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.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Stories of Clean Living, the Dutch-American Way

It's a relief to know that I've got only one more round of students. The ones who arrive this September will be, four years from now, part of the last roundup, their prof getting off his sorrel and hanging up the chaps and spurs, retiring.

In some ways, I've grown weary of students' comings and goings. You read what they think and feel, you watch 'em grow and change, and then poof!--just like that they're off the planet, leaving behind the old profs like creaky prairie windmills. The halls of learning are suitably outfitted with revolving doors.

So when an ex-student shows up, it's enough to make me smile. When one of them sends you her book, it's just as much a joy. Got one this week, Stories of Clean Living the Dutch-American Way, from a student I knew, fifteen years ago, as Jennifer Dyke, from somewhere in south suburban Chicagoland. She took a newspaper job locally when she graduated, eventually moved along to a daily in the eastern part of the state, and then disappeared from my radar, until the book arrived.

Stories of Clean Living is a fun read actually, almost surprising in a way because Jenn pokes fun of her tribe, the Dutch Calvinists, in a way that I thought simply wasn't done anymore, both ethnicity and denominationalism fading fast in the age of information and social networking. Front and center on her playful assault is her girlhood status as a "Calvinette," a name that is, I must admit, only a bit less hilarious than bizarre (ye olde Genevan theologian's 500th birthday this year, not withstanding). To call pig-tailed little girls "Calvinettes," as our world did for years, really is a scream, isn't it? Little Calvins, and female to boot. Jenn's got it right.

I've used an old essay of hers for years in my writing classes, a blow-by-blow account of an ordinary family reunion chocked full of foibles almost anyone can recite, but few can write well. Jenn's is wonderful. This short collection of essays features the same kind of wit and hilarity, as she pokes fun with the traditions she likes to think she's left behind (but probably never will--at least totally).

Calvinettes wore white kerchiefs on which they displayed their sewed-on merit badges (merit?--sounds rather un-Calvinistic to me--sheesh, now she's got me doing it). Here's Jenn riffing on such perfect Reformed accessories:

My white kerchief remained rather clutter-free in terms of badges throughout my Calvinette career. That is not to say I failed. I earned exactly the required number of badges each year. I surmounted tasks involving baby-sitting, baking, camping, latch-hooking and some sort of Bible verse memorization. Enough to get by. Enough so that people other than my mother would not hassle me about it. Though I do not know what would have happened if I failed to earn the minumum number of badges each year. It is not as if they could have kicked me out of Calvinettes. How can you kick someone out who is predestined to be there?

That kind of wit. Stories of Clean Living the Dutch-American Way is full of it--charming, hilarious wit that occasionally ranks as spotten, a Dutch word that suggests sacrilege, but of a sporting variety.

But there's more. When I came to the back cover, I found a picture I simply couldn't recognize as Jenn Dyke (now Jenn Miller). Because it's not. It's a photo of her cousin--a double cousin (only Dutch Calvinists understand such things, she says somewhere in the book), a fellow conspirator among the underground cynics any hard core ethnic group creates.

Jenn's comrade-in-arms was a woman named Stephanie, who fought a valiant battle against cancer, and lost. And Jenn's book is dedicated to her--not "dedicated," as in outfitted with some sweet sentiment typed in before the title page, but dedicated, as in actually "written for." The essays Jenn put between the covers of this little book were, quite literally, for Stephanie, a friend, a cousin, a beloved companion, literally for her to enjoy while she was waging that war within her. Stories of Clean Living, the Dutch-American Way is a fun read, really, but that dedication makes the essay collection sheer joy.

Try as you might, you simply can't escape the sense of eavesdropping that's part of the very design of the book. When you read Stories of Clean Living, you're there in a hospice room with two young women sharing inside jokes drawn from the miracle vat of "black humor" we all have hidden in some corner of our souls for just such darkness. You hear two young women tell each other stories that make them giggle and snort, and you understand clearly that the joy those stories offer both them and us is the only way beat profound grief.

That dedication makes this small collection of essays a profoundly beautiful book. It's an instrument of peace, a gift of grace.

Jenn Miller's Stories of Clean Living, the Dutch-American Way is a hoot that'll make you cry.

I'm happy this ex-student showed up on my doorstep.
Jenn Miller's Clean Living, The Dutch-American Way is available at

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Jim, you are a GEM. No pun intended.
with deep respect for all you do, and for what moves you.