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.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Saturday Morning Catch--October's End

There's just enough color out and about on this final October Saturday to create an occasional blush on the otherwise tawny fields. The corn is coming out, the beans long gone, the fields--many of them at least--buck naked.

But the sun came up in a robe of glory this morning, opened up right over the Big Bend of the Big Sioux and turned the swirling, swollen river bright gold. When I got back in the car and turned west, the light for quite some time seemed really vivid, enough at least to pull up whatever color was left from miles of dusty country. Here and there, broad alfalfa fields laid out a carpet of emerald that seemed unseasonally deep and rich--maybe it was all the sweet October weather we've been given. And once in awhile some hardwoods stood around like smudges of summer, somewhat uptight about shedding bright leaves.

It was a very beautiful morning, a gracious and glorious day.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Getting an education

It's not hard for me to believe that it was already forty years ago because what happened way back then doesn't seem at all like yesterday to me, more like a whole different lifetime. In a way, it was. And in another way, it wasn't.

That I got an education in college isn't news. That much of that learning came outside the classroom isn't news either--same is true, I'm sure, for many. But that some of what I consider to be the most fundamental lessons of my college years happened in opposition to the classroom, and in opposition to the ethos of the institution I attended--the very institution I've served now for thirty-plus years--is something I often think about but only rarely say.

But I said it last week, said it to one of my students who was writing an investigative journalism piece on campus housing. She'd followed up the complaints of some students and gone far, far beyond the limits most campus news reporters ever, ever go in research and sheer hard work; she'd done a terrific job, and I knew--as did she--that she'd stumbled into the neighborhood of trouble, trouble with the administration.

What I told her then was that when I was her age, exactly forty years ago, I caught all kinds of grief and anger because, in the school paper, I took a point of view that didn't register as righteous with the administration . Most students didn't buy my opinion either, and the administration wasn't pleased because they knew that kind of ink abroad--anti-Vietnam war views--would lead to complaints from a constituency unwavering, back then, in its support of the policies of Richard Nixon.

They didn't want me saying what I did in the campus newspaper because it would reflect badly on the institution. I don't doubt for a moment that it did. But I said them anyway.

I happen to be one of those people who believe in a free press. Calvinist that I am, I also believe that power corrupts, and that one of the great blessings of this culture is the opportunity all of us have to express our ideas and pursue stories even when those stores lead to places where those in power would rather not have us go. Without a free press, we'd live in a whole different world.

So I told my student something that I've believed throughout my life, throughout a writing life that spans all of those thirty years and more. I told her that one of the finest lessons I ever learned forty years ago, when I was here at the same college she attends, is something I was taught from people who let me know that they hated what I wrote.

From them, I came to understand that words mean something. In all those years since, I don't think I would ever have written a single story or essay if I hadn't learned that lesson from the resentment and criticism she's now taking. Even today, right at this moment, I honestly believe that these words I'm writing have power, and that's something I learned, firsthand, forty years ago.

Somewhere along the line, I'm sure some teacher of mine held forth on the beauty and bounty of the free press. I probably wrote down some notes on a lined tablet that's long gone. But I never learned that lesson as thoroughly as I did when I took the heat.

This morning, the teacher in me is both royally angry and smilingly content, angry especially at those who browbeat a kid for writing a story they don't like.

But then, another part of me is smiling because I couldn't have taught that student a lesson as successfully as those who are angry already have. It's from them--from their criticism, from their intimidation--that she's learning what I did, that words have power, that if you want to write, the heat sometimes simply comes with the territory.

That's an education.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

What I learned from Stanley Hauerwas, and others--many, many others

If you think much about it, at one time or another there are probably about a thousand reasons to be depressed. I don't mean real "depression," I just mean to be blue or gray or some other bland earth tone, to feel beat up or run down or tossed out. Things fall apart. They do. And while self-pity is always unbecoming, sometimes there are good reasons for feeling that the storms outside don't rank--no matter how ugly--with what's coming down within.

Maybe that's why Stanley Hauerwas's essay in First Things hit me the way it did when a friend sent it a couple nights ago. It's addressed--of all things--to an 18-year-old college student. That's not me. The finish line of more than forty years of college life isn't all that far down the road for me, most of those years, of course, on the other side of the desk or podium or powerpoint. At 18, I actually had hair.

Hauerwas quotes Robert Louis Wilkin when he begins:

The Christian religion is inescapably ritualistic (one is received into the
Church by a solemn washing with water), uncompromisingly moral (‘be ye perfect
as your Father in heaven is perfect,’ said Jesus), and unapologetically
intellectual (be ready to give a ‘reason for the hope that is in you,’ in the
words of 1 Peter).

What came up off the page was the first of those definitions: "inescapably ritualistic." What Hauerwas writes is an advice column, really, words of wisdom to some kid starting college. "Be faithful in worship," he says. "In America, going to college is one of those heavily mythologized events that everybody tells you will 'change your life,' which is probably at least half true. So don’t be foolish and imagine that you can take a vacation from church."

Or chapel.

Confession: I'm not all that faithful. Spiritual discipline-wise, I'm sadly out of shape. So yesterday I listened to Hauerwas as if I were 19. I went off to chapel, depressed--not clinically depressed, but lugging along enough murderous self-pity to make me miserable. I went because he's right, and I've known it forever, it seems; in this life, you've simply got to practice what you preach.

And I'm not hot on praise-and-worship music, but the sweet musical ensemble that offers us our fare is good and talented and pleasing. It wasn't the first number, wasn't the second either, as I remember. It was the last one: "The Love of God," an old favorite not in the least unfamiliar.

Why is it the great lessons in life are hardly ever all that new? Know what I mean? I could croon most of that old hymn right now, no lyrics in front of me. I didn't need Hauerwas to tell me that going to worship, even when it doesn't ring bells in your soul is good for you, like cod liver oil, holy cod liver oil. I know all of that. I'm ready to retire, for pete's sake. I've written devotional books most of my life, got another one coming soon to bookstores near you. I know the frickin' answers. I just don't learn 'em. Does that make sense?

Anyway, here's what did me in: second verse of "The Love of God," lyrics I didn't know. They're not in my memory.

Could we with ink the ocean fill
And were the skies of parchment made
Were every stalk on earth a quill
And every man a scribe by trade. . .

I'm sitting there upstairs in the college chapel, telling myself I know where this poem is going. It's plain-and-simple love poetry of the divine genre, and what characterizes all love poetry is big-time overstatement--'till all the seas run dry, my dear. . ." I know what's going to happen with all this ink and all this writing and all these books. I know.

No matter. I tell myself that I can't help believe an entire chapel full of kids and profs and staff know the half of what I know because this hymn, this day, is meant directly and specifically for me, as if the Lord God almighty typed out the litany. The words jump off the screen. I'm not singing, I'm listening, because the Lord knows I'm someone who would, if given the chance, empty the sea of ink into telephone books of manuscripts. This is my song, and, dang it, I know very well where it's going.

To write the love of God above
Would drain the ocean dry
Nor could the scroll contain the whole
Though stretched from sky to sky.

It's plain old love poetry, I tell myself, exaggeration, overstatement. I know all this. I know all this. I know all this. There's nothing new here, nothing new at all. My goodness, I'm a prof. I make my living being smart.

And here's the bottom line: "The love of God is greater far than tongue or pen can ever tell."

I know that, but somehow the self-pitying sinner in me had never quite heard it so clearly before.

I'm no mystic. I never lost consciousness, never raised my hands, didn't hug the person next to me. I just got told the truth, even though it was ground I'd covered before.

These magic words appearing before me right now on the screen, my fingers dancing along the keys--they don't really rate, not when compared to, well, the love of God. That's the story, and he knows that I know it and he knows I just snub my nose and open a book or type out some words on a keyboard as if it weren't true, even though it is.

How is it we've got to be told, again and again and again?

Go to church, Hauerwas says to some nervous college freshman. I feel like a kid myself.

A Japanese man, a Christian, told me, years ago, that when he was a kid, locked up in some reformatory, some Christians came to minister to them weekly or monthly--I don't remember how often. He said he didn't remember a thing about what they spoke or preached, but he never forgot a lyric from a hymn they sang--"only believe, only believe." Those two words stayed in his mind as if nailed down tight.

Yesterday, in chapel, the meditation was fine. The preacher is a live wire whose been gifted with stage presence and knack for finding a way to enter each of our souls, our own private holy of holies. Kids love him, and not just kids either.

But honestly, I don't remember much about the sermon except that it was about forgiveness, and that he allowed for some special time for us individually, in silence, to go through our list of unfinished forgiveness business. And I remember thinking how I honestly don't have much of an account there, not that I'm a saint. I couldn't think of people I've never forgiven.

What I couldn't help thinking, however, was how block-headed I can be, how vain and proud, how arrogant, how sure I am that I know the whole damn truth. I'm a prof, you know. I know a lot of things. What I do is important. Let me show you my work.

But what I got told by the old hymn was no matter how many words I put down on this page this morning or tomorrow or the next day, no matter how many books I sell or readers I might wow, I'm forever away from draining the ocean.

The Lord almighty creates incredible plots nobody would ever believe if I'd write 'em. A good stiff case of the blues, an e-mail from a friend, an advice column from Stanley Hauerwas, and the lyrics of an old hymn whose roots, by the way, are--get ready for a shock--in the Koran.

When I walked out of that chapel, what I knew was that for some reason known only to God, I was supposed to be there. And I was.

You can read the wonderful Hauerwas article here. Or, if you'd like to hear a really lovely rendition of "The Love of God" by The Isaacs, try this.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Season's greetings

For the second morning in a row, a raw wind is howling through the trees, reminding me once again that once upon a time the world outside my window--when there was no window, when there was no house, when there was no me--was all grass as far as you can see, nary a tree between here and the Big Sioux River, fifteen miles west.

Oh, we've got 'em now, two patriarchal maples out front, and trio of old statesmen to the north, lindens--all of them as much immigrant as I am here. Several years ago, I told a Denver landscaper that I really ought to say sweet goodbyes to those mangled old maples, and he was shocked. "I know people who would pay almost anything for big trees like those," he told me. "Why on earth would you cut 'em down?"

They're still here.

But they're battle-worn, their canopies gapped, splintered butts of long-departed branches jutting up hither and yon, ugly as battle scars but homes for squirrels and starlings. Our two front-yard maples are not pretty. Right now, at this moment, I can almost feel their terrorized psyches; they've been punished for 36 hours just for the temerity of thinking they can live here in tall-grass prairie country. If the weather forecasts are accurate, more of the same is coming until tonight, and somehow I think they know that. They've had 60 or 70 years of active duty here on this hallowed ground. They're really beat up.

We're in some kind of change of seasons thing, and we're getting it in spades just as we get every other possible weather event out here. Snow's coming in dumpster loads out in North Dakota as we speak. Who knows?--maybe we'll get our share of the same soon enough. Already something is flekking the air, and it's not just liquid; it ticks on the windshield.

You wonder how on earth those Lakota kept the teepees down in wind like this. Shoot, in this wind and what's coming, I'm guessing the buffalo are looking around for an empty confinement.

It's here and it's coming, much as I hate to admit it.

We've been blessed by a sweet month of perfectly grand weather out here on the emerald edge of the Great Plains, enough to make us feel we really aren't really living where we are.

We've fallen for the sweet-talk for more than a month, but we are where we are--and the howling outside through those bedeviled trees, scared to death as they must be, is proof that a sweet October fantasy lulled us into believing that we aren't here at the edge of what Zebulon Pike once called "the Great American Desert," a phrase that stuck even though it couldn't be more wrong.

Oh, well, you know what they say up there in North Dakota: "Forty below keeps out the riff-raff."

I'm sure we'll make it. I'll just have to wear a hat and, this morning at least, pull it down really low.

Because winter's coming.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Morning Thanks--Honeycrisp

Our stay in the northwoods a few weeks ago came to a sad end on the trip home, when we rolled up to a local orchard where we ordinarily pick up some apples. The Sunday we returned, they were, the sign said, sold out.

And I know why. What they grow and sell is Minnesota's finest--honeycrisp, developed right there at the U in 1991, a relative newcomer in the industry. For years I've eaten an apple every morning. There's one, well-gnawed, beside me right now, this one already gone to the core. All year long, an apple is more morning-picker'-upper for me than java. It's the first blame thing I reach for when I stumble into the downstairs darkness. I love apples. I know apples. And there ain't nothing like honeycrisp.

They pop. They do. They explode with tangy juiciness. Every last one of them rejoice in simply being an apple. I swear it. Fujis are fine, I'll admit it, Japan's finest. New Zealand's Galas aren't bad either. But the county fair's finest grow right here the upper Midwest. Nobody else's come close.

Sure, they're expensive. But they're also gone. Fast. You got to get 'em while you can.

Somewhere in a thousand blog posts, I know I've covered this ground before; but this morning it's worth saying again because I just finished one off. Trust me, there ain't no morning joy like a bite of honeycrisp.

Give thanks for something every morning, Garrison Keillor says. Okay. It's early. I'm still a little fuzzy. Outside, the wind's howling. Cold is coming soon.

But this fall morning, I'm thankful, once again, for Minnesota's finest.

Monday, October 25, 2010


I've been living in the car. In the last few weeks, I've been four hours north, three hours west, five hours south, and nine hours east, all those miles in the comfort of a ten-year old gargantuan Buick, so it's not been tough. Still, all that driving leaves me tired when finally I hit the driveway. No matter how sweet a ride, no matter how many hours sitting quietly behind the wheel, the distances have been exhausting.

This weekend we chased across a couple states for the wedding of our good friends' son, a gorgeous affair. Weddings welcome us into intimacy like nothing else we do, I suppose, a whole congregation of dressed-up well-wishers oohing and ahhing, even applauding when the preacher, speaking for the state, allows the couple to stand up there in front of the multitude and celebrate their vows and their love with their very first married kiss. We're there. We see it. We're witnesses. We blush. They don't.

When weddings work, when they're wonderful, as most of them are, they're like no other public ritual of our lives; they make us smile, even laugh. We're witness to unsullied passion that's altogether too intimate and therefore inappropriate at any other time or day, endless nuzzling and smooching in a chorus of tinkling glasses. Even if there were nothing to drink, there's just nothing sober about a wedding.

The skies were overcast on Saturday, but when the photographer snuck the blessed pair away from the madding crowd for a few sweet shots, and the bride, right in the middle of a perfectly staged yet entirely beloved kiss, stood foon one foot and raised the other well-heeled foot up behind her, I swear the clouds disappeared.

There were two reasons for our trip--the wedding and a visit home, my childhood home. My mother will soon be 93 years old. If she had a choice and the end would come swiftly, I'm quite sure she'd choose to celebrate that birthday in the heavenly world to come, for what may well be her last days are no fun for anyone. She fell recently, doesn't know how or why. What she knows is back pain and the fact that, at her age, real healing can take forever. Pain-killers put her in an awful funk, and nothing inside her moves. She finds it difficult to get out of her chair, even though she knows that not moving is itself an awful sentence.

This weekend, I saw my mother in a way that I saw my father in the time before he died, helpless as a toddler, only more so. I saw my mother in ways she never saw her parents or her in-laws, all of whom died much younger than she's become--and they did so quite quickly, as if not to cause a fuss. We live in a different age now, when life goes on and on and on; and while we have cause to celebrate our new longevity, those added years are only sometimes a real blessing.

There's a semi-circle of pictures sitting on the coffee table in my mother's room, all her great-grandchildren lovingly assembled like a chorus. Those pictures--and what they hold--are just about her only joy in life. They are hers, after all, her legacy, her descendents; but they're also her link to what she remembers as promise and blessing and joy. They are life. She has faith too, although this weekend I saw and heard that tested.

We came home last night just after eight, nine hours on the road behind us. On the map, the distance was significant; but in the soul, the distance between loving on one hand and dying on the other was almost too exhausting.

Friday, October 22, 2010

The old guy

There's a guy down the alley on the other side of the street--I don't know him--who put a new roof on his garage. He was up there for days in these last glorious warm fall afternoons.

The first day he was up there, he was lifting the old asphalt with a pitchfork, jimmying up those old snarly things and the nails that kept them there with a screeching and squawking that reminded me all too well of my few roofing adventures. Twice I did my own house--not by myself, of course, but under the direction of people who knew what they were doing. Twice I stood on my own deadly inclines, armed with a pitchfork, and ripped up asphalt and wood and dust and roofing nails--it's an awful job that most carpenters would much rather simply forego. If you want to start some kind of building business, you start with roofs because nobody else will do them, I'm told.

Once upon a time, I helped with a neighbor's house, an old couple who lived right next door. His roof was as steeply pitched as a barn roof, but I was young enough, acrobatic enough to stay up there without pinwheeling off the angle myself. What made the job memorable, however, was the pot-bellied farmer, my age, son of that neighbor, who came to help too.

I live in a college town, and I'm a prof. That makes me, by rep, a lightweight, a dork, an egghead, a guy who doesn't get his hands dirty. I'm not sure why--who on earth would choose to stand up in front of tons of kids who'd rather be texting than taking notes?--but in a town like this, ordinary working men think profs an alien wuss species. They may be goons, but we're just plain goofy. I know.

Anyway, up there on the roof this paunchy farm guy made it very clear that he wanted it known far and wide that his testosterone ran deeper and richer than this prof guy, so we had ourselves an unspoken competition, as men will do. So as long as he worked, I did--I wasn't going to let him call me soft. As hard as he worked, I did--and, thanks to his rubber tire, I think I beat him.

At a cost. But, who cares? I beat his butt--is all I cared about back then. I went home proud and smug, then closed the door behind me and fell over in pain. At least he didn't beat me.

For years I've been haunted by a old story about Jesse James, who used to pull train heists, stroll onto passenger cars with his .45, examine men's hands, and then take wallets only from those men who had no callouses. Good night, I'd have lost everything.

But this week I didn't hazard a step toward that neighbor down the block, didn't lift a hand because the last time I was up on our roof I told myself, while forking old wood shingles, that it was going to be the last time. My balance, like other attributes, wasn't what it was and certainly isn't today, umpteen years later. I knew that back then, but wouldn't have admitted it to anyone.

So I watched that neighbor up on his garage, smiling all the while because age has some privileges. Nobody would have expected me to lend a hand--the old bald guy across the block.

And as long as I avoid passenger trains, I suppose I'm safe these days. And Jesse James is long gone.

Still, these fingers on the keys and the hands they belong to, are, I must admit, preacher's hands.

And even if I don't have the old balance, I got memories. Hey, listen, once upon a time there was this overweight farmer. . . or did I tell you that story?

Monday, October 18, 2010

Morning Thanks--On Being

Krista Tippett's public radio show has a new name--On Being (was Speaking of Faith), but the content is much of the same. This week's guest, Richard Mouw, President of Fuller Seminary in California, a Northwestern College grad and former Calvin College prof, was, IMHO, stunningly good. Of course, I would like him, a man who claims Abraham Kuyper as his hero and quotes freely from John Calvin.

Mouw's particular branding across the culture originates in a 90's book of his titled Uncommon Decency, in which he argued for just that, some uncommon decency, in a world in which religious warfare--Northern Ireland, the Middle East--was mercilessly killing people.

Today, he wonders whether indecency isn't vastly more common than it was back then. Ms. Tippett pushed him with respect specifically to the American evangelicals, among whom he holds an honorable place as president of the world's largest evangelical seminary. Mouw agreed that things are bad. He repeated what everyone knows--lots of evangelicals are scared and mad and loud and sometimes even pushy. Christians have taken the word evangelical and given it a political meaning more recognizable than its spiritual origins.

Mouw, who grew up in a Dutch-American community in New Jersey, says he thinks he's known a series of enemies throughout his life, a series of evildoers, a series of anti-Christs. He remembers his people hating Catholics, as I remember. He remembers his people hating communists, like Stalin, with the same intensity. I remember that too. Today that hate has come down on Islam, he says, and he wonders whether Christians create a Satan out of someone on the other end of our joy and faith. We need to hate somebody. We've got to have arch-enemies. For some--for my mother--it's Obama.

Then he cites Calvin, who once upon a time urged restraint in those going to war. First, know yourself, your sin, your weakness, your motivations, Calvin told people. Before you go to war, know what motivates you, inside out. Second, respect your enemy's humanity because those who you oppose are also God's own image-bearers, his unique works of art.

Stem to stern, a terrific interview. I listened twice--on the way to Corsica, SD, and on the way back. It was a blessing, and this morning I'm thankful. ___________________________________
You can listen to the interview or the show--or both--if you go here:

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Morning on Dordt's Prairie

I didn't go too far this morning, but when dawn's early light started to turn the sky pink outside my basement window, I picked up a camera and headed out to the new prairie, a place that would be dedicated just a few hours later. The abundance of wild flowers this late in the fall is quite amazing, really; but we've had at least three weeks of perfect fall weather, far more than Calvinists deserve.

The dawn sky was gorgeous, really, so I shot a couple of shots. And then, on my way back home, something up in the trees behind the barn created an infernal racket, a series of sharp screams that made me reach for my ears. It was a hawk screaming away right in the middle of town. I snuck up on him and he posed angrily. Maybe it's a she. Incredible. That 50-acre patch of prairie is home to an ark of remarkable characters.

What a blessing.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Baby Steps

It may be less amazing than it sounds, but the facts, as I see them, read quite clearly. It took me 31 years of Iowa life to take my first steps on real native prairie, the kind my great-grandparents must have set upon when they arrived in northwest Iowa in the 1880s. Thirty-one years. Seems like a lifetime.

But then, real native prairie goes at a premium in this corner of the state. Out here, one might stumble on a few sloped patches of original grasses along the bluffs of the Big Sioux River, but for decades already the land—the arable land, as some might say—has been drawn-and-quartered by endless row crops that, come summer, turn the whole region into a gargantuan garden. People who can’t or won’t see beauty in interminable echelons of corn tassels should have their eyes checked. This Iowa prairie, no matter how you dress it, is beautiful ground. But having now taken baby steps in native prairie, I can’t help but think how strange and sad it is that it took me 30-plus years to take my first step.

Topographically speaking, the state of Iowa has the most fully transformed landscape of any of the fifty states. What was once tall-grass prairie, especially out here in the northwest corner, has been entirely transformed rituals corn and soybean. What was here, in this corner of the state so many years ago, was a forever grassland, a yawning landscape that grabbed Lewis and Clark’s breath the moment they set their eyes on its limitlessness. What was here was tallgrass prairie that, come fall, could, on its own, hide a six-foot man, the way hybrid corn can today. What was here so many years ago used to shiver in the wind, like a cat’s fur. What was here once blossomed kaleidoscopically all summer long. What was here used to blaze, literally.

Quite simply, what was here is gone, maybe forever, and gone more extensively, if I can say it that way, than the original landscapes of 49 other states. That’s why, I guess, it shouldn’t be surprising that it took me better than thirty years to take my first steps on native prairie.

Not long ago, I took some visitors on a little bus trip around this largely Dutch Calvinist section of Siouxland, a literary crawl of sorts, showing some out-of-staters the haunts of northwest Iowa’s most beloved Dutch-American writers—Frederic Manfred, Stanley Wiersma, and Jim Heynen. I told those tourists what I’ve been told: not only that Iowa’s tall grass prairie is the most destroyed landscape of any state in the union, but that Sioux County, where I live, may well be the most altered county of any of Iowa’s 99. Later, I couldn’t help think that if I’d been taking those folks on a similar little pilgrimage around the area fifty years ago—a group of fine Calvinist folks, most of them Dutch-American—I would have said what I did with a whole different spin, with a brimful of ethnic and even spiritual pride.
After all, the Dutch, of whom I am one, have dyked and tiled and drained the sea itself to make productive farmland. My people came from Holland to northwest Iowa with a collective memory full of creating productive land, of subduing the earth. “Look at this now—how these good Dutch farmers have taken this beautiful land and brought forth food for their families!” I have no doubt I would have been singing a song of triumph.

But no so today. Not really.

Today, for better or for worse, the recitation of the facts of a by-gone landscape comes out a bit more sour, even out here, where the descendents of Dutch immigrants likely manage their land as lovingly as any in the state. Even here the story of the long-gone prairie sounds more dirge than paean because it’s difficult to put a good spin on the truth of what’s here: “Isn’t it wonderful what we did here. After all, there’s nothing left of what was.”

But let me describe those baby steps I took not so long ago.

Dawn came bewitchingly, thick August haze running like some gossamer river through the land’s low spots, masking the brilliance of the sun, casting the whole world in darkening layers of mellow gold. I stopped the car at the side of the gravel road, took out the camera, and looked over a 140-acre chunk of land called Steele Prairie State Preserve.

“Looks like a weed patch,” some old farmer would say.

Maybe they’re not wrong. There are no parallel tassels, no shimmering bean leaves. The place doesn’t look at all managed, just as Dordt’s new prairie doesn’t. It’s looks daringly wild, the sedge meadow and marsh vegetation growing hither and yon as if answering to no one, like a classroom gone out of control, a chaotic caucus of plant life. A lot of people I know wouldn’t find Dordt’s new prairie all that attractive.

But those first steps into the patch of grass that day made me aware that if this wasn’t some kind of hallowed ground, it made, at least, a whole different walk than anything available on ordinary Iowa farmland. In August, the grasses on native prairie aren’t at all spindly or scattered, even though the compass plants rise like lanky teenage girls above the class beneath them.

In five steps—no more—my shoes were wet, pants legs soaked. Fifty feet in and I had a whole new vision of those long lines of prairie schooners moving west. Those folks were not walking on concrete; they were slugging through thick prairie grasses, taking their own baby steps on humpity-bumpity land that hadn’t been plowed and disked, planted and harrowed, but was, instead, a real live natural mess. Today, as then, anthills abound. You can turn an ankle in a minute. Let’s just put it this way: the earth is not at all subdued.

Even more surprising, at least to me, was the land’s generous coat, so much thicker, so much heavier than I would have dreamed. I had to slog through its shagginess. I had absolutely no idea Iowa’s natural bounty of prairie grasses was so flax-like.

In a matter of speaking, the place was a knee-high jungle. For most of those 31 years, I’ve thought of Iowa land as bountifully productive, unending August greens; but let’s face it: much of the year the land is flat, harvested, and, well, naked.

Native prairie is not naked. It’s flora is fur-like, that thick. One can only imagine what decades—centuries, in fact—of that kind of profuse growth offered the earth nutritionally. Conversely, one can only imagine what decades—and now more than a century—of its absence has taken away. Standing knee-deep and more in native prairie, I couldn’t help but think of how much has been stripped away.

I didn’t grow up on a farm, and I’ve never lived on one. I can’t rhapsodize about June afternoons pulling a rotary hoe across open fields. I don’t know the earth out here in the same way my father-in-law came to know it through seventy years of seed-time and harvest. And I know that his work on this ground has given me the right, in many ways, to see the world in the way I do today, even to say what I’m saying now. Only because he’s worked it as hard as he has, can a teacher in a college his harvests helped pay for stroll through this kind of old-fashioned prairie. Seventy-five years ago, if I lived here, this Saturday morning in October, I would have been milking not talking about what once was.

But I couldn’t help think, as I walked, totally alone through that museum, that out here in the bountiful northwest corner of the state we’d all be better off if somehow we gave something back to what was, if we’d reinvest in the area by divesting ourselves of at least some of what we’ve done. I couldn’t help wonder whether the quality of all our lives wouldn’t be greatly enhanced if Sioux County, Iowa, couldn’t find the wherewithal somehow to give up, say, four sections of this blessed land that has given so blessed much to bless us all. If our children could, on some Saturday morning in August, take a walk in the thick, restored prairie and look over, say, two miles of the great ocean of grass that once lay here, wouldn’t they—wouldn’t all of us—treasure more of what we have? Wouldn’t a restored piece of land like that help all the descendents of those hard-working Calvinists see their Maker more vividly?

I think so, and that why, right here, right now, I’m thrilled for the acres of restored prairie we’re holding close to us and to our hearts. This tall-grass prairie has been scalped away for us. With this prairie ground right out here behind the college, we’ve come to give some blessing back to an earth that gave us life.

With these fine acres of restored prairie, maybe we all can take a few baby steps towards a future that more fully remembers—and honors—what was.

To God be the glory.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Morning Thanks--"I couldn't put it down"

Probably says more about me than it does about her or about them, but I was shocked--no, thrilled--Tuesday when a small class of students claimed to love Jhumpa Lahiri.

I really shouldn't have been as surprised as I was because Lahiri has, among other things, won the Pulitzer for Interpreter of Maladies, and won the Frank O'Connor Short Story Award for Unaccustomed Earth (when the judged didn't even create a short list because, they claimed, Lahiri's second collection of short fiction simply had no significant rivals!). Listen to this: Unaccustomed Earth debuted at numero uno on the NY Times Best Seller list, something that rarely happens to a bona fide literary work.

No matter. I was scared. I bought the book from when they claimed it was their best seller. I listened to it, twice, while lifting weights and biking. Loved it. Determined that thematically it fit perfectly with the syllabus in a course I'm teaching this year, stuck it in, then, last week, nearly froze with fright, thinking the students were too young to understand its gorgeous nuance.

Nothing much happens in Lahiri's stories. There's no sudden insight. What's more, there's barely any narrative drive, no car chases, no steamy love scenes (well, maybe a few). Conflicts are easy to come by but hard to determine. There's nothing, I thought, to grab their attention.

Except character. Except sheer humanity. Except the realization a reader feels that we're on the page ourselves somehow.

So I came to class Tuesday, ready to be slain by their arching eyebrows, ridden out of town on the rail of their disdain, you might say. I was ready to entertain suicide.

But they loved her. Almost unanimously, they loved her. I swear.

"Why?" I said.

"I don't know," one of them said. "I couldn't put it down."

But nothing happens in a Lahiri story, I said.

"I couldn't put it down."

I'm not making this up.

Just one of the reasons I'll leave this profession with some glee in a couple years is the growing gap between myself and them. They're always 20. I'm not. I don't have fingers enough to count that high, but I'm somewhere in the region of 40+ years older than they are. I don't know, any more, how they read or what they pick up when their eyes scan the pages. What's more, Lahiri's concerns are all mature in Unaccustomed Earth--she's all about generations; most of my students call their parents twice a day. Lahiri is interested in families, in love and birth and death and loneliness. My students live in dorms, for pete's sake. The front-page story in the last student newspaper was about powder puff football.

I was sure their lips would flatten. I was dang sure they'd wince.

But I was wrong. I was dead wrong.

They loved her. "I couldn't put it down."

We're six, maybe seven weeks into the semester, and it's been good time. Honestly, it's been good. But this morning I'm thankful for the shock of my semester on Tuesday afternoon, thankful they get it, thankful they couldn't put Lahiri down.

I'm okay and so are they.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Morning Thanks--rescue

Just one of the reasons Edgar Allen Poe was such a hit with 19th century readers was that he touched on very real fears, one of which, without a doubt, was premature burial, because, well, it happened. I'd like to say that it happened more then than now, but who knows what quietly and horrifyingly goes on beneath the ground in a million cemeteries? (It's getting frightfully close to Halloween!)

What I'm saying is that Poe's apparent love affair with the phenomenon of premature burial (think, story of the same name and "House of Usher") blitzed his readers' fears because they knew such things happened--it wasn't so much a fantasy as a reality. But then, whether or not it was or is happening, he tapped something richly nightmarish in the very thought of premature burial, in part because so many of us suffer from different forms of claustrophobia. I had an MRI once in my life and thought it no big deal, but I know some people absolutely can't handle having to slide into so slight a tube.

One of the few Dutch words that had sticking power in the onslaught of English my ancestors suffered when they immigrated is benawd (I think I'm spelling that right), and just one of the reasons it stays in my vocabulary after five generations is that people with more Dutch in them than I have claim that there is no English equivalent. The closest is claustrophobia. My wife's grandmother suffered great fear and trepidation when stepping into a elevator.

Yesterday, we took our grandkids out to Pumpkin Land, "my favorite place," my grandson said. But when we walked into the corn maze, he wanted out, big time. Why? I looked at my wife. "He's benawd," I said. She nodded. Claustrophobic.

Being buried alive has to be death itself to the claustrophobic. For 69 days, 33 Chilean miners waited patiently for rescue that some feared might never come. Last night, all of Chili and most of the world was waching around ten, our time, when the first of that crew emerged, in sunglasses, from 2000 feet beneath the desert surface.

What actually happened was spectacular, a miracle of engineering and plain hard work. What symbolically happened was just as incredible, because I think some kind of weird resonance occurs at this kind of event. Those men were not only raised from the ground, they were ushered back from death itself. Those trapped miners being extricated from premature burial somehow shimmers with broader symbolic meaning, methinks, which is simply another reason why most of the world simply had to watch the very first resurrection last night. Like us.

I'm not making Sunday School out of this, just stating what seems to me to be true. Most of the planet was mesmerized by the rescue of those gutsy miners last night, with good reason. What happened in the desert was a miracle of human achievement and a symbol of human aspiration.

There was, once upon a time, a real resurrection--and that one, of course, the world has never forgotten.

But I'm not talking about some kind of replica, only that those miners being birthed by a circular capsule from a dark grave a couple thousand feet down in the earth rang joy in the minds and souls of almost everyone. And for me--and much of the world, I think--it provided more than a few moments of spectacular joy. Did you see that little boy cry when his dad emerged?

I'm quite sure my grandson never saw it. Too bad.

This morning's thanks is for sleepless engineers, hearty miners, and a incredible rescue heard 'round the world. Something in my heart and soul, this election season, needed that.

My guess is that we all did, because somehow we all do.

Look! There goes Poe, slinking away. Good riddance.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Morning Thanks--a story

The Grandpa, Baba, in Jhumpa Lahiri's "Unaccustomed Earth," a story from a collection of the same name, visits his daughter's new home in Seattle for the very first time. Two years earlier, he lost his wife--as his daughter lost her mother--in a completely unforeseen reaction to surgical medication. Both are grieving deeply in ways they don't really understand themselves.

What brings them more together than they've ever been, oddly--if they can be said to come together at all in their mutual suffering--is his daughter's little boy, the grandson, Akash, who takes to the old man in ways that his daughter never could have imagined. If change happens in this marvelous story--and I'm not so terribly sure it does--it happens because Grandpa and grandson get along so royally. Ruma, his daughter, is confused and surprised because her own relationship with her father, she judges, was never ever that playful, that intimate. It's as if she sees a father she never knew. And she may be right.

How is it that grandparents and grandchildren get along as well as they do?--or so goes an old joke. The answer?--mutual enemies.

That's a perfectly awful joke really, and yet one can't help but recognize some vagrant truth therein. When he's 70, and retired, Grandpa can be a different species of father--well, a grandfather--than he was to his own daughter when she was a child and he was 40, in the maelstrom of a busy working life. What "Baba" comes to understand during his visit in Seattle is that Akash--his daughter's little boy--is an immense gift: "Oddly, it was his grandson, who was only half-Bengali to begin with, who did not even have a Bengali surname, with whom he felt a direct biological connection, a sense of himself reconstituted in another."

Odd, but somehow understandable, like the enemies joke.

Stories function in two sometimes perfectly opposite ways. Sometimes they bring us out of our worlds for a fleeting moment or two, show us worlds we've never seen in passions and colors that are new; stories offer escape--like most of Hollywood.

But sometimes they move us in opposite directions; they bring us in, show us human beings who are so much like ourselves that we have to reach for breath. John Gardner used to say that the good literature models behavior we build our lives around. I think he was right.

I know Baba, not because I'm him. We're both grandpas, but I'm no widower, I'm not retired, I'm not Bengali, I didn't spend my life on this country's east coast. But I understand the guy, his motivations, his joy, his fears. Somehow I feel his life.

In my humble opinion, the great joy of the Psalms is not necessarily their theology or their worldview. The Psalms offer human experience in every shade and color. Think God has left the building?--so did David. Read 13 sometime and howl along.

The great lesson of literature--and the Bible in a different way--is that we come to understand, lo and behold, that we are not alone.

This morning's thanks is easy. After a long night with a single story from a marvelous collection, I know better, I think, who I am. This morning's thanks is for a story.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Words, words, words

I thought the assignment quite good actually, even though, in practice, it accomplished something less than I guessed. The poet, John Terpstra, tells a story about creating a cross for a church, on commission. That story morphs into a poem. When you read the story, then read the poem, the poem itself comes alive as poetry can, its choice of words full of the life of the story. The assignment?--in a short essay explain how the poet uses multiple meanings of words in the poem. That job didn't strike me as too difficult, and it might well have taught the students a lot about why poetry is what it is and how it does what it does.

Well, "best laid plans of mice and English teachers." Some students didn't really "get it," understand what I was after, I guess. Maybe they still don't "get" poetry.

But one student's own word usage sticks with me: "Terpstra was asked to create a cross to accessorize his church's sanctuary." There's something about accessorize in that line that feels like a good stiff bite on aluminum.

Something about the word itself is bothersome--accessorize. Its derivation is, methinks, is the fashion industry, and there's something about the ancient story of the crucifixion and contemporary fashion that simply don't mix, the cross at Golgatha something akin to a choice pair of gloves or the perfect divan for the new sun room. It's just wrong.

The student's a sweetheart. I like her. Besides, I can understand why she might use that word; after all, if the church didn't have a cross, it might well feel like an accessory when the idea is introduced. "That would be nice," some committee member might say. People obviously worshipped in that sanctuary previously; undoubtedly, a cross would have been, at least to some, a thoughtful touch, quite fitting after all. It might well accessorize the worship space.

Maybe it's the word itself that's troublesome to me, the hobbled craft of someone who gets his or her kicks out of taking perfectly good nouns and turning them into verbs with little more than an -ize. Maybe it's the word's own newness. But then, maybe this young lady never knew a world without the word "accessorize." Maybe we're talking about connotations here, and mine don't line up at all with hers. Undoubtedly the word doesn't sound cheap to her. Is beauty, finally, in the eye of the beholder?

As an English teacher, a teacher of the language, isn't it my job to point out what I believe to be such errant usages? Should I have docked her for it? Does that word choice at least deserve a quickly scribbed note?

For the record, I put one on the paper. If I'm blessed, she'll read it, but I doubt she'll take it to heart. She doesn't come at her own sentence's diction in the way her ancient teacher does.

Last week, the Pew Foundation released their findings on religions and the religious in America. Here's the way U. S. Today summarized the upshot: "The survey finds U.S. adults believe overwhelmingly (92%) in God, and 58% say they pray at least once a day. But the study's authors say there's a "stunning" lack of alignment between people's beliefs or practices and their professed faiths."

I figured I'm contributing to the malaise if I don't at least mention what I think about this wonderful student's really bad word choice. I'm an accessory to the horror, right?

But then, aren't we all?--accessories to the crime, accessories to the cross, accesories to His death? Maybe if I could teach her that--and me, I'd be doing something with more than words.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Reflections on a long, sweet, and warm northwoods weekend

Just a few thoughts about being "up north" once again, a week or so after "peak," but surrounded by beauty nonetheless.

It was almost summer up here, temps pushing into the eighties, nary a cloud in the sky. At times, it was almost, well, warm. No one complained. I swear, some trailside wild flowers--like dandelions--got faked out into believing it was the real thing, even though the first frost couldn't have come up all that long ago. But this little guy wasn't fooled. It looks as if he's doing the bulk of his winter storage in his cheeks.

Milkweed is the bane of soy bean farmers, but when it grows wild, it always adds something sensuous to late fall, its natural rhythms seemingly disparaging the calendar. Those heavy pods full of silk don't open until October at least, not exactly prime time for birthing seeds. But then, who am I to question their success? They manage very well, thank you, quite beautifully too, their silkiness a sheer wonder.
Years ago, I remember reading how the town of Amsterdam, Wisconsin, was moved from the Lake Michigan shoreline a mile or so inland to a place where the railroad had just come, most of the buildings hauled along behind horses on long tamarack boughs. I had no idea what a tamarack was until this week, when their auburn shine gloriously arrayed the woodlands all around. I still don't know much about them; they seem some kind of hybrid, not quite deciduoous, not quite evergreen. All I know is what they add to the landscape's pallette this time of year is quintessentially fall.

Once the leaves are down--or mostly so--there are parts of the woods that catch sunlight, places where, by May, the sun otherwise never shines. If you look closely, that sunlight, coming in spots, lights up whatever's there in a way seen only on stage, as if a whole galley of full spots are featuring a leave or a plant or single sapling. It's as if every last plant in the woods gets its own fifteen minutes of fame. Photography is all about light, so there's no end to the show. You just got to get it right.

When that strong autumn sun streams through leaves, there's an almost neon glow that's startling in its intensity. Here and there, against the bare branches, bright splashes of colors from the hardwoods, stubborn about shedding their leathery glory.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Rural vacationland

There's something almost iconic about this picture. In the very same tiny, just-off-Main, downtown building, two absurdly different businesses try to make a go of it--a barber shop complete with miniature barber poll, and someone's "Transformative Therapies" business, a place that'll do massages by appointment. In one, I'd expect to find Floyd the Barber holding forth, Andy or Opey in the chair; in the other, someone disrobed beneath a sheet, a Gucci bag at her side.

Iconic because northern Minnesota is, for thousands of well-heeled citizens, vacationland, a place for play. At the same time, hundreds--even a few thousand--are actual year-round residents, people who work here and have for generations. Some of the vacationers are the state's most posh; any real estate listing includes lakefront homes worth millions. Yet, right next door is rural poverty. The old houses and farms and acreages sometimes look Depression-era. Two cultures exist side-by-side.

John Updike's famous story, "A & P," features a kid who finds himself hormonally drawn toward a trio of bikini girls who march into the store for kipper snacks or something exotic. The girls are what we used to call "lake people" in my hometown on the shores of Lake Michigan, vacationers who view the local A & P as if it were a trading post for the natives. Their origins and bearing is definitely upper-class, and Scotty, the local yokel, can't stop himself from falling into the dangerous chasm that always divides rich from poor.

There are two widely different cultures in Minnesota vacationland, two distinctly different energies, and I wonder if I could live here, actually live here. I can definitely vacation here, but could I live here?--someplace between the barber shop and place hawking transformative therapies--whatever they are, not a wall away.

Don't know. But then we're all slightly schizophrenic. Minnesota sends both Michele Bachmann and Al Franken off to Washington, right?--political polar opposites--and then throws in Keith Ellison, Congress's sole Muslim, for spice. Go figure.

You've got to live with diversity these days, I guess, no matter where you go. Yesterday, a day so warm I swear that leaves are about to bud on the trees all around, two old bucks my age motored past our dock, topless. I'm not kidding. Two old guys, my age, bare-chested in a modest fishing boat. Looked kind of ridiculous, in fact, and not at all pretty. The fact is, I don't know if they were rich or poor. Not a clue.

Neither needed a haircut.

I'm not sure about transformative therapy.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Indian summer

Yesterday, on a day made purely in heaven, we hiked along the western shore of Lake Itasca, to a point--well, have a look. Thousands take that hike annually, I'm sure, but yesterday just about the only folks out there were, like us, portly aging boomers, other couples, probably just retired. In all that sunshine and amid all that beuaty, we greeted each other happily, like brothers and sisters.

I don't think I would have made a frontiersman. I lack two principle characteristics: I'm neither handy nor hearty enough. I'm all thumbs when it comes to fixing things; I could write the journal but someone else would have to patch the canoe.

And, I don't think I'm hearty enough either. My mother claims that when the doctor carried me into the room, almost 63 years ago now, she (yes, the doctor who pulled me into this world was a woman) said she could throw me out into a field and I'd make it--that's how healthy I was. Healthy, maybe, but not hearty. I've cleaned more than my share of pit toilets when I worked for the DNR; and, once upon a time, like the proverbial bear, by necessity I defecated in the woods. Once is enough. Give me a good old Kohler throne. I like reading all that wilderness stuff, but I'm not made of the mettle.

Nonetheless, it's a thrill to stand out on a promontory like we did yesterday, looking across the shimmering waters of a clear-water Minnesota lake like Itasca. For the most part, we were there alone so my imagination had some joyous free roam, which I eagerly indulged.

The first white guy--aside from the French trappers and wilderness types--to put his name down in the area was, of all things, something of an ethnologist, a man named Henry Rowe Schoolcraft. That he was there to have a look at the Ojibwe is somehow wonderful, in my book. He wasn't there to fight or to cut down their timber or buy up expensive lakefront footage. He was there to watch, to record, to listen, to understand.

I like that.

Here's part of what he found, in his own words:
Their government has been deemed a paradox, at the same time exercising, and too feeble to exercise power. But it is not more paradoxical than all patriarchial governments, which have their tie in filial affection, and owe their weakness to versatility of opinion. War and other public calamities bring them together, while prosperity drives them apart. They rally on public danger, with wonderful facility, and they disperse with equal quickness. All their efforts are of the partizan, popular kind. And if these do not succeed they are dispirited. There is nothing in their institutions and resources suited for long continued, steady exertion.
I'm sorry, but I can't help it--sounds vaguely familiar.

Anyway, standing out there yesterday, alone, the lakeshore wrapped in a quilt of russet, the azure sky spreading out over us in all directions, Schoolcraft Island out there alone in the water, I couldn't help think of why we call the early 19th century "the Romantic Age." For white people, this incredible, endless land must have been beyond the reach of any one's imagination. Think of being the first white person here. Think of stumbling on the Missouri River valley. Think of seeing the Devil's Tower on the horizon. Think of the endless plains west.

It's no wonder white folks were starry-eyed.

You stand out there on a gorgeous fall day and it's no wonder at all how even old men, aging boomers, could dream dreams.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

A walk in the Northwoods

What people in Minnesota call "peak season" is slightly past, but that doesn't mean the fall colors have faded. Most of the poplars have shed their shimmering buttery excess, but the oaks don't undress quite so glibly, and what they hold still stops the show. Yesterday, on a little hike through the woods, we walked through a showy splashes of earthy russets and reds, set against a whitish background of all those naked, leggy poplars. Just gorgeous.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Mason Tender VII

The final installment of a short story set in the small town in the early Sixties--with commentary.


“Ain’t nothing but a matter of money, that’s all—and she is good—you know that, don’t you? Shoot, an old man like yourself—“

For a minute they stood there staring, then Gimp backed off slowly, maybe ten steps, until he turned and walked away, his head ducking forward the way a pigeon walks. Then he stopped and half-turned. “Dickie,” he said, “you ought to know what it’s like to go without, you jailbird.”

When I looked at Dickie, he wasn’t breathing. In the sun, the sweat lit up like glitter where it streamed from his hair down his neck. He waited until Gimp got to the corner of the east wall before he took off after him. The sound that came out from his chest was something of a growl and something of a scream.

Gimp heard Dickie take off, and he split without looking back. I knew right then there was going to be a beating, and I knew right off that Dickie could kill the guy. In a second, I knew all of it. In that little time I thought of Dickie back in jail.

And just like that this five-gallon pail full of wet cement dropped from the roof like a sledge. It cracked the old concrete where it hit not a two full strides in front of Dickie. The bottom edge of the pail crushed from the impact, so it stood there, right-side-up, crooked as some comedian's hat.

Gimp never knew what happened, but Dickie stopped cold in his tracks, his hands out front of him like a surgeon. Then he looked up and saw his Uncle Ed at the edge of the roof with his hands on his hips.

Dickie picked up the pail and held it high over his head. The cement flew out in thick globs. Then he flung the empty bucket against the block wall, picked it up and hurled it again and again and again until the thing was bent up like a soup can.

And Ed stood there up above in very principled silence. "How many times I got to tell you to wear the hat," he said.

That's all.

It's understandable that I should be looking back a bit. This story, I'm quite sure, is just about 30 years old. It shows its age.

Not long ago, Context starting running old stories from its many years of publication, and one excerpt was from some theologian or sociologist who said that the church of 2000 would look unlike anything anyone could imagine. I think he was writing in Sixties.

This story--or so it seems to me--illustrates that argument. The picture I found to go with the story hardly seems fitting for the grittyness of the story itself, but behind the action here is a small-town church with incredible authority in the lives of its people, including the authority to toss someone out. That is the church I grew up in.

But there's more. Even though Ed doesn't particularly like what the church has done, he abides by its rules. For that matter, so does the rest of the town, gritting its teeth as it does. What I know very well is that I was drawn to the story because of Ed's stubborn faith in the church itself and its decree about Dickie, who was, of course, a formidable foe. But people like his uncle Ed still cow-tow--and do so quite sympathetically, at least in my mind. All of which suggests that even the author lived somewhat peaceably under the powerful dominion of the church.

What's changed--or so it seems to me--is that today the church I'm a part of has nothing at all of that kind of authority. I'm not trying to ring the doomsday bell here. That's not the point. What I'm saying is that the institutional church has lost that authority somehow, perhaps, most specifically, by way of our great and still growing affluence.

What I'm saying is that "the world of this story" is no more, at least for me. I'm sure there are fellowships extant who still rule the lives of their people as fully as mine did when I was a boy, but the church as I know it best--the church in a small town--doesn't have the reach or the pull or the clout it once did.

I honestly don't think that's a fall from grace. This Calvinist is neither a doomday prophet or progressivist. Sin abides, as, thankfully, does grace.

Some things change. His love--and our need--doesn't.

I guess I find my own fascination with a story like this, way back when, really interesting today, 30 years later. It is now, very much, historical fiction.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Mason Tender VI

One day Penny's ex showed up around back, looking for Dickie.

"Vreeman up there?" he asked me.

"Which one?


I could tell he’d been drinking. "You bet," I said. The wind was strong and from the west, and the bum's hair flew in a mess over his eyes and face.

"What time you guys take coffee?" he said.

I told him 3:15.

I knew Dickie must have seen the guy show up, because he was finishing up on the roof. He wasn't surprised when I told him the guy had asked about coffee time.

Dickie's bush hair was bleached to a silvery pine color, and his back was brown like dark oak stain. He snapped off his head band when he jumped from scaffold, and he rung the moisture out with his fist, every single muscle and vein popping in his arm. Gray sweat ran through his fingers and flew off when he flicked his wrist.

"What he want?" he said.

I told him I didn't know.

Ed got us some long johns that afternoon, but nobody said a thing when Penny's ex showed up again. He had been to the corner during the hour or so he'd been away, and he came back smelling like a brewery. He was tall and gaunt and walked with a stoop, so that when he talked to you he squinted through the tops of his eyes. People called him Gimp because of the way his shoulders turned in a sort of semi-circle. He had a way of moving his head with his whole upper body, as if everything was connected from his waist up. The sleeves of his sweatshirt were cut off halfway up his biceps.

“I got you a proposition, Dickie,” he said, “better than the one you’re giving Penny and the kids.”

Ed got up right away and hiked up the scaffolds to the roof. I knew he didn’t want to hear any of it. I didn’t know where to go right away.

“I know what you been doing to my ex, see?” Gimp said. “I got proof—even photographs—‘cause I hired this private eye, and he knows all your comings in and goings forth.”

Dickie’s eyes were blue and soft, but he never once looked down.

“Look man, I’m strapped. I can’t make them damn payments for the rest of my life. She’s taken me down the river, see? Shoot, I got my own life too, you know, and everything I get I got to pay in for them kids.”

“You got my pity,” Dickie said.

“Look, it ain’t one bit fair that you’re getting her and not paying for it. I don’t call that justice, Dickie.” He crossed his arms on his chest, and his muscles, long and thing, flattened over his fingers.

“No business of yours,” Dickie said. “You got no right at all to be watching over me or her.”

“Listen, man-to-man, let’s talk. I got nothing against what you’re getting off her—she wants a man like you, then that’s fine with me. But I’m saying it ain’t fair and I got the law on my side, see?”

I shoved the rest of the long john into my mouth and wandered back over to the trough to slosh up the mix and keep it soft.

“I think it would be in your own best interest to get lost,” Dickie told him.

“It’s nothing against you personally, Dickie. I just want out of the payments, and it doesn’t seem right to me that you’re screwing around and not taking a dime’s worth of responsibility.” Gimp pulled his hair back out of his eyes.

Dickie looked around for a minute to see if anybody else was around back.

“All I’m saying is, let me go of them payments, see? I could give a damn if you marry that bitch. I just want out.”

“You got nothing to say, Gimp.” Dickie raised both arms up over his head and flicked on the sweatband.

“Hell, I don’t! I can get me a court order that keeps you out of that house forever. I got the goods on you, Dickie. You know what you are?—you’re an ‘impediment to the moral upbringing of my own sweet children.’” You could feel the cut in his straight-edge laugh. “I can keep you right out of her bed from this time forth—“

Dickie cleared his nose with one finger against a nostril.

Gimp stood there straight, arms crossed. “You’re crazy if you think you can screw her free. I got the law, man. You ain’t got shit.”

“Get out of here,” Dickie said.

“You get her to stop soaking me and you can have her—it’s just that simple. Otherwise, so help me, I’ll shut you off tight and put you back in jail.”

There was nothing on Dickie’s face but one twitching eye. He raised up his hands on his waist and turned them backwards so that his thumbs pointed out a Gimp. The muscles in his upper arms hung there like thick ropes.

Tomorrow: Dickie acts.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Mason Tender V

Part 5 of a short story set in a small town in the late fifties.

It took me a week before I realized what was happening. Ed stopped talking to Dickie completely. He'd come around and make himself busy in the front some mornings, or else he'd stand at the back and tell me where he’d been bidding another job. He never told me things like that otherwise, because I was only summer help; but I started to understand why he was doing it. He counted on my telling Dickie what was happening, where we’d be going when the job downtown was over. So I told Dickie. And that’s the way it went. Dickie never changed, never said much to me at all, but it wasn’t like any Vreeman to talk all that much.

Coffee time they’d sit there at right angles, not ten feet from each other, and they wouldn’t say thing, wouldn’t even look at each other. If I’d ask about the car wash, Ed would tell me straight out, like a newspaper account meant for Dickie to read, but he’d only look at me when he’d say it, round-faced, in that soft and gentle way of his. Ed never swore once while I worked for him, and rarely did he raise his voice. It was just work for him; in that way he and Dickie were like brothers.

I was old enough to understand what was going on. Ed didn’t like excommunication, but he was a church man, and he lived by principle. One night I sat down to read through that form again, the one the old preacher read in church for Dickie Vreeman, who didn’t show up anyway. “Beloved Christians,” it said, “keep no company with him, to the end that he may be ashamed; yet count him not as an enemy, but at times admonish him as you would a brother.” Maybe I hadn’t heard it that day in church because I was thinking about what Dickie might be doing at the very time the church was throwing him out.

Ed took it all very seriously. It was an awkward silence he kept with his own nephew, signing his checks but otherwise staying out of Dickie’s life as if it were charmed with sin itself. All through the end of the July heat, Ed stayed cold as a lakeshore spring. And Dickie never—not once—showed the slightest emotion. He just worked all the harder.

Tomorrow: Penny's ex shows up.