Friday, February 29, 2008
Thursday, February 28, 2008
Wednesday, February 27, 2008
Tuesday, February 26, 2008
Sometimes I know where I’m going; sometimes I don’t. This Saturday, I went straight west out of town, slowly. The Tracker is a little skiddish in four-wheel drive, and I had the time.
I remembered a friend telling me about a great lookout from the west side, a couple miles north of Hudson. I hadn’t been there for a couple of years. “One of the most beautiful lookouts around,” he’d told me, so I figured I’d try it.
I found the road toward the river and turned back east, following the ribbon of gravel, only to find a brand new house going up at the edge of the bluff. No one was living there yet, but there it stood, big and beautiful.
The road beyond it, the road that descends to the river, wasn’t plowed. I’ve got four-wheel drive, but it was still half dark and I had no desire to get stuck. Hunting season is long over—I could be out there for days, I figured, and I hadn’t brought my cell. So I parked the car and took off down the hill, walking.
I’ve got lots of cold-weather gear. I’ve been shooting pics in winter for four or five years now, so I wasn’t worried about freezing. I followed the rutted path—somebody with four-wheel drive didn’t mind going down that steep hill—for maybe a quarter-mile, when it became clear that I wasn’t going to see much from the flats. To my left was a steep bluff; I guessed the view from up top would be glorious.
Now I’m no mountain goat, the snow was sometimes knee-deep, and I kept breaking through the light crust of ice, all of which made walking enough of a chore that by the time I got on top I was bathed in sweat, literally, my camera bag around my shoulders and the monopod hooked on my arm. I looked around. It was perfect.
Dawn was coming in a perfectly clear sky that had only a six-inch belt of haze at the horizon, just enough to flatten the sun, when it rose, into the shape of a fat man.
I pulled out the cameras—both of them—and started shooting. And then I saw them—directly in the line of fire, two sprawling hog confinements steaming like fresh, hot meat in the bright orange glow—I mean, right there, as if just delivered from the sun’s own birth.
Awful. Just awful. There I was sweating like a trooper, sucking wind something terrible, snapping pics frightfully, hoping against hope that I could do something with the view, when those two noxious confinements appeared, bathed sumptuously in the bright glow of sunrise.
It’s getting harder to find open land along the river. People keep building homes along the bluffs, in the scrub oak, while just above the river bottoms, brand new hog confinements go up like flattened poison toadstools.
For years, of course, people around here used to say when the air got ripe, “Smells like money.” And it did. I suppose it still does.
But I can’t tell you what a downer it was to find, in my 300mm lens, a couple of roasting houses sending up ripe steam in the glory of the dawn.
There’s a moral lesson in this picture, somewhere at least. The fact is, I’m no vegan. I love ham and cheese. What’s more, I can’t go back to Wisconsin without buying summer sausage. Brats—I was raised on ‘em. Bacon?—unhealthy, but I love it, the thicker the better. Ribs?—sure, this weekend?
I love pork. Just not in my landscapes.
Those things just steamed. Look at ‘em. So did I.
No, this morning I’m not thankful for hog confinements, even though I’m guessing they’ve paid for a ton of tuition at the school where I teach.
I’ve been thinking about it for a few days now, about how to say thanks for one putrid vision of dawn, and this is all I can think of: I’m thankful for being reminded, last Saturday morning, that this world I live in isn’t primeval creation, for being reminded that there’s hogs in Siouxland too, and the beefy guys who care for ‘em. Neither me nor my camera can pretend that humankind isn’t here. Adam and Eve are long gone, but there’s life here that has to be dealt with, and try as I might on Saturday mornings, I can’t get away, really.
And this. No blessed camera of mine can make a silk purse out of a hog’s ear.
Monday, February 25, 2008
My ancestral Calvinists would find that "popish," which is to say, pagan, since they were not big on iconography. But something about Jesus dirt makes me smile. I’m probably enough of a Roman Catholic to think that doffing my sandals and taking a walk there myself would be unforgettable.
I'm not silly. That dirt held nothing of Jesus Christ, nor would it today. But I think it would help make the transcendent at least a bit more imminent—and that kind of transaction isn’t all bad. It’s a job Christ himself came to do, after all—the Word made flesh.
Maybe it’s silly. Maybe not. Even though we live in a post-doctrinal age, I’ll let the theologians decide.
Right here above me, a looming crucifix hangs on my wall, not exactly a wholesome Protestant icon either. I got it from my sister, who got it as a gift from an elderly Roman Catholic lady. My sister didn't think she was supposed to have it, but she couldn't exactly bring herself to throw it away either. Today, it's mine. I relieved her of the theological burden, and now it hangs here on my wall.
It’s Lent, and this morning, I’m thankful it’s here, a reminder, as if it were some very special dirt on the floor.
Sunday, February 24, 2008
“Consider this, you who forget God,
Saturday, February 23, 2008
The limits of perfection
I’m a weekend photographer, too busy to get out to the hills west of town any more often, which means I miss a ton of good days, dawn and dusk. Some mornings I walk to school and grit my teeth in the face of some monstrous, beautiful dawn, my school bag a ball and chain.
Every Saturday of this new year that I’ve been able to get away--including this one--have been, well, perfect, that is to say blemishless, the sky a broad and tan canvas of almost nothing at all.
December shook with arctic cold. A foot of snow made people think we were in for one of those winters no one forgets. We were right. January was almost worse. Another foot. No blizzards, but deep arctic cold, and but one gorgeous day of January thaw. The snow today, late February, is a county-wide quilt. When I walked out on the sidewalk in the back on this dark, early Saturday morning, the night sky tingled with frozen jewelry. An hour later, my fingers are numb on the shutter.
But it hasn’t been the cold that made my pictures, this winter, seem derivative; it’s been those perfect, cloudless dawns. On misty mornings, the sun is a disk; this winter’s Saturdays, on the other hand, in a sky that seems always pre-lapsarian, the sun has been a blinding, massive ball of incandescence.
Our preacher’s on a roll with the Seven Deadly Sins, my all-time favorite little pious scheme because it’s so dead-on accurate. Last week the sin of choice was envy. That’s the sin I feel in my heart when, so often, marching to school or back again, I see a rainbow sky east or west. What I’m hoped for this Saturday morning was something with a little more action, a little more color, a little more drama. Didn't happen.
It just seems to me that even in a world of sin, things can be too blasted perfect. Honestly, there’s just plain more color in a morning sky that’s a touch mischievous, don’t you think?
Sometimes it’s okay—I think—to be thankful for things that are just a hair less than perfect.
Didn't take long and that deer and a friend started down the path. I was too far away to see or smell, which, when I say it, is a fact I find strangely comforting.
And then, finally, this, the shape of snow on the windblown prairie.
We haven't had a blizzard, really, this winter, but that doesn't mean that the fierce artificer isn't doing his work with the snow.
All in all, just another Saturday morning--warmer, too, than the last few weeks. And that may well be the greatest blessing of yet another perfect dawn.
Friday, February 22, 2008
Thursday, February 21, 2008
Wednesday, February 20, 2008
Tuesday, February 19, 2008
When the weatherman calls it “bitter,” it is. Right now, maybe -4. Tomorrow night, wind chills in the twenties—that’s below zero. I wouldn’t call it an icebox—this is the deep freeze. It’s mid-February and throughout the upper Midwest even Calvinists think we’ve somehow earned the grace of a reprieve.
On Sunday morning at church, my wife and I, turned on cue at the outset of the service and shook hands with a couple who almost always sit either just behind us or just in front of us, our colleagues, in fact, friends for decades. That afternoon, Mother Nature snarled and the road filled up with ice, even though there was barely a cloud in the sky. That couple—good folks—spun out of control, and an oncoming truck hit them. For two days now, they’ve been at the heart of a thousand prayer as they lie in critical care, lives in the balance, both of them with severe head injuries. All we can do is wait and pray.
They’d been visiting their children, whose lives had been graced just a day or two before by the very special homecoming of a four-month old adopted child from Ethiopia. Tonight those children, new parents, stand vigil over their comatose Mom and Dad.
And there’s more. My mother-in-law, who is in hospice care, is approaching the end of her time here. Her husband is not healthy either, and my wife, an only child, barely knows what to pray for. Her father can’t get out—the weather is too cold, the wind too strong, the roads full of drifting winter. Meanwhile, staying in and full-time care giving is taking its toll. Really, there’s no way out but the exit.
This afternoon, at a prayer vigil for the couple in critical care, I looked around and saw a woman whose son was killed a decade ago; she was drying tears. On the other side of the chapel, another woman sat alone, a mother who lost a high school daughter at just about the same time. A woman who stood up front and prayed began by telling us her own son was in an accident and suffered a brain injury that changed his life and theirs, but that there was no reason to despair. Her hair is still short. The chemo she had a year ago took it all, but it’s coming back.
I would never discount the words of scripture, but this afternoon in a chapel effuse with prayer, the words of the Bible were given flesh by those around me who’d suffered, those whose very presence at that vigil, whose posture and prayers gave witness that they were survivors, those who claimed they knew God’s hand, those who assured us that, even in their own cold Februarys, they’d never really been abandoned by God’s love. Those stories sustained me, and do, even now.
These friends who often sit a row in front of us—I’ve often envied them because when they sit in church, she folds her shoulder into his, as if they were lovers, which of course, they are. Tonight, in separate hospital beds, entirely on their own, they fight for life, upheld only by a thousand prayers.
And it may well be the last week of my mother-in-law’s life. The nurse warned her of the possibilities of pneumonia, but she told that nurse she didn’t want to go the hospital because, really, she just wants to go. Honestly, it’s not hard to know what to ask the Lord for anymore—just grace for the journey.
And for her husband. And for her daughter, who is my wife.
And for our little grandchildren, who are likely soon to experience death for the very first time.
And for a couple and their family locked in ICU.It’s very cold outside. It’s bitter cold, as if the sun itself had turned it face, as if we live almost impaled on the kind of monster hanging from the neighbor's gutter.
But then we have this, don’t we?—“a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.”
Not even in the deep freeze. Not even in the bitter cold.
And for that assurance—and the testimonies of many who’ve been out in winters even tougher than any I’ve seen—for the comfort of their stories this morning, I’m deeply thankful.
Monday, February 18, 2008
Sunday, February 17, 2008
The house where we lived at that time is long gone, as is the tiny kitchen where I stood, phone in hand, listening. The call had come in the middle of the day, in the middle of a lunch. Our two little kids were sitting beside us.
It’s now close to thirty years later, but I will never forget receiving that call because I had the sure confidence that my being chosen for a waiter’s scholarship to the granddaddy of all writers conferences, Bread Loaf, was a signal that, as a writer, fame and fortune lay just down the road. I had just published a book, my first, with a tiny, local press; now, Bread Loaf beckoned. The New York Times Book Review was a year or so away.
When I flew into Burlington, Vermont, for the Conference—early, because I was a waiter—I met a beautiful woman, my age, married with two children, who said she was an aspiring poet. She’d also be a waiter. Someone from the Conference picked us up, but we took the hour-long drive together into Vermont’s Green Mountains.
She’d been wooed by a celebrity poet, and she’d fallen. On the dance floor at night, the two of them looked like smarmy high school lovers, which might have seemed embarrassing if it hadn’t happened to so many others. Another waiter—also married with kids, two of them—told me it was important for him to have an affair because, after all, as an artist he needed to experience everything in order to write with authority.
I thought long and hard about her wish on the way home that day, whether someone’s soulful desire could ever turn, magically, into reality. And the very idea made me think, that day, about dying. What if the Lord would take that plane down, as she wished--and what if I would go too?
I remember thinking that it would be really bad, but it wouldn’t be the worst thing. After all, my wife was young and could remarry, if she wanted. My kids were just three and five; to them, in a year, I’d be little more than a picture on a wall. I knew they would all be taken care of. Life would go on.
And for me?—I’d miss it, a ton—life, I mean. I’d miss my children’s growing up, I'd miss what I could have written, I'd miss what I might have been. But, honestly, as I sat on that plane on the way to O’Hare, I told myself that, really, I could live with death.
This morning I’ve reached my three-score years—if I get ten more, as the Bible says, I’ll be lucky. It’s my birthday, and a big one. Today I’m sixty.
And all this morbidity is but a personal excursion into the ars moriendi, the art of dying, a body of Christian literature that appeared in the fifteenth century and provided practical guidance for the dying, prescribed prayers, actions, and attitudes that would lead to a "good death" and thus salvation. I know, I know--heavy, heavy. But I've got too many years invested in literature not to believe that there's some good in a theme or attitude that it's impossible not to see--those who learn to die well have learned, in the process, how to live.
I’m thankful to God for sending me to Bread Loaf, if for no other reason than it gave me a moment in time, almost forty years ago, for a very personal meditation on dying on a plane to Chicago, a meditation I've never forgotten and for which I'm thankful on this birthday, my sixtieth.
But Breadloaf wasn’t an easy place to be, for a waiter or anyone else, I’d guess. I’d lived most of my life in small, conservative communities who prided themselves, maybe even excessively, on their church-going. Adultery was not commonplace, but a sin, a scandal.
The atmosphere in that mountaintop retreat was electric. Aspiring writers like me flirted daily with National Book Award winners, editors, agents, and publishers. Life—dawn ‘till dawn—was always on stage.
In the middle of that frenetic atmosphere, one Sunday morning, I walked, alone, out into a meadow, away from all the people, where I found a lone Adirondack chair and sat for an hour, meditating. I tried to imagine what the soft arm of my little boy would feel like in my fingers; at the same time I recited, over and over again, the words of the 23rd Psalm.
I remember a beautiful mountain stream, but there were no still waters at Bread Loaf Writers Conference the summer of 1980. If there were, I didn’t see them. But that Sabbath’s very personal worship, in the middle of all the madness, brought me—body and soul—to the very place David has in mind in verse two of Psalm 23.
Honestly, I know still waters. He’s led me there, and I’ve been there, mostly, for just about seventy years. And for all of that, this morning, the morning of my birth, I'm very thankful.
Saturday, February 16, 2008
Another blemishless sky this morning, except for a thin belt of something akin to steam, I guess.
But the story of the hour, out here in Siouxland, is snow, lots of it. Although we've not had a shut-me-up-tight blizzard this long winter, we've had more snow than we've had in years. It covers the fields, which is rare in a place so frequently raided by winds.
What the snow means to this Saturday morning amateur is far less variety. So I look at grasses along the roads and the lines that a morning sun cuts against the brilliant white backdrop.
Take this cornfield, for example--the brilliant sun reflected off the snow and over these lifeless stalks can yet cast a spell.
Maybe the real joy of photography is the gift of having to look for beauty in just about everything--even some lifeless northwest Iowa cornfield (this one is actually in South Dakota--that belt of timber in the first pic is the Big Sioux River, just west of Hawarden.)
But shooting pictures is a lot like fishing. Even though I'm no pro at that either, I'm sure that the best of the anglers are never quite satisfied unless they hook the lunker. No lunkers this morning, but that doesn't mean there still isn't some joy all around. Just got to keep lookin'.
Maybe next week.
Friday, February 15, 2008
Thursday, February 14, 2008
Wednesday, February 13, 2008
This madcap political season
When President Bush was in the last precious days of his 2006 campaign, he came to northwest Iowa for a speech, a move which seemed odd to me; after all, there's not a ton of people out here in fly-over country. What he was doing was shoring up his base--here, in this corner of the world.
Here, in this right-now, snowy corner of the world he had a unmoveable base--he had a rock, a fortress. Shoot, I could wax biblical. No particular section of the country stood so formidably Republican in the throes of the Democratic takeover that ensued in 2006 than northwest Iowa, where people were as sure about being Republican as they were about being the Lord's.
Life has not been easy hereabouts for believing free-thinkers. Most of my neighbors, it seemed, equated the Republican Right with the Gospel Truth. Those who stood--or stand--outside the gates are the goats to Bush's sheep.
Last night, Obama won convincingly in the Cheasepeake primaries. Last night, John McCain virtually walked away with the Republican nomination. If there's anything that links McCain and Obama in this long and nearly operatic Presidential sweepstakes, it's the fact that the two of them are not establishment choices. McCain couldn't stand Jerry Falwell and his ilk, made deals with unrighteous liberals, and generally maverick-ed through his 35-year career in public life. Obama is a neophyte; but one needs only to think about his still in-the-running opponent, Hillary Clinton, to realize that she's the one with the history--and political base.
It will be an odd election if, come summer, a 46-year old and a 72-year old face off in national debates, but then this whole election cycle has been strange. However, what's clear is that ye olde powers are crumbling and crumbling fast--on both sides of the aisle. And that, by my calculation, out here in a wretchedly frigid Siouxland winter, warms my heart with the closest thing to spring itself.
An article in the new Atlantic titled "Born Again," by Walter Russell Mead, makes vividly clear how Humpity Dumpity old-line American evangelicals (Robertson, Dobson, Falwell) have taken a great fall and now find themselves out of touch with the new Evangelicals, who are smarter, more politically savvy and independent, and generally less single-issue oriented. "The real story of the evangelical political movement today," Mead says, "involves neither its death nor its triumph, but rather its slow (and ongoing) shift from insurgent to insider, with all of the moderating effects that transition implies."
I'm no progressive; no Calvinist could be. But, for me and my house, I'm really thankful that the strangle-hold of the old-line Religious Right is finally relenting. Dobson has done wonders for Christian families, but the moment he turned himself into a political ringmaster, he stepped out of office. May Rush Limbaugh continue to fume in his little studio, but it would be one huge blessing if my conservative neighbors would, for once, just turn the man off, as Republicans around the nation seemingly have already done.
This morning, after a brace of Obama wins and the near coronation of John McCain, I'm thankful for this whole political season. It's been a blessing to me, to the splintering Siouxland Republican fortress, to evangelicals in general, and to the country in which we all live.
Tuesday, February 12, 2008
But then, why we love anything is a mystery. Take this picture, shot when the temp was -22 degrees, and my fingers were freezing, too cold to distinguish shutters and lenses. All there is here is a chunk of frozen ground with a few errant grasses, a turquoise sky, the faintest splotch of a morning moon.
I really love it. Why? I have absolutely no idea, although I’m quite sure that I may well be the only soul under the sun who thinks it beautiful.
Maybe because I was there? Who knows? But this morning, just a couple of days before Valentine's Day, I’m thankful for the things we love, even if no one else knows why, nor do we.
Monday, February 11, 2008
Stories and Poems
This morning's Writer's Almanac poem, "Someone I cared for," by Cid Corman, feels like the third verse of an old hymn that won't leave me alone.
Someone I cared for
Someone I cared for
put it to me: Who
do you think you are?
I went down the list
of all the many
carefully -- did it
twice -- but couldn't find
a plausible one.
That was when I knew
for the first time who
in fact I wasn't.
(c) Coffee House Press, 1987.
Third verse, because the first was "The Bris," a rather indelicate story by Eileen Pollack, included in this year's Best American Short Stories, a story most males won't forget easily because it concerns a father's preposturous final request to his son. On his death bed, Marcus's father divulges an incredible secret--he's been hiding his Gentile-ness for his entire life, even though, as Marcus himself recites, his father was a likely a better Jew than most of his old buddies in Boca.
But the old man can't be buried next to his beloved Jewish wife if he's not circumcised, and the fact that he's still foreskin-ed will be shockingly on display during the holy rites his body will undergo at the hands of Jewish brethren. The madcap scheme the old man himself has planned to accomplish this late-in-life surgery goes sadly awry, which means that his son, quite literally, has to take matters into his own hands, not only because his father has asked him to do it, but also because he feels constrained by this filial instinct that none of us can quite quantify because it is so profoundly complex--"what, really, do we owe our parents?"
Tomorrow night my students will respond to "The Bris," which means they're likely reading it now. Ought to be fun. There's far more about male genitalia--of the nursing home variety--than I care to read; I can only imagine what they think.
Me?--I liked the story, and I liked it a great deal. Eilleen Pollack is tapping an ancient tradition, a genre my students likely don't know. "The Bris" has that comic feel one finds in the stories of Izaak Bashevis Singer, as well as the early stories of Bernard Malamud--and others I'm sure. The characters come close to comic book exaggerations, including devious rabbis who, oddly enough, comport themselves in a fashion that somehow, almost miraculously, translates into baldly transcendent or religious vision. Such stories are really elaborate parables, earthly story (trust me on this one!) with heavenly meanings--a line I learned in Sunday school.
The effect of such story-telling--when it works--is deep and affective, even though, as in this case, the reader is brought into a situation that seems, well, not only discomforting but downright shocking. One could pun badly for a long time here, but let me just say that the story cuts to the quick. Really.
Read it yesterday for the first time in the Albuquerque airport, and when I put it down, I called my mother, who's almost 90, and lives in an old-folks home in Wisconsin. My wife told me that she'd called while I was in New Mexico. She told me that it would be a good idea if I called her, if I had some time on my way back home. And this is the second verse of that hymn that won't leave me alone.
We talked for quite some time, longer than usual, in fact. And then she said something that she's never said before, and I didn't know how to take it--still don't. "I just don't know what I'm going to do for the rest of the day," she told me, not angrily, no bitterness either. She didn't know what to do with her time.
"Read a book," I told her, questioningly. She told me she couldn't do much of that anymore. "Watch TV?" I asked, but I knew she'd tell me there was nothing on for someone her age.
My mother was staring at a perfectly lifeless Sunday afternoon and evening, and her son--her boy who hadn't called--was sitting in a New Mexico airport.
What do we owe our parents?--that's the question.
And here's the irony. I'd spent most of the weekend listening to senior citizens, aging Navajo folks who were more than happy to tell me stories about their lives. My own mother doesn't know what to do with her Sunday. What do I owe my parents?
Today I read papers and get ready for class, having fallen behind in New Mexico. My wife hasn't seen me for four days, and I missed a trip her folks yesterday, the whole family in tow, even the grandkids. I was gone. The world calls me.
But what do we owe our parents?--that's the question.
If there were an easy answer to that question, Cid Corman would never written "Someone I cared for," Eilleen Pollack wouldn't have taken a shot at "The Bris," and I wouldn't be as haunted by my mother's alone-ness one quiet February Sunday afternoon--three verses, same looping hymn.
I've got to resolve to do more, but this morning I'm thankful especially for poems and stories that tell the whole human truth and let me know I'm not alone trying to answer unanswerable questions.
Sunday, February 10, 2008
"I will say to God my Rock, "Why have you forgotten me? Why must I go around in sorrow? Why am I beaten down by my enemies?" My body suffers deadly pain as my enemies make fun of me. All day long they say to me, "Where is your God?" My spirit, why are you so sad? Why are you so upset deep down inside me? Put your hope in God. Once again I will have reason to praise him. He is my Savior and my God. Psalm 42: 9-11
Some of the very best researchers on the subject, people who’ve listened to hours and hours of conversation between ordinary married people, have come up with very interesting assertions. Good lovin’, they claim, may not be at the heart of long and happy marriages, even though it’s what we’d like to believe. But what they've discovered is that a marriage drenched in passion isn’t necessarily a marriage which will last.
Okay, what then? It seems that the success of a relationship may be more dependent on the ability to fight than the ability to love, some researchers say. Marriages fail, they claim, when spouses can’t deal with the inevitable conflicts relationships create. Maybe I can put it this way—couples who learn how to fight, learn how to love.
It doesn't take a Ph.D. to know that conflict occurs even in the best of relationships. But those marriages that make it, a new study says, do so because spouses learn to keep those conflicts from escalating into something next to murder, the death of love and respect for one another.
I don’t really know how our fights—my wife and mine—rank with others. There have been some stiff ones, I know. Thankfully, I’ve not been around enough other couples’ tiffs and rants to judge the relative nastiness of ours. But we’ve been married now for 35 years, and I seriously doubt we’re in any kind of trouble, thank the Lord. We must have learned to manage our brawls, I guess, but don’t ask me to write the “how to.”
The fact is, it’s impossible for me to imagine myself alone now. In the give-and-take of marriage, I’ve pretty much lost the inherent (and not sinful) egoism that arises, quite naturally, from being single. I’m not perfect, and I still want what’s mine—and then some. But I can’t remember the last time I told myself, somewhat bitterly, that the only reason I’d done something less than savory was because I was married, because, well, (growl) "for her." It’s been a long time, thank the Lord.
All of which is not to say we’re home free. I’m far too old to be shocked.
Mostly, Psalm 42 is lament. Three times (vss. 5, 8, 11), David pinches himself in the dark night of the soul, reminds himself to think on God’s goodness; but he does that only because he’s trying like mad to engineer an escape from the despair that surrounds him. Twice, in fact, he falls back into the darkness after trying the best he can to pull himself out.
I don’t want to be prescriptive because God’s love comes to each of us in so many shades and sizes that one size never fits all; but Psalm 42 makes me wonder--when I ride its roller-coaster emotions—whether some sweet believers need to understand that some others of God's people, as if they were in a marriage, need to learn to fight in order to learn how to love.
No one ever talks about that in Sunday School, but it seems to me that the proof is here in this rugged testimony, a song so laden with darkness. And there are other psalms like this one, lots of them, more than good Christian people are often willing to advertise.
But they’re there. Maybe David—or whoever wrote this psalm—has learned how to love the Lord in all his mystery, only because he’s also learned how to fight.
Saturday, February 09, 2008
A book like Murder in Amsterdam quite firmly links the World War II past of the Netherlands into the murder of filmmaker Theo Van Gogh and the difficulties Holland (and all of Europe) is having with Middle Eastern immigration.
I’m just trying to establish what’s obvious. Wars have immense consequences. Years and years ago—when I was just a kid—I used to see a shaking man walk up the street almost daily. His spasms were involuntary, and simply watching him the way I did made me very uncomfortable. I asked my father what was wrong with him, and my father—and WWII vet—said not to make fun of him. The man had shell shock, he said, from the Great War.
In my lifetime, I have been blessed to hear literally dozens and dozens of stories of Nazi Resistance fighters, stories of immense and selfless heroism. But what the story-tellers share is an almost perverse inability to leave that whole world behind, psychologically. No matter whether the stories are never told or told over and over again, the sheer extremity of the war experience, it immense dangers and the proximity of death, the clear lines between friend and enemy and victory and defeat—all of that makes the ordinariness of peacetime feel boring, humdrum. War, despite its horrors and maybe even because of them, is simply vastly more exciting.
I suppose it’s not just war—it’s true of extremes in general. I once had a friend, a priest, who suffered from debilitating nerve disease. He told me he simply had to quit the priesthood because he could feel in himself a growing inability to listen to parishoners go on and on about their hangnails when his own pain made it impossible for him to sit straight or sleep through the night.
This year’s immensely fascinating Presidential sweepstakes is now down to three. Unless some third party candidate suddenly appears (and who knows?—this year) we’re left with McCain, Obama, and Clinton.
I stood with the Obama folks on the night of the Iowa caucuses and haven’t changed since. But should he lose to Clinton, the decision isn’t so clear.
Just yesterday, polls showed that President Bush’s approval rating was an abysmal 30%. His only comfort was that the Congress came in at 22%. Both figures are down 4% in just the last month. The American public is simply tired of “politics as usual,” it seems. Just exactly what “politics as usual” is, however, is not so clear.
What is clear is that both Obama and McCain represent something new, a pair of individuals who are not connected at the hip to party machinery. By my estimation, it’s a blessing for McCain that he’s hated among those grinch-like right-wing talk show hosts (I listened to them late last night, in fact). His record of working for change rather than the party is well documented by bill titles: McCain/Feingold, for instance. McCain, some say, is a nationalist, not an idealist. Well, hallelujah.
By my estimation, it’s lunacy for Hillary to run as a 35-year veteran and at the same time an agent of change. But she does. No matter. I’ll find it difficult to vote for Hillary because of her husband. I just flat-out like him better when he lines up with Bush I and Jimmy Carter and works to alleviate world problems. The thought of him hanging around the White House makes me shivver. I just hate that pointed finger of his.
McCain’s war-hero status is exemplary, and he’s a national treasure. The rap on him is that he can be irascible, even mean. He obviously cares very little about the economy—he’s said as much. Furthermore, his immense attraction lies in his ability to speak powerfully to other countries; domestic issues simply aren't as interesting to him. There’s no question.
But if I’m right, that problem may not be a reason not to vote for him. There is no doubt at all that those five years in a Viet Cong prison also strengthened his resolve and purpose. He’s learned to reach back for resources within his own soul that many of us have never recognized in ourselves. Those five years are simply part of the way he negotiates life itself.
Should Obama fail, the choice for me will be difficult because there’s so much to respect about John McCain.
This morning, after all this speculating, I’m still happy for one thing—that I’ve got a choice, a roll to play, that I’m part of what really does remain one of humanity’s most incredible experiments—democracy. I’m thankful I have the right to vote, even if having to think the whole business through requires some work, some diligence, some thought, some weighing of alternatives.