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.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Sunshine Patriots

What lots of folks don't remember about American's most famous Revolutionary voice, Thomas Paine, is that Teddy Roosevelt called him, once upon a time, a "filthy little atheist."  Paine, a wild-eyed political pamphleteer who wrote "Common Sense" ("These are the times that try men's souls. . .") and a number of other hot items at the outset of the American Revolution, was an pedal-to-metal political activist (that's a rather sympathetic description), or what my father used to call "an agitator" (that's not).  To a solid conservative like my father, change was almost always questionable, especially (somebody remember this language?) "change for change sake.

Thomas Paine believed in little more than change.

Anyway, it's easy, after 250 years or whatever, to make a saint out of Thomas Paine; after all, without him there may well not have been an American Revolution.  His writing galvanized the rag-tag patriots; and while he wasn't at the original Tea Party, he certainly was there in spirit.  Were he there, he would have undoubtedly tossed the first barrel.  Once the Revolution was over, however, Paine left town and went on to the next world hot spot, France, where there was more revolution a'brewing.

To me, it's greatly understandable that Eldridge Cleaver really got off on Thomas Paine because Eldridge Cleaver, a name and a man now mostly forgotten, was a lot like him, really.  I will happily admit reading Cleaver's Soul on Ice somewhere around 1970, I think, probably here in northwest Iowa, where, at the time, you'd have to drive an hour to find a real African-American.

I can see that book yet, although it's no longer on my shelves.  I can feel its power, even though it's long gone.  Like nothing else I read back then, Soul on Ice opened up a new reality--the horror of slavery and Jim Crow and continuing racial discrimination in America.  I was a kid, this country's central cities were burning, and Eldridge Cleaver helped me understand wherefore the flames.  

And then, a decade later, Soul on Ice became Soul on Fire and the evangelical Christian world rejoiced because the hated Black Panther had found the Lord and become a born-again Christian.  A whole new lecture circuit opened for him.  I'm not sure my father ever heard of Cleaver or either of his books, but if he had, he would have been proud when Cleaver announced that Jesus was Lord of his life.

Maybe a bit easier said than done, however.  For the only real constant in Cleaver's life, finally, was his search for meaning.  Regardless of his various professions of faith (he once flirted with Sun Yung Moon's Unification church and actually, later, became a practicing Mormon), he continued to dally in crime throughout his life as well--burglary, lots of addiction problems, mostly cocaine.  At the end he was an environmentalist, an agitator for creation itself, someone who said, "I've gone beyond civil rights and human rights to creation rights.

Politically, he was all over the map, just as he was geographically (for a time, he took refuge from the law in Cuba and even North Korea).  Once upon a time, amazingly, he ran for political office as a conservative Republican.  I'm not making this up.  

But I'll never forget Soul on Ice because the book altered the way I looked at racial problems in this country; it taught me some things about life in the Black community that I would have not learned without it.  Without a doubt, it made me more progressive in my politics than my father could have ever understood.  

Cleaver himself was no more solid a character than was Thomas Paine, but at least he wasn't an atheist, having subscribed for a time to all kinds of religions during his all-over-the-block life.  Neither of them were saints, but both of them affected their cultures deeply--I'm not the only one who was deeply influenced by Soul on Ice

We are His workmanship, Paul says.  We are what God does--he's always making us, shaping us, forging character.  We're clay.  He's the potter, the Bible says.

Some of us never change--Dick Cheney.  Some of us wander all over the place, all over the world--Eldridge Cleaver.

Cleaver died sometime in the 90s, but that book of his, long gone from my life, is, for better or for worse, still very much a part of who I am, as books can be and are.  When I see Soul on Ice in my imagination, I can still feel its power.

Were he still with us, today would have been his birthday.  

Eldridge Cleaver--what a story.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Cheney: My Time is Your Time

Dick Cheney, the former Vice President and a man who's held most every other important national office throughout the last several Republican administrations, almost died several times already and, famously, once upon a time almost killed a hunting companion.  These days he's hooked up to a machine that keeps his oft-beleaguered heart a'pumpin'.  

But he's still flailing away like a rookie boxer throwing roundhouse rights and killer uppercuts as if he were still right there in the DC ring, instead of home on the range out in his native Wyoming, recovering from heart surgery.  His own political memoir is out today, and he's all over the news again because, as he told a reporter, heads will explode when they read In My Time.  They have already.  And he likes it.  He's always been a man who's enjoyed watching heads explode.

During the George W years, it wasn't hard to get the impression that Cheney was really calling the shots.  I don't know why so many had that feeling, but it may well have been because Cheney was never, ever in any bit of doubt about his own myriad opinions.  Was any top-notch American official ever so sure of himself?  I don't think so.  

Well, the word is, nothing's changed.  He's still believes that every last thought to stream from his mind is, without a doubt, the best way to go.  Waterboarding was just fine.  Iraq was a righteous enterprise.  Colin Powell was a piss ant, Condi Rice, as Secretary of State, was surely a good deal less than she should have been--a woman who knew very well she was wrong, and once came to him, he says, "tearfully" to tell him that he was, after all, right about most everything.  They all knew, everyone knew, even I knew, it seems, that for years Dick Cheney was the real deal in the White House.

In Newsweek magazine this week, Zef Chafets grudgingly throws in the towel and says "we're all Cheneyites now," because most of Cheney's policies, especially with respect to national defense, have simply rather unceremoniously picked up by the administration of Barack Obama.  I'm not sure the case is utterly convincing, but Chafets argues that Obama has fallen in line as wholly as George W ever did.  Think of the myriad drone attacks.

Chafets may well be right, but I think we've all become Cheneyites in another way, a more basic way:  these days we're all true believers, especially and precisely in ourselves.  Doubt is out; faith is in.  Michelle Bachmann claims, charmingly, that earthquakes and hurricanes are really God's own pointer finger directing the nation confidently toward her own hard right positions.  The Wisconsin Supreme Court is so sure of their individual positions that they literally beat up on each other.  Compromise is weakness, a swear word.  The only people we don't question are ourselves.  Who's got the real power in Washington?--some guy named Grover Norquist whose genius was getting scores of pols to sign a pledge saying they would not be moved on taxes.   

Listen--who'd you rather have running this country?--Dick Cheney or Jimmy Carter?  Pull out your samurai and draw a line in the sand.  Stake out your territory.  Go to war.  Show those dang Arabs that we're not wusses.  Nosiree.  These days, we're all Cheneyites

Can you believe that a man so utterly confident of the gospel truth of what goes on in his own head could have such awful heart problems?

Somehow I can.      

Monday, August 29, 2011

Morning Thanks--treasures from an old chest

Once upon a time, my wife told me that one of her self-appointed tasks, once she "retired," from her job, was going to be to begin to slim our wealth of personal possessions, of stuff.  We've been married for almost forty years and lived in this house for the last 26.  We're not hoarders, at least not by TV standards, and neither are we fanatic shoppers. No matter. In all that time, we've accumulated stuff whose sheer bulk makes even us gasp.

I don't think she'll mind my saying that at this self-appointed task she's been, well, something of a sluggard, not that I blame her.  In the last year, it's fair to say we haven't added much ballast to this ship of state, but neither has she tossed much of it overboard--and there is junk, after all.  I'm no paragon of virtue myself.  I'm not into public flogging here--it's an awful and tedious job and I'm just glad that I'm not the one who signed up to do it

However, last weekend she started. . .upstairs, discovering all kinds of things we didn't know we had, like an anthology of Boys Life stories that says "Jimmy Schaap, from Mom and Dad, Christmas, 1959"--I'm quite sure that fat collection of stories was my very first book.  How can you throw stuff like that away?  

She didn't.  

I didn't.  


She did find things she didn't need, things we didn't need, things that had zero nostalgic value, so we did lighten our load a bit anyway.  But when she decided to get rid of a big blue chest I hadn't looked into for years, I knew I had to unload its cargo and I knew what was inside--all kinds of ancient things from my high school and college years, old personal stuff I couldn't throw away years and years ago.  Amid all the detritus in that chest, I found three wonderful letters--pure treasures.

They were letter from her, before we were married.  I'd quote some of the blessed lines, but that wouldn't be smart. Suffice it to say that the sweet nothings in those missives weren't nothings at all.  When I opened the birthday card she sent me six weeks after we dated the first time, steam still wafted from what was within, thick as heavy breathing.  Really

Generalizations are tough, but it seems to me that being coy about such things has been fairly standard female behavior at least since Andrew Marvell's famous poem, allowing the male to be the aggressor, playing hard-to-get, parrying her lover's moves with a twinkling eye and a fetching smile--the kind of sweet dalliance at the heart of a thousand romantic comedies.

But those letters don't lie. What they chronicle is that, once upon time, she was surely as anxious for the nuptials as her husband-to-be, and it wasn't just the cake that made her count the days

It's not something you can do once a month, really, but after this last weekend, I'd be the first to say that reading old love letters is an activity that's dang good for a marriage--if you like twinkling eyes and fetching smiles, that is.

And I do

And so does she.

My morning thanks?--treasures from an old chest. 

Friday, August 26, 2011

Monsters and Prayers

Parked some place in the depths of cyberspace are several posts I wrote here,  years ago, posts that concerned themselves with a giant storm, big as the Gulf itself, a storm about to devour this country's southern coastline, a monster stalking New Orleans.  That monster's name was Katrina, and we've still not put the devastation she wreaked behind us.

Now there's another monster stalking the entire Eastern seaboard--North Carolina to Maine.  Only God knows where this one will come ashore, and only he knows what kind of havoc she'll leave in her tumultuous wake.  As we speak, people are emptying hospitals and old folks' homes, trying to bring the needy to higher ground.  New York City, which hasn't seen a hurricane like Irene for fifty years, could take a hit so massive that it could create problems with the entire national economy.  Already, some Republicans are saying that not a penny should go to disaster relief unless similar amounts will be cut from already existing expenditures and government programs.  That's what some call foresight, I guess.

Maybe some miracle will occur and Ms. Irene will sashay out to sea, saving 55 million people from horror.  Wouldn't that be wonderful?  Already last night, however, the tone of news and weather programming was pedal-to-the-metal--forecasters weren't mincing words.  I'm sure those in the know had no desire to incite panic, but most of those who talked about the storm were not shy about what-ifs.  Irene, they said, is going to prove herself no more a lady than Katrina.

Way on the other side of the country, way up in the corner, a good friend is probably awake right now because his wife of 40-some years is fighting off a hostile breed of cancer that generally takes no prisoners.  The two of them are among the finest people I know, and the gnawing irresolution inside me this morning, the anxiousness I feel for what they're going through, is itself a killer storm of no less monstrous proportions.   

I don't know.  Cliches ring like clanging cymbols.  It just seems there is so, so much for which to storm the very gates of heaven.  So, so much.  If only He knows the paths of our lives, why doesn't he do something?--a tweek here, a tweek there and sunshine returns.

For some questions, there are no answers but the one Job heard when all was said and done, I suppose.  "Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of earth?"

There's equal measures of comfort and flat-out fear in that bare-fisted assertion.  God is here and there, and he's been here and there--the I AM--since the beginning of the beginning. 

His ways are not ours, but sometimes--like right now, from Cape Hatteras to Seattle--I wish they were. 

But they aren't.  That I know.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

They're here--the frosh

The only possible way they know a thing about the Berlin Wall--its place, its function, it's fall--is via some classroom history book.  Our Geo Tracker would be a puzzle for them because if they'd want to open a window, they'd have to roll it down.  To them, Wal-Mart has forever been a bigger industry than anything Detroit has to offer, and being "lame" has nothing to do with being disabled, but everything to do with being dorky.

Just about everybody talks about the list of characteristics 2011's freshmen class carries along to college, a list some fun group at Beloit College puts out annually this time of year, and this fall it's no different.  It's almost always enough to make you drop your teeth.

The freshmen in my English class know very well that U2 is a band, but nothing about spy planes.  They don't remember a day without Rush Limbaugh, a FOX News network, bottled water, or a Time without a Warner. 

There's more, of course, lots more.

But honestly, for someone my age, the Beloit list has lost its kick.  The signal events of my life are so far behind the radar of today's 19-year-olds that my mere breathing is, to them, an anomaly.  I'm something of a curious zombie.  After all, I cut my teeth on an era that featured a war in Vietnam--for some of them, their grandpa's war.  I remember very well a time when most fervent evangelical Christians thought Dr. Martin Luther King an enemy, a communist; this week his statue will be dedicated on the national mall.  When a kid my age hauled his or her tunes along to college, those tunes filled a box, were heavy as lead, a ton of vinyl.  Today, they're totally weightless.

One of my profs that first year of college was an ancient, old preacher who reminded us of Mr. Magoo and could remember the names of maybe two or three students of the 100 or so in his Intro to Theology class.  In those days, he hauled along his own PA system, and when it wouldn't work or squeal or scream, he'd be totally befuddled.  In a lecture, he could neither cruise or wander.  He seemed an automaton, way, way over-the-hill, man, like, really out of it.

Today, in age at least, I've become that dude.  The diff between them and me, age-wise, is no less than between me and Magoo back then.

But once upon a time, that old preacher, an army chaplain, had been out on patrol in Poland, when his company moved through a woods slowly, only to find a dismal, rotting camp from hell itself on the other side of the trees, where innumerable emaciated prisoners, some of them dying, many already dead, thought the coming of those GIs an event as glorious as the coming of the Messiah.  They were Jews, and those American soldiers had stumbled on a Nazi concentration camp.  That old prof of ours--the one who didn't know a thing about much at all--was, in World War II, a liberator.

I wish I'd have known that story back then, late 60s, when my own brave new world had so much going for it and his had so very little.  In the grand march of things, however, I don't know that it would have made any difference.

Get this!--they never saw Johnny Carson.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Reading Mother Teresa--XVIII

There's something so elemental about Mother Teresa's success that when you witness it, you're shocked at its essential simplicity.  "Every Sunday I visit the poor in Calcutta's slums," she wrote in letter.  "I cannot help them because I do not have anything, but I go to give them joy."

Ambassador of Joy.

Because she had nothing in her pockets and nothing in her pocketbook, she didn't have to refuse beggars.  Quite simply, she had nothing to give them.  Except joy.  

Of course, you can't reverse malnutrition with a smile or fight disease with happiness.  Neither can you deliver people from hapless poverty by way of a winning personality.  Great cheerleaders don't win ball games.

Or do they?  

What Mother Teresa brought to the poorest of the poor, and gave away freely, was just as essential for life:  she brought them joy--joy that is almost certainly a synonym for love.   In the same letter, she tells the story of a mother whose family suffered immensely, but a woman who "did not utter even a word of complaint about her poverty," a woman who begged Mother Teresa to return:  "Oh, Ma, come again.  Your smile brought sun into this house."

Mother Teresa brought that family the sun.

I don't have neighbors so deeply impoverished.  I don't know anyone who doesn't know from whence his or her next meal will come.  Those sad children with extended bellies--you've seen them in a ton of photographs--live somewhere in another world.  I'm a long ways from Sudan, around the world from Calcutta.  

But then, I suppose, darkness has a thousand faces.

And I can, just as nimbly as she did, lug in the sun.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Morning Thanks--Thanks

"The time is nearly here; I'm SO THANKFUL to God for this opportunity... God's strength is truly made perfect in weakness! I can only hope my life is a living testimony of this truth."

Facebook--the posting of a former student who is, this morning, going into a classroom for her very first day of teaching, a task and calling I know she's wanted to try for years.
She's quadraplegic, but years ago already, when she was a student in my classes, it was perfectly obvious to me that technology, that gift from God, gives her every ability to conquer whatever work is required.  A week or so from now, I'm sure she will read her students' papers more closely than I would, more responsively, and probably more compassionately.
This little Facebook outburst makes me smile, almost cry.  Her thanks is a testimony.
And that's why, this morning, simply enough, her upper-case THANKS are mine. 

Monday, August 22, 2011


In a really interesting segment from On Being (which used to be Speaking of Faith, a title I much prefer, by the way), Krista Tippett interviews Terry Tempest Williams, who, I'm betting, like her father, as she says, wears the kinds of footwear that can kill spiders in corners.  She's a sixth-generation Utah Mormon, a environmentalist, a writer and activist, and this particular episode, originally broadcast in February, is really worth your time--for a ton of reasons.

Somewhere near the beginning, Ms. Williams says that one night at a party, someone asked her the kind of question most everyone does when we meet someone we hadn't met before:  "What do you do?"

She answered, "About what?"  

The cliched question itself is, of course, resoundingly American because it simply assumes that the most immediately important fact about our identities is how we earn a living:  "I am a teacher."

Ms. Williams's darling answer sticks with me, however:  "About what?"--an answer one might expect from an political activist.   

How we conceive of our own identities is an interesting question.  "What do you do?" really asks us to identify ourselves by profession, by a job, and to thereby define our lives.  

Navajos answer identity questions by lineage.  If I were Navajo, I'd probably say I'm of the Unwooly Sheep Clan or something similar (my name, in Dutch, means sheep, of course, and there simply ain't much wool up top).  Okay, not funny.  I would answer by my clan, my kin, my tribe, my lineage--I would say I am "of" a certain people.  I am one of them.  I don't know many white folks who would say such things.  What's important to us--probably vastly too important--is a job.

An answer that says a ton about culture, or so it seems to me.

I could answer that question myself somewhat similarly if I'd say "an American," or "a member of the Christian Reformed Church," or "a resident of Siouxland," or "a graduate of Dordt College"; but, seriously, who would?  In the world I live in, for better or for worse, we are what we do.

Ephesians 2 always thrills me, capitalist that I am, because it suggests--at least to me--that we're all pilgrims really, that we're all on a journey, that we're all being "made," regardless of what we do.  We are, the passage says, "God's handiwork."  We are what he does, even though he doesn't really have a profession as such--after all, he's God, a position for which you can't go to school.  Ephesians 2 says that we are what he's up to.  We are what he's been at for a long, long time (by way of our calendars and clocks, not by his).  I like to think our being His handiwork makes God a kind of sculptor or whittler who's never really finished, always carving, always shaping (and, yes, there is some pain there).

On a mercantile level, that's an answer befitting our age, I suppose, when the average American will, in all likelihood, experts say, switch professions a half dozen times during their lives anyway.  In that kind of world, we're only temporarily who think we are; tomorrow, we may well be someone else since tomorrow we may sell shoes or shingle roofs.

But he's working on us, as he is on me, even though I've answered that cocktail-party question the same exact way for 40 long years.  Yet, this I know:  he's still working on me, and I like that because, even when I'm as old as the hills, he won't stop working, which means I'll never quite be the same.  

So next year I'll have to give a different answer.  

Maybe I can learn something from the Navajo.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Morning Thanks--the job, the calling

I think my teaching world is pretty much in order.  I finished up my last (of three) syllabi yesterday, put that class's website in order, and generally got myself ready.  I'm thankful for a technological world in which all that tedious copying--the syllabi, the extra handouts, whatever else I want to duplicate--is all basically done for me.  I'm old enough to remember a room full of other profs vying for the ditto machine or that sinful inky mimeo, each of us putting the masters in place and spinning the barrel to kick out the copy, and then, one by one, stapling.  Sheesh.  Now I push some buttons on a keyboard, and viola! the neatly stacked handouts magically appear, not all that much later, in my mailbox.  What a blessing!

There's that.

But Tuesday morning I'll be up front once more, just as I was forty years ago, vying for my students' attention with Puritan theology, or a couple of poems, or some encouraging words on writing clear sentences.  Back then, years ago, I had hair, and more sharpened nerves, that morning especially.  I'll never forget looking over class rosters that first year, long lists of names of kids, total mysteries who had become, because I'd signed a contract, my dominion.  Maybe dominion isn't the right word, but a classroom is a kingdom.  I can give authority away, of course, but they'll get it only if I give it to them.  I'm the one with the power.  That hasn't changed. What happens in that classroom is still my responsibility.  Mostly.

My mother still thinks of the job in grandiose, spiritual terms--shaping youthful minds the way Jesus wants them to be.  These days--with the broad differences between people who share the name of "Christian"--I'm less sure than she is of WWJD.  And I'm not a preacher--never have been.

My first teaching jobs were in public schools, where, in some ways--and contrary to what many believe--it might well have been easier to be a "Christian."  These days, in evangelical America, the definitions are often bullet points, not all of which I share as creed.  Not repeating those stock phrases can raise questions I'd never, ever have faced in a public school, questions vastly more difficult because they place my own standing with the Lord under the orthodoxy microscope or, worse, behind its crosshairs.  

But one can only do his or her best, and, despite this being my last year, I'll have no problem doing just that.  Like any teacher--and any human being, through the years I've accumulated a pretty substantial won/lost record.  The marks on the win side came largely on the basis of passions, not teaching strategies or perfect lists of goals and objectives, administrative expertise notwithstanding.  Here's a dirty little secret:  I likely do my best work in the classroom when students see that I love what I'm doing, not only because reverence itself is contagious, but also because in giving them what they can tell I love, they know I am also loving them.  Does that make sense?

Doesn't always work, of course.  Once upon a time, I chased a kid right out the classroom for disrespecting what I was doing. He never said a word, just gave me an I-could-give-a-shit look, and I took off after him.  Didn't catch him either, but i n the parking lot of a high school it doesn't take a world-class sprinter to stay out of the killer hands of a 250-pound teacher.  Over the years, I've tossed some bad pitches, some because they got away from me, some because I wasn't focusing, some because, well, I'm as much a sinner as anyone else and therefore capable of just flat-out screwing up.  

But it's been a good life in the classroom, and I don't regret the decision to put myself there, even if I can't begin to remember when and where and why I made that decision.

I do remember walking to an American Lit class one day in my sophomore year in college, a class on Emerson, I think (but I don't trust the exactness of my memory exactly either).  I remember the sidewalk--it's no longer there--and I remember the odd thought I had, and it went something like this:  if I'd be a college literature teacher, I could chew this interesting stuff every day of my working life AND get paid for it.  Hmmm.

That sidewalk is gone, but that square inch of God's green earth is only about a hundred steps from the place where I'll hold forth again come Tuesday morning. 

I'm not what I was back then--I mentioned the hair.  When I walk up a flight of steps these days, I draw wind.  Students look at me strangely now--this old guy--where once upon a time I was little more than big brother or a kind of goofy, interesting uncle.  Now I'm their grandpa, and I don't think many of them have grandparents so taken people like, say, that odd Emily Dickenson.  Besides, they're likely more distracted; after all, they just got a text from an old buddy.

Yeah, well. 

They'll be distracted by each other, too, which is always fun.  High school or college education throws a couple of dozens males and females into a room together, and, at that age, some biological impulses the prof is absolutely powerless to staunch, even if he were Justin Timberlake or some Kardashian (is that how you spell it?).

Comes with the territory.  Besides, I've long ago determined that one of the blessed perks of this job is watching kids tumble, head-over-heels, into that abject state when a sweetheart takes absolute dominion in their woebegone psyches and simply floods out any possible other impulse.  It's just as wonderful as it is silly.

Years ago, I remember finding a note in a classroom, sweet nothings between two of my students.  Two years ago, on the first day of class, I asked a kid who his parents were because his name sounded familiar.  "My parents went here--they were in your class," he told me.  He was theirs. 

So next week we begin again, this time, for me, the last time.

This morning I'm thankful, really, for a job that I've had since August of 1970, when I stood before a class of high school juniors in an American Lit class in South Wayne, Wisconsin.  Most of their names I still remember.  And I remember thinking this too, back then, that maybe, just maybe this was a job that I could do.  In a week or so, I could see some of their approval on their faces.  They liked what I said.  They thought my passions strange, but interesting.  And they liked me, too.

Once upon a time that first year, I read a poem in a text they all had before them.  When I was finished, I asked them what they thought.  "It's good," one of them said.  

"Oh, yeah?"  I said.  "Why do you say that?"

"I don't know--but I can really tell you like it.  Therefore it must be good."

Some educationist could pick that banter apart and make me a fool, I'm sure.

But, for better or for worse, that little story has stuck with me after all these years.  It's as much a triumph and a failure as any of our lesson plans or any of our lives.  And that's okay.  It's enough to make me believe, Mom, that I'm doing what He wants me to do, being what He wants me to be.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Morning Thanks--for those who write the real chapter 1

A friend of mine, a Cherokee, once told me to beware of getting too far into Native history, culture, and life because such investigations might not ever let me go.  "Look out," she said, "you won't be able to get back out."  Her words stick with me because right now, it seems, I'm almost powerless to stop reading.

I just finished The Last Indian War:  the Nez Perce Story (Oxford, 2011) by Elliot West. Earlier this summer, I read S. C. Gwynn's Empire of the Summer Moon:  Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian tribe in American History (Scribner, 2011), the book with the longest title since the 19th century, as well as Geraldine Brooks new novel, Caleb's Crossing (Viking, 2011). I got into big, sprawling books about the American West years ago, by way of Dee Brown's 1987 Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (Vintage) and Evan Connell's Son of the Morning Star (1997), as well as Hampton Sides Blood and Thunder (Anchor, 2007) and, last summer, Black Hawk's Autobiography.  

When I think about the geography those books cover, what's notable in its absence is something about the Trail of Tears.  But I read Diane Glancy's Pushing the Bear long ago too, and it seems I know that story without having read an authentic history. Just two years ago I was on Missionary Ridge, made famous by the Civil War, but named the way it was because of the Cherokee people who once inhabited that beautiful area around Chattanooga but were long ago sent packing--and dying--to Indian Country, Oklahoma.  I almost forgot to mention that I have nearly a box full of books on Minnesota's Dakota War of 1862, a story so tragic it can hardly be told--and pity Minnesota because next year it will be 150 years since the madness and people there still have terrible trouble telling the tale.

The only novel, above, is Brooks' new Caleb's Crossing, which has, at its heart, the relationship between the Puritans and the Wampanoags, the Native people who lived along the coast the white New Englanders invaded.  Brooks' ability to cast a spell over a reader is created, in large part, by her astounding use of language.  As Bethia Mayfield spins out her diaries, her language is so exotic that one begins to think that if 17th century Puritans didn't speak and think like she does, they should have.  Brooks' ability to bring the reader into another world altogether--the world of early American settlement in New England--is so immense that it sometimes actually stops me by its own incredible comprehensiveness.  Really.  It's a wonderful book.

But as I read Caleb's Crossing, I couldn't help but feel sorry for Ms. Brooks, as well as for lots and lots of readers because she is--and the feeling is unavoidable--virtually hamstrung in creating a plot.  The plain and simple truth is that any historical fiction about the conflict between colonialist and indigenous cultures in these United States--Nantucket to Olympia--has the exact same, sad story line.  Lewis and Clark got by really well in their long trek back and forth to the Pacific, but they were explorers; they didn't come to take the land.  The American story may well begin with exploration, but it always ends in exploitation--and much, much worse.  

And that story line must have given Ms. Brooks fits because it kept her in the harness of what really happened, stem to stern, in this country. Caleb's Crossing simply had to be tragic. Bethia Mayfield feels all kinds of indescribable feelings for a handsome, thoughtful boy from the Wampanoags, Caleb, this young man who longs to be a "pawaww," a holy man, but who designs his own life from what he recognizes as an inevitable change happening all around him. He determines he will go to Harvard to learn all he can about the foreign culture that has invaded his people's world.  Alas, the ending is as predestined as the faith of the Puritans, and any reader who knows a thousand similar stories on the continent understands perfectly well that Caleb can not succeed.  The only question such readers feel is how will Brooks bring the story to an end?  We know the outcome.  Only the specifics are yet to be determined.  That history, the history of white domination of indiginous people, is ever with us, even though most all the descendents of the colonials, like me, would, now that we've forgotten, much rather not be reminded at all.  Even Buffalo Bill is history.  Westerns are passe.  

A couple of years ago, I spoke to high school classes in South Dakota, and I asked them if they could list four important Lakota chiefs--two classes, maybe fifty students. In South Dakota.  One student raised his hand and said "Crazy Horse," in part because I hinted that on the other side of the state there was this huge monument being sculpted from a mountain in the Black Hills.  That's it.  One name from fifty South Dakota high school kids.  I don't think there's any question--we'd rather not remember.

I'm no historian. I haven't studied American history, but I've read enough to determine that there is a remarkable and tragic sameness to every chapter, from that belonging to King Phillip to that of Pontiac and Black Hawk to Spotted Tail and Crazy Horse and Quanah Parker and Manuelto and those thousands of Californian indigenous who were dispatched more quickly, it seems, than any of their brothers and sisters to the east. Time after time, chapter after chapter, tribe after tribe--it's the same story.

And now, I guess I'm about to start over, having just yesterday ordered Nathan Philbrick's Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Big Horn (Viking, 2010). Been there, done that.  But I'm in, I guess, in the fashion my friend, Diane Glancy, warned me I would be.

And that's okay.

But one thing is perfectly clear.  I cannot talk about "American exceptionalism" in the way many, many do these days.  I recognize that America has been good to me, given me opportunity unlike any my immigrant great-grandparents might have had had they stayed in Netherlands.  I've read Ben Franklin a dozen times.  I know the boostraps idea is no pipe dream.  I could name a dozen Dutch names in garbage and pyramid sales and heavy equipment who had only a pocketful of plug nickels and worked their behinds off to make a fortune for them and their children, literally a fortune.  "The American Dream" is very, very real.

But I also know, all too well, that it wasn't free, that the story of the unsettling of those people who lived here when my people didn't is, as an old Lakota preacher once told me, America's original sin.

Go ahead--read a book or two from America's still swelling library of Western history books.  The story line is the same.  Caleb, that bright and wise Wampaunog kid in Geraldine Brooks' new and impressive novel, went off to Harvard College; but something bad had to happen.  As a writer who cares about history, Geraldine Brooks had to know, from page one, that this kid's story could not end happily.

Whether or not there's a real Plymouth rock, whatever conveyance Bradford and his Plymouth brethren used to come ashore, long ago, in what is now Massachusetts, the story of what happened to those indigenous people whose corn he and his Brownists ate to stay alive that first winter is very, very sad.  

And that story is chapter 1 of this Christian nation. 

This morning's thanks are for those, like Eliot West, who continue to write chapter 1. 

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Reading Mother Teresa--XVIII

I have, above my desk, a crucifix my sister gave me when she told me she said she'd become frustrated because she really didn't know what to do with it.  She knew it wasn't "ours" exactly, meaning roughly, "Protestant," but understood at the same time that the cross--big and hefty, by the way--was nothing to sneeze at.  She'd received it as a gift from a proud old Roman Catholic woman, a client she visited regularly in her job as a social worker.  But that old crucifix made her feel uncomfortable somehow, as if she couldn't--or shouldn't--somehow own it.

I know what she meant very well--that big thing seems, well, too boldly gothic for an real evangelical.  We like our crosses clean and bright and shiny, not adorned with the semi-clad body of a suffering Christ.  Somebody put up three crosses in a new subdivision here, right along the street.  Nice.  Comfortably pious.  They're all empty.  I can't imagine the same person would put them up adorned with bodies.  That would be unsettling, after all.  That would be even, well, gross.  We're all about "resurrection."  Evangelicals want to tell the whole story of holy week with its grand finale, rolled-away stone, and those burial garments folded neatly as if the grave were a fine motel.

Traditionally, at least, that is not true of Roman Catholics--and certainly not Mother Teresa, who led her life as someone who believed deeply that "sharing Christ" had less to do with putting a fish on her bumper or a cross on her lawn or a tract in a bathroom than deliberate placing herself as close as she could to his suffering every day of her life.  Honestly, that idea is as foreign to an evangelical mind like mine as Jesus Christ in feathers and beads as an Dakota warrior.  

Mother Teresa thought of herself, remember, as "his bride," and her longing to be with him actually began on the cross, in his passion.  She wanted to suffer. She wanted to hurt.  She wanted nails through her hands, if not literally, metaphorically.  She wanted to be up there on that crucifix, sharing the pain of his own broken body.  She looked forward to pain.  She relished it.  She made his misery her own personal joy.  The crosses in her lives weren't clean, weren't bright, weren't shiny, part of an attractively designed bit of sanctified landscape design.

Mother Teresa "longed for a complete union with Christ," her spiritual biographer says; and because she did, she "could not do otherwise than be united to Him in His suffering."

My sister couldn't just toss that big crucifix and I know why, because her brother can't either.  It stays right up here on my wall.  It seems to me that the image of the suffering Christ is something I somehow missed, growing up Calvinist, growing up Evangelical.  It may well not have been part of my world, but it can't be edited out of the story, not even for pious reasons.   

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Making Him real

Once upon a time, a Native Christian, a Lakota, I think, came to the college where I teach and participated in a chapel worship with his smudge pot and an eagle feather.  He was from one of the South Dakota reservations, and his pattern of worship wasn't, well, traditional.  It was, of course, very "traditional" in his world; but since he may well have been the only Native person in the chapel that morning, what he did, wafting smoke out to north, west, south, and east, seemed utterly foreign and. . .okay. . .strange.  Let's face it, things like that just weren't done in the B. J. Haan chapel.

Some sharp constituent, visiting with his high-school age kid, was offended and outraged and let the administation know that what he'd seen was downright, dirty syncretism.

Syncretism, saith the mighty Wikipedia, is "the combining of different beliefs, often while melding various schools of thought."  It has this feature--it can and does bring people together; but it also is highly capable of making heresy hunters zing like geiger counters, as did this eagle feather/smudge pot Native American prayer ritual.  ZIIIIIINNNNNNNNNGGGGGGGGG.

I'll admit it--Roman Catholics are vastly more accomplished syncretists than Calvinists.  On just about every reservation today, if you want to find some fascinating morphing of religious character, visit the local Catholic church.  As we did, recently, at Marty, South Dakota, the heart of the Yankton Sioux Reservation, where, for the first time, I wandered through the gorgeous chapel. Step in the door, and you know you're in Native America.  Look for yourself.

But even more interesting, at least to me, were the stations of the cross, a feature of just about every Roman Catholic church I've ever been in.  This one features God blessing his son.  Neither look particularly Jewish.

I'll admit it.  Seeing Christ as a Dakota warrior or his father as an elder is a little disconcerting. Is that syncretism and therefore heresy?

I'll leave the argument to others because I'm busy now, preparing for another year--my last--as a Christian teacher in a Christian college.  And while one won't find the stations of the cross anywhere close to the B. J. Haan chapel here at this Calvinist college where I teach, it does seem to me that my mission here, as a prof, is, in part, to offer my students, through literature and writing, a means by which to make God and his world their very own, to see the grand narrative as very real, to outfit the deity in colors and fabrics and character that they see familiarly.  I don't want them to slip Jesus's feet in wooden shoes or drape him with an American flag--some of them do that quite well already, quite frankly--but I want them to own him as Lord, and the only way to do that fully is to use what they know to bring them into familiarity.  How can they be intimate with something they don't recognize?  Wasn't Christ's taking on flesh the ultimate, blessed syncretism?

I'll leave it to others to argue--I've got to teach.  It just seems to me that at the very heart of faith, finally we're all some manner of syncretists.

Maybe that's heresy.  So be it.

Monday, August 15, 2011


It took me awhile to clean up my desktop this morning because the place was littered with digital pictures of some young lady named Selena Gomez, who, before yesterday, late afternoon, I'd never, ever heard of.  But my granddaughter was down here with a new toy we gave her--a little digital picture frame--and she loaded it up with pictures of herself, as well as some of her pudgy baby brother.  

Plus--"Guess who I like, Papa?"  

I told her I had no idea.  

She googled a name and instantly there were pictures of this raven-haired teen crooner all over my screen, at least a half dozen of which landed on my desktop.  "Guess who she goes with, Papa?"  I have no clue.  "Justin Bieber," she says.

"I thought you didn't like him," I said because he was the only teener heartthrob I'd ever heard of and when I'd mentioned his name I got a scowl.  

"I don't," she said, click'n and drag'n those Gomez pix onto the card.

She has her standards, I suppose.  

So this morning I googled her--this Ms. Gomez, that is--only to discover that it seems she didn't make a Cleveland concert last night, at least not according to Twitter.  From there I went to Facebook to get the whole tragic story.  

To all of my Cleveland fans. .  You do NOT understand how sadden I am that I was unable to perform tonight.  You all mean to so much to me and my heart is breaking.. I love you guys with everything in me and I promise I will back and give you the best show.  Im planning on doing a huge meet n greet for you guys when I come back. I am so so sorry and I hope to see you guys when I get back.  I love you -Sel

15,689 facebook-ers "liked" that post.  That's no typo.  15,689--and I'm sure the number is still growing.

If you've got 16,000 fans, you can write like a basset hound and nobody cares, I guess.  

Oh, well, it's my granddaughter we're talking about, head-over-heels in passionate pre-teen adoration with her own celebrity goddess, someone named Selena Gomez, who loves just about everyone in Cleveland and dates Justin Bieber.  You didn't know that?

I'm sending a letter to my 93-year-old mother today, as I do every-other Monday morning. In it, I go over the news, tell her what I'm up to, and, often as not, try to prod her out of her wholesale Christian-right politics.  Never works.  She thinks I'm a heathen, except I'm her son.  I wrote it yesterday, early Sunday morning.  It's a kind of ritual.

But I have to remember to include that picture of her great-grandson holding a catfish he caught when we took him out to the Big Sioux River and wet a hook.  She'll love it.  

Not that she's spent a dime's worth of her life sitting along the banks of a river with cane pole.  If ever.  

What she loves, more than anything--more than a recitation of the weekly Schaap happenings, more than FOX News, more than TV preaching--is a picture of a grandchild, any one of them and preferably all of them.  She's got them arranged in a semi-circle around her in the apartment she occupies in the home, and they are, more than anything else, what keeps her heart buoyant.

I'm starting to understand.  Even though Selena Gomez is now in my trash, I'm old enough to understand that all young life has to do is wink and nod, and somehow I know that hope is real.  Nothing energizes my mother like her great-grandchildren.  To her, nothing promises more than children.  And I know, because I'm getting there myself.

Selena Gomez.  What?--you never heard of her?

Friday, August 12, 2011

Knowing character

She deserves a pass if you think her anti-Semitic.  She’s already received a pass from the Israeli government for saving Dutch Jews during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands.  There’s a tree planted in her honor as a “righteous Gentile” at Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust Memorial and Museum.  What she told me may well seem racist, but, good Lord, she isn’t.

She was, back then, delivering food and ration cards to Dutch families who were hiding Jews.  And this needs to be said, too.  When, originally, she (and others) placed Jews with daring families out in the country, no one—not Jews or Christians—no one in Holland ever expected that the war—and the occupation—would go for four  long years.  No one imagined such a thing.
It was Mark Twain, I believe, who said once upon a time that fish and guests both stink after three days.  What about four years?  And then, let’s not forget, the hosts and their long-time guests weren’t exactly woven from the same yarn.  Mostly, the Dutch Jews she hid were with country folk, farmers, many of them devotedly orthodox Protestant—that’s right, Calvinists.  The Jews were often citified and highly educated.  The only thing—I mean the only thing—linking those housemates (for four long years in many cases) were their shared humanity.
I say all of that because what she told me, this Dutch Resistance fighter, was that once the Jewish people were successfully hidden, once she’d become a kind of surreptitious circuit rider, once no one else came to her with requests to hide another family or two little sisters, or old folks—once that was over, she had to keep them all supplied with food.  Those farmers were in the squeezed fist  of the Nazis and NSB-ers, their Dutch cohorts.  Anyone who hid Jews was subject to the same penalty the Jews would receive—a trip to some German or Polish camp, a trip from which they might never return.

Here’s the line.  I’m not sure of how she said it exactly, but this is the way it came out, full of humanity.

It was never easy, she told me.  Sooner or later the Jews would want more or they wouldn’t like their surroundings or they couldn’t stand the people.  They complained and complained and complained—just like the Israelites in the desert for all those years before the promised land.  Just grumbled and grumbled some more.  Constant grumbling.
What makes that line come back to me now is that last week, in church, our preacher referred to manna, that gift of God to his beloved people in the desert—and then proceeded to absolve the Israelites of their constant grumbling.  After all, who wouldn’t get sick to death of hard tack in a soft shell cover, or whatever manna was?  Everybody would.

But when our preacher said that—the Israelites were grumbling—I saw them in my imagination, maybe for the first time.  I saw them because I saw those Jewish folks locked up in Calvinist homes hither and yon throughout rural Holland.  The biblical story became real to me because of an image given to me in a story, a true story, a story I could see clearly.

I’m no theologian, but the Israelites’ grumbling about manna became, maybe for the first time in my life, a real story because in my imagination there exists a kind of template that made them-- the ancient Israelites—real.  Not just a Bible story, something from the Sunday School canon, but a real story about real people.

I must have heard the story of the Israelites 40-year sojourn in the desert a hundred times—even wrote a book of meditations about it long ago.  But suddenly last Sunday, I saw them, heard their grumbling, felt their discontent, because even though I wasn’t there myself, I’d listened to a similar story told by a woman who was there and who did hear it at a time when her life was very much on the line, working underground against the Nazis.  I heard that sound through her ears by way of her story.

Tons of theologians have thought this through far more substantially than I ever have, but the phenomenon I experienced last Sunday in church made me think that we own the bible’s marvelous stories most fully when our imaginations can create the images we need to see or hear or feel out of own experience—or our “felt” experience by way of someone else’s story.

Originally, she wanted me to see those Jewish folks she was supporting with food and ration cards by way of my understanding of those grumbling Israelites in the desert.  But the comparison worked the opposite way too—I understand the desert Israelites because I know something about those poor locked-up grumblers hidden in the neighbor’s barn for four long years.

Bible stories become more whole if we bring something of our own to them—that’s what I’m thinking.  I understand the story of the Israelites far more fully having heard about Dutch Jews.
What I don’t know is why I’m such a slow learner.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Morning Thanks--Andre Dubus

The only time I ever knew him, he seemed ADD.  The novelist I'd wanted to study with that summer played second or third fiddle to Andre Dubus; and I was embarrassed not to have heard of him because it seemed that his class that year at the University of Indiana was the one young writers like me were dying to get in.  He was up, it seemed, always, every time I saw him.  To his own big reading--a nightly honor given to the master writers--he came in sweats.  I could have sworn that he'd just been jogging.  

And then, that night, he read his story, a story titled "The Father's Story," which, to my mind, has to rank as one of the most beautiful stories of faith ever been written by anyone, anywhere.  There, in Bloomington, I bought and read more of his work while the workshop was going--"Adultery," the story of a fallen priest, and others, many others.  I told him once that if I'd written that story myself, I'd quit right then, having said all I could with a pen.  He smiled.

It was just the next year, 1986, when I read a news story about his having been hit by a car, putting him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life.  Somewhere on my shelves at school, I've got a collection of essays he wrote about becoming being wheelchair-bound and, for the first time in his life, so deeply dependent on others.  That book, Broken Vessels, is written with the kind of disciplined attention to detail that characterizes his fiction, a brutal honesty that, often as not, makes you wince.  

That accident that put him in a chair changed him in many ways, and his last collection of stories, Dancing After Hours, a book I've used in literature classes almost ever since its publication in 1996, carries a theme that suggests firmly that suffering is a profound spiritual discipline.  In story after story, it's people with handicaps who are more capable of love, having learned, by necessity, to accept it from others.

If my students have treasured his writing a tenth as much as I have, then I've succeeded as a teacher.  Andre Dubus, whose birthday it is this morning, never got rich, but he succeeded, certainly, as a writer.

More than as a father.  Not long ago, I read a memoir by his son, Andre Dubus III, who tells another painful story, this one about his near-abandonment by his father, the writer in sweats, a man who loved chasing young women--including his own students--more than his own young children.  That memoir, Townie,  made it perfectly clear that Andre Dubus II, the wild man at Bloomington that summer, in real life was all of that and more and worse.  

It was disconcerting for me to learn that a man who can be so deeply spiritual in his prose, so powerfully convicted of the efficacy of grace--long before the accident even--could be so unworthy a vessel.  Even though he was always a wonderful writer, there's no doubt he was a better man once he was sentenced to that chair.  

Somewhere in that deeply Catholic mind of his, he understood the folly of his wandering, and he believed, deeply, in overwhelming power of the sacrament as a means of grace.  But to read his son's story is to be convinced that, for far too many years, this man, this gracious writer, was a jerk, an asshole. 

Maybe it's ironic, maybe not, that his most anthologized story, "The Father's Story," is all about grace, all about a car accident, all about forgiveness.  Not long after he wrote it, he became himself a variation on that theme in an car accident that broke his own stubborn pride and made him a more whole than he'd ever been.

He died in 1999, victim of a heart attack.  But the savior he seemed so deeply to know already years earlier, even when he was vastly more a jackass than a father and husband, had a decade earlier already attacked that same heart and brought him home, kicking and screaming.

His stories are riveting, immensely powerful; but the narrative of his life is unforgettable.  

It's his birthday today, and I'm thankful, this morning, for Andre Dubus II, whose taught me a great deal about literature and life.