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, January 30, 2009

Morning Thanks--Images

It's gone now--an old house that I stumbled across one Saturday morning out east of here. Abandoned farm places have a habit of disappearing rather quickly in Sioux County, where good capitalists with Dutch surnames know dang well the land is too valuable to give over to memories. But one doesn't have to go too far west or east to find them still scattered around the landscape, monuments some farmer folks just can't push themselves to bulldoze. I love 'em because there's something eerie about 'em, something, well, abandoned.

This one had a mousetrap mounted on the back door frame--probably a homemade "leave a message" sort of thing, and I have really no idea why the silly thing attracted me, or why the image sticks with me somehow, begging definition or revelation or something. There's no deeply embedded moral truth here in some farmer's nailing a mousetrap to the doorframe.

Perhaps it just speaks of a certain kind of departed neighborliness--after all, the place has no neighbors anymore. The place, in fact, is not a place. Today, it's snow. Six months from now, it'll be beans. Today, there is no mousetrap.

The fact is, I found it when there was no need to leave a note, the house long ago abandoned.

And now it's all gone--house and mousetrap too.

Sic transit gloria mundi? Ah, that's pushing it. It's just an old mousetrap.

I'm always thankful for mysteries, the little ones at least, the ones that won't depart.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Morning Thanks--Respite Care

It's a blessing, really, that there's always more to learn. A couple days ago a little plastic bag full of what looked to be half-pint, pink Tootsie Roll Pops lay on the table in my in-laws' apartment at the Home. Candy suckers aren't something one sees around there all that often, in the land of the false choppers.

"Where did those come from?" I asked my wife.

She took one from the bag--a tiny sponge on a sucker stick, meant for keeping people's lips moist. I had no idea there was such a thing. But then, I'm sure that my not knowing is a bad thing.

And yesterday I learned something too. There's something called "respite care," and, when pressed into service, it relieves the care-giver, temporarily at least. "Respite care"--even sounds like a blessing.

Respite care--care for the caregiver, who we often don't think about, except in heroic terms, and who doesn't want to be a hero, really? A little time off for those who never are. Some breathing space for the short-winded.

I'm not the one who needs it, but I know some folks who do. And this morning, they're getting it. So for it--and them--this morning, even if it's temporary, I'm very thankful.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Morning Thanks--John Updike (1932-2009)

With the story "A & P," John Updike hit me where it hurts, right in the heart. Some townie goes gah-gah when some rich girl from a nearby beach house walks into the local grocery store in a two-piece. When I first read that story, I was in college. In many way, I was the hormone-driven kid behind the counter, who risks his job protecting the honor of the rich girl who could care less.

In 1968, I read Couples, in part because the book was at the cutting edge of a revolution that was going on in literary fiction in the 60s, a new and promiscuous openness when it came to sex. Our English prof lugged a brand new copy along to class and read us, aloud, some of the most racy passages, sure that it would raise our righteous ire. Maybe his gesture inflamed hellfire in others, but I made sure I bought the book. Last night, in class, we watched a bit of Psycho; honestly, it's hard to imagine that at recently as 1960, Anthony Perkins needed to stand in the way of Janet Leigh looking into the can because toilets couldn't be shown on screen. All of that changed in the 60s, and Updike was up there in the front lines.

Updike's Maple stories taught me tons about marraige, about getting along and not getting along. I never got anywhere near the crises that couple faced, but I knew myself better because of the slight intonations in the lives of the Maples, knew myself as husband.
When Updike wrote novels loosely based on the Scarlet Letter, I read them--one of them, Roger's Version, trapping me in the spacious veld that often separates ribald religious enthusiasm from the cynicism of doubt.

For years I used Rabbit, Run in a contemporary novels class. Often, sweet young women were angry at having to read it, sickened by some parts. Just as often,guys loved it, not only because of what it offered them, and what they recognized in themselves, as men.

Few writers were as stylistically blessed, as lyrical. The man could write a sentence like no one else; some say it was his experience as a visual artist that gave him such a rich pallet. Nobody could do graphic sex the way he did either. Even today, a row of Updike books in my library can seem almost radioactive.

And yet, strangely to this small-town Protestant, Updike, himself the same, never backed away from a commitment to the Christian faith, spoke of it often and openly. Rabbit, Run, among other things, is a book about faith--or the lack of it. He was often given to say that sex is the temple today, the place where our culture worships. But Updike was a believer, a Christian. He loved John Barth.

And now he's gone. Certainly one of the prime movers of the literary world in the last half century, John Updike chronicled our times with his own special vision of things in dozens of novels, short stories, and criticism, including the Rabbit novels.

When I look back at my own life, it's impossible not to see him there, often, between the stacks, within the pages, through the years--always that thin, wry smile on his own bookish face.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

a year of morning thanks

Cat saws wood

It's one of those things that, when you see it, you tell yourself "I should have thought of it myself": pet insurance. Some dopey ad appears on TV, and you're less surprised at the idea, than shocked that you'd never seen it before. Even here in Sioux County, Iowa, where hogs and sheep and chickens and cattle and milk cows--thousands and thousands of them--are run off to packing plants daily, people love their pets, adore 'em, pamper 'em, smooch 'em, babble at 'em in baby talk. Us too.

Our old cat is huge. My wife says, he's "big-boned." In winter, when the sun passes deep in the southern sky, he likes to sit on the oak table in the kitchen, where the deck doors admit all of that sun, quite likely the warmest place in the house. He just about covers the table. I'm not sure how they do it, but, mid-winter, cats always seem to know the warmest place--not the warmest places, mind you, the warmest place.

Which leads us to this morning. On some winter nights, he makes it up to our bedroom. This oaf of a cat is not an afghan hound, so sharing the bed doesn't mean actual displacement. But still, he's edging close to 20 pounds, so when he decides to take a chunk of our bed, it's a land grab.

That's not all. He usually has to knead for awhile, which induces industrial-strength purring, of course. Cats, like all of us, have rituals, and those rituals must be adhered to. Sometimes, my ruthless wife sweeps a leg or two beneath him at this point and tosses the big lug off the bed. Maybe fifteen seconds and he's back on, drumming away.

Sometimes he climbs aboard when we're both asleep, and I don't know he's there until I'm suddenly conscious of being short-sheeted. The squatter is back, and he's not about to move.

All of that is annoying enough, but I'm typing these words right now because of his latest provocation. I'm up because he woke me up. I'm not kidding. This old man of a cat, more than slightly overweight--when he jumps up or down, he grunts--this heavy sleeper, this giant, this behomoth, snores. I'm not making this up.

He snores, and I wake up. So who's up there now, sound asleep in our bedroom on this cold and dark January morning? Who's still sawing away? That's right. Not me.

What I should do is hike two blocks to the highway and simply watch the steady stream of cattle trucks on their way to the packers. It would be good for the soul.

And here's another reason to off that big oaf: he's probably got insurance.

Sure. Yeah, he's got insurance all right. He's got us--the fat cat has us. Who needs insurance?

Monday, January 26, 2009

The Unaccustomed Earth

of the basketball floor

The guy is overweight, significantly, and his extra weight suggests discipline and strength. He’s lots younger than I am, but that doesn’t mean he’s a kid. It’s a kind of town league, a bunch of forty-somethings mostly, who’d rather run and pass and shoot than jog an endless circle around that blame gym or freeze their extremities tight on dark-as-night runs around town in the early a.m.

Anyway, this heavyweight guy throws an elbow. The ball had squirted loose and all the vets in the game were going after it. A ref—if there were one—might just let that elbow go in the flurry around the loose ball. But I saw it, and I knew it exactly for what it was because I’ve been out there myself. I knew from whence that elbow came because I know the culture.

He threw it because he didn’t like the guy he was guarding. When the average age out there is early forties, winning isn’t everything. Who gives a crap who wins this morning—shirts or skin? Nobody. So that elbow got thrown for a reason, plain and simple. The heavyweight didn’t like the guy he was guarding. I know that’s true. I’ve been there.

I pulled on my jacket, my hat, and my gloves, and started walking to the door. Outside, through the gym window, the target of that elbow walked off the court. I know why. It wasn’t fun anymore. You get elbows thrown at you when you don’t think you deserve them, and, when you’re forty, you start thinking about running those frozen streets in the darkness.

I’ve been listening to Unaccustomed Earth, a collection of short fiction by Jhumpa Lahiri, really terrific fiction deeply set in Bengali-American immigrant experience, “diaspora fiction,” some call it. For weeks now, I’ve been marveling at her ability to illuminate the lives of people whose culture I don’t know beans about, and yet, paradoxically, at the very same time reveal the humanity of those folks so clearly and vividly that I’d recognize their behavior anywhere. She uses what’s peculiar to bring to life what’s universal.

Jhumpa Lahiri is playing in my head, literally, when I walk out the gym.

I am completely sure that if Jhumpa Lahiri had seen that heavyweight, over-the-hill ball-player throw that elbow, she wouldn’t have begun to understand the story behind it. I’d have to tell her. She doesn’t know the culture.

I wish I knew more cultures as well as I know the culture of the over-the-hill ball players. Pains me to say it, but no matter how many terrific books I can read on Bengalis or Lakota or Navajo, I’d never quite understand the way things work in those worlds as well as I understand what happens to overweight old men on basketball floors.

The key to good writing is to make that old man's ball game the whole darn world.

a year of morning thanks


The world outside my basement window is inky black. It will be a couple hours yet before the sky out east will brighten. But it will.

It's Monday of another week. Who knows what it will bring?

It's the morning of yet another day. Nothing ever stays the same.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

a year of morning thanks

Impossibly human

The ungodly man thinks himself sufficiently strong and powerful to bear up against all the assaults which shall be made upon him. The faithful man says that fall and sink into the lowest depths, his fall will not be fatal for God will put his hand under him to sustain him. Calvin

It seems I'm capable of knowing the truth and yet incapable of living it. It would be funny if it weren't so tragic. That God wants us on our knees seems irrefutable; all of scripture tells us as much. I know it deeply and fully. Yet, I don't get there on my own. I get there only when the assaults, as Calvin says, are such that my own strength is simply incapable of keeping my feet solidly beneath me.

I know, but I don't do. I understand, but that understanding has no effect. I even say plainly what I know, what I understand; but when push comes to shove, I rely like a madman on my own strength, which is never enough.

I am impossibly human, a confession I'm not proud of. This morning, I'm thankful, not for what I am, but for what I'm not because I know--only when I'm on my knees--the blessing that can bring me back once again to my feet.

We visited an old couple last weekend, entered their room without their knowing--neither of them have much hearing left. They were doing devotions at the bedside, reading, haltingly, words that would have sounded much different to my ears, had I not been in their presence, words that were a gift of grace to hear through theirs. I'm not at all sure who has better hearing.

Maybe only in the last hours of our lives do we understand how to live on our knees. Only when we can't get on our feet at all can we really stand.

All this I know. But knowing that doesn't mean I can still be anything but impossibly human.

Friday, January 23, 2009

a year of morning thanks

Everyman. . .and woman

Something tells me that I've been here before, but no matter. If so, I'll say it again because what matters more is life and death.

The argument for the importance of story to our minds and hearts and souls is made these days in me by the fact that the old medieval play Everyman keeps replaying, time and time again. This is the story: John Doe is visited by the grim reaper and told his time has come.

Immediately, he--which is to say us--runs frantically to friends and family in an attempt to get someone to come with. No one, of course, will because no one, of course, can. Then he tries to take along what's brought him comfort here--his memories, some remnant of his bank account; but it's all stubbornly unavailable because one moves only single-file down the road which singularly lies before him. What this John or Jane Doe learns is that no one and nothing accompanies anyone else to the grave. Death is the ultimate existential experience.

Yesterday afternoon, I wheeled the car into a parking lot and couldn't help thinking that all those cars belonged to people I knew, but people who, honestly, could give a shit--and I don't mean that negatively. For me too, typing these words right now, life goes on; but it looks, once again, as if my mother-in-law will go very, very soon--maybe today. For two long hospice years she's been on a path that's been long and hard, and no one will be happier than she is, finally, when it's over. But in every other way, for all of us--even for her family--life simply goes on, it must, while she goes on her different way alone.

For just a moment, I hated the people who owned those other cars, even though I was one of them. And then I went into the Campus Center, where I had a meeting, an important meeting. Life must go on.

She is not alone, of course--she has us; she has her husband. But, like Everyman, there's no one beside her, no one really going with.

Except the Shepherd, who's promised that there are no valleys he won't hunt for those he loves. But she's human; she has far less fear of where she's going than how she gets there.

I wasn't supposed to be here this morning, but I am. The least we can do is not abandon each other when someone we know and love walks off alone forever.

This morning I'm thankful for her life, just as I will be thankful--as she will be--for her death, her deliverance. But I'll be even more thankful if the Shepherd, like Dickenson's kindly suitor, gets her there with ease.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

a year of morning thanks

Blessedly bereft

It's hard to imagine right now, but soon enough I'll suffer D. T. horrors when cut off from all sources of media--google-less, blog bereft, my in-box left unkept and running over. For a long weekend, I'll be hopelessly stranded, miles and miles from an Internet connection and television transmission--analog or digital--everything left behind. In the Texas hill country where I'm bound, even my cell phone is useless.

My only soulful sustenance is the realization that it's happened before without danger to life and limb. I've made it in years past; I may make it again.

I know, I know--it's a blessing. The treat in retreat is becoming just so bereft, but right now going without seems as much burden as blessing.

Nonetheless, I'm looking forward to it, despite my fears. The food will be good--it always is; the scenery sweet; the company beloved, a whole passel of like minds thrown together in mutual deprivation. We can make it. So will I.

But I'll miss booting up.

I am, of course, being irresponsibly hyperbolic. It's almost always good to get away (should that be one word or two?). And this morning, my last here in the basement for a few days, I'm thankful to be going. Such suffering offers ample opportunity for growth and strength, right?

Sure. Sigh. I'm off.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

a year of morning thanks

Mom's softening

My mother has mellowed, and it makes me proud and happy. A few of my friends have not; they see a disaster a'comin' at ten this morning, when Obama sweeps out the cobwebs from a long night of partying and begins work as the 44th President of these United States. "The press complained when Bush's inaugural cost 40 million, but nobody says a thing now," an old friend muttered at me yesterday. He's still mad.

But Mom told me she thinks she's going to like this guy and his pretty wife and cute kids. Mom told me she thinks he might even be good for this country. She may have been playing me--in the same conversation, she said she was still trying to figure out exactly where the two of us departed in our ideas about things. But I don't think she was fibbing. Mom doesn't lie, and she watched the inauguration all day yesterday. She told me Monday night that she was looking forward to it.

A local Christian high school did a mock election in November. I don't remember exactly, but I thought the numbers were somewhere in the area of 85% for McCain. In 2004, 86% of the county voted for Bush, and Bush won Iowa. Four years later, McCain got smacked in Iowa by nine percentage points; but here in Sioux County, he won handily--82% wanted him, the highest percentage win in Iowa. Obama supporters, meanwhile, were rare as jackrabbits. The most incredible moment of the campaign, for me at least, happened when my grandson, a kindergartner, climbed into my lap on election day, looked up at me and said, "Barack Obama kills babies." I didn't know he knew who Obama was.

I really have no idea what it must have been like for eighty-some percent of the county to have watched yesterday's inauguration. I watched the ceremony, but little else. Truly, there isn't much left to say that hasn't been said. I believe--as I have from the very beginning two years ago--we're in good hands.

And my mom, at ninety, who gave me so much grief, says she's actually coming to like him.

That fact alone, this morning, is reason to give thanks.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

a year of morning thanks
and now and then
a day or two of supplication

The Human Voice

This morning's Writer's Almanac poem just bears repeating.

Ars Poetica #100: I Believe

by Elizabeth Alexander

Poetry, I tell my students,
is idiosyncratic. Poetry
is where we are ourselves,
(though Sterling Brown said
"Every 'I' is a dramatic 'I'")
digging in the clam flats
for the shell that snaps,
emptying the proverbial pocketbook.
Poetry is what you find
in the dirt in the corner,
overhear on the bus, God
in the details, the only way
to get from here to there.
Poetry (and now my voice is rising)
is not all love, love, love
and I'm sorry the dog died.
Poetry (here I hear myself loudest)
is the human voice,
and are we not of interest to each other?

Ms. Alexander certainly does sound like a teacher--and a preacher. I know. This morning's class has a menu of three stories from Best American Short Stories, three stories that are quite unthrilling. I'm ready to walk into class, not with an apology but an assertion--we may not have a class like this all year long again, three stories that are so unengaging, which is not to say that some kid in class might not have been thrilled by something in those sixty pages.

But what Ms. Alexander says is what I'll likely say too, because what we're reading is, as she says, "the human voice," and that's nothing to shake a stick at--"And are we not of interest to each other?"

Really, aren't we?

Here's a poem the writer sent me last weekend.


i want the cradleboard
he said.i paid for it, it's
from my reservation.

you got the kid. want to
trade, i reply. he says
nothing and walks away.

likely devising a plan to
get said cradleboard,
perhaps by witholding

promised support, or
just taking it. but i have
a claim to it too, over a

decade ago, swaddling
my apache and binding
her in the ceremonial

yellow thongs. she howled
at first, restrictive as it was
but it is, tradition. and i

put her in it, as i was told.
still her downy hairs line
the inside. i prominently

display this saffron yellow
beaded cradleboard
wherever we live. even

found a doll-sized match
which was to be for her
never arrived sibling

so she could have a baby
doll in a cradleboard, but
it was not meant to be.

so i carry them, the greater
and lesser boards, both
made at san carlos

and he wants them now
the only thing he has said
i could not have. though

i've taken the drum and
feather, the gourd, and
now the cradleboard

he has her.

Breaks my heart. I know her, have for several years. We met at a retreat. She writes voluminously and reads her work in a manner that conjures up her own Native identity, the poem itself become a dance. I've likely read more of her poetry in the last few years than any one else's.

And now it's come to this.

"Cradleboard" would be sad enough if it were fiction. But it's not. The story she tells is her own. Her marriage is over. Their little girl chose to stay with her father. Her faith, she says, went with them.

Are we not of interest to each other?

Monday, January 19, 2009

a year of morning thanks

What I have is a shard of old newsprint with a fading picture, enough to prove that I'm not simply telling tall tales.
Once upon a time, an immigrant tenant farmer named John Van De Stroet worked some land in the far northwest corner of an obscure county in Iowa, an obscure state. Wasn't good land either, at least not by his neighbor's reckoning. The soil was light and thin, and bluffs, lots of them, shouldered a river that all too often flooded the valley beneath.

Van De Stroet rented that land from a gruff, bearded man named Keen, who determined that most of what he'd made during his life on the cusp of the Great Plains would be given, upon his death, to a Methodist hospital not far away.

Along came the Depression, the complication of the story on this yellowed sheet of newsprint. Keen mortgaged his land to the hilt to keep from losing it; but when he died mid-Depression, that Methodist hospital became the Van De Stroet's landlord.

To say times were tough seems an embarrassing understatement. In Van De Stroet's obscure corner of the world, it was smarter to shoot cattle than feed them, if you had cattle at all. When things grew desperate, the Van De Stroets went to the hospital board and asked for grace—1,000 dollars' worth of rent simply couldn't be had and consequently couldn't be paid. The hospital graciously nodded their consent.

Those hills nobody else wanted? They ended up at the heart of the Van De Stroet family's survival. When drought left no feed to be grown or purchased, John let his sheep graze the bluffs, where they ate the buck brush. When things got even bleaker, he shooed his hogs up there too, where they could munch acorns from the burr oak that run like an unruly moustache over those hills. When other farmers were dumping livestock, those bluffs saved the Van De Stroet operation, and by the time the Second World War came around, the family farm got on its feet.

This old newspaper clipping is from 1976, some 44 years after the hard-pressed Methodist Hospital Board shook their collective heads and let that $1,000 land payment ride.
In the picture with the newspaper story is an old guy with his shirt buttoned up tight beneath his chin. To his left is his wife, in a hair net and a print jacket, what's likely her finest mother-of-pearl brooch right there perfectly centered on her chest.

The old guy—you might have guessed, he's John Van De Stroet—is handing a small piece of paper to a big guy with an open collar. It's a check for a thousand dollars. All three of them are smiling. Forty-four years later.

Like I said, I got the paper to prove it. If you don't believe me, I'll send you a copy. But I'm saving this one, because it's an obscure story that needs to be remembered, a little story on a shard of old newsprint, an otherwise long-forgotten story for our time and all time, a story about integrity.
This little essay originally appeared on, where it prompted a family member to write and ask for the clipping. I sent it. So part of this essay is a lie--I no longer have that clipping. That's just fine.

Friday, January 16, 2009

a year of morning thanks

Fr. Richard John Neuhaus

Not until this morning, not until just now did I discover that Father Richard John Neuhaus died almost a week ago. He dined with kings and presidents. Gifted with rapier wit, the man wrote voluminously. His random thoughts were the highlight of a magazine/journal he founded and I subscribed to for quite a long time, First Things. Much of that magazine's scholarship was over my head, but more than occasionally something within would be a real blessing. Consistent in its trenchant criticism of American society, First Things taught me a great deal.

I used to read First Things back to front, because the most delightful reading could be found in Father Neuhaus's own miscellany, a column he titled Naked Square, a running commentary on public and political issues that could be described as a blog before there was such.

I loved it. For awhile. Eventually, his neo-con positions got old, his rants much less of a delight because they became too predictable and pointed. Then again, maybe I changed. He seemed a joy when he was having fun, but he wasn't likely someone anyone wanted to cross.

He believed in the Catholic Church--literally. He believed that the Catholic way was the only way, and that's probably why the sex scandals were so hard on him. He just couldn't bring himself to believe that all that divine church heirarchy could be wrong. When the scandals surfaced, he went into full defense mode and lost some readers.

Oddly enough, he wasn't born and reared a Catholic. His father was a pastor, a Lutheran pastor, Missouri Synod, in fact, as was Rev. Richard John at one time. But he left the Lutherans for the Roman Catholic church. He marched with Dr. Martin Luther King.

Someone will do a biography, I'm sure, and it'll be worth reading because Father Richard John Neuhaus fought the good fight on his own terms, lugging along his own humanity, just as all of us do.

I stopped reading First Things ten years ago or more, stopped gorging myself on a diet of Neuhaus's criticisms of American culture and the liberal media. Eventually all rants are alike.

But Christians in this country will miss him. The man tried his level best to make the faith something more than the panacea Marx claimed. If he'd had his way, he might have opted for Rome's ownership of the American experiment, but I never once doubted the immense character of his commitment to the Christian faith.

This morning thanks are easy. This morning I'm thankful for the witness of Father Richard John Neuhaus.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

a year of morning thanks


It's no picnic to spell, but it slips off the tongue and through the lips as easily as breath itself. In that way, it's almost onomatopoetic--the sound of the word carries its own meaning, as in (the way I learned it once upon the time) "the murmuring of innumerable bees" (a line from Tennyson, I think). There are no glottal stops and no fricatives whatsoever to resilience. It's just easy, a puppeteer's dream, requires no lips. Smooth as silk, smooth as good chocolate.

I just looked it up. Its root is in the word salient, which somewhere around Aristotle suggested the very heart of an embryo, which, some claim, seems to leap. Re- introduces the idea of springing back, like the Everyready bunny. Hence, buried historically in its lithe character is the image of something springing back: "the power or ability to return to the original form, position, etc., after being bent, compressed, or stretched; elasticity."

The word requires very little of us, so little that we almost lose sight of its immense value. I'm not sure the word is affected at all by original sin. If I call someone slippery, I'm not writing a recommendation. President Reagan, to those who disliked him, was "the Teflon president," but not because he was "resilient." It's just that nothing stuck--like Iran-Contra.

Being resilient has nothing to do with being a punching bag either. Even though punching bags always come back, they're dopes. Resilience implies personality and character--there's more in the head than air or stuffing. Honestly, the word doesn't even have a dark side.

Shoot, just to think about it encourages the soul. It's a great word, easy on the tongue as hard candy and something we all really aspire to--resilience, the blessed ability to come back again and again and again and again, implying immense strength of character and will and purpose. Sheesh, give me some.

Resilience is just a fine word.

I heard it in a newscast last night, a compliment, of course, and thought of it this morning, the coldest morning of the year so far, probably -25 without the wind chill--but who's counting? Yesterday, I didn't go to the gym because I got my workout shovelling snow--again. Snow piles on our yard are now as tall I am, and it's only mid-January. The nights are long; the northwest wind is a frozen ratchet.

Resilience is hard to come by these days. Maybe that's why it sounded so blame good. Give me some, please.

No morning thanks here. This bitter morning, I'm all supplication.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Justice in Gaza

Jerry and his girl hadn't found any time together for three weeks; his parents were up from Florida, staying with him, so he and his squeeze were missing, badly, the squeezing. They went to a movie where they couldn't help themselves and fell into a two-hour long fit of heavy breathing. Sadly, who was behind them in the theater but Newman, who gloried in the indelicacy of their thoughtless passions.

And used it to full advantage, letting slip to Jerry's parents--and the girl's parents--that the two of them were making love-starved adolescents out of themselves during the movie.

Newman wreaked havoc in Jerry's life, not simply because Jerry and his girl were making public whoopee, but because the film everyone was watching was Schindler's List. "How could you?" his parents asked, stupified, when they confronted their hormone-rich son. If Seinfeld and friends were Christian, not Jewish, he and his girl would have had to made out in a Christmas creche to trigger that level of horror.

All Seinfeld shows are hilarious, but I laughed last night as the fat guy Newman got in a good shot at his nemesis Jerry. It worked. His girlfriend's old man told him he was totally unwelcome at their house and he couldn't date his daughter. End of affair. Making out at Schindler's List?--what an outrage. What an abomination. In Dutch, we'd call it spotten.

But I thought of what's happening in Gaza when I saw the shame of Jerry's parents, because somehow there is a link. In 1995, I taught a class in the literature of the holocaust. Of my books, the holocaust memoir Things We Couldn't Say has sold the most. I think Schindler's List is one of the finest movies ever made. I know Israel is a democracy, and Hamas is dangerous, evil. I can't imagine living in a neighborhood where just across the border some fanatics are lobbing missles at you, one after another, despite treaties and peace accords. I'm not anti-Israel.

All that having been said, the death toll in Gaza will go over 1000 today, more than half of the dead are women and children.

One part of the equation--or so it seems to me--is the Holocaust, a story that haunts the soul. Does Israel, vastly superior in arms supplied by the U.S. of A, have the right to kill so many innocent people in their own quest for peace? Can anything ever be solved by more violence? Are they, in any way, shape, or form, forging a relationship that will yield peace?

One part of the answer goes like this: don't forget the Holocaust. Never again with the Jewish people get slaughtered without a fight. Never again. Never again. Never again.

And thus, today, Palestinians mourn hundreds who were simply at the wrong place at the wrong time. Is that justice or simply more mass murder?

Sometimes history is a blindfold--or worse, a weapon. At least it is in me. When I hear those numbers--a thousand dead--I flash to Dr. Mengele, standing on the wooden platform at Auschwitz, signaling right and left, making judgments about life and death. Step to the right to the shower, please.

But how long can that horror's price be paid in blood guilt? When does that awful, awful wound begin to heal? Ever?

Lord Jesus, come quickly.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

a year of morning thanks


For most of my childhood, my mother insisted they were what we should be--those Jehovah's Witness guys in white shirts, black pants, and argyle socks, those zealots looking to convert America one block at a time. They were wrong, of course--that is, in theology; but they were right on the money in their enthusiasm. "We should be more like them," my mother used to say. After all, we were Christians, ourselves heirs to the divine imperitive of Christ's own last great words in the Great Commission. It was our duty to bring the good news, and what exactly were we doing?

Because they seemed to me to be paragons of righteousness, it never dawned on me that those model believers might be, well, human. I wouldn't have guessed that one or two of them might sneak a drink or light a smoke or make a move on one or more of the young things that may have showed up at the door when they came knocking. Such things never entered my mind, honestly. They were fools for Jesus, holy fools, and if I were only more of a fool myself I too would be out there pounding the pavement.

That perception explains my first reaction when reading a story by Bradford Tice, "Missionaries," in The Atlantic, and now again in the Best American Short Stories of 2008. If I were Mormon, I thought, I'd be really, really ticked, because the behavior of one of those straight-arrows in Tice's story is anything but--he smokes dope with a potential convert, makes love to a lusty young mark, and generally does whatever it takes to up his tally of converts--"the ends always justify the means," he says to his more pious sidekick. The story isn't fair to the millions of moral militants who happily spend years on missions. Tice isn't LDS either. If I were Mormon, I'd wonder how on earth the guy dared to pull himself into those precious Mormon undergarments.

It is a brutal story and maybe overplayed, I thought--and still do. But the way Tice ends the thing is perfectly wonderful and worth the price of admission (in the case of the story, at least, the ends do justify the means). What he does with all of that is shocking in its own way, very powerful. Whether or not "Missionaries" should be among the best American short stories of the year is debatable, but then any choice is, I'm sure.

But in that anthology, in the writer's notes, Bradford Tice says something that I have more trouble shaking than the story. I don't have the book here beside me right now, but the line goes like this: "One of the cheerless realities of organized eligion, in my secular opinion, is that often its spokespersons, the advocates of faith, end up seeming like used-car salesmen, while the truly devout go voiceless."

That line won't let me alone because it makes me wonder about the Great Commission--not whether or not it's true or valid or really a commission, but instead whether something got lost in the translation, something human jerry-rigged into a divine imperitive.

Don't know. What does it mean to "preach the gospel"?

I'm not so quick to judge as Tice is, but that simple line continues to haunt me because to me at least, it's asks a question I have not answered, at least for myself.

This morning I'm thankful for a story and a line that sticks with me, that makes me think.

You can read the Bradford Tice's "Missionaries" at .

Monday, January 12, 2009

a year of morning thanks


I opened the door slowly, in silence, and edged around the corner, where I saw the guy walking away. He was dressed in fatigues, two full belts of bullets criss-crossed over his back like some mad killer. He was carrying a rifle--don't remember what kind.

I went back inside, where we waited in the darkness. Soon enough, he came to the door of the barracks cabin we were in--three of us, an old friend who teaches English 750 miles away and an ex-student, all of us at something like a bible camp. We waited.
Then, I remember seeing the shadow of that rifle through the glass of the window at our door, along with his silhouette. We hoped he would leave and go to some other cabin, where he'd find people to kill. We hoped he'd assume there was no one there. He didn't. He tried the door, opened it slowly. It had no locks.

He didn't bother with the light. The room was midnight dark. Somehow--I don't know why--he turned left after he came in and ran into a bed, reached down blindly, then got on the bed and started creeping across, toward me, even though I don't believe he'd seen me.

That's when he felt the ex-student. I'm not proud of this part, but I swear I had nothing to do with it. Not only that, I was fully dressed. What on earth the two old English profs were doing in a bible camp barracks room with her is another story, I guess. Here's the bad part: the ex-student was in bed, a fact which the villain happily discovered while feeling his way through the darkness. Anyway, he pulled back the sheet over her and discovered her to be buck naked, for which he likely also gave thanks. (I can't explain her being unclothed, but it was dark and I saw nothing. I swear.)

She was frozen in fear, too scared to scream. My old buddy--the other English prof--was across the room somewhere, like me, waiting, I'd guess, for exactly the right moment. I'm not sure how I reasoned, but once I knew he was sufficiently thoughtless about anything other than the girl, I made my move.

Instantly, he relented. Honestly. He must have understood that he was in the hands of male vastly more powerful than he. Right about then, my old friend must have tossed the Lionel Trilling book he was reading and entered the fray because in seconds we'd drawn and quartered the guy. We'd done it. I don't remember telling the young lady to get dressed, but I must have.

That's when I woke up.

An hour ago.

I'm teaching screenwriting this year, a brand new course. One of the books I'm using insists that young screenwriters keep a dream log as a means of finding material for their work. That chapter isn't on the syllabus because it struck me as a dumb idea--and besides, I never dream.

Well, not never. Just now I did.

Freud says dreams tell you what's steaming in your subconscious. Superheros, naked women--maybe there's some real smokin' goin' on beneath the conscious surface of this hard-working, 60-year old English teacher and writer of biblical meditations. I shocked myself.

But I think I have a better interpretation. Lately, for this new course, I've just been watching way too many movies.

But then, I got to admit--I could do worse.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

a year of morning thanks
Yesterday's Catch

Forecasters said an inch. So much for forecasters. We got more--maybe four, maybe five. And it was pretty much cottonish, falling straight down on top of the goodly layer of snow we already had. But that new snow--and the start of the school year this week--made me get in the Tracker when it was still dark Saturday morning and look for beauty.

Once upon a time, I thought I found a quote from Pascal that goes something like this: it's necessary to keep a spot in the heart for beauty. For the life of me, I can't find it again. But if Blaise Pascal didn't say, he should have.

That's why I need my Saturday mornings.

Anyway, here's my yesterday.

Friday, January 09, 2009

a year of morning thanks

Amazing Grace

Marvin did exactly as his father had instructed. He took his little brother's body up to the mountains and laid it on a tree or a rock, the traditional Navajo way.

But something bothered him about what he’d done, even though it was his father's request and his parents' way. When he went to the trading post, the Mexican trader, a Roman Catholic, told him that what he'd done just wasn’t right. “’You bring that body back, and I’ll buy you the lumber to make a box, and we’ll put him away right—in the right way,’” the trader told him.

That's exactly what he did. He had to undress himself because of the stigma of the death itself. So he did, and he built a coffin with his own hands, and brought his brother’s body back down and buried it in a little cemetery at the foot of the hills. The trader got him the lumber.

All of this he’d done on the sly because he did not want his parents to know. After all, they were very traditional, and cemeteries were not the way of traditional Navajos. The coffin would have been wrong.
But even though Marvin listened to his conscience, already being shaped by missionaries and a Catholic trader, he still respected his father. Rather than face him and tell the truth, he walked away from the hogan and left for California. Months later, when he returned, he thought they would have forgotten, but they asked him—and then he told them what he'd done with his little brother's body, how he'd rejected the traditional ways for a one.

Marvin's daughter, almost 70, told me that story. She said that her father used to tell her that story to explain how it was that he became a believer.

Marvin's story woke me up with this morning, a true story, because it's been on my mind and just won't left--a dead child, a kind trader, a naked man hammering together a coffin against his own father's wishes, then walking away for months, even years, rather than face the music, only to return and be asked to explain.

Maybe most amazing of all is this: he tells his daughter, when she was a girl, that this very story explains how he came to believe in Jesus.

A true story, just about as amazing as grace itself.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

a year of morning thanks

Mixed Blessing

Unfortunate Location
by Louis Jenkins

from All Tangled Up with the Living

In the front yard there are three big white pines, older
than anything in the neighborhood except the stones.
Magnificent trees that toss their heads in the wind
like the spirited black horses of a troika. It's hard to
know what to do, tall dark trees on the south side of
the house, an unfortunate location, blocking the
winter sun. Dark and damp. Moss grows on the roof,
the porch timbers rot and surely the roots have
reached the old bluestone foundation. At night, in
the wind, a tree could stumble and fall killing us in
our beds. The needles fall year after year making an
acid soil where no grass grows. We rake the fallen
debris, nothing to be done, we stand around with
sticks in our hands. Wonderful trees.

Okay, they're not the same. We have three lindens, not pines, and they stand, sentry-like, on the north, not south side of the house. I swear, those lindens have to be among the dirtiest in God's tree museum, constantly dumping their branches.
We get a wind--shoot, someone breaths heavily--and a thousand tennis racket-sized branches scatter across the yard, ten thousand wiry fingers that attack your shoes or sandals. Right now, if you check the crowns of those huge lindens, you'll discover that death stalks heavily. A good wind--and we get good winds often out here--could bring down a real mess. A half-dozen times a year I just may as well figure on it.

In early summer, when I have to cut the grass once a week, I can spend a half hour or more, every Saturday morning, just picking up the little ones. Drives me nuts. Drives me crazy. Until I borrow someone's truck, the pile behind the barn grows six feet high. Honestly.

But then, as Jenkins says of his blame pines, our lindens are absolutely beautiful, the most beautiful trees in Sioux Center, the ones, I'm sure, Joyce Kilmer had in mind when she wrote that poem everyone knows. Drive by, you'll see. They're drop dead gorgeous. Just don't pick up after 'em.

How about this? Sometime in the middle of the night, our cat decided that the warmest place to sleep was on our bed. He's not a nightly guest, but when it gets as cold as it is right now he seems to remember that we're the only show in town with an electric blanket. So he came upstairs and curled up on my wife's side, at her feet--which drives her nuts, but she didn't kick him off.

What's worse, he woke me up with his blame snoring. I'm not making this up. This morning, the cat's snoring woke me up.

Okay, okay--it's tough to admit, but we love the blame thing.

Does that make sense? No. Neither do our north-side lindens or Jenkins's south side pines. But you ought to see 'em. You just ought to see 'em.

This morning's Writer's Almanac poem struck a chord, made a little music, created a picture I see myself within. Louis Jenkins's poem comes as a blessing, for which I'm thankful.

But what he's talking about is a species of blessing we might just call the pain-in-the- butt blessings, the species that still often seems among the very best.

The cat followed me down from the bedroom and grabbed a snack when I got up, but I'll bet the farm that he's up there again right now, sawing away.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

a year of morning thanks


Yesterday, a box showed up on our front porch, a box full of sweaters, four of them, that I'd ordered from a post-Christmas sale at an on-line store--got 'em cheap. I thought I'd pick and choose once they arrived, but the truth is, I think I'll keep them all. I don't really need 'em, but I like 'em.

This time of year, I stagger through the darkened kitchen early in the morning, and reach almost blindly for an apple, my morning ritual apple, from a fruit basket in the corner. Most all the time, there's one there. It's just there.

There's only one old-fashioned window in this basement. That means the place is almost always dark, even mid-day. So when a light burns out, I put in a new bulb, like I just did. I pulled one out of a box--I've got spares--and stuck it in the socket. Poof!--let there be light.

The thing is, I don't really think much about it--about a new late-Christmas sweater (or four), about the apples that are always there (even in January), about spare light bulbs, in stock, to relight the world of my study. It's bounty I don't even credit as such. I just toss the old bulbs, like the core, and leave the old sweaters for the Salvation Army.

Don't know that I've ever really given thanks for my morning apple, a new sweater (or four), and spare light bulbs. Don't know if that even makes sense exactly. What I'm saying this morning is that I'm thankful for the bounty I don't even think of as such, because it is all around, blessings I don't count among 'em.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

a year of morning thanks

A blog

"People without hope don't write novels," Flannery O'Connor once wrote, and she was right. I may be overstating, but writing, or so it seems to me, attempts to bring some blessed clarity to the mess we're in. And, being human, we're almost always in a mess. Thus, when I punch these keys and the odd little letter formations run across the screen before me, I'm trying to make sense of my world. If I didn't believe such messes could be straightened out or at least understood, I wouldn't be sitting in this chair in my basement right now, tapping these keys.

And so, this morning, I'm thankful for a blog. I'm thankful because writing these words allows me the rich opportunity to at least attempt meaning and clarity.

"People without hope don't write novels" makes sense simply on the basis of heft--a novel is a heckuva investment; one doesn't simply turn 'em out in an afternoon. But there's also hope in a paragraph--or two or three.

Years ago, I sold a park sticker to a social worker and some tough kids from the city toting canoes into a state park on Lake Michigan. They put those canoes out in rough waters, some of them tipped, and four kids drowned. Were those deaths my fault? That's what I asked myself. I was 18 years old, and I knew that there was no way those canoes should have been put into the water.

That night a lifetime ago, long before I'd ever dreamed that someday, years later, I'd write novels and stories and essays and what not else, I sat down with an empty piece of paper--on what impulse, I don't know. My parents had already gone off to bed, so I sat down in the silence with a sheet of lined paper and wrote out what was going on in my mind and heart and soul at that moment.

I don't have that paper, and I don't have the slightest idea what I wrote, but I recognize this now, even though I had no idea what I was doing then: in trying to write out my thoughts, I was trying to make some sense out of the mess.

I don't doubt that technology is reshaping us in significant ways. I've come to believe that my students these days aren't as capable as their parents of the kind of sustained effort required to understand long readings or assignments. This immense storehouse of information, instantly accessible, has made them--and me--far more like surfers than scholars.

But I also recognize, even as I exercise the function, that typing in the words I am right now exercises an important power I have--and all of us do--the power to at least try to make sense of things. At least to try.

I'm somewhere close to 500 blog posts now since I started a year-and-a-half ago, and the focus with which I began was a ritual of morning thanks. Tomorrow, I'm slated to lead a discussion about the effects of technology on our students; it's a faculty workshop. I think I'm conscious of many changes this information age has created in us.

But I'm also conscious--and thankful--that this morning I can sit here and try to make sense of those changes. I'm thankful to be working at accomplishing an act--writing--that always carries with it the signature of hope itself, because hope is a very good thing.

Monday, January 05, 2009

a year of morning thanks

Good lovin'

An old friend of mine, well read in fiction but not sociology, once told me he'd come to believe that seven marriages out of ten were just plain awful. Five of those ended in divorce, of course, while two more, just as bad, managed not to, perhaps just for the kids or out of the naked bullheadedness of its loveless combatants. Eight and nine were tolerable; "we could have done worse"--that sort of thing. But number ten, he'd say, was the only number ten, so to speak.

The number tens were the ones dreams were made of, the ones that all of us aspired to, the ones that create those gaudy, elaborate rituals we call "weddings." Only one in ten of us got that kind of lifelong joy, he'd say, but then he was himself divorced, a fact which always made me think he was rationalizing.

I don't claim to know the numbers; maybe sociologists do. I won't even venture a guess about the old guy's speculations. What I do know is that the number tens are an inspiration to all of us, even those of us who are number tens.

Last weekend we celebrated with a couple who set the standard, forty years' worth. The Lord only knows what happens on the inside, but I'd bet most of the farm that in this case at least, if we know them by their fruits, we know at least that those fruits are premiums, nary a worm or even a brown spot. If apples, honeycrisps. For them, the phrase "forty years of married bliss" doesn't have the feel of hyperbole.

I live in a college town, where kids fall in love constantly and then display their nearly uncontrollable passion anywhere and everywhere, even--maybe especially--in church, where such longings simply may not ignite into the fits of heavy-breathing some of them, at least, come to almost fear. It's sweet, really. To old folks like me, they're an inspiration--they make me smile. But then, I suppose most all of us are number tens when we start the hike.

I don't care. I'm thankful for all the number tens--forty years or just forty days and nights. Love is good, almost divine.

But this morning especially, I'm thankful for good friends who are and have been and likely will be--at least by all outward appearances--bona fide good lovers. They're an inspiration.