, at times it's not hard to think that you're standing at the very portal of heaven when it's only the Floyd River.

As long as I didn't get out of the car, this guy let me shoot. He knows very well the beauty of a summer's dawn. There he was, middle of all that shining divinity. 

Even soy beans get redeemed by a misty dawn.

Silhouettes get haloed.

Just up the river here at a big bend just around the corner is a spot, I'm told, Native people loved to make camp. This time of year, this time of day, is it any wonder? 

Shall I compare thee to a summer's dawn?

Let me give that some thought.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Bringing down the flag

It was 1977, and a bus full of Iowa kids and their leaders were sweltering in a level of dank heat none of us could have imagined. We were spending two weeks in the Mississippi Delta, the place where the blues began, something no one talked much about because we were, after all, on a mission to bring Jesus to poor black kids and maybe their parents. 

We'd been told about racism, enough so that most any white man I saw on that trip I assumed to be a closet KKK gendarme. I knew Jim Crow from history books, but not from sunup to sundown in a real live heat-soaked cotton field. Life among the rural Black poor was new, and to the righteous Yankee ambassadors of Jesus (us) it was, well sad. 

Whether it should have been is another question altogether.

So one hot night at a softball game just behind the Christian Center where we were staying, I talked to a man who was about my age. He told me he was living in Detroit, just visiting his Delta homeland. Totally taken with the us vs. them mentality--Yankee vs. Reb, which is to say slave vs. free--I was astounded to hear him say that he'd give anything to move back to to the South, to rural Mississippi, to these cotton fields back home.

It's easier, quite frankly, to buy into caricature than it is into a reality which is almost always more nuanced than the simple "either/or" dichotomy. If there had been a decent job in Delta land, he would have much rather lived right there along the Mississippi than up north in Motor City. What he said sticks with me because I didn't see it coming, not at all, not back then.

It seems to me that the Confederate flag should have been ceremony-ed to a significant place in a thousand Dixie museums long, long ago. My family has been Yankee for as long as they've been citizens of these United States, so I don't really fully understand the till-death-do-us-part commitment to keep that thing flying over state houses (in one form or another). Allegiances die hard, I'm sure, when the earth beneath your feet has been made fertile by ancestors' blood; but consider me among those who believe that what was at the very heart of "the War of Northern Aggression," as it's sometimes still called south of Mason-Dixon, was the institution of slavery, a cultural and spiritual commitment to the proposition that not all men are not created equal, that, in fact, all men are not all men (and women).

That's what the Confederate flag means to me--what it always will mean. 

If it offends millions of Americans, white and black, as it does, it needs to be museum-ed. Even Gov. Haley agrees this time--as did a host of others. End of story. 

That being said, I think I understand that softball fan from Detroit. I get it in the quiet evenings in the rural South, in the way kids look when they've got fishing poles on their shoulders as they poke along towards the river, in the smiles of ordinary folks, in the sweet sauce of great barbecue.  He was still in love with a way of life dank with repression and bigotry, but still big enough to be beautiful. 

As much as I hate the slave history of my country, I wouldn't like to see the Mississippi Delta become Detroit, wouldn't like Southern life to become just another derivative of the consumerist suburban North. After all, I really do like William Faulkner, and I appreciate the determined commitment Flannery O'Connor held toward the South she loved so stoutly: 
The things we see, hear, smell, and touch affects us long before we believe anything at all. The South impresses its image on the Southern writer from the moment he is able to distinguish one sound from another. He takes it in through his ears and hears it again in his own voice, and, by the time he is able to use his imagination for fiction, he finds that his senses respond irrevocably to a certain reality, and particularly to the sound of a certain reality.

What we Northerners are telling Southerners to do requires the tools and hands of an accomplished surgeon, someone who can cauterize South's heritage of bigotry, yet hold to something unique and particular. 

And that's not easy. It seems to me that it's much, much easier to put the stars-and-bars where it belongs: in a museum. 

I remember standing in front of a huge Afrikaner museum in Pretoria, after Nelson Mandela had become to new Prime Minister of the new South Africa, and thinking that this sprawling monument to the country's Dutch past would somehow, some way, have to go, sad as that may have been to the country's own proud Afrikaners. 

Hate condemned that past. People were going to have to find new ways of honoring that which deserved honor, respect, and love because, well, how does the Bible say it?--the wages of sin is death.