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, June 30, 2013

Sunday Morning Meds--The Big Picture

“The voice of the Lord shakes the desert; 
the Lord shakes the Desert of Kadish.”

Years ago, when our son, just a twirp, made a fuss in church, I took him out and sat on a small bench just outside the sanctuary.  The church stood alone on the edge of town, and, perched right there where we were seated, I could look out on almost ten miles of open land, here and there a farm place bundled in trees, smudges on a landscape that had already taken an emerald hue in early spring.
I don’t know why exactly, but the open land prompted some awe in me, some joy, in fact.  I remember looking out over the rippling fields and reminding myself how beautiful prairie really can be.  I know it’s an acquired taste, but once a sense for that spacious glory is in the heart somewhere, it warms into conviction.  That Sunday was a perfect spring morning, the sun shining, the land greening, my son settling down, behind me worship moving along at its own devoted pace. 
I was an elder at the time, and, in our church, holding that office meant having to deal with some of the problems that arise wherever two or three are gathered.  I remember thinking that the broad vista of that gorgeous Sunday morning was probably more beautiful than the sum of its parts.  If I would have shifted my seat a bit south, I would have seen the farm of a guy causing all kinds of headaches.  Just over a rise was a family who wasn’t doing well.  It was the broad vista that was gorgeous.  The particulars weren’t at all so awe-inspiring.
And I remember thinking right then that mortals like me needed both a wide angle lens and a zoom, a view from afar that gives some foundation for a stand right there at the very heart of things.  No inspiring landscape is ever perfect, I suppose.
Psalm 29 must have been written one afternoon atop a fire tower or some blessed promontory where David watched a rogue storm rumble from forest (vs. 5) to mountains (vs. 6) to desert (vs. 7), taking its own thundering time.  In some place fit for kings, David had to have been watching and writing and singing, surveying a yawning landscape skewered more than occasionally by bolts of lightning.

Psalm 29 isn’t interested in details, save one.  Psalm 29 is a perspective poem; it offers a place to stand and see the big picture.  Psalm 29 is kingly, not only in its scope, but its rhetoric.  Psalm 29 is a Jeremiad for potentates. 
This is the big picture, David says to his royal friends.  This is something you take note of.  This is the voice of the Lord.
Ascribe to him glory and render him honor, he says, a warning.  All this timber-rattling, this mountain-moving, this desert flinging—it’s only part of what’s there in the sheer power of his magnificent hand. 
“You think you’re big time?” he says. “Listen to thunder.”
The big picture has one detail that’s not to be missed.  Watch lightning explode the cedars of Lebanon and don’t ever forget you’re sawdust too.  Next time you’re dealing with your people, when you’re belly-deep in problems, when you’re trying to keep your head above water, remember who flings lightning.
As the old hymn says, “Ascribe to him glory and render him honor.  In beauty and holiness worship the Lord.”

That’s the big picture.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

How to be a preacher

The first preacher I remember was probably my grandfather, who baptized me.  I'd like to say I remember that, but I wasn't Superchild, despite the anointing.  I remember him because he lived with us, an old man who shuffled his feet when he walked and scolded me--I wish I didn't remember that--for running water from the faucet to get it to cool. Such behavior was, to his mind, wasting it. I thought he was crazy maybe, but when I was six I knew nothing about the Great Depression.  

I was still a little boy when he died, so my memories are faint, but a recording of a sermon of his makes him sound quite conventional and, if I may say it, uninspiring. Oddly enough, people say, he was stodgy from the pulpit, but a ball as an after-dinner speaker.  Go figure.

The second preacher I remember was a big talker from New Jersey.  Somehow I remember that he wasn't cut from the same character as my father, although I knew my father loved him, despite the fact that while he didn't smoke, he mooched constantly from everyone else.  My father somehow found that less annoying than endearing.  I don't remember him ever tweaking my nose or pinching my cheeks; what I remember is that my father thought him somewhat grand.

The third was a dedicated man who made his catechumens recite metric psalms every week, as well as the a q and a's.  He had a wonderful open heart and a demeanor capable of encircling everyone I knew with love and respect, and I admired that. I was becoming my own person during his years at our church, and it's interesting that I don't remember what my parents thought of him--or them. I was getting to that age, I suppose, where it mattered much less what my parents thought.  

Once we were at the parsonage for Sunday dinner, and one of his little daughters questioned him after the meal.  "Why we read the Bible?" she said, as if they never did. The poor man and his devoted wife were almost terminally embarrassed.

I lived for playing ball back then, and I remember his preacher's hands, hands I loathed--white, uncalloused. I don't remember him ever dribbling a basketball or swinging a bat.  I'm sure he never carried a shotgun; the fact that he didn't made me think he was somewhat somehow un-male. He worked hard and loved greatly, but because of who I was back then, he couldn't be a role model. I'm sorry about that.

The next preacher was no more athletic than the man he succeeded, but he had a cagey mind and the kind of twinkling eye that I liked a great deal.  I grew up with him, remember his wit in catechism classes where he loved nothing better to strangle us with impossibilities concerning predestination and free will. He wielded paradox in a way that made me enjoy theology--not for its answers but its questions. From him I learned that theology was no straight-jacket, but a can of worms and a house of cards and, quite frankly, a great delight. He's the first preacher whose sermons I remember, probably because I was starting to listen.  When I left home for college and returned for holidays, I loved his interest in who I was and what it was I was thinking.  It was the late 60s, and I think I was as interesting to him as he was to me.

For a period of time in my life I didn't attend church all that regularly. It was the late 60s, and it seemed to me that the church as I knew it and life as I lived it were on decidedly different tracks.  All of the institutions I knew, all of the institutions that had nurtured me--church, family, school, even community--saw the world somewhat different than I had come to see it--on race, on Vietnam, on Tricky Dick, on the Rolling Stones. For a long time, I thought the church--and its preachers--needed to make some kind of public apology for being not simply out of touch, but so fundamentally and even spiritually wrong. I wore my hair long.

I started attending church again when my wife and I got married. The first preacher the two of us had was unceremoniously dismissed from the pulpit.  We'd just come to a new community and a new life--me as a grad student, my wife as a Christian school teacher--and rather liked the guy, another man from out East who could sound like a Kennedy.  He never hurt us, even respected us, liked us.  

We weren't in on any of whatever it was that poisoned the atmosphere in that struggling, suburban church, and I was an usher the morning he was released.  His wife came in, angry and tearful, and attacked at a man, an elder, at the back: "So," she said, "you've come for the hanging."  That I remember. We were ankle-deep in blood in the first church I attended in several years.  

The next man, the preacher who baptized our baby, was a square-shouldered conservative, old-fashioned in his own way; but he too, I believe, loved us.  His sermons were thoughtfully structured, but often yawners; and the church itself was decidedly neutral about him and about church in general. A friend of mine, a Jewish colleague from the high school where we both taught, converted to Christianity at that time; and once upon a time he asked me why I'd suggested churches for him to attend but never asked him to come along to mine.  "Ahhh," I said, shaking my head, "you wouldn't get it."  He looked at me strangely.  "Then why you do go there?"

That was the first time I remember thinking that I'd begun to "do church" for reasons that had their roots in sociology and ethnic tradition.  Strange, what you remember.

We went through a succession of preachers when we came to Iowa to live--several of them rock-solid conservatives in an denominational atmosphere of distrust and near-distemper.  I remember one of them being an almost spellbinding pulpiteer who was so convinced of the waywardness of the denomination he served that most of his sermons were spiked. The denomination I'd been part of for my whole life was splitting like a ripe melon.

For a time we were part of a brand new church whose beginnings were pure joy.  Everything was new.  I served my first term as elder in that church, preparing liturgies, working urgently at healing hurts and pains that I'll never, ever forget--and there were many.  We were all struck by the newness, proud of our being innovative, creative, proud of ourselves. Those honeymoon years were unforgettable, but transient. Today, to me, any new church who believes they're doing things right for the very first time seems vainglorious.

Our first preacher at that new church was my age, a phenomenon I'd never experienced before, and I liked it and I liked him. He was devoted to helping others, but never lacked a sense of humor.  He could chuckle, even in dark times.  Once I asked him how it was that a man in our church, a guy not blessed at all with looks, could hook up with "another woman" so easily.  He smiled, shrugged his shoulders, and told me he'd come to learn that looks have little to do with it--"lonely people have this way of finding each other," he said.  I thought that was a beautiful answer to a stupid question.

The next preacher's life fell apart with a major problem in his family, which led to a civil war that was anything but civil and based in a difficult question:  how to deal with tragedy.  Two sides formed. I was clerk of the consistory and seen, not without cause, as the opposition.  My father, a very righteous man and lifelong elder in my home church, told me, in the middle of the fighting, that for my family's sake I needed to quit the church council.  Coming from him, what he'd said was almost a mandate, so I did.  "But don't leave the church," he said.  "Give the church time to heal. Stay for a year, then reassess."

We did.  We stayed a year, scars still open, and left.  

In my entire church life, nothing changed me as fully as what we went through leaving that congregation. There's no war quite like a holy war.

I don't remember much about our first preacher in the new church. Nothing he could have said from the pulpit got far into my heart. What I needed back then was a pastor and not a preacher, a man who would dress my wounds, so deep went the hurt. He wasn't that, and I'm certainly not blaming him.

Our next pastor--the last one--was an old college buddy whose dance with the church was to the same beat and to the same tunes as mine throughout my life, man who therefore knew me, inside and out. We were both balding, late 60s, war horses; and he was the kind of thoughtful believer whose witness and character made church attendance mandatory--I went, twice a Sunday because what happened in worship shaped me, shaped my mind and my soul. Neither of us bought the old verities, but were no more sure of leaving them behind.  We considered doubt a staple of faith.

And now the church where we're members is getting a new preacher--a man younger than my own children.  When I saw him for the first time, I couldn't believe he was the candidate because he looked for all the world like an undergraduate.  

After a lifetime in church, what might I say to him, if he'd ask? How might I suggest he become my pastor? 

I'd say this:  love us. That's all. Make us feel wanted and needed and precious.  That sounds frightfully self-centered, but I don't think you'll get anywhere without listening to the second great commandment, a second which is, as God says, like unto the first.  Love us, even though it is, as Christ well knew, totally impossible given how all-over-the-map we are, how our ears and minds are fitted by time and place, our hearts' desires are so unmanageable, our souls so unreliable.  

Love us. That's a command from on-high, and a demand from the here and now.  Some argue that human beings have the capacity to love no more than one person--maybe two.  Prove them wrong.  Love us.

Love isn't all we need by a long shot, but it will get you where you want to be and where we'd love to have you.  Love us, as does the God you serve.

Love us. After all these years, that's what I'd tell him.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Morning Thanks--June 27

Yesterday, June 27, marked an anniversary: the date we moved away from town and out into the country.  We've been here a year now, right here, in fact. I took this shot yesterday at dawn after walking out back of the barn.  I'd like to say every morning out here was just as great, but you wouldn't buy it, and you shouldn't. It was nice of the Creator to think of us, to paint all that wafting beauty into the sky so movingly.

It's not all wine and roses out here, of course.  It's windier than it is in town, and out here on the prairie "windier" can only mean gustier.  We try to walk everyday, and--winter or summer--it's often into the face of a wind.  North winds can rip your face off midwinter, but south winds, south winds in summer, can too, except the ratchet is hot.  An old friend, now gone, told me years ago that northwest Iowa generally allows us ten beautiful days.  I thought that remark altogether too Calvinistic when she said it, but over the years I've come to believe it's not far off the mark. (By the way, just outside the patio door, the morning is looking lovely; but 30-mph winds are forcast.)

Right here along the river, there are more insects than in town, especially in this banner year of moisture.  I've probably got a dozen welts from a dozen dead mosquitoes (I think they die when they sting, a truth I cling to).  All I've got to do is step out back and hoards come up out of the grass thinking just one word--Thanksgiving.  

It's dusty along this gravel road.  When trucks come by--as they do, all the time--the gritty stuff rises in clouds, passes through screens like a terrorists to end up all over the place and into everything.  Fingerprints exist all over this room because this gritty sheen covers absolutely everything.  When we first moved in, I thought it put my computer in danger, seeping in the way it inevitably does. Countertops get ugly fast.  

But some time ago, we decided to stay out here.  Our old rental place has been sweet--there's a goldfinch hanging on a thistle seed sock right outside my window right now, and a squirrel is having breakfast on the seed corn I put on the step.  He's inches away from the window. We've got all kinds of critters out here--coons and deer and groundhogs, rabbits, and two pair of Baltimore orioles.  Sometimes we have goldfinch, orioles, and an indigo bunting on the feeders at the very same time, so much outlandish color you'd think we live in a cartoon.

So we're staying. Last night we lugged chairs over to the new place and had an evening's cup of decaf on the deck of our new house.  If anyone would have said, a year ago, that we were going to build a house along the Floyd River, just outside of Alton, Iowa, we would have laughed, I'm sure.  But last night we sat on the new deck of an unfinished new house that's ready for the insulators, sat there and looked out over endless prairie north and west, and told ourselves we were going to like this, told ourselves that building a house was a lunatic idea for a pair of old farts, but a dang good one.

Here's our new place, yesterday, in that heavenly dawn.  

There was another reason to go over there last night--June 27 is the anniversary of our marriage, our 41st.  That's a long time.  Maybe we should have gone to Hawaii or Vegas or San Anton.  We didn't.  And the truth of the matter is, somewhat embarrassingly, we didn't do a whole lot worth crowing about.

But when you're building a house out here in the country, Vegas would have to have charms it doesn't have to top an evening in a couple of folding chairs on a new deck, decaf or not.  Maybe we should have had wine.

Okay, the pictures show this world in an immensely beautiful light--I know that.  Not long ago, a flood of 100-year proportions threatened our backyard and turned the whole neighborhood into sloppy-thick muck.  

But in the last decade or so I've decided that it's just plain good therapy to look for beauty--because it's there--in the squirrel outside my window or the way those darling mourning doves can honestly best those marauding grackles.  It's in morning light laying golden shafts through the pines.  It's an azure sky and an emerald earth.  And it's there in spades in a forty-some years of marriage.

For a lot of reasons, yesterday, June 27, was a good day, a lot of good reasons for thanks.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Death of DOMA

"It is one thing for a society to elect change; it is another for a court of law to impose change by adjudging those who oppose it hostes humani generis, enemies of the human race." So wrote Justice Antonin Scalia in his dissent to yesterday's Supreme Court ruling, declaring anyone opposed to same-sex marriage an enemy of human decency. "In the majority’s telling, this story is black-and-white: Hate your neighbor or come along with us."

Scalia's barbed defense of traditional marriage makes him a hero to many on the religious right.  Three of his colleagues concurred with his position, of course, as the defense of the Defense of Marriage Act lost by the narrowest of margins down clearly partisan lines.  

Wherever folks make a claim for America as a Christian nation, there is deep lament this morning.  God will punish us for our iniquity, some claim.  How can anyone possibly condone homosexual marriage when it's so clear in His Word that it's contrary to his will and his love?

What happened in the gay marriage debate is quite incredible really.  A populace simply changed its mind and did so with blinding speed.  In Minnesota, for instance, as late as 2006, 54% of the people opposed gay marriage.  By last fall, 51% favored it.  What brought about such a sea change will be analyzed for a long, long time.  What's clear, however, is that we live in a new day and that yesterday religious conservatives lost.

Scalia's sharp criticism could well have been written about someone on the other side of the argument just a year or two ago, when the political tables were turned. In some places, anyone who dissented from the majority view--that gay marriage is an abomination--could well have been and probably was regaled similarly:  "Hate your neighbor or come with us."

As of today, things have changed.

One of the new speakers the TED website featured lately is a man named Dan Pallotta, who talks about fund-raising for non-profits.  His argument goes like this:  we expect non-profits to act, well, differently; we love corporations who make big money, but we're uncomfortable when non-profits determine that their greatest success will come by way of marketing ventures that corporations routinely create and use.  We want our non-profits to make money by selling pies, not mass marketing.  That's dirty.  That's crass.

I thought his presentation interesting.  I rather disliked his blaming American Puritanism for the problems he locates in our minds and souls, but it was an interesting argument.  At the beginning, he referred quite tangentially to the fact that he was gay and in a committed relationship; but his being gay had nothing to do with the problems he located, or the solutions he offered.

It's very difficult for me to argue that Mr. Pallotta and his companion should somehow be kept from the same legal arrangements and financial structures that any couple have or are promised.  Quite frankly, I don't think the Bible counts on this one--sounds apostate, I know, but this isn't a theocracy and it hasn't been since 1630 or so, when the Puritan's attempt basically failed.  Why shouldn't they be able to benefit, legally and financially, from their commitment to each other?

Slippery slope arguments are all slippery, but that doesn't mean they're wrong; and there is a slippery slope here.  If marriage is defined primarily as a sexual union, then I, like many others, find it difficult to understand how we can continue to keep those radical Mormons from practicing polygamy, something their religion, they claim, clearly supports.  I too wonder where we might be going.

But I also recognize the hate good people--good Christian people--have often harbored for gay and lesbian human beings.  Everyone knows that thousands of people get married every day of the year with little thought for the Creator of heaven and earth, people with little or no faith whatsoever, people who believe basically in themselves.  Can anyone really argue that marriage basically is a "Christian" institution?  

I also know that divorce rates among Christian people aren't a whole lot different than they are in the public square, and that good Christian people quite regularly avoid Christ's own directive about marriage, especially about marrying again after divorce.  

We pick and choose when it comes to the Holy Bible, and we always will because every last word of it requires our spin, our interpretation.  Even the disciples--four of them--told slightly different stories.

This morning, the sun rose beautifully.  I don't know if what Justice Kennedy said for the majority yesterday will set God's teeth on edge or lead him to hurl fiery bolts of lightning, but I think not.  What happened yesterday forces Christian people to do what they always have done--to work hard at determining what it means to be obedient to God's call to love others in our time and place.  There's nothing new about that.  

The death of DOMA forces us--all of us--to accept each other, especially those too many good Christian people have often found unacceptable.  

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Morning Thanks--"Our church"

I asked questions about the college because I knew there was one on the reservation, that it was somewhere there in town, somewhere in Santee, Nebraska, and that it was new.  We hadn't seen it while riding around the streets.

The woman behind the desk gave me clear directions. "You take a right out of the parking lot, a left at the stop sign, then go down to the river, turn right and just follow the road past our church."

I loved the way she said "our church."  At that moment, the church became far more important to me than the college, which was, as I thought, shiny new.  The church was not. It needs a paint job, but then lots of things do on most reservations. 

We got out of the car--I wanted to see if there was a composition in the sparsely populated cemetery just next door, about a half dozen graves. But the land behind it was so very Great Plains-ish that I thought I could do it. I didn't.  You have to be great to get so much wide land and unending sky into a camera lens. Here's what I got.  You had to be there.

We went into the church, which was open--for some reason, that didn't surprise me.  It was Episcopal, and it was old, but it was--except for a lousy paint job--nicely kept. After all, the woman in the museum had called it "our church."

We'd just walked through the tribe's little museum, where hand-made posters commemorate the 1862 Dakota War and make heroes out of thirty-some warriors (some of them undoubtedly innocent) who were hung in the largest mass execution in American history.  It took my breath away, really.  I've been greatly sympathetic with the Dakota people for what happened not all that far from here in 1862, but to see a man like Cut Nose almost made a hero required a leap of faith I don't know this white man could ever make. But that's another story.

The Santees who worship here at the Episcopal Church descend from the Dakota who inhabited the reservation appointed them along the Minnesota River valley in 1851, the Dakota who thought to free themselves from the white people who promised goods that had not come, the white people who were starving them slowly but surely by the summer of 1862.
The Santees who worship here at this Episcopal Church descend from the Dakota who were starved at Ft. Snelling and eventually run out of Minnesota altogether after the slaughter, shipped down the Mississippi to an Iowa fort for a couple of years, then railroaded across Missouri to St. Joseph and herded on Missouri River flatboats up to the Dakota Territory, where the starving simply continued. Hundreds died.  Some, blessedly, were eventually brought here to the flowing woods on hills overlooking the Missouri, Nebraska side, not all that far from Yankton, and much more like their original Minnesota River home.  

This church somehow carries that history, is redolent with it somehow.  I've read the memoirs of white missionaries who stayed with the Dakota people through their suffering. Somehow--maybe I believe in ghosts--that story was there in the church, just as it it was in the museum, despite the fact that there was nothing of that history in the church.  

No syncretism.  Not one image. The Episcopalians, almost as sacramental as Roman Catholics, should have almost as much elbow room to cohabit with Native tradition, ritual, and even religion.  Scores of Catholic churches picture Mary as a young Native woman, even the crucified Christ as a warrior. This church, Our Most Merciful Savior Episcopal Church of Santee, Nebraska, had nothing local, nothing one bit Native.  St. Paul's, at Marty, not all that far up the road, features gorgeous stained glass that tells the story of Catholic missionaries to the Sioux nation.

But the woman said we'd find the college right up the road from our church.

1886--it says above the door.  And the place does need a paint job.  But it's obviously used, probably every Sunday, even has a ramp for wheelchairs.  

And I know for a fact that to some of the folks from Santee, Nebraska, a people with scarred but sacred history, it is our church.  

I find that whole story as gripping as any I know, and the loyalty of the woman in the museum absolutely wonderful.  There's always reason for morning thanks.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Morning Thanks--The paradox of the fancy piano

He's a good kid, and this little trip wasn't undertaken for therapy or restoration of some lost innocence, although it was one grand attempt to wean him away from the glories of his iPod Touch, which he adores.  But then, he's a kid and a boy and there are so many games.  You know.

So we took off west, checking the sky to know whether to go in that direction or north--wherever the clouds looked less ominous.  I chose west, gambling, and lost when we got there because the darkness was far too threatening in such open, hold-no-secrets land.

We went on to museum of music, the Museum of Music, just up the road.  We'd never been there, and neither had our soon-to-be fifth grade grandson.  He wasn't exactly taken with the idea--a museum about music?  He sings a ton, but visiting a place with a bunch of clarinets hadn't been something he'd dreamed about. He wasn't surly.  Like I said, he's a good kid.

No matter. We're in a war here--anything we can line up as interesting vs. the virtual world which he controls in his own fingertips.  And hey, how about Bob Dylan's own acoustic guitar?

"Papa, who's Bob Dylan?"  

"This singer," I tell him, "as old as your grandpa."

No matter, there's enough stuff around to keep him interested--every last room of the place outfitted with musical instruments--zithers, hollow log drums, and a thousand keyboards.

"Papa, what's the big deal about Elvis?"

I don't know myself, so I point at the picture of him holding the guitar that's right there in front of us, where the crooner is jutting his pelvis in that perilous way parents despised.  "He's was the first one to dance like that," I told him, a lame answer.

"Hip-hop?" he asks.

I tell him not exactly but something like it, and we move along.  

Then--God bless 'em--an elderly couple strung with earphones and holding tightly to what looks to be some kind of iPod stops us to explain that we really should be carrying this mobile docent that gives you a musical tour of a musical museum.  I love the idea of a stronger tour; Pieter's eyes light up with the possibilities of yet another screen full of info he can carry in his hand.

It's a smashing success, a kind of argument all its own for common grace:  my grandson has his hand-held, and I get him lost in a museum.  I declare that a victory.

But there's so much to learn, so little time, isn't there?  Still, the gizmo has him into the place, and my cup runneth over.

A couple of ancient pianos are breath-taking, their bodies canvases in their own right, outright museums all by themselves.  Look at this:

Open the top and you've got your own Sistine Chapel. It's impossible not to see something like this and think about courtly extravagance, men and women in powdered wigs, men in square shoulders and swallow-tails, women in billowing dresses so wide they could have hidden a pre-school.  They're holding fans or tatted hankies, dabbing at their nose but being careful not to smudge the grease paint or touch that garishly embellished mole. And all around them, you hear this gorgeous tinkling sound, something by--who knows?--Mozart himself maybe?--Chopin, maybe Johann Sebastian.  

Or this one, standing right beside the Sistine Chapel, another masterpiece so redolent with artistry that its mere presence strikes awe.  

We're there, I swear, in a drawing room somewhere on a chateau or seated gracefully in a castle's Great Room; and all around us are royalty, nothing but lords and laddies and maybe a smattering of children, seen but not heard.  We're privileged and posh, we're upper class and uppity, and all around us is music, music, music--music of the spheres.

And then I see the legs of this masterpiece, the whole thing held up securely by brilliantly fashioned servants.  The moral lesson is profound--what enabled such incredible art, such baroque-ish success, was an economic system created by caste and race and ethnicity, by the sweat and tears of unchosen races whose brawn and sheer will to survive made possible all this excess, the paradox of the fancy piano.

I wanted to tell him that, to show him the moral lesson--isn't that what grandfathers are for? I wanted him to read the story set forth so vividly on this gorgeous grand piano, to understand that a not-to-be-forgotten part of this whole history is holding up the masterpiece.  Without the servants, the instrument would come crashing down.

But Pieter is watching something else and listening to his digital guide, and besides maybe he's too young.  When he sees this piano, he doesn't see Jacobean history or powdered wigs, and it's going to take time for him to grow into the moral world's own many paradox.

We leave, and there's exactly one minute left on our parking meter, and that fact makes him howl.  We almost expired.

The sky has cleared enough for us to take the hike now, so we do, up an aberration created somehow by an ancient glacier, a bump on the prairie, a place where Lewis and Clark stopped when they were here in the neighborhood.  It's hot and sticky from all the rain, but he loves Spirit Mound, as do his grandparents, and he's all go when we get out of the car.

"Look at that, Papa," he says when we start the ascent.  "It looks almost alive."

He's pointing at the peak, that bump far away on the horizon because the long grass this spring--lots and lots of rain--is moving back and forth as if being strummed by the staggered breath of endless prairie winds.  Things are moving up top.

"That's why people used to call where we live an 'ocean of grass,'" I told him.  "Looks almost like water."

"It looks like there's all kinds of snakes there," he said.

He'd seen something himself that maybe he'd never forget, having experienced it one hot day in late June on a hike.  I figured we could have done worse.

There'll be more time for history lessons and moral persuasion, I figure, more time for the paradox of the fancy piano.

For the time being at least, this morning, this retired grandpa is thankful for yesterday's wind on tall-grass prairie around a place called Spirit Mound.  

Monday, June 24, 2013

Big stories

Just outside of Greenwood, SD, a burg that's almost ghostly, stands a monument dedicated to the Yankton Sioux chiefs who signed a treaty with the U. S. government in 1858 on that very spot, which was, back then, the old Yankton Sioux Agency.  

Probably wasn't the Yanktons who put it up, of course.  More than likely it was white folks who really felt that the Native people should honor the signers. There's no indication of whether or not the Yanktons did.  Today, most Native people don't.  Furthermore, if I may be so bold as to generalize, Native people are really, really into art, but not into this kind of granite monument.

Still, there are stories here.  The first name on the list of local leaders is Struck by the Ree, a Yankton chief who, as a newborn, was baptized, so to speak, by Lewis and Clark, right here, in 1804, when the Core of Discovery was parleying with the Yanktons on the shores of the Missouri.  The two white leaders told the folks around the fire that they'd like to hold that newborn if they could, and when they did they told all the others that this child would someday be a great man, a man of peace.

Lewis and Clark weren't bad as prophets, at least not in this forecast.  Struck by the Ree, who became something of a celebrity and traveled to Washington D. C. in the early years of the 19th century already, was an advocate for appeasement with the white folks coming into Native country.  What's more, he was a leader among the Yankton, who made their peace with white folks before their Sioux nation brethren farther west at Rosebud and Pine Ridge. 

But I wouldn't have stopped for the shot if it was just for the monument.  What made us pull over and prompted me to get out the best of my camera equipment was the buffalo, who are here being framed by the monument, the old wooden fence, and the swath of yellow mustard.

This herd belongs to the Yanktons, I believe, the people who would likely have occupied Sioux County in their travels, long before a paleface came along.  When I took the picture, beneath my feet was Yankton Reservation.  But right now it is, too, even though I'm about two hours east.

Half way back, east an hour or so away, stands Spirit Mound, where the Corps of Discovery took one of their forays into the country and away from the Missouri River on a summer day so hot that they sent their black dog, Seaman, home to rest.  They took a nine mile hike 
to trace down a story some Native folks claimed deadly serious, that there were little tiny men up there at the top of Spirit Mount, a species of evil spirits.  

Lewis and Clark found no eight-inch men up there, but when they got to the top of the hill they saw their very first herd of buffalo, the very first on the trip, less than an hour, today, from where I'm sitting right now behind my computer and screen.  I'm not kidding.  
There's just something about that I like.  First sighting.

So the whole place is a story about Native people, about Lewis and Clark, about a big broad land, and about the bison that once wandered the landscape in numbers that can hardly believed.  And even a big black dog that couldn't take the heat.

That's what's all in the picture, and it's why I may be the only soul on the face of the earth who loves it.

There is no accounting for taste.  

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Sunday Morning Meds--Skipping

“He makes Lebanon skip like a calf, Sirion like a young wild ox.” Psalm 29

What David the poet says in this line of scripture is not a problem. What he means, is; unless, of course, it’s a metaphor, in which case all bets are off because he’s merely flashing his poetic license.

No lightning, no thunderstorm—no matter how mammoth—ever made mountains skip, at least that I know of. In summer especially, the eastern edge of the Rockies, in Colorado at least, is festooned with storms as often as it isn’t. They gather like groupies, then dump rain or hail or snow, late afternoon, all over the foothills. But no storm that I know of ever made Pike’s Peak shuffle its feet—or skip, for that matter. Nope.

Volcanoes forever alter the shape of some of the world’s most impressive mountains. When they blow, nothing remains the same. But David isn’t talking volcano here. The line has an antic tone, created by the kiddishness of the animals and their darling skipping. We don’t have to unpack much in this verse to note the joy—the mountains dancing along to the melodies of the voice of the Lord, like my own granddaughter might.

Or how about this, from old TV westerns: some tough hombre pulls out a revolver and gets some poor sucker to dance as he peppers the dust with lead around the guy’s feet. Is that anywhere near to what David is seeing here? The Lord God almighty unloading bolts of lightning from some heavenly six-gun? 

Cute, but I don’t think so. David knew nothing about Wyatt Earp?

Seems to me that there’s just too much cartoon in this line. It just doesn’t match up all that comfortably with the shock and awe of the surrounding verses. Mountains dancing like calves in spring? It’s mud-luscious, really, isn’t it? It’s darling. It’s as if David pulled a punch all of a sudden. After snarling away with some prophetic finger-pointing aimed at the earth’s big wigs, warning them about God’s divine power and authority, just for a moment he got sidetracked with a fleeting vision of something out of Walt Disney: mountains skipping. An antic verse in the very heart of one terrifying Jeremiad.

A flaw in the poem? Dumb question, really. David wasn’t thinking about taking home a Pulitzer. He’s got an aesthetic sense, but in lots of other Psalms he doesn’t let his sense of proportion get in the way of his enthusiasm. Psalm 23, you remember, has some delightfully mixed metaphors. Creating the perfect poem isn’t what he’s up to. Praising God in a way that turns the heads of the high-and-mighty is.

So what exactly does he mean? Read in context, the psalm praises God’s mighty hand, a hand that shivers timbers and raises cane all through the natural world. But, think about this—it also makes the mountains skip like antic calves. The voice of the Lord sometimes shakes us into giggles, leaves us speechless, even sets us to slapping our knees. 

On the day after Easter, my cousin-in-law died, his body a victim of the chemicals doctors were using, purposefully, to try to rid him of cancer that otherwise would have taken him. Two weeks ago, he felt tired, went in for a check-up. Now he’s gone.

This morning, this little verse, what seems almost a mistake in a psalm of dire warning, seems the right bromide for our mutual grief. God’s voice makes mountains skip along like my granddaughter on the sidewalk out front of our house. Like a calf. Really.

I don’t blame Him for what happened. Cancer isn’t His fault. Death isn’t His design.

Still, this morning me and a ton of others need just that kind of antic God, some smiling someone to make the mountains skip.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Fear not

Once upon a time, the Schaap family lived here--the island of Terschelling, one of a small chain of islands off the northwest corner of the country of the Netherlands.  Cornelius C. Schaap may well have been a farmer, one of hundreds in that eastern, mint green belly of the island, the side that faces the Netherlands, not sandy beach that swallows the pounding waves of the North Sea.  

He might have been a seaman, too, because tons of Terschelling men were likely sailors of some type or another.  For a century at least, Holland ruled the high seas.  

He might have been a scavenger too, a beachcomber.  I'm always taken with that possibility because I've done more than my share of beach walking along Lake Michigan, hoping to uncover some treasure washed up by the waves of a storm.

Some Terschelling-ers made a livelihood from beachcombing, because shipwrecks on the North Sea coasts weren't all that rare. Those massive beaches daily offered up something, sometimes treasures.  

An old great aunt of mine, the only relative from the Netherlands I ever met, told me that my Great-grandpa Schaap left the island and Holland itself because he was a separatist, a man whose fiercely conservative religion put him on the outs with what was, back then, the state church.  He wanted to worship God in a fashion he thought pure, so he and others like him left for America.  It was 1868, two years after the American Civil War.  

C. C. Schaap, his wife Neeltje, and family first put down American roots in German Valley, IL, amidst a sea of German people. That made little sense to me, until some researcher explained that Grandpa C. C. was part of a group who'd followed the advice of a secretary who was also a separatist and who'd come to the island from a region of the Netherlands close to the German border.  She knew others who'd already come to America--or were coming; and those people shared the same tough Calvinist religion, even though they may not have shared a cultural or national heritage.  

But several years ago, my sister told me that she'd discovered a burial stone at some Terschelling museum.  There it was, sitting in the back, off the beaten path.  It marked nothing but time and seemed quite useless.  

But it was inscribed with our Great-grandparents name, and that's how we discovered--although other genealogists told me a similar story--that there may have been other reasons to start over in a new country, reasons other than their strict religion.  

Here's the stone:

And this is the inscription--in English, of course:

Rest in peace, young children
Who lie here within the grave
And rest in heaven’s peace.
We hope that you are close to God,
Washed in Jesus’s blood—
This is our only peace;

It gives us our will to live. 

And then the names of the deceased:

Gemkja C. Schaap, died April 7, 1861, at 14 days.

Cornelis Cornelis Schaap, died July 31, 1864, at six years old.

Gemkje C. Schaap, died August 15, 1864, at two years.

I didn't know my great-grandparents had suffered the loss of three children before they'd left the island of Terschelling.  It's a story lost from whatever tatters of oral history is still extant.  

I'm not unaware that losing children was something that happened far more often a century and more ago, but I had no idea that all of this had happened before they embarked on a new life in a new land.  Two of them--a six-year-old and a two-year-old--died in a span of 16 days, and we know from family records that sister Marie was born on August 2, 1864, in the very heart and heat of all that sadness.  

You can't help but wonder whether all of that death created a desire to leave the home that likely would not stop whispering its own sad history.

The Schaap family left German Valley, north central Illinois, for Parkersburg, Iowa, sometime in the 70s, I'd guess; and then, when even cheaper land beckoned, they kept going, first to Orange City, and then into the brand new state of South Dakota, where they took up farming life near Harrison, Charles Mix County, a half day's ride from the Big Muddy.  By then, my grandfather, the little guy below, had been born, an American baby.  

Here these Hollanders stand as if they'd just conquered the Great American Desert and thereby won the west, everything they owned--horses, even a canary--out front on the portrait to let relatives back home know everything the new world promised was good as gold.  

Two drought years followed, and then the unrest of the Lakota--the Ghost Dance and the Massacre at Wounded Knee--likely scared them badly; so they left, just as literally thousands of others who tried the Dakotas, hightailed it for landscape less demanding and fearful. 

Sometimes I wonder if any of that is important. Why do I find it all so interesting?  Why would I like to have known these people, heard their stories, listened to their prayers?  What are these people to me anyway, pray tell?

There's no convincing answer, I suppose, but the one I can't help but feel somehow, even here at my writing desk with three computers surrounding me and Dvorak on my iPod.  I'm ages away from a homestead.  No one in my family has had horses since C. C. and Neeltje, I'm sure, not to mention a canary. 

What do these folks have to do with me?  Why should I care?

I don't have the final answer to that question, but somehow that I know things about their sadness and about their joy makes my own life and its considerable vicissitudes nothing more or less than, well, ordinary.  

And that's good.  Their lives are quite reason enough not to be afraid.   

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Civil War, 2013

A flurry of research findings from Charles Blow in this morning's New York Times:

1) We say we want our representatives to advocate for "the common good," not for our immediate wants or needs, to pass legislation good for the nation, even if it isn't necessarily good for us individually or us as a region. However, research shows that congressmen and women who do just that, lose.  

2) In the year of our Bicentennial, landslides in Presidential elections occurred in only 25% of the American's counties; in 2004, it was half.

3) More white people die every day than are born in this country.  Among our five-year-olds, white non-Hispanics are now already a minority.

4) The median age for a woman's first child in this country is 25.7 years old; the median age for a woman to be married in this country is later--26.5, which indicates that more babies are born out of wedlock than in.  That there would be some difference in the way we view abortion makes sense. Places where people marry later rather than earlier tend to vote more Democratic than Republican.

5) The percentage of the Americans who indicate confidence in "the church or organized religion" has dropped from 68 percent in 1975 to 48 percent in 2013, which may explain how acceptance of gay marriage has grown so greatly in recent years. Some individual states have made it legal; some others have made it illegal.    

As, I suppose, some might expect of an African-American columnist from the NY Times, Charles Blow tends to blame Republicans for the growing divide, Republicans who, he says, pull "every lever to slow the change on the state level--gerrymandering, limiting voting access, passing anti-immigrant laws, cutting assistance to the poor."

He says he worries about the national will and ends the essay this way: "In the tumult and transition of change, we may be becoming a nation divided against itself."  Hence the title.

A letter to the editor of yesterday's Siouxland Press, our little local paper, takes the other side.  "Some of our leaders now brazenly support things which God Almighty called wicked and abominable.  They are either not knowledgeable in God's word, or are defying God.  The Holy Bible shows what happened to nations who dared to defy God, or that got so morally depraved that God finally destroyed them."  

The writer, a man from Coalgate, Oklahoma, finishes the letter this way:  "God wants us to love Him, obey Him, and serve Him, in return for the life He has given us.  To get to know God, read the Word of God, the Holy Bible, from beginning to end."

Battle lines.

On Friday, June 19, 1863, 150 years ago, the Richmond Daily Dispatch, Richmond, Virginia, capital of the Confederacy, reported the news from the Civil War, the War of Northern Aggression, this way:  "Our troops seem to be sweeping the Valley.  See Gen. Lee's dispatch.  Martinsburg is on the Baltimore and ohion Railroad, and they have doubtless, again destroyed that importnat line of railway.  'The vengeance of the Lord slumbers, but it never sleeps.'"

It may be helpful to remember that we've made it through much, much tougher times.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Nocturnal vocalization

How to Stop Cat Vocalization thumbnail

As anyone who knows Benny, our cat, can see, this is not him.  The two of them may look alike, but our cat never, ever wears this supercilious look, this hooity-tooity, "oh, please" face. Honestly, he doesn't think himself better than us, as most cats do.  Oh, sure, he can be manifestly unfeeling and hopelessly one-way. He'll go for days without needing us, then virtually attack my wife with such persistence he could be classified as a virus. But he doesn't disdain us like this guy; or if he does, it's a covert operation.

This picture showed up this morning on a website I googled to try to answer why on earth our Benny creates a siren-like bawling sound at 4:10 every morning. This picture showed up on a website that so sweetly calls this blasted howling "cat vocalization."  Puhleeeze.

Maybe I should walk back what I just said. Try this:  "Our gray tabby, a gentleman who's been with us for years, is starting to vocalize somewhat early in the morning."

See the feline disdain on that cat's face?  That's the way his owner talks to him.   

Stopping cat vocalization, saith the website, begins with determining cause--hunger, for instance. 

Check.  Full bowl.  

Next step?--Determine whether the cat is in some kind of distress.  

What am I, his analyst?  At 4:15, even at summer solstice, it's dark as night.  Besides, what kind of distress could he possibly be in?  He's got every dang thing he needs.  The coon that drives him nuts is outside, as are the birds, the squirrels and whoever else shows up just beyond the patio door.  He's an indoor cat, always has been. Just outside is regular circus of creatures.

Okay, I've been thinking that maybe I ought to just push him out there at that hour, something akin to putting Billy Graham on a Hawg and sending him to Sturgis. Benny's as clueless as clawless, and while his meat may well be toughened by his old age, he'd be easy-pickins for some cagey varmint. 

Lately he's learned to mimic the alarm.  His howling isn't constant, it's staggered.  He gurgles a dozen times, then stops.  Aha! I tell myself--that's it for this morning.  Five minutes later it's another baker's dozen, and we're not talking about a mild meow here.  We're talking something blood-curdling from so deep within his cat insides that it starts with a brogue.  I'm serious.  

Ten minutes later, another chorus.  I can't handle it.  I'm the one who needs an analyst.

My wife, who adores poor Benny, barely hears him, out like a stone.  In a straight-up bargain,  in a choice between the two of us, I'm not sure who she'd leave behind when we move to the new house, despite the fact that Benny "vocalizes" nocturnally and leaves green-ish spit-up in places where your toes find it before your eyes--behaviors, by the way, I've never exhibited.  

Oh, yeah---third possible cause for vocalization?  The cat's in heat.

Not Benny.  He's no she and hasn't even been a he since before he can remember.  The only heat around here is what I generate before five in the morning.

Don't yell, E-How says. Yelling is something of the attention he craves, the attention he wanted to attract by his "vocalization."  Whatever you do, don't yell. 

Call me a criminal.  I did.  

How about rant? Is that okay? 

Benny just walked in, circled around like cats do, and and laid down, so he's right here beside me, as if we were buds.  No apology.  No guilt.  Utter cat silence, wearing same deadpan face he'll wear all day, when he isn't sleeping, which he will be soon and long.

So that tomorrow, sometime after four, dark of night, he'll plod silently into the kitchen and start this whole blame shtick over again.

Aw, shit.  How do I love thee?--let me count the ways.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013


About a month ago, Stanley Fish, one of this country's most prolific and thoughtful and entertaining literary critics and English profs, announced to the world (via NY Times) that because he's retiring, he'd sold his books.  English profs amass huge libraries, of course, not only because books are (or have been) their stock-in-trade, but because they get free ones.  Besides, we can write 'em off.

It would be interesting to know how much I've spent on books throughout the years, an amount I could sleuth out, I suppose, by going through our tax records, although I think I'd rather not know.  What I do know is that a year ago now I stood tons of books on the for-sale shelf in the English department, charging a quarter a piece or so, more or less, mostly less.  When that marketing ploy failed to clean me out, I dumped the remaindered in the book bins the library annually distributes around campus to catch the myriad rejects of students and profs alike, thousands of them.

Stanley Fish claims to have been amazed how easy it was for him to divest. "In the hours and days following the exodus of the books I monitored myself for a post-mortem (please excuse the hyperbole) reaction," he wrote.  "Would I feel regret?  Nostalgia?  Panic? Relief?  I felt nothing."

Not until I read that line did I think about my own divestiture. That which had been my life simply cleared out of Dodge.  Don't misunderstand--there are a dozen boxes upstairs waiting anxiously to be re-shelved when we move.  But compared with what I had--and what we had--the new Schaap library is anorexic.  

Now there's a moral waiting to be mined from the sea change.  Let me try that again with more some more to-the-point (and less mixed) metaphor--there's a moral inferred between the covers of the Fish observations.  That moral is here too when Fish quotes a colleague of his as saying that leaving the office was no more traumatic than checking out of a motel.  

So it was with me too, strangely. That friend of Fish isn't wrong.  

Let me pitch it this way.  Among my people, I think I'm thought to be something of a liberal.  But the fact is, I'm an unabashed conservative.  I've been in the same denomination for all of my 65 years.  What's more, I stayed with an educational institution for ALL my entire career.  How many people do you know in any job who are that stodgy, that I-shall-not-be-moved?  These days, researchers claim that most people will change professions--not just jobs--five or six times in a lifetime.  I never was anything but an English prof.  Talk about traditional, conventional, conformist!

But no more.  It's now a year since I (sort of) retired.  Am I traumatized?  I don't think so. Do I miss the place I haunted for all those years?  Not really.  I don't even feel much loyalty.  I remember an older retired prof telling me gingerly, "Schaap, there's life after Dordt."  Not that I didn't believe it. Still, I'm happy to report he wasn't wrong.

At some secret place in the recesses of the mind or soul or spirit, there's likely a switch or two that controls the homage we give to our immediacy, probably a switch like those that light a room simply when you walk inside. Walk in and and everything is lit; leave and who really cares?

Fish says that he's been bountifully rewarded for that NY Times column because of the generous responses of his readers. Whereas he's quite regularly dissed, this column generated far more light than heat. "The responses this time," he writes in this morning's paper, "rather than being combative or angry, are reflective, generous, kind, eloquent, and, more than occasionally, wise."

I like that.  

That generosity, I think, is understandable.  My books are someone carpenter's tools, some farmer's machinery, some cop's badge, some mother's kids' clothes.  They are what is to each of us,  or what was, and I'm now in the bountiful land of what is.

We're building a new house. Maybe it's nuts, but it's a joy.  I would never have imagined I would like it as much as I do, but then there was time I could never have imagined life without my books either.  We move on.

"Nobody's home," one of his responders told him.  "We're all in exile."

That's as fresh and thoughtful a way this old conservative has heard someone talk about heaven in a long, long time.