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.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Saturday morning catch--a foggy, groggy dawn

I have a friend who knows vastly more about flora and fauna than I do.  He claims I'm a fair-weather fan--I love dawns only when they're colorful and bright and sunny.  

He's right.  Photography, I've come to learn, is all about light; when there ain't any, it's slim pickins.  Twice, barely out of town this morning, I turned around--then turned again and kept on going, figuring the fog might lift. 

No such luck.

Eventually, I made it out to one of my favorite haunts, not far from the state line, a woebegone place down at the end of two miles of travel-at-your-own-risk dirt roads.  It's almost scary to be there--it seems so far, far away.  And yet, even though the fog was thick as sea poop, it was a joy being there, up on a hill above miles and miles of trees and corn and soy beans rolling away into dark azure in every last direction. 

But the morning's glory was this defaced, dilapitated sign.  I can't begin to tell you how far off the beaten path I was--more than a mile from the nearest farm, down a road so unusued it was hard to find tracks and I needed every inch of our little Tracker's clearance to get through.

And there, honestly, middle of nowhere, a couple, I'd like to think, felt graciously compelled to put their love up in bright crimson.  "B hearts R," then a smiley face, just about a year ago--9/10.  I wonder if it lasted. 

So what if it didn't?  Sometimes they don't.  While the two of them were here, it was breathing heavily--that's all I need to know.

Even though there's no reason for a sign to be out there, miles from traffic, there's probably still a law against those kids' sweet graffiti.  But then I think any big-hearted judge would let 'em off; after all, those proud red letters smother the shotgun blasts, don't they?  I mean, some others hillbillies out there, hunting pheasants I'm sure (since I kicked up at least a dozen when I got out of the car), couldn't keep a lid on the testosterone that builds up in a man with a gun, and one of them drew a bead on whatever the sign once said, just let go and ripped a hundred holes in it long before the lovers arrived.  Deer rifles too--and 22s.  Target practice.

But you've got to look close to see that mess now because B and R blessed that ruin with their sweet testimony.  See?  Love'll smother the blasts, mostly, right?

I'm an old man, but that was the highlight of one gorgeous foggy morning on the prairie. 

There wasn't much light, but I poked the camera around anyway.  Have a look.

Friday, July 29, 2011


I'm really not angry about getting old exactly because, after all, that sweet, little puppy is just plain darling.  I must admit it--and I will.  Some sort of spaniel, I think.  It's a cute little thing, but it's just not me.  It's her.  

So why do I have an iPod Touch at all?--because I'm trying to stay young, trying to stay hip, right?  I mean, a man a year away from retirement doesn't really need to be armed and on-line 24/7, despite the fact that half the world is.  But who the heck wants to be part of the other half, the nether half, the half that's in darkness, right?  So WOOT offers a cheap shot at an iPod Touch, and I figure who the heck am I if I don't know a thing about iPads and iPods and wi-fi and receptivity.  I'm in.  Been in for awhile already.  I'm hip.  I've got an iPod Touch, and, of course, I regularly salivate about an iPad--or anything tablet size, actually.

Okay, so she comes over last Sunday for dinner with her parents and her brothers and she flops down on the couch like the gangly teenager she's soon to become (three years) and says, "Papa [that's me], can I play with your iPod?"  

It's nearly impossible to imagine what evil she could ask of me that I'd allow, although I wouldn't deliver the head of John the Baptist.  I'm not way gone.  And her playing with my iPod is, by now, an every week thing.

All I know is, she lies there, "tween-er" like, for maybe ten minutes, then lays down the iPod (doesn't turn it off!), and the next time I tune in myself, voila!--this sweet little floppy-eared  puppy stares up at me.  He's become my wallpaper.  

Which is okay, I guess.  But, like I said, that puppy is astoundingly more "her" than it is me.  HOWEVER, how small would I be if I couldn't live with a tiny adorable spaniel every time I log in. Besides, no one sees it but me, right?  

But what really cooks my goose is I am TOTALLY POWERLESS to change it.  I've been fiddling and faddling and wiggling and poking, but not for the life of me can I figure out how to dump that puppy and pick up something more, well, male and more "mature."  I can't.  

She's coming again this Sunday perhaps.  Thank goodness.  

Although I don't have the heart to ask her to change it.  She's my first grandchild, for pity sake--did I mention that?  My only granddaughter, too.  

And it is cute.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

May he rest in peace

Apparently, when Andrew DeYoung died a week ago--when he was executed by the state of Georgia for the murder of his parents and his sister--the particular drug cocktail he was administered did not create the suffering some had thought it might.  According to the Atlanta Constitution, DeYoung "only blinked his eyes and swallowed repeatedly, and showed no violent signs in death."  His execution is recorded on videotape, which is why, I suppose, the name of Andrew De Young was all over internet aggregate news outlets last week. 

Now it's gone.  So is he. 

So are his parents and his grandparents.  So is his sister.  Only a brother remains, along with cousins and uncles and aunts. 

What began right here in Sioux Center, Iowa, and ended at 8:04 p.m., on July 21, in Jackson, Georgia, ended the way it did because in one crazed moment of his young life Andrew De Young determined he could kill his parents, pocket the insurance, and begin his own business.  Somewhere in Georgia, I presume, Andrew De Young is now buried.

I remember talking about the story with a class of mine when De Young did what he did in 1993.  I remember feeling my heart in my throat because the boy's grandfather (Andrew was just 17) worked here, was a colleague and a kindly, soft-spoken man; and the crimes were so awful, so unthinkable, that I just felt something had to be said.   We prayed in that class, I remember. 

I still can't imagine Grandpa and Grandma coping with that horror--a son and daughter and granddaughter murdered, a grandson the murderer.  Grandma blamed devil worship, I remember.  Court records suggest drugs were somehow involved.  I know, years later, both grandparents travelled to Georgia to argue against the death penalty, an argument they lost. 

They're gone now, both Grandpa and Grandma.  I wrote an essay about Grandpa's funeral last year, a funeral I attended, at which nothing was mentioned of Andrew or about the unthinkable suffering he'd put his Grandpa through--too heinious, I suppose, to be mentioned.  A funeral is not a time for review horrors.  Death is horror enough.

With his last words, reportedly, Andrew De Young apologized:  "I'm sorry for everyone I've hurt." 

I suppose the videotape will show that Andrew De Young didn't suffer when he died.  I hope that's not the best thing we can say.

Nothing I've ever written has provoked such strong feelings and prompted as much response as the essay I wrote about Andrew's grandfather's funeral.  You can read it here.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Reading Mother Teresa XVI

I should, I suppose, consult some dog-eared, learned treatise.  I need to walk only two blocks to find what is, I'm sure, a fine theological library.  Shoot, today, who needs a library?--I could simply google "total depravity."  It would not be hard for me to learn more about what those two words mean.  What I know is that it is the T, the first letter of the famous Calvinist acronym T-U-L-I-P, and what I've picked up through the years.

I don't know what the great theologians speculate about the nature of our human misery, post-Fall.  I should check.  Undoubtedly, there's more than one opinion.  It might be interesting to know how people speculate.

What I do know is what my own human experience tells me, and it's not exactly what my graduate school advisor used to claim.  "Jim, I want you to know that I'm a Calvinist too, just not a Christian," he'd say.  "When I look at the world, all I see is crap." 

It's not that.  He was great guy, and I liked him a ton; but he was dead wrong--that's not what total depravity means. 

I think Mother Teresa has it down.  Listen to this, from a letter to a mentor:  "One thing, pray much for me--I need prayer more than ever," she writes.  "I want to be only all for Jesus, and not only in name or dress."  The year is 1937.  The place is Calcutta.  Undoubtedly, she wore the habit.  "Many times this goes upside-down"--this idea of being only all for Jesus, "--because my most reverend 'I' gets the most important place.  Always the same proud Gonda."

The very idea of this most righteous woman, this woman who has, in fact, given her life for the poor and destitute, given up everything--the idea of that woman, Mother Teresa herself, going to war with her own putrid pride is in itself remarkable, isn't it?  Almost beyond comprehension.  Mother Teresa fought pride?

Yes, she did.  We have her words.  Every day, every moment, in the caverns of her own heart she fought an infernal holy war. 

Yesterday I finished a story, and I was proud of it--proud because it took a ton of work and I thought I'd pulled it off well.  I liked it, believed it was good.  It was hard frickin' work and it took me too many days to accomplish; but the beauty and joy of creativity is to gather together stuff--an idea, an anecdote or two, a taste of character, an odd event, a few good names, a hillside, some sheep--and then, like a creator, somehow roll it up together and make sense of it.  Art, I think, is little more than making something with meaning where there wasn't particular meaning before, order out of chaos.  But then we're all really trying to make sense of things; that's why stories will never die.

I was proud of myself in a good sense.  I'd made something I thought wonderful.  That kind of pride is no sin.  That kind of pride has nothing to do with total depravity. 

But the moment I think I need to be praised for what I did is the moment that "the most reverend 'I'" struts in, dressed in all his impish finery.  The moment I want acclaim is the moment my needs, my wants, my desires overshadow anything else.  And it happens.  Always.  Total depravity, at least in my experience, is that sad human condition. 

I don't think I'm alone.  After all, even Mother Teresa's "most reverend 'I'" would not stay in the closet. 

Total depravity has little to do with some sinful human slime pits or the way the German people fell for Hitler's hate.  It's hard to look at Congress these days and not think of sheer sin on both sides.  But it's not that.  Total depravity is "the most reverend 'I'" shouldering its way into absolutely everything we do or say or believe. 

In my book, she's right here too--we all, every one of us, need prayer.  We all stand in need of grace. 

It's that total. 

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Abraham Kuyper: my own short and personal introduction

I'm quite sure I had to get to college before I ever heard the name of Abraham Kuyper.  I didn't hear the name in high school, I'm sure; and I honestly doubt whether either of my parents ever knew much at all about him, even though he was, at the turn of the 20th century, the Prime Minister of the Netherlands, and folks from both sides of my family are intensely Dutch.

My mother's side of the family was tucked away here on Lake Michigan's western shore long before Kuyper made his name in Holland.  My father's family was too--with the exception of a his mother's father, a seminary prof who, I'm told, would not be counted among the man's great admirers.  It would make sense to say that Abraham Kuyper had a very limited effect on my family or my childhood, despite the fact that I am, for better or for worse, a purebred Dutch-American.

Then I went to college.  Things changed.  At college I met some of Abraham Kuyper's most devoted following, descendents of generations of Dutch-Americans who'd come to this country at the turn of the 20th century, arrived on Ellis Island with Near Unto God, Kuyper's famous devotional book, tucked in their back pockets and forever in their hearts.  What's more, when I got to college there were hundreds of students from the post-World War II era in Holland, kids who could still speak Dutch, students who cut their teeth on words like "world view" and phrases like "sphere sovereignity," students who revered the Free University of Amsterdam as if it were nirvana. 

But I don't know that anyone ever taught me a thing about Kuyper, and thus I didn't know him as a human being, in his time, in the way I knew the brooding thoughtfulness of Abraham Lincoln, for instance.  I didn't know Kuyper was "converted," so to speak, by pious, commoner Hollanders who believed their young preacher's particular brand of school-bred modernism was anathema.  I didn't know a thing about a phrase like "the antithesis," and I'd never, ever thought about my faith as if it were an ideology, a starting point, a place to stand.  Faith, for the most part, the Christian faith, was something nestled lovingingly in my heart, not necessarily in my head; and "the world" was the rotten place where "worldliness" began, a place to leave, to reject, to want to walk away from.

In college I became a Kuyperian, a neo-Calvinist, because, in part, during the Vietnam War the neo-Calvinists around me were the only Christians I knew making any sense.  The pietistic folks were simply buying into the conservative politics of the era--Dr. King as a communist, Richard Nixon as God's appointee by divine right, and Vietnam as a righteous war against godless communism. 

I've been one ever since, even though I still don't know much about the man, never studied him, really.  Once upon a time I decided to read my grandfather's dog-eared copy of an English translation of Near Unto God.  Ten pages in, I liked it so much I started rephrasing it because it was translated in a particularly annoying English, a stiff preacherly style, it's own kind of crochety preektone.  That book is still available (here)--in some ways my own personal introduction to a man who still is the leader of some stubbornly devoted followers among whom I counted myself long before I knew much at all about him.

If you'd like a primer, maybe for the first time one is available.  Richard Mouw, President of Fuller Seminary, the largest seminary in the country, has just written one, titled Abraham Kuyper:  A Short and Personal Introduction (Eerdmans), available here.  It's not a tome, but it is, in its own humble way, a major work because it does the kind of work that someone like Mouw needed to do. 

Mouw doesn't genuflect--Kuyper had his warts, visible to all.  What he does is outline the major ideas in a fashion that makes them both understandable and compelling, even today, in our post-modern mix.  What's more he does it quickly and efficiently, in a style that is both quick-witted and endearing.

I'll grant you this:  I'm one of them, a Kuyperian, and therefore decidedly prejudiced.  But I've always been a little shy about pinning on the nametag, in part because I really didn't know him.  I'd never studied him.  Sure, I've tossed around a line like "every inch" as if it were my own design, but what Rich Mouw does in this little book (I read it Sunday) is joyfully enumerate and unpack the hearty handful of really significant contributions this man Kuyper has brought to Christian thought.  He does it honestly and fairly and, best of all maybe, clearly.

I happen to be among those who would say that the contributions of my people--Dutch-Americans--to life here in these United States include, among other things, wonderful office furniture (I'm sitting in a grand Herman Miller chair right now), comprehensive garbage collection (Waste Management), heart-of-America pyramid sales (Amway), and sturdy industrial equipment (Vermeer), not to mention, of course, Dutch-American Presidents (the Roosevelts).    

But among our greatest cultural gifts may well be someone who never got here except to give a speech or two.  If you don't know Abraham Kuyper at all, trust me, you should (wooden shoes are optional).  I say you can't do better than Rich Mouw's new little book.  Take it from a Calvinist, a neo-Calvinist, a Kuyperian.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Size matters

In addition to being the messiest eater of the bunch, this redwing blackbird, undoubtedly a Nazi, swept in out of nowhere, time after time, to control the bird feeders at our rental cottage in Minnesota a couple of weeks ago, tyrannicial behavior which made him, like any villian since Satan in Paradise Lost, both a pain in the butt as well as, well, fascinating.  Nonetheless, we were sure that the number and character of any other potential feathered guests just outside our window was kept dispicably low by his never-ending bitching. . .and redwing blackbirds do bitch.  It's really about all the do.

But, like so much else in life, even though they drive you half nuts, you got to love 'em and I do.  Sort of.

Then, on a walk through the prairie last week, a real ornithologist explained the facts of life to me.  It seems that the crest these guys carry on their wings, that impressively bright red gash that separates them from cowbirds and grackles and crows, a slash of abundant scarlet, an impressive fashion statement in swamp or woods or prairie, is, in fact, a come on.  The bigger the crest, the heftier the female swoon.  I'm not kidding.  Apparently, in the animal world size matters.  

Is that something God ordained?--that's what I'm wondering.  And if He did, why?  I mean, what had this scamp to do with the size of his crest?  Nothing.  I hate him--as would any junior high kid in his first locker room. 

What's more, unlike their grassland cousins the dickcissles or any of dozens of other bird varieties, red-wingers, like recalcitrant Mormons, collect wives like trophies.  What enables them to have, say, three or four per acre is the radiance of their display, the size of their crest.  That's right.  Sick.

So I'm out in the prairie on Saturday morning when I spot this guy.  He was nice enough to let me take his picture, but my heart went out to him because it was clear by what you might call his "presentation" that he wasn't as thunderously outfitted as his obnoxious neighbors or that cousin of his who ruled the roost in Minnesota. 

I couldn't help but feel sorry for him.  After all, once upon a time I was in junior high myself.

Very sad.  Look at him crouch, intimidated.  You can almost see the fear in his eyes.  Poor guy will grow into a wimp. 

He'll always play right field.  I could cry.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Morning Light--Dordt Prairie

Lots of folks make fun of the Dordt's architecture--"early modern Great Plains brick" or something, maybe "late DeStigter." 

Someone who's been around as long as I have can't help but think that things have improved immeasureably in the last decade or so.

That having been said, on a warm July morning, in a buttery bright dawn, nothing made of brick or stone compares to the rich luxuriant prairie just south of the campus.  Nothing at all.

There's a sermon there too, I think.  The greatest beauty one could find this morning was in that big, thick colorful growth that's been restored to what it was long before groundbreaking, long before any white man behind a work horse pulled a plow through virgin Siouxland soil.  

Tall-grass prairie really, really sings. 

Friday, July 22, 2011

Michelle Bachmann, Submissive Spouse

The earliest political buzz I remember as a boy was that bees nest stirring around the Presidential candidacy of this rich, Roman Catholic war hero with the knock-out gorgeous wife.  The fear, stated clearly by members of my own family, was that, once elected, John F. Kennedy would religiously cede his power over to the pope because Kennedy was Roman Catholic and that's what Catholics do--they listen, religiously, to their Pope.

Turns out, of course, that JFK rarely listened religiously to anything, save his saucier instincts.  Had the Pope been captain of his sheep, he might have done a ton of things differently.  But no matter.  If you were an evangelical Christian, circa 1959 and 1960, chances are you were for a strange Quaker named Nixon because, after all, how bad would it be to have the Pope for President?

Ruth Marcus, of the Washington Post, says she can't help asking a similar question about the candidacy of Michelle Backmann, who is a proud Christian evangelical and who has, publically, explained the major decisions of her life by her blessedly submissive role to her husband.  The question Marcus asks goes like this:  can someone who claims to be subservient to her husband's wishes be the elected President--or does her allegiance to her husband's visions of things make her a stand-in for him?

As someone who has weathered decades of gender wars in an evangelical church, I can suspicion the evangelical answer.  For years, conservative Christians have made the argument that Paul's demands about women's roles pertain primarily to a church context.  The argument goes like this:  Michelle Bachmann could certainly be President of the United States and run the show; but if her husband were to lay down the law about, say, infant baptism or women in church office or transubstantiation, she'd have to suck it up and take his views of such things.  Paul's women-be-silent edict, after all, applies only to what happens in the pew.  On matters of when or where to wage war, whether to dismantle safety net for the poor, whether or not to add new taxes, or how to deal with radical Islam, biblically speaking, President Bachmann is totally untethered to the old man.  She's free as a bird.  

Strange, but I know that argument. 

"I don’t lose sleep over Marcus Bachmann as Oval Office puppeteer, mostly because I cannot imagine Michele Bachmann making it there," Ruth Marcus says. 

Quite frankly, I cannot imagine Ms. Bachmann making it there myself, but, listen, Minnesota has already given us Jesse Ventura. 

What I can't imagine is the Michelle Bachmann we all know and love being a truly Pauline-defined submissive helpmeet, period, despite her darlingly righteous claim.  For most of my life, I've had this itching suspicion that those evangelical women who most love to trumpet their peculiarly submissive roles are the same ones who appear--at least by my estimation--to be jerking up the family trousers about their own loins every morning.  They are submissive and their husbands know it because they have made it perfectly clear to them that they are. 

So there.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Reading Mother Teresa--XV

Sister Bernard is making her vows on 23rd January 1938.  Thanks be to God now again everything is all right--Jesus has surely chosen her for something special, since He has given her so much suffering.  And she is a real hero, bearing up everyting courageously with a smile. . .
Not long ago, in a little privately-printed history of a small town church, I ran through the list of servicemen and discovered the stories of two men, same last name, both pilots, both killed, one in World War II, the other in the Korean War.  I mentioned that in a speech I gave in that very small-town church.

Afterward a man came up to me to tell me there was more. 

"They were brothers," he said. 

The history had not mentioned that.

"And you want to know what else?--their mother lost a husband in the First War."

It's the kind of story that has to be told to be believed.  A woman marries, sometime before 1917.  Her husband goes off to "the war to end all wars" and, along with thousands of others doughboys, doesn't return.  I can only imagine the heartbreak.

Someone else comes along--some local farmer maybe--and marries this young widow.  With this man she has children, including two boys.  In 1942, one of them goes off to military service, becomes a pilot, then is killed, shot down over Europe.  I can only imagine the heartbreak.

Another son enlists when America goes to war in Korea.  He too becomes a pilot--what an honor.  But he too gets shot down and doesn't return.

Who, really, can imagine the heartbreak?

There's a syllogism at work here in Mother Teresa's assessment that's worth examining, and it goes like this:  major premise:  to be blessed means to suffer; minor premise:  Sister Bernard suffers greatly; conclusion:  Sister Bernard is blessed.

I have no idea who Sister Bernard is, but neither do I doubt that Sister Bernard--or Mother Teresa for that matter--suffered greatly in their heartbreaking work among the world's most impoverished.  Still, I simply don't know what to make of the logic--"you're blessed if you suffer." 

Perhaps I'm skeptical because the logic gets used--Sarah Palin curries great favor with her loyal followers because the lame-stream media goes out of the way to poke a sharp stick in her eyes.  She suffers greatly.  Does that make her righteous?  She's not alone, of course. 

Maybe I'm just too full of guilt.  For the last week it's been high-nineties here, a heat wave unlike any I remember, a swampish gooey heat that rolls sweat down into my neck when I do nothing more than turn brats on the grill.  But we've got an air-conditioned house.  We eat like kings and queens.  Right now, in our fridge, there's sun tea, lemonade, some exotic beer from a Minnesota micro-brewery, two gallons of cold milk, and ice cubes that'll spew forever from the freezer's front door.  We're not suffering.

I'm not at all sure I have ever suffered, at least not like that woman who once upon a time lost a husband and then, in two subsequent wars, two sons.  Last week's toll in our church's "joys and concerns" was staggering.  People are suffering--people I know.  All kinds of cancers seem to be everywhere.  This vale of tears is not without its great and heavy sadnesses. 

But are those who suffer somehow blessed for their suffering? 

Here's the only truth I think I know.  God almighty wants us, always, on our knees, and somehow--I wish it weren't true--it's just plain easier to be on your knees when you're suffering.  Sometimes he puts us there--me too--because maybe it's easier to see him when, like a penitent, the only thing before our eyes is the basement floor.

Wish it weren't so, but pride, after all, is the worsts of the seven deadlies, and suffering surely slays pride.  There's nowhere else to turn.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Books. . .and stories

“I ran a hand along the tooled leather spines—Cicero, Socrates, Virgil, Ovid, Luther, Aquinas, Bacon, Calvin. Just to have the liberty of just such a room would be an education in itself. ‘The scholars must happily spend their hours here,’ I said.

It’s 1660, and Bethia Mayfield, the sweet Puritan child at the heart of Geraldine Brooks’s new novel, Caleb’s Crossing, is ushered into the very first library at Harvard College by a tutor turned suitor, who would very much like her to wed him. He is not unaware of the fact that whatever attraction she might feel for him is generated, in large part, out of her adoration for books. Hence, he brings her the privilege of a Harvard library visit.

Credit the Puritans with this: they loved books—the right ones, of course. Since the Bible had been opened to them by the Reformation, reading—which is even to say, education, which is to say, even, scholarship—was of monumental importance. After all, the saints’ joy and calling was opening the Word. There were more educated men per capita in Boston than in London in the early years of the colony. Bethia Mayfield, daughter of a Puritan preacher, absolutely loved books.
I couldn’t help thinking, as I read the passage, about the fact that I am—here and at school—totally surrounded by books, books that will now have to go as we lighten our load into a retirement future. One of the unpleasant tasks before me this year is unloading dozens and dozens of shelves full of books, most of them books of my trade, the study of literature, and few of them—if any—worth anything at all. It will break my heart to toss them, break my heart.

I remember the novelist Fred Manfred explaining how he’d gone off to Calvin College early in the 20th century with little more than the clothes on his back and his entire library—two books:  the Bible and the Works of William Shakespeare. He would not have thought of going away without them, so precious they were. Dr. Arlyn Meyer, another Siouxlander, told a very similar story. He owned just two very, very precious books—the Bible and Shakespeare—when he left for college. Not long ago he retired from a lifetime of teaching at Valparaiso.

The Age of the Book likely lasted from Guttenberg to the cathode ray tube. For hundreds of years, only the oral tradition could keep pace with blessings bestowed upon humanity from the pages of a book. Sometimes, Bethia Mayfield’s Puritans were called “the people of the book,” as Christians have been for several centuries. Books were invaluable.

These days, at the end of every semester, as a service, the college library lugs huge boxes into faculty office spaces and begs for the books we don’t want. Every semester, when I dump some into that box, they spill to the floor in a way that likely breaks bindings as it would backs, were they human.  Leaving them in those boxes assuages some guilt because those boxes—unlike the trash barrels just beyond the door—end up some place where eyes at least look those books over before they finally find the furnace. Will someone ever appreciate them as I have?—it’s not likely. That day is over.

If the medium is the message, then we’re certainly living in a different age. I’m punching this out on my computer, after all, and pretty soon, on my iPod, I’ll check to see if anyone’s responded. The last two books I read were hard copy, but if I were to tally the list of books I've "read" in this last year, I’m sure I would have listened to as many as I’ve paged through—and that’s not counting my Kindle.

I don't care.  It's not my story, but there’s just something about that image I like:  a tall, gangly farm kid from Iowa, leaving for college in Michigan, lugging along his entire, precious library.

I wonder if any kids today bound for the college I teach will take any books at all along.  Honestly, I doubt it.

And yet there’s this.

We never lose our thirst for stories. Harry Potter just made millions last weekend on the screen. Borders may have gone under, but Amazon will sell you millions of books that’ll arrive on your front step two days later, or less, if you have a Kindle.

Human beings need stories. We need to string things together into some kind of coherent meaning. We need for behavior to have context, to feel cause and effect. We want to know—and always will—whodunit and why?

I’m not sure what’ll happen to the Bible if the book ever disappears, but it’s plain as day to me that the plain-and-simple value of any given stack of pages in a “tooled, leather spine” ain’t what it once was.

But, hey, you’re reading this.

And I’m writing.

And not about to quit.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Morning Thanks--Waziyatawin

Every last Native American tribe has their own tale of woe.  What's indisputable in the history of this nation is that when the White folks came--from west to east, from Plymouth Plantation to Sutter's Mill--Red people lost their culture, their homelands, their lives, by the thousands.  No one can argue that.  No one.

It's impossible and even demeaning to compare the extent of suffering two people or peoples go through?  If a family loses two children to war, is their loss deeper than the family who loses only one?  When the colonists came, who suffered worse--the Mohawks, the Seminoles, or the Ojibwa?  Such questions are impossibly insensitive.

Nevertheless, I think the Dakota people of Minnesota can make a case for what they lost.  In 1862, nearly 150 years ago, they decided to rid themselves of the White people who were systematically taking their river valley land.  They went, as White folks like to say, "on the warpath," leaving hundreds of Minnesota pioneers dead in a month-long rampage that was a bloody horror. 

When finally the colonist's militia prevailed, White folks became the savages, sentencing 300+ Dakota warriors to hang.  President Lincoln intervened and amended the list so that on December 26, 1862, only thirty-some hung in what is still the largest mass execution in American history.  Hundreds of other Dakota--men, women, and children--were marched off to camps where that winter they suffered starvation and death.  Many died.  Most of those who survived were "resettled" in reservations in Nebraska and South Dakota. 

What horrors the Dakota perpetuated on Minnesota pioneer families--and what they did was awful--has to be understood as an attempt to wrest back their homeland and their way of life from the hundreds of white settlers streaming into the Minnesota River valley they called home.

Waziyatawin, a Dakota scholar who uses her Dakota name, calls what happened "colonization, ethnic cleansing, and genocide."  Furthermore, by using the United Nations' own definitions of those words, she creates a powerful case in a book I just read, What Does Justice Look Like?  The Struggle for Liberation in Dakota Homeland.  Her people, the Dakota people, suffered everything she claims they did.

But, given all of that, what does justice look like?  Waziyatawin, who has a doctorate in history from Cornell University, frequently alludes to the story of European Jews, who were given a homeland in Palestine and encouraged to immigrate from all over Europe and Asia.  She thinks the Dakota in diaspora, wherever they are, should also be given a homeland, a place for them to return to their own culture in Minnesota's vast government lands.

I don't know of many arguments that seem so strong, so understandable, so convincing, yet so entirely implausible, even impossible--for many reasons, the first of which, of course, is the vehement reluctance of White people to understand the story of their own immigrant past from the vantage point of the aboriginals they displaced and destroyed.  One of the most incredible lessons I had to learn about Native boarding schools was that frequently in the late 19th and early 20th centuries the kind of cultural genocide created by boarding schools was the only option forwarded by the American government to plain and simple elimination.  "The only good Indian is a dead Indian" wasn't something uttered by some red neck gunslinger; it was frequently the view of political leaders.  "Kill the savage, save the man" was how liberals put their desire for boarding schools.  Cut their hair, put them in skirts and white shirts, and forbid them use of their language:  teach them to be white. 

Honestly, it was either that or extermination, another word for genocide; and lots and lots and lots of White folks would have preferred the latter.

Years ago, I heard a Lakota Christian preacher talk about doing something, somehow, about America's "original sin."  I'm a Calvinist.  I had to chuckle a bit as his use of the term because what he meant was that American's "original sin" was what had been done to his Native people.  America was in decline, he said--abortion, gay marriage, the whole litany of woes--because it hadn't come to grips with its own "original sin."  Until it did--until it recognized what it did to Native peoples--the country couldn't be blessed.

For the life of me, I don't know how to do that, how to practice truth and reconciliation, how to acknowledge the suffering White people perpetuated on Native Americans.  I loved What Does Justice Look Like? but I can't help but think that she's playing some kind of mournful melody no one will ever hear.  It's impossible for me to think of a Dakota "homeland" in the forest lands of Minnesota, a place reserved for the Dakota to try to retrace their own cultural roots and rituals.  It just won't happen.  For a lot of reasons.

So White folks will just go on calling their world Sioux Center and Sioux County and Siouxland, when there isn't a trace of Sioux culture within miles.  Maybe we ought to tag the area "Whiteland" instead of Siouxland. 

Now there's a thought.

Still, this morning's thanks are for a book that made me think, deeply, about what justice really means.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Betty Ford, 1918-2011

Before she married a football star from the University of Michigan, she was already divorced.  When she had breast cancer, she went public in ways that were, back then, newsworthy for a woman in her position--after all, people didn't mention such things.  She had a significant problem with alcohol, enough so that her family had to intervene.  But then, she never wanted to live in the White House or be the nation's First Lady. 

She told reporters she wouldn't be surprised if her daughters fooled around a little before they were married.  She favored women's rights, as well as abortion rights--and she said so.  Later in life, she established an alcohol and substance abuse treatement center that lists among its clients those some of the nation's celebrities, as well as its poor.  

She was married to Republican, who became President when Richard Nixon left the White House.  
When Betty Ford died last week at the age of 93, it seemed shocking to remember that someone like herself could be a Republican.  She lived in an entirely a different era.

To be reminded of Betty Ford was to recognize the political power of the American Evangelical Right these days.  When politicians like Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, and Rick Santorum claim to be victims of prejudice, they're likely not wrong.  But that being said, they don't lack power.  Siouxland's own Christian conservative, Bob Vander Plaats, has his own pledge out these days, the Family Leader contract, which stipulates political positions for those who sign on, at the same time it creates yet another list:  those who do not.  Bob Vander Plaats, and his legion of American Evangelicals, are not powerless.  Not at all.

I sincerely doubt there would be room for Betty Ford in the Republican Party today.

That too may well be a sign of their strength--and their weakness--today. 

Friday, July 15, 2011

Morning Thanks--Beauty

Toting a camera has become second nature to me.  Why?  For starters, a simple shot like this.

First of all, these days pix are free--a thousand of 'em, ten million for that matter.  Sure, there's the entry fee for a decent camera, but that was true long before anyone could pronounce the word "digital."  In photography, like most electronics, the end of the world these days is impossibly far away because this, my friends, is the real Golden Age.  Today, an idiot can buy a terrific camera for considerably less than $50 and do things with more precision and grace than anything even a good amateur could do for twice that much--no, three times--a decade ago, in film.  Look at it mathematically--if a million monkeys take a million shots at Yosemite, one of those shots ought to look something like an Ansel Adams.

But that's engineering and economics.  Big deal.  Why have I become a toter?  There are real spiritual reasons. 

Check out this shot.  Some would say this is nothing more than an ordinary roadside weed--and it is.  It's blessed with a wonderful name--Goat's Beard--but there have to be millions of them thriving all around Siouxland, none of them planted, all of them big, lolling, volunteer puff balls.  They're little more than a dandelion on steroids, but if you look at 'em right, they're gorgeous, even though they seem almost perfectly colorless.  In the right light--like this golden dusk--standing up against a dark background, they'll take your knees out with their sheer beauty.  They're just stunning.

I tote a camera these days because you simply can't tell when sheer beauty will come up and smack you across the face.  And I need that--beauty that is.  The slap I can do without--although sometimes I need that too.

I need it because cynicism's open arms are too ready a solace these days.  Maybe it's me, getting older.  Maybe it's our particular brand of polarized politics.  Maybe it's my DNA or the perils of drinking city water.  Who knows why?  All I know is that catching Goat's Beard in gorgeous light is dang good for me--for my eyes, for my heart, for my soul.  It's a blessing to look for beauty.  It's meditative.

And did I mention?--it doesn't cost me a dime. 

Goat's Beard--what a miracle!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Breakfast with the loons. . .

--that's overstatement.  I wouldn't care for the cuisine mom and dad fish up from the bottom of the lake and feed to the kid, but I was blessed to be up close to the meal this morning.  Canada puts them on their coins, Minnesota calls them their state bird, and they're worth every bit of celebration, especially when they let me creep up close.

Check them out.  They're just wonderful.   

Friday, July 08, 2011

The Hinckley Fire, 1894

What happened in the lumber town of Hinckley, Minnesota, on September 1, 1894, was beyond horror.  Four hundred white men, women, and children died as well as countless Ojibwe, who lived in the pine forests all around.  It's probably impossible to know how many human beings died in total, since transient logging camp workers from as far away as Nebraska were simply never accounted for. 

Some call what happened a "fire storm," not just a forest fire.  That morning, there were fires all around; but to a region accustomed to forest fires, September 1 was no oddity, since, in any dry summer, smoke from a dozen fires might well in the air.  No one seemed alarmed.  What eye-witness accounts document, however, is that something near to a cyclone or tornado--or even hurricane--was born out of climatic conditions that seemed, in fact, the eye of the perfect storm.  First, darkness descended--some thought it was a tornado cloud, some thought it was an eclipse, and some believed it was the end of the world.  Lamps were lit and strategies were laid out. 

But when the wind rose to gale-force, there wasn't time to think.  Some made it to the railroad station, where two trains carried hundreds of people north to places where they could get under enough water to save themselves from the inferno.  One of those trains was eventually incinerated.  It was horrible.  Absolutely horrible.  Some cried to get on those trains, but eventually the conductors knew that stopping fore a few more meant imperiling dozens of others.  Frantic passengers, their own cars already burning, watched as dozens of others died in a flash of fire as if they were little more than kindling.  Hours later, when it was over, the dead bodies lay all over town and into the country.  Only smoldering tree stumps were left standing, homes and buildings simply gone. 

It was 1894, and discovering identities was almost futile.  Whole farm families were sometimes found in gardens or potato patches, having left their pioneer homes for open ground.  But there was too much heat.  Great fireballs reigned down from the sky. 

Mass funerals were held, dozens of totally unrecognizeable bodies thrown into open pits and buried together.  No one will ever know.

Pease, Minnesota--church and town--is still composed of families whose ancestors survived the holocaust at Hinckley.  Rev. Cornelius Bode, a pioneer CRC pastor known for starting churches among the Minnesota immigrant Dutch and German Reformed, was there and participated in one of those funerals, in which 60-some dead were honored before a mass burial.

An old train station in Hinckley tells the tale well.  

The Greeks always thought comedy secondary to tragedy.  Ultimately, tragedy touts the potential of humanity, while comedy simply scoffs.

I think the Greeks were right.  The Hinckley Fire was a horrifying tragedy, but I spent a great day yesterday reading stories from the survivors.  Amazing.  Shocking. Frightfully horrible, but still, somehow, encouraging.  I'm as great a believer in original sin as I've ever been, but the fact is, people can be saints. 

Thursday, July 07, 2011

The first battle of the North

A speaking gig and two great visits later, we finally made it "up north," to this gorgeously isolated rental place that's been, for us, something of a home "on the lake" for the last three summers and early falls. We stopped for groceries on the way, arrived a little early (the cleaning crew was still here), drove back to a gas station to get bait, then drove up again, took the bikes off the back of the car, and unloaded enough clothes and gear for machine-gun company, got ourselves in the place, stuck the frozen stuff in the freezer, put the peanuts and chips on the counter, and finally--finally!--sat down to draw the first blessed breaths of vacation.

Look, it's this way. One of the pure blessings of "up north" is Minnesota's fabulous hiking and biking paths. They wander hither and thither throughout the region, and you can can take a different one every day for a week and not see the same lily pads. They're everywhere.

'Twasn't hot, but 85 degrees isn't cool either. We sat here like a pair of well-satisfied Java the Huts, knowing it was time. After all, we'd gone several days without a workout. I picked up the camera because the wildflowers were splendiferous--all the way up we told ourselves the trails were going to sing with color. It was time for our first good, stiff walk in the northwoods.

What I'm saying is that, despite the fact that taking a hot walk isn't all joy, we were looking forward to that first sweet jaunt in the hardwoods just as eagerly as that first strike on the fishing line. Not kidding.

And then this guy. He's evil. He's vermin. He's demonic.

A good stiff walk is not only good for the soul, but good for the paunch too. You burn calories. Well, quadruple mine because for the two miles we stepped off heartily, I was forever slapping my head, trying to keep those dang deer flies at bay, maybe a dozen of them it seemed, only a bit less determined to alight on my sweaty bald head than I was driven to keep them the heck off. I whacked a bunch of them, actually saw a half-dozen fall cold dead to the blacktop beneath our feet, their deaths affording me fiendish pleasure.

We stepped off that two-miles in record time, and I didn't stop for pictures. Don't ask me if there were wild flowers--I don't know and neither does me wife. We walked like whirling dervishes, I swear, although I honestly believe those blasted deer flies much prefer male pattern baldness.

We got what we wanted--exercise. This morning, my shoulders feel as if I pitched five innings.

Those rotten creatures got to be good for something or God wouldn't have made 'em right? Maybe not. Maybe, just for once, he just messed up.

A mile into the walk, I swear I was praying for a swarming cloud of hungry vampire bats.

We'll live to walk again. Count on it. Let them count their dead and beware because we'll be back.

I'll wear a cap.

Friday, July 01, 2011

Morning Thanks--leaving north

It's later than normal this summer, and it's slightly complicated by a speaking gig on the way up to northern Minnesota, but it's about to start--we'll be loading ye olde Buick this afternoon in preparation for our annual Minnesota pilgrimage.

The lights went out last night in the Minnesota government. The governor--a Democrat--is decidedly at odds with the Republican legislature about how best to accomplish belt-tightening everyone appears to agree must go on. The culprit is either a range of all-too-fleshy government programs or the all-too-fleshy finances of the super rich. Sound familiar?

Even though the state shut down last night, by four or so this afternoon we'll go about an hour north and cross the line, hoping to see fewer highway patrolmen, maybe--then head, gloriously, "up north." I bought my fishing license on line yesterday, and we're booked and in at all three of our stops. Don't know if we'll suffer from the government shut down, but I doubt it.

Life will go on. Except for us, in a way. For a week or more, it'll slow down nicely. We'll eat well, take more time with meals, read, write, fish, bike, hike, and occasionally shop. We'll be all by our lonesomes up there, on the lake, Minnesota Public Radio on all day long. This morning's thanks, as you might guess, are for vacations.

Which is where we'll soon be. Won't be the only ones either. So will the government.