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, November 30, 2007

Just a few kind words

Weathermen and women are predicting our first big snow this weekend, but I've been in a blizzard for months already. With three writing classes and more than sixty writing students, I spend most of my life these days reading papers.

But we're comin' around the last turn, and the finish line is in sight. It's been one long haul this semester; not in thirty-plus years at this institution have I had three writing classes. I'm bushed, and, if the truth be known, I've got to push myself into the basement every night to keep on trucking through that blasted blizzard.

And then last night, a note from a reader--a man whose judgment I value deeply because he gave his entire working life, a preacher, to inner-city missions. He and his wife, both of them now retired, had been reading through a manuscript of my meditations, "normally one every noontime after our usual dinner meal," he wrote, "a relaxed, thoughtful, meditative, serious-often-with-a-humorous-topping helping of dessert," he called them. And then he asked for more. I'm not kidding.
Thereafter, I spent two hours reading student papers. Not once did I cry in my beer or in any other way bewail my hapless fate.

Just a few kind words. Sometimes--and more often, as I get older--I'm just flummoxed at how incredibly gospel-like just a few nice words can be to a parched soul. That short note sent me through the storm. I'm serious. Just a few kind words.

Here's another. After a class that, sadly enough, went true-to-form a few days ago, I felt like a dishrag. When my students didn't show much enthusiasm for Henry David Thoreau, I talked. I lectured. I yakked on and on and on. I do that to cover the hole in my heart. When my students show little joy, I just yap. Call it a defense mechanism or avoidance/avoidance--call it what you will, it's what I do. I won't take a hit from their boredom, so I just fire words at them. It's dumb, I know--but sometimes it's a matter of life and death.

By today's ace pedagogical theory, nothing is as verboten as a prof yakking away in a classroom. Students today are almost impossibly experiential--if they can't do it themselves, they don't learn squat. Only neanderthals lecture. Only old farts.

So when it's over, this old fart walks out of class, depressed, confident he could just as well walk directly into a grave. And then I get even more defensive: "Ah, what do you expect?" I tell myself. "Yer tossing pearls before swine."

I've been at this gig for a long time. I know how to keep my pride intact.

Later that night, I make my sad way downstairs to correct papers, and I find a note in my e-mail, a note from "the team" at Facebook because Emily, the team says, has left a note on my wall. Facebook. Okay, I'm on Facebook. So I go there, check my wall, and sure enough, Emily sends some definition we didn't get in class and then says something to this effect--I'm not kidding--"loved class today."

At that moment, I swear I could have won the Iowa Caucuses, both parties. Just like that I'm telling myself that I've got a 14-horse John Deere snow blower that's going to clean up this blizzard as if the snow of papers were little more than an inch of billowy-ness.

Just a few kind words. That's all it took. Just a few sweet words. I've made it through two blizzards on just a few kind words. Some people never get 'em. That's a crime. Honestly, I'd freeze to death out here in the snow.

Good night, are we fragile, Lord. Good night, are we needy. I'll send Emily and the retired preacher and his wife this url. I'm not alone in the basement. We all need a few kind words.

Then I got papers to read.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Invisible Plains

Lots of Native people tend to think of themselves as invisible. I've heard that said here and there, read it in a variety of places. Last month in New Mexico, among the Navajo, I heard it again, several times. No one really sees us--no one really cares.

I think they're right, and I say that on the basis of my last novel, Touches the Sky, as well as the one presently in manuscript. Non-Native people in this country really don't care to read about the Sioux or the Winnebago or the Pueblo or Cheyenne. It's not that they don't like them (although that may be a factor, all of those Indians getting rich on gambling!), and Native invisibility isn't occasioned by our guilt for having displaced them and destroyed their cultures (not that there's no reason). I think we just don't care. We don't look. Hence, we don't see.

But then, sometimes I think Native people can be a little over-sensitive because I'm not sure white folks care about anything that happens between the coasts these days, especially those of us in the underpopulated west and the Great Plains.
This great Steinberg New Yorker cover, "View of the World" has become iconic; but he could have foregrounded Chicago too. Out here where I live, most everyone is invisible, except if there's a triple homicide done by a naked Pentecostal preacher who leaves blood on the walls in the shape of a John Deere tractor or some such thing. Otherwise, all of us out here are invisible.

Take Ted Turner, for instance. For the most part, he's been buying up the thinly-populated West single-handedly. He now owns two million acres out here, in vast chunks of eleven states.

Just this week, he picked up 26,300 acres of prime ranch land in Nebraska for a cool 10 million, pocket change, outbidding locals as if they were the chaff to his wheat.

Nobody knows what he's planning on doing with all that land. Lots of people guess, but nobody really knows. He does keep it up. He maintains it with local people, whom he pays well, I'm told. Folks I know in Montana claim that if he needs work done, he'll walk into the local coop himself and get what he needs. He's not necessarily bad for business, and he certainly alters the tax base in a ton of county seats--raises everybody's, in fact.

But if my family had lived in Sioux County, Nebraska, for a hundred years, and I saw Ted Turner's men drive up to a neighbor's auction in search of land my own kids wanted in order to expand their ranching operation, I'd get depressed fast. If I were a school administrator in west-river South Dakota, someone worried about whether or not his or her school was viable, and I heard Turner was interested in picking up more real estate, I'd start putting out my resume.

The man is altering the shape of things in the Great Plains--and more. The man is slowly buying himself royalty status: not long and he'll be King of Plains. And it's all fair-and-square legal, and seemingly under the radar of the national media--as invisible as Native people.

But sometimes I think--as much as I love this land, respect its harsh character and love its gentle lines (the Great Plains look like a woman on her side beneath a sheet, Ian Frazier wrote, only more poetically), sometimes I wonder if maybe we shouldn't have been here in the first place. Oh, I don't mean here in Sioux County, Iowa, where the land is immensely fertile; but I do mean out there on those broad stretches of land where somehow only the buffalo and the Lakota could live in joy and strength, the land Turner seems to treasure, even if no one else does, except those few who live there.

Sometimes, this romantic heart of mine sympathizes with what he's doing, taking land away from the white folks who, a century and more ago, took it away from the Sioux and the Cheyenne and Arikara and dozens of Great Plains tribes. Sometimes--and I know this is blasphemy--I think the idea of a buffalo commons isn't all that bad. "Our village life would stagnate," Thoreau says, "if it were not for the unexplored forests and meadows which surround it."

Do we really have to have all those feedlots for all those fast-food hamburgers? Wouldn't we all be better off eating more bison? Wouldn't it be nice to see the Great Plains as wild and free as it once was?

But then, it's not my cattle that are getting gored. If I grew up on the banks of the Missouri, I don't think I'd dream the way I do--or the way Turner does.

Who knows what he's dreaming exactly?

All we know out here is that, to Ted Turner at least, the King of the Plains, none of us, red or white, is at all invisible.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

100 posts later

What's left of the turkey will last another week or so--I love turkey sandwiches. But the holiday is over, and I'm coming around the last turn for the semester. I'm bushed. My students are too. If they're not just plain tired, they're tired of it--of school. To be truthful, so am I.

I started this blogging thing somewhere mid-August already, at the outset of a semester I knew would be my busiest in years. I wanted to write something every morning--or at least every day--just to keep myself thinking through ideas, remembering stuff I experienced or heard, recording joys and concerns.

I didn't know then what a blog is, and I'm not sure I do today either, 100 posts later. Who really gives a hang what I write here? Oddly enough, some people do. Some people leave notes. Some send e-mails. It's an interesting medium, and it's been a good exercise for me, like a stationary bike. For more than 100 days now, I've been filling up this little white box patently insatiable. I could probably use an editor. Most of us could.

Just a week ago or so ago, Matthew Kirschenbaum, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, thoughtfully critiqued a research study done by the National Endowment of the Arts a few years ago, a study they called "Reading at Risk." When I read it back then, that study seemed to me to be a kind of Jeremiad from people like me, professionals.

For better or worse, I'm a professional; I'm in the reading business. I teach literature and writing, and write books (and blogs) myself, and I see first hand what the NEA study asserted--reading does seem to be at risk. What's painfully clear to me, after nearly four decades of teaching, is that students don't read as often as they once did; hence, they don't read as well. Because reading is a harder chore than it once was--or at least sustained reading is a harder chore--it's tougher, today, to teach "literature."

By enclosing that word in quotes, I'm conceding to the age, however. By thinking of "literature" as a peculiar and particular genre of what we might call "reading." It is. It's hard for me to admit that, but it's true. I cut my teeth on literature. When I first felt the hankering to write, it was--plain and simple--because I thought of writers as prophets and seers and holy men (and sometimes women). I may have been somewhat delusional in those days, but I honestly thought of "the writer" as someone with laser-like perception, someone who could and did give shape to culture.

But I've come to believe--and it's painful to admit--that that view of "the writer" is an artifact. In the information age, everyone is a writer.

Kirschenbaum says--and I think he's right--that the visual image both used and imagined by the NEA report (it's own still photos in the report) show kids with a book in corners. That's the model of "literature'--someone stepping out of their ordinary workaday job to curl up on a couch with a novel. Kirschenbaum admits that in today's world there is less of that than there was. On that score, he agrees with the NEA.

But he also points out that the new media is prompting us to read in new and different ways. Listen to this: "The report also fails to acknowledge the extent to which reading and writing have become commingled in electronic venues." I think he's right. Some examples? "The staccato rhythms of a real-time chat session are emblematic in this regard: Reading and writing all but collapse into a single unified activity. But there is a spectrum of writing online, just as there is a spectrum of reading, and more and more applications blur the line between the two."

The claim that we don't read as much as we used to seems speculative, given this marvelous machine in my basement and your office or study or even family room. That we don't read in the ways we used to--that argument, to me at least, has more currency. And with every last character to emerge from the white space just ahead of the last one on this screen before me, I am a part of that world.

I read somewhere recently that a new website is altering the sleazy business of pornography. This new site is modeled after You Tube, and it allows people to post their own bedroom shenanigans. This is not a commercial, but I find it sort of sweet that long-time pornographers are being put out of business by the democratic character of the Internet. With the world wide web, anyone who wants to be can be a pornographer, just as anyone who wants to be can be a writer. Or reader, for that matter. And most of us are.

A hundred posts in, I don't claim, still, to understand what a blog is, what a post is, what communication is, what writing is in this brand new age.

What I do know is that, for me at least, it's been a good exercise, like keeping a journal, but not really that either. There are things I'd never say in this medium, just as there are things I just last week edited out of a book of meditations I sent off to a publisher. So often, the exercise of blogging seems incredibly, even embarrassingly narcissistic--an emblem of our age, just me going on and on and on.

But then listen to Thoreau: "In most books, the I, or first person, is omitted; in this it will be retained; that, in respect to egotism, is the main difference." Feels narcissistic to me. "We commonly do not remember that it is, after all, always the first person that is speaking." True enough. "I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well. Unfortunately, I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience." Of course, you must remember this is the man who said he's traveled far in Concord. His tongue is placed firmly in his cheek. And this too: "Moreover, I, on my side, require of every writer, first or last, a simple and sincere account of his own life, and not merely what he has heard of other men's lives. . ."

Thoreau would have been a blogger--I'm sure of it. If he had a computer. How on earth could he have gotten the shack at Walden wired?

I'm looking back. It's been a joy to be a part of this new world for a semester. I don't know if I'll keep it up or not. My man Henry David even referred to his two years in the woods as an "excursion." He didn't mean to stay.

But it is exciting being part of the immense revolution that this computer is creating in the world. It's clear to me that my students don't read "literature" as well as they used to, nor do they regard it as important. There's so much of it around, so much of it at our fingertips, so much of it all over in this Information Age.

Not long ago, in a presentation I was giving about Generation Y, a retiring high school principal asked me--with deep sincerity--if the changes various studies had noted in our students were changes we, in the education business, would have to adjust to. He asked the question as if it were a burden. "Shouldn't we fight those changes?" he said.

"No," I told him. "We'll have to change." I don't think it was the answer he wanted me to give.

How we'll change isn't at all clear. People at the NY Times and Washington Post now both predict a time when there will be no more paper editions of those great national institutions. It's all going to be on-line.

Today, everything in communication--from the Post to pornography is up for grabs.

Ain't we got fun.

Well I am anyway--having fun, that is, 100 posts into my very first blog.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Different Drummer

I've always liked good old curmudgeonly Thoreau and his Walden. I've used the book in American Lit for years and years and years, and always loved reading it over again.

But this year--just now--I told myself that I've never loved it quite as much as I do right now, and that's why I'm not looking forward to tomorrow. After almost forty years of teaching, I'm tired of lugging something like Thoreau's long and glorious meditation into a classroom, only to see petrified emotions, bored faces, eyes glazed over. I can't handle looking around and seeing that clearly not one of them has read it--I mean really read it. Thoreau, I'm thinking, may well be beyond them--and I don't mean intellectually. My students are smart enough to understand it, but that grand book moves so incredibly slow to an MTV-wired psyche that I just don't know if anything within it registers.

Listen to this, from "Sounds." Here, Thoreau is talking about that blasted Fitchburg Railroad, just one hundred yards from his makeshift cabin: "They [trains] go and come with such regularity and precision, and their whistle can be heard so far, that the farmers set their clocks by them, and thus one well-conducted institution regulates a whole country." Thoreau hates clocks too. Anyway, then this: "Have not men improved somewhat in punctuality since the railroad was invented? Do they not talk and think faster in the depot than they did in the stage-office?"

It's the late 1840s, and Henry David is actually explaining my own students. Walden is too slow for them because technology has snipped our collective attention span. Everything in their world runs in nano-seconds. I don't think they get Walden--in part, because the media world in which they thrive has affected their perceptions. Call him Henry David McLuhan--the medium is the message, and he was saying that a century and a half ago.

But I'm on contract, so tomorrow I'll lug Walden into class, and once again look into bland, vacant faces and totally spent eyes. So rather than admit how much they don't know, I'll yak away the hour, fill up the time myself, and die a slow and painful death as their eyes move, time and time again, toward the very clock Thoreau hated for regimenting our existence. That hatred they might just understand, imprisoned as they are in American Lit. Maybe I ought to start there.

Geesh, makes me tired.

But I was saying that this year, I really love Thoreau.
Every morning was a cheerful invitation to make my life of equal
simplicity, and I may say innocence, with Nature herself. I have been as sincere a worshipper of Aurora as the Greeks. I got up early and bathed in the pond; that was a religious exercise, and one of the best things which I did.
They say that characters were engraven on the bathing tub of King Tching Thang to this effect: "Renew thyself completely each day; do it again, and again, and forever again." I can understand that. Morning brings back the heroic ages. [from "Where I Lived, and What I Lived For"]

Isn't that grand? Can you blame me?

But all of that joy only increases the pain. Tonight, I really love him more than I ever did; tomorrow, in class, their dreaded boredom will bloody me once again.

Teaching, we're told, begins with passion: you better love your material. But the other side to that equation is that, too often, as a lover I'm totally unrequited. And that ain't fun.

Whatever happens tomorrow, tonight was a joy, reading through him again. Maybe if we skip class, come here to my house tomorrow night, wait in silence and darkness out front--maybe, just maybe, if we're lucky, our ancient maples will come alive with the plaintive sound of one of the darling little hoots who've taken up residence in the branches; and maybe then, at that moment, the music in the air, my students would at least know why I love that single line from "Sounds": "I rejoice that there are owls."

Maybe. Maybe not.

The really great stuff you can never read enough, I guess.

I made a t-shirt I'm wearing tomorrow to class. This is it.

Maybe that'll help.

Maybe not.

Hey, "if a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer."

Ta-dum. Ta-dum. Ta-dum.

I don't care. I rejoice that there's a Walden.

Happy Birthday,
Marilynne Robinson

It's been too long since I've heard from my agent. Somewhere close to the beginning of the semester, he placed my latest novel with 11 editors at 11 houses. One commitment came early, but that one, a well-known Christian publisher--soon enough spit the hook and explained that while the editors loved the work, the bosses would have no part of it; it wasn't holy enough.

Throughout my writing life, it's been my fate to fall into the cracks between religious forces in American culture. We're an immensely righteous nation--more than 80% of us believe in God and, at least once in a while, attend religious services. Yet, strangely enough, we're more than happy not to let our faith interfere with our politics; most of us deeply believe in the separation of church and state, all of which is fascinating to some Muslims, of course--and just fine with me, I might add.

Apparently, we like our religion, at least most of us, but many of us don't like it "in your face." Some do, of course--and most of those who do love America's burgeoning Christian presses. This latest Great Awakening of ours (now generally on the wane, methinks) has created a mammoth industry in publishing, an enterprise which has grown even while publishing nation-wide, in its secular forms--has not.

And even though some have tried to bridge the gaps between them--lots of Christian houses try to create more mainstream imprints--the gulf between "Christian" publishing and, well, non-Christian publishing remains, well "deep and wide."

Deep enough and wide enough, at least, for me to fall into. I'm simply too big a risk for the faithful; and I end up being too, well, Christian, for the heathens, I guess. Then again, maybe I'm just not good enough. That fact occasionally occurs to me too.

I say all of this because today is Marilynne Robinson's birthday. Gilead is one of those books that shouts at me from my shelf, begging to be read again and again. I know people who've read it several times--I wish I were one of them. The inspiration Gilead gives me is created, in part, by my own foibles; what John Ames shows me clearly is that the job I can't seem to do--write for a wide audience as a believer--can, in fact, be done.

What makes Gilead rich is an authentic American voice. John Ames is an old man with a young son. He's a third-generation Congregationalist preacher, and he is dying. He wants to tell some things to his son, who soon enough will be fatherless. So the novel is epistlary, told in the form of something akin to diary entries, in which Ames tries to explain things about himself to a boy still too young to wonder.

There's a bit of a plot. Just as he is closing in on the end of his life, the son of a friend shows up and terrorizes Ames's own sense of how those final years were going to go. The old man's quiet Christian faith is tested by this son of his good friend, his own godchild. John Ames is sorely afflicted by this young man, but he knows his sin. Still, he is profoundly incapable of doing a thing about it--as we are.

Like another recent Pulitzer Prize winner, Cormac McCarthy's The Road, Gilead's great strength is character, not plot. I list John Ames right there with Huck Finn--the character and the book. I've never been a big fan of Salinger, but Holden Caulfield is another distinct and memorable voice. Robinson's remarkable strength in Gilead was simply the creation of a real, live character, a living, breathing human being, this one--strangely enough in this hyper-religious country--a believer, not a paper doll or some 21st century Elmer Gantry (Lord knows we've had more than a few of those in real life lately).

What Marilynne Robinson has taught me is that it can be done--a Christian believer can very well write for a broad American audience in the genre of psychological realism. Tolkein and Lewis do it in fantasy, of course, and the Left Behind series does it in whatever genre those incredible (and bizarre) books can be called. Those genres, sadly enough, are as foreign to me as some sub-Saharan dialect.

But she's my hero--Marilynne Robinson. And today is her birthday. I hope she has a sweet one.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Sunday morning meditation


"As they pass through the Valley of Baca, they make it a place of springs; the autumn rains also cover it with pools. They go from strength to strength, till each appears before God in Zion. Psalm 84:6

This afternoon, I’ll fly off to British Columbia, where, in the next few days, I’m scheduled to do a number of things, including visit some old folks in an independent living facility named Elim Home, a couple dozen or more seniors who want to hear me read a story. That’s the plan.

The word got out. The good folks at Elim Home got the news of their being visited by a writer, who was going to read something he’d written, the man who’d written things so often in their church magazine. “You know him, maybe, eh? He’s from a long ways away—from Iowa, in the States—and he’s coming to Elim Home. Ja, sure.”

Lots of Dutch brogues in this place.

One of them phoned the man who arranged my schedule on this visit. “’Ve was yust now talking,” he told him, “and ‘ve ‘vere ‘vondering whethder Mr. Schaap might yust come a little early ant’ help us learn to write our own stories.”

Some requests simply aren’t to be denied.

It ought to be a kick. I’m sure I’ll live through it and have plenty of laughs along the way.

I’m not sure why, but that polite request makes me smile. Maybe it’s because I just finished another couple of semesters of teaching. Sometimes—not all the time, and I don’t want to overstate—coming into class can be like walking into a wake. Not a student in the room is really interested in Ralph Waldo Emerson. But this Vancouver class, this gaggle of seniors, they want more time, not less, and more attention, not less. They want real teaching. They want to learn. I know, I know, I sound really whiny.

But the possibility of assuaging my wounded pride is not the only reason the Elim Home request has made my week. The other is what it is those old folks are demanding: they want help writing their stories. Good night, they’re all seniors, and they’re just now getting started thinking seriously about writing their life stories. “How can ‘ve do dat best?” they’ll say, I’m sure. There’s just something so good, so strong, so hearty about a home full of old folks wanting to learn. Whether they can is a good question; that they want to is unmitigated blessing.

It seems the older I get, the more I have to learn to pay attention to those kinds of blessings or I miss them altogether. Honestly, the prospect of visiting a couple dozen retired Dutch immigrants who want to write their life stories—it’s sheer joy to consider. It’s a peppermint in a snoozy sermon. It’s enough to make you smile.

I don’t know that anyone has a clue about the Valley of Baca, although I’d guess that some biblical scholars will be happy to hazard a theory. But then, I’m not sure that the relative glories of that place are all that important to understanding the psalm.

What’s at the heart of these verses of Psalm 84 is a tribute to people who pay attention to joy, who let it fill them, who let it carry them over the dark places. These are people of pilgrimage, who take their strength from God, whose very footsteps make the desert bloom. These are people who sing in the rain.

And Thursday I’ll be blest by being among ‘em.

Prayer: Bottom-0f-my-heart stuff, Lord—thanks for the good days, the good things, the sweet things, the take-your-breath-away moments. Help me to see ‘em more often because I know they’re there. Most of the time, I’m just not taking the time to look. Thanks for joy. Amen.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Yesterday was "Black Friday," but my wife and I are at that age when it's far more prudent to get rid of stuff than buy new things, this massive old house we live in filled with what is destined to become, soon enough, life's own flotsam and jetsam.

Our age requires our downsizing. Right here before me sits a cream-colored Chinese cow, carved from marble, a homecoming present from a beloved colleague who often traveled to China. In just twenty years, who will care about it? Nobody. That cow will have to go--if not soon, eventually. I'm sounding morbid. Maybe. But I'm being real.

So yesterday, when I finally took some time to clean a bit down here in the basement, I ran across seven old cds full of pictures, disks I hadn't seen for a long time. I had no idea what they images held, so I put 'em in the computer.

Seven disks of pix of my family at a wedding, celebrating a marriage that lasted six months, at best. It was almost creepy to see the joy. Count 'em yourself--seven rolls of 35mm film--more than a hundred shots of sweet, smiling faces. Could well be that those seven disks are all that's left of that marriage.

I tossed them--all seven of them. Who wants 'em? Nobody. Who needs 'em? Nobody. They're right here beside me in the wastebasket as we speak.

Things like that little marble cow--it's going to be tough tossing things like that, really tough.

But these pix from a wedding better left forgotten?--should have been easy, right? I really had to toss 'em. Should have been no sweat. Nobody--I mean, nobody--wants those pictures anymore. Even the principals want them gone. Should have been a piece of cake.

Should have been.

But I've not forgotten that right here beside me, in the wastebasket, is a whole gallery of smiles that are gone, gone forever.

The pictures I can throw away, but something is there in the flotsam and jetsam that isn't so easy to toss.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Book Report--Dutch Woes

Five years ago, a chapter from Philip Jenkins' book The Next Christianity memorably appeared in the Atlantic and introduced--at least to me--the changing landscape of the Christian faith, illustrating clearly that while Christianity was dying in the West, it was growing in leaps and bounds in the Third World. All anyone needs is a few stats to make the point: something like this--in London, every Sabbath, there are more black people in church than white people.

Evangelicals may well go to their knees in a moment in thanks for that growth. There is every reason to be joyful about the immense and incredible spread of the gospel in Africa, Asia, and Central America.

But what made Jenkins' work so new was the analysis he brought to the survey. What he did was show most clearly that "the next Christianity" is imbued with indiginous cultural character, that it isn't simply the Sunday school faith the missionaries brought during colonialization, that thoughtfully liberal Western Christians had reason to be wary, in fact, of the fruits of its own historic mission efforts. African Christians--as the Anglicans in England and America already know very well--aren't just there for hewing wood and mopping floors. They're not going to be anybody's handmaids, and they're already asserting themselves with the sheer force of their numbers.

Absolutely fascinating stuff.

Yesterday I finished a book that's just as interesting, a book that documents the loss of faith in its historic cradle, in Western Europe, and especially in the Netherlands, my own "country of origin," as we say. The book is Murder in Amsterdam, and it's written by Ian Buruma, a journalist who was born in Holland and clearly understands what is underway in that small nation.

Buruma is a journalist, and his ostensible topic is the viscious, brutal murder of Theo Van Gogh, an outrageous film-maker and media star, by Mohammed Bouyeri, a 26-year-old Moroccan-Dutchman, a man who said, at his own trial, that, if somehow freed, he would do it all over again, and therefore God be praised--and etc.

I'm fifth-generation Dutch-American. My knowledge of "the old country" is limited to two visits. There hasn't been an immigrant in my family tree since 1868, I don't keep up on Dutch news, and I can't speak the language. But I've lived around Dutch-Americans, many of them more recent immigrants, for years; and what I've come to understand about them, and about Holland through them, is this: the war--the four-year occupation of the Netherlands by the Nazis during WWII--has left indelible marks. And also this: most of the Dutch I know--all of them "orthodox Protestants," or Calvinists, firmly believe that Dutch culture since the war has gone pagan.

Buruma appears to agree. What's fascinating about the book is his way of drawing the story of the Nazi occupation--specifically, Holland's guilt for having given up so many (100,000) of its own Jewish citizens to Nazi ovens--into the context of the crisis created by the swarm of Islamic immigrants today. In their wholesale abandonment of the strictures of faith that characterized their own Calvinist past, in their pursuit of individual liberty, in their celebration of Enlightenment values of free speech, in their own pagan licentuousness, they've created a world that will abide absolutely no limits whatsoever--and will tolerate just about everything.

And along comes a people whose lives are focused by their Islamic culture, who have a 20-20 vision of right and wrong. Just as all host cultures, the Dutch find their new Islamic neighbors quite sweet people as long as they take jobs that no Hollanders care to do. What's more, the first generation seems quite happy, living in a free society and making more money than anyone in their families has ever made.

But the second generation travels different trajectories; some of them, at least, aspire to jobs and skills and professions that are no longer menial. When those kids, the children of immigrant workers, feel thwarted in their ambitions--for whatever reason, there is going to be trouble, largely because those kids are neither (pardon the expression) fish nor fowl. They are neither really Dutch (they haven't found a home), nor Middle-Eastern. They don't know what they are, quite frankly. And many of them turn to a radical form of Islam in which they feel security in the double-bind of their odd identities. They become more fundamentalist about their belief than their parents, and the London bombings result--and the murder of Theo Van Gogh, not to mention, 9/11.

Buruma says the Dutch--who've taken great joy in deleting their own religious character--have no clue how to deal with these new radicals. Their own sense of the righteousness of multi-culturalism makes it impossible for them to be anything less than accomodating to the very force that threatens to destroy that new openness.

I've gone on long enough. I don't think you have to be Dutch to enjoy this book. Parallels with our own immigration problems abound. Several times I thought of Native friends who've spoken of the woes of welfare largesse, as well as glass ceilings and endemic and institutional racism.

Some reviewers appear to lament the fact that Buruma doesn't offer answers to the complex problems he documents. I'm not bothered. Those problems wouldn't be problems if some guru had simple answers. I believe his analysis--all the way through--is at once alarming and understandable and accurate. Even if he offers no clear answers--this is not a how-to--such close and concrete analysis is its own blessing.

What links this book with Jenkins's work is the fact that the immense growth of Christianity in what Jenkins calls "the Christian South" is made even more formidable by the decline of faith in the West, or "the Christian North." Buruma explains why that's true--in Holland, but also in "liberal Europe."

Murder in Amsterdam is not a sweet read, but I loved it.

Thursday, November 22, 2007


A Thanksgiving Diary update

Thanksgiving Day, 2005
Thanksgiving Day, 2007
It’s just before five on Thanksgiving morning in a dark house. My wife’s day-long preparations are ready. In a couple hours she’ll shove in the turkey, and then later we’ll feast—the whole family.
[Nothing's changed. We'll eat later because our son is flying home in the early afternoon--otherwise, same computer, same basement, same pix on the wall. And, of course, I'm now just two months from sixty.]

I started this daily thanks business, betting on Garrison Keillor’s idea—with the hope that I’d smile more if I took a minute to thank the Lord almighty for something every day. He doesn’t need it, but I do.
[I don't regret doing the Keillor thing, spending an entire year in early morning thanksgiving--it was good for me. I really believed it was a wonderful concept for a book, but on that score I guess I was wrong. Been wrong a lot lately.]

My son-in-law has a new job, my daughter is happy, and the two of them love each other and their kids.
[The new job has worked out well; lots of stress, but what else is new. They're still a happy family.]
Our parents, despite their age, are doing well.
[But they're all two years older and two years closer to an end none of them fear and all wish would come quickly and easily.]

Just a step out of the darkness for my son is hopeful, . . .
[he's doing very well in graduate school, even went to a big-time football game--he must like the girl who took him there]

--and those grandchildren—all they’ve got to do is show up and I giggle
[well, these days I have to vie for attention, but they're still darling].

My wife and I have the loons on a lake in Minnesota
[although Bill and Nancy are selling, and while we'll get another summer, there will be no more northern Minnesota falls--unless we find some place new].

This Thanksgiving morning I’m thankful that there’s always something, always hope, always the dawn.
[Amen and amen.]

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Morning Thanks--On Thanksgiving eve

Okay, so I’m overweight. My doctor won’t let me forget it. Every time I see him, I am reminded to shed twenty pounds, in part because he’s lost fifty himself and is, therefore, extra zealous and cloyingly self-righteous, which makes his predictable sermons altogether too gleeful.

Tomorrow's Thanksgiving, a holiday given to stuffing. Don't I know it. Just last week, I heard a news report that said a bit of rubber tire wasn't all bad--might even be healthy. I'm sure I did.

But then, those first few steps out of bed in the morning are getting really noisy. Every joint has something to say, it seems, some of them painfully. Be better all over, I suppose, if I shed that weight.

I’m not, as they say, buff. I’d like to boast that my body shows the workouts I’ve taken for most of my life, but it doesn’t. Not really. Not at all.

But a couple days ago, walking home from work, I was somehow reminded that, hey, I’m healthy. And I am. And when ya’ got ya’ health, ya’ got just about everything. For that I’m thankful.

Hey!--why ruin a good holiday?

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Watching the Sopranos

We needed to know what all the buzz was about when HBO aired the final episode of The Sopranos. We really didn't know because we've never pulled in HBO in this house--and I'm not trying to be righteous. We loved The Wire, a Baltimore-set, detective drama our son recommended, another HBO series. So when that one ended, we started in having a look at the life and times of Tony Soprano.

Incredible. Just incredible. I can't say I love the show, but I am thoroughly and fully hooked. We watch it now, at our leisure, on dvd. Incredible.

In an episode we watched Saturday night, Christopher and Paulie botch a hit, when a huge Russian underworld goon escapes their grasp in the middle of some South Jersey forest preserve. It's winter, and there is snow on the ground. Once the goon is gone, Chris and Paulie get famously lost in the woods and cold. By my estimation, it's one of the finest episodes I've seen. It's hilarious--in part because it's always fun to see the cocky gangland toughs lose their way.

The Sopranos
deconstructs ordinary television because, other than the Soprano family itself, the viewer knows that any of the other chorus of characters are completely expendable. Tony's mother, an incredible force, was dead somewhere into the second season, even though her legacy lives on. When those two thugs were lost in the woods, almost freezing, you simply could not look away because every last alternative was available to the writers at that moment. Both of them could have frozen to death out there because no one but Tony himself, and maybe his wife, Carmela (okay, maybe Dr. Melfi, too, the shrink he sees--I can't imagine the show without her either), absolutely no one isn't expendable. Every last character is fair game.

Television has rules: the show gets finished in an hour, for instance; the principals are rarely wrong or if they are, they learn from their mistakes; a show has a series of "beats," or moments, that create the drama; central characters don't die (except sometime at the end of the season).

The Sopranos has very little of that. Thus, despite The Sopranos' lusty violence, despite the fact that hardly anyone in America lives the way Tony's family does, despite the show's own often goofy melodrama, the story of this family approximates life itself far more closely than does almost anything on TV.
Hence its appeal. One of my students just sent me an e-mail, telling me she was going to miss class because her father had a bad fall yesterday and he's not doing well. No one expected it, no one assumed that it was going to happen someday because of the man's dangerous behavior--it just happened. That's the way the plot lines of The Sopranos, seemingly, are written: almost anything can happen almost anytime. That's the way our lives are written.

After hours of frozen wandering--and even a lost shoe--Paulie spots an abandoned old van and the two of them get out of the wind, not the cold. When they get sleepy, I told myself that people freeze to death by falling asleep. In other words, I was convinced the two of them could have died in that episode. All the options are open. It was comical and riveting.

Surprise is the essence of great story-telling, and surprise is what keeps me glued to the set. You honestly and truly don't know--don't have a clue--what's going to happen because on The Sopranos almost anything can.

The violence is often repulsive; there are these moments--lots of them--when I tell myself I don't want to watch. Every last episode features naked breasts somewhere in the narrative. But even the sexuality wears a strange hue. The Sopranos features nudity in the fashion that Amsterdam does; the world famous red-light district is really little more than an x-rated theme park. But there are lots and lots of good reasons why some people shouldn't watch the show.

Does Tony really love Carmela? I don't know, but he is loyal, in his own vain and adulterous way--and he suffers for it, even though he doesn't really understand it himself. Is he really a violent monster? Sure, but he also loves his daughter. Is he someone to be feared? Absolutely, but he also engenders gargantuan loyalty.

Do I love the show? No. Will I watch it all the way through? Yes. Is it the best television has to offer? I don't know. Is it better than almost anything else, given the parameters of ordinary TV fare? Without a doubt.

It's gritty and offensive. There are more f-bombs per square inch than you'll find anywhere else on TV, and I still can't believe that there are really people somewhere in Jersey who live like Tony and Carmela Soprano.

But I know them because just like the rest of us, they don't have a clue what's coming around the bend. Anything can happen--almost anything--in The Sopranos, just like life. They fumble and dawdle and mess up, like a ton of others I know who don't come to us from a screen in our family rooms.
Like me.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Grandma's Last Thanksgiving

Once upon a time women weren't supposed to wear slacks to church because some people considered only dresses were proper.

Not my grandma. She liked the wrinkle-free double-knit slacks because they stretched enough through the seat to allow her to sit easily in a folding chair--and they almost always held their press. One winter afternoon my Grandma said not wearing slacks to church was foolish and went off to Ladies Aid in her double-knits.

Grandma never walked too fast, so she must have made quite a spectacle waltzing into that fellowship room. But no one said a thing, and the Bible study likely plodded along as usual, most of the women nodding at most everything the preacher said.

After the preacher closed with prayer, a couple of the women got up to set out the coffee and cookies.

"Why, Mabel," Alma said, "I just can't believe you're wearing pants in church."

Grandma raised an eyebrow. "Oh, this ain't the first time," she said. "I been wearing pants to church for years."

Always brimming with jokes, Grandma delighted in pulling fast ones.

And yet, when I remember Grandma every Thanksgiving, the effect is always serious, never playful.

When she was getting older, she was the holiday's queen. Even now, many years after her death, the smell of a roast turkey reminds me of how she used to stand at the table behind the chairs while everyone was seated, then look around at her children and grandchildren and nod, as if heaven itself were only a block down the sidewalk.

I wasn't home for her last Thanksgiving. My sister's family had her over, along with my parents. But in my imagination I can create the scene-the table drawn out into the living room, the inviting smell of turkey and stuffing wafting through the rooms, the tinkling of forks against my sister’s china.

When it was over, Grandma slowly leaned into the car and sat beside my parents on the trip home. She told them it was a good Thanksgiving. Then, her head fell sideways, and my father, sensing something bad, sped off to the hospital, where, not that many hours later, she died.

She played this last little joke on us, dying when she did, so that every Thanksgiving her memory haunts our holiday.

But that's okay. Thanksgiving becomes too easily a recital of "things we have": good health, good food, a nice house, two TVs, a computer, school, friends, church, and an iPod.

Somehow, Grandma's death on Thanksgiving reminds me of the silliness of such recitals. It reminds me of what God gave her--joy in life through faith not earned but given freely.

Thanksgiving is a fine harvest custom, but gratitude owns no special date on any calendar. For believers, gratitude is a whole wardrobe, not just a moth-balled costume we haul out for October or November use.

I like to think Grandma knows she's still Thanksgiving's queen. And I like to think that up there on the right hand where she's got her place at the table today, she still chuckles about that last fast one she pulled.

And then she nods--the way she used to right before the meal. Today, heaven; for her, is no longer a block away.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Real Estate

Yesterday, I stood in the heart of what Iowan's call a section of land, only two farms left within its parameters--one far east, the other far west, a mile of shorn fields between them. I'm a half-mile from the roads that square the fields, but I'm alone, no trees to speak of either. Just about every acre of land around here is off limits to hunters, so I'm always a little leery of being seen on early mornings with a camera--some land-owner might think I'm culling his pheasants or deer.

But it was early, and only an occasional car moves by on the blacktop north. I was alone in the middle of all of that land, as visible, I suppose, as the cottonwood stumps I was hunting. I was there for the dawn.

I was thinking about how I'll never feel exactly what my father-in-law does about the land. His deep regard is a respect only those who've spent their lives as a part of its seasonal movements can have. I'm was born and reared a townie. On clear mornings, I think the land is beautiful--any season. But I don't hazard out in storms. I like its lines, am awed by its dimensions; but my home is the parlor--well, maybe the basement.

One lesson I've learned about Native people is that my father-in-law is more like them than I am, not because they farm the land but because they regard it with a similar respect. To both of them, the land is a character. To some, in fact, that character is divine.

To me, the land is a grand pallette for God's artistry. But to those who really live on it and with it, it's not just a painting. It's much, much more. It plays a role in their lives. It lives and has its being. It has personality and character.

Now I'll grant you that it's silly to think of a single "Indian mind." But out here in the west at least, a Native regard for the land--which does not necessarily mean "the environment"--is far deeper and more profound than most of us have. To most white folks today--farmers too, agri-business--the land isn't really a character anymore, it's simply real estate.

Navajo history--like so much Native history--includes forced relocation, the "Long Walk" from their homelands, to the Bosque Redondo, a place called Ft. Sumter, where they and their Apache neighbors were supposed to settle down and start farming like good, industrious white people.

That awful relocation was a horrific failure--pestilence and starvation reigned; so with the Treaty of 1868, the Navajo people were permitted to return home.

And home is and was the land they inhabit yet today, the largest rez in America. That land is almost impossible to farm, of course, as any Midwest sod-buster will tell you when he's driving through. But it certainly is a land of enchantment, as New Mexico says, and it's theirs. It's where they've lived and loved and had their being. It's home.

I think it was Faulkner, a Mississippian, who once said that the great difference between white Northerners and white Southerners was very simple: "we lost."

Same with the Navajo. The Long Walk isn't ancient history, and it doesn't stick in the Native consciousness simply because of horrific mistreatment and suffering. For a time, they lost their land. It was taken from them. They were displaced. It was grabbed unjustly. And along with it went a way of life. We took their land and their culture.

Most white folks might well say, "Get over it," just as Yankees say to Georgians or Mississippians.

What I've learned from Native people is "they lost." And that story doesn't just go away.

When we were Gallup in August, we visited a Century 21 office, where we learned that not all that much land was available in and around Gallup, NM, because so much of it is either government- or tribal-owned.

But then, there's something about that I like. So much is reservation around McKinley County, New Mexico, that there simply isn't much real estate.

That's what I was thinking yesterday, in the middle of a beautiful section of land not all that far west and south of town.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Dawn's early light

It's not difficult for me to consider turning my bike around, going back home, hauling out my camera, and simply writing off the college kids who will soon be waiting for me (wishful thinking) in class every weekday morning. But more than once this week, the dawns looked spectacular when I turned east, so compelling that the alive-and-kickin' escapist impulse burned nearly out of control in my soul. I would have given anything to skip class and head out of town.
Fall--like spring--offers playful heavens. Clouds create the really memorable dawns and sunsets, like the ones I missed this week.

But I content myself with Saturdays--like this one, when the sun came up without all that much fanfare. This morning I was ready for it, two cameras slung around my neck, me standing in knee-high grass a goodly hike off a country road, just waiting in the neighborhood of a few old cottonwoods standing like weary sentries along a creekbed. There I stood, awaiting what the psalmist calls "the bridegroom." This morning, his coming wasn't accompanied by any flourishing trumpets. It was, well, just dawn.

Shooting landscapes is like fishing: you go whether or not the fish are biting. At least I do, and even though this morning's first moment of sunshine wasn't a show-stopper, it was a joy to be out there alone in all that yawning space. Sorry to say, I didn't bring home a trophy.

But then, if you make a go of it, you don't come home empty-handed, no matter how ordinary the dawn. It's a joy to stand beneath an eternal prairie sky, looking for angles, lines, and figures.

It's November. The crops are in, and the land's livery is a dusty tan--colorless some might say if earth tones seem unpretty. But then, dawn blesses everything in its kingdom. Old fenceposts, stubble corn, milk and tumble weed--we all get a blessing.

Me too. Once again. I got me a few--enough for supper anyway.

No tropies maybe, but neither did I strike out.
How could I? I got me a blessing. Look'a here.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Small blessings

From her chair in the living room, she knew something was wrong because the sound she was hearing just wasn't right, as if the door was open or something, which it could be, she thought, because maybe her husband hadn't thought of closing it. She swung her legs from the hassock, reached for her cane, pushed herself up from the chair, and took those first slow steps toward the bathroom, where things just didn't sound right. 

And she was right--he hadn't shut the door. But that wasn't all of it either. When she got into the bedroom, she realized that he'd not only forgotten to shut the outside door, he'd also forgotten the curtain behind him, and when, finally, she was able to get past the edge of the bed, she saw him standing there under the shower all right, but she also saw that the water was gushing, really, into her bathroom, all over the floor.

It was all she could do to get there. Yelling was something she really couldn't do anymore, something she left behind like so many other things, so she hurried into the bathroom herself rather than try to yell and walk at the same time. And she shouldn't have hurried because when her shaky feet hit the slippery tile of the bathroom, she went down--not badly either. She knew immediately it hadn't been a bad fall, not like some falls people suffer in the home, but it was bad enough. She could feel the pain in her hip, and she knew that's where the problem would be, and that the pain and the break or whatever would mean hospitalization, and there was no way her husband, standing there in the shower, the curtain wide open, could be alone.

So there she lay on the floor, unable to get up, her husband naked as a baby in the shower, probably wondering just exactly what he was doing there, she thought.

She tried to yell above the stream of water, but she couldn't. So she simply had to wait, there, on the floor of the bathroom, sprawled out like a child, watching her husband trying to figure out what he was doing in the shower.

When he turned, finally, and saw her there, he was dumbfounded. Some time ago, already, he'd lost the ability to think the problem through--just exactly what he had to do with his wife at his feet, sprawled on a bathroom floor that was rapid flooding. He couldn't do a thing. It was as if he was paralyzed. He had no idea what to do, standing there on a wet floor with his own wife lying at his feet.

It took some time before people found them there, the two of them, just one old couple in the home.

We have the single bed that their children had moved in to that bedroom for their father. It was clear, after the incident, that she was unable to care for her husband anymore, that he had to go to a place where he could receive the level of care and supervision he needed, care she simply couldn't give the man she lived with for 68 years.

It wasn't easy for my wife to find an adult, single bed. This one was a Godsent, the only one in town. We bought the bedsted too, and the frame, and the sheets and mattress pad. We bought everything because the children of the old man with Alzheimer's had moved him down the road to more comprehensive care. They didn't need the bed anymore, that bed they'd owned for only three weeks.

And what we told ourselves last night when the whole deal was through was what an incredible blessing it was to be able to secure not only a adult, full-length, single bed for my father-in-law, but all the necessary accessories.

For about a week now, the old man in the shower hasn't complained, hasn't pleaded with his children to take him home from his new digs. He didn't want to be alone in this new home, the one without his wife. He didn't know exactly where he was, but he knew he wasn't home.

But that fear or whatever is gone now, one of his sons told us. It's done. When he visits his father, his father doesn't beg to come home. He just smiles.

Small blessings. Like that bed the old man slept in for three weeks. Small blessings.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Welcome Back, Kotter

Somewhere in central New Mexico last Sunday, somewhere around the pueblo named Laguna, I felt an echo of de je' vu and remembered the time, more than thirty years ago, when me and the cat were packed into a sky-blue VW hatchback, rumbling along the very same corridor on I-40, leaving Arizona and the Southwest and returning to the green cusp of the Great Plains, where I've lived ever since. The cat died years ago. That's another story.

On that trip, it was just she and I, a gorgeous calico. My wife and new baby girl had flown from Phoenix to Sioux City that very day, as I remember. A litter box was on the floor in the back; and by the time I got to Winslow or so, she'd stopped howling. Poor thing had never been in a car. The howling had been awful. She'd almost died in the desert.

It wasn't the cat I remembered last Sunday, it was the memory of a strange feeling that something was over--our four-years in Phoenix, where I'd really loved teaching in the kind of city high school I'd wanted to be part of since Welcome Back, Kotter or Room 222.

Me and the calico--our leaving meant the end of all of that, but I didn't regret leaving Arizona in the rearview. I remember thinking good things about returning to small-town Iowa, to the college where I'd been taught Calvinism--among a load of other things.

The Arizona administrator who'd hired me just two years before really disliked my return, but I was taking a college job. I knew if I were ever going to write anything I had to get out of high school--no matter how much I liked it--and get to a place where day-in, day-out classroom prep didn't entirely exhaust whatever creativity I had in me. I wanted to teach in college. I remember having the feeling that I'd not travel this way again--from Phoenix to Siouxland.

Last Sunday morning--sun so bright I couldn't see half the time--there I was again, same road. Laguna pueblo--I've got pictures--looked a whole lot different thirty-plus years ago. The landscape is the same, of course, just more people.

I suppose the moral lesson is that one never really closes up shop. Once, years ago, I thought I was on that section of freeway for the last time. Several times I've been there since, twice in the last six months; and, I'm betting, I'll be there again--soon, in fact.

Doors don't close, I suppose, don't lock but once maybe.

It was a gorgeous Sunday morning in the New Mexico highlands.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Morning Thanks--Just keeping up

Somewhere, O'Connor says it: "People without hope don't write novels." Somewhere in Mystery and Manners.

Who knows why that line has stuck in my mind? I'm not sure, but it has. I feel the blasted, blessed impulse every time I sit here, fingers bent over plastic keys. Put some words together that have character and unity and meaning--which is to say, something that has hope, something that says there is meaning, something that whispers the possibility of joy thereby. Put together something with feathers--hope, Dickinson says.

Look at an image, assay some silly action, check out the flowers, watch a squirrel scamper--and give it purpose, like a Puritan, like any believer; because everything that happens has to have meaning, everything needs to come around. People without hope don't write novels, don't type blogs, don't sit in the basement, morning after morning, and try to make sense of things.

But then, people without hope don't read student papers, sell hardware, milk cows, bake raspberry muffins, or run for the town council. People without hope don't do much at all, I suppose, because all of us--those left unburdened from pits of depression anyway--want the jumble of things around us to come out right, to show some promise of meaning. We want hope. We'll do anything to get it, even write blogs.

Three years ago we felled three massive ash trees, more empty than full, three trees on our south lot line that dropped their own top-most branches and often left them suspended up there in their own ragged foliage, awaiting the next piercing prairie wind. We replaced those trees with bony new ones that won't give us an dime's worth of shade in any soon-to-come July. We'll move before that. People without hope certainly don't plant ash trees.

People without hope don't push letters along a screen. People without hope don't compose sentences, whether or not they feature saplings.

Don't know whether it's true, but I remember reading that a human being cannot willfully stop breathing--this mortal coil just won't allow it, no matter how much to be wished that kind of termination might be. For those who must, there are remedies; but one can't just quit on one's own. Can't be done.

She wasn't wrong, O'Connor that is--I'm saying, a man rounding the last turn. It's simply in us to keep our feet moving, to keep slouching along on our way to a somewhere we might see only in visions.

And for that truth, in a time of distress and chaos, I'm thankful, he said, amazed, hopeful.

p.s. That branch in the picture--it's gone, a victim of hard, summer rains.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

She asks to go

Today, my wife will do what she can to get her mother a hospital bed. It's another step on a road that began, I suppose, with her mother and father's leaving the farm, years ago, another step on the road that actually began with that first healthy cry--or even before, at conception. Amazing, isn't it?--the story we all share begins in passionate intimacy.

But that story, her story, is nearing its earthly end, very slowly. Her brothers, all younger, have been gone already for years; a sister, also younger, still visits regularly, brings her comfort and joy. But today, my wife will do what she can to get a hospital bed into their room because her mother's world has grown even smaller. She can't see, she can't walk, she can't use the restroom by herself. Her mind is perfectly clear, and she knows too perfectly well that she's of little use.

Getting a hospital bed means getting rid of the queen-sized bed that's there in the room--and the end of her parents' sleeping together. When they left their house for the home, things were fine; but slowly now, through the years, she's become more and more dependent. One shudders at the steps that remain before the grave. Soon enough, their time in "independent" living will be over.

This week I've been reading student papers, a whole pile of them on the topic of aging, a topic I assigned because, as I told them, they were going to have to care for me someday, me and millions of other Boomers, who are rapidly reaching retirement. In that pile of papers, several times I've read Jeremiads against euthanasia because the issue long been a poster-boy of Christian conservatives--and with good reason. But when my students get on their high horse about it, I tell them that in a short essay, they can't handle that kind of a complex problem. It's no slam dunk.

I tell them the process of dying is far more nuanced than they'd like to think it is. I tell them that 30 years ago already, my God-fearing parents pulled the plug on my grandma rather than have her stay alive in the grip of a machine. I tell them not to be so righteous about it.

My mother-in-law--and my own mother--are ready to go. They'd love to--both of them. They're more than willing to admit that they really have no earthly purpose anymore, and now one of them is suffering more than she needs to on her journey to the end times. Both of them pray for release. Both of them know their creator, know their savior, know that what awaits them is release into the arms of Jesus. Both of them want to be taken. Five hundred miles away in Wisconsin, my mother can still glory in the Packers' winning season, but not much else. My mother-in-law can do little more than pray--for us, I'm sure, but for her to go.

On Sunday my wife took our grandkids to see her. She'd not been out of bed, not done her hair, not been on her feet. She's weak and powerless, thin and gaunt. For the first time, our four-year-old grandson did not want to hug her. I don't know that anyone should have to suffer that level of rejection.

I remember when the general consensus among the legions of Dutch Calvinists with whom I live was that the old country, Holland, was going to hell because they'd legalized euthanasia. Maybe so. Maybe not.

My mother-in-law is dying with dignity, but, believe me, she's been doing that for a long, long time. Long enough.

I can't believe that my generation--the Boomers, the generation who's done our own thing, the original Me Generation--is going to tolerate the level of suffering and indignity my mother-in-law is going through. What's more, I can't imagine that my students' generation is going to foot the bill. I can't imagine that euthanasia will continue to be illegal. Honestly, I can't imagine the Boomers will willingly take the long road my mother-in-law is taking even though she'd rather not.

Maybe when that happens, we'll all go to hell.

I doubt it. Some will go, just as always, to heaven. I'm guessing that in Holland that's true too.

Maybe I'm no judge right now, but we're all tired of the long road my mother's been on--first and foremost, she is. She asks to go. That's her prayer.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Morning Thanks--the Vets

Last year on this day, I spoke in the college chapel, talked about my Uncle Edgar, a man I never knew because he was dead forty years before I was born, killed somewhere in a muddy trench in France at the very end of the “war to end all wars.”

In 1970, I was a Vietnam War protestor, in Washington. Today, I earnestly believe the whole Iraq thing is a mess that might have been undertaken for good reasons, but is, today, a mess. The surge is working, keeping peace--but it seems to me that we might just be there as long as we've been in Korea.

But when I think of the Americans who have died each over there--what is it?--3500 or so) I can’t help but give thanks—and pray that their matchless sacrifice for us will not be so much in vain as was my uncle’s, in a war that should never have been fought and only led to another that cost even more than the 8.5 million who were buried with him by November, 1918.

Saturday morning, at dawn, I stood at the gravesite of one of those brave men, who died when his helicopter crashed, back in August. Earlier, I'd spoken to both of his parents, who are getting by--when they don't think about it. For his gift--and theirs--I am truly thankful.

I’m thankful this Veteran’s Day—I really am. But I’m wary.

Saturday, November 10, 2007


An old mission institution like Rehoboth Christian School, where I am visiting, is a museum of cast-offs. Right here in front of me stand some books in an old library, several of them marked "Grand Rapids Christian High." Cast-offs. For years, supporting churches and families have given away their old books, old knick-knacks, old wall-hangings, old furniture, given it all to the mission, designated for “our Indian cousins,” the phrase the denominational magazine used to keep white folks “back east” in touch with the enterprise.

So the first night I stayed in the oldest building on campus here, “the Mission House,” I couldn’t help notice a painting, the only painting decorating a wide wall south, across from the bed, a slightly impressionistic rendition of what, by my non-professional eye, appears to be a country road in England or Holland. The world of the painting is nowhere near to the gorgeous Southwest landscape that takes your breath away just outside the door.

Rehoboth is just a stone’s throw from New Mexico’s Red Rock Park, an immensely beautiful constellation of awesome sandstone. It's bordered on the south by a ridge of hog backs that cut through miles of desert sage and are enough to stun most any flatlander.

Odd print for this place, I thought--they really ought to have some great desert landscapes. But when I looked up close, I realized it was, in fact, a painting and not a print. Could have been, of course, and, as I'd sat on the bed across the room, I was sure it was. But it isn’t. Run your finger over the canvas, and you’ll quickly realize that someone painted it. I’m not sure why.

So, from the bed across the room, for a time at least, I simply reasoned the painting was some Easterner's spare bedroom wall-hanging, something a cheap Dutchman (like myself) probably couldn’t gather the wherewithal to toss, even though it was of little value to anyone. “Send it to Rehoboth. Maybe someone there can use it,” somebody’s conscience whispered. It's a real painting, after all." That’s why it’s here, on this wall.

But there's a name in the lower left-hand corner. “M. Vander Weide = 51,” it says, the number, I’m guessing, a reference to the year it was painted.

Okay, someone sent a painting to his Indian cousins, a painting his grandma had done maybe ten years before she died. Wouldn’t it be interesting to know who it was?—I thought.

This morning, in Window Rock, when I prayed aloud over a breakfast I shared with three others—an old Navajo couple and their middle-aged son—the woman, dressed colorfully, whispered grace like an alto line as if my own words were the air. They are Pentecostal—all three of them—and the story they told is the kind that strikes you dumb, I swear.

The old man’s own father was a Navajo medicine man, a good man, a loving father, his son says, remembering, even while he’s apologizing for what he considers to be his fractured English. As a little kid, he says, he didn’t know a word of the language until he came to Rehoboth Mission School.

A preacher named Rev. Jacob Kamps visited his hogan one day in the mid-30s. He says he didn’t remember any white man ever having come into his place before—not one; and even though he didn’t know much English, this Rev. Kamps, in the man's own fractured Navajo, told his father—the boy picked up a bit of it anyway—that his son, his only son, should really be going to school at Rehoboth.

It seemed strange to this white guy that a Navajo medicine man could so easily give up his son to a white Christian pastor, but he did. There were relatives—his sisters—who’d sent their children to Rehoboth. And there was a hospital there, a hospital, he told me, a place everyone knew was full of very nice people.

Six or seven years old, this boy was soon after trucked—well, wagon-ed—off to the mission school where I’m sitting right now—and once there, was left behind. “This was something totally new,” he told me, remembering that day. “I didn’t even have an idea what a school was going to be.” He was going to get an education, an education that was Christian, which is to say, in some ways, an education that was white.

“I went right away to the dormitory, and Miss Van was there—she was the matron,” he told me over breakfast this morning. “And the late Ms. Van—she treated me just like a mom,” the mom he’d never had. “Her welcome was so great,” he said, it was as if she was saying “come to my house. I don’t care what color your skin is, you’re my child.”

“And from there on,” he said—I’ve got this all recorded, “I didn’t feel any harm. I felt welcomed.”

But there’s more. Miss Van, he said, used to spread her arms out and act like a train—he made a whistling sound just as she had so many years ago, mimicking her. “And all of the students would follow her,” he told me, as if they were boxcars following the engine.

If you’re still with me, you’re likely putting the stories together.


This afternoon I met an old white man, who knows almost as much about this mission as anyone still alive. I was telling him parts of this great story, when I asked him who this woman named Miss Van was.

“Why that was Marie Vander Weide,” he told me.

The very woman who created this odd little impressionist painting of some quaint European village, the one that hangs on the wall here in the old house where my Pentecostal friend first tasted cow's milk, fresh cow's milk--something he says he'll never forget.

That painting hangs here across the room, but it shines a little more now, as if it were glowing in the brilliant bronze of a perfect New Mexico dawn.

And I feel blessed to have been the recipient of an entire circle of stories.

Honestly, I still don’t care for the painting itself, but now—even here on my wall—it’s nobody’s rummage. It’s priceless.