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, April 30, 2012

Ex Libris--People of the Book

Originally, people called Calvinists "the people of the book" because of the unflagging attention those original "protestants" paid to the Bible itself. When I was a boy in Christian school, I learned that for centuries those dirty, rotten Roman papists had conspired to keep The Word hidden away from ordinary people lest they discover the truth about what God really desired of them.

Along came the Reformation, and, after some occasional bloodletting, everyone got a look.  Along came the Reformation, and everyone got a Bible. America can think what it wants about its own Calvinist past, but we'd have no Harvard if it weren't for Puritans, who wanted their children to read. No one else who came to these shores was as determinedly pro-education, but then Calvinists had cause--the children had to learn to read because they had to learn to read the Word.

Catholics created visual delights--pictures, paintings, images.  Calvinists swept them all away.  Puritan meeting houses were bare naked cubicles because all that mattered was the Book. 

That may be why the Schaaps have so many, at least six or seven versions--including one that has four different translations in separate columns spread across the page. We've got a Men's Bible and a Student's Bible, three or four KJVs and several NIVs, as well as a newer NIV some people mercilessly condemned for its covert feminism. There's my graduation-from-Christian-School Bible, and two graduation Bibles that belong to my wife--white (for girls), zippered, including color pictures.  We've got ancient Dutch bibles, my father's tattered Bible, and my grandpa's Bible, and a half shelf full of our own.  

If your flag wears out, you give it to a Boy Scout.  They fold it legally or morally or properly, then burn it in some kind of ritual only Boy Scouts perform, I guess.  But what do you do with old Bibles?  You can't just toss 'em, can you?  I can't.

But we've got to lighten the load. We're slimming down. We're moving out of an big old house and not going to buy something bigger. I can't throw 'em away.  I can't sell them.  I can't even give 'em away--how would that look, after all?  Sheesh.  Can you imagine what people would say?  What's going on here?--the Schaaps don't need their Bible?

Here's what I'm thinking. The people who bought our place are Christians too, a really nice young couple, who can always use an extra half-dozen.

I'll just leave 'em some. That's what I'll do. Besides, they're "people of the book" too.  

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Sunday Morning Meds--Spacious skies

“thou hast enlarged me” Psalm 4

It was always a little tough for us, having to return from week-long treks we took annually through the big-shouldered Missouri River Valley, following the two-hundred year-old route of Lewis and Clark through South Dakota. 
We means an ecologist friend of mine and me, as well as a delightful tour hostess for the nearly fifty souls who, with us, filled up a bus.  Our first Great Plains Adventure, I remember, was a rip-roaring success for three stooges like us, who’d never pulled off a stunt like that before. Our "tour-ists" loved it, really. 

And all three of us live in awe of the country we explored.  It’s so big and so beautiful. 

But the Great Plains continues to hemorrhage its populace, something it’s done since the late 19th century, when European immigrants and restless Eastern palefaces flooded the place, cock-sure that a few newly planted cottonwoods, some elbow grease, and a good mule would create a home and a way of life on 160-acres.  Simply put, that was a lie.

Homesteaders discovered that the Great Plains were despairingly fickle.  While we were in Pierre, South Dakota, the whole region was almost flooded.  Four inches of rain fell in one night.  The prairie looked royal in an emerald robe.  Next year, the place could have been a dust bowl. 

But sparse population in a landscape that immense isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  Today, the whole place seems an open-air museum; if you come anywhere close to the Missouri River, even the imaginatively-challenged can hear the sounds of the Corps of Discovery making their way north and west.  Almost anywhere on the Missouri’s big glacial banks, you can stand in the yawning openness and watch your dog run away for three days, nary a Burger King in sight.  That’s nice.

That first trip didn’t go exactly as planned.  We had three days of rain, and the whole event was much more, well, meditative, sweetly meditative, than I’d guessed it was going to be. I’d like to tell you that the devotions we had together each morning were greatly appreciated because they were so meticulously planned, but that would be as big a fib as fertility of the land. 

Our devotions were memorable because of the sheer grandeur that surrounded us every day, the immensity of a land where it’s as hard to be arrogant and as it is easy to be on your knees. 
For centuries, translators have changed what’s really there in verse one of Psalm 4, and I think it’s a mistake.  “Thou hast enlarged me” really says something to this effect:  “thou hast set me in a large place.”  What David is asking God to remember are the times when He delivered the shepherd/king by bringing him out to the Great Plains

Not literally, of course.  King David didn’t know the South Dakota from Schnectady. 

But I understand what he means.  You’ve done it before, Lord, he says; you’ve brought me out to the glorious openness of the spacious skies. 

“Do it again,” he’s going to say.  “Please, Lord, do it one more time.”

I get that.  Really, I do.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Garage sale

There were moments yesterday when I thought that, just for a moment, I felt a bit of a notion of what a Giveaway really came to 150 years ago, moments when I wanted to--or did--simply forget the $1 price tag on this or that piece of jetsam we were pedalling at our first-ever garage sale. Long before any white people came here, this was Yankton Sioux land, where Giveaways happened ritually, at the deaths of family members, for instance. They happen ritually here too, every last weekend in April; but they're not prompted by death or joy or maybe brand new life.

So we weren't Re-enactors. My wife was not wearing a blanket, nor me a loincloth, thank goodness.  Besides, we almost always took the buck. And the fact is almost everything on the slab of concrete outside our old town barn we won't miss.  We were lightening the burden.

A real Lakota giveaway, the kind that may have been practiced right here, was no garage sale. Sometimes, I'm told, they'd even give away horses, the most precious commodity Native Siouxlanders owned. The Yanktons, like all Sioux, were nomadic, of course, moving around on the never-ending prairie following the buffalo, which means there was no Sioux Center in 1850.  This town was put here by business interests, a place attractive to white people simply because the palefaces believed no one else lived here, or if they did, they were of no matter.  It was homestead land.  We're miles from a river. The Lakota, to whom this land belonged, wouldn't have been here either; they would have camped farther west, near the river.  Still, there were moments I imagined what it might have been like.

I first read about the Giveaway on a Sunday morning, I remember, in a big book about the Yankton Sioux. Giveaways were a means by which people gained stature. Those men and women rich enough in spirit to simply give away what they valued grew in esteem because of their care for the poor.  We can assume, I'm sure, that the Giveaway was practiced right here in the county somewhere long before my great-grandparents lugged the New Testament along with them into the hinterland and talked about what Jesus said to the rich young ruler--"give it all away and follow me."

By 1870, when my great-grandparents came, white folks had made Giveaways illegal, a heathen ritual from which those savages had to be saved. That Sunday morning I first read about them, we eventually marched off to church for what was, I remember, a wonderful sermon on materialism, the kind of sermon we might have seen in practice had we not commanded those redskins to give up their heathen ways.

That's what I thought about, out back, at our Moving Sale yesterday, how just for a moment I had a sense--a fleeting sense--of a Giveaway, the kind of thing that would have happened here long, long ago, maybe even on this very ground. 

We didn't make bundles of money, and I never shed a tear for anything people carted away.  Now my brand new Dell laptop?--that would be another story. Or my father's World War II samari, or the ancient Navajo rug my grandfather once got in New Mexico--or our bank account, our stocks and bonds, our IRAs?  Had any or all of those things been out there on the driveway yesterday, to be taken for the asking, then it would been a Giveaway in the Yankton tradition.

We didn't do that. You think we're nuts?

Right about now, 150 years ago, the whole region was trying to rid itself of such barbarism.

Anyway, standing outside yesterday, a perfect April afternoon, I couldn't help think of a tall, grass prairie just as full of people, red people, coming by and looking around, all of them smiling.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Swan Songs XXXVIII--Discernment

After a fashion, I want my students to be able to discern between art and kitsch, and I want them to aspire. One of the most distressing moments in my teaching life used to occur whenever an American lit class was reading Huck Finn.  They'd come to the passage where Twain offers this awful poetry. The vast majority of the students in my classes didn't "get" the fact that the poem is supposed to be putrid. I'd have to point it out. Only then would it be funny.  Sort of.

But I don't care to create elitists either, students who disdain anything less than T.S. Eliot.  A little learning is a dangerous thing, and arguing for aesthetic standards shouldn't create bigots.  So last night, reading through papers on Flannery O'Connor's views of art, I had to say, time and time again, that they shouldn't get crypto-fascist about "Christian" art, even when "Christian" art is really, really tiring. 

A couple weeks ago Thomas Kinkade died, the "Painter of Light." In addition to being a nearly Billy Graham-level evangelical, he was an astute businessman who made millions with paintings someone rather aptly called "cottage cheese," gorgeously lit landscapes and bungalows that made people feel good about themselves and their worlds in an almost eerie fashion.  Nothing he ever painted was particularly real.  See above.

His death was not his greatest moment.  He was drunk--he fought alcoholism for most of his life--and he was with his girlfriend, having left his wife and four daughters some time ago.  Well, okay, so did King David, right? We all have sinned, we all have gone astray.  

Sure, but there is inescapable irony in the bio:  the man who purveyed, even manufactured illusion ends up inescapably slimy.  His life looked nothing like his art.  More like Steve Jobs.  Sad, very sad.

More irony:  his death created a healthy spike in the sale of his paintings. In dying, he made more money on even more illusion. You can't make this kind of thing up.

Okay, I admit I'll never own a Thomas Kinkade; but the Lord knows--and so do I--a host of folks who do--and love him. Fine. Takes all kinds, as people say.  There's no accounting for taste. 

When I wrote some things about Native American boarding schools several years ago, a friend sent me a novel that, after a fashion, dealt with the subject, a novel by Janette Oke.  Oke has thrilled millions; my books have sold in the hundreds--well, sometimes.  Who am I to criticize?

But what angered me about that novel was the way the author handled Native boarding schools.  Her protagonist, a young Sioux girl, was essentially "saved" by the experience, so glorious it was.

Do I think Native kids may have been "saved" in boarding schools?  Sure. But telling only that side of the story is an exercise in half truth, and half truth is still falsehood.

Something in all of us reaches mightily for the ideal.  Something in all of us wants life to be not only better, but best. Thomas Kinkades offer an ideal world we all wish was ours. So do movies, most of them in fact.  In them, we escape life's complexities. Somewhere in my dreams there's a moon-lit cottage on a serene lake surrounded by perfect triangular pines--don't I wish I had one? You bet.

If you don't want your kids or your students to be discerning, then don't send them to school, where, at best, we ought to be teaching them to think.  Honestly, I want them to see the difference between art and kitsch, maybe especially when that kitsch is done in God's name. On the other hand, I have no doubt whatsoever that the Lord God almighty once upon a time stuck a pen in Janette Oke's hand and a brush in Thomas Kincade's.  

I still like Paul:  We all have sinned--we all have gone astray. That's wisdom.  That's real discernment.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Doris Betts

Doris Betts died.  She was 79.

I can't say I knew her well, but I knew her.  Once upon a time, at Wheaton College, we were on a rostrum of speakers together at a conference about writing. She was beautiful, as I remember, in every way, including in a fashion conveyed by use of a particular geographic adjective she would gladly embrace I'm sure--a Southern way. Some-many--felt her fiction reminded them of that of Flannery O'Connor.
The obits I've seen often laud her commitment to teaching too, at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. I know that for the last decade or more she was chief caretaker for her ailing husband. She struck me back there at Wheaton, and ever since, as a person closing in on saintliness, someone whose writing success--several novels and collections of short stories--she herself counted as simply the work that she'd been called to do.

The NY Times obit this morning says that she believed critics often didn't see what she considered the religious character of her stories, an oversight, she maintained, which generally resulted from their simply not sharing her beliefs.

The Times says that Betts claimed that noting the deep religious character of her work was not all that different from simply believing in God, and then quoted her from a Christian Century article:  "If you see it, you will see it. If you don't see it, no one can persuade you. It is not an argument. It is an overlay that you do or don't place on things. My overlay is there."

She was among the few really fine novelists whose work somehow crossed-over the deep and ever-widening gulf between the "Christian world" and those it sees as its secular antagonists. She loved, truly, both sides.
I met her once, that's all, but I never forgot her, and apparently she never forgot me.  I treasure an e-mail note she sent me late last summer, out of nowhere at all, a kind thanks for a small book of meditations on the Psalms.

I was sitting here enjoying new angles on the Psalms when it
occurred to me that I'd never thanked you for your various good
books (SIXTY@SIXTY) but have benefited greedily without
a word.

We met a long time ago, at an IMAGE event? Greg's?
Since then long illness took my mother, my husband, and in Feb.
our daughter.  And since THEN, tho I quit smoking 32 years ago,
I have lung cancer and am having excellent palliative care.
Which makes me all the more susceptible on THIS reading to your
contagious preference for joy and praise.  Thank you.
She didn't have to send that note, to express such kindness. It is a measure of her humility and grace as believer and a believing human being that she did. She was blessed with an immensely caring heart.  By the way, did I say that Doris Betts was also a writer, a very good one.  

Saturday, still trying to thin the stacks of the 40 years of books I own, I set tons of them out at my college office, hoping students would pick up 'em up at bargain prices. Included in those on the shelves are three or four novels by Doris Betts, books I weighed carefully when I did the culling, then reluctantly put them in the box to be sold.  Destroying a library isn't nearly as much fun as building one.

This morning I'm going to take them back. Maybe, once out of the classroom forever, I'll take the time to read her again, everything.  After all, there will not be any more.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Those big bellies

I didn't know exactly what to think when an ex-student of mine sent me and a thousand others some gorgeously lit portraits of his pregnant wife's much distended belly. I mean, what kind of prating Puritan am I if I say that those photos weren't beautiful?--they were, after all. He'd shot them most adoringly, almost worship-fully, in fact, his wife's soon-to-be mama's breasts tastefully hidden.

Besides, who would dare to say that a torso so dramatically swollen by nothing less than life itself could be anything but beautiful? Life, after all, is what we're all about. More people should be having more babies, saith a man about two years away from Medicare.  One of our gravest economic problems begins with our not reproducing enough. Once upon a time, a novelist friend of mine told me that if there was a birth in a novel, it had to be the climax since nothing on earth trumps the miraculous drama of new life.


Not that I felt somehow perverse. Honestly, looking at her pregnant belly wasn't registering in this Calvinist as some kind of sin. I didn't feel guilty. I didn't look away or shut down the window. 

It just felt strange. Sorry. And, pardon me for saying it, but not even all that comely, you know? Big bellies are big bellies, aren't they?  I'm so ashamed of mine that I go to the gym to try to keep it from leading me around the block. 

Besides, it's not that long ago that ordinary people out here in the hinterland couldn't even bring themselves to use the word pregnant. Once Mama was, once again, "with child," the acceptably delicate manner of referring to such a (avert your eyes, please) condition was to say she was "in the family way."  In Dutch, the phrase specially regarded as not only purposeful and tasteful was "in verwachting," which is to say, sweetly, "expecting."

Young maiden schoolteachers manning ye olde country schools were simply expected to quit once they got married, as if their doing the task which creates babies were a thought that had to be kept from the children, most of whom were from the farm and saw it, in the animal-raw, most every spring anyway.

Think of it this way. Sex, whose basic technique hasn't changed since Adam and Eve got it on, used to be different. And you can't help wonder how much "the pill" had to do with it. Once upon a time, sex and procreation went together like a horse and carriage. No more. Once the possibility of a baby was lifted, once conception became a matter of choice, everything changed. What was daringly pro-creational became joyfully re-creational, which is not to say it was never fun, I'm sure, at least you don't hear Adam or Abraham complaining.

The pill changed all of our lives, men and women; but to say its effects are disbursed in equal portions is silly. The truth is, the pill rerouted the paths of women's lives so that getting oneself "in the family way" became an option, rather than a given. 

And when it did that, the pill also robbed sex itself of some of its ancient mysterious power, the way Ben Franklin took the fear of God out of lightning, claiming it was only a matter of electric charges and not the booming voice of the Almighty.  

Look, I don't doubt for a moment that there are, somewhere back in the family histories of the dad who splashed his wife's queenly belly all over my computer screen, some grandparent who undoubtedly considers putting those pictures up in front of hundreds of eyes rather uncouth, in bad taste. After all, you don't have to talk about every last thing that happens in life, you know?  Somewhere not all that far back in both mom and dad's family trees there are great-grandpas and grandmas who kept their pregnancy hidden as long as they could simply because it was bedroom stuff that good people simply didn't talk about.  Maybe in the barn, with just the men.

Things have changed. Today, big naked bellies grace the covers of women's magazines. Today, we choose what once came, well, naturally. Today babies are, most often, choices.  It's no wonder we make a big naked deal of them, even pre-birth. The babies in those bellies are exactly what we wanted.  Praise the Lord.

And those portraits of his, of her, were tasteful, after all, carefully, even dramatically lit. He worked at making them beautiful--they did:  I'm sure she wasn't sleeping.  

Makes me smile. I for one am too much a Calvinist to be a true progressive--I don't subscribe to the theory that life is always getting ever sweeter and sweeter, better and better.  

But I will certainly admit that with respect to big pregnant bellies, we've come a long way, baby.  I for one am glad to be on this side of the divide. 

Monday, April 23, 2012

Morning Thanks--Hamlet

The fact is, this morning some of the drama is gone--after all, we finished Hamlet on Friday, finished it in the sense that we went through the fifth act.  If my students have kept up, they've seen the whole thing now, stem to stern, watched Claudius catch his fate, seen the Prince himself skewer him but good, saw Gertrude swoon, then die, the poisoned cup fall from her hand.  Just about everyone is dead at the end of Hamlet, which is why, I suppose, Young Fortinbras gets the crown, the outsider from Norway, who just happens to be storming through town, or so it seems.  Something's been rotten in the state of Denmark all right, but, by Act V, the pestilence is dead, as is everyone else.  For my class--one week from exams--the play is over, even though I'll do some summing up this morning.  The drama is gone.

It's his birthday today--Shakespeare's, that is, a man more read than anyone, save Moses.  We know very little about him really, although most of those who study such things claim that once upon a time he got a girl named Anne Hathaway pregnant, then married her.  He wrote plays and probably went on stage himself before my Puritan forefathers closed up the theaters and burned down the Globe--good Calvinists on the march against worldliness.

He's been in my class for all of forty years, but long ago already I gave up on forcing students to read him.  It seemed impossible then, maybe more so today.  For years, kids could struggle through because what they knew of the Bible came from the King James version, Shakespeare's own language.  Today, with a dozen modern translations, the KJV is as foreign to them as the Bard.  

So years ago already, I got some taped versions and played them in class so that my high school students could hear intonation, the emotion of lines that seemed to them more and more indecipherable.  This year, a Korean student came up to me after class with agony in his eyes.  I told him native speakers found him just as baffling.  One day in class last week when I asked for questions, a kid sitting right up front just threw up his hands:  "It's over my head," he said, innocently.  

I don't care.  I told them they weren't citizens of this world if they didn't at least know something about that world's most well-known piece of dramatic literature.  That line and a dollar could have got me a cup of coffee at McDonalds, even with a senior discount.  I think I told you, what they loved was The Hunger Games.  I told them to watch the Branagh production of Hamlet; after all, Shakespeare didn't write the place to be read.  I hope they did.

I've been at Hamlet for so long I should know the thing by heart, but I'm just a slow learner.  Every time I read it again I swear there's something new.  For instance, there's always been, for me, a kind of comfort in the lines Hamlet gives Horatio just before the duel at the very end:  

. . .there's a special
 providence in the fall of a sparrow.  If it be now, 
'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be 
now; if it be not now, yet it will come:  the 
readiness is all:  since no man has aught of what he 
leaves, what is't it leave betimes?

I always knew that those lines suggest Hamlet is at peace with himself and role and his fate and his life and his death. Morbid as that may sound, to know that kind of peace is, for him, a great, great blessing, just as it is--yes, indeed--for all of us. Me too. It's a great moment in the play. 

But not until last week--I swear it!--did I ever plainly see that these wonderful lines are the answer to the question Hamlet himself poses in the most famous soliloquy of all, "To be or not to be."  It took me forty years of Hamlet to think that through--forty years!  In Act V, after the graveyard, he finally has the answer to the most famous question he couldn't help asking.

Figuring that out made me feel like a kid, made me love it--the play--even more.

This morning's morning thanks are for Hamlet, a man whose gorgeous speeches I've been hearing for forty years.  The world is a better place because of him, and, of course, the sinner who created him, the man born on this day in 1642.  

Today is the last time I'll teach either of them, and that's okay.  They're not leaving any time soon.  

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Sunday Morning Meds--"Answer me!"

“Hear me when I call”  Psalm 4 (and elsewhere)

The impatience of the command form in the English language (we might even say its “nerve”) is on display in the very form of the sentence.  When we tell others what to do, we deliberately address them last, if at all; subject takes second place to verb, as in  “brush your teeth.”  Action is obviously far more important than anything else. 
“Shut the door,” cares nothing for feelings, simply insists on action.  Add a name and things soften a bit, but not much:  “Shut the door, Alphonse.”  In fact, if we attempt to take the edge off a command and add something endearing, we come up with true phoniness:  “shut the door, sweetheart.”
The command form happens so often in the Psalms that I think we simply become accustomed to hearing it and forget its lousy manners.  My goodness, the Psalmist is talking to the Lord God Almighty here, not some forgetful kid; yet, he’s ordering him around as if he were a valet.  “Hear my cry, O Lord,” says the King James.  The NIV has “Answer me when I call to you,” which seems, if you ask me, to bring petulance to another level all together.
If the truth be known, most parents scold their children for using the command form too easily.  “Give me the toys,” one kid screams, and loving parents do what they can to curb an insolent tongue.
“Insolent,” “impatient,” “petulant”—I’ve used some unpleasant words here so far, but it seems to me that they all fit.  The arrogance—we can call it that, I think—of the writer is unmistakable.  Simply stated, he’s telling the Lord what to do.  “Answer me”  doesn’t make the speaker sound like a supplicant.
Of course, grammar be hanged when you’re calling 911.  And that’s what appears to be going on here, and elsewhere in the psalms.  The writer has arrived at his wit’s end.  He can’t cope.  He doesn’t have a clue.  He’s wasted the last of his best ideas, and there’s nowhere else to turn.  Frantic, he forgets his manners and bellers.  How else do we explain God’s tolerating this rhetorical blast?  Poor guy doesn’t know what the heck to do!
You wonder sometimes whether God Almighty doesn’t actually appreciate being the last port in the storm.  Most of us wouldn’t because most of our egos aren’t all that thrilled with being the end of the line.  But God seems to like it.  Apparently, his feelings aren’t hurt one bit.
I think he likes us emptied.  I think he likes us bereft of our own wiles.  I think he likes us without resources, nowhere to go, on our knees. 
And I don’t know if that’s so much a characteristic of our Creator and Sustainer, as it is simply the story of our lives.  We need foxholes to realize there is nothing we can do.  We all need to hit bottom.  At some time or another, we all cower in a corner, nowhere to turn.
The Psalms are songs of praise to the Lord, but they emerge from what’s human in all of us.  They praise His holy name, but I’m really thankful that they also serve to help us understand the mysteries—and even the darkness—of our own lives.    

Friday, April 20, 2012

Lost and Found


Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you,
If you leave it you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.

~ David Wagoner

What Mr. Wagoner suggests in this little fable is that no matter how sure you are that you’ve lost your way, you haven’t--not really, because the world around knows very well where it is and what it is and even where you are. The world may feel entirely out of whack, but your dislocation is quite personal, he says. You may indeed be lost, but rest assured the trees around you aren’t.

And if you listen, you’ll hear as much. After all, those birds know very well which of a thousand branches is theirs. The forest knows where it is and what it is, Wagoner says, so you must stay tuned. Listen. Watch. Observe until you get it because “If what a tree or bush does is lost on you,/you are surely lost.”

Isn’t that a great line? Confused? Wagoner says. Then “stand still” because surely the real world around you knows where it is and where you are.

The only thing I understood about landscape difference when, 40 years ago, I moved to Siouxland, was that there was an east here. I’d grown up a mile or so west of Lake Michigan, which meant there was no east. “Go east ‘till your hat floats,” people used to say, a quip that had this faint hint of nothing less than death.

Siouxland had an east, which, at first, seemed strange. It also had no trees—well, what was here came in bundles, leafy smudges on a long yawning landscape like nothing I’d ever seen. I remember reading, once upon a time, that the literature of the Great Plains was frequented by mad women, wives and mothers who, in the days of sod houses, sometimes went crazy in the endless openness with no place to hide, no place to nest. On the Great Plains in those early treeless days, some felt continually exposed, forever naked.

I grew up on Wisconsin’s lakeshore. The richest moments of my childhood probably happened in and around woods, trees, like the ones that stand so knowingly in David Wagoner’s poem. Above my desk at school hangs a painting of those very woods, a painting that’ll get thrown out soon because I’m the one in my family who knows what grace is in the lakeshore.

But if I’d waited for trees to tell me where I was when I got here to Siouxland, I’d have been lost. Five minutes in any direction from where I live and I’m a wanderer in a treeless world. I’ve got to drive about a half hour west to take a walk in a woods, and what’s there doesn’t sprawl far enough to allow me or anyone else, for that matter, to get lost.

But Wagoner’s poem isn’t about trees really, even cartoon trees who give directions when you’ve lost yours. It’s about finding a place. About listening to the sounds of the place you’re in, hearing the wind, being still and small enough to let the place find you.

In my life, I honestly think that may have happened; but I also know that, as Wagoner says, it’s something one has to work. One has to listen, to see, to hear. With regards to the world around me, I think I’ve become, in a way, as much of a native as I ever will. I found myself and found my way, not without help.

Last night that very acculturation got itself celebrated in a retirement dinner. I don’t know the numbers exactly, but the commemorative medal I was given says 36 years, plus four more as a student--a long time for a place with few trees.

A person should have only one retirement dinner because it feels precariously close to what one might expect at a funeral—your own.

But then, maybe that’s not all bad. I’m no longer a stranger here. I’ve become, landscape-wise, a native. Maybe it’s time for a death, because maybe it’s time for me to get lost again in some different trees, in another landscape, a place to become curious and hopeful enough to let it find me.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Morning Thanks--the numbers

So anyway, the janitor in charge of the English pod shows up yesterday morning, nosing around  Sherlock Holmes-ishly in a way that’s just not like him.  He’s looking for evidence, he says, seeking trash--balled-up paper or stub pencils, little bits of detritus people leave behind and mostly don’t pick up.  It’s not like him to scour our corners, so I ask him what on earth he’s up to.

He tells me he found the same gum-wrapper in a classroom several nights running.  He’s a janitor, but he’s also a boss, so he left it there because one of his angelic student-help squad was telling him he WAS doing the vacuuming when Juicy Fruit made it clear that he wasn’t and nobody likes being lied to.

“Dang kids,” he said.  “What on earth is wrong with them this year?”

“What?” I said, “you too?”

“Can’t get a thing out of ‘em,” he told me.  "Half the time they don't show up, and when they do they don't get a thing done."
I told him I honestly thought my students were the only ones infected with terminal sloth.  The moment I walk into a classroom they look up at the clock to see how long they’re going to have to suffer.  It’s awful.  They’re zombies.  I can’t get a thing out of them.

Old friend of mine used to say the only way to be a good high school teacher is to be so insanely unpredictable that your students honestly believe that at any moment you’re more than capable of dropping your pants.  I swear that nothing would wake up my students, and I was starting to think it was just me.  Kids look up front and see anachronism—even though they don’t know the word.  All they know is, thank goodness the clock is ticking—his.

But Doug the janitor claims his students too are nigh-unto-impossible to move.  “What is it with them this year anyway?”

"What is it with them this year anyway?"  I love it.  At least I’m not alone.  Me and Doug, we’ve got problems.  I should have guessed that if they really didn’t feel like filling classrooms, they wouldn’t get up for vacuuming ‘em either.

Want to hear something biblical?  I’ve got just seven days left.  I can keep my pants on.
This morning, that’s something to be thankful for.

Praise the Lord, the rapture is 'a'comin'.  Poor Doug’ll be left behind, all by his lonesome, pickin' up gum wrappers.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

No Pulitzer for Fiction

I'm glad it happened before--11 times, I'm told.  If it hadn't, it would be yet another nail in the coffin, enough to make me downright depressed. 

Yesterday, the announcement about this year's Pulitzer Prize for fiction was indescribably painful--there was none.  Apparently, nothing published in literary fiction last year actually merited the prize.  I could weep. 

Not that I'm up on what's hot in literary fiction.  News stories carried three "finalists," none of which I'd read.  I've contributed to the apocalypse myself, I guess.  None of the three could gather a majority of the judges' approval, so this year there will be no Pulitzer Prize in fiction.

Depressed?  Yes.  Suicidal?  No. 

It's just that this year's wipeout comes just two weeks before my retirement, the time when I'd always planned to write and write and write, maybe even a couple of novels. The news is, nobody's doing much worth crowing about. The undertones hum a resonant tune heard all over these days: literary fiction is dead.

No prize may well make publication even more difficult. 

When I started writing fiction, 30+ years ago, a whole bunch of magazines (some defunct) actually took 20-page stories.  I never made a living at it, but I published stories in magazines that today wouldn't take anything (certainly no fiction) that takes longer to read than the time it takes to eat a Quarter Pounder.  McJournalism reigns today because we simply don't read as much as we used to--one in four Americans didn't read a single book last year.

Literary magazines are dying, unable to garner enough subscriptions to pay for themselves.  Some great lit mags used to get 500 submissions a year.  Today, they get 20,000.  Not a lie.  Tons of people want to write literary fiction, but few want to read it.

Human beings will always have an insatiable appetite for story, but for quite a while already we've satisfied that need with visual story-telling--scores of TV channels and, of course, the movies. Not long ago, I asked my students in an intro class why so many kids were absent that morning.  "Late night showing of a movie," they said.  Hunger Games drew 'em in.  Faulkner--"Barn Burning"--the fare for class that day, apparently didn't.  Tons of my students, I'm told, have read Hunger Games.  It's not that we don't read.  Genre fiction still creates mobs.

Technology is the great equalizer.  I've said this before, but I'll say it again (and again and again and again):  it's almost impossible to publish anything any more because it's so incredibly easy to publish.  Does that make sense?  Yes.  Anyone with bucks enough for a laptop can do it.  Want a spine in your library with your name on it?  You can, and for a very limited investment.  Just go ahead and google self-publishing.  Today anybody can publish a book.  I'm serious. 

Last summer, I queried an old friend in publishing about a children's story I'd written--I knew publication would be terribly tough, but I thought I'd try.  She told me, unflinchingly, that her house, a Christian house, really didn't take kiddy lit anymore unless it came in from a celebrity.  I'm no celebrity.  That's the way of the publishing world. 

And now, yesterday, no Pulitzer for fiction.  Woe and woe and woe, and just a couple of months before I really start to write.  Maybe it'll be shuffleboard, Florida, and a pair of white shoes after all.

Ah, buck up.  Life could be worse--what do I know about disappointment?--I'm not even a Cubs fan.

Wait 'till next year! 

Monday, April 16, 2012

A story from the Home

For sixty years, this is the way it went:  after she put the coffee down in front of him, after he finished maybe half a cup, she'd take the Bible from beneath the phone and place it beside him for him to read for devotions.  Ever since the kids were born, for years and years, that's how it went exactly.  

But things were so different once they'd moved to the Home--new refrigerator, new stove, new microwave, a whole new kitchen--and it all took some getting used to. Maybe that's what happened, she told herself.  It was all so new.  

Three weeks or so they were there, away from the farm house where they'd lived for all those years--three weeks is all, and still things were so new that one night she just simply forgot to get the Bible from the shelf--not the one beneath the phone because they weren't in that kitchen anymore. She kept it now on the edge of the counter far left of the sink. 

But that day, even though she got him his coffee like always, she'd forgotten to retrieve the Bible, and Alf hadn't said a thing, just reached over, or tried to, him always--for sixty years--being a little too woost sometimes, a little too thoughtless, out in the barn too--oh, my how she used to worry.  So he didn't ask or anything, just leaned off that new chair they bought when the moved to the Home, leaned way over, and then lost his balance.  Just like him too, to just reach over there, thinking he could still pull off a stunt like someone from a circus.

And down he went, and when he did, of course, he broke his leg.  It wasn't much of a fall even, nothing that seemed that awful, but that leg of his--his right one, the one beneath him--was somehow shattered, and soon enough the ambulance was there because she couldn't get him up and it was clear to her--and to him--that there was way too much pain.  This was nothing ordinary.

So he spent more than a week in a hospital in the city, and then another week here in town, and sometimes these days--she really couldn't get used to things in the Home--sometimes when she was all alone for the first time in her life in that new place, she wondered whether maybe he might never return.  It was that bad, that broken leg.  Of course, she never told anyone her fears.

And all he'd done was lean over way too far to reach the Bible, the Bible she'd retrieved for him for sixty years just after supper, once his coffee was just about half gone.  The Bible that night that wasn't there.

She misses him badly, and these days, alone, she tries to determine just exactly how it was that on that Tuesday night she could have forgotten to get him the Bible for devotions, how it was she didn't remember, how it was, in some way, her fault he was in so very much pain.

Yesterday, the nurses had him up again to try to walk.  My word, he's 90 years old and he doesn't heal all that fast anymore, not like the old days.  He was up, but he said there was just too much pain.  

That's what she told the others that day at dinner.  He said he was still in too much pain, and he needed to get off that bad leg, Alf did.  He said it just hurt too much to be on his feet.

So she's still alone in the Home, and sometimes she looks at the Bible, the one they've read from for sixty years, and she feels as if she'd broken her own right leg because there's pain there, just as there is in her heart for forgetting.  How could she?

When he comes back, she tells herself, she'll keep the Bible right there on the table, even though the table isn't half the size of the one they had in the kitchen back home.  When he returns, she'll keep it right there on the table so she won't forget again and he won't think he has to reach for it.

When he returns.  When he returns.  When he returns.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Sunday Morning Meds--"In all the earth"

“Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth.”

So what do you think?  Does David use the appositive of the first verse of Psalm 8 to praise God or does he put those two words into the line to recommit and even reassure himself?  He didn’t have to add it.  This line would have resounded through the ages even if he hadn’t added, “our Lord.”  So why did he?

It may be his testimony.  It may be that he added it because he wanted the Lord God Almighty, whom he is addressing, to know that the melody rising from the wilderness of earth was his own, someone who worshipped Him, and Him alone.  David may have wanted to reassure God of his (David’s own) love.  That would be right and fitting and noble.

On the other hand, “our Lord” may be a kind of ecstatic expletive.  He just couldn’t help himself.  When he considered the majesty of God in every last corner of the world, he was—as I can be by the dawn—awestruck by God’s unfathomable non-creatureliness (there’s a mouthful), by the fact that God is, well, God.  Astonished by his presence, he can’t help himself.  He just has to get it in there—“this God of heavens and earth and seas and skies is (take a deep breath) actually our God.”  Such unbridled awe would be less literary than flat-out human.  Maybe that’s why I like the second option.

Whatever the case for the appositive, we’ve arrived at the kind of Davidic line that has laid itself foundationally beneath life as we know it on this planet.  If it’s not in Barlett’s Quotations, it certainly should be.  There may be others on your or my Top Ten Psalms list, but this line and this psalm, Psalm 8, is a real keeper.  Put it on a t-shirt.

The KJV has “excellent” where the NIV has “majestic.”  Both seem archaic in a culture built, at least in part, on equality.  Eugene Peterson says, “Your name is a household word,” which is far more democratic; but then, Tide is also a household word.  I’m not sure we own language sufficient to modify God Almighty.

What captures me here is the little word all.  If the idea of God’s name being excellent in every square inch of the world is not just hyperbole, then we have to believe it shines divinely in Al Quida terrorist camps, in Thai brothels, in crack houses and meth labs across America, in each of our darkest corners.  That seems a stretch.

But not impossible.  As our preacher said last Sunday, it’s interesting to imagine that single lamb who created all the fuss by wandering from the ninety-and-nine, that lamb the Good Shepherd finds and carries home over his shoulders, that straying lamb as someone who once could have been, say, Osama bin Laden.  Osama’s face on that lamb, if we believe the parable, only seems preposterous.
My mind isn’t good at stretching cosmically.  What I know better is this: even in our own dark corners, even in our dryest desert moments, He is there in all his majesty, even when we swear God is not in the building.  That’s just plain excellent.

Jesus Christ is our divine bounty hunter.  He stalks us until he strikes, not because of some price on your head or mine, but because the Lord, our Lord, loves us.

And for that, let his name be glorified from every last dark corner of the planet.  The fact is, he is a household word.  His excellence makes our best look dingy; his majesty makes royalty look bedraggled. 

Go ahead.  Look around.  See for yourself.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Saturday Morning Catch

Already at six I heard warnings about today's weather, but the sky was perfect azure this morning, save in a belt of mist that just about swallowed me whole.  It lay beneath the swells of land so thick at times I had to slow down to see the road. It ran for miles north and south, but east and west it couldn't have been more than a couple of miles wide.  

I tried like mad to get "above" it without getting away from it; but mist is pretty slippery stuff.  At dawn exactly, I was blindly in the thick of it.  I turned up a road that happened to be a Grade B.  Honestly, I thought we were dry around here, but it soon became evident that I could be lost forever in slick mud on a dirt road in thick fog.  A dozen times at least I could go no further. 

I pulled the Tracker into four-wheel drive and let that frickin' mud blast up into my wheel wells and all over the hood.  I stuck my head out to try to determine where my wheels were pointed and got thwacked.  Poor Tracker was a mess.  Somehow--lots of rockin' and rollin'--I made it up a hill and out, the tracks behind me looking absolutely awful.  

So I stayed with the mist until it kindly departed.  I didn't get the good shots I should have because I was half-dead in sinking sand, good Iowa soil run amuck, when first the sun came through.  

Someday I ought get someone to teach me how to catch the haunting beauty of a countryside laced in gossamer.   

When I got home, I ran the Tracker through the car wash and lopped huge hunks of mud from under the wheels.  

Don't know what tonight will bring. has been blowing sirens all day long.  But it was a good morning.  I got out.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Morning Thanks--a gift

Bret Lott says that no single writer meant more to him than Raymond Carver.  He said he met Carver--met him in his work, that is--at a time when he was almost totally sure that he was never, ever going to be a writer, when he'd in fact been told as much. That assessment led to some soul searching, as it would for anyone.

But right about then he picked up What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, a collection of Carver's stories, and read them. At that moment, he says, what he learned in Carver's minimalist style is that writing isn't about writing but writing is about the people in the stories.  Writing sets up a mirror to life, not a mirror in which a writer can preen.

Bret Lott says he has been, from that time forth, deeply indebted to Raymond Carver.

But he also says he's deeply indebted to Flannery O'Connor, who taught him what writing was about.  She also gave him--and all of us--a demonstration on how not to fudge about his faith, how to see writing as an act of hope and faith.  Bret Lott says that Raymond Carver taught him how to write, and Flannery O'Connor taught him why.

We need rain here, and we got some in the last 24 hours--in fact, I think it's raining now.  But yesterday, in the afternoon, when I showed him Siouxland, it was gray and drizzily; and even though there's almost a shockingly bright emerald spreading prematurely over the landscape all around us right now, the gray afternoon muted what otherwise, even in April, could have been bright with life.

No matter, every bit of his visit was a joy.  He is a marvelous writer, a joy to be around, and an unabashed believer.  When we drove through Siouxland, he loved the world around us, the land so ready for planting.

He left with a Dordt College t-shirt, some stroop waffles, a half dozen almond patties, and, I hope, some sweet memories.

But because I know him, I know the greatest prize he took home is a gift I gave him proudly and sincerely. 

I told him that once upon a time I had Raymond Carver for a teacher, that it was after Carver had sobered up, that he was gracious and kind in his critique of his students' stories, mine too, and that I'll always remember him back then--summer of 1981--as a wonderfully warm-hearted human being.  I will also always remember him  because he was to me, as he was to Bret Lott, a teacher, not simply by what he did in class but by what he did on paper.  Both of us--we're of a generation too--almost deify Raymond Carver.

I know that's a sin for a couple of believers.

But here's the gift.  In the middle of a classroom yesterday, while Mr. Lott was holding forth robustly, I told him that for a writing class way back in 1981, when Raymond Carver was my teacher, there on the list of required reading was Flannery O'Connor's Mystery and Manners.  I first read that entire book when Raymond Carver required it.

My poor students had little idea of how great a gift I gave Bret Lott at that moment.  He hemmed and hawed, stopped in his tracks, and I knew why.  Why mince words?--both of us thought so much of the man we couldn't abide thinking that he might not have been a believer himself.  Neither of us knows.

But I knew exactly what Bret thought when I told him that Carver required O'Connor.  It was a link.  It proved nothing at all, really, but to hear that news for him was like seeing a man he'd come to love and respect one step closer to a throne, a throne of grace.

This morning he'll get on a plane and go back to Charleston.  He'll have a Dordt College t-shirt and some Dutch food and, I hope, an old leather brief case full of good memories.

This morning I'm thankful he was here, thankful he inspired our students, thankful he had a great time in Siouxland; but I'm most thankful that I could give him the gift I could.  What'll carry him home to North Carolina most joyfully is the knowledge that Raymond Carver too loved Flannery O'Connor. 

"People without hope don't write novels."
Flannery O'Connor

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Ex Libris--Foxe's Book of Martyrs

Somehow, someway, I seem to have a memory of this book that dates from the earliest years of my life.  I can't say I remember it being in my parents' living room library--I mean, I don't remember the cover or the bindings. I really have no memory whatsoever of any drawings, but somehow it seems as if I've always known Foxe's Book of Martyrs.

Last summer, in the Netherlands, a whole tour group I was with sang a few psalms in an ancient tiny church in Ulrum, an ancient tiny town, where the denomination to which I belong, the Christian Reformed Church, had its rough-and-tumble start way back in 1834.  Right there from that pulpit, a preacher I'm sure was wild-eyed railed against the liberalism of the state church and got himself "in Dutch," as we used to say.. Even though that old Dominie, the Rev. Hendrick de Cock, was, I believe, tossed in the brig for the unsavory things he said, there were no fires, no hanging, no racks.  Still, I admit it--I loved being in that church. It was stirring to be there even for an hour, to imagine what happened there. Fights between the chosen are really the stuff of legends.  

Foxe's Book of Martyrs is full of fires, full of nooses, full of agonizing death. What I remember of the book is the devastatingly gruesome stories of those who kept the faith, a witness that seemed, back then, as glorious as it was gory, page after page of nightmarish beauty, if that makes sense.

I have good friends who are Mennonites, and I'm always impressed with their historical acumen; they know their story, and that story includes hundreds martyrs, some of whom came to their sordid fate at the hands of my own Dutch Reformed ancestors. That heritage still colors the way they see themselves in a 21st century world.

It may have been because of those Mennonite friends that a decade ago or more now, I bought this particular copy of Foxe's Book of Martyrs in the Wheaton College Bookstore. I knew that back there somewhere in the vast recesses of my frequently untrustworthy memory gruesome images from the book were still residing--men and women praying or singing psalms while flames began to make their skin boil.  I wanted to reread at least something of what, for whatever reason, I'd never quite been able to forget.  

And I did. There are jotting and tittles all through this volume.  I even gave a speech, I remember, a chapel, because I thought this generation of students should know something about martyrdom's place in their own heritage as believers.  Maybe all of us--people of faith--would be better off if we, like the Mennonites, kept in touch with our own inner martyrs.  

C. S. Lewis once wrote--or so I've been told--that there are two errors Christians make with respect to Satan--they either take him too seriously, or not seriously enough.  I've always admired that assessment because it constructs the kind of paradox that I think we live in constantly in our world--everything in moderation, said Paul, I believe, just another way of saying it.

I think it's good to remember the fires, like the Mennonites.  We'd all do well to be able to retell at least some of the stories of our own persecution so we don't start to believe that somehow in America today there is a war on faith.  

Foxe's stories stayed with me for fifty-some years before I picked up this reprint.  I don't think I need to read them again.  John Foxe, whose called a "martyrologist" inside, is someone who's left his mark.  I'll not forget.  I never have.  I don't think I need to remember more or better.  T
he book can go.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Ex Libris--Letters of a Woman Homesteader

Here's the story:

. . .The Edmonsons had only one child, a daughter, who was to have married a man whom her parents objected to solely because he was a sheep-man, while their sympathies were with the cattle-men, although they owned only a small bunch.  To gain their consent the young man closed out his interest in sheep, at a loss, filed on a splendid piece of land near them, and built a little home for the girl he loved.  Before they could get to town to be married Grandpa was stricken with rheumatism.  Grandma was already almost past going on with it, so they postponed the marriage, and as that winter was particularly severe, the young man took charge of the Edmonson stock and kept them from starving.  As soon as he was able he went for the license. 

It's a letter written in 1910 by a woman named Elinore Pruitt Stewart, a widow with a young child, whose second marriage resulted in her moving from Denver to the Wyoming frontier, where she and her new husband and child homesteaded land.  With many others, the letter is in a book that's been in my library of 35 years, Letters of  A Woman Homesteader, a book I bought when I wrote my first book.

The story continues:

Mrs. O'Shaughnessy and a neighbor were hunting some cattle that had wandered away and found the poor fellow shot in the back.  He was not yet dead and told them it was urgently necessary for them to hurry him to the Edmonsons' and to get some one to perform the marriage ceremony as quickly as possible, for he could not live long.  They told him such haste meant quicker death because he would bleed more; but he insisted, so they got a wagon and hurried all they could.  But they could not outrun death.  When he knew he could not live to reach home, he asked them to witness all he said.  Everything he possessed he left to the girl he was to have married, and said he was the father of the little child that was to come.  He begged them to befriend the poor girl he had to leave in such a condition, and to take the marriage license as evidence that he had tried to do right.  The wagon was stopped so the jolting would not make death any harder, and there in the shadow of the great twin buttes he died.

The story doesn't end there, however--after all, there was that young woman, pregnant, and now very much alone.

They took the body to the little home he had made, and Mrs. O'Shaughnessy went to the Edmonsons' to do what she could there.  Poor Cora Jane didn't know how terrible a thing wounded pride is.  She told her parents her misdeeds.  They couldn't see that they were in any way to blame.  They seemed to care nothing for her terrible sorrow nor for her weakened condition.  All they could think of was that the child they had almost worshiped had disgraced them; so they told her to go.

I found the story years and years ago, when I bought the book because I thought it would tell me much more about what it was like to homestead--I needed to see more of the very character of that kind of life; but this letter held a story that leaped out from its own time and place.

Mrs. O'Shaughnessy took her to the home that had been prepared for her, where the poor body lay.  Some way they got through those dark days, and then began the waiting for the little one to come.  Poor  Cora Jane said she would die then, and that she wanted to die, but she wanted the baby to know it was loved,--she wanted to leave something that should speak of that love when the child should come to understanding.  So Mrs. O'Shaughnessy said they would make all its little clothes were every care, and they should tell the love.  Mrs. O'Shaughnessy is the daintiest needleworker I have ever seen; she was taught by the nuns at St. Catherine's in the "ould country." She was all patience with porr, unskilled Cora Jane, and the little outfit that was finally finished was dainty enough for a fairy.  Little Cora Belle is so proud of it.

But the story of Cora Jane and  Cora Belle doesn't end there.  There's more:

At last the time came and Mrs. O'Shaughnessy went after the parents.  Long before, they had repented and were only too glad to go.  The poor mother lived one day and night after the baby came.  She laid the tiny thing in her mother's arms and told them to call her Cora Belle.  She told them she gave them a pure little daughter in place of the sinful one they had lost.

Love and death, sin and guilt and forgiveness--finally, even, new life.  It's no wonder that this story line grabbed me.  It's all there, every shimmering element of the most important moments of human life itself.

First, the plot's outline became a short story, "The Paths of Righteousness," in Sign of a Promise.  A quarter-century later, it reemerged in Touches the Sky, a novel set in South Dakota, the boy a white man, the young woman, Lakota.

Letters of a Woman Homesteader is on-line today, where you can read the entire letter yourself.  My copy of the book of Ms. Stewart's letters, a 1961 publication of the University of Nebraska Press, is, I suppose, itself an anachronism.

Moving to a smaller place means downsizing in every way.  Much of a library created by 40 years of teaching English and writing all kinds of things just simply has to go.  Right now, here on my desk the old book sits.  Two boxes are on the floor beside me--one full of "I just can'ts," the other filling more slowly with "I-musts."

The clock is ticking, but I don't have to make a decision this morning.  Still, I know the facts: I can read the book on line, I haven't been through its pages in 30 years, and it's unlikely I'll ever read it again.

But you can bet it won't burn.  I know a student who might like it, someone who will maybe give it as good a home as it has had here. 

I owe it that much.  I owe it much more.