Morning Thanks

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

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Morning Thanks--first snow

Announced by all the trumpets of the sky,
Arrives the snow, and, driving o'er the fields,
Seems nowhere to alight: the whited air
Hides hills and woods, the river, and the heaven,
And veils the farm‑house at the garden's end.

Okay, okay, Emerson, we had some of that last night. It started about mid-day, when I drove back from the airport in our Tracker, a remarkably holy car whose plastic top gives aerodynamic a whole new meaning. In the snarling face of an angry 35-mile-an-hour wind, north, northwest too, I'd meet an 18-wheeler and simply pray that little golf cart of ours would somehow hold together and stay on the road. Several times, it seems, some cattle hauler could have just blown my top away.

Didn't happen. I made it home before the snow, "driving o'er the fields,/seemed nowhere to alight."

Well, "alight" it did finally, but there isn't much. I'm not about to haul out the snow shovel. With any luck at all, what's there will be a memory by afternoon.

It was a snow event, not a full-fledged, blowhard Emersonian blizzard. I got an e-mail from an anxious student who took a motel somewhere in western Nebraska when she decided she wasn't about to risk coming all the way back to Siouxland on treacherous roads. She won't be the only no-show today, first day of class after Thanksgiving break.

And if I wasn't so blame busy maybe I could be more Emersonian myself. Maybe I could rhapsodize about this winter's first snow. Maybe I wouldn't much care about howling winds and streets so slick even those testosterone-rich Dodge Ram 4x4s tippy-toe, ballerina-like, to stop signs.

Last night, wind howling behind me as I sat in the northwest corner of our house, I wasn't thrilled, I must admit.

The sled and traveller stopped, the courier's feet
Delayed, all friends shut out, the housemates sit
Around the radiant fireplace, enclosed
In a tumultuous privacy of storm.

We don't have a fireplace, and my wife was in Oklahoma so I had no housemate. Okay, the cat wouldn't leave my side, but my "tumultuous privacy of storm" wasn't all that moving, quite frankly, not worth a long poem anyway. I was all alone in winter's first snow.

And then, later, on my way upstairs, I doused the lights and suddenly nothing dimmed. The kitchen stayed aglow, my path through the dining room obligingly lit by the radiance of white world just outside beneath a glowing moon. As miraculous as grace, there was no darkness at all.

How quickly one forgets. For all its treachery, its nastiness, its bluster, out here at least, a fresh new blanket scatters the darkness and lights the world. I'd forgotten an annual blessing.

So this morning's thanks is not necessarily for the season's first blizzardy slap--I'm not thrilled, Mr. Ralph Waldo Emerson. But this morning I am indeed thankful for the light, the unmistakable light that just last night made me smile when I needed to.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Thanksgiving Thanksgiving

Some people may be accustomed to scarfing down such huge platefuls of turkey and stuffing in the middle of the day, but I'm not one of them. Thanksgiving dinner--for which we all give thanks--is just so thick and starchy (heavy-laden with gravy that honors our departed Grandma, whose recipe it is) that by two or so in the afternoon, it's a wonder the whole adult family hasn't simply passed out.

That's why we love to hike on Thanksgiving afternoon, even though there's not all that much daylight by late in the day. We drive out to Oak Grove, a wooded park along the Big Sioux, and work off some of the excess after the Thanksgiving extravaganza. But this year it was too blame cold, a sharp northwest wind icy enough to take a bite out of your face, the windows still thick with Jack Frost in mid-afternoon.

The bowling alley's long gone, so I asked my daughter if there were any movies playing downtown, something appropriate for her kids, which is to say our kids. Yeah, she said, so three blocks was the best I could do for a hike--straight west downtown to the theater, where we donned special glasses and watched Tangled, Disney's version of the Repunzel story in a 3-D version so real my grandson and I kept reaching for butterflies when they came floating past.

In David Brooks' last column in the NY Times, he quotes that odd Christian curmudgeon Tolstoy like this: “The aim of an artist is not to solve a problem irrefutably, but to make people love life in all its countless, inexhaustible manifestations.” I sat there beside my tow-head, second-grade grandson, watched him lose himself in the story, and told myself that there's so much I just haven't learned about stories, like what they're all about, after all. He was teaching me. I was learning new stuff from him because between the two of us, we were dead lost, him loving the story, me in him loving it. And him.

I watched him turn away disgustedly as little boys do when finally Repunzel and her sweetheart thug-turned-saint finally, delightedly, kiss. He just couldn't watch. When the two of them faced sure death by drowning, when it looked like the end was near, he flipped off those glasses and looked up at the ceiling, sure, I guess, the whole story was going to come crashing down on him like a third-rate garage door. I watched Tangled through my grandson's eyes, and when he snuggled up against me during all that high Disney tension, I felt the tremors in his heart and soul.

I came out of that theater telling myself that it's no dang wonder I haven't figured out how to finish that novel of mine because I hadn't been thinking of what it's all about, hadn't seen the wonder in my grandson's bespectacled eyes or thought at all of trying to making sure that novel offers people what Tolstoy says it must--the sheer joy of loving life.

Disney snatched a few tears out of me on the holiday--I'll admit it. Maybe one or two because all things worked together for good in that zany, hairy movie, but also because my grandson lent me, for two hours, his child's heart, an act that gave that movie even more wonder than anything you could see through those plastic glasses.

This morning--three days later--I'm still on a high, and for all of that I give thanks. Thanksgiving thanksgiving.

Oh yeah, the meal was terrific and the pie was to die for. That too.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Morning Thanks--Thanksgiving

It's miserably cold outside. Once again--it happened for the first time just this week--the streets, like our back sidewalk, is treacherous, layered in ice. With every step, you keep your finger on 911. I walk on the grass instead , or rather the leaves I didn't pick up when my lawn mower wouldn't start. High today-- somewhere in the lower 20s, weather folks say.

But it's Thanksgiving, and there was no silly pat-down protest yesterday, which likely means that on the busiest travel day of the year, folks got where they wanted to go, mostly. By yesterday afternoon, the college where I work was so incredibly silent, I simply came home to correct the tests I've got to get finished. Today in a gadzillion homes, a gadzillion tom turkeys (I guess ours was a hen) will emerge with a glaze and a tan from a gadzillion ovens, cranberries will color and zing a gadzillion plates full of corn and peas and potatoes and gravy--and, yes, I know we're all alike.

Some will go without, again. But in every last city in the country, the homeless will feast today if they can get down to the mission. A couple of years ago, I called to a place in Sioux City wondering if they needed help. No thanks, they said, we're well-staffed, more volunteers than we need. The fact is, on this holiday lots of people don't forget.

It's Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving morning, dark as night outside my basement window. And cold. Frigid cold. Winter cold. It's no longer fall in Siouxland. It's winter.

We've made it through another year without real horror. We're older, of course--a grandpa and grandma too, more shaky on icy sidewalks. Our granddaughter's getting lanky, as little girls do. Our grandson has front choppers for the first time since he busted out his baby teeth several years ago--and a new haircut. He looks different, but spend five minutes with him and inside he hasn't changed much, except he reads better. And the little guy, a two-fisted eater, grows like prairie stormcloud, even though he's almost always happy as some sweet May afternoon.

We've got a wedding coming in May, a precious event that includes getting ourselves a new daughter we really like.

My wife is retired. And happy. And when I lift mine eyes to the hills, I can see to the end. And it's oh, so good.

I was about to say that we've got no big stuff to be thankful for this day, no miraculous escapes from death or disease, no bountiful job promotions, no New York Times best-sellers. What I was thinking was that we've got nothing to rave about this Thanksgiving. What we do have, however, is lots of reasons for quiet thanks.

And that's enough. Who really wants headlines?

I'm still taken by our pastor's unsullied proclamation last week, his conviction that Psalm 103 is simply the best of the lot. How does he dare to say that? What's 23?--chopped liver?

But he's not far off. Here's a chunk:

Bless the LORD, O my soul: and all that is within me, bless his holy name.
Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits:
Who forgiveth all thine iniquities; who healeth all thy diseases;
Who redeemeth thy life from destruction; who crowneth thee with lovingkindness and tender mercies;
Who satisfieth thy mouth with good things; so that thy youth is renewed like the eagle's.

Okay, at 62 I'm thinking that last one is hyperbole, a stretch anyway; but the rest of it is pure blessing. Like cranberries and tanned, glazed turkey right from the oven, and a table full of hungry, blessed family, like new teeth, and long legs, a double-fisted eater, and a wedding a'coming.

All of it, really, headline reasons--even on this icy cold, winter day--for morning thanks.

Bless the Lord, O my soul.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Thanksgiving Live! -- a story

It would be hard to overstate the enthusiasm Meredith Cleghorn brought to an idea everyone thought novel and promising, an idea Meredith herself had come up with, and an idea she thought would put Bethel Church on the map for once. On good days, Meredith wanted to believe that stodgy Bethel was the turtle of the old fable, the rest of the upstart evangelical churches around them a pack of speedster rabbits. But on bad days--and there were more than a few--she thought this turtle of a congregation so awkward, so stuck in its own shell that someday it would be left in the dust by its neighboring churches and simply prove the fable to be another false promise.

This time, she thought, this Thanksgiving, we'll put our name in lights on Thornwood Avenue--the "avenue of churches," people called it, because passers-by had more options in six or eight blocks on Thornwood than they had off the menu at Applebys.

But this idea was something new, totally new. Most of the fun church things were imported--somebody's brother's uncle's church in New Jersey or southern Cal having a crack-of-dawn quick-worship for Sunday golfers, for instance, or hauling the whole praise-and-worship team out on the lawn and asking people to take blankets so the service looked like a rock concert.

And who wanted to do a live nativity anymore? It's been done, she thought. So she came up with the next best thing: a live Thanksgiving.

It was absolutely amazing that no one had thought of it before, what with the day being a national holiday and having in roots in real Christian piety--the Puritans were Christians after all, she told the preacher, even if they were far too stiff.

Pastor Barnes was a Massachusetts native, and the idea sounded almost homey to him. The consistory thought it would be a good opportunity to involve more people in the programs of the church; and the liturgy committee, in one of its few unanimous votes in the last decade, offered Meredith carte blanche, even though it had no funds to speak of. Wherever Meredith went in Bethel Church, body heat rose a good deal more fractionally. A live Thanksgiving seemed a perfect idea.

She recruited Mark Winslow to do the costume work, since he directed theater at Glendonwood's William James High School and had scores of books on period dress. Mark called her back a day later, thrilled to have discovered that the Puritans didn't only wear black, like all the holiday marketing posters seemed to suggest. They didn't always wear pointy hats either, like the witches they'd tried to burn. He said they even liked bright colors--John Winthrop, one of their first governors, loved a bright red sash. "I'm so excited, " he said. "The whole thing doesn't have to look like an old black and white photograph."

The foods thing wasn't as promising--gruel and beans and corn and venison--but then they had decided not to serve people Thanksgiving dinner, only to picture that first holiday on the church lawn--40 or 50 Puritans and a couple dozen Indians having a meal. Norma Richter was uncomfortable with whole notion of replicating food and drink, because she'd discovered, she said, the Puritans were big beer drinkers. "You're kidding?" Meredith said. Norma Richter nodded in repentent silence. But they weren't after really strict authenticity anyway--when Newmarket Church did the Last Supper thing the year before, Pastor Barnes asked, do you think they drank real wine? Of course not.

Scott Foreman, who cuts his own wood, volunteered dozens of stumps for seating; and they figured they could dye a half dozen old sheets into flat earth tones, then spread them over six or eight tables hauled out of the basement. Once upon a time years ago in college, Fanny Michaels had done a physical education paper on early American games. She said she'd see if she could put together a few hoops and sticks, or whatever.

For a long time, they worked with an intensity created, at least in part, from the covertness of the operation; they tried very hard not to whisper a word of this around the community, lest some other church one-up them at that last moment. "Operation Plymouth" became its code name--"OP," for short. "Do you have enough kids for the 'OP'?" Fanny asked Meredith one Sunday in October, her hand up to her mouth. Meredith nodded in silence.

It was decided that on November 11, at 9:30 p.m.--purposefully late--the whole crowd who would actually be the OP, even the kids, would meet at Bethel for a secret meeting designed to teach them history. They recruited Anne Goldman, a member of the church who'd retired only two years before from 37 years of teaching American history at William James. And they'd given her this mandate: tell us about that first Thanksgiving. Make it real for us.

Fifty-nine really eager people met, not in the fellowship hall, but in the sanctuary itself, where they pulled the worship chairs into a kind of half-circle for Anne Goldman. Meredith and most of her zealots were a bit wary about involving Anne, who tended, even in her silence, to put a non-verbal kabosh on almost everything innovative at Bethel. Sometimes even Pastor Barnes thought Ms. Goldman, who'd never married, would prefer that St. Louis would simply go back to steamboats, wagon trains, and beaver hats. But no one in the congregation was better qualified to tell the story, and they just figured she'd feel snubbed if they didn't give her the opportunity.

"What you must know," she told them once she'd been introduced, "is the depth of heart of these people. For what Bradford records is that on that first thanksgiving--an entire day given to feast-making for God's blessings on his people--there was real reason to celebrate."

Meredith was pleased. Ms. Goldman seemed almost upbeat.

"They'd made it through the first year," she said. "They were alive. Some of the aborigines were there, of course--"

Meredith looked at Mark Winslow, who taught with Goldman, as if he could explain. She thought aborigines were Austrailian. "Aborigines--" she said, interrupting.

"The Native Americans," Ms. Goldman told them. "The Puritans--who were actually called pilgrims--learned some useful things about agriculture from the native Americans."

Meredith found that novel, but then she'd once seen Dances with Wolves.

"They weren't Puritans?" Pastor Barnes said. He'd grown up in Massachusetts, still carried the accent. "You're kidding, right?"

The old woman smiled graciously. "The Puritans wanted simply to purify the church--not leave it. Hence the name." She nodded as it were worthy of discussion, then proceeded. "At Plymouth, the people were far more radical." She smiled again. "I don't believe anyone in this church would really like their worship much--two-hour sermons, no choir, no special music--"

"We just want to make a kind of picture," Meredith told her, afraid of the direction Ms. Goldman was heading. "We don't have to like them." She looked around and laughed.

"I see," Ms. Goldman said.

"So they'd had a good year--isn't that true?" Meredith said, trying to bring back some lightness. "They had every reason to be thankful--good crops?"

"They were alive," Ms. Goldman said, "and that was significant. If you believe Bradford--and most everyone does--then, you have to understand that their joy came almost exclusively from their simply being alive."

"What exactly do you mean?" Scott Foreman said.

"There were no comforts, of course," Ms. Goldman said. "Nothing--no streets, no toilets, no furnaces, no Holiday Inns. There were no freezers, no microwaves, no smorgasbord for Sunday dinner. And all the while, as Bradford says, they had to face an angry people just outside the boundaries of their community--the native Americans didn't exactly take to these folks with open arms." She looked at them strangely. "You've considered, I hope, that your entire presentation may be offensive to our native American community?"

Meredith hadn't thought of that. She'd mostly assumed that Native people lived in South Dakota or somewhere a land away. She had no idea how on earth Bethel's darling Thanksgiving portrait could offend people anyway. The idea was to advertise, after all.

"You're being careful how you outfit yourself to look Iriquois, aren't you?" She pulled hand up in front of her face, discretely, and covered the giggle. "My word, look at the mess about baseball teams--Atlanta Braves, and all of that. You know, you could have a whole war party here inside of twenty minutes, a huge protest."

For just a moment, Pastor Barnes, who'd remembered some whispers about King Phillip's war, felt the fear his Massachusetts' ancestors might have.

"You know, Native people think of us as illegal immigrants--you ever think of that?" She looked around and saw nothing to make her think she was getting through. "But this is what you want to know," Ms. Goldman said. "Maybe more than anything else--this is what you need to remember." She pointed at Mark Winslow directly, the director. "More than half of them died that first year--remember that." She swept her hand over half the crowd, the group in the church, swept them away like Charleton Heston might have, the whole north half of the group, women and children, old men and maidens. "You," she said, "all of you--all dead that first year. Starvation, malnutrition, disease. All dead."

And then she did something no one would have guessed. "Move," she commanded, and she pointed them out to the fellowship hall. "Go on," she said. "Just for a moment, leave. All of you are dead."

They left, slowly, bewildered.

Ms. Anne Goldman then looked Meredith Cleghorn straight in the eyes. "They're all gone," she told her. "Now you pray." She pointed a long bony finger. "Now thank the Lord for all his blessings," she said, in what seemed almost a sneer. "You buried half your number that first winter, now thank God."

Meredith looked at the empty chairs and felt oddly exposed with so few of them gone, many of her disciples departed. She shrugged her shoulders, as if requesting pity. She looked for Pastor Barnes for help, but he, like so many others, was gone.

"Go on," Ms. Goldman said. "Pray."

The clamps in her insides tightened. Certainly she didn't mean it, Meredith thought. Certainly, the old lady didn't expect her, now, to pray--as if they were acting or something, she thought, as if this was just a game, a schoolroom lesson.

"If you can't pray, then laugh," she commanded once again, "celebrate."

She felt no reservoir of joy right then, no smile at all.

Then the old woman nodded as if her sermon had finished itself. She looked around at the few left alive, took in each pair of eyes in her own, her head nodding slowly as she moved from one to another as if to say that this was history class for today.


Later that month Bethel's Live Thanksgiving--Operation Plymouth--went off just as planned. The Lord allowed them perfect weather. Hundreds drove passed the church. The Post-Dispatch gave it headline coverage, as did all of TV stations--on the spot reporters. It was, for Bethel, an overshelming success.

And it taught Meredith Cleghorn, Pastor Barnes, and host of other Bethel people something about Thanksgiving that they never, ever forgot.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Word, words, words*

We were young, just parents, and he was our landlord--a brilliant mind, I'm quite sure. He'd drop by and talk. And talk. And talk. And talk. He never stopped. He was a theologian, a retired preacher. We used to roll our eyes when finally he'd pick up his hat.

I remember once, back then, when our own pastor stopped by for an annual visit the Dutch sometimes still refer to as huis bezoek. He was with an elder, a colleague of mine. That night, that preacher talked and talked and talked and talked--a full hour. I don't know that anyone else even said a word. The next day that colleague told me he was deeply impressed with the preacher because even though the man talked all night, he was marvelously perceptive about the people with whom he'd visited. I thought my colleague--a sweet, sweet man--on that one was utterly daft .

Thirty years ago, I told myself I was never going to become an old preacher. I wouldn't let myself go on and on. And here I am, on a blog.

It's not just preachers--it's profs too. We're mightily susceptible to perpetual yapping, accustomed as we are to the sound of our own voices. What's more, we're also accustomed to people listening, students or parishoners. We've spent lifetimes holding forth.

Yesterday morning was sheer disaster--I won't count the ways. The low point happened just outside my door, when I was running late and my unopened school bag slipped from my shoulder, dumping its contents into the powdery snow over the driveway in the pitch darkness of early, early morning. I couldn't even see what had to be picked up.

I think the Lord allows a smidgeon of vulgarity every fortnight or so, so I registered my allotment, then took off my gloves and retrieved all that snowy stuff, jammed it back in the bag, and walked off. It was, maybe, 6:30, inky dark.

Against the streetlights, it was clear to me that the morning that had been a disaster in the basement--class preps, computer snafus--was going to be a gem outside. Through the amber glow of streetlights, the hoarfrost on the trees was already beginning to appear. Lots of people hate cold weather, with good reason; but when the Lord almighty outfits naked trees in perfect white gloves, if you forget the temperature you might just think you're in heaven. Even in the darkness, the maples and lindens--utterly shorn of leaves--were noiselessly clapping their hands.

And I told myself the only place I'd like to be right now is anywhere other than where I'm going, somewhere west, somewhere along the Missouri River, somewhere with my camera, trying to capture at least something of what was certainly going to be a drop-dead gorgeous morning. Maybe up north at some frozen Minnesota lake. That'd be fine too.

That's what I was thinking when I was walking to school, still brushing off snow. I want to be gone. I want to be away. I want to be by myself somewhere west or north, alone in all this glory. I don't want to face students that'll show up in an hour. I don't want to talk about passive verbs or--God forbid!--wordiness. I just want to leave. I want to be by myself.

I don't want to hear the sound of my own voice. I want to high-tail it, like Huck.

Instead, I walked to school, where I talked some more, like an old preacher.

Maybe that's why the fantasy haunts me again this morning, even without the provocation, even as the words appear mysteriously from the white silence on the screen before me.

Last night, with a gaggle of students, we read Rilke, some beautiful devotional poems that felt like intimate whispers to God. They're not meant to be read in a group. I'd take him along, I promise. I don't want to talk. I want to learn.

Someplace west, I want the silence to teach me.
*from the archives, 12/11/07

Monday, November 22, 2010

Saturday Morning Catch--Zilch

Skunked. Doesn't happen often really. If it looks like the morning is going to be unprofitable, I don't leave the basement. The camera stays in the case. But when, Saturday morning, I looked into the dark morning sky, all I saw was stars.

When I headed out of town, a beautiful pink glow stretched along the horizon out east, a telling graceful line promising that motherload landscape I'm always looking for. I was giddy. So I flew along, south and west, until I came to an old standby place where I'd not been for a long time, a half-mile down a road so much less traveled that the state tells you you're taking it at your own risk. Fine. I'm game.

A succession of quickly rolling hills offers a landscape out there that, some mornings, ranks among the best in the neighborhood. I thought I was about to come home with a stringer full.

I got out of the car and just about froze. First time since last February that I needed a hood and a cap to keep my ears from falling off in a biting wind from somewhere in Alberta, a wind I honestly hadn't felt when I left town.

What I hadn't felt was one thing--what I hadn't seen was worse: the entire sky was overcast, real overcast, west to east, a bank of foamy cloudiness that closed in fast on a sliverish dawn at the world's eastern edge. A scarlet line almost fluorescent was there for a moment; but I could barely stand up in that bitter wind before clouds got in my way, as the old sad song says.

I got back in the car and chased little more than a faint line for awhile because sometimes, almost miraculously, the sun'll open up yet and paint all that overcast in pink.

Didn't happen. I chased the dawn for miles and came home with nothing. Maybe twenty exposures so crappy I deleted them the minute I saw 'em. Kept one. You're looking at it. Boring.

So I came home ornery. I wanted to pick up the last wave of leaves from the lindens on the north side of the house, so I dragged the mower out, tried to turn it over, failed, failed, tried to use the pull cord to start it--nothing. Barely a cough, a hiccup. That's it. Stood there for awhile, gave it a dirty look, thinking it might mend its way.

Did I say it was cold? Terribly cold, and now my arm hurts from jerking the pull start.

Nothing went right Saturday. I got skunked. It was miserable. The pictures I took were lame, ugly. My lawn mower stood out there, defiant. Cold as ice.

I love Saturdays, and I haven't spent that many at home this entire semester. One more trek around the yard on my rider, and I would have had the whole place ready for winter, mostly. The weather said rain, snow, and every kind of precip in between. If those leaves get wet and freeze, they'll be there until April. Blasted mower. I just unloaded a couple hundred on repairs this week, too. Sheesh.

Then the Hawks lost in the fourth quarter. Again.

Sunday, I just about took an pratfall on the back walk because black ice descended. And it was cold. Or did I say that? Old man winter's here now--cold and dreary. Saturday morning's overcast stuck around like a bad habit.

And then this, last night--a wonderful sermon on Psalm 103--"one of my three favorites," the preacher said. When he preached on 103 three years ago, he must have said it was "the best" because that line is scratched in my Bible. Okay, 103, I thought. I'll listen.

Sunday night it was, and a line from that great old psalm smacked me upside the head like that awful wind and now has hung around in my soul with the persistence of a cloud bank, all the while carrying the energy and grace and knockout beauty of a perfect dawn.

I don't know why exactly. I mean, nothing about Saturday or Sunday really ranks as a cardinal sin. I didn't leave my wife or get profane or steal a iPad. I wasn't heartsick over some horrifying discretion or carrying a load of sin around like some Grand Canyon pack mule. I don't know why a single line from 103 hit me like it did, but it did.

He knows who we are, the Psalm says; he remembers we are dust.

Just got me, all right. "He knoweth our frame," the King James says; "he remembereth that we are dust."

"He knows we're mud," Eugene Peterson quips*.

He knows what we're made of, and it's not a whole lot.

Don't know why, but what a line, what a great line.

I get skunked and I'm ornery the whole day. But he knows. Good night, he must shake his head a whole lot. But he knows. He gets it. He understands. He rolls his eyes and remembers what we're made of--and it ain't much. He was there. He's the one who cooked us up. He knows that we're dust.

But he smiles about it, and that's just what I need to know, even though this morning outside there's an eighth of an inch of pure ice on the windshield and my wipers are locked up solid.

He gets it. He knows what we came from. He knows.

As far as east is from the west, so far as he removed our transgressions from us.

There's the motherload landscape I didn't get in the camera. But that's okay.
*And a friend claims that Peterson wasn't the first to use the word mud on us. Here's Calvin: “We have nothing with which to glorify ourselves, […] for we are nothing but earth and mud, when all is said and done.”

Friday, November 19, 2010

The stars and their stories

Okay, give me leave to gloat. I haven't had much opportunity as of late.

Obama decides that rather than let a gargantuan American industry go under and a million American families lose their incomes, he'll give General Motors gadzillions of dollars to keep the whole business afloat.

Republicans scream and bawl because American society is turning pinkish with a socialist calling the shots. What that man wants, some claim, is to nationalize all the industry. He's taking us down the road to red. We're dissing our own grandchildren, and everybody knows that the damn government only gets in the way of business.

It's less than two years later, and yesterday GM went public with the biggest stock sale in U. S. history. A significant chunk of those gadzillions he lent the carmaker is already back in the national treasury, a million people still have the kind of industrial jobs we seem not to have many of anymore, Michigan is beginning to turn the corner on its immense unemployment problems, and what do we hear from the Dr. No's of doom?--silence. McConnell, Boehner, and the Queen of Tweets, Sarah Palin, are busy blocking more unemployment payments because that kind of welfare is really just another budget breaker, and besides, the fact is, people who don't have jobs get frickin' lazy. Ain't that the truth. The only way to get them back to work is to shut 'em off but good so they don't have the cash for their dang cigarettes. Send 'em all to Wal-Mart--Wally always need greeters. Just don't give 'em any more money because, well, dang it, it's not the American way. They got bootstraps, don't they? It's time they pull 'em up themselves.

I don't know a thing about dancing, and I never once watched Dancing with the Stars. As far as I know, Bristol Palin may be the reincarnation of Ginger Rogers. She may be blessed with angel toes for all I know.

But from what I read, she's not. Agile, lithe, rhythmic, she may be; but the word on the street is that she's somewhere in the area of second-rate when matched with other contestants. But what do I know?

I don't care. I like the fact that some guy in Wisconsin, too much Schlitz or Blatz in his system, simply pulled out his 12-gauge when Ms. Palin got declared champ in the latest episode, and he blew away his TV. Okay, he shouldn't have raised that level of fuss; after all, he kept up a stand off with the law for some time, I'm told.

No matter. He's my hero. Maybe we'd all be better off blowing holes in our TVs. Maybe we'd all be better off not listening.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Morning Thanks--bladders and gyroscopes

Here's the way it went apparently. When Lakota warriors needed to be sure to wake up on time--for a hunt or a foray south into Pawnee country or whatever--they made sure they had a bellyful of water the night before, turning their bladders into alarm clocks.

I'm out here in Sioux country, but it's been years since I needed any kind of alarm, and I don't even need to load up the night before. I'm as regular as dawn, even now, just a month from winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. It's dark as night outside and my alarm clock goes off in spades, in a fashion that won't let me just turn over, fluff the pillow, and go back to sleep.

Just a few nights ago, my wife and I stayed for several nights in a hogan way up on a hill so high the pinons were almost turning to pine, a place at the end of the road, you might say, a wonderful place way, way, way out of the way, a sweet little six-sided cabin good friends of ours keep for visitors and their own good friends. In that sweet-retreat hogan, when my alarm clock woke me to let me know it was time, I stepped out of bed into a depth of darkness one never, ever sees in town. It was plain black, in fact, hand-in-front-of-the-face black, pitch black; and even though the place couldn't have been more than thirty feet across and roughly circular, when I stood up and aimed myself at the bathroom, for the life of me I couldn't find it.

In Iowa, people claim round barns drive farmers crazy because they can't find a corner to pee in. A hogan is no round barn, but there in the steep, high-desert darkness my panic-y mind was tossing up frightful images of some poor, bib-overall-ed guy in a John Deere cap, fly gaping and frantic.

I conceded and turned on the light. I needed help.

I don't get out of bed as easily as I used to either because whatever gyroscope spins in my brain functions no better than my knees with the first step or two. It takes awhile for that machine to get its own bearings, so it's not hard for me to imagine how it is that old people fall.

Just now, this morning, when I awoke, I sat up slowly, swung my legs over the side of the bed, and sat there for a moment in the darkness and heard birds singing, I swear it--a whole chorus of songbirds piping the dawn. Wasn't true, of course. It's dark as night outside and the windows are shut tight because Jack Frost is very much on the prowl. What's more, dawn is a good two hours down the pike. There were no birds, except the ones in my ears and somewhere, I suppose, in my soul.

Which reminded me of the sweet deception of sea shells--hold 'em to your ears and you hear the ocean. I guess I heard the birds that used to be, the birds I wanted to hear.

I suppose you can talk yourself into anything, if you want to--the music of the birds in the dark of winter, the soothing sea in a deserted shell. I suppose this mysterious, miraculous mind of ours can create its own best comfort--and its own deceptions. For a moment I sat there on the side of the bed and listened happily to the songs of non-existent birds. And it was good, like late- May good.

Then I stood up because while minds lie, bladders don't. Well, maybe if they're cancerous, I guess. If they're healthy, I'm told they tell the truth--if maybe a bit too often in any one night.

But mine speaks no falsehood and therefore must be healthy, I guess, thank the Lord--which I'm doing, right now, for his far from incidental morning blessings.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Morning Thanks--a wonderful night

For most of my life I've hoped to make enough money by writing to buy more time to write. Rather unfashionably, I've never written that idea down as an achievable goal. These days, it seems, you're not hustling if you don't have a half dozen goals and objectives scribbled out and put in a frame above the desk. They're now an contractual obligation where I work--"what goals do you want to accomplish this year?" If you've got 'em written down, by the 31st of December, you can check off those you've taken home, as if they were veggies, a half-gallon of milk, and those dry-cleaned shirts you keep forgetting to pick up.

Making some money to buy some time is a goal I never wrote down. Maybe that's the problem.

'Cause it's never worked, quite. I'm not complaining, but it would have been nice to be able to buy a little of my own time once in awhile. Not that I ever wanted to get filthy rich or anything. Believe me, I've stepped in sins a whole lot messier than the love of money.

And the writing life has had its sweet moments, for sure. Take Monday night--no don't, as Henny Youngman might have said. I want to keep it forever.

Here's the honest-to-God truth. I take a job like the one that ended up in a book like Rehoboth(go back a couple of days) because I absolutely can't pass up the chance to learn what I can from people whose lives I'd never know if I wasn't blessed with the opportunity to talk to them--at great length--about how they've lived through what they have. I get to meet people--in depth; I get to hear their stories; I get to listen to their hearts beat, to stand as close as anyone to their own holy of holies. Good Lord, what a privilege. What a blessing is mine.

Those families--twelve in all--were invited to come to Rehoboth Christian Middle School for the gala release of the book. It wasn't a public thing at all--no church bulletin announcement, nothing in the paper, just an simple invitation to a dozen families, with an r.s.v.p.

Hundreds--I'm not kidding--showed up. Hundreds. The place was jammed with Native folks and white folks, young and old. Each family came up front when their names were announced and picked up five copies of their own brand new book.

I don't think this writer has the words to describe that night. Ian Frazier finishes The Great Plains with a scene in a small town in Kansas, where people simply love each other; he says it's proof of what this world could be. Last night on the plane home from New Mexico, I finished Rhoda Janzen's Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, and she finishes that sassy memoir with a very similar moment, standing with a posse of Mennonite elders, all of them dancing and singing and offering a level of joy that makes her feel, she says, home--as in really home.

I may be gloating, and if I am, may I be forgiven; but Monday night, what went on in that school assembly room climbed to a hot-air-balloon level of blessing. What seemed to reign that night with all those folks in that place was nothing less than joy.


I never really wanted to make big money by writing--like I said, love of bucks has never been at the top of my list of deadly sins. I've always wanted to make enough to buy some time, and, mostly, I guess, that hasn't worked out.

But if I look back on my life as a writer--shoot, as a human being--then I can't help but say that what happened in the Code Talkers Middle School on Monday night comes as close as I can remember to a vision of heaven as I've ever witnessed or been a part of--solid, unfettered joy all around. I never made much money writing, but, Lord a'mighty, for a couple of hours on Monday night I could count myself among the super rich, richer than any fool human should be, mega-bucks stuffed from the pockets of my heart.

This morning it's good to be back in the basement, even though my computer is doing all kinds of time-consuming calesthenics, checking in updates it didn't get while we were gone. But it's no problem for me to come up with material for my morning thanks because for that Monday night experience with good folks whose lives I've been blessed to share, I am deeply, deeply thankful.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

El Morro, Today

It was Saturday, the day before I’d been called upon to hold forth at two worship services, not something I normally do, not being a preacher. It was late afternoon before what was for me an unusual Sabbath, and I may have been, unwittingly, in some kind of foreign preaching mode. Whatever the reason, a visit to a place like El Morro, south and east a bit from Gallup, New Mexico, offered my soul a dozen sermons.

Hundreds—thousands—of people, males mostly, took time from their 16th, 17th, 18th, and 19th-century adventures in American’s southwest to carve their names in the soft sandstone of a mountain buttress that can’t be missed amid the high desert flatland. El Morro was, back then, the only worthwhile pit stop within hundreds of miles because it offered the only available water for miles around and enough tall trees to offer shade from a stiff summer sun.

It started with primitive peoples hundreds of years before who carved countless petroglyphs into the stone, many of those fading by the hand of a thousand passing seasons. The Spanish left their mark too; the oldest dated inscription (and you can’t call what’s here scribblings because many are meticulous in their neatness) is 1607. Think Jamestown. There are no Puritans in Massachusetts; there is no Massachusetts. But the Spanish were here, taking it easy, a kind of early 17th century spa.

The preacher emerges. It’s so like us to want to outlive ourselves. Our names in this rock—that’ll do it. The next bunch of weary travelers will know we were here.

Strangely enough, they weren’t wrong--today it's a monument, in fact. You can’t help stare at etchings now more than 400 years old—and older. Someone was here. Someone even thousands of years ago left a turtle, a dog, whatever, sketched into the rock. Someone, long gone, won’t be forgotten. Look here.

We do so want to be heard, known, remembered. Or maybe it’s better stated this way: we do so want not to be forgotten.

But history itself wasn’t kind to El Morro. Today, this huge landmark buttress stands a long way from any beaten path. You’ve got to leave the highway to find it because the railroad decided on a route through New Mexico that took it 60 miles north or so and left the old pit stop alone, miles from much traffic. Today, more than a century after the last human being scratched his name into the sandstone, nobody does anymore, but then nobody can, and therefore nobody will.

Today, I guess, El Morro is little more than a specialized cemetery. Teddy Roosevelt thought it should be a monument, but I couldn’t help think of the new austerity coming down the pike. What might a garrulous tax-wary citizenry think of the price we pay to look at fading words on a rock—-think simply of the maintenance!

And then there’s this. Here and there, one sees some sanding. Before all these etchings became a national monument, locals would steal over and carve in their own less thoughtful messaging—-you know what I mean, the kinds of delights one finds on bathroom walls. Such base utterances were quickly wiped out, of course, but the long smoothly sanded areas are their own testimony to the baseness of the human character.

Like I said, El Morro offers a preacher a ton of sermons.

But the one that stuck me most deeply was a long fissure in one of the foremost pillars of stone, a top-to-bottom gaping crack that reminded me of—of all things—that awful fissure in the House of Usher, the one that brought the place down at the end of Poe’s masterpiece. The great stone crack at El Morro may have been the Billy Graham of the place, because it suggested that even the stone itself would pass. A thousand more New Mexico seasons may come and go before the fortress falls, but that crack was telling, almost scary. When it goes, it’ll take a couple hundred signatures with it, maybe more, should they last that long.

Nothing gold can stay. Nothing meticulously etched either, I guess. Not even the very rock. Alas, here below, nothing is eternal, much as we might like it to be. Dust to dust. All flesh is grass, and so is this golden sandstone.

El Morro, once a Las Vegas or a Central Station, is little but a footnote today. Tomorrow, who knows?

I’m thinking this preaching thing can get to you.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Worship matters

I'll be leaving shortly, getting on a plane to New Mexico, where we'll celebrate the release of this new book. Should be fun. No place I'd rather go right now.

"Mormon Missionaries Pay Me a Visit" showed up on Writer's Almanac a couple days ago. I don't know Ken Hada, the poet, at all; this is the first poem I've ever seen of his. But the circumstance of the story he tells isn't foreign to anyone who's lived on a city street, and we all know the missionaries too, who certainly don't have to be Mormon.

Mormon Missionaries Pay Me a Visit

by Ken Hada

I'm sitting on my lawn
enjoying a nice blunt cigar
watching children ride scooters
up and down the street
twilight gently falling,
swallows circling,
Mississippi Kites high overhead,
tree frog, sounds of sweet shadows

Then I see them in the corner of my eye,
two bikes slow
they can not pass a lost soul –
I'm too conspicuous –
I don't want this feeling, I want them
to pass me by

Good evening sir they say
I'm Elder Hansen says the first
I'm Elder Olson the second chokes
and then they wait
but all I can think to say:
You're kind of young to be elders, aren't you?
They launch into their sales pitch
about Restoration and Heavenly Father
while I recoil in smoke, then interrupt
If I convert do I have to give up this cigar?
They are not sure
but soon get back on track
like a loose wheel wobbling
until they finally bid me good evening.

I watch them roll away
and wonder
what gives them the audacity to interrupt me
while I am at worship

I wonder sometimes about my penchant for irony--I mean, whether that delight is good or bad. The fact is, it's simply in me, even though I recognize the cynicism it so easily fosters. The thing is, I know that not everyone loves it the way I do--irony, I mean. What might it be like to live without it?--I ask myself.

Take these missionaries. The narrator says only two things, both jokes, neither of which the zealots pick up--"you're kind of young to be elders, aren't you?" Doesn't register; they're on a mission: "They launch into their sales pitch."

And then, "If I convert must I give up this cigar?" They'll check, they tell him, hardly missing a note in their wobbling song.

The setting here doesn't have to be Mississippi, and the zealots certainly don't have to be Mormon. The poem has room enough for more of us. I could set it in New Mexico, in fact, and the two elders could easily be white, the speaker Native.

That's a lesson this white guy had to be taught by Native people. I hope that's in the book I wrote--what I learned, I mean. I believe it is, even if it's not said as clearly as it is in this little poem.

I'm not anti-missions. Christ's clarion call to go into all the world rings as clearly in my ears and mind and heart as in anyone's.

But the devil's in the details, and we know this too: we all have sinned; we all have gone astray.

There's always much to learn.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Book on Uncle Edgar

I was never formally introduced to my great uncle Edgar Hartman. He was dead long before I was born, even before my mother was born, in fact. But I knew of him by way of his only sibling, my grandmother, who used to tell me the same story, over and over, whenever I, as a boy, mowed her lawn.

A single ice-cube floated around at the top of a glass of lemonade she’d always bring out when I’d finish the grass on the north side of her house. She’d set that lemonade out, wave me to the porch beside her, then push that glass at me with a warning.

“You drink that slowly now,” she’d say. “Years ago, I brought my brother Edgar a quart jar of lemonade when he was working in the canning factory–one of those hot summer nights.” Her head would rise slightly, her eyes lose focus as she’d bring back the incident. “Edgar drank it in one gulp–never even brought it down,” she’d say, not without some admiration. “When he was finished he took one look at that empty jar and passed out–right then and there, flat on the floor.” She’d point at the lemonade. “Not so fast now.”

That was just about all I knew of this great uncle Edgar. I knew he was dead, of course, and that the local American Legion Post was named after him–Hartman-Lammers Post–and that he’d died in the Great War, World War I.

I was a kid then–maybe ten–and a half a century had passed since Uncle Edgar took leave from this vale of tears. He died somewhere in France, maybe in a scene like this—I don’t know—but for years the only story I knew about him featured a bout of heavy lemonade chugging and a quick trip to the cement floor at Oostburg Canning Factory, circa 1910.

Years later, my grandma passed along fistfulls of old scrapbook stuff to me, thinking, I suppose, that of her grandchildren, I seemed most fascinated by her stories of the past. Those old pictures and documents continued to yellow in a box I’d come heir to, each dutifully described in her chicken-scratch writing so I’d remember who was who and what was what.

When Grandma died, I dug into that box and found a bunch of things having to do with her brother Edgar. Odd. I was 500 miles from the Oostburg Canning Company and American Legion hall, but here I was, fated to be the sole caretaker of a life most everyone else had forgotten.

Edgar Hartman was not married when he was killed instantly by what his commanding officer called a German “one-pounder.” He was just one of millions killed in the endless horror of trench warfare that came to define the military madness of World War I. My mother never knew him; she’d been born a month and a half after his death. As far as I knew, no one alive knew my uncle Edgar.

I suppose that’s why I put all those Uncle Edgar documents, photographs, and letters my grandmother had given me into a scrapbook with “Photo Album” embossed in gold across a non-descript, tan cover. There’s no picture of him sprawled out on the floor of the Oostburg Canning Company here, but there is, quite frankly, everything else anyone on earth knows of him. I’ve got all of that here in this scrapbook, so when I hold it, as I am now, I have in my hands every last shred of the life of a real human being, a man who happened to be my great uncle. You might say, I’ve got the book on Uncle Edgar.

Had I known him, I suppose I would feel slightly different than I do. Had I known him, grief would certainly play a role in way I feel when I sit here, paging through the photographs. Honestly, I don’t feel the grief my grandma certainly must have when he didn’t come back from France. For years, my mother says, our family’s attendance at the Oostburg Memorial Day cemetary “doings,” as Grandma herself used to call them, was mandatory. After all, her only brother had died in “the war to end all wars.”

In fact, my grandmother’s anguish is here vividly here in the Uncle Edgar scrapbook. You can feel it. You can see it in an old envelope that never got through to her brother, and the letter it holds, dated March 14, 1919 (four months after Armistice Day, November 7, 1918), and written on her husband’s stationary–“Harry H. Dirkse, Village Clerk,” it says; that note, written in a much livelier hand than the scratchings on the back of the photos, is signed “Your sister, Mabel.” That’s my grandma.

Here’s what it says: “Dearest Brother, Am making another attempt to have you hear from us. I have now had eleven of my letters returned to me but none the last month so will send another in search of you. We have been unable to find any trace of you up to now, nor received anything from you since your field service card reached us on August 7th. We are all well and have a fine baby girl 3 mos. old awaiting your return. Will write more when I learn whether or not this reaches you. With Love.”

The “fine baby girl” is my mother.

The field service card she refers to is here too, in my hands. “Y * M * C * A,” it says at the top, with the words “With American Expeditionary Force” beneath it. The message is terse: “Dear Sister M, Just arrived safely in England will write again as soon as I have an address. Edgar.” It is not difficult for me to imagine how closely my grandmother must have guarded that postcard over the ensuing months.

And there’s more. My Uncle Edgar scrapbook has a childhood picture of the two of them, brother and sister. There’s even a baby picture, as well what seems to be an eighth grade graduation picture taken about 1910 or so—that’s him, back row, second from the tallest. There are five pictures of him in his military uniform. In one, he’s saluting; in another, a fat cigar juts from the corner of his mouth, while he stands beside his brother-in-law, my grandfather, behind him Oostburg’s Main Street as it must have looked in the early years of the century, a horse rail clearly recognizable out front of my grandfather’s blacksmith shop in the very middle of town.

The scrapbook also includes other things—a stampless post card from Basic Training in North Carolina, which mentions having to hike fifteen miles, a number of letters, the only historical record of what was on his mind in those last years of his life–amazement at the unending length of army chow lines, news of the mumps that kept him from sailing overseas with his company in April of 1918, joy on having run into Jim De Munck, another Oostburg boy–“good to see someone from home,” he writes.

And I have here in my scrapbook the official letter from the War Department, The Adjutant General’s Office, Washington, deeply-stained and dated August 23, 1919, more than a year after his death, and almost a year after the war’s end. It’s addressed to Mrs. Harry Dirkse, Oostburg, Wisconsin, and concerns a man the army noted as “201 (Hartman, Edgar J.) CD.”

“Madam,” it begins, and then, “It is with profound regret that I confirm. . .” You can guess the news.

On the next page is another document, equally official. “Army of the United States of America,” it says in a headline that tents over the top of the page and includes the official symbol of American government, an eagle with palm leaves in one grand claw, arrows in the other. “This is to certify that Edgar J. Hartman, Private, Machine Gun Company, 58th Infantry died with honor in the service of his country on the sixth day of August, 1918.”

The date for the certificate is itself profoundly sad. “Given at Washington D. C., office of The Adjutant General of the Army, this eleventh day of June, one thousand nine hundred and twenty.”

What exactly happened to this man, shown here with two little children, one of them my uncle, the other the great-grandmother of several Dordt students, this man standing across the street from Wykhuis Store, which is now the Pizza Ranch in Oostburg, Wisconsin?

Well, his story is here too, at least what one man claims is Edgar Hartman’s story. My grandmother’s documents include a two-page, hand-written note from a man named Leo B. Zastrow, who described doughboy Edgar.

“He was a member of my platoon but was in another squad about 300 yds to the left of my squad of which I had command in a sunken road leading to Ville-Savoy they were dug in the banks of the road. We had just finished a barrage of 15000 rounds for a covering of our infantry’s advance across the Vesle River. They were fired upon by German one-pounders immediately after our barrage and according the Corporal’s information to me he was instantly killed.. . .I later seen the body when relief came to my Division on my way from the front and recognized the body only by identification tags.”

As to any last words or message, Zastrow says he has none, but he wishes to assure Mr. Hartman’s folks that “he was my most trustworthy man.. . .I can assure them that he died a ‘Hero’ [capital H]. And then, strikingly, “Hoping this information will be of value to you.”

My scrapbook also includes an impressive obituary from the Sheboygan Press, June 18, presumable 1920, which tells much of the story I’ve already related, and adds this: “In the village he was regarded as one of the most prominent young men. He was of a quiet disposition and was well liked by his friends.”

On the final page of this scrapbook is the solitary picture of a solitary cross in a sprawling military cemetery, somewhere in France, I suppose. In very light letters on the cross piece, the words “Edgar Hartman,” and the number “178.”

Edgar Hartman was one of 126,000 American doughboys who didn’t return from the French killing fields or oceanic cemeteries. He was 28 years old when he died, single, and had been employed at the local lumber yard when duty called. He left behind a girlfriend, who later married and had her own life.

It’s entirely possible that no one at Hartman-Lammers American Legion Post knows anything about Edgar Hartman, so think of this: if next June some prairie monster tornado would lift Sioux Center, Iowa, off the gently rolling plains of the American midwest, scattering the household goods of the James Schaap family hither and yon, and this scrapbook of all there is to know about Edgar Hartman were to disappear from the face of the earth, then no one could ever know much at all about the man. His story would be gone, his life as indistinguishable as his body the day that one-pounder killed him in a French ditch.

To hold this scrapbook in my hands has always been a profoundly humbling experience, not only because what’s here is all there is left of this man Edgar Hartman, but also because one can’t help realize how many others–my ancestors and yours, hundreds of millions of earthlings–have vanished from this world without leaving even a trace of themselves. My Edgar Hartman scrapbook, placed on a shelf above my desk, has become my own momento mori, an memento of death’s reality; because what’s truly humbling about having everything anyone on earth knows about Edgar Hartman between two covers of a Wal-Mart scrapbook is the nearly inescapable perception that someday each one of us will also be less than a memory.

But there’s really no big news here, is there? “Dust to dust, the mortal dies,” we used to sing, “both the foolish and the wise.” Later the old song says, “Yet within their hearts they say, that their houses are for aye; that their dwelling places grand shall for generations stand.”

I need Edgar Hartman. We all do. “No young man believes he shall ever die,” wrote William Hazlitt, long ago, and I don’t think he was discriminating.

But now, this Veteran’s Day, it’s good for me to think of the anguish in these letters, months after the Armisitice was signed at five a.m., in a railway carriage in France, November 11, 1918. It’s good for me to think of what my grandma went through, not knowing. It’s good for me to think of that anguish repeated 125,000 times in one year here in this country during and after World War I; 8,500,000 times, worldwide by the end of that war.
On this Veteran's Day, it’s good for me to remember the cost of freedom.

That’s the book on Edgar Hartman, an old story that, like the other worthwhile old stories in its genre, needs to be told over and over again until each of us recognizes it as our own.

That’s my addition—and his, this Great Uncle Edgar—to the story of Veteran’s Day.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Morning Thanks--Rehoboth

The bad news is this one is the last one in the pipeline. Today, I've got nothing else coming. I hope it isn't the end of the game, but I just thought I'd mention that these projects don't come out of nowhere. That's another reason I can't wait to retire.

But there's good news too. For the second time in less than a week, I'm proud--thrilled, in fact--to announce the publication and release of a book. Just so happens the two of them come at very same time, even though the projects have no connection at all.

This one is real stories about families who have been part of the story of Rehoboth, a century-old mission 0n the high plains of western New Mexico, right in the heart of the Navajo nation. Several years ago I almost departed northwest Iowa for the rez, almost quit. Family circumstances made a move impossible and I'm still here, but I ended up doing some work for Rehoboth, which is mostly a wonderful K-12 school these days, but once upon a time was a hospital too, and is, in a way, a community, as it has been for lo, these many years.

Look, I'm no saint. The plain fact of the matter is my great joy in turning out this book was in what I learned. I don't understand what happened in this country since the day those Separatist Puritans slapped their leather boots down on Plymouth Rock. I mean, I understand power. I understand how millions of Native Americans were slaughtered by disease and starvation, how what was theirs became ours. I'm not good at math, but the tsunami of white folks heading west during the 19th century made Native life--as they knew it--forever impossible, Crazy Horse notwithstanding.

But just exactly how we did what we did is a story few white folks like to hear or tell. That story has a thousand chapters in a thousand settings from coast to coast. I like to think that Rehoboth: A Place for Us helps tell that story--it's curses and its blessings--by featuring the family stories of those, Native and Anglo, who've been part of a particular mission community for almost as long as it's been there. I loved writing the book because I loved learning what no school ever taught me as well as those whose families have lived parts of that bigger story whose outlines I know very well, but whose intimate and tragic details I still don't fully understand.

I'm no expert now. But I honestly think I understand better because I understand more.

And I'm proud to say that I'm linked to that old mission effort too, oddly enough. There's a Navajo rug on my wall that's almost 100-years old itself, a gift from some Native weaver to my grandfather, who served on what the church called its Heathen Mission Board a century ago. That old rug came to me because no one else wanted it, and it's been with me for forty years. Few things I own are as precious.

I often wondered how it was that my grandfather was so closely associated with the Rehoboth mission, a man who never preached very far out of the circle of Dutch Reformed hamlets in the rural Midwest. Now I know. His own first cousin was one of Rehoboth's first missionaries--a tough-as-nails horseman who was not ordained but full of passion for Christ and the people of the region, a man named Andrew Vander Wagen. There's a post-office/trading post named after him half way between Gallup and Zuni, New Mexico. I really don't care if nobody else in the world cares about that fact, but I'm honored to think that someone with my own DNA, a saint with the soul of an entrepreneur, a penchant for language, a way with a horse, was right there on dusty New Mexico trails at the dawn of the 20th century. He's in the book.

The word brother is used wholesale among Native people, who have, it seems, a much more expansive definition of what family means that most Anglos. I'm guessing the Navajos understand better than most white people just exactly what it means to me to say that I've got family roots at Rehoboth, no matter how far down those roots burrow.

Anyway, I'm happy to announce the release of Rehoboth: A Place for Us, in celebration of a great, great story--the fruitful mix of three wildly different cultures, the Dutch Calvinists, the Navajo, and the Zuni. It's a beautiful place, Rehoboth is, in every way. It's history isn't all wine-and-roses either. But it's a great story, and a story with immense promise. I hope the book tells at least part of it well. You can order it here.

This morning I'm thankful for the blessing of being a part of this project. I loved it.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Day and Night--a Meditation from Honest to God

Day and Night

"Blessed are those. . .who meditate on [God's] law day and night.” Psalm 1

I spend my day writing or teaching, mostly. Normally I watch about two hours of television, one hour of which is news. About an hour from now, I’ll put in about 30 minutes at the gym and probably another 30 recovering. I’d rather not tally the time I spend piddling around and thereby avoiding the horrors of an empty computer screen; but, honestly, it isn’t all that much. I’m a Calvinist; we’re the folks that gave the world capitalism, for heaven’s sake. We make much of time.

What I don’t do is meditate, day and night, on God’s law. Not really.

Not long ago in an airport, I watched a man in a hat locate a private spot behind the ticket podium, take out some kind of cloth, unfold it carefully, then lay it out with remarkable precision. Then he rolled up his sleeve and wound something that resembled black surgical tubing around his upper arm. He assumed some kind of position and started praying.

He was Jewish, strictly so, and he was meditating. He was discreet, but his meditation was more public than, well, my meditation that evening. It was a prescribed ritual that he felt important to accomplish even if he wasn’t at home. But that ritual began and it ended; once we lined up to get on the plane, the surgical tubing came off.

Because the Psalms are poetry, we need to cut them a little slack when it comes to occasional bold assertions. I honestly don’t think anyone can take this line literally—the only way we can be blessed is if we meditate day and night. Let’s cliché it down a little: in this case, my sense is that we need to respect the spirit, not the letter, of the law.

My great-grandfather, an imminent professor of theology, was notoriously absent-minded. One winter’s day, ruminating on some a biblical text while skating down a Dutch canal on his way to preach at a church on the coast, someone grabbed him by the lapels in order to stop him from simply skating his way right into the open terror of the North Sea. Deep meditation?—yup, but it’s fortunate he wasn’t driving a car.

The strength of the English language is in strong verbs and concrete nouns—at least that’s the rule. Here, however, I believe the finest truth is in a simple preposition—in. The KJV has it, but the NIV doesn’t. The NIV uses on, and while it may be more grammatically accurate, on seems to me to be North Sea dangerous.

Meditating in the law, day and night, leaves a lot of open space. Living in the law, living in God’s covenant promises suggests being in a world, really, a world that allows space for writing and teaching, just as well as milking cows, selling cars, and holding little apple-cheeked kids with too-high fevers, like I just did.

Holding my sick grandson yesterday was a kind of meditation, just as much as this is.

I’d say it would be easier to say of Grandpa that he was meditating on the sermon, than in it.

We all need spiritual discipline; we all need to talk with God. Not to do so is to lose touch. But maybe, just maybe, we need to learn a little from our Islamic friends—or our Lakota brothers and sisters. In a world where separation of church and state is a pillar of our national faith, we need to remember that all of life is spiritual and that even our work is a meditation in God’s law.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Morning Thanks--a new book

Before there was a blog, I used to write meditations in the mornings. Once upon a time, I set out to do a whole year full, even though it wasn't an everyday thing. When I finished two years later, I actually got to my destination--365 meditations on the psalms.

I chose the specific psalms on the basis of their settings--I wanted psalms that somehow opened up to a spacious world because my original idea was to do a day book of meditations that fit the world in which I live, a world of endless landscapes and gargantuan skies.

Two problems. First, 365 meditations on psalm passages, each of them 500 words long or more, create something like a city phone book. Intimidating. Nobody's going to publish it because nobody's going to buy such a monstrosity. Second, with joy in my heart I chose a region of the country, the Great Plains, where hardly anybody lives. If I could sell 'em to hogs or cattle, I might just get a publisher. Maybe.

So I've been spinning 'em out in pieces. First, Sixty at Sixty, and now, fresh as a daisy, Honest to God. The first came about when our pastor told me that he didn't care much for all the where-the-buffalo-roam meds, but he rather liked the ones that talked about getting old and crochety. I hadn't realized I'd committed a theme like that, but his reaction made me think I could put together a bunch of them for other folks my age, boomers. After all, there are more than a few. Hence, Sixty, which, should you like, you can buy

And now this--Honest to God, which is subtitled "Psalms for Scribblers, Scrawlers, and Sketchers," a book that, to use a hot term, is, well, interactive, leaving space for your comments, not on what I wrote but on the passage in question. Just in time for Christmas giving, too.
Check it out.

I feel a little sheepish about all this meditation stuff because I'm hardly the crown prince of devotions myself, even though I've been writing them for almost thirty years, and even though there already is a book of devotions with my name on it and titled Honest to God (it's long out of print).

"I’m no theologian—let’s get that out on the table right away," or so begins the preface to Honest to God. "I don’t know Greek or Hebrew, I never took a seminary class, and I don’t know much at all about the conventions of Hebrew poetry. What’s more, were I to walk two blocks east to the college library, I could find a shelf full of books on the Psalms, more than you or I could ever read. Trust me, I’m no expert, and this book of meditations is not the last word on the Bible’s most celebrated poetry."

I'm serious.

But I'm glad it's here. I've been writing for years and years and years, and I'll admit it--when something comes out, just a story in a magazine, I'm thrilled. Even greater good vibes with a book because it's the end of something. What begins with some half-baked idea down here in the basement actually ends in something I can hold in my hand, something that's on Amazon, something that people can actually read.

This morning, there's no question about the subject matter. This morning, I'm thankful, maybe a little blushingly, for what's here in my hands--this brand new book.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Saturday morning catch--History

The sky was perfectly clear on Saturday morning. The sun rose blindingly in an almost featureless sky and spread its favor over a landscape that is, these November days, increasingly russet, here and there a thick splotch of grass still brandishing the old emerald. If you're not near the river, you've got to hunt for stories.

But I stumbled on some history yesterday, some abandoned places I'd never seen before, both of them deserted long ago. One seemed a mystery to me--a two-story place bigger even than those square 1920's farm places, rectangular too. It was no catalogue house, didn't seem like a house at all, more like a dormitory, although the front door hardly seemed welcoming. And it seemed as if it had been set there once upon a time, the foundation beneath hardly worth of the name. Abandoned places all tell stories, I think, but this one remained a mystery to me.

In Great Plains Ian Frazier says--and he's right--they're simply all over out here, part of the wild story of the Upper Midwest, a broad swath of open land once occupied by vastly more people than live here today. And they're haunting really. I wrote a story--recently published, in fact--about a man finding a suicide in an abandoned barn--pure fiction, of course; but walking around these museum pieces triggers the imagination. Who lived here? Were they happy?

Lifeless as shell, but you can't put your ear up to it and listen to the sea. There's nothing to hear. Nobody's saying a thing, except the voices from your own imagination.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Morning Thanks--sweet home

My wife, who's been home more this week than she has been in the 25 years we've lived in this old house, claims there's one gorgeous female cardinal in a bush just off the deck that wants in to this place. It's not for sale, yet anyway. Now I'm no expert on cardinal behavior, but it's likely, I suppose, that she simply sees her own glamorous image in the window and takes off after it, as if it were worthy competition.

But I rather like the idea that she'd actually like to get in and live here. We do own a beautiful house. It's not one bit ostentious for it's age; plenty of old houses like this have baroque accoutrements--turrets and brick-a-brack. This one is big, but quite primly Dutch Reformed, even a skosh Puritannical, despite its size. It's a plain old very nice house.

A woman wrote me a week ago and asked for pictures of it. Her father, now deceased, was born here, the son of the town veterinarian, who had it built. Her father treasured this place, showed up one day years ago, I remember, children and grandchildren in tow, marched up on the porch, knocked on the door, and explained to my wife and me that this was his own beloved boyhood home. I marched them through the house even though the place was hardly primped up for guests. Big deal. He was more than thrilled.

The woman remembered that spur of the moment tour, remembered her father's glee as he moved from beloved room to beloved room. She asked me to take some pictures for her, including her father's initials in the front sidewalk and the barn wall, where, mid-Depression, he painted them--"E. J. 1935."

It won't be long and the fourth family to live here--Jongewaard, Beimers, Huisman, Schaap--will leave this old house. There's likely some actuary somewhere who knows the mean time these days that people live in a dwelling , but I'm betting we've been here longer than most homeowners stay in their houses--25 years this year.

No matter. I'm betting that if these walls could talk, they'd shrug because I'm quite sure ye olde deed to the place makes clear that this very year--now rolling on to a close--is the house's own 100th.

A century old, and still proud, I'm sure. That pretty cardinal wants in anyway.

Right there in the room where, every night, my wife and I watch the news--well, Jon Stewart's version thereof--a woman died, that old man's mother, who was then the sole resident. If I'm mistaken, E. J. himself was born here, in the house. When sometime soon we move out, this place will bid us goodbye and brace up for change. Maybe they'll be kids around again--I bet these walls are wishing for some squirts to liven up the place.

I don't know that we'll leave any lasting memories here. No births here during our term of office, and, thank the Lord, no one died. But then, we're not gone yet, so who knows? But I'd bet against it.

What will these walls remember from the quarter century the Schaaps lived here? Not much really--no death, no birth, just life, I guess.

Just life, but a good one, so good that beautiful cardinal wants in.

This morning's thanks are for the 100-year old place that put up with us by putting us up for the last quarter century. It's been a home.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Morning Thanks--Just a poem

I'm not only happy, but thankful too, to say that I can laugh at this Stephen Dunn poem. It came at me this morning from Garrison Keillor's Writer's Almanac, got me in the game with the first bounce of the ball--maybe even with the title--and held me thereafter.

Losing Steps


It's probably a Sunday morning
in a pickup game, and it's clear
you've begun to leave
fewer people behind.

Your fakes are as good as ever,
but when you move
you're like the Southern Pacific
the first time a car kept up with it,

your opponent at your hip,
with you all the way
to the rim. Five years earlier
he'd have been part of the air

that stayed behind you
in your ascendance.
On the sidelines they're saying,
He's lost a step.

Look, I'd be lying if I said that was me on the court. In the first place, I was born and reared Dutch Calvinist; I was never on a court on a Sabbath morning. Sunday afternoon?--sure. But Sunday morning?--never happened.

My football coach once told me that my problem was I ran too long in one place, so I never--not in ball-playing life--out quick-ed some body in another jersey. Didn't happen.

I do remember playing ball sometime when I was thirty or so, maybe a little older, in a pick-up game. I came across the lane, took a pass from the wing, and had in my mind pivoting and going up with a short kind of jump-hook. The hook was there, but the jump wasn't. I remember thinking I was up in the air but knowing I wasn't. Strange. Haunting.

I never played basketball again.

But quick?--that's was never me. I'm not the guy in the poem. Too often I ran with a piano on my back.

But there's more.


In a few more years
it's adult night in a gymnasium
streaked with the abrupt scuff marks
of high schoolers, and another step

leaves you like a wire
burned out in a radio.
You're playing defense,
someone jukes right, goes left,

and you're not fooled
but he's past you anyway,
dust in your eyes,
a few more points against you.

What I'm saying is I'm in this poem, even though I'm not. What he described never, ever happened to me. I quit ball the moment I realized my body would no longer play the game my mind expected it would. I was into my forties when, trying to be a good sport, I ran in a local 10K--not for show, for charity, to be nice. I'd become a jogger by then, although I never really deserved the image that goes with the word. I used to say I was a plodder, which had absolutely nothing to do with fiction.

I remember exactly where I was--coming up half-mile road from the Kuhl farm--when I got passed by a woman my age, slight-of-build, who didn't even nod, just blew past me. She hadn't been the first by any means; I had no designs on breaking tape. But she was the one that humiliated me. We had to be 6K in at that point, and my feet were strapped with bricks. She breezed by me as if I were standing still.

I don't think I ever ran in any of kind of 10K again, not even for hungry children. What I'm saying is, the guy in the poem isn't me.

And yet he is.


Suddenly you're fifty;
if you know anything about steps
you're playing chess
with an old, complicated friend.

But you're walking to a schoolyard
where kids are playing full court,
telling yourself
the value of experience, a worn down

basketball under your arm,
your legs hanging from your waist
like misplaced sloths in a county
known for its cheetahs and its sunsets.

I do have complicated friends--that much I'll admit. But I don't play chess or shuffleboard or bocca ball or board games. Just don't. Yet. My time will come.

But every day I stand up in front of 20-year-olds I feel just like the poet, even though it's been years since there was a basketball under my arm. Every day I see their eyes wander out of the classroom and into neighborhoods vastly more inviting; every day I watch boredom overtake them like a virus; every day I see how more and more unseen I get as I grow older; and that's why everyday I tell them--although I never say it out loud--that I'm vastly more important than they think I am. After all, good night, I've got all this experience. I know what I'm talking about. I been there, done that. They haven't. And what the heck is wrong with them for not listening, for not caring, anyway?

Every day that happens. And on the 10K of this job I've been at for 40 years, I'm not all that far from the finish line.

I get that last line, too--legs like "misplaced sloths"--because I don't dance down long flights of stairs, and I use handrails when I go up. I don't even try to run, even if I'm late. I'll take the heat rather than the breakdown. I sure ain't a cheetah. But then, I never was.

But there's always sunsets. So there.

Whatever running I was blessed to be able to do, it's over. But there are always sunsets. Check 'em out. There are always sunsets.

When eventually I leave the classroom, I'm going to be someone who regularly and devotely attends sunsets.

This morning's Writer's Almanac offering is a blessing, not because it's me. That's not it at all. It's a blessing because Stephen Dunn somehow gives me enough space in this little personal offering to find myself. That's not ego either--at least I hope it's not. He's just helped me know myself a little better, no small gift.

The best writing--for good or ill--almost always tells us about ourselves. And there I am, sitting in some chair somewhere, in a land of sunsets.

This morning I'm thankful for a poem.

"Losing Steps" by Stephen Dunn, from Different Hours. (c) W.W. Norton, 2002.