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.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks

One gorgeous day

Easy enough. For what seems to be the eleventy-seventh day in a row, the sky is crystalline--aqua, turquoise, robin's egg blue. Perfect. There's a bit of an edge in the air, like a bite of a good apple, just enough to let you know that that bath in summer's warmth is history.

It's fall, arguably the best season to live in the rural Midwest. The weather is perfect, and the colors are sensational. Last week, to and from Wisconsin, I was slack-jawed at the palette of landscape--hardwoods just starting to turn, corn and beans flecked with gold, and all of that in a backdrop like the one just outside my window.

It's the kind of day when biblical injunctions come to mind--like toiling not, neither do they spin. It's the kind of fall day when to stay inside like this murders the spirit. It's the kind of day when I remind myself that I simply must--at all costs--keep a place in my soul for beauty and fill it every day (I think that's Pascal, actually). It's the kind of day that jumps through the window to remind you that you're just far too taken with the ways of a world that is, undoubtedly, too much with us.

Just to have these thoughts, just to let them run through my mind and heart and soul, just to entertain them for a minute or two--that alone is a blessing.

This morning's thanks are for nothing greater than one more beautiful day.

Monday, September 29, 2008


For years, my mother has lugged a pillow along any time we've gone almost anywhere. For years. I'm not lying. It's a huge square thing, covered in plastic, and it goes everywhere. She claims it's for pain in the posterior, which it incites among those closest to her, even as it alleviates her own. Often, wherever it goes, it stays--in restaurants, for instance. I should add that for years we've wondered whether she's honestly needed the pillow, whether her pained posterior wasn't some figment of her imagination. She's got something of a track record on that score, something of a history anyway. For years, that pillow has been a symbol of something, well, psychosomatic, you might say. It has earned skepticism for more than a quarter century.

So last week when I dropped her off at the home, it quite typically stayed behind. She left it in the car. Not a problem. I was going to see her again the next day--I could drop it off then. The next day, I called her from the car. Here's the conversation. I'm not kidding.

"Pull over," she says.

"I'm in the middle of traffic," I tell her. "I can't."

"Pull over," she says again, as if she's having a seizure.

"You'll have to tell me the problem, Mom," I said. "I can't pull over."

"Look in your back seat to see if my pillow is there," she commands.

That kind of thing.

So that night when we go out for a fish sandwich, she lugs the pillow into the restaurant, and takes it with her when we leave. I drop her off at the home, say goodbye--I'm going back to Iowa--and head on to the motel where I'm staying.

Now there are a few compounding factors. First, I've taken on a cold the way a sinking ship takes on water. I feel wasted, in fact, and I'm ready to hit that motel room and not be seen by another human being. Second, it's the night of the FIRST PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE, and I'm a junkie. I park the car at the motel, look to my right, and spot that blasted pillow beside me once more.

I've got no choice, really. Like nothing else I want to get out and retire to the debate and nurse my self-pity for the cold that's threatening a disaster. But I've got the pillow, and I'm going to leave early the next morning, when she's not yet up. I've got to bring it back or she'll call me when I'm somewhere around Albert Lea.

So I do, slavishly, angrily : I drive all the way back to the home, run it upstairs to her room, and don't find her there. She's watching the Brewers, I suppose, with someone else. Whatever. I head back to the motel. My mother's blame forgetfulness increases the temp of my fever.

Fifteen minutes, I'm finally back at the motel, having already missed the opening rounds of the debate. Finally. My head is full, my throat feels like cut glass, my nose is running--I just want to sit.

The light is flashing on my phone. I figure it's Mom, for sure. She's going to tell me to stop whatever it is I'm doing and be sure to return that precious pillow.

It's not Mom. It's the chair of the conference where I had to speak, the conference I've been a part of for the last two days.

"We've got your brief case," she says. "Not to worry. Just thought we'd let you know. You left it here."

I am my mother's son.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Presidential Fathers

An article titled "In the Father's House" in the Chronicle of Higher Education quite thoughtfully explained the unique role of fathers in the lives of our two Presidential candidates. What was of even more interest to me was that both candidates have written books about their fathers, and written those books long before they were Presidential candidates.

It goes without saying that books written by candidates while they are candidates are suspect--after all, the ulterior motive is humongous: they want to get elected. But both of these books were written long before McCain and Obama were nominated.

That having been said, the books looked especially interesting because of the obvious fact that their respective fathers were not ordinary dads. Obama's father, a Kenyan, left Hawaii and his son's life long before Barack could really know him. John McCain comes from a long line of admirals, his father a man given to sacrifice everything for honor and patriotism.

On the way to Wisconsin, I listened to a goodly chunk of Obama's Dreams from My Father and I discovered, I think, that a whole lot of America's problem with Obama--this sense that he's not "one of us:--is probably true because, well, he's not. Not only was his father absent, his mother was a dreamer, a small-town Kansan who wanted nothing quite so much as to put her small-town past comfortably in a rear-view mirror.

His grandfather is not put off by his daughter's quests, largely because he's similarly affected. Obama spends far less time with his grandmother, but it's clear that for a goodly portion of her life she was responsible for whatever stability was attainable in the house. By the end of his grandparents' working life, she was the one who was doing well.

But for Obama to sell the belief that he learned his humanity from his grandparents' small-town, Midwestern values seems to flat line on the truth-o-meter. If anything, his mother, his absent father, and his grandparents all wanted to run like the wind away from those values. If Obama wants to win on his family's story, he going to have to wring a different theme out of the narrative of his life.

It really is shocking how unique Obama's boyhood and parental legacy is. What I'm saying is, if he wants to pass himself off as "normal" on the basis of his childhood, it doesn't work--not if you read his own account of his story.

That having been said, I'm immensely impressed that was capable of being the human being he is today, given that story. Not only that, he's an immensely talented writer, who gives us far more content from his own unique past than I'm sure his handlers would allow him, were he to publish the book today. The book is a tremendous read.
But family-wise, even though we're not talking about despair or destitution, Obama's boyhood was colored deeply by a family life seems torn and shredded by the pronounced independence of father, mother, and grandfather. If he doesn't seem "normal," it's because he isn't.

But then, I'm not sure we want a "normal" President. Most of the American public would rather hang out with George W than windsurf with John Kerry. For eight years we've had an "ordinary guy" President. I suppose your opinion about whether or not you'd want another is predicated upon your opinion of the incumbent.

As for me and my house, I'm a little tired of "ordinary" guys.

McCain isn't ordinary either, of course. "The central themes of John McCain's young life were honor and privilege," the Chronicle article says. "Both father and grandfather placed their service to the Navy above their families, and with a tinge of regret, McCain acknowledges that he was slated for a similar career.'

John McCain is no ordinary guy. If the American public thinks he is, they're mistaken.

It seems to me--on the basis of their fathers--that neither of our Presidential candidates are "ordinary guys."

And, after the last eight years, I think that's a good thing.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks

Ancient Lakota Calvinists :)

Calvin says of Psalm 8 that the wonder of God's love is that he entrusts so much to us, his people. Animals give of themselves, he says--"horses and oxen yield their service. . .sheep produce wool and that all sorts of animals supply [us] with food."

He's right, of course. But then he says this: "The more this dominion is apparent, the more we ought to be affected with a sense of the goodness and grace of our God, as often as we eat food. . ."

More meat leaves Sioux County, Iowa, each week than almost any other county in Iowa--beef, pork, even chicken. In that gargantuan business I don't know that anybody--me included as consumer--looks at a rack of ribs, an Iowa chop, or rump roast and is "affected with a sense of the goodness and grace of our God."

History tells us the Lakota we displaced out here honored the buffalo both before and after the hunt. Of course, the image of the "noble savage" has a long and silly history in Anglo literature, but then sometimes I think pious Christians would just as soon not hear about piety among the heathen.

No matter. This morning, reading Calvin, I'm struck that those old Lakota buffalo hunters sound more like Calvinists than white folks here in the heart of corn-fed beef country, and that makes me smile.

And this morning, as every morning, I'm always thankful for smiles.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks


Twice in the last 24 hours I've fielded questions from students--completely different students--about why anyone might want to be an English major. This is what they ask: "If I were, what on earth would I do with it because I sure as heck don't want to teach."

Well, thanks.

And I've got to hem and haw and spew out ye olde humanities argument, older than the hills and not something all that much different than an argument for faith: getting an English major won't secure you any job (engineering is clear across campus), but an English major will make you some kind of warm and gentle human being--simply put, a better person.

The trouble with that argument is that it always turns sour in my heart even as the words come out, because if that were true, writers wouldn't off themselves like David Foster Wallace did last week, and professors of English and teachers of language arts would all be saintly, Disney-like creatures, which, of course, they're not.

It just feels like so much empty air, especially when college education costs a gadzillion dollars.

And then, just now, I read a little poem--this morning's Writers Almanac selection:


by Ronald Wallace

My father always knew the secret
name of everything--
stove bolt and wing nut,
set screw and rasp, ratchet
wrench, band saw, and ball--
peen hammer. He was my
tour guide and translator
through that foreign country
with its short-tempered natives
in their crewcuts and tattoos,
who suffered my incompetence
with gruffness and disgust.
Pay attention, he would say,
and you'll learn a thing or two.

Now it's forty years later,
and I'm packing up his tools
(If you know the proper
names of things you're never
at a loss) tongue-tied, incompetent,
my hands and heart full
of doohickeys and widgets,
whatchamacallits, thingamabobs.

And I send it out to one of my classes, who just ended a theme unit on heritage, roots, and rebellions, because this little gem is just sweet, don't you think? This poem is why I've been an English teacher all my life long, why I've never left the profession, why I go to work in the morning. You've just got to love it when words sing.

So this morning, I'm thankful for a little Ronald Wallace poem that came in as if out of nowhere, a little bit of heaven by way of one guy's trusting view of whatchamacallits in this often messy world.

Monday, September 22, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks

Death be not proud

She did it again--when our kids and grandkids came to visit on Sunday afternoon, she signed off by telling them that this very face-to-face could be the last time she'd ever see them on earth. That's never happened, obviously. She's given such benedictions before, several times, and then simply stuck around. If it wasn't so sad and, by its repitition, even a little humorous, I'm sure we would have been quite shaken when we left the home.

My mother-in-law has been in hospice care for more than a year now, and her nurse claims to be surprised she's still around. So is my mother-in-law. The first time she announced her immiment death was four Thanksgivings ago, when she told my son-in-law that she'd never make another Turkey Day. Her crystal ball is more than slightly opaque.

I'm guessing it sounds callous of me to talk about her and dying as I am, but, obviously, she's never been one to hesitate bringing up the issue. She's neither unduly morbid about it, nor depressed about her not going. She anticipates death's arrival, in fact. She is bed-ridden, has lost significant hearing and sight, and has that Iowa farm wife character that's always been way too quick to determine that she's being a burden. For a long time already she's been open about the fact that she'd much rather go.

When, recently, our friends tragically lost a grandson, I didn't even want to tell her the news for fear she'd be angry with God in not taking her instead. Last week a little boy collapsed at a school near here, collapsed and died--first grade, second grade, I'm not sure. Just died. Most often, it seems, death seems the cursed hooded, faceless figure that he is, wielding that giant scythe.

But when he finally comes for my mother-in-law, he may well resemble that proper gentleman Emily Dickinson perceived, the one who "kindly stopped for me," a suitor who reviews her life from a surrey and calmly takes her into timelessness.

We will miss her immensely, immensely, but she will be happy. That we know. She anticipates his arrival and her departure. That's why she speaks to our kids the way she does, telling them this may be the last time--because she will be happy. Maybe this time, that damnable death will himself respect the sacredness of human life.

This morning, for our family's assurance--and hers--that when finally it does happen, she will be joyfully carried into the Lord's strong arms--for that knowledge I'm thankful.

Friday, September 19, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks


'Tis the season for crickets. Happens every September, I think--somehow, someway, one or two or three or a half dozen slicky-slicky into the house and end up down here, in my basement study. Perhaps I could live with them if they didn't insist on screaming at the top of their wretched lungs. When they sound off, I feel like putting cotton in my ears. I'd whack them in a minute if I could find them.

We often say that we are blessed to live in our cat's house. He allows us convenient space to live and eat and have our being here, but rarely enters our lives, it seems. His domain is the living room, and as long as the weather is as warm as it is (ten degrees warmer than normal), we are merely accessories, as interesting, say, as a coffee table book. When it gets cold, he wanders in and warm human laps are called upon to keep off the chill.

He just left again--the basement, I mean. He comes with me and goes through a ritual of morning rounds when I come down in the morning. I have no idea why he needs me to come down the basement, but he regularly follows me in the darkness, itches himself on various items of furniture and mess, then heads back upstairs, where, quite likely, he simply goes back to sleep.

But he's got this thing for crickets, which is I deeply appreciate this time of year. He is as bothered by their infernal chirping as I am, so he seeks them out--this morning, beneath the workout walker. And often, he finds them, which is more than I can do.

Cats are merciless killers. Once he's trapped that stupid cricket, it's not lights out immediately--the pray becomes his devilish game. The art of torture, of course, is to keep the subject alive and suffering. Cats know that. They wrote the book.

Soon enough, it seems, he delivers a frantic cricket somewhere close to where I'm sitting, and I pick up a sandal, and the cricket's fate is finally sealed. My killing it is really a mission of mercy.

We make a team in September, Benny and I--Benny the cat. But it's no big deal to him. There are no victory celebrations, no high fives. Already, back upstairs, he's likely fast asleep.

Nice of him to stoop. This morning, with the squashed corpse of a cricket yet to be picked up beside me, I'm thankful for silence, a condition both of us prefer on dark September mornings.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

A (second) Year of Morning Thanks

Twinkling Eyes

One of the best papers I read in the batch I'm about a return to my students was a story a young woman wrote about going to Africa, where, oddly enough, she saw more poverty--and more happiness--than she was accustomed to seeing here in the affluent west. It was well written and expressive, and I told her as much.

I also told her she had to be really, really careful with how she maintained what she did in the essay--that them poor black folk are just a'dancing and a'singing and a'worshipping the Lord, and isn't that just the sweetest thing! She's courting racism, of course, even though I'm quite sure she didn't mean it. I told her that the black kids in our class wouldn't take kindly to the way she wrote up the subject.

But take color out of the equation, and there's something in what she said that's resoundingly true--at least of me. A few nights ago, I knew we were having a full moon. Despite my conscience's screaming--I had papers to correct, after all, stuff that had to get done!--I got in the car (gas is $3.50 @ gallon!), and went out to watch it come up. Wasn't exactly as awe-inspiring as I thought it would be, but I can't begin to explain how good it was, simply to take an hour out watch the moon rise. Sounds dumb, I know, but the world is, as the poet says, too much with us--or at least me; and even though my student's analysis of happiness on the faces of the poor black folks she met in west Africa may be racist, that doesn't mean that her analysis of her own life--too driven by things in contrast--is far off the mark. Mine too.

"To be grateful is to recognize the love of God in everything he has given us--and he has given us everything," or so says Thomas Merton somewhere. "Gratitude therefore takes nothing for granted, is never unresponsive, is constantly awakening to new wonder and to praise the goodness of God."

I'm a leap year into this blogging business now--this is #367, the dashboard tells me. And keeping it up has been good for me in this way especially--it's prompted me to remember gratitude, and it's pushed me to try to be "constantly awakening to new wonder and praise."

But I'll be the first to admit that it's a fight. After all, I've got classes to teach, papers to read. I've got things to do, stuff that just has to be done.

Shoot, it's fall again, and you can hardly smell the roses anymore.

But right now soybeans have turned most all of Siouxland gold once more. I've just got to take the time to look.

This morning, I'm thankful for a young woman's innocent, racist essay, for a harvest moon, and for a single unreferenced line from Thomas Merton.

Somewhere in Gilead, Pastor John Ames claims one of his all-time, favorite lines is "a twinkling of an eye." It's something he says he wishes none of us would ever lose. Me neither. But it takes some work to hold on.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks


Ten-petal blazing star. I stumbled on it at dusk on a western bank of the Missouri River, a hearty perennial growing out of the steep sandy edge, out of the sun. I'm told its showy white flowers open only in the shade to bloom nocturnally. That's kind of fancy. Maybe that explains why I don't believe I'd ever seen it before.

But it was down a ways on the bank, and I was in no mood to shimmy down the steep edge to get up close. Besides, it caught no sun whatsoever where it grew, which meant--I thought--that its beauty wouldn't display itself all that well in a photograph. But it was a beautiful thing, and I hadn't remembering ever seeing it before, a surprise, even a shock on the plains. That's it, above. Interesting name--"ten-petal blazing star."

Then I unsheathed every mm of my telephoto lens and pulled those beautiful white blossoms up close, just for kicks, even though I knew the picture wouldn't do it justice because sunlight has a way of putting Sunday best on almost anything--and, of course, there was none.

When I got home, I opened the files to this.

The gorgeous little evening flower--so delicate in as tough a region as the Great Plains--is being ravaged by grasshoppers. You may not be able to see them, but I count at least six of them in this shot, all of them gorging their ugly selves on the stems.

Calvinist that I am, I don't know what to do with the moral of the story here because there are many. The grasshoppers are somehow Satanic? Nah. Even though they're an unforgettable part of the Dust Bowl horrors, all too regularly even today they ravage the Plains, eating the onions right out of the ground. They may be ugly, but they're not evil. They're just here, and goodness knows they eat what they want, when they want. Sure, they get out of control, but did you ever see a closeup of their eyes?--takes your breath away. They're not the devil.

Sic transit gloria mundi--"thus passes the glory of the world." These wonderfully delicate flowers have but a moment's glory on this sad earth--alas, their beauty gone. I could probably put the Latin phrase right up there against the water behind the plant. But I don't like that really either because it still makes the hoppers villians, and even though they are, their mission in life isn't to destroy flowers. They got to eat too.

Maybe there is no moral at all. I read an essay ("Wildness") by Scott Russell Sanders not long ago that lauds the mysterious glory of wildness, even--hold on to your seat--in cancer cells. There is so much of life itself we can't determine, he says, and its good for the soul not to forget that's true. All around us, if we look for it, is wildness; and there's not much we can do.

I don't quite know what to make of the destruction in this close-up--of beauty being decimated. But maybe that I can't make sense of it is itself a blessing. More and more as I grow old, I'm coming to think that God's mysteries may well be his greatest blessings. When we don't know, we can't make our own answers. When we don't know, we stumble into silence and darkness. When we don't know, our foolish pride vanishes. When we don't know, we may actually fall to our knees.

I don't know. And this morning as I study the picture of beauty laid low, I'm ready to admit that not knowing may be the blessing for which, this morning, I'm grateful.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks

Harvest Moon

It's rise is hardly meteoric, but when it appears, it's huge. Last night, the dust from a thousand harvests kept it from being as orange as I'd hoped; instead, it was a pink balloon until it shook free of all our chaff. But there it was, shedding a light so bright you could pick corn or almost anything else in the reign it brought to the earth.

Sometimes I wonder if I too wouldn't have been prone to worship the sun and moon, if we had no other light. Last night I flew out into the country into a setting sun that was so bright it should have made driving illegal, but the moment that blinding glow fell beneath the horizon, a huge pink balloon appeared, almost like magic, all the way across the earth. What a show.

If it's all we had, I'm sure we'd make more of it--millions have.

It seems to me that I read somewhere that the Pawnees, whose home wasn't all that far from here, centered their lives on the movement of the celestial superstars--the sun, moon, and stars. Makes sense to me.

Me and my house don't worship that Lord, but as the harvest moon arose last night, its appearance was glorious--and very much a blessing, for which I'm thankful.

Monday, September 15, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks


Three times just now, in rapid succession. Starts with an itch somewhere behind my nose, a full blown attack that turns my entire face prunish, then reaches all the way down into my lungs, where my breath stops, and for a moment, so does time itself. Suddenly--and there isn't a voluntary movement in this--my eyes close, my chin rises, and this horrific hurrumph does its best to clean out everything it seems--eyes, ears, nose, and throat.

But there's never just one. Three times, just now, and before I'm done typing, I'm quite sure I'll fall victim again, once or twice, my whole body turning into a machine gun. "When sneezes come, they come not as spies but in battallions," wrote Shakespeare in Hamlet. Well, it may have been sorrows, but what the heck.

I'm tired of it. Happens every year at this time, when summer's sweet profusion goes to seed or something, and the air goes all heavy-laden with pollen my system simply rejects physically. I sneeze. And sneeze. And sneeze.

Seems especially bad this year. Don't know why. Last night, maybe a half dozen window-rattlers in what we used to call "the family room." Whenever it starts, the cat shutters because he thinks I'm about to put him out as that cause for all the shock and awe. My wife would put me out first. This time of year, I wouldn't blame her.

Drives me purely crazy. Went to bed as if I had a cold the size of Omaha. It was only the blasted sniffles. Nose runs like a leaky faucet, and my voice gets grainy and drops a register or two. I snore. I must snore. I'm blessed my wife doesn't throw me out for that, too.

"Something there is that doesn't love a wall," wrote another famous dead white male, "that sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,/ And spills the upper boulders in the sun,/ And makes gaps even two can pass abreast." What's that something? Why the frost, of course--and "guess who" wrote the lines? You got it.

It's not here yet, but that doesn't mean I can be thankful in theory. Won't be long either, I'm sure. I'm guessing the temp's in the 30's this morning, in fact. I honestly wouldn't wish a Great Plains winter on anybody, but, this morning, right now--nose itching, my eyes watering, Kleenex gone--I'm already thankful for the first good frost.

Wishing it were here. Sheesh--here comes another round. Batten the hatches.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks


So I read Calvin (great beard, weird hat) this morning, Calvin on Psalm 1: "It is necessary to remember that the world is fraught with deadly corruption, and that the first step to living well is to renounce the company of the ungodly, otherwise it is sure to infect us with its own pollution."

Forgive me, but this morning there's a sort of "well, duh," to this passage, as if Calvin's words were so overused as to be cliched--and, in a certain way, they are. As a blanket indictment, his declaration has all the power of any blanket indictment. The real trick is to know who, on earth, is "the ungodly," who exactly are those whose principles require shunning.

Here we are amid the storm of one of the most amazing Presidential sweepstakes ever--most colorful, most dramatic, most entertaining. Obama fills a stadium for his acceptance speech, and the next morning his moment of victory is body-checked by a hockey mom in designer glasses. Just amazing.

What leaves me staggering and confused is how easily all of us--me included--can sign our perception of God's will on our own political interests and the characters who wield them. So many of us Christians--or so it seems to me--baptize our favorites with the imprimatur of Right. We turn our crusades into something righteous. Radical Islam isn't the only religion that practices jihad.

Maybe it's just me. Maybe it's just my age. Whatever it is, I'd like to call on Mr. Calvin and tell him to get specific here, to let me know in this campaign season just exactly who is "the company of the ungodly," the specific folks from whom I should walk--no run--away. In Psalm 1, neither Calvin nor the psalmist himself left any fine print beneath the banner headlines.

My fear, in this election as elsewhere, is that pointing out the ungodly is far more complex than the psalmist would have us believe. I get to feeling befuddled. But then again, maybe that's where He wants me--not walking or standing or sitting at all, but flat out befuddled and on my knees instead. Maybe it's humility he wants out of me, simple humility.

But that's tough too--really tough.

How is it that biblical morality can be such a hard sell, even to ourselves? This morning I just shake my head at a psalmist who can really be delighted in God's law, even though that law may well be my meditation day and night (it's got me spinning in circles this morning). Seems to me that sometimes that law--at least in the opening verses of Psalm 1--makes my life miserable.

Life ain't easy. I know, I know--that feels more like confession than gratitude. No matter. I think He'll forgive me that much this morning --and for that forgiveness I'm always thankful.

Friday, September 12, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks


To hold her was a good, good thing--this Grandma so horribly bereft. We'd traveled awhile to see her, to see them, and to do exactly what I hope we did just then, hold them up just a bit.

"Pray for me, will you?" she said, tearfully. "Right now, I just can't."

This morning my thanks are very simple. This morning, I'm thankful that for her--for them--we can.

Thursday, September 11, 2008


I saw him first a few days ago, up on the flat roof of the classroom building, shoveling heavy white stones into something—a bucket, a wheelbarrow? I couldn’t see. What struck me immediately was that there may not be another way to get all those stones cleared from the roof, and, after all, they must be cleared because a whole new floor is going up atop the classroom building, major construction that has turned the front yard of the old campus into a fenced-in construction zone. It’s an awful job, but someone had to do it.

He was wearing a cut-off sweatshirt, whose sleeves he’d ripped out into looping ovals that stretched nearly to his waist. His arms were thick, muscular. But what he was up to was tedious, backbreaking work, a job some boss assigns to a rookie way down on the totem pole. Pure grunt work.

I know the man, sort of—or of him at least. I remember his being a student here himself, although I never had him in class. I know his life hasn’t been easy, but I don’t know the whole story. Since college, he’d married, then divorced. Occasionally, I see him church with a couple of unruly kids.

Anyway, there he was, way up-top the campus, all by himself, scooping gravel. It wasn’t hot and wasn’t cold that day exactly, but he seemed to me to have the world’s worst job, shoveling heavy stones into a wheelbarrow, one scoop at a time, noisily—very, very noisily.

Nighthawks used to nest up there in those stones, I was once told—nighthawks, thin birds just a size or two bigger than a killdeer who make a habit of diving from the sky in a way that creates a strange whirring purr you hear from somewhere just over your head. Sort of odd, almost scary. No more, I guess. This guy, this former student, was up there cleaning up the stones they nested in.

I saw the guy up there the next day too, heard him. Always the sound—the screech of stone on metal, the crash of stones into the maw of the wheelbarrow. All by himself again. I think he lives right up the street somewhere.

What he was doing—and who he was—haunted me that day, on the way to class and back, almost turned me into Isaiah or Ezekiel. I thought I could put that guy to work as a moral lesson for my students, who sometimes seem so woefully unprepared for life in this vale of tears. Half of them, probably, didn’t bother with their assignments; maybe two or three were really prepared. Up there on the roof, all by himself, in a September sun, a man who was one of them not that many years ago, all alone, filled wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow with a couple tons of heavy, white stones—that’s a story I could tell them. Let’s step outside and listen just for a minute. Don’t stare.

But I’m no Old Testament prophet. Still, the juxtaposition was horrifying, stayed with me through the next day. When I came back to school from lunch, he was up there again, all by himself.

This morning, in the darkness, I rode my bike to the gym for a workout, did my thing on the weights and the machines, then, wet with sweat, got back on the bike, angled around a few corners, and came out on the old front street, where, once again, the thought of having seen him up there three days in a row, all by himself, shovel in hand, haunted me.

And then I heard it in the darkness—the shriek of stones against the metal and the crack of rocks into the belly of the wheelbarrow. Yesterday morning, it was pitch dark, but he was up there already. I couldn’t see him, but I knew he was there.

The rest of world was silent, an hour before dawn.

It may well be a blessing he has a job at all. He has kids to feed, to raise.

He was up there in the darkness shoveling stones.

That’s all I know of a story that scares me.

What I’m saying is, it was dark as night, and the guy was up there all alone, still shoveling those white stones.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks

Look what I found

I learned long ago that if anything can be better than giving a gift, it is the gratitude we feel in getting it. There is no other pleasure to compare with it--not sex, not winning the lottery, not
hearing lovely music, not seeing stunning mountain peaks, nothing. Gratitude beats them all. I have never met a grateful person who was an unhappy person. And, for that matter, I have never met a grateful person who was a bad person."
I happened to read this aside in a wonderful little essay titled "God and Grateful Old Man," by the late Lew Smedes. My guess is Smedes wouldn't like me saying this, and it's not the kind of thing I say often, but when I read through the essay carefully yesterday, the voice rather sounded like the voice of the eternal.

I've been at this blogging thing for a year now--I think this is post #366 (makes me sound like the American Legion). But Lew Smedes, who isn't likely tuning in to this blog or any other these days, makes me think I ought to keep it up, not the blog itself, but the behavior: trying to give thanks for something--anything--every last morning of my life.

Garrison Keillor gave me the idea originally, but I think I'm going to stay at it because it's become, with me, a kind of spiritual discipline, a morning's soulful working out (I'm sitting here in my gym shorts right now, and I'll be off to the gym in minutes).

I'm not sure I'm everything Smedes claims about gratitude is on the money, nor am I sure that grateful people people are what he claims--nary a one of them bad or unhappy. But he and Keillor aren't all wrong about its benefits.

I picked up the essay in a book on my shelf--Best Christian Writing of 2004--when I was looking for some samples to show my class. Some guiding hand or other steered me there, I guess--and maybe that's my cue. I'm no mystic, but then again, really, we all are in one way or another.

So this morning I'm thankful for Lew Smedes and an essay he wrote when he was 80, thankful for stumbling on it and hearing within it a voice that reminds me to keep lifting the weights of my gratitude.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks

Abject Failure

My son is a grad student in film studies, I should know how to show a film. But I'd never done it before in class--spun a dvd out of a computer, through a projector, and onto a screen. I wanted that film studied, so I'd put in bookmarks to mark the spots I wanted shown. I had the procedure down. I swear, I had it down. I like technology, but I've had more than my share of miscues when I rely on it in class.

I got there early. I got things set up before the class was supposed to start. I plugged in all the right cords and hit all the right buttons. Nothing worked. The clock was ticking. Nothing was working.

I told a student to run to the tech people just down the hall and grab someone, anyone. The computer kept telling me that the disk was locked, kept bumping me back to the opening screen. That blasted dvd just wouldn't run. It had never been so peculiarly obstinate before. And now we're ten minutes into the class period.

I start lecturing, shooting from the hip. I hadn't planned on talking about Native American history, but the topic is roughly connected, and with my technology under the surgeon's knife, I've got absolutely nothing else for a back-up plan.

My techie savior rushes in, and initially she's powerless. The blasted thing keeps refusing to show the video. I keep looking back up at her when somewhere around 1880 and the Dawes Act, this whole blame lecture coming right out of the seat of my pants. The students are looking at me as if they want their money back, and I understand.

Finally, she says she's got it running. She's got it going in some other software, not in the program where I'd so deftly tucked all my bookmarks. Okay. Deal. We'll do it like the old video casette days and just press the fast forward button indefinitely. But the blasted software only crawls forward. Big deal. It's better than more off-the-cuff lecturing, even though I'm almost surprising myself at how well I'm doing. The students still look like their getting cheated.

I push the fast-forward button until we get relatively close to the passage where I want to be, and hit "play." No sound. No shit--no sound. I look at my equally distressed techie. She shrugs her shoulder and runs out to get some other savior.

By now we've got fifteen minutes left, and I tell the students to open to their books--I wanted to read through a couple of poems but only after discussing the film. We'll try find some other way to fill the exasperation.

Suddenly, I've got two techies, one of whom discovers that someone had pulled an obscure wire out of the back of the projector or boom box or whatever--hence, no sound. Now at least I've got sound. But it's also 1:45, and the class ends in five minutes.

I tell my students to leave. It's hopeless, and I feel like a abject chunk of old carpet.

So what's there to be thankful for? Failure? Okay, failure. But I'm not some sweet, Sunday School moralizer. I suppose I could say that my ineptitude (it really wasn't my fault; it was, in fact, a tech problem) is humbling, and that I'm a better human being this morning for all that abject failure.

Sorry. That's not what I'm thinking. All I'm thinking is that to my students, whose derision was written in bold face all over their mugs, I'm an aging, bumbling klutz.

Not in my entire life have I simply blown an entire class period because of tech failures--not in what's getting uncomfortably close to 40 years of teaching.

Maybe the thanks is the fact that I'm up even earlier than usual, determined that I'm not going through that again. Determined. Maybe that's what I'm thankful for this morning. For not sleeping well.

Maybe I'll just say I'm thankful to know that the Lord will forgive my sin this morning, the sin of not being thankful. There. Amen.

Monday, September 08, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks

No borders

As of last night, there's a new pastor at the local Hispanic congregation, a group formed years ago already with the help of some local churches, a gathering of believers that regularly meets on the same block as ours. The new guy is a square-built man who wears his glasses on a gold chain, has a ready, ample smile, and a healthy crop of rich, dark hair--take it from someone who recognizes such things.

Last night, we Anglos worshipped with our Hispanic neighbors; and, in the process, together in a bi-lingual service, we installed this new pastor in his church, their third already. So, last night, our congregation looked a whole lot different than it does normally, a third of them, like the pastor, bedecked with rich, black hair, creating a salt-and-pepper sense that's indeniable--and, well, nicely seasoned.

I have no idea how many of the dozens and dozens of Hispanics who worshipped with us last night are illegal, but I suspect most, if not all. Twenty years ago in this town, you could have counted the people who didn't have a Dutch-American name on one hand; today, we're a quarter Hispanic. There's barely any unemployment for any of us, no matter what color.

I don't know what Lou Dobbs and his folks would have thought of our church service last night, but it's impossible for me to believe that the Lord God of heaven and earth would have ever considered calling in the authorities, even though his house was full of criminals.

The Nazis regularly conducted razzias, or roundups, during the occupation of the Netherlands during WWII. They'd viciously come up on churches, surround them with troops and vehicles, and grab whatever males they could lay their hands on. I thought about the INS having a razzia last night during the service, what it would be like, how people might react.

It could have happened. Honestly, it could have. Last night, our church was a haven of criminals. Last night, we were as illegal as heck.

I don't claim to know all the answers to the illegal immigration problems this country faces, but I have this sneaking suspicion that a church full of people is just about the best we can do right now.

So this morning I've got no problem coming up with morning thanks. This morning, I'm thankful for that new pastor in our neighbor's church--and thankful for a well-seasoned, salt-and-pepper crowd of iilegal believers. I wonder whether we shouldn't be a bit more illegal, a bit more often.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks

Attitude Adjustment

When I filled up with gas, he asked me if I'd seen the dawn that morning. I said no. He shook his head as if I'd missed out on a treasure. "You still get up and shoot pictures?" he asked. I told him that, as a matter of fact, I was about to take off for the Missouri River valley, on a whim. "Don't know if it's worth all of this," I said, pointing to the numbers clicking along on the pumps.

"You bet it is," he told me. "I call it "attitude adjustment." And then he told me about feeding the sheep a couple nights ago and the incredible tumult raised by the coyotes. "Nothing better than being all by yourself in the middle of all of that," he said, pulling the nozzle out of the tank.

"Attitude adjustment." I like that. So we went, a colleague and I, to one of my all-time favorite places, just to watch a sunset, just to feel the wild, I guess, just to get an adjustment.

This morning, back home again, and likely forty bucks poorer, I'm still thankful for attitude adjustments.

Friday, September 05, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks
For grace I do not know

I never really saw the child. I remember seeing his face only dimly in a three-inch screen on a monitor, one of a pair, that his grandma, an old friend, watched attentively while we talked a floor beneath the bedroom. I'd never seen tv monitors for babies--my daughter had had an audio monitor, as I remember--but sitting there watching pictures of the kids--there were two monitors because there were two of them, twins--struck me as being, well, somewhat overly vigilant, typical of today's helicopter parents.

I didn't say that, because their grandma couldn't take her eyes off those monitors the whole time we visited--the three of us, grandpa and grandma and I, old friends sitting around the dining room table. Besides, I'm a grandpa myself, and I'm not sure whether grandparents have any more important role than vigilance--and a little fauning.

That was a year ago, just about 750 miles away. The twins weren't much more than babies, much loved babies. I know. I'm a grandpa.

A couple days ago, one of those twins had a seizure while he was playing at his grandparents' home. Nothing out of the ordinary was happening, but suddenly he simply went down. An ambulance was called, was there in four minutes, reports say, and the child was rushed to the hospital. The little boy never recovered. Yesterday, he died--the child whose face I barely remember in a monitor his grandma watched so scrupulously. Something went suddenly and tragically wrong inside him, and today he's gone.

Just Sunday, in a storm of horrors, a sign announcing the opening of Pumpkinland, made my day. The thought of putting my grandkids in the Tracker and taking them over there brought some joy and peace to a morning otherwise streaked in blood. The mere thought of my grandkids' smiles at Pumpkinland blew away the darkness.

Today, my friends, a grandpa and grandma who know that joy, put one of their precious, blessed grandkids to rest.

I know just about every worn line that can be offered at a time like this--that this was all in God's plan, that at least they had him for 18 months, that he's somewhere now in a better place. There are tons of those lines, dozens. I know 'em.

But what brings me comfort when I think of those vigilant grandparents sitting at the dining room table a year ago and watching those monitors, and when I try to imagine the depth of their grief today is that others have made it through the valley of the shadow of death, that others look back and find grace when it seemed that grace itself had left the building altogether. What gives me hope for those old friends in the midst of their grandparent grief is God almighty does, in fact, sit at his table with a billion monitors in front of him, and what he sees on the screens he somehow answers with love.

I've never been anywhere near to where my good friends are this morning. To imagine I could be is beyond my power. But I know--from those who have been--that there is grace. I don't know that grace, but others confess that it's real. I wish it for my friends today. I pray they feel it in their hearts and in their bones.

This morning I'm thankful for a grace I do not know.

And then there's this. My grandson is coming for lunch, for pancakes I'll mix up myself. This morning, when he comes, he'll make me cry.

Thursday, September 04, 2008


According to a new Rasmussen Reports poll, American men would vote Sarah Palin in for President of these United States (49%) before Hillary Clinton (45%). I don’t care what your politics, those are incredible numbers, and they make me question whether what’s there between men’s ears is little more than testosterone.

I’ve never been a big Hillary fan. For the most part, I didn’t support her for President because I simply couldn’t stand the thought of her husband in the White House for four more years. But I’ve never hated her, as some do. That hate has to be the reason for the numbers; there must be a deadly poisonous negative vote here—tons of men simply don’t want Hillary. How else can you explain that bozo judgment? Like her or not, Hillary is at least going to do what she promised throughout her campaign for the Democratic nomination: she will hit the ground running on Day #1, as she so famously used to say. Hillary knows her way around. She’d be a formidable presence in the White House.

I’m sorry. Sarah Palin might end up being the very first woman President of the United States. Last night she delivered a stem-winder that may just draw millions of otherwise disgruntled or disengaged voters to the Republican ticket. She sparkled. She’s a brilliantly fresh face. Today, this morning, the Republicans have their own rock star. Send her to Berlin and she’ll drum up a crowd too—more so, I’m sure, than the old guy she’s with.

She could collar scores of ex-Hillary-ites in the next two months, and she may well be as much of a pit bull as McCain himself can be. She’s already become the cover girl (may I say that?) for married women who want to have it all. Who knows?--she may be sharper than a tack on every last significant issue facing America. But that American men would choose her over Hillary for President, right now, today, having known Ms. Palin for less than a week, is just plain stupefying.

Sometimes the truly remarkable nature of the great American political experiment leaves me slack-jawed. Truly—that the people rule in this country seems, at times, just plain nuts. “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people,” old H. L. Mencken once quipped, and he wasn’t wrong.

But then, shoot, what red-blooded guy doesn’t start snortin’ at a babe with a gun?

Hey, toss me another Bud, man.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008


The flak in the air is so thick that you can get shot down without sustaining a direct hit. Words, words, words--shills on both sides are flat-out wearying. On one side you've got the liberal blogosphere huffing and puffing about what a catastrophic choice Sarah Palin is, how her Pentecostal Christianity makes her unfit for the highest public office in the land. Can we really trust someone whose faith claims direct communication with the Almighty? Jeremiah Wright was an embarrassment, but the pastor Gov. Palin grew up with has a string of his own embarrassing quotes, most of which are right out of the Left Behind playbook.

On the other hand, Republican pols is casting "the trophy vice" as their own madonna, their own mother and child, a woman who gets it all right--work and family, family and work. She's the only candidate who knows the right way to gut a moose, Fred Thompson said last night, as if that storied skill is going to be of significant use in the Middle East. That she is courageous is an obvious fact--she had to know what she was going to go through in this first week of her candidacy, what she was going to put her own daughter through, too, and she chose to do it anyway. She's "the real deal," her pastor says. He prayed for her when she ran for governor because he knew she was God's choice.

The yakking is horrific and dissonant, and real discernment seems impossible. What's even more problematic, at least to me, is making one's way through the spiritual positioning that runs through our political culture these days. Should we excoriate Obama for being a member of Jeremiah Wright's church for a couple of decades? Eventually, he tossed his membership. Should Palin similarly disown her own preacher for the last 20 years because of some bizarre determinations of who's on God's side and who's not?

Who is on God's side, really? Jeremiah Wright's people almost certainly would despise the Christian people who Sarah Palin prayed with for the last two decades. But the reverse is also true, without a doubt.

It's wearying. It really is. I'm just pooped.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008


I was mistaken. It now seems clear that at least one of the reasons McCain chose Sarah Palin to be his running mate, an incredible gamble, was because of the muscle of the religous right. In today's NY Times, David Brooks claims he made the choice because he saw, in Palin, the kind of moral crusader he sees in himself. That strikes me as right too.

But lots of commentary now offers the scenario that McCain really wanted one of his two good friends, Lieberman or Tom Ridge, but that he was told all kinds of horrors would result at the Republican Convention should he choose either of them. Why?--abortion. The convention would implode.

I'd really started to believe that the old religious right had lost its oompah. Dobson's getting old as well as crusty, Falwell is gone, and what's-his-name with the TV empire seems incapable of making headlines. Meanwhile, Rick Warren has both candidates on stage at Saddleback as he seemingly opens up more issues for scrutiny from a Christian perspective. There's a sense abroad that old-line Bush-type evangelicalism is dying; we're in a new age. Evangelical Christians--Republican evangelical Christians--have a wider agenda.

Don't know if that's true, but apparently the old crusaders still have muscle. My guess is their continuing fortunes now ride totally on the success of Ms. Palin. She is not only their crusader, she has become their crusade. If she is the fresh-faced wonder she appears to be, if there are no skeletons in her closet, if she makes no untoward gaffes in the sixty days before the election, the old Dobson coalition may win back some of its power. She's obviously their choice. I've got good friends who sing her praises as if she were sent from heaven.

Maybe she was.

Time will tell, of course, but most of us have humbler origins.

Monday, September 01, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks

Prayer list

Yesterday’s Sunday morning prayer requests:

--a woman, someone’s sister, far away, suffers from cancer, as does her own son, a medical student.

-- a farm tire blows up and takes out an old man’s face. He dies a day later. Funeral Wednesday.

--a young couple, the neighbors of a woman whose husband is in hospice, are in Rochester, where doctors at Mayo try to reassemble their shattered bones after an accident, a head-on, Saturday afternoon. The young woman is a nurse.

--a swarming hurricane rushes north-northwest out of the Gulf, taking aim on Louisiana, as if it were Katrina's hellish soulmate.

--a colleague who announced being cancer free just a week ago went into the doctor for headaches. Two spots were found on her brain. Friday, one was surgically removed. Give thanks. The other will have to be treated with chemo.

Everything beckons for intercession—we need so much prayer. The darkness of human suffering grows more intense, more insufferable the older I get, it seems.

In the afternoon, we visit mom, whose speech is slurred from yet another mild stroke suffered just that morning and whose hearing fades week by week.

On the way, there's a sign at a familiar farm place along the highway: Pumpkinland will open in four short days. Pumpkinland—big, round pumpkins galore, a corn maze, and a petting zoo. My grandkids love the place. They’ll be thrilled.

This morning, I'm thankful for Pumpkinland.

I have to take my grandkids. I have to.