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, June 30, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks

Comeuppance, after a sort

Basically, two groups led the Dutch Resistance movement during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands in World War II--the Marxists and those the Dutch call "orthodox Protestant." I am of "orthodox Protestant" stock. My people--even though my own family was American, not Dutch long before May, 1940--were deeply involved in the Resistance.

Why? Researchers suggest the many Dutch Christian brotherhoods, the Gereformeerde (closest relative, the Christian Reformed Church in North America) took the Old Testament seriously. I don't doubt that assertion at all.

But then my own people have this cantankerous streak in their personality. They love to disagree, to argue, and to go their own way. We have a long history of breaking away, and if there's one thing we can't stand, it's authority that's too pushy. It makes sense that my people would take on Hitler--both on principle and personality.

In war, that I-will-not-be-bullied streak can be marvelously heroic. That my people were among the most active in the Dutch Resistance makes them most saintly.

In peace, however, those same character traits can make them impossible to live with. My people have suffered more bloody noses than a rugby team.

Last night I was told that a recent breakaway fellowship not all that far from here is suffering real problems. People are leaving that church, just as, not long ago, they up and left the CRC.

It's not at all sweet of me to chuckle, but I think God will spot me a smile or two. When folks make enemies of their brothers, once the brothers have disappeared, they're likely going to need new ones--enemies, that is. When the villains are gone, no one buries the rifles; they simply turn those rifles on themselves.

Church fights are a potent mix of personality and principle. Which of the two predominates is a question answered differently by the combatants, I'm sure.

Nonetheless, when a fellowship is accused of heresy by the truly righteous, it's nice to know such the accusers weren't as upright as they touted themselves, to know that personality likely played as significant role in the war as principle.

I'm not thankful for the problems in that new church--not really. But this morning, I am thankful to be reminded once again to be wary of those who are blessed sure they've got it all right.

None of us do (he said, smiling just a bit).

Saturday, June 28, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks

Sic transit gloria mundi

Basically, I caught two fish, and they were both juveniles--walleyes, that is. No pictures. Maybe a dozen perch, only two or three of which were worth cleaning. One catfish. Two bass, both also middle schoolers.

The weather wasn't perfect.

The mosquitoes were terrible. Going to sleep at night required the death of at least a half dozen, each of them whiny sirens in the darkness until finally they came to rest, often on my bald head. There I lay, slapping myself as if I have mad cow. They were so bad that you couldn't sit outside unless basted in Deep Woods Off.

Really, we've seen most of what there is to see here before. We were treading old ground all week long.

Cost me an arm and a leg and all I did was work on school work anyway.

Did I mention the fishing? It was lousy.

Today we're leaving Cry of the Loon and not returning. The owners are selling. We've spent five wonderful years here--once in summer, once in fall--and we're not ever coming back.

An epoch in our lives is over, ending last night on our 36th anniversary.

Oh well, it's a lousy place anyway. Home never looked so good.


This morning, I'm thankful for five great years, and sad--shoot, almost despondent--that we'll not return.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Pearl S. Buck and Me

I grew up in the shadow of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, a splinter denomination of the PCUSA who left the denomination in 1936 over issues that arose--or so it might be said--from theological modernism. The rule of thumb in the OPC can be summarized as sola scriptura, the already ancient doctrine of "scripture first." How do we determine a course of action when common sense or tradition or what's obvious is not sufficient? We bow to the authority of scripture.

To those who raised the banner of sola scriptura, the ship of state in the PCUSA was listing badly because of all manner of doctrinal heresy--for instance, leaders who questioned the virgin birth. One of those leaders was the daughter of Chinese missionaries who had returned to China herself, married a missionary himself, and settled there, a woman named Pearl S. Buck.

It was her birthday yesterday. In 1936, when the OPC left the PCUSA, Pearl S. Buck was just between major literary prizes. Her The Good Earth had won the Pulitzer in 1932, a year after that book's publication. In 1938, she would win the Nobel Prize. She was, in other words, something of a household word.

I wasn't born until 1948, and I've never read The Good Earth. One reason for my not reading it--my wife read it when she was a girl--was that the name Pearl S. Buck lives in a kind of infamy in my heart because I grew up in the shadow of the OPC.

The undeniable leader of the OPC and other splinter groups during the fundamentalism-modernist controversies of the 1930s was a Princeton theologian named J. Gresham Machen, a star in his own right. Machen led forces who sought to reform the PCUSA by demanding the ruling powers purge their mission lists of modernists--like Pearl S. Buck.

When I read about her birthday yesterday, I thought of the significant way in which she influenced my life--by providing a mission for a group of disenchanted members of the PCUSA to depart from their denomination and form a new one, the OPC, creating fierce loyalty and commitment, as such rebellions always do. When I say I grew up in the shadow of the OPC, I grew up in a town where men and women remembered fiercely the day their pastor, a conservative, walked right out of church in front of the worshippers and told all those who believed as he did to follow. Most did. Breaking away--my own denomination also did years earlier--creates sharp elbows and clears up muddy ambiguities. For a moment in time, we truly believe we know what we're talking about.

While I don't doubt that many a member of the OPC didn't think much about any of that yesterday, on Pearl S. Buck's birthday, I certainly did. To me, she will always be associated with a story I know only second hand--and the word heresy.

Machen died soon after the General Assembly of 1936, a tremendous loss, I'm sure, to both organizations.

Interestingly, in a note in the New Republic, Pearl S. Buck eulogized Machen this way: "We have lost a man whom our times can ill spare, a man who had convictions which were real to him and who fought for those convictions and held to them through every change in time and human thought. There was power in him which was positive in its very negations. He was worth a hundred of his fellows who, as princes of the church, occupy easy places and play their church politics and trim their sails to every wind, who in their smug observance of the convictions of life and religion offend all honest and searching spirits. No forthright mind can live among them, neither the honest skeptic nor the honest dogmatist I wish Dr. Machen had lived to go on fighting them."

It's clear she was more of an anthropoligist than a theologian, more of a novelist than a idealogue.

Just thought I'd tell that story. It's time I read The Good Earth.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Bog Blog

On a cloudy, overcast day, we visited an out-of-the-way place called Big Bog, sometimes dubbed the last American wilderness. For good reason. I'm not sure anyone could walk around there, much less live.

Big Bog is a steeply humped 500 square mile old mattress. Its fecundity is almost mind-bending. Water seeps into the place from nearby Red Lake and sits. And sits. And sits. Whatever lives there--we're in far northern Minnesota, by the way--has adapted (or has been created for) life in a deep, wet swamp.

The word swamp makes me think of wetlands. Big Bog isn't wetlands. The "land" (so to speak) is little more than a huge sponge--a huge, rotted sponge. It would be impossible to walk on, unless you're a moose. I was hoping to see one, but that would have been the kind of blessing one gets only once or twice in life. No moose, but a frog.

Years ago, white folks tried to drain it, but they didn't understand rudimentary facts about Big Bog. It's not just wet land; it's wet sponge--and sponges don't drain either.

So it remains "wilderness," true wilderness. There's no one out there except those who travel the roads that run through it--and those who walk on the mile-long walkway laid a mile into the bog, the one we walked yesterday.

All of which is not to say that there is no life out there in Big Bog. I took some pictures. It's a strange, haunting place, but not without its beauty.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

More Fear of Change

Gary Hart, the former Colorado senator and one-time Presidential candidate whose partying got him a quick ticket home, has an interesting op-ed in the NY Times this morning. In it he gives his own take why it is that so many of us suffer the strange cultural vertigo that results in 80+% telling researchers that the country is somehow on the wrong track.

Hart says the answer is simple: we're entering a new age. He cites historian Arthur Schleisinger, who used to say that the pendulum swings in thirty year cycles. The era of FDR, of big government, he says, ran from the 30s to the late 60s, when it was slowly but finally erased by the Reagan era's conservatism.

Today, he says, that conservatism has run its course. Seems to me, it has, despite the pronouncements of Limbaugh or James Dobson. But the old Democratic platform is also dead in the water--nobody can run on the "tax and spend" platform and win either. Hart says both positions are yesterday's paradigms.

Here's how Hart uses Schleisinger: "Noting the power of 'custom and fear,' and 'of orthodoxy and of complacency,' Schlesinger believed that 'the subversion of old ideas by the changing environment' would give a new leader the best chance to create a new cycle of reform and innovation."

Hart, a Democrat, says Obama is precisely placed to take advantage of that "changing environment."

Whether or not it's Obama is your choice. But Hart is right, I think, in saying we're now living in a "changing environment." Things have changed, immensely, in the last four years; witness, simply the phenomenon of gas prices which have skyrocketed. Yet, no one believes they'll ever halve again. We live in a new world.

Hart says nobody has a crystal ball; no one knows what the dimensions of this new era. But he lays out his perceptions by noting three specific issues. First, "National security requires a new, expanded, post-cold-war definition." After Iraq, this country is not about to play Marshall Dillon for the world again.

Second, Hart says "America must transition from a consumer economy to a producing one." I'm not at all sure of what specifically that means, but I'd like to know.

Finally, Hart claims that the new political order must come to grips with this obvious reality: "the moral obligations of our stewardship of the planet must become paramount."

Whether or not he's right about all of this, I don't know. What I find most interesting is his explanation of why so many of us are not hopeful about our cultural and national future: we don't know where we're going, how to get there or why things have to change at all. And all of that is scary. Hence, the numbers.

Count me among the wary.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Less and More

Seems to me we're afloat in a sea of scary statistics, one of which is someone's determination, based on a survey, that just 17% of us (12% according to a similar poll) believe the nation we are a part of is moving in the wrong direction. Ronald Reagan once said, famously, that facts are stupid things, and, in a way, he wasn't wrong. The facts, in this case, are likely fare more complex than the numbers.

The question begged by the poll numbers is just exactly what would those 83% believe to be "the right direction"? I'm not at all sure, but I'm guessing that many answers would include the word "more" and certainly not "less."

Thousands of acres of Iowa corn have been devastated by flooding, sure to mean higher prices at the grocery store. No one believes that gas prices are going to drop anytime soon, and the economy is sputtering, it seems. Things aren't looking good--if good means a robust economy and pockets full of spending money.

Ben Franklin's Autobiography is instructive for many reasons, one of which certainly is for the emphasis he not only proposed but embodied--that is, the all-American belief that any one of us with sufficient pluck and elbow grease can go from rags to riches, as he did. We can all share in the good life. It's engrained within us, the appetite for "more." Yet, it's pretty tough these days to believe that "more" is really possible.

Capitalism is built on the premise of more and more spending--what's good for General Motors is good for America, and all of that. I'm wondering, this morning, if the golden rule of American life--communicated wonderfully by Madison Avenue--isn't do unto others, only when you're comfortable yourself. Comfortable, of course, is also a relative term.

It's very difficult to perceive that our present national doldrums will reverse soon, that what's in my pocket and pocket book will fatten. Wall Street would like us all to believe that, of course, because if we suddenly morph into a nation of savers and not spenders, the kings of economic prosperity will lose some of their power. And, they'd say, we'll all suffer. But then, suffer is a relative term too.

It could well be that all of will have to cut back, not by choice but by necessity. The question that we all will face then is how to define happiness or joy or, as the first psalm says, being "blessed," without resorting to the modifier more.

Can a nation, a society, a culture, adjust its perception of happiness? Don't know the answer to that, but it's clear--if the facts aren't stupid things--that we're having trouble right now.

My wife and I sent our children to a private, Christian high school twelve miles away from where we live. After the kids' first year, it became highly unfashionable for them to take mass transportation--the school bus. When our oldest faced that humiliation, we caved, bought a second car. Today, the parking lot at that Christian high school (there's some irony there, too, of course) is chocked full; the humiliation factor hasn't changed in the years that have passed. My wife says we'll know we're in a different world when parents of students at the high school my children attended stop caving and demand their 10th, 11th, and 12th graders suffer the humiliation of having to ride the bus, public transportation. We'll know things have changed, she says, when the parking lots at that Christian high school kick up nothing but dust in prairie wind.

Reality may well feel humiliating in the future. Can we adjust? That's the question. Will we be able to say we're moving in the right direction when we're faced with the stubborn truth that more happiness may well be derived from less things, less toys.

In America, it's hard not to believe that god isn't the almighty dollar. But then, one needs only to see the bare facts: the almighty dollar has already fallen.

Can we make more of less? Ay, there's the rub.

I think I know the should here. Last night's scripture reading was Matthew 6, where the truth is painfully evident. "All this time and money wasted on fashion—do you think it makes that much difference? Instead of looking at the fashions, walk out into the fields and look at the wildflowers. They never primp or shop, but have you ever seen color and design quite like it? The ten best-dressed men and women in the country look shabby alongside them."

The question is, can I really live like the flowers of the field? Knowing and doing are all too often two different things.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Morning Thanks--Loons

A Year of Morning Thanks

It's a duragatory epithet, I believe--who'd really want to be called a loon? Yet, they're remarkably cat-like, or at least they seem to be. They're curious, but never at their own expense. Nobody kids about loons having nine lives because they lack the silly bravado cats have. Nonetheless, they'll shine around, as they did this morning, if they seem willing to risk the neighborhood.

Worthless on land, I guess, but in the water they're champs. Sometimes when I try to pull up beside them, they leave quickly, head underwater, leaving no trace behind. They could turn up anywhere, it seems. Must have lungs like a buffalo.

They're beautifully painted, really. John Updike's story "Pigeon Feathers" says the translucence of a pigeon prove there is a God. Wonder if Updike ever saw a loon close up. . .

. . .as I did this morning. Not a walleye in the boat, but this guy just about got in a rode along for awhile. What a blessing.

This morning, I'm thankful for loons.

Saturday, June 21, 2008


Two years ago today--approximately--on our way to a northern Minnesota cabin, at a gas station in Sinclair Lewis's hometown, I paid $1.99 for gas. I remember because I wrote it down. In fact, I even took a picture of the stub--I couldn't believe it.

Last night, the night before the same trip, I filled up with gas at the Co-op downtown--$4.04. Twice as much and another record.

Years ago, in Europe, I remember paying tons of money for gas and thinking that we in the States should be paying more too. We were in Amsterdam, where most people simply assume fewer vehicles means a higher the quality of life. Strange.

I'm going to claim some righteousness here. I live two blocks from work, two blocks from church, four blocks from the bakery, and a goodly bike ride from Wal-Mart. As consumers of fossil fuels go, we do not gorge. Of course, we live in Iowa, where, often enough, the winters are colder and the summers hotter than most places under the sun. So much for righteousness.

This year it will cost us twice as much to drive to Walker, Minnesota; but it's our only vacation, so what the heck. I'm happy to be going. Not happy to be paying such high gas prices, but, like everyone else these days, conditioned to know it's not just some kind of spike. Most of us think we're at four bucks to stay--well, if the price doesn't go up.

For quite a long time, this country had a sweet deal going. No more. There will be some adjustments ahead. I hope we have the wherewithal to get through them.

A couple weeks ago, some Texas oil company named Hyperion caught a break from local people when a town or county just across the river in South Dakota voted to allow the construction of a huge new oil refinery to process and distribute Canadian oil. Big employment boost for the region, but, as my friend says, "old solutions to new problems." Off-shore drilling?--sure; but our problem begins with being, as George W. himself has said, "addicted to oil" in this country.

I feel the preacher in me, which is dangerous. Besides, it's time to go--time to get in the car and go, which is to say time to get in the car, burn gas, and go. Tonight yet, at dusk, I'll be all by lonesome in a little Lund, fishing--me and the worms. Yeah, the boat has a gas motor.

Call me junkie.

Friday, June 20, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks

Getting Away

Yesterday, I killed a thousand maples. A million kamikaze helicopters had bivouacked on our lawn, ejected their seedling pilots, and found places between the blades of grass in the rich Iowa soil. With enough moisture and sun, they'd blossomed into tiny trees, thousands of them, an invasion. Yesterday, I mowed them down, all of them. Well, maybe all of them. Like I said, there were thousands.

Last week I hit a deer, did a thousand dollars' worth of damage to our car, and ruffled my feathers for awhile; but she picked herself up after an ungainly somersault in the road and traveled on. She lived. Between here and Lake Michigan last week, we must have seen a dozen dead deer who didn't. Many of them, I'm sure, created body shop bills much greater than ours.

Last week my son-in-law hit a mother pheasant and her several young along the country road. Thank goodness their kids weren't watching or the fluffle of feathers would give them nightmares for a fortnight.

Life and death. Life and death. Our lawn is managed this morning, even if a thousand maples are dead--or at least I hope they are. Some western Wisconsin hunter won't get a pheasant in some October down the line; and someplace, somewhere right now, some driver, I'm sure, is banging his or her fist against the wheel, a crumpled deer kicking madly in the ditch.

Life and death. We all live in the neighborhood, but with three ninety-old-parents we likely live closer than we ever have before. Our proximity doesn't fit any more comfortably than it ever has. Its cloudiness overshadows us constantly. We watch and wait, watch and wait, almost ritually--always wishing and praying for the best without knowing exactly what the best really is.

Such a thin line separates joy from sorrow in this life of ours, agony from joy.

Tomorrow begins our annual week in northern Minnesota, a chance to get away. A silly idea, of course, since our concerns will be packed along without requiring an extra bag. I hope nothing surprising jumps unseen from the side of the road and into our path.

Nonetheless, for a week, we'll be alone and afar. Really, we're not leaving anything or entering a fantasy, just getting away, just for a week, just for a rest.

And I'm thrilled and greatly thankful this morning.

When we get back, the lawn will be full of more tiny maples, but even a week away will be, I'm sure, a blessing.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks

Big projects done

Most of my writing projects these days are major--they take a ton of time and thought, moreso, it seems, than when I was younger. There may well be more molassis in my veins--things just move more slowly.

Since school's been out, I've been working on a major essay that was, once finished, far too blasted long to get published. Like an old preacher, once I start talking I just don't stop--it's another one of those aging things maybe.
Anyway, I was wrong. Received word yesterday that the magazine would run the thing in two parts, two issues--I'm thrilled.

Way back when, I learned by simple experience that writing is a good, good thing for a ton of reasons, one of which is that the process itself explains to me what I really believe. That's not an odd assessment; tons of writers say the same thing, most famously, perhaps, Flannery O'Connor, who says, somewhere in Mystery and Manners, that she really doesn't know what she thinks until she writes.

That kind of exploration of self is both mysterious and fulfilling, and this big essay of mine helped me greatly to make clear all kinds of things I've been experiencing and thinking about and reading about in the last year. Now it's finished. Now I know.

So this morning I'm thankful for one sweet acceptance. All such acceptances are huge, it seems, even though I've been at this writing thing for years.

But I'm also thankful that I'm delivered of a lengthy project that's helped me figure out difficult and often contrary ideas in a way that makes sense to me--and, I hope, to readers. For those who don't know the feeling, trust me: that's a blessing.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks


I voted for George W. Bush--the first time. He seemed to be a guy I'd like to take fishing. Besides, he appeared to be a strong Christian, someone with a past that wasn't always as admirable as others', but someone who'd come a considerable distance in his life, a man who could look back and grimace, yet look back and smile too, confident in his salvation.

But then, I've got Republican DNA. My father was the town mayor, a red-blooded Republican who seemed all too ready to condemn Dems as demons. I trust power. I come from power. I've got Republican genes.

But then, I also voted for McGovern in '72, when he got whacked by Nixon. I marched against the Vietnam war and all of that, so I've got my own story.

I soured on George W. very quickly and wouldn't have voted for him the second time around if he'd been the only name on the ticket. No matter how you cut it, Iraq was a lie--and then mismanaged. Bush is an idealogue who surrounded himself with loyalty and really didn't care about expertise or even wisdom. He believed too strongly in his own instincts. His faith was too often blind.

I live in a neighborhood where Republicanness is next to Godliness, the only congressional district, I'm told, where Bush suffered no losses the second time around. People here are evangelical Christians, and they liked Bush--"a praying man," my mother used to say. They trusted him, deeply. Some, I'm sure, still do.

He's in Europe on his last lap right now, and few--here or there--seem to care. He's been upstaged by wild presidential politics here at home, by a young African-American who Europeans love, even though they know him less fully than do any of us. George W is yesterday's bad news. Soon enough, he'll retire to Texas in sheer silence. In the mind of most Europeans, he'll always be "the festive cowboy," a pistol-toting, joke-cracking, wiseacre, with an odd mean streak and a penchant for begging fights and big-mouthing. To most Americans, he's become an embarrassment.

History has a way of righting what's been dumped and spilling what's been carried along too neatly. Maybe George W will rise mightily, as did Harry Truman. Maybe Bin Laden's forces will take down Las Vegas, and we'll all rearm ourselves for "the war on terror." Maybe he was right about Iraq, about global warming, about the "axis of evil."

I doubt it. Out here in Bush country, maybe his greatest sin was in deluding so many good people into thinking that all we needed really in this country was just a little more prayer. With his approval ratings at 27% and 84% of the American public believing that as a nation we're on the wrong track, George W. Bush looks pretty much like a loser.

But then, maybe Dick Cheney is right about everything.

I don't think so.

And I like our choices--Obama and McCain. This morning, I'm thankful for change.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks

Toddlers and their great-grandmas

My mother, who's almost 90 years old, loves nothing quite so much as pictures of her tiniest great-grandchildren--well, make that great-great-grandchildren, because she has one of those too. My mother-in-law, who's in hospice care, and 88, is just as simply pleased. Birthdays are always a problem for us because there is no thing they need or want anymore; things are quite useless actually. But give them pictures--anytime--and they love 'em.

My mother will love this shot of her great-grandson sitting on the beach, his first visit to the ocean. I wish I could be there when she sees it because she'll shed her worries as if they were merely annoyance, lose herself in the soft body lines of a child she loves, even though she lives thousands of miles away and has never seen or held him in the flesh. Other than my love, this picture is the absolute best present I could give her, anytime of year.

Children remind us of innocence and possibilities, even their sweet, fleshy backs. There's no face on this picture at all, but she won't need a face to get high--all she'll see is that darling little child-like pudginess and she'll smile for most the morning.

In so many ways, children are a gift--to this little boy's dad, who couldn't snap enough pictures of his son in the sand; to this little boy's grandma, who won't be able to choose which of those pics to hang; to his great-grandma, who will savor the lines of this soft little body for most of the day; and even to me, who simply by sending the picture gets to orchestrate a goodly chunk of all this joy.

The little boy will leave the beach soon, of course. He won't always be this cute--not to his parents for sure.

But this morning, I'm thankful for my nephew's little boy, whose world is still so small he has no idea how much happiness he brings those who love him, merely by sitting on a beach.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Lake Michigan dawn

A Year of Morning Thanks

Sweet Reprimands

It was a textbook wedding--nothing gaudy or gauche, everything in good order, befitting a conservative congregation of country folks. A note in the program asked people not to take flash pictures, and, as if that weren't enough, the preacher began the service with a similar warning. Struck me as being just slightly on the fascist side, but in an age of "anything goes," a little constraint sometimes feels really good. Besides, I didn't need to use the flash on my camera to get a few shots.

I'm told that male balet dancers are instructed, always, to adore their primadonnas with their eyes--never to take them from their partners, as if to focus everyone's attention on the sheer beauty before them. Honestly, I don't know what my nephew looked like because my own eyes--and I dare say everyone's--were so entirely focused on the bride, who looked so adoringly at her husband-to-be that for one minute there it seemed like marriage, in our culture, simply couldn't be in trouble. There were few flowers in the church, no decorations to speak of, but the effect of that young lady's adoration for her husband entirely filled the sanctuary with sheer beauty--I swear it.

And I got some shots, including this one, one of the few moments when she wasn't entirely focused on her husband. The two of them, and the pastor, were praying.

My six-year-old granddaughter, who was sitting on my wife's lap, roundly scolded me for my irreverancy--snapping pictures during prayer. But then, she was watching me, I guess. That makes her a sinner too, although I think the Lord will forgive her long before he forgives me :).

Such reprimands I take graciously. But, compounding my sin, I'm adding the offending picture. Don't tell her.

'Twas a beautiful wedding. Made me wish I was young again.

My granddaughter has forgiven me, too.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks

For life--simply, mysteriously

Last night, not all that far from here, several dozen Boy Scouts were out hiking, even though the weather wasn't looking all that good. They were camping at a somewhat remote place in the Loess Hills, halfway between Sioux City and Omaha. It's likely they were out of range of sirens that have become an essential part of the early warning system of every hamlet. They likely never knew what hit them.

This morning, four are dead and a few dozen more are injured. A tornado--one of many that dropped from a rigid line of thunderstorms that passed through the area--destroyed the camp and the trees that it once stood in. A few of the early reports indicate that, for all practical purposes, the camp is gone. So are four kids.

Throughout the central states, tornados have become all-too-frequent guests this spring, a record number--from Texas to Michigan, in fact. Last night, they touched down south of us, east of us, and north of us--but not here. That is, not directly here. Our house--like the town we live in--is soggy with far too much rain, but everyone has a roof and no one is gone.

It's all too easy to say I'm thankful for not being blown away; in a way, it goes without saying. Tomorrow, we're off to Wisconsin for a wedding. On the way we'll pass Wisconsin Dells, where Lake Delton is simply gone, rising waters--too much rain--having taken out a levee; yesterday, the media's favorite video clip was a huge house falling into a rushing river.

I am--I'm thankful we've not been affected, thankful that this basement office, like the house above it, still sits in relative peace and good order on the corner of a city block, and the only mess worth complaining about is a lawn littered with a thousand scratchy branches that will cost me a sore back to clean up.

Our kids are leaving a day ahead of us, pulling out this morning, planning to stay at a water park in the Dells tonight. They're all fine--we're all fine.

Maybe it's a bit of survivor's syndrome, the haunting question of why a couple of Boy Scouts and not us? Don't know. What might God have had against a Boy Scout campout--if indeed he had anything to do with it at all?

There's just so much we don't know.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks

Just different

I'll admit it--one of my favorite places in the world is a swap meet. Love 'em. Have for years. There aren't any around here, so when I'm in some city like Phoenix, a place I know where to find them, I'll show up. Even if I don't buy a thing, the gallery of folks who hawk their blessed junk are themselves worth the price of admission.

Not long ago, I was the only white guy--give or take a half-dozen--at a swap meet in Gallup, New Mexico, and the experience was, well, different. All alone amid what seemed a thousand Navajo, I was conscious of myself in ways I almost never am. Odd phenomenon, but good for the soul.

This morning, NY Times columnist Maureen Dowd claims that Michelle Obama is already in the cross-hairs of conservative talk show heros. Some people, Dowd says, may well have more trouble perceiving a black woman as first lady than a black man as first man. Don't know, but it too is interesting.

Race is not only about them (whoever they are), it seems, it's also very much about us (whoever we are). I'm not sure anyone who claims he or she is unconscious of it is ever telling the truth. The fact is, race makes a difference. Last spring, accompanying a choir of kids who were half-Native, I went into schools I would likely not have entered if those Native kids weren't along. They opened doors I would have never entered.

Barack Obama is, after months of bruising battles, the presumptive nominee (as he's called) of the Democratic Party. On a night that now seems eons ago, I walked across a elementary school gym floor to gather with other Obama supporters in the Iowa caucuses. I've been sympathetic to his cause for months, and I'm happy he's the standard bearer.

For white America, it's going to be, well, different (a hedgy but familiar Midwestern qualifier) to have a black President and a black first lady. But it's worth remembering too that Obama, should he be elected, will, simply on the basis of who he is, walk into places where other candidates, even Presidents, could never enter.

"Christmas at the White House," starring Michelle Obama. Ought to be lovely. She's a kid from Chicago's south side, as American as apple pie. Just different. Yeah, well, different.

Sometimes it's dang good to experience things that are, well different, like a walk in a Saturday morning Gallup swap meet.
This morning, I'm thankful for change.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

from A Year of Morning Thanks

Glimpses of Heaven

Some people say we see glimpses of heaven in those fleeting moments that somehow touch the soul. Abraham Kuyper used to say just that. His book of meditations, Near Unto God, almost used the reality as a premise--we stay near unto God by moments of divinity. Kuyper, the godfather of my tribe, undoubtedly had a mystical side.

A couple of years ago at an Ascension Day worship, we were in church, a community service, lots of people, when unexpectedly, to me at least, some Laotians walked in and sat in front of us. I knew several of them, having written their stories. I knew where they'd been, what they'd been through--I knew they were not just anybody else in a small Iowa town. They had their own incredible stories.

We were singing some great hymn—maybe “Rejoice, the Lord is King” or something—and I could have been cut down at the knees. I couldn’t sing, got all bleary-eyed, in fact. There we were, worshipping together. Just blew me away.

Wherever they happen, I’m thankful for those moments of heaven.

Last week, out on the Great Plains, I experienced some of those glimpses of heaven, too, in the endless expanse of creation, shiny and emerald with all the rain, even the Badlands.

It's difficult to lose oneself in life because it's not hard to be so burdened with one's own weighty concerns that seeing anything outside of the silhouette of one's own life is almost impossible. I'm thankful, this morning and always, for those moments when we can and do lose ourselves in some larger world, in those glimpses of heaven we're simply blessed to perceive, no matter where we are--in a church or a wheat field, anywhere at all, even the Badlands.

Monday, June 09, 2008

from A Year of Morning Thanks

Wild Flowers

It’s that time of year when our perennials are beginning to bloom, and it’s always a great show. The day lilies are just about to start, even though the cool, damp weather has put almost everything a couple of weeks behind.

The flowers on native prairie are not as showy as the ones we pick out from Wal-Mart—not as effusive; wild flowers are an old, staid hymn up against the showy praise-and-worship hipsters on our yards. But not long ago, on lovingly pastured land, I walked amid the glorious bounty God brings to joy every season on acres few of us see.

The yuccas were finished blooming, but the cone flowers were an absolute delight, gracing the pasture like pastel jewelry.

I love the hybrid beauties beginning to shout their glorious color in our backyard, but I’m thankful that good friends have taught me to love the more subdued beauties out in the wild because I think it's often an even greater blessing to walk in prairie grasses.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks

Counting coup/counting bucks

In a book titled Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation, Jonathan Lear explains exactly what the death of a culture means to a people. He begins by quoting a memoir by the Crow chief Plenty Coups, who was talking to a biographer. "I can think back and tell you much more of war and horse-stealing. But when the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them again. After this, nothing happened."

"Nothing happened."

Lear speculates that what Plenty Coups meant by that haunting line is that, for him at least, the demise of his traditional Crow culture was, in a way, the end of history. Plenty Coups did indeed have a life after that moment, but the biographer, Frank B. Linderman, a trapper, hunter, and cowboy, who lived close to the Crows in Montana, claims that at that point, the story Plenty Coups was telling him simply ended: "Linderman says he was unable to get Plenty Coups to talk about anything that happened after the Crow were confined to a reservation." It was as if life stopped, even though it hadn’t.

What Lear does is try understand what that line meant, not by digging more deeply into the biography of Plenty Coups or even studying American history, but by thinking through the death of a culture.

Central to his investigation is the Crow tradition of "counting coups," a tradition in the warrior society that became the means by which young men attained stature and station. The coup stick had at least two purposes in Crow society. First, when planted in the ground, coup stick demarcated an area, a line-in-the-sand, from which the warrior could not—at any cost, even his life—retreat; second, it was the weapon by which "counting coup" was accomplished, an assortment of behaviors by which the warrior touched or stung or hit the enemy first, without being similarly struck himself. These events became the stuff of stories at night, when the hostilities ceased. More importantly, they became the means by which men measured their daring, their courage, and, in a very moral way, their value to the community.

Lear does Anglo reader invaluable service by opening up the rituals that surrounded use of coup sticks so to understand the behavior of the warriors, not simply as violent acts, but the means by which value is adduced and attributed within the culture. Counting coup is not simply recreational or even simply an indicator of battle prowess. Counting Coup, he shows, was the means by which morality was the means by which morality was measured and defined in the society.

Life on the reservation meant an end to the institutional violence which characterized Crow and other Plains Indian cultures. Suddenly, the coup stick, which was, in many ways, the measuring stick for moral behavior and moral character, had no meaning whatsoever. In short, Lear says, with an end to traditional life among the Crow, "The planting of the coup stick has ceased to be an intelligible act—in the sense that there are no longer viable ways of doing it. The only ways of living forward with it are retrospective: one can remember it, recount its history, dramatize it at a powwow, mourn its loss. But as things now stand, there is nowhere to plant it. Without living possibilities, it can no longer live as a coup-stick."

No one has made more clear to me that meaning often attributed to the entire march of Anglo people westward than Lear has in his book. If any society loses its central measurement for morality--both personal and communal--that society loses, in essence, its very culture.

For months since I first read Lear's book, I've tried to find the correct analogy to American society. For a time, I thought it would be the Bible--and it very well might be for some Americans, those, like me, who believe in the eternal value of the Word. For others, perhaps it would be sports--professional athletes earning higher salaries than most of the highest ranking CEOs.

This week, while traveling through Lakota country, we were talking about that idea when my colleague quickly and easily pointed out that the analogy I was looking for, really, was nothing more or less than the almighty dollar.

The dollar--more than the Bible or sports or celebrity--is the currency of our own moral exchange. What we value and how we value it is a function of our economics. Maybe Marx wasn't wrong.

So here's how I'm thinking this through: if we were suddenly to lose our currency, our culture, as we know it at least, would die. And we white folks would flounder. After hundreds of years of living with the dollar as the center of our consciousness, it would undoubtedly take some time for us to determine how on earth we should live.

So this morning, after several days in Crazy Horse country, far from any internet connection, I'm thankful for my colleague's help in thinking this through, thankful that today I understand myself, my world, and my values--as well the story of Native life--at least a little bit better.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks

Great Plains Greetings II

What the man said was, “Let the buffalo be a buffalo.” What he meant was, when we attempt to make the buffalo into, say, a Hereford, you’re going to mess with Mother Nature’s most perfectly adapted, Great Plains four-legged creature and make him or her into something he isn’t. The man was perfectly pure when it came to husbanding his own beloved herd of bison, feeding them little but grasses, leaving the bulls in with the cows throughout the year, treating them with the kind of sweetness that he insisted builds trust between man and beast. Buffalos will do a wondrous job of teaching their young how to be buffalos, he said, if you allow them to do it. Not only that, but they’re the best mothers in the world, he said—and not without some passion. He called them—honestly, he did—to our straw bale seats on a flatbed. Honestly.

It was just about a perfect day on a 5000-acre organic buffalo ranch in the middle of Nebraska, a place with bountiful herds of goats and llamas and cattle. The rancher was almost messianic in his insistence on playing the game with the rules of Great Plains, which to him were the rules of God, not the rules of the marketplace.

I’m not about to take on his theories. Besides, when you sojourn out here on the Great Plains at all, it’s not hard to offer an amen when a man like this buffalo rancher says the buffalo is a wonder because the white man hasn’t really been able to screw him up. The most powerful story of the Plains, after all, is the Dust Bowl era saga, which is a story created not by the creator, but by the creature, us, when we decided that there were bucks to be made by sewing wheat on land that should never have felt the plow.

I’ll leave natural science to the biologists and ecologists, but I’m not so sure the rule applies to humankind. If I read my history right, lots of pueblo Indians hated the Navajo, who were raiders and thieves for hundreds of years of their mutual history in the Southwest. Here, too, the Lakota used to regularly kick the crap out of the Pawnee, just for the fun of it. If we (meaning the white man) had simply “let the Indian be Indian,” we would have had to tolerate the terrors of institutional violence which stood at the very heart of Lakota culture. I feel deep sadness in the Black Hills because of what they meant to the Lakota and how we (white people) took them away in a quest for the almighty gilded dollar, a few ounces of gold. But the Black Hills once belonged to other Native peoples; the Lakota were relative newcomers, having displaced others themselves.

Simply to have the freedom to think about things in new ways is a joy—I swear it. And I come out of yesterday’s wonderful experience on the buffalo ranch with a smile that grows from a line I won’t easily forget: “Let the buffalo be buffalo.”

I don’t know that I buy it, but it’s been a joy to think about ever since.

At night we visited a local evangelical enterprise, where, once again, we were thrilled by enthusiasm and faith—three local pastors, all Lakota, two men and one woman told us about the joy of their faith. One of them talked about being saved from chronic alcoholism by singing “The Old Rugged Cross,” so we sang it with him. Sweet. You listen, sing the doxology, give thanks, and go out with joy.

We’ll see what today brings. How can one not be thankful?

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks

Great Plains Greetings I

A dozen years ago or more, my wife and son and I visited South Africa, at a time when the entire country was still in the honeymoon afforded by the end of apartheid and Mandela’s miraculous ascension to power in that gorgeous but immensely troubled last. All during the two-week stay we met people who were simply unconscionably welcoming. It was amazing. Men and women—most of the Afrikaners—absolutely loved to be visited, to be noticed, to be acknowledged. They’d just come out of the dark ages of apartheid and had shed, finally, the mantle of distrust and even hatred that that racist system had laid upon them since mid-century. The truth is, they loved being visited.

I think of them frequently on what has become this annual visit out to the Great Plains, not because life out here has just now tossed off some repugnant political regime, but because, like South Africans, people out here just love being visited—really, just being noticed. Doesn’t happen much because—let’s face it—the rural Midwest, east or west of the Missouri River, simply isn’t on anyone’s ten-most with-it places to visit over summer vacation.

It’s really a shame. Today we listened to a man explain what he dreamed to be the future of a century-old Roman Catholic mission enterprise on the Rosebud Reservation. He spared nothing in his explanation either, citing incredible suicide rates and his own perception that just about every family he knew was somehow affected—many of them deeply—by alcoholism. But listening to him talk about the future, what it might hold, was inspiring and a blessing. I think he wanted people to hear, to listen.

Then on to another century-old community, a small rural church in the middle of the widest expanse of Great Plains terrain one could imagine. We heard tales of grasshoppers and dust storms, but we also heard a woman talk about her dreams of community building between Anglo and Native peoples right there on the reservation. Once again we were inspired.

Then the church folks spread a meal that you would have paid fifty bucks a plate for in any city worth its marketing—nothing but the very best steaks in dedicated beef country. Plus fixins—unbelievable.

I don’t know a way in which one could mass produce such vacation packages. In some ways, it’s likely easier to go to the Swiss Alps or Rio or the Great Wall of China. There, people are professional, veteran tourist guides—they know how to pull it off. Here, at the places we visited today, people don’t really know how to put on a show.

And there—right there—lies the dramatic difference.

Today, on our vacation jaunt into the vast openness of the Great Plains, we ran some of the region’s Great People, who, single-handedly turned our little jaunt into spiritual pilgrimage.

I honestly think that both of us—guests and hosts—will sleep well tonight, encouraged and enriched. And for that, this morning, I’m thankful.

Monday, June 02, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks

Those Other Communities

Years ago, when our family spent some time out here in the Black Hills, I remember going deep into a cave somewhere south of Rapid City—don’t even remember the name. What I do remember is my wife’s fascination with the place, and my relative disinterest. If there was no sign of human activity, I really didn’t care much about what did or didn’t go on far underground. I do remember that at one of the rooms we visited, there was some scratches in the wall where some old spelunkers decided to commemorate their visit. That interested me. When we talked about it later on, the two of us determined that was a basic difference between us—my wife rather liked the science of things, the strange and magnificent stories of natural history. Me?—well, big deal.

Today we embark on a week-long expedition deep into fly-over country, the wide open promises of the Great Plains. Today we visit St. Francis, a missionary outpost on the Rosebud Reservation that was begun more than a century ago because Spotted Tail—the chief of the Brule Sioux—got really angry when he discovered that his kids, who were students at Richard H. Pratt’s Carlisle School, Carlisle, PA, were, without his knowing, baptized into the Episcopal Church. St. Francis is a Roman Catholic mission. Spotted Tail asked the black robes to come into his neighborhood because he was so bloomin' angry with the Episcopalians, who were slotted, by the government, to do their Christian thing on the Rosebud.

Got to love that story.

That’s a great story—not such a sweet one, but a very human story—of a community, well, two communities, I suppose, or three: the Brule Sioux, the Roman Catholics, and the Episcopalians.
But I’ll be traveling with a wise young flora and fauna expert, who will—as he has for the last four years on similar expeditions—tried to convince me that there are other communities out here on the Great Plains, biological and geological. Those caves have stories too; those communities have existence too. Just ask the meadowlarks, whose sharp territorial singing makes it very clear not only that they’re alive, but they have their own square inch of space in this immense world out here.

It just doesn’t come as naturally to me to be as interested. But last night, after a spirited lecture by my friend the flora and fauna guy, I’m reminded once more—I’m terribly hard-headed—to listen to the meadowlarks, to watch the antelope and the porcupine, the yucca and the big blue stem. I’m reminded that I may well be entirely too anthropomorphic—I think that’s the right word.

It’s a lesson I learn annually, even though I know it already when we start out on the opening day. I just have to be reminded.

Tomorrow, on our way to Spotted Tail’s St. Francis Mission, I’ll be blessed to take note of those other communities, those other stories, those other too-easy-to-forget members of this incredible world spun for his glory and joy by the Creator.

And for those communities, I’m thankful this morning. I just have to do a better job remembering, and seeing, and imagining.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

The Badlands Loop

Just a couple of shots from the Badlands Loop, in the evening, sun going down. Eerie, but beautiful.