Morning Thanks

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

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Morning Thanks--Decorah Eagles

It's enough to make me wonder about myself. I mean, I'm a grown man. If watching a bird, even a behomoth, atop a twiggy nest in the upper throes of some rural cottonwood can grab and hold so much of my attention, how blasted starved am I, really? And yet, I know I've not lost it because all kinds of other people--young and old--watch those Decorah Eagles (and, yes, I'm going upper case with Eagles) just as passionately--shoot! just as religiously as I do.

For some dumb reason, you can't look away. This old Calvinist feels a little guilt, of course; but then, original sin has something to do with it because that little eagle cam turns us all into registered voyeurs. We really shouldn't be there, so up-close and personal in the intimate heart of those eagles' lives. Whoever put that camera in the cottonwood changed good moral folks like myself into persistently nosy gossips:

"See that!--the way she settled herself over those eggs?"

"Isn't that great the way she primps the nest?"

"How nice of her husband to take over for awhile and give his sweetheart a rest!"

For the last two days I've watched the now-famous Decorah Eagles more than occasionally throughout the day, while either Mom or Dad sits on that sprawling nest of theirs--big enough for them, their eggs, and a dead rabbit or two. My granddaughter says those three big eggs are scheduled to break on Friday, when Mom and Dad's three progeny will make their startled appearance in the world, high above some northern Iowa farmland. We'll be there, of course, as will 70,000 other computer monitors, some of them up in front of schoolrooms, where the numbers of eye-witnesses will skyrocket. What births in world history may possibly have been witnessed by so many?

What a blessing. Really. If you haven't watched, you should.

This morning's thanks are for a beleaguered couple of bald eagles somewhere outside of Decorah, Iowa, innocent young marrieds whose every move--their comings in and goings forth--are documented by a lousy web cam and thus witnessed by thousands and thousands of gawking rubbernecks, like me, every day.

They're like watching a fire or the eternal way that waves lap the sand. There's just something rich and gracious about something so blessedly elemental.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Vincent Van Gogh, 1858-1890

He became, somehow, obsessed by yellow, so that if you google him in images, the page, from a distance, looks like a acre of June's finest dandelions. Raised in an especially religious home, an eccentric religious home in Holland, Vincent Van Gogh, after a fashion, dropped his religion but not his own--or his father's--religiosity when he moved to Paris and, at the suggestion of his brother Theo, became an artist. He'd been no child prodigy. Suddenly, it seemed, he discovered color.

This morning his vivid yellow dreams are a special blessing because it's been a week at least since, out here at the edge of the plains, we've had little more than a passing glimpse of the sun, the temps cold as ice. Yesterday, early morning, a new sheet of ice and snow all over. Check him out.

What he's left us is the closest we've had to sweet weather for a long, long time. And that's ironic, I suppose, since Vincent's own brooding gloominess, assessed today as bi-polar, left him in darkness for too many days when, I suppose, his only hope was in those bright and shiny yellows he chose to fill his canvas. When he died, by his own hand, in July of 1890, he thought himself a miserable failure, which, again ironically, may well supply fuel to his strange and tragic story and also to the brightness that rises from those glorious yellows he so deeply loved.

"What am I in the eyes of most people -- a nonentity, an eccentric, or an unpleasant person -- somebody who has no position in society and will never have; in short, the lowest of the low. All right, then -- even if that were absolutely true, then I should one day like to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart."

And he has shown exactly that, vividly, in an array of bright yellows. Few artists' work is so universally loved.

Today is his birthday.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Reading Mother Teresa--X

". . .Do not, however, think that I am only suffering. Ah, no, I am laughing more than I am suffering--so that some have concluded that I am Jesus' spoiled bride, who lives with Jesus in Nazareth, far away from Calvary. . ."

I was brought up in the church, but I don't think I knew what Lent was until I was 30 years old, at least. What I thought I knew was that Lent was something baroque-ly Roman Catholic and thus hopelessly ritualistic. Things Roman Catholic bore little relation to me, after all. Not by a long shot. Four hundred years of Reformation history made that separation painfully clear. That's why my uncle warned against good Christians voting for Senator Kennedy, after all. Besides, my dad worked for Roman Catholics, and all they did was drink, cuss, and chase cheap women. Or so my kid mind construed.

Honestly, I don't think I'll ever develop a mind or psyche for what some call "the church calendar," but I do understand it, at least somewhat. It's Lent now, and the general idea is that I contemplate seriously the suffering of Christ, the Christ who, in the Catholic church, is ubiquitously hung on the crucifix.

Not me--I'm Protestant! My cross is empty!

Some of that ancient residue is so deeply laid inside me that I'll never quite kick it. The idea, right now, at Lent, is to perpetuate abiding sobriety--thus exist a whole host of calendar events like Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras itself, and "Carnival" in Brazil--one last blowout before getting down to some serious religious practice. I understand all of that, and I even like it a bit, even though, as I said, I'm probably long past programming my life by way of that level of ritual. Sadly, too much of me is Calvinist, methinks.

Sometimes I wish it weren't so.

But I rather like the way Mother Teresa says here she's maybe a bit too taken with Jesus of Nazareth and not taken sufficiently with Jesus of the Calvary, Jesus of the cross. I rather like it that some old sisterly crone must have said of the little lady-in-black that she was really too much of Jesus's own "spoiled bride." Maybe I've seen Sister Act too often, but I can imagine what might have happened: "That Sister Teresa laughs way too much," some old fat-face must have said, someone out of a Louise Erdrich novel. "She's just not serious."

Long ago, the very first President of the college where I've been for probably far too long told me that when he thought about his many long years as a preacher and the founding father of this very institution, his single regret was how long it took for him to learn this abiding truth--that a smile is most gracious opening to the human heart. It took him way too long, he said, to learn not to take himself all that seriously.

This from a man who cut his teeth locally by appearing in both Time and Life, way back in the late 40s, like a preaching, screeching Marshall Dillon, Dodge City's toughest sheriff, a lawman in a swallow-tail coat. There he was in front of a whole nation, having single-handedly held off the scum who were threatening to bring Hollywood's very Babylon right here to Sioux Center, Iowa, by putting up a movie theater--that's right, a theater, folks!--right here on Main Street (cue "76 Trombones").

No sir. He'd have none of that heathenish stuff, so there he was right in front of the pipe organ holding forth against worldliness in two of the nation's most-read magazines. And yet, he told me, his only regret, as an old man, was that it had taken him far too long to learn to laugh.

Somehow, enamored as I am with the image of Mother Teresa as a tiny woman who gave herself so unstintingly for the poor, it's difficult for me to imagine her as someone who literally fought off the plague of emotional darkness, the lonely sense that the God she thought she worshipped simply wasn't anywhere to be found. That's true, of course. She did.

But it's just as hard to think of Mother Teresa as a clown, the "spoiled bride of Christ," who loved her Jesus of Nazareth just as much, or more, than the Jesus of Calvary.

Still, I'm glad, at times, she was "that little, goofy Sister Teresa."

I know--I know. It's lent. I shouldn't giggle. I can't help it--I like that image too.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Morning Thanks--Big Sioux River

We are, for the most part, simply the recipients of all that rising water. It's not created here. When the rivers rise out west on the state line, they do so from runoff that flows in from what must be a huge spatial area because our considerable snowfall is, for the most part, long gone. The Mississippi is up this year, as is the Red River--and so is the Big Sioux. After a bone-chilling, cold-as-winter-week, the Big Sioux is still far above flood state--on Saturday morning it was at 20 feet-plus; flood stage is 15. The official state flood warning says, even today, that some isolated farm places in South Dakota are surrounded by water.

There are dangers a-plenty on flat screens, too, of course, and our grandkids love to chance 'em. Our grandson especially would willingly plant himself in front of a computer screen all day long and do nothing but play games. He could be lost, even to himself. Keeping him away is a battle, we've discovered again after staying with our grandkids for most of last week. But we weren't born yesterday either. Once upon a time, thirty years ago, it was a battle with our own kids too. I'll go to my grave carrying an echo of that annoying boing, boing music of the original Mario Bros.

So yesterday, in the kind of bitter spring cold that's been a'cursed all week long, I decided to rip my two oldest grandkids away from the flat screens and bring them--even if it was only for an hour--somewhere out into the real world. I'll admit it--I bribed 'em; if you come along, we'll stop somewhere for a treat. Deal, they said, and we were off, west.

At one point along a country road, the river had swelled right up to the edge of the pavement. They were moved; they were even a little scared. I promised 'em I wouldn't drive in and just saying that made them shake even more. Then I pointed into the vast reaches of water and told them that, right there, the whole bank had simply disappeared. That threw 'em for a loop.

"A whole bank?" they said.

"If the river wasn't high, we could walk here right up to that cottonwood, and the bank would still be way up above the water."


"Where would that bank be, Papa?" one of them said.

"Right there." I pointed again at the splayed cottonwood no more than fifty feet away.

"A whole bank?"

"The whole bank," I told them. "It's gone. You can't even see it. That's how high the water is."

They were stunned. My grandson snapped pictures like a fool with his little digital camera. Then it came out. "Like Sioux Center Bank?" my granddaughter said.

"No," I said, "like 'the river bank.'"

Giggles galore from the back seat. "We thought like a whole building, like a whole bank," my grandson said.

I don't even care. Even if their imaginations had created a scene vastly different than it was, just being out there where river water covered fields a half-mile west of it's normal banks--edges, that is--kept my grandkids chattering almost all the way home.

It was, for their grandpa at least, a resounding victory for real life.

I'm sorry if farmers on some isolated places find themselves on an island today, although the forecasters say the levels are dropping. I'm sorry if people are inconvenienced or suffering, or if good farmland is swamped and somebody's not going to get the corn in this spring (and prices are so high!); but this morning I'm thankful for the Big Sioux River flooding because the spectacle of all that water grabbed my grandkids' attention for a couple of hours and kept them far away from their precious flat screens.

Well, that and a box of candy and a Slurpee.

Still, it was a good afternoon.

Friday, March 25, 2011

The old time religion

Just give me some of that that old time religion.

Maybe it's just me, but I'm thinking--this morning especially--that the church in which I was raised wielded a ton more power than its smiley descendant today. These days, I don't know that it can do anything all that effectively except dole out niceness.

Once upon a time in a town like the one I live in, bell towers reached higher than anything else; people could identify villages on the Iowa plains by the shape of their church steeples. Then came grain elevators, and the steeples seemed diminished. These days media towers of all kinds reach half way to heaven, lording it over everything else.

Besides, who these days builds a church with a tower? A new congregation just a short run away chose an abandoned car dealership for their new place of worship, as if the Christian faith worked best when it operated like a duck blind. Maybe it does.

The New York Times featured Sioux Center, Iowa two days ago with a fascinating story about rural divorce, making the claim that a profoundly higher rate of divorce here (up nearly seven-fold since 1970, the story claims) is an indication of how profoundly rural life has changed, even in a place like this, where, once upon a time, men lugged beer in brown paper sacks out of the back door of the only tap in town, and, for a time, people hid TV antennas in their attics.

I don't doubt the story's claims, but then neither do I assess the change the church has undergone as decline. In sheer power it's but a shadow of its former self. But there are reasons for that change, and many of them have nothing to do with the institution itself. It is little more than what we sincerely want it to be.

What's clear to me that the role of the church in the life of a community like the one in which I grew up, just like everything else, has altered irreparably. It no longer determines the length of women's skirts, the way their husbands treat their wives, nor how many venues in town sell whiskey. It's a holy different institution, just as is the town in which it abides and the very people it serves.

There's something altogether inescapable about that transition, or so it seems to me. I'm sure there are those who would beg for a return of the "faith of our fathers," but nothing stays the same--and it hasn't. We're in a new world that has changed--and will continue to, this world without end.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Morning Thanks--inescapable moral lessons

There are places in eastern Kansas and Oklahoma that look eerily post-apocalyptic, where empty streets and ghost-like buildings tell a tale of abandonment, where sic gloria mundi is decidedly a way of life. Riding into those emptied places can be shocking, even though life in rural America is hardly a sweet song. But then there are these boom towns, from which today there arises little but silence, places incredible oil money once built, places where that money has long ago left behind, places where the only inhabitants seem survivors.

I was reminded of those places when I stumbled on these incredible portraits of decaying Detroit. I've got no desire to bad mouth Michiganders, who carry enough economic woes right now for all of us; many good friends and close family members live across the big lake. But these portraits of decay and abandonment have such profound moral power that one has to note them because, as if they were themselves images of slaughter, one almost cannot not look.
Somewhere here, I'm sure, on some bedraggled street in the desert Detroit has become, there lies "two vast and trunkless legs of stone," and on a pedestal these words, "Ozymandias."

This morning I'm not in the least thankful for the ruin that Detroit has become--nor for that matter any of those haunted towns in the oil fields of Kansas and Oklahoma. But I am thankful, this morning, once again, to be reminded that all that glitters is not gold. It's been said a hundred different ways, I'm sure, but here in America, land of the entrepreneur, it's hard not to believe that what makes the crucial difference in our lives is the size and value of our toys.

"Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair."


You can find these and many more incredible images here.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Year is 2060

This morning, just out of bed, my grandson sat beside me and said, "Ian is blasting off into outer space." Ian is his year-and-half old little brother, who was, of course, doing no such thing. The story was generated from my grandson's vivid imagination--whether it was a night dream or a day dream, I simply don't know.

I just finished reading, once again, Andre Dubus's first published story, "The Intruder," the first story in his fine collection Dancing After Hours. In it, a 13-year old boy mistakenly shoots his sister's boyfriend when he sees the kid hanging around outside their home, looking into his sister's window. His sister, surreptitiously, expected this intruder, who was really her boyfriend. It's a sad story, a tragedy, for the most part; but among Dubus's clearly established motivations for the boy's taking the boyfriend out comes from the kid's resplendent imagination. He regularly sees himself as the squad leader of special forces bivouaced right outside the cabin where his family is living.

All of which makes me wonder once again about a phenomenon that began maybe ten years ago already: creative writing students who simply insist on writing highly imaginative fantasies, sci-fi, or post-apocalypse (let's just call it "other-worldly) stories. Whether the class is fiction writing or screenwriting, they're tethered, it seems, to modes of story-telling that often stretch light years beyond realism.

Their old prof doesn't get it. I mean, I understand that most of them cut their story-reading or -viewing teeth on Harry Potter or some kind of Star Wars motifs. What's more, they all play computer games that bring them smack dab into those kinds of worlds. It's understandable, I guess, why they would like to create those stories themselves. And, my own writing guru, John Gardner, claims somewhere that genre is the first open door to story writing, suggesting that writing teachers should allow his or her students to start with that form of story with which they are most enamored.

But it's a little tiring for an old guy. Twice in the last year, I've asked people from respectable writing programs what they do about students who want to write these elaborate story forms. Both times, what they told me was that they simply don't allow them to write "that stuff." One of them is my age; the other is much younger, far closer to the age of my students.

I'm still not sure why that deep fascination exists within them, why they aren't more taken with reality, when, at least to me, reality itself offers its own great mysteries and therefore is burgeoning with wonderfully complex stories--we are complex souls, after all.

But what my grandson makes me think is that this fascination is yet another manifestation of what other demographers of my students' generation claim to be some kind of arrested development--this generation is simply not given to growing up. They're still kids--and quite happy to stay there, thank you.

But that answer seems fascist almost--and, well, snooty.

Of the 20 students in screenwriting, I'm sure I'll read a dozen scripts this year drawn up from bizarre other worlds, extravagantly imaginative settings and characters that, or so it seems to me, are vastly more difficult to create convincingly. I want to tell them that they're making the whole creative process much more difficult by the requirements of those genres. After all, they must create those alternative worlds before the story will work.

Maybe I'm just too old for this game. I'm looking for help. What other reasons are there for creative, imaginative students being so deeply devoted to sci fi, to fantasy, to 2060?

I'd love to be able to understand because this old fogie has a terrible time helping students with their zany plots about insects and robots and brain games.

Then again, I've only got one more year. Meanwhile--I'm open for help. I'd love to understand.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The verities of the human heart

It's difficult not to be conflicted about what's happening now in Libya. Strange bedfellows are teaming up on either side of the argument for and against what Obama has decided to do there--young, rock-hard conservatives hold hands with aging, Sixties doves, and unusual pairings cut themselves out of the middle of the pack as well. The battle lines are not, once again, right vs. left. There's something refreshing about that, even therapeutic.

We need yet another Middle East war like San Diego needs a good tsunami. On the other hand, what the madman Gaddafi was likely about to do--simply kill off his own people--would not have been pretty. We're not the world's policemen, but if we don't do something to stop a bloodbath, how can we live with ourselves? I'm just as sure I don't know the answer as I am that there are and will be many who are confident they do.

What's new, of course, is that we're part of a coalition this time, not out there in the sands of North Africa on our own. News stories suggest that Secretary Clinton is the one who reversed Obama's own reluctance to act in Libya, and she did so after some remarkably successful diplomatic work--getting the Arab League to sign on, as well as brokering a agreement with NATO and the UN.

But why did she change? The Clintons have not been hawks, after all. Their anti-war positioning way back in the 60s, when they were kids, is well-documented. Hillary's instinctive propensities are certainly not hawk-ish, and she doesn't look particularly good flashing a six-gun.

So what happened?

Some say this: Her husband has rather frequently stated that the one stinging regret of his Presidency is that he didn't get us involved in the Ruandan genocide earlier. He was reluctant to do anything in what looked like another African civil war; and because he was, literally millions were murdered, many of them hacked to death. That Hillary remembers. That Hillary does not want to repeat. The spectre of another Ruanda right there in Libya may well have been enough to make her reverse her ground, take on the Arab League, Russia, China, the UN, and NATO, not to mention Obama, and bring them altogether to stanch the blood and take on Gaddafi himself.

Whether or not she or Obama or any of the others who've now chosen to act in Libya are wise or right is a question whose answer remains to be seen. Maybe this thing will be over in a month--although if you believe that, I think I know of a bridge you can pick up for a song. Let's face it: there's a better than even chance that the whole rotten mess will evolve into yet another protracted conflict from which we'll not be able to extricate ourselves for a decade or so. Meanwhile, of course, our horrific money woes continue to create pestilence here. Good Wisconsin people--Packers fans all--can't even talk to each other after what's gone on there and is still happening. Meanwhile, here we go again, spending millions daily in the unfriendly skies of Libya.

But if this entire action is attributable, in any way, to what we "should have done" last time around, in Ruanda--let's call that guilt--then I feel as if my whole professional life has not been in vain, not that I think it has. Here's what I'm thinking: if the scenario some are spinning is right, then so was Faulkner, when he said in his Nobel acceptance speech that "the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself" is the only stuff of our existence that "can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat."

If the speculation is accurate, then it's true that our weightiest decisions arise only in part from our sharpest calculations, the best even our best minds can do, the finest rationale; those decisions also arise from "the problems of the human heart," which is the province of the finest stories.

All of that doesn't make what we doing more laudable or deplorable, but it does make Hamlet worth teaching and stories worth writing.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Reading Mother Teresa IX

Hamlet--Act I, scene 1. Hamlet's father's ghost appears, speaks only to his son, tells him how his Uncle Claudius, now on the throne and in "the incestuous sheets" of Hamlet's mother's bed, murdered him, Hamlet's own father, the former King. He then spurs on Hamlet to revenge. "Swear!" he moans, as if the fires of hell were already at his ankles. "Swear! Swear! Swear!"

On the first day we discussed the play, one of my students raised his hand. "Did they take oaths really seriously in those days?" he asked.

The subtext is clear: the student figured that today, generally, people don't. He may be right.

"Very seriously," I told him. We didn't talk about today.

Yesterday, in church, a young lady stood up and answered three questions and thereby underwent a liturgical ritual we call "Profession of Faith." I listened to the questions, read them closely, far closer, I imagine, than I did when, almost 50 years ago, those same questions were read to me. Back then, I guess, I, for one, didn't take an oath all that seriously.

That's the background I bring to Mother's Teresa's "profession of perpetual vows." It's not the background she did. Hers, obviously, was a dedication built on generations of family and fecund Catholic tradition, an emphatic personal dedication, purely resolute. "Before crosses used to frighten me--" she wrote to her spiritual guide, "I used to get goose bumps at the thought of suffering--but now I embrace suffering even before it actually comes, and like this Jesus and I live in love."

Yesterday, I'm sure in that young lady's home, her parents threw a great party. Her parents and grandparents were thrilled to the soul at the young lady's "profession of faith."

But no one in that home or in the congregation yesterday thinks that the faith she professed will keep her from fear and sadness and grief in the many years to come in her life.

It's altogether possible that Sister Teresa heard voices more akin to Hamlet the King's bellowing at his reluctant son, and it probably goes without saying that she took her "profession of perpetual vows" vastly more seriously than I did, years ago, when I stood before a congregation of worshippers and professed my faith. But neither yesterday's young lady, nor Sister Teresa, nor me--nor anyone else, for that matter--no matter how seriously we take our oaths, is ever going to believe that what was said, what was sworn to, even in the presence of many others, will be some kind of spiritual shield against woe. It won't. It didn't. It hasn't.

Still, I hear that ghost, "Swear!" Heard him yesterday again, in fact.

And so did a young Polish lady, a grade school teacher, in the soaring heat of New Delhi, India. She too swore.

And the ghosts, I'd like to think, went joyfully silent.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Saturday Morning Catch--Rock River Rising

Sugary--maybe that's the best word for the dawn yesterday, Saturday. The open ground was sugared with frost, just frozen enough for me to take roads the county says they don't keep up. But the world was still pretty much colorless. By next week, the rich emerald glow will have arisen in every last ditch, I'm sure--it's raining right now, in fact, early Sunday morning.

But the big story yesterday and today is the rising water on the Rock and the Big Sioux. For the most part, at least where I was, it wasn't nudging into perilous heights for anyone--it was just high, very high--flood stage. Lots and lots of water.

I wonder how many pictures I've taken out here of trees--literally thousands, I'm sure. But then they remain sometimes the only deliberate image on the otherwise featureless plains. Yesterday, they all looked like aging pioneers--beaten, yet still battling, as battle-weary as old Civil War soldiers.

They lean this way and that, like pencils in a jar, Ian Frazier says in Great Plains; and often as not they fall over or lose limbs. Yesterday morning, in the high waters of the Rock River, there seemed to be dozens and dozens of fallen heros.

But here's the rub. I'm told that those huge, misshapen cottonwoods the eagles love, the ones with ribbed bark so thick the buffalo would rub up against them all day long, those huge cottonwoods, so misshapen by winds and water, are in fact, birthed only by rising waters. Their seeds require floods. So while yesterday the flood plain seemed especially littered with fallen soldiers, those very high waters were, at the very same moment, a loving mid-wife for the births of dozens more.

It's Sunday, and there ought to be a sermon there somehow, but I'll let others find it and preach it. I just like it.

Still, it seems to me to take some temerity to be a tree out here on the edge of the Great Plains.

By the way, I went out after bald eagles. Saw some, but most of them were flying vastly outside the range of my lenses. I got one, however--he's up in the top of one of those cottonwoods, the last slide.

On Saturday mornings, sugary or not, you just get what you can.

High Waters

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Fifth Dimension

If you look closely here, in this single, little nook of the elegant, Victorian, and spirit-riddled Crescent Hotel, Eureka Springs, AK, you'll see an arc, a portal into the fifth dimension. Look closely because at this very spot it frequently appears.

"I can call it up," said the woman, a true believer, who was giving us a tour. She jerked her arm sideways, in a motion I simply assumed was conjuration, and I took the picture.

So there it is. Look again. See it?

The Crescent Hotel, an ancient, five-story, jaw-dropping behomoth of a place, was built in 1886 and has every reason to be haunted. It's seen more booms and busts than a brothel, and likely was one sometime in its checkered 125-year history. It's been most everything else, including a hospital, of sorts, when, in 1937, an Iowa charlatan/crook named Norman Baker moved his own bizarre medical humbug south from Muscatine to Eureka Springs, took the sprawling old hotel over and created a reign of medical tomfoolery that lasted just three years until Arkansas tossed him in the clink for mailfraud.

Somewhere in the basement, there reportedly was a morgue. Baker took on dying people and their loved ones by the dozens, even hundreds, promising miracle cures that never came, taking, in return, their money, $4 million of it, in fact. That some patients died seems more than possible; he kept no records of such things, apparently. Was there a gallery of the dead in the basement? No one knows.
See the ghosts?

Of course, the place itself is a monument to delusion and pure American style chicanery. Throughout the sharp wooded hills of the town, sweet natural springs abound, where mineral water once bubbled gloriously, drawing thousands to the region in hopes that drinking the water--and sometimes bathing in it--would cure all their ills.
And it did. See the ghosts? Look closely--that arc there is the means by which all of us make it into the fifth dimension.

Eureka Springs is a remarkable place with an incredible history, and the Crescent Hotel is officially "the Queen of the Ozarks." You really have to see it. If any place on Mother Earth deserves to be haunted, the immense and imposing Crescent, standing high above the town, high above the valley, does.

If you climb the stairs to the observation deck, you can see all over the picturesque valley, a hundred--at least--Victorian mansions, and at least something of the town that's made it's living in sweet and glorious promises. Across the valley, you won't be able to miss the equally huge "Christ of the Ozarks," the third tallest Jesus in the world, a sculpture so massive it could dangle three cars from each wrist, so big, in fact, that its feet had to be cut off, lest its holy head would require a red beacon to warn off aircraft--and how would that look? Oddly enough, this Jesus has no feet, but then some people claim the statue is no work of art. It's nothing more than Willie Nelson in a dress.

Even though it's the home of the world's largest passion play, I'm just not sure that Eureka Springs is good for your faith. There's just way too much of it. Even though thousands come every year to the see "the greatest story ever told," Eureka Springs has a history of just too too many stories, too much silliness, too much hypocricy, vastly too much fraud.

We're all seekers--every one. All of us are looking, some more seriously than others; but all of us want badly to recover some long-long goodness, some vision of hope and joy. We want, more than anything, to have faith.

What's in us, deeply, is more than want of faith. It's need.

See the ghost here? If you stand against the wall just outside room #218, the most haunted room in the place, and you look just right, it's there. See it?

Very scary.

By the way, if you want to book room #218, call in advance, months in advance because it's the most requested room in the Crescent.

Very scary indeed.

Thursday, March 17, 2011


I don't think I've been wired with what people call an "addictive personality," which is not to say that, if unregulated, I couldn't simply eat peanuts (well, mixed nuts) for most of the day. I could. And donuts. Well, some donuts. No, most donuts. Almost all donuts.

My father had this habit--not addiction--of packing off-brand dry-roasted peanuts along on every trip he ever made out here to Iowa. That long jar would sit between the seats so that whenever he wanted, he could reach down, screw off the lid, and grab a handful. He said he liked to eat peanuts when he travelled because they kept him awake, which is not to say he didn't also love peanuts.

His son's tastes were not as eternally shaped by the Great Depression. When I travel, I like to take a rich mixture of Chex Mix and mixed nuts. Dry roasted are beneath me. In fact, don't whisper a word of this to the luxury police, but lately I've been taking to spicing up the brew even more with a goodly handful of whole cashews. I know I should repent, but I'm powerless.

Anyway, my little nutty concoction isn't little at all. It fills most of a Tuppeware tub big enough for a quart of ice cream and sits, reasonably, at the close edge of the front seat--yes, out of the way of pedals. Now the fact of the matter is, I can eat that stuff day and night. I love it. In fact, normally I mix up a batch only when I travel or risk suffering the kind of bloating I get to feeling every day after a long interstate stretch behind the wheel. But I eat it to stay awake.

So when we finally got down to Oklahoma and pulled up in front of my son's apartment, I climbed out and just about knocked that Tupperware tub out of the car. I'd done pretty well that day (of course, we'd only come from Tulsa), staying away from the mix. Maybe that's why, of a sudden, that blasted tub turned miraculously into long jar of cheap dry roasted peanuts. Just like that, that's what I saw there on the floor--my father's No-Doze dosage in the shape of my own. That's why, all of a sudden, as I cranked my weary knees out of the driver's seat and tried, shakily, to stand, I looked down there and simply became, right then and there, my father. It was a vision. For a moment, I had become my dad visiting his son. Nothing had changed but the mix.

History was rewinding or forwarding. It was de ja vu all over again, as Yogi said. It was oddly haunting. I'd become my father.

I'd become my father.

I'd become my father.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Shocking Pictures

I suppose I'd rather not see these new pictures of Adolf Hitler and his sweetheart, Eva Braun. I'd rather not see them because it's hard for me to look at a man who I think of as a beast, an animal, and have to consider him human instead.

I don't know the skinny on his relationship with Ms. Braun, but I assume the two of them shared each other extensively at his lush mountain top retreat. And who was she anyway?--the pictures tell a story of a young lady who was tempermentally unsuited, or so it seems, for jackboots and arbeit macht frei. When she was younger but even when she was with him, she looks for all the world like a darling, a free spirit, someone who fiddled with propriety as if it were just so much silliness.

What attracted her to Hitler? Money, power, prestige? It certainly couldn't have been love, or could it? One of the reasons looking at this new pictures of Eva Braun is so repulsive is the mere possibility that Adolf Hitler actually loved someone, that he could, that somewhere in that horrified psyche of his there was room--a tiny room, but room nonetheless--for tenderness, for someone, for something other than egomania. I can't imagine it. I can't think that it might be true. I won't think of it. I look at these pictures and I'm simply sick, heartsick. Here he is, scratching his dog behind the ears, Ms. Eva just behind him.

Life calls them shocking, and they are--not because no one knew about the life the two of them lived together, not because these new pictures show a couple enjoying each other, having fun. They're shocking because it's so impossible, really, to think of Hitler as human. He wasn't. I won't believe it.

It's 1942, just about the time, in occupied Holland, when the Nazis ruled that "All Jews over the age of 13 must wear yellow stars. They must be purchased at four cents per star and worn at all times." There's more. "It is forbidden to pin them on; they must be sewn on coat or jacket. Jews appearing at the windows of their homes must be wearing the star."

Just two months later, German officials summoned the leaders of the Jewish community to announce that they would shortly begin rounding up large groups of Dutch Jews, ages 16 to 40, to be employed at work camps in Germany. The Jewish council protested, claiming that such action violated the international law that made the conscription of citizens from occupied countries illegal. The Nazis shrugged off the protest. You can either help us along, they told the Jewish leaders, or we’ll simply do it ourselves.

In April of 1942, Czech Resistance fighters killed Reinhard Heydrich, the officer in charge of occupied Czecheslovakia, on a road outside of Lidice. Just a month or so later, Hitler, this very same Hitler, laid out this strategy for dealing with the people of Lidice: 1) Execute all adult men; 2) Transport all women to a concentration camp; 3) Gather the children suitable for Germanization, then place them in SS families in the Reich and bring the rest of the children up in other ways; and finally 4) Burn down the village and level it entirely; all of which they did, post-haste. Hundreds died. Lidice was no more.

I wonder if when those little scotties of his ran off, he went inside the chateau and drew up the plans. I wonder if Eva stood beside him as he did, her hand on his shoulder, at the back of his neck. I wonder if she looked at him longingly, or he did her.

I wonder if he was human. I think not. I prefer to think not.

Perhaps I should say, I prefer to think not--at my peril.

Shocking pictures.


The images from Japan are stark and horrible. Some of those tsunami video clips are so vivid that one can't help but think they aren't real--they're Hollywood. But they're not. A wave 23 feet high and travelling at 500 miles an hour swallowed entire towns in seconds, tossed cars around like wine corks, and sent ships--not just boats--to violent destruction.

Despite the video record, it's almost impossible to imagine the level of devastation that happened within minutes of yesterday's 8.9-Richter scale earthquake. Really, it's unbelievable. Even today, however, whole sections of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, resemble a moonscape, after floods that ravaged the city more than two years ago. And even though, last week, New Orleans once again celebrated Fat Tuesday, the city has become better known for the excesses of its Katrina-wrought devastation, in 2005, than its own hearty Mardi Gras.

It's hard to know if I remember Mt. Fuji from our brief stay there years ago or from the myriad portraits one sees all over of what has to be the world's most perfect mountain. But yesterday, when the news reports were coming in, I starting imagining millions of Japanese people crawling up Mt. Fuji to safety. The epicenter was hundreds of miles away from Tokyo, but the disaster film my imagination cfeatured masses of people, like lemmings, trying madly to escape certain death.

But neither Hollywood nor the excesses of my own imagination can deal justly with what must have happened in those rural, coastal areas yesterday, when what must have seemed like damnation came in and simply washed life itself away. Death must have come fast if you were in one of those cars.

Years ago, I did some flood relief in Sioux City, Iowa, after a blistering downpour turned what was little more a creek into a torrential assault of water half a city wide. Clean up was, without a doubt, the worst job I've ever had, lugging five-gallon buckets of muck from people's basements after shoveling them full of sludge and debris. It was awful.

But today, I'm sure, you could drive through that very neighborhood and notice nothing amiss. Eventually, like nature itself, we heal, as do our communities. But this morning is not the time to say it. This morning, silence is the finest offering, because sometimes there are no words.

Nothing strikes awe like what happened yesterday in Japan, 9500 people still unaccounted for, and what will happen again and again and again in our lives, hither and yon.

Nothing puts us so entirely on our knees.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Morning Thanks--bon voyage

Sometimes I think I enjoy teaching as much as I did 20 years ago, or 30, or 40. Sometimes, I think more. Occasionally, I reckon myself a bit more accomplished than I was back then. After all, I'm far less driven by the import of the material; these days I've come to believe that lots of people get by in life without feeling Hamlet's indecision or knowing what's really happening in Hemingway's shattered psyche when he goes fishing in northern Michigan. I used to be an evangelist. No more.

Today, I think I care less about grades and more about students. The first president of this college told me, years ago, that one of his only regrets in life was that it took him too blasted long to learn that the way to people's hearts is by way of laughter. These days I don't take myself so seriously, and my students feel more like grandchildren than they ever have, and that ain't all bad.

Last week a couple of my students had to do an interview for a digital media class, and they chose me for a subject--the mike hidden inside the lapel, flashy set-up lighting, HD camera, the whole nine yards. One of them asked questions, the other did the shooting. "You think of yourself as a hip teacher?" the interviewer said.

That's a no-brainer, of course. There's only one answer. I don't. But for most of the following weekend I walked with a bit of a better bounce in my step. Hip?--get that?

All that having been said, this morning's most compelling vision was a chapel parking lot full of a dozen huge vans, several sporting trailers, and one leviathan Greyhound. Just saw laid out before me, coming back from the gym, like the new Jerusalem. Today, all those students take off for hither and yon--some to play ball, some to build toilets, some to toot horns. Who cares?--they're off. Hallelujah. The campus'll be a cave. How exceedingly joyous.

And this dear morning's morning thanks, most gratefully offered, is very, very simple. This old teacher couldn't be happier that they're gone. Now I can breathe, if I still know how. Honestly, whole-hearted thanksgiving.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Voices from the middle

The argument against Rep. Peter King's upcoming hearings on Muslim radicalization in America goes like this--about whom else might such hearings be held? Jews? What if King wanted to investigate the relationship between leading Jewish people in America and Zionism or the amount of influence Jewish people have on Middle East policy?

Or Mormons? What if he and his committee wanted to investigate how members of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints were influencing American attitudes toward bigamy? or racial prejudice? Would "the American people" stand for dozens of Mormon subpoenas?

Timothy McVeigh was no Muslim. What if King decided to investigate the links between fundamentalist Christians and American hate groups? What if he subpoenaed the Rev. Pat Robertson?

King's hearings have triggered widespread disgust among progressives, some even claiming King's bigotry is tainted with hypocrisy since he was, years ago, a passionate supporter of the Irish Republican Army, who were themselves terrorists back then.

But Asra Q. Nomani, a bona fide liberal and a Muslim, takes a contrary line on The Daily Beast, insisting that King's investigations are legitimate because in the Islamic community there is, she says, vastly too much toleration of abhorrent forces she says she saw marching into her life as long as 40 years ago. "I saw puritanical, intolerant ideologies creep into my community. I also watched as many moderate Muslims simply cowered or walked away, intimidated into thinking they were less pious or faithful. . ."

For Nomani, whatever shaming King's hearing might create is not as unhealthy or dangerous as the shaming those intolerant Islamic fundamentalists have already created in American Muslim communities. She says it's high time that progressive Muslims stand up against the intolerance in their own community. I doubt any non-Muslim American would disagree.

She even quotes from the Koran to reinforce her determined view of things:

Oh ye who believe!
Stand out firmly
For justice, as witnesses
To God, even if it may be against
Yourselves, or your parents
Or your kin.

In my estimation, Rep. Peter King still sounds rather uncomfortably similar to Wisconsin's own Sen. Joe McCarthy. And, there's the fear factor too: my mother asked me, just a day or so ago, how it was that her own son could not believe that Muslims were out to take over America.

Maybe that's why I love it when some voice comes out of nowhere and doesn't just echo the tired old liberal/conservative paradigm?

Three cheers for moderates. There's nothing righteous about fence-sitting, but sometimes, just sometimes, I wish we all could stake out ground in the middle and, whether oriented left or right, not be so intolerant ourselves.

This morning I feel just a bit wiser, having read what Ms. Nomani believes.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011


The glorious mantle of first snow is now, what?--four months behind us, not even a memory. Besides, I don't want to think about the day this all started. What's covering our yard and everyone else's this morning, once again, is maybe the 38th new snow, but who's counting? It's getting really tiring, even though what's come since last night at least covers the messiness of what's left since December, all those frozen piles of dirty snow, littering the yard like dead sheep.

It's March, and while what's happening outside isn't the lion that forecasters promised a couple days ago, neither is it, by any stretch of the imagination, a lamb. It's just more frickin' winter. More. And while I know for sure that it won't last forever, just exactly when, finally, it drags its blasted rear end out of town for the last time is anybody's guess. Right now there's no end in sight.

Saturday morning I heard this odd thumping somewhere outside, such a strange sound that I got out of bed and looked around the neighborhood from the upstairs bedroom. A boy next door was dribbling a basketball on his driveway. The sound was so unusual that I didn't even recognize it, but then we've been in prison so long, you'd think the whole town was smuggling dope. The kid was just breaking out.

And now it's just two days until spring break, a designation which, as I remember, generally means nothing at all in terms of a much sought-after pardon from warm southern breezes. But then, I'll admit it--I'm jaded. I've been in the pen for far too long, lost all contact with the outside world, my existence circumscribed by the blank monotony of four walls, no friends to speak of other than those who, like me, are barely living through this endless lock up. Out here on the edge of the Plains, we can have glorious falls, but winters seem always to stretch out as far as our horizons, and everyone is sick and tired of it. When can we unlock the doors?

I'd pay handsomely for robins, but I wouldn't want them to suffer.

Time to pull on a jacket. And hat. And scarf. And gloves.

If Eliot is right, I don't want to think about it: March is the cruelest month. It has to be.

Got to go shovel sidewalks.

If spring's a fever, I say, bring it on.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Brave New World

Somehow, I doubt whether T. David Gordon's new book, Why Johnny Can't Sing Hymns, will change anyone's mind on matters pertaining to what evangelicals call "worship wars," but it does offer, I think, a fresh new argument. According to an article in Christianity Today--and an interview with Gordon himself--the argument is based on what he calls "media ecology," which is "the social and individual human consequences when a new medium is introduced to a culture."

The argument goes like this: when people who've sung only psalms in worship, for as long as anyone can remember, are surrounded and even bombarded with another music genre, all the time, the "ecology" changes as the environment does. If that assertion seems stretched, simply assess for yourself contemporary worship these days. CCM (Christian Contemporary Music) has probably done as much to rid evangelical-dom of denominationalism as any other force. It's caused wars and engendered peace ;and, in many ways, it's become the norm, the way we live.

A preacher told me just last week that a college student came to him not long ago and generously offered his services as a guitar player because he simply assumed the reason the preacher's congregation still used an organ was that they simply couldn't raise the talent for a good praise band. "No," the pastor told him, "we actually prefer the pipe organ." The kid was shocked and mystified.

Prof. Gordon, who teaches at Grove City College, says the immense transformation that has taken place could not be explained on theological or aesthetic grounds, so he started asking himself "why people feel this emotional distance from hymns that was not felt by generations before."

Gordon argues that the shift has occured because of pop music is, simply, everywhere. If the only music people ever heard was "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star," he argues, we'd have no idea anything else was even available--which is roughly the equivalent notion of the college student with the handy guitar, a kid who was stunned to hear some people actually prefer a pipe organ.

Technology and the internet has made our world incredibly democratic (small d). Look, almost anyone can publish books or burn CDs these days. Video technology is getting cheaper and cheaper, and even third-graders know how to edit. Just about every municipality in the country has a film festival because millions of kids with incredibly cheap HD cameras are making their own movies. It would take some time, but you could--with enough energy and some capital--create your own DrudgeReport without ever leaving the security of your own desk chair, as long as you have internet access.

There is immense individual power in the democratization of media. With blu-ray, you can watch what you want, when you want; not that long ago, just three networks controlled everything any of us watched on a given night. Now, choice is totally individual and virtually limitless.

All of that is terrific.

But gone, or on the way out, are gate-keepers--the disk jockeys at local radio stations; the editors whose appraisals used to count, the in-depth reporters--the people who used to choose for us. Today, in every last media area, we do the choosing. Will it be MSNBC or FOX News? Walter Cronkite is dead.

Like I said, I honestly doubt whether Prof. T. David Gordon's Why Johnny Can't Sing Hymns will alter anyone's musical tastes, but what he's saying strikes me as an interesting and relevant argument, not simply about why we love the music we do, but also because of what's happened all around us, the really significant revolution taking place in what we call, not incorrectly, the Information Age.

It's a brave new world.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Reading Mother Teresa VIII

From May of 1931 until 1948, Sister Teresa taught Indian children at St. Mary's Bengali Medium School for girls. Now I have a decidedly draconian view of childhood education in Catholic schools in the early years of the 20th century, here in the States, that is. Fat-faced nuns nearly bursting out of thier straight-jacket habits rule medievally dark classrooms with iron-clad discipline and thumb-screw-like punishments. I don't know where those images come from--maybe Louise Erdrich is to blame; but it's hard for me to think of little Sister Teresa, this diminuitive young lady, barely more than a child, holding forth before a full classroom of little girls and being anything less than cherubic herself.

Who knows what she might have been like as a teacher? After all, eventually she rose to world-wide fame not on the basis of her lesson plans or her cool classroom tricks but on her rescue work among the world's poorest and most abandoned little ones. She wasn't teaching multiplication tables by then, she was simply keeping children alive.

But there she was in her black habit, standing before 17 successive classrooms of poor children. We know how she saw it--or at least we know how she wanted others to think of how she saw her calling, her work. This is what she wrote to a Catholic magazine back home:

The heat of India is simply burning. When I walk around, it seems to me that fire is under my feet from which even my body is burning. When it is hardest, I console myself with the thought that souls are saved in this way and that dear Jesus suffered much more for them. . .

Wasn't easy.

And then she goes on, in a very general way, to describe her classroom in terms any teacher will understand. "The life of a missionary is not strewn with roses," she says, "in fact more with thorns. . ." Aha. She must have noticed short attention spans, vagrant eyes and minds, belligerance, and boredom. She had to know children whose out-of-the-classroom problems loomed so disastrously that they simply couldn't sit. She wiped noses, buttoned buttons, slapped hands that reached where they shouldn't have. I bet she read more than her share of lousy papers. Kids likely tangled in her class, hazed each other, made each other cry.

". . .but with it all," she writes, "it is a life full of happiness and joy when she thinks that she is doing the same work which Jesus was doing when He was on earth, and that she is fulfilling Jesus' commandment: 'Go and teach all nations!'"

Funny, at the near end of 40 years in the classroom, I always thought Jesus's departing command was not to teach but to preach. But then, I'm Protestant, and I'm not a woman whose vows to be the bride of Christ gave her a very clear sense of mission in the classroom.

No matter. Even though I've been a teacher for forty years, I can still learn.

And she can still teach.

Thursday, March 03, 2011


Governor Mike Huckabee did not just slip up on conservative talk radio, I think he messed up, big-time. Had he simply said, mistakenly, that Barack Obama grew up in Kenya, when he really meant Indonesia, it might just have been an actual slip of the tongue. But he created--or repeated--a story around Obama's supposed Kenyan childhood, a mythology that suggests Obama isn't "one of us."

It just seems to me that the real horror isn't even his own really foolish error--after all, Obama wasn't even in Kenya during his childhood, he had no Mau Mau leanings, nor did he learn to be anti-Brit or hate Winston Churchill. The real problem is that Gov. Huckabee, a legitimate candidate for the Presidency of the United States, a man some polls have leading the cast of Republican candidates, allowed a talk show host to ask a question the good Reverend should slapped back across the table.

Good, red-blooded Americans have every right to disagree with Obamacare or liberal politics or anti-colonialism. The American way is to join the party, print up some signs, hit the streets and get out the vote.

But it is plainly wrong not to stop the hate speech, the hateful insinuation that President Obama shouldn't be who he is or where he is because of what he isn't--"one of us." Sen. John McCain did just that in one of the finest moments of the '08 campaign. Gov. Huckabee would have grown in stature had he told that interviewer as much, as clearly.

I don't care what anybody else calls it, that kind of talk feels for all the world like racism, plain and simple.

Rev. Huckabee is a man of the cloth, a man of God. He should know better. He should also do better.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Morning Thanks--sic transit gloria mundi

He was disappointed, he said, in the way I characterized a theological and philosophical slugfest that went on here in almost 40 years ago, a sometimes uncivil war that brought progressive forces into bloody conflict with the conservatives, just as the rest the world, it seems, went to war too over roughly similar issues. We'd just made it through the late Sixties, the Vietnam War was sort of over, and there needed to be some kind of reckoning for all the blood and brokenness. It was 1973, and things here at this small college came to a boil. Some profs left, some were asked to--and even though some students who were here at the time knew nothing about the conflagration around them, the place has never been the same.

I'd characterized the fighting just that way in an article that appeared in a national publication, an aside in a much longer essay, and one of those who, back then, left and never returned let me know, in a letter, that he was deeply disappointed with the lack of regard I gave his side.

I wasn't surprised. Those moments in 1973 had determined, after a fashion, the course of his life. I'm sure he's had many triumphs since, but that war sent him packing because he was among those who were its victims. The fighting was, by any measure, the most horrible moment in this college's nearly 60-year history.

I wasn't here. I know the outlines well, but I was nowhere near the clouds of dust and smoke. But his note was a stark reminder that some of those in the front lines back then are still bleeding, winners and losers. Almost 40 years later, those who carried the rifles haven't forgotten the battle.

I opened the letter at school, sat there at my desk, stunned, as if someone had sent me a saddle bag full of bloody bandages. I wanted to show someone, anyone, but it hit me in a moment that no one here really cared. That war, so passionately fought, is alive only in those who, sadly enough, can't forget. I could put the letter on a bulletin board in the middle of the busiest hallway in the college and no one would read it. I could publish it verbatim in the college newspaper and eyes would pass over it quickly. Very few would even recognize the name of the ex-prof--maybe one or two silver-haired colleagues, and my guess is they really wouldn't care. All that passion, all that carnage is forgotten. In many ways, it's not even history.

Last night the combined college choirs showcased the work of another ancient prof, one who would remember 1973, but a man who also has been long, long gone. To my ears, the music was magnificent, lovingly rendered by talented students and their own gifted director. Some few of those kids, perhaps, had parents who'd sung under the old master; but of the dozens and dozens on that stage for the performance, none knew the man like I did, or like the hundred or so other gray heads who'd come to honor him, having sung in his choirs.

The musician is just as gone as the old conservative, even though his music, last night, rang through the auditorium in triumph.

There's a difference: his music is speaks with a voice that's almost unending, a kind of sacrament. But both of them are long gone. An entire new generation of professors never heard of either of them. Their lives and times have passed into near oblivion. No buildings carry their names. Both gave their best, and even though both of them are still very much alive, here they're not even ghost-like. They're gone.

Sic transit gloria mundi--ashes to ashes. It's a theme so ancient, so universal, it comes in Latin and it's biblical.

I sat beside an ex-student last night at the concert. She has four kids. Life has changed for her. "You must be close to retirement," she said to me, smilingly.

I raised a finger. "One year."

I'm part of this story too, of course, but everything I've written here is not lament. All of this is being said with a smile because as one of the pieces rendered most beautifully last night, one of the most compelling Christian hymns of all times boldly insists, "It is well with my soul."

And it is. Really. As it is, I believe, for both of those ancient profs, now long gone.

And for all of that, this morning, I'm deeply, deeply thankful.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Morning Thanks--an old hymn

An old friend's ancient mom suffered significant senility in her last days, so much so that keeping up ordinary conversation became beyond her reach. Often when he'd drop by, she didn't know him, he said; and if she did, whatever recognition she might have had came only in fleeting moments.

But if he'd sing to her, sing the old psalms, her thin lips would form around those old texts as if she understood every precious line. Her voice, he said, would rise from whatever chaos was going on in her mind. She'd even smile. What she still knew, by heart,--even if she didn't know her own son's name--was the old hymns she'd sung as a child. That's what stuck.

I think I know that feeling. A few nights ago at our church, a young lady started into the tune of "Leaning on Jesus" on a violin, and, in a moment, I was back in fifth grade of Christian school during the first half hour of the day, singing my heart out. To me at least, some of those old songs and hymns and psalms are now so rare that when, strangely, they do emerge from the hymnal's dust bin they seem in some ghostly way vastly more alive than the scores of contemporary tunes that seem to change almost weekly.

Of course, it didn't hurt that the Cohn brothers used that very melody, often on a violin, throughout True Grit. No matter where the story went, no matter how gritty the action grew, "Leaning on Jesus" was always there, its own kind of blessed assurance.

"Leaning on Jesus" was always one of my favorites because of the chorus. The girls would sing "Leeeeeeeeaning, leeeeeeeaning," and the boys would undergird that stretched rep with something almost chant-like, a drum beat of "leaning on Jesus, leaning on Jesus." Who knows?--maybe there was some tender-hearted gender-stuff going on there, we boys politely creating a cadence beneath the melody for the girls, as if we were real gentlemen. For whatever reason, that old hymn sticks.

I could do worse.

When we sang that old hymn on Sunday night, I remembered the story of that old mother in the home mouthing words of old psalms and very, very little else.

And I told myself that, sure as anything, I could do a whole lot worse.

This morning's thanks are for that old hymn because it's, sure as anything, in me, "safe and secure from all alarms."