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, October 31, 2012

Burning Cross--a story (1)

Today and tomorrow, a short story, "Burning Cross," an old story I wrote because I wanted to see if I could create a contemporary story about a sympathetic character who would, seriously, warn someone that if he or she didn't change, they could go to hell--not some fanatic, but an ordinary, loving human being.  Don't know if I did it or not--you'll have to judge.

Sometimes I fantasize. I see myself in one of those big, bursting-at-the-seams megachurches, where dozens of people are baptized weekly, where everybody smiles, where six or eight-piece bands lead the singing, where everybody's spit-shined and eager, where some big-shouldered, TV-handsome preacher stands up in front to start the show and says just one line: "This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it," and the whole grinning place shouts Amen.

Are there places like that?

My husband and I have been church youth leaders for longer than people should--almost eight years. It’s not that I don’t love the job. There are times when we’re coming home in our van and the whole vehicle bounces with the life of the kids in the back, singing and laughing and teasing. At moments like that I know there’s nowhere I’d rather be. Sometimes the kids say some really moving things to Tom and me too--things that make us think we’re being what we should be people they can trust.

This may sound egotistic, but I don't care. Last year Shane professed his faith publicly and when Pastor Jed gave him a minute to do something of a testimony, this is what he said. "And I want to thank Leasa and Tom Gardner for always being there for me--and for all of us. They know what I mean." I yawned to cover up my tears.

We've had our good moments, but we've got our own kids now, two of them, and when things happen like last week I start to wonder if maybe it isn't time for the two of us to quit while we've still got some heart left.

We've tried doing service projects this year, and while I wouldn't admit it openly to Tom, they've been something of a bomb--installing smoke alarms in the inner city, painting the downtown mission. We ask the kids to donate their Saturdays. Sometimes we get a third of them, adn always it's the same half dozen.

Can you force kids to do good? That's what I want to know. Is it worth it? Do missions of mercy come out of their hearts if we tell them they can't go skiing with the group if they don't rake leaves for shut-ins?

A youth service. It was Pastor Jed’s idea. “We need to integrate the young people into our worship,” he said. “It’ll make the kids feel more a part of what’s going on, give them some presence in worship.” So Tom and I agreed to give it a try.

Gregg is a National Merit finalist who has been to Mexico on a summer mission program. All right, my husband and I thought, Gregg can preach. Nancy and Sharice sing like Amy Grant clones. Burt can play the organ--he’s not always accurate, but we’ll need someone. Use a few tenth graders for ushers. Some others to serve coffee and juice afterward. And we’ll write a litany that involves a few more.

“What about deacons?” Tom asked. “We’ll need kids to pick up the offering.”

I hadn’t thought of it.

“How about Theresa Baker?” he said.

Theresa Baker. I had to run the idea through my mind a few times. She comes to youth meetings once a month, at most, and when she comes, she wears a face so cold it can freeze your blood. Her hair’s dyed in a purple sheen, she’s got an earring in her nose, and she buys clothes at some St. Vincent DePaul that carries late-sixties psychedelic delights. When she comes, the only time she moves is to check the clock.

But Tom and I know her mother, and believe me, that’s another story. That Theresa comes at all is something we should be thankful for.

“Theresa, a deacon?” I said.

Tom hunched his shoulders. “Be good for her maybe,” he said. “Besides, we don’t have many kids to choose from who can be there.”

I scratched in Theresa’s name.

We brought the idea to the kids and happened to hit them in one of those infrequent sweet moods they unexplainably fall into--a time when they seem nearly human. (I shouldn’t be so critical--I love them, really!)

Gregg thought the service would be okay (although that was before we told him he was going to be the preacher). Nancy and Sharice--all the juniors and seniors, really--went along with it too. Enthusiastic? Hardly. But sometimes you take joy in tacit acceptance.

So we talked about it--what it might look like, what kinds of changes are permissible (Shannon said to skip the sermon and show a Star Wars movie since they were religious), and who might get together to write a little litany.

It was Gregg’s idea to do an offering in what he described as an “Old Testament” way--bring it to the front. “I’ve always thought we should try that once,” he said. “That’s the way the Israelites did it.”

When kids come up with reasonably good ideas, you don’t squelch them. And when Gregg said it, I wasn’t thinking about Theresa.

“Sure,” I said. “I can’t imagine anyone would have any trouble with that kind of change.”

We assigned the kids their duties, and that’s when I thought of Theresa Baker standing up front--what could we do? All of the other kids we had chosen had their own assignments.

She wasn’t at the meeting, so I called her on Thursday and told her what we were doing, what her job was. She said she’d do it, but I was pretty sure she wouldn’t show up. In fact, I called Sammy Lansink and told him to be ready to stand up there with Annie Blevens, just in case we had a no-show.

I was wrong, Theresa Baker was there with bells on--literally. Striped bell-bottoms. A black “motorcycle” leather jacket. A paisley hair band. Earrings in all the inappropriate places. Her oddly colored hair fell over her eyes with such regularity that the continuous jerking she had to do to keep it away from her face made her look like a woman possessed.

(Imagine, for a moment, old Clarence and Jenny Vander Zee offering their tithe to our own Janis Joplin. Imagine Ralph Bonhomme, an IBM exec whose suits cost more than our organ, standing in front of Theresa!)

Actually, Theresa did better than we expected. She had no lines, and she politely refrained from wearing the veil of stubborn darkness that otherwise shrouds her face. She had nothing to do but stand there, and, believe me, she could well have done that worse.


But the following Tuesday, Theresa’s mother called me at work and told me her daughter had been arrested. On Sunday night--after the very service in which she’d stood in front--she and her cohorts had headed over to the other side of town and stuck a cross in the ground.

And then they lit it. They burned it. And the yard just happened to belong to a black family who had recently moved into the neighborhood.

Theresa had been one of the ringleaders--the same Theresa who’d stood up in front of the church two hours before and taken our offerings like some anointed Old Testament priest.
Tomorrow:  a visit with Theresa.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Naked Fear

Sort of eerie is what it was. We came up over a hill and found it, just across the gravel from a sprawling field full of midget corn, notable not only because it look so badly stunted but also because it still wasn't in the bin.  All through the region farmers finished up harvest--many of them at least--before October already, something of a record. 

But what drew our attention was this flat piece of really smooth ground, roughly circular, maybe 100 feet long and fifty feet wide, something you might see up north a ways on Blue Mound, for instance, where Sioux quartzite slabs emerge like massive turtle shells from the topsoil. Except this wasn't rock. 

It was hardened topsoil. I'd never seen anything like it, really, at least not in the area.  Weeds grew in it and out of it, but otherwise this entire slab of ground seemed like stone. 

I shouldn't speculate. I'm not a geologist or a farmer or even a real historian; but it was impossible not to think of this bald pate of land as a reminder of the Dust Bowl, because the only time I've seen anything like it before was in sepia-tones of rural South Dakota or Nebraska, where broad, hard drifts of Kansas or Oklahoma topsoil curl around fence posts like macabre sculpture. 

Standing on the drift was scary, actually scary, in part because we weren't all that far away from Sioux County, where, even after a stiff drought this summer, people counted their blessings in bushels.  But here it was, a weird hardened drift of purposeless dirt.

The Dust Bowl was caused by winds and drought and man's infernal quest for money. Great Plains land that never should have been opened was assaulted by would-be farmers trying to cash in on soaring wheat prices. The result was tons of exposed topsoil that hung in strong winds until dropped all through the region and even beyond--it was private enterprise gone mad.  

There was none of that this summer, but there was a drought and there was wind--and the scars were obvious: a field of wretched corn across the road and a bald spot of bare ground where drifted topsoil got left behind by pushy winds.

The entire East Coast seems underwater this morning, inundated by a freakish early winter hurricane that's right now, simultaneously, dropping tons of snow in the mountains of West Virginia. I'm no doomsday prophet. I'm guessing Pat Robertson is trying to figure out what the Lord God almighty is saying with this strange, Halloween-ish weather, but, believe me, I'm not waiting for his pronouncement.

But this fearful weather, a hurricane like none other in recorded history, is a reminder, as is this bald spot on a chunk of eastern South Dakota real estate, that something's going on in our environment; and while it's understandable why we'd be focused so intently on jobs, jobs, jobs--if we don't work, we don't eat--big factories won't help us find our way out of the effects of global warming, if in fact we can. 

Are we responsible, or is what's happening simply nature's own will and whim?  On that, I'm sure, people disagree.  

But when we stood there on this naked earth last Saturday, what I felt, even more than strangeness, was fear.  Way back when, on Black Sunday, many good Christians looked up at skies dark as night with heavy dust, and decided, with the horror, that it was the end of the world, Christ's return.

Didn't happen.

But just for a moment last Saturday, out on the edge of a cornfield, and this morning too, I'll admit it:  I felt a naked fear I never felt before.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Ojo Caliente, New Mexico

I needed to be able to see it. I'd read about it--and its importance--in Cry of the Night, an old Depression-era novel by Casey Kuipers. The place called Ojo Caliente played a role in the novel, and my own cultural blinders made it hard for me to see what on earth Kuipers was talking about--a sort of summer home to loads of Zuni people, a place called "sheep camp." 

I just didn't get the whole concept of "sheep camp"; it sounded too much like "summer camp," and it was impossible for me to imagine Native people having summer homes, summer gardens, and summer fun.  

Frequently, Kuipers's novels have prototypes, characters he creates from very real people, Native and Anglo, who once walked around the Zuni mission. From history, I knew that a real-life battle had gone on about Ojo Caliente, a battle the missionaries had waged because the Zuni people weren't thrilled with the Anglo Christians coming out to their sheep camp. After all, they already had a place just across the river, not that far from the heart of the pueblo.  Stay the heck out of Ojo.  

What happened in real life had created some bitterness.  Mission work at the Zuni pueblo, circa 1920, was often tougher than the idealism and zeal some young missionaries carried.

I needed to be able to see that place, Ojo Caliente, so I got myself a great tour guide, a retired Zuni couple who still keep a little place out there, and off we went.  See that picture above?--the long, grassy landscape could pass for the Great Plains, but it isn't; it's where the Zuni pastured sheep.  Soon enough, I began to understand.  Come June, the desert was green, and the people could leave the stuffiness of the pueblo, get some air outside of town.  No wonder the people loved "sheep camp."

And then we came to the Ojo itself--or what was once Ojo.  Here's what there:

Here's what's left of the sheep camp at Ojo, the summer home of dozens and dozens of Zuni families.

The truth is, there's really nothing there but a museum of what once was.

Ghost towns are open-air history that tell stories with a kind of vividness novels aspire to.  This one, Ojo Caliente--a Spanish name that likely descends from the Conquistadors  who came here in the 16th century looking for gold, as most humans do--is no different.  The people are gone, but the place is somehow redolent with the story.

I kept thinking of Casey Kuipers because once upon a time there was a battle here between Anglos and Native people, between Christian and traditional Zunis too, a battle that left scars upon the history of the mission, a tale told, in part, a white missionary who, oddly enough, was born at the turn of the century in Orange City, Iowa, not all that far from where I'm sitting right now.

Today, Ojo is gone.  There's a sweet little reservoir where a dozen Zuni families were fishing the day we went out there.  But the summer camp belongs to history and story, the long fields of prairie grass left ungrazed because no one farms here anymore, in part because no one farms.  The community is gone, as is a way of life.

For hundreds of years Ojo was a summer joy.  It was a place at the heart of cultural life, and once the site of a spiritual battle.  Now it's a wasteland, a ghost town.

It was mid-day, late summer, the sun burning like a firebrand; but the place still seemed haunted with very human voices simply asking to be heard.  

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Sunday Morning Meds--Storms

“Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.”

I think it’s nice that most people love to sleep.  Outside my window right now the only sound is crickets.*  It’s not yet five a.m., and in small Midwestern towns like this one, very little moves.  The moon, a street-light, sits directly above, the temperature just about seventy degrees, and it’s windstill, a rarity on the Plains.  Just for an hour or so, I don’t mind having the world, seemingly, to myself.
We’re in the waning days of summer.  In an hour I’ll pick up my camera and head out west. With this high of a temperature, some despoiling mist may lolly-gag in low spots.  If I’m lucky, a touch of fogginess will make the dawn even more gorgeous.

I have in mind that David wasn’t thinking of storms when he was listening to God speak in the skies.  I’d guess he was having a look at the kind of morning I’m about to enter when I head west in an hour—something carmel maybe, something streaked with gold, something shimmering, something variegated, some vision a camera can’t even grab, maybe some light clouds like a carelessly thrown shawl about the shoulders of the perfect dawn.

But if I’d turn on the television right now, I’d likely see dramatic radar shots of Hurricane Francis, presently raging through the Bahamas, its eye set on the Florida coast.  Francis is huge, almost as big as Texas, people were saying yesterday.  Two million Floridians have crowded gas stations, then simply left behind their homes and businesses because authorities would like the place as silent as it is right now outside my window.

In a week or so it will all be over—whatever destruction the monster causes will be photographed and archived, and men and women with chainsaws will buzz their way through the debris, bound and determined to clean up the mess and rebuild.  But this morning, right now on the peninsula we call Florida, those who are going to ride out the storm are likely as awake as I am, waiting.

If the heavens declare God’s glory, if the firmament displays his hand, and if the message of his reality goes out every day—every minute, every hour—in every language, and to every corner of the world, then God’s very presence is there too in the swirling danger of an lumbering hurricane that threatens to destroy a significant swath of southern Florida.  In an hour or so, when I drive out west, turn, and face the dawn, I will hear his Word, just as they will, or are—those who stand right now on deserted beaches and look west into a grand mess of stormy danger.  But we’ll hear different sermons.
God is love.  We are thrilled to say it, comforted by its truth.  He will not forsake us, no matter what the danger.  The catechism by which I was reared begins with this question:  “What is your only comfort?”  And the answer is that I belong to him.

But his word from a hurricane, or the killer tornadoes that march through the prairies is at least this—that we shouldn’t really take him or his love for granted.  He is God, after all, and we aren’t.  We are his creatures, the works of his hands; but he is the Supreme Architect, the Creator of the Universe.  He doesn’t just ride along in the heavens, he speaks when its vastness overwhelms, when its beauty beguiles, and when its storms surge and even swallow us.  He speaks.

What He says, always, is very simple:  He is God.

*Written in early September, 2004.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Saturday Morning Catch

It's been so long since I've been out on a Saturday morning--I barely remember the last time.  The emerald is gone, the harvest over, the open fields wearing a tawny shawl created by a rainbow of dusty earth tones.  I swear that taking pictures is good for the soul, maybe especially here, in Siouxland, where tons of people think there isn't a dime's worth of beauty.

Well,  I got news. They're wrong. You've just got to look for it, and looking for it--is this biblical?--is good for the soul. Amen?

Friday, October 26, 2012


So anyway, this Wisconsin guy, big-time hunter, goes up north on opening day for deer, as he and his buddies always do. You know, it's tradition and ritual, almost religious.  But, sadly enough, he comes home with no trophy buck, nothing at all, which isn't all that unusual, I guess.

When he gets back, he tells his wife the bad news, then says it seemed that she'd not packed his socks (news flash: some wives pack their husband's suitcases--this is an old, old joke).  Anyway, his wife has this s--t-eatin' grin on her face. "I certainly did," she tells him. "They were in your gun case."

That's a Wisconsin joke, where deer hunting is as much a tradition as fish on Fridays.  I shot a lot of things growing up and had a great time doing it, but I never shot a deer because deer hunting was something you got into because your dad took you. I mean, squirrels and crows and bunnies--you graduated to those things once you passed Sputzies I and got your first .22.  But white-tailed deer. . .that was another level of hunting altogether: it involved a gang of men, and, often enough, required a weekend.  My childhood was steeply deprived.

I remember a time, years ago, when a guy from our church shot a good-sized buck in some wetland acres  behind his house, "just out of town," as we would have said. That he got one close by was a news story--man bites dog--even though I grew up on Wisconsin's lakeshore, where there was no shortage of white-tails. Real deer hunting  required a trip up north.

My first teaching job--in rural Wisconsin--offered a break on the weekend of deer opener, when most of the high school guys and a smattering of girls would be absent without leave. Hunting deer was as much a required course in Wisconsin curriculum as munching cheese curds and summer sausage, or being sure your brats were soaked in Miller beer.

I don't claim to know what things are like along the lakeshore these days because I haven't lived there for years, but I suspect, as elsewhere, there are, today, far, far more deer than hunters.  As unlikely as it seems, a gadzillion Bambis have somehow acclimated to suburban life and therefore terrorize backyard gardens all over the Midwest.  These days, more deer may end up dead from cars than rifles.  

They drive our friends in Sioux Falls nuts, destroying neighborhood gardens so utterly the city hired bow-hunters to kill them--well, "harvest" sounds less bloody.  My Michigan cousin sees them in her backyard every day, she says, and she lives pretty much in the middle of the city.

Still, deer are a wonder of beauty and grace.  I saw three in our backyard not long ago, but the neighbors claim they've only begun to show up, now that harvest is in. Once the hunting season begins they'll appear here in abundance, we're told, because just next door a woody preserve along the squiggly Floyd River offers just about anything some buck or doe might want, mid-winter.  

Somewhere deep within me, a Wisconsin hunter is still sitting in a woods somewhere, posting, waiting in all that lush nature for a big buck. Someday, who knows?--maybe I'll shoot one myself right out my back door, then feast on venison summer sausage, maybe fashion a pair of gloves, and hang a trophy in the garage to stare at when I pop open a Miller beer. 

Just because I'm old doesn't mean I can't dream. 

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Mortifications of old age

A good friend once insisted that sanctification, the path of the soul to righteousness, is a myth, a Calvinist, urban legend, because everyone he knew to be old wasn't mellow or sweet, and certainly not righteous. They were all snippy and contentious--Walter Matthau or Jack Lemmon, he said--and even the old women were crusty.  

Sanctification, as the old firebrand Herman Hoeksema says in Reformed Dogmatics, is "that act of God whereby He delivers the justified and regenerated sinner from the defilement and dominion of sin as a spiritual, ethical power, renews him according to the image of Christ, and enables him to walk in all good works, which God has prepared for him." We're not talking about some momentary event here, but a long, drawn-out process that guides us slowly and faithfully upward, like an ancient oak grown gold in autumn.  (I wonder if Hoeksema got nice in his old age?)

Here's my theory: in a  normal human life, growing garrulous is simply a given. Our worlds shrink, and, like an old bladder, we simply maintain less and less control in a process that generally pisses us off (pardon my language, but the metaphor sort of works if you think about it. . .but don't).  My father-in-law claims that at his age, 93, there are no molehills, only mountains. My mother's great concern is simply being able to get herself out of bed and thus out of the rest home. Oh, yeah, and whether or not the Packers win (they're so-so, 4-3).  

So let's review--our worlds shrink, we maintain less control, and it ain't no fun.  Hrrruumph.

Sanctification promises sweetness, but old age is sour--or so says my friend. Thus, sanctification is really a myth.

Not that it matters a great deal, but the state of Iowa, the Des Moines Register maintains, ranks third in percentage of folks over 85, a number that has grown 66% since 1980.  The oldest person in the state is a woman from Johnston, who's--are you sitting down?--115!  I'm not making this up. Such facts are interesting when you're old. Even scary.

And I've got a right to think about such things. I'm retired, and my world is shrinking. So there.

And listen to this:  Vera Osteen, who's 102, got asked about her secret of longevity; and you know what she said?  She told the Register her secret was simple--"Be ornery, that's all."  See?

Then there's this: this heretical friend of mine just turned 70, and he himself is showing signs of growing grumpiness.

Woe and woe and woe.


Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Dry bones

The Preacher  
by Louis Jenkins 

When times were hard, no work on the railroad, no work down on the farm, some 
of my ancestors took to preaching. It was not so much of what was said as the way 
in which it was said. "The horn shall sound and the dog will bark and though you 
be on the highest mountain or down in the deepest valley when the darkness comes 
then you will lie down, and as the day follows the night you will surely rise again. 
The Lord our God hath made both heaven and earth. Oh, my dear brothers and 
sisters we know so well the ways of this world, think then what heaven must be 
like." It required a certain presence, a certain authority. The preacher was treated 
with respect and kept at a bit of a distance, like a rattler. There wasn't much money 
in it but it was good for maybe a dozen eggs or a chicken dinner now and then.

It's not particularly easy to determine what a poem is. This one, today's offering from Writer's Almanac, doesn't rhyme and probably can't be easily scanned--which is to say, it has no obvious rhythm either. The individual lines seem created only for visual consistency, as if they were set by software. I know lots of people who would say this really isn't a poem at all. Understandably.

Some might call this "flash fiction," a tiny little story in and of itself. It feels, after all, far more like prose than whatever poetry traditionally feels like. Besides, basically, it tells a story, a not so compelling story about how the Christian faith is far less essential than a living wage; after all, the speaker says, his relatives took up preaching only when there was no other way to put food on the table--"a dozen eggs or a chicken dinner now and then."

Hurts a little for a Christian like me to read this thing, too, because, like it or not, there's some truth to it, I'm sure.  The candidate Obama, in 2008, wasn't totally wrong about people taking up faith and guns in truly hard times. It happens. It was demeaning and, politically, it was an awful gaffe; but that didn't mean he wasn't, like the poem, completely wrong.  I just finished Jim Heynen's new novel, The Fall of Alice K, in which Alice's mother is convinced the world will end on Y2K.  She wasn't alone, and many were Christians.

Are there spiritual phonies? Duuhh.  As the book of Ezekiel points out clearly (chap. 13 for starters), they're with us always, if it can be said that the stories the Bible tells have universal application--and people who don't believe it does, don't really "believe" the Bible.

We've been reading Ezekiel lately, only because it followed Nehemiah and Esther. We'd read Nehemiah because of a sermon we heard, and Esther because, why not?--it followed Nehemiah and is itself among the strangest contributions to Holy Writ, not a mention of God in the whole great story.

Then Ezekiel. My word, lots and lots of woe, Israel having forgotten God for generations, God almighty, fit to be tied, determined to bloody his people into shape before bringing them home once more. It's not a saga for sissies, and, other than the dry bones story, doesn't regularly come up in sermons. My Bible has no scribbles whatsoever in the entire book because preachers generally leave Ezekiel alone, I guess.

Still, it's odd how reading the Bible begs the mind and heart to sermonize, to create parallels and adapt the words, the ideas, the woe-and-woe-and-woe-woe, to what's going on at this moment in the world, or in Washington, in Sioux County, or your very own kitchen or bedroom.

Look at the lines from this odd poem: "The horn shall sound and the dog will bark and though you/be on the highest mountain or down in the deepest valley when the darkness comes/then you will lie down, and as the day follows the night you will surely rise again./The Lord our God hath made both heaven and earth. Oh, my dear brothers and/sisters we know so well the ways of this world, think then what heaven must be/like."

It sounds a ton like the Bible, but it isn't. Still, those words fit together in a fashion that creates spaciousness sufficient to beg our entry and find a place for it into the warp and woof of our lives. It's not hard to see how good people could get hoodwinked by such verbiage because, as the poet Jenkins says, it wasn't so much what was said as the way it was said.

Maybe--don't quote me on this--poetry, like scripture itself, always says something more than it seems to. They're not the same and I'm no heretic, but there's always more than simply what's there, as there is herein this poem or I wouldn't have got lost in it myself this morning.

It's not easy reading this poem, but, trust me, it's not easy reading Ezekiel either. Meanwhile, in more ways than one I keep waiting for the valley of the dry bones.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Morning Thanks--what to believe

"To really mean that the presence and the activity of the God of love, who can make us love our neighbors as ourselves, is our hope and the hope of the world--that this God is the secret of our flourishing as persons, cultures, as interdependent inhabitants of a single globe," says Miraslav Volf in A Public Faith, "is today's most fundamental challenge for priests and ministers, and Christian lay people."

Why is that so great a challenge? Because, he says, it is really humanly difficult to believe "that God is fundamental to human flourishing."

It's easy to say, but, "as a rock-bottom conviction that shapes the way we think, preach, write, and live," to believe that God is fundamental to every inch of our lives is, he says, profoundly difficult for all of us. 

I'm thankful this morning for that lesson in living from Miraslav Volf, and the life line of a thousand Zuni deer hand-painted on a thousand traditional Zuni pots, each of which points us at a similar truth--to wit, that nothing we experience in life is unrelated to our hearts.  

Monday, October 22, 2012

George McGovern, 1922-2012

In truth, it's still embarrassing when I think about it, even though just about everyone who was there is gone. Here I was, a brand new in-law taking on--with insane bravado--almost all of the family's elder statesmen, men who were, across the board, staunch Republicans.  I wasn't. 

It was 1972, and I was about to vote in my very first Presidential election, and for reasons that had everything to do with my belief that the war in Vietnam was flat-out wrong, I was bound and determined to vote for Sen. George McGovern, a man I knew as a proudly liberal voice in the U.S. Senate and a clear anti-war candidate.  

And I was not shy in saying so in a congregation of men who considered him half a communist, and worse. At a family reunion, I went to war with men who had become, only a month earlier, my in-laws. I went to bat for McGovern, a Democratic, in part because I knew there were other voices like mine in that family reunion, other voices that I fully expected to come to my aid.

But they were veterans of such political fights and knew better than their new in-law. 

I got tossed up in the air like a clay pigeon. What I learned is that an argument was foolhardy, like running into a burning hay barn with a squirt gun. The Republicans weren't conceding on any argument that Sen. McGovern, a small-town South Dakotan, might have been a better choice than Nixon. It was a bare-knuckle fight I couldn't win, and I'm sure some of them went home that night wondering what kind of pinko idiot their pretty niece had got herself hitched to. The text of that family reunion was taken from All in the Family, and I was just another Meathead.

A few months later, they and millions of others spanked McGovern, a decorated war hero, back out into the South Dakota prairie when President Richard M. Nixon was overwhelmingly re-elected for a second term he never finished.

That summer afternoon, shouted down by people I barely knew, I learned there was a time for speech and a time for silence. 

Just a half-dozen years later, I was a registered Republican myself, until I went to a caucus meeting in Sioux Center, Iowa, and realized I was nothing at all like the big talkers. Still, once upon a time I think I voted for Reagan; once upon a time I know I voted for George H. W. Bush, and once upon a time even his son.  

But my first Presidential vote that year, 1972, was for the Democrat McGovern, who died yesterday at 90, in a hospice center not all that far from where I live.  

I met him twice in my life: once in an airport in Salt Lake City, when, like me, he was returning to South Dakota; and another, just a few years ago, at a book fair in Sioux Falls, at Augustana College.  He was the very same mild-mannered yet passionate progressive he was in 1972, son of a preacher, child of the prairie.

Those who remember 1972 will always consider him a loser, one of the great losers in the history of American politics. 

Just not as great as the deceiver who slaughtered him.

Still, the worst day in his life, he says, was not that thumping he took from Nixon on 1972.  The very worst day was when he discovered his daughter, an alcoholic, had frozen to death in a parking lot in Wisconsin, a horrifying death he blamed himself for, having been less a parent, he claimed, than a politician.

That he took the blame is a mark of his character.  

In 1972, he was a South Dakotan, and in 2012, when he died, he had changed not a whit.

And me?--I've learned in the years that have passed that there's a time for talk and a time for silence. If that same family reunion was this weekend, I'd probably keep my mouth shut.

But I have not changed my mind about George McGovern.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Sunday Morning Meds--All the time

“Day unto day they pour forth speech; 
night after night they display knowledge.” Psalm 19:2

In this psalm and in this verse particularly, David is not given to hyperbole or poetic license.  He’s right, and he’s not stretching things.  What he’s established in the opening line is that God himself can be seen and heard in the sheer expansive beauty of the heavens.  A prairie landscape is the voice of God, he says, and that voice is there all the time, day after day and night after night.  It’s music that never stops, a celebration that’s as eternal as anything this world can deliver.  And it all speaks of Him.  Isn’t it glorious?  That’s what David is saying.

What makes him hammer the point the point home in verse two is that he can’t seem to believe it himself.  Literally, God Almighty has created a canopy that is always there over our heads, a canopy of praise; and it soars above us all the time.  “Day after day,” he says, as if we just don’t get it.  “Night after night,” he says, as if none of us are really paying attention.  Honestly, I think what he’s saying is, stop your infernal toiling and spinning once in a while and look up, for heavens sake.

In an essay titled “Gypsies,” Anne Lamott, in her own inimitable fashion, ridicules herself for being so infernally self-possessed.  If she hasn’t already arrived, she’s dreadfully close to middle-age, she says, and, when she sees herself in a mirror, she finds the tell-tale earmarks terrifying (“triangles of fat that pooch at the top of my thighs”).

Some of her friends ask her to come along to a movie about gypsies, and she does, albeit reluctantly, because, she says, too angry about her aging body, she would have preferred “an action movie, something with some tasteful violence.”

But the movie they attend brings her joy because she sees old gypsy women dancing with a kind of measured self-abandon that she knows she needs.  What she sees in their eyes is a portrait of the equanimity which age may well bring, if we let it:  “the beauty of having come through.”
That film, like the heavens, are to Ms. Lamott the very voice of God. What she sees is exactly the skin cream she needs, not to cover the wrinkles, but to bless them.  Those old dancing women remind her that she is, like them, becoming sanctified.  Those old dancing women make her crows feet smile.  Here’s the way she puts it:
Coming out of the movie that night, I realized that I want what the crones            
have:  time for all those long, deep breaths, time to watch more closely, time to learn to enjoy what I’ve always been afraid of—the sag and the invisibility, the ease of understanding that life is not about doing.

David the poet/king would like that line, I think, because the everyday-ness of God’s voice above us is as startling as it is because we don’t pay attention, because I don’t pay attention, because, like Anne Lamott, I’m still believing that life is about doing and not about being, far more about proving ourselves and getting things done than it is about simply watching the sky. 

Someday.  Someday soon, maybe, we’ll all look up more often, because He’s preaching.  The heavens are declaring right now, David says, this very instant, and they’re not about to quit, if we only stop, and look, and listen.

Friday, October 19, 2012


The school's first Pres was a dynamo, an earthy, rollicking, larger-than life personality so easily mimicked that he'd do it himself, one of the only human beings I've ever known who could, with perfect success, actually play himself, self-parody--to the enjoyment of everyone else. He was, in his old age and even from the pulpit, a rubber crutch. People loved him, even those who didn't like him. He'd tell skeptical conservatives that they could rest easily because he knew how to control those liberal professors. And when the professors heard they were, by his description, little more than circus animals, they'd be mad.

But not for long. No one could stay mad too long at the first Pres.  He didn't know how to handle people, he simply did it.  He was a leader by instinct and character. He didn't try to write a manual on leadership that I know of; he was too busy leading. And, well, there would be no college without him.

The second Pres didn't light up a room like the first, but he was, oddly enough, vastly more Presidential. When he walked in, you just knew he was there. Sincere, trusting, moderate, judicious, he led by example, by precept, by principle, because he was, first of all, a deeply principled man, a preacher--like the first--who sang the praises of the mission of the college as if that mission were the very gospel. People loved both the first Pres and the second, but for slightly different reasons. Pres 1 was loved for the richness, the depth, of his ebullient personality, like a friend. People loved Pres 2 out of profound respect, like a father.

Pres 3 was the quintessential office manager, a man who loved the trappings of the presidency almost as much as he did the college itself.  He loved to meet with others who, like him, were college Presidents. He enjoyed accumulating the sky miles that kept him traveling first class. When he left the pulpit for the presidency, he left pastoring behind to become the college's first real CEO.  He was an executive blessed with managerial skills and cool intelligence, a man whose estimable virtues may well have outweighed his personality and character. Thus, he didn't light up a room. Scholarly and well-studied, he had to work at relationships; they didn't come easily. He was committed to making the institution less rough-hewn than it was when he took office, and thus, he determined, more marketable, as it had to be if it were going to continue to exist. He managed a school that was slowly but inevitably losing its fundamental constituency.

Pres 4 officially takes office today, even though there are those who would say he's been the functional dynamo around the campus for the last several years. In certain ways, he could be the first Pres's own son.  His gifts include an ebullient personality, a sharp sense of humor, and a penchant for long hours of hard work.  Like Pres 1, he loves pressing flesh. He is, or so it seems to me, the most practiced politician. The college will, I'm sure, stay on solid financial footing in the years ahead because he'll see to it. It is, after all, first and foremost a business; and this new Pres loves, as did his predecessor, running a business. The first Pres loved his people, the second loved the mission, and the third loved the office.  The fourth, whose mission begins this morning, is still young; what he loves is probably yet to be determined.  Right now, or so it seems, it may well be leadership itself, his specialty.

He takes control at a critical time in higher education in America, a time when the financial horrors of the first decade of the 21st century has made the excesses of the last few decades look like decadence, when students graduate with monumental debt basically because they've demanded luxuries the college itself couldn't afford not to have. What's more, even in education, technology is creating a new landscape, offering a plethora of degrees you can achieve, simply enough, on a smartphone.

The fourth Pres has his work cut out for him. He will need to exercise the leadership he's studied.

In 1961, my oldest sister determined that rather than follow the family's own educational heritage and go off to college in Michigan, she'd head to northwest Iowa. Her choice didn't make mine inevitable, but had she not trudged off to Siouxland, I certainly wouldn't have five years later.  In a way, I never left, so I've seen and known and worked for all four.

This morning, academically dressed for the occasion, I'll walk with the professors and a few emerita like myself; but I'll walk at more of a distance than I've ever had, a position, quite frankly, I like.  

This morning of the inauguration of the new Pres, I give my morning thanks for him, his commitment, his drive, his charms, his vision--with the hope and prayer that he will, like the others, leave a distinct and beloved legacy with those the institution serves and the God who wants nothing but the best of our love and praise.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Reading Mother Teresa

By nature I suppose, I’m not someone given to making blanket generalizations. Life, to me at least, is too complicated, too many-cornered, too rife with paradox, seeming contradictions that are not.

No matter. Here’s one I dare make—every Christian believer understands the absolute importance of taking care of the poor, the voiceless, the powerless. Love is the great commandment, and that love is expressed most clearly in giving one’s life for others. We all know that. No one can read the gospels—no one can read the Bible itself—and not know that Christ’s teaching in the Matthew 25 parable of sheep and goats is ever at the heart of things.

But here’s the rub. How? The difficulty arises in how we help those in need. Tuesday night, two Presidential candidates, both of whom confess Jesus, went to the mat for 90 minutes on just that question without much agreement.

On February 16, 1949, after attempting to find a place for the ministry to the poor that she'd just begin in Calcutta, Mother Theresa wrote this entry, redolent with her character, into her diary.
I went to meet the landlord of 46 Park Circus. The man never turned up. I am afraid I liked the place too much—and our Lord just wants me to be a “Free Nun,” covered with the poverty of the Cross. But today I learned a good lesson—the poverty of the poor must be often so hard for them. When I went round looking for a home, I walked and walked till my legs and arms ached. I thought how they must also ache in body and soul looking for home, food, help. Then the temptation grew strong. The palace buildings of the Loreto came rushing into my mind. All the beautiful things and comforts—in a word, everything. “You have only to say a word and all that will be yours again,” the tempter kept saying. Of free choice, My God, and out of love for you, I desire to remain and do whatever be Your Holy Will in my regard. I did not let a single tear come, even if I suffer more than now. I still want to do your Holy Will. This is the dark night of the birth of our Society. My God give me courage now, this moment, to persevere in following your Will.
That entry is not short on theological perception; after all, the tempter himself makes a skulking appearance. But what I find remarkable is her willingness to associate her own fears and anger that day with the perceived experience of those who daily suffer from the dishonor of broken promises, empty cupboards, and leaky roofs. Her own personal distress that day actually led her into considering anew the distress of others, those less fortunate. Instead of gathering her own spite into a fist, she reaches out for others, sees them more clearly in her own distress. 

It’s a gorgeous little story, really, a story she didn’t mean to tell us, a story she simply recorded has her personal testimony after a very trying day.

Still, without a doubt, it brought her closer to the poor and the destitute, the people she wanted to serve. Her empathy, amply demonstrated here, was the starting point for her mission, as, in a better world, it should be for more of us, me very much included.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

In the ring

I saw five minutes of the first debate while seated at a gate in the Salt Lake City airport.  I didn't need any more.  It was obvious from that five minutes that Gov. Romney trounced the President. From my seat on the plane to Fresno, I texted my wife--"Who won the debate?" I said.  "Romney," she wrote.  Just one word.

Where the President was on the night of the first debate will be a wonderful question for journalists and, eventually, historians. Clearly, he wasn't there, and Romney was. No one, really, could possibly say that Obama edged Romney. Obama got killed. His only defense was Romney falsehoods, a card played by  most Democratic spinners.

Round #2 brought two middle-heavyweights into the ring--Joe Biden, an eye-rolling kind of guy with a huge smile, and Paul Ryan, a Republican self-described "young gun," widely admired for a mind like a calculator when it comes to the budget. I fully expected the wonk-ish Ryan to walk all over the fire-breather, the Factman to cut the old guy to pieces, death by a million cuts.  

Did he?  Depends on who you ask.

And then last night.  Obama was no longer mild-mannered Clark Kent, but his own version of Superman.  Mitt was quick and forceful, but woody, as in "binders full of women." Yucch.  It was a brawl like no other debate I remember, a bloody street fight between two sometimes nearly hysterical men who are very passionate about their very pronounced political differences. Once more, I fully expected Romney to win--maybe not bloodily, like Round #1, but win.

Did he?  Depends on who you ask.

It seems to me we're blessed with two strong candidates for the American Presidency, and those two strong candidates have strong backing. Not that long ago people were basically tired of what seemed to be political choices between tweedle-dee and tweedle-dum, candidates whose political views were relatively similar.

No longer. This November there is a vivid choice. 

I'm not sure exactly how many "undecideds" were in that Hofstra lecture hall last night, but I can't help but wonder whether there were any more, anywhere in America. We're down to a few, I'd guess, because we're a divided nation, the chasm widening weekly as we slam along toward the first Tuesday of next month.

Spin zones notwithstanding, I think it's fair to say, just as it was after Round #2, that everyone thinks his or her man won last night.  

The bases are stronger after that last night's bruiser, even here in Iowa, where Michele Bachmann--remember her?--long ago took home the crown in the Ames Straw Poll foolishness. Hawkeye Republicans should thank their lucky stars for Mitt Romney.

My guess?  Round #4--the last face-off--will create similar results.  

Who will walk out less bloodied?  It'll depend on who you ask.

Just about all of us have our minds made up.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Where the river bends

Mitt would count them in his column, I'm sure.  After all, they certainly aren't part of the 47% of us who leech off the nanny state.  No, sireee.  Ain't nobody in the bunch who doesn't pull his own weight.  I'm talking about the beavers up stream from our place, a community of folks who've been doing what beavers have been doing for hundreds, maybe thousands of years, damning the river.  You can see it here just around the curve to the west, a bunch of stones they must have dragged into the flow, as well as a ton of brush.

Here it is up close.

They've been busy, well, as beavers are, I suppose. Of course, building a dam is a matter of survival; they're not just looking to make a lake for their jet skis.  The dam is the means by which they stay alive--they've got to get the river up high enough so that, under water, they can get into the dens they make in the banks and keep out whatever unwelcome guests may saunter into the neighborhood. It's hard work, but they do it, like decent hard-working Americans. Welfare's a dirty word.

Here's their Highway 60. I've never spotted a one of them, but you can't help but be impressed by their infrastructure.  This path is theirs, almost big enough to drive a truck through.

Well-kept streets and roads are required to get their raw materials dragged down to water, and right there where the Floyd takes an about face there are but few trees, maybe a couple dozen saplings, most of them now chewed off and lugged down this path, then set in place in the dam. Look here at what's left all those young trees, everyone of them gnawed down to spear points.

So much for the saplings. But it has to be done, and they'll grow back.

You know, I'm not totally sure they're so much in Mitt's column as they are in Obama's.  After all, there are no fat cats here, not a fancy Lexus in sight. Truth be known, they share the same holes, the same dens--how unAmerican is that?  They're far more Hutterite, far more Lakota than Tea Party-ers; and if any of them ever read Ayn Rynd, it's clear that she made no disciples because the only way to stay alive for this bunch of nose-to-the-grinders is to work together, communitarian-like.  Shoot, why not use the C-word?  These neighbors of ours, these beavers, are really communists, which means they've got to be for Obama.  You just don't build something like this without working together, and I don't think there's an office out there for Bain Capital. I'm not sure, but they may even be union. Okay, that's may be going too far.

I can stand up here above all their hard work and look over miles and miles of rich Iowa farmland, an eco-system of tall-grass prairie now largely gone.  Once upon a time it covered an expanse of grassland a couple of states-wide, like nothing Lewis and Clark had ever seen before.  Today, that eco-system is 99% vanished.  Today it's all Big Macs and ethanol and agri-business.

But the beaver are still here. There's something about that I like.  

Long, long ago, some French-speaking trapper might have stopped and set camp right here where the Floyd once decided to take a sharp right hand turn on its wily course to the Missouri. Right here, once upon a time, when buffalo still roamed, that French trapper might have stood right where I did yesterday and figured he could get himself a hide or two out of this sweet river bend.  Maybe he wasn't French.  Maybe he was Yankton Sioux, looking for pelts to trade to the Frenchman. 

The world has changed here immensely. This year, the harvest is almost completely in, almost a month early. The fields are bare naked all around.

But I rather like the fact that just up river a piece from the place where we live, a gang of beavers is still around, busy as beavers always are, backing up a goodly chunk of river that's become much deeper than the trickle they send merrily downstream.  Look here for yourself. All that hard work is purposeful.

They're still here. I don't know that they'll pay much attention to the debate.  Westel doesn't bring cable out into the country, so these folks would have to have Direct TV and I saw no steely receivers in the long grass. Of course, the Floyd beavers have already seen a lot in their time--the coming of the white man, floods and drought, maybe even an ox-bow or two or three. What's another debate? another election?

They're still here. Look for yourself. They're still doing what beavers do, what they've always done.  

I like that.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Foul mouths and wooden shoes

I swear I'm not foul-mouthed. 

But, truth be known, some of my students through the years would likely admit that at certain times, here and there perhaps, a four-letter word or two has been known to find its way out of me and into the public square.  Not often, but okay, yes, once in a while. I'm a sinner.

My Ph.D. dissertation was a novel, and when my academic committee surveyed the work, I passed with flying colors--with one memorable criticism:  two of the committee members claimed that I wasn't particularly good at swearing.  Whether or not that's true, I don't know--it's a judgment about self I'm not particularly adept at making. But if it's true, my parents would be proud.  I don't know that I ever heard either of them swear--use profanity, that is. Now and then--but very rarely--a vulgarity.  Maybe a tempered shit.

I say that because I think I understand what I read in the Des Moines Register last week, in a story about Tom Mihalovich, a man I've never met, who was--emphasis on was--the football coach at Lincoln High right there in the capital city.  Was.  The school board fired him, I guess, after he punished some ball player of his who made unsavory remarks about the football team on Facebook. Mostly, that's the way it went.

Punished means the kid having to run and run and run--something some people called abuse, which is not a word any teacher or coach wants anywhere near his resume.  Mihalovich got ousted, if I read the story right, even though were tons of folks at that school board meeting singing--even screaming--his praises.

What worked against his cause, apparently, was a report that documented wholesale cussing.  Mihalovich was, at least by some accounts, given to significantly foul rants.

But, some argued, "Hey, he's a football coach," the implication being that when you coach football the world issues you a licence to cut loose, football players being real men and everyone knows what real men are like.

As I said, I don't know Tom Mihalovich at all, and I have no opinion on whether or not he should have been fired.

But I got a huge kick out of a comment made by his lawyer, Jeffrey Krausman, who played the free speech card in Mihalovich's defense--to wit, that his client had a right to his own free speech. Krausman insinuated that most coaches have foul mouths, that if Mihalovich went down for a few naughty words, every coach in the state would find their jobs in jeopardy.

Here's his line, directly from the Register story:  "At one point, Mihalovich’s attorney, Krausman, addressed the cursing with this line: 'If you fire every coach in Iowa who swears, we will have one coach left -- perhaps the synchronized swimming coach in Pella.'"

What he meant and what the Register reporter understood, along with the whole angry crowd presumably, is that only those priggish Pella people refrain from blue language.  I doubt it's true, of course.  I'm guessing that right there on the floor of Pella Windows or Vermeer or whatever, one might well hear a four-letter or two or three, if the timing's right and you listen closely.

The shot he playfully took at the mythical Pella swimming coach is, in reality, an ethnic slur.  "Whatcha' want anyway?--a bunch of holy roller Dutch Calvinists coaching your kids?"

I can't help but laugh. I'm not from Pella, but I'm part of that ethnic slur, really, being thoroughgoing Dutch Calvinist and, to boot, a sometimes-novelist who was once told by other novelists that I wasn't much good at swearing.

I'm part and parcel of a tribe of people who are apparently known, state-wide, for clean living and clean mouths. 

Well, I got news, Mr. Smart-mouth Krausman.  If that's the worst you can do, I can live with that.  All I have to say is, "Just pardon the clunk of my wooden shoes as they run over you."

I don't want any part of a reputation for self-righteousness, and goodness knows me and my tribe have been blamed for a ton of that, not without cause; but righteousness is no crime.

I say hooray for that mythical Pella synchronized swimming coach.  What's more, I bet fielded a great team, dang it.

Oops. Shouldn't have said that.