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.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Saturday Morning Catch

Well, to be accurate--Friday morning, and obviously this is nowhere near Siouxland. It's the Texas Hill Country in January, when there really isn't a whole lot more color than there is here, albeit--and blessedly--no snow. Or cold.

Went for a hike last week on a sunny day, temps about 70 degrees warmer than home. Light comes in shatteringly through pinons, mesquite, and cedars. I've said it before--one of the joys of photography is the simple quest for beauty. And it's there, too, in January, in the Hill Country--even if, right now, I'm not so sure it's here in Siouxland.

Name of the place is Laity Lodge, and it's gorgeous. Whenever.

Friday, January 29, 2010

J. D. Salinger, 1919-2010

By the time I read Catcher in the Rye, H0lden Caulfield may well have become too popular for his own good. He couldn't possibly live up to his own reputation, and he didn't. I didn't dislike the novel, but I knew far too much to be enchanted. But then, few are really "enchanted" by the guy.

I was probably forty or so, pretty much past the adolescent angst and anxiousness that characterizes Caulfield, who is, next to Huck, one of AM lit's most famous kids. Even though he made his appearance early in the 50s already, Holden Caulfield seemed to carry with him a far more of a Sixties-ish sensibility, a sad, societal drop out who would have headed to San Francisco had he stumbled into puberty a decade or two later.

No matter. Somehow, the guy spoke to millions, worldwide. Thousands know him better than I do, but I've always assumed he attained iconic status in American lit by nature of his paradoxical self: he made himself impossible to love, in spite of the fact that he wanted that love more than anything. Seems to me that I know people like that, tons of 'em, in fact.

Catcher in the Rye is an indisputable American classic for a ton of reasons, one of which is that it somehow catches the temper of the time. But that's not the whole story. The bigger story is that Salinger created a distinctive voice, a character who, by the words of his own mouth became--actually became--a human being so real that, not that long into the novel, millions of readers, worldwide, heard that voice come from their own hearts and souls. Just recently, with a whole different character, Marilyn Robinson did the same thing in Gilead. Read those books and it's as if you're somewhere in the room. There's a genie between the covers; somebody is really telling you a story.

Whiny, messed up, irreverent, not particularly fun to be around, Holden Caulfield is pretty much of a loser. Strange that he should be so celebrated. And yet, what he deeply and sincerely wants out of life is seemingly so little--and so much what most of us do: he'd love, once again, to be a boy, to start the whole mess over in empty fields and sunshine with his sweet little sister.

Honestly, I can't say I loved Catcher in the Rye the first time I read it. As I said, it likely couldn't live up to it's own headlines. But despite my shrugged shoulders, Holden Caulfield will always be there in the scrapbook that holds my most memorable characters, fictional and real, because there are times--trust me--when I feel just like him, sick of the crap, and wishing once again with all my heart to grab my baseball glove off the hook in the back hall and walk a half a block east to the diamond, where my buddies are gathering for another great pick-up game, the sun shining in the damp lakeshore air. I know that feeling. I know it well.

J.D. Salinger is gone, died a few days ago at 91 years old. That's almost another story.

Holden Caulfield lives, believe me.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Somewhere among the thousand-or-more books I own, books stashed in three or four places at home and office is The Collected Stories of Collette. I don't think I've ever cracked its bindings, but I remember buying it decades ago, in part because I knew at least this much about Collette--she was a scandal. Not much more.

The cover art suggested the very real possibility of some steamy reading--that was cause, I know. And I was, at the time, trying to increase the size of my library of short story collections. It was at a time when I wanted to know everything--every important writer. I actually remember buying that book, in part because I remember the cover, remember the impulse, which was neither righteous nor something I'm celebrating. But I never read it, and the book is still there, I think, on a shelf full of short story collections.

What do I know of Collette? Not a whole lot more than I ever did, and, of course, barely a thing about her fiction. Constancy--commitment--was not her forte. She married and remarried as if the institution was actually a revolving door, spicing up her life on more than one occasion with fairly well-publicized trysts with lady friends. She wrote fiction and poetry; some French literati considered her their finest writer in the early years of the 20th century.

She was, in other words, a presence in the world's finest literature of the time--and since, I imagine. I'm sure one could find a dozen or so dissertations on her and her work just this year. I have no idea how her books sell anymore.

During World War II, she hid her husband, a Jew, in the attic of her home during the entire Nazi occupation of France. She lived the kind of glossy life upon which gossip rags make their livings. For decades, in Paris, she had to have been all the rage.

But I never opened the book. And now it's time for me to downsize. One of my jobs in the next few years is going to be to get rid of that massive library. I won't have much trouble with Collette. Although she still has her disciples, I'm sure, I'm not among them. Honestly, I don't know her.

Today, the Writer's Almanac says it's her birthday: ". . . the novelist Colette, (books by this author) born in Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye in the Burgundy region of France (1873). She is best known as the author of Chéri (1920) and Gigi (1945)."

And then this: She said, "What a wonderful life I've had! I only wish I'd realized it sooner."

The Collected Stories of Collette is a brick, really, and the likelihood of my reading it before my office gets scrubbed is pretty slim. To see it again this morning reminds me of what were once my dreams, my professional dreams, of what I wanted to be, where I once wanted to see myself.

And now I just have to giggle, because the only words I'll likely ever read of this early 20th century French writer, someone who left just as many lovers in her wake as scandals, is two short sentences I just now heard for the first time, wisdom that could well come from Proverbs: "What a wonderful life I've had! I only wish I'd realized it sooner."

From Collette. Then again, Solomon was no paragon of virtue either, come to think of it.

No matter. "What a wonderful life I've had! I only wish I'd realized it sooner."

Thanks, tart.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Morning Thanks--old lessons

Look, I'm almost 62. I think I've earned the right to call my students "kids." Some people--younger profs--think that my using that word is somehow pejorative or a means by which I belittle them, keep them infantile. Maybe, when I was 32. Not now. I'm sorry. When I look over their faces, and when I remember Robert Bly saying nobody should write anything until they're 35, I call 'em kids because they are.

I was gone for awhile, too blasted busy to blog. First vacation I've taken in three years from the basement here, and it wasn't a vacation at all. I did the first half of a little writer-in-residence stint at a small college for about a week, some night classes, 7-10 (I never made it till ten. Did I say I'm almost 62 years old?)

Anyway, other than the fact that it was hard work, it was a ball, not just because the weather was sweet down south (it was), but because I really liked the students. Forgive the metaphor, but I've always sort of laughingly thought about teaching as, well, seduction. You have to sweet talk--at least I do; you've got to put yourself out some; you've got be sweet and caring and even a little flirtatious. (I know I'm getting close to the "eeeuuuuwww" factor here, but bear with me.)

What I'm saying is, in a week with a class full of students, you're barely past the first date. But by the time I dragged myself to the little on-campus cabin I was given after that last night of class, I thought--I really did--that I, which is to say "we," didn't do badly. There's hope for this relationship.

At my age, one teaches basically for the eyes. If they're there, lit like halogen--if they're there, taking it all in--if they're there, bright and shining with whatever weirdness is going on (point of view, distance, voice, style), then and only then is the classroom is worth it. Otherwise, not. I'm at my worst when I'm throwing pearls at swine. Get me a job on a roof.

So things went well, methinks. It was a good week.

And then this.

Maybe the first people I spoke to after leaving were an older couple I really, really like. Old folks. I got a right to say that, too. We're talking deep and true respect, even love. Give me a tablet, and ask me to list five most saintly people I know, and I'll write in their names. I'm not lying. Wonderful people. Really wonderful people.

"Where've you been?" they ask, after a hug, almost the first crack out of the box.

I tell them. They smile.

"That college have a denominational background?" they say.

I say, yep, and tell 'em which.

"Oh," they say, "we don't like those people."

I could have cried. Honestly, I could have cried.

But I understand why they said what they did too. Way back somewhere, there was a divorce, and divorce, whether it happens in marriages or churches, creates scars that take years and years to close. Long ago, one denomination took a bitter hike away from another, and every once in awhile, even today, those who suffered still have to change the dressing.

I hit them just wrong with my answer, and what they said hit me just wrong. I loved the kids--I know it sounds sappy, but it's true. "We don't like those people," my good, good friends--wonderful people--said when I told them.

And here's what I'm thinking. Shit--you just can't avoid it. It's all over the sidewalk.

But then, I'm an Iowan, and I know this much: you kick it off and it does make things bloom and grow. Me too. Even though I'm almost 62.

This morning I'm thankful, once again, for life's little lessons, even the ones you have to keep learning over and over and over.

Monday, January 18, 2010


The fact is, I wouldn't go anywhere without six-dollar, Wal-Mart sweat pants. I probably wouldn't wear them just anywhere--call me Puritanical--but I wouldn't leave home without them. They get me through the weekend. Shoot, they get me through most nights.

I wouldn't have admitted that last week. I'd come simply to assume that those of us who wore sweat pants most of the time were either bona fide jocks or aging plump people, like me--well, and pregnant women; in short, those who wore them as a badge of honor or those who, like me, simply couldn't wear much else and manage timely breathing.

I was wrong. According to Sean Macauley's wonderfully silly blog on the Daily Beast, Adam Sandler wore his hang-out pair of sweats to Sunday brunch recently and, by that eye-popping gesture, brought sweats out of the closet and family room, so to speak. His was, by Macauley's account making a California-level, verifiable fashion statement.

My students have been wearing them to class for years already, with my blessing. I have no idea if they wear them to movies or shopping or whatever, but I haven't seen them in church, although those huge colorful water jugs have been lugged along for at least a couple of years already. Who knows where Macauley's brazen act might lead? It's not hard for me to guess that sweats for worship is comin' round the mountain.

According to Macauley, Sandler's iniquitous choice was on display for all of LA. Not only that, the pair he flashed were legitimate "home-only" sweatpants, not fancy designers. Macauley calls them "the universal wardrobe shorthand for sloth and lassitude," and a way of tragically admitting (as Seinfeld must have said somewhere along the line) that you have ssimply given up.

No matter. I love 'em. Here I sit on a bed in a tiny motel room, cross-legged, breathing easily and smoothly, my fingers dancing over the keys. In jeans, I'd feel corseted.

If Sandler wants to wear them to brunch, I say good for him. He wants to be, as I am right now, comfortable. In fact, I think I'll wear them to breakfast, even though I'm a visiting professor.

Well, maybe not. I don't quite dare, and the fact is I'm a long ways from Hollywood.

But I say bravo to Sandler's brazenness. Even though I'll pull on khakis to teach tonight, I'd druther hold forth in my sweats. Maybe there's a new day a'comin'.

Long live lassitude.

Sunday, January 17, 2010


I'm far from home, in an intense teaching situation--three-hour classes streaming along nightly--and thus far too busy to pay attention to politics or world events or the NFL playoffs, although since Green Bay is already planning next year, my football interest has waned.

What I'm saying is, I'm far too busy to watch Haiti. Occasionally, throughout my day, I'll surf through CNN and Drudge and HuffPost, just to see the latest; but I've got time for little more than headlines as the perceived death tolls rises. Now, I believe, the estimates are reaching hundreds of thousands.

At night, by ten, I'm exhausted, but too exhausted to sleep, so I switch on CNN or MSNBC until I can't take it. I've got this factory-installed governor in me, something akin to an on/off switch that dictates what spare hours I can give to the tragedy.

Years ago, I taught a Literature of the Holocaust course, and found, with a month or so left, that I had absolutely no more capacity for things Treblinka or Dachau. I couldn't read another word. I'd hit some kind of human Waterloo, and going forward was deeply painful. Yes, I finished the semester, but my appetite (bad word, but it fits somehow) for human suffering was beyond full.

The earthquake on Haiti certainly isn't the same thing, but maybe it's worse because there really is no one to blame, Pat Robertson notwithstanding. What happened there was shifting foundation beneath the most precariously outfitted sailing ship in the Caribbean, disaster striking disaster.

But I can't watch long, and I don't know if that's good or bad. The hurt is too painful, the human loss too unimaginable. Are we gifted with governors, with limits, with defiantly limited capacities for human suffering? Is it a good thing that I just can't watch for more than an hour?

Or am I just another Disney cartoon, a Mickey Mouse in this vale of tears?

I don't know if my own pitifully scant capacity for such sadness is a blessing or a curse.

But on this Sunday morning, literally, all I can do is pray for Haiti. That much is all.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Morning Thanks--love

One of the most memorable books I've read in the last few years is The Road, Cormac McCarthy's incredible testament to hope and love in a world gone completely mad. That someone would want to make that novel into a movie makes good sense; and it's out. I haven't seen it. I would; but for the life of me, I can't begin to believe that the film could best the novel because what we can see in our imaginations is often far more horrifying than what can be shown to us on film.

The protagonist is a father, a survivor, a character known only as “the man.” His son is “the boy.” Once upon a time they had names, but after whatever kind of apocalypse occured, life itself has become so precarious that everything and everyone is reduced to the elemental.

The story's richness comes from its unsparing look at desperate humanity in a world that has literally lost its light, but McCarthy's refuses to submit to despair. The story is this: the man unconditionally loves the boy, and that love, no matter how meager, lights the darkness.

Last night, on CNN, gunshots rang out in the background as a reporter in the horror that is Haiti hesitantly talked through his grim report. Lights had been dimmed, fearing the madness. What's happening in Haiti is not a novel, and certainly no Hollywood production. Haiti, this morning, is real life.

There is no water. There is no health care. Bodies of the dead line the streets. Here and there, people try to dig out massive chunks of concrete with their bare hands because they're sure loved ones are still alive in the rubble of buildings that are no more. The Presidential palace is in ruins. The entire capital city is homeless. What little government was there before the quake is already long gone.

There are horrific villians in Haiti right now, I'm sure; there are no more prisons. But I'm sure there are heroes too, thousands of them, those who give and give and give--like "the man."

Today is a big day for me--travel, new faces, new responsibilities.

But suddenly such things seem paltry, as do Washington's petty political squabbles, NFL playoffs, and even films and novels, The Road notwithstanding. Today, less than a hundred miles from Florida, thousands of people will do everything they can and more, simply to stay alive. The good news is, thousands more will try to help.

Bless the fathers, Lord. Bless the mothers too. And bless the children. And thank you for those who help, those who can and do. Even in the heart of darkness, thank you for light. Thank you for the gift of love.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

California dreamin'

Maybe I've been just too long a Calvinist, but I do believe that we human beings, the whole lot of us, are a sad, sad bunch. That's why I'm not really surprised that loads of fans who've seen James Cameron's Avatar have been feeling extraordinarily blue as of late, sometimes despondent, and even suicidal about simply being here, in this world, that is--and not being there, there being the gorgeous alien paradise of Pandora, Cameron's exotic natural wonderland.

Pandora is our wishful heaven, the Amazon rain forest without rain, snakes, or other vermin. Pandora is the Elysian fields of Greek mythology, the streets of gold in Christian mythology, the Never Never land of Peter Pan and Tinkerbell. At one time or another, we all want a piece of that real estate.

Herman Melville, Calvinist though he was, made a great splash by telling a story about a shipwrecked sailor on a Polynesian island he called Typee. That novel, his first, sold vastly more copies than any of his others during his lifetime because, in part, it offered readers a South Seas, Garden of Eden paradise.

As lots of reviewers have said, Avatar is a fancily embroidered remake of Dances With Wolves. Sadly, however, the expansive Great Plains beauty featured in that show never prompted a population shift. Mostly, out here, we're still hemorrhaging people. But both movies made alien worlds--the world of the Na'vi and the world of the 19th century Lakota--delightfully prelapsarian.

There was something noble about the noble savages of the plains all right, but most Native people I know want only to be regarded as human--certainly not less, but not more either. Since the Na'vi exist only on Pandora--and only in Avatar--they're far easier to fantasize. Hence the deep, soulful sadness. Right now, Pandora's lush forests offer the greenest grass in the cosmos. Heavenly dreamin', Hollywood style.

CNN says that a forum site for Avatar viewers started a thread titled, "Ways to cope with the depression of the dream of Pandora being intangible," and "received more than 1,000 posts from people experiencing depression and fans trying to help them cope." Amazing.

Me?--I think it's sad and sweet and dumb and perfectly understandable. Someone in the neighborhood drives around with a licence plate that says "THNKHVN."

Well, who doesn't want to "thnkhvn"? When the excrement flies, who on earth doesn't want to get the heck out of the way? And it does. Often. With considerable heft. A virtual blizzard. In this vale of tears, shit happens.

We got underwear bombers and balloon boys and home run frauds. We've got health care horrors and massive unemployment and congressional circuses and a discordant chorus of screaming political pundits. This morning Haiti is in ruins, already the poorest nation in the entire western hemisphere--and now they've face even greater horrors. If God loves the poor, why on earth did he pick on Haiti?

Get me outta' here, we say. When does the next ship leave to Pandora? I'll live on the streets.

Perfectly understandable. We're a sad bunch. We're human.

As Schieffer says (see below), if we could only learn from our dogs.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Morning Thanks--don't quit

I was talking to an ex-student not long ago, who first wondered, she said, if she could ask me a question--now that she wasn't a student of mine anymore, that is. I couldn't imagine imminent danger. "Sure," I told her.

"At your age--after all those years of teaching," she said, "--I bet you don't even have to prepare anymore, do you?"

Wouldn't that be wonderful.

I told her I'd spent my month-long Christmas break either shovelling snow or getting ready for the next semester, a tougher job this year because of a visiting writer gig in Tennessee.

She was shocked. Honestly. She assumed any teacher who's been at it forever was on permanent auto-pilot, her bald ex-prof a portly wind-up doll--like the my granddaughter's portrait up behind a podium.

Wish I could find the crank.

Today it starts all over once again. My 38th year of teaching, I believe, but then there are good reasons I don't teach math. Multiply by two, and I get 76 semesters. Somewhere in all that half-lifetime, I'm sure I had a semester off, so let's just say that today is my diamond anniversary or something, make it sound special. Who knows?

Just yesterday the student evaluations from last semester came back. When I was younger, opening that envelope was sweet--they were always pretty good.

And still are--sort of. But some of the snap and sap and zing I once may have had in the classroom has gone the way of all flesh, literally. To students, I'm now a curiosity maybe, a yarn-spinning grandpa with a bellyful of laughs. I think it's harder to take an old man seriously. Maybe I'm wrong.

But yesterday's evaluations weren't bad at all. Not that I care all that much anymore--new tricks don't come easily to old dogs. I want to do well, but reading student evaluations for the 74th time is hardly a life-changing experience anymore.

However, one comment stays with me, like good stout oatmeal. One comment on those evals will get me through the day, maybe the week, maybe even the month. The question on the standard sheet goes something like this: "What can the instructor do to improve the class?" And some brilliant kid--I have no idea who--simply wrote this: "Don't quit."

That's advice I swear I won't heed; but those two words are, right now, this day, worth a million.

And for those words--the only words I remember from a whole batch of last semester's student evaluations and vastly more numbers than it takes to make this English teacher's head spin--for those two words alone, I am really, really thankful, this morning especially.

They are more than enough reason for heartfelt thanks.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Morning Thanks--Bob Schieffer

Look, what the world needs--or at least this country needs--is more Bob Schieffers. Wouldn't it be wonderful if commentators took a seat behind the news desk because of their wisdom and not just their looks? Yesterday, his zany comments may well have been the least newsworthy two minutes on any news show, but, by my estimation, the most thoughtful. It's all about dogs--and, no, we don't have one. You don't have to own one to love the segment.

This morning I'm thankful for Bob Schieffer. Let's hope the network doesn't replace him with eye candy anytime soon.

Sunday, January 10, 2010


My mother is moving to a smaller apartment in a different old folks' home, so some sorting needed to be done when we visited last week, some sorting and some tossing. It fell to me to go through her books and her audio and video tapes, and I threw out 75% of what I found, taking two shopping bags home and leaving two more, one a piece for each of my sisters.

Many of the old vhs tapes were unmarked, so I stuck them in her player to see if I could tell what they were. One featured my mother and dad at their fiftieth wedding anniversary part in Florida. Mom simply and quickly said she didn't want to see it. She's never been particularly nostalgic, but this abrupt command arose from pain. What suddenly came on the screen in front of her was painful.

For the rest of the afternoon, I tossed tapes--audio and video--sometimes without even knowing why she had them, what was being celebrated, or who was singing or speaking. It all went in a box that got marched down the silent hallway only to disappear behind a door marked, simply, "Rubbish."

A thick stack of manila envelopes from her son, from me, each of them holding a letter, sometimes--often--quite long. Once every other Sunday I sit down here and write her a note, telling her what's going on.

In this digital age, few people type or hand write letters anymore, e-mail having become the cleanest, slickest avenue of communication. But e-mails are purely electronic--they're not hard copy. I'm sure there are fanatic hoarders of e-mails--I'm a hoarder maybe, but not a fanatic--but personal letters one can hold in one's hand are an endangered species. I tossed an entire armful of them, my own, right down into the the chute in the room marked "rubbish." Some of them are backed up on my hard drive.

But it won't be long before my own children start sorting their own parents' things, and when they do, their job may be more difficult because it will include two hard drives. But then, maybe they'll just pitch the whole thing. Right here beside me is a little remote hard drive full of pictures and music; it won't be hard at all to pull out the usb cord and just toss it. Who knows?--maybe that's the way it will go.

One way or another, it's impossible not to undertake a job like that and not be slapped across the face once again with the immediacy of our lives. Probably half of what I toted out of that apartment, half of what I tossed and what I saved myself, was bulk she'd accumulated from me--including my own books, as well as books we gave, all things we thought precious, as did she, once upon a time. Pictures galore. Scrapbooks. My granddaughter playing the violin on an audio tape.

She has no use for them anymore. Whatever pleasure they ever brought her has disappeared. She's 90 and down-sizing. Family pictures by the dozen. Music that once made her soul soar. Preachers on a dozen videos, not to be missed. All gone.

My in-laws had two auction sales--one when they left the farm, one when they went to the home. The first one was fun; the second was tragic. Having to watch those things my mother-in-law treasured go for nickles and dimes was more painful than I imagined.

But there was difference--when they left the farm, we were young and our kids were little. I don't think I understood down-sizing as well as I do today, at 61 years old. Now, I know better.

I hear Thoreau now. What's more, I hear a hundred biblical passages about storage barns and meadow flowers that neither toil and spin--a thousand Sunday School lessons few ever really hear.

Now I've got 'em--those shopping bags full of Mom's mementos. They're both sitting here on the floor of an already cluttered basement, untouched.

Maybe I'll just let them here for my kids. They may be worth a moral lesson it takes a lifetime to hear.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Morning Thanks--the old psalms

Ten years ago maybe, my in-laws, then in their seventies, told us that they told the pastor that once in awhile they'd like to sing the old songs, too. They're not pushy people, believe me. The church had gone wholesale to the new and fresh "praise 'n worship" genre, and they simply got a little tired of being left out.

The pastor's patronizing response to the old folks was that, well, sometimes it was simply necessary to change with the times.

I'm sure my father-in-law never spit right there--after all the pastor was the dominie--but when we came around the next time, he unloaded. "Change?" he said. "I started farming with horses, didn't have indoor plumbing until the late 50s. He's telling me about change?"

I love that story.

Last night I was looking for an old hymn, a psalm, the kind of music my in-laws were missing back then. Once upon a time in the Dutch Reformed tradition--long before my time or theirs--the only congregational singing was psalms, truly biblical songs. The old hymnals I was raised with had hundred other options, but the heart of congregational singing, even when I was a kid, was the psalms. So last night I was listening to the psalms from an old hymnal, the one in the pews when I was a boy.

In fact, they're playing now.

I don't know if I can claim a revelation, but I got my heart thrilled by a wave of nostalgia I certainly didn't anticipate. Something about the organ beneath those rich four-part harmonies triggered nobly rendered memories I didn't even know I had. The language of those psalms--lyric and melody--were somewhere deeply buried in the synapses of my brain. More substantially, they'd never left my heart, even though many of them hadn't played in my consciousness for decades.

I'm not stupid. I know very well that if I'd tell my pastor we ought to sing the psalms--the old ones--more than we do, he'd shrug his shoulders. My in-law's former pastor wasn't wrong: times change. My great-grandfather probably blew a gasket when some whipper-snapper from Grand Rapids suggested the psalms he'd always sung should suddenly be thrust into that foul English language. What incredible sacrilege.

I know very well that I may be the only one reading these words who has those memories. There is, after all, nothing sacred about the psalms from the old psalter; but last night--and right now, in fact--I discovered, strangely enough, that those old texts and settings trip something in me that "Awesome God" never will. And lo, it was good.

Here's what I'm thinking: even if those musical texts never make it back into the sanctuary where we worship, now at least I've got 'em here, close to me. They're on CDs, they're in my computer, and they're even on my iPod.

So there.

This morning those old pslams are good reason to give thanks.

Thursday, January 07, 2010


Avatar was a hoot. If I could see it again, this time in 3-D, I would tomorrow--maybe even this afternoon. All the hoopla surrounding that show got me to the theater, a place I don't go all that often. I'm an old guy, brought up in a tradition that once upon a time was virulently anti-movies, anti-Hollywood. I'm not. Never have been, in fact. It's just that I'm a 61-year old male, who can hardly remembering being 18, Hollywood's prime age. Most movies simply aren't made for me.

Not often anyway. I must admit that I'd go to see It's Complicated if I had the chance, in part because I'd pay to see anything Meryl Streep has a hand in. But that film is also about people--and for people--who aren't teenagers, which is not to say that I disliked Juno. Nope, liked it. I'm not fascist. At least I don't think so.

Because I like Obama, I feel mostly on the outs with the vast majority of my evangelical brothers and sisters these days, and that fact may explain why I'm likely the only evangelical Christian on the block who hasn't seen The Blind Side. I should have. No, I still should. After all, what drew me to Avatar was the buzz, and Lord knows there's just as much about Sandra Bullock's sweet film about a Christian family taking in some poor kid from the slums who just happens to be built like an oil tanker.

Hollywood is all about bucks, of course, and the fat cat moguls just can't help reading the writing on the wall--The Blind Side, which cost just 29 mill, has now made 200. We're talking fat city here. What's more, back in November, in its third week, it actually outdrew Twilight: New Moon. If some holy, pre-mill true believer wants an argument that the end-of-the-world may not be coming a week from Thursday, there's one right there.

How did The Blind Side do it?--well, by pulling off some sharky marketing, getting in touch with a couple thousand mega-churches, and supplying them with outtakes on their big screens, not to mention sermon outlines. It ain't the power of prayer that pulled this off--it's good old-fashioned American hustling, Willy Loman in a clerical collar.

But that's okay. What I find most sweet about the whole phenomenon is that Hollywood took what may well have been an over-the-top Christian book, thinned out its religious sentimentality, sculpted from the excess a story that's somehow wider than a fireside testimony, and told it well. Good for them.

I'm a professor, been one for most of my life, and I teach at a Christian college. My sin--well, one of them at least--may well be an overdose of head knowledge. I've been critiquing stories and films and plays and student papers my whole life; my heart hasn't grown cold exactly, but sometimes the excesses of heart-felt emotion, made manifest in my Christian brothers and sisters, gets really wearying to me, in part because, by my estimation, they lack as much head as I may lack heart. To be blessed, methinks, is to have equal portions of both.

What Hollywood may well be teaching evangelical Christians is that every last great story doesn't have to end with "Awesome God" sung in the baptistery. On the other hand--and I love this--evangelical Christians may well be teaching Hollywood that they're a force to be reckoned with, a community blessed with, among other things, fairly substantial pocket change. Let me repeat--The Blind Side made 200 million, and that's nothing to sneeze at.

Much of Hollywood is an embarrassment, really. Sixty years ago, the founder of the college where I am employed made headlines in Time and Life for keeping a theater out of Sioux Center, Iowa. Much of the generic reasoning back then was Hollywood as godless Babylon. You want to know what Islamic terrorists really hate about America--and fear?--a ton of it is American materialism, it's gaudy excess. Hollywood, sometimes, is just another word for excess.

Hollywood loves skin and blood and car wrecks because we do. Vampires aren't all the rage these days because some film guy dreamed it up; a devout Mormon put 'em in novels that girls ate up like Harry Potter.

It's not rocket science, as they say. The more that Christians vote with their feet at the turn styles, the more Hollywood will churn out stories that don't make us roll our eyes--or close 'em. And that's good.

Now it's time for me to see the show, I guess.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010


What was remarkable was what wasn't said, what couldn't be, or shouldn't. A funeral simply wasn't the time to flush out the story because in this man's life the devil was, without a doubt, in the details.

Had the preacher mentioned that he'd suffered immensely, none of the few who gathered for the service would have been surprised; they knew. His back-breaking burdens didn't need to be recounted, not to his friends and certainly not to his family. Still, that none of that life was even mentioned seemed, to me at least, somehow remarkable.

And yet not. What was said was what needed to be: that this soft-spoken man had gone home in peace, that he'd always loved the Lord, that his way had always been quiet and selfless, that he'd suffered the travail that is our lot in this vale of tears, and that, remarkably, he'd chosen Psalm 121 as the text for his funeral, a psalm that names the Lord as our keeper six times in its eight verses. If anyone had or has a right to testify against God's ever-abiding love, this gentle giant did.

But at the end what he himself wanted said was that the sun would not harm us by day, nor the moon by night, that the Lord will watch over our lives, our comings and goings both now and forevermore. That was the balm he carried with him into death. He wanted that known.

The writer in me waited for at least some mention of the details to bear witness to all that surety. I wanted to be shown and not told, wanted to hear a recitation of the earthly story, at least in outline.

But, remarkably, nothing was said. That which couldn't be spoken, wasn't.

All of which, in an odd way, made what could be said--and what was--even more astounding, made Psalm 121 magnificently more memorable.

In that funeral, what couldn't be said made what was--the amazing grace of the Lord--even more remarkable.

If that makes sense--and it really doesn't. Grace, I mean.

That it's real--that's really remarkable. That's what I learned, again, from what wasn't said, and what was.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Morning Thanks--joy on scrap iron

Sometimes I’m amazed at what I find in what I shoot.

I suppose if I were a really good photographer, I'd know what's there or control what I get in a shot--but I'm not, and I don't. In the bitter cold not long ago, I wandered around an abandoned farmstead at dawn, through all kinds of junk, most of it festooned with the kinds of “parian wreaths” Emerson celebrated in “The Snowstorm,” a pristine Christmas halo of snow.

When I came back to the basement to see what I had, I fell in love with this shot: nothing but snow on an old implement, joy on scrap iron.

Photography teaches me the beauty of things I take for granted or simply don’t look at, the beauty of common things; and for that, and the revelations that appear in front of me, magically, on my screen in the morning, I’m very thankful.

Monday, January 04, 2010

The Amish have it down. They know exactly how to deal with Jesus's injunction about worldliness--being in it, but not of it. They've chosen their culture--some variation on 18th century European peasant culture, or something--and stuck with it, proclaiming that way of life to be just exactly what Jesus was talking about when he demanded his followers to be "in, but not of."

The rest of us still have some problems. I drive a car, for instance, even two of them. Is that being too much "of the world?" We eat humus and fry bread and enchiladas--not to mention an occasional North Atlantic cod fillet from Culver's. I'm typing on a computer; we have three, now that I gave my wife a mini for Christmas. I love cameras. I've got several pairs of jeans, but--this will help--I also occasionally wear bibs. No straw hat though. I wear a beard, sort of, but I don't speak low German.

Those of us who were raised in peculiar cultures have a peculiar problem with "in, but not of" because the dynamics of the peculiar cultures offer such a clearly "set apart" battery of behaviors that it's easy simply to assume that those behaviors--going to church twice, not cutting your grass on the Sabbath, staying home from R-rated movies, sending kids to the Christian school, whatever--constitute something close to the regimen Jesus actually had in mind when speaking to his Jewish disciples. Like the Amish. God bless 'em. I'm honestly not poking fun.

The Amish turned their back on their Mennonites brethren in the 17th century sometime, when they believed their Mennonite neighbors were a'whoring after worldliness and thereby leaving the straight-and-narrow; they'd become too much "of this world," I'm sure, so some of the most devout decided to follow Jesus instead and determined therefore, that there would simply be no more change. Hence, old order Amish.

My wife and I just finished Rhoda Janzen's memoir Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home and found it both delightfully entertaining and engagingly thoughtful, although, strangely enough, a bit more the former than the latter. Often we found ourselves wondering how on earth she could resume relationships with some she calls her friends--or even her family; and while I doubt Rhoda Janzen actually "tells all," she certainly tells enough to offend a ton of those closest to her. But then, that's the genre. She's writing a memoir.

Janzen, who teaches at Hope College, doesn't pull any punches when it comes to herself either, admitting that many of the choices she has made in her life weren't anywhere near to being in her own best interests. The story begins after Nick, her husband of 15 years, leaves her for a man named Bob, a man he met on Not long before, she'd been laid up badly by a horrible car accident. In other words, things happened in her life that pushed her into enough of a tail's spin to make her go home to Mom, which is a story in itself--the story of the memoir.

The arc of the book aims at reconciliation--not with Nick, the departed and abusive husband, but with Ms. Janzen's own Mennonite past. Much of the hilarity of the memoir is in her rehearsing the silliness of the old ways, even though her particular tribe of Mennonites is far more progressive than those whose women still don doilies and long black dresses. Much of the madcap humor of the book comes from her recitation of that culture's peculiar "other-worldliness." If you know nothing about the Mennonites, Ms. Janzen's rich memoir will fill you in quickly--and wittily.

But it's the trajectory of the thing that's somewhat disappointing because it seems clear that, to her, the horrors of her life require the sweet therapies of home and her peculiar culture to cure--she says as much. There's a quiet suggestion that, in some important ways, she's come home. But when push comes to shove, I'm not totally convinced.

Ms. Janzen seems to me to be far more gentle in the treatment of the culture she adopted--art openings, dinner parties, New York Times' readers--than she is with the culture of her birthright--the funny people who tote corduroy Bibles. Nick himself, despite the horrors she's experienced, is simply a misguided misfit--brilliant, handsome, educated, philosophical, but tragically bi-polar and therefore not responsible for his vile excesses. It's understandable, but it seems clear that only ex-patriot Mennonites can adequately speak her language--and as long as there is a NY Times Book Review somewhere close. Often, she treats her own people as if they were 20th century descendants of Van Gogh's potato eaters, which, of course, most of them are.

The sticking point in this equation is faith, of course. What creates the cultural baggage of the Mennonite tradition--or any faith tradition, for that matter--is a soul of faith. The question Ms. Janzen's story begs is really whether or not she has the soul to go home, and that question--or so it seems to me--isn't answered in this fascinating, often hilarious and but sometimes tragic memoir. In her head, she can make the necessary accommodations; in her heart, she knows she's coming home to people who love her. The question is soul--does she believe in any way shape or form what they do? For the most part, that's not a question she very openly confronts in this book, despite the often jaw-dropping candor of the memoir.

All of that is no indictment of Ms. Janzen or the memoir. I am--after sixty years--far more trusting of those who don't claim to know exactly how to balance being in the world, but not of it, than I am of those who believe, piously, that all the answers since Job's suffering belong somehow to them, whatever their tradition--Irish Catholic, Dutch Calvinist, Orthodox, or Southern Baptist. Or Mennonite.

Rhoda Janzen's problem, finally, belongs to all people of faith, the Christian faith in particular: what does it mean--exactly--to be in the world, but not of it? And that answer no one really has down, or so it seems to me. Not me, not Rhoda Janzen, and not even the Amish. All of us keep trying, as she does in this entertaining memoir.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Saturday Morning Catch

I was much closer to real fish this morning, about 500 miles due east from Sioux Center, Iowa, and just down the road from the town in which I was born, a little town named Oostburg, Wisconsin.

'Twas very cold, as cold as I've been for a long time; and the dawn wasn't as spectacular as others I've been blessed to see. But the big lake is the big lake, and there's just nothing like it--if you were born here, I guess. It was perfectly wonderful to be out there, a huge belt of fog like a cloud above the water, holding back the sun until finally it arose from behind a gilded edge.

I was the only one in the park that early--me and about a dozen deer (probably more, but I saw about a dozen). The dunes, the sand, the brush, the dawn--it was all gorgeous.

But good night, it was cold.

A cold Lake Michigan morning

Friday, January 01, 2010

Proportions, 2009

When you're ninety, you deserve a Christmas present or two, even if no one has a clue what to get you--that's what I was thinking. So I put together a little pictoral review of my mother's Iowa family yesterday--which is to say us. It's a reasonably modest selections of shots of our--which is to say her--brand new grandson, in her case great-grandson, born in September. We're going for a holiday visit today.

But we have--as she does--other grandchildren who, sometimes reluctantly, are subject to their grandpa's shutterbugging, so I threw in a number of those too. Plus a couple of our daughter and son-in-law, and our son and his girlfriend, and even a shot or two of my wife's father, who's also 90, smiling proudly, his lap full of said kids.

But there is more to the story of our family's 2009 than new life. We lost a mom, and grandma, and a great-grandma. It didn't seem right to put together a couple dozen pics and not slip one in of the woman who, once upon a time long ago, gave birth to my wife. She left us in early May, and any kind of photographic retrospective needs to include her image, I thought.

So I put one in. One.

There's something about that proportion that's troubling--25 pics of kids and kin, and one of the woman who's no longer with us.

The idea of a little picture book came to me because very little brings my mother more joy than looking at pictures of her own dear ones who live a day's travel away. But I figure those pictures should tell a story, and the story of her Iowa kids in 2009 includes death, a subject she likely thinks about even more than we do. I told myself that maybe she'd find it reassuring to see her own Iowa counterpart--the other great-grandma--included in a 2009 album; maybe she'd find it comforting to know that all that joy doesn't mean that we've forgotten.

Maybe I'm wrong.

There are those who believe, like Whitman, that only death gives rise to song. We make beautiful music only because we know very well that there will come a day when we can no longer sing. We make love because we know all too well that someday we won't. That, it seems to me, is what "Out of Cradle Endlessly Rocking" is all about, the soaringly sad poetic tribute to death.

What I'm thinking this morning, just six hours into a brand new year and brand new decade is that I did the right thing by putting my mother-in-law's picture in that Christmas present scrapbook. Even though she herself wished for death for a long time and even though we know she's now, finally, eternally home, there's still something about her hurtful absence that makes those wonderful baby pics even more beautiful. Death makes life more precious.

Or so it seems to me on this New Year's Day.