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.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Sunday Morning Meds--the Valley of the Shadow

 “. . .though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death. . .”

Only once in my life have I walked through the valley of the shadow, and that was a few  years ago, when I sat for several days at the bedside of my father who was dying.  I knew it, even though the doctors and nurses wouldn’t say it and my family couldn’t believe it—after all, what had brought him to the hospital was only searing back pain.
But I knew he wasn’t going to step out of that bed on his own again because in the time that I spent with him, he became less and less communicative, less and less there.  We never had a final talk.  We never spoke in that blissful way that most of us fantasize might occur in the final moments we share with those we love.

I helped him when he needed to drink, when he needed to urinate, when he felt deep pain; but honestly I don’t think he knew I was there—or who was there.  The intensity of the pain and the effort his body was mounting simply to stay alive drew all of his strength and will and consciousness. 

Only those who’ve been there will understand what I mean when I say that those days were among the best days of my life.  Maybe things weren’t said that could or should have been; and, sure, if I could rewrite the scene, I would.  But I don’t remember another time in our lives together when I simply sat beside him, the man who had given me life itself—and always loved me, even when I didn’t deserve it.

A man came in one afternoon, a man from my father’s church.  I knew him from my childhood, of course, but he wouldn’t have been the man I thought the church might send.  He was my father’s district elder, and it was his job, I know, to visit him.  But he was there.  When he stopped by, I told him my father likely wouldn’t know he was there.

But that didn’t stop him.  This burly guy I remember as a truck driver walked up to the bedside, took my father’s hand, and spoke to him as if my father understood every last word, even tried to engage him in conversation that didn’t have a chance of starting.  And when he realized that, this burly angel of mercy simply kept talking himself, told my father that throughout his own life he’d always looked up to Dad, told him how as far as he was concerned, my father was one of those men he’d call truly Godly, how much he’d meant to him, a model of a Christian.

A big man with his hair square as a GI, a guy I had some trouble thinking of as an elder, a man I don’t know that I’d ever spoken to before—that man looked into my father’s agonized face, held my father’s hand, and told him in no uncertain terms that as far as he was concerned, my father had modeled Jesus Christ in Oostburg, Wisconsin.

And then he backed away from my father’s bed, looked at me, shook my hand, and left, wiping tears from his eyes. 

I honestly don’t know whether any of that got into my father’s mind, whether he heard those words or picked up a hint of the warmth of the big hand that held his.  My guess is that he didn’t, but I don’t know.  The nurses told me they’d often been surprised by what people in my father’s condition did hear.

But I know I heard it—every single word of that truck driver’s testimony, and I reminded of it now when I read this verse of this beloved psalm: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for thou art with me.”

What I know is that that day, he sent my father and me a truck driver.  

Friday, March 29, 2013

Wonksters--A Good Friday meditation

In this morning's New York Times, David Brooks, in an article titled "The Empirical Kids," quotes extensively from a student paper he received in a class he's teaching at Yale. The student, Victoria Buhler, he says, is examining herself and her generation, kids who are heirs of "the aughts," a decade that took us from Sept. 11 through the deepest economic woes since the 30s.  

That kind of social analysis is always interesting, even if--and when--the landscape artists who produce them end up eventually having been wretchedly out of focus. Victoria Buhler may well be wrong, but she's writing as one of them, a child of the generation that came of age in a decade that featured significant American misfortunes.

Brooks says that much of what Ms. Buhler says in the paper is of interest, documenting, as it does, her and their vision.  She claims that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, for instance, along with the moral fervor that created those commitments, have made her generation wary and skeptical of not only of armed action abroad, but also of the moral arguments used to legitimize those actions--and thus, moral arguments themselves. 

He says she says that America's financial misfortunes have made her generation equally wary of believing in capitalism because corporations created the long and wearying mess we're still digging out of.

What happened when her generation came of age, she says, simply killed off the idealism otherwise typical of young people.  Not only was the recession a horror, the Arab Spring--a phenomenon so full of promise--has led nowhere, and the Occupy movement died of terminal atrophy. So much for hope.

Brooks ends with this sad note:  
I had many reactions to Buhler’s dazzling paper, but I’d like to highlight one: that the harsh events of the past decade may have produced not a youth revolt but a reversion to an empiricist mind-set, a tendency to think in demoralized economic phrases like “data analysis,” “opportunity costs” and “replicability,” and a tendency to dismiss other more ethical and idealistic vocabularies that seem fuzzy and, therefore, unreliable. After the hippie, the yuppie and the hipster, the cool people are now wonksters.
To a guy who is irretrievably "late 60s," such change signals a kind of apocalypse.  Brooks says he gave her an A.  She deserves it.

And, if she's right, we might well conclude, even and maybe especially on this Good Friday, that the rest of us deserve her generation's blighted perceptions. 

Thursday, March 28, 2013

"Go for it"

So an ex-student claims he's thinking seriously of becoming either a Roman Catholic or a Pentecostal, some kind of odd choice for a Christian Reformed kid maybe, but somehow understandable--and besides, somewhere on God's green earth there must be a contingent of spirit-filled Catholics. When it comes to religion, things of faith, despite what the Millennials and the post-moderns say, there's really nothing new under the sun. It's all been done. It's just that we haven't done 'em.

I've got a friend who most Sundays worships, high church, with the Anglicans; but when he gets the chance, he says, he swings across town and bangs his guitar in a praise band in some local RCA, among folks who must be happy to have him, if only for his guitar.

An old couple in Michigan--I read this yesterday--just got married. They were sweethearts sixty-some years ago, the newspaper said, but she broke it off because she was Catholic and he was Christian Reformed and never the twain should meet, or whatever, back then. She determined she couldn't spend her life with an unholy Protestant, so there were tears. Each went on to have his or her own family.  She raised nine kids. And then, when the spouses were gone, sixty years later, the old guy went after her again, as if she was always the real thing, his prized Rachel in the bargain of life.

The two of them are happy because now, ostensibly, the old religious differences don't carry much weight. Who really cares about transubstantiation when you're 85?  Seriously. The story says they took a trip to Europe when they were 80 years old, sleeping in the same room, I suppose. He asked her to marry him at a restaurant atop the Eiffel Tower. I'm not making this up.

Somewhere along the line did they lose their faith or did it just grow?  What is faith anyway?

It's Holy Week, Easter Week.  Started with Palm Sunday, today is Maundy Thursday, tomorrow's Good Friday, then comes Holy Saturday, and, of course, on the main stage, Easter Sunday.  Amid the week's extravagant religious wardrobe, M,T,W go bare naked, I guess.

Yesterday, SCOTUS entertained arguments on same-sex marriage (should that be upper case or not?).  Yesterday, the Christianity Today on-line edition headlined with "If the Supreme Court legalizes Same-Sex Marriage, What Next?"

It's a tough question for evangelicals, who put a lot of stock into demonizing the sympathizers. There's no easy answers either.

Somehow, given my guitar-pickin' friend, my ex-student who wants so badly to experience Christ, and those two old farts renewing vows they never took suggests, at least to me, that the legalization of same sex marriage won't mean the end of faith. Faith exists in so many varieties it makes Heinz look monochrome.

Me?--this Dutch Calvinist spends his Holy Week off-hours reading Mother Teresa, utterly amazed that a nun who may well have been the most honored woman in the world, whose ministries on the streets of Calcutta made her, literally, a saint, actually spent long and dark decades of her life believing herself abandoned by the Jesus she so loved she thought of herself as nothing less than "the bride of Christ."

I don't desire to be a mystic, and I'm guessing I'm just about as Spirit-filled as I'll ever be; but I love reading about her, going slack-jawed at her confessions of deep and true doubt, this saint, this actual saint. 

Mother Teresa, for most of her life, suffered the agony of believing that Jesus Christ had turned his back on her, despite the fact that she coveted like nothing else the ultimate prize-- true atonement.  She wanted literally to be at one with Christ, to be Him, to give her body, her self, away, and become Him.  "Let the people eat you up," she told her Sisters. She didn't want to be like him. She didn't want simply to serve him.  She didn't want to do his work. She wanted to be him, to refuse to be anyone but Him, not even herself. She wanted to die to the sin that was herself because she wanted so badly to be one with the Lord Jesus. And she thought he wouldn't have her. All of this behind the curtain.

Once upon a time, my mother had a Pentecostal friend, the wife of CRC preacher, who could and did, quite successfully, I guess, speak in tongues. My mother said she wanted to experience Christ like that, so this friend told her that glossolalia wasn't all that difficult.  "Just open your mouth and let it come," she said.  My mother opened her mouth--I'l never forget that image as she told me.

But there was no words there, not even any mumbling. Didn't work. No tongues flowed from her soul, and she felt somehow bereft.

It's Holy Week for all kinds of seekers, me included, all kinds of lookers and shoppers, men and women hungry for some kind of fulfillment. We're all looking really.  The only ones I don't know if I trust are those who claim to have found it all.

So what are we to make of that old couple, who told the reporter who wrote their story that, now that the two of them were back together, their mantra had become "Go for it"?  I don't know where they go to church.

How do you make sense of all of that religion? 

It's Holy Week. I suppose we do what we can. All of us, we look around and do what we can.  It's always there.  And He is, even if the best of us thinks he's not.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Morning Thanks--50 degrees

We've never had a fireplace before moving to this old house, and we rather like it, even though it's probably more work than its worth, heating-wise.  But March has been January, an endless January this year. On Sunday I walked to the hiking trails just west of our place but saw very little of the world I was in until I got into the trees.  Mostly, my head was down like a mourner, my watery eyes on the whatever was beneath my feet because a stinging, constant northwest wind--with us for a month, at least, it seemed--just about sculpted my face into a perpetual frown. And let me remind you, Sunday was, via the calendar, a couple days after the first day of spring.

So last week we went through a bunch of wood, not because we needed the heat but because, dang it, it felt darn good when the thermometer registered the kind of paralyzing temps it's been doing with sickening regularity.  This little fire took the edge off the cold two nights ago, when once again the world outside our door was chillin' in single digits.  

We may well get ourselves a fireplace in the new place, because there's something really sweet and pleasant about sitting in front of one, once come those chills march in. The fact is, I rather like it snapping away, as long as it doesn't put too many ember-scars in the Wal-Mart rug we've got down in front of the screen.  It's cool because it's not.  

But yesterday in Sioux City, Iowa, March 26, 2013, the temperature actually edged above 40 for first time in a thousand months. It may well be a gamble to hope, but I'm guessing that maybe, just maybe, spring will finally come to free us from the prison we've been in for far too long.  

We haven't suffered, really.  I mean, this hasn't been an awful winter, the really big storms veering north--and south!--and avoiding us, for the most part.  We had one bad Sunday when the fireplace roared and we never got out a step.  Only once could I take the grandkids out on tubes behind the four-wheeler. Otherwise, the snow's been manageable--I didn't have to hire anyone to dig us out of this wonderful old farm place. 

But it's been waaaaaaaaaaaay long.  It's been forever.  And I, for one, am willing to call this pretty little fire here our last for the winter, if, quid pro quo, we can finally peel back the layers and walk out into sweet spring warmth.  Wouldn't that be great?  The warm joy of the fireplace, for just a little of it outside.

I know--come July, I'll be wishing for November.  

No matter.  This morning's thanks are for spring, assuming we'll really get it.  Today?--maybe, just maybe, 50 big bright bold degrees. Maybe.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Civil War--150 years ago

Colonel James Montgomery believed, fiercely, that the end of slavery was not going to happen unless the South was totally humiliated, defeated not just militarily but emotionally, simply ravished.  He carried out a series of raids that some, both under and above him in command, found distasteful, even reprehensible.  He believed so dearly in the cause of abolition that he, like John Brown, simply assumed violence was the only antidote.  

Was he right?

Montgomery headed up an outfit of African-American recruits from Florida to accompany the First South Carolina Volunteers (also African-American) and began training his men not far from Jacksonville just about now, 150 years ago. According to William Lee Apthorp, himself an officer in the unit, because Montgomery received no government provisions for his men, he was forced to grab what he and they could eat from the locals. 

They ventured up the St. Johns River one morning and stopped at the plantation of a man named Col. Stephen Bryant, who had, according to the 1860 census, owned about 100 slaves. Montgomery told his troops that they weren't supposed to be swiping the wherewithal of ordinary civilians, but--he likely winked and nodded--"should those pigs and turkeys attack, you simply must defend yourselves." And they did, mightily.

When they left the Bryant plantation, arms full of provisions, they took the Colonel with them, an act which angered his wife greatly. Apthorp remembers that she pleaded decorously with Col. Montgomery, but then, failing to persuade him, she let loose a sailor's tirade that Apthorp couldn't help but remember. "She 'hated them from the bottom of her soul,'" he says in his memoir.  "She despised and abhorred them. She hoped every one of them would go to hell, that they would sink down into the bottomless pit and...much more of similarly Christian and unrefined language which I could not repeat."

Many of the Black recruits had been with Montgomery only a few days.  Most of their time was spent in training; they just been given firearms. They couldn't help hearing.

Mrs. Bryant would not stop her frantic, expletive-laden harangue. She thought it beyond human decency for them to carry Colonel Bryant away, separating husband and wife, and she told them as much in language that was, apparently, quite unbecoming.

One of the black soldiers told her that she might consider how the war had separated them too, as husbands and wives. 

"She regarded the comparison as preposterous beyond expression," Apthorp says in his memoir. “'Your wives?" she screamed back.  "'What are your wives but nasty old black things?'”

At that point, Apthorp says, "It required a stern word of command to restrain the men."

Colonel James Montgomery believed that the institution of slavery was so abhorrent and so deeply ingrained in the souls of white Southerners that only abject humiliation, only scorched earth would teach them moral truth.  He believed that "nothing short of a totally crushing defeat and annihilation of their army can seriously injure them."

Was he a hero or a beast?

All of that was 150 years ago, just up the St. Johns River from Jacksonville, Florida.  

Bryant's plantation is long gone. Today, it's suburb. Apthorp, from Iowa, stayed in Florida and made maps.

Col. James Covington, the fiery abolitionist Jayhawker, a preacher before and after the war, went back to Kansas.  Historians are still not sure what to do with him.

And neither am I.  

Monday, March 25, 2013

Morning Thanks--Holy Week

File:Folio 173v - The Entry into Jerusalem.jpg

Yesterday, at church, I was reminded that this is Holy Week--Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, then, next Sunday, Easter.  I hadn't been thinking of it.  

But then, I grew up in the Reformation's 400-year afterglow, distrusting just about anything remotely "Roman Catholic" and eschewing, like my people, ritual excess of all kinds.  The folks I grew up among preferred bare minimums in church, no soloists, no praise bands, no banners, maybe a few panes of stained glass but certainly no stations of the cross.  We weren't Puritans, per se, but our churches and our liturgies were scrubbed clean and purged of formalities.  

I never heard of Maundy Thursday until I was thirty, at least. When I was a boy, we would have thought such exacting ritual to be as excessive as fish on Fridays. Maundy Thursday--I still had to look it up to spell it correctly--wasn't part of our way of our ritual, part of our worship tradition. I think we would have thought it strange--or foreign--to have someone wash our feet, in part because bare feet in church, we might well have considered gauche.  I grew up in a mightily religious family, but no one ever called these seven days "Holy Week."

But that doesn't mean we didn't know such things.  On Good Friday, at noon, the church bells rang and there was no school.  That I remember.  For three hours Daane Hardware locked its doors, just as did Stuart Mentink at IGA, John Daane at Red Owl, and one of the Wykhuises at their grocery.  The Wooden Shoe restaurant across the street doused its grill, I'm sure, and  although I don't remember exactly, I'm betting Flipse's didn't tap a beer either. In town, everything stopped for three hours.

That memory has some profundity; it lies in solemn state in my soul, really.

In the Philipines, I've read, pious believers make a practice of visiting seven churches on Maundy Thursday, a practice calle Visita Iglesia.  It's likely been done hither and yon already these days, but if it hasn't it might be a sweet idea in towns like the ones down the road, where there are plenty more than seven churches not all that far from each other.  

Ritual--our religious practice--can be a nest of hooks because it sustains as well as mortifies. It's confusing to some and patently ridiculous to others.  These days new "with-it" churches are built on the ashes of burned-out walls created by what are, to some, confining, lifeless rituals.

In the Netherlands, a country that would describe itself, I think, as deeply secular, everything closes down on Pinkster, Pentecost.  It's true.  Here in deeply religious Sioux County, a colony of the descendants of Holland's own most orthodox Protestants, Pentecost gets a mention on Sunday, I'm sure, but little else.

Or how about this?--Canada, I'm told, a country far less religious than the U.S., has no school on Good Friday. Here, even Christian schools don't shut their doors.

I'm not sure what practices Mother Teresa ritualized, come Holy Week, but anyone who believed in the traditional mission of the church as deeply as she did, I'm sure lived by whatever rituals were mandated or even suggested. She lived in liege to the church really, and I expect that if we would have a log book of her Maundy Thursday practice, all kinds of penitence would be there in boldface.

But then, few Christians I know have been as devoted to sacrifice as she was.

When Jesus suffered on the cross, she argued, "even his own father didn't claim Him as his son." God himself rejected Jesus "because God cannot accept sin and Jesus had taken on sin."
"Do you realize," she told her sisters in the order, "that when you accept the vows you accept the same fate as Jesus?"

It's a hybrid theology she uses here, a theology that emerges from her reading of Christ's passion, as well as the experience of her own profound loss of faith.  She wants to be him, to bear his suffering, not for him--she knows that's not possible--but simply to be like him, to be Jesus.

And to do that, she needs to suffer, even the rejection of the Father.  I'm beginning to understand her, and I respect her greatly.  But I don't believe her.

There are mysteries this week, mysteries we cannot know. And I'm thankful, this Monday morning of this Holy Week, for what she did, what she stood for, and what she became--thankful for what she thought and said and did.  

I don't share her perceptions or her theology, but it's been good, in this early morning darkness, to try to understand her, which is also, of course, to try to understand those mysteries, those profound mysteries of this and every Holy Week of the year. 

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Sunday Morning Meds-- Restoration

“He restores my soul”

My wife claims she created some chuckling a week or so ago, when, at a Bible study on Revelation, she told the faithful, in all honesty, that when she thought of heaven, she dreamed of a lakeside cabin in northern Minnesota—maybe not in January.
Northern Minnesota may not be everyone's view of heaven, but I know why she said it.
A friend of mine told me a week ago about his daughter, who lives all the way across the state.  She and her family have had more than their share of problems—a child with a chronic illness, some long-term unemployment, some scrambling for jobs.  This daughter, carting her kids to school one day, called him from the side of a freeway.  Her van had broken down.  This friend is a mechanic, but he was also 300 miles away.
I could have never guessed how much time and energy a parent can expend worrying about adult children, probably because as an adult child one is pretty much oblivious to how much worry you cause.  Our children have also run into their share of problems—unemployment, physical and mental strain, scrambling for jobs.  And we worry.  Good night, do we worry.
Meanwhile, we’re busy with our own lives—jobs, responsibilities.  I’m a church elder; don’t ask me if I’m keeping up.  I’m on the road too often, and I’ve always got student papers to read, papers that I should hand back tomorrow. 
My father died last year; I really should visit my mother more often, but she’s 500 miles away.  My wife’s parents aren’t as well as they’d like to be.  Like many others, we’re sandwiched.
So for the first time in thirty years, my wife and I slipped silently away to a rented cabin in Minnesota last month, spent five days—we’re not talking summer here—spent five days away in a north woods resplendent in fall colors.  The weather was perfect, the leisure was divine (forgive me, but my wife isn't wrong--it was heavenly). 
I was—we were—restored. 
For believers, Psalm 23, I’m convinced, is all about maintenance.  Shepherd that he is, he leads me beside still waters, he makes me lie down, he takes care of me. 
Television and politics lie—life itself is not bowl of cherries or box of chocolates.  Endless stuff just has to be done, and too often, it seems, we stub our toes and get those dang paper cuts.  We start sagging and parts of us fall out.  My back hurts every morning.  Bladders weaken.  It ain’t pretty.
But he gives us these moments at cabins in Minnesota.  He restores us, inside out.  The Lord God almighty blesses us by holding us in a huge cupped hand that fits better than any love seat or hammock.  He does it, just as David attests.  When we’re beat up and beat on, as all of us can be, he restores our very soul.          

Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Iceman Cometh

Our neighbor, who's lived here his whole life, says it's a phenomenon that's never happened before in all his years and he's had 60 of them.  An inch-and-a-half of rain fell on a frozen river a week ago, melting things apace--well, not apace but so swiftly the flow got profuse for a while and in the process broke up mammoth chunks of frozen river, carrying them along until it belched them up on the banks, huge chunks, some of them a ton more more, icebergs.  

I swear, last summer, you could have walked across the Floyd and not wet a knee.  But all of a sudden the river is one grand, icy mess, wearing a huge dirty collar of ice chunks and all kinds of refuse, even an tractor-tube from who knows where.  

The Floyd River isn't what anyone would call sweet right now, but if it dresses up like a hobo only once-in-fifty-years you gotta take in the show.  

Strange.  Remarkable.  Amazing, really.  Weird, even goofy.  Stunning, in its own odd way. 

The iceman cometh.

Friday, March 22, 2013

A Good Life--Morning Thanks

I don't know Wilson R. Thornley, but I know of him. He was a teacher somewhere out West, in Utah, in the 50s, I'd guess; but I know for sure that one of his students, a young girl named  Liane Ellison, picked up something worthwhile when he was holding forth in the classroom.

Mr. Thornley, a man with an unfortunate name, was likely anything but.

That flame of hair
rimming his head
cocked like a bird's
smile of sheer delight,
wizard with invisible

I wonder whether that description shows us Mr. Thornley as clearly as it does Liane Ellison.

in a high school class-
room at the end
of a hall with marble
floors and walls
to write with savory
detail, verve and clarity
to fit voice and breath.

I've been in enough schools to hazard a guess that there's one of these in just about every one, some man or woman lit with sweet and sufficient passion to strike up a flame in the hearts of her kids.  Mr. Thornley isn't exactly ubiquitous, but he--or she--isn't without parallel either.  He's just plain good at what he does.  Maybe his art is practiced, but then again maybe it isn't--he's simply gifted with desire.

And now, I think, the poem gets good.

He died long years ago
but came to my dream,
answered the fear
that I had done too
little to change the world,

I know that one, except it's not a dream; it's a ache.

Still, in that dream of hers, Mr. Wilson R. Thornley came down those hallowed halls to greet his old ex-student, Liane Ellison Norman,

tipped his head, said
You never know 
what it is you change.

Emphasis forgive-ably hers, by the way, not mine.

You never know what it is you change, he must have said at one time, that red flame of hair cocked like a bird's. 

That's the way the poem ends, but not the memory.

A young lady, a junior, stopped by after my night class this week to edge into the conversation the notion that maybe, just maybe, even at this late point in her college career, she might just want to be a teacher, a vocation she'd never before really thought about seriously.  "How was it?" she said, to an old man, semi-retired, who may well have spent far too many years in a classroom.

I don't know that anyone had ever asked me that question before.  I'm not even sure I'd thought about that kind of end-of-semester evaluation.

"Good," I told her.  "It was a good life."

Had an air of finality about it, that answer did, like a hot wax seal on an ivory-colored envelope carrying a note of considerable heft. I surprised myself, in a way.  

I don't know if she'll switch majors, but I walked away thinking that somehow I'd at least given her the right answer, the truth.

And it felt good that night, shutting the classroom door behind me.

And reading Liane Ellison Norman's poem the next day, this morning's thanks.

Thursday, March 21, 2013


On a plane, I'm a reader not a talker. In fact, I rather resent jabberers, warm-hearted folks, I'm sure, who make it their mission to discover wheres and whys about the bald man buckled uncomfortably into the seat belt beside them.  I know preachers who claim they do great evangelism on planes.  

Me?--I'm a reader with earphones, and I had a book I loved this time, Kent Haruf's new novel Benediction.  It's terrific.

But I never really got it out on that flight because the computer determined to make clear just exactly how much I need to lose weight by sending yet another meaty male, a guy in a Packer cap, into a skimpy seat designed for 160-pounders, both of us lugging along about a hundred more.  There we sat, a couple of tubs strapped in seats meant for the svelte.  

You got to laugh about that, so I did.  "It's a conspiracy," I said to the guy in the Packer cap.   The only way I could avoid rubbing shoulders with the guy was to lean halfway into the aisle.  You know.  There we sat, a couple of aging linebackers, packed-in Packers.

Mutual suffering brought us uncomfortably close, so I asked him about life up north. He loved hunting.  His family had lived up there for generations, he said, but he'd been born and reared elsewhere, then gone back up to his family's home place because he wanted to live in the woods, wanted to hunt and fish.  He was Irish Catholic, traced his lineage with a kind of glee, all the way back to immigration, when his great-grandparents were loggers.  He was a lawyer himself, a judge, in fact.

I liked him--he was ten years, maybe more, younger than me--and the jabber continued, painlessly.  I don't normally say much, but the guy was pleasant.

"Whatcha' doing down here?" I asked him after all the genealogy.

When he responded, it was somewhat grudgingly, something precious to his tone.  "My daughter's in treatment," he told me, in a tempered voice that was meant to say he wasn't going to lie.

I know something about treatment, I told him.  "I'm told we've got some of the finest programs in the country."  We do. 

He nodded.  

"One day at a time," I told him.  I made it clear that I know something about treatment.

"She's 21," he told me, "and this is not the first time."

The story didn't tumble out, but neither did it come out grudgingly. He started talking, not loud, but with some clear measure of relief, I thought.

His daughter's a mom, and he and his wife have her son because they don't know where the father is and they don't really care either.  Nor does he.  The judge in the Packer hat whirred through images on his smart phone--a cute kid, bundled up in a snow suit, not quite two.  Grandpa and Grandma have had him at their place for a long time already, this treatment business part of their daughter's court-ordered sentence, the place she was sent after jail time for theft, felonies, several of them--and more.  Among other things, she was stealing checks from her parents' checkbooks, forging them to herself--a felony, he said--then endorsing them--yet another felony, he told me.  Among other things, she was stealing from her parents, those who loved her most. 

The drugs she was taking alter the brain, he said, make her think only of what she needs now and not a thing about consequence.   

There was more, too, some that I didn't hear because no matter how uncomfortably close you're seated, intimacy goes at a premium on a plane and I just couldn't ask him to repeat it.  Still, the story lasted the whole flight; and by the end, by the time we were coasting in for landing, I asked him what he was thinking now about the weekend, how he thought things were going for her, this time, this treatment.  He'd been there with her for family stuff, therapy, part of the program, he said.

Back home, there'd been some kind of accident when she was high.  She'd wrecked her car, just like she'd been wrecking her life, ever since she was 16, he told me, addicted as she was to booze and whatever prescription drugs she could buy on the street. 

"You got reason to hope?" I asked him again.

"She told me it was her fault she wrecked the car," he said, and then he cried.  For the first time in that long recitation, tears fell from the linebacker in the Packer hat, the district judge.  "She's never ever talked to me like that before.  Never took any blame."

One day at a time, which is its own kind of benediction.

He's Irish Catholic, a "domer," he said, a graduate of Notre Dame.  Pious talk didn't come easily, but I told him I'd be praying for him come Wednesday, which was yesterday, the day he and his wife would meet their prodigal daughter at the airport, her own cute little boy in their arms.  "She misses her son," he told me, "misses him badly."

When I left him at the gate outside the plane, I told him we'd be praying--and we have. 

The next day, in Sunnyside, Washington, I spoke to a whole pack of middle-schoolers about writing, about stories, and about a man in Packer cap whose daughter is coming home to her son and her parents on Wednesday, and I told them they should pray too, and they promised they would.

One day at a time.

She signed on to a promise of 99 straight days of AA, 99 days in a row, he told me.  They'll have to bring her there, an hour-and-a-half away, but, he said, they'll find a way.

One day at a time.

We've been praying.  You may too.  I know he'd be pleased, and all of them in that family--grandpa and grandma, darling grandson, and prodigal daughter--all of them need the love of God, one day at a time.

As all of us do.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

First Day of Spring, sure

We're a long way from mud-luscious, somehow weeks from puddle-wonderful. Yesterday, the temps edged just a degree or two above freezing, but the sun was a proud and royal bridegroom; and even though it was way too cold to be Spring's Eve, the promise seemed to be there anyway.  It was coming.  There was no wind, the sky was pure, and you could almost say that drab winter was doing its most beloved disappearing act.  Sure, yards were still swept with snow.  Sure, here and there aged drifts still litter the place like dead sheep, as my friend Jim Heynen says; but with a big bright eye of heaven up above, it seemed--it really did--as if the sap might just be a'running soon.

This morning, First Day of Spring, we're locked up in January's fist, as if February was only illusion. The breezeway between rooms in this old house is a icy reminder that, outside, there's probably no running water anywhere to be found on the Floyd, and our winter visitors, those clumsy Canadian honkers, are utterly stymied.  Good night, they'll likely go back south, cussing out that lead bird for picking up that blankety-blank GPS at Wal-Mart instead of investing  in something reliable.

Last year--I could look it up, I'm sure--we got cheated in the opposite direction.  On the first days of spring the temps reached skyward--80 degrees, in fact--and talked almost every living thing into bursting forth into summer greens.  Last year the fruit trees donned their finest blossomy gossamer waaaaaaaaaay early, then lost every last petal when a winter blitzkrieg stormed in, as it can, like a biblical plague.  We had a gorgeous March, but we paid for it in apples--we had none.  Our ash trees had to regenerate leaves, start over when the buds, the first fruits, froze dead.

Doesn't help to say it either, to see it written somewhere--that it's the First Day of Spring.  Doesn't help at all.  Just makes me owly, growly.  Cold weather, winter weather, is going to last all week, according to the weatherman--all frickin' week.  Who'd want that job anyway? Harbinger of horror.

I'm mad.  It's not supposed to be this way.  "Spring shows what God can do with a drab and dirty world," someone once wrote.  I'm okay with that, if He'd only do it. Did he fall asleep at the wheel?  Would someone please remind the Creator of Heaven and Earth that the calender, ours, says it's the First Day of Spring.

I already packed away the long johns. I thought I'd lit the fireplace for the last time, and I'm just about out of wood.  I've seen robins.  The river actually broke up last week.  What are we waiting for?  It isn't right.  This morning, it's way, way, waaaaaaaaaaaaay too cold.

Or how about this:  "deep roots never doubt that spring will come."  Well, pardon me for living. Call me shallow then, go ahead. Make me an unbeliever.  Think of me as some kind of cheap, noxious weed.  

Just warm the place up a bit and I swear I'll believe.  I swear.

Forgive me, Lord. I'm a sinner. But promise me you'll hear my prayer.  Make it warm.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Republican rhetoric

Just about anytime Reince Priebus talks, I listen because I hear in the flattened vowels my old Wisconsin home. But I don't know quite what to think of his latest pronouncements, a 100-page study he conducted  into the whys and wherefores of Republican woes.  It's as if Republicans were in some sort of nosedive after the election that just about everyone on the right was sure was in their hands.  It wasn't.

Priebus is increasing the Republican digital presence and ratcheting up "the ground game," he says on a promo video you can see almost anywhere.  Chances are there'll be some new offensives to pick up Hispanic voters, so look for some significant walking back of the rhetoric on illegals.  My guess is he will do everything he can to muffle the kind of fiery talk heard so frequently during the Republican Presidential primaries, like making sure those fences on the Mexico border were electrified.

The report's fine print says polls show that lots of people got scared when Republicans came around brandishing their weaponry amid an endless refrain of fear.  As long you've got people like Limbaugh and Beck as your Joans of Ark, what's in your wake is going to be cowering--or worse, simply not there. Our fiscal crisis may well be as bad as some on the far right claim it to be, but what Piebus's new report claims is that the rhetoric used to sell the truth simply has to be softer.  A monarchy can be run with a baseball bat; a democracy cannot.  That's why our way of life is still, I think, an incredible and almost unbelievable experiment.

Sadly, for Priebus, the report was issued right smack dab during the 10th anniversary of the war in Iraq, a war whose motivations, noble as they may have been, were proved largely false. That most of the right--and the religious right--hates Obama is somehow understandable, given the issue of abortion; but you've got to be blind not to see that there ain't much love for W either. You can't hate everybody and expect to pick up disciples. You can't tell people that the government will take your gun only when you're shot through the head and then expect to win new friends.

If the new saviors are Cruz and Paul, there could be a long road ahead for Republicans, although with those guys any off-year elections should be a cinch.  As long as demographics point the way they are presently however, offensives like stiffening voting laws simply are going to turn off an electorate that doesn't really care to indulge in fear and hate.  Ditto heads may well love their heroes, but something in the style--and the substance--of the right is going to have to change if there's a future, a national future, for Republican politics.  That's not me talking; that's Reince Priebus, whose name I'd joke about if mine weren't unpronounceable.

And what about the marriage between deeply religious people and this fear-mongering? What religious people should know is that we need government. When Sandy blasted the New Jersey coast, people needed help, not just Wal-Mart. CitiBank never built highways or rail lines. Private enterprise not only creates the cutting edge in democratic culture, it lives there.  But there's a ton that private enterprise won't do because there are things that need to be done that won't make money.

Obama didn't oppose abortion like Romney did (well, this election anyway)--that's the big deal, I know.  Besides, Obama supported gay marriage.  

End of argument.

Reince Priebus, this guy who talks Wisconsin-ese, is wanting to suggest that, like it or not, there's more. What must change, he says, is how the talk proceeds.  Fear is not going to create real change. 

Seems to me that's what he says.  

Monday, March 18, 2013

Morning Thanks--honkers

Whoever created the word cacophony must have been in the company of geese. They're comical and noisy, and what they leave behind is an awful mess.  They'll turn an ordinary river bank into the foulest doggie walk you can imagine, and their you-know-what is fulsome.

Down here along the river, we're in their company right now. They've nearly taken over.  They rule the skies over our place, in strict formation like B-29s over Europe.  Even when only two or three are flying, one is always out front, as if regimentation is the only commandment in the goose book. Last summer a few stayed here along the river, maybe a dozen, maybe more; but yesterday an echelon of a hundred at least flew low over our places, looking for a landing field, hundreds.  Along the river these days, dozens and dozens of them sit out in the flooded fields, eating and drinking and swimming and yakking to each other like half-deaf gossips in that goosey falsetto you can hear a mile away.

Horribly distressed--at least that's what all that complaining sounds like, all that cacophony.  Their downy undies are all in a bundle for some reason, the whole lot yakking to each other, at each other.  I have no idea what they're worried about.  Nobody shoots 'em--at least not in the spring. Yesterday, with a carton of shells and half-decent blind, I could have fed a dormitory and stuffed a dozen winter jackets in the same afternoon.  

On the frozen ground, they're hapless really, just as we'd be, I suppose, if we'd be that bottom-heavy. They're bathtubs with broom handles, tubs of feathers with nothing up top but fine calligraphy.  And they all seem to come with the same white chinstrap.  Watch them awhile, and you swear they're keystone cops or maybe junior high girls--you know, one gets astir and takes off, and they're all gone, just like that. Show me a goose with his or her own mind, and I'll show you a dead one.

They're a farce really, a silly madcap farce, and you just can't stop howling at their antics. Yesterday, my wife said she saw two of them walking on the ice across the pond--walking, that is, like a couple of Irish lads with their snoots full, flopping over time and time again. They're not at all athletic, unless they're in the water, of course, where they're blessed with incredible ballast.

They come in gaggles, a weird word that they alone seem to own.  And that's only right.  Nobody else would want to be called that--"look at that gaggle of gazelles" just doesn't work.

Ice chunks dam the river right now, water pooling in adjacent fields.  It's cold as mid-winter, but something is stirring.  Last week my wife saw our first robin, the river's winter roof is caving all over, and a gathering of geese, a real gaggle, creates incessant noise, day and night.

I wouldn't shoot 'em if I could, really, not even for a hungry dorm.

But I'm glad I don't have to clean up after 'em.  What a mess--what a noisy, awful mess!  Cacophony is what it is, all right.  Pure and stinky cacophony.

A thing of beauty.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Sunday Morning Meds--Still Waters

“He leads me beside still waters” Psalm 23:2

I was 32 years old when someone at Bread Loaf Writers Conference called to tell me that my application for a scholarship had been accepted and they were offering me a position as a waiter.  I had no idea what that meant, but I understood clearly from the conversation that the offer was a good, good thing.

The house where we lived at that time is long gone, as is the tiny kitchen where I stood, phone in hand, listening.  The call had come in the middle of the day, in the middle of a meal.  Our two little kids were sitting beside us. 

It’s now a quarter century later, but I will never forget receiving that call because I had the distinct feeling that my being chosen for a waiter’s scholarship to the granddaddy of all writers conferences, Bread Loaf, was a signal that fame and fortune lay just down the road before me.  I had just published a book, my first, with a tiny, local press; now, Bread Loaf beckoned.  The New York Times Book Review was a year away. 

When I flew into Burlington, Vermont, for the Conference—early, because I was a waiter—I met a beautiful woman, my age, married with two children, who said she was an aspiring poet.  She’d also be a waiter.  Someone from the Conference picked us up, but we took the hour-long drive together into Vermont’s Green Mountains.

Ten days later, when we boarded a plane to leave, she and I stood on the stairway to a small jet, waiting to enter the cabin.  She looked at me and shook her head.  “I hope this plane crashes,” she said, and she meant it.

She’d been wooed by a celebrity poet, and she’d fallen.  On the dance floor at night, the two of them looked like smarmy high school lovers, which might have seemed embarrassing if it hadn’t happened to so many others.  Another waiter—also married with kids, two of them—told me it was important for him to have an affair because, after all, as an artist he needed to experience everything in order to write with authority. 

I am thankful to God for sending me to Bread Loaf, but it wasn’t an easy place to be, for a waiter or anyone else, I’d guess.  I’d lived most of my life in small, conservative communities who prided themselves on their church-going.  Adultery was real, but something of a scandal; it wasn’t commonplace. 

The atmosphere in that mountaintop retreat was electric.  Aspiring writers like me flirted daily with National Book Award winners, editors, agents, and publishers.  Life—dawn ‘till dawn—was always on stage.   

I am thankful to God for sending me to Bread Loaf because I learned a great deal about writing, but much more about life itself and my place in it.  In the middle of that frenetic atmosphere, on a Sunday morning, I walked, alone, out into a meadow, away from people, where I found a green Adirondack chair and sat for an hour, meditating.  I tried to imagine what the soft arm of my own little boy would feel like in my fingers; at the same time I recited, over and over again, these very words.  The 23rd psalm.

I remember a beautiful mountain stream, but there were no still waters at Bread Loaf Writers Conference the summer of 1980.  If there were, I didn’t see them.  But that Sabbath’s very personal worship, right there in the middle of the madness, brought me—body and soul—to the very place David has in mind in verse two. 

Honestly, I know still waters.  He led me there, both to Bread Loaf and to the green Adirondack chair.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Baring up*

Years ago, in graduate school, I took a wonderful course in nothing more or less than "the bard." Loved it. The prof was a peach, a Brit and an Anglican, who, daily, was sent into fits and contortions by the unparalleled beauty by Shakespeare's poetic charm and elegance. Contagious, it was.

One week, Lear. Some may want to pick a fight here, but I say King Lear isn't easy to love, man or play. You can teach Romeo and Juliet to high school sophomores--at least, you once upon a time you could; but Lear blindsides most undergraduates, in part because it feels like a third-rate Thomas Hardy novel--things just get worse and worse and worse, and then, well, finally it's over. Dead bodies litter the stage in most of the tragedies, but Romeo and Juliet aren't really dead at all--their storied love only grows more sublime, right? In Lear, on the other hand, things are all bad. Look what Jane Smiley did with it in A Thousand Acres--nary a ray of light.

Anyway, the prof announced one day that Lear had the distinction of including the only nude scene in Shakespeare, but, unlike Hair, the nudity wasn't meant to be a feature. When the self-deposed king, gone bezonkers, is wandering, naked, on the heath, what Shakespeare wants to display in the man's nakedness is not the glories of the human character, but its warty, bulbuous ugliness. "Most often," ye olde prof claimed, "the human body is really not all the beautiful."

Okay, so I walk out of class, and it's 1973--the days of "streaking." Don't know where it started, but on campuses all over the country, ordinary college students doffed their jeans and t-shirts and tore around the campus with their privates floppily unfettered. That day--I'm not making this up--that very day we studied Lear, I walked out the building, and three guys went flying past, buck naked.

'Twas an object lesson. I wondered whether the prof had arranged the display, in fact, to bring home the point. The guys were young, not old like the mad king, but what was shakin' on the green wasn't all that beautiful.

That silly day comes to mind when the controversy over "whole body scanning" arises. Just one of the horrors of 9/11 is the fact that it costs us, as a nation, millions and millions of dollars to put people like my mother through the tech maze of airport screening. Each day hundreds of thousands of people examine millions of passengers. Sheesh.

So someone comes along with a new idea, a whole body scanner. Only problem is, the image delivered from the machine is, well, revealing. Visual rape, some call it. Give me a break.

Age increaseth one's girth, methinks. And yes, my doctor disagrees. But as girth's increase, vanity goes in the other direction. Good riddance, I say. If a scanner lowers cost, I'll sacrifice my privacy. If some uniformed airport flatfoot gets his jollies from the fatso images on the screen in front of him, at least we'll keep him off the streets.

Besides, it seems to me that, culturally, we' re suffering an epidemic of obesity. Maybe airport scanning--airport streaking--will be just what the doctor ordered. We'll all start watching the calories.

I say, bring on the whole body scanners. Just don't make me look at the images. I see enough the way it is.
*Where did I read that the scanners were already on their way out? Anyway, another blast from the past, sometime in 2009, I think.  I'm still out of town.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Morning Thanks--the Puritans*

Just exactly what Mencken said, I suppose, doesn't matter because his intent was clear--he wanted to besmirch the reputation of both those Calvinist pilgrims and puritans, those who, in many ways, were the founders of this nation. My favorite version of his famous indictment is this one: "Puritanism is the fear that someone, somewhere, might be having a good time."

Without a doubt, it catches something of terrifying sobriety of a man like Austin Dickinson, Emily's deadly serious brother, who, like his father, likely never told a joke. And yet, this super sober man had sufficient temerity to carry on an extra-marital affair for years, using his sister's house as a love nest, while attending church, well, religiously.

But Mencken meant that cutting definition to describe the uptight gang of Massachusetts pioneers who'd put up a church no more than an hour after putting up an outhouse, a people whose precious Christian faith was, in fact, the most significant cause for their being here--the wilds of North America--in the first place.

Today, the Writer's Almanac claims, is the anniversary of their departure from ye olde country, the day William Bradford and his Brownists climbed aboard the Mayflower for a 65-day trip to the other side of the Atlantic, neither a pleasure cruise, nor a Love Boat.

We're stuck with them, as Mencken's quote suggests. They're there in our history--for loud mouths like Mencken to ridicule, for true believers like Pat Robertson to deify. They're indelible in our history, in great part, because they did what hadn't been done: they created a society and a culture, even a nation. Right there at our inception, for better or for worse, stands a stiff-collared Calvinism as undeniable as it is intractible.

They were much greater than Mencken would have us believe, and I, for one, am thankful that this nation has folks like Bradford and Winthrop in its museums, their words in its history. We'd be a wholly different nation if England had merely used the new world as a garbage dump. Here's something people don't talk much about: in 1640, among the pilgrims and puritans of New England there were more educated folks per capita than there was in London. They were, after all, "People of the Book."

Intolerant?--yes. Self-righteous?--don't I wish it weren't so. Dour?--probably. Deadly serious?--maybe even to a fault. And if I were Native American, I likely wouldn't be saying what I am right now, because without a doubt the saints were sinners.

But they liked their beer. And they dug in, and they stayed; they created a culture, when many others palefaces did not. They believed, in a sometimes too bellicose way, in their God and his call and their mission.

To talk about this nation being somehow Christian is not only silly but dangerous. But that doesn't mean that I can't rejoice and give thanks this morning for a chapter of American history that doesn't get good press.

Half their folks died in their first Massachusetts winter, and it's arguable that they wouldn't have made it all without the gracious help of what they called "savages."

For all of that and despite all their excesses and their failures, this morning, just thinking of them leaving so much that was precious and dear behind as they set sail, I'm thankful for their deep and abiding faith and the gift that faith has been to the culture of which I am a part.
*This post was written in November, 2010, long enough ago for anyone who might have read it to have certainly forgotten.  I'm out of town.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

IX. Things I didn't know--God's chosen

In 1995, I taught a course in the literature of the Holocaust.  It was the 50th anniversary of the days when thousands of war-weary Allied troops found themselves inexplicaby in the middle of hell having cut the wires that surrounded hundreds of Nazi concentration camps. We had survivors speak to us that semester, and camp liberators, most all of whom now are gone.  We read a book a week, and somewhere around number eight or nine I hit a emotional wall that, for all practical purposes, is still there.  I no longer hunger to read more about that horrible time.

I've been writing these holocaust memories because listening to Diet Eman tell her story once again, on tape, so many years later, was almost a new experience, the old one so far behind.  Most of her story I'll never forget, having written it; but there were things--and I've been thinking them through ever since--that were either lost from my memory or in the torrent of stories she told me one week in June, 1992, the tape recorder whirring.

There was much I didn't know, still is, in fact, much I had to learn before I was ready to teach a course I could barely finish. I read more about what scholars call Hitler's "dejudification," his plans and his designs. And I read about other Rescuers, about who they were and why they acted when so many didn't.

The take-away from Corrie Ten Boom or Anne Frank or Diet Eman is pretty much the same to those who read the stories. What readers and viewers ask themselves is "would I have acted?  what would I have done?"  I don't know that anyone knows exactly and won't until stark need arises as it did in occupied Europe when "dejudification" began.

Leave it to scholars to try to determine motive and reason.  Leave it to those who study the war to try to profile Rescuers. They too would like to answer that question--"would I do what Corrie die?  what Diet did? what Mies did for the Frank family?  Would I?  

The scholarship says that of the groups of Dutch citizens living in the Netherlands in the first five years of the 1940s, the clan most clearly involved in every aspect of Resistance work was the Marxists, the communists, blood enemies of the Nazi fascists. Diet talked about them once in a while when specific projects could be coordinated--saving Allied pilots, for instance, or shepherding them out of the war zone and into Portugal, where they could, if they were blessed, find passage to England.  

But she claimed her resistance cell was wary of the communists because they were, to her mind, far too quick to kill. I don't know if that is true, but she and her group quite regularly prayed, she says before robberies, went down on their knees to ask the Lord to bless their lawlessness.

The next group most deeply involved with Resistance action were those scholars call "the orthodox Protestant," by which, for the most part, they mean is the strictest of the Dutch Calvinists, people most akin to my own.  

And why were they so daring?  How is it that the orthodox Protestants were so deeply  involved?  Here's what the scholars say in reference both to Holland and France, where Resistance fighters arose in great numbers from the Huguenots, French Calvinists.

Researchers believe that those men and women who took the Old Testament seriously, who believed the Jews were still God's chosen, were those who entered the fray.  They knew it was the Jews who put Jesus on the cross, but because those Calvinists believed the scripture's story, they were sure Jewish people remained the apple of God's eye.  Orthodox Protestants from the northern provinces got dirty and died in the Resistance during the war;  generally, secularists weren't, and neither were Roman Catholics.

I could quote from Diet Eman, who explained her involvement in exactly that way, time and time again.  Dutch Jews were our friends, she said--and they were.  But they were also precious to God, not simply because they were human and image-bearers, but also because they were blessed in ways Gentiles often didn't understand, blessed specially by the Creator of heaven and earth. Because they were, they had to be rescued.

That's the argument.  When I listened again to her tell her story, there it was--that was the reason.  There were a dozen others too, but she would explain it clearly when she would tell her story--because they were God's chosen people.