Morning Thanks

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

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The King David Defense


For the record, I wanted President Bill Clinton to resign once the famous stained blue dress revealed the whole, true story. I could no longer trust him. He was a bald-faced liar about a tryst he had entertained there in the oval office. I thought he should go.

About South Carolina's Governor Mark Sanford, I'm not as sure. His indiscretions are colored in a wholly different hue. While, today, the violation of his oath to his wife and his marriage are as broken as Clinton's were, Sanford--give him his due--wasn't toying with an intern. His liaison with the Argentinean may turn out to have been nothing more than a fling, but his leaked e-mails suggest that what was going on between them wasn't simply an extended bout of heavy breathing. What Kitty Sanford, his wife, faces seems to me at least to be a whole lot darker than what Hillary Clinton did: Sanford appears to love his paramour.

Clinton was a Southern Baptist, a Bible-toter, someone who showed up at church far more frequently, say, than Ronald Reagan. But this Sanford is as different from the sinner Clinton as he is the saint. He and Nevada Senator John Ensign, also disgraced by his sexual indiscretions in the last month, are both members of a small and somewhat secretive Bible study they call "C Street, " a ministry of an organization called The Family. I don't doubt for a moment that I share with The Family a specific theological orientation; I'm quite sure they're people I'd like and respect.

Yesterday, Governor Sanford indicated he wasn't stepping down, and then he said this: "I have been doing a lot of soul searching on that front. What I find interesting is the story of David, and the way in which he fell mightily, he fell in very very significant ways. But then picked up the pieces and built from there."

And later, this:

I remain committed to rebuilding the trust that has been committed to me over the next 18 months, and it is my hope that I am able to follow the example set by David in the Bible - who after his fall from grace humbly refocused on the work at hand. By doing so, I will ultimately better serve in every area of my life, and I am committed to doing so.
Now I'm all for sola scriptura, but nothing convinces me more deeply that Gov. Mark Sanford needs a leave of absence to work, full-time, on himself, his marriage, and his own mind and soul than those remarks, that analogy, not because, historically speaking at least, he's wrong. He isn't: King David didn't walk away from the job, even though he engineered the death of Bathsheba's loyal husband, and thus was not only an adulterer but also a murderer.

But what I can't understand is how on earth a smart man like Governor Mark Sanford, a committed Christian and an inveterate Bible study-er, actually presumes that King David's not giving up the throne is the template for his own decision-making a couple thousand years later. He's just plain crazy. Governor Mark Sanford is not King David of Goliath fame, despite their mutual indiscretions, because South Carolina in the first decade of the 21st century is not Israel in 500 B. C.--or whatever the calendar said the night the King spotted Bathsheba in the tub. Start here--Mark Sanford is not a king.

A couple of years ago, I finished a long psalm study, having writing 365 meditations. It was a wonderful exercise and experience, manna--no, fillet Mignon--for the soul. The greatest lesson I learned throughout all that close reading is that scripture's greatest poetry contains just about every last human emotion and thus--I swear--offers us the immense blessing of knowing that no matter what we think or feel or do, no matter how low we fall or how furious we get at the Lord God almighty, we are simply not alone. The very humanness of the psalms makes them divine.

All of that being said, Gov. Mark Sanford is not King David. He may suffer as David did. His deep anguish may lead to a confession that painfully wrings the pride from his passionate heart. He may share all kinds of emotions with King David--even David's ecstatic joy in forgiveness.

But to not give up his governorship because King David didn't walk away from his throne is not only dumb, it's an abuse of scripture and just plain awful theology.

If Christians weren't so bloody human, we'd offer a whole lot more convincing testimony. But we are--human, that is.
And that's a fact all of us need to remember.
________________________________
Painting above is David and Bathsheba, by Jan MASSYS, 1562. It's oil on wood and hangs in the Musée du Louvre, Paris.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Growing Up



Writers—like artists of other mediums—often say that no novel or short story is really ever finished until it’s read. As an old novelist friend of mine used to say, great fiction is always a C, never an O—that is, it leaves some open space for readers, space for us to bring our own lives and experience into the work and make it real or whole or alive.

I finished Peter De Vries’s Blood of the Lamb last night, for the second time. I read it initially sometime in the Sixties, four or five years after it was published, at a time in my life when I loved the irreverence he wields at his tribe—the Dutch Reformed people into which he and I were both born. De Vries mocked us but good, for our silliness and the sometime idiocy of our piety.

Peter De Vries was, in his time, among the most well read and beloved of American humorists, his novels—most of them at least—knee-slapping satires of American life. Google him sometime and read a few of his finest quotes; he can be absolutely hilarious.

There is humor in Blood of the Lamb too, Don Wanderhope and his father, aboard their garbage truck, slowly sinking like the Titanic into the primordial ooze of some Chicago-land refuse pit. Scared to death, they break out with--what else?--the doxology.

But far and away, Blood of the Lamb is not a funny novel--not at all, even though forty years ago, when I first read it, I thought it was a hoot. But then, I was a kid, a rebel chafing under the strictures of De Vries’s own ethnic and religious heritage, a heritage in process of cataclysmic change. It was the Sixties, after all, and little, if any of our lives were left untouched by the seismic cultural shifts of the era. At twenty, I read Peter De Vries’s Blood of the Lamb and laughed.

Forty years later, I almost cried.

I’m a different person today—not nearly so headstrong, far less sure of my opinions and will. Forty years later, I’ve got scars, even open wounds, from the fisticuffs me and the Lord have come to. Forty years later, I read an almost entirely different book. The novel didn’t change of course. Certainly, I did.

Peter De Vries died in 1993, but I wonder if he ever guessed that of all his books, Blood of the Lamb would be the one that just won't go away. My guess is, he did. He wrote it just a year after the death of his daughter, who died at age 11 of leukemia; and much of the book, that which gives it its immense emotional heft, is the near recitation of the prolonged agony that child faced before eventually, finally, succumbing.* This novel's great lines don't come from his wit, but from his soul.

Honestly, that whole story I had nearly forgotten because that theological fight simply didn’t hit me at twenty. I think it was William Hazlett who said something to the effect of no young man thinks he shall ever die; count me among 'em. But at sixty years old, Blood of the Lamb nearly took out the knees in my soul.

The story of Carol Wanderhope’s agonizing death is the big story of the novel. Through his daughter's suffering, Don Wanderhope goes to war with a fully sovereign God, the author of our faith and our only comfort, for putting her through the horrifying paces of such inhuman suffering.

The question to which De Vries demands an answer is the same question Elie Wiesel can’t help asking in Night and elsewhere, one of the most profound and difficult questions all believers can ever face: if God almighty loves us and his love is blankets the known world, then why on earth do people suffer such great horrors? Peter De Vries’s most memorable novel is not a book for the weak of heart—or soul.

But it was a blessing to me, at sixty. It will be, I’m sure, the best thing I will read this summer.

_____________________
For a fascinating medical study of the Carol Wanderhope’s leukemia—and the story’s relationship to De Vries’s own daughter's medical story, see Dr. David Steensma’s article on the novel in the Journal of Oncology, available on-line at http://jco.ascopubs.org/cgi/content/full/27/16/2729 . Spoiler alert: if you're going to read the novel, read it first.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Minnesotans


Q. You know why the Iowa Hawkeyes don't have grass on the field at Kinnick Stadium?

A. Because the cheerleaders can't graze on artificial turf.

That's a Minnesota joke. To many Minnesotans, their Iowa neighbors look like the joke Grant Wood made them out to be in American Gothic. I'm an Iowan. Maybe our neighbor's derision should make me dislike them. Sorry, I don't.

The shot above is a Sinclair Lewis 1/3 pound cheeseburger served up by the Palmer House, downtown Sauk Center, an old hotel that's not changed its features for a half century, I'm sure, and fronts at Sinclair Lewis Street. I'm not kidding. Just down the way a few blocks, you can find the Sinclair Lewis home, in fact; and on the south side of town, the Sinclair Lewis Interpretive Center.


All of which is really hilarious--and sad. There is, methinks, nothing more "Sinclair Lewis" than a "Sinclair Lewis 1/3 pound cheeseburger." Lewis didn't much care for the codgers who peopled his hometown, nor any Midwestern small towns, for that matter. The book that shot the moon for him, Main Street (1921), sold phenomenally and led, eventually, to Lewis's receiving the Nobel Prize (1930), the first American to win.

In high school, I was forcefed Main Street. Hated it. Made no sense to me, largely because the book is acidic satire. What I remember best is how much "Red" Lewis despised small town folks not unlike all those around me. Perhaps he had reason: small towns can be death on those individuals who are individuals. Lewis was tall, gangly, unathletic, and, well, ugly. His old man, the town doctor, never quite understood him. Not a good recipe for success.

Next week Saturday night, Garrison Keillor will celebrate his 30th anniversary show in Avon, Minnesota, a small town just about as close as you can get, he says, to Lake Woebegone. The public is invited. Bring your own lawn chairs and picnic baskets. Admission is free.

The whole idea of lawn chairs and picnic baskets would be anathema, methinks, to Minnesota's only Nobel Prize winner, Sinclair Lewis. He'd rip and tear at the souls of those who show up. He made a literary life by making fun of the people in Sauk Center.


Now Garrison Keillor, another Minnesota writer, is not above taking some shots at Lake Woebegone's silly cast of folks, but he's nothing at all like Lewis. Some fine Minnesota critics have already parsed out the differences between them, I'm sure, but it seems to me that both writers have made a good living carving out Minnesota bumpkins, with this appreciable difference: when push comes to shove, Garrison Keillor likes 'em; Red Lewis hated 'em.

Today, or so it seems to this Iowan, Minnesota can laugh at itself and love itself, and that's why I admire the place. Look, anyone who can be at home with the tag "Gopher State" can't lack for a sense of humor. Minnesotans buy truly Minnesota gear--caps, jackets, vests--at Bemidji Woolen Mills and wear them with pride, just like some ancient, dorky Sven or Olie. In Fargo, the Coen brothers, themselves Minnesotans, worked the archetype beautifully with their unforgettable small-town cop, Marge Gunderson, who, like a good stout cap with earmuffs, is just corny enough to be loveable. One gets the sense--at least "up north"--that Minnesota's self-image is in fine shape, despite their Nobel Prize winner's hearty disdain.


Maybe I'm just now, a day later, catching the joke. That cheeseburger wasn't bad at all, believe me, served on a hard roll. But what I'm thinking is that maybe it's poetic justice that Sauk Prairie honor its famous Nobel Prize winning son/writer with a big fat 1/3 pound cheeseburger.

Sort of Minnesotan.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Dreams and visions


The Twins played a day game yesterday, not that I'm a big fan. I can't name anyone on the team, not even a star. But I've heard them on the radio more in the last week than I have in my entire life because there's an old guy--why do I think of him as old?--across the bay who throws in a line from his boat dock every night, sits quietly in a lawn chair, and cranks up the Twins on the radio.

Since nothing stops sound on a lake, I get the play by play on the other side, which is okay. Lately, they've been playing the Brewers, and my mom is so religious about them that she'll stop almost anything--even a telephone conversation from her son--when they're on. Religious is a word I shouldn't use right there, I guess; my mother, who is 90, certainly wouldn't like it; but if being religious about something means spending immense devotion on whatever it is we're talking about, Mom's qualifies for Brewer sainthood. Anyway, I'm sitting on the boat, knowing Mom is watching the very same game in her Wisconsin old folks' home, and there's something satisfying about all of that. Don't ask me who won.

But I've also been thinking that what the old guy across the bay is doing doesn't sound like a bad way of life during one's retirement, living out here and throwing a line in from the dock every night, while listening to the Twins or Minnesota Public Radio. At first, I thought the guy's ritual made him a real Garrison Keillor character, especially when I heard him yell at some other old fart down the shore on Saturday night, telling him that the giant Northern they both know but never catch was coming his way--then laughing. Here's an assignment, write a one-act about those two old farts on the dock. I think I could do that.

But it's not a bad way to retire, I'm thinking. Write half the day, putter around during the afternoon, and at night watch loons and ducks and bald eagles--and a red bobber as it swoops and dips when the legendary Northern toys with a fat nightcrawler or some slimy leech.

Of course, you've got to clean the fish. I could handle that.

The Bible says your old men shall dream dreams. Does that include the Twins on a dock?

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Walking

I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits unless I spend four hours a day at least — and it is commonly more than that — sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields absolutely free from all wordly engagements. You may safely say a penny for your thoughts, or a thousand pounds. When sometimes I am reminded that the mechanics and shop-keepers stay in their shops not only all the forenoon, but all the afternoon too, sitting with crossed legs, so many of them — as if the legs were made to sit upon, and not to stand or walk upon — I think that they deserve some credit for not having all committed suicide long ago.

Henry David Thoreau, "Walking"


Easy for him to say. The man took a two-year holiday beside a pond and did nothing but finish up some writing, sauntering in to Concord on Sundays to mooch meals from anyone who’d feed him. Four hours a day and more—just walking? Thoreau was no Calvinist.

Our vacation walks are sometimes like saunas. My shirt gets soaked every day, twice by rain, when we were caught out along the trails; but every other time by a bath of body sweat. Twice, heat stroke seemed just 100 yards off. Four hours of walking would lay me up for a day or two, but then the kind of preservation of health and spirits Thoreau is talking about isn’t a plain old constitutional. Besides, Thoreau wasn’t sixty years old when he parked himself in the woods either.

Listen to him:
But the walking of which I speak has nothing in it akin to taking exercise, as it is called, as the sick take medicine at stated hours — as the swinging of dumb-bells or chairs; but is itself the enterprise and adventure of the day. If you would get exercise go in search of the springs of life. Think of a man’s swinging dumb-bells for his health, when those springs are bubbling up in far off pastures unsought by him.
Okay, okay—consider me scolded, even if searching for the springs of life wasn’t what we’ve been doing. Thoreau, a thorough-going New Englander, shed his Puritanism rather well, but lost nothing of the preacher in the process. There’s lots of finger-wagging in Walden.

So what if we’re not Thoreau-scale walkers. I don’t really care. There are bike paths galore here, “up north,” flat and paved and richly accessorized old railroad beds that make wonderful places to walk. Wild flowers are just now coming into their own; and after an hour’s workout, one’s appetite well, sort of blossoms, too.


Besides, toting a camera and snapping pictures is great therapy because it forces the eye to look for beauty. As Thoreau himself might say, that's not a bad occupation. One could do worse things with his or her time.

And that statement, by this dumb bell, almost sounds like him. But I swear--no finger-wagging.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Other worlds




I was a hundred yards south two nights ago, at a spot where I'd already caught two nice bass, a beautiful spot. I was hoping for more, maybe even a northren. That's when they arrived, four young men (young is a salient fact here), fully equipped, in a fishing boat, scouring the shoreline weeds right by the dock that belongs to our cabin, crank-baiters. I swear I saw one of them pull out a walleye, thirty feet off our dock. I haven't seen a walleye.

Ticked?--yes. I guess the sin, according to Moses's law, is covetousness, but in that long list of wish-I-hads he includes in his recitation doesn't include your neighbor's walleye so maybe the Lord will look the other way this time.

So this morning I thought I'd stay close to the dock myself, where my host says there's a great, dramatic dropoff that draws fish and fisherman. Nothing. No movement whatsoever, even though I'm really doing a poor man's thing and tossing worms out into the world beneath me. Not even a sunny. The bobber could have been sculpted.

Suddenly, as if out of nowhere, I see this guy--a beaver, an old one but not quite retired, old because whenever he'd emerge from the water he'd huff and puff and snort and wheeze as if just plodding along was draining him of every last bit of energy. On the water, I may be a rookie, but signs like that I know, believe me.


Beavers, I'm told, have a far more generous reputation than they deserve. If they're as dumb as some observers say, then this one appeared to have missed the cut whenever beaver brains were passed out because he seemed utterly at a loss for knowing what on earth he was doing in the bay. But there he was. At certain moments (which I didn't catch in the camera), he'd half emerge from the water, a huge stump of a thing which made me believe that Nessy, England's most famous faux-monster, had immigrated and decided that Leech Lake, Minnesota offered greater joy than Loch Ness.

But then, imagination does strange things. Just as surprisingly as he appeared, he left, surface dived into oblivion. I watched and watched, hoping he'd come up close to the dock for a more intimate portrait, but no go. He may well still be out there, trying to find his way home. But I didn't see him again.

I'm quite sure beavers are vegan, but meanwhile, along the shoreline quite a ways up, one vigilant mother duck kept just as watchful an eye on the open water, behind her, a whole flock of ducklings.


Even if I'm not catching fish, I'm blessed by knowing that there is, all around me, tons of worlds in full motion. This morning, a bald eagle set off from some tree north along the shoreline, right over that family of loons I've been watching, setting them roaring and hooting and making all kinds of noise, as only loons can on a lake like this. I have no idea if they were afraid or simply signaling their good wishes to eagle (who has a nest herself across the bay), but they raised a ruckus.

Another whole world.

I was drifting (now there's a metaphor), letting a jumbo leech pull me along that drop off, hoping for some action. Nothing. So I pulled in the line, heaved up the anchor, and tried to start the engine. Cough. Nothing.

There's no oar locks in this friendly old boat I'm using, but there is an oar, so I stroked my way back home (not terribly far), tied up the boat, and settled on putting in a line from the end of the dock, just to see if I could find those lunkers those young guys were after. Nothing.

The best way to fix things, if you're as mechanically-challenged as I am, is to let things be and try again later. So I did--the boat's motor, that is. Still nothing.

All the while--I swear it--at the end of my line dangled the very same jumbo leech I put on five minutes after drifting out. Nobody wanted it--nobody.

I tried the engine again. Nope. Then--a moment of sheer brilliance--I lifted the gas tank. Could have used it for a bobber. I needed gas.

I decided to reel the whole fishing morning in, and it wasn't even seven; but I should be working on a novel anyway. I told myself I could reheat the coffee I didn't drink, and little later, I run to the gas station.

So I'm thinking that jumbo leech deserves a medal for his stalwart service, but after an hour in the drink there's not much pride left in his chest. I wiggle him off the hook and drop him in the water--two feet deep, no more--and just like that a couple of sunfish eat him. Bang. Just like that, I swear. He couldn't have been in the water for thirty seconds.

I tell my wife it's wonderful to know that our livelihood does not depend on my fishing prowess or I'd be looking for a job in the woods with the CCC, which went out of business in the late 30s.

But then there's this--beavers and mother ducks, loon families and eagle hunting herself for provisions for an eaglet amid the sticks high up in a pine just across the bay. Not to mention the minnows, the sunfish, and the northerns--the whole food chain--somewhere beneath me in the world of water I can't see and still don't understand.

There are always other worlds.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Turtle symbolism


A couple of days ago, on a walk, we met a guy motoring home on an ancient Honda, a man really, maybe 35--big, strong, very male. He turned up his gravel driveway and stopped because a mud turtle was sitting right in the middle. He turned off the engine, got off his bike, picked up the turtle, then brought it to the woods just beside the driveway. When he walked back to his Honda, he smiled at us. What he did was, well, sweet.

Who knows why some things stay in the mind and memory? But some do, and that little moment did, for reasons I can't determine.

But here up north, turtles are all over. You've got to live close to rivers to stumble over them on the Great Plains, where we live, because turtles need water. We're on the water here, in spades--"ninety lakes within a ten minute drive," one town says about itself. Hence, turtles.

Turtles have a storied mythic history among Native Americans, which is why they show up all the time in jewelry and on t-shirts. They're associated somehow with strength and fertility for women--something about 13 segments on their shells corresponding to 13 moons in the lunar cycle.

Even though they occasionally get help from husky guys on Hondas, to many Native Americans, turtles represent stedfastness and longevity, the ability to withstand whatever misfortunes life may bring. That makes some sense to me.

To Lakota and Navajo and other nomadic and semi-nomadic people, it's also understandable why turtles would be a favorite; after all, they're incredibly mobile: they wear their own houses.

In some Native creation myths, the turtle represents the link between the first world--the world of water--and the second, the world of earth because they lugged dirt up from the bottom of the water, dirt that became creation. Don't remember reading that in the Genesis account, of course.

Making a big deal out of a lousy turtle is sort of hard to fathom for a Calvinist like me. Basically, a turtle likes nothing better than sunning itself--see the picture. If the world were full of turtles, exactly what kind of world would we have, anyway? Buses would never run on time. Nothing would get done. Who'd do the dishes or bring out the garbage? You can bet the back forty that there ain't many turtles on Wall Street. Maybe there should be.

But on vacation, when I see 'em on stumps, I'm reminded of why I'm here, on vacation, that is. Maybe more cosmic-ly too, as in "why I'm here." One could do worse, Frost might say, than being a sitter on stumps.

Maybe I ought to take one back home with me. Or at least a t-shirt.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Sunday Morning Meditation


Answer me

“Hear me when I call”
The impatience of the command form in the English language (we might even say its “nerve”) is on display in the very form of the sentence. When we tell others what to do, we deliberately address them last, if at all; subject takes second place to verb, as in “brush your teeth.” Action is obviously far more important than anything else.

“Shut the door,” cares nothing for feelings, simply insists on action. Add a name and things soften a bit, but not much: “Shut the door, Alphonse.” In fact, if attempt to take the edge off the in-your-face grammatical structure and add something endearing, what we come up with sounds phony: “shut the door, sweetheart."

The command form happens so often in the Psalms that I think we simply become accustomed to hearing it and forget its lousy manners. My goodness, the Psalmist is talking to the Lord God Almighty here, not some knave; yet, he’s ordering him around as if he were a valet. “Hear my cry, O Lord,” says the King James. The NIV has “Answer me when I call to you,” which seems, if you ask me, to bring petulance to another level all together.

If the truth be known, most parents scold their children for using the command form too easily. “Give me the toys,” one kid screams, and loving parents do what they can to curb an insolent tongue.

“Insolent,” “impatient,” “petulant”—I’ve used some unpleasant words here so far, but it seems to me that they all fit. The arrogance—we can call it that, I think—of the writer is unmistakable. Simply stated, he’s telling the Lord what to do. “Answer me.” That doesn’t sound like a supplicant.

Of course, grammar be hanged when you’re calling 911. And that’s what appears to be going on here, and in many other psalms. The writer has arrived at his wit’s end. He can’t cope. He doesn’t have a clue. He’s wasted the last of his best ideas, and there’s nowhere else to turn. Frantic, he forgets his manners and bellows. How else do we explain God’s tolerating this rhetorical blast?

You wonder sometimes whether God Almighty doesn’t rather appreciate being the last port in the storm. Most of us wouldn’t because most of our egos aren’t all that thrilled with being at the end of the line. But God seems to like it. Apparently, his feelings aren’t hurt one bit.

I think he likes us emptied. I think he likes us bereft of our own wiles. I think he likes us without resources, with nowhere to go, and on our knees. We don’t much like ourselves there, but he does.

And I don’t know if that’s so much a characteristic of our Creator and Sustainer, as it is simply the story of all of our lives. We all need foxholes to realize there is nothing we can do. We all need to hit bottom. We all sometimes cower in a corner, nowhere to turn. Doesn’t make dark corners any more of a joy, but a whole less intolerable.

The Psalms are songs to the Lord, but they emerge from what’s human in all of us. They praise His holy name, but I’m really thankful that they also serve to help us understand the mysteries—and even the darkness—of our own lives.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Art of Life


Somewhere along the Heartland Trail, just north of Walker, we came upon a small colony of these little things, a bunch of them, fragile little plants of some type (don't know what) that were actually breaking through the blacktop. Amazing. Hard-headed monsters, stubborn as heck.

Whenever I see such a thing, I'm reminded of an old Malcolm Muggeridge cold-war era line that goes something like this (can't remember it exactly): if the earth itself were layered in concrete, someplace, somewhere, some small green plant would break through. That's faith.

I know he said it better, but I can't find the quote.

I did find this, however: "Every happening, great and small, is a parable whereby God speaks to us, and the art of life is to get the message."

And that line will do for morning thanks this morning. I'm going fishing.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Rain, sun--sweet

This morning's aesthetics


Sarah Vowell's hilarious but fascinating reappraisal of the Puritans and their American legacy, The Wordy Shipmates, says the difference between John Winthrop's famous sermon, "A Model of Chrisitan Charity," and the Declaration of Independence is striking.

Here's the way "Christian Charity" begins: "God Almighty in His most holy and wise providence, hath so disposed of the condition of mankind, as in all times some must be rich, some poor, some high and eminent in ower and dignity; others mean and in subjection."

Compare that, simply enough, with the famous line "all men are created equal."

She may be right.

It's the blasted chipmunks that have me thinking about Sarah Vowell, John Winthrop, and Thomas Jefferson. There are a couple of them here in the woods around the cabin, and they visit regularly, not because they like us but because of a heavily guarded bird feeder that hangs just outside out window. That's one now, right in the barrel of the feeder.


Sunflower seeds. Who knows why chipmunks like them, but they do. Maybe they play baseball. The birdfeeder's inner chimney is full of sunflower seeds, a source of joy so profound apparently that it turns those chipmunks into gymnasts with engineering degrees. The people who own the cottage do everything they can to keep them out, but--barring laying out land mines--the chipmunks have their way with the seeds. Dirty, rotten little cuties.


Hmmm. See that ball of fur? You guessed it.

But it's impossible to get angry with them because they're so blasted darling. If a chipmunk was an opposum, I'd run him off the porch with a broom. But he's not--he's a chipmunk.

I'm no expert in aesthetics, the science of beauty, but I don't know if anyone can explain what makes a chipmunk darling and an opposum a mud fence. Is it that little springy tail? Or is it the perfectly narrow face, the Cleopatra-like oval eyes, the nervous little movements? Are there lines on their faces or bodies that simply please us? Who knows?

All I know is that, if given the choice by my creator, I'd much rather be a chipmunk than a 'possum--and that, therefore, Sarah Vowell, John Winthrop, and the Holy Scripture are probably right: we're not all created equal.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Minnesota Monkeys


I'd read about it, even seen pictures, but never seen it in real life before--before yesterday, that is, when, just off the dock of the cabin we're renting (a very, very sweet place, I might add), Ma Van Loon* and her son or daughter (from a distance, gender still unclear) were steamboating around the channel not far off--far enough, however, so that I couldn't get a really good look. But I saw the kid, riding along, as loons normally do with the kids. But I'd never seen loon-ish piggy-backing before.

Loons are absolutely everything anyone ever said about them. Their wailing is legendary; it overpowers every other sound on the lake. It twitters and twists and mourns and yelps like something unearthly. Sometimes they seem curious as cats, but they're the world's finest swimmers, peek-a-boo masters, darlingly cute--Minnesota's finest entertainment, north country monkeys.

On land, they're worthless. Even though they've got the lowest center of gravity of anyone in the wetlands, they've got this horrifying design flaw--their feet are so far back on their body that they've got no balance. That's why Ma Van Loon* creates a life raft on her back for Junior or Missy to ride along. And, of course, it's only a flaw on land; in the water, they're perfectly agile.

Came back awhile later, and Junior was in the water, which is fine. We've all got to leave the next sometime.

This morning's thanks?--you guessed it.

_____________

*I once knew a preacher named Van Loon. Never really thought of it before, but this morning it strikes me as a absolutely hilarious name.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Media matters


That David Letterman's Sarah Palin joke was not in good taste goes without question. It was, and he--as he now admits--should have cut it. The image of some Yankee star messing around with a 14-year-old girl may well make some people laugh, but the implications aren't the stuff of comedy, but exploitation and abuse.

Sarah Palin remains a largely mysterious presence on the American political stage. She has the virtue of being darlingly photogenic, but seems to delight in using the cameras that love her in ways that have made her more of a celebrity than a statesman. Millions think her the answer to just about every Republican misfortune; on the other hand, millions more sometimes aren't sure if anyone's home in that pretty head of hers.

Now that the dust has settled (we hope!), it seems clear that both Palin and Letterman profited from Letterman's bad taste joke--Ms. Palin by keeping those beloved cameras flashing all around her, and Letterman by whacking Conan O'Brien in the late-night talk-show ratings for the very first time since Leno left. Scandal and gossip is just another form of news, after all, and we're all looking to stay on top of things. Media delivers the goods, what we want, when we want it--no question.

And think of this. Today, our news out of Iran comes by way of Twitter. "The evil empire" seems to be imploding; time will tell whether or not the protests amount to anything vis-a-vis the election, but whatever news we get from the streets comes from a social messaging utility that spits out info in news bites of no more than 140 characters. Say what you'd like about tweets, but right now, blocked by a repressive regime, they're just about all we have.

Imagine that, Dick Cheney: the war on terror won by tweets.

Media matters today, in every way. It manages and wields power sufficient to make leaders, and break them. Amazing world.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Morning thanks revisited


After a night in which I slept less than I have for the last several, I’m especially thankful that, this morning, we’re looking at some, however brief, cessation of our anxiety. Nothing is over, really, but the assault of the last several days can only wane for a time. What we’ve finally stumbled into is a rest, a time away.

Last night I put the fishing gear in the car, then readied the cameras. Beside me as I type, a bag full of clothes waits to be zipped up and lugged out. I’ve got my week’s reading to pack—and a bunch of CDs. A day of work and we’re off.

By tomorrow night, I’ll have a line in, the sun will be dying, and the only sound will be the woeful baying of the loons, some of this earth’s most divine chanting.

This year, even more than others, I’m thankful, really thankful, for vacations.
___________________________________

Three years ago, almost to the day, I kept an actual thanksgiving diary, writing those lines. Much has changed in those three years; much has not. I didn't sleep poorly last night, but tomorrow we're off, once again, for the loons and the lake.

This year, too, "even more than others," I'm thankful, really thankful for vacations.

Monday, June 15, 2009

The river runs through it


Old settlers who'd come to the neighborhood of my own hometown, Oostburg, WI, left their farms in a panic in the summer of 1862, scared to death by scintillating rumors of an imminent Indian massacre. Lots of men were gone, of course, off to war, the Civil War, increasing the panic; but foul and dastardly reports of redskins on the warpath made them grab their guns and go off to town to circle up and fight off the marauders.

Those old Hollanders weren't wrong. There had been an uprising, all right, and a big one, leaving hundreds of white settlers dead. But the warpath was out in southwest Minnesota, just about 500 miles straight west. So much fear grew from what some call Little Crow's War, or the Sioux Uprising of 1862, that a mighty wave of sheer panic marched through the entire state of Wisconsin and sent farmers into settlement towns, where they armed themselves with pitchforks, and readied themselves for attacks that never came.

Once in awhile as of late, I've been reading about that war, Little Crow's War, because it happened so close to where I live today. People often think of that six-month horror as the beginning of the Great Sioux Wars of the later 19th century, a saga that ends--or is thought to--at Wounded Knee, in 1890. Like all the other battles of that war--or "fights," as they're sometimes called--Little Crow's War was caused unmistakably by the coming of the white man. For years white folks tried to explain those wars on some other factors, but it's impossible not to see that the cause was simple and tragic, for Native Americans--they lived on land we wanted.

Last week, on a quick day-trip to the Twin Cities, I drove through the Minnesota River valley area between Mankato and Minneapolis. It's a gorgeous valley, really, green as an emerald kingdom right now, hilly and wooded with hardwoods that look as trustworthy as anything one sees when coming off the prairies south and west.

The Minnesota River ranks as one of the Mississippi's most rich polluters, I'm told, but if I hadn't been told that fact, I don't think I would have suspected. The Minnesota is a prairie river that looks healthy; rambunctious as it is rebellious, it's flow is flat and fast, subject to flooding, and therefore home to a junkyard of the bleached, bark-less cottonwoods it regularly strips from its own banks come spring.

The valley of the Missouri River is as beautiful as any river valley anywhere, but the Missouri itself is harnessed into domesticity by a series of dams that make it a milk cow next to the buffalo it once was. The Minnesota is much smaller, of course, but it looks as if it's not been drawn and quartered--and I like that, even though I'd likely get nervous in May, if I lived anywhere close by.

So anyway, on a highway that skirts the Minnesota River for miles, I took in sufficient views of to bring me back to the stories of Little Crow's War, which was fought there, and stories that are not at all pretty. But it was wonderful to follow its banks for awhile and catch glimpses of a terrain that seemed--what do I know?--not all that much different from what the valley itself might have looked like 150 years ago. Now and then my imagination readily painted in a hunting party of Dakota warriors.

One rather common theme in the literature of the Holocaust is the almost insane anger some victims felt at nature itself. When they could, they'd look out windows or over fields and see birds, for instance, who were nesting or singing just as they always do, as if this horror wasn't going on right in their front yards. Right now, as I type, the robins outside my basement window are joyously establishing their territories with music that's so raucous--and beautiful--that no one needs a rooster. Imagine hearing the gorgeous, searing song of a cardinal while watching your friends starve to death in a work camp.

What makes suffering people angry is what they frequently sense as nature's abject disregard, which is sometimes translated as any deity's disregard. What we want for our suffering is a chorus of lament. How can birds sing when innocent people are dying?

I was thinking of all of that as I drove along the banks of the Minnesota River. Significant problems have arisen in my own life lately, difficulties that dominate interior landscapes, the valleys of my soul, you might say, making it hard to think about other things. I'm light years away from claiming anything having to do with the word holocaust, but if suffering is a component part of the human condition, I'd just like to know if there are others.

Because the Minnesota River somehow looked to me, right or wrong, so much like it might have during Little Crow's War in 1862, 150 years ago, I found some comfort there, not because people--red and white--suffered so badly amid those hardwoods, but because of what I felt in what seemed the ancient flow of an ancient river--that, despite the immanent darkness within me, life goes on.

The river just keeps on flowing, just as it always has for 150 years or more, despite what joys or sorrows go on right there on its own banks. Maybe I don't have to grab a pitchfork or circle up the wagons.

It just felt good to see that river flow, if that makes any sense.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Saturday Morning Catch

Seventy-some years ago already, a Lutheran Orphan's home at Beloit, IA, closed its doors. Some remnants remain, including a huge old barn and the administration building; but mostly what was once there is gone. A stone marker out in the Beloit cemetery commemorates the children who died there, most from marauding plagues of influenza--forty some kids.

The kids weren't, by definition, "orphans," really; they were kids whose parents couldn't raise them--for whatever reasons. Sometimes their time at the home was relatively short because Dad got himself a job and could support them once again. Sometimes, they were there until high school or later.

I wanted to see the stone and the place close up, so that's where I spent most of my early Saturday morning. Most of the shots are from the cemetery, even though there's only one of the stone I wanted to find.

Rarely do I see coyotes, but this morning a pair, oddly enough, but they weren't particularly interested in posing so the pics a dud.

As always, there was far more beauty out there--gossamer fog all over after a few days of rain--than I could get in a camera.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Anne Frank, 1929-1945


Had she lived, today Anne Frank would be 80 years old. She didn't, of course. Like millions of others--and hundreds of thousands of Dutch Jews--Anne Frank didn't survive the Holocaust, but died, along with her sister, of typhus, just a few weeks before the Brits liberated the Nazi concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen, in northern Germany.

Anne--and her family--were far more German than Dutch. They'd fled Hitler in 1934, taking up residence in the Netherlands, where Otto Frank, her father, had business connections. When the Nazis occupied Holland, trouble followed, of course; and Otto took his family into hiding in July of 1942.

Just about everyone knows about The Diary of Anne Frank. Millions have read it. Think of the incredible stories of World War II--the flag-raising at Iwo Gima, the selfless heroism of hundreds of thousands on Omaha Beach on D-Day, the horror and frozen of the German assault at the Battle of the Bulge. Think of the histories of WWII already written, the novels--Catch-22, A Bridge too Far, think of the movies, South Pacific, Casablanca. So many stories, so much sadness, so much heart.

Only one non-fiction book in the history of the publishing has outsold The Diary of Anne Frank--the Bible. Who could have ever imagined that the diary of a girl in occupied Holland would be read by more people than any of the immense array of choices to have come out of World War II?

But it did. Why? I think William Faulkner had it right:

I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet's, the writer's, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet's voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.
Anne Frank likely never knew Faulkner, whose Nobel Prize Speech wasn't delivered until 1950. But Faulkner has it right. Ms. Frank's Diary has no blood and guts, but it has soul. For sixty years the immense pillars of that young lady's little diary--its hope and love and soul--have helped all of us to endure and prevail.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

". . .but I love you"


Maybe it's my age, but I found a recent Speaking of Faith program spellbinding. It's titled "Alzheimer's: Memory and Being," and it features a man named Dr. Alan Dienstag, who has done writing programs for patients with Alzheimer's, programs push patients to write down memories, for the sake of their loved ones, that will otherwise soon be gone.

Maybe the worst part of any such illness is knowing you have it. Once one loses that realization, one may well live more comfortably within the handicap; but the program made clear that that time of limbo--a time when you know you have it but simply keep losing memory--can be simply devastating. That's when Dienstag works with patients, getting them to write their stories.

One little anecdote stays with me. A woman is pained, day after day, as she realizes that her husband is having more and more trouble simply identifying who she is when she comes in the room. With a kind of impertinence, Dienstag says, she tends to confront him when she comes in--"do you know me?" she'll say.
One day, her husband looks up at her when asked the question, looks into her eyes for a moment, and says, "I don't know you, but I love you."

That single line holds so much human emotion that it lifts itself off the page, an entire story, an entire life--two of them, in fact.
__________________________

You can hear "Alzheimer's: Memory and Being" on Speaking of Faith at

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

A ride on a big bike


In the last months of my mother-in-law's life, nothing brought her greater joy than a few minutes with her two great-grandchildren. I used to wonder about that--what it was exactly about them that made the happiness flow where otherwise there seemed to be so little? It would be sweet to think it was simply the two of them--that is, their individual personalities and characters. But it seemed to me that something more universal was going on there, something beyond Mom and those darling little people. How was it that their mere presence offered her so very much?

Yesterday they came for supper, and my granddaughter took along a new prized possession--a violin. Just yesterday she got it, and her first lesson is this morning at 9:30. Her grandpa wouldn't mind being a fly on the wall. Anyway, that violin was out several times, and I was told that I had to take a picture. Grandpa does what granddaughter commands.

Then, later, when I was grilling the hamburgers, I lowered the seat on her grandma's bike, put it down far enough so her granddaughter's far-too-rapidly growing legs could reach the pedals. Took some fussing, but soon enough she got on, and around the block she went, on her own, her first ride, she said, on a big bike.

When she got back, she could hardly contain herself. "This is a big day," she told me, flashing a smile she could barely contain. "First I get a violin and then I ride Grandma's bike."

Somehow, it thrills my soul to know that, for her, that's a big day. That smile is worth the Philadelphia mint. Just to know that she can barely contain her joy from nothing more than drawing a bow over the strings of a new (used) violin and then climbing on a big bike for a quick trip around the block, just to know that my granddaughter thinks yesterday was a red-letter day for those reasons is enough to make me smile, as it was, I'm sure, for Mom, in her last weeks and months.

Why? Her bountiful joy brings me a surcease of sorrow, a sweet release from too abundant care--a moment's immersion in the sheer grace of childhood innocence.

And why? For such is the kingdom of heaven. There--that's my morning's thanks.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

"Show, don't tell"


Some people salutate with "all the best," some with "grace" or "peace." Some Dutch folks (from Canada and the US, not Holland) use "het beste"; in fact, a California friend of mine uses it even though she hasn't a stitch of Dutch in her. "Sincerely" is standard fare, of course, but e-mails, which makes up 99% of personal correspondence these days, frequently skips the courteousy altogether.

So this week I got a note from a former student who ended it with the salutation, "show, don't tell," which I thought was cute because he was, thereby, acknowledging that at least something of a class I taught 15 years ago not only got through but stuck. "Show, don't tell."

When ideas calcify into cliche, they don't necessarily become less true, only less fresh. Take this one, for instance, the almost canonical first rule of good writing. In forty years of teaching writing, I've probably laid that one out a hundred thousand times because it seems to me that even though the line is old and hackneyed, it certainly isn't wrong.

In really fine writing, one doesn't want to say, "that man was ugly"--that's telling. "My uncle Jethro had an overbite that could have handled most of the Oklahoma panhandle"--that's showing. In memorable writing, a strong image always bests a clear idea; or maybe I should say that good images always make clear ideas stick. Show, don't tell.

Anyway, I had to chuckle when I read it there on the note, as I'm sure that ex-student of mine knew I would. He's a teacher himself, so his sweet acknowledgement was a clever way of saying thanks (I think!).

Got me to thinking, though. What if "show, don't tell" were all my forty-years' worth of students remembered from writing class? What if that catch phrase comprised the full volume of my influence in a thousand students' lives, the sum total of 40 class periods and six or seven essays in any semester of my life?--that's what I was thinking.

Here's what I'm thinking: guess what?--could have done worse. After all, "show, don't tell" is still a first-class writing tip; you could do worse than have that one stick to the insides of your mind. And people who write well do often get some breaks in life, I think--or that's what I'm told. I know a television news producer who claims that writing is just about the only skill she looks for in a candidate for a job--can she write? "We can teach her everything else," she's told me several times, "but if she can write she can do just about anything in news."

But who cares? The vast majority of my students are not bound for careers in TV journalism--or the law, where writing also counts, big-time. "Show, don't tell" ain't bad for other things as well.

Like living with neighbors, for instance--"show 'em, don't tell 'em." Like being a parent for that matter, or a teacher or just a good friend: if you want to make something stick, show 'em, don't tell 'em. Like living the Christian life, for instance--or even bringing the good news. The difference between walk and talk is embedded in the old line too, really--don't you think? The more I think about it, I could do worse than "show, don't tell."

So anyway, thanks, I'm saying, to the ex-student's sweet salutation. Lord knows I could do worse.
Hey--show, don't tell.


Monday, June 08, 2009

Mosquitobites


16But of the cities of these people, which the LORD thy God doth give thee for an inheritance, thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth: 17But thou shalt utterly destroy them; namely, the Hittites, and the Amorites, the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; as the LORD thy God hath commanded thee. . ." Deuteronomy 20
Yesterday, in church, the pastor read this passage and thereby time-capsuled me back to my childhood, my father's voice reading from the Bible. We kept up a strenuous family altar in our home, reading the Bible after every meal. Sometimes, to keep us entertained and a bit vigilant, he would stick his own words into the text.

With passages like this--"namely, the Hittites, and the Amorites, the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites,' he would inevitably add another heathen tribe, much hated in my native Wisconsin, "the Mosquitobites." His little addition became such a tradition that we'd say it in chorus with him. Sweet family time.
So just for a moment I'm back around my childhood table, listening to my father read the verse, when it strikes me that he may well have done the right thing in sticking a joke to a verse like that one because Deuteronomy 20: 16 and 17 isn't particularly sweet for a kindergarten kid.

I doubt that my father had camouflage in mind when he made a joke, but the flashback made it very clear to me that Dad quite successfully defanged the passage by adding mosquito bites. The voice of the Old Testament God in that passage is a world away from the solace that is Jesus. If, as a kid, I hadn't been guffawing at my dad's joke, I might have wondered what manner of God it was we worshipped. Here's what he says, after all: "don't let anything breathing live."

Maybe my father did the right thing by making us laugh right then. He kept me from sinking my baby teeth into a holocaust, the bloody command from none other than the Creator of Heaven and Earth.

But then, the sermon--yesterday, I mean. It was a thoughtful examination of exactly that verse from Deuteronomy in light of the story of Rahab, the whore and liar and saint who saved Israelites and thereby shoehorned herself and her family into Jesus's own family tree.

Does God change his mind? A wonderful question. If, in fact, the Israelites had done things according to the Deuteronomy plan, they should have slaughtered the whore and her spawn. Once they left Jericho in ruins, her body--and those of her family--should have been left in the streets with the rest of the corpses of all breathing things.

But they didn't and she wasn't, and God almighty not only looks the other way, but goes so far as to inscribe Rahab's name among the elect in a biblical hall of fame.

Go figure.

I don't know that my father would have bought that theology back when I was a boy--the idea that God changes; and I can't ask him because he's gone now to a place where he may well have a better sense of the truth of things than he ever had when he made jokes about mosquito bites.

But when it comes right down to it, I'm sort of glad he didn't let me take that passage seriously. After all, if the biblical record itself is any proof, even God didn't.

And I like that.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Surely?


“Surely goodness and mercy
will follow me all the days of my life” Psalm 23

Sure. Believe that and I’ve got a bridge to sell you.

Not long ago, I spent about two months soul deep in people’s holocaust memories. I was writing a script for a documentary that will feature the stories of people who rescued Jews during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, reading more than (maybe) any human being should about that most horrifying time in recent history.

Page after page, the stories—and there are thousands—simply take your breath away. Let me just tell you one.

In December of 1942, there were 1100 patients and hundreds of staff at a Jewish mental hospital outside of Apeldoorn, the Netherlands. The persecution and deportation of Dutch Jewry had begun, in earnest, months before already. In November of that year, a Dutch government official had warned Dr. Jacques Lobstein, the chief medical officer, that the Nazis had their eyes on the place. Lobstein, himself Jewish, took little action.

Why not? Perhaps because he believed sentiment not unlike David’s in this verse: “Surely, goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life. . .”

No one can know for sure, of course, but it seems legitimate to speculate that Dr. Lobstein, like hundreds and thousands of people throughout Europe in those years, simply could not believe that some human beings would treat others the way he was warned the Nazis would eventually treat his wards in his hospital.

On January 21, 1943, in the middle of the night, the Nazis came. Patients, many in their nightclothes, some in straight-jackets, were jammed into lorries, taken to the railroad station, then pushed into railroad cars, children and psychopaths alike. It was brutal and unforgettable. All were taken to Auschwitz. None survived. Of the four hundred staff, only ten did.
If I were Dr. Jacques Lobstein, I don’t know that I would have acted any differently. I don’t know that I could have. There was no place in his imagination for the horror which was to take place. Daily, he’d worked with society’s most needy; he could not imagine that other human beings, many of them toting Bibles, could be so bestial.

“Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life. . .”

But what if it doesn’t? What if shit happens that exceeds even our most awful expectations? What if we feel, like Elie Wiesel, that God’s only answer to our earnest petitions is silence--or, worse, delivering up even more madness. There are no easy answers to such questions, no handy proof texts to mitigate the depths of human sadness so many feel so often.

And yet we have David singing “Surely, surely.” No one knows when the 23rd Psalm was written, but everyone knows that David’s own life was not without its horrors. “Surely, goodness and mercy will follow me. . .” In all likelihood, the King’s years were not without substantial tears. Was he wrong? Is this surely business little more than self-inflated spiritual bravado--some woeful wishful thinking?

Life without hope is unfathomably bleak, but it’s not just hope that’s the bromide here. David’s hope is faith firmly placed in the God who has filled his cup to overflowing, who has anointed his head with oil, who has been his shepherd, who has satisfied his wants, who has made him lie down in green pastures.

Surely, eternally, that very God's history of goodness and mercy won't desert him now, even through a holocaust. Surely, surely, surely, he says.

And that's good for me to hear--"surely, surely, surely."

Play it again, Sam.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Sixty five years ago today


There is no one, really, in the West, much less in the world itself, who is not the recipient of grace given us 65 years ago today on the beaches at Normandy. No one can guess how the world would have fared if that immense assault at fortified, occupied Europe had--as it could have--simply failed. Would Hitler have left America alone, an island far, far away? Or would the Reich's dreams of world domination have staked claims here, too? No one knows.

What we do know is that thousands and thousands died that day, once Eisenhouwer simply said, "Okay, let's go." It's impossible to know what must have gone in that man's mind that day as he undoubtedly and certainly knew that thousands would never reach the shore. But he gave the word, and they went, and the rest is history.

We watched the elegance of the ceremony there today, including speeches by heads of state from England, Canada, France, and the US; but more important, I suppose, was the gallery of vets that sat neary, rows upon rows of 80- and 90-year olds who were boys, literally, on that day.

What happened that day is my story, too, even though my father was a world away in the South Pacific; but I married into a story too, a story that shaped who I am and who my children are. My mother-in-law, recently passed away, was engaged-to-be-married, as they say, to a man who took one step off one of those landing crafts and met his end in the cold waters of the channel. They were sweethearts, I'm sure, lovers. But he was one who died before he ever got to the sand.

After the war, there remained a diamond, and my mother-in-law was left with the difficult question of what to do with what had ornamented her left hand for a couple of years. Life had to go on. She had to find another way into the future than the one she'd had planned with him, so she went off the local jewelry store and made a swap--that ring for a mantle clock, a clock which we have--and have had for some time--in a spare bedroom.

It's impossible for me to go through any Jun 6 and not think of that clock and what it represents. After all, my wife is a child of my mother-in-law's subsequent love, the man she married in 1946. She wouldn't be here--or the she who she is--wouldn't be here if that young GI hadn't fallen on June 6, 1944. The whole shape of things wouldn't be at all what they are if he hadn't met his death there in the rain of bullets that killed hundreds on an otherwise naked stretch of beach.

That death has been spoken of only in whispers, of course, ever since. And that's the way it should be. But those whispers cannot eliminate the truth, and the truth has, as people say, literally set all of us free.

So this morning's thanks--June 6, 2009--is for a man who is remembered only, perhaps, in a small town Memorial Day celebration not far down the road from where I live, a hero whose body likely finally came to rest on the beach he fully intended to conquer. Without a doubt, he did, even in his death.

There are equally horrific results when we measure the importance of history--if we forget, we cut off ourselves from our stories, become senile, as senility is often defined as a condition some suffer when they have no memory. On the other hand, we can--and many do--live so deeply with the scars of the past that they can't move on or find joy. Somewhere between those two extremes the rest of us must and do live.

Today, at least, I'll make a visit to the spare bedroom and check out the mantel clock, which isn't ticking, isn't sounding its chimes right now, but still is there. It still is there.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009



This morning’s Washington Post leads with the story that none other than Vice President Cheney led the reporting teams who enlightened the special Congressional committee on “enhanced interrogations techniques,” as he likes to call them, not “torture” as do most on the left.

I’m not at all sure if that information is enlightening; in fact, it may serve only to darken the mysteries—not of what happened, but of whether or not what happened was in the finest interests of America itself. We seem so immensely divided right now that nothing or no one can bridge the gulf. Lacking only a stumpy mustache, Obama is but another Hitler—did you know that? He’s just another charismatic leader deluding the masses into following him to whatever iniquity his evil mind conspires to promote.

And Cheney, who lacks only a helmet in his sweeping darkness, would likely speak through a tube like his soul-mate, Darth Vader, in his quest to exonerate himself and George W., from the list of sins nailed to the gates of the city of Washington DC by the new regime. Both sides wallow in darkness, when seen from the other.

A house divided against itself is what we are. Some of my oldest and best friends—some of my family—think I’ve gone over to the dark side because I won’t admit that Obama is, in plain and simple fact, the root of all evil, Sodormayor his latest Latina lackey.

Yesterday we received another one of those patriotic “re: re: re: re:” e-mails that features that famous painting of Christ the Shepherd over a background of the stoutly waving stars and stripes, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” sung by kids, gloriously harmonizing behind everything else. I have no problem with Christ the Shepherd—he is my Savior; and I have no problem with the American flag—I’m fourth and fifth generation American; but the illicit relationship between the two –God and country—is a horrific scandal. By my reckoning, America is no more God’s chosen nation than is South Africa. When John Winthrop, wrapping himself in biblical language, called New England, “a city on a hill,” he didn’t mean the nation we now know as America—he meant the world he knew, the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and he wasn’t even right on that score.

No matter. It seems there ain’t no middle ground, but then the vast majority of my friends are Christians. I’m not sure what life is like among those who aren’t. Let’s just put it this way: among Christians these days it seems the real peacemakers are few and far between.