Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Friday, February 29, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks

More than a bit skeptical

I came of age during the Sixties, the Vietnam War era, the race riots, the assassinations—not to mention the Golden Age of rock music--and that era left its own indelible mark on me. I don’t trust blindly, and I long ago lost the ability to have total faith in people in leadership positions, in institutions, and in most anything.

That sounds awful. That I can’t trust authority could make my life miserable—there's a risk I'll end up like that despairing doleful wretch, Young Goodman Brown.

Last night I listened to a black man talk about Rastafarianism and heard all sorts of echoes out of Native American tribes from west to east in this country. He offered black people especially a way of life that promises a return to enough nativism to heal the souls of those whose heritage has been burned and pillaged, those who've been ravaged by prejudice, discrimination, and injustice. I'm skeptical. As a religion--as a faith--Rastafarianism, at least to me, felt like an almost silly hodge podge. As a means of countering the horrific despair of a people whose lives and culture were decimated by colonialism--by white people--it seemed a blessing.

I had grave doubts, but I liked what I heard--if that makes sense.

I've been a part of this small college for almost forty years, and I had to shake my head, even while sitting there, because, back in those early years, I would have never believed the place would have it's own black student union. But last night, I was there, and it was a blessing, truly. There's all kinds of things I don't think I can teach my own black students, things a Rastafarian can--even if, by his own standards, he fails to make a convert.

Maybe it's my age, maybe it's my Sixties' heritage, maybe it's my profession, but I'm capable of full doses of real skepticism, of listening to a man go on and on about a religion, a way of life, that seems to me to be specious--and still appreciating what he has to say. Despite Christ's own admonition, about a lot of things I don't have a very child-like faith. There are times I wish I did. I'm far more of a Doubting Thomas than a SweetPea. But that's okay.

My guess is that lots and lots of wonderful ideas—art itself—is created from doubt and dissent, from skepticism, from grousing and upset stomachs, from the deep cuts made close and critical analysis, from downright unbelief. I don’t think I’d write at all if I believed everything I hear.

If it's not a disabler, skepticism--and even doubt, I think--is a good thing; and this morning, even as a believer, a Christian, I’m thankful for healthy dose of skepticism. Just not too happy either. If that makes sense.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

from A Year of Morning Thanks

Good memories

“Indeed, [God] not only declares
that a clear mirror of God’s works is in humankind,
but that infants,
while they nurse at their mothers’ breasts,
have tongues so eloquent to preach his glory
that there is no need at all of other orators.”

Say what you want about John Calvin, but you've got to admit that this little riff on Psalm 8:2 is novel--and memorable. The beauty of a baby's nursing hum vastly surpasses, he says, even Obama's soaring oratory. Can't help but giggle.

But the amazing thing is that when I read that line, I remembered instantly the sounds my own children made when they were nursing so many years ago, a memory I thought I had forgotten until I read the passage. Not so. I recognized the eloquence immediately; it returned in an instant. I hear it yet. I hear it now.

I don't doubt for a moment the horrors of post-traumatic stress. A few years ago, uncovering what some called "buried memories" was even something of a fad. Who knows, really, what all exists in the library of audio tapes and technicolor images a memory seals up seemingly on its own? Lord knows, I think I've got bad memories up there too.

But this morning I’m thankful for once having heard the tender music of my children nursing--and for being able to testify not only to what Calvin asserts here in the Institutes, but to the eloquence I heard back then and hear again, even now, so many years later.

I'm thankful for good memories, especially for those I didn't even know I had.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

from A Year of Morning Thanks

Good Intentions

An old friend from my boyhood sent me a note he scratched out late one night not long ago, a note to his friend, a man who’d just walked away from his wife, supposedly, I guess, for someone else, someone younger. It was a sweet, heartfelt admonition, just one paragraph, one long extended metaphor about the pitfalls of trading in a car--you know, trading in an old junker for something with great new lines. I swear, any species of feminist would have gone ballistic.

The night, he said, had gone like this. He said he couldn’t sleep, and his wife was bawling. I mean, these people were friends, right? So he got himself up out of bed and wrote this thing about the glories of an old car. The man is not a writer, nor does he know a thing--not a blessed thing--about political correctness. But he's got these friends, right?—and they have been for a long time; and what his buddy did just broke his heart.

Honestly, some people I know would think that single paragraph not only sexist but crude, but this old friend of mine was just trying to bring some healing order to a world that had suddenly turned inside out.

I know, I know--I've said it myself a thousand times: "the road to hell is paved with good intentions."

But this morning I’m still thankful for good intentions because sometimes they’re better than no intentions at all.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks

A Hog's Ear

I didn’t know where I was going Saturday morning. It’s become a ritual, getting up well before sunrise, typing something for awhile, then, an hour before dawn, taking off west toward the hills along the river.

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

from A Year of Morning Thanks


Medieval monastics, I’m told, used to make pilgrimages to the Holy Land simply to pick up sand, the dirt on the earth where Jesus walked. Their satchels full, they would lug it back and spread it, like joy, throughout monastery hallways.

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

Sunday Morning Meditation

Forgetting God

“Consider this, you who forget God,
or I will tear you to pieces, with none to rescue:”
Psalm 50:23

I've been reading about Teddy Roosevelt, former President of these United States, today almost totally forgotten. His gargantuan ego is legendary, his ambition best illustrated, perhaps, by his hugely unsuccessful run for a third Presidential term, when he was backed by an political organization with the goofiest name in American political history, the Bull Moose Party.

A year after he got thoroughly beaten, he nearly died in South America on a madcap canoe trip up totally uncharted Amazon waters, an expedition he took on to assuage the hurt from that embarrassing loss and the fury of former friends and followers who believed his cartoon candidacy literally gave the election to Wilson, the Democrat. Roosevelt got the heck out of Dodge.

Teddy was asthmatic from birth. When he was a boy his father told him he lacked nothing intellectually but much physically, and if he wanted to succeed he needed to work on his body--which he did, even becoming a boxer. By all accounts, Teddy Roosevelt was indefatigable. Whatever he lacked, he worked to get it himself.

Which is not to say he didn’t feel real pain.

On February 12, 1884, his first child, a girl, Alice, was born. But his wife, Alice Hathaway Lee, was diagnosed with Bright’s disease; and two days later, on Valentine’s Day, she died, his college sweetheart, a woman he’d often described as far too good for him.

That very same night, his mother also died from the ravages of typhoid fever. In one night he lost the two most beloved women in his life. “The light has gone out,” he wrote in his journal. He literally could not go home.

So he went west to the Dakotas, driven to believe that, when darkness arrives, the only cure is to lose yourself in adventure, in extremity. The way to beat the horror, he assumed was to beat the anguish out of the soul by sheer hard work. He was on his way up the Missouri, in April, the temperature somewhere just below zero, when his boat was stolen. Without a moment’s hesitation, Roosevelt, the high society New York City boy, went after the thugs and almost single-handedly brought them to justice. The guy was amazing.

Teddy was a tough guy, but what’s so attractive about him, at least to me, is his commitment to energy as bromide. The Dakotas, at that point in his life, were his therapy. Light came back into his life because of the time he spent, often alone, on the Great Plains. Out in the open spaces, he pulled himself, kicking and screaming, back to life itself after emotional loss few of us could bear. That’s how he operated throughout his life, for better or for worse--"do it yourself."

I don’t want to judge the state of the man’s soul, but his unstinting commitment to the bootstraps philosophy, his commitment to sweat and hard work, not as a means to wealth but as means to happiness, resonates deeply with the Calvinist in me, even if I’m not always proud of it.

When I read about Teddy, admiringly, a verse like this one from Psalm 50 is really troublesome, because it's not hard for people like Teddy and me simply to forget God, to sweat it out, to light out for the territories, to pull ourselves out of the darkness, to find our own here-and-now redemption by doing our own work.

For some of us—not all of us--it's really oh-so-easy to forget God.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

From A Year of Morning Thanks

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.


Anyway, this morning I tried a place I hadn't been for several years, west bank of the Big Sioux, slightly north of Hudson, where I hiked up and down hills in calf-deep snow. Wasn't nearly as cold as it has been, but, after an hour or so, I was ready to warm up. Almost indistinguishable on this shot is a deer near the top of hill, just to the right of the two-lane path.

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.

But, as I already said, this morning's dawn was largely featureless again, which means I turn the camera towards light and shadow, hoping there's something memorable. I've already deleted a number of files, but this is little more than a study in light and shades of darkness--but strangely enough, rather beautiful, I think.

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

A Year of Morning Thanks

At the gates of heaven, a storm

All the while Diet Eman had been incarcerated in the Nazi concentration camp at Vught, the Netherlands, she'd played a character she wasn't, a simpleton. When finally she came up for her hearing before SS thugs, a hearing which would determine whether or not she would stay in prison, be deported a place like Auschwitz, or released, the pressure was immense. She had to continue to fake an identity that wasn't hers in front of men who would choose life or death for her.

One of the very few people who knew she was lying grabbed her that morning on her way to the hearing and whispered something into her ear that she never forgot: "I'll storm the gates of heaven for you." When she told me that line, years later, she repeated it time and time again and that line found a way into my soul too.

War raged all around them, all throughout Europe; the metaphor itself may well have been fitting. But the line stuck with Diet Eman, not because it was appropos, but because of its promised heft. That woman told her she wouldn't let the Lord alone, she'd mount all her forces, she simply wouldn't stop praying.

I've got no idea what prayer does, in fact--whether it quickens the surgeon's hands or sharpens his or her mind in diagnosis. I suspect that a miracle is biological thing, finally, cells that are shipwrecked somehow find their way home. I don't know what prayer may be doing right now for those two colleagues of mine, friends too, people beside whom we sit in church almost every Sunday--twice, in fact, the husband and wife who were gravely injured in an accident just a few days ago, on the Sabbath. I don't know if it's prayer that's kept them alive or prayer that will get them healed.

But I know this. When I look down the immense list of people who've journaled their blessings and promised their prayers to the family of our friends--thousands of people from literally all over the world, whole schools and institutions, old friends, ex-students, and tons of people who simply want to pray--then today I can't help but think of the gates of heaven being heavily stormed.

I may never know what Diet Eman felt when she marched off to that SS hearing, the assault of heaven going on behind her; but I know this, to read all those pledges is to feel at least something of what has to be the immense power, even the miracle, of prayer.

For that long and growing list on a caring website, I'm thankful this morning.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Stories, again

My Fiction Writing class finished reading The Best American Short Stories: 2007 last Tuesday, and in an informal poll I took in class about favorite stories, the one most chosen was "Wait," an odd little fantasy/commentary by Roy Kesey, a story originally published in the Kenyon Review.

"Wait" is original and entertaining and, as my students say, grows out of a universal experience these days, waiting in airports. Just about everything happens in the story--an asteroid destroys a chunk of the airport, there's a revolution, a love affair, a death or two--all of it while gang of travelers is waiting at an airport gate. Kesey mixes just enough realism with fantasy that the story never once gets boring because while it pulls you almost lovingly away from reality, the progression is so artfully accomplished that the story never really allows you to stop believing. It's a kick--it really is. But their prof would not have rated it as high as they did--no way. When it's over, what's there to say?--cute little high, maybe. Artful, little escapist silliness. Cute ride.

They love it. I find it interesting, but I shrug my shoulders. Ay, there's the rub.

This morning's Writer's Almanac quotes David Foster Wallace: "Fiction's about what it is to be a human being." Wallace is dead on.

Then why my students' penchant--no adoration--for fantasy, for sci fi, for ET stuff? This old Sixties Boomer just doesn't get it.

Years ago already, my son told me that the greatest stories of my youth were likely those connected to the havoc created by the Vietnam War. In the Sixties, one had to take sides because the reality of our lives was war itself. For my students, my son told me, the greatest stories ever told were something in the Star Wars genre, or Harry Potter, or computer gaming--all of which connect to reality only metaphorically--or, at best, as parable. How could I expect them to like writers who worked in the genre of psychological realism (as I do), when their heroes wear capes or make war on the dark side?

I've always found that lecture helpful.

Oddly enough, today my son doesn't consider my students to be of his generation. These days he teaches them himself, and he has to laugh at them now and then, which, of course, I find not only interesting but even a little satisfying.

Which is not to say he was wrong in his definitions. Last week, I had my students send me synopses of the stories they are working on: half were the kind of genre fiction I've come to think of as their literary staple. This year, when Stephen King chose the Best American Short Stories, I had high hopes the volumn would contain more of their beloved fantasy stuff. Alas, King let me and them down and chose a range of stories not at all unlike any other year, despite his own bold assessment on the back cover: "here's some fine kick-ass stories."

About that he was right, but he wasn't the Stephen King my students know and love, and the register of stories could have been chosen by, say, Ann Patchett or Alice Munro.

So why do my students adore strange stories?--these strange students of mine? Well, maybe students always do. I remember getting some kicks from Jack Kerouac and John Barth (Giles Goat-Boy); shoot, I even subscribed to the infamous Ralph Ginzburg's Avant Garde, and the squarish, bizarre rag that came right here to righteous Sioux Center, Iowa, in the late Sixties. It's a wonder it got through the post office.

Perhaps, to understand my students, I only need to remember my own late teens, early-twenties. Maybe I wouldn't have settled for what seemed the straight-and-narrow of psychological realism either. Perhaps its an affinity of youth to look to fantasy.

Sure. But today give me the old-time religion. Here's a story I just heard, a story I love.

She's almost ninety, but cagey and sharp, and she's heartbroken because her granddaughter is having an affair--or at least having big trouble in her marriage. Let's call her Aunt Zennie. Aunt Zennie is sure that the cause of the wreck is her grandddaughter's job, which she's never been happy about, but which she sees the real cause of because there's all that blasted traveling involved, and traveling's where the girl gets in trouble. If she weren't on the road like that and away from her husband, well, then, for sure, she wouldn't have cause to rupture things, if you know what I mean.

We're in a small town here, and Aunt Zennie knows her granddaughter's boss's father, so she goes to him, at home, and says he's got to do something about this situation. "You think maybe you can talk to your boy about not sending my granddaughter out on the road so often like that?" she asks the man, let's call him Matt.

Matt shakes his head and says there's nothing he can do because he doesn't run the business anymore.

"But you know what I mean here?" Aunt Zennie says. "If Carla weren't out on the road, she'd be with her family more and we wouldn't have the trouble we're in."

"I can't do a thing," Matt tells her. "My son can't run the business that way anyway, you know--I mean making exceptions like that--I'm sure he can't."

"It's a matter of keeping a marriage together, Matt," Aunt Zennie says, pointing a crooked finger. "It's a matter of what the Lord brought together here, husband and wife."

"Zennie, you don't understand," Matt says. "My son can't be responsible for what your granddaughter does on the road--he's running a business. It's her job to control her own behavior."

Aunt Zennie licks her dry lips, shakes her head once or twice, then looks at him bitterly. "Matt," she says, "you don't know your ass from a hole in the ground." And then she left.

True story. I'm sorry about the vulgarity, but that's the way it went. Look, I like that story, not only because of the shock of the ending, but also because it offers us pretty much what David Foster Wallace says: "Fiction's about what it is to be a human being." There's another inter-generational war going on in that little story, of course, but it's set at the crossroads of our finest intentions and acid bitterness. Shoot, it's funny because it's us.

I'm not sure my students would like it as much as I do; but then, we probably wouldn't agree on what it means to be human either, my students and me, forty long years between us.

Maybe I can live with that, if they can.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

from A Year of Morning Thanks

"Default behavior"

“Default behavior matters a great deal,” the man on the radio said, seriously.

What a great phrase—“default behavior.” It’s what we do if we’re not jarred out of doing it, because we’ve always done it, by rote and by preference.

“Default behavior,” a phrase we’ve picked up from our computers, is my writing one of these thank-you notes every morning. Default behavior, for me, is going to the gym right now and working out, is brushing my teeth, is washing one’s face, and eating a bagel or crunching whatever dry cereal is in my cupboard because I bought it on sale. Default behavior is what we do almost as if without thinking at all.

Default behavior is what my wife and I prefer more and more, the older we get. Patterns get lovely, traditions get dear, quiet nights at home get comforting. "Same old, same old" has begun to sound pretty darn good. Not only that, we get resentful when, for whatever reason, we don’t get to practice our "default behavior."

Some people might consider it a rut, I suppose--this "default behavior." It's what ties us down, what keeps us from thinking outside the envelope. Default behavior is what we practice ritually in those areas some call our comfort zones, those playgrounds others of us don't necessarily want to be liberated from.

I like the line. So I'll just exercise my default behavior and hang it up this morning.

Here goes. This morning I’m thankful for new words or phrases that get at the very heart of what I know is true, phrases like “default behavior.”

There, I said it, my morning thanks--my default behavior.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks

Broken reeds
and smoldering wicks

It seems to me that our sorrows, which have come not like spies, but as battalions, as Shakespeare says, began the assault long after the siege of cold we’ve been suffering was already well positioned all around us. It’s been an awful winter. This howitzer-sized icicle hanging from our neighbor’s gutter doesn’t even tell the whole story of either the iciness that’s assailed us or the depth of our hatred of it right now—day after day, night after night of arctic cold.

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.
I’m tempted to call this juxtaposition of bitterness within and without some touch of an old literary idea, “the pathetic fallacy," because it seems to me that nature is conspiring to make our lives inescapably miserable, for miserable—trust me, inside and out—is what we are, body and soul.

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

from A Year of Morning Thanks


Way back in high school, I had to memorize "The Gettysburg Address," a task that was just about over my head. Some people actually do have minds like steel traps--not me. Memorization was always a test of patience and endurance, my own private war.

The exact wording of the Address long ago left the upstairs of this memory, but my inability to recite it forty years later doesn't mean that I didn't learn it "by heart," as they say. Several years ago, I stood beneath those towering trees where Lincoln stood when he delivered it, and it came back to me in streaming audio, not word for word, but in all its incredible beauty, less than two minutes of the most precious speech in American history. There he stood, reading it himself, people say, even though the old yarn about his scratching it out on the back of an envelope is myth. I'll never forget standing there, just as I'll never really forget the gist of what he said, even if I don't remember the exact words. But then, even Abraham Lincoln didn't memorize "The Gettysburg Address."

In American history, Lincoln is a towering figure--as he was physically. The words of his Second Inaugeral ring out in my mind just as clearly the Address itself, even though I never had to recite them: "With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."

But the truth is, I never really understood Lincoln’s audacious faith or the profoundly radical spiritual challege he offered a war-ravaged country until I read an essay in the Partly Cloudy Patriot, by Sarah Vowell, an essay that helped me understand. What she said, in her incredibly droll, comic voice, made those words live. She said he was speaking to the American people in 1864, with 600,000 American dead on the battlefields; she said that for him to say as he did, “with malice toward none, with charity for all” was just crazy, just nuts.

How could Americans possible feel “charity for all” after so much killing? The answer is clear: only by way of true and full forgiveness. Forgiveness is what President Abraham Lincoln was asking for, from North and South; he was telling us all to forgive. And true forgiveness, really, is just plain nuts.


This morning, on President's Day, I’m thankful for the soaring Christian witness of President Abraham Lincoln and the incredible spiritual challenge he laid, years ago, on all of us.

We still need it. We still need to forgive. We always will.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Morning Thanks--Beside Still Waters

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

The house where we lived at that time is long gone, as is the tiny kitchen where I stood, phone in hand, listening. The call had come in the middle of the day, in the middle of a 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.
Ten days later, when we boarded a plane to leave, she and I stood on the stairway to that jet, waiting to enter the cabin. She looked at me and shook her head. “I hope this plane crashes,” she said, and she meant it.

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

I 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.
Someday I’ll worry about it, I imagine--death, I mean. Someday, the grim reaper will look more like the monster he actually is. But ever since that day coming home from Vermont, I’ve been okay with dying.

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

Saturday Morning Catch

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.


He must not care how the package is being delivered and he would likely make one lousy English teacher, but I rather like the fact that the Lord God almighty hears prayers that are fractured, illogical, redundant, and sometimes even wordless.

One of the most comforting verses in the Psalms, by my count anyway, is David’s request that God “hear the sound of his groaning,” which implies, of course, that God’s translation skills are second to none.

Most believers pay little heed to Jesus’ dire warnings about praying in public—we do it anyway, and that’s okay. But somehow the fact that the Creator of Heaven and Earth hears even those utterances that aren’t uttered is itself as beautiful as anything in the Book of Common Prayer, that he lovingly listens in closely when we ain't even got the words to fit our miseries, that's nothing less than divine.

And for that I’m thankful, this morning--but even more so on those mornings when I've got no words.

Friday, February 15, 2008



The old white church should, I’m told, come down. It stands somewhat sadly along the road, creaking a bit, even though few ever enter anymore, its window frames scratchy with old paint. An errant flame, a spark, would likely bring it down and thus put it out of its miseries. It’s outlived its own glorious multiple uses in the past, and it would take bucks no one has to rebuild and remodel, its foundation as weary and decrepit as some shaky old geezer. It has bravely withstood battering desert winds that, come spring, even reshape the majestic Red Rocks just up the road.

It has been a place of worship for 85 years, for several hundred thousand worship services and so many school chapels that it would be absurd to count. Years ago, little Navajo kids, just rousted from their families’ hogans, marched from their dormitories like onward Christian soldiers to church and chapel, church and chapel, in a fashion that changed those kids’ lives forever, some for better and others not so. Once inside that old church, they listened to sermons, learned the catechism, and listened to a million Sunday School lessons and related moral tales, I’m sure.

Only once in my life was I inside. Thirty-plus years ago, I was a youth leader in a suburban church in Phoenix, Arizona, and my wife and I had brought up our group—maybe a dozen kids--for a young people's rally. I’m sure I barely exist in the ponderous memory of that old church. Its walls have long forgotten me—the young guy, thinner then, more hair, more energy.

But I’ll never forget the signal line of the sermon a man preached, a man named Rev. James Lont, a man I remember for his baldness, oddly enough. He was talking to kids, not leaders that night, but I was listening, too—the kick-off rally for the retreat.

“Think of it this way,” he said in words something like this, “if we believe in the reality of God’s hand in our lives, then today—tonight—we’re all here for a reason. God has brought each of us together here at Rehoboth for a reason.”

He wanted us all to believe the Lord God almighty could fill that church with kids—half of them Navajo, half of them white—to create a moment right there that would artfully shape the rest of those lives.
Does anyone really, actually believe such stuff?—I thought back then, smiling, thinking the bald pastor was at least doing a great job of making those kids think.

What researcher can explain why just a few words stick in our memories when others never leave a mark? I can’t plumb the mystery, but I know that youth rally kick-off sermon stuck in me, perhaps because the idea was so unwieldy, so bizarre, so beyond imagination.

What the man preached was textbook Calvinism, the idea that all of what we see and do and know is somehow divinely prearranged into some here-and-now stage show in which we all play our parts. Predestination—that’s the word I knew back then because I’d been schooled in it. No single idea is so closely associated with the theology of John Calvin, for better and for worse, than predestination.

Somehow, that fall night at that old white church on the mission compound, a preacher with a shiny pate put flesh on a theology in a fashion I never forgot, even though there was really nothing new in what he said, nothing I hadn’t heard a dozen times before. That night, what he said stayed.

Today I’ll work on another story, another life, another biography of some Navajo man or woman or couple, whose own kids may have sat beside the ones we brought up from Phoenix that night at Rehoboth. Today, I’ll listen in to interviews I took just last week in the extended shadow of that old church, and I’ll try to craft those stories into something that brings praise to the God who, as ye olde Calvinists used to say, certainly does have his hands on the controls of our lives.

I can’t speak for the hundred or so kids in that old church that night thirty years ago, nor for the thousands who marched, for decades, over there from their dorm rooms.

But one sermon in that place found a sticky corner of my soul and never left. Back then, I thought it more than passing strange to believe that somehow, someway, there existed a divine reason for me to sit in that old white frame mission church, one fall day in 1974.

Today, way out here in Iowa, another life in front of me and behind, I am writing stories for that same century-old mission enterprise at Rehoboth, New Mexico; and what the pastor said those many years ago seems not so passing strange.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Valentines Day

from A Year of Morning Thanks

Valentine's Day

The vicissitudes of married life simply come with the package, or so I’ve learned. In a relationship, heat rises and falls, then rises again, only to descend, sometimes inexplicably, a few weeks later. After 35 years of married life--trust me on this--the amplitude is not as dramatic as it once was; but it's fair to say that, even after so many years, affection still has its seasons.

Today is Valentine’s Day, and I have no trouble picking up the pen to inscribe the card that dang well better be sent. But there've been other Valentine's Day when writing sweet nothings has been, well, something of a chore. After all, it's hard to get warm when the furnace hasn’t kicked in for awhile. But the coming of St. Valentine--or whoever it was who created this annual Hallmark day--means a job must be done, a card must be written, so I do it, regardless of temperature.

And, honestly, I’m thankful for the St. Valentine's discipline. Left to our own devices, I suppose I could be as ugly as the Bible and John Calvin say I’d be. So it’s good to be pushed, once a year at least, to take up the pen and say sweet things. Some years, like this one?--piece of cake. Others?--maybe not so. Valentine's Day is not always easy, but good.

Regardless, what I've learned, even in the cold, is that, come next year, it may be warmer in the house. What I know is that love is far more substantial than its own fickle temperatures.

But then, on this piece-of-cake Valentine's Day, when outside our doors the wind chill is -30 or so, I’ll always, always, always trade a summer afternoon for mid-February.

This morning, I'm thankful for St. Valentine--and, of course, my wife through the varied Midwest climates of all of those years.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

This madcap political season

A year of morning thanks

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

Things We Love

from A Year of Morning Thanks

Things we love
I read somewhere that computer dating services have been an abundant resource for researchers studying why we fall in love—and with whom. I’m sure that’s true, but I still think that, mostly, love is a mystery.
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

A Year of Morning Thanks

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

Sunday Morning Med--Good Lovin'

"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

Half of all marriages fail. Why? Good question.

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


There are likely far better books on the effects of war than than The Assault, by the Dutch novelist Harry Mulisch, but if there are, I don’t know of them; and if I’ve read them, they don’t stay with me like that great novel. When a man is murdered one night on a quiet street in Holland during the Nazi occupation, the effects of that murder simply keep unfolding—for years and years after the event itself. Just who collaborated and who didn’t—and why or why not—take lifetimes to understand.

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.
I wonder sometimes whether I see in him the same kind of psychic impatience that I've seen in other war heroes, especially those who suffered deeply—a kind of impatience with ordinary life, an inability to comfort those whose problems pale when contrasted to their own history of horrors or sadness. I guess I wonder whether the pain McCain suffered as a prisoner of war for five years has made it hard for him to empathize with those whose plight is absolutely nothing like that he went through. I wonder whether it’s become difficult for him to do what Bill Clinton used to do , it seemed, better than anyone—convince others that “he felt their pain.”

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.