Tuesday, September 30, 2008
Monday, September 29, 2008
Friday, September 26, 2008
Wednesday, September 24, 2008
Tuesday, September 23, 2008
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,
Monday, September 22, 2008
Friday, September 19, 2008
Thursday, September 18, 2008
Wednesday, September 17, 2008
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
Monday, September 15, 2008
Sunday, September 14, 2008
Friday, September 12, 2008
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
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."
Tuesday, September 09, 2008
Monday, September 08, 2008
Saturday, September 06, 2008
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
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
Wednesday, September 03, 2008
Tuesday, September 02, 2008
Monday, September 01, 2008
--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.