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.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Lakefield, Dylan, and King David



Lakefield, Minnesota, is a bit more than a road sign on the highway we've taken, back and forth, to Wisconsin, for more than forty years. It's a sign with a story.

The VW was what was called, back then, a hatch back, a turtle-looking thing, turquoise blue, a color that was appropos given where we'd bought it--Arizona. It had air conditioning. That I remember. The old orange "squareback," my first car, really, and a car I really loved, didn't. That car I bought in Wisconsin, where, back then, air conditioning was no necessity. When we moved to Arizona, we needed air. Hence, the hatchback.

Seems to me that it was frigid that night in Lakefield, although I may be wrong. Our daughter couldn't have been more than two. Our son was not yet a presence, as I remember.

What I remember is the fading lights out front as we were driving down I-90. Had to be 30+ years ago. The headlights yellowed then nearly died altogether. It was Saturday night probably, and we were still two hours from home, seven hours' of travel already behind us.

I took the exit and went into town. When the Lord distributed mechanical aptitude, I must have been out somewhere with a camera. I'm not one of those who can bury himself under the hood for five or ten minutes, grunt a little, scape a knuckle, and diagnose problems. If I'm not near a garage, I'm in trouble--my wife would say, "we're in trouble."

I don't remember how we decided what needed to be done, only that there was no open garage anywhere--and that we weren't all that far from home. So the three of us went into a restaurant, where the people were delightful. Of course, Lakefield, Minnesota, is Garrison Keillor country, where good Lutheran souls can spot a compassion project a mile off and start serving him/them up warm kindness faster than you can open a hymnal. We had a wonderful time--maybe three hours' worth.

What I remember is calling my father-in-law, who then proceeded to drive out to Lakefield, Minnesota, to the restaurant (there was a bar on the other side, I remember) to pick us up--well, "pick us up" is a misnomer; maybe I should say, "guide us home," because that's what he did. He drove out in front of us on all kinds of back roads so that our just-about non-existant headlights were superfluous anyway.

The two of us made a caravan of sorts, through the back roads of northwest Iowa--a blue VW hatchback, a single driver, following a Chevy Impala, somewhat immoderately close, I imagine. My wife and daughter opted for the comforting assurances of the Impala.

And that's the memory that registers suddenly in my mind whenever we pass the exit sign for Lakefield, MN. It might even have been a Christmas trip, and we were a young couple with a baby, and there we were in distress--feels like a template for the nativity. I'm kidding.

Wistful, my dictionary says, means "characterized by pensive longing." I'm not sure that's what it is I feel whenever I pass Lakefield, MN. It certainly isn't nostalgia either, unless it's a particularly wistful case of nostalgia. Nostalgia warms the soul. Today, so many years later, my soul is not warmed when we pass Lakefield, MN.

What I feel is something closer to regret. I'm somehow regretful when I pass that exit, always. And I'm not sure why. Is it an ache to be young again? Is it some recognition of dreams left unfulfilled, unreached? Is it some cold Minnesota-like realization that whatever I've done hasn't reached the ends I once scouted in my own dreams?

Or is it simply that life, back then, looked so unclouded, as if dimming headlights were the extent of our problems? In some way, I'm tempted to say, remembering who I was back then, that, really, I didn't know beans about the world.

But if that's true--if there's some wistful reaching for an innocence that's long gone--then why would anyone want to go back to innocence, to naivite? Is it because, somewhat secretly, I'd like to take one more run at the whole project, as if life really was something akin to Groundhog Day? Am I pensive or regretful--am I wistful and melancholy right there on I-90 because I read myself as some kind of failure? What is this longing for?--a different life? a second chance? dreams left unachieved?

The fact is, way back then, I'd already made a choice to live or die professionally by way of literature, teaching it and writing it. Because of that decision, I know this much at least: whatever it is I feel, whatever brand of regret, it's verifiably human. I am not alone. Literature is full of similar pensiveness, where it goes by a name, the motif of ubi sunt, which is to say (or so says one definition) "the transience of life, youth, beauty, and human endeavor." I think I learned it from Dylan: "where have all the flowers gone?" But King David felt it too, a far more difficult case that arose from the memory of his own son Absalom.

Ubi sunt. That's what fits at the Lakefield exit: "the transience of life, youth, beauty, and human endeavor." Something like that. It's something you feel in the stomach and in the soul.

Okay, but knowing that won't stop the rush. In March, when I go back to visit Mom again, I'll pass the Lakefield sign and those yellowing headlights will reappear, as will a three-hour stop in a small-town restaurant where good Minnesota people waited on us hand and foot, a young couple with a baby, in very late December.

But that others feel it, and have felt it--long, long, long before I do--that's a joy.

I am not alone. None of us are. Ever.
Even with dimming headlights, and certainly not in Lakefield, Minnesota.

Thursday, December 27, 2007


Going, all along


In just a few hours, we'll be heading east, home. For as long as I live, I suppose I'll call Wisconsin's Lake Michigan shoreline "home," even though it hasn't been since 1966, which is, by anyone's math, quite a long time.

The habit persists as habit alone, too. I feel no particular homing instinct anymore, either on the drive back or during the few days I'll be there. We'll buy some cheese and sausage, and, undoubtedly, I'll visit the lakeshore at one spot or another, see family, visit Mom, and relive some good memories; but, come Saturday, I won't weep when I watch Sheboygan County disappear in my rearview.

For years, I dreamed of living there, of selling some wonderful novel that made enough money to let me move back to some small place at the lakeshore. For years, I saw myself in a room of windows, seated at a spacious study desk, writing yet another wonderful novel. Home was a vision, a kind of mission statement for a goodly chunk of my early adult years. Someday, I'd move back to Wisconsin, set up shop somewhere close to the lake, and write novels. I'd would teach no more. "Those who can, do; those who can't, teach"--that one. I would be, yes, a writer.

This morning's e-mail includes a final, late essay from a kid whose grades I've already filed for the semester. I'm still very much a teacher, and I still live here, in the far reaches of the northwest corner of Iowa, a day's travel from any body of water you can't see over.

But the meat market here makes fair-to-middlin' brats, and you can buy Wisconsin cheese almost anywhere. I don't miss the cloudiness either. Big lakes spawn clouds; out here on the edge of the Plains, the face of the sun is a great blessing, far more constant--and I like that. There's open spaces here, too, more of them, lots of them.

Really, this is home. It's just a habit I have, calling the other what it is no more.

Still, I'm looking forward to going. Mom is there, after all.

And it's a good thing to dream. Who knows?--maybe someday I'll still sit behind that spacious desk and look east over the lakeshore. Who knows?

Meanwhile, this desk isn't bad, and it's warm down here in the basement. And I'm typing along just like I always dreamed, even if it's only a blog. I never once dreamed of writing a blog.

Who knows?

I could end this riff with a hymn, I guess--"this world is not my home, I'm just apassin' through. . ." But I've always had trouble with that theology: the lakeshore is just too beautiful and so is the prairie. Honestly, this basement isn't a bad place either, even though it needs a good cleaning; and we just had a wonderful Christmas. "This world" is nothing to shake a stick at. God made it, and he loves it. It's his creation. It's what he fashioned. I'm not interested in leaving right now. I've still got to get a few good pictures--and, who knows, maybe it's time to take another shot at that novel.

I'm home. Time is but the stream I go a'fishing in. Instead of getting to heaven at last, I'm going, all along.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Morning Thanks--Opportunities to listen




This morning I was sure I wasn't going to lose. I was out early, chose the landscape carefully--had lots of time; I walked about a mile in beautiful, fresh snow that quilted the whole country, maybe three inches of light, fluffy stuff last night, late. Once out there, I waited for the sun. I was prepared--right place, right time--two cameras around my neck, both of them staying warm in my jacket. 


The best of the lot may be the one at the bottom--"just before dawn, sioux county, iowa." There, I even gave it a name. It's not as startling as I'd like, but it catches what was there--and what was there was beautiful.

I didn't have all day--only fifteen minutes or so post-sunrise. But the world was crystalline. Still, I thought I couldn't miss.

I took this shot several times at different times during the dawn. I loved the way the creek foregrounds the whole shot and and then swims away toward that distant farm place. But I don't think I did it right. It's too dark, and I can't seem to reclaim it. Should have waited for another half hour, but I didn't have the time.

The eastern sky changed fast; everytime I looked that direction it gave me a different look. I took a few, but none of them really takes my breath away.

Like I said, I was sure I was going to come home with a trophy today. I really did. But I didn't. And what's worse, I don't know why not. This time the heavens definitely declared the glory. This time I guess I was in no shape for the proclamation.

Oh, well--there'll be more mornings alone, more opportunity to listen.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Morning Thanks--Christmas Eve



On Christmas Eve in our church, a little boy sitting just down the row was so taken with the candle in his hands and the whole candlelight service around him that his face glowed as if aflame itself, his eyes teaching wonder anew.

He was Hispanic, not someone whose roots, like so many others’, grow deeply into this rich Iowa soil—maybe that was part of the startling joy I felt.

What I saw in the glow of a lit candle on that boy’s face was just about what all want out of Christmas. In the glow of the gift of a baby, we want somehow to experience something profound enough to help us weather the rest of our lives. Of course that we get what we want at Christmas doesn’t always happen.

But doesn’t always isn’t never, and for one brilliant moment last night (which is not to say there weren’t others) that little boy’s charmed little face offered every ounce of the astonishment we all hope for.

For just that moment, just that look and those big eyes on Christmas Eve, I’m thankful, and will be for a long time.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Silent Night



I once heard a novelist say that if you put a birth at the end of a novel, that birth will be the end of the novel. Nothing is going to upstage new life--can there be any greater event? That's what he said--or words to that effect.

I did it once--my last published novel, in fact, the best novel I ever wrote, I think, although it was remaindered less than a year after coming out. Once it was clear where the plot was going, I ended the story with new life.

There's something to it, I think, something to that idea. New life trumps just about everything when you think about it. How you going to upstage a baby?

We had our Christmas early this year, both of our kids taking off today, Christmas Eve. So yesterday we had our holiday, and it was a joy. If a picture says a thousand words, then check out what's above here, because what you see on that face catches the temper of our day--for which we're thankful, Grandma Schaap and I.

Would have been nice to have my wife's folks there, but they're just about ninety and not about to leave the home, even for the opening of the presents. So we had to bring something of Christmas to them, which we've done, in part, and we'll yet do, a bit more, tomorrow--Christmas Day.

I'll show them this picture--and the others--and my guess is that they'll be want to stare at them for hours, then get up and get a cup of coffee, and start in again. They're at that point in life when just about the only thing that matters is their kids and the grandkids and the great-grandkids. Their world is much smaller than it was when Dad worried about harvest and Mom was running her own little reupholstering business. What brings them joy--more than anything else, far more than their own kids--is their grandkids. Which is not to say they can take them all afternoon.

With three parents nearing 90, buying Christmas presents has become something of a chore. Not one of them really needs anything. Most of them don't really care for more clutter--knick-knacks and such. Clothes are a little silly too. None of them wants a cell phone or a digital camera or an mp3. So what do you buy?

What it comes down to, irreduceably, is something connected with the grandchildren--something, anything. Give them a couple of pictures and their happy as clams--honestly. They're at that point when little else brings as much happiness as a baby, as children, as kids--a hug from their great-granddaughter, a smile from her brother. That's all they need, all they want, and there's is a very merry Christmas.

It was an act of genius for the Lord God almighty to bring us redemption by way of a baby in a manger on or near winter solstice. Just when all the world looked dark and dreary, he tells his own son to pull on a suit of human skin and get himself born into the world he'd created solely for his joy. He made his son a baby--had to burped and changed, had to be held, had to be cuddled. He gave us all a child at Christmas. What an incredible idea.

So here's my kid story this Christmas. My granddaughter and I go shopping, like we've done since she was still young enough to sit in the shopping cart; and this year, for the first time, she's got a list. Donuts for Dad, M&Ms for Mom (go figure), and some kind of catnip toy for the cat. After that it's hunt and pick, and I'm the governor on her little purring engine.

When it's time for Great-Grandpa and Grandma, we're walking past the footwear, when she spots houseslippers and points as if they were what the doctor ordered. Good choice. Her great-grandpa has been having some foot problems as of late, so I happen to know his shoe size. The rack has nothing bigger than a 12, and I'm sure he'll need bigger. I ask the clerk, who sends us over to a wall full, where we find a 13--black, rubber-soled, heavy felt. Perfect for winter. Neither of us knows whether he's already got slippers, but I'm not about to lug anything into the path of her enthusiasm--and I'm guessing my father-in-law won't either.

Great-grandma is a little tougher. At the jewelry counter, Jocelyn checks over necklaces ("well, you know, Grandma doesn't wear much jewelry anymore) and diamonds ("we better let Grandpa buy that stuff"), before settling on rings. There's a massive Wal-Mart selection at ten bucks. I'm in. She looks for awhile--maybe ten minutes--before settling on something more than a little garish, I thought, something with a big, pink, fake diamond right in the middle. She likes it because she likes pink, I'm sure. But I'm not about to stop her. We ring it up.

I wasn't there when Jocelyn gave her great-grandparents the presents. I would have liked to have been, but she and her uncle went over alone and gave them what she'd picked out. She told me they liked them. She said they both put on their presents right away--after taking them out of their wrapping paper.
I'm sure they did.

Today--tonight--is Christmas Eve. And here's what I know. "Silent Night" is gorgeous anytime, but tonight the whole world sings it, even though all through the neighborhoods, I'm sure, there isn't much silence, not much at all, families opening presents and eating carmel corn or whatever, making memories, shooting pictures with new digital cameras. Doing Christmas. Even that song is more wonderful tonight than any night of the year, there's not much silence around us.

But in the old folks home where Jocelyn's great-grandparents live, silence will reign, as it does most all the time. Tonight, Christmas Eve, will almost surely be a silent night at the home because most all of them are.

No matter. I know two residents who will be sitting there together, maybe listening to some Christmas worship service on cable. One of them will be wearing brand new black house slippers, and the other will have on her finger an absolutely gorgeous ring, set with the most beautiful pink diamonds the world has ever seen. Gifts, like grace itself, this day and this night.

That's Christmas in our corner of the world.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Winter Solstice



Some friends have a couple of teepee rings on their South Dakota ranch, visible only in summer, and then, only when the cattle keep the grass down. But they're there all right, huge circles of mostly submerged stones that mark the spots where, hundreds of years ago, maybe more, Lakota people lived. Some people wouldn't give a hoot about a couple of 15- or 20-food wide circles of stones out in the middle of nowhere, but me--I think it's a treasure, an actual footprint of a whole different time.

These friends claim that they believe there is a long line of stones out there too, a line that points to a spot on the horizon where the sun rises on summer solstice. I haven't seen it, but I know that such things exist. Ancient clocks, really--they were there to remind "the people" that the times, they were 'a'changing. Once they sun would hit that spot, they'd know the winter was coming again.

I walked outside two mornings ago and the wind was blowing hard out of the northwest. It was the morning of winter solstice, and I thought of those teepee rings, and some band of Native people out there on a wide open plains 200 years ago. It's likely they wouldn't have been at that spot exactly, because most Lakota thought it appropriate to head for the hills come winter, come cold--the Black Hills, where the hills became a resort, a shelter in the time of winter storm.

Nonetheless, when December winds blow on the prairie, it's hard to imagine how a people could live here in teepees. For that matter, it's hard to imagine why anyone does. I know how the people stayed warm--I mean I know the answers--but it's still hard to believe how anyone could live through stiff northwest winds that push the temperature down to regions of cold no one should have to experience. But they did.

The book I'm reading, Radical Hope, helps me to understand some things about Native life today. What it does is speculate on the death of a culture, or at least a vastly diminished thing, and then asks questions. It calls itself philosophical anthropology. Here's it's initial assertion. The culture of the Crow Indians (not unlike most Plains Indians) essentially centered around bravery in warfare. It's central ritual was "counting coup," a strategy of battle in which the warrior would deliberately hit the opponent before anything else--making the whole thing something of a game really, or so it seems to me, a 21st century white guy. But counting coup was at the heart of Native culture.

Now take warfare out of the culture, Jonathan Lear argues, and nothing has any meaning. Women don't make meals to keep their warriors strong because their men aren't warriors. Why take sweat baths if the purpose of life is gone? Why dance? Why celebrate anything? How do you tell stories when the signifiers of all the great stories simply are no more? How do you do anything? Why?

I'm not particularly interested in bathing my white self in guilt, but, honestly, the argument here, I believe, helps me at least far--I can understand something of what Euro-Americans like me did when we decided to build a brand new country where there was nothing but wilderness (oh, yeah--and some few Native people). It's one thing to admit that "we robbed them of their culture"; it's quite another to help me understand why they could no longer tell stories. Nothing had meaning.

Today is Christmas here in the Schaap house. It's not December 25th, but our kids will be gone, come the 25th, so today we're doing the rituals: we're opening presents. Yesterday, my granddaughter and I hit Wal-Mart for what has become our annual-Christmas-present-buying spree. It goes like this: she picks out presents, and I buy. It's a joy I look forward to all year.

Someone once told me that the loss of one's parent would be almost a ghostly thing. It would haunt me--or he would, my father. My dad died already five years ago, and I live quite normally in his absence.

But then there are times like right now that miss him. Christmas. I wish somehow we were going home.

But there is no "home" there anymore. It's here, obviously. I can't go back to my father because my father isn't there. And what I'm saying is that, oddly enough, this particular morning I find his absence unsettling. I miss him.

I'm not trying to argue that my father's death is something of the cultural genocide Euro-Americans perpetuated on Native people across this vast land. But right now, this morning, I can feel at least something of the tremors that arise in the soul when something really important is lost, even though it's only a slice of my own personal culture, if I may speak that way.

This morning, the morning of our Christmas celebration, I feel the loss of my father, strangely. When he left, at least for me, some of the reason for telling stories was gone.

Maybe that's why I like those teepee rings. They're not virtual. They're there, in the ground. I've seen 'em--more than once. And the stones in a line toward the solstice dawn too--they're there, a testimony.

Like my father's Bible, which sits here on a table beside me, tattered and worn, full of his old letters and memories, things that meant the world to him--far less to me, his son. But it's here, like teepee rings, bearing a 1941 inscription that somehow is a vision for me this morning, a vision of Christmas past, before I was born.




Saturday, December 22, 2007


A Thanksgiving Journal
December 22, 2007

“Nobody ever really knows everything about anyone else”—that’s what I heard someone say on a talk show yesterday, while I was working out.

It’s true, and it’s scary, in a way. I’ve been writing for almost a quarter of a century, but I know there’s more.

And it’s humbling: I can’t know everything there is to know about anyone else, including those most close to me.

And it’s shocking: we’re that complex, all of us; we’re that complicated and mysterious, that shadowed and brilliant.

And it’s comforting to believers because while nobody else really knows everything, someone—God—does.

But then that too is scary . . .and humbling . . .and shocking . . .and comforting.

This morning, I’m thankful we’re so fearfully and wonderfully made.

Friday, December 21, 2007

If you want to see a sinful English teacher,
click on the image.


The Calvinist Writing Teacher


I'll tell you when it smarts to be a Calvinist--right now. Well, yesterday. Today, not quite so bad.

I'm ninety per cent finished with grading papers. My colleagues who had fewer writing classes are already watching Christmas specials with their families, but I'm still at it. Wish it weren't so.

One of the most horrible questions I face in December and May is how exactly to mark the end-of-the-year papers. The odds are better-than-good that students only look at the grade anyway--why write anything helpful? That's what I ask myself. There ain't a one of 'em who gives a lick what I say about faulty parallelism or how to get more of a bang at the end of an essay. The storm door of the fall semester is already plastered tight shut. So why make comments, why splash ideas over their pages, why red-line a dangling participle? Just spit out a grade and head for Super Wal-Mart for last-minute Christmas shopping. Makes sense.

But I can't.

For the life of me, I can't.

Thank goodness for electronic papers. Years ago, I'd leave a stack of old papers outside my office for students to pick up when they come back to school in January. In May, most of 'em would still be there. "All that work," I'd say to myself. "All that blasted work I did, and nobody even stops by to pick it up."

Now that's a pity party I deserved.

But today papers aren't paper; they're some kind of electronic blips which I can simply attach to an ordinary e-mail and send home or wherever in-boxes virtually reside. Out of sight, out of mind. I have no great allusions about students reading them, no more than I had when they lay there outside my office like dead bodies; but at least, come March, they won't stink--they won't taunt me, zombie-like.

On a day like this, I don't like being a Calvinist, as if I had a choice. On a day like this, I'm sure Weber was right about Calvinism and Capitalism. On a day like today, I'm the very embodiment of his argument. Today, I am Max Weber's thesis.

And you know how that assertion is proved?--this way: if I don't do my thing on these papers, if I stand at the top of the stairs and drop 'em, and grade accordingly (you know the old story), if I don't give a hang, I can't live with myself. That's the real horror.

"Isn't that sweet?" someone might say. "Isn't that wonderful?--he's bound by character and profession to do the right thing. The man ought to be a bumper sticker for Dordt College."

I'm not being righteous here. I'm just trying to live with myself, my Calvinist self.

Besides, you're not the one grading the papers. You're not looking at one more day of reading. You think it's nice I'm diligent? Hah. To you, I'm a theory, a moral lesson, some kind of nose-to-the-grindstone model of arduous commitment to all those grand young people I serve as a teacher called to servanthood and all of that rah-rah.

What I'm saying is, I don't have a choice. This isn't free will here, after all. I'm a Calvinist, remember? Something in me predestined this disposition to do the right thing. Geesh.

But I better get down to it. I've got a bunch more left. Maybe I'll be done by the end of the day. Good night, I've wasted enough time.

(Oh, my Lord, there it is again.)

Thursday, December 20, 2007


Joys and Concerns


She stood, microphone in hand, and told the congregation how deeply the Lord had blessed her during the past week. Their little boy, who'd been in for tests, got a clean bill of health; and with that good news, the tears flowed, even though all of that had happened several days before.

So much joy. She overflowed with thanksgiving--for the prayers of her friends and the church at large because those prayers had brought her into God's own presence--or God into theirs. He was such a force beside her through the travail. It wasn't so much a prayer request as sheer exuberant thanksgiving.

She put down the microphone and sat, once again, beside her husband.

At another corner of the church, another young mother, waiting patiently for all that good thanks to cease, stood, another microphone in hand, then told the congregation something to the effect of that-whole-story's God being exactly the one she hoped would show up yet that day in the life of her baby, born just three days before, without all the required parts of his breathing apparatus.

He would be in intensive care for some time, she said, and the doctor had told her that the worst time--and, yes, really bad things could happen--would come in the next 24 to 48 hours. She needed, she said, the God who'd so generously visited the other family just a week ago.

I couldn't see the second young mother. She was in a corner of the sanctuary out of my line of vision, so I watched the first, who cried the whole time the second one spoke, the whole time the second one told her godless story. She had no Kleenex, or, if she did, she simply didn't bother. She wiped away tears constantly because I think she understood that what that second young mother didn't need just then was someone's triumphant declaration of God's presence, just when it seemed to her he'd been so absent.

It was an anguishing juxtaposition in our church last Sunday--bright joy on one hand; sheer darkness on the other. "Joys and concerns," our congregation calls that part of the litany, and sometimes it puts human emotions on the rack.

But it's us. It's our lives. It's the way things go. When we shout out our joys and concerns they can pile up into each other like cars in fog-bound traffic.

My wife was told there was a problem. She would need more tests. For two days I worried. For two days, she worried. Yesterday she went in, went through the battery of tests prescribed, and was told--all of this almost within an hour--that nothing malignant could be found, that she could go home, that she was just fine, that there was no reason for concern. She's free.

To say the least, we are relieved and thankful, immensely thankful.

But having gone through two rough days, I'm guessing that someone, somewhere, just yesterday, was told far less wonderful news when some other doctor took a look at her x-rays. I'd like to believe that God is always with us and that he would have been had the tests not proven negative, but I've read the Psalms and I've lived sixty years and I know very well that there are times when it seems he's somewhere in Peru or Mesopotamia.

We're happy. Both of us. And thankful, muchly. Muchly thankful.

We've suffered our concerns, but last night was one good night. Yesterday was one great joy.


Wednesday, December 19, 2007


Lament. . .sort of
When I began teaching at the college where I am, this day, still correcting papers--that's now more than thirty years ago--American Lit was a required course for all students. In that golden age, I'd walk powerfully into class and face as many as sixty or seventy students. Times have changed.

Today, I sit in a circle reminiscent of ye olde wagon trains. I don't pump my arms when I lecture, I barely use the blackboard, which, today is white.

Today--literally today--my American Lit I class will dutifully write their semester exam, and there will be just a dozen in the room. We've come a long way, baby.

Why the precipitous decline? Let me count the ways.

First, the course is no longer required; the powers-that-be determined years ago already that we'd fashioned our curriculum too much after the pattern of an ancient "liberal arts" model. Higher education was becoming more pre-professional with the addition of academic programs in business, agriculture, and engineering. And, after all, American Lit was something our students "had" or "did" in high school. American Lit became an elective, something, maybe of a luxury.

But there are ever so many more reasons why things are changing. I once had visions of being a writer because, romantically, I'd bought into something akin to the Emersonian notion of the writer as prophet. I honestly believed that a writer could shape culture--as Hemingway likely did, after a fashion; as Mailer and Updike and Roth did also into the early Sixties. That's the era, of course, when I came of age, an era when Time magazine still did substantial book reviews. I thought the writer was a seer, translator of the eternal and yet voice of the age.

Today, my students don't begin to understand Emerson's admiration for "the Poet." They think him odd. Of course, other than maybe Maya Angelou, they know no poets at all because poetry is something they encounter only on Trivial Pursuit cards.

Today, "literature" is dying at the hands of formidable and visual foes, one of which didn't even exist in the Sixties. Television made us all more visually oriented, and the internet (and the information age) has democratized print journalism into immense scatterings, and literary culture into a curious sideshow. It's no wonder we have so few English majors; lit is slip-sliding away--or at least into the discipline of history. "Literature" has become as unique as, say, opera.

I got hoodwinked. Basically, what I've lived for has mouldered away beneath me.

I should be angry, but, somehow, I'm not. The fact is, I don't read as much as I should--novels or imaginative literature, that is. The fact is, I spend far more time before a screen like this one than I do before an open book. If there are culprits here, if there are villians, I am one, just as much as I am a victim. The fact is, I listen to more books than I read, and I do so, inevitably, when I'm doing something else: working out.

Not long ago I read a review of a book I wanted, Radical Hope, by Jonathan Lear. I went to Amazon and bought it, got it in the mail, and it's been lying here now for three weeks. Ever since it arrived, I looked at it and told myself it wouldn't be long before I could actually sit somewhere and read it. My life has been so busy that I can't afford time to read.

That's a lie I tell myself. The fact is, I have spent countless hours in front of this cathode ray tube since that book arrived. I've made a choice I don't remember deliberating upon, and that species of choice is the most devastating because, since I don't even think about making it, it may be most clearly revelatory of my own values. The fact is, I've sat here in the basement, pumping out the blog posts and doing a thousand other things. I've spent hours on photography. Had I read Radical Hope instead, Lear would have been tucked into the shelves of my library. But I didn't. I sat in front of this computer. My priorities are showing.

Just like everyone else's, my own choices are imperiling "literature," something I once almost worshipped. What do I mean, almost?--something I did. Today, "literature" (I hate giving it quotation marks, but it's come to that) is rapidly becoming, as some say, "an increasingly arcane hobby."

But then, even within the field, literary theorists have been saying for years that literature itself is simply "text," that it has no more intrinsic value than television ads. When it does climb above the mundane, it's normally little more than fancy power politics created by dead white males.

In the world in which I operate, the world of higher education, the need for certain skills will not diminish--one of which is writing. Thus, there will always be a need for an English department. The cause of science in this culture isn't suffering, save for the fact that fewer and fewer students wander into the labs. The need for history is a constant. Foreign languages may well be more important than they ever were.

Art departments are going like gang-busters, but their swelling numbers have less to do with the glories of the Louvre than the advent of graphics software and--guess what?--computer technology. In what we've called since the Renaissance "the Humanities," we're all suffering somewhat; but I dare so none so baldly as we are, in the world of "literature."

I'll be happy if someone points me at a discipline that is as deeply imperiled as mine. Please do.

It's not sweet Christmas fare, but should you be interested, have a look at Caleb Crain's article in a recent New Yorker:
www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/atlarge/2007/12/24/071224crat_atlarge_crain?currentPage=all

A good friend put me on to it, the Chair of an English Department, and he reminds me that very bright people have looked woefully upon the demise of literature for hundreds of years, Wordsworth, for one. Hawthorne, for another. Melville, too.

Besides, I'm thinking that the loss of "literature" may well be sustainable by the culture of the information age.

But I'm not so sure about the diminution of reading skills. That loss is nothing to shake a stick at.

And that problem--if indeed it is one--belongs to more of us than simply those who inhabit English departments.

Be of good cheer.


Tuesday, December 18, 2007


Scary

Andrew Sullivan, who is himself a nest of hooks, came out for Ron Paul today--and maybe that shouldn't have been a surprise. Last week, Dr. Paul's earth-shattering write-a-check gala broke ALL records for a single day fund-raiser; yet, you had to listen somewhere past the health beat on the news shows to get the word.

Ron Paul, who visited here last week (I forgot and didn't go), is yet another reason this campaign season is a joy. None of the talking heads give him a ghost of a chance, yet he raises phenomenal amounts of money, while blistering Republicans in every debate they set. He's against the war, for pity sake; he thinks the Bush Presidency has been devastating for the nation; he carries ordinarily outlandish libertarian views on just about everything. But he's got something the rest of the Republican candidates don't have--a fiercely loyal constituency of folks who empty their wallets with apparent glee. They love him, which is something you can't say about any of the other Republicans wandering the territories hereabouts.

Today, I'm told, that big guy on Law and Order--yeah, what's his name?--will be in town somewhere. He's yet another story. The nomination was his to lose, people said before he entered. Well, he did. He was never again as popular. A couple of days ago, it was reported that in answer to the question, "What is your most treasured object?" he answered, "My trophy wife." I don't know that I've got enough irony in me to stretch that far.

But one line in Andrew Sullivan's tip of the hat to Ron Paul is really memorable. He's talking about his love for John McCain, despite McCain's go-in-alone war stance. "McCain, along with Lieberman," Sullivan writes in his blog, "still seems to believe that expending even more billions of dollars to prop up and enable a fast-devolving, ethnically toxic, religiously nutty region is somehow in American interests."

That sentence jumped off the page, not because of its opinion but because of the description--and because yesterday I finished A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini, the third book I've read in the last couple of years that's set in the Middle East. Before that, I'd read Hosseini's best-selling The Kite Runner, and Snow, by Orhan Pamuk.

I can't say I was charmed by any of them really. I can't say that I was deeply engaged either. Of course, I didn't read them per se; I listened to them while I worked out--and there's a difference, believe me. All three have shoot-em-up plots that don't lag for a minute, combined with incredible events that have the feel of what one hears daily on the nightly news.

What's compelling about all three is the window each of them open to a region of our world that I know absolutely nothing about. All three novels feature an Islamic world that is at once fascinating and terrifying. Whether or not you like the plots or the characterization or the style is largely immaterial; those three books are worth reading for no other reason than to give people like myself some sense of what we're up against by inhabiting this mad world of terror. And it is terrifying--it really is.

Bin Laden doesn't appear in any of those novels. For the most part, terrorism is seen only seen from afar, even though all three are set firmly in the Middle East, both of Hosseini's in war-torn Afghanistan. But the quality of life itself--or lack of it--in the cultures created in these novels is remarkably awful. If what those three novels present is anywhere close to the general day-to-day life people live in those regions, we have reason to fear, not only their Bin Ladens, but their dispossessed, the immigrants we keep collecting in the West. Life and death mean nothing. Nothing.

Murder in Amsterdam, which isn't a novel, has the same horrific quality, even though it's set in the Netherlands, of course. You read that book and weep too, not so much for what has happened, but for what might. I sound like a terrorist myself, a bigot, a man who hates Muslims. Shoot, I don't even know any.

But Sullivan's description--"a fast-devolving, ethnically toxic, religiously nutty region"--strikes me as being right on after finishing this latest Mid-East novel. I like to believe that all of the inhabitants of this globe share a common human nature. I like to believe that. But there's so much going on those three novels that seems, well, beyond the pale.

Really, really interesting. Really, really scary.


Monday, December 17, 2007


Born again

I remember doling out bucks to both of our kids before a week-long camping trip to the Black Hills years ago--spending money. I remember my daughter having little problem determining when and where to spend it, being a little too footloose, I thought, in dealing out the dough.

Not so my son, who never spent a dime. I remember standing with him at some South Dakota tourist trap and watching the conflict play out on his face: he was seriously considering buying some touristy thing, but he decided not to because back home there was something he wanted. He spent nothing the entire week, and simply pocketed the dough.

My daughter is hardly a spendthrift. She's inherited her mother's genetic inclination to make do with almost anything. She's not tight--that's not it at. She's just unAmerican: she simply doesn't see the need to buy when she doesn't have to.

In some ways, my son is no different--and even more so. But there was something else in his not spending bucks on useless souvenirs, some character attribute that has stuck with him for all of his years: he could be so deeply convicted to an idea that he was almost impervious to life around him, a very strong inner will.

When we look back, it seems clear to our kids' parents that some aspects of their unique characters were clearly manifest already in their childhoods. In some ways, we are who we will be, even as children.

Maybe it's a silly question, but what I'm wondering is what part being a Christian believer--or to use Christ's language--being "born again" plays in character. That people change when they undergo definitive spiritual experiences seems beyond question; they are "born again." Lame walk, blind see, drinkers dry up, the crooked go straight. Those things happen. If they didn't, religion would have zero appeal.

In a way, of course, what form of religion doesn't appear, at times, to make a great deal of difference. Last year, on the Rosebud Reservation, we were testimonied to by a recovering alcoholic whose song was an old one: "Once I was blind but now I can see, the light of the world is Jesus."

When he finished speaking, another Lakota took us to the sweat lodge out back of the mission, and basically preached the same sermon, albeit with different content: "Once I was blind (he too had been an alcoholic), but now I can see, the light of the world is Lakota religion." Both claimed life-changing spiritual experience, but different mediums.

I'm thinking about this, I suppose, because sometimes I wonder about individual differences between believers. If our testimony and our allegiance to God is pre-eminent in our lives, then why do individual differences even exist? If we all heartily swear to serve our master first of all, then why is there a man named Ron Sider and another named Pat Robertson? Jimmy Carter will go to his grave as the first American President to openly confess he was "born again." But, good night, the politics of Carter are absolutely nothing like the politics of Bush, who similarly confesses.

I remember Martin Marty saying somewhere that American Christians were deeply blessed by the simple fact that Billy Graham wasn't mean-spirited. If he were, the nature of evangelical Christianity today would be a whole lot different.

Or how about this? It turns out that Mother Theresa was plagued by spiritual doubt. I don't have a dime's worth of problems with her dark and meandering questions about God, but some Christians obviously do. Why is that? Some Christians want their spiritual heroes perfectly sanitized, as if anything less would be as disturbing as the notion that the baby Jesus had diaper rash. I don't. Why not?

Occasionally, skirmishes arise at the Christian college where I teach, skirmishes about what's "fitting" or "proper" for our students, skirmishes that almost always have something to do with full frontal nudity, or something akin--in film and art (used to be in literature too, but nobody reads anymore anyway). We bicker a bit--genially, I should add--and then, once again, life goes on. Whether or not this Christian college is on the road to perdition or Vanity Fair, whichever comes first, is yet to be determined; but different opinions probably exist.

Where do those opinions come from?--the Bible? our professions? How can people who share the same creedal orientation disagree so deeply? Is has to be character, doesn't it?

Are there identities in our constitutions that loom even bigger than our professions of faith?

But if that's true, then what does "born again" really mean?

I'm not frustrated, just fascinated. What am I really?

Wish I knew.

Some really do--or think so.

Not me.

Why is that?

I don't know. I really don't.

And that's okay.

Life wouldn't be quite so much fun if there were no unanswered questions.

Sunday, December 16, 2007


This here Iowa voter

McCain is admirable--a real American hero; but I think he may be too old. I'm thirteen years younger than he is, and I'd have questions about myself. But I like him.

Huckabee's Christianity, to me, seems just about as obtrusive or unobtrusive as I think mine might be. He's shown more heart and soul than almost anyone in the Republican roster, but sometimes I have to admit that I wonder about him. When, years ago, he was quoted as saying, "We've got to take this nation back for Christ," I'm as fearful as I am of Romney's about face on just about everything. But he seems to have changed since that startling and scary rhetoric. And, he's compelling. Unlike the others, he's human.

Equip Guilianni with a drawl and a ranch, and he'd be George W. If there anything we don't need, it's more of him.

I'm not a libertarian, so I'm not for Ron Paul, but I love it that he's doing as well as he is--and saying what he's saying among Republican candidates, each of whom is trying to out genuflect before the god Ronald Reagan has become.

There are more good democrats than republicans. I really like Joe Biden, but he doesn't seem to have a chance. Who, really, has more foreign policy experience? Richardson is really attractive, too--for a number of reasons; but sometimes his miscues trouble me. We've had enough of those too.

I never liked Bill Clinton, not even before Monica and "it depends on what the definition of is is." Never trusted him--he loved too indiscriminately. I didn't mind his politics, but to me, he's the kind of guy, as a Canadian friend of mine used to say, who will shake your hand and pee down your leg at the same time. I don't like the idea of him hanging around the White House for another four years--or, Lord help us, eight. It's hard for me to like Hillary because of him. Why be coy?--it's hard for me to like Hillary, period. It was stunning to hear her accuse Obama of being too dedicated to becoming President. Sheesh. This country has had enough of two whole families--enough of Bush and enough of Clinton. Maybe they both retire in joy and peace. Amen.

On the democratic side, that leaves Obama. Yesterday, in the Washington Post, Brian De Bose claims that younger generations (X and Y) are drawn to Obama, not Hillary. I understand that, and, right from the start, liked Obama myself--for that reason.

I teach Gen Y's everyday. I've often been mystified by them, the folks David Brooks wisely called "the Odyssey Generation." My GPS system has been set unalterably--and for better or for worse--by the 1960s. My faith generates the parameters of my world view, but so does my Sixties' orientation. When it's time for me to make assessments of events and behaviors and ideas, the infrastructure of my mind and heart and soul guides whatever new data my consciousness imbibes through the set architecture of my generation, the Beatles era, flower children, Vietnam, race riots, and three horrific assassinations. In two months, I'll be sixty, but a part of me that will never die is what was printed there indelibly by that turbulent era.

And that's why I like Obama, quite frankly. He's not like me, like the Clintons, a Sixties guy. And that's why, right now, I'm favoring Obama. It really is time for a change. It's time for us--the Sixties generation, most of whom, like me, have bad knees--to start thinking, at least, about shuffleboard.

I'm an Iowan. This morning's Des Moines Register has come out favoring Clinton and McCain. Not more than a month ago, we stopped our daily subscription--and I'll tell you why: because the Des Moines Register itself, once an institution in this state, has had to change because the world, even in Iowa, has. Newspapers are changing radically--or dying on the vine. They're trying to fish for Generations X and Y, who don't respond like we did, the Sixties generation.

Here's my choice, just a few weeks before the caucuses: Huckabee and Obama. Me and the Register part company this morning.

But I can go to only one caucus, so I'll have to choose. So I'm going democratic. Why? Because Obama loves Niebuhr, or so says David Brooks, who I trust. That makes him a Calvinist, which means he's got guilt, like Lincoln, not Bush. Do Baptist free-willers have guilt? Hmmmm, don't know.

But if Iowa voters are known for anything, it's their not knowing who they're for until five seconds before they have to raise their hands. Consider me one of those.

Although this time, I'm going to go democratic.
Last week, I ate supper at church, where I sat between two retirees, both of whom had good minds. Both were disillusioned this time around, both snarly, angry old farts.
I hope I never get that way. This is a marvelously exciting campaign, all full of shocking surprises, overflowing--too much, in fact--with religiosity. I wish, for once, we could just let it alone a bit.
But then, I'm supporting Obama because to me he feels like a Calvinist. Go figure.

Saturday, December 15, 2007


Photo-wise, it's been a long semester. On the weekends I was home, likely as not it was cloudy or snowy. I didn't hit many good days, if any.

Nor this morning--first day since I left the classroom teaching behind. A billowing curtain of clouds prevented even a glimmer of dawn and stood like a wall to the east before giving way to clear skies. I stood on the side of the road, far above a small town, one of my favorites places; but there was no color whatsoever, nothing but gray.

So I went back down the hill, went back to town, where I got more coffee and a donut, and headed back. Along the way I stopped at a cottonwood grove, where, as Ian Frazier says, the trees lean sideways, like pencils in a cup. That's a natural position out here, where there were no trees. Any of them that have the temerity to stand up against the weather take their licks.

The sun finally emerged, colorlessly, from behind the curtain and painted long shadows down toward me from those naked cottonwoods. It's the best I could do.

Most dawns don't have much color. This one was of a type. But winter's livery of long shadows are themselves an entertainment this time of year, even though the landscape itself is monotonously monotone. So I did what I could.

Being there is the whole story, of course. The crap game I play every Saturday is not only to catch the light itself--always perplexing--but to be the right place to do it.

I didn't fail exactly. This is about the best I got, and it's a B- or so. Trust me, I'm grading papers.

Still, reminds me of Dickinson--this time of year always does. "There is a certain slant of light/On winter afternoons." Or mornings. She's right. You don't need to see it to know it.

Next week, I'll do better. The only way to get 'em is to go.

Friday, December 14, 2007


Privileges

She was not the first to come to me after class and tell me, among other things, that she wrote poetry. In almost forty years of teaching, let me count the times. . .

Most often, the lines they show me stretch almost painfully over various emotional crises. Somewhere along the line, high school and college students come to assume that poetry is what they write by candlelight in their bedrooms after an awful day--or with Christian kids, after a particularly good one. To most students, poetry is confessional, and I'm at once honored and belabored with their work--honored because they trust me with their emotions, belabored because one can't say much for good or ill when the lines are wrenched out of the blood, sweat, and tears that form the essence of the poems they write. You learn to nod and smile. Besides, reading student papers is something I do for a living. I don't need more.

So, yes, I was honored she would deign to show me, but, honestly, I didn't think much of it until a few of those poems came--as mysterious as e-mail, not ten minutes after she asked if I'd like to see them. There they were, suddenly, in my in-box. To be truthful, this wasn't just any student, but someone who'd shown more care for my world--my poets, my Emerson, my Dickinson--than anyone else (at least publically) in class. Students are not dying to get into Early American Literature these days. I was anxious to read.

Here is one of the poems.

Stolen


Peacefully we frolicked on the banks of her veins
Celebrating our inception into the masculine community.
Her blood washing away the last remnants of our adolescence,
Ushering us into a life beyond.


Suddenly, the serpent strikes. His blue eyes blonde hair
Forcing the fruit on us, oblivious to the God in here
Unlike the woman; We were bound
And forced out of her bosom
Our life flowing through her veins,
Her life stolen from her veins.

I found it interesting, but somewhat inaccessible. There's some gender stuff, and a little Adam and Eve in the Garden; but mostly I found the poem puzzling, and I returned it with questions like this: "The serpent is almost angel-like with his blonde hair, blue eyes; but the action—I’m not sure what it is—isn’t angelic. Between the serpent and the fruit, I can’t help think of something Edenic here, but I’m not picking up your cues—if indeed you’re giving me any. "

The next morning, her response was in my inbox: "Her here is Africa. The young men are celebrating after a going through a ritual to solidify their manhood. Her veins are her rivers and the blood in the water flowing through the rivers. Blood perpetuates life just as the rivers do for people in Africa."

The student is Black.

When I read that explanation, immediately some hidden chip in my mind kicked up a Langston Hughes' poem: "A Negro Speaks of Rivers." I could have kicked myself for not "picking up her cues." She's working in an established tradition here, and I missed it completely--a Ph.D. in English, who's not only taught for forty years but even written papers on Langston Hughes.

This young lady, a proud young Black woman, had appropriated a whole poetic tradition in African-American lit; she was writing out of her own Black soul. And I'd missed--ye olde white prof had never even guessed. I was embarrassed at my incredibly dim perceptions.

"I hope this clarifies things," she wrote at the end, withholding, graciously, every right to scold her professor.

I'd judged her, as a student, as someone who wouldn't know Langston Hughes, who couldn't; how could she?--she was a child, a kid, a rookie. Now I could have told her that she was heir to a great tradition I could never touch; I could have told who to read. What stopped me in my tracks with an early morning e-mail was my bewildering blindness.

What blew me away was the fact that my imagination couldn't put together the pieces to "get" the poem. What left me reeling was the real story here: that this student was a whole lot bigger and wiser, a whole lot more thoughtful than I'd ever guessed.

Sometimes in life--I know this too--lessons come the hard way, as this one did, revealing my own prejudice, not so much against her as a Black woman, but against her as a student. I saw her as a kid in a desk, not a human being; and that realization just about put me on my knees.

But it's a good thing to be humbled, especially when you start to think there's not so much more to learn when you're just about sixty years old. It's a joy to learn, even if there's some embarrassment and not a little pain.

Maybe the greatest classroom moment this entire semester--four classes I taught, almost seventy writing students--happened early in the morning when the prof got his perceptions retooled, not only about a student, but about himself. I've built fences around the minds and imaginations of my students. The teacher may well have got the F here, but he also learned the lesson. My kids are not just what I think they are.

Maybe teaching's finest moments come when profs sit in desks.

For the lesson she taught me, yesterday, I'm heartily thankful. I really am. I'm honored with her trust and her work, and I'm blessedly chastised for my not being able to imagine what my own students can do.

It's truly a privilege to learn.

Thursday, December 13, 2007


End Times

I made it through. The intent?--do a blog for an entire semester, probably the only way you will be able to stay at writing. I did it--almost. This morning, the last day of class, I'm on empty.

It's not that there is no stories, but both of them--the ones yearning to escape the confines of my soul--are just a little too big for the confessional character of a blog.

I'm still not sure what this is, whose ears are attuned, what stories I might venture, how much honesty is allowed. The whole blog idea remains something of a mystery.

This morning I got a paper from a student who apologized because the meditation he wrote--the assignment was to write a meditation--was simply something he'd taken from his blog, an Easter meditation he wrote last spring. He had good reason to ask, of course, because the work wasn't new, wasn't written just now, as if it were the result of a formal assignment.

And that he's written it for his blog--isn't that in itself immensely commendable? That he--and others--are writing frequently, publishing on the web, isn't that what writing teachers like me should see as wonderufl. Isn't getting students to write really the mission of all English teachers? Maybe we should be teaching "the blog" as an exercise, like some of the other assignments I give in Advanced Comp--the portrait, the interview, the family essay, the op-ed--and now, the blog. Maybe someone already has introduced it into writing curriculums. Maybe I can find a book somewhere that lists "seven rules for bloggers." I'd love to know what they are. After 130 posts, I still don't have a clue. I don't think there are rules. I don't think the medium allows for rules.

It's an amazing thing, this web, this internet. Just amazing. It bestows power to the people, makes the French Revolution look like a mud fight. I'm a writer; I have a blog. I'm a writer; I have a book I self-published. I'm a musician; download my work. I'm an artist; check out this url where you can buy my photographs. The net allows us to be what we always wanted to be in this world, and that, of course, is immensely fascinating as it is potentially liberating, and as promising as it is scary.

I don't know that we can begin to calculate the change. I don't think anyone knows--or if they do, my guess is they aren't talking.

I'm not Chicken Little, and the sky is not falling. But everything is going to look different in the future, in the virtual world. Anyone on the web can be almost what we ever wanted to be--that's the blessing and curse of our new technologies.

It creates new communities out of the dust of the communities it destroys. In other words, it births as it slays. And we're on it, and nobody knows where it's going to lead. Me either.
What doesn't change is human nature, for better and for worse.

Lord, have mercy.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007


Ultrasound

As I speak, two of my nieces are great with child--make that "great with children." They're having twins. In the not too distance future, my mother, 89 years old, will have four new progeny. I've seen the pix.

Maybe that's why I like this morning's Writer's Almanac poem, a sweet little prophetic thing by Thomas Lux, from his 1990 book, The Drowned River.

Upon Seeing an Ultrasound Photo of an Unborn Child

Tadpole, it's not time yet to nag you
about college (though I have some thoughts
on that), baseball (ditto), or abstract
principles.

What's not to like right there from the first word?--the guy calls this yet be-wombed child, "Tadpole."

Enjoy your delicious,
soupy womb-warmth, do some rolls and saults
(it'll be too crowded soon), delight in your early
dreams -- which no one will attempt to analyze.

It's advice we'd like to give all kids--"be kids, before it's too late." Shoot, it's advice we give ourselves, even when we're sixty.

For now: may your toes blossom, your fingers
lengthen, your sexual organs grow (too soon
to tell which yet) sensitive, your teeth
form their buds in their forming jawbone, your already
booming heart expand (literally
now, metaphorically later); O your spine,
eyebrows, nape, knees, fibulae,
lungs, lips...

Sweet. How many times haven't I heard people say that the first thing they did when their baby came was count fingers and toes?

But your soul,
dear child: I don't see it here, when
does that come in, whence? Perhaps God,
and your mother, and even I -- we'll all contribute
and you'll learn yourself to coax it
from wherever:

If I wanted to be orthodox I could batter Mr. Lux here, but who cares? Who knows where the soul is, after all--or even what it is. It's us. It is, by definition, spiritual. It's someplace even beyond words.

your soul, which holds your bones
together and lets you live
on earth. -- Fingerling, sidecar, nubbin,
I'm waiting, it's me, Dad,
I'm out here. You already know
where Mom is.

Gotta love that last line, right: "You already know where Mom is." I wish I'd thought of that.

I'll see you more directly
upon arrival. You'll recognize
me -- I'll be the tall-seeming, delighted
blond guy, and I'll have
your nose.

What a darling last line. I'll be the one, he says, with your nose.

You got to love that poem, and if you're anywhere near a birth, it's got to be even sweeter.

When I saw the date of Mr. Lux's book just now--1990--I couldn't help thinking how charmed he must have been when someone from Garrison Keillor's organization, as if out of nowhere, gave him a call and told him that the old poem of his--"the one about an unborn child?" Keillor's people likely said, "--well, we'd like to use it in our daily calendar."

What a great smile must have grown on the man's face. You start to think a poem is dead and buried, and suddenly, well, not to be stupid--it's simply born again.

But there's another story too: the one about the kid, whether it's a boy or girl we still don't know. Do the math. Tadpole is at least 17 years old, if not much older by now. I wonder if Keillor's people called her--or him--to get permission. After all, the old man is wishing him baseball prowess, a booming heart, and sensitive sexual organs. How does the kid feel about getting his ultra-sound plastered over computer screens all over the world? He never asked to be in a poem.

And what happens if the Lux family is having problems right now? What happens if that 17-year-old is using needles or at military school? What happens if they don't know where he is? What happens if she's pregnant herself--or worse, what happens if she's just lost a baby? had an abortion? gave one away for adoption?

But then--who's to say there is a Tadpole? Maybe Poet Lux was simply imagining, as poet's do, as writer's do? What happens if Tadpole was never any more than an inspiration?

What ifs? We could "what if" this poem forever, I suppose.

Thomas Lux says his Iowa-born father was a milkman who one year worked 355 days in a row because, well, people had to have milk. He loved his father, respected him, but, he says, neither his mom or dad, neither of whom had a high school education, ever understood their boy's wanting to write poetry. They have his books on their coffee table, he says, but "it's all rather baffling to them."

I understand that. They lived in a world without poems--and certainly without ultrasound. But I'm guessing that at sometime and someplace years and years ago, a milkman sat somewhere in the front room of an Iowa farmhouse, looked over at his wife, great with child, and wondered what on earth would come of this new baby the two of them were just about to bring into the world.

Let's take a tally here. Who gets the joy this very morning? Lux, for this poem's miraculous rebirth; his son or daughter (if indeed there is one) for his or her ten minutes of acclaim; maybe even Grandma and Grandpa, when they're told about that poem Tom wrote when his wife was pregnant--that poem is going all over the world.

And me, certainly. And, now--hopefully--you. And maybe even my two nieces, who probably have some gray-ish ultra sounds under magnets on their own fridge.

What a blessing. That, old Mr. and Mrs. Lux should surely understand--how their son has, this morning, passed along the joy from the depths of his own mysterious soul.