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.

Monday, October 31, 2011

The Oklahoma City Memorial

Mr. Calvin Battle had suffered a stroke.  He was 62 years old, and he and his wife Peola had decided to apply for disability assistance, so they were there that morning, at the Social Security Office of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, downtown Oklahoma City, just after nine, when Timothy McVeigh detonated the massive explosive charge that killed them, both of them, and 166 others.  

It was April 19, 1995, a date McVeigh deliberately chose because it was fittingly a double anniversary.  McVeigh was not without a sense of history, after all.  He chose April 19, because that day was the anniversary of the FBI's siege of the compound of David Koresch at Waco, Texas, a siege which had ended in an inferno that took the lives of 76 Branch Davidians.  

April 19th was also the 220th anniversary of the "shot heard round the world," as Emerson put it, at the Battle of Lexington and Concord, the first military engagement of the American Revolutionary War, in 1775.  McVeigh considered himself a super-patriot.  He was convinced the government was evil, the second amendment under siege.  He was ex-military, had served his country, and had argued himself into believing that he was serving freedom itself by renting a truck, filling it with explosives, and blowing up the Murrah building, downtown Oklahoma City, in retaliation for what the government had done to Koresch and his followers and, he must have figured, what they would continue to do in the war against freedom.  He wore a t-shirt that morning with an inscription he took from the pen of Thomas Jefferson:  "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants."  

He was more than willing to kill innocent victims like Mr. Calvin Battle and his wife Peola, but he was also willing to die himself.  He was, after all, a patriot.  The government was the tyrant.  

An old American elm across the street lost all its leaves in that bombing, a bombing that killed 168 people, including 19 children at the Murrah building's second-story day care, and destroyed hundreds of buildings all around the site.  That old elm has battled back and still stands where it was, and is, therefore, in some ways, the most glorious symbol of the stunning memorial which the city has built at the site.

A nearly motionless reflecting pool lies quietly right there where the street once was, and just to the south stand 168 empty chairs at places roughly corresponding with the places where each of the innocent died that morning, Calvin and Peola Battle among them.  A remnant of the wall is still there too, its jagged outline a reminder of destruction created by an explosive charge McVeigh smartly jerry-rigged for little more than $5000. 

That black slash in the earth that is the Vietnam Memorial, in Washington D. C., simply shushes those who visit.  The Oklahoma City Memorial has the same effect.  Here, it may well be the look and sound of the water.  Whatever the reason, it's a stunning place to visit, as memorable, in many ways, as the Vietnam Memorial.

Yet, the two could not be more different.  Maya Lin's masterpiece design stuns visitors by reminding them of the massive gifts the American military, America itself, gave in a cause history will question for hundreds of years.   It's a slash, a scar, an incredibly beautiful scar, if there can be such a thing.

But Calvin and Peola Battle weren't military.  They hadn't enlisted in anyone's cause, and they hadn't been drafted either.  They weren't there that morning for a cause.  They may well not have even known much about David Koresh or even the shot heard round the world.  They simply happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, a moment when a madman super-patriot determined that the government had to pay for its evil because this was a holy, holy war.  

The Vietnam Memorial begs us not to forget those who died for us.  That motionless reflecting pool on the street where McVeigh parked his rental truck full of death begs us always to remember that madness, even when it's cloaked in love of country--and maybe especially then--is still madness.

But that old elm is still there, and when we visited Saturday at dusk, it was beautiful in the setting sun, just beautiful.  It has been watered by blood, but it is no more a symbol of freedom than is that jagged wall.

That old elm is a symbol of life itself.  It's there.  It's still there.  And it's beautiful, remarkably beautiful.  

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Sunday morning meds--"in its season"

“. . .that brings forth fruit in its season. . .”  Psalm 1

If I hear only a phrase from Ecclesiastes 3 (“For everything there is a season. . .”), immediately, my mind spins a record by The Byrds, a late 60s rock group and I hear those famous verses set to the music of the old Pete Seeger tune.

Correction. Maybe I should say, it’s my heart that plays “Turn, Turn, Turn,” because I’m sure that the energy that spins that rock classic originates from somewhere deeper in my psyche than mind alone. My memories have significant baggage; in my heart the song will forever be wedded to flower children and the anti-war movement—and, inescapably, me.

That’s probably why I feel a kind of joyful liberation, an odd, lilting nostalgia when that song plays. After all, it’s my music that’s playing, not my parents’. My music used a legitimate biblical text that was right there in God’s holy Word. “Look it up,” I might have yelled, defiantly, at my parents. “It’s right there in the Bible.”

I don’t recall ever having such a fight, although I certainly do remember my God-fearing parents’ grousing about the rock music that blared (sometimes defiantly) from my stereo.

But what’s in the memory runs deeper than the issue of rock music. What the song did with a biblical text was build legitimacy for my own anti-war sentiment. After all, the Bible itself says there is a time for war and a time for peace. Maybe this is a time for peace. Maybe my parents are wrong about rock music and wrong about Nixon and wrong about Vietnam, I told myself. Play that song again.

Even though Ecclesiastes 3 will forever evoke within me a late-Sixties world of peace and liberation, there’s more to that series of verses; there may well be liberation there, but there’s also law and order because what the passage really announces is not simply that everything is legit, but that everything is legit only within its time. There is a season, after all. There’s good timing and bad timing.

And that’s where Ecclesiastes 3 and Psalm 1 appear to agree. That man or woman who is blessed, the poet says, will—and you can count on this—bring forth fruit in his season. Which is to say, at the right time, when it’s right for him or her to bear exactly the kind of fruit he or she should. This isn’t “fruit-basket-upset” after all.

I can’t help but return to the horrors of chaos here once more because, or so it seems, neither can King David. Here too, order is somehow blessed, it seems; chaos is anathema. Within the context of the late Sixties, the promise of fruit at the “proper” time sounds almost schoolmarm-ish. It certainly doesn’t sound like the sentiment of a rock group whose only other contribution to the cultural milieu was “Eight Miles High,” a celebration of the glories of hallucinogenic drugs.

But then again, maybe this verse’s intent is shifting in the mind of a man who, at 63 years old, really likes staying home at night. Maybe blessedness-as-order is as comfortable as bedroom slippers on a man who rather appreciates the long cleansing breath one finally takes once the grandchildren have left.

For everything, after all, there is a season. Like fruit that way, I guess.

Friday, October 28, 2011

The Mormon Reformations

The Mormon faith, according to Joanna Brooks, a cradle Mormon herself, is a reforming faith.  After all, she says, Joseph Smith, et al, looked around at the forms of faith available to him and them in the early years of the 19th century and at the end of the Second Great Awakening, and found them all too much like empty forms, in fact.
So they started their own faith, a peculiarly American religion that has been around now for 150 years.
I'd never thought of Mormonism that way exactly--as "reconstructive," a people trying to be their own kinds of Puritans, disgusted with what was available, desirous of more and better and something we all might call "authentic" Christian faith.  Such is the spirit of the Reformation and the spirit of the Puritans and the spirit of that bunch across town who simply can't be satisfied with the music we sing at our church or yours.  We all want, somehow, a more authentic spiritual experience.  It's in us, and it was in the Mormons too, or so says Joanna Brooks in a wonderful interview on this week's On Being.

The problem is that once your or my reforming movement gets its feet on the ground it digs in and becomes an institution itself.  An institution without walls, sooner or later, is likely going to blow away, after all; so this new church takes on its own structure, writes its own by-laws, chooses its elite and begins, itself, to discriminate.

When it does, some in its number--maybe a subsequent generation--begin to question whether or not they can live comfortably within those walls.  It's really quite simple: we create a church where everyone sings only certain kinds of tunes, and our kids start to wonder why they were sheltered from a broader Christian experience.  You know.  

We're all Puritans.  In my world, people love to say that, as a Reformed church, we're always reforming.  Sure.  But then, I suppose one might say, "we're human."

Joanna Brooks proves that point with her own testimony.  Her own roots go back to those earliest of LDS trekkers, the ones who lugged wood-wheeled carts all the way across the Great Plains on their way to the promised land.  Ms. Brooks has a membership card she'll never lose, even if she burns it.  She's so much a part of the Mormon experience and faith, that in a certain way she won't ever leave, even if the elders want her gone and throw her out.

What makes that interview so incredibly good is her passion.  She cries, actually cries, several times in fact, real tears that arise from her knowing that, right now at least, she can not and does not feel at home in her home.  

I've been listening to On Being for years, when it was still Speaking of Faith, and I've never heard an interview that was quite as moving.  Joanna Brooks's love for her people, her dedication to the faith she's come from, and her commitment to its precepts and its own faithfulness to family and God is very, very high.  And yet--in great part because of politics-- she knows she's an alien.  She can't live with those Mormons who are sure that what Joanna Brooks feels in her heart about the world in which we lives is dangerously more or dangerously less than the church itself, a church she loves, can tolerate within its very walls.

Joanna Brooks's tears are unique: they fall from a soul that finds little space to sit in her own living room.  But then, her tears really are not so unique either; they fall from the souls of lots of folks who feel torn or rejected by institutions who once gave them life, institutions they once loved and often still do.

In a way, the whole wonderful interview is about something we Reformed don't much think about, even though we suffer it--the sad horrors of reformation.  

Listen to Kristy Tippett's On Being interview with Joanna Brooks or download it here

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Morning Thanks--Joseph Medicine Crow

Someday soon, I'm going to have to go through the thousands of books I've accumlated throughout my life and toss out a ton. My professional life has been all about books, so I've likely got more than your ordinary old retiree.  Across the room from me here in the basement is a library full of Native American stuff, shelves full I accumulated since the time I was writing Touches the Sky, stacks I still replenish.

Those books would be hard to get rid of because I'm closer to them than I am to the Norton Anthologys and their counterparts in my school office, books that have been there for more than 30 years, as long as I have.  I'm not sure how it happened, but it did:  the books I value most are down here with me.  Most of the finest white 19th century American novelists--Stephen Crane, Mark Twain, Frank Norris--are there, but it won't hurt to give them away.  The Native books will be tough, and a lot of them, I'm afraid, will come with, wherever we go.

I'm deeply invested in that whole world for some reasons, and have been now for years.  Why?  I don't know how that happened exactly, but all I need to do is look at this old Edward Curtis portrait of a Crow, from Montana, to know that it has.  This man is the grandfather of Joseph Medicine Crow, the man who raised him, in fact.  That's Joseph in the WW II army shirt above.

Joseph Medicine Crow was the first man from his people to attend college, the first to earn a masters degree.  He's an anthropologist, and a war hero.  During the war, he led a raid on a German camp and--listen to this--stole 50 horses.  I'm not making this up.  Once in hand-to-hand street fighting in France, he allowed a German soldier he'd been fighting to live.  For numerous acts of selflessness during WWII, Joseph Medicine Crow was awarded the Bronze Star, and made, by his people, the last traditional chief.

I think it's virtually impossible to look at the great picture of his grandfather and not see immense dignity and pride, dignity and pride that white folks, some of them (not all) well-intentioned, wanted to take from Native Americans who once roamed freely from Massachusetts Bay to the Puget Sound.  Across America, the story is always the same.  Look at this man.  Honestly, white folks, lots of them, wanted him dead.  Others, fewer, simply wanted him white.  In either case, there had to be a funeral.  And there has been.

The story of Native America has often been told, and among the finest tellers is this man's own grandson, Joseph Medicine Crow.  For his efforts he's been given the Presidential Medal of Freedom, awarded by President Barack Obama in 2009.  This little film clip, a wonder, shows him getting that medal.  If you don't think that little clip is a wonder, you don't understand what I'm saying.  

But all the storytelling in America doesn't mean that white America hears.  I'm convinced we'd rather not listen, quite frankly.  If you're Anglo, it's not a nice story.  Little about it earns us any pride.

All of this arises because today is Joseph Medicine Crow's 98th birthday, the oldest living member of the Crow tribe. He is a real live human being, a wonderful man, a leader of his people, a teacher extraordinaire; but he's also a symbol of what we white folks need to remember, even though we would so much rather forget.  

This morning's thanks are for Joseph Medicine Crow--what he is, what he has been, and what he's taught us all to remember.  Those who have ears need to hear.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Swan Songs X--Ralph Waldo Emerson

Once upon a time in Lynden, Washington, I met a woman who read Ralph Waldo Emerson for fun.  That was new to me.  I'd always had fun reading Emerson, but I knew no one who would willfully draw out a volume of Emerson's essays and just read, as one might read, say, Michael Crichton or Stephen King.  A wonderful collection of Emerson's works stood proudly on a shelf in the living room of the bed-and-breakfast she owned and operated, "the Mayor's House."  She was from Seattle, really, and not a native.  No right-thinking Dutch Calvinist could really love Emerson, after all.

My own mad tryst with the man began in college.  It was on the way to an American lit class, years ago--I remember where I was walking, on what sidewalk in fact--when suddenly I told myself that I ought to major in English because it would be a gas, a blessing even, to get paid to think and talk about writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson.  I didn't love him then, and I swear I never have.  But I've always fun with him.  In a way, because of him, I've spent the last 40 years in a literature classroom.

What was the attraction?  Simple.  It was the late 60s and I found myself woefully at odds with every major institution of my life--my family, my church, and my school.  The times were a'changin', and, for better or for worse, I started to believe that I was aboard the wrong train, heading woefully in the wrong direction.  Just about everyone I knew thought Vietnam was a righteous cause, thought Nixon was chosen by God to be our leader, thought Martin Luther King was an evil communist-like agitator, and that flower children--sweet, peace-loving hippies--were the Devil's spawn.  At the college I attended, beards were outlawed because even the look was too counter-cultural, and none of our students, praise the Lord, were going to be counter-cultural.

Along came this dreamer Emerson, a kind of spiritual guru for the times:  "Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist.  He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness," he wrote in "Self-Reliance." After all, he proclaimed right into my ear, "Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind."

Heresy, of course, but beautiful, game-changing heresy.  

To call me a disciple would go too far, but he was the bromide I was looking for--he and his gardener, a fellow named Henry David Thoreau.  I found in him--and them--the scripture I was looking for; after all, to my knowledge the old one belonged to the bigots.  

I'm not really mystical enough to buy all the transcendentalist hooey.  I've spent hours and hours along the Big Sioux River and a hundred glorious mornings on country roads with nothing but the dawn as a companion.  But I've never been mystically transformed into a "transparent eyeball." I've never felt lifted from my considerable corporal self into some giddy transcendent state.  

But way back when, I found "Self-Reliance" almost scriptural.  "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines." That's the stuff I read.  "With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do.. . .'Ah, so you shall be misunderstood," he wrote; "Is it so bad then to be misunderstood?  Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh."  And then, "To be great is to be misunderstood."  

That was a Jesus I'd never seen or heard of in Sioux Center, Iowa, a Jesus whose singular redeeming quality, whose genius, was being misunderstood.  And look at the gang he hung with.  I wanted to be on that team.

When I got my first teaching job, there he was in an old brown anthology of American literature; and what faced me in class was 25 rural Wisconsin kids, sons and daughters of cheese-makers, deer-hunting dairymen.  I was less than six weeks into my first year of teaching when the anthology we used made clear I had to haul "Self-Reliance" into my classroom, and I remember being up all night trying to figure out how on earth I was going to make the transparent eyeball interesting.

It didn't take much.  Maybe it's just my prejudiced memory, but one of the only classes I remember from way back then--the fall of 1970--was the class on Emerson, high school juniors, Lafayette County, Wisconsin.  We had a great time.  I've always had fun with Emerson.  

Today, once more, we'll open the book to that goofy transparent eyeball.  For me, it'll be the last time.  

I probably won't pick him up again.  I'm not in love.  I'll never take Waldo to the beach.  

But one of these days when I start throwing books away, my old grad school anthology of collected works of Ralph Waldo Emerson won't be among the ones that get tossed.  It's dog-eared and red-lined and ruthlessly scribbled in.  I'm not really sure how much of that transcendentalism found its way into my soul--someone else might be a better judge of that than I am.  

What I do know is that I'm in that book on just about every page.  

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Swan Song IX--Endings

There's a Rec Center now that wasn't there forty years ago, and weight rooms, multiple weight rooms.  The gym is the same, but main court was new then, brand new, and we thought it wonderful.  Once upon a time I played on the same court he did last year, for the same school, against the same rivals--but a whole different time, a whole different era.  

When I saw him yesterday--not the first time either--when I saw that kid all by himself in the weight room back in the corner of the Rec Center, it was clear to me that he was suffering.  Supposedly, he was there lifting weights; but on his face he wore a wan wistfulness, a distanced look that made perfectly clear he wasn't where he wanted to be.  He was in the weight room for other reasons than beach dreams of memorable six-pack ribs.  

I may be wrong about all this.  I know nothing for sure, except that his name does not appear on this season's roster.  I don't know the circumstances, but I know the syndrome.  Once upon a time, in the very same building, I suffered as he was.

I don't know the kid, but I've been around this place long enough to know his story--his lineage, the talents and values of the people from whom he comes.  I also know that half a Rec Center away, the basketball team was going through drills he wished he was a part of, the team whose roster I've just checked, a roster that doesn't include his name.

Athletics becomes a way of life.  They were for me, years ago.  In high school, I cared for little else, switching seasons deftly, changing little more than uniforms.  When I came to college I just wanted to play ball, declaring a major, education, only because I wanted to coach.  I didn't really care what I might have to teach someday, as long as I could coach.

So I played ball here but only for two years.  He's been at three, I think.  My junior year the handwriting was on the wall--it looked to me as if my playing time was over so I didn't turn out. I didn't so much leave the team as drop the sport.

And it wasn't as excruciating a pain as I think this kid yesterday was feeling.  After all, my leaving was willful.  I don't know if he quit or got cut, and I don't know if there are other factors in his life--a bad knee maybe--which brought his time on the court to an end.  We're not the same, but as I watched him suffer yesterday, I understood because I know at least something of his pain.

It's not easy to alter a way of life, its rhythms and patterns.  Your worship daily, every afternoon; and when there's no more reason to attend the services, you pantomime somehow anyway because you don't know any better.  That wistful kid was in the back-in-the-corner weight room yesterday afternoon because attended ritual, devoted ritual, dies a slow death.  You can't just cold turkey the gym.  It's a sweet, sweaty addiction, and the poor kid's still has his needs.

Watching his old team run through drills was sheer pain.  None of them could see him way back there in the corner, but I did.  It's partly rejection, partly withdrawal, partly a immobilizing loss of identity.  One huge part of his life is over, and it feels, for all the world, like death itself.

I didn't try to talk to him.  He probably didn't even know I was there.  I could have told him I know what it's like to become someone you never thought you'd be.  I could have told him that there's another day because there was for me.  I could have told him life goes on.

When it was over for me, I was already becoming something closer to what I'd be.  I know that now.  Some prof had told me I could write--"you've got to write a novel someday," she scribbled on my essay.  It was 1968, a year as ripe with verifiable cultural change as any in the last half-century.  I had started writing for the school paper.  I had begun to think that what was happening in Vietnam was wrong.  I quit the gym about the same time I grew out of it--I know that now.

We're not alike--I didn't have a family that cared a whole lot whether or not I played ball.  My decision to quit was totally my own.  When I stopped playing basketball, I didn't cry.  

But it was hard not going to the gym, and it was hard not being a part of that community of guys who become your best friends.  It was hard to change.

It always is.  

Monday, October 24, 2011

Morning Thanks--The river's cottonwoods

The Big Sioux River is as docile as some kid's old beagle these days.  This summer it was a pit bull, coming up off its leash for weeks, slashing its way through its farmland banks and pooling out a mile wide in some places.  It was a headache to some; others, I'm sure lost some valuable acres in a season when row crops--corn and beans--have become vegetative gold.  

On Saturday I took a walk on its banks south and west of Hawarden, banks that were obviously steep and tall enough to keep its rampage in check.  Sort of.  In some places the river's woodland borders look like twilight zones, having been inundated for weeks and weeks.  But where I walked and stood, there was none of that, the river silent and sleepy beneath me, almost a reflecting pool.  Who could have guessed it spent most of the summer being so dang unruly.

Cottonwoods are almost iconic out here on the edge of the plains.  They're huge, but they grow like weeds, their soft wood almost useless to the first white settlers.  The buffalo loved 'em, loved to rub up against their tractor-tire-like bark.  In some hollows not likely all that far west of here, the fur stacked up around a stand of old cottonwoods might run a foot deep 150 years ago, I once read.

They're monsters, but toothless, and their branches snap off easily in the roughhouse prairie winds.  A couple of cottonwoods can look like a stand of broken pretzels, beautiful in their own way, but really, really beat up, mangled.  

They're everywhere along the Big Sioux, and I'm sure this summer's flood planted another gross because cottonwood seeds sprout only in standing water--they're here only because of floods.  Tame the Big Sioux River, dam it up some place south of Sioux Falls, and that would be it for the cottonwoods.  They would be no more.  

That's sort of interesting--they grow only when the river goes on a rampage.  

On Saturday, I stood beside huge, huge cottonwoods growing uncomfortably close to the river.  One of them, really massive, bore scars where some demented beaver had determined to fell it.  Clearly, he never did.  One wonders at what point that animal simply threw in the towel and went after easier pray.  Beavers, some say, are nature's engineers; but I know a man who's worked around their madness for years, and he claims they're idiots.  

The one that picked on this cottonwood--he's an idiot.  

But the river takes out cottonwoods, even the old guys, when it comes up high and eats away at the banks.  The Big Sioux River is full of trees and root balls, many of them monsters too.  It's almost impossible to look up or downstream and not see skulking hunks of old limbs or the trees themselves protruding from the water like statues of dead seals.  

And all along those banks, roots dangle where some of those trees most vulnerable won't last another flood season or two.  I must have a hundred pictures of old, broken down cottonwoods because they're just flat out a feature here, their limbs a mess.  I think--I may be silly--a photograph of one of them, broken limbs and all, against a dawn is still priceless, even though I've got a hard drive full of 'em.  They're decidedly photogenic, symbols, I guess, of something--perseverance maybe, the dogged will to survive.

But when the flood waters strip away their earthy garb, it's almost embarrassing to walk past them, their gangling roots exposed for all the world to see.  I remember, years ago, walking into a YMCA pool and seeing a dozen fat old men naked as jaybirds and being, well, repulsed.  To see those giant cottonwoods denuded, defrocked, their privates horribly exposed, isn't pretty.

The river plants 'em, I guess--without floods, they wouldn't be there.  And the river takes 'em eventually too, hauls them down, and swallows them whole.

The river makes 'em and takes 'em.  

For awhile, I guess, we get 'em, and they are, I think, a thing of beauty.  

This morning's thanks are for those marvelous cottonwoods--and the river that owns 'em.     

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Sunday Morning Meds: Psalm 1:3

“. . .like a tree planted by streams of water. . .

Once upon a time, my father received a job offer from an association of Christian Schools in another state.  I don’t remember the offer myself because I was far too young, but I know my father’s character well enough to be able to imagine how thrilled he must have been because to him, working for Christian education would have been like being in the direct employ of the Lord Almighty.

And at the time, I know he thought he wasn’t.  He was doing some accounting work for a heavy-equipment industry run by a bunch of yahoos who liked to wheel and deal and knew how to party far better than my father, the preacher’s kid.

Armed with that blessed new job offer, he must have gone the rounds.  I’m not sure what my mother said when he told her.  I should ask her, I guess.  But I know what happened when he spoke to my grandfather, his father-in-law.  Grandpa cried.  I know that because my father told me, years later.  He didn’t lament those tears.  When he told me that story, my father didn’t raise a fist and declare that, right then and there, it was the old man’s fault he couldn’t take that great job.  But the story he told had lines I didn’t have to draw in.  The story told itself.

Grandpa cried because he didn’t want to his daughter to move so far from his new home, a block away from the heart of the village where stood his blacksmith shop.  Grandpa cried because he didn’t want his grandchildren gone.  Grandpa, the blacksmith, bawled, and Dad hung in for a few more years with the rowsters.

There’s always more to the story, and this one has some significant antecedent action.  Grandpa’s only other daughter was killed in freakish car accident not that many years before.  Grandpa—and Grandma—had already suffered just about the worst thing that can happen to any mortal, the death of a child.
I’m told that my grandfather’s emotions were legendarily promiscuous.  But I’ll excuse the tears this time because I never lost a child and he did.  If he bawled when my father asked about his taking a job that my father might have believed came directly from the council of the Lord, I’ll forgive Grandpa.

Most all fiction begins in the mind of the writer with a single question: “what if”?  The “what if?” of this little family story may be obvious.  If my aunt hadn’t been killed and my Grandpa would not have cried, would my father have left the state and taken the job of his dreams?  And even more to the point right now—if all of this had happened, who would I be, having grown up in a whole different world?

It’s of more than passing interest to me that the tree of Psalm 1 is “planted.”  Someone put it down on the banks of that metaphorical river.  The particular spot wasn’t necessarily the choice of the whirly-gig maple seed; that spot was chosen.

When I think of blacksmith’s tears, it’s almost impossible to believe that we are but our own.  There must be a design to this madness.  Someone’s in control.  Someone, or so it seems to me, does the planting.  I’m a witness.

Saturday Morning Catch--October warmth

Friday, October 21, 2011

Swan Songs VIII--E.A. Poe

There's no one like him, really, in American literature.  He's an anomaly.  If you follow the traditional stream of America's literature, a stream that begins with the Massachusetts Puritans, with Bradford and Winthrop, Cotton Mather, and Jonathan Edwards, Poe is just, well, "out there," a madman who unlike so many of his Romantic peers has no bone to pick with Calvinism and nothing substantial to say about God and providence and sin or any matters of this world, for that matter.  He's just simply a guy with a blood-red dreams and a penchant for scaring the willies out of people.

I'm not up to snuff on movies, but just about every late October Hollywood spins out a half dozen new horror flicks, prime for the season.  Halloween ain't what it used to be, of course, but that doesn't mean that American audiences don't get a good hanker to get the beejeebees scared out of them right about the time they see a harvest moon.

Paranormal Activity III--saw the trailer last night as a matter of fact.  It didn't seem particularly compelling, at least to me, but it's here or will be just about ghost-and-goblins night.  Friday the 13th, anything by Stephen King, the Twilight Zone--the whole boatload of America's shuddering horror shows begin with Edgar Allen Poe.

Not only that, but Sherlock, the Brit TV series of high acclaim, itself built on Arthur Canon Doyle's most famous detective, is also a Poe descendant because he's the grandpapa of murder mysteries too, with his brilliant Dupin--"The Murders in Rue Morgue" and "The Purloined Letter."  We have Poe to thank for horror and mystery.  It's just lucky he never really grabbed a horse and went west or he'd have done the OK Corral long before there was one.

And then there's his sad bio--another brilliant artist somehow unfit for this world.  Poe people are still trying to determine just how it was he died. What we know is that it wasn't pretty because by the end he was a wasted soul.  He drank, did drugs, played with his life and health as if they were little more than a pittance.  When he died, he was a no one, despite everything he'd done, everything he'd written.

American lit wouldn't be the same without him, even though there's no one else like him.

Last time through him today.  Last time with his jingling poetry, his harrowing tales, his madman narrators.  Last bizarre trip into his freaky horrors.  The man thought he'd done his job if he lifted the poor reader out of the miseries of this life and into an imagined nether world where the dead walked and hearts dug from human chests wouldn't stop their infernal beating.

I've often wondered why self-righteous evangelicals don't go to war with Edgar Allen Poe like they did with J. K. Rowling or, before her, Madeline L'Engle--get Poe out of our lit books, for pete's sake, because he's corrupting our youth with his evil dispensations.  All he wants to do is welcome us to his infernal nightmares.  He wants us all as crazy as he was--get him out!

Besides, so what?  Everything he ever penned is little more than an elaborate, Rube Goldberg haunted house, a bizarre musical that really is nothing more than a fancy way to say "boo."

But he's Poe.  Where would be without him?  All we'd have is the transcendentalists, mid 19th century, a bunch of yahoos holier than thou.  Think of it--Emerson, Thoreau--and their dark alter-egos Hawthorne and Melville.  Thank goodness there's Poe to keep you awake.

But we only need one of 'em.  Another would be too much.

Today, for the last time, in class we'll talk about Edgar Allen Poe, bless his madman's soul.

One of the people I'd like to read when I retire is Emily Dickenson.  Everything.  All the poems, all the biographies.  I'd love to read everything there is to know about "the belle of Amherst."

Poe?--nope.  I'll never read him again.

But just the same.  I'll always know he's there, ready to pop out of bad dreams, ready with a fiendish laugh, and a creaking door, bad hinges on an ancient coffin.  He'll always be there to drive me mad.

What a hoot.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Reading Mother Teresa--XX

There is, within me, more than a smidgen of my grandfather's DNA, more than a pint or two of his dark Calvinist blood.  I think of him often really, a man so driven by the depth of his own sinfulness (he was really a good man) that he would take an almost perverse pleasure in recounting the darkness of his soul--as in, "if I had one thing to do with my salvation, I'd burn in hell."  That kind of thing.  Complete with tears. Lots.  

He likely had a family background in the old Dutch conventicle tradition, those hot bed small groups whose intense devotions ran so deep that their house meetings became, in no small measure, the church itself.  Some people think house churches the wave of the future.  Good night, they have a history, a past.  Intense meditations for intense sinners whose long prayers stretched endlessly.  Grandpa had a heavy dose of that in him.

Back then, in the early years of the 20th century, I don't think he was unusual.  There were more Harry Dirkses per capita, I'm sure.  That kind of exhausting, abject confession promised and likely delivered abundant blessings.  After all, the finest means by which to glory--seriously!--in the marvelous grace of God almighty was to lie prostrate on the floor in abject selflessness.  Grace, for even lowly me!  

By all reports, that was my grandpa.  It's easy to parody really.

But I'm saying that sometime he's in me, too.  Maybe more than sometime.  Maybe far more than I care to admit.  

My mother, his daughter, has always wished to be Pentecostal, to speak in tongues, to be ever closer to the Lord than she is, no matter that her son thinks she's dang well close enough. Her son thinks it's almost a disease.  For someone who talks constantly about the love of God, it sometimes seems to him--to me--as if she's ever a arm's length away, maybe even farther.  

She wanted "Blessed Assurance" sung at her husband's funeral because she knew he never shared her tremulous faith.  My father never thought much about his salvation, even though he was, as most who know him would say, something of a saint. She's never quite understood his confidence because she was never herself so blessedly assured.  If she were, the drama would be over; and I think she likes the drama.

Her son can giggle about all this, but what I'm confessing this morning is that, like it or not, I'm still my mother's son--and my grandpa's grandson.  And I feel it most when I read something like this from Mother Teresa:  "Why must we give ourselves fully to God?  Because God has given Himself to us."

Just blows me away.  That logic is so airtight that its undeniable truth makes mincemeat of my feeble attempts at being faithful.  She is so absolutely right.  Just to be sure, there are no tears here--I'm not my grandfather's clone.  But the way Mother Teresa says what she does here casts a long, sickening shadow over my sinfulness.  I admit it. 

See, there he is--Grandpa Dirkse. In the flesh.

"I live for God and give up my own self, and in this way induce God to live for me," she wrote.  "Therefore to possess God we must allow Him to possess our soul."

Wow.  Let me tell you, on that one I'm in the cheap seats.

Sometimes I giggle about Grandpa.  Then again, sometimes I understand him.  Sometimes I am him. 

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Morning Thanks--faith and courage

Yesterday's NY Times included a op-ed piece by Karl W. Giberson and Randall J. Stephens, both of them professors at Eastern Nazarene College.  What the two of them assert is that not all evangelicals bang the drum the way many do, that it's possible to be a bible-believing Christian, a follower of Jesus Christ, and not talk like so many on the right.  

I'm not interested in playing a victim card, but I know very well that it is sometimes very difficult for those of us who do not see the world as the religious right does to exist comfortably even in a dark corner of that world.  Very difficult.  

Giberson and Stephens speak for me, too.  I don't even know some of the evangelical leaders they talk about, but I certainly concur with where this article goes.  To me, what they said was liberating.  For some at least, life isn't always comfortable in the religious fortress.

You can read the essay here.  Honestly, my morning thanks are for them, for their faith and their courage.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Morning Thanks--Love

She was, as I remember, among the brightest kids I had back then, certainly the most well-read. Even as a freshman she was outstanding, as if her high school English classes had taken place on some other planet than the rest of the students'.  I'd refer to the Fireside Poets, to Irving or the naturalists, and she'd know who I was talking about.  She was energetic, industrious, always on time, ever poised for action, as if every class were the state finals.  

In faith, she was effervescent, a model of piety, the kind of person who could have written a how-to on late-teen devotion.  If she'd been my classmate, years ago, I would have felt like sludge around her.  I don't doubt, some kids did.

She was perfect.

And this, despite the fact that her shoulders carried more burdens than most all of her peers.  There may have been other kids who'd come from brokenness, but few of those homes, I'd guess, were still smoldering.  She never told me herself, but I learned that this particular divorce was painfully rancorous.  That she was here, miles away, might well have been a blessing.  She might have come here precisely for that reason, to not be there.

And then her mother died, of cancer, I believe. 

But through more tribulations than any kid should ever suffer, she never showed a moment's questioning.  At least in my presence, she never lost it, was never anything less than a militant Christian; with her homework, she never missed a due date.  Sometimes, I think I grieved for her when I thought that she seemed so alone, without family--but alone also in the manner by which people who burn with her level of incandescence can, with malice toward none, put everyone else in the room, even admirers, in deep, dark shadows. Sometimes the perfect is, in fact, the enemy of the good.

Many years have passed.  She's no longer a student.  But last night I sat a few rows behind her in church, her shoulder scrunched against the tall and handsome guy beside her, a man who more than occasionally looked down at her with what people call cow eyes, a look more than frequently--I know, I watched--most appreciatively reciprocated.  The two of them are in love.  They have a distinguishable, glorious aura.  You can't miss it.   

They were in church together, and while I'm sure she probably heard the sermon, appreciated the singing, got herself inspired by something at least, what the two of them gave witness to was something completely other than the eighth commandment--"thou shalt not kill"--the subject of the sermon.

Let me rethink that.  Had the preacher been able to do what I'm somewhat surreptitiously doing right now, he might simply have tossed his notes.  The eighth commandment, of course, is not simply a decree not to kill, but a divine directive to uphold others, to raise them up, to love.  "Okay," our preacher might have said, "if you all want to know the upshot of the eighth commandment, just take the rest of the night and watch these two lovebirds in the third row."  

I certainly did.

We sit on chairs in church.  What my star ex-student didn't know was that everyone sitting behind her couldn't miss the fact that her small shoulder was, for most of the night, mostly on his chair, tucked darling-ly in his.  I don't want to be impious, but the blessing of worship last night was what was generously on display in front of us--young love, ever an inspiration.

She's not just any kid either.  She knows sadness.  She's rarely showed any of the scars she has had to sustain.  She's always tried to show her best.  

But in my book she's never once looked as pure as she did last night, giving herself away.

The blessing of worship last night was the object lesson about love on such radiant, selfless display in the third row.  Not unrelated at all to the sermon.

I came away smiling.  Inspired.  

This morning's thanks.  

Friday, October 14, 2011

Swan Song VII--Autumn leaves

The trees look the same.  That splendid fall mix of russets and reds from the hardwoods all over town reminded me that, years ago, I came into this city at this very time of year because what I remember well, oddly enough, is that householders were permitted—and everyone did it—to rake their leaves into the street and light ‘em up right then and there.  There were little fires all over town, along the streets.

I was here to do a story, one of thirty-some, and the subject was a young guy, like I was back then, a young guy who’d made it big in his field, a scholar, a teacher.

I wasn’t alone.  My wife had come with because she’d known him before, in high school.  We must have left the kids—who were little back then—with their grandparents, taken a day or two off, just the two of us.  I was writing a book.

Of the interview itself, I remember very little, although the essence hasn’t slipped my mind.  He was a Dutch Calvinist, a northwest Iowan originally, who’d gone on to college and graduate school and was now teaching here, at the University of Notre Dame, teaching history, medieval history, in fact, teaching priests their own story.  Here’s the lede:  Dutch Calvinist teaches Roman Catholic priests their history.  Man bites dog somehow.
We had a wonderful time—that I remember.  The two of us—two young couples—getting along royally.  At least part of the book’s agenda was to gather opinions and attitudes of the church to which we all belonged.  What’s your view of the CRC?—that sort of thing.

And his answer—circa 1980—I remember at least a part of.  It was a thoughtful analysis of the seminary itself, the denominational brain trust.  He wasn’t strident, but he was passionate in maintaining the need of a generational change.  His argument went like this: the current generation of seminary leaders had been reared in a specific era, a time that had come and gone.  We won’t advance as a church, this bright young scholar claimed, until a new generation could take over, a generation shorn from an old vision, a vision created by a shared identity in ethnic ghettos.
It was a historian’s answer, a fascinating answer.  A generation of leaders were shaped by their own very similar experience—bright young people emerging from an ethnic past so tight that it required real effort to leave.  That was the matrix they all shared, and it wasn’t true anymore of the generation we were a part of, the boomers.  We saw things differently, he said.

And as my wife and I traveled home that night, I remember being not all that far out of town when I told her that I found that analysis really fascinating.  “Maybe,” she said, “but it suggests that we’re also products of our particular time.”  Someday someone would be saying the same about us--she said that too.  

I remember that dire assessment—and it felt dire back then—because it hit me more deeply than anything the professor had said:  if those sem profs are products of their era, then it's likely we are too.  

We weren’t that far out of town.  I remember watching the road.

He’s still here.  I just looked him up.  His accolades have grown—scholar in residence at the best universities in the country.  Once, in a very good way, I thought him a friend, but it’s been years since I’ve seen him.

I remember his little house, his wife, their boys.
Today, he’s divorced from the woman he'd married and we met back then, has been for years.  I met one of the boys not long ago when, a graduate student himself somewhere.  He said he too remembered that visit years ago.
The book has long been remaindered.  I bought the last 100 copies myself for next to nothing.  Still have a few copies.  The faculty at the seminary is entirely replaced, has been more than once.
And yesterday, when I drove down the inside streets of South Bend, IN, I didn’t see anyone burning leaves.  The laws may well have changed.

All of that was 30 years ago.

The trees look the same, even from the air—a palette of burnished earth tones, that blaze of glory we call fall.