Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Pilgrim--a story (V)

He took a step or two up the bales and reached for her, drew her toward him with his arm, but she was stiff and frozen, no more human than the old mower in corner. He let her go again. She was a mannequin, heavy and rigid.

He scolded himself for his cowardice, grabbed her body with both arms, pulled her up high enough so the rope slackened, then held her to his side with his right arm and grabbed the rope. He had to get rid of his glove, so he pulled it from his left hand with his teeth and spit it away, then loosened the strangle hold of the stiff rope and slipped it over her head. He put her rigid feet down beside his on the bale and held her in place as he jumped to the floor. Then he leaned her hard body back into his arms and let her down to the barn floor slowly, stood beside her and let her own body weight bring her down so she lay beside him in the loose straw.

She looked younger now, in the sun light over her face—no silver in her hair, no wrinkles. She had more life to live. We all do, he thought.

He remembered Teddy, those apparitions in his grief. This was no apparition. But it wasn’t Carolyn either.

He bent down beside her, lifted her head slowly and brought the hood up and around her dark hair before gently letting her head back down. With his right hand, he pulled strands of hair back out of her face. With both hands, he held her face, his hands outside the hood, and looked at her, this woman he’d never known, and somehow the tears came, because whoever this woman was, that she had to go, that she had to crawl to this damned abandoned barn and climb the steps of straw to a noose she must have fashioned herself, it was beyond him.

There he sat, her head in his hands, thinking she was all he’d ever loved and all he’d come to hate. He rubbed his face with the sleeve of his coat, then pulled out a dry arm to try to soak the wetness. If he was God’s workmanship, as the Bible said, than what on earth was the Lord and Creator of the universe shaping in him?

He put her back on the straw, got to his feet, and walked out of the barn, circled the north side to the east. The silence all around him was broken only by raucous crows in the cottonwoods at the edge of the river, the cooing of doves on the silo, and somewhere, even in the dead of winter, the quiet sound of a thin trail of running water.

He pulled up a hand to his forehead because the sun was a burning ball of fire, the sky as bright as steel. He turned away from the bright morning sun to see the grayscale colors of January on the trees over the river still bright with life.


There were no pictures that morning, so he had no reason to go to his computer. But he did, clicked on his e-mail, typed in his password and found three ads he never read, a note from a student, and something from Breaking News.

Nothing from Carolyn. Again.

He went to a box he’d created for the eight e-mails she’d sent since leaving, same g-mail address. He opened the last, clicked on return, and a box popped opened, the cursor flickering top, left-hand corner, as if he had something to say.

He wanted to tell her what he’d found, wanted to describe what he’d seen out there in a barn on the river, wanted to tell her that no pilgrim should ever find her that way, so nameless, that what they’d been through was no reason for the story to end, wanted to say so much,

He’d told the coroner that he was sorry for taking her body down, but he just couldn’t let her there, nor anyone else. The old man said he understood, while behind him, the noose still hung like something immoveable.

Once, on a hunting trip in the Big Horns, with bull elks sounding their bellowing mating calls, Teddy had confided in a friend, told him everything about his wife’s death. When the man told him that life would go on, TR got fighting mad. “Don’t talk to me about ‘time will make a difference,’” he’d said. “Time will never change me.” The light had gone out of his life.

Two years later, after he’d spent some time in the hills, a place so remote, he once wrote, “that nowhere else does one feel so far off from all mankind,” he’d run for Mayor of New York City.

That too he had felt on Sabbath mornings, that very joy, so very far off from mankind.

He looked at his hands, his fingers wrinkling with age, white like a preacher’s. Spread them out over the keyboard. Something was working in him, he wanted to tell her, something was shaping him, changing him.

“I’ve moved to the edge of the plains,” he typed in. “There’s joy in all the openness, all the nothingness. There’s something here.” It didn’t matter if she didn’t understand. He had to tell her.

“You might just like it here,” he typed. “There are places I’ll show you where you can see forever.”

That was enough for now, he thought, and initialized the note.

But it wasn’t what was in him. He deleted his initials.

“I’m going to try to come get you,” he typed in the box. “Listen to me, Carolyn—wherever you are. I don’t care where. I’m coming to take you home.”

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Pilgrim--a story (IV)


It was stingingly cold—on a gravel road beneath a bluff just east of the river, the sun already up far enough to lay long lines out from the fence posts and the spruce trees that threatened the hills’ otherwise naked lines. It was another Sabbath morning gamble, looking for the place Tom thought flooded out with tears: somewhere north, somewhere west—off a bluff and beneath a huge old maple, broken branches. He didn’t know what he was looking for, but he had this strange feeling that if he’d find it, he’d know it.

He hadn’t been up north this far too often before, so when he spotted an old barn in a crystalline sky, he figured he needed the hike. There was no dancing cottonwood, but something drew him anyway. To get there required a hike because what there was of a driveway had long ago been erased by fence line-to-fence line corn or beans, but when he’d left that morning he’d made sure he was ready for the cold—long johns, boots, turtle-neck, and fleece because, as Carolyn used to say, you could never have enough fleece.

If he’d known the country well—if he’d been a farm boy—he could have described that barn by type or genre, long and straight, not slumped like some old nag the way many others were along these river roads.

The river had determined its own path some long-ago April or May, when the rush of melting ice and snow had turned tumultuous. Years ago already some hardscrabble farmer tried to make a place for a family, a passel of kids. But the river’s new course had made the place treacherous, parked as it was so close to the water; and, all around, thin grainy soil of bottom land almost sure to dry up by July.

It was a long walk, but what he wanted to shoot was the lines the dutiful morning sun would make through all that aged siding, long lines of sun and shade across whatever was inside. The contrasts would be strong, and it wasn’t a landscape. He remembered the kid’s admonitions—Shawn, his name was.

When he got down there, he shot a couple close-ups of the siding panels, graying wood with old raised grain that seemed almost serpentine with shadows that would soon disappear when dawn cleared into morning. Beneath his cap, his hair was wet with sweat from marching through the edge of ice atop the snow.

The north wall was pretty well gone, so, watching for nails in the mess beneath his feet, he made his way into the place, then looked up and saw her—a body dangling from a rafter. There she was, a dark, suspended bundle against lines between the slats behind her—a dead woman, a suicide, the body up high and out of the reach of whatever animals might otherwise have made her frozen body their own feast in the desperate cold.

Somehow—maybe it was Tom’s story, maybe it was the obsession about Carolyn—but somehow that body being there shocked him less than he might have anticipated; and when he thought about it later, he thought it odd that coming on her so suddenly, seeing this woman hanging there, suspended as she was, hadn’t really upset him more than it did. He’d felt no quickening of the pulse—none of that.

Three bales of hay lay beneath her, the one beneath the other two, tipped on edge, having fallen from the stack when she’d determined to jump.

He reached for his cell.

Her face was hidden away beneath a shock of dark hair that fell in an awkward angle. Somehow he knew, again, as if by instinct, she wasn’t anyone he’d ever met. But she was a human being, he told himself. Once, she was alive.

He flipped open the cell.

There was no house on the place, so she’d walked here?—left a car—maybe? He hadn’t seen one. Must have been tramping along this gravel road—but why? Maybe someone let her off, knowing she was going to do what she was. Accomplice to murder?

A bottle lay on its side, just a foot or so away from the broken stack of bales beneath her feet. She’d had something to drink, maybe plenty, some final communion, a final drunk maybe.

Frost lined the folds of the sweatshirt, a gash of pale gray skin left exposed on the right side of her misshapen body, where what little she had on angled up and away slightly from her waist.

She was heavy and she was dead, perfectly dead. Beside the bales of straw at her feet, there seemed no sign of a struggle. Couldn’t have been a hanging. This wasn’t the wild west.

There was no way of knowing her age. He flipped the phone shut again and stuck it back in his pocket. Her hair wasn’t silver or gray. She was motionless, a few stripes on her back and sleeves from the morning sun slashing between ancient slats.

That it wasn’t Caroline wasn’t something he even had to tell himself. Not until the thought came to him did his mind make that kind of jump. It wasn’t his wife, who was blonde, dishwater. It wasn’t her, he told himself again, even though from the moment he’d first seen her he hadn’t really thought it could be. Maybe it was her. She might have dyed her hair. Who was she looking for anyway? Who was he?

It could have been Carolyn, despite her promise two years ago already.

He stood there motionless, as if hammered into time and place. He couldn’t fumble though that pouch in her sweatshirt, looking for identification. Besides, who she was, was not his business. She was a woman, and she was dead, and it was clear that if she had been missed somewhere in the neighborhood, he probably would have heard.

He wondered if maybe not feeling shock was the shock itself—that he was breathing easily, that it seemed clear to him that there was nothing he could do, that he hadn’t even been all that surprised at finding her, that this wretched discovery seemed painless, as if his finding this woman was something that happened every other Sunday.

But she wasn’t no one. She was someone’s wife, someone’s mother, someone’s daughter.

He walked closer, still holding the cell, then stepped around her. She wore a silver down vest over a red hooded sweatshirt with a graphic that was all but gone beneath “Coral Gables” embroidered in a off-white semi-circle. Lot of miles on that shirt, he thought—Salvation Army, St. Vincent De Paul?

Her face was emaciated, colorless, her skin drawn tight over high cheekbones, bulging eyes, just nothing but murky darkness, mouth open crookedly. What hung there in the stillness bore little resemblance to what she must have been, no fire in her, no breath. She was the end of a story he alone was privy to, even though he knew nothing of what had come before—who she was, why she’d ended it here so wretchedly, on the river, in some old barn even the poor long ago left behind. All he knew—and what he knew—was that something was over here.

Someone could find Carolyn like that and know nothing, just as little. But for someone there would be no more mystery. She was what he’d been looking for—an end.

He looked up at her again, at arms and hands that fell easily at her side, no sign of distress, at her body at rest.

He reached out for the edge of her sweatshirt and held it, frosty and hard, in his fingers, then his hands; and when he did the body swung toward him. She was cold and lifeless, but she was something. And for a moment, stepping even closer, he wanted to hold her, not as if to bring life back into her, but simply to have her in his arms because she felt like an answer to prayer he’d never received, a gift.

He shouldn’t touch anything. He knew that. He didn’t take off his gloves, but he picked up the open purse, one of those roomy ones woven from something hemp-like, a long shoulder-strap, then swept a half-empty pack of cigarettes back in, and brought it up to his lap. A pack of gum, a compact, some sales receipts from a grocery store.

He opened the wallet to a face on a driver’s license he didn’t recognize, couldn’t recognize. She wore a stiff smile, and her name was Joleen Meersberger. The address was there, someplace far south.

What had brought her way up here, walking, was not at all clear. Behind the plastic window that held her license, he found a picture—three kids, Sunday best, against a background of snowy mountains in some cheap department store studio, dated—ten years ago at least, twenty maybe; you could tell by the haircuts. All three wore stiff obliged smiles.

He looked back up and stood, holding the picture of the children chest-high as if that way he could see them. It was always about children, he thought. It was always related to kids, the one they’d wanted for so very long.

The place Tom Sturtevant visited, somewhere near here—he had no way of knowing if this had been it—had once been full of prayers, three times at least, three choruses for a child that was gone. Here he sat in the presence of someone whose life had mattered so little that she took it herself in a frantic, drunken leap from a pile of straw bales. What had happened to him that he couldn’t pray, couldn’t cry?

What if it was Carolyn? Would he cry? Would he raise his hands right here and pray—and if he would, what would he say?

He looked up into a misshapen, gray face that was somehow peaceful.

He opened the cell again and called 911, then told the dispatcher that it wasn’t really an emergency. “A suicide,” he told her, “a woman. I’m in an old barn maybe five miles south of Chester, right along the river, east side—gravel road, river road. Place stands all by itself, and my Jeep is parked up on the road.”

She asked if it just happened, this suicide, and he said no, that she’d likely been there for some time, how long he couldn’t tell.

“Someone will be there shortly,” she said.

And that would be the end of things. But he couldn’t leave. She needed a vigil.

He couldn’t pray. It would have seemed pretense. He remembered the disciples, “Lord, teach us how to pray.” But this was different because what did God have to do with this? Where was he when this woman emptied that bottle, whatever it was? Why weren’t there guardian angels in the damn rafters—even a bad rope? Why wasn’t God doing something about Carolyn, about him?

He listened for some kind of vehicle up the gravel.

If he’d get up on a few bales and hold her body against his side with one arm—she wasn’t that big—he could loosen the noose. What could he possibly spoil about the place by doing that, by letting her rest? He simply couldn’t let her hang.

He walked over to a stack of bales where she’d picked out a few herself. He grabbed strings and lugged them back into the center, packed them with the other three, then grabbed a few more until he had a platform tall enough.
Outside, the wind was building, singing a frozen song through the open siding. He looked through the open north end and up the road east. Nothing. No one.


Tomorrow:  conclusion

Friday, September 27, 2013

Pilgrim--a story (III)

There were two, finally, after a thousand tries and a few shots at adoption, all of which ended in tears and frustration, little more than horrifying sadness and bitter regret at having believed that, well “maybe this is what God wants.” There were two, finally, when the doctor confirmed what all the home pregnancy tests had already said, even though they were far too skeptical to believe them—they could have bought them by the gross. There were two, finally, after literally thousands of dollars in procedures and a time when they used to say that both of them might just as well move into the hospital or clinic of whatever—they seemed to spend so little time doing anything else, but monitoring and making love in ways that had become silly, so much more science than art. There were two, finally—there they were on ultrasound; and it took all the strength they could gather not to give them names in the womb—shoot, right there in the office. There was not just one—but two. And great rejoicing in heaven, he thought.

There were two finally, and the horror of baby commercials had in a moment become heralds of joy and triumph. There were two, finally, and her tears were wrung from joy, which was new and glorious, an answer to his silent prayers because they’d long before already stopped praying about it aloud. There were two, finally, and for a long time, fearfully, they had to temper their enthusiasm simply because they’d suffered so much heartbreak.

There were two, finally, and neither of them lived.

Six weeks later he found the note on the refrigerator.


“I met this woman who survived the Holocaust. She told me when the war ended, she knew she had to close the book on that part of her life. She’d lost her fiancé in Dachau. She had to start over. It got me thinking.”

That was all. That was the whole blessed note.

He wanted to scream at her, to throw flames.

That was when he stopped responding, stopped writing, altogether. Refused. She wasn’t reading whatever he’d said anyway, she’d told him. Why should I waste my breath?

So he kept silent, left the ministry, and went west, like Teddy Roosevelt.


Tom Sturtevant came into his office Friday, after classes, and said he’d seen the show, the pictures, and one in particular brought back a story, a story he thought maybe Ray ought to know. “The one with the single cottonwood up on the hill—looks like a dancer—ballet. You know it?”

It was a story how Sturtevant, a young pastor, got this phone call, first year of his ministry in that little church just outside of Bainbridge, you may have seen it? “Young woman was killed in an accident just north of town here, and the police called me—that was the practice then—expected that I’d go out there and break the news,” Tom said. “It was behind those hills somewhere—I don’t remember where, but that old dancing cottonwood looked familiar.”

He was young, and it was something he’d never done yet—gone to a place with that kind of bad news, and he’d had all sorts of trouble finding the farm. “The whole place was wild,” he said. “And it was dark, too, and there I was chasing around in those hills.”

“Awful job,” Ray told him.

“It was hell,” he said. “You know—you’ve been in situations like that. I don’t have to tell you what happens to their faces when they come to the door, snap on the light, and it’s the preacher at 11:00—or worse—on a weekend. They know.”

And then he stopped, as if he’d stumbled into an obstruction. “I don’t know if you need to hear this,” He reached for his book bag. “Maybe it’s stupid—but the story came back to me when I saw that picture—you know, the one I was telling you about.”

“What happened?” Ray asked him.

“She wasn’t the only one out that night, so they wanted me to stay there when the others came in, the other teenagers or whatever.” He looked up at the walls. “You know, you really ought to put something up in here—the place looks like no one’s home.”

“How many others?”

“Two,” he said. “Whatever they knew about birth control they rejected out of hand, I guess—there was a whole string of kids younger. Don’t even remember their names anymore—that’s forty years ago. There I sat in a house I’ve never visited before, waiting for kids to come home to tell them their sister was gone.” He shook his head. “I’m sorry. I just remember those hills. It all came back.”

“Three times?” Ray asked him.

“I think so—three times. Not a square corner in the place. On the edge of those hills somewhere, down close to the river. Three times I had to tell the story. Could have flooded the place with tears.” And then he looked up. “I don’t know why I’m telling you all of this—you don’t need to hear it. It just struck me, you know. When I saw that cottonwood, those broken branches, leaning the way it was, as if the wind was forever blowing, like a woman dancing. I swear it was right around there—that farmhouse. Probably long gone now. They didn’t have a pot to pee in.”

“You ought to try to tell me where sometime,” Ray told him.

Tom swung his bag over his shoulder. “And how you doing anyway? Students driving you nuts? I worry sometimes,” he said.

“About me?”

He let that go for a while, then stepped to the door, as if to leave. “Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, I worry about you.” The bag fell from his shoulder so he pulled it up again. “I can’t say a thing to you that doesn’t have double meaning.” He held up both hands in innocence, as if to swear off evil intent. “I walk in here because I got to tell you this story—it’s your photograph that brought it back. I walk in here and I start to tell you and it all goes sour because I’m worried about how you’re going to take it. Ray,” he said, “you really can’t be you, can you?” he said.

Ray knew what was meant. “I can be me all right, but I can’t be anything else.”

“We keep praying,” Sturtevant said.

“For what?”

“For you,” he said.

“That can’t hurt,” Ray told him. “Where was that place anyway?—that old farmhouse.”

“It’s got to be gone,” Tom Sturtevant told him. But he tried to explain as best he could.


Tomorrow:  A shocking early morning discovery.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Pilgrim--a story (II)

On Monday afternoon, he ran into a crowd at an early season indoor track meet, hundreds of kids in a dozen colorful uniforms lounging all over if they weren’t high-stepping in some warm-up ritual dance or actually lining up for a sprint. Everywhere you looked there were perfectly formed bodies, as if there’d been no such thing as the Fall, all of them smiling and laughing, or munching cold pizza in a hundred open boxes, parents and friends behind them aboard bleachers someone dragged in and set up down the home stretch.

The pistol goes off and down at the south end five or six women begin to make the turn around the first bend—100-meter dash, he thought, but who can tell on the small, indoor track? Four kids stand in his way as he makes his way to the weight room. They’re talking about quads, making faces, women and men almost indistinguishable in sweats and the equality that sports has created. He tries to get around them and it doesn’t work, so he touches a guy’s shoulder and begs pardon for simply trying to get past. Any other time it might bother him to touch someone, but all these people, all these athletes create such a physical world.

He angles over towards the track where Tom Sturdevant is lining up runners for 400-meter run. Tom says there’s a place for him and points to an empty lane. It’s a joke.

“Not even when I was a kid could I have run 400 meters,” he says.

“How about I give you a break?” Tom says. “I’m an official, Ray. Things can be arranged.”

A half dozen sprinters, still in their lanes, come charging up from around the last curve, and he spots a student of his, maybe the best in his whole class last semester, and he’s amazed that he never guessed she was a runner, an athlete. Small and muscular, she’s eating up the field. She crosses into the inside lane once she and the others come out of the turn, and it’s clear she’s far out in front; and even though he’s a whole track away, he sees that student, the very good one, throw her shoulders back as sprinters do to break a string that wasn’t even there.

Shedding tears had stopped long ago, but when he stands there, surrounded by all that life, he’s angry with himself, and with her, with Carolyn, so angry he can feel it in his face, something he has to hide even though no one is looking at him because it’s as if he isn’t there. And he wonders, just for a moment, whether what she’d done hadn’t robbed him of life, jailing him the way she has. He didn’t realize the girl—the great student—ran track and even did it well, and the fact is he can’t even remember her name. He’s a ghost, a wanderer just like Carolyn, like the babies they’d lost.

“That I’m fighting not to come back,” she wrote him some time later, maybe the third message, same g-mail address, “has to mean that the old life is still part of something in me.” Another morning, months later: “What you are will always be an unfinished story.”

Little else. Everything cryptic, and never—not once—even singularly referring to anything he’d sent her. “I don’t read your notes. It is too painful.”

No calendar, no system to the few e-mails he’d pick up suddenly on his computer. Once, they came twice in the same month—July. That startling frequency gave him hope, and then nothing again until what?--October. Days and nights he’d spend just trying not to think of her, not to remember. “Coping mechanism,” somebody might call it. Call it what you will, he thought, sometimes he wished she’d never be found. In unguarded moments all alone, he’d begun to wonder whether he hated her.

He’s encircled by a crowd he doesn’t know, hundreds of kids whose seemingly reckless sexuality he finds very uncomfortable. He is no one, neither single nor married—no longer a husband, no longer a pastor. He’s adjunct faculty who doesn’t even know his best students.

She’s crippled him in every way, he tells himself.

He ought to be judging track meets. He ought to be shooting the starter’s gun. Like Tom Sturtevant, he ought to helping out, doing something. He ought to be alive.


Roosevelt, out by himself, was hunting in the Badlands no more than a week after arriving from New York, escaping the stranglehold of two horrific deaths. He’d started a campfire, an antelope steak already eaten, then looked down toward a creek bed, where in the half light of full moon, he swore he’d seen his mother and his wife’s spirits as vividly as if they’d actually been there, arms outstretched, as if in water—not as if talking to him either, but to each other. At first, he thought it was his own madness had projected them there.

Yet, their presence, side-by-side, seemed, as verifiable as Manitou, his horse, just a few yards away. Their mouths were moving, but he couldn’t hear the words. It was as if he’d been invited into the next world, where the two of them seemed alive but not anguished. He’d been alone in the Badlands, a place someone once called “hell, with its fires gone out.” But he had no doubt that he’d been given a vision of a moment of the afterlife there on the Little Missouri.

More than once, it happened, and he was sure they were trying to speak to him. He was sure they had something to say.

Sometimes he looked for Carolyn in the darkness of an apartment she’d never seen. Sometimes, after a night class, he wanted her to appear beneath the streetlights, along telephone wires, as he walked home from the campus. Sometimes on Sundays he thought to find her in the cottonwoods. At least Teddy had seen Alice.

Carolyn left behind a handwritten note stuck beneath a magnet on the refrigerator. She’d contact him once she got somewhere. “Somewhere,” the note said, “somewhere I haven’t determined yet.” A magnet held down the note, John 3:16 printed in a rounded style that made it look like a child’s handwriting.

“Faith is all I have,” she told him once in a e-mail. “But it’s not like it once was—faith I mean. It’s not like it was at all, but it’s all I have to believe in.”

That was the only note he’d ever shown anyone—a friend of theirs who did family therapy. “Is this depression?” he asked her.

She’d shrugged her shoulders, smilingly. “It’s hard to know from a single note, Ray,” she told him. “I wouldn’t want to hazard a guess based simply on something like that.” They’d been at a café. She put down the note, then took her sandwich in her hands, then put it down again. “Maybe you simply need to believe her,” she told him.

“Believe what?” he said.

“That she’s looking for something,” Ann told him.

“And what about me?” is what he should have asked the family therapist.


On Wednesday, a kid named Shawn came to see him, on appointment, wanting to do a story. He had a thick, shadowy beard that made him look older than he was, an odd contradiction really because his round cheeks and ceaseless smile made him seem like a child.

“So what happened?” the kid asked, spinning his pencil in his hand. “Somewhere along the line you just determined that all you’d ever shoot was landscapes?”

He was from the school paper, he’d said when he’d called Monday morning. They wanted to do a story on the adjunct religion prof. Everybody knew he was two-year terminal and most kids—those who wanted to—knew he was alone. It took little effort to garner loads of sympathy when your wife deserted you. Or pity.

“People don’t think of this region of the country as being particularly beautiful,” the kid said. “I mean, if I could have got into Pepperdine, you know?—maybe I would have. This ain’t Malibu.” He was unfolding his tablet, flipping pages to something empty. “Good at corn and beans maybe, but you go somewhere else for postcards, you know? How come you started doing pictures?”

“Maybe I’m just good at ‘em—and you do what you do best, Shawn.” He’d written the name down on the pad beneath his computer, for reference. “Why mess around in another world when you’re invested where you are?”

“That’s understandable,” the kid said, then looked up quickly, this wry smile spreading across his face. “You got something against human beings maybe?” That smile took the edge off what might have seemed an accusation.

“Hey, ‘some of my best friends,’ and all of that, right?” he told him. “It’s just that human beings don’t like to be photographed.”

“I read some place—some journalist—who said that no matter where he went in the world, if he had camera with him—you know, a TV camera?—people opened their doors.” He hunched his shoulders as if the idea were preposterous. “Hovels or caves or cardboard shacks—whatever,” he said, “people just want to be on TV, I guess.”

“That’s not my experience,” he said.

“I know what you mean,” Shawn told him. “I can do an interview for half the day and everything’s fine—the minute I pull out the camera,” he kicked his bag lightly as if to warn him, “people wrinkle up their noses, you know?”

Salesman, Ray thought. The kid is going into marketing.

“I saw this book once—don’t remember the title anymore either, but it had all these pictures of people lying in coffins, you know? Like at funerals in the wild west? Can you imagine that?” he said, “—people taking pictures of dead loved ones? Ever shoot dead people?” the kid asked him.

The kid was immensely likeable, but far off the subject. “Listen,” he told Shawn, jokingly, “I’ve never once shot a dead man.”

“Fair enough,” he said, conceding. “How about a woman?—answer me that.”

“I need a lawyer,” he told him, both hands raised.

“I just wondered, you know—I mean, I saw the show. I walked in last night when Professor Foster was hanging it.” He shook his head as if befuddled. “The whole thing is landscapes. I loved ‘em—I really did. People will think they’re gorgeous, I’m sure.” He stuck that pen in his pocket and folded up the tablet he’d used for notes. “I guess I just sort of wondered.”

And then silence.

“Earth and sky and trees?” Ray told him, “—there’s not much out here, you know, on the Plains. Not so easy to get all that beauty in a lens. I mean, you can’t lie with a photograph, can’t fake anything. What you see is what you get.”

“And a little Photoshop,” the kid said.

“Sure, a little Photoshop,” he said. “You interested in photography?”

Kid hunched his shoulders. “I got this journalism scholarship. Something I got to do, you know: interview people. Just to keep the scholarship. I need the bucks.” He held that pen up like a license.

“And your major is?” he asked the kid.

“I’m thinking youth ministry,” the kid said, that smile turned down a notch for a minute. “I had this biology prof who said that after the fall, you know—after the snake and the apple—nature really wasn’t all that much affected—that we were, I mean human beings, but not the eco-system.”

It seemed like the kind of idea a class could discuss for a session or two.

“So when I’m checking out your show last night, I’m thinking that landscape photography—I mean, I like your work, really, it’s so beautiful, like a little bit of heaven. Maybe that’s what you’re after?” He waved his hand as if that was a question he was after, and Ray shrugged his shoulders. “But then I got to wondering about people, I guess.” He laughed in a way that attempted to cover some guilt. “I don’t know—just idiot speculation maybe.” He’d picked up the jacket from the shoulders of the chair behind him and pulled it on. “I wondered if maybe you thought human beings weren’t as, well, beautiful as creation?—you know, affected by sin and all of that.” For a moment—for the first time—the smile flattened. “No offense, but in my lit class we’ve been talking about deconstruction, and it gets into you, you know?” And then he stopped.

“Why should I be offended?” Ray asked him.

“I mean, last night when I was in the gallery and Foster was putting up those pictures,” he grabbed that pad by a corner and pointed it at him like an old teacher, “—I’m thinking maybe the story is in what’s not there.”

“I’m getting played,” he told the kid. “What are you trying to weasel out of me anyway?”

“Nothing,” he said. “Problem with college is that if you don’t look out all that thinking goes to your head.”

“Deconstruction, huh?’

“What do I know?” the kid said, getting to his feet. He hunched his shoulders. “Thanks anyway,” he said.

“Get your story?” he asked the kid as he got to his feet.

Once more he hunched his shoulders. “It’s just a job, you know?” He pointed back behind him. “But that stuff—what you do with a camera—that’s not just a job, is it?”

“You’re the one who said it—‘it’s something of heaven,’ don’t you think?”

“Like the ‘elysian fields,’” he said. “You ever think of that?—I mean, this world out here where we live—it’s something like the Elysian Fields. Just smells worse.”


Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Pilgrim: a story--I

He stopped for gas at the Shell downtown, stuck in his credit card, and the blasted pump wouldn’t work. It was early, the sky dark except for a swell of light in the east—time to get moving, maybe even a few minutes late.

He tried another pump. Nothing. He was losing time and he knew it. He glanced east, where the broad reach of morning kept eating up dark sky. Jumped back in the Jeep and headed for another gas station, the one just outside of town, where the pumps worked, thank goodness.

Since Carolyn left, it had become ritual to head out of town on Sunday mornings all by his lonesome—there was no one else anymore—and look for the dawn. Two and one-half months it was since he’d heard a word, almost a year and a half she’d been gone.

Just outside of town, it was clear that some of the possibilities for the morning’s glory had already faded.

Where was he headed?—other than west? He didn’t know. Okay, he figured, gamble. It was too late to go for the tried-and-true places—a skeletal old barn he loved to frequent, ancient corn cribs, two or three broken cottonwoods, like Seventh Cavalry sentries alone in miles of open space. You can’t get out to the sweet spots anymore because you started too late, he told himself, so just scout around. Maybe you’ll get lucky, one of those crap-shoot Sabbaths that sometimes leads to glory, sometimes to blowout. You never know what you’ll find, what you’ll stumble over.

He crossed the bridge, then turned left at the edge of the hills on the west bank, down a river valley road swallowed by cottonwoods, a place he’d never been before, maybe twenty miles from home. A mile and a half down, a gravel road angled sharply west up the slope of the hill, still surrounded by trees. He knew he had to get up to the top somehow—that’s where the action was. A yellow sign warned about turns—a squiggly arrow. He gunned it anyway, kept waiting for the inevitable break in the trees.

When he got to the top, there was nothing at all up there but a couple dozen pastured cattle that spooked the moment he pulled over in the Jeep. He got out, stuck the camera in the tripod, and started tromping through snow about a half mile north, nothing but prairie sprawling as far as you could see, north to south.

Before him the river valley opened upstage to a cloudless dawn, but the temperatures over what open water there was created a gossamer mist over the bottom land. Between those sheets of wispy fog, the banks of trees and everything else far beyond, that entire broad landscape—twenty or thirty miles of it —was all bronze and buttery. Mother lode, he told himself.

Above the boots, his pant legs were snowy-cold in minutes. He put down the tripod and started shooting. And then it came, that bold bridegroom of Psalm 19, its livery so resplendent it was blinding. If there was more beauty somewhere between him and that lousy apartment, he didn’t know where it would have been.

He panned left, panned right—tried a silhouette behind an eight-foot volunteer cedar up on the bluff, a single extended branch cutting darkly through the glorious color.

Next week he’d have a show, a warm gesture by good Christian friends to salve his pain. His landscapes were representational, even clichéd, just so many calendar–ready inspirationals; but some friends in the Art Department offered a space for therapy. It would be good for Ray to have a show—the man needs a break and people will love his stuff, they said.

Everybody knew the outline of his story, but nobody knew the guts because nobody else saw the e-mails. He was the only one to read what she said, what she didn’t.

He kept snapping shots. He was a rank amateur and he knew it, just one of countless bugs who bought fancy digitals and snapped thousands of landscapes. How many monkeys would it take, hunched over computer keys, to type out the Bible? If you take a million pictures, three or four ought to be stunning.

He had to tell himself to quit, pull his hand back from the camera, his cold hand, and just look; because what he’d come out for wasn’t really photography. He’d come out, as he did every Sunday, to find words to praise, the words he’d lost forever-ago when she’d left and taken so much with her, leaving him with nothing. This—what was spread before him—was God’s workmanship.

The first came four months and counting after she’d left. She simply said for him not to worry, even though she knew him well enough to know that wasn’t possible. “I’m okay, sort of,” the note said, sent, he guessed, from some public library or a Starbucks, who knows where? “Just to let you know I’m alive.”

He typed something back immediately, words to which she’d never responded because she’d never responded to anything he’d sent back, part of whatever damned therapy she was doing, self-imposed or otherwise. Who knew what was going on in her head?—a woman he once thought he knew inside and out, before what had happened. She just left, period. Just took off.

Therapy. The open sky came back into view. Once dawn shed its buttery hue, once the long shadows started to run back down the hill from the cottonwoods just beneath him, once the sun had become a huge ball of blinding fire, he stood there in silence beside the tri-pod. What he’d come for, out there in the hills, was a moment alone in a honey-ish morning opened into life itself. Therapy.

No one had told him to do it, no shrink—although he’d been there. No grief counselor had said, “Ray Martin, what you need to do is shoot landscapes, early morning landscapes.” It was a therapy he’d stumbled on in the Jeep, along with a fancy Nikon he bought after she left, a kind of compensation his abandoned soul deserved: the camera and an open waiting world, fields and plains so flat and wide people said you could watch your dog run away for three days.

In February, and it was cold—February of 1884—two hearses stood outside Fifth Presbyterian Church, New York City, one of them holding Teddy Roosevelt’s mother, another his wife, two women so close to the man it’s a wonder he ever lived through their deaths, both on the same day. Ray Martin found himself drawn to TR because Roosevelt found comfort in the vast openness. These hills had become, for him, a comfort and a blessing, just as they’d been for Teddy. When Carolyn had left Freeport, he’d left not long after, giving up the ministry too. An old colleague told him they needed a fill-in religion prof for a colleague, a woman who’d had the baby that the two of them had always wanted.

Therapy. His. What did Calvin say in the early passages of the Institutes?—“wherever you turn your eyes, there is no portion of the world that does not exhibit some sparks of beauty. It is impossible to contemplate the vast and beautiful fabric without being overwhelmed by the immense weight of glory.” He’d read it a week ago, typed it out into his ideas file, as if he were still preaching because he wanted to let it work on him, something, at least, in all this nothingness.

And Pascal—“You should always keep something beautiful in your mind.”

He stood there looking out over lines of trees and beyond to the little river town a couple miles east, all the way to the long stretch of open land beyond, here and there a farmstead like a charcoal smudge against the burnished gold of early morning, the closest he could come to prayer.

When, later, the tripod over his shoulder like a rifle, he walked back to the Jeep, he’d tell himself that it had been a good day, a good morning, even though he knew that when he got back and unloaded the files, he’d find, as he always did, that none of the dozens of landscapes he’d taken could ever be as beneficent as the morning itself.

No matter. He collapsed the tripod, stuck it in the back seat. Even if none of those shots were as magnificent as the dawn, at least he’d been there. “Numbering our days” had come to mean, somehow, treasuring beauty, he told himself, being reminded, of a creation so immense it wouldn’t fit in his camera. Master Eckhard, the German mystic: “There is a place in the soul that neither time, nor space, nor no created thing can touch.” He wasn’t sure whether anyone else fully understood that or could, but he did. And God did too, and that was all he needed to know on a Sunday morning, a hedge against the emptiness at home, whatever it was he called home.

Roosevelt had said that Alice was the light of his life, then told a score of people that nothing would ever be the same with him. He would never get over her death

If you go with an open heart, he’d read somewhere, the openness will reveal amazing things. Teddy wanted to be remade by nothing less than the beauty of emptiness.


"Pilgrim" will spread out over the next few days.  Tomorrow:  Ray can't escape the horrors of his loss.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Morning thanks--pockmarked and precious

I'm an early riser, but I don't really wake up until I take the first wet and wonderful bite of an apple.  It's a shame to associate that first bite with Adam and Eve and original sin because every morning--we keep ourselves supplied--I think of it as almost totally redemptive.  It's something I do every day, an almost religious ritual.

The first recorded use of the old adage, "an apple a day keeps the doctor away" is in some obscure newspaper in 1866.  I would have thought the old saw had a much longer and more storied history.  Maybe the happy rhyme it employs has kept it alive; but among proverbs, for some blame reason, "an apple a day" is one of the most well-known.

We've got names for those of us who spend too much time in medical clinics, and most of those names are rather unsavory.  Most people would just as soon stay away, if for no other reason than today even a half-hour "how are ya?" is going to cost an arm and a leg.  Democrats and Republicans would agree that really there's no such thing as "affordable care."  

What's more, while an apple isn't toothpaste, that first bite lights everything up, no matter how dark the morning.  One good healthy chomp and the hayloft in your bed mouth turns to something out of Disney. I've been eating an apple every morning, first thing, for years. A morning apple is a blessing for which I'm thankful every day.  

But this morning's is special. It's beat up, pockmarked like nothing you can buy in a store because it grew up just behind the house with big, fat blue jays.  Apple trees aren't rare; lots of farm places still have 'em. But I never had one, not once. 

So this apple is literally mine. Where the birds got at 'em, they're black and blue and beat on; but inside, they're a tart. This one too--it's wonderful, just like the pheasants we ate last fall.  Misshapen and beat on though they are, these apples are what we produced ourselves, like the flood of cherry tomatoes still ripening on the vines outside.  

Agriculture is life blood where I live.  Sioux County, Iowa, produces more corn and soy beans, more pork and beef, more chicken and eggs, and more milk than just about any county in the entire nation. In some ways, a ton of the food I eat is "ours."  But it's not mine.

The tart little apple that's cleaning my teeth as we speak is. It's from the tree in our own backyard.

Years ago, I did a book of stories about the lives of Laotian refugees who'd come to this country after the Vietnam War.  They had to leave because their having sided with us made life in their homeland unlivable. I'd ask them to talk about their families, their parents, their grandparents--about what they were like, what they did; and it didn't take long for me to learn that that second question--"what did your parents do?"--carried a cultural arrogance that I wielded, unwittingly, because I was presuming that they'd answer with a profession--maybe masonry or factory work or farming.

That didn't always happen.  Sometimes--and I had to learn the hard way--sometimes their grandparents' occupation was just staying alive, keeping themselves and their kids fed, getting firewood, scrounging for food, selling whatever goods they could buy then squeezing out maybe a nickel's profit.  

I was embarrassed to have to come to understand the fact that there are people in the world whose occupation, whose job, when they rise in the darkness, as I've just done, is to begin a day's work of simply trying to stay alive. Some people don't push grocery carts because there are no grocery stores. 

Chances are, this morning, those people don't have an apple, not even one as pockmarked as mine; but if they do, my guess is that it's even far more precious to them than this one of mine is to me.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Morning Thanks--this old house

Yesterday's Sunday dinner around our old oak table was the last we'll have in this old house.  The clock was ticking the day we moved in since we were renting for little more than a year, only until the owner, retiring himself, would pick up most of his life and lug it here from suburban Denver.  We couldn't, even if we wanted to, put down roots. 

That time has come now, and we're moving out. It's the rambling openness, the elbow room unlike anything I'd ever experienced that I'll remember best.  We've got neighbors here and they're good people; but the immediate world around us is deeper and wider, the huge cottonwood out back, on the bank of the river, worth the price of admission itself.  I don't miss town living.  I see new houses going up right next to each other, and I can't help wonder if there's enough breathing room.

The prior owners had long ago declared holy war against dirt and grime and dust, so when we moved in the place was spotless, cleanliness being indeed next to Godliness. The machine shed was full of tools and space and opportunity, even to someone who will forever be a misfit clutz.  In the last year, retired, I've worked outside more than I had in 27 years in our lovely old house in town. I didn't carry a fishing pole out back more than a half-dozen times, but the sheer opportunity to drown a few worms in the river just behind us offered my grandkids a species of delight they won't soon forget, even though the fish they caught were no longer than my hand.

Yesterday was our last Sunday around the dinner table here, and even though we're moving to a brand new house we built to our own specs, and even though watching that new house materialize before our eyes is itself sheer wonder; and even though the unending series of artisans who build it, insulate it, paint it, outfit it with sinks and toilets and light fixtures has been an inspiration; even though all of that is true and I can't wait to move in, I'm going to miss this old place.

The new place exists only in my imagination as yet.  It won't be real until it is and I can't for the life of me imagine it completed.  

But it will be, and it won't be long.  So yesterday the whole Iowa family sat around that old oak dinner table for a last Sunday dinner featuring, among other things, some kind of sweet apple sauce my wife made from fruit she picked from the tree out back, the first apple tree we've ever had.  We're leaving this old place, no regrets and brimming with anticipation.  But it's been good here.  It's been great.

So this morning I'm thankful for this place we've been renting, and the peace and sweet wonder of our 16 month-long hiatus amid the silver poplars and cottonwoods at the old house along the river.  

We're leaving now; but just in case you're wondering, that old oak table's coming with.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Sunday Morning Meds--Physical spirituality

“my bones wasted away through my groaning” Psalm 32:

Forty percent of all Americans claim they’ve been cured of an illness or else found their physical health much improved as a result of personal prayer or meditation.

If you go to church, researchers claim that you likely have a stronger immune system than your neighbor who never darkens the door of the sanctuary.
Open-heart surgery is three times more devastating to those who do not lean on their faith in God.
Does your mother have a hip-fracture?  Listen to this.  Those hip-fracture patients who are religious walk longer distances when they’re discharged from the hospital—and suffer less depression—than those who have no faith whatsoever. 
It is impossible to refute those who assert that faith is solely something spiritual.  I’m not sure anyone ever believed in God—or even could—in order to buy into the myriad medical benefits that accrue to those who believe; but research shows irrefutably that faith actually affects muscles and bones.  In verse three, David is not speaking in metaphor.
Older patients are likely to stay in hospitals two and one-half times longer if they have no personal faith.  That’s not all.  Those who regularly attend religious services are simply less likely to be hospitalized in the first place. 
Amazing, isn’t it?
Baby-boomers, like me, were found to suffer from depression and other mental illnesses half as frequently if they were frequent church attendees. 
Finally—and maybe most unbelievable:  nearly 400 patients in a San Francisco health care facility were assigned to receive intercessory prayer—or else assigned to a group that did not.  Those who were prayed for by other people had more favorable outcomes, less congestive heart failure, and cardiac arrest.
So why so many good believers find themselves sleepless? 
For a ton of reasons.  Maybe their son’s girlfriend has just announced she’s leaving. Maybe both mom and dad know in the marrow of their bones that he will miss her dearly and they can’t stand seeing him hurt. Maybe that’s why the two of them took off yesterday evening because what’s characterized their house in the last twelve hours is a hush that emerges from cavernous concern.

You know.  Create your own circumstance if you don't have one handy.  Take a moment and remember.

Dad’s bones don’t ache this morning, but his whole being seems overburdened, and he knows—as just about all of us do—exactly what David means here when he refers to the anguish of his physical self.  Out of concern and fear for someone he loves, he feels, like so many others for so many different reasons, as if his body has been shipwrecked.
If you believe the headlines, you might wonder whether those who confess the name of Jesus get a free pass through the valley of the shadow, but this morning many, many of us know different. 

When deep concern strikes, we know it in our bones.             


Friday, September 20, 2013

sorry. . .just now got this ad

If you act now, within the next seven days, you and your ministry staff can pick up most every professional-quality, worship video or still imagery download you've ever dreamed of having in your system.

That's right, for the next week, you can download hundreds of darling pics of kids and animals to light up the life of your sanctuary.  We've got squirrels and rabbits, pups and kittens galore!  Cute kids? We've got dozens, in every sweet pose you can imagine.  You'll have your people oohing and aahing before you even say the word!  

You're considering something about the fires of hell?  Well, we've got 'em, loads of 'em, bright and ghoulish, splashes of fire that'll crackle and snap and scare your congregation into grace.  And they're free--that's right, free, for the next seven days!

Maybe you're interested in motion backgrounds, perfect for setting moods.  Want your people churning inside? We've got plenty of poor and hungry people clips that'll have them eating out of your hand as they reach for their wallets.  Want solitude or reverence?--we'll take your people to the top of Everest or the very edge of the Grand Canyon.  Want God's people pensive?--we've got mist from the moors, shadowy forests, foggy bottoms.  

How about something from the promised land?  We've got oodles of Israels--deserts, mountains, Bethlehams, Golgathas, Red Seas, dozens of River Niles, even a few weddings at Cana.  Just click and we're there in your system.  And for the next seven days--it's all free!  You heard that right!  You can get a year of performance here, maybe more, at no cost to you!!! 

Doing a series on creation?  Stun your people with satellite images, broad skyscapes of the heavens themselves.  Turn your nave into a planetarium.  Knock their socks off!  And it's all at no cost to you! No cost!!

Look, we've got time lapse footage that'll compliment anything from the earth's own first seven days!  Watch trees grow, glaciers melt, time itself pass away!  You can fade to black and turn every last soul into a true supplicant!!

And it's all free! Put on a show that'll have them still swooning on Saturday. With the blessing of our breath-taking imagery, you can make truly soulful impressions every Sabbath! 

Act now!!!


Thursday, September 19, 2013

My masculinity

I don't suppose every 65-year-old man is anxious about his masculinity, but I am. It probably doesn't help that I spent the last forty years of my life in a classroom. Besides, when it comes to fixin' and makin' things, I'm a forever clutz.  And the fact is, I am 65; for a ton of years I used to kid myself about this or that "mid-life crisis." Along with a plethora of other jokes, that one's got no more currency.

And then there's this. We're building a house. Don't misunderstand:  I am not building the house. I'm paying a whole gang to do it, all of it. Just about every night after the painters and cabinet-makers, the electricians and the plumbers check out, our new place has taken another step toward completion; but our building a house is baloney. What goes on inside, I watch.

Not doing the work doesn't help either--watching, I mean, while all around me, people who are dang good at what they're doing are laying tile and kitchen counters and carpet.  Me?--I watch well. I'm a good spectator, maybe even something of fan, at times a cheerleader.


Anyway, this old bison, weary in the knees and barely able to stay with the herd, is proud to relate yesterday's headline news, and here it is: yesterday, in the heat of later summer day, amid sweat and dust and more dang dead weight than I'd cleaned and jerked in years, I actually wore out clothes

You read that right. I'm telling the truth here. Years and years ago already, I remember telling myself that either my paunchiness grew me out of clothes, or else I got tired of this or that shirt or pants and tossed 'em in the direction of the Salvation Army or some "Nearly New" shop.  I never ever wore anything out. I didn't do work that could.

Yesterday, I did. About every half hour whatever seams in this pair of shorts were still there amidst the crucial geographies screamed aloud and gaped revealingly. But that's not all--the legs are ragged where the cloth itself is frayed and unravelling. I swear. Those shorts are wrecked.  It really happened.  They're genuinely beyond repair.  I got to toss 'em.  I wore 'em out.  

I'm telling the truth. I'm still a man.

No, I didn't belly up to the bar downtown last night, or hop on my Hawg--I don't have one.  I didn't swig a bottle of Grain Belt and wipe off my lips with the back of my arm or head to some den and clean my guns. I entertained a notion of bedding my wife, but it was never more than a notion and little more than entertainment. I may have made more old man noises than normal--you'll have to ask her.

But the fact remains: for the first time in years, I actually wore something out, a loose-fitting pair of shorts, actually wore it out. Seriously.  I can't remember the last time that happened. 

The one thing I can do over there at the new house is piece watermelon-sized field stones into a retaining wall.  It's like making picture puzzles except there are no box covers and the pieces aren't thumbnails. At the end of the day (which is to say, about three hours or so), my shoulders and elbows wince when I move them and scream when, an hour later, I pick up a dishrag.  After the first day on the first wall, I had trouble closing my hands. 

But yesterday--thank God a'mighty--I actually wore out a pair of shorts.

But, when push came to shove last night, I couldn't throw 'em away so they're hanging up in the garage right now with my other work clothes because they've become more than a pair of shorts. They're a symbol. 

I sound like an English teacher. 

But I'm a man. I'm still a man.

So there.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

A city on a hill

During the many years I taught American literature, there came a time when I could easily separate the Yanks from the "furriners."  It was early, maybe the second week of class, and the assignment was the journals of John Winthrop, the first gov of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  

Winthrop pulled countless references from the Bible, the book he knew best, so it's wrong to say that he's the source of the idea; but he is the first (of many) to use a familiar description with respect to the what he thought of, at best, as "the new world," Puritan as he was. Still, his clarion call has echoed through the years--the idea that this new country, America is "a city on a hill."  

We have Winthrop and the Puritans to thank for that deeply-held American attitude we frequently refer to as "American exceptionalism," and they were not wrong.  American democracy is unique; and it is, as everyone knows, a grand experiment that still could jump the rails of its own design and likely will someday, the history of nations being what it is. 

When we'd arrive at that reference, the rule of thumb was that those kids not raised in the States would glance warily from side to side, as if it might be more comfortable to leave the room. Even Canadian kids got sheepish, generally, because talking about about America as "the city on a hill" got a little testy when they were themselves guests at the American table. What I remember is the reticence of the foreign kids--and the missionary kids--their courtesy, despite the knowing looks on their faces.

Maybe a missionary kid would speak up--that happened; and once in a while some international student would go off.  I remember having a whole cadre of foreign students in class one day, kids who were far more daring when they bulked up in a group. Their criticism made American kids a little spiteful--you know, "if you don't like it, don't slam the door behind you."

Things could get testy because American kids generally had no idea how to understand the idea, no idea what the others so obviously understood--"what?--we're arrogant? we think we're better than everybody else?  You're serious?"

A little back-and-forth in the New York Times today features four short essays on "American Exceptionalism," which is once again at the heart of our most trying policy question: what on earth to do about the wanton slaughter of innocents by the Syria government. The question comes draped heavily in our war fatigue--"what?--again?" Most people believe Iraq was an awful mistake and Afghanistan will simply never end.  Now Syria? 

I've even got some sympathy for Sarah Palin, who said, quite pungently, both sides pray to Allah--let him decide. 

But then, nothing displays our own confusion as readily as odd bedfellows:  liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans both argue against further involvement, but also for it. Go figure. If we are a shining beacon of freedom among the nations, "the city on a hill," can't we please go on leave or something?

John McCain talks about the Assad opposition as "the Free Syrian Army," as if they were the original tea-party patriots.  They're not.

One of the contributors to that NY Times discussion, William A. Galston, of the Brookings Institute, maintains that to turn our backs on the world is not an option. He says that we're right to work for freedom and against injustice--to believe "that democracy is better than autocracy, that rights are better than repression, that e pluribus unum is better than bloody ethno-religious conflict."

We are right, he says, but when we are arrogant about being right, we lose, even when we win.  We can't be religious about our politics, he says.  "How other governments treat their people is our business," he says, "but we must pursue it without a religious zeal." 

When I remember those international students, what I can't forget is that particular characterization--that Americans feel that sun rises and sets on them, and them alone. That's arrogance.

If that's "American exceptionalism," Galston says, we lose.

He's right.  It's okay to be "religious," just don't be religious about it.

For the religious, that's not easy.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Morning Thanks--From a Country Overlooked

From a Country Overlooked

Tom Hennen

There are no creatures you cannot love.
A frog calling at God
From the moon-filled ditch
As you stand on the country road in the June night.

The sound is enough to make the stars weep
With happiness.
In the morning the landscape green
Is lifted off the ground by the scent of grass.

The day is carried across its hours
Without any effort by the shining insects
That are living their secret lives.

The space between the prairie horizons
Makes us ache with its beauty.

Cottonwood leaves click in an ancient tongue
To the farthest cold dark in the universe.
The cottonwood also talks to you
Of breeze and speckled sunlight.

You are at home in these
great empty places
along with red-wing blackbirds and sloughs.

You are comfortable in this spot
so full of grace and being
that it sparkles like jewels
spilled on water.

"From a Country Overlooked" by Tom Hennen, from Darkness Sticks to Everything. © Copper Canyon Press, 2013.  This morning's poem from Writers' Almanac.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Morning Thanks--the ducks

I'm not sure--but then neither is anyone else--on the exact origin of the phrase "getting your ducks in a row."  One theory says it's from bowling, at a time when pins were much stumpy-er than they are today, when bowlers in suspenders called 'em "ducks." 'Twas, back then, the job of some pin-setter: "getting the ducks in a row."

Another says the origin is in carnivals--those cut-out ducklings that appear to swim merrily across a table top only to get picked off by some lovesick young man with an air rifle, a guy hoping to win a stuffed poodle for his apple-cheeked dearest--you know.

My favorite theory, although it's no more a ringer than any other, is simply the way a mother duck ushers her brood along a shore line, trying madly--and it's never particularly easy--to keep them in order, one after another, to keep her dear ones in a row.  

I don't think our general contractor would appreciate the analogy, himself as some swampy mother duck, but that's what he is, after a fashion.  His job, as we near the home stretch, is to line up all the artists--and every one of them is an artist--to finally get (yes, I know that's a split infinitive, but it's done for emphasis) our house finished.  Let me say it again, italicized, finally.

Not that a deadline has passed.  It hasn't.  We could well make it.  We may have to live in our new basement, which would not be a disaster; but soon enough this keyboard will be sitting on this desk in a wholly different space.  Soon enough, if all our ducks are in a row.

Anyway, that's where we are today, with a bit more than two weeks to go: or rather that's where he is, our general contractor.  He's trying madly to get the painters and floor-ers and plumbers and appliance guys all in a row, lined up in stedfast order to get this thing over so we can move out of our new, old house (the rental) on time and into our new, new house in the nick of it, which is to say, October 1.  It may just happen.

Truth be told, what the GC has to do is no easy job because the whole bunch of them are jugglers, including the GC. We're not their only customers and somewhere out there a dozen other people--maybe more--are biting nails about deadlines too.  So, if the painting is done Tuesday, the carpet can be laid Wednesday, and then the wood floor, which means the appliances can go in Friday--you know, that kind of thing. Everybody is juggling, as are we; this rental place of ours is an Amazon warehouse, a mess of boxes, waiting to be filled and shipped.  We're all jugglers.

We're all getting our ducks in a row.

You know. That's where we are.

It's tedious and sometimes and nerve-wracking, as well as demanding.  It takes some squawking once in a while, some intemperate belly-aching--even a little bitching.

But I'm not complaining. Building a house is something we never, ever guessed we'd do, but we are.  And on Friday last, when the stairway railing got put in, the two of us could have stood there for an hour in sheer awe at its beauty. Some of the windows have been stripped of their protective plastic covers, and it's as if someone lifted veils from our lives.  A new light fixture is gorgeous, a counter-top takes your breath away.

I'm not complaining.

Right now, with a bit more than two weeks to go, we're getting our ducks in a row.  

And it is what everyone says it is--it's exciting, surrounded as we are by artists and jugglers and mother ducks.  Reason enough, this Monday morning, first day of a big week, for thanksgiving.