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, September 30, 2010

Mason Tender IV

Part IV of a short story set in a small town in the mid-50s.


People said in a hundred years of church life there had never been an official excommunication. Eventually people just left the church if they were angry or if they didn't feel like belonging anymore. But it was like a Vreeman to be stubborn about it. There was no way anyone could understand what was going on in his head because he pushed the church to act, almost as if it were a dare a test of the will of the righteous.

"That's the church I always been in," he told any of the dozens who tried to work with him, just like he told Ed that morning out back on the job.

Dickie didn't turn up for the service. The church was vacant just then, so they had in a preacher from somewhere up north, an old man who did everything he could to make it seem as sweet as an excommunication could be. What I remember best is the irony of talking about Dickie Vreeman (the preacher called him Richard because that was his christened name) without Dickie being there to hear it. That morning he was with Penny and the kids. Maybe he wasn't even thinking about finally being thrown out. Maybe he didn't care.

I walked home that Sunday with a neighbor kid, son of a big contractor. "First time that's ever happened that I remember," I said. "I never saw anything like that before in this church." I wondered what a kid no more than twelve thought about throwing somebody out the way we did that morning.

"My old man says there comes a time that you got to toss out the rotten apples," the kid said.


Dickie came in the next morning at seven, and he wore that same flannel shirt he always started with during the early hours, two buttons left, both of them around the stomach. Dime-sized holes were in the T-shirt he wore beneath.

There wasn't a thing written on his face--no joy, no guilt, no sorrow, nothing to explain what it felt like to be the first man kicked out in a century of worship in a village church. He climbed up the scaffolding and stood there at the edge cupping a cigarette, looking down at me, waiting to start things up.

On Tuesday the crew from the car wash manufacturers came in to check specs for the installation. We were done with most of the block and all there was left was the elevation of fancy red brick, plus a little finish work on the roof. Most the morning Ed spent inside, and since there were no doors or windows, I heard the crew talking about the job. Ed took some notes on the specs, I remember, because it wasn't often I saw Ed with a pencil in his hand.

He hadn't been up there with Dickie all day on Monday. And Tuesday all day it was the manufacturers downstairs.

"Buy you lunch," he says to me just before noon that day. Ed was the boss. I figured his wife was shopping.

The two of us went next door and took the little table next to the men, because the Shoe serves real home-cooking at noon.

The waitress brought up two specials, without us ordering at all: hot beef sandwich with green beans and potatoes with gravy.

"I don't think it's right, Ed. What the church did to him isn't right at all," I told him.

"Stinks," he said. That's all.

Tomorrow: Ed and excommunication

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Mason Tender III


I didn't know when it was coming down, but I knew it was coming. My own father, an elder, had worked with Dickie Vreeman for years, so I knew it had been a decade or more since he'd been in the church. To me, excommunication seemed like putting the mark of the beast on a person; in one hundred years it was never done that I knew of. But I'd been through catechism, and I knew that the church said that discipline was one of what they called the "keys of the kingdom": "whatsoever shall be bound on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatsoever shall be loosed on earth shall be loosed in heaven." That was the principle. Discipline, people said, was one of the marks of the true church of the Lord.

It wasn't sleeping with Penny that brought it on either. It was the fact that Dickie never came to communion, maybe not for twenty years. Penny really didn't change the fact that he refused the means of grace; she just tallied another sin of a lesser degree. Excommunication was a matter of principle finally, a matter of the integrity of the church running headlong into the stiffness of Dickie's refusal to come to the Lord's Supper. Even Ed said so.

Early that summer Ed would climb the scaffold and be up there for hours, alone with Dickie. He’d take his trowel along in his back pocket, and it always made the work harder below because they'd be forever at the side looking for more buckets full of wet cement or bricks. He was up there trying to turn his nephew around. But Dickie was all of a grown man already.

Finally Ed would scramble down the scaffolding and look at me. "Can't get that man to wear a hard hat," he told me a couple times. “He flat refuses. All I need is a big fine." That’s all he’d say, but I knew there was more in what he didn’t.

Most noons Dickie would sneak over to Penny's for lunch, and Ed would go to home to his wife. But coffee time we'd be together out back where Ed laid a couple rough planks across some blocks.

You could see the way Ed took it all by the way he'd pour coffee from the thermos; the cup would shake just slightly in his fingers, enough so that he was embarrassed. Shaking made him hold the thing in two hands. But we never talked much. None of the Vreemans are talkers. Sometimes Ed would say something about baseball or the weather , but mostly they nodded at each other and looked around as if there was something new to see out back of the Wooden Shoe. We'd sit and eat sugar-flecked donuts Ed bought fresh from the bakery.

Only one morning the whole church business came up. Ed's hard hat leaned up toward the back of his head so the strip of hair down his forehead stuck out from the visor.

“Get some company last night, did you, Dickie?" Ed said.

Dickie nodded. The only way you could tell he was forty was the lines in his face. His cheeks were shallow where the skin drew back from his bones. Tight little lines grew out and away from his eyes like sun rays in a kid's drawing. "Doesn't matter anyway," he said.

"Be easier for everybody if you'd just take your papers up to some other church." Ed shook the drip off the edge of the donut.

“That’s the church I was born into,” Dickie said. “They don’t want me anymore—they’re going to have to throw me out, if they got the guts to do it.”

Dickie had such quiet blue eyes. He was so quiet that sometimes I was afraid of him.

Ed started to say something, and then he stopped.
Tomorrow: That Sunday in church

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Mason Tender II

Part II of a short story set in the late 50s in a small town.

Sometime during that previous winter, Dickie Vreeman met this woman named Penny. She was at least ten years younger than he was, but they had a lot in common: both of them got left behind, except Penny had three kids and she was a woman. She married a bum who used to race his Chevy through town; whenever he'd floor it, the thing would sound like it was blowing air. But he left her, and Penny moved into a little house a block west from the bank, a block south from Dickie's remodeling job. The bum she married, a man named Gimp, moved to Collinsville, and for a long time nobody in Easton heard from him. And that was just fine.

Now you can speculate all you want on the way things went with Dickie and Penny, and you know half the folks in town did. I suppose in this new age, Penny and Dickie figured they had all the reason in the world to be sleeping together. Neither of them cared about the church or the morals of all those folks who watched them. And one morning early, really early, I saw them standing out on a street half-way between their houses, on the corner of the open lot where a couple of years ago Hartmans lined up their used cars. It was still the pinkish side of morning, but there they were holding hands like some love-lost teens, all cow-eyed and glowing like the sky out east, as if they couldn't stand the thought of having to separate, even for a half a day. Neither of them were kids any more. Both of them had seen a lot.

Penny walked in a way that forced you to watch her. Three kids widened her hips some, and she never wore shorts at all, even though she had long legs; but she had a strong woman's chest that she carried high when she walked, the carriage of fallen royalty maybe, shoulders back, eyes running up and down the street as if to see who might be seeing her, partly proud and partly humble, as if she was afraid that someone would think she wasn't as strong as any woman . Most men couldn't help looking at her. A friend of mine said the way Penny walked made any man sit up straight in his chair.

Dickie fell in love with her. Seems odd to say it, because both of them were already battle-scarred and there was at least a decade between them. But they fell in love. People guessed why they wouldn't get married: Penny would lose her ADC and child support, and Dickie would have five kids with only the pay from his uncle Ed's masonry crew. Their kids played together like brothers and sisters anyway. Nobody really believed the two of them weren't sleeping together, but people did wonder how on earth they explained it to their kids.

Penny never came around the garage while we worked there never came to see him up there, but everybody knew they were close—it wasn't something they wanted advertised, even though they weren't kids.

Tomorrow: the church acts

Monday, September 27, 2010

Mason Tender I

I'm getting very close to a thousand posts and I'm busy up to my ears, so I thought I'd use an old short story, in chunks. The setting is a time long ago, thirty or forty years, when the church in a small town like the one in which I grew up wielded immense authority, a story about excommunication.

The problem of Dickie Vreeman belonged to our whole church, but Ed took it personally, because he had to deal with Dickie every day, and besides, to him, Dickie was family. Some people knew that Dickie had bad blood, because they knew his father had married this hard woman just before the war, a woman who’d left him one day with four kids--Dickie, the oldest--and all of that happened when no husbands and (certainly) no wives ever left, no matter what anybody suffered, because divorce was, to the whole village unpardonable. Times change. But the people knew all of Dickie's problems weren't his own fault; he suffered himself on account of his real mother's bad blood.

Ed Vreeman took everything that happened very personally because Dickie was his own brother's son, so years ago already Ed gave him a job as a mason tender, when Dickie moved back to town, after a term in the reformatory and some rough times on his own. I suppose it was the good genes in the guy that pushed him to work hard. Dickie took masonry seriously, and he worked like a beast for his uncle Ed, who was, at the time of the excommunication, a church officer. In a couple of years Dickie knew everything there was to know about masonry.

By that time Dickie was no kid anymore, even though he looked like one because he was so slim and dark from outside work. Dickie was already forty when the church decided to move against him once and for all, but he didn't look forty. When he peeled off his T-shirt, he'd show off that perfect , triangular chest, hair like fleece running up to his throat, as bleached as the thick hair on his head combed in the old duck tail style. On hot days cement mix and dust stuck in his sweat and carpeted him. By July, with his lavender skin, he looked like a sage Negro. Proud veins lined the swollen muscles of his arms, but his wrists and his ankles were slight like a woman's. When he'd tote two full five-gallon buckets brimming with cement, when every inch of his upper body glistened with sweat, he could have been a model or a perfect naked statue in fluid motion.

To my mind, sin wasn’t supposed to be so sleek. Sin was supposed to look bloated and milky, white with disease. But even at forty, Dickie Vreeman could have been what people think Adam was.

I was summer help for Ed that year. When I think of it now I suppose I could have put everything Dickie ever said to me on four or five sheets of typing paper. A friend of mine told me how he once rode five hundred miles with two Navajo men in a van and neither of them talked for more than ten minutes total. Dickie would have liked that.

Ed's crew had a job downtown that summer when the church finally kicked Dickie out. The man who owned the filing station downtown (business started out as a blacksmith shop years ago; some people said it was the first building in town) wanted turn the place into a comprehensive car-care facility, couple full stalls for the mechanics, and a chute for an automatic car wash--just drive up, shift the car into neutral, and a set of steel blocks laid into a track in the floor would pull you through, while huge overhead mops slapped up and over the hood then lifted themselves up the slope of the windshield and roof and flopped down again, as if it could read the lines of the car. All of that was the plan. Owner said he had to change with the times; more people were concerned about how their cars looked than what was going on beneath the hood, he said.

Ed's crew laid the blocks and the brick up front, and Dickie, already ten years of masonry behind him, laid whole walls by himself. When he was on the roof, I hoisted up the buckets full of bricks or wet cement on the block-and-tackle Ed set on the scaffolding. That was my summer job--three months hand over hand up a rope.

The garage stood in the middle of town, and most every day a dozen retired gents stood around on the front sidewalks checking progress, especially between nine and ten, when most of them stopped in the Wooden Shoe for coffee and picked up the mail a block west at the post office. You really couldn't avoid seeing Dickie, even if you tried, especially since he spent most of July up top. He had a way of intimidating people, even me. When I worked in the back, I took off my shirt, but every day there was sun Dickie was down to skin shortly after ten. He could make men uncomfortable because you his rib cage showed itself almost all the way down to his waist, I swear. He may well have been the only forty-year old man in town without a belly. Other men thought they themselves looked more like sin than he did. I know.

It wasn't only the fact that he worked so hard that made people sympathize with Dickie. Back in the sixties, fresh out of reformatory, he found a woman (most people said he found her in a bar in Collinsville) and married her after a few months. Four years of marriage wars and she left him just like his own mother had, left him all alone with two kids. That's when he moved back to his own hometown and bought a ramshackle place on the road going north out of town--one of the old houses built Dutch-style, tucked up close to the front sidewalk, as if the village were a city with no room to grow. When you live in houses like that you can hear people talking when they walk by. Your windows are open season. Maybe you live in a fishbowl in a place like that, but then everybody does.

But he worked the place like a trooper. He'd get off work around five and start right in that shack. He built a new peak and left the old square false front up until he was finished. People just about died when he ripped off the old siding and showed the whole village the front he had been nailing up inside for a year. In just one day he did it, the whole place entirely transformed.

Everybody sympathized with Dickie Vreeman, because he'd come back to town to live with his two kids, even though he was still a black sheep. He'd done time for assault and battery and some other things years ago, but it took some hair to come back and live in Easton with the very people he'd wronged. And then, of course, that woman had left him with two kids. It wasn't that people didn't want to like him.

Not his uncle Ed either. Ed gave him a job right away, because Ed was a quiet man with principles, the only man I ever worked for that didn't cuss once that I remember. But the two of them were on this collision course, and I could see it coming all summer. It didn't bother Dickie, because Dickie didn't bother much with the church. That was Dickie's problem--he just didn't go to church. He refused.

Tomorrow: Dickie loves Penny

Friday, September 24, 2010


"The Sabbath is an organizing principle. It is a socially reinforced temporal structure." Them's fighting words for folks like my mother, who have powerful instincts when it comes to what we used to call "sabbath observance." The Sabbath is certainly not "temporal," not if you read the Bible.

But her son can't help feeling that it is. I'm finding Judith Schulevitz's The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order fascinating and thoughtful. By her reckoning, the Sabbath, as we know it, is, in fact, a "reinforced, temporal structure"--and she's even Jewish, not Dutch Reformed. By way of my wooden-shoed perspective, it's really more of all of that--more "reinforced" and "temporal" because the Ten Commandments, interpreted in an OT perspective, the perspective in which they were delivered, would have pointed sharply, militantly, at the seventh day, or Saturday. Not Sunday.

I know, I know--somewhere along the line (Schulevitz tells the story, by the way) Christians simply determined that we could red-pencil that commandment and edit in a new specified day, Sunday, the first day, and still live under the mandate of the divine directive. But it's impossible, really--rationally, at least--to argue that that determination wasn't made by someone outside the circle of Christ's disciples or apostles. Some other guy hundreds of years later first thought that through, some guy to whom we don't impute Holy Spirit-generated writing power, the divine vision of "scripture." It wasn't Jesus who edited the commandment; we did.

Here's Schulevitz: "Either you want to be organized in this way or your don't," she says, and I think she's right. But then she goes on, "or, if you're like me, you do and you don't." Yeah, she's speaking for me there too. "But if you're like me you can't quite forget what it feels like to have a Sabbath." I have to remind myself that her name is Schulevitz and not, well Schuller. "You can tell when it's missing, even if you don't necessarily miss it." No kidding. What I'd like to know is how on earth did this Jewish woman worm her way so successfully into my Calvinist psyche?

I don't shop on Sunday. I'm not militant about it, but I just don't head down to Wal-Mart, even though I could, and even though I have done it when my ox falls in a ditch. To get a plunger, for instance--when by chance, I met my son-in-law, who was just as guilty about being there as I was. Fortunately, I had that plunger in my hand. Can you think of a better symbol for sheer necessity?

I attend church, twice, in fact, most of the time. My old Arizona friends used to think I was in a cult.

Two weeks ago I took a long walk with my grandson on the Sabbath and the two of us missed the evening service. As righteous as such bonding moments might be, it's in me to feel a bite of guilt anyway. That's how deeply "reinforced" Sabbath observance is in me.

And I'm okay with that. I'm a good enough Calvinist to say that a little guilt can be a blessing. Besides, the next Sunday I was there at worship, twice. This week too, maybe. A little hiccup in the ritual ain't going to despoil me or violate the commandment, methinks.

I remember playing ball just a block away from home on Sabbath afternoons when I was a kid and sweating up a shirt full. What I had to do back then was stop somewhere between court and home, in a stand of trees maybe where no one could see me, sit there awhile, and dry myself off before going home, lest my sin be discovered. Of course, back then, I couldn't watch TV either--until Vince Lombardi came along and ruined the Sabbath for most of the state of Wisconsin. Today, my mother, who would have wondered where her son had gone wrong years ago, can likely list the Packers' latest draft picks. She wouldn't miss a game for anything. I'm spotten when I say it, I know, but some might even say that, come Sunday afternoon, she watches the Packers religously. Sorry, Mom.

There are lots of reasons why I find Schulevitz a joy, but finally there's this--even though she claims "the Sabbath" is a "reinforced, temporal structure," she'd just as soon live with its strictures, and even a spot or two of guilt, which I guess isn't the sole province of Calvinists. Some Jews must have it too.

I like that, living in between. I think she's right. I sound like the last of the existentialists maybe, but it seems to me that we've got to find our own way on such things. The dangers are clear: on one side, the parable of Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery," people so driven by a tradition that they're incapable of thinking about it rationally; and on the other, life without rest and peace and, most importantly, devotion.

Somewhere in between lies the path--or paths--most all of us walk, day to day.

And for the record, this Hawkeye still loves the green-and-gold. Go Pack.

See you in church.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Morning Thanks--Autumnal equinox

Last night, at about ten, we left the coffee shop and stepped out into dog days--well, nights--of August. It was awful, humidity like Houston.

An hour later an errant lightning bolt felt as if it smacked a tree in our backyard, so close it crackled before it slammed into my eardrums. We got up to check, but saw nothing. Rain came in buckets, as it has all summer long.

But today is the autumnal equinox, the herald of the end, summer's dog days supposedly behind us. We're at that point in the year when it feels like joy to get rid of summer and cicadas and a thousand other creepy crawlers, not to mention the blasted pollen (he says, reaching for the Kleenex).

"Feels like" because a nasty, still small voice is whispering the real truth. Summer's end means that out there somewhere north by northwest, winter is getting his lungs tuned for beastly days to come. There are places here in the grasslands where long lines of stones and rocks point exactly to the position of the sun rise today, primitive clocks that once upon a time reminded Native people to think about taking cover, literally, even though they too already knew, I'm sure.

I don't know--right now it feels like a joy, even though I know it's a mixed blessing and the interim, fall, is almost always a sweet segue way.

Whether we like it or not, it's here. Our crab trees are already mostly shorn, and the lawn's bedecked with the scattered early refuse of the maples and the lindens. Our own warm quilt got outed from the closet last week already. In little more than ten days, the whole Siouxland region turned yellow. Beans shrunk, corn wilted. What was emerald is now golden, almost cartoonish, really, an amazing and thorough transformation. We're in a different world.

The signs are all in place. This morning, the sun points toward winter. It's coming, like it or not.

I'm happy. Sort of.

This morning I'm thankful for the change of seasons, really. But then, I'm fickle as the Israelites. I'm sure I'll be even more thankful on the other side, come June.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Morning Thanks--sleeps

The word, from my wife just last night, is that but 13 sleeps remain between now and a few precious days in the north woods. I've got a library full of books on Native America, but I don't think I've ever seen that expression before, even though "13 sleeps" sounds vaguely Tonto-like. But then, she's as Dutch as I am--not a lick of Lakota.

Anyway, I like the sound of it, probably moreso because the thought of escaping the rat race in just 13 sleeps means there is, somewhere down the road, a light at the end of the tunnel. (I'm so busy, I don't even give a crap about mixing metaphors.)

Little more than a week ago, I printed out this picture, slid it in a little desk frame, and hauled it off to my school office, a reminder. It's got a word in it, hardly visible, really, because I'm not preacher and the moral concern isn't meant for the world, just me. It says, simply, "consider." With reference to the lilies. As in, those biblical lillies who neither toil nor spin. I know--the shot is not of lilies. Big deal. Any beauty will do. Anyway, the pic stands in my office, I think. I haven't had the time to look at it lately.

It's a reminder to slow the heck down. It's a reminder not to get wound up so blame tight that there's no me there left after the cranking. It's a reminder not to go where far too often I've gone before.

Where I am now, in fact. "Consider," it says, even though I haven't looked or listened.

Here's my only comfort right now: just 12 sleeps (it was 13 last night) separate me--separate us--from the north woods and a wonderfully long weekend away.


Just 12 sleeps. There's reason for morning thanks.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Early morning prayer

I'm an old man with a boatload of semesters behind me. I haven't handled chalk in years, so when the time comes for me to walk, I'll be more than ready to drop the last magic marker in the white board's trough. I'm even anxious.

All of that's true, but it doesn't mean I don't like my students. I do.

But this morning I'm nervous as a wet hen because I want them to show our visiting writer why I do. I want them to flash him their hungriest eyes, show him their interest in what it is he does. I want him to hear their questions about his poetry, about poetry in general, about art. I want him to see them at their very best. Shoot, I'm a matchmaker, a classroom version of e-harmony. I'd love nothing more than some good, heavy breathing. I want to make things pop.

And that's why it won't bother me to retire some day soon. I'm tired of being nervous about such things, tired of hoping my lame matchmaking lights fires, tired of hoping students come out the classroom moved, if not changed, stars in their eyes. I've spent a lot of my life as a wet hen.

But just this one more time, Lord. This morning, tonight, tomorrow. . .just let it be.

I don't want to lay an egg.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Morning Thanks--church-going

So yesterday the Obamas walked across the street to St. John's Episcopal, where they've attended worship a time or two before, I guess, as they have at other churches in the D. C. area. There are actual pictures. He was there.

Polls show that millions of true believers think him a Muslim, not a Christian. His walking through the door at St. John's, I suppose they'll say, doesn't make him or anybody else a man of God. Wolves frequently bedeck themselves in sheep's clothing, so saith holy writ. Don't be fooled--it was a photo op. They didn't take the limo because they wanted the picture in the lamestream media. The guy has two Sarah Palins to worry about now--three if you count Bachman--this new one, from Delaware, just as much a darling of the faithful. He'd better go to church.

Maybe that's how that goes.

They're not wrong, of course--just because someone darkens a church door doesn't mean his or her heart is really singing praises to Jesus. Shoot, the Bible says not even all of those who are singing praises to Jesus get through. Who can know, really?

I for one don't know how to answer that question, but neither do I have much faith in those who think they do.

Anyway, on this foggy Monday morning, I'm thankful the Obamas took a walk across the street yesterday and went to worship at St. John's. And I'm glad there's a picture, too. I'm thinking maybe it did him some good all the way around, inside out and outside in.
Certainly couldn't hurt.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Stormy Saturday

There was, for just a couple moments, this window. That was it. Maybe twenty minutes or so it stayed there, splashed with color. Not far behind me, the rain came sweeping up from the southwest.

Here's what happened. I checked, looked at the radar, where outside where the wind was blowing fiercely and flashes of lightning lit the western sky. I climbed in the car anyway, got outside of town, north, where the open skies seemed to run from the clouds, then ticked off the miles north to try to get close to where there might still be a dawn. Like I said, there was this window out front the clouds, a goodly chunk of open sky.

I'm looking for a place to shoot, somewhere on a gravel road north of George, Iowa, a place I'd likely not be able to find back right now, even if I'd look hard. When it comes, the dawn I mean--when the colors seem most resplendent--I can't hunt any longer. I'm on a bridge over a creek, and I'm out of the car with the camera.

It's dark, so there's not much to see or shoot but this wild window of light out east, a stretched canvas smeared with a hundred colors that keeps shifting. So what I've got here is a ton of shots of the very same sky. Bright light never dawned. Soon enough clouds covered the sky, just marched in and took over.

But for a moment at least, that shrinking patch of open prairie sky was the whole story.

And it was a good one.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Morning Thanks--my first bite

I descend the stairs slowly, in the darkness, ever conscious of a cat who attacks out of nowhere and regularly takes some looney, clawless swipes at my ankles. I angle between the rooms, dodge the dining room table and chairs, and, hands on the doorframes, stumble into the kitchen, where immediately I reach around the corner for the basket beneath the cupboard, a blessed basket full of apples.

The whole thing isn't pretty. I have no hair, so I have no problems with bedhead, but just about every morning what's inside my mouth is some rarely traveled Siouxland country road.

Let me say it unequivocally: there's nothing quite like that noisy, luscious first bite into an apple's tarty sumptuousness to remind those dusty taste buds and a doleful weary soul of the promise of yet another dawn. I swear--one bite and things light up. Not all apples are not created equal of course, and I've got my favorites; but few blessings offer such a joyous morning glow as first bite of a cold, crisp apple.

I'm in my schivees, of course. Eve wasn't. It would take Victoria's Secret a day or two to come up with those flashy new leafy thongs. And there was that sweet-talking serpent pirouetting in front of her, too. All I've got is a selfish cat who is himself a victim of the fall; he's not thinking of despoiling humanity, just getting his dish filled.

But I'm too thoroughly soaked in biblical stories not think that, sweet as that apple is, my first bite isn't somehow, yes, sinful. Woe is me.

No matter. Some mornings, I swear, I've got more sympathy than I should for our first lady.

I bet it was a honeycrisp. Had to be.

My word--the terrors of Calvinism.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Morning Thanks--the Puritans

Just exactly what Mencken said, I suppose, doesn't matter because his intent was clear--he wanted to besmirch the reputation of both those Calvinist pilgrims and puritans, those who, in many ways, were the founders of this nation. My favorite version of his famous indictment is this one: "Puritanism is the fear that someone, somewhere, might be having a good time."

Without a doubt, it catches something of terrifying sobriety of a man like Austin Dickinson, Emily's deadly serious brother, who, like his father, likely never told a joke. And yet, this super sober man had sufficient temerity to carry on an extra-marital affair for years, using his sister's house as a love nest, while attending church--well, religiously.

But Mencken meant that cutting definition to describe the uptight gang of Massachusetts pioneers who'd put up a church no more than an hour after putting up an outhouse, a people whose precious Christian faith was, in fact, the most significant cause for their being here--the wilds of North America--in the first place.

Today, the Writer's Almanac claims, is the anniversary of their departure from ye olde country, the day William Bradford and his Brownists climbed aboard the Mayflower for a 65-day trip to the other side of the Atlantic, neither a pleasure cruise, nor a Love Boat.

We're stuck with them, as Mencken's quote suggests. They're there in our history--for loud mouths like Mencken to ridicule, for true believers like Pat Robertson to deify. They're indelible in our history, in great part, because they did what hadn't been done: they created a society and a culture, even a nation. Right there at our inception, for better or for worse, stands a stiff-collared Calvinism as undeniable as it is intractible.

They were much greater than Mencken would have us believe, and I, for one, am thankful that this nation has folks like Bradford and Winthrop in its museums, their words in its history. We'd be a wholly different nation if England had merely used the new world as a garbage dump. Here's something people don't talk much about: in 1640, among the pilgrims and puritans of New England there were more educated folks per capita than there was in London. They were, after all, "People of the Book."

Intolerant?--yes. Self-righteous?--don't I wish it weren't so. Dour?--probably. Deadly serious?--maybe even to a fault. And if I were Native American, I likely wouldn't be saying what I am right now, because without a doubt the saints were sinners.

But they liked their beer. And they dug in, and they stayed; they created a culture, when many others palefaces did not. They believed, in a sometimes too bellicose way, in their God and his call and their mission.

To talk about this nation being somehow Christian is not only silly but dangerous. But that doesn't mean that I can't rejoice and give thanks this morning for a chapter of American history that doesn't get good press.

Half their folks died in their first Massachusetts winter, and it's arguable that they wouldn't have made it all without the gracious help of what they called "savages."

For all of that and despite all their excesses and their failures, this morning, just thinking of them leaving so much that was precious and dear behind as they set sail, I'm thankful for their deep and abiding faith and the gift that faith has been to the culture of which I am a part.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Tea Time

Anyone who thinks that the lights are going out in this great land, that democracy is dying, that people are souring on the glories of freedom has only to cast an eye last night's primary elections to see they're flat out wrong. Regardless of what you think of Tea Party politics, it's hot, baby--hot, hot, hot. Every last Washington insider had better be girding up the loins for what's to come, for if what's happened in these off-calendar primary contests is any indication of what's to come, incumbancy is going to suffer a bloodbath.

Things are boiling, heated up by virulent anti-Obamaism, by hard economic times, and by an interesting flavor of nativism--good old flag-waving, down-on-your-knees patriotism. The queen of the festival is an half-term governor of Alaska who winks and nods and tweets. Whether or not Sarah Palin runs for President in 2012 has yet to be determined--stay tuned, but that she wield clout beyond anyone in the Republican world is, after last night, without question.

Depending on your point of view, the Republican party is either killing itself or tougher than it ever was. Whether the Tea Party juggernaut is beefy enough to take over the land remains to be seen. Could Ms. Palin become President Palin seemed a dopey question ever since Obama's victory, but on this morning-after all bets are off. In last night's Republican primaries, if you weren't Tea Party, you weren't much.

If the economy stays in the tank, who knows what might happen, and nobody predicts a turn around in joblessness. There's enough mad-as-hell folks to fuel a voting-box revolution, especially if those who oppose it stay home on election day. We're in a whole new age here, and no one really knows whether this bellicose Tea Party sentiment is as transient as the thunderstorm blasting away right now outside my window.

It's a joy to some, a nightmare to others.

But whoever said that democracy was easy? Somewhere hereabouts, I think I've still got a Perot pin.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

A parable

It's almost impossible to believe, but it took me almost forty years of teaching to finally bring a class to Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery," arguably the most famous short story of all time. A few things by Poe come close--"The Tell-Tale Heart" maybe. Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown" is right up there too, methinks; but in terms of real market share, no other story in the American canon at least comes close to "The Lottery."

And it's not even a story. It really has no conflict. The single citizen of the burg who fights the system is the woman who grabs the wrong slip of paper. No one else minds the horror. It's all matter-of-fact. What we witness in that silly story--and it is silly, really--is a savage ritual undertaken for no good reason by neanderthals.

It's not particularly surprising that, reportedly, Shirley Jackson was a fire-breathing dragon to most of North Bennington, Vermont, the town where she and her family lived, a woman who "dedicated herself to rejecting her mother's sense of propriety, drank and smoked and fed to buttery excess — directly to blame for her and her husband's early deaths — dabbled in magic and voodoo, and interfered loudly when she thought the provincial Vermont schools were doing an injustice to her talented children. This was the Shirley Jackson that the town feared, resented and, depending on whose version you believe, occasionally persecuted." All this according to a rather sympathetic review of her work, in fact.

But the story has scratched its way to the top from whatever measure of sheer vindictiveness Ms. Jackson may have felt toward North Bennington. If she was out simply to lambast smalltown life, "The Lottery," the story, would be as dead as almost anything by Sinclair Lewis. The ritualized barbarism of "The Lottery" has, oddly enough, granted Ms. Jackson's story a rarified life of its own.

And I don't know why really. It's an utterly implausible story that somehow feels plausible, at least plausible enough to be haunting. The emotionlessness of the people chills the soul--once you see those little kids picking up stones in what seems full-bore childhood innocence, something seamy and unearthly begins a slow climb up your rigid spine. It's all so orderly, so understandable, in a way.

"The Lottery" isn't made for English teachers as much as it is for sociology profs and political science types. It's a fable, a parable, its own kind of earthly story with a hellish meaning.

But it wouldn't have climbed to the position it has in literature and life if somehow its bizarre horrors didn't ring true, didn't harmonize with something we feel in us and in our world.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Morning Thanks--a proper Sabbath

I read Gilead, Marilyn Robinson's wonderful novel, before it grabbed the 2005 Pulitzer, and honestly, back then I thought it was, without question, a wonderful novel, a terrific novel, one of the finest novels I'd ever read. I didn't know anyone else would.

Gilead put me in mind of Huck Finn because both have such original American voices, voices so real and human that it's impossible to believe that the narrator, John Ames, like Huck was, but the creature of another human being's imagination. Both novels make you want to hunt up grave sites because they simply had to be real.

Ms. Robinson's theology had been fairly well-established by the time Gilead came out--she may well be the most renowned Calvinist of our era, even though she isn't, by profession, a theologian. John Ames is a country parson, an Iowan, whose character is imbued by his profession of faith, even though he is--as he knows well himself and willingly admits--no saint.

I loved the novel. Or did I say that already?

But yesterday, Sunday, I thought of another reason. Gilead is an epistolary novel, a long letter written by the aging--and dying--clergyman to his son, who is still very much a boy. There's just so much his father wants to tell him, and he knows he won't be around forever so he writes a long letter to let his own son know who what he thinks needs to be said.

We're all dying, of course, so it's silly for me to say I'm not, but, as of today, I've not been stricken, like the Reverend Ames, with any terminal disease other than the usual failures of flesh we're all heir to.

Still, yesterday, Sunday, I felt like John Ames when I took my grandson, my oldest grandson, out for a walk in Oak Grove, a shady, hilly spot above the banks of the Big Sioux River. Just the two of us. In the imprints and shadows the sun leaves between the trees, I tried to show him what his grandpa thinks is pretty. I tried to tell him show him how breath-taking it is to walk along a ridge where you can see ten miles in every direction. We talked about the Indians who used to live here--and the first white folks, about sod houses and teepees. We stopped at the first white settlement, where I lifted him up so he could see in the window the old replica jail.

I'm a teacher. I know how to talk, and wanted badly to jabber, to lecture. But he's a kid, a second grader, and I could tell he didn't always want to hear the old man's rambling. I wanted to tell him stuff, wanted him to remember, wanted him to know and see and feel. Me and John Ames, we both wanted to leave a print on a kid's soul.

By the time we left he was pooped, asked me if he minded if he took a nap in the car on the half-hour ride home. But he didn't sleep, just kept asking how long it was going to be before he got home.

Me and John Ames--we tried. Maybe too hard.

But this morning, I can't help but smile about myself, an old man trying his best to pass along some wisdom and hoping that on one long walk with his grandson, he was awake, fully alive, not napping.

But then, even if he was, it was a gorgeous afternoon and what I think I may call a proper Sabbath.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Morning Thanks--love

I'm probably incurably sexist, but it's a component part, factory-installed. I'm male.

I say that because what happened to me yesterday can only happen when the kid sitting beside me is female. Really, I don't know that it's ever happened with a guy in my office, but what went on yesterday has happened before, but only with women.

This particular female has always been the kind of independent woman who'd come in to cuss and scream about how the entire college was nothing more than a dopey Dating Game. More than once, I've heard her swear off relationships, on a quest instead for a career. She would not be bothered by junior-high goings on, she'd say, and, what's more, children were decidely out of the question anyway. No, no, no, she said. It's not for me. She wanted go international. She wanted to see the world, maybe even change it.

Such manifestoes have been aired before in the privacy of my office, and when they were, some were almost as defiantly stated. That's what I told her. Methinks the lady doth protest too much, I said, but she swore off my doubts. "All hims, every last one?" I said. No time, no interest--nope.

Yesterday she sallied in. "I've got something to show you," she told me. Sober as a preacher, she kicked me out of my own chair, comandeered the computer, went on-line--something on Facebook, I'm sure--called up a screen-sized photo, then turned to me and nodded at what was there in front of her.

A guy. And her. The two of them. Arms conspicuously entwined.

Then, she looked at me, still cold stone sober.

Good night, another of the mighty has fallen, the rock melted away or crumbled into the sea. All that angry rhetoric so much freakin' hot air.

But there she sat, didn't say a thing, not a thing. She couldn't--she'd just marched in, pulled up that pic, looked at it and then me, tried her dangdest not to grin, and then finally lost that battle too, the fight something in her waged against the smile that rose from all those sweet vibes she'd been emitting from the moment she stepped in.

"Good night," I said to her, "the girl is in love."

Big time.

In a couple years I'll blow this pop stand. Won't be long and I'll be out of the classroom--and believe me, that's just fine.

But one thing I'll miss is those few darling moments like yesterday, when kids you like, kids who said they knew better, kids who reviled their lovesick classmates for herding, like lemmings, to the altar--when those kids finally go boom, down for the count. That's is a real joy.

That I'll miss.

For her, this morning, I'm thankful. And for the sweet gift her own irrepressive joy left behind in the office just for me.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Getting rich

A tree is the perfect foil to gravity; gravity and its insidious ability to make that sweet pull downward at the end of the day seem like desire.

Fruit falls from the branch, as do leaves, so we know at least that a tree too is subject to the law.

But with all its force and strength a tree goes unequivocally in two directions at once. Poised at ground level, it finds the air above free and unexplored and the earth liquid with possibility. The greater the pressure gravity exerts upon it, the stronger and more obstinate it grows. A tree refuses any single, overweaning influence.

While living in complete compliance.

As one who is called both to the centre of the earth and to the sun.

All of that isn't much more than an observation, sweet one, a thoughtful one, but not much more, really. And yet, it sticks to me, heart and soul. The image is something I can't get out of my vision.

From a business point of view, it really has no market value. It can't employ anyone; I could put it on a t-shirt and try to sell it, but it's probably too long. I can't affix my having read it to my resume; nobody would hire me because I like it. I can't sell it, really. It's only a loving observation about trees, but it's one that I can't quite shake because, in some odd sense, this morning I'll look out at the trees on my yard in a way that's slightly different; I'll see them as creatures, like me, growing between time and eternity--look at that last line.

It's from Naked Trees, a series of prose poems by John Terpstra. He wrote it, I read it, and, my guess is, it isn't doing either of us any good financially.

But I feel rich, if I use rich as a metaphor. I'm richer for having read it. Thoreau might say that my bank account has grown, my portfolio is stronger because more diverse, and, I'm considerably better off if I see trees all around me as co-habitors God's own blessed world.

It's that kind of wealth of soul that attracts me to literature and has for more than 40 years. Observations, reflections, stories and poems--I'm vastly better off having read them, having found myself in them, having discovered my place. When I bike to school past those huge old lindens north of the house this morning, I'll feel just a little more well-heeled.

And now the question is, when I get to campus, can I sell that to students?

John Terpstra, a fine poet and non-fiction writer, will be visiting those very students in a week or so, and I've created a blog with all kinds of similar Terpstra reflections and observations, which you can sample, freely, simply by going Who knows, maybe you'll get rich. Just click on the the pic to the right.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010


Not long ago, a student came in and asked if I'd read his novel. I think of myself as a good teacher mostly, but such requests don't rank high on my to-do list. It's wonderful when a kid actually writes an entire novel, but I can guess what I'd think about what's on his papers long before I'd put in the hours required.

I tried to dodge. "What's it about?" I asked him, and he gave me a list of America's darkest, most inky sins and how they were destroying us all. His novel would bring people back to the Lord, he said. End-of-the-world stuff, apocalyptic.

That fact didn't make me any more favorably inclined.

And then he said, "God told me to write it."


Playing the God card simply ends conversation. There wasn't a thing I could say, really, but consider him more than a little shaky. But then, back there in B. C. somewhere, I'm guessing the temple's elite thought Samuel a nut case too. I'm just enough of a Christian not to guffaw openly when someone says God's voice is their own private GPS. After all, there's always a chance. He's done it before.

So how about the Reverend Terry Jones, Gainesville, Florida, pastor of a 50-person flock at the Dove Outreach Center (I'm not making that up), who, along with his disciples plans to go ahead and torch the Koran come 9/11 and thereby teach those danged heathen muslims the whole gospel truth? He takes his orders from the God of heaven and earth, who must have told him a good old-fashioned book burning is just what He needs to bring the infidels to their senses.

Yesterday, the right's most decorated saint, General David Patraeus, as much as begged Pastor Jones to put his Bic aside, but that request didn't stop the starry-eyed preacher and his disciples from chugging along on their planning, although, he said, now they're praying about it. Jones told Chris Matthews that even if his own political hero, George W. Bush, were to ask him to cease and desist, he wouldn't because the Lord is his own private field general.

Look, I doubt God told him to burn Korans. I doubt whatever voice he claims to have heard from the clouds or pews or the prayer chapel. But I really do hope that the God I worship will speak to this bonzo in one of those prayers he says he's offering up right now, seeking his will. I hope that the Creator of heaven and earth will tell him in no uncertain terms that what he's doing is perfectly legal but monumentally stupid and a forthright denial of the gospel's very heart and soul, which is love. At least that's what my God tells me.

Count me among the lost, but I think we need to take cover when people think they're some shirttail relation to John the Baptist. Most all of us, once in awhile, hear voices. Only an odd few are goofy enough to think it's Jehovah God.

Thank goodness.

Tell him, Lord. Let him know that he's not only mad, but dead wrong, this fool.

Good American soldiers will die, Petraeus says. No matter, says the Reverend Terry Jones. I got to listen to God.

Lord, help us all.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Morning Thanks--old friends, good lessons

Once upon a time, at some kind of informal get-together at which the wine flowed maybe just a bit too freely, my wife picked me up by the collar and dragged me home because the shouting match going on in the room had flamed into the out-of-control zone. It got loud--really loud. So did I. I'll never forget her demanding we leave.

To this day, I'd say it was an argument, not a fight. To this day, she'd roll her eyes.

I haven't a clue what a bunch of profs were fighting about that night years ago, but I know--I remember well--who was fighting with whom. It was me and him, that muscle-bound theology prof who loved nothing better than to fan flames he'd almost always start himself, maybe with a match, maybe with a Bic, maybe with a blow torch. He loved to provoke, loved a fight.

He was a masterful teacher who believed, I think, that every student should relive his own tortured boyhood past, so, often enough, he bullied 'em and beat on 'em unmercifully. Yet, he did it in a way that made them understand that he was good--at teaching. I know someone who flunked his class and still admits today--years later--that the guy's class was the best one he took that year at college.

He says, today, he's mellowed, and he has. He says, today, that he doesn't deliberately poke his finger in people's eyes. He says, today, he sidesteps fights instead of looking for 'em. He says, today, that after 15 years he never yet got in hot water with his new administration.

Human beings can change, of course. Not to believe that is to sentence oneself to a kind of spiritual death. We don't have to be who we've always been. Unlike leopards, we can change our spots.

All of that being said, he's still no marshmellow. Maybe there are no fists, but he's not put away that pointer finger. Nope.

Once upon a time, years ago, when the two of us were painting a house, he told me something I've never, ever forgotten, even probably used more than once in the nearly 1000 posts on this blog. "The story of the Bible is really quite simple," he said, paint brush in hand. "And it goes like this. We keep screwing up, and he keeps taking us back."

I wouldn't doubt for a minute that the theology prof learned that truth the hard way, time and time again.

This morning I'm thankful for such great lessons.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Morning Thanks: Moving the table

He wasn't sly about it. He didn't do it when no one was looking. He stood up there in front of the church, right there behind the communion table, looked out at a full sanctuary, and shook his head. "I always get the feeling I'm speaking to only half the church," he said, annoyed. "Would someone come up here and help me move the table?"

Folks who choose to attend worship services these days are mostly agreeable; within seconds he had help. Together, the pastor and this manservant moved the communion table out front of the pulpit, where it took a new place, centerstage.

I couldn't help chuckling. On a whim, he scrambled the imagery and effectively rewrote the whole Reformation--that's what I was thinking. By giving the sacrament centerstage, he hid the pulpit, putting it in a symbolic place it hadn't been for 500 years, a time when my own nameless ancestors were Nederlandic Catholics, not Protestants. The Catholics are sacramentalists; Dutch Calvinists are children of the Reformation.

Not yesterday.

Like I said, I chuckled. And couldn't help wonder if anyone else in the entire congregation noticed how my good friend and beloved pastor had so utterly blasphemed the whole Reformation. The Lord's Supper went on meaningfully, marred only by the fact that the elders had to scramble for more wine to serve the overflow crowd. Which was nice.

All of which made me think about ritual and symbol, and whether anyone knows or anyone cares about such things as pulpit furniture symbolism these days. Probably not. The moment he moved the table, I felt Zwingli turn in his grave. But how many of us in that church had a clue that the arrangement of furniture--pulpit in the middle, communion table on one side, baptismal font on the other--has actual significance?

Very, very few, I'd guess. Very, very few. And that's just fine. Every soul there understood that the move was, in fact, symbolic: the pastor wanted to stand at the middle of congregational attention; but few recognized that John Knox would thought it sacrelige.

Is that good or bad? Who cares anyway? History is bunk. Besides, all the headlines these days goes to the "Emergent Church," whose constitution begins and ends with "do your thing," drawing on spiritual traditions from around the world in an effort to be, what?--relevant, I suppose, to not be stuck in the woody, impenetrable past.

Besides, if I were to leave the denomination into which I was born, I'd probably move to something in the "high church" market, where the sacraments are more central to worship. Look, I thought what our pastor did was just fine. Besides, it's almost impossible to argue that the sermon--one guy speaking to a crowd--isn't flailing away trying to keep its head above the water.

I'm reading a book titled The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time, by Judith Schulevitz, who is Jewish. Very much so. I'm not. No matter. It's a wonderful book because it talks about a specific ritual once immensely close to the hearts and minds of my people--the Sabbath--and it does so in a way that makes the whole idea vastly more appealing.

But when the pastor moved the communion table yesterday, put it right at the heart of things, I couldn't help think of Schulevitz, because she says that rituals like the Sabbath "make sense to Jews because being members of their community means being committed to making sense of them."

There's an awkward circularity to that argument, but that doesn't mean it isn't interesting--and, even agreeable. My mother-in-law was always happy to say that her own mother fabad her the use of scissors on Sunday, an edict I thought hilarious--and, in effect, so did she.

Until you try to understand. Until you determine where such a silly ban may have originated. When you do, it makes some sense. Not enough for me to lock it up on Sunday; after all, I use scissors on the Sabbath, my kids use scissors on the Sabbath--that's not the point. The point is understanding why. And what Ms. Schulevitz claims is that sometimes understanding why scissors are Sabbath contraband--or why the furniture is arranged the way it is in at least some Protestant churches--is the task specifically of those who are already part of that particular faith tradition. It's taken me most of my life to understand some things about basic Calvinism, most of my life--and neither that quest nor my life are over quite yet.

And here's something else--the idea that those who believe something should be committed to understanding as much as they can about it is, by my estimation profoundly sweet and profoundly humble. The "system" doesn't exist for my benefit; I benefit the system by my own desire to serve it. That strikes me as profoundly counter-cultural. I like that.

Schulevitz says if we do work at understanding ritual and symbol in faith--we meaning Jewish folks, but not just Jewish folks--we'll somehow find living with the burden of ritual (and ritual can be immensely burdensome) vastly more doable.

I think she's right on that score too.

For the record, by the time of the evening service the communion table was moved back to the place it's been for 500 years.

And all's well. Zwingli's fast asleep.

And I'm thankful for the opportunity this morning to think, to remember. . .and to chuckle a little.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Blue Mound, Early Evening

“There is not a tree or bush to be seen. The eye may range east and west to a boundless extent over a surface covered with grass. The grass is green at one’s feet but changes to blue in thedistance like athe blue and vastness of the ocean. Man feels here, the thrilling sensation of unlimited freedom.”

In 1836, the artist George Catlin, on his way to Pipestone quarry, looked around the vast prairie and the mirroring sky, and jotted down those words in his diary. Catlin is famous for his portraits of Native Americans, not so much for his American landscapes; but perhaps he knew better. You stand up high on a place like southwest Minnesota's Blue Mound, and you know very well that no camera in the world is going to render what it is you see all around because so much of it seems a broad yawning nothing. But if you stand up there for any time at all, it can be remarkable how satifactorily the soul abides exactly there, where there is nothing, because sometimes where there is nothing, there is eternity.

Blue Mound is a wonderful place, almost an ancient battlefield strewn with odd, pinkish Sioux quartzite in all kinds of sizes, even boulders formed, or so geologists say, from the sand of sentiment left behind by really ancient streams.

I took a camera, and when I knew neither I nor it was really catching the wild expanse around us, I snuck up on wild flowers because it's far easier for them to fill a frame. But it was the vastness around us last night that prompted the reminder of the meager stretch of our own shadows--always, I think, a heartfelt lesson.

Friday, September 03, 2010


I’ve called the lawyers. A friend of mine—female--sent me the pic. Asked if it was me. She knows better.

Like I said, the lawyers swear they’re on it. Digital photography being what it is, one can’t do enough these days to protect one’s privacy. It’s a species of identity theft, really, a phony compilation like this; and the truth is, it gambles wickedly, dangerously. For pity’s sake I’m a prof at a Christian college. Phony photo appears somewhere, and just like that some parents want my scalp. There goes the reputation. “Reputation, reputation, reputation!” says Cassio in Othello. “O, I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial.”

Yeah, bestial. Couldn’t have said it better.

Stupid Photoshop.

Okay, dang it—I’ll grant that the mug looks embarrassingly familiar, and the shoulders are about right. And the glasses. And the shiny pate.

Okay, okay, but it isn't me. I swear.

You’re thinking the guy doth protest too much, but I’m not.


I’ll admit this much: had I actually been on the bike trail that day —and it isn’t the Great Plains either, as you can see by all the trees—had I been out there and had I met this young lady taking her perfectly pastoral morning constitutional, I may well have worn the same kind of s___-eatin’ grin this guy is once I'd pedaled past her. I’m old, but I’m still human. I’ll admit that much. Okay, you probably could still pull that very smile out of my closet.

Even looks like my bike. Okay, okay—even I think he looks like me.

But check the legs. If my ankles were as thin as this gent’s, I could have been a hundred times’ better athlete. Not even when I was fifteen did I have legs like that. The arms look like they could be mine, and I’ll admit to a owning a black t-shirt or two, but in my life I never, ever took a step with those legs beneath me.

Shoot, ask my wife.

No, don’t.

The lawyers are on it, I tell you.

Still, I got to admit that some days do start better than others. That’s certainly true. I’ll go that far.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Morning Thanks--a good day

First, the bad news. Twice in the opening week of classes the English Department hosted gatherings meant to acquaint students--our students, those legendary English majors Garrison Keillor has made into a genre of their own--with who we were and what they are. Twice, only one student showed up. I hope the provost doesn't read this or he'll yank a position. We didn't do well for majors this year, and it's not a hiccup. The trajectory in the last few years is as obvious as it is ominous.

And then there's this. We offered a really good lit conference to our students--almost a free pass to St. Paul for a day-long confab that includes Billy Collins, former poet laureate and maybe America's most well-known poet. One day. Saturday. We pay transportation and might even throw in a meal or two. "We'll have a great time"--that's what I wrote in an e-mail, "but you've got to sign up soon 'cause you've got to register."

No takers. No not one. Not one student wants to come along.

Up on the wall of my office, my grandfather's high school diploma hangs, a massive thing, the size of a small flag, circa 1898, Parkersburg, Iowa. Pencilled into it is a record of how much time he spent in the classes he took along the way, as in "Mental Arithmatic--36 wks."

Half of what's listed, a standard classical education, doesn't exist today: "Cicero--18 wks, Latin Grammer--36 wks." I keep that diploma up there to honor my grandfather, and to remind me that, in education as in life, all things must pass. Perhaps the golden age of English majors is behind us.

Pardon me while I reach for the Kleenex.

If I were in engineering or pre-med, I suppose I'd be energized by the importance of preparing my students for what they were going to do for the rest of their lives, to prepare them for admission to an honorable job, to make sure they were ready for what they're going to face once they get to the office or lab.

But I teach in the humanities, where there are no labs. I teach stories and poems that shape lives in a fashion that starts to feel almost religious--spiritual surely. I teach courses in which my real success can't be measured all that easily because most likely I'll never see it. Much of my teaching concerns itself not with how to do something, but how to be. My success happens when all of a kid decides the world is too much with him, that sorrows come not as spies but in batallions, that sometimes we all wish we could return to open fields and games with our little sisters. I win when my students read the psalms and find themselves right there in the middle of King David's grief and wonder and exultation. I teach something called "felt life," a commodity you can't buy or sell.

Oh, we'll always be needed as technicians, making sure the students know the difference between commas and semi-colons; even in the finest crystal ball there'll always be English teachers. I teach my students how to write, after all. That's one precious commodity.

Anyway, despite all that, despite the darkness outside my window this morning, yesterday I taught three classes and they all went very, very well. Things look good for me in the classroom this semester. Students are responsive and energized, even in the big required class, not an English major in sight.

But despite the darkness, despite the omninous future, hope flings itself out toward the start of another day.

Here's this morning's joy: I'm only starting out and I could be wrong, failure is always a possibility; but the truth is that by any measure I had a good day, a very good day, and for that, good Lord, this dark early morning, I'm thankful.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Morning Prayer--a poem

The speaker in this morning's poem from Writer's Almanac is kind of a scold--maybe that's why I like him, or her. Once he or she identifies himself or herself, he seems more than ready to stand up and hold forth in manner of the prophet Jeremiah.

That tone of voice is in me too as I start the year with another gang of kids who are all, so noticeably, yet another year younger. I feel more and more, well, grandfatherly, more and more as if I ought to just shut the notes and deliver a sermon about what old men know and young kids sure as heck don't. This morning's poem makes me want to raise a pointer and preach. Listen.

Drugstore by Carl Dennis

Don't be ashamed that your parents
Didn't happen to meet at an art exhibit
Or at a protest against a foreign policy
Based on fear of negotiation,
But in an aisle of a discount drugstore,
Near the antihistamine section,
Seeking relief from the common cold.

See what I mean? He uses the command form, in the negative too. Don't do this, don't do that. Don't be thinking you somehow lack privilege or stature or romance, he says. Just don't, because you ought to be proud. . . Listen.

You ought to be proud that even there,
Amid coughs and sneezes,
They were able to peer beneath
The veil of pointless happenstance.

Same voice. You ought to be taken with the fact that your folks could climb above their silly serendipity and see that somehow the man or woman they'd somehow run into with the cough syrup was, potentially at least, some thing much bigger and better than sore throat relief.

Here is someone, each thought,
Able to laugh at the indignities
That flesh is heir to. Here
Is a person one might care about.
Not love at first sight, but the will
To be ready to endorse the feeling
Should it arise.

I really should run this poem off and show it to my students. Don't know if they'd get it, but it would be good for them. Don't be disregarding who you are or what you come from because the fact is that somebody back there was alive and kicking and paying attention, and that's a good thing because. . .

Had they waited
For settings more promising,
You wouldn't be here,
Wishing things were different.

Yeah. Take that, kids. This little verse has the voice of a Calvinist. Quitjerbitchin'.

Why not delight at how young they were
When they made the most of their chances,
How young still, a little later,
When they bought a double plot
At the cemetery.

Ouch. I'm 62 and we haven't made such plans.

Look at you,
Twice as old now as they were
When they made arrangements,
And still you're thinking of moving on,
Of finding a town with a climate
Friendlier to your many talents.

Maybe I better cool it on the retirement plans.

Don't be ashamed of the homely thought
That whatever you might do elsewhere,
In the time remaining, you might do here
If you can resolve, at last, to pay attention.

I don't know that my students would get it, but, dear Lord, I do. Think lillies. Pay attention.

I believe, Lord--help thou my unbelief.