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, December 31, 2009

Morning Thanks--surprised by joy


A friend sent me this from Henri Nouwen.

"The third discipline is the hardest one. It is the discipline to be surprised not by suffering but by joy. As we grow old, we will have to stretch out our arms, be guided and led to places we would rather not go. What was true for Peter will be true for us. There is suffering ahead of us.. . . But don't be surprised by pain. Be surprised by joy, be surprised by the little flower that shows its beauty in the midst of a barren desert, and be surprised by the immense healing power that keeps bursting forth like springs of fresh water from the depth of our pain. God becomes ours and goes out from us wherever we go and to whomever we meet.”

This friend of mine thought I’d like it. She’s right, so this morning I’m thankful for the idea, for Nouwen, and for the friend.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Terrifying cheerios


What hasn't changed through my nearly forty years of teaching undergrads is the adventuresome anxiety that bubbles up in a lot of souls this semester, this second semester, when twilight draws nigh on college years that even they begin to think have passed all too quickly. What am I going to do?--where am I going to work?--am I going to get into law school?--what are my options? I don't even have a girlfriend. . .

All of that.

What has changed in those forty years, however, is options. I'm very sure--although I'm risking generalization here--that college students have vastly more options than I did all those years ago. Many more. And they know it--they've been told that by parents and teachers and just about everyone else: you can be whatever you want to be. That sort of thing. Over and over and over.

Sometimes I think--I really do--that a sprawling gallery of options is a mixed blessing.

Thomas Meany, in a Wall Street Journal review of Peter Berger and Anton Zijderveld's In Praise of Doubt: How to Have Convictions Without Becoming Fanatic, says the sociologists make the point that our every widening choice-making opportunities may not lead to secularism, as presumed for generations, but instead "lead to plurality, which they define as 'the individual's ability to make choices between and among worldviews.'" In other words, pluralism is the result of more choices, not secularism. Hence, the dying away of denominationalism, but not piety.

But how do we respond if, really, we have too many choices? Meaney says, "Messrs. Berger and Zijderveld argue that when too much of a person's sense of himself is chosen, rather than given [emphasis mine, by the way], he suffers the sort of social dislocation that Durkheim calls 'anomie.' The danger of this condition is that it makes individuals more susceptible to absolutist doctrines--both religious and political--that offer a secure and uncompromised identity."

Take Cheerios, for instance, long a favorite of mine. I'm out. I go to the store, Cheerios in my soul and on my mind. When I get to the breakfast food aisle (which is huge, by the way), I'm confronted with eleven different Cheerios. I'm not kidding. "The Cheerios family" is now comprised of eleven siblings--there's traditional, of course, but there's also honey nut, multi-grain, banana nut, crunch, berry burst, frosted, apple cinnamon, fruity, and, last but not least--and not even last, I've heard tell--yogurt burst. Listen, you heard it here first: coming soon to to your grocery store shelves, chocolate Cheerios. I kid you not.

But I've been too long in the grocery store. Here's the idea, at least as I see it. You want Cheerios, but you've got this vast array of choices, so you stand there like a dork trying to determine which lousy choice is best. Some know which variety they want; some get weary and pick up anything; some at least--Berger and Zijderveld might say, start longing for less choice--or, and here's the point, finally, no choice at all. Just give me the dad-gummed Cheerios and cut the frills.

Lots of silliness here for a subject that isn't, because what's behind all these breakfast options, in my mind, at least, is a kid named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who a year ago wore a stocking cap with a Nike swoop


and this year became a a suicide bomber willing to murder 300 people in the white heat of his own horrifying hatred of America?

What turned a kid whose e-mails make him sound like a little rich boy, a whiny loner, afraid of sex, afraid of life itself, into a killer? What makes a boy whose life offered a thousand opportunities that millions of dirt-poor Nigerian kids couldn't even dream of into a cold-blooded murderer, driven to madness by ideological hate? How do we explain it?

I don't expect any of my anxious students to turn to radical Islam, but I do believe that Berger and Zijderveld are on to something. The vast array of choices we face, the splendid table of options that lies before us, can make us all wish for less, for fewer, for something concrete, something absolute.

One answer is fanaticism. One answer is to become the true believer.

Makes all kinds of awful sense to me.

It's breakfast-time, and I'm not even hungry.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

December 29

What drew me into the novel I wanted to write was a strange phenomenon called the Ghost Dance, a fanatic belief among Native people, circa 1889, that Ian Frazier calls "the first American religion." How on earth, I wondered, could an entire people--just about all Native people west of the Mississippi--be so completely deceived, if deceived is the right word?

A Paiute named Wovoka out in Utah had a vision to which hundreds of thousands eventually subscribed. Dance and the elders will return, as will titanka, the buffalo. Come together as a people, refrain from strong drink, love one another, and all those white people will disappear tomorrow beginning a glorious resurrection of the old ways and the old good times. Thousands of Native people believed and danced, all over the American west.

The Lakota added this distinction: those who dance will not be harmed by the bullets of the soldiers. In a rain of gunfire, they will ride free as the wind.

The Ghost Dance scared lots of white folks, entertained others. At Pine Ridge, South Dakota, Lakota gathered to dance and the agent, Daniel F. Royer, deathly afraid, called in hundreds of backup troops. Meanwhile, from the north, a ragged band of Minneconjou Sioux led by Big Foot was moving south towards Red Cloud's camp just over the border in Nebraska.

Out on the open land of western South Dakota, Agent Royer's request for more troops created the largest military encampment anywhere in America since the Civil War, the Seventh Calvary among them, Custer's old regiment, whose memory of Wounded Knee, 24 years earlier was still vivid.

The fact is, historians can come up with a dozen reasons why there was a massacre 119 years ago today at a place called Wounded Knee; and while all of them make sense, none of them make reliving the horror any easier. And there is a bottom line: white folks wanted land the Native people thought of as home; and they got it--my own Dutch immigrant great-grandparents among them.

Some years ago, I stumbled across a handsome reprint of an old book by James Mooney, an anthropologist, The Ghost-Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890, a 1896 study Mooney did himself in an effort to understand the phenomenon. I bought it, read it, and then set out to write a novel that used the massacre as a backdrop.

That novel--Touches the Sky--changed me, because every December 29 I see that wide land along the creek called the Wounded Knee, hundreds of blue coats surrounding an angry and hungry people, late December, and the bloody madness that followed, the deaths of hundreds.

This morning it's cold outside here. At Pine Ridge, it's 18 degrees, although the wind chill makes it feel like five. Sometimes I wish I could coax all of America out to visit Wounded Knee in late December, to stand out there in the cold and the silence.

I'm not interested in white guilt, just history, just the story. For white America, Wounded Knee makes vividly clear that our history is not blameless. No one can stand out there on a cold December afternoon and not be humbled into silence.

Today is December 29.
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If you'd like to know more about the story, click on "A White Man Goes to Wounded Knee," in the list of readings to the left.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Fears without and within


Honestly, Umar Abdulmutallab scares me more than Osama bin Laden. Maybe I should say it this way: the Umar Abdulmutallabs of this world are far more frightening than bin Laden, despite his wealth and power and reputation.

Lots of people who know far more than I do about such things believe bin Laden is one dead terrorist; the problem is, whether or not he's gone, what he represents is so much alive that it's being born again daily in young Islamic men and women all over the world. In 23-year olds like Abdulmutallab, for instance, the Nigerian who turned himself into a fuse to bring down a Northwest flight from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas day.

His profile isn't just unsettling, it's horrifying. For three years, while Umar Abdulmutallab studied engineering in London, he lived in a luxury apartment on a street full of Mercedes and Rolls, a flat owned by his father, one of Nigeria's wealthiest bankers and government officials. Like the five Americans of Middle East descent arrested a few weeks ago in Pakistan, Abdulmuttalab was no slum dweller, no pack mule stupidly carrying out orders from bin Laden or some whacked mullah. He's intelligent, wealthy, and Westernized, a kid with a bright future who turned himself into a torch for radical Islam.

And now a confession that comes from the heart of my fear. Yesterday in church a little adopted kid came up and lit the advent candle. He's not from the Middle East; by the time he's 23, he'll have lived 20 or those years in Sioux Center, Iowa. But I was thinking about Umar Abdulmutallab yesterday when that child walked up to the front, and I was imagining what kind of fear he would put into the hearts of fellow airline passengers if he were 23 and getting on plane today.

And that's not the worst. What's even more scary is what went through my mind at that moment--that idea that every last dark-skinned kid who looked or spoke somehow foreign, even little boys with mussed hair and innocence in their eyes, could be time bombs, just waiting to explode, literally. No Afghan troop surge is going to stop the Umar Abdulmutallabs of this world. What went on in that kid's soul is far beyond our the reach of any of our flashiest high-tech weaponry; no drone can take it down.

The profile is clear, from the terror of 9/11 to just about every such attempted act since: the perps are not your huddled masses yearning to be free; they're wealthy and educated, the children of Islamic parents who are as horrified as anyone else in the West at what their children have become.

This morning, one of Drudge's bright red headlines reads: "25 British-born Muslims are plotting to bomb Western airlines. . ."

What's most scary is what's in my vision and therefore already in my heart: seeing little dark-skinned kids as walking, talking incendiary devices in the making, ready-for-assembly killing machines.

What's more scary than bin Laden is the fear I feel in me, even there, in church, in celebration of an event that made the angels tell the shepherds and everyone listening ever since to fear not. Even there I felt it. Even there.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Morning Thanks--Good neighbors


Three cheers for American affluence. Yesterday, I decided I was as much a capitalist as Glen Beck. Lots of neighbors, these days, have snowblowers. I don't. After 18" of snow the last few days, oft-heralded Iowa neighborliness kicked in big-time, and most of the heavy lifting on our yard got done for me.

A three-day blizzard undoubtedly shaped everyone's Christmas here and throughout the entire region, kept us in, mostly, and left us in a winter wonderland that's going to be with us, methinks, for quite some time.

Someone told me that ye olde Farmers Almanac makes the claim that winter in the Upper Midwest is going to be warmer and wetter this year. We're certainly on that track.
This morning's thanks is a piece of cake--snowblowing neighbors.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas, 2009


Ain't no dreamin' here. Our Christmas is getting whiter by the hour. I honestly don't remember a storm forecast that extended for almost three days. Snow has been falling for a couple days already, intermittently, and more's on the way. Already there's a swirl just outside on our deck that's higher than any such windswept creation I can remember.

The banner headline over weather.com's web page says BLIZZARD WARNING, and the fine print claims this much heralded blizzard will still be potent until noon, Saturday, all of which means Siouxland may will be a wonderland of memorable monster drifts.

The storm's "tumultuous privacy" (Emerson) has kept us inside, but there's nothing so rare about that either, not here anyway, a place where, if there is no snow, the mercury almost ritually bottoms out this time of year. We weren't bound for Bermuda, or even Sioux City. We've got plenty to eat, and I'm sitting here this morning in the basement with bare feet.

Bad enough to have the day overrun by mad shopping mall dashes and a dozen new toys to display our affluence--even our opulence: but Bethlehem's manger baby this year has to compete for out attention with blizzard as big as any in the decade. There ain't no shepherds abiding their flocks anywhere near--that's for sure. Sheep we've got, but if they're somewhere roaming the hills right now, some poor wretch farmer will be in trouble. Look, the truth is, we haven't seen a star in several nights.
We'll find a way to celebrate, I'm sure.

Out back, we've got a barn, a town barn. The man who built the house a century ago was a vet; my guess is he was, back then, the vet, the only one. In a hundred years, that barn hasn't changed much, really, except grown creaky. In the southeast corner, there's a two-holer--still there, not functional, so don't get any ideas. Last night, when I was telling my grandchildren how their grandma was a second-grade teacher when I first went on a date with her, my first-grade grandson interrupted. "Was that when you used that toilet in the barn?" he asked, as if out of nowhere. He couldn't have imagined that, back then, his grandma lived in Chicago.

Anyway, to the right of the stall where we park the Buick, there's a very tall, thin door to another stall, the one where the lawn mowers sit because it's too skinny for a car, even our dinky Tracker.

That tall stall is made for a buggy, and I'm guessing the vet had one beauty of a buggy. Up front of that stall is a manger, a real live manger. These days, it's been home for far too long to half bags of grass seed and lawn fertilizer and other dusty junk--and probably three or four dozen spiders whose admirable handiwork is on display. It's a manger, but it's a mess and it is a manger, the only manger I've ever owned.

Sometimes today, when I go out and start to work on clearing the snow, I'll have a look at that manger in our barn. I'll make it a pilgrimage. Maybe I ought to take the grandkids out there. That manger is ugly as sin, really, full of trash and stuff that, once upon a time, I thought I might still use. It's a junk drawer, really.

I'm going out there today, and I'm just going to stand there for a moment and think about taking that precious little grandson of mine and laying him in it--oh, maybe filling it with straw first, and wiping away the cobwebs, but laying that child in that manger. I'm not going to do it. I'm just going to think about it.

It's ugly as sin, really. I'm not kidding. But then, that's the real story, isn't it? One lumbering mammoth of a blizzard notwithstanding, the real story today, is a baby, divinity, in some old barn with a two-holer and an ugly-as-sin manger.

Merry Christmas--from our old barn to yours.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Dordt College, before the storm

Harvey Milk and Hope


In this dangerously divided nation, no single issue--not even abortion--is seemingly as difficult to negotiate as gay rights. It's a cornerstone of the fundamental cultural analysis of the evangelical right. Want to start a fight? Advocate gay marriage. In a moment, you're sure to get something eschatological. These days, the gay rights movement is one of the signs of the times, the end times. Tons of Christian believers have determined that that discussion is a milestone illustrating hedonism, a hedonism that will bring about the trumpet's last sound.

That's not enough?--I'd guess that one of the reasons for the hatred radical islam has for Western culture is its demonic toleration of homosexualty. It may well be a topic that draws Osama bin Laden and Pat Robertson into the same lifeboat.

Are all those believers right? I don't think I know. What I do know is that fundamentalists of all stripes have nailed their end-of-the-world scenarios to tons of other events and issues throughout history. Among the Puritans of New England, news of the conversion of a sigle Jewish person made headlines because it meant the new heavens and the new earth was one day closer.

Not all that far west of here, swarms of believers thought those billowing black Dust Bowl clouds signified the end-of-the-world. In the southern Plains, those dust storms might have signaled the end of exploitation of the land, but they didn't mean THE END. That is yet to come.

Maybe now, with gay marriage, good pious people say.

Several years ago, during a panel discussion on world evangelism, I asked an African colleague and his wife how the new African Christians thought about homosexuality. It was very clear--in a moment--that they didn't want to go there. "We don't talk about that," they said. Case closed. They were not interested in any follow-up.

Most evangelical Christians--include me among them--would rather not talk about it, quite frankly, not openly anyway.

Dustin Lance Black, who won an oscar for Milk, the story of Harvey Milk, San Francisco's famous gay-rights pioneer, wrote a piece on the Daily Beast about his six-month relationship to Holland, Michigan, and Holland's Hope College. Black set himself among Holland's good burghers for a time, was recognized, and eventually talked into a screening of his film on the Hope campus, a screening which he says never took place because the administration wouldn't let it happen.

I'm not about to bash anyone because I know, from the evangelical inside, how even leaning in an untoward direction can prompt heartfelt believers to write your way into perdition. And I can understand very well why the administration at Hope would want to tread lightly. The screening of a famous movie that advocates gay rights is nothing to write home about--at least to some students; there's no question that such an event could lose them big, big bucks.

Journalism's excesses are vividly portrayed in the way the story is cast, however. "'Milk' screenwriter battles a gay-bashing college," screams the headline. Calling Hope a "gay-bashing college" seems insanely overdrawn, at least to me. Granted, I don't know Hope all that well, but I do know the Dutch Reformed world into which Mr. Black draws the college. And from the perspective of that world, I find it hard to believe that horrific characterization is in any way accurate. Are there people at Hope who would oppose open discussion on issues of gay life? I'm sure there are. But I'm just as sure that there advocates for the other side--students as well as faculty.

The story Mr. Black tells about his sojourn in Holland sounds believable to me, largely because I think I know the discomfort good Christian people feel about the whole issue--as well as the precarious divides "Christian" colleges have to tip toe through these days. Besides, right here on the shelf beside me is a book titled Can Hope Survive?--a book whose very premise is the difficult of Hope College maintaining, on one hand, strong ties to communities with strong views, and, on the other, the institution's keeping an open and inquiring mind. That tightrope that's set way up high these days, which makes any fall precarious.

My guess is that some folks in the Hope administration don't mind the sensational headline, even if it is inaccurate. To be characterized as a "gay-bashing college" probably doesn't hurt them at all with some of their major donors. And when it's all said and done, the story Mr. Black tells starts out somewhat ugly but ends quite reasonably.

Which is, as Black himself points out, a reason for hope.
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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Avatar and Wounded Knee


I live in the middle of Sioux County, a town called Sioux Center, just a few miles east of the state line, drawn there by the Big Sioux River; but if anyone calls this place "Sioux Country," he'd be dead wrong, unless he were referring to what once was. Some folks with some Sioux blood may well be around, but the veins of most the populace run richly Dutch or Mexican. The Sioux are long gone.

My guess is few here think much about what once was--how, specifically, once upon a time, no white folks lived around here at all, and how, in fact, most of those who did roam the grasslands were red. It's true, of course. But, mostly, history is bunk.

I thought of that a great deal last night as I sat in a theater in Sioux Center and watched Avatar, the film everyone's talking about (which is why I went). For a while, I thought James Cameron had bestowed up us all a marvelous Christmas blessing, retelling a story that we need to hear, a story of land-grabbing that's as undeniable as it was inevitable, I guess, a truly American story--how this rich prairie turned abundant. Today, Sioux County feeds the world, after all. Who needs history?
But if you're Lakota, you don't tell the same story. Few of us white folk think much at all of them, even now, 119 years just about to the day from an bloody event that happened several hours west down Hwy. 18 at a place called Wounded Knee, an event that wasn't a battle at all, but a massacre.

There are times when Avatar, like a rich American parable, comes close to telling that story; there were times when I thought it a blessing.

But it's a movie, not a history lesson--entertainment, not truth. When it's all said and done, Wounded Knee is as forgotten as it ever was because even the most distinct parallels between what happened then and what never happened in the movie simply disappear amid all the marvelous spectacle. What drew me to see Avatar was what everyone is talking about--the spectacle of its phenomenal graphics; and it's incredibly impressive, even though we didn't even see it in 3-D. Often, amid the rich jungle, one almost forgets the story in the opulence of the fairyland. It is truly amazing.

But finally, what counts is the spectacle, what counts is the show; what really matters to Cameron and his audience is action/adventure. The real ticket is to a phenomenon almost toally capable of overwhelms the senses. He's creating experience, not trolling for truth.

It's a show, after all, and a marvelous one at that, a miracle in the making. It's a masterpiece of cinematic artistry, well worth seeing. That's what it is--a show. Nothing less, and, sadly enough, nothing more.

It as gaudy and excessive as, well, one might well expect. In fact, more so.

And it bears less than token resemblance to what happened just a few days short of 119 years ago just down Hwy. 18. When last night, it ended, I'm guessing no one in Sioux Center had a second thought about Wounded Knee.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Growing up google


I haven't seen the project. My wife claims it's something like one of those snowstorms-in-glass, the kind of Christmas knick-knack made famous when Charles Foster Kane used to dreamily romanticize his own childhood innocence in Citizen Kane. I don't even know exactly what it looks like, but she claims it's ingenious.

Of course, my wife's opinions can not be trusted; she is the little genius's grandma.

Anyway, our granddaughter, who's happily ensconced in third grade, made this little-thing-I-haven't-seen all by herself. Our daughter, the crafty child's mom, claims she was just as shocked when first her daughter brought this whatchamacallit up from downstairs--it's something with water and a cap and something floating inside, some Christmas-y thing.

For the record, our little granddaughter has some significant artistic talents. She used to create wonderful pictures for her great-grandmother; and once, without any kind of pattern, she stitched a flower into a dishtowel. I thought that was amazing, but then I'm a grandpa and therefore given to windy bouts of great braying.

Her talents aren't the story here, although I did want to edge them in. The story is what happened after her mother's astonishment that her daughter had created this rather extravagant bit of knick-knackery as if out of nothing at all--and with no help from her.

"Wow!" her mom said. "Did you make those in school?"

The genius shook her head.

"You mean you made it yourself?"

She nodded.

"How on earth did you do that?" her mom asked.

It wasn't all that difficult. "I just googled 'Christmas crafts,'" she told her mom. Then she simply followed directions.

Here's the thing. Her mother had absolutely no idea her third grader even knew the word google.

Well, she does. At just eight years old, totally on her own, she climbed aboard the Internet and started surfing until she found what she liked and made it. She just googled.

The horror, at least from her grandpa's perspective, is that she's way too little and way too sweet to google. But the reality is, if it is not now, it certainly is to come. And it's a gift--google, which is to say the Internet; this amazing information age is as full of possibilities as it is fraught with horrors. For her first google adventure, all by her lonesome she fashioned a little Christmas trinket. She googled, found the portal to a larger world than her parents can control. The innocence of the Age of Pre-Google is behind her now--and us.

And there's the rub for her grandpa: she's no more the child she was. She's stumbled into a much larger world. After all, she's googled. There's no turning back.

Kids have been leaving innocence behind forever, of course. We all have our stories. Now, we've just got google.

Monday, December 21, 2009

A blessed loss of words


I'm guessing that the choices Sunday School teachers make about who's going to be Mary and Joseph and the shepherds are done on the basis of answers to two questions--which of the kids will do a good job? and which of them, well, deserve it (as in, who wasn't the star last year?)? I don't know. I'm just guessing.

Even in heart of evangelicaldom, the Judean hills these days are peopled with cross-gendered shepherds, middle-school kids including young ladies head-and-shoulders taller than their male shepherd buddies. Yesterday, one of the burlapped-clothed low-lifes, the one with the longest staff, the tallest of the boys, stood up front, took the mike from a little girl shepherd in front of him, and said his well-practiced lines pointedly and precisely. Had he been my grandson, I'd have beamed. For each of the seven acts of the Christmas play, he rattled through the verses, quite elegantly, in fact.

Save one. Act Six.

That one time, the little shepherd spoke her lines out clearly, and politely handed him the mike. But his memory, at that moment, had left the building.  As far as he was concerned, the whole world was watching and the right words were nowhere to be found. There the kid stood, resoundingly mute, his sweet little mind gone stark, raving blank as if he'd never memorized a thing. He could have squeezed like a lemon and nothing could have come. Blank--nothing at all, and his failure only increased his horror. The words were totally irretrievable.

Hundreds of kid-worshippers never noticed his silence because a host of pre-schoolers were stealing the show as promiscuously as they always do. Hardly anyone noticed. Only the boy's parents and probably a few others witnessed the deep freeze.

The show galloped on. The pianist gave him five seconds before barreling into the next number, throngs of first and second graders following her lead by romping into the next rousing carol. Hardly anyone noticed.

That he went momentarily blank wouldn't have been a problem if the poor kid could have laughed it off. But his being conscientious likely got him chosen for a major role, and because he is, he could not forgive himself. Even if the rest of the church had moved on, the poor kid read the headlines in his heart: YOU FORGOT YOUR LINE, DUMMY.

A tear came. And when one slipped out, another followed, and then another, and another, water works he was powerless to stop.

Act Seven. The shepherds have lines as another passage of Luke 2 gets recited. That same little girl shepherd hands him the mike, and this time, still sniffling, he nails it.

No matter. In his heart, the damage is done. He no more than gets out the words, passes the mike on, and starts crying again, wiping his eyes with the back of his hands.

A hundred kids are up there with him, but once the spigot opened, he couldn't close it. As irrepressible as a church giggle, those tears kept coming and he kept wiping 'em away.

Even as the stage emptied at the end of the show, he was trying to hide the evidence, trying to be the man he just could not be right then.

I'd like to think that once he opens his presents this Christmas, his oh-so-public horror will be gone, but I doubt it. My guess is that speechless moment and the flood of tears it wrought will make a print in the wet cement of his memory.

It's altogether too easy to smell the irony here too--poor kid can't forgive himself for what happened in a pageant meant to honor baby Jesus, the Lord of forgiveness. Someday, he'll figure that all out.

But it's the human story I'm drawn to: nervous as a colt, this kid wants to get it all right, then finds himself as bereft of words as the priest Zacharias. Just nothing there, and that empty brain wipes him out with a flood of tears, even though nobody cared but him.

But, dang it, he did. He messed up.

Here's what I'm thinking this morning. Someday, when his own daughter plays a shepherd in the church Christmas program, he won't mention what happened, because he won't want to risk passing along to his daughter the same tearful horror. He won't tell her; he'll be just as silent as he was yesterday.

So it'll stay there, playfully, a memory, a story, a moment in time he'll never forget. The tears are gone already, I'm sure; and whenever he'll remember last night, a decade from now or two or three or four, there will be nothing on his face but a smile.

Sometimes--and this is the lesson of Christmas--forgiveness is as easy as that.

But mostly it's not, and that, I suppose, is why we need to hear the old, old story again and again, even when it's told by screaming three-year-olds and a gaggle of cross-gendered shepherds, who listen to the angels tell them for a three-hundred millionth time, at least, "Fear not--we bring good tidings of great joy. "

Just wipe away those tears.

Friday, December 18, 2009

A profane act


It's not a major story, really, but it's astonishing somehow. Someone--more than one, I suppose--stole the famous entry way sign at Auschwitz, "Arbeit Macht Frei." It's gone, stolen.

More than a million people--mostly Jews--died at Auschwitz, a Nazi death camp, in World War II, a fact which is still simply astonishing, beyond belief, really, which is why, I suppose, there remain so many deluded Holocaust deniers.

That Auschwitz even existed--apart from the killing--is itself astounding. It was a major industrial complex created by dozens of engineers--maybe more--and architects, then built, brick by brick, by hundreds of construction workers, then staffed by hundreds more. It wouldn't be impossible to describe all of that as some gigantic industrial enterprise suddenly dropping itself into the lap of a small town not unlike the one I live in. People in the local coffee shops must have been thrilled--think of all the jobs.

But it's impossible not to believe that ordinary populace couldn't have been aware, even unintentionally, that this multi-million dollar complex, constructed in the middle of a rural neighborhood, wasn't going to be what it soon enough became--a monumentally huge factory of death. What's most astonishing, really, is that good, upright religious people--hundreds of them--could tolerate the construction of a major factory--could design it, build it, run it--without knowing that it's singular purpose was to systematically wipe out a million human beings--and more, to carry out the dejudification of Europe.

That truth will be as difficult as it is chilling for a long, long time. And there, over the entrance, stood a beckoning gate that welcomed the tired and hungry and fearful with a poisonous lie--"work brings freedom."


Someone actually stole that sign.

There's nothing sacred about Auschwitz. It's not a temple. No god that I know lived there. Satan certainly made it his habitation, but he keeps a billion other addresses. Nonetheless, I'm almost ready to call the act profane somehow, even though it isn't--not really, not if profane means "debasing what is sacred."

Some cognates share that sense of a violation of the eternal: blasphemous, irreligious, sacrilegious, even wicked. I'm just stuck at knowing what to call it, this repellent act, largely because--or so it seems to me--the Holocaust itself sits toxically somewhere between the reality of the this world and eternity of the next. Jewish people aren't the only ones who've come to regard the total elimination of an entire race of people as something beyond human.

Is the theft of that sign merely despicable? No, it's more. It's shameful certainly, but it's more than that, more than vile or loathsome. It's contemptible and disgraceful. Maybe disgraceful is the best I can do.

I'm just not sure we've got exactly the right word to describe the theft of that sign, but then I'm not sure there's any other word for the Holocaust either.

And that, I suppose, is why Holocaust doesn't ever work as metaphor. The Holocaust belongs in category of meaning all its own, somewhere beyond imagination; and yet it isn't, because most of us know--as Calvin insists--that darkness abides in every human soul.

Fifteen years ago I taught a course in the literature of the Holocaust. Ten weeks into the course, I had had enough. I couldn't read anymore. The shocking misery and horror had risen some depth in me that my own soul couldn't hold another picture, another story, another memoir.

Still, the idea of some human being stealing that sign seems as unthinkable as is so much of that horrifying story that is, at once, so awful to remember and so impossible to forget--and, ironically, so imperitive to enshrine.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Morning Thanks--more gifts


Book clubs are love fests. I suppose that's why I like 'em. My guess is, you bring the author him or herself in for the discussion, and the sharpest criticisms stay sheathed. It's all gush, all good things, and wasn't-this-just-the greatest-book? Good night, how can it not be a blessing?

Anyway, a couple nights ago, at a book club, one woman kept saying to the others--and therefore to me--how much she liked the stories because, in life, she said, things don't always turn out perfectly. The first time she said it, I was thrilled. I'm not accused, frequently at least and rarely to my face, of excessive sentimentality. That doesn't mean I'm not too sentimental, but at least I don't get whipped for too much whipped cream. She said she liked that especially, and immediately I liked her.

The second time she said it, I liked it again and her more. If people were looking for a book that would thrill them into fantasyland, then they'd have to look elsewhere. Reviews of the book were sometimes negative because some readers expected holiday stories to be just another plate full of frosted Christmas cookies. This one isn't. A good friend of mine read the stories and told me it was the most un-sentimental Christmas book he'd ever read--he meant that as a compliment.

Then, the third time she said it, I smelled theme and a motivation. Somewhere beneath that repeated analysis lay a real story, her story.

Then I got it. Just before the woman who'd birthed their three foster children died, that woman told the tribal judge she wanted this white woman and her husband to have her kids. They couldn't have adopted them otherwise, because Native people aren't keen on adoptions outside the race these days. But this Lakota woman, whose short life contained all the tribulations somehow stereotypically "reservation," made it clear that she wanted all three kids with the white folks already caring for them.

Which is not to say this woman and her husband were stuck with them. They wanted the kids themselves. That's how they got 'em.

That was several years ago.

A sentimental story would have the oldest boy off to college now, the middle one a high school soccer star, the youngest, a honor-roll beauty, as they circle up around the festive tree for a warm and fuzzy Christmas, singing carols, each of them holding a cinnamon-flavored glass of steaming apple juice, then listening to Luke 2 before giving each other perfectly chosen presents. Throw in some grandpas and grandmas maybe, who utter silent prayers of thanksgiving for all things bright and beautiful. ("Silent Night" here--with its sweet mantra of "heavenly peace.")

I don't know a great deal about her life, but some of it came up over coffee afterwards, and it's not exactly like that. To be sure, there are moments of sheer joy; but there are also moments of great sadness, of anger, and even of grief. She lives--as all of us do--not knowing what to expect next. She lives on her knees, I'm sure. Remember, she's the one who said, more than once, that life itself isn't always sweet.

She is also, for me at least, another wonderful gift at Christmas. First, the proud teacher at the Sunday School Christmas program, and now a woman and her family who take on three Lakota teens who've seen far, far more than their fair share of the species of horrors that don't simply slither away into the night once those children fall asleep on soft, clean pillows. I don't know the whole story, but I know why she kept saying she'd liked what she'd read.

For her, I'm thankful this morning, for her selfless, immense gift of giving, for opening her home and her heart forever to three tough rez survivors. And I wish for her especially, the most wonderful, the most endearing, the most perfect Christmas any of us can imagine.

May she have every bit of the joy all of us want.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Passionate purple tulips


That Ricky Ian Gordon was a songwriter should not have surprised me. I found this poem in my morning e-mail yesterday and loved it somehow, in part, I'm sure because wonderful poems that perform such delicate rhythm and rhyme games are not so easy to find, even though Frost used to say--I think!--that writing poems without rhyme was like playing tennis without a net. Most poets, or so it seems to someone who isn't one, don't imprison themselves with such formalistic silliness.

Anyway, Ricky Ian Gordon, who's a gifted songwriter, I'm told, sticks delightfully with both standard rythym and rhyme through this wonderful little saga.

The Tulips by Ricky Ian Gordon
 
The tulips at that perfect place
crane their necks with liquid grace
like swans who circling, collide
within the lake this vase provides.

They stood like soldiers, stiff, before
as if they had been called to war.
In two days more, when petals fall,
I will entomb them in the hall

with trash; the morning's coffee grinds,
old newspapers, and lemon rinds.
It's bitter that such loveliness
should come to this,
could come to this.

The first two lines make it clear that this piece of writing is quite self-consciously traditional. What follows immediately suggests that Mr. Gordon is conscious not only of rhyming rules but of fooling around with those rules as well: collide and provides are no perfect match, but as entertained as I am by the first four lines, I really don't care if he chooses to fudge a little. I'm in.

I don't quite see collide, however, as if a flock of swans--or is it a gaggle--run into each other mysteriously? Yet, where they are is a "perfect place?" Takes a better interpreter than I am to create the image. No matter. Like I said, I'm in.

What's clear is that he's toying with ye olde trope of ubi sunt--"where have all the flowers gone?"--because they are dying, sadly enough, those passionate purple tulips, as all tulips do, and flowers, and, well, all things.

And it is, to him, just as sad as it was to poets forever--that beauty's stay is so momentary--bitter, he calls it. And it is. And he hammers that bitterness home with the last two lines: "should come to this/ could come to this," two lines which deliberately alter the rhythm and then, as if that weren't enough, jam the rhyme into our sadness by pointed repititition.

Okay, I admit it: I'm loving the music. On we go.

But now their purpleness ignites
the room with incandescent lights.
Their stamens reach their yellow tongues
to lick the air into their lungs
through stems attached to whitish manes.
The pistil stains.

But they're not dying yet--there's relief in that fact for all of us; so let's gather the tulips while we may and make some hay while the sun shines. Good night, they're bright, he claims, as tulips are, and hearty too. Maybe I'm wrong or shouldn't say it, but there's a little Georgia O'Keefe here. He's messing around just like she did, suggesting some swelling human passion with all those stamens and stems, all of which means he can't bring himself quit this passionate madness in just four lines--this one has five. Maybe I'm just a dirty old man--old for sure.

And even though there are no bees
about the room for them to please,
I take them in like honey dew-
and buzzing now,
I think of you...

The honey dew escapes me, but the playful suggestion that he's a honey bee is sweet and comical, and in line with just about everything anybody knows about love poetry's traditional overstatement. In love, most of us are downright fools. Why not bees? Sure.

And with the last line--"I think of you"--we know exactly where we're at--this is plain old heart-melting love poetry. Sure, now bring it on home, Mr. Gordon, I'm saying.

And then this:

I think of you who bought me these,
at least,
I wish you had,
as that might ease the ache
of passing hours.
A love is dying, like these flowers.

Shit. He's woven a world that's blessedly cartoonish, only to blow it away in a single line--"I wish you had."


Just like that we're helplessly back in real time, the incandescene of those passionate purple tulips dimming by the minute, the lover somewhere gone out the door, the world in seething, solitary silence.

And yet he can't help himself, so he ends with these flowers, dying though they may be, which is to say, I think, at least we had 'em, didn't we? At least they were here for awhile. At least we got a glimpse, however fleeting, of what joy is.

There isn't a darn thing new about this poem. Some undergrad could put together a collection of great poems of all time with an identical theme. Identical.

But it is dear, as are all of its ancestors. Willa Cather used to say that there's only a couple of stories around; we just keep telling them over and over and over.

We're like children that way, I guess. And that's not all bad. And there's something to the music, too.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Morning Thanks--startling Christmas joy


I already got my gift. Oh, sure, a couple of things will be there for me under the tree in a week or so, I'd guess. More joy will be arriving, too--like the college kids out caroling a few nights ago, kids who were surprised when one of their profs stepped out on the porch--they were caroling at random, I guess.

But a real gift at Christmas, for me at least, is a moment of startling joy, maybe just an image or single solitary act, the perfect word or melody, some blessed glimpse of the unexpected eternal. Little miracles mean it's Christmas. And last night, I got one.

There may well be some folks around who don't carry heartache into the Christmas season, but they are few and they'll probably get theirs soon. I wish life weren't so heavy-laden, but this vale of tears holds its abundant griefs.

And I sometimes wonder how parents of exceptional kids make a go of it. Many do not, of course; but some, blessed with grace, somehow keep it up, day-to-day, within the walls of their own family's blessed privacy.

Last night at the church Christmas program, an autistic boy, tall and slender, sat right in front of us, under the care of his own one-on-one Sunday school teacher; and when the kids all grouped together for a medley of Christmas songs up front, he and his teacher tagged along, so that there he stood, in the front, with the rest, sometimes singing, mostly not. It was a rich moment.

But there was more. The older kids, he among them, then sat, picked up instruments, and played some carols, while two little girls in tiaras signed the lyrics up front. Most of the kids were on strings, but this boy held forth on a little percussion thing he had to shake to get out the beat. His part was to keep time.

And he did. I watched him. He did.

I don't know much about the autism spectrum. I don't know if anyone else was as delighted as I was to see him keep rhythm. Maybe my expectations are so shallow as to make my joy sentimental. If that's true, I repent. But his keeping time was wonderful, too.

The real gift, however, was not simply the way that boy kept up a beat in the middle school orchestra, bringing carols to life along with the rest. The real gift was in the face--in the eyes--of his teacher, whose joy could hardly be contained. That this kid could participate and did--that was the particular blessing that brought a glow to the sanctuary, I swear. Her face, bright with joy was, for me at least, a real gift at Christmas.

Nothing new there, of course. The blessedness of the season is, like hers, in the giving. Believers like me--ancient as we are--have known that truth for most of our lives, a moral precept as old as the hills around Bethlehem. But some of us are slow learners, and, like the beat of that carol, we have to hear it over and over and over to feel it deeply in our hearts and souls. Far easier to say than to do, or so it seems--to give, that is.

Today, my morning thanks is for a wonderful Christmas gift last night--a kid keeping time, a face bright with joy, and the eternity of it all.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Saturday Morning Catch


Dawn slipped into the morning almost completely unnoticed this a.m. I waited patiently along the road for the sun to rise, but clouds got in my way (isn't that a lyric from some Joni Mitchell song?). There I was, the only guy out in the country who wasn't driving a pickup or sportin' fluorescent orange.

The sun didn't shine until 45 minutes after the day's opening, and then only hazily. But there's always beauty, and it's always somehow out of my reach.

As you will see, there's corn out in the fields yet, rather unusually after the season's first significant snow. Otherwise, the world is simply whitewashed.

My favorite is the one which features a ribbon of gravel, a tawny slash between land and sky, as featureless as the landscape itself these days.

Most of these required some scrubbing up with photoshop. Wish it weren't true. Wish I was better.

Still fun. Still pretty. Still a sweet Saturday dawn.

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Deceiver


Here's Matt Taibbi, from RollingStone.com:

What's taken place in the year since Obama won the presidency has turned out to be one of the most dramatic political about-faces in our history. Elected in the midst of a crushing economic crisis brought on by a decade of orgiastic deregulation and unchecked greed, Obama had a clear mandate to rein in Wall Street and remake the entire structure of the American economy. What he did instead was ship even his most marginally progressive campaign advisers off to various bureaucratic Siberias, while packing the key economic positions in his White House with the very people who caused the crisis in the first place. This new team of bubble-fattened ex-bankers and laissez-faire intellectuals then proceeded to sell us all out, instituting a massive, trickle-up bailout and systematicallygutting regulatory reform from the inside.

Listen, Taibbi's uncovered a dirty rotten plot by which that turncoat Obama has filled up the troughs of the Wall Street moneygrubbers and "bubble-fattened ex-bankers" while selling out all the American people who elected him. Obama is a fraud, and what he's up to is a sell out of true American principles.

Here's Ben Stein from the National Review:

Now, the American people are starting to wake up to the truth. Barack Obama is a super likeable super leftist, not a fan of this country,way, way too cozy with the terrorist leaders in the Middle East, way beyond naïveté, all the way into active destruction of our interests and our allies and our future. The American people have already awakened to the truth that the stimulus bill -- a great idea in theory -- was really an immense bribe to Democrat interest groups, and in no way an effort to help all Americans.

What Stein has uncovered is a dirty rotten plot by which that lying, cheating Obama has fed his buddies, the super leftists, at the expense of the good, hard-working American people, and at the expense of American values like freedom and the unfettered market.

It's time to call a march on Washington. The far right and the far left ought to get together and impeach Obama the jackel.

Listen, yesterday, his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech had Newt Gingerich, Sarah Palin, and Karl Rove saying good things. But don't be deceived because the American people know very well that that lying, cheating Obama has truly dastardly motives hidden away in his seamy agenda. He's after nothing less than the destruction of the America we all hold dear, the America we've fought and died for, the America of the founding fathers. All of that too.

Sooner or later we're going to know for sure just exactly what those dastardly motives are and who he's out to screw. But listen, we've got out people out.

And they're looking--believe me. We'll get it figured out. He can't continue to get away with what he's doing. The American people--yes, brothers and sisters, the American people--won't let him. We got his number. The American people won't be duped. No siree. Good, hard-working Americans believe in this country, and we're not going to let the dream evaporate. We'll fight to the bitter end.

We'll get him soon enough. We have to. Just think of what's at stake.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

This information age


This is how things have changed. I needed another grade in my grade book, so I gave an assignment on Emerson or Thoreau: take a quote, any quote, from either of them, then tell me what it means to a transcendentalist like E and T, then tell me what you think.

Weird. It's not a question of interpretation only, but a question that asks my students to interact with the quote personally. There was a time in the history of English teaching at the college level where personal opinion simply didn't count; what mattered was how many sources you had studied or scanned, how you marshalled those sources out in a paper--what you did, in other words, with already existing scholarship. In some ways, what profs wanted was to know that a student had spent some significant scholarly time in library stacks.

But what I know, by personal experience, is that if you want to be reading up on a Dickinson poem these days you can simply let your fingers do the walking--no more card catalogs, no more Dewey Decimals, no more thumbing through indexes. To be sure, on-line scholarship still requires discretion--not all sources are created equal, after all--but gumshoe scholarship, at least at the lower levels of college work, is history.

Next semester I'll teach an intro to lit course again, first time in years. All my assignments will be--or so it seems--this new kind of interactive, personal assignments because if I simply toss out something more traditional--"What does Dickinson's attitude toward death in the following three poems?. . ."--it takes little more than a few key strokes to come up with an answer, or a few bucks to find a paper that'll do the job for you.

The internet has changed all of our lives.

Five years ago I wrote a short story about a small-town preacher who'd found a wife on the internet because I knew one who did. I loved writing it because I thought the whole narrative was such a strange phenomenon, and would have been his own little country church full of old people. Today, tons of searchers find their dreams on the net. Nobody's shocked anymore. Happens all the time.

The digital revolution has made me a photographer, at least by my own meager definition. Blogging has changed me as a writer--this morning's post, Blogger tells me, is my 750th. Imagine that. Anyone with a computer can be a writer today; just like anyone with a camera can be a photographer. Pity the real photographers. Pity the real writers. Pity the musicians especially--the internet has destroyed what was. On the other hand, lo and behold, there's room for more and more and more.

Everything is here. If I were smart enough, I could cobble together a hydrogen bomb from instructions on this screen. Right here, in the semi-darkness of my basement, I can watch panting human beings do incredibly strange things, bare nakedly, to each other. I can enlist myself in jihad, become a communist or skinhead, find a thousand a friends a minute, start a rumor, pass on a lie, dirty reputations; with the right pitch, I can send my content--whatever it might be--all over the world almost instantaneously.

On May 25, 1844, Samuel B. Morse sent a telegraph note from the Supreme Court room in the U.S. Capitol in Washington to his assistant, Alfred Vail, in Baltimore, producing, on Vail's end, a paper copy with raised dots and dashes. Famously, that message--the first on the telegraph--was a question: "What hath God wrought?"

In the broadest possible sense, God certainly had a hand in creation of the internet, just as he had a hand in the telegraph and the printing press. But, here as elsewhere, just exactly how we use it is a determination he leaves to our own very human devices.

For good and ill, this medium has changed everything, even the way we think.
_______________________________________

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Snowstorm


We're still mid-storm, I think, although the streets have been plowed. The howling continues to rage, as it has all during the night. Blizzard warnings have been posted until noon. Outside, other than the plows, nothing's moving.

Last night, we didn't make it to The Nutcracker, even though, we're told, the show went on, downtown Sioux City, an hour away, an hour or more south into the eye of the storm. We'd planned on taking our grandchildren, but by five the snow was swirling, as it had most of the day, and the forecasters said to stay home. When my daughter told our grandson we couldn't go, he crumpled to the floor. Instead, we ate a pizza buffet and watched A Charley Brown Christmas.

I don't know that Emerson, out there in Concord, Mass, knew a thing about a bedeviling Great Plains blizzard, even though he wasn't wrong about the swirling snow that "driving oe'er the fields/seems nowhere to alight." Wasn't wrong about that.

And he certainly wasn't wrong about last night's wailing silence, "the tumultuous privacy of storm," as he put it. Somehow, it's never quite as sweet to be inside as when a storm is raging out.

Later this afternoon, when the snow finally wanders east, he'll be right too about our wind-fashioned winter decor too, "astonished art" in every nook and crannie, around every corner of our house and barn--crusty drifts, "the mad wind's night-work,/The frolic architecture of the snow." He got all of that right too.

But he doesn't say a thing about shovelling. Maybe he hired Thoreau. He had no snowblower to push out of the garage, and neither do I.

I like Emerson, and he was dead-on with most of what he draws up in "The Snowstorm." But this morning, after what will be a nearly 24-hour assault, we'll all have to dig in and dig out, bust through those drifts and scoop our way to the street.

Ralph Waldo Emerson is just fine in the classroom, but last night and this morning, in real life, me and my grandkids would sure as heck have preferred Tchaikovsky.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Morning Thanks--love


Some elastic in her sleeve kept it up high on her arm, just beneath the shoulder, lots of bare arm left sweetly exposed on an otherwise cold December Sabbath. Michelle Obama has done a lot to make women's arms sexy, but I don't believe the boyfriend of that young lady in front of us needed any of the First Lady's inducements. The young blonde beside him in church on Sunday morning was, in fact, his first lady, and that promiscuous, bare naked upper arm was so delicious to him that he could not keep his hands off, even during the sermon--maybe even especially during the sermon. Even during communion. I'm not lying. The kid's hand was on that arm as if it were divine.

He kept rubbing it, as if he was sure a genie might emerge. No, as if he were blind--because he was, blind that is, as all lovers are. He simply couldn't stop himself, his right arm over her shoulders, his hand rubbing that girl's upper arm as if her life were imperiled by a charley horse, which I'm sure wasn't true.

I'm not even sure she was all for it. It's always dangerous to bring animals into anything like this, but it seems I've seen stock cows as seemingly disinterested. But neither did she tell him no, so he kept up an hour-long massage that, were she a pitcher, would have enabled her to throw a double-header the moment we finished the doxology.

I've always considered it a blessing to live in a college town and worship with college kids. Most of us feel that way for a lot of good, pious reasons; but I like it because their passion allows me to relive moments in my life I'd just as soon treasure as forget. That poor bloke didn't have room in his heart for anything more than that girl's darling upper arm. Well, sort of. In literature, we call that shapely bicep metonymous--"part for the whole," because my guess is he wasn't thinking solely of that shoulder, no matter how lovely.

Once upon a time in South Africa, our hosts took us to an evening worship at a Afrikaaner university, where hundreds of kids--I'm not lying--gathered in a campus church, very respectably. Our host was proud of all that devotion, all those Afrikaaner kids drawn to worship on a Sunday night. But what I'll never forget is how many of them were couples, and how many of the guys had their arms around their sweethearts, as if clutching were itself a ritual of worship. Maybe it was. If I was a cartoonist, I'd draw it--maybe 500 white kids, 250 couples, all of them with their arms around their dates. True devotion.

I'm not criticizing. If anything, this old man is jealous, even though I must admit that, sitting right behind this juiced-up kid with the bare-armed girl made me a victim of his passion too. Don't ask me what the sermon was about anymore--what I remember is this kid's ravenous hunger for a young woman so painfully close beside him in church.

I don't know why--I think it was some mention the preacher made in the sermon--but I thought of an old hymn we didn't sing that morning, "All Hail the Power of Jesus Name," whose every-other-line brought some joy to my soul.

It may not have always been that way either. I mean, there may well have been a time in my life when an old Calvinist in me would have wrinkled a brow about such public Sabbath petting. No more. Go to it, I thought. Soon enough you'll be here and older and just another cold fish.

But I h0nestly thought about that old hymn with the familiarly repeated line--"and crown him Lord of all." Call me a heathen, but this Lord of our lives is, in fact, the Lord of all of our worship, the Lord, truly, of All--and nothing less.

Even our love.

That thought itself was a kind of sermon, and, sure enough, a blessing. Made me sit a little closer to my wife, in fact.

So this morning's thanks--simple enough--is for nothing more or less than love.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Morning Thanks--Willa Cather


I have two bricks in my office, two bricks I dug up from a desolate spot on the prairie, the homestead where Willa Cather's family first put down roots in Webster County, far south central Nebraska, just a dozen miles north of the Republican River. The town in which she grew up--her father was in insurance and real estate--was Red Cloud, a town that has little going for it these days other than its being the home of one of the nation's finest novelists.

I've been to Red Cloud often. I used to take classes every other year, in fact, a gruelling marathon of travel that started about five in the morning and didn't end, back home, until midnight. No matter how long it took, students always loved the trip.

I have Cather to thank, I believe, for my deep respect for the Great Plains. My Antonia will always be one of my favorite novels, in great part because Ms. Cather creates a character in that novel, Antonia herself, whose epic strength and courage make her one of the most memorable literary heroes--or heroines--of all time. Tony Shimerda, looms over that wide open landscape of that novel like some behomoth cottonwood.

Just driving through the stark and open prairie of the Divide, where Cather both literally and figuratively grew up, is, today, still like entering her world, the place where she found the greatest inspiration of her lifetime. "It was over flat lands like this, stretching out to drink the sun, that the larks sang— and one's heart sang there too," she wrote in The Song of the Lark.

Willa Cather will never be just a novelist to me because what she did in her writing is evoke an entire world and dress it forever in the exacting livery of time and place with such accuracy that she, paradoxically, gave it away to all of us, wherever we left our own childhoods. She will always be, to me anyway, Red Cloud, the small town amid the prairie's red grass hills. Willa Cather could leave Nebraska, and did so frequently during her lifetime; but the plains she loved never left her. They not only found a place what she wrote--they were themselves her finest work. Even in Death Comes for the Archbishop, a New Mexico novel some consider her best, the Great Plains are there, outfitted in dusty, desert camouflage.

Chesterton, someone said, converted to the Christian faith because he needed someone or something to honor. "To whom do I give thanks for all of these things?" he once wrote, I'm told. Don't know if he ever read Willa Cather, but she is certainly one of "all of these things."

It's her birthday today, born in 1873. If I had my druthers, I'd climb into some stout winter clothes and head west and south right now to see her world this afternoon, adorned in its first snow. But I don't; another trip will have to wait for another day.

I'll just have to dust off those old homestead bricks.

Friday, December 04, 2009


Okay, okay, the national media makes far too much of the Tiger Woods story. I know--I shouldn't watch. Marital tsunamis like his are so gory that you just can't help rubberneck, even though you know ahead of time a score of wetnaps won't be sufficient to clean yourself up after tuning in. One of the guy's sweeties goes public yesterday, heartbroken, she says, because she's discovered there was another woman? I'm not kidding. My heart bleeds.

My own moral character is questionable, however, and I admit it. I'm altogether too fascinated by one particular aspect of the story. Maybe I'm just naive--well, I know I am; after all, I've been to Las Vegas only once, and that was 53 years ago, when I was too little to get into a casino.

Here's what I want to know: really and truly, how on earth does Tiger Woods meet these babes? Where does he find 'em? I can't imagine he hits on them in a grocery store line. Does he work malls?

Good night, he's Tiger Woods. He doesn't scope out laundromats or haul his computer to a Paneras to set up shop. Maybe he picks a book off the shelf and sits at some suburban Barnes and Nobles, just hoping for the best. Or does he pull on wrap-arounds and slip on a fake beard, sidle up to a hotel bar, offer Jenna or Jamie or Kalika a wine cooler, pull a sweet smile, and ask if she comes here often? How does a guy like that actually meet women when he makes several million a week? He doesn't just hang out. Or does he?

I'm not stupid. I can't imagine that it's all that difficult. I'm sure there are Las Vegas lollies galore who'd give, well anything, for an hour's tango with the Tiger. But how do they even get close enough to offer the goods? I'm guessing they don't spot him at day care.

Maybe he orders up from his room: "Say, Lester, send me up something in the two-grand range, will ya'?" Is there a menu for fat cats in fancy suites? Does he tell Lester that last week's squeeze wasn't bad, but he's been thinking about something with just a scotch more heft in the chest?

I'm serious. How on earth does a billionaire with one of the world's most famous mugs hook up? I'd really like to know. Maybe it's time for that National Enquirer subscription I've always wanted. Can't think of anything else I need for Christmas.

They are different, aren't they?--the rich that is. That's Fitzgerald, I think--a story? ''Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.''

No kidding. They sure are.

But I say, if Tiger's wife went after him with a three-iron last week, I hope she pulls out the famous driver the next time.