Morning Thanks

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

Friday, October 31, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks


Way back in 1517, on this day, Martin Luther nailed some arguments on the church door at Wittenburg, Germany, because he devoutly believed (he was devout in all things, but delightfully earthy) that his salvation was a gift of grace, not of man. Deliverance cometh (my word) by Jesus Christ, and not by way of some middle man.

Good Christian child that I was (and, I hope, still am), I remember being shocked when, in graduate school, I heard my Shakespeare prof, an Anglican, once chuckle about there being a ton of land barons in Germany who were a whole lot less religious than Luther but prayerfully on his side once he started to wreak some havoc in the church. I'd only ever thought about the Reformation as a movement in church history; but the fact is, Luther's 95 thesis were nailed to human history, just as definitively as the shot heard round the world. Without the Reformation, the American Revolution would have to had risen from altogether other roots.

Yesterday, in chapel, the speaker told us all that Luther, one of the most prolific writers of all time, has a shelf full of work, one hundred fat, German volumes. He said that when finally the old reformer died, his hand's rigor mortis made it seem he was still holding a quill, as if he had a few more chapters to write.

What a guy. What a story.

Amazing grace.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks


The little tab on the sign-in page tells me this post is #400, and I'm wondering why on earth I started this.

I remember why--because I wanted to try; I wanted to keep myself at the word game, keep myself writing in a very busy teaching year. That's it.

Another reason, perhaps, is that my last novel is still here on my computer and not between covers. Andrew Sullivan, in an article in the new Atlantic, "Why I Blog," says, "A novelist can spend months or years before committing words to the world. For bloggers, the deadline is always now." True enough. It's bizarre really: I know--because people have told me--that I'm read almost the minute I post. Not that baited-breath readers are just sitting there dying to wallow in stuff from the basement; it's just that computers snap on for the first time, somewhere around six, and people surf a bit to start the day. I no more than type these words and they're read. Wizardry.

"You end up writing about yourself, since you are the relatively constant fixed point in this constant interaction with the ideas and facts of the exterior world," says Sullivan, and it's true, and even embarrassing. Every morning I get up I try to grab at something from the swirl all around, but it's only me doing the grabbing. If it weren't for the constant presence of an audience, a blog would be at least something like a diary. But diaries aren't meant for other people, or so I'm told. Very strange.

A blog is "colloquial and unfinished," he says--right again. Not long ago, a Michigander who says he reads my blog said he spotted spelling errors; ever since I've tried to remember to use the spellcheck. Errors abound, but then I'm run by the clock as much as anything. It's now 5:46; my soul made a pact with my head to get this all done by six.

Last night, my wife's better self stepped in to restrain her from writing an e-mail that could more reasonably be composed today. Instantaneousness raises verdant possibilities for passion's overreach. I wonder if I've hit the "publish" button too quickly sometimes. But then, Sullivan says that kind of going-off half-cocked is part of the immediacy and freshness of the game itself. Blogging is--for better or worse--richly human. Suppose so.

More than anything else, however, the revolutionary character of blogging is created by the internet's incredible democratic character: I can reach anywhere on earth with these words, in seconds. Amazingly, I do, as do millions of others. Blogs make everyone a writer; they increase the marketplace a billion-fold. There's no editor--no middle-man or -woman--between me and the eyes that are right now reading these words. And that makes a blog, at best, Sullivan says, "a conversation, rather than a production."

When Sullivan asked Matt Drudge about the medium, Drudge told him that a blog "is a broadcast, not a publication. If it stops moving, it dies. If it stops paddling, it sinks." My guess is that blogging will never produce a Shakespeare; if it does, his or her words won't stay alive. A blog is all about now.

But, having just now put my paddle in the stream once again this morning, I've gone another round and now is the time to quit. Bizarre.

And so it goes--so it went--with number 400. Strange.

No matter. Some day soon I may stop paddling and sink into internet oblivion, but this morning, at #400, I'm sort of glad I put this canoe in the water. Sort of.

Hit Publish.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks

Passions, sort of

It'd be nice if we could get passion right, all of us, me too. Three times in the last two days, after receiving bundled, forwarded e-mail that is almost always a species of hate mail, I've tried to tell three different people that I didn't share their political views. Three times my confession prompted some rancor.

There's the one about the Democratic attorney who'd filed a brief somewhere, to the effect that Obama isn't really a citizen and thus shouldn't be a candidate for President--based on where he was or wasn't born. "This video will change the story of the election," it announced in red boldface, the note heralded by a congregation of names who'd already received it and others who were, with me, its freshest recipients. In fact, I got it twice from two different people.

I wrote those who sent it, tried to say, simply, that this time I didn't agree with their political persuasion. Twice in the last two days, old friends tried to shake me like an unruly child with a stream of arguments that usually begin and end with abortion and exclamation marks.

When, yesterday, I read somewhere that a judge had thrown out the lawsuit that was going "to change the direction of the election," I sent the story to those who'd sent it to me. While I didn't demand they reverse the process and scattergun it back to those addresses that glowed on the original note, my guess is they didn't. Passion doesn't prompt such admissions easily.

Nobody can teach well and not have passion. Passion makes dynamic subjects and verbs absolutely essential in the creation of hearty sentences. Passion moves things along, lights things up, creates change, wins games, excites smiles. Shoot, passion perpetuates the race; it creates our children.

But like anything else that's human, passion has its dark side. When it leapfrogs reason, it doesn't come down with both feet. Passion builds walls, burns bridges, breaks up families. It dehumanizes, objectifies, resorts to falsehoods, and, when unglued, goes blind. Passion loves and kills with equal intensity, equal glee.

The finest moment in the campaign in the last few weeks, in my estimation, was the time when John McCain grabbed the microphone from a passionate woman who could barely get out her denunciation, but who finally stumbled over the hooded condemnation she was looking for: "he's an Arab." McCain grabbed the mike and shook his head. "He's a good man," McCain told that woman patiently and calmly, and even comfortingly. Then he walked away.

The Bible is often a strange read. It's altogether possible to find yourself in its stories and platitude. Last night when my wife and I happened on the Sermon on the Mount, I found it altogether too easy to slip into the warm quilt that sermon offers to those who suffer persecution; after all, I've taken it in the chops lately, simply for suggesting who it is I'm likely voting for.

I don't think my choice is the only righteous choice, but I'm not about to change my mind so I'd be less than truthful if I'd say I wasn't passionate. But neither am I going to indict those who disagree; neither will I suggest some abominable rejection of the faith and, therefore, eternal punishment for taking the other side.

We're all--me too--incredibly and mysteriously human, capable of so much love at any minute, so much passion, and so much equally-driven passionate hate the next. Some of us--me too--are so full of wind because, Lord knows, we don't want to seem broken, as much in need of repair by the divine handyman as we always are.

I am among those who show passion, sometimes to my own detriment and others' hurt. I likely will be to the day I die. This morning I'm thankful--as always--for passions, but I'm also weary of being burned; so this morning I'm really thankful, as always, for what I'm learning, three-score years into the life I've been given. Passion often cuts two ways.

Sometimes biblical principle seems like a piece of cake, Sunday-School stuff. But love isn't. Strangely enough, it's not elementary at all. It's tough.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks

Good days

Yesterday things were popping in my lit class. It's a small group, and that's probably helpful; but for some uncharted reason, yesterday's class may well have been closer to a dream class--the perfect class like the perfect storm--than any I've been in for almost 40 years of teaching.

Assessment, for me, is in the eyes. When you see eyes that aren't dreamy or afar off, but instead are sharpened into a stare, when you see eyes that seem to strain to get it all in, that have a hungry look, then you're doing something, then you're winning.

I don't even remember their eyes yesterday. What I remember is the proliferation of hands. They just wanted to talk. We were going over poems, and they were leading the discussion. They were also doing all of the talking. I'd become little more than a moderator.

I must admit that I've never been very good at small group stuff because it's hard for me to give up the wheel in class. I'm an old dictator by nature, I guess, an old lecturer. Separate students into small groups and let them teach themselves--that sort of thing--I'm simply too old-fashioned. I sort of like a monarchy, as long as I'm the one with the sceptre. A democratic classroom is too messy. Give me a great lecture any day, as long as I'm doing the talking.

Yesterday I didn't lecture. Yesterday, they simply never ran out of things to say.

That kind of popping doesn't happen often, and I'm still not sure it was as good as it seemed. But then maybe I'm just an old scruffy Calvinist who finds it more than a little difficult to assess anything too smilingly. I do know this: I'll certainly take another good day like yesterday anytime.

This morning, I'm thankful, simply, for really good days.

Monday, October 27, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks

Old respected friends

I'm not one of them, but I know lots of people who love to read old and familiar books time and time again. That phenomenon is something of a mystery to me. By nature, I guess, I'm not a re-reader.
But yesterday I returned to a world I deeply appreciated (I hesitate saying "loved") years ago, and renewed a relationship I'd not really lost but had certainly neglected.

The novel is The Assault, by the Dutch novelist Harry Mulisch. I read it years ago--it came out in 1987 or so--and I long ago assigned it to a special topics class I taught in 1995, a class that read the literature of the Holocaust. The Assault is the story of a man who was orphaned by the Nazis when they retaliated for the cold-blooded murder, by the Resistance, of a much-hated Dutch collaborator.

It's really a kind of murder mystery. Just exactly what happened that night--and why--takes the man most of lifetime to determine, and most often he's not even looking. He'd have much preferred to forget.

By the time the story ends, what we discover is that the murder and its horrible aftermath was prompted by just about every possible human emotion, pure and impure; and when the story ends--as it did last night, once again, for me on a plane from Seattle to Minneapolis--I sat there, once again, stunned.

This is no commercial. My guess is that all of us have good friends up there on the shelf, folks we haven't really hung around with for awhile. All I'm saying is that this weekend, amid a ton of my own yakking in a variety of venues, amid the splatter of a political campaign that is getting more and more negative, I spent some real quality time with an wise old friend, a novel--this one named The Assault. We had a great visit, and once again I'm the better man for having sat there with him and listened to his story.

Don't know that I'll go back again right away, but I'll tell you this much: that old friend will stay close, even closer than where it sits, right here beside me on the shelf.

This morning I'm thankful for one fine old book.

Friday, October 24, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks

When it all works

Yesterday, in Sea/Tac airport, I was reminded of various and sundry horrors in the my life as a traveler, including arriving without luggage, including sidling up to the rental car agency and there discovering that my drivers licence was in dire need of renewal, one day and out, in fact. I've had my share of foibles in airports--most all of them my own fault: getting on the wrong plane, for instance.

And few problems in the affluent life we all live can be as aggravating as airport delays and cancellations. I've camped out in airports just a few times too often, too.

But yesterday was smooth as silk, and today I'm signed, sealed, and delivered to the gorgeous Pacific Northwest, my bags readily here at my side. It was all clockwork.

So I'm telling myself this morning that sweet morning thanks should rise from my heart just as curses have gushed at other times from the darker reaches when things didn't go as nicely as they did yesterday, flight- and airport-wise.

This morning, it's all very simple. After all day in the air yesterday, I'm thankful I'm here, luggage and all.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks


Yesterday, early in the morning in the gym, out of simple curiosity, I asked a number of my ex-colleagues (retired profs) whether they ever discussed politics. One of them said they did talk politics, and on their morning walk that day all four of them were in mourning.

The answer was a sufficient explanation of their views. Obama has been gaining in the polls--hence, the sadness.

Honestly, I wasn't asking for a fight. I was just wondering whether these guys--all good friends of mine at one time--ever disagreed about things during this intemperate political season.

Nope. They were all in mourning.

They waited for me to sign on the dotted line with them, and I didn't. And immediately, one of them pointed a crooked, Clinton-like finger at me, and yelled, "You're supporting a murderer."

At just past six in the morning, I'm in no mood to fight, and besides I'm not a fighter anyway; but the incident felt like a searing reprimand from a man I've always considered a friend. Righteous indignation can feel a whole lot like self-righteous repression.

I live in a corner of the state where religion and Republicanism go hand-in-hand. I can't imagine that the sprawling Obama political machine thinks much at all about securing any votes here. The cultural consensus is with my retired colleague: a vote for Obama is a vote for a murderer.

Case closed.

Minority voices are not tolerated; they're even, as I was, relegated to hell.

Republicans rightly observe that the media spends far more time harassing Sarah Palen than they do Joe Biden, despite his profligate gaffs. Conservatives correctly assess that many, many media stars are undoubtedly Democratic in their leanings. Last night, Chris Matthews asked Bill Maher to talk about the election; I turned Hardball off.

I understand why McCain supporters feel persecuted and picked on, even though I don't share their political views. But I live in a place where the thought police wear the uniform of the other side and bully the opposition just as brutally--and maybe even more because here it's done in the name of the Lord, which puts an eternal spin on the accusations.

What I wonder is, why does it have to be this way? Why do people have shout each other down? Why does hate have to run so deep and wide just beneath the surface of political discourse, even--and maybe even especially--among professing Christians? Is freedom to choose a candidate, to take a side, to have a contrary idea, a good thing or is it evil?

I'm sixty years old, but there are things I still don't understand.

But this morning, it's important for me to say that repression is awful, no matter who's behind it. And it's important for me to say, too, that I'm thankful for freedom.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks

Late October/early winter

The frost is on the pumpkin.

While that line may offer us some delight, there's none, I'd guess, for the pumpkin. Winter-like cold descended yesterday--which is not to say that somewhere between now and the annual parade of shovels we won't have a few sweet spasms of warmth.

But yesterday's blustery cold was a reminder that smiling weather is over for awhile. Soon and very soon we'll all be clutching our collars with mittened hands and ducking our heads beneath caps and hats. Winter may not yet be here--we've yet to see fleks of snow--but let there be no doubt: global warming notwithstanding, snow and ice are getting mighty anxious somewhere up there where they're netted like convention balloons. Last year was memorable for its ferocity and the fact that the first snow--ice, really--stayed there until April. This year, maybe a reprieve.

Then again, maybe not.

There are dozens of reasons to be thankful for winter, I'm sure. Wish I could think of one.

Actually, I've never hated 'em. It's just that it feels, right now, as if we're all somehow facing cold ritual imprisonment.

But not death. It's not going to kill us. Winter is coming, but it's surely tougher on pumpkins. But then, without them we'd never have Thanksgiving. And there's no one I know who isn't thankful for Thanksgiving.

Sometimes--brrrr--it's just not easy to give thanks.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Muslim among us

I'm not the one who brought it up--she did. She called to say thanks for a little tape recording I made of her great-granddaughter singing at the piano, had to tell me how much she loved it--again, not having heard it for awhile. Other pleasantries. Then, the question.

"So are you still going to vote for Obama?" she asked.

Here we go again.

"Yep," I said.

"How can you?--he's a Muslim."

"He's not a Muslim, Mom," I said. "I don't know where you get that stuff, but it's just not true."

"How do you know?"

"Listen to him--to what he says. He says he's a Christian."

"But you don't know."

"A hundred press stories have said it."

"But the media hate McCain. They hate Sarah Palin."

"I wish you wouldn't think that way, Mom--it's just not true."

"Do you know him?"

And it went downhill from there.

I know Republicans will say that Obama has vastly outspent McCain on negative ads, that he's called McCain "erratic," that John Kerry has suggested McCain wears Pampers. It's not been pretty. Most of America really hoped this election cycle might stay above the slime, but it hasn't.

But the pit is owned right now by those who chatter endlessly about who's a real American and who isn't, about what the "real America" is and isn't, about which congressmen are pro-American and which are anti-American, and about who thinks like us and who doesn't. My last three projects concerned American minorities--Native Americans and Asian refugees. When Sarah Palin talks about being so happy she's speaking to real Americans, she's not talking about them. She's talking about me--white, small-town, church-goin' folks with real jobs and nice families and all of that.

In America, she's got a right to say what she'd like. But I just wish that all of those who seek so fervently to divide America into the capitalists and the socialists, into good guys and bad, into Christians and pagans, into black and white (as Rush Limbaugh did yesterday), would remember that some people actually believe it--my mother for one.

"Mom, he's not a Muslim," I told her.

"How do you know--how can anyone know?" she told me.

You can't, I guess. You simply choose who you believe.

Monday, October 20, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks

Dudley in Distress

Because the barber shop is gone and the local pool hall integrated long ago, the city dump, most often, is just about the only exclusively male world in town these days. Come October Saturdays, it's busy, pickups moving in and out in a steady stream of grass clippings, leaves, what's left of the summer's flowers, and now and then a cord of wood from that dead tree that finally came down.

I don't have a pickup. Maybe that's my problem. I put the grass and leaves in huge plastic bags, then lug them to the dump in the trunk of my Buick. Okay, I may well have been the only guy out there in a Buick. Maybe that's how to understand what happened.

Somehow, one of my tires took a stick in the shank, as if some aborigines with bellows for lungs aimed at the left rear tire and assaulted it with a poison dart as thick as my little finger. I'm not lying. Check the picture.

I never heard that tire exhale, but the guys next to me did. They were Hispanic, but their gestures made it clear that something was amiss with my car. I was already backing out, so when I saw them waving their arms and pointing, I got out, walked around the car, and saw the reason for the commotion. That tire was perfectly flat, the stick poking out of it like some wooden stiletto.

So who's changed a tire in the last decade? Some Nobel-Prize level engineer determined that nobody would go flat anymore, so he came up with some grand rubberish discover so that flats don't happen anymore. My last one was twenty years ago, when our kids were so little they were impressed when their old man pulled to the side of the road, grabbed the jack and the spare, and pulled off a change as if he were a grease monkey.

But I'm hardly in shape. Nobody practices, nobody does a run through, do they? I don't. When I saw the flat, I wasn't looking forward to changing it, in part because when mechanical aptitude was passed out to the fleet of babies I was a part of, I must have been writing a poem.

I'm standing there looking at this pancake tire, when out of nowhere this sweet young guy comes by and says, "You want some help?"

Okay, I did. But what I'm wondering is, how inept did I look, just standing there? Was there something written on my forehead that broadcast to the world that I didn't have a clue how to change the blame tire? How'd the kid know I was Prof. Klutz? I hadn't done a thing yet, hadn't even popped the trunk, and just like that the Good Samaritan leaves his little boy in the pickup, on the lookout for distressed souls.

And in a minute, another guy there, another man who, in some perfectly male way, simply took over for the young guy. I swear--I didn't have a flat tire for more than two minutes, and I had a caregivers galore.

I'm bald as a billiard ball, but so is Joe the Plumber. Hairlessness isn't the reason all these guys read my stress and came to my aid. Maybe these days this 60-year-old looks like Mr. Wilson from Dennis the Menace or any of a dozen geezers at the Home. I just don' t know why I attracted care-givers so quickly. You'd think I would have been wielding an aluminum walker.

Why did those real men think I needed help? Maybe the mechanically apt smell out the inept instinctively. For some mysterious reason, within a minute I had two Good Sams who proceeded, unbidden, to change my tire, while I stood there like a pansy.

And when it was over, when I myself loaded the flat in the trunk, another old guy not far away, a man I don't know from Floyd the Barber, hrummphed, "You ought to write a book about it." Then chuckled.

I doubt that old man reads blogs. And I'm guessing my two mechanics don't either.


Okay, I admit it: there's a good chance, two days later, I'd still be there had they left me on my own. So, yes, I'm thankful for a couple of ex-boy scouts who somehow, some way sensed distress in a bald guy with pancake tire.

In less than five minutes I was out of the dump. Just that easy. Not kidding. But I'm left in distress, worrying about my masculinity. Again. :).

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Sunday Morning Meditation


It's a runt in the picture, a true medical case, a calf so small that his likelihood of survival on the ranch was tenuous at best. So my friend brought him from the range of hills behind him for special care. Amazing, but he looks happy. He's got a life. And there lies the story of the picture.

Don't know why, but it happens, I think, in most of our lives--and mine too. Hope is a fragile thing somehow. Maybe it's the proliferation of suffering around us; everywhere we look, people hurt. I'm quite sure that I feel it more and more with advancing years because I'm not a romantic about some golden age. Darkness--and sadness--eats away at spirit and life, as it has since Adam and Even stitched together some leafy togs. That these aren't the worst of times doesn't make us feel any less as if they are.

My morning dose of John Calvin comes from his thoughts on Psalm 11: "The Lord is in his holy temple." And what Calvin says is this: "When all things are thrown into disorder and darkness. . .let faith serve as a lamp to enable us to behold God's heavenly throne, and let that sight suffice to make us wait in patience for the restoration of things to a better state."

Thus, once again, I am reminded. Give me strength to squeeze these old hands around a promise that isn't news at all. This morning, once again, I'm thankful to be reminded that hope is always there, even for runts--and those who sadly think they are--for all of us who find it hard to live sometimes on the open range.

Friday, October 17, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks

Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair

Anyway, I'm working away last night on something, when the CD I'm playing offers me "I Dream of Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair," an ancient piece of Americana penned by none other than Stephen Foster, I guess, 150 years old or more. [If you want to hear it, click on the link to the left--it is sweet.]

Stops me dead in my tracks, because I remember my mom, 90 in a month, telling me how, when they were courting, my dad used to croon that old tune to her, his own kind of seduction, I imagine, and hers. Her name is Jeannie. Dad is gone, but I'm guessing if I'd play that old song for Mom today, she'd walk right in and sing along.

For a moment, something grabbed at my heart, even though I am myself likely the end result of at least some bit of that seductive crooning. I never heard my father's sweet nothings, which is not to say I didn't hear his protestations of love--there was nothing cold about my parent's emotional life.

In a Bible that belonged to my father for most of his life, I found a picture of his Jeannie in a swim suit. Much of what's packed into the pages of that tattered Bible is what remains of his World War II experience--some letters and even a picture of the Coast Guard tug he and a small crew ran all the way to the South Pacific.

In that swimsuit picture, my mother is holding hands with her two war-born kids, and they're on some Lake Michigan beach. It's a treasure, really, because that picture--and the Bible it was in--probably dragged him through the war aboard an old tug that rarely exceeded five knots all the way through the South Pacific. That, and the song, of course--"Jeannie with the light brown hair"--plus the fact that sometime this morning my class will be looking at O'Brien's "The Things They Carried." I'm thinking, I guess, about what my father carried.

But all of that is ancient history now. My father's been gone for five years. No matter. I'm a richer man for the memory the two of them gave me long ago--for the song, the tattered Bible, and the pin-up shot of his young wife, the one he left behind.

This morning I'm thankful to be so wealthy. I guess I might say, these are a part of the things I carry.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks

Gabriel Spera

So I'm preparing for class yesterday, when I check through the poems in the anthology I'm using, and find two very, very powerful poems by some guy name Gabriel Spera, a poet I've never heard of (not that I know them all). These poems knock me out, really--they're perfectly well done; not only thoughtful but absolutely stunning.

Who is this guy? I ask myself, and I google his name and turn up a few more really interesting poems from the net. This one, "In a Field Outside of Town," is too long to reprint here, but have a look sometime. It's an amazing poem-- --about mass murder in what seems Bosnia.

I discover Mr. Spera has won at least one important award, the 2004 Pen Center Award for Poetry for his only book, The Standing Wave. So I go to the Pen Center website, where I read this:

Gabriel Spera’s first collection of poems, The Standing Wave, moves effortlessly from old questions about the nature of God and the devil to
contemporary concerns to personal meditations on time and loss. “The book demanded our attention for the emotional range of the poems and for the maturity of craft exhibited there,” said the judges. “In short, this book is extraordinary.” Not only does Spera ask the big questions, he does so
“brilliantly” and exhibits a willingness to provide answers to serious and troubling issues of the day, especially in the unforgettable and essential “The Suicide Bombers” and “In a Field Outside the Town.” The poems are “so packed with metaphor we seem in 2004 almost to have forgotten how to read them,” add the judges. “Reading this book we remember that we love metaphor, love the old ways of speaking, not only in an individual voice but in the collective voice of our conscience.”
Okay, I probably buy far too many books for someone who swears he's got to get rid of them and thereby lighten the load on the road toward retirement; but I don't often buy books of poetry, and besides, this guy had me slack-jawed.

On to Amazon. I type in his name, find the award winner, and discover it's out of print. Not terribly surprising, of course, poetry as important to our culture as, say, blacksmithing. But I can buy it used. Click.

Get this. It cost me a penny. Okay, a couple bucks shipping, but I can buy this guy's poetry, a prize-winning collection of stunning poems from just four years ago, for one red cent. Flypaper costs more.

I'm not sure how much our retirement accounts lost yesterday when the stock market tanked once more. I don't want to know. I've no idea how much we're paying to try to steady the financial ship of state, not really; I mean, I can probably dig up the numbers, but does anyone really have an idea of how much loot that it, of what else could be done with it?

The air is full of billions and trillions as of late; an additional digit on the national debt meant the number exceeded the space it's been given on some neon sign in NYC. I can't possible fathom that kind of money.

And yet here's the story--yesterday, I met a poet who knocked my socks off with brilliant language and arresting, transcendent ideas; a half-hour later, from the comfort of my study, I bought his book, an award winner, for a penny.

I just don't know what to say about that. Maybe I should be thankful. But I'm not. For eleventy-seven reasons, I'm sad.

But I've got the poems. And that's reason enough to be thankful this morning.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks

Highland, 2008

It's become a ritual--with me at least, not them. My students don't remember last year, of course--or the year before; or the time it snowed; or 2001, when both my classes were out there on 9/11. All my students know is that their prof says that we're taking a ride out into the country. Which we do.

We go to a ghost town named Highland because I want them to stop and smell the roses, even though there isn't a one out there, not even a prairie rose, Iowa's state flower. There's only a few graves, some ridiculously out-of-place pine trees, and a horizon so big and broad you couldn't get it on an canvas or in a lens if you tried. Trust me.

Sometimes it works--this little exercise; sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes kids understand why I took them out there. All I want to do is to shut up for awhile and sit in the presence of something so much bigger than we are. That's my lesson plan.

Once there was a church there; little but the graveyard remains. But the foundation of that little country church is still there in the grass. You can see the outline in the picture above, less than twenty feet across. You can stand inside that outline and feel as if the church is still there. It couldn't have held more than fifty people. Maybe that explains why, in a town as tiny as Highland--six or eight buildings in all--two of them were churches.

Sometimes, I think, in my last year of teaching, I'd like to go out with a semester on wheels, nothing but travel and reading, moseying along through the Great Plains, checking out battle sites, camping where Lewis and Clark did, feeling the ruts left from thousands of wagons along the Oregon Trail, standing in the silence at Wounded Knee. That would be a semester to remember.

There are so many places like Highland, Iowa, on the Great Plains, places with spirits, ghost towns. Yesterday, we were there again, and I know. Some of those spirits are visions.

Your old men shall see visions--isn't that what the Bible says? If it doesn't, it ought to.

Once again, I'm thankful, honestly, for the visions that rise from a ghost town.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks

An old letter
Oostburg, Wis.
Oct. 28, 1943

Mr. and Mrs. Abe Bleeker & other relatives,
This little letter must serve to tell you the sad news of the death of my dear wife. your Aunt Gertrude after a lingering illness. She had reached the age of sixty-one. The funeral will be held Saturday P.M. Will you tell Ray and family and Neal? You may also tell Mrs. Bleeker, Gerrit Te Krony, and any others you might think of. Maybe it might be well to tell your minister. Bemis, Palmer--was my first charge. She died yesterday at seven P.M.

I certainly will miss her. May the Lord give strength.

Your uncle,
J. C. Schaap

Got this note in the mail from a distant relative, whose mother died in California, the woman who was, originally, the recipient of the letter. The writer was my grandfather, who, in 1943, was holding forth from a pulpit in Oostburg, Wisconsin, the front window of the manse in which he lived festooned with five stars--five children in the war effort in Europe or the South Pacific.

Grandpa was no a blogger, of course. If he would have been, I'm sure he would have left a more ample record of what he felt in his soul, in his bones, amid the sadness. But these words and this letter is all there is--just the facts, and "I certainly will miss her."

He must have sat down with paper and envelopes and a bunch of penny stamps and then written out a number of these notes to aunts and other relatives, one after another, bringing the news, a day after she died. I'd be surprised if there weren't others in the parsonage that day, his children and in-laws beside him, helping him try to sweep up after death, as Dickinson might have said.

The hand looks very steady, the lines as flat as stone, and the paper, although yellowed, looks as if it could well have been opened yesterday. This slip of paper has a history after its composition too. My guess is that Mrs. Bleeker rarely if ever took it out of the envelope again. That penny stamp is cut out of the old envelope, probably a gift to a grandchild; but the letter holds its crease as if my grandma's death had taken place just a week ago.

But Mrs. Bleeker kept it--the letter, that is. She never tossed it, for some reason. Even though she likely didn't have to read it, she probably considered it significant family history. When she died, her relatives undoubtedly went through her stuff and found it and some other family things, sent them to a relative who cared about family history--and that relative sent it to me. Now it sits here on my desk, like an open hand, holding its creases.

I never knew my grandmother. I'm told she was a saint. People say that often maybe, but I've never heard anyone say anything negative about her, including my mother, her daughter-in-law.

I'm sixty; she was only a year older when she died there in the Oostburg parsonage. I've no idea if my children will keep this old letter, when someday they stumble on it when they're sweeping up after death. I don't know that this stiff note will matter to them in the same way it does to me--after all, I remember my grandfather and I know the house in which the letter was written, the house in which his beloved wife died. My mind holds images.

But I won't toss it, even though someone eventually will. When I hold this stiff old note in my hands, it relieves tension somehow, carries me into someone else's life, someone else's great sadness. Makes my worries skip away, if only for an hour. This letter doesn't lie about life, like so much does.

This morning, I'm thankful for what seems almost a business letter, wrung from the soul of an anguished believer who must have felt, even in a house full of comforters, so very much more alone.

I'm thankful for the sparse acknowledgement of his sadness because somehow, so many years later, it's still a blessing: "May the Lord give strength."

Monday, October 13, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks


Speaking of Faith, a weekly radio broadcast on National Public Radio created by American Public Media, has featured discussions the last two weeks on America's peculiar marriage of religion and politics. Two weeks ago, Krista Tippett featured Amy Sullivan, a Time magazine correspondent, an evangelical Christian and political liberal. This week Ms. Tippett spoke to Ron Dreher, who writes for the Dallas Morning News, a Christian political conservative not always at home with the Christian right.

The political atmosphere is so heavily charged right now that I'm sure many would disagree, but I found the two programs extraordinarily helpful in a ton of ways.

Just one. Dreher says that the difference between Christians on the right and Christians on the left is that the former tend to honor what one believes, while the latter honor how one comes to believe what one believes. To liberals, the quest is all; to conservative, the precept is all. Interesting and, I think, helpful.

Here's the way I look backward. The watershed events in my life concern my children growing up. We just spent a sweet chunk of the weekend in Oklahoma, where my son is a grad student; we came back thrilled. He's doing well, and the young lady he's been seeing for a year, we think is a gem. Our daughter lives here, very happily and very busily, with her husband and two great kids. We've got it pretty good.

That's not the point. The watershed events in my life happened when it became perfectly clear to me that we can't and don't clone ourselves, that our kids have their own lives, that just because they're ours doesn't mean they make decisions or choose to behave or determine what they believe in a fashion that replicates their parents' ways, just as I didn't. My children--and they're doing well--have taught me the greatest lesson I've ever learned: that I'm not so blasted smart. Maybe that's why I'm not as interested in precept as I am in the pilgrimage.

Sometimes I see parents of young children in church, and I remember what it was like for me, standing there in a pew, kids beside me as I tell myself that this whole parenthood thing was a piece of cake. Then my kids got minds of their own, just like I once did. Life got more complex than it seemed when they were my responsibility. I became far less sure of my positions on just about everything. How I got to where I stood was of far greater interest to me than simply where I stood.

If Ron Dreher is right--and I think he is--then listening to him this weekend has helped me to understand why I am where I am. And, as Aristotle says--and Calvin remembers--"the whole humility of man consists in the knowledge of himself."

So this morning, I'm thankful for a radio program I heard yesterday on the way back from a great weekend visit to our son, a program that helped me better understand myself. Oh, yeah--and a wonderful weekend.

Friday, October 10, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks


"Pride is the mother of all wrongs; for if a man did not through pride magnify himself above his neighbours, and through an overweening conceit of himself despise them, even common humanity would teach us with what humility and justice we ought to conduct ourselves towards each other. Let everyone, therefore, who desires to live justly and unblameably with his brethren, beware of indulging or taking pleasure in treating other disdainfully; and let him endeavor, above all things, to have his mind freed from the disease of pride." John Calvin, on Psalm 10.

That Calvin is right goes without saying, or so it seems to me. One of the wounds that Presidential politics lays on the human soul is an on-going carousel display of human pride, candidates stumping their own blasted signficant strengths. "Trust me," they all say, thumbing their chests, even though it feels like empty rhetoric. Politicians lug with them their own tremendous egos, and campaigns only nurtures their tumor-like growth.

I wonder if Lincoln was that way? In retrospect, he doesn't feel like some swaggering contemporary politician, but my doubt may wbe nostalgia and flat-out hero worship. Maybe Lincoln too, at that famous Springfield debate, told the audience that Judge Douglas carried a satchel of views that made him a third-rate candidate while he himself was the sterling key to the future. At 6'4", he likely towered over poor Douglas. Did he brag about himself? Maybe. I don't know.

One of Calvin's favorite Augustinian lines went something like this: "The whole humanity of man consists in the knowledge of himself." No kidding.

But heart-felt humility doesn't win elections, and neither does thoughtful introspection. Our candidates need to be big-time movers and shakers; they need to promise us the world. We need to believe they're going to serve it up to us royally.

It's fair to say that the ego we expect from our politicians is generated from what it is we think we need. It's our lives that are at stake, our futures in a national campaign. We want someone who will get us what we really need.

Maybe we get exactly what we deserve in our political campaigns. After all, politicians aren't the only ones whose souls are run over with pride. We too have sinned.

Sheesh. I'm Calvinist to the soul.

But this morning, in this little exercise, I'm thankful to have learned that at least I know that much.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

In the World

Let's face it--this is no time to criticize George W. Bush. Right now, it's like shooting lame ducks in a barrel. But one thing that must be said is that, during his administration, America's standing in the world has taken a staggering blow, especially since 9/11, when, as some European head of state sympathetically said, "We are all Americans."

President Bush tossed out the world's respect and admiration as if it were confetti, making America something of a pariah. And he did it by cowboy swagger, by playing on those six guns and saying that, in the war on terror, you're either for us, or agin' us. He did it by claiming righteousness in the cause in Iraq, a pose that caused most of our good friends to pull up their noses and keep their troops at home.

Unlike his own father, George W. failed to consolidate world opinion and, resultingly, alienated most of the world. For whatever good things he did in his time in office--and there were some significant victories, such as the broad support for AIDS in Africa--today his OK Corral combativeness has us isolated from people who have been and should be our friends.

In this morning's NY Times, Roger Cohen tells the story of how that alienation occured with Spain's democratically-elected, socialist Prime Minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, a man Cohen respects more than admires. But the Zapatero story is an oft repeated chorus. Today, most of the world dislikes us.

I say that because the McCain campaign's latest strategy seems to be to urge the American electorate to distrust this strange, half-black, half-white, Hawaii-raised and Indonesian-educated short-term senator from Illinois, the guy with the Muslim name, a man who pals with terrorists. Gov. Palin's winkingly tells massive crowds, overwhelmingly white, that, really, don'tcha' ever wonder whether he's like us? There's something odd about that guy, don'tcha think?

Well, maybe there is. Maybe he's not like her at all. Or Bush. Or McCain. Maybe he's not Joe Six-pack or you're good ol' ever-lovin', flag-wavin' hockey mom. Maybe he is different.

A good friend, not an American, called me recently, and claimed he could not understand the American electorate. "Don't you understand that 60,000 people in Berlin came to hear Barack Obama, not because he was Barack Obama, but because he may just be someone who will address the world with respect? Don't Americans understand that?"

Our economic problem is not our economic problem. What is obvious in the last two weeks is that we're part of a global society. It's sheer madness to think otherwise. We need to get along in the world. It might make us feel good to draw lines in the sand, but it's lunacy. It's not smart.

There may be wonderful reasons to support John McCain, but most of the world sees his taking over--and his running mate's swagger--to be simply more of the same.

Maybe some people want that. Not me. If there's anything we don't need, it's more of the same.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks

What I don't know and what I can't do

Not that long ago, he was in our offices. It wouldn't be a surprise to see him wander in any day now; if he would, I wouldn't immediately jump out of my desk. What I'm saying is that he graduated just a few moons ago, it seems.

But he sent an essay here, an essay I read, an essay that talked in somewhat general terms about his semesters here, about what he was going through at the time, about his doubts about the Christian faith, his dalliance with other world religions, even no faith at all as he sat right in front of me in my classes. "One wintry, Sunday night," he writes, "I was reading Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. I stopped reading, looked out the window at the falling snow and realized that Beckett was right. We have no purpose on the earth; no goal, no hope. Flying home for Christmas break, I wondered how I would tell my parents that I was no longer a Christian."

I don't sweat a confession like that as much as others might. Life is a pilgrimage. I've long ago stopped envying people who seemingly have their shit together religiously, quite confident that most of us--King David included--spend most of our lives doing some significant questioning. The unexamined life isn't life at all--if in fact it even exists.

But what disheartened me about reading that passage and others in this personal pilgrimage paper was the fact that, as one of his teachers at the time, I had no clue. I teach writing. Sometimes I think we English teachers have a special calling; often as not, we deal more exclusively with what really goes on in mind and heart; often as not what goes on inside comes out on paper. Maybe I'm dreaming.

But the fact of the matter is, I didn't know. When this kid describes his "spiritual" condition, he also includes a confession of his own depression at the time, of panic attacks that left him emotionally jarred. And I never knew. I never knew a thing.

That all that trauma could run so tremuously through the life of a kid I thought I knew, but didn't, makes me incredibly sad. Why on earth didn't he come talk to me?--I wondered. Why on earth didn't he reveal any of his toxic sadness, his doubts, the devastation in his heart? I never had a clue.

But then I couldn't help remember the parable of the sower and really, how incredibly impotent that farmer is in the occasion of his crop's nurture. Trust me, I'm not saying the kid is rocky soil--maybe I'm the rocky soil. But I can honestly take comfort from the belief that I know I would have done something if he'd asked me, that I would have taken time with him, that I would have tried to help. But I didn't know.

We teachers sometime think we own will. We may point out directions, but students are the ones at the wheel. I work in Christian higher education. I firmly believe that Christian teachers can put a significant foundations under a student's view of the world. We can point, Lewis and Clark-like, toward faith, but we can't engender belief.

Only God can. I failed this kid--maybe. But I swear I tried to be the best teacher I could. I swear. If he'd only have asked, I'd have tried harder. But he didn't.

All of which teaches me two lessons simultaneously: we aren't so important--those of us who teach and those of who don't--as we might think; but He is.
Like I said, the kid is young. He has a long road ahead of him. I don't worry too much about his doubts; he sent us this paper, after all. He still covets our impressions. I worry much more about those who've never suffered, never doubted. Those people scare me.

Salvation belongs to the Lord. That doesn't remove my obligation to build something hefty in a kid's mind and heart. Doesn't mean I throw in the towel. But it doesn't mean that I'm the one that does the heavy lifting. God does.

And for that fact this morning, I'm thankful.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks

At least, it's almost over

It's affecting me, heart and soul--this election. I used to find it a joy, but now it's become downright nasty. Nonetheless, it's running like a virus through my veins, turning me dependent. I can hardly not watch, not think about it.

Twice in my life I remember similar addictions. Once, in the last days of the Nixon Administration, when the Watergate Hearings were televised, I simply could not pull myself away. During the unravelling of the Clinton/Lewinsky affair, I was tuned in just as exclusively, waiting for the blade to fall. I'm an equal opportunity junkie.

This time it's an election, not an impeachment. Tonight is the second debate, a town hall affair. Yesterday, some campaign aid of McCain's rather publicly announced that since they were losing their shirt on the economy, they were simply going to sling mud--well, excrement. Sarah Palin's weekend charge about Obama's "palling" with terrorists prompted a quick response from the Obama camp, who released a video about McCain's dalliance with Charles Keating a couple decades ago. They all fiddle while the country they so love--or so they claim--burns. Does that make sense?

We're leaderless right now, George W. Bush having lost his bully pulpit somewhere between Wall Street, New Orleans, and Baghdad. Americans badly need someone to believe in, someone whose word we can trust; but the candidates--and I blame John McCain--are both majoring in sleaze. I could cry.

We're in bad straights, so this addiction of mine isn't to some mild hallucinogenic. I'm not on some jaunty high. A month from now, this country's millions have to make a very, very important decision. Me too.

Last night at a meeting, a colleague led devotions with a reminder that stillness is a virtue: "Be still and know that I am God." Yeah, I told myself.

That was a fine bromide--for about an hour. This morning, I'm once again dallying with needles.

So this morning, I'm thankful for this much at least--in a month, it will all be over. Wish I could say that for our problems.

Monday, October 06, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks


Interesting that this little revelation should happen at a conference on history, which it did, a conference that looked exclusively at the history of Dutch communities in Wisconsin. What my mother discovered had absolutely no relationship to the conference, except that it too was about history. That's where she discovered the story.

A man she once knew--even taught to play piano--graduated with great honors from the local high school, years ago; and when he did, a relative of mine with a significant pocketbook and a litany of his own family problems asked him what he was going to do. The kid said he wished he could go to college, but he didn't think it possible--there was no bucks in the family till.

All of this, a man told my mother. Then came the revelation. The kid--who is no longer a kid because all of this happened decades ago--told my mother that this relative of mine, someone to whom she was very close, simply said he'd help significantly with the bill. And did. For four years. All the way through. Significantly.

And no one knew, at least no one in my family, certainly not my mother. The man who spoke to her, whose tuition was paid, is a fifty-something today; but he wanted my mother to know. He'd come to the conference on history, not really expecting to see my mother. They started talking, and he told her about how it was he'd received his education.

My mother, who is 90, had a good time at the conference, I'm sure. At the end of the day, she must have been tuckered out because when it was over, on top of everything else, we went out for dinner. It was a long day. But I don't know that she could have taken a greater blessing back to the home than she did, discovering something about history, something about her sibling, something she never knew before, an act of grace that never got a headline, much less a whisper.

Random acts of kindness, people call them. My uncle picked up a significant bill for a poor kid's college education: for my mother, that was the headline news of the whole conference.

My thanks, this morning, is that I learned some family history--but, even more, that my mother did. Her brother is gone now, but that news made the conference on history greatly worthwhile.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks

Spiritual Discipline

Spent a day--and a night--at a ranch on the Missouri River yesterday, shooting pictures for a magazine. We had a great time. The place is full of love and cats and beauty.

On a jaunt into the hills behind the ranch, we climbed a knoll that offered an almost unparalleled vision, thirty or forty miles in all directions, the river--really, a reservoir--rolling hills, distant farm places, wooded ravines, all of it dressed in autumn gold, everywhere you look small coveys of cattle enjoying fall's final pasture meals.

So we're up there, almost above the world, the kind of view one otherwise only sees from the seat of an airplane, and, other than a few meadowlarks piping their joy, there is little but silence in uncharacteristic windlessness, a vision of creation that leaves you on your knees.

Our host would have preferred all that camera work to take place in June, when the pastures are bedecked with wildflowers against spring's emerald mantle; but, still puffing from the climb, I told him that early October was just fine too.

Then he said, "If you listen, you can hear the voice of God." And he was right.

Goodness knows, I need that kind of spiritual discipline, long for it, in fact. What my heart tells me--that I need to keep some space in my soul for sheer beauty--my mind, which is to say my busy-ness, far too often simply won't oblige.

But really his words were God's, a reminder that we listen too infrequently for the voice of the divine, the voice of our maker. Or at least, I do.

For his blessed observation, this morning, the morning after, I'm thankful. I need the spiritual discipline he reminded me to hear. Make that reminds.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks

A Break

I wish I knew how I keep myself so busy. Part of the problem has to be this screen in front of me. If I had no computer, I'd have hours of extra time--that seems to me to be a fact. Somehow, it seems, my days are shorter than they've ever been, and there's no end to what stacks of tasks that sit before me. And this ain't self-pity.

That's why, this morning, two hours of writing projects already behind me, I'm thankful for breaks. For the last four years, I'd be getting up in northern Minnesota this morning; this year, no. This year, home. This year, no sparkling lake out the front window. This year, the hint of morning--a slowly graying sky--is all I see through what leaves are left on the ornamental crab just outside the basement window.

Our weather has been gracious as of late, and the world is awash with color. And today--and tomorrow--we're off, no class, no teaching, no reason to go to school.

And for that, this morning, even though we're here at home, I'm very thankful, thankful for breaks.

And now I'm turning off the machine.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

A Year of Morning Thanks

Life at harvest

Years ago, my parents-in-law, good Iowa farmers, annually got nervous this time of year. Harvest--an event that always sounded like a joyous celebration to a town kid--used to make them both more than a little shaky.

My father-in-law recognized harvest as a poker hand with a table full of chips. Could he get the crops in on time? Would he have to spend half his check getting the grain dry? Would his machinery hold out? A thousand similar questions arose daily before the ticking clock behind the rumble of the John Deere.

My mother's worries were a bit different. Harvest meant heartache. She told me how fearful she'd get because she just knew that somewhere in the neighborhood some guy was going to die in a horrible farm accident. Happened every year--another kind of reaping.

We've had three deaths this year in the neighborhood, and we're still nowhere near halfway through. I don't keep track of these things very closely, but the old folks' home where my in-laws live today is as sure a place as any to hear the news around town, especially when the news is tragic and involves old people. Three old men have died in farm accidents in the last few weeks, one of them from a heart attack, the two others in a bloody fashion that's far better left unexplained. Tragic deaths. Horrible deaths.

Last Sunday my ninety-year-old father couldn't help but reflect a bit because he remembers a couple decades ago when he too, just retired, was out in the field, helping some farmer out with harvest. He didn't say it in as many words, but I know what he was telling me--how hard it is for a man to feel useless, and why it's dangerous for them to be in that age bracket: old enough to have well-worn reactions, young enough not to admit as much.

It's a question of life, finally. I'm sure all three of the deceased knew better, but I'm equally sure that all three couldn't have stayed home that day either. I don't doubt for a moment that up until the very moments of their deaths, they looked up at a harvest sky, felt the grain dust between their fingers, watched the lumbering harvestors move over endless acres of corn and beans, and thanked the Lord they could still be a part of the pageant.

Then, one wrong move, and two of them were dead. A bad heart got the other.

Life isn't just breathing. A beating heart does not mean a vibrant spirit. Two of those deaths were messy and horrible, but I can't help but wonder if all three wouldn't have said, that morning while tying up their boots, that if they'd be called to a reckoning on that very day, it would be, well, okay. But then maybe my own in-laws and I live too close to another kind of dying.

This morning, sixty years old myself, mid-harvest, I'm thankful, very thankful, for life.