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, June 30, 2011

Swan Songs I: highway signs

The myth is that swans are silent and sing only just before they die. It's not true, but Chaucer thought so, and so did Shakespeare, meaning the myth grew more true than the truth itself, so we'll go with it. I'm thinking a series of "swan songs" is fitting for someone finishing close to half century in a particular place and during a particular time. Here's the first.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~

I don’t remember much about coming into Sioux Center, Iowa, in August of 1966. I was 18 years old, and I’d never been to northwest Iowa so I was a little nervous, just about to start college. I certainly wasn’t sleeping, because, oddly enough, one of the only memories I have is a pair of glaring hand-painted signs planted firmly on both sides of the highway several miles north of town, someone’s personal roadside evangelism project crudely blasting out some prophetic exhortation, like “What road are you on?–-heaven or hell?” Huge signs, looming over the single-lane highway like doom itself.

That’s what I remember, coming into Sioux Center, 45 years ago.

I wondered if maybe this place was going to be too much for me, the elders of the village like the dark men on the cover of a Dutch Masters cigar box–black robed, unbending, zealots, duty-bound to scare the bejeebees out of any kid a foot off the highway of Sioux Center righteousness.

Those signs stayed there for years, some are still there in fact, and, not more than a week ago, I passed a new one, which is strange because I know that the man who once put them up there--and elsewhere around Rock Valley--is gone, moved to Michigan, where he died. I know because he doesn't call me anymore.

It took me several decades, but I came to know the man behind the signs, a man named Richard Gerritson--and his story. I visited with him and wrote up his story, something he always wanted published. Maybe it will be. Part of it is here. Read on.

On October 11, 1958, a Saturday, Richard Gerritson was ripping a house down twenty miles south of his home in Rock Valley, saving the scrap to sell, trying to make a few extra bucks, when a man drove up from the gas station down the block, asked him if he was Richard Gerritson, then told him he’d been called to get him because there’d been a terrible accident that involved his son, Larry Wayne Gerritson, just 12 years old. That’s all he said—a terrible accident that involved his son.

By the time Richard got home, cars were parked on the road in front of the little house on 15th Street. An elder from the church met him on the sidewalk, didn’t tell him the whole truth. But soon enough the preacher did. Once Richard stepped in the house, the preacher took him by the hand, Richard told me—it’s something he said he'd never forget, that preacher holding his hand. Just then he overheard his wife sobbing in the living room behind him. The news was bad—-the worst. Larry Wayne was dead.

The Gerritson family hadn't been much for church and only recently had started going. Not more than a few years before, they’d come along to worship with friends. He started attending for his wife and kids' sake, he told me, not for himself or because he really wanted to. But the family—-Mom, Dad, two girls and a boy—-were already members when Larry Wayne was killed just a hundred feet or so from Grandpa’s house, spilled on his bike on Highway 18 and broke his neck when he was hit by a car.

For three weeks after Larry died, Richard Gerritson couldn’t make it through a church service. For three weeks straight, he’d leave the pew in tears and walk home to that place on 15th Street. His wife took the car.

On that third Sunday night, sometime after two in the morning, he came up out of bed, wide awake, and picked up a Bible, something he’d rarely, if ever, done in his life, he told me. He read from the book of Matthew, 10th chapter, words that struck him right between those sky blue eyes of his. “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Jesus said, “Take up my cross and follow me.”

So he did. And part of that cross was twenty years with M-2 prison ministry, inmates with whom he shared the gospel that changed his life, one-on-one—-black, red, and white inmates, “who just made some mistakes is all,” he told me. Part of that ministry was three-times-a-week Bible studies, one of which—the one at the Town House restaurant—is itself more than twenty years old. And part of that ministry was annually changing those graphic, hand-painted signs on the highways in northern Sioux County, the ones I saw from the back seat of my parents' car the very first time I came to Sioux Center. For fifty years and more those signs have been there.

Richard Gerritson is gone, but I just noticed that now, on highway 75, someone else has put up a new sign where his old ones once stood, sentry-like, just outside of Hull.

There's always more to the story. After almost 45 years in Sioux Center, Iowa, some of what I've learned, at least, is that there's always more to the story.

There's more and it's better, always more mystery, so keep looking and don't trust anyone who believes they know it all.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Morning Thanks--The Second Battle of the Marne

He was my grandma's only brother, only sibling. He was, therefore, my great uncle, Uncle Edgar, a man who died just a few months before my mother was born. He was in his twenties, he'd just signed up to fight the Great War, and he was hit by some kind of explosive, blown to pieces, according to a hand-written, eye-witness account, a letter I actually have in my possession. He was recognizable only by his dog tags.

Almost two years after his death, the government notified his sister, my grandma, that her brother had been killed. Why it took that long, I don't know; but I've got the document, and the government claims he died on August 8, 1918, just three months before the end of the war.

All of that I've known for a long, long time because I came heir to the family documents when my grandma designated me to be the one who would keep them. What that amounts to is the fact that I've got every last thing there is to know--pictures, war documents, childhood memories--about this man Edgar Hartman, my great uncle. Here it is, right beside me.

I don't know why, exactly, but yesterday I did a little research on Edgar Hartman's death. After all, that eyewitness account detailed exactly where it had happened in France, along the Vesle River. I just wanted to know what Uncle Edgar was a part of when he got hit.

I'd always assumed he was in a trench, largely because most of the imagery of the Great War is drawn from trench warfare; but it turns out that in the Second Battle of the Marne there were no trenches. Tanks were there, and shifting lines in topography that is more hilly and tree-lined than the open-plains where trenches dominated. Historians claim that the Second Battle of the Marne, 1918, looked more like something from the early months of the Second World War than the quintessential trench conflicts of the First.

And it was the first major battle in which American blood was shed, including my uncle's. The American Expeditionary Forces had joined with the French and the British in an effort not only to hold off a major German offensive, but to repeal it and thereby end the war. The Second Battle of the Marne was a major, decisive victory; the war ended three months after my uncle was killed.

America likes to believe that its participation in the war shut it down but good. Historians are less sure. Most agree that the Americans were highly motivated and exceptionally brave, but most also make clear that they were also a little silly, and somewhat vainglorious.

Although General John J. Pershing swore that his troops would never to answer to anyone but an American, credit him with this--once he got to the battlefield, he quickly determined that the French--yes, the French--were the superior military force and reliquished the command, meaning my uncle Edgar died under a French commander. What Pershing understood was that they knew the war, the place, the enemy, and the tempo of military conflict in general. They knew what they were doing. Without the Americans, the outcome of the Second Battle of Marne might well have been different; but to say that the young and inexperienced Yankee force ended the war is, according to those who know better than I do, stretching it.

My uncle Edgar was young and as inexperienced as any of the other Yankee troops. I don't know whether his bravery was as untempered by wisdom as some of his doughboy buddies', but somehow just knowing what the American boys were like helps me understand, fills out what was otherwise little more than a picture, colors more fully what so very little I know about him and them and the time.

Casualties were high. The U.S. lost 30,000 men, my uncle among them.

He was killed in what some consider the most decisive battle of the war since it was clear to the German high command, as of August, 1918, that the war was lost. The Allied forces had broken through German-held territory and chased the retreating armies back to positions they held before the spring offensive. When the Germans reached their fortified lines, their collapse ended temporarily, and the fighting--the fighting in which my uncle died--intensified.

For a month, from the first week in August to early September, the Germans stalled the French and Americans on the Vesle River, a place nicknamed "Death Valley" because of the Germans' lavish use of mustard gas. "I have rarely, if ever, seen troops under more trying conditions," one General wrote. "They were on the spot and they stayed there..." Any movement by day brought down fire, as the Germans used cannons to snipe at careless soldiers.

All of that is what I learned yesterday. And more. That Uncle Edgar was part of a unit led by General William G. Haan, who was almost certainly Dutch Reformed, from Crown Point, IN, the man who led the 32nd Red Arrow Division. For all of my childhood, the highway just west of town was Hwy. 32--Memorial Highway 32, named after Uncle Edgar's unit. I had no idea there was a link.

I had a wonderful day yesterday, even though I may be the only person in the world who really cares, not that others wouldn't if they, like me, weren't the recipient of every last thing there is to document the life of a doughboy, one of thousands, who didn't return from the Great War, my uncle Edgar.

He died thirty years before I was born. His parents were gone. His older sister was his only sibling. Had he returned, I likely would have known him; WWI vets were still around when I was a boy. I remember an old man who shook constantly on his daily walks to town, a victim, my father said, of "shell shock." But maybe Uncle Edgar would have come for coffee after church at my grandma's, he and the woman he was engaged to before he left. Maybe their kids, too. They would have been my mother's cousins, the first cousins she never had.

Yesterday was a great day, somehow, and this morning I just don't know why. I do know a great deal more about him, about his life; he's more human, I think, and somehow that seems a very good thing to me.

Maybe that's why yesterday was a great day, and why, this morning, I'm thankful for spending it almost a century ago along the Vesle River in France.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Dutch Golden Age

A friend read my thoughts about identity and the Dutch Golden Age and recommended Mariet Westermann’s A Worldly Art: The Dutch Republic, 1585-1718, a kind of coffee table study that is as utterly beautiful as it is thoughtful. My questions arise from visiting some of Holland’s most prized museums, cathedrals, and castles, where I came to understand that the Netherlands experienced, in fact, a real Golden Age.

Westermann’s book is an art museum itself, really, featuring thoughtful analysis of many of the Netherlands’ major art works, including this one—Willem Kalf’s Still Life with a Late Ming Ginger Jar, a painting which offers a thoughtful lesson in understanding the era and the cultural character that it created.

The lighting itself is gorgeous and rich, Mr. Kalf choosing to feature the (literally) worldly treasures brought back to Holland by its fleet of traders—the goblets and the Ming jar. Even the fruits are booty from elsewhere—the lime from someplace tropical, the peach from the Mediterranean. Lots of exotics, lots of beautifully spotlighted glamor.

Yet, what art historians have suggested is that the ensemble itself is quite precariously set on a rumpled floral carpet from India, and seems therefore almost to be tipping from the table itself. In other words, it may soon fall. Beware. Of note also is the open watch, itself not inexpensive; but the Dutch, who were not only accustomed to interpreting moralistic art but even demanded the opportunity to read such art’s moral messages, would not have missed what the open watch said, the symbolism of time’s winged chariot. The gorgeous menu here offered, although beautiful, is also somewhat bizarre. Who would really serve these food items together?

Therefore, critics far smarter than I claim that Kalf’s still life, like others of the era, carry a kind of paradox. While it features the comely booty only a world power could accumulate, treasures from around the globe, it deftly warns against those very riches at the very same time. While it glories in wealth, it also preaches against it. Go figure.

And all of this is centuries before Weber and his famous thesis about Calvinists and the capitalism they created.


I suppose I should take some pride in the inherent Calvinist moralism of Still Life. I would, I suppose, if I didn’t feel even more deeply the very human conflict in the paradox so wealthily displayed within it.

To me, at least, wonderfully interesting.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Morning Thanks--Many Moccasins

Okay, I admit it--a part of me wants to chuckle a bit, just as I laugh at Dutch klompen dancers who perform their ethnic thing hither and yon, as if they themselves are standing guard over my own ethnic heritage. What's more, while some of my ancestors might have scrubbed streets, I'm quite sure most of them would have drawn down a Calvinist eyebrow on street dancing.

Part of me wants to chuckle at the excess, the wild ornamentation, the dramatics; but part of me is thrilled by Native fancy dancers such as we watched last night, these from the Winnebago Reservation of Nebraska, perhaps our own closest Native neighbors.

And I suppose my admiration rises from 1973, the Red Power movement, which seems to have affected every last reservation in this country, infusing a people with a new respect for who they were, for their history and their traditions. A Winnebago woman told me once upon a time how 1973 changed her forever--"here I was, 17 years old, in Washington D. C., working for Native rights." It seems to me that similar stories abound on almost every reservation. Dances, like the one we watched last night, are a part of the story of a people bound and determined not to abandon their heritage.

We are who we are because we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us; we are--all of us--characters in a story; to attempt to erase the earlier chapters as if they didn't exist is to cut us off from who we are and what we've become.

Once upon a time this place where I live was really Sioux county because it was all Sioux country.

I've been reading Geraldine Brook's new novel Caleb's Crossing, the diary-like meditation of a 17th-century Puritan girl named Bethia, whose lot it is to determine right and wrong, as Huck had to, when the tight Calvinist system she is by birthright a part of comes into inevitable conflict with the island's aboriginals, the Wampanoag. Early in the novel, Bethia sneaks away and watches the Wampanoag dance, then notes how the Native women especially show no signs of the sinful wantonness she'd been warned was associated with dancing. Instead, they looked dignified, respected.

I thought of Bethia last night when, early in the performance, three women danced together so reservedly that one began to wonder when the real steps would begin. Not for a moment did those women drop their dignity.

Okay, there's some showmanship in the fancy dancers, some excess maybe; but there's also great dignity, the acceptance of a history, a heritage. For that--and for them--I give my morning thanks.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Love, art, and happenstance on the streets of Vancouver

I don't live in Vancouver, so I'm not up to speed on the aftermath of what happened there the night the Canucks lost to the Bruins. Perhaps there have been more protests, lots of angry radio talk show chatter, even pending lawsuits concerning what at certain moments looked like a police riot.

Perhaps, in Vancouver, the riot story is much bigger than it is elsewhere, where it's just another "fans gone wild," reminiscient of a couple dozen other post-game wildings in a couple dozen other American cities. Honestly, I don't remember a Canadian version before, but I may be forgetting. Post-championship game mobs are not all that rare.

What's amazing, from a distance at least, is how this wondrous solitary random photograph has eclipsed the story that created it. The picture is everywhere. As it turns out, this couple wasn't oblivious to what's going on all around them, so taken up by their own mutual pleasures that the riot took second place to romancing. She fell--that's the story. In the rush the police put on the people in the streets, this young lady lost her footing when she was pushed and went down and was slightly trampled. As she explained what happened, she was upset and scared silly. Her boyfriend simply got down beside her for a moment, and happened, just once, to give her a comforting kiss. That's the moment the camera caught, and that's what we see.

But the story the camera created was a moment in time whose wondrous story transcends anything that happened that night Vancouver, or in Boston for that matter. My guess is that more human beings have seen this photograph than watched even a single moment of the game or series. This picture is a wonder.

I don't know that you'd call it art exactly; what it offers in transcendence is the result of sheer happenstance. Neither the camera nor the photographer planned it. In a very real sense, the picture is one grand lie, even though a camera can not make things up. What's there is what was, but what's there is not what it seems.

What's so undeniably attractive about the shot is what our minds and hearts and souls want it to be. The photo speaks to our imagination and whatever repository of belief is in us. That prone couple is what we want love to be--totally selfless in the ongoing, even dangerous rush of life. In the middle of conflict all around, these two young people are, darlingly, forever lost in each other.

Not true. The fact is, she was scared witless.

Like millions of others, I'd rather hear the other story, the one the camera has given us, despite the truth. I prefer the one that ably shows sweet abandonment, the one that glories in the radiant passion of human love. (I'm its victim myself--listen to me, trying to get it right.)

The picture the camera gave us is exactly the one we always want so badly to see.

I really don't want to know what happened. I just want to stare.


Thursday, June 23, 2011

Reading Mother Teresa XIV

"Sister Gabriela is here. She works beautifully for Jesus--the most important is that she knows how to suffer and at the same time, how to laugh. That is the most important--to suffer and to laugh."

Up beside my office desk there stands a picture of the Reverend Bernard J. Haan, founder and first president of the college where I've taught for the last 35 years. He's outfitted in his finest swallow-tail preacher's coat, and he seems to be holding forth in front of the up-front pipe organ, no pulpit in sight.

It's a posed photograph--it has to be. Decorum would not have allowed his wandering around on the front of the church that way, no pulpit before him. Even though I'm sure he may have been a screamer back then (late 40s), he wouldn't have come out from behind the pulpit. Nope.

That picture must be posed because I can't imagine that a professional photographer--surely one from Time or Life--would have been allowed to wander up the aisle during Sunday morning church and shoot, willy-nilly, umpteen photographs of the dominie opening the Word. Wouldn't have happened.

The good Reverend must have played along with the photographer. "I'd like to have a picture of you holding forth," the New Yorkeer would have said, and the fiery young preacher reached for that swallow-tail coat.

I didn't know him when he was a young buck preacher, but I've heard enough about him to be able to guess that he hammered that pulpit, beat out his strongest points on the massive Bible that certainly sat up there back then. He was young, robust, opinionated, and charismatic--within years, he had accumulated a following so wide that he'd had sufficient disciples with sufficient pocketbooks to start a college, part of that growing from a reputation he gained for keeping a theater out of Sioux Center--the reason Time and Life were in town back then.

I didn't know him when he was yearling, but a couple of decades later, by the mid-60s, he seemed to me to be warm and genial old codger, a man capable of measured self-reflection, a fiery preacher who could--and did--still laugh at himself. By the time he retired, he was one of few human beings I ever knew who could really "do" himself. He was capable of--and often accomplished--pure self-parody. He knew so well what the crowd expected of him, that he could play himself--with style and grace. And success.

Late in life, he told me when he looked back, he wished it hadn't taken him so long to learn that the way to the human heart is via a smile, a laugh, some sweet joy. He was a slow-learner, he said. He regretted being so hard-headed that he couldn't have learned that lesson earlier. In a way, I keep this old picture of him around because, knowing all of that, it's a riot--just as he was.

I don't know that the Rev. B. J. Haan suffered or how he might have, but I'm confident that all of us do at some time or another. And I don't know about Mother Teresa's friend Gabriela either--how she might have suffered there on the streets of Calcutta. I simply can't compare her suffering with his; but then, really, it's always impossible to match my suffering up against yours or anyone else's. Suffering is suffering.

I know this. Mother Teresa wasn't wrong about laughter. Down here, in this vale of tears, to lose the ability to laugh is to suffer ceaselessly. There is something like grace in what she says here--"the most important" is to suffer and to laugh.

Down at the bottom of that equation somewhere is a paradox: laughter without suffering is sheer silliness; suffering without laughter is sheer horror. Life is some kind of prickly dance between the two, some kind of balance.

I was young when B. J. told me about his regrets, young enough to remember what he said:

To laugh.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Morning Thanks--short shorts

Okay, I know it's not that big of a deal or that it's going to affect me greatly for what years the Lord in his mercy ultimately allows me or that it will somehow alter the direction of history; but the fact is, I'm thankful for the hottest men's fashion news this summer--to wit, that shorts are getting shorter. Cheers my soul, in fact.

For one thing, shorter shorts will make those ancient basketball uniforms I and millions of others used to wear look less, what? less goofy--less fruity. Back then, we were men, not weird. More importantly, for an old man or a kid, those huge, awful baggies are simply less comfortable--or so it would appear to me.

Take it from an old guy--the demise of baggie shorts is further proof that if you live long enough you don't have to dump those skinny ties. All things must pass, and the only thing constant is change--you can quote me on that.

Here's the problem. A man like me, not blessed with great legs, might well cover up better in a pair of these,

all that denim covering ye olde thunder thighs--assuming, of course, that someone from the fashion police didn't arrest me first or my wife simply shoot me.

The fact is, at my age any new fashion trends don't affect me greatly. Nonetheless, I'm glad they're back--shorts. Not short shorts either, just those comfy half-pants we used to call "shorts," and I'm happy those billowing pantaloons are on their way to the Salvation Army. May they rest in peace.

It's the kind of fashion trend I like. Won't cost me a dime.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Paul Simon's Memento Mori

And thou most kind and gentle Death,
Waiting to hush our latest breath,
O praise Him! Alleluia!
Thou leadest home the child of God,
And Christ our Lord the way hath trod.

I didn’t really need to sing stanza six of “All Creatures of our God and King,” a very unfamiliar verse of an otherwise very familiar hymn. It came after the sermon and just before the final blessing one May Sunday at the English Reformed Church of Amsterdam, the Netherlands, where we worshipped. I didn’t need to sing that bizarre stanza because the tour had already taken us places where the idea of memento mori (a Latin phrase suggesting “remember your mortality”) was in stark evidence.

Besides, upon the podcast recommendation of a friend, I’d been reading Rob Moll’s new book, The Art of Dying: Living Fully into the Life to Come, a gracious argument for Christian believers to return to what Moll claims was a principled exercise a century ago—and more, of course--an exercise Moll says has been completely forgotten if for no other reason than that today death is an experience we antiseptically cordon off from our lives or the lives of friends and families. Not so formerly, he argues.

Death could never be more frequent than it is today, given the rise in world populations; but it could be, and likely was, more familiar. People died younger, childbirth was vastly more dangerous, and—in many places—hospitals were few and far between, hospice-care unknown. Forty years ago already in On Death and Dying, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross maintained much the same argument--that the distance we and our medical competence have been able to engineer between ourselves and dying keeps us away from important experience and even wisdom.

Wherever you go in Holland, one sees ample evidences of the theme or idea of memento mori. Every breath-taking old cathedral is festooned lavishly with skulls and crossbones. Centuries ago, a church’s high-and-mighty were buried right there in the floor, beneath the very aisles of spacious sanctuaries. No one going to worship could miss the stone memorials right there beneath their feet.

Even though “All Creatures of our God and King” was composed by St. Francis of Assisi already in the 13th century, and even though, today it is very familiar, the famous hymn didn’t find its way into my denomination's hymnal until 1987.

I’d never heard that verse before, yet another example of memento mori. To St. Francis, death is, oddly enough, quite “kind and gentle.” For decades I’ve taught Emily Dickinson’s most famous poem “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” as some kind of anomaly. Sir Death, in that poem, is not some ghoulish hooded monster but a kindly gentleman caller. Dickinson, I’ve told students, was powerfully original. I may have to edit that assessment out of future lectures; Ms. Emily may simply have picked up the idea from New England hymnody.

Why the very famous hymn “All Creatures of Our God and King” didn’t make it into my church's hymnal until recently may be an easier question to answer than why the version we do sing does not include the verse that rang out a few weeks ago in Amsterdam’s English church. Here are the lyrics again:

And thou most kind and gentle Death,
Waiting to hush our latest breath,
O praise Him! Alleluia!
Thou leadest home the child of God,
And Christ our Lord the way hath trod.

Perhaps—just perhaps—one doesn’t find that stanza in our hymnal because it was considered too morbid or mawkish for congregational singing.

But, trust me, getting old makes denying death’s reality difficult, if not impossible. In the last decade I’ve spent countless hours in “retirement residencies,” in homes for the aged, and I’ve watched parents tangle pathetically with malfunctioning bodies. I’ve learned to turn up the volume in my speech, and to don short sleeves when making even mid-winter visits. I’ve learned what can and can’t be said to my own parents, what will and will not get through. “Getting old isn’t easy,” my 92-year-old father-in-law has said to me frequently, and he should know—he and his baby brother are the only siblings, of ten, who haven’t been victims of Alzheimer’s.

That’s why I say I didn’t need an old hymn’s strange stanza or a bevy of ghoulish cathedral icons to remind me of my mortality. I know it in my bones after mowing the lawn and staining the deck. I know it every time I climb the stairs or get out of a straight chair. At 63 years old, despite all the trips to the gym, I’m not getting any stronger.

One day home from Holland, and I pick up the New Republic, where I read a review of Paul Simon’s new collection, So Beautiful or So What. It is, so saith the review, Paul Simon’s meditation on morbidity.

“Good night,” I tell myself, “more end times.”

Simon and his sidekick Art Garfunkle have been part of my life since I was a teenager. Once upon a time I had every last album; I still have several. Even though my musical tastes in music have drifted elsewhere, Paul Simon’s eclectic folk rock is almost always beside me here in my study. It plays on our iPod sound system on some Saturday afternoons, and when I walk or bike and need the inspiration to get through the workout, I choose Paul Simon.

Bought it and downloaded it from Amazon, the cloud. I have the album. How can I not pick it up?--the man is once again speaking my language, just as he always has.

It's wonderful.

So Beautiful or So What, Simon claims, offers a skein of new songs meant to fit thematically like Winesburg, Ohio, a collection of related short stories, or an old Beatles album—say, Abbey Road or Sgt. Pepper. He claims he wanted So Beautiful or So What to be itself a work of art.

And it is—it’s Paul Simon’s very own memento mori. He is, after all, 70 years old, and it may be only natural that he is, for the first time in his long musical career, thinking seriously about mortality, as he does in this album. Most of the work points at immense, even cosmic, questions, the kinds of questions someone his age--and mine--can't help asking.

What a joy. Honestly. The icons in those old cathedrals are right--as was Kubler-Ross and, now Rob Moll. There's something to be learned from thoughtful consideration of mortality, mawkish as that sounds.

To my tastes, Paul Simon has made the requisite exercise most endearing with this new collection, So Beautiful or So What.

If you think I'm lying, check him out on You Tube.

Beats skulls and crossbones.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Black Tulips, A Golden Age, and Me (part II)

This year—my third visit to the Netherlands—the most striking perception I came away with that in Holland there was, at one time, a legitimate Golden Age. Once upon a time, Holland ruled the high seas, if not the world. Its ports were the greatest, its revenues sky-high, its level of cultural character—its art and music and literature—as accomplished as anywhere in the world.
I’ve always used “the golden age” as if it were a myth. When old folks wax nostalgic about “the old days,” I’ll gently remind them that there is no such thing as a golden age, that every age has its horrors, that once upon a time people had to clean out a barn with a pitchfork.

But there was a golden age in Holland. Honestly. The Rijkmuseum's jewel is Nightwatch, this dark, sprawling Rembrandt that attracts fully as many tourists as the Mall of America. Think Vermeer’s The Girl with the Pearl Earring. Visit Het Loo sometime, the summer palace of the Holland's royalty. Visit any of its castles. There was a time in Holland's past when its national accomplishments were extraordinary. And the proof is there--it's still there, preserved in its museums, its cathedrals, its concert halls. You can hear it in the teeming power of its magnificent pipe organs.

And I wonder, having been there again, how much that past has to do with the way the Dutch live their lives, day to day--if, in fact, Holland’s Golden Age and its reality hasn’t nurtured a character that is, somehow, happy and even satisfied with a magnificent black tulip or a couple of glasses of wine. When compared to Americans, it just seems to me that the Dutch do much, much more with far, far less—and, they’re happier for it.

Here’s my question: how has having its own real golden age affected the national character?--that's what I'm thinking about. Having been there again, I wish I had a part of it myself. Honestly.

One of the most interesting aspects of Native American life and culture that I have encountered is the prevalent notion among Native people of many tribes, a notion that is simply not in my own psyche, is the proud sense of accomplishment and strength Native people take from their having survived. Not long ago, a six-part PBS documentary titled itself "We Shall Remain." Native people take great solace from still being here, but I don't know any white folks who would trumpet that commitment as if it were--simple survival as a measure of pride. Only an oppressed people, a suffering people would sing out that line like a mantra, an attitude that has grown from their story, the story of a people.

And what I'm saying is that the Dutch mantra--whatever it is--is also formed by its story, a story that includes, like few other nationalities, a real verifiable golden age.

We visited, one day, the Castle Muiderslot, where the story told by the guide and by the paintings all over the walls was one of opulence and royalty, really. But I couldn't help wonder where my own Dutch ancestors were in the 13th century, what they were doing when the nobles were lavishly entertaining their counterparts from all over Europe. They were baking the sweetmeats, maybe. They were tending the yard, weeding the potatoes. Even more likely, they were probably scrambling to stay alive.

I've always believed that my people were more aking to Van Gogh's Potato Eaters, a painting from a whole different era picturing folk who are messy, roughhewn, and rural, the bottom rung of Dutch society. In almost every national circumstance, the poorest of the poor, the most disenfranchised, are those who dream of America--the poor and tired, yearning to be free.

Maybe I’m just crazy, but I’m thinking that maybe I don't have that classy Dutch character because my own people, even though they were Dutch, never did. They were peons and pawns with decidedly weird religious ways.

The very first real Dutchman I ever met was registering to camp at a state park where I was employed just after my senior year of high school. When he signed the register, he listed his address as some strangely spelled place in the Netherlands. I flashed him my name tag--"Schaap," I said. "I'm Dutch. There are lots of people who are Dutch right around here."

He sort of sneered. "You're the kind who can't ride bikes on Sunday," he told me. "We got rid of all of those."

He was right about our not riding bikes. Maybe he was right about getting rid of us too.

I loved visiting Holland again this year, but this time around, for some reason, I wondered why I didn't have something I saw--and had seen before--in spades: a kind of cultural elegance. Never before did I think about the reality of a country and a culture that actually experienced a golden age. Never before did I consider the legacy of that reality on a national psyche. But never before did I feel like someone who didn't have it at all.

I am a Dutch-American. I suppose that's the best I can say.

And I'll take it. And maybe a good glass of wine.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Morning Thanks--Yesterday's vote

There are manifold problems with establishing racial quotas to insure healthy diversity. Everyone knows that much. Choosing an individual because of his or her racial or ethnic background is a kind of discrimination, no matter what the majority hue. Furthermore, those so chosen may well get "stamped" as a minority hire, someone in a position, not because of ability but because of politics. Quotas can be destructive to the institutions who use or inflict them, as well as those individuals who are chosen for position because they fit a profile. People have a solid right to oppose quotas. Quotas can be terrible.

But to rely simply on what has always been the criteria for inclusion or hiring can mean--and has meant--keeping the door closed when it comes to those who have not been part of a team. If someone, somewhere does not determine that justice requires and decision-making is blessed by diversity, if someone doesn't determine that it's not only time, but it's right for a team or an institution to include more than its traditional family, then changing the face of that team either will not happen, or else will happen so slowly that it would appear to perpetuate the discrimination that has been there.

There are remarkably good reasons for and against establishing racial and ethnic quotas. It's not hard for me, as a white male, to argue both sides or to cast my vote either way. Ironically, if it's not hard to vote either way, the choice is difficult when a vote has to be cast.

Yesterday, the Synod of the denomination to which I belong voted to try to hold the denomination itself to a number of minority hires in a certain period of time. Some call that a quota, some don't--the word has immense poliltical baggage. No matter. This morning, I'm thankful for what I think was the right decision, a decision, I'd say, that recognizes what God almighty wants his church to be, a congregation of every tribe and nation.

I grew up singing "red and yellow, black and white,/they are precious in his sight" in a circle of folks who had far less trouble singing that song than they did truly believing the lyrics--or at least believed what it sang as long as those other folks kept safe distance. The denomination I belong to has a marvelous history with Native American people in New Mexico, but that doesn't mean that marvelous history isn't soiled by sadness and even horrors. Sin exists--our best deeds are filthy rags.

But it's difficult to deny a heavenly directive here: God's family is, by His choice, "red and yellow, black and white." It's the task of the church not only to think that way, but to act that way.

Just after the end of apartheid, we were in South Africa. One night after church, we sat in the living room of a spacious home surrounded by a fortress-like wall and a battery of alarm systems, and we drank coffee with a half-dozen warm and friendly Afrikaaners. I'll never forget the question one of them asked. "Now tell me, Jim, this matter of racial quotas--in America that only took a few years, right?"

Somehow the man was of the opinion that justice was rather politely and quickly attainable through maybe a decade or so of purposeful changing of the guard.

I remember the question because it was so sadly misguided, so clearly racist, and so completely understandable, from his and their point of view.

Love takes work. Mixing it up isn't easy. Achieving racial diversity--God's own vision of his people--requires patience, forgiveness, tolerance, and, the greatest of these, love.

None of that is a piece of cake. A day after Synod established clear guidelines for diversity hiring in the upper levels of the denomination, this morning's thanks--my morning thanks--are for a vote that I know wasn't easy, requiring, as it does, a boatload of trust and faith and every other fruit of the spirit.

There are, I'm sure, many who disagree with me--the vote was very close. But yesterday my church did the right thing, and for that I'm wonderfully thankful.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Black Tulips, a Golden Age, and me

There's stuff in The Black Tulip to make me smile, but just as much to make me wonder. Ethnically, I am, for better or worse, 100% Dutch, but I'm not really Dutch at all. The fact is, I'm fifth generation American. By what stretch of the imagination can I be said to be "Dutch"? I'm not. It's preposturous for me to make such a bizarre claim because I have more to share with someone from Tupelo, Mississippi, for instance, than I do with someone from, say, Zwolle, the Netherlands.


Well, maybe.

Good night, I don't know.

What this third trip to the Netherlands taught me, once again, is how little I understand of the Dutch character. For instance, really, we can start with this generalization: the Dutch have a simple but glorious penchant for what I am going to call "the finer things of life"--a good glass of wine, a sunny afternoon, a thoughtful painting, good music (of any genre, by the way), a cup of good stout coffee outside on the town square with a just few good friends.

The Black Tulip was convincing, to me, because I could believe that long quote from my last post--that the Dutch would award stupendous money to someone who could create the perfect tulip. There is, I think, a penchant in the Dutch character to love simple but rich things. Like flowers. Like tulips.

Here's another generalization: that penchant, that characteristic, that propensity is NOT in the character of most Dutch-Americans, who, like me, have become vastly more American, a people not unlike our neighbors, who would or could never be thrilled with such simple things. We've enrolled in the school that proclaims, "the one with the most toys wins."

Yet, to say that Americans are more materialistic is silly. It's just that the "material" we covet is different--and theirs is, well, classier. There, I've said it. I think it true.

Now what does Alexandre Dumas know of all of this, being French besides? Somehow The Black Tulip pictures a Dutch culture I recognize, not by being Dutch myself, but by having visited Holland, by wandering the Rijkmuseum a half-dozen times, by visiting the central square of dozens of Dutch cities and towns, mid-day.

How about this passage from the novel, another taken from the end, when the townspeople of Haarlem are celebrating:

"But the interest of the day’s proceedings for us is centered neither in the learned discourse of our friend Van Systens, however eloquent it might be, nor in the young dandies, resplendent in their Sunday clothes , and munching their heavy cakes; nor in the poor young peasants, gnawing smoked eels as if they were sticks of vanilla sweetmeat; neither is our interest in the lovely Dutch girls, with red cheeks and ivory bosoms; nor in the the fat, round mynheers, who had never left their homes before. . ."

That description is a Breughel painting, but it's offered in an almost endless sentence that only describes the scene by what it isn't. The world of the novel is the world of Holland's Golden Age. They had one. It's not a myth. There was a time in the life of the nation when that pocket-sized country and its fleet of ships ruled the world. Really. The whole country fits neatly into eastern Iowa, but at one time it was the richest nation on earth.

When people dream of what might be, when governments create legislation meant to end injustice and economic blight, as noble and just as that legislation might be, I'm enough of a Calvinist to assert that hopes should become unduly inflated because sin is always with us and there's no such thing as a golden age.

But there was in Holland. Honestly. How does that fact affect them? How does that affect me?

(to be continued)

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Black Tulip

I know plenty of De Wits, but I’d never heard of Johann and his brother Cornelis, both of whom are heroes in Holland. Well, were. Well, sort of. They’re really something of an embarrassment too, a particularly bad moment in the life of the much revered William of Orange. About them—and about that story--I knew absolutely nothing until we visited Dordrecht, the Netherlands, this summer, got a tour from a historian who went on and on about how the city (the city of the famous Synod too) was, in fact, the very cradle of democracy.

He made a case that was peculiarly interesting, had me inspired, in fact. At the same time, one of our fellow pilgrims, a De Witt, in fact, fell into near stupified silence when we found Dordtrecht’s de Witt memorial. The man wanted badly to think that he was himself descended from these real-life pioneers of democracy, the de Witts of Dordtrecht. That’s all three de Witts above.

“You ever read The Black Tulip?” he asked me later, when he told me more about the long-ago story. “Alexandre Dumas,” he said, tipping his head a bit, as if to say, “surely, you’ve heard of him.

Why of course—Alexandre Dumas of Three Musketeers fame, I thought, another novel I’d never read. I caught the scold in the arc of his eyebrows. I knew I had to read The Black Tulip. Besides, a scar on the saintliness of William of Orange seemed a scandal worth investigating.

I just finished it—The Black Tulip. It was wonderful—cute, sweet, romantic, full of history (I think), wonderful in the way a swashbuckling 19th century novel should be: horrific injustice outrun by virtue of the highest caliber—good vs. evil, and, wouldn’t you know?—good triumphs boldly.

The first section of the novel—only tangentially related to the romance that comprises most of the story--concerns the deaths of the De Witt brothers, two fine men hacked to death by a mob that seemed to me uncharacteristically bestial for a brood of Dutchmen in Holland’s Golden Age. But what do I know?

But mostly, The Black Tulip is a love story—the love of an innocent, God-fearing man for the almost mythical black tulip and the favors of comely Frisian, blue-eyed maid who is put together from materials few human beings are—utterly loyal to a man whose innocence only she seems to understand, unswerving fidelity even though her monster father is her innocently imprisoned sweetheart’s senseless persecutor.

Besides, you get descriptions like this—fairy-tale, Tulip Time Holland: “. . .on the Sunday fixed for this ceremony there was such a stir among the people, and such an enthusiasm among the townsfolk, that even a Frenchman, who laughs at everything at all times, cold not have helped admiring the character of those honest Hollanders, who were equally ready to spend their money for the construction of a man-of-war—that is to say, for the support of national honour—as they were to reward the growth of a new flower, destined to bloom for one day to divert the ladies, the learned, and the curious.”

Smiles all around. A swashbuckler that honors those ancient de Witts, and love itself, and even faith. Even the sins of the great William of Orange get redeemed.

Sweet summertime reading.

Sunday, June 12, 2011


After four days of meetings, thoughtful presentations, engaging conversations, and sometimes furtive, impromptu strategizing, what is clearer to me than it ever was before wis how blame easy it is to talk about the glories of "diversity," and how blame difficult it is to work at coexistance. We seem almost hard-wired to love our own, but when we do so, we often love at the expense of others. It takes the directives, the commands really, of biblical love to counter that which is, it seems, instinctive. We are more "at home" with people who are like us; and, without a doubt, more uncomfortable with those who, for whatever reason--gender, race, age, ethnicity, socio-economic level--are not.

In Brazil several years ago, I stood just beside a flavela, a slum, with two teenage kids of a mixed-race marriage, bright kids who were eager to tell me about their country's successes and its problems. I told them that, after some time looking around their world, I'd simply come to believe that far sweeter multi-racial music was being created by Brazillian diversity than that which was created in mine. They shrugged their shoulders--unconvinced. "I'll have life easier than my sister," the boy said. "I'm lighter than she is." Honestly, I had to look to see the very thin variation in shade he was referring to. I hadn't seen it before at all. I was myself blind to the variations they agreed were visible and vulnerable. His sister, without question, agreed.

"People of color" come in a crayon box full of hues and have behind them a variety of racial and ethnic experiences; their stories are often vastly different. Mexicans are not Puerto Ricans; Koreans are not Taiwanese. Most people understand that Asians, in general, have had far less trouble achieving what we mythically call "the American Dream" in this society than Native Americans or African-Americas--and, of course, there are good and obvious reasons. They're both POCs, but they're not at all alike.

But then, to be African-American these days might well mean many things. More recently immigrated African-Americans have to study to understand a heritage of slavery, if they consider slavery their heritage at all. A few years ago, one of my students from the Caribbean tried to start a Black student organization on campus but found little support among the African-American students.

But really, what on earth does it mean to be "white"? White is sometimes thought to be an absence of color. Can I be accurately defined by what I am not?

Differences simply exist. Coexistence is possible, it seems, only by biblical directive. And there is biblical directive: our command is to love. I just hate it when people think or act as if that command is a piece of cake. It isn't.

We have to work. All of us.

That's what I learned, in spades, this week.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Just very, very sad

Two novels in those years featured Iowa. One of them was basically romantic tripe--The Bridges of Madison County--a sadly unfulfilled farm wife finds sexual glory for a few fleeting days in the perfectly lovely arms of a photographer/artist. When he leaves, she sadly but inevitably goes back to her humdrum hog farmer, who's been away at the Iowa State Fair with their kids and his pigs. The story is the fantasy. It sold big.

The other was A Thousand Acres, an inside-out version of King Lear. Three daughters scrap wildly over their father's farming kingdom. I read it too, loved it, admired it vastly more than I did Bridges, and I wasn't alone: in 1991 it won the Pulitzer Prize. I read A Thousand Acres several times, assigned it in my classes, and marveled at Jane Smiley's ability to "get Iowa right." She was not a native Iowan and I'm no Iowa farmer, but there was so much sensuous-ly on-the-money about that novel, so much that caught life here in a kind of exactness that I loved--life in Iowa, on a farm, a big one, circa 1990.

Somewhere I have a long, published essay about A Thousand Acres, an essay which both explains my admiration for Smiley's work and begs off of full praise because the novel's most significant character motivation is created, almost blindly, by what eventually becomes what people called, back then, repressed memory. As the daughter walks back through the home she grew up in, she suddenly remembers how her father used her, as a child, for his own deviant sexual pleasure.

Repressed memory was a national phenomenon back then. Three times in those years--late eighties and early nineties--I was asked to write some old friend's story. One at a time, two women and one man came to me to tell me what had almost ritually happened to them as little children--how specifically their fathers and/or mothers had similarly violated them, repeatedly, in a ways that these people had evidently repressed until the present, until some moment--maybe therapy, maybe not--when memories were released and came flowing back into their conscious minds and hearts and souls, prompting a kind of sweet anger that often seemingly answered long-held questions they'd always felt about themselves and their worlds and, of course, separated them violently from their parents.

The sheer repetition worried me. For a while, repressed memory, along with its counterparts,"multiple personalities" and "Satanic ritual abuse" actually became, in a perverse fashion, all the rage. What some call "moral panic" was raging throughout the land, a phenomenon I still don't claim to understand.

Two weeks ago another old friend sent me a note to tell me that he'd just read a book from someone whose family he'd known, a book that told a story so sordid that, he said, he simply couldn't believe it, even though he felt he had to--after all, there was the book. You ought to read it, he said, so I ordered it, from Amazon, and it came two days later.

I finished it last night, a book titled Am I Alive?, written by Ruth A. Zandstra. I'm interested in stories about the folks from whom I come, the Dutch Reformed, and this one, I thought, promised me just that, even if I understood from the e-mail note that it was going to be an attack on self-righteousness among the strict Calvinist ethos in which Ms. Zandstra was reared, as was I.

Don't buy the book. If you want to know what it's like, just google satanic ritual abuse and you'll see and hear all you wish to know. Am I Alive? is one of those books I didn't help someone write twenty years ago. It accuses her father and mother of horrors only a perverse imagination could create, if it weren't for thousands of other very similar tales. Dad is a member of a demonic cult who ritually sacrifices babies and rapes children--Dad, an elder in the church and a member of the local Christian school board.

Honestly, as awful as it is to say about such stories, they're cliches. They are.

Not to the woman or man who suffers the nightmares, of course, but to those who believe that his or her parents were somehow blood-bound into some horrific demonic cult, there is only this to say: no one has ever uncovered even the slightest reason to believe that such cults actually existed. If the thousands of such repressed memory stories were true, then tens of thousands of adults--many of them expressly evangelical Christian in their professions--had to have been involved. It simply goes beyond belief that someone, somewhere wouldn't have been converted back to the Christian faith they outwardly professed wouldn't want to come clean--like the 90-year-old Dutch woman who, last week, walked into a police station in Holland and confessed to murdering a man she and the rest of the Resistance was sure was a Nazi collaborator. She'd lived with that murder since 1946, but finally dumped her guilt at the station. That has never happened with tens of thousands of practitioners, ritual murderers and rapists, of these demonic cults. In all likelihood, such organizations never existed.

What can anyone say to Ruth A. Zandstra? Probably nothing. She is absolutely and entirely convinced that what happened to her as a child is the honest-to-God truth, and no one--not me certainly--is going to affect some change of mind or heart. She truly believes. The book is her testimony, and growing up evangelical, she knows what a testimony is.

It's interesting and sad, at least to me, that the phenomenon which ran like a plague throughout American culture in late 80s and early 90s, the "moral panic" of repressed memory and satanic ritual abuse, began in the company of strict evangelical Christians, people who believed whole-heartedly in the reality of Satan, the Devil.

The problem with Satan, C. S. Lewis used to say, is two-fold: we either believe in him too greatly, or not enough.

Some kind of balance is a requirement in life, or so it seems to me, including a balance between faith and doubt. Faith without question is idiocy. Doubt without hope is madness.

Am I Alive? is self-published, and it's available on Amazon. Amazon isn't in business to care what it markets, as long as it gets its nickles and dimes. In a way, Ruth Zandstra's book is an example of the new democratic world we live in, a world in which we can all be writers, a world without gate-keepers, without editors who would have questioned the wisdom of publishing this memoir.

We live in a brave new world in which you can play along if you've got enough money to get the admission price up to the counter. Just because it's a book doesn't mean it's true. Just because it's on Amazon doesn't mean it's something anyone should read.

But then, again, maybe some should read it, if for no other reason than to be reminded, once again, that being a believer can never mean checking your brain at the door when you enter the sanctuary.

I feel nothing but pain and sadness for Ruth A. Zandstra. Her testimony is a perverse and awful fantasy too, but it's also a parable. Sometimes there are no simple answers--not even heinous simple answers--to our worst problems. Sometimes our most trying questions have no good answers.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Morning Thanks--POC

I've biked for three days, eight miles or so, out and back to an old golf course--in the sun. I've worked on the yard in 85-degree heat. Along with my wife, I've walked several times on a glorious path through restored prairie that's alive with life--in full sun.

I tan easily, always have. I'm not stupid--I don't lie out to get "brown," but I don't have to work hard to get rid of that pasty, floury me that accrues every winter. Okay, I admit it--I don't mind seeing myself several shades darker than I am on my February birthday.

Come June, I'm dark-skinned; but I am not, nor will I ever be, a "person of color," and try as I might, I don't, as if by nature or instinct or battery of experience, perceive day-to-day life quite the same as a POC does. In a certain sense, that makes me an LD student, learning disabled, which is not to say I can't be taught.

I sit on a national committee whose mission and task is to help the church deal with its racial past, its present, and future. As everyone knows, it won't be long in this country before white folks become a minority. I have no doubt that at least some of the animus against Obama is created, among white folks, by that fear, whether conscious or not. Times are changing.

Last night, we went at it hard, this committee did, and I tried my best to get the rest of them to understand how white folks would likely think through a particular problem we're encountering somewhere within that changing racial face. The rest of the committee tried their best to help me understand how people of color could be aggrieved, could be angry, could be ready to walk away because of attitudes they clearly read in those same reactions I tried to explain.

I'm not sure how we fared, but we tried our level best, all of us people of colors.

What I know is this. This morning's thanks are for them, for what they taught me--for what they teach me, what they will teach me again today in more such meetings. Good Lord, it's really hard work to peel back layers of perceptions we're blessed and cursed with--and I'm not talking simply about racism. It's dang hard work to perceive things from walking in another person's shoes--or skin. Dark as I am this June, in so many ways I'll never be a POC.

But this morning, I'd like to think that we can learn, that we can change, and that we can--although in an always limited way--understand. We can grow.

At least I think we can. And for that too, on this brand new morning, the morning of new meetings, I'm thankful.

Monday, June 06, 2011

Morning Thanks--The Big Muddy

If right now my house was bermed in by earthen walls and sandbags, emptied of its furniture, its appliances, and its treasures, and vulnerable to that water coming down from the eastern face of the Rockies, I'd see the whole thing differently. I'd likely blame the Army Corps of Engineers for sitting on their thumbs when it was clear that all those reservoirs up stream were filling far too rapidly. I'd likely spit about the fact that geek somewhere was sleeping at the wheel and forgot to oversee the excess behind the series of dams that were supposed to control that one-time unruly Missouri River.

I'd be mad, I suppose, and grousing, too, and scared.

But then I know people who think that series of dams put in years ago already toy with nature in a way that we shouldn't, that floods are as natural as wild fires, that just because we can control nature, or think we can, doesn't mean we're doing the right then when we do.

People lots smarter than I am can go to war about that argument. I'm not about to rush in where wise men fear to tred.

But yesterday we watched 150,000 cubic feet per second pour from the Gavins Point Dam, the southernmost dam in the Missouri River system, the very first time that dam has been opened in its 50-year history because it actually had to be. The only water I've seen roil that fiercely was on the upper Niagara, just up from the falls. It was astounding. All that water coming out of the dam was mesmerizing in its sheer power.

Down river, in Sioux City, thousands of people are still filling sandbags. For the first time in half a century, the Missouri has come up out of its banks, its vitality somehow restored in a picture of what once was. Like I said, if I lived along its banks, I'd be scared and probably mad.

But from a distance all that water and all that commotion, all that power belittling all our finest engineering, all of it has become a sermon about nature, our control over it, our ability to wrestle it down, our dreams of conquest.

Right now, right here, Big Muddy lives again, and while I'm sorry for those displaced by its reemergence, there's something sort of grand in seeing us--its one-time conquerers--cower. I'm not thankful for property lost, for flooded schools and churches, for communities threatened. I'm not thankful for flooded basements or whole houses gone.

But I think we're all better off being told by nature, by God, that maybe we aren't as omniscient as we like to think we are, that our best work doesn't come close to the power of creation itself, that, good Lord, we're really more vulnerable than we like to think.

Pride is still the king of the seven deadlies, but today in a ton of places along the old mighty Mo pride is under water rampaging once again as wildly as it once could.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Morning Thanks--Baling Hay

I've never been a late-sleeper, so I remember very well lying in bed and hearing the telephone ring. I knew what it was, and I knew that it would only be a minute or so before my mother would put down the receiver and call upstairs with news I could have forecast. The dew was going, the sun was shining, and soon enough we'd be bailing hay. The next fall I'd be in eighth grade, I think, maybe seventh.

Today, there would likely be child-labor laws to prevent my going, but what I understood from my mother's call was that in just a matter of minutes I'd hop on my Bridgestone and ride to some out-of-the-way farm somewhere, where I'd meet the family of the old man who'd hired me to buck bales. They'd already be there, checking the baler, poking the elevator up into some weird barn door that hadn't been opened since last May, some wooden squeaky thing festooned with cobwebs thick as yarn.

I hated baling hay. I would much rather not have gone. The guy we worked for was a God-fearing man, a fact I'm sure my mother relished. What she didn't realize was that baling hay also meant being packed into a mow with a gang of other sweaty adolescent boys, all of us boiling over with hormones we couldn't begin to negotiate. What I learned baling hay was a lot more than she ever bargained for when she called upstairs.

No matter. Today, a half-century later, when I look back, I know baling hay was a rite of passage I wouldn't--not in a month of Sundays--be without. Baling hay has made it into more than one story because the experience was rich with life, as rich as the smell of cut alfalfa on a lakeshore field, a smell, oddly enough, I still love.

I was a town boy, no farm background whatsoever. I was not--nor have I ever been--blessed with any kind of mechanical aptitude. That I may have been a better student than at least some of the crew back then, was no matter. I was, on the farm, a clutz, an embarrassement. No matter. I worked, often until late into the night. Such was life back then.

The boss was one of those men who believed, wholeheartedly, in the sanctity, the redemptive power of work. He was tight as a fist, and, by my estimation, could care less for the kids he employed at a slave's wages. But he gave me more vivid life's experience than I could ever have learned in town on those sunny days, doing nothing at all.

This morning, our neighbors are putting on a roof, employing their two adolescent boys. Today, I must admit, I find that fact absolutely wonderful. Roofing, like baling, is hard work--hard, hard work. But when I look over there, beyond the alley out back, and I think it's a great thing to see those town boys up there scraping off shingles and nailing down new ones, wearing out their jeans. They're working. Bless 'em.

I wonder what my mother knew back then when she'd open the upstairs door and call up to tell me I had a half hour to get to Cedar Grove. She couldn't have known everything. What I learned were things I'm not sure she could imagine, even today.

But this morning, I'm thankful that, back then, she got me out of bed and on that little scooter, put my lunch in my hands so I could strap it to the seat, and sent me off--way too young to work as hard as we did, and far too lazy to know clearly enough how important, how life-bringing it was for me to have to get up in that almost hellish hay mow, to hear the infernal clanging of that orange elevator delivering those twiny beasts, to brush away the cobwebs and start packing bales six-high, seven-high.

This morning--the sound of hammers coming from just next door--I'm thankful my mother called. I really am. Not that I liked it then. Not that I'd like it today. Nope. But working for that praying skinflint gave me lessons for life that I remember far more poignantly than what went on that year in school. I'm thankful for an education that included scratched-up arms and worn-out gloves and jeans that come with the sweaty, dusty work of putting up bales.

Once upon a time I did a story on a man who invented the round baler. He told me his motivation was simply this, to keep his neighbor, a good farmer, on the land because, he said, that neighbor of his hated baling hay so much he threatened to quit. I understood fully. In actuality, I hold little nostalgia for the arduous work myself. But I'm glad, thankful, I'm a veteran.

So this morning's thanks, with the sound of those hammers coming into our house from next door, is for my mom's persistant voice coming up the stairwell of our little house, telling her boy what he already knew--that this morning there'd be hay to bale and I wouldn't be home until dark. Sixty cents an hour, I remember--that was my second year, when I got a ten-cent raise.

The truth is, on those mornings the boss would call, I was already awake; but that didn't mean that she didn't have to get me out of bed. Today, I'm glad she did. 6/3/11