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.

Monday, March 31, 2008


A Year of Morning Thanks


A Blessing

Before the concert, the pastor, whose father started mission programs among Native people for more than fifty years, told me that recently on the reservation, two suicides havae added to the incredible tally among the Rosebud Sioux--highest suicide rate in the nation, he told me. Just incredible.


After the concert, the pastor, who's been preaching himself at this Lakota church for a decade, couldn't stop praising the Lord for the concert he'd just heard, a concert put on by the Rehoboth Christian High School Choir. He told them he wasn't sure they actually understood what they'd done with that concert. He just couldn't stop praising the Lord, which means there was some kind of volume, especially if you're charismatic--quite a number of Amens, an echoing chorus of hallelujahs.


He may be right--maybe the Rosebud folks who attended were deeply blessed. I'd certainly like to think so because the concert was electric--when it wasn't haunting in its beauty, it exploded in excitement, every last minute perfectly lit by smiles as wide as prairie sky.


I'm not Lakota, and I'm not from the Rosebud, so I won't even try to speak for the audience. I'll just speak for me: to hear those kids sing out God's praise like they do makes me go on and on too. I don't think I own the adjectives to describe the joy those young people bring to an audience.


Hallelujah, the Lakota pastor said.


Yeah, I said. Amen and amen.

Sunday, March 30, 2008


A Year of Morning Thanks

Despair

A student, not one of mine, sent me a note explaining that she was doing a paper for a history class, that she’d been reading the old college papers from the late 60s, and she’d read that I was a war protester. “Would you talk to me about that?” she said.

It’s not difficult for me to talk about May, 1970. I told her a full-fledged Washington war protest was an odd experience for a Christian kid from small-town, Republican America—100,000 college students after the Kent State, real radicals, gays marching uncloseted under a banner, kids my age doffing their jeans and wading, in the buff, in the reflecting pools. I wasn’t prepared for what seemed the party-like atmosphere. I thought a protest march on Washington would be serious politics.

But I also told her it was one of the most important moments in my life simply because I’d done it. I’d become part of something a whole lot bigger than a Midwestern small-town. I felt a part of history, even if the fit wasn’t all that comfortable.

I told her I had friends back home who had become more radicalized by the war than I was, friends who were into things the ancient righteous warned good Christian kids about—from John Lennon and tie-dyed t-shirts with beads, to flowers and free love, and to odd-smelling smoke coming from odd-looking pipes.

“Yesterday,” Lennon wrote, “all my troubles seemed so far away.”

Later that night I opened up an e-mail to discover that one of those guys was dead, one of those friends of mine from back home, a man I still think of as a kid had, just a day before, walked out to his garage and strung himself up.

In the years that have passed since we were students, he’d married, had one child, and worked as a landscaper. He was 58 years old. He loved his dog, the obituary said. A friend who’d told me about our mutual friend’s passing told me he was often friendless and alone. His sparse obituary mentioned he had volunteered as a counselor at some kind of institution. That doesn’t surprise me either. I remember that he had a big heart.

Forty years ago, the kid lived on the edge—more so, at least, than most of the kids our age in a little proudly Christian burg. Forty years ago, he had a very special sense of humor—droll and even somewhat occasionally black. He found it difficult to address people with his eyes. He had a shockingly powerful memory for song lyrics. He quipped jokes as if out of nowhere. He never laughed hard—if he did, he seemed to feel guilty about it. That’s just about all I remember.

For awhile, when I was my students’ age, he was a friend, a good guy. And now I sit here, tapping keys, trying, as always, to make sense of things.

I don’t think I’d seen him since 1970. I didn’t know he was married, didn’t know where he lived, hadn’t even thought of him much, except for a bit earlier that afternoon. That I don’t think I can blame myself for his despondency doesn’t mean that something dark doesn’t linger around me today.

Maybe if I knew everything, I’d understand the course of his life. But does anyone?

My yesterday was dominated by news I’m glad I know, even if I wish I didn’t—if that makes sense. Probably doesn’t. It’s just very sad. Proud as I was to tell that student about May, 1970, I’m really not nostalgic—unlike John Lennon, I don’t “believe in yesterday.” The sixties weren’t nirvana.

Where are this morning’s thanks? How about this: maybe today my old friend’s wearied soul has rest. Right now, a day or so later, that’s just about the best I can do.

Saturday, March 29, 2008


A Year of Morning Thanks

Music

I've long ago lost my ability to get lost in a book because I read like an engineer might, as greatly interested in how a writer pulls off what he or she does as in what has been pulled off. That may be overstated. I still love books and where they bring us. But, curling up with a good book and simply getting lost is a pleasure I've lost, if I ever could.

But when it comes to music, I'm a rank amateur, and that's just fine because music still carries me away to places I can't reach or discover in any other way. "Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent," or so wrote Victor Hugo.

Last night, amid life's overwrought busyness, my wife and I went to a choir concert and experienced a joy that I know would have been unattainable in any other way. If I were some astute critic, I could explain why, using all the phrases. But I don't own the right language--and that's okay. This rank amateur came away believing the choir was magnificent and the music sublime. If I'm wrong, I don't care to know how or why.

Some business runs a TV commercial in which two tennis players are about to begin a match. Something strange happens: people start running onto the court, and soon enough the entire splace is a madhouse of hapless people, all of them believing that they too are part of the game. The ad is spot-on with respect to this medium--the internet--because virtual life makes us all believe we can perform before an audience any time we want. Me too, of course. These words somehow hitch themselves onto a medium called "blogspot," and I hit return and thereby come to believe myself a writer, even though I may well look as hapless as some overweight exec slapping a tennis ball with his attache case.

Music is a mess today, millions of groups and singer/songwriters vying for the attention of an audience via the web. What's gone--people fear--is the gatekeepers, those who help all of us separate wheat from chaff. Today, there may well be more music created per square inch of creation than there has been in the history of mankind, but choice gone mad may not serve the cause of excellence.

Last night, we were blessed by sheer excellence--or so saith this rank amateur. Okay, some of the students were my own, and there's a blessing in seeing kids you know performing with the kind of zealous joy that's not always witnessable in the classroom. But that's not it. What created such beauty was a body of remarkable music opened up into time and place by nothing more than well-tuned human vocal chords and a meticulous maestro, who not only chose the literature and put it in an order, but coached those talented voices into what became, unmistakably, art.

This morning's thanks is simple. This morning I'm thankful for music, because music--at its best--not only finds its way into the secret places of the soul, as Plato once said, but fills them.

Friday, March 28, 2008


A Year of Morning Thanks


Welcoming People

Just one of my jobs in the last couple of weeks has been to try to muster about 30 homes for a touring choir who's coming to town. Honestly, I thought it might be tough. One person even asked if anyone had simply thought about renting motel rooms--picking up a bill rather than messing with people's lives. I thought I'd have to recruit, quite frankly. I thought I'd have to beg.

As it turned out, I had more offers than I needed. Not a ton more, but more. I didn't expect that because affluence has its seamier sides. I did a story not long ago about a family who has a softball team that's one hundreds of tournaments. When they were kids, they had one ball--not just one softball, but one ball, one of those red playground all-arounds. When it would blow, they'd patch it. They loved it. Today, the whole blame family is athletes.

Sometimes--and it's as true for me as it is for anyone--when we have more, we don't give it away as easily, having lost a sense of less. There are no poor in gated communities.

Anyway, this morning, I'm thankful I was wrong. I'm thankful for people who, without blinking an eye, opened up their home. "I got beds," they said. "Bring those kids on."

And I'm thankful there were so many. Their largess is my great blessing.

Thursday, March 27, 2008


from A Year of Morning Thanks

Wafah Dafour

Osama bin Laden has a niece who is, to be sure, no radical Islamicist. She lives in Australia, I guess, and wants to be a singer and a model. Yes, that’s her.

Her name is Wafah Dafour, and she has appeared, rather sensationally, in GQ, I'm told (I've never been a devoted reader).

Wafah changed her name legally after 9/11, and she may well repudiate her uncle, but a sexy magazine spread means she has already taken her infamous uncle's name directly to the bank. Who cares how she sings?—good night, she and her bathtub have already made GQ.

Someday, I'm sure, scientists will clone babies, if they haven’t already. But, for better or for worse, we’ll never quite replicate ourselves. Nobody will. Every family I know has its Wafahs, its wanderers, all of us. I am not my father, and he was not his.

You know, it somehow makes me feel less terrorized by Osama to know that, evil as he is, he really can’t even control the bin Ladens. But then none of us can, and that’s says something incredible about the nature of human will--again, for good or ill.

This morning, I’m thankful there’s a Wafah.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008




"Bush's War" and Baraak's preacher

It would seem to me that the only way in which someone could watch the PBS Frontline special, "Bush's War," and not feel criminally hoodwinked by the present administration is to have simple and blind faith in George W and his buddies Cheney and Rumsfeld. It is extraordinary journalism, but it's also devastating in its criticism of what how people in the highest echelons of this government have operated in the last five years--and of what we've suffered at the hands of two men who were damnably sure they alone held the truth about what must be done in the Middle East.

It would be wonderful to see Fox News do a similar show, disproving all of the assertions because I would really like to believe that I wasn't hoodwinked, that the fate of this whole country wasn't really in the hands of two monomaniacs (Cheney and Rumsfeld), that our national motives were as good as the political rhetoric from Karl Rove throughout those years. I'd like to believe that this country didn't suffer what it has because of the insufferable egos of two men.

Here's what I think. Maybe we could have used more preachers as prophetic in their denunciation as was Jeremiah Wright. Maybe what we needed was more "incendiary preaching," not less.

I clearly remember a structured discussion here at the college where I teach, two profs taking sides on whether or not an incursion into Iraq was a good idea. The pro-Bush prof used all of the Administration's good arguments--WMDs were there, Saddam was a pariah, there was some kind of link between him and 9/11. The prof who opposed the war said we were creating an unthinkable mess that would create chaos throughout the region.

And I remember thinking the prof who was against it was wrong because he simply didn't trust George W. Bush. And I did. And I was wrong.

It seems difficult, at least mathematically, to see how Obama could be prevented from the Democratic nomination, but it's clear that the Jeremiah Wright sermons have done more damage to his appeal than anything else he's suffered in this marathon campaign. I suppose it should--and it certainly will with some. But not with me.

I once had a friend, a Jewish friend, who converted to Christianity while we were together, teachers at a city high school. When he asked me once about where he might go to church, I told him about a church I thought he might like. It wasn't mine. He found that strange. I told him I thought he wouldn't exactly "get it" at my church. "Then why do you go there?" he said, a devastating question.

That's a question that I've continued to ask myself throughout my life. I suppose I continued to go to that little struggling church out of an allegiance to a people, a tribe, a community. I continued to go to church there, a place where Jesus Christ was preached, because I knew was a part of that world, that part of my human identity was there--my people were there.

That may well be a bad reason--and it certainly seemed so to my friend; but it's at least part of the reason Obama likely sat through sermons that set his teeth on edge. Whether everything that happened in that church from Sunday to Sunday was pleasing and wonderful was a secondary concern; in a way, Obama knew that place was his people. I know that argument feels racist, but it's no more racist than it is communitarian, methinks.

Yesterday, at a press conference, Hillary Clinton said if the choice had been hers, she would have walked out of the church where such things were preached. I suppose she would have.

Only if patriotism--love of country--is considered to be the highest moral or spiritual value, or so it seems to me, should anyone consider her walking out of her own church as the moral high road.

Yesterday's on-line Christianity Today featured a story by a Turkish theologian which seemed to me to nudge up quite closely to what people used to call "liberation theology," the association of Jesus Christ with insurgent causes in developing nations on the basis of Christ's insistent claims for the poor and against political power. It seems to me that Bush's War makes clear is that we likely could have used more, not less liberation theology back then, even here in the U.S. of A.


Tuesday, March 25, 2008


A Year of Morning Thanks

Ignorance, Mine

Dokmai, whose gleaming skin and bright eyes made her seem much younger than her sixty years, had been telling me about her job at a packing plant, where she stood each day, like so many of her Laotian-American friends, knife in hand, making a cut or two at chunks of meat moving slowly down the line.

At first, her words were guarded. She was talking through a translator, but it was clear to me that she wasn't used to talking this long to an Anglo she didn't know, a big white man.

Slowly, an hour into the interview, she came to understand that what I wanted from her--no more, no less--was the storyof her life. When she came to understand that, her eyes softened behind an abiding, gentle smile, and I asked some tougher questions.

I offered the idea that lots of “Americans” (her language; I pointed at myself) really wouldn’t like a job in a meat-packing plant, standing there with a knife making the same rhythmic cuts on some pink/red carcass all the day long. I asked her, as politely as I could, what she thought of her job.

She nodded. It was clear that she loved it. The translator's eyes lit up when he told me

“And why is that?” I asked her.

She answered in one quick line, shrugging her shoulders as if it made perfect sense.

“In Laos she had to do all the butchering,” the translator told me, and just like that an image appeared in my mind—the bloody carcass of a water buffalo, with Dokmai standing there alone, a machete in her fist, the jungle behind her. In Laos, she’d carved up the entire animal; here, on the line at the plant, she made just one cut. Easy. Simple. Clean. Always sharp blades--of course, she loved her job. Why wouldn't she?

Her answer exposed privilege—mine—in a way that left me speechless, astonished as I was at my own cultural blindness. That remark taught me more about immigration than a year of news specials, and it reminded me, embarrassingly, of how much I didn't know even though I thought I did.

Today, in class, a bunch of international students will talk to my students about America, about what my American students don't know about what they think they do. I hope they'll be times they feel a little embarrassed, like I was, for their own very understandable ignorance. Discovering what we don't know is at once embarrassing--and liberating, wisdom at a price.

This morning, I'm thankful that once upon a time my own ignorance was carved up by a Laotian meat-cutter. It's a lesson I won't forget.

Monday, March 24, 2008


from A Year of Morning Thanks


Enough


I spent all day Saturday working over an old manuscript into a speech I'll have to give in less than two weeks--a speech on the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. Most of it will have to do with the elaborate and systematic way in which the Nazis determine to go about "dejudification" of that small, lowland country. The speech will stay there--not wander into the death camps like Auschwitz or Dachau.

Sixty-three years ago, at just about this time, Allied troops liberated the concentration camp at Buchenwald. Many of the GIs who walked into that death came were war-weary veterans, no strangers to suffering and horror; but nothing prepared them for the horror they found in that death camp. Edward R. Murrow, the famous journalist, was with the soldiers, but he was so disturbed by what they found that he couldn’t write about it for a long time.

Way back in 1995, I taught a course in the literature of the Holocaust, a book a week, complete with special speakers, including survivors. With a month left in the course, I hit some kind of emotional wall. I had to push myself to read another word, and when I worked at, little went in. It was as if my mind, heart, and soul simply said, "no more." Even today, I have absolutely no wish to see Buchenwald pictures or read another word about the madness in the camps.

The speech is finished, complete with slides--but it's basically about how the Nazis pulled off something so horrendous most of the populace could not begin to believe it was happening, even if it was going on right under their own eyes. It's not about the ovens or those gaunt bodies piled up in railroad cars--and that's okay. I think I probably know as much as any amateur historian about the Holocaust, and maybe as much as anyone who's not a specialist needs to.

I’m thankful—I really am—that God brought a halt to my interest. I think I know just about as much about the evil that went on in those wretched places as I need to. That’s enough.

Sunday, March 23, 2008


from A Year of Morning Thanks

Easter

It’s not the burning bush Moses stumbled on. That bush is in there too, I think; but the rising sun behind this scrub oak on a dilapidated fence line suggests a good deal more—at least it does to me.

Those wild branches will soon have buds; the skeleton is soon to be vanquished. But its bare bones still evoke another biblical tree—especially today, this morning.

I shot the picture a while ago, drenched it playfully in orange, then realized I couldn’t find a better shot to suggest the magnificent joy of Easter. Today is Easter.

Even that other biblical tree—especially that Golgatha tree—was glorified by that one moment, the greatest dawn in human history. The story of the tree is simple and eternal: He is risen. For which, like nothing else, I’m thankful.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks

Sheep

Oddly enough, I know almost nothing about my namesake. Sometime during the Spanish occupation of the Netherlands in the 16th century, the invaders demanded Dutch folks take last names. Story has it that some of them simply looked around and used whatever word they saw—like “sheep.” Hence, schaap. I’m a sheep. But other than human “sheep,” I’ve never even been close to a real one.

Some of the old Navajos I’ve been talking to claim shepherding wasn’t the greatest experience of their lifetimes. Most all Navajos who’ve reached 75 or so remember tending sheep and goats, remember life in the hogan, remember a way of life that’s now pretty much gone.

And what I’ve learned from them is that sheep were immensely exasperating, in part because they’re simply not all that bright. “Stupid sheep,” one man kept saying when remembering his childhood, “stupid, stupid sheep.” Sometimes, of course, those kids were out on what was almost open range tending sheep at three or four or five. So much for childhood.

But there were times when watching the flock wasn’t bad, some claim. One man said tending sheep had its moments—as long as you could sit up on a hill and watch them forage beneath you, as long as they didn’t go out of their way to wander where they shouldn’t, as long as the weather was genial, there were moments of something close to pastoral bliss.

But then they’d wander off and they had to be chased back. “Stupid sheep—stupid, stupid sheep.”

Makes me want to change my name.

That the Diné, the Navajo, often recite Psalm 23 makes understandable. It may well have been the first English poem that made a nickel’s worth of sense: “The Lord is my Shepherd.” Its reassuring reality is fundamental to the way of life those folks lived throughout most of their childhoods.

I say all of that because, once more just now, I listened to the entire score of Handel’s Messiah. I don’t know that I could ever tire of it, from the opening lines of the overture to the final triumph of the Amen chorus. There’s so much that has meaning. I will never, ever hear “I Know that My Redeemer Liveth” without thinking of my mother singing it at a small-town performance by local singers at which she was the soprano soloist. Old First Reformed church—I can see her yet—and hear her.

But the single selection that makes me put down everything I’m doing simply to observe its glorious uniqueness is “Worthy is the Lamb,” which sets the course for the final act of the drama. If I were a musician, I’m sure I could use the correct technical language, but that soaring tribute starts with single earth-shaking chord that erupts into a passage of sublime exposition, just a few short lines until all that solemnity is broken by riffs that seem to me to rumble, brook-like, down the register—textbook Handel.

And, then, once again, that single chord and the repetition: “Boom. Worthy is the lamb. . .” Hear it?

An old story says that, once he’d finished, Handel told people that in the white hot heat he must have lived in during the 24 days it took him to write the Messiah, he’d seen God. The evidence for that claim shines throughout, but if you want to hear what George Frederick Handel heard as he approached the throne, you simply have to listen to that volley of immense solemnity that opens the section of the oratorio he called himself “The Triumph of the Messiah.”

Boom. “Worthy is the Lamb.”

And it’s a sheep. Isn’t that something? It’s all about a lamb.

All of that majestic fanfare for a sheep, all of that transcendence for the Lamb of God, whose done nothing more or less than make himself the supreme sacrifice for all of us, whose taken the burden of sin on his back and buried them forever. For us, he’s become a sheep. He’s become the Lamb of God.

Somewhere in there is a goodly chunk of the whole story of Easter. Thanks be to God.

And then, of course, the Amen chorus.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Good Friday

I envy monastics--sometimes. I envy their ability to zero in on the Christian faith, to delete every iota of worldly pain and pleasure from hearts and souls and minds. I envy that--sometimes.

Today is Good Friday. A big crucifix hangs on the wall above me, an traditionally Roman Catholic icon in that it includes, in molded pewter, the image of a suffering Jesus. My sister gave it to me after it was given to her from one of the old folks she visits weekly, a Catholic woman who had an apartment full of traditional iconography and thought it would be nice if my sister had this one from her collection.

To refuse the gift would have been shameful, she said, so she took it; but she had some trouble knowing exactly what to do with it because she was convinced it really wasn't, well, for her, a lifelong Protestant. There's nothing unbiblical about a suffering Jesus Christ hanging from the cross, but somehow she had the uncomfortable feeling that a crucifix wasn't a part of her faith tradition.  We worship a risen savior, she might have said.

It's not small, and somehow it made her uncomfortable.

She thought about tossing it, she said, but she couldn't. How do you drop a crucifix in a garbage can with empty soup cans, crumpled milk cartons, banana peels and apple cores? 

As an act of mercy, I told her I'd take it off her hands, and now it's here up on my wall, even though it's fair to say I've spent a good deal more time in Calvin's Institutes than she has.

Today is Good Friday. Today, my wife and I will go to church at noon with about twenty others--no more--and listen to the story of the crucifixion. Last night, at a Maunday Thursday service, the crowd was sparse. I'm neither Isaiah or Chicken Little. On Sunday, at Easter, the place will be hopping, I'm sure.  Most people rather prefer to worship a risen savior.

Still, there are times when I envy the monastics, who, yet today, do what they can to eschew the fixings of this world for communion with their eternal Lord.  Sometimes, I admit, the world is far too much with us. Sure is for me.

Our calender this year was off some--Good Friday and the first day of spring were nearly a month apart.  What's more, we've had June weather since mid-March.  Somehow, Good Friday ministers better in a cold drizzle, don't you think?  An old friend once told me that here in northwest Iowa, we get only ten days a  year of good weather.  One of those good days shouldn't be good Friday.  The weatherman says it will be.

Christ's suffering, celebrated here on my crucifix, shouldn't be a pleasant thought.

And yet, I guess, it is. If he hadn't suffered, if he hadn't been nailed to that cross, if his hands hadn't been butchered, his side sliced open, if he hadn't died there, in mockery--if all of that hadn't gone on he could not have buried our sins with him nor stepped from behind that monster stone as if it were a paper weight. Had he not died, he could not have risen triumphant. We serve a risen savior.

There would be no Easter story without Good Friday, and that reality is as good a reason as any for me to look up to that pewter Christ, his arms out, his thorned-crown head sagging, as he hangs from the cross above me. And that's as good a reason to be happy today as yet another gorgeous early spring day.

I walked outside just now to go to the gym. Up above me the face of full moon glowed in off-white gossamer, and the trill of a robin soared through the early morning darkness.

I envy monastics--sometimes. But then, we all serve a risen savior, and this Good Friday I'm still thankful that holy living can start with an old woman's gift crucifix in a cold Midwestern basement--and certainly doesn't require a monastery.



Thursday, March 20, 2008


From A Year of Morning Thanks

In the dark, a robin’s song

It’s mid-March, and I swear it’s impossible for me to remember when the world was lit at quarter to six. I know it’s happened, but right now it seems a dream. It’s been dark—and cold—forever.

Yesterday, however, when I left for the gym, out east the world was just pulling on a glowing new wardrobe, almost a shock. Even more thrilling, as if out of nowhere, was the gutsy song of the robin. I saw the first one on Sunday, but heard him or her for the first time today—this morning, in the darkness. When I walked out of the house, our car was only slightly visible in the driveway, but that piped in music was, all by its lonesome, a triumph over night.

On Monday, we had two inches of snow that, at any earlier time, would have looked simply beautiful. But this time of year, I’d rather look away. By last night, most of it was gone.

But an innocent song warbled proudly in the receding darkness, and in an instant I tell myself I can go on. I never saw that robin to give him thanks, but I’m doing it.

Listen for yourself: http://www.learner.org/jnorth/sounds/RobinSong_LangElliott.mp3

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

From A Year of Morning Thanks

Books


I read somewhere recently that a study in Europe—a comprehensive study that asked participants to register exactly what they did with their leisure time—had concluded that the amount of time people there (but there’s no reason to think it would be any less here) read in their spare time fell from 55% in 1955 to 21% in 1995. And 1995 was the year the Netscape browser made the internet available to everyone; since that time, things could only have gotten worse for books, as they have for magazines and newspapers. It seems clear to this writer and teacher of literature that people are reading less, and I include myself within that number, blogs and internet news notwithstanding.

As a reader of books I am neither profligate nor promiscuous, never have been; and, I admit, I have my prejudices. I choose the books I read with too much deliberation maybe, but there really is so little time.

Yesterday, I started another, after some painstaking check-out line second-guessing: a memoir titled Infidel, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a woman best known, perhaps, for her part in the Dutch movie Submission, which she did with a man named Theo Van Gogh. Van Gogh was brutally murdered on a street in Amsterdam for his biting criticisms of the Islamic faith. Ms. Ali is no longer a resident of the Netherlands. Like him, she was an outspoken critic; unlike him, she was born and reared in the Muslim faith.

I am deeply interested in the intersection of cultural life—in the case of Infidel, how a young Muslim woman acclimates to the unimagined freedoms of Western culture, in this case, secular Holland. Just plain terribly interesting.

Honestly, I have tons of things to think about and worry over, but when I start a new book—and it starts well, as this one has—I am thrilled to be brought into a whole new dream, a whole new vision.

This morning I’m thankful for books—the good ones, and especially the new ones, full of promise. They offer us the world.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008



A Year of Morning Thanks

Ansel Adams


“I was climbing the long ridge west of Mount Clark. It was one of those mornings where the sunlight is burnished with a keen wind and long feathers of cloud move in a lofty sky. The silver light turned every blade of grass and every particle of sand into a luminous metallic splendor; there was nothing, however small, that did not clash in the bright wind, that did not send arrows of light through the glassy air. I was suddenly arrested in the long crunching path up the ridge by an exceedingly pointed awareness of the light. The moment I paused, the full impact of the mood was upon me; I saw more clearly than I have ever seen before or since the minute detail of the grasses ...the small flotsam of the forest, the motion of the high clouds streaming above the peaks... I dreamed that for a moment time stood quietly, and the vision became but the shadow of an infinitely greater world -- and I had within the grasp of consciousness a transcendental experience.” Ansel Adams


Last night’s American Experience (PBS) film on Ansel Adams was a moving tribute to the man and his photography, a life’s retrospective. That he loved what he did is beyond question. His slavish dedication to his work meant days and nights on end in preparation for a show or to complete a body of photographs, hours and hours and hours in a darkroom.

Part of me envies that dedication—and I’m not alone, I’m sure. How many aspiring Ansel Adams take to the back roads of this country weekly, cameras in hand, like I do? Thousands. How many of those don’t wish they could simply walk away from their day jobs tomorrow and take up photography--or acting or writing books? Thousands. Me, among them. How many of us can those art forms support? Very, very few.

What Ansel Adams has left behind is unforgettable images of a stunning corner of this continent, awe-inspiring mountain vistas outfitted in a grand and personal vision that helps us even better visualize what that land—the Yosemite Valley—once looked like, pristine and virginal, a place we’ll never see again in quite the same way again.

To get those photographs, the man gave himself totally to his art. His wife gave birth to both his children, alone, Adams himself, their father, out pursuing his dreams in the Sierras. Nothing—not even God—was more important to him than chasing the vision he describes in the passage above. That he felt a sense of the transcendent doesn’t mean he was a believer.

I don’t know what to do with him finally. He was a genius, an artist; but he was driven, almost maniacal, his dedication obsessive. He made his work an idol.

I’m glad I’m not his or anyone else’s judge, but I hope there’s a place for him in glory. Few in this life loved creation as deeply as Ansel Adams or found the divine as palpably in the here-and-now. Besides, it would be great to learn a few things someday in the heavenly peaks.

This morning, I’m thankful for Ansel Adams, who helped us see the grandeur of God’s creation.

That’s not a bad life’s calling, or so it seems to me.

Monday, March 17, 2008


A Year of Morning Thanks

“W.C.D.”


Once the sun rose high enough to sweep the bronze from the early morning light, I walked through the icy parking lot and up the hill where I’d left the car earlier. The park staff had blocked off the lower lot—beach level—because melting snow had turned the whole place into a mess.

I thought I’d done wonderfully with my cameras, and I was still smiling, I’m sure, because it had been such a gorgeous dawn. When I stepped over the lines erected to keep people out, my eyes, quite randomly, caught a garbage can full of sand standing just off the road. Someone, sometime, had riveted a piece of sheet metal onto its ribbed side announcing that can’s particular use: “Road Sand” stenciled on the sheet.

But the sheet had half-peeled away to reveal three black initials, including three periods, underneath—“W. C. D.” –not stenciled, but free-handed in long thin letters I recognized immediately because I printed those letters on that can when I was a park employee 41 years ago. The minute I saw them, I remembered. They were in my hand—I knew it.

The realization was stunning, exhilarating. Serendipitously, I’d run smack dab into what amounted to a museum piece I myself had contributed to Terry Andrae-John Michael Kohler State Park when I worked there during the long-ago summer of 1967. I could have broken into song, honestly. I took the picture, above—shot the dumb garbage can again and again, as if it were about to take off like some 12-point buck.

And this morning I’m trying to determine just exactly what it was that gave me such a snoot-full of joy. Nostalgia? Not really—I’ve never wished I hadn’t left the park. It was a great summer job, but not a profession. Besides, in those summers I cleaned more toilets than any human should and still get away healthy.

Was it the reawakening of some great memory? Nah. Painting letters on garbage cans would have been a rainy day thing. Most of the time, the glory of the job was being outside. There was no triumph in painting “W. C. D.” (Wisconsin Conservation Department) on a couple dozen galvanized garbage cans.

A stay against confusion maybe? Getting warmer, I think. I’ve heard a dozen times about writers subconsciously believing they’re making themselves immortal by writing poems or novels or whatever. Is that idea plain poppycock? I doubt it. If there’d be no truth in the assertion, it wouldn’t stick in my memory like it does.

Maybe the discovery of those tall letters made me feel young again. Maybe that’s the whole thing. This week it will be a month since my 60th birthday. Poof!—I’m a college kid.

Nope. My knees are too sore for me to entertain such silliness.

All I know is that garbage can was really something, proof at least of some earlier dispensation in my own life. Just finding it generated enough heat to melt away the snow and ice all around. No need for sand.

I honestly don’t know why those three letters—and the square periods (I used a flat brush, a half-inch wide or so)—were such a joy. I honestly don’t.

What I do know is this: I visited a state park where I spent three great summers long, long ago, when I was a college kid, so much of life ahead of me, so much that’s now behind. Beneath a shard of steel on some rusty, pock-marked old garbage can, three long, tall letters—with periods—spell out the initials of the government agency that then ran the place, and mine's the hand that wrote them in.

Okay, so it’s not The Brothers Karamazov. It’s just three dumb initials of a state organization that long ago changed its name.

But it’s something.

When I got to the car, I looked back one more time to be sure I hadn’t just seen a vision. And I got a picture to prove the whole story, in all it’s heroic human silliness.

I don’t care. This morning, just a couple of days later, I’m still thankful for a state park garbage can that’s remains initialized, to this day, “W. C. D,” in my hand.

Sunday, March 16, 2008



Saturday Morning's Catch

"Well, Toto, we sure aren't in Kansas anymore. . ."




Quick trip to Wisconsin, to the lakeshore, an early morning sunrise that was far more glorious than I can catch in my camera. When I couldn't get to the place I wanted to go that morning--the wetlands had swamped the lake roads--I headed back to the state park, where I guessed I could at least make it down the beach. I was right--and, even though the flooded lakeroads delayed my getting out there, I was still in time. Two flat banks of clouds were poised just above the horizon as the sun emerged.





I think it's just me: I'm just not good enough a photographer to get it right. I need a teacher; experience ain't enough. Experience, I've got plenty of, but I still can't get all that beauty in a file.






From a snowy beach at Terry Andrea-John Michael Kohler State Park, where I worked forty years ago. Might have caught this one then, too, way back then, on the right March morning. That's a good thought, a comforting thought.



On the frozen sand, not much to silhouette but long harried stalks of beach grass.




And a jet, adding an almost perfect line.



Honestly, I'm disappointed again because nothing captures what was there before me on the beach on Saturday morning. It's a game--and my own game attempt to get it right. But you can't miss, really, with that kind of heavenly beauty.

Friday, March 14, 2008


From A Year of Morning Thanks

Good ideas

Writing with faith, Ron Hansen says, somewhere in A Stay Against Confusion: Essays on Faith and Fiction (2001) is a form of praying. That’s an interesting idea, something I certainly wouldn’t have thought of, especially just now having completed a long story that just about sapped the life out of me. But I find Hanson’s idea quite gratifying, as well I should, of course, because I am certainly among those who would like to believe that we’re trying to practice the combo, without somehow undervaluing either—prayer or writing.

But I’m not so sure I buy it. I’m certainly not talking to God when I’m writing fiction, although I will admit that some pure mystery comes into play in the whole creative process. Honestly, most of the time I’m working on fiction, I don't believe I'm thinking all that much of the Lord God almighty. I’m just trying to find the best way out of a narrative.

But then, I suppose we could expand definitions a bit and say that woodworking and having faith—or gardening or factory work or teaching college students and having faith—are all forms of prayer too. We could say that, and when we do, it helps.

Maybe the entire life of a devoted Christian is a kind of prayer. Now I'm getting there. I mean, if God can translate the penitence of our groaning as prayer—King David says as much—then I’d like to think he hears the clicking of these plastic keys as a kind of prayer too, or the slash of spade into good black dirt. Maybe it’s all prayer for those of us who believe.

Maybe. But then, when I come to think about it that way, I’m wondering if maybe my life should be more of a prayer. Probably.

This morning, as always, I’m thankful for good ideas.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Morning Thanks--Spring Break



I was at a sprawling beach dance somewhere near Ft. Lauderdale when President Lynden Baines Johnson pulled himself out of the campaign, in April of 1968. One of the guys from the band yelled out the news and fists and peace signs reigned, I remember. I'm not sure I danced with anyone that night. We were four college boys from an incredibly provincial little college in the farthest corner of a obscure state much of America doesn't know from Ohio or Idaho--we couldn't have been more strange on the Ft. Lauderdale beach. Shoot, we could have been kicked out of school back then for dancing.

Just a night before, when we'd looked for a place to stay, we ended up in the front-room office of third-rate, antique boarding house, a place I remember only because it was such a wreck. No ceilings above us, just rafters. People smoked back then--lots of them, most of them; it's incredible the place didn't go up while we were there. Anyway, when we walked in--late at night, I remember--there were three groups of students ahead of us. We're talking cut-rate here, that kind of bad. But what did we care? We didn't have a ton of money.

The couple in front of us got to the front of the line, and the night manager--I don't remember much about his face even though I thought him just as seedy as the place--the night manager simply told this couple that he'd just assigned the last room. Sorry. When they left, we turned around--these four white guys from Iowa. We were just about to follow them out the door, when this redneck manager stopped us. "Hold on--I got one room left," he said. 

Made no sense to us.

Then he pointed at the door. "We don't take their kind." That young man and woman in front of us were black.

That summer, the summer of 1968, the streets burned in all kinds of major cities. When I think back on that moment right now, I can understand why. The college we attended prided itself on being Christian, but we sure as anything took that last room. I don't believe it ever dawned on us to take some kind of righteous stand. But then, I'm sure, lots of the holy powers-that-be that incredible year were fully enlisted on the side of the enfranchised--and not the other way around. Anything else was "counter-cultural," to old-line Calvinist veterans of WWII was simply another way of saying sin.

Later, on our way to New Orleans, we drove all night long on the very night Martin Luther King was shot in Memphis. I remember listening in to the car radio, hearing news about riots and mayhem all over the country. The next morning, as the sun rose, we stumbled into a cafe just before dawn, a place somewhere on the bayou where a bunch of Southern not-so-gentlemen had been drinking all night long in celebration. We ate pancakes, as I remember, never said a word as I remember, the sun just then arising.

New Orleans felt like a carnival. I remember being shocked to discover that some of the bars on Bourbon Street didn't even open until nine or ten or eleven.

We were a long, long way from home.

There's more, but I've probably gone on long enough. If you ask me to remember my classes that semester--my sophomore year in college--I probably couldn't. But episodes on that Spring Break will stay with me for the rest of my life.

As a teacher, that realization is somewhat discouraging. But today, when the classrooms empty and my own students leave for parts unknown, I simply wish them well. Active and passive verbs will be awaiting them when they return, as will dangling modifiers and the final drafts of their term papers.

I wish my students well on Spring Break. May they learn as much about life as I did, forty years ago, during my first real road trip. Am I proud of everything? No. But there are moments on that trip that have become featured attractions of the museum that stores all my memories.

And that's just one reason why, this morning, I'm thankful for Spring Break. Starts today.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008


from A Year of Morning Thanks

Mom's Truths

Called my mother yesterday in the home to tell her I finished a little job she wanted done for a friend of hers. She was thrilled it was on its way.

Then we told her of our continuing problems, and what she answered was almost exactly—no exactly—what I would have guessed. “You’ve got to step back and put it all in the hands of the Lord. I know that’s not an easy thing to do. But it’s what you have to do—trust him.”

Not that we haven’t been. But hearing her say it again—just hearing her—was good for her son, who’s no youngster himself. For as long as I can remember, she's said exactly that--which is not to say I've always believed her, or she's always believed herself. If the truth be known, she herself has never been particularly good at trusting.

But that doesn't make her wrong--only human. And I don’t know that I’ll change my behavior or that I can--even if I should. But it was still good to hear her tell me what I knew she’d say because she's never been wrong about that.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Morning Thanks--Getting Away



The place is whiskery with mesquite--a dry and stony world where, Sunday night, I met my very first armadillo, who snorted along in front of me like an opposum from King Arthur's Court--ugly but armored. It hasn't rained there since October, people said, and the grass--if you can call it that--is brown and dry and spikey. Nonetheless, there's a green haze over the trees across the river. Spring is coming.

Most Iowa farmers would just shake their heads at the land. It must take an entire section to feed two or three head of cattle. What they might forage, they likely shouldn't eat. If this is the land that fed Texas cattle, it's no wonder the Lakota didn't like what they saw when the government paid them for the land with a half a herd of scrawny longhorns. It's land you can't do a thing with.


But for one long sweet weekend, it seemed almost like heaven. Cell phones don't work, and there's no internet connection, if you can imagine. This place is smack dab in the middle of what Texans call "the hill country," on some obscure but gorgeous spot on the Frio River--takes forever to get there and you have literally have to ride in the flow before you do.


A bunch of us got together last weekend as we do every year. If I say the place is inhospitable, I mean it--even the Frio River had to cut out a place in that hardscrabble land.


Fellowship is a nice word that's gone bad because it feels like a starched collar. But fellowship is what we did--we laughed and talked, prayed and sang, read poems and short stories and novel excerpts, ate well, and hiked when the sun shone. When I left Iowa early Friday morning, the temperature was -7. On Saturday afternoon, in the Texas hill country, it was 70. But when I say it was warm, it's a metaphor. I read a story I finished just last week. Went well. There's nothing quite like confirmation for what comes deeply and not always easily from one's own holy of holies, especially when that confirmation comes from those who know and care.


So this morning, back in the basement, I've got no problem with thanksgiving. This morning, I'm thankful--oh, so very thankful--for getting away.


Now don't I wish I didn't have any classes this morning.

Friday, March 07, 2008


from A Year of Morning Thanks


Just dropping by


An old friend had back surgery a while ago. Didn’t know about it until at least a month after it happened, when I bumped into his wife, who told me it hadn’t been an easy road for him.

I had back surgery myself eight years ago, and today, after a ton of groaning, I don’t have a lick of a problem anymore. What I’m saying is, I had things to say to him. Not only that, we’ve been friends, really, for years.

Some people I know are immensely gifted at visiting people when they’re down. They not only see it as a calling, they actually enjoy it, even love it.

I’ve not been blessed with such gifts, never have been. I didn’t want to go visit him, but I had promised his wife I would, and she gave me every reason to believe that I should.

So I did. And I’m glad I pushed myself to do it.

But now I’m wondering why it is so ever-loving hard for me to put myself out the door, why I have to force myself to trot over there and take care of business. Is it a species of pride that keeps me home? Am I just too busy with my own life to care about others? Why is hard for me to do pay a kindly visit when I know someone needs it?

This morning, I’m really thankful that I stopped in at my friend’s place, but I know very well it’s going to be just as difficult next time.

Thursday, March 06, 2008


A Year of Morning Thanks

Midwestern Wisdom

After buttoning up his coat, the snow cracking beneath our feet as we left the restaurant, my son-in-law, born and reared in Southern Cal, admitted last night, that he'd been thinking a ton about home. We got two inches of snow the day before, snow no one wanted, and even though it sweetly covered the "farch" look all around us--all that old snow like dead sheep, poet Jim Heynen says--no one thought new fallen snow worth a poem. It wasn't pretty. In November, maybe. In March, no way. I've got to change the pic and the note on this website--"Winter is upon us"--because there is, at least to my notion, a spot of sweetness in the line.

It's March, and winter isn't so much upon us as it still here and can't find the blasted door, dang it. The whole time I shovelled snow I was mad. I dare bet there are sidewalks all over town that haven't been touched--people aren't lazy; we're all just ticked. More snow this time of year--more arctic cold--is a real spiritual trial. I'm not kidding.

"Just think," my son-in-law says, "back home I'd be surfing."

Meanwhile the speedometer cable in the Tracker is making this awful cranking noise it always makes when it's bitterly cold, and I'm thinking the three of us ought to just go west right now. We'd all be better off.

But it's my granddaughter's birthday, and it's a gala and our spirits soon change. We're over at their house, when her little brother pulls a prune face and snarls out something that came from the soul of his envy--yes, the seven deadlies are alive and kicking even in four-year-olds. It's her birthday, after all, and she's the one opening all the High School Musical presents, not that he wanted them. He just wasn't getting his due, he figured.

His mother spooned out some of his sister's birthday cake for him, he groused, and she said, "You get what you get and don't throw a fit."

I thought the line was cute. My daughter says it's a basic rule of thumb at his pre-school, where, with a room full of four-year-olds, I can only imagine the grousing that goes on: "she's got more Cheerios than I do," and so forth, which I'd call childish if I didn't know better. My daughter says it's what gets said a ton at home too.

So, on the way home from the birthday party, my wife and I say it over and over: "you get what you get and don't throw a fit. You get what you get and don't throw a fit."

Good night, what fine Midwestern wisdom. Would that the world would listen. Maybe this country wouldn't be moving into an economic tailspin right now. Maybe there would have been no loan crisis. Maybe people wouldn't go a'whoring after Gucci handbags, the latest electronic wizardry, or silver BMWs. (Sometimes, it's just not all that hard to be righteous.)

"You get what you get and don't throw a fit." That's Lake Woebegone wisdom. It's hilarious. And it's so fitting after an early March snowstorm. "You get what you get and don't throw a fit."

I don't care. It's dang cold, and I'm off to Texas this weekend, thank the Lord.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008


from A Year of Morning Thanks


Cheerleaders

The man was a cheerleader. He played college football and never stood on the sidelines; but when I think of him, I think of a cheerleader.

By profession, he was the program director of a religious retreat center, but if you think of the place he ran as a really fancy summer camp, you’ll understand what I mean when I say that the man was, by profession, a cheerleader. That's better--he was a cheerleader; he ran a summer camp.


It's been two years now since he left us. After a two-year battle with the cancer that took him, the good fight he and his devoted wife waged is behind them, and they kept the faith. For him, the end of the grueling fray is rest and a generous, eternal beginning.

He died in Texas, where he was born and where he lived. I knew him for only a few years, but to me he was an encourager, a cheerleader, to others, I'm sure, but even to me—and I grieve his loss because the world is home to so few real cheerleaders.

Many, I’m sure, will miss him. But this morning, I’m thankful for him, for his life and his encouragement, thankful for a cheerleader, for all of them.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks

Truth

I'm not a big reader of memoirs, but lots of folks claim that, these days, the memoir has really bested the novel as a genre. Some of the best-selling books of the last decade have been memoirs--think of Angela's Ashes.

But the memoir has this aching Achilles tendon--they're seem somehow easy to make up. Just this morning I read of another: Margaret B. Jones's Love and Consequences, published just last week, is a flat-out lie. Haven't read the book, nor will I, but it has received significant praise from reviewers. But it follows in the sad footsteps of another fabrication just last week, when it was learned that a Holocaust memoir, Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years, by Misha Defonseca, was also a fake. Most people remember the whole Oprah tale of James Frey's A Million Little Pieces, another phony testimony, that one of drug addiction and recovery.

Many best-selling memoirs play on our sympathies. Ms. Jones's story was about her rough girlhood, growing up in LA gangland, running drugs. She claimed she was half-white, half-Native, and used stories and ideas she'd developed when she worked in LA ghettos.

Sadly, the plot didn't work, and yesterday it unwound and sprung embarrassment all over the place. Riverhead Books has already recalled copies from hither and yon and canceled the author's tour. The lights are out. Ms. Jones was lying from the getgo, the daughter of some privilege, in fact.

Yesterday, I heard a tale about a former student of mine, a young lady I didn't really trust because she was so very good at selling her life of horror--and she knew it. I think we're all vulnerable--I'm not saying I'm somehow immune--to cries for sympathies, especially those of us who have on hand an ample supply of guilt for use in periodic self-torture.

At the college where I teach, righteousness is much in vogue and always has been. We're in Garrison Keillor country, where, honestly, all the kids are above averange, the vast, vast majority coming from sweet Christian homes, where parents did their ever-best to bring their children up in the fear of the Lord. In other words, at a place like this, to some con-men and women, there are really a lot of chumps. This young lady--with her tales of drug use and etc.--I swear, had learned to trade on a story no one could prove right or wrong. In fact, she may have been right--maybe her family was all the things she said. But what I distrusted was the way that desperate family background got wedged into conversation most all the time.

I never told anyone about my hesitations, but recently I discovered that someone else had learned this particular student couldn't be trusted. In a way, I felt relieved.

Trust is one wonderful commodity, and even a reason to bring up your kids in a small town like the one where we live. Fear is its opposite, and sometimes I think today's younger generation--brought up post-Columbine and having heard a thousand stories about childhood seductions and rapes and murders--has lost the ability to trust in a climate of fear created by a media world where too many outlets let us engorge ourselves on ambulance-chasing.

I think it's fair to say that not all that many gang-bangers are reading New York Times best-selling memoirs. The target audience for Margaret B. Jones's Love and Consequences, I dare say, was highly-educated white suburbanites who know little or nothing about life in the 'hood. Good people trust, even their story-tellers.

And good people get conned, as did the editors at Riverhead Books.

So why didn't Margaret Jones just sell the Love and Consequences as a novel--what it was? Because testimony is jucier somehow. Riverhead would never have published it as a novel. But as a memoir, the sky was the limit. If it hadn't been a lie.

The trick in life, I guess, is finding some perilous middle ground--not trusting too much, but never trusting too little.

This morning, I'm just thankful for truth, a commodity all too frequently in short supply.

Monday, March 03, 2008


A Year of Morning Thanks

Law-breaking, sort of

As the attributes of God go, transcendence has never been a problem. It’s his imminence that baffles me. It's something of Santa Claus, I suppose, who can slide down a gadzillion chimneys at the same time on the same night. God's imminence offers an ear for fully as many prayers, some by rote, some by groaning. Impossible.

I don’t doubt his imminence really, but it's beyond human ken to determine how he pulls that off. Maybe he’s got all-of-life-on-Earth backed up on some huge hard drive. I don’t know.

I just hope he’s as gentle as advertized and blessed with a heavenly sense of humor.

Our four-year-old, towhead grandson has a thing for carrots. Yesterday, Sunday dinner, he had four helpings—doesn’t hurt, of course, that his grandma slathers them in butter and brown sugar. The fourth installment came after a caramel ice cream sundae sprinkled with tiny candy bits that are more fun than meaningful.

After all of that--after three helpings and a whole hamburger and a caramel sundae, he reaches, one more time, for the carrots, now scrumptiously room-temperature, then piles a dozen or so on his plate, and starts in again.

That’s when he blurted it out. “I love carrots more than God and more than the whole wide world,” he proclaimed toothlessly, thereby thumbing his little nose at the sum total of all biblical law.

His father tried a little Sunday School right then and there, but his grandpa giggled and hoped the Lord was tuned in to prayers somewhere down the block.

Even if our grandson isn’t the kid Jesus had in mind with the thing about child-like faith, somehow, I think he’ll let it go, scratch it up to silliness.

Besides, as foodstuffs go, you’ve got to admit our grandson could do a whole lot worse than vitamin-rich carrots.

And me? As always, I’m just happy there’s forgiveness. And I'm even a little thankful, this morning, for four-year-old grandsons who, with divine impunity, break the rules.

Sunday, March 02, 2008


Sunday Morning Meditation

Ordination

“…for so you have ordained it.” Psalm 65:9


More than a century ago, not long after the land here was first broken, the community in which I live soon couldn’t hold all the people who wanted to live here. The edge of the frontier was shifting steadily west, and, after the government successfully swindled the Native people of their land and killed off the bison, the Great Plains were opened for homesteading—west into South Dakota.

So Hollanders who got itchy for the open spaces lit out for the Dakota territories, confident they too could grow crops, raise livestock, and thereby create the good life that was already being lived here, in northwest Iowa.

But it wasn’t as easy as they may have thought. Making a living on land in the Dakotas requires a different set of skills, as they soon discovered, my own great-grandparents among them. A woman once told me how her uncle, just moved to Rosebud Reservation land at the turn of the 20th century, planted corn just as he had in Iowa, watched it grow just as it had in Iowa, then looked on, astounded and horrified, when a dry hot wind blew up from the south and lay all that corn down in just one blazing afternoon, killed the whole crop. The next day, she said, he hitched up his team, filled the wagon with his family, and went back to Iowa.

A geographer friend of mine once told me that what we think of as “the corn belt,” a significant swath of land that spreads west from Ohio, covers most all of Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa, and includes parts of several other states, including the some eastern sections of South Dakota, is really a treasure trove. Few other places on the entire globe feature the distinct physical blessings that “the corn belt” has in spades: ample annual rainfall, a lengthy growing season, rich topsoil, and the kind of temperature extremes—hot summers, cold winters—that are especially advantageous to some grains. It is, the perfect mix—as if it were designed and created by a divine ecological alchemist.

He claims—and I believe him—that the harmonic convergence of all of those immense blessings is the reason why farming works so successfully here. People work hard, and always have. They’re Calvinists, who know that nobody gets rich in coffee shops. But the reason for abundant harvests, he says, are blessings that have less to do with hybrid grains or sweat on the collar than this marvelous confluence of blessings. This spacious breadbasket produces food in abundance because of “God’s ordination.” It’s what he did, not what we do.

Some Iowa farmers have always liked to believe their South Dakota cousins simply don’t work as hard—and that’s why they don’t make as much money. If the fish are biting on the Missouri, they figure Dakota farmers will just bet on another day to get the corn in.

The prairie poem at the end of Psalm 65 is not only beautiful, but instructive in that it ascribes our successes fully to God’s own hand: you’re the one who does it, Lord, David says. You send the rain, you drench the furrows, you crown the year with bounty. You do it all.

None of us—farmers, villagers, suburbanites, or city dwellers—find it easy to ascribe our bounty to anything less than our hard work. But this beautiful little hymn gives all our joy to his goodness.

For he has ordained it—that’s David’s testimony. He’s done it. Not us. He’s the one, the only one.