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, November 30, 2011

My Mother's Tears--part I

The Red Owl store had only one check-out aisle, a broad, formica-topped counter the size of a town flag, with a cash register at the close end, where the checker stood making polite conversation while punching in the prices and jerking back the lever to register the sale.

“Nice tomatoes today, John.”

“Aren’t they though?”

“Tick, tick—shiick, shiick.”

Just behind the counter, the candy rack stood like a buffet, stock with candy bars, bubble gum, Life Savers, baseball cards, and penny candy wrapped in cellophane. Up above, a flat, wire dispenser advertising Kools held a couple dozen brands of cigarettes in separate chutes that emptied slowly when the clerk grabbed the bottom pack.

We found stealing cigarettes to be remarkably easy.  As long as someone was taking her sugar and milk and Cheerios out of her cart and putting them up on the counter, we were free to roam behind the checker.  I don’t remember the first time I pocketed a pack myself, probably because the job seemed so easy.  AT first, one pack was plenty for an afternoon of smoking for us, but soon stealing cigarettes became something of a game.  Once, my friend made it out with three packs of Kents, stuffing them down beneath his belt and into his underwear before flipping a dime up on the counter for two packs of baseball cars.  What’s more, he got Henry Aaron to boot.

But we got caught.  I will never forget that night in my bedroom.  I’ll never forget the way my own father cried as he looked away from me and out the little circular window to the south.  I was twelve, I think, and it was summer—the last week in June.  I had pretended to be asleep because I knew that the jig was up and all of us were going to catch it; but my parents had snapped on all the lights and marched upstairs and stood there at the foot of my bed.  And it all came out in tears.

Three times in two weeks my mother cried for me.  That was the first.  My father sat on my bed and talked slowly, trying to wrench out every last piece of information.  But my mother didn’t say much at all.  She couldn’t.  She was choked up with tears.  I was the baby, the only boy.  She never guessed I could be stealing, and smoking, cigarettes.  She cried out of sheer disappointment, I think.  I say that because I’m a parent myself now, and I think I know what I I’d feel if my son or daughter did what I did as a boy.

Even then I understood that it was her disappointment that brought those tears.  Neither my father or my mother hit me that night.  They didn’t have to.  I saw both of them cry.  I never forgot that, and I never will.
My father sentenced me to two weeks of white-picket-fence painting in the backyard.  In addition, I had to pay back John, the Red Owl storekeeper.  So I went to the store with a pile of fifty-cent pieces, my father right there at my side, p ushing me forward, forcing me to tell the man what I’d done.  The Red Owl is a shoe store now, and John isn’t selling groceries.  But even today I cannot see him without feeling guilt.

For two weeks I saw nothing at all of my friends.  For two weeks, our family ate around the kitchen table and talked so guardedly that it seemed our words were precious china.
When my sentence was over, we boys got back together.  We were raising fan-tail pigeons in a coop out behind the garage where we used to smoke.  We needed straw for bedding, so one day we tied a wagon to the back of one of our bikes and rode up to an old barn at the edge of town.  We asked the guy who owned the place if we could have a couple of sacks of straw.  He said okay, and we pedaled back to the neighborhood, three stuffed gunny sacks jammed in a coaster wagon swinging behind.

My father was gone off to work.  My mother took one look at the loot and thought we were stealing again.  This time she hit me—hard, as I remember, and often.  I remember feeling her hand almost lifting me from the gravel as she swatted me, time and time again, half-running across the alley, pushing me along through the evergreens out back, across the lawn, and into the back door, then right upstairs, constantly thrashing away at my backside in an explosion of emotion that was, once again, full of tears.

I couldn’t tell her that this time I wasn’t guilty.  I tried, but she was incapable of listening.  I remember her screaming at me, and I remember thinking that nothing I could say could stop the torrent.

That was the second time she cried.

This old memoir, written about a quarter-century ago, was published in The Banner, September 15, 1986.  I've blown the dust off the old manuscript--typed in that boxy font we called, back then, dot matrix--in honor of my mom, who this week celebrated her 93rd birthday.  She's forgotten, I'm sure.  Conclusion tomorrow.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Swan Song XIX--another day, another dollar

For the most part, I think Anne Lamott has aged well.  Her Traveling Mercies is now itself a teenager, and I think it's fair to say she's not as hot as she once was--maybe because her son, Sam, is no longer a funny little kid.  But last night, reading her through again, I laughed once more at dozens of lines, some of which I remembered and some I'd forgotten.  

Her brand of political liberalism may still have some currency in the San Francisco metro, where she lives, but it's not replenishing itself greatly among the American populace in the age of the Tea Party.  Some of her allusions to contemporary culture have aged and will have my students scratching their heads, I'm sure.  But she still can crack open your attention with a deft description:  "A huge man with an ice chest and a radio had arrived, wearing a tank top so that I could see what appeared to be the entire Book of Revelations tattooed on his arms."

Good night, I wish I'd written that.

I don't know if my students will chuckle, like I do, at her own revelations of God either.  "Again and again, I tell God I need help, and God says, 'Well, isn't that fabulous?  Because I need help too.  So you go get that old woman over there some water, and I'll figure out what we're going to do about your stuff.'"  There's no accounting for taste, I guess, but a moment like that just makes my day.

That's the morning class.  Then, in the afternoon, Hamlet, a handsome young Danish prince who neither me nor an infinite number of monkeys over an infinite number of iPads will ever figure out totally.  Last night, I watched Kenneth Branagh and Kate Winslet do the nunnery scene and was, once again, blessedly transfixed.  There is so much life in that play that it's no wonder some secular scholars think of the Shakespeare canon as the closest thing to scripture in the English language.

And so scrupulously scripted, too.  "The King rises" comes just about exactly halfway through this monster of a play, and halfway through "The Mousetrap," the play within the play.  It's the very moment when the whole story tips over like an apple cart because Hamlet now knows for sure that Claudius murdered his father.  

But there's more.  When the King stands and the court breaks up, Claudius also knows that Hamlet knows he did it, meaning the Prince's days are numbered.  What's more, Hamlet knows that Claudius knows that he knows--and on and on and on.  The bellowing ghost of Hamlet's father in Act I wasn't wrong, begging his son to revenge his cruel murder, although he may still have led the Prince to madness or hell itself by urging him on the way he did.

Today in my professional life, I'm walking into classrooms carrying Anne Lamott and William Shakespeare.  Some fifty students will just be getting back from Thanksgiving break, most of them up to their ears in work that has to be finished soon, just less than two weeks left in the semester, most of them in no shape to be as thrilled to have read Hamlet and Traveling Mercies as their prof, who's read them both before, over and over again.  I'm sure a ton of them won't be prepared.

No matter.  

It's going to be tough to make those eyes shine today, very tough.  But I'll give it a go because, really, when I think back about what I've been doing for forty years, lugging wonderful writers into classrooms that are often hostile territory, I tell myself this morning that somehow, some way, I made the right choice.  Maybe sometime late this afternoon, battered and bruised by inevitable indifference, I'll think differently; but right now, with two books tented up right here on the desk in front of me, I'm thankful that somehow God himself in his mercy and wisdom took the time to point me into a classroom.  

I've had forty good years of working with this stuff, this "content" we call literature, and I honestly can't think of anything I'd have rather done.  

And for all of that, this morning of "To be or not to be," I'm very thankful.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Newt in the ascendency

It's hard for most Americans not to see Newt Gingrich's sudden rise in the Republican Presidential sweepstakes as just another "flavor of the month," as pundits say.  After all, most of the other candidates have had their 15-minutes of fame, why shouldn't he?  He is, without a doubt, not going to create the embarrassing tongue-tied silences that Cane and Perry have made famous.  Newt can talk.  And talk and talk and talk.  What's more, he has a penchant for saying delightfully surprising things.  He makes great headlines.

But what some Washingtonians can't understand is how it is that the Ioway social conservatives can cozy-up to Newt the way they have.  After all, the man is presently on his third wife, the one whom he was buzzing while leading the charge to impeach Clinton for Monica Lewinsky.  Newt rather famously left his first wife for another woman when his wife was sick with cancer, while simultaneously using his wife's sad story to garner sympathy and voters.  He was a cad, a worm, a jerk.

Even worse for some, he carried on a shadowy illicit relationship, a sinful relationship with Fannie Mae, an affair that made him millions of dollars.

Now Bob Vander Plaats, Iowa's conservative media darling these days, and a Siouxland Dutch Calvinist to boot, claims he's surprised that his voters have seemingly embraced him the way they have.  After all, they're the ones who've sought to save marriage.  They're pro-life.  They're pro-family.  They deliberately mess with the spelling of their group's name--"FAMiLY Leader"--to emphasize that I (or i) shouldn't count all that much and FAMILY should.  That's right--FAMILY should.  These folks are not shy about drawing lines in the sand between the good us and the bad them.  And that line starts with the sacredness of family. I mean, FAMiLY.

And now they like Newt.  Go figure.

Vander Plaats, according to Newsweek's Michele Goldberg, doesn't quite know what to make of his Christian conservatives anointing their mini-vans with Newt stickers. "I’m one of those who said Newt would have a large gender gap, and that even though men might be more willing to forgive and move on, quite frankly I thought the women would be less likely to do so," says Vander Plaats.  I guess even righteous men understand philandering better than their loyal wives.

What people like Goldberg (she probably Jewish, you know!) don't really understand is a Christian's wholehearted commitment to the greatest Christ-like behavior of all--plain and simple forgiveness.  Grace is amazing, after all, and what happened to Newt in years past is may well now be a part of the obituary of Newt's old man of sin.  These days, the new man is in him, alive and kicking, the forgiven, the redeemed.  There is, in the Christian community, no greater rejoicing that when the fallen return.

Why shouldn't they pin Newt buttons on their lapels?  He's been forgiven.

And then there's this--all those disciples of Christ's love absolutely hate Obama.

There's that too.   Throw that in the mix.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Sunday Morning Meds--Chaff

“but they are like the chaff, which the wind drives away” Psalm 1

In “Out of a Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” Walt Whitman sings a kind of ode to death, an unlikely subject.  Don’t look for selected quotes to appear on greeting cards any time soon.  Actually, I think the poem is memorable—really unforgettable, as in haunting.  And it springs to mind now, when I think about the chaff the wind blows away.

The poem is really about Whitman, about a moment in his life when, as a boy, he witnessed the disappearance of a mockingbird, “a solitary guest from Alabama,” as he puts it, one of a pair of mockingbirds he’d been watching as two nested near his seaside home in New Jersey.
Much of the poem is in song, an aria, the doleful lament of the one mockingbird left behind when his mate doesn’t return.  There on the ocean’s edge, the boy hears this mockingbird’s every mournful note, an aria that he’s never forgotten. 
Strangely enough, Whitman claims that hearing that sad melody marks his birth as a poet because it introduces him to a single word he claims is “stronger and more delicious than any,” a word he learned in lament.
And that word, simply, is death.
I don’t know that in all my years of teaching American literature either Whitman or I have ever changed a kid’s life by using that poem.  We come to Walt Whitman right before Christmas, when exams and going home for the holidays loom before them like the Olympia Range.  Just about then, college students don’t have time for death. 
And, for goodness sake, they’re kids.  “No young man thinks he shall ever die,” William Hazlitt once wrote.  How can I expect to enchant them with the grieving aria of some New Jersey mockingbird?  I wonder whether any of them, honestly, will ever remember that poem.
No matter.  Life itself will teach them the truth of what Whitman claims to have learned that moment on the beach, because sooner or later every one of them will experience the death of someone beloved.  And when they do, they’ll know a level of reality they may well never have considered.  Whitman wasn’t wrong.  The reality of death changes us, makes us far less enchanted with the chaff that the wind drives away.
This psalm, an old poem by a storied old king, makes reality television look like the silliness it is.  It defines the wicked by their shallowness, less by their sheer depravity than their insipid inanity.  Because the wicked are not planted by rivers of life, they simply blow away after their fifteen fickle minutes of fame.
We’ve now officially changed course in Psalm One.  With the third verse, the farm boy king focuses on those with whom the blessed shouldn’t seek counsel; and his first description is not venality but banality.  The wicked are chaff.  They’re insubstantial as paper dolls, their values thin as gruel, their terrain of their lives mostly wasteland.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Black Friday's red dawn

Our bread and its butter

Two-hundred-plus kids sat on their buns in the gym for Wednesday's very special Thanksgiving festivities, and I couldn't help notice how dark the crowd really was.  I'd read them a story a little earlier--they were attentive and sweet as any second through fifth graders can ever be; but what was shocking, at least to me, was how many of those cute kids were Hispanic, and therefore, almost surely, illegal.  The principal told me just under 27%. 

When we moved to Iowa in 1976, if you're name was Wilson or Blake or Fredrickson, you were an alien.  The people who lived here were DeVrieses or Van Dykes.  More than 90%, I'm sure--were wooden shoes, Hollanders, and rest weren't much 'cause they weren't Dutch.  Today, the town where I live, whose population has doubled and more since then, is at least 1/3 Hispanic.  Where once there were gyms filed with kids were a sea of blonde heads, today it's all salt-and-pepper.

I don't claim to know as much about politics as Tim Albrecht, Iowa Governor Terry Branstad's chief of staff, but I think he's just plain loony about immigration.  Here's what he tweeted after the last Republican debate:  "Newt did himself significant harm tonight on immigration among caucus and primary voters."  Gingrich said, famously, that if people had put down roots here in this country, they shouldn't have to leave. 

I think you'd be hard-pressed to find a more conservative county among Iowa's 99 than Sioux County, the place I live.  Most people here are proud social conservatives whose political vision is totally dominated by the murder of babies.  In 2008, when my grandson was a kindergartner, he crawled in my lap down here in the basement, and proudly proclaimed that Barack Obama, then but a candidate for President, was a baby-killer.  I don't think, back then, he knew what the word abortion meant.  Probably still doesn't.  What he knows by heart is that the word means murder.

Life can be difficult here for people who think contrary-wise--trust me.   More than once I got excoriated for voicing the possibility that there might be other issues than abortion on which to make a qualified decision in the 2008 election.  I don't think Obama has made any friends here since that time either.  I'm sure there are birthers galore here.  Whoever runs against him will take Sioux County--you can take that to the bank.  What I'm saying is my neighorhood is loaded with the kind of proud social conservatives who make the Iowa Caucuses the odd diving board it is for Presidential politics.

And I say, Tim Albrecht is flat wrong.  I don't know what happens in DesMoines or Davenport, but in my neighborhood, red-meat social conservatives didn't strike Newt off their list for what he said, because here people keep one hand on their pocketbooks when they talk politics.  People here know darn well that if some giant vacuum cleaner hovered over us and vacuumed up all the illegals, our blessed economy would tank in a minute.  Who's going to milk the cows?  Who's going to pack the meat?  Good night, who's going to do all the frickin' dirty work?

The fact is, people here depend on illegals, big time.  If Mitt wants to proudly maintain that the whole bunch ought to line up right now for a big bus trip south, he's not gaining ground with my dedicated Republican neighbors.  In fact, he may fall ungraciously from that meager 20% he somehow maintains.  We wouldn't be who we are without illegals--and right now we either lead the state or are coming in a close second in pork, beef, and milk production--not to mention chickens. 

Tim Albrecht may know Des Moines, but he doesn't know Siouxland's hard core conservatives, who know how it is their bread gets buttered.  Newt didn't hurt himself at all by showing some old-fashioned and much-repudiated heart.

Sunday, in church, a woman stood up and cried because her mother is dying, slowly, south of the border, and she can't be with her.  Can't because she knows if she'd go home once again, she couldn't get back north to a town where she and her family are members of church, where they have a house and jobs, where their kids go to school, where one daughter even goes to college.  She asked for prayers, for our prayers, because it was tough not being able to be with her mother on her death bed.

Tim Albrecht is wrong.  I don't think Newt hurt himself one little bit.  Not here anyway.  Not here, in the most Republican region of the entire state of Ioway. 

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Morning Thanks--Grandma Dirkse

Once upon a time, women weren't supposed to wear slacks to church because people thought only skirts or dresses were "proper" for women.  

Not my grandma. She liked the new, wrinkle-free, double-knits because they stretched enough through the seat and always--always--held their press.  One winter afternoon, my grandma told herself that not wearing slacks to church was downright silly and went off to Ladies Aid in her new drawers.

Grandma never walked fast that I remember, so she must have made a show of it that first day.  No one said a thing, of course, so the Bible study plodded along just like usual, I'm sure, the women nodding at most everything the preacher said.

After the preacher closed with prayer, some of the women got up to set coffee and cookies.

"Why, Mabel," Alma said, "I must admit that can't believe you're wearing pants in church."

"Oh, it's not the first time," my grandma told her.  "I've been wearing pants to church for as long as I've lived."

My grandma loved pulling fast ones.  She was a jokester and something of a liberal, you might say.  When my father, her son-in-law and a preacher's kid, felt strongly that his soon-to-be high school-age daughters should not attend dances--after all, the church warned against it--she suggested to him that he lighten up a bit.  She was a comic and a goof ball, who had suffered in her life more than her share of tragedies.  By everyone's estimation, my grandma on my father's side was an angel.  Mabel wasn't.  Maybe that's why I liked her.

 It's Grandma Dirkse I remember every Thanksgiving.  When she was younger, she was the holiday's queen.  Even now, a quarter century after her death, the smell of a roast turkey reminds me of how she used to stand at the table behind the chairs while everyone was seated, then look around at her family and nod, as if heaven itself were only a block down the sidewalk.

I wasn't home for her last Thanksgiving.  My sister's family had her over, along with my parents.  But in my imagination I can see it all--the table drawn out into the living room, the inviting smell of turkey and stuffing wafting through the rooms, the tinkling of forks against my sister's china.  

And when that grand holiday was over, Grandma leaned into the car and sat beside my parents, ready to embark on the trip home.  "That was a good Thanksgiving," she told them, her last words.  Her head fell sideways, and my father, sensing something bad, sped off to the hospital, only blocks away, where she died.

She played this last little joke on us, dying when she did, so that every Thanksgiving her memory haunts my holiday.

But that's okay.  Maybe Thanksgiving becomes too easily a recital of "things-we-have":  a brand new wide-screen, an iPad, and theater-quality sound system.  Somehow Grandma's death reminds me of the silliness of such recitals, reminds me of what God gave her--joy in life through faith, joy not earned but  freely given.  

Thanksgiving is a wonderful holiday, but gratitude needs no special calendar date.  It's not a costume we pull out once a year, but the kind of old hoodie that feels as if you were born in it--it's a way of life.

I like to think Grandma, even today, thinks of herself as the Thanksgiving queen.  And I like to think that up there or wherever her soul abides, she's still pulling a joke once in a while and remembering how she plunked herself for years in the middle of this holiday.  She certainly pulled a fast one.  

And for that, this morning, this Thanksgiving, I'm thankful.  Right now, I can see her nodding, just the way she used to when she sees these words appear on my computer screen.  For Grandma Dirkse, heaven is no longer a block away.

I just bet she's dancing.     

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Morning Thanks--Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is the most un-American of holidays.  Christmas should be, I suppose, but it's been so thoroughly co-opted (starting just 48 hours from now with Black Friday) that it's almost silly to talk about it as if the holiday were somehow counter-cultural.  Tons of merchants--small businesses--end the year in the black only because of the flood of holiday shopping. 

In the public mind, Christmas is, in a way, almost the opposite of Thanksgiving because it's all about things--about buying and selling, about giving and getting.  It's about more, a kind of holiday for coveters.

But on Thanksgiving people ritually express their thanks not for what they'll get but for what they already have--be it stuff or health or happiness.  William Jennings Bryan said that on Thanksgiving we celebrate our dependence.  Isn't that a great line?  But could anything be more un-American?

And here's a boost:  according the John Tierney, in the NY Times, Thanksgiving is also the most "psychologically correct holiday of the year" because simple thanks are good for you--good for the mind, good for the heart (literally), and good for the soul.  Seriously.

Thirty-six hours from now, I will, I'm certain, feel as stuffed as our 13-pound turkey was.  I'll try like mad to get outside to move around, to walk, to deflate my insides from that cloud of mashed potatoes and gravy.  That'll happen--trust me.
According to Tierney, research makes clear this plain-and-simple fact:  thanksgiving--which is to say giving thanks--is just plain good for you. 

Strange as it may sound, dependence is a blessing.  That's why tomorrow's holiday--barring eating disorders and family feuds--may well be the most blessed of all, if we really do celebrate, with prayer, our dependence on God.  My goodness, I sound like a Calvinist.

Which reminds me, did you know that the that first Thanksgiving lasted three days?  A bit excessive for those staunch and starchy Calvinists, don't you think?  Then again, maybe they knew better than we do.

Anyway, thanks for the idea, Mr. William Jennings Bryan:  on Thanksgiving, we get together and celebrate our dependence. 

Maybe even a bottle rocket or two. 

It's a real Calvinist holiday, a big day for all of us.

Except turkeys. 

This morning's morning thanks are for Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Prof. Nieuwenhuis: Historian

G. Nelson Nieuwenhuis deserves a palace somewhere in the neighborhood of the St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Alton, the highest geographic point in Sioux County. He and his wife Isabella ought to have a spaciously windowed mansion on the hill for these retirement years of theirs, a place where, with every morning’s dawn, the two of them could stand outside on a patio and watch the county yawn and stretch itself into life.

In a perfect world, the rest of us–those of us who live here–would make sure Nelson and his wife had a place like that because no one in the annals of Sioux County history has done as much as he has to tell the Sioux County story. If history is really important, then emeritus Prof. Nieuwenhuis, who spent thirty years teaching that subject at Orange City’s Northwestern College, should be a wealthy man, for he’s made the rest of us wealthy by remembering and telling the story.

But Nelson and Isabella Nieuwenhuis have their own place, a small frame home tucked close up to the sidewalk on the corner of 5th and Main in Hospers, the town where he was born more than ninety years ago. And if you ask him, my guess is he’d just as soon not move. After all, Nelson helped build that humble abode he and his wife of sixty-some years inhabit today. He had a hand in making it, and he’ll be happy to tell you about that, should you choose to visit some afternoon. His father was a carpenter. If builders signed their work as artists do, dozens of places in Hospers would have the name “Albert Nieuwenhuis” scrawled on a cornerstone.

Albert didn’t sign his work, of course; neither did any other 20th century Sioux County builder, but Albert’s son Nelson did. You see, Nelson Nieuwenhuis is a historian, a professional historian, whose name appears on the covers of several books, including Siouxland: A History of Sioux County, Iowa, a 1983 publication of the Sioux County Historical Society, a project which grew out of the American Bicentennial celebrations in 1976. The Committee asked Nelson Nieuwenhuis to write the book; after all, Nieuwenhuis was a professional historian.

In a way, professional suggests work-for-hire. We call someone’s work professional when it’s accomplished with decorum and efficiency, as Nelson’s histories are. But to call Nelson Nieuwenhuis a professional doesn’t capture his character. For while he goes after his work like a professional, Nelson Nieuwenhuis has the heart–the enthusiasm, the delight, the joy–of an amateur, someone who does the work solely because he or she just loves it. Like I said, stop in sometime at that little house on the corner, chat for awhile, and you’ll know that not a dime’s worth of that enthusiasm has waned. He sits in a chair on the sun porch, remembering, his thumbs atwirl, piecing together anecdotes he conjures from his memory as if each of them were as precious as the arrowheads that still occasionally emerge from the banks of the Big Sioux River.

His father’s family came to Sioux County from Michigan, where they’d been part of a strong Dutch immigrant settlement since the 1860s. His mother’s family moved from Wisconsin, where they too (the Hendrick teStroetes) had lived for decades. If you drive two miles west of Hospers, on the blacktop, you’ll pass the original TeStroete place; a looming oak that still plumes over the front yard, planted there a century ago by Nelson’s grandfather. Those are the kinds of facts Nelson remembers, the kind of facts the rest of us too easily forget.

Blessed with a predilection for math and science, not to mention facts and figures, Nelson Nieuwenhuis graduated from Hospers Elementary in 1921 and Hospers High School in 1925, one of a class of ten–five girls and five boys, who, he claims, couldn’t agree on anything.

But his education didn’t end there. He would have loved to go to Hope College, the church college back in southwestern Michigan, where his grandfather put down his first American roots; but money was something of a problem so he stayed home. Now if there are other alumni of Sheldon Junior College (class of 1928) there likely aren’t many since the place opened and closed within 17 years. But that’s where he spent his first two years, transferring thereafter to Central College, in Pella, where he completed a bachelor’s degree in 1932.

It’s entirely possible that, during the Depression, Nelson Nieuwenhuis was the only college-educated carpenter in Sioux County. Jobs were scarce, but his father’s crew had some work, so he built houses and barns and what-not else for a few years until he got a teaching job right there in Hospers. Armed with a masters degree in history from USD, he moved on to Northwestern Academy in Orange City in 1948, where he became, as I said, a professional historian.

A consummate professional historian, academically trained at a time when historians thought of themselves as archivists, repositories of facts, Nieuwenhuis penned histories, including Siouxland: A History of Sioux County, which reads, in part, like a compendium. If you to want a sense of Nelson’s spirit and personality, his biases or his agendas, you won’t find them. Nope. All that eagerness, that grinning enthusiasm he has for history isn’t in the prose because Nelson Nieuwenhuis, as a professional historian, was taught that historians should be invisible, their stories nothing more or less than what Dragnet’s Joe Friday used to pull from witnesses to crime–“Just the facts, ma’am.”

If you want to find Nelson Niewenhuis’s character in those histories, you have to read the last paragraph of his introduction to the Hospers Centennial book (1991). He’s listing those he wants especially to thank for their work, his wife Isabella foremost. But then he says this: “Above all, I thank our Heavenly Father for granting the days and the strength to begin and to complete this task.” And he closes with some words from the book of Isaiah: “Lord, you have established peace for us; everything that we have achieved is the result of what you do.”

Or this, from Siouxland. “Lastly, we send forth this work with sincere thanks to God for His indispensable help, for we are convinced that ‘unless the Lord build the house, they labor in vain who build it.’”

What follows in both of those books is story, well told, professionally done; but Nelson disappears. If you want to know him, he’d likely say, just have a look at those two paragraphs.

My guess is, Nelson Nieuwenhuis wouldn’t want that palace at the highest geographical point of Sioux County. My guess is, if Nelson and Isabella had a choice, they’d be more than happy to stay in the little frame house kitty-corner from the church where he was himself baptized 90 years ago–First Reformed Church, Hospers, Iowa.

Isabella’s back has been giving her problems lately, and this winter the ice is extreme, making walking especially hazardous–even dangerous. So this winter Nelson and Isabella can’t get to Sunday worship, even though they’d like to. No matter. The sound system the church put in enables those folks hard of hearing to simply put on a pair of earphones to listen to the service. All they have to do, once inside, is tune in.

But what Nelson and Isabella have discovered is that their little frame house is close enough to First Reformed that they can sit right there in their kitchen or in the porch room with the windows, and hear the whole thing.

Now think of the two of them right there in that house he helped build, that close to the church he’s been a member of for all of his ninety years; imagine the two of them tuned in to every word of the worship just a stone’s throw across the street.

That’s why he wouldn’t take that palace.

And in part, he’d say, that’s what makes him a really wealthy man.
I wrote this profile a decade ago.  Prof. Nieuwenhuis died last week.  He was 103 years old.  Isabella died several years ago.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Swan Song XVIII--a poem by W. S. Merwin

My friend says I was not a good son

you understand
I say yes I understand

Why W. S. Merwin chooses not to use a question mark after the second line in this poem of his called "Yesterday," I don't know.  For the sake of my students, who regard poetry with the same passion they do opera, I wish he had.  I've got trouble enough selling them on poetry's blessed strengths.  Anyway, here's the way this little poem continues.

he says I did not go
to see my parents very often you know
and I say yes I know

even when I was living in the same city he says
maybe I would go there once
a month or maybe even less
I say oh yes

Okay, to me, it's crystal clear that the speaker is an adult and probably male--but that's a guess based on the gender of the poet and the fact that, for better or worse, I am--and that I'm probably somehow afflicted with sufficient guilt to bring me into what I think is the heart of things here--parental neglect.

he says the last time I went to see my father
I say the last time I saw my father

Nice.  What we've got here--unless I'm wrong--is two men talking, friends, both of whom find themselves in a similar situation vis-a-vis their parents--well, fathers, to be specific.  Both of them feel more than a little guilty, although only one of them--not the narrator--is at least being open about it.

he says the last time I saw my father
he was asking me about my life
how I was making out and he
went into the next room
to get something to give me

oh I say
feeling again the cold
of my father’s hand the last time

That "cold hand," I figure ought to give my students pause.  It's the clear signal that we're talking about adult children visiting elderly parents.
he says and my father turned
in the doorway and saw me
look at my wristwatch and he
said you know I would like you to stay
and talk with me

What's more, the guilt is rising exponentially in the narrator's mind while his equally guilty friend is letting loose about what a jerk he was.  His old man wanted him around, but he got caught looking at his watch, prompting his father to beg.  I could cry.  Been there, done that.

oh yes I say

The guilt is oozing now, from me too, just with that one line. 

but if you are busy he said
I don't want you to feel that you
have to
just because I'm here

That's not a line of poetry, it's a bayonet.  "Just because I'm here" is the cry of an old man whose immensely lonely.  Two men talking here about their mutual sin--not caring for aging parents.  Guilt is rising like the temperature in that old folks home.  It's hotter than humanly possible, and it's rising in me, too, because I'm in the poem myself.

I say nothing

If confession is good for the soul, there's only one person in the poem who's doing any of it and that's the friend, not the narrator, who's not opening up his own heart, except to us since "I say nothing" is itself a confession.  There's a poem here because the narrator didn't confess.  I don't know if this is Merwin himself or not--he may have simply created the situation and the narrator--but the poem emerges from a tortured human soul who's been too dang busy to visit his father and take hold that cold hand.
he says my father
said maybe
you have important work you are doing
or maybe you should be seeing
somebody I don’t want to keep you
Ouch.  Death by a thousand cuts.  I tell you, I think I've been in that room, even though I know I haven't.  This is a story one man tells another, and I could be either.

I look out the window
my friend is older than I am
he says and I told my father it was so
and I got up and left him then
you know

"Left him," the man says.  "Left him." 

though there was nowhere I had to go
and nothing I had to do

That's the whole thing, the whole poem.  That last "you know" doesn't have a question mark, although it could.  But it isn't really a question at all; we know very, very well that the little addendum question we quite frequently stick on the end of our sentences, "you know," has a perfectly obvious answer in this case.  The narrator does know.  He too has neglected his father, not loved him, not truly cared.  That's why he neglected the question mark.  Earlier too, I'm guessing. 

Both of them, both the men in this poem are bored--that's it. They've got places to go, things to do, papers to correct, classes to prepare for.  They don't have the time for aging parents. 
I gave the Merwin poem to my students--intro to lit, not an English major among them, bright kids, good kids--assigned it for a test to see how many of them could really come to grips with what's happening in a poem.
Only one of them got the essential elderliness of this little Merwin gem.  All but one never came anywhere near the real world of the poem.  They talked about generation gaps or families that don't get along.  Their world.

I could have cried.

I probably should have guessed as much.  How could they possibly haul themselves into the world--my world--of old folks homes filled with too many friendless remnant ancients.  How many of them know what it's like to hold hands whose skin is so thin it's transparent?  How many of them have ever felt they should visit more than they do?
Merwin's poem fit me like a glove.  I never guessed it wouldn't fit them.
But it didn't.  Only one of them perceived what was really going on here, and she added it cautiously as if I might laugh at how wrong she was. 
And what did that test I gave them teach me?  That they're very, very young and they're professor is not.  


Sunday, November 20, 2011

Sunday Morning Meds-- "Not So"

“the ungodly are not so” Psalm 1:4

While it’s never particularly difficult for believers to remember that scripture is holy writ—“the word of God”—it’s often much tougher to remember that at some point in time thousands of years ago, someone—likely a man—was sitting over a scratchy parchment with a quill or sharp stick or whatever passed for a Bic, trying to get this little poem of his just right.  I doubt that divine inspiration ever turned writers into dreamy mediums, but, of course, I may be wrong.

If I’m not, then the struggles common to all writers once certainly plagued the psalmist.  Should I say “in his law,” or is “on his law” really more to the point?  I’d like to know how much time he spent on such prepositions.
But if the poet/singer here was really just one of us, someone trying hard to get it right, then it’s fair to say that at some moments, maybe not as many as he’d like, the process just flat-out worked, the right words appeared as if by magic, ideas unpacked themselves, and he discovered exactly what it was he was thinking.  Every writer—and most human beings—know the sheer glory of those shining music-of-the-spheres moments when all of us seem to be mediums.
I dare say one of those moments occurred right here in verse 4.  I don’t know if King David wrestled with the agrarian metaphors that fill the psalm so far, or if he merely looked around and started, as all of us do, by writing what he knew.  But once he’s covered the ground of the blessed, he moves into the dark side with a blunt verdict that seemingly could give a rip about lyrical beauty.  This line came out as if the ink simply wouldn’t stay in the pen, accessorized with an exclamation point:  “the ungodly are not so.”
On this point, David is not given to splitting hairs or parsing complex arguments.  Let me try to describe what it means to be blessed, he says, and then he works hard at it.  As for the wicked, he says, raising a finger, “nope.”

If you can feel the pulse of the man anywhere in this poem, I’m saying it’s right here at the pivotal moment where sits the heart of comparison/contrast, and you can see it in the thick line he scratched in beneath “the wicked are not so.”

I envy the confidence with which he wrote the line.  The king’s world had inky blacks and virginal whites, and the line in the sand was a Royal Gorge, where saints and sinners were as obvious as they are in vintage movie Westerns.

But then some of the greatest truths of scripture can dazzle us with their simplicity.  When asked by a reporter to summarize what he’d spent a lifetime writing, Karl Barth, the brilliant 20th century theologian said, simply, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”

Blessedness is a by-product of a life deeply planted beside the water of life, this little psalm asserts.  But it’s just not that way for those who aren’t.  Period.

The message of Psalm 1, or so it seems to me, is that the truth is just that simple.  

Friday, November 18, 2011

Swan Song XVII-Guilt that goes on giving

I'm innocent.  I wasn't stalking anyone, simply minding my own business, buying apples probably or something as undemanding as cole slaw.  I know the depth of my own sin, but let me make perfectly clear that I would have made a lousy Nazi. 

But there they were, two of them, right in front of the wine at the grocery store, one of them my own student.  For the last 35 years I've been a teacher at a Christian college, a college where drinking--a plague on some college campuses--has always been, well, a no-no.  I mean, you can get stung for being "in possession," as they say, stung badly, even tossed.  Way back when and now.

But there they were, at that moment, red-handed, even if the cork hadn't been pulled.  I sauntered over and tipped my head menacingly.  "I'm writing you up, you know," I told them with all the cool of Law and Order

I think they knew well and good they weren't going to jail.  Besides, these days, students live in a whole different era.  Guilt is penny-loafer ancient.  Those two young women had to be of age or they'd have never left the store with the goods. 

Then, suddenly, I had one of those horrible senior moments when you feel like you stepped in it and went in up to your hip.  I mean, those two young women never even thought of what they were doing as sinful, as something this ancient prof might condemn.  I'd made absolutely no sense to them--that's what I thought.  I'd tried to be funny in a modern way to a couple of post-moderns, and they left the store with that bottle and another completely baffling story about old Prof. Schaap. 

That's what I thought.

Because things have changed.  Trust me.

In the early days, if you wanted even a breath of beer, you had to go into a dive so wretched and so male that only women of ill-repute dared enter.  Doc's was, back then, as male as a barber shop, a downtown bar purposely designed for sinners, a place where the old man could finally get the heck away from the old lady and tip back a couple of cool ones.  If you wanted a six-pack to go, the bar tender would put it in a bag and you could sneak it out the back door.  

Docs was an institution designed to marginalize sin, sort of like Amsterdam's famous red-light district--put all the liquor in a place so seedy that only apostates would dare cross the doorstep, even if they come in through the back door.  Men only.  Keep women out and you got a place you can swear and spit and buy a hunk of sausage you cut off yourself with a knife the bartend cleans with his apron.  You know.  

Back then, Docs was hard core, and the only place to buy beer.  Wine meant a trip to Alton, where the truly dissolute lived.  

But things changed.  I remember, years ago, walking into grocery store with an old friend from Grand Rapids and buying a six-pack or two right there.  

"You can just do that?--a Dordt prof?" he asked when we got out in the parking lot, assuming I lived in a Calvinist police state.

"Not only that," I told him, "but the young lady who took our bucks was BJ's own granddaughter."  She was, the granddaughter of the college pres.  In Sioux Center, we were suddenly "of the world."  Free at last--thank God a'mighty, free at last. 

Fifteen years ago at least, on a Friday night, I stopped in at Casey's to get a six-pack.  It was busy.  I stood in line, goods in hand, and was suddenly surrounded by a half dozen of my own students.  There I stood, massively guilty.  They thought catching me was just about too cool.  I thought it was funny too.  I didn't stay to see what they hauled up to the counter.

Way, way back, in 1966, when I was a student, a couple of years before we were old enough to buy a beer at Docs, we used to head west to Hudson, South Dakota, to a place called the Buckaroo, an equally dark and lovely den of inquity, where the only lights were Grain Belt signs and whatever glow arose from long rows of Budweiser Clydesdales up on the wall.  I'd never hung out in a real tavern before, but at 19--well, maybe even younger--you could drink 3.2 beer in South Dakota.  Somehow, sinner that I was, I managed to find my best college friends among those who took a real shine to getting out of town, crossing state lines, and bellying up.  

But all of that is ancient history, so far back that I just figured such public sin and righteousness didn't mean a thing to the two young women picking out a perfect Merlot at Fareway.  

So I mentioned it in class yesterday.  Didn't make a big deal out of it.  We hadn't yet come to order, and the chief transgressor sits right there in front of me, first row, so I told her I did what I'd said I would--I told her I'd written her up.  She knew I was lying.

But she didn't quite dare look at me.  She said she had told her accomplice in crime, right before they walked into that grocery store, that they could get caught--"what if someone sees us?" she'd warned, she said.

Just like that, Prof. Schaap appears, the grim reaper in sweat pants.

Honestly, she couldn't look at me.  She fairly swooned with guilt, right there in class.  I swear.  I honestly think she'd been scared--well, shaken at least.  

And me?--I'm greatly relieved.  I didn't make a fool of myself, making a joke nobody gets. That happens often enough these days.  Those furtive eyes she showed me when she talked about being there, red-handed, could well have been my own almost a half-century ago--classic Calvinist, after all--the very idea that someone, somewhere is having a good time. 

What I'm saying is that there was some considerable guilt there.  Isn't that just great?

Cute.  Really.  I feel like a kid again.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Sioux County History IV--Reunion

Dominie Hendrick Pieter Scholte, a wealthy and very conservative clergyman from the Netherlands, is responsible, in some ways, for me sitting here in this basement right now.  In 1848, he led 800 of his disciples onto ships that left Holland for America and, with them in tow, traveled halfway across the continent to a "city of refuge" they called Pella--Pella, Iowa.

They were a tough group and a relatively wealthy for American immigrants of the time, and Scholte had prepared a way for them by purchasing wide tracts of land that would prove immensely fertile, rich topsoil that's made lots of the descendents of those original families comfortable, and even more wealthy. 

When there were more Hollanders than there was land in south-central Iowa, some heady entrepeneurs determined that they'd mimic Dominie Scholte and lead another colony north and west, where, rumor had it, there was good land for the taking.  Those Hollanders weren't the first white faces out here on what was then a frontier, but they came in significant enough numbers to wrench power from the crooks who'd surveyed the region and planned to make good money once the settlers started coming.  The wintry confrontation between them is a story I've already told.

Siouxland was up for grabs then, and Hollanders weren't alone in breaking ground.  And not all the Hollanders who settled here trace their roots to Dominie Scholte's mass migration to Pella either.  Some came via another route, via another series of ethnic conclaves--from eastern Wisconsin through southern Minnesota and finally here, just east of the Big Sioux River. 

The Kosters were one of several families who set down roots right here in Sioux Center before there was a Sioux Center.  They built a soddy where Central Park sits today, the first Dutch Sioux Center Warriors.  Most Lakota warriors had gone west earlier, when the paleface flood began to heave itself over their hunting ground.

Charley Dyke says that one fine windless day Mr. Koster spotted smoke somewhere above the tall grass south, a gentle column that bespoke other settlers.  Could have been Injuns, of course, but it could have been white folks too:  Irish, German, Norwegian, or even Americans--the region was slowly being covered by a mosaic, an white ethnic quilt.

Koster left, walked four miles south or so, until he came to a sod house not unlike the one he'd just built for his family.  When he got up close, he stopped--he must have been apprehensive, the man couldn't have known much more than a dozen words of English.  What he knew was that it wasn't a teepee, and whoever lived in the sodhouse wasn't an Indian--that's all he knew.

Then a woman came out, carrying a pail.  She spotted him, a stranger, standing there watching her.  Charley Dyke says first there was nothing but silence.  Then, slowly, words--Dutch words.

"Are you not Yentje?" Koster said, stuttering.

"Ja," the woman said, "and are you Jacob?"

Today, we'd say these two people, Jacob Koster and Mrs. Evert Kraai, when kids, once "dated."  In Holland of the time, we'd simply say that 20 years earlier he'd walked her to singing school.

And there, in the middle of broad American west, on land so endless that none of those immigrant Hollanders could have imagined a world so big, two Dutch people--one who'd come from the south with the Pella settlers, the other who'd come from the north with those who'd left Wisconsin, stumbled upon each other in the tall-grass prairie of northwest Iowa.

Was that God-thing?  Sure, but then tell me what isn't.  It's just a story--a true story--that even today delights.  I've told it before, published it, in fact, more than once.  No matter.  It's still worth telling over and over again.

I don't know, really, that it has a moral.  But when think about this Jacob Koster, when I pull on his bibs in my imagination, when I think about hiking up and down the swells of open prairie land right here outside my door in grasses taller than he was--when I see him standing there in front of that sod hut, waiting for who-knows-what to come out, I love that startling moment when a familiar face emerges and a woman looks at him so knowingly, so lovingly, here at the rough edge of the frontier.

"Such meetings," says old Charley Dyke, "can better be imagined than told."  

He's right.  

But that's not a reason not to tell it.  

There they stand, the two of them, she with her pail in her hand, he with hands down at his side, speechless.  See 'em?  

Great story. 

Besides, if it wouldn't be for them, I wouldn't be sitting here now, at this desk, in this basement, in this old house, just three blocks from Central Park, where once upon a time a man named Jacob Koster built a sod house on a plot of ground that became, a decade later, Sioux Center, Iowa.