Morning Thanks

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

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Book Review: Defending Jacob

In one of John Gardner’s great books on writing fiction, he makes the claim that while nobody really knows whether or not we human beings have free will, whether we can choose the course for our lives or whether our choices are somehow manifest for us, it’s death to fiction to assert that we don’t have free will, that somehow a story’s characters are pay inescapable homage to some oppressive power infinitely greater than themselves.

Determinism simply doesn’t work in fiction, in story, because, Gardner says, dang it, no human being really wants to believe that he or she is not in control of at least some aspects of our lives.

What animates Defending Jacob, William Landay’s courtroom drama (2012), is what feels for all the world like a species of determinism that finally undermined any interest I had in the characters and therefore the whole trajectory of the plot. I kept on trucking only because I wanted to know where Landay would take the story and its sorry characters.

The truth is, I listened to Defending Jacob, didn’t read it. Even though I’ve been an Audible member for years and have dozens of books in my audio-library, Defending Jacob was a first for me because I kept telling myself that whoever produced the recording stumbled when choosing the actor. Had the voice conveyed an ounce of feeling, the story might have moved me. But he didn’t, and it didn’t.

It would be difficult to out-chill the actor that read Defending Jacob, the voice who plays the narrator of the story, Jacob’s father, a public defender who is as incapable of thinking through his son’s dilemma as he is understanding his only child. Just a few twists of voice now and then could have made the narrator human and lent great strength to the novel’s complexity. Instead, the steady cynical monotone, despite his and his son’s predicament, creates a tone that I found, at times, almost inhuman.

The story surrounds the behavior of Jacob, a 15-year-old boy who is accused of the murder of another boy who’d made his life miserable as a bully. The great question, however, the one only minimally approached in the novel but present in upper case throughout, is whether or not young Jacob somehow inherited a predilection for murder from the hardened criminals in his father’s side of the family. Is he, by nature, a killer? That’s the question that underlies everything.

It’s never answered theoretically, but the story goes in a direction that makes Landay’s theorizing very pointed.

There’s an old line about Thomas Hardy that I’ve always liked, even though I loved some of his work. In Hardy’s novels, people say, things just get worse and worse and worse and worse, and then they’re over. I’m not interested in spoiling anyone’s reading, but by the time my iPod ran out of content in Landay’s Defending Jacob, I was happy the novel was behind me, even though through most of the story I couldn’t not listen.

By the end, the only question was what on earth was Landay going to do with Jacob. When the conclusion begins to take shape, I actually rolled my eyes. “You’re kidding,” I said to myself.  He’s not actually going to go there, is he?

Yes, he did.

Shit happens, sure.
William Landay’s novel Defending Jacob holds you—I’ll say that much. It has moments of fine courtroom drama. 

But when it was over, I couldn’t wait to get the heck out from behind the bench.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Book Review: Deep Down Dark

With just a few hours to go before their long-awaited deliverance, a few of the miners look back in wonder on their nine-week imprisonment in the bowels of the collapsed mine, the San Jose, in the mountains of Chile. Together, they'd feared certain death, spent weeks preparing to die, then watched what scant food they had slowly disappear. 

Soon, amazingly, it would actually be over. 

One of them looks around at the would-be tomb and feels a generous kind of wonder, a near reverence that transforms the dark pit of death into sacred ground. He actually writes a letter to leave behind, and signs it:  "'Mario Sepulveda lived here from August 5 to October 13," then, with the note, adds some pictures he's recently given through the portal created when a giant drill finally bore its way down to them and opened up what seemed miraculous communication. Mario Sepulveda is awed by what he's been through. He's on his knees in reverence.

Raul Bustos will have none of that. Bustos gathers rocks and flings them, one after another, into the abyss as if striking a beast now clumsily sauntering away into the darkness. He scribbles obscenities on the walls in permanent markers, blaming the mine owners for the misery he's gone through. "I wanted it all to go away," Bustos told Hector Tobar, who chronicled the entire story in Deep, Down Dark. With every bit of his being, Bustos wants the mine to disappear from his consciousness and the world's: "I didn't want anyone else to see it, to come and say later, 'See, look, this is where Raul Bustos slept.' It was all very private, and it was mine."

"The earth is giving birth to its 33 children after having them inside her for two months and eight days." Victor Segovia, at the very same moment, looks back at what he and the others had gone through and sees something else altogether. Segovia had been the main chronicler of the miners' experiences, his memories and insights the only day-to-day written record of what exactly happened to 33 men trapped in the heat and night of a collapsed mine all of them believed would be a graveyard. 

Finally, Victor draws a heart inside his diary and writes "I LOVE SAN JOSE," because, Hector Tobar says, "the mine is like him: flawed and neglected but worthy of respect and love."

How three men react to the very same awful experience--just over two months of near starvation in the dark neighborhood of death--is a marvel because we are, all of us, somehow perfectly unique. There are no clones. One of the men makes the tomb a cathedral, another a veritable hell, yet another casts the darkness as a lover. All three men are thoughtful; all three men are deadly serious. All three men have undergone an experience unlike anything anyone else in the entire world has, and now all three are about to be delivered into life up on the surface of the earth, into light, and love. 

But when they look back, what they see couldn't be more different.

"What a piece of work is man," says Hamlet. He doesn't mean it as a question, but a utterance of sheer awe at the seeming incongruities we embody as human beings. 

In Psalm 8, the poet says humans look so immensely feeble against a backdrop of the glorifying heavens: "What are we that you care about us?" the psalmist says, "that you have crowned us with glory and honor?" But he has.

Amazing. Just amazing.

What those many days beneath the earth did is little more than compress life in a way that every one of those 33 men understood, even though as it ended they regarded what had happened to them with night-and-day differences.  They'd gone a long ways down the road toward death. And then returned.

As amazing at it sounds, their story, as told by Hector Tobar in Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine and the Miracle that Set Them Free, as amazing and truly unique as it was, is our story too. 

No one reading these words spent all that time buried in the earth, fighting for life, looking for meaning. Yet, strange as it sounds, all of us do. What makes Hector Tobar's book so moving and memorable is that somehow we are there in the mine with them, all of us.

Monday, December 29, 2014

December 30, 1890

It was Ian Frazier’s Great Plains that taught me something about the Ghost Dance. I’d never heard of it before; but then, most white Americans haven’t.  Stories of slavery are well-known to most, but the stories of Native America somehow escape most palefaces like me. If they're known at all, they're remembered because Buffalo Bill told them, or John Wayne. 

In Great Plains, Frazier tells stories about the Plains Indians, who were, by and large, a fierce bunch, maybe the quintessential Native American—feathered headdress, breechcloth, body paint, spear and shield and bow and arrow, all of that regalia on a chiseled male mounted on a paint pony.

Frazier nearly deifies Crazy Horse, as many do. Crazy Horse, a Lakota hero at Little Big Horn, was the battle leader who simply would not simply float away in the massive flood of white folks who, time after time, found all kinds of crooked ways to put the Lakota (Sioux) people off their traditional lands. Frazier's miscellany of 19th century Native American life includes a description of what he calls the first truly American religion, the Ghost Dance.

The sources of this strange, Indian Great Awakening are multiple—a little Protestantism, a little Mormonism, a little Catholicism, all grafted to spiritual roots that are soundly Native in character.

The Ghost Dance swept most tribes in the American west. It was worship that took the form of a ritual dance created to summon the old world back, the ancestors and the buffalo and the traditional way of life that had just about disappeared by 1890.  It was a vision of heaven to a starving, beaten people, robbed of heritage and character. The Ghost Dance offered a vision of what they wanted so badly to see in the middle of the annihilation that was going on around them.

Out here—or a couple hours west—the Lakota variation on the Ghost Dance included the belief that wearing a ghost shirt or dress meant the wearer could not be harmed by a white man’s bullets.  That belief, Frazier and others claim, scared white people badly and played a significant role in what happened 124 years ago today on a broad and open expanse of indistinguishable prairie along a creek whose name is Wounded Knee. The Ghost Dance, you might say, is how I came to Wounded Knee.

What started in 1862 with the Dakota War in Minnesota ended on December 29, 1890, when the largest military encampment in America since the Civil War got into a fight with 50 or so of Big Foot's Lakota braves.  Big Foot himself was suffering with pneumonia after leading his people on an unthinkably long walk from the very top of what is now South Dakota, to the bottom—and in late December, remember.

What exactly happened to begin what became a massacre is still in dispute, but the outcome is not.  Sparks of anger flew aplenty, and one of them ignited conflagration.  The Seventh Calvary (itself decimated at Little Big Horn and, some claim, still aching for revenge) and others in that huge cavalry encampment simply gunned down Big Foot’s band—men, women, and children—often in cold  blood.

No one really knows how many Lakota men, women, and children died. Estimates range as high as 300.  But what happened at Wounded Knee ended the Great Sioux Wars.  To say what happened out there in the middle of winter is a blot on American history is obscene understatement. What happened out there was evil, as all massacres are.

One of the dreams I’ve had for years is some kind of worship service on December 28 or 29, dates that mark two horrific massacres—King Herod’s slaughter of the innocents after Jesus’s birth, and the Wounded Knee Massacre.  Those two events are not analogous, but in both cases those who wielded great power simply butchered innocent human beings

Wounded Knee, on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, is in pure fly-over country, well off the beaten path, and a long ways from most anything that would attract a tourist.  If you want to go there, you have to want to go there.

And really, who would?--what white guy, at least?  It's an awful story.

Maybe that’s why what happened there 124 years ago today is so invisible to millions of white Americans.  Maybe so.

And maybe not.  Maybe some would rather not know, not remember.  

Maybe so.

Six or seven hours west of here, this morning, on December 29, 1890, 300 or more Lakota people were massacred.  

That’s what happened. That's a story none of us should forget.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Sunday Morning Meds--". . .but in batallions"

“Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; . . .”
Psalm 42: 7

I first heard the line years ago from my wife’s grandmother, who I knew only for a few years as a rather elegant woman with a radiant crown of silver hair.  I don’t remember the occasion, but I’ll never forget the comment because it seemed so out of character for a fine old Christian matriarch.  “When bad things happen,” she said, eyes almost averted, her head shaking slightly, “they always come in threes.”

I had no clue where she got that idea, nor why she believed it.  Grandma Visser, whose people were hearty Calvinists for generations, could not have pointed anywhere in scripture for that idea, as she well could have for most of her foundational beliefs.  But this ancient bit of folklore—does it have pagan roots?—never fully left her psyche, even though she probably read the Word of God every day of her life.  “Bad things happen in threes.”  She wasn’t—isn’t—the only one to say it or believe it.  Google it sometime.

Can it be true?  I don’t know that anyone could do the research.  But it must have seemed a valid perception for generations of human beings caught in the kind of downward spiral that David must have been in when writing Psalm 42.  And, as we all must sadly admit, often as not perception creates its own realities.

Is it a silly?  Sure.  If we expect it to be true, we may be silly.  But the sheer age of that odd idea argues for some ageless relevance.  Whether or not it’s true isn’t as important perhaps as the fact its sentiment has offered comfort and strength to human sorrowers. 

True believers expect something more than they’ve already gone through, some additional misery if they have already got stung twice.  By repeating the old line, Grandma was steeling herself for the next sadness, anticipating that three would mean the end of sorrows, at least for a while.

My guess is that the ancient folk wisdom finds a place in the human psyche not because it’s true, but because it’s comforting:  it brings order to chaos. Sad to say, there are three, but at least that’s it.
Interesting, I think, that Eugene Peterson uses the word chaos in his version of this verse:  “chaos calls to chaos,” he says.  And he’s just as right as anyone, I suppose, for it’s impossible to claim biblical inerrancy when it comes to a verse like this. The KJV says “waterspouts” where the NIV says “waterfalls,” wholly different phenomena.  The fact is, nobody really knows what specifically is meant by “deep calls to deep.”
And yet everyone who’s faced a march of consecutive sadnesses knows very well.  “When sorrows come, they come not single spies but in battalions,” Shakespeare says in Hamlet, an even more depressing assessment than Grandma’s.

We really don’t know what David means here, but many readers of Psalm 42 somehow get it. Our lives on occasion feel like Thomas Hardy novels, when things simply seem to get worse and worse and worse, and don’t get better.

There are no vivid pictures embedded in the line “deep calls to deep,” but that doesn’t mean there isn’t meaning enough for most of us to find ourselves therein.

We can’t avoid the painful reality of the soul that’s sliced opened to us in Psalm 42:  the singer who believes in the Light but sees nothing but darkness around him.

And maybe, thankfully, what’s there is the outline of a third bad thing.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Saturday Morning Catch--fresh December snow

Fresh snow came in two nights late really. Would have been really sweet on Christmas Eve. But Saturday or not, new snow still seemed a blessing, in part because of the clear skies those two or three inches of snow left behind after a long week or more of stubborn cloudiness. The dawn was nice, even sweet, but it didn't take your breath away. Still, I kept thinking of that old line of whose?--Georgia O'Keefe maybe? "Photography teaches you how to see."

It just seems like there's always things to see if I take the time to look.    

Friday, December 26, 2014

Life with a red pen

We have too much respect for the printed word, too little awareness of the power words hold over us. We allow worlds to be conjured up for us with very little concern for the implications. We overlook glaring incongruities. We are suckers for alliteration, assonance, and rhythm. We rejoice over stories, whether fiction or “documentary,” whose outcomes are flagrantly manipulative, self-serving, or both. Usually both. 
You know?--I think I agree with my brain but not my heart. Ostensibly, what Tim Brooks is talking about here in the New York Review of Books is fiction; but at the heart of the things he's saying is a whole way of life, the kind of life that packs a red pen. Like mine.

I wish it weren't so, but just about every book I've read in the last half century is marked up, scratched up, festooned with double and triple asterisks, underlined, doodled up, margin--alized. I swear it. I've got Kindles, and I read e-books; but if I couldn't underline and make notations on the screens, I'd never touch the technology.

I'm an English teacher, for pity sake, or once was. My profession is reading; I don't read because it's what I love; I read because it's what I do. I analyze madly without once thinking about whether or not it's appropriate. What comes into the echo chamber of my head doesn't go out unless it's mulled over, sliced up, and remarked upon.  Right now it's the NPR book club choice, Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine, and the Miracle That Set Them Free. I've got the book on two Kindles, but where I read it doesn't matter. It's a mess of annotations. I really like the book. Seriously. But it's all marked up.

I can't help myself. I'm beyond hope. It's what I do.

If reading a hundred thousand student papers during 40-years of teaching English has taught me anything, it's a critical eye. Right from the get-go I'm sneering, unwilling to suspend my disbelief, ever ready to pounce. Honestly, I read critically. I think critically. It's what I do. ALL. THE. TIME.

So I'm not one of those blessed--as my wife is--with the capacity to simply lose oneself in a story. Years ago already, I found it amazing--no, distressing--to lose her to a novel when I was the one who taught literature and, on a good day, even created it. I'm not sure it's true of everyone so blessed with red pen, but because I have one constantly in my hands when I read, but I can be easily distracted because I don't lose myself. Never. I'm always judging, always outside the material, always outside.

Sermons too. I swear it. I can't help myself. Lord, have mercy. It's a way of life. 

Tim Parks' little New York Review of Books essay is titled "A Weapon for Readers" because he's proud of his own penchant for marginalia and convinced that those who don't mark up their books are themselves the death of Western culture.  

I'm not so sure. I say carrying a red pencil in life is a both a blessing AND a curse. There are times when I envy (yet another of the Seven Deadlies) those who can sail through books or sermons or life itself so uncritically. We have friends, good friends, who are real flower children even though so conservative they could never have been hippies. They just love well, you know? Isn't that sweet?  They could have Mussolini for a preacher, and they'd walk out of church sporting ear-to-ear smiles.

Must be nice. 

I'm not.

I make notes. All the time. I judge.

Maybe now that I retire I'll mature, put away the pen, smile more. 

Maybe. Maybe someday a Peterbilt full of Iowa hogs'll take wing.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Authentic worship

It’s age.  Why not tell it like it is? I wouldn’t be ornery if I were 24 or even 48, and I’m not.  I’m 66, and that’s got a lot to do with being cranky about an NPR story featuring the latest tattooed and tousled dominie to do Christianity right for once. She’s got this bruising past that toughened her up enough to go to war with those vile establishment Lutherans Garrison Keillor lampoons; but up there in Seattle, where her congregation sits in cheap plastic chairs, no pews, she and her fellowship finally, after 2000 years, are doing the Christian faith right. That’s the story line.

If I had a dime for all of those stories in the last fifty years, I could cure Haiti’s ills. They’re all alike, every last one of them, sweeping the detritus of rank tradition out of the aisles or doing away with aisles all together, for God’s sake, creating a contemporary worship space for authentic Christianity.

Spare me.

We just want to be authentic, she told NPR. So what am I, phony baloney?

This fellowship happens to be Lutheran, but they come in garden varieties, each of them carrying a petulant sanctimony they’d vehemently deny, a saintliness both repudiated and earned in this preacher’s nifty collection of blue-black Christian tattoos. I mean, I’ve read just about everything from Anne Lamott, but even her shtick gets old.

Here’s a Christmas story. Couldn’t be more tradition-bound, more inauthentic, I suppose.
We go, off and on, to a local Presbyterian church, where, on a good Sunday morning, there’s all of forty people, mostly fewer. The singing is nothing to crow about, the preaching is fair-to-middlin’, and the liturgy is ancient—every week we sing “Glory Be to the Father.”  You know.  No praise team up front, no power points—which means, of course, we actually hold hymnals. It’s like worshipping in a museum. We like it.

The church is close, just up the road in town, but it’s also close in a way that most churches work blame hard to be: close, as in, when we greet each other as worship begins, we greet everyone. You get out of your pew. Everyone does. Then again there are only 35 souls, sometimes less. It's not an all day process.

There’s a childrens’ sermon, but only three kids, floppy-haired, pudgy brothers who sometimes wear really short ties. They live with their grandparents because their mom—well, she lost ‘em somehow.  I don’t how because I don’t know the story, and I’m glad I don’t.
What I do know is that my wife and I have often marveled at the boys’ grandparents, who got drafted to raise an entirely new family after suffering endless hurt with the first one. Honestly, at 65 years old, I don’t know how Grandpa and Grandma do it, but they do, 24/7.  Where on earth do they find the wherewithal?

Anyway, when I was a boy, we went to church on Christmas Eve in the kind of darkness where “Silent Night” makes a sanctuary feel like the Judean hills. But even in churchly Sioux County, Iowa, you’ve got to look hard and long for a congregation that gathers on Christmas Eve.

Maybe it was nostalgia, maybe it was because we’re alone, but we decided to go up the block to the little Presbyterian church where everyone gets greeted. They were going to have a choir, for pity sake. We wondered how many ringers they’d have to draft.

It was wonderful. It was great, and those three boys who live with their grandparents sang a special number, decked out in matching white shirts and skimpy ties.  Someone in the back turned on a piped-in pop rock tune, and those three boys sort of sang along.  Sort of. It was the first time I remember thanking the Lord for piped-in music.

They had some trouble remembering the words. For that matter, they had trouble with the notes. But their mother was there I think, a woman who looked like she’d known some hard times. She had a little camera up, recording everything, a trio of her own boys singing a song about what Christmas isn’t about—and, bless his holy name, what it is.

But that image wasn’t what jerked my heart strings, not the boys’ singing, although what they gave the rest of us was really “special” music because they looked greatly happy to be up there entertaining.  And it wasn’t their mom’s close attention with that pocket camera, which was touching too.

The real gift I got on Christmas Eve at the little Presbyterian church up the block is the way that Grandma mouthed the words, every lyric in that rockin’ number, every sentence, every last phrase, every line of chorus, because she knew those words and she wanted her boys to remember them because they had a part of the whole celebration and, good Lord! it was Christmas eve. 

She knew the words because this grandma had been been the one, all week long, doing the coaching, doing it all.

Real and righteous pride was lighting her face as if she had hold herself of that big candle right square in the middle of the advent wreath. Love was in her eyes--and thanksgiving, which is, really, what Christmas is about, what the Christian life itself is all about.

Nothing’s hip at the church up the block. They don’t try to compete with what’s being done across town--no live nativity, no stringed orchestra, no theater, not a bit of hoopla, nothing to make the news. They didn’t even advertise.  I had to call the preacher.

But Christmas Eve, as sure as I’m sitting here this Christmas morning, with my own eyes and ears I saw and heard a real, live chorus of angels, I’m telling you, this one in short ties.

And in case you’re wondering, we sang “Silent Night” in the candlelit darkness, just the way it should be sung.

What’s more, I came home with a paper bag of peanuts, a half dozen or more chocolate stars, an apple, just as if I were, once more, a kid.

I know. I'm hopeless.

But I hope they were just as authentic in Seattle.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The one who stayed behind

And what about the one who stayed behind while the rest of the shepherds took off for town? They had to leave some poor soul back in the hills to tend the sheep. Maybe it was the rookie--the last one hired, the kid. 

I bet it was the boy. I mean, as compelling as all those luminescent heavenly robes and all that divine music must have been, someone had to stay back and mind the store.

Every last one of them must have wanted to go to Bethlehem. After all, angels didn't mince words--it was the Messiah. We're not talking about some media star, but the savior of the world, the Messiah, the one the books are written about--that Messiah.  Someone had to stay with the sheep that night, probably the boy who'd came on the job just this December.

So there he sat alone, that incredible star's intensity never waning. There he sat, listening to the sheep rustle and some occasional bleating. Nothing else out of the ordinary that night, I bet. Peace on earth and all of that. No wolves on Christmas Eve. He never had to lift that cudgel because that night for sure there were no assaults. Joy to the world.

Maybe a birth or two. And maybe this young kid who stayed behind attended when it happened, not that he had to. Normally, the sheep did well all by themselves anyway; but maybe when the kid heard that one ewe's frantic crying, he took off across the hills to find her because he figured on this night it would only be right for him to be there.

When he found her, he wasn't surprised that there were no complications. How could there be?--it was Christmas.

But the whole time the boy sat there beside her, watching that brand new little lamb come into the world and get all that royal treatment from his mom, he probably couldn't help thinking of what he was missing in Bethlehem and how everlovin' strange it was for all those heavenly angels to mention, as if in passing, that a sign of this grand Messiah's birth was swaddling clothes and a hayseed feed trough. Give me a break.

And it couldn't have been a hoax either because a company of angels doesn't show up every night on the Judean hills, an entire choir making music no one could ever believe. Scared the bejeebees out of 'em, first.  Suddenly, poof!--they were just there.

Still, a manger? It was not to be believed really--the actual, in-the-flesh, long-promised Messiah, the king of absolutely everything in a barn? Seriously?

It had to have been an exceptionally peaceful night out in the country, absolutely nothing going on, post-angelic revelation. He must have wished he hadn't been the rookie. He must have told himself he could have left the whole flock alone that night anyway, that no one had to stay behind, that it was the boss's fault he'd missed the biggest night ever, because the boss was way too attached to his blessed sheep. Maybe that's what he couldn't help thinking in the darkness of early morning. 

And right about then probably he'd have to have heard the whole gang a mile off on those hills, maybe two, sound traveling the way it does on the open plains. He'd hear them all right, the whole crew making enough noise to wake the dead. That star shed glory over everything, I'm sure, so that soon enough he probably spotted them, a mile or so off, the whole bunch walking back to the flock. They weren't running, but they weren't at all quiet. 

He probably looked at his watch and wondered about whether he was getting overtime for being the only one left behind. They can't shut up either, he might have thought, even though it's after three in the morning. They're actually singing.  He'd never heard a bunch of low-life shepherds singing before either. Never. Not bad either.

I bet he told himself that even if the only birth he saw was the one delivered by this sweet ewe still cleaning up the lamb just now getting up on all fours, even if he didn't get to go to that blessed town barn in Bethlehem with the rest of them, even if he got snookered out of seeing the Messiah, this night would something to remember forever anyway. Two concerts in the hills after all, one of them actual angels with real wings--he still couldn't believe it--and the other the guys he worked with, day-in, day-out, coming home from town, coming home from a blessed barn, coming home from the Messiah singing "The Hallelujah Chorus."

Here they come now, he thinks. He couldn't help but hum along himself. It never dawned on him they could do a whole lot better than just hold a tune.

How about this? All the way back to the sheep, those shepherds sing like the angels. And the kid is smiling, just to hear it, another concert. Finally, the boy breaks into song himself once they come up close. He joins in.

And then the most amazing thing happens, something he wouldn't have believed if he hadn't been standing right there, something only he saw. Just like that, that brand new little lamb, still wet from birth, just now up on all fours, joins in too. Really. That little lamb sings too, sings along, doesn't miss a beat. The boy tells himself that they're all in it together now, all in their own heavenly choir.

It's not to believed, he tells himself, the music filling all around. How could he ever explain?

He can't, he knows. But then, it's Christmas.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Pageant improv

Okay, this little story feels for all the world like urban myth, but some stories just beg to be told whether or not they happened, truthiness being, at times, far superior to plain old reality. After a Christmas reading in Calgary a week or so ago, a man came up to me, didn't identify himself, but told me, with some urgency, that he simply had to tell a story he knew I'd like. He was right.

This is it.

So Clayton was looking forward to the Christmas pageant at church because he knew that the sixth grade boys, the oldest in the program, would get the speaking parts. If he was lucky, he thought, he might get Joseph.

But it didn't happen. He wasn't upset or envious, because there was so much joy at Christmas anyway--and the candy afterwards too. All of that. You just have to love Christmas, Clayton told himself, and he did. 

When the cast was announced, it turned out Mrs. Sperling said Clayton would be the Bethlehem innkeeper. She'd printed out the lines that everyone had to speak, and then told them she thought it was certainly going to be one of the best Christmas pageants that Park Lane Church ever had.

Clayton had just three lines, and one was really easy: "Can I help you?" The other one he knew too really, just hadn't thought about it much:  "I'm sorry, but I've got no room for you anymore in my motel." And then the other:  "I can put you up in the barn."

There was all of it. Really easy. But right from the get-go he wasn't thrilled because after all it was awful that he had to be the one to tell Mary and Joseph they couldn't stay overnight, and then just add to it that Mary was going to have a baby yet that very night too. All the way home after practice, he worried. Why him?

The next week they practiced again, and Clayton had no problem with his lines, even when some of the other kids stumbled or had to read 'em off the sheet. He was ready. They went over it four times at least, maybe more.

That afternoon Clayton's mom asked him how practice had gone, and he told her everything was just fine. You know how mom's are--she sort of kept at him because she saw that he wasn't thrilled, that something was just wrong.  "Is there a problem?" she said. "You look like you lost your best friend, Clayton."

"It's nothing, Mom," he told her.

"Okay, come on--just tell me what's going on," she insisted.

He thought maybe she'd laugh, and he didn't want that. But he did want to tell her, so he did. "I don't like to do my part," he said. "I don't like to be who I am. I'm the guy that says no." 

Just like that, she put her arm around his shoulders. "You're not a bad guy," his mother told him. "Poor man didn't have any rooms, Clayton," she said. "Probably if he did, he would have given Joseph a good place--soft bed and everything."

Clayton hadn't thought of that. "Think so?" he said.

"I'm sure he would have."

He looked up at her and smiled. "Still," he said, as if the hurt wasn't entirely gone.

On Christmas Eve, all decked out, Clayton looked just like some gent from the Bible--cape and sash and robe and sandals. First there was singing, of course, lots of it; and then, when everything got quiet in the church and the lights were lowered, the story started, Mary and Joseph walking up from the back. Clayton stood right in front of a big cardboard hotel, his hands sort of folded like Mrs. Sperling had said. Once Mary and Joseph were on the steps in front of him, he made it through his first line: "Can I help you?" 

"Do you have a room for us?" Grady Williams asked him. "We've been traveling a long, long ways and we need a place to sleep."

The lights were way down in church, most of them, and it almost seemed to Clayton as if it really was night, like Bethlehem. He knew his line, of course, but he didn't like it, not at all. He looked around, even looked behind him. "I'm really, really sorry," he said, because he was, "but there's no room for you anymore in my motel."

"But this is Mary," Grady insisted, just like he was supposed to, "and she's going to have a baby."

There he stood, the innkeeper, looking into Jasmine's face that wasn't Jasmine's face at all, but the face of a girl who was almost crying because after all they'd come a long, long ways and there was no room for them in his inn, no room at all, and she was going to be having this baby, not just any baby either, he thought.

He waited for a moment again, thinking that maybe he could think of something. After all, it was the Savior of the world, people said, it was Jesus who was going to be coming, and the wise men and the shepherds and the animals and all of that. 

He took a deep breath, wet his lips, bit 'em a little, and said, "I can put you up in the barn." He said it as lovingly as he could, sniffing almost. And then he just couldn't help himself. "Listen," he told them. "Why don't you come in for a cup of coffee?"

Grady didn't know what to say.  There they all stood, and it was pure blessing from above that Clayton didn't hear the chuckles from the crowd, pure blessing because he likely would have cried had he heard people laughing. But he didn't hear them because he was, just like Mary, pondering all of this in his heart.

Third row back, his mom giggled and wiped at her eyes with the back of her fingers. 

"Why don't you come in for a cup of coffee?" Clayton had said, and it was, for Park Lane Church, the finest single moment of a Christmas Eve pageant everyone talked about that next Christmas day.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Morning Thanks--a story 100 years old

It's an old story and it's been told before, time and time again; but it seems to have some new life this year, as it should, inasmuch as it is, for the first time this Christmas, exactly one hundred years old. You must have heard it.

Somewhere out there along muddy battle lines made forever famous for their intransigence, somewhere in darkness lit only by candles, lanterns, and flashlights, somewhere amid the mud huts crudely cut from the walls of unending trenches snake-dancing across the Belgian countryside, somewhere in a war approximating hell itself, one December night German and Brit soldiers decided on a makeshift truce. After all, it was Christmas, and both great armies, impossible as it is to believe, would have called themselves "Christian." 

As if out of nowhere, candle-lit trees appeared above the German trenches, and a voice carried across the abyss called "no man's land," or so the story goes, that voice letting the Brits know that a Christmas present was on its way. The Brits burrowed into their holes, expecting a new round of shells or grenades. Instead, there were sausages. 

I don't care what anybody says, that's rich. I grew up in a region whose German ancestry still produces the world's best bratwurst, so the fact that the Krauts sent their own first fruits sausages for Christmas is, to me, perfectly priceless. 

The Brits retaliated with plum pudding, wonderfully fitting. On a battlefield death zone suddenly it was Christmas, as if an angel had appeared on high and out of nowhere, telling the world to fear not. Real peace on earth seemed to come from heaven, like a baby in a manger. 

Singing is part of the story, too, as you may remember--happy songs, patriotic songs, and then finally, in a makeshift chorus composed of enemy voices, "Silent Night." If nothing else happened that Christmas--no sausages, no soccer, no handshakes, no gift-swapping--the entire story would be worth telling over and over again, simply because, at least to me, no Christmas carol is quite so moving as "Stille Nacht," and no rendition quite so perfect as that one. Simply to imagine that old carol being sung on a battlefield one dark and winter-cold Christmas Eve, just to imagine that hymn that night warms the soul.

What followed was 46 months of men dying at the rate of 6000 a day. Really, that 1914 Christian anomaly made zero difference in the War to End All Wars.  Zero.

Still, that night, those sausages and that perfect carol is worth remembering because not to believe is to give in to the darkness. Not to believe is to duck in the trenches. Hope is a thing eternal.

Few stories I know so comprehensively capture human complexity. We are, at once, carriers of God's own image and hateful creatures of the darkness. Both/and, not either/or. 

That the famous Christmas fraternization of 1914 didn't last is not why you and I have been telling that story for 100 years. 

Hope is the heart of things. Hope is eternal. 

This morning I'm thankful for the birthday of an old story that's 100 years old this week, a story that will be forever worth telling.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Sunday Morning Meds--From depths to heights

“My soul is downcast within me; 
therefore I will remember you from the land of the Jordan
the heights of Hermon—from Mount Mizar.”

For a decade at least, just about every Saturday morning I could, I ventured out west into the rolling hills that formed, centuries ago, along the Big Sioux River, where the land opens broadly into a landscape that, like most of the Great Plains, ends only in what seems infinite space.  Literally, there is nothing there.  There’s corn and there’s beans and there’s some grasslands, but nothing is substantially present to fill the frame of a camera lens; and that’s why it’s such a challenge to try.  I do what I can to get an angle on a subject that offers very little.  We live in fly-over country here, an area most Americans see only from the relative comfort of a jumbo jet.  But then “I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself,” says curmudgeonly Thoreau, “than be crowded on a velvet cushion.”

Some time ago, the New York Times ran a story about Californians leaving the state for the Midwest.  When I sent the story to friends, the Times website told me that story was their most-emailed piece that day.  Amazing. 

And in some ways, terrific.  It would be nice for everyone here if some companies would relocate to the rural Midwest, where wages are dismal and, often, benefits are worse.  We could use a financial shot in the arm.

But I’m not all that interested in a flood of new residents. I am blessed—I really am—by living in a place where open land is all around, just a farm or two per gravel road. These days, from my own backdoor I can see for miles. 

Some people in tall-grass prairie country lament the death of hunting, pheasant hunting specifically. The number of hunters is down, even though the headcount of pheasants, by my estimation, is up--at least I see more out here.

I’ve always thought Thoreau wasn’t wrong when he claimed that boys (his word) really ought to hunt when they’re young but give it up on becoming men, and that’s why I don’t lament the loss of hunters. But I’ve been one, and I still sometimes long to get out there in the silence. Just the same, I wanted to write a letter to the reporter suggesting that we’d all be better off—even the pheasants—if we all packed cameras instead of 12-gauge pumps.

Some Saturdays—lots of them this time of year--the sky, at dawn, is thick with clouds, so thick that I don’t bother going out. When I made a habit of it, cloudy Saturday mornings hurt because I came to need my weekly hour-long pilgrimage into open spaces.  Kathleen Norris, in Dakota, makes clear what others have said—that sometimes where there’s nothing, there’s really something.

And I say all of this because in the second bout of sadness which David discusses in this psalm—and it’s interesting that 42 doesn’t end with verse six—he is a bit more specific in the means by which he’ll fight the blues.  He’ll return—thoughtfully if not physically—to the open land, to the “heights of Hermon.”  He’ll go back to the open spaces as an antidote to his weary, downcast soul, because there he can remember God.

Honestly, I think I know what he’s talking about. Just a week ago I was all by my blessed self in the snowy country just a few miles east of Glacier National Park. All by myself.  Oh, maybe a horse or gang of deer, but all by my blessed self, and it was a blessing.

Snow had just blew in from the far north, chilling everything and leaving an icy glaze over the entire world.  I should learn how better to adjust my camera’s f-stop. 

Just the heights of Hermon---the mere memory of standing there all alone, David says, gives life to a weary soul. 

I think I know that one.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Go figure

Seriously, I'm not smart enough to be an economist. There's just so much about the financial equations by which we live and work and have our being that I just don't understand and probably never will.  Here's just a few whatzits.

In the November election, two of our neighbors, Nebraska and South Dakota, both fundamentally conservative and overwhelmingly Republican, voted nonetheless to raise the minimum wage, even though the vast majority of their party leaders--not to mention the party itself--are agin' it, arguing that raising the minimum wage will only damage small businesses. Scarlet red states voted blue on the issue of the minimum wage. Go figure.

An essay in this morning's NY Times documents the difficulty of establishing and maintaining a life in academia today. Brittany Bronson describes the pseudo-humiliation she sometimes feels when scraping off the plates of her students when she's at work in the restaurant, a job she had to take to put food on her own table because what she makes as a teaching adjunct isn't enough. A full 70% of the teaching force in higher education today "adjuncts," a noun that has banged its way into a verb because it is so, well, ordinary. Colleges and universities save a fortune by contracting people by the class, thereby avoiding big-ticket salaries and insurance.

Okay--that's life in the big city. But someone sent in a two-line reply that'll curl your hair. "A couple thousand miles away in Michigan the U of M is considering paying a football coach 48 million dollars over 6 years." He or she then channels Isaiah or Jeremiah:  "This is a bankrupt society."

Go figure.

Another respondent to Bronson's article claims that Las Vegas, where Bronson lives, employs thousands of illegals, thus forcing wages down. Probably true. But were the dairies all around me--or the packing plants or the factories--to toss out undocumented workers and hire real locals, the price of a gallon of milk would skyrocket because no locals would milk for the pittance the dairyman pays the undocumented. Illegal workers take millions of jobs from ordinary Americans--no kidding; but if legal Siouxlanders held those jobs--white guys and white women--the local economy, like the American economy--and I'm no economist--we'd all howl at the outrageous escalation in the cost of living.

Go figure.

Another article in the Times uses a headline no news junkie could have missed recently: "The Wealth Gap is Getting Bigger."  Vikas Bajaj uses Pew Research to document the fact that the gap between upper-income and middle-income families has now grown beyond anything anyone has seen in the last thirty years. Literally, the rich are getting richer and poor, poorer. That's not just Democratic rhetoric; it's plain fact. Conservative pundits are greatly taken by calling Obama "the food-stamp President." Yet, according to article, "The plain truth is that inequality has gotten worse and that the wealthy have done pretty well under the Obama administration."

Go figure.  

Bajaj claims new figures (from 2013) from Pew Research show that "all income groups lost wealth from 2007 to 2010, but that the recovery has disproportionally benefitted the richest among us. Their median wealth increased to $639,400 in 2013, from $595,300 in 2010." 

It's been a pretty dumb good six years for the Koch brothers. Not good enough, I guess. Go figure. 

There's so much about economics I just don't understand.   

Thursday, December 18, 2014

"Where are the children?"

Perhaps it was the camera that frightened the young lady in the bottom right hand corner. After all, the caption says this photo was taken in 1892, a time when lots of kids hadn't even seen a camera, had no idea what such a thing did, and certainly had never before been a target. I'd like to think that what has her so terribly uneasy is a stranger with a black veil over him behind a huge camera on a heavy tripod. 

Maybe a flash, too. The corners of the photo aren't lit. That may have been a lens problem, or maybe that hooded photographer carried one of those wide flash guns that exploded with light and fire. Maybe that's what made her afraid--she certainly looks scared.

But then, she's Blackfoot, and lots of Native people believed that a photograph somehow steals away a part of his or her soul. Maybe the look on her face is fear of what might happen to her once the picture is taken.

What's startlingly evident in the photographs on exhibition at Calgary's Glenbow Museum, an exhibition titled "Where Are the Children?--Healing the Legacy of Residential Schools," is that this little girl's fear isn't unusual. Other photographs of residential school children feature similarly affected students. And it's not hard to see that in this one, no one--not one student--looks in any way happy.

"Don't generalize," you're saying. Chances are that same hooded photographer in a school in Ireton or Indianapolis, in Sioux Center or Pocahontas would have caught the same look--"readin' and writin' and 'rithmetic/taught to the tune of a hickory stick." Violence was simply the way education was accomplished in ye olden days--even the Bible invites it:  "spare the rod and spoil the child." Maybe abuse was the curriculum.

But what the Glenbow photographs document is a peculiar phenomenon because this residential school, public or private, really wasn't like its counterparts in Ireton or Pocahontas or Indianapolis, circa 1900, because the mission of this school was to end a way of life, to destroy a culture, to reshape children into something they'd never been. No white parent would have stood for that mission, a school dedicated to retooling children's minds and hearts and spirits. 

Still, it's hard to look at these pictures and demonize all the white folks.  Here's a faculty.

It's really hard for me, a white man, to believe every one of these teachers is an abuser, a closet criminal, men and women who have chosen to teach in residential Indian schools because no one cares about what happens there and they'll be free to carry out their horrors.  
Okay, maybe the older men in the background and the woman with her arm up over the guy with fancy bibs. Maybe them. What's more, her elbow points at a man who looks for all the world as if he's hiding something. 

But what about the young couple, second row, far right? They look as young and idealistic as any first-year teacher, don't they? 

Not long ago, we drove past the last remaining building of what once was Pipestone (MN) Indian Training School, an institution that once upon a time was simply massive.

It was the day before Halloween, and the friends we were with told us about a friend of theirs, an Ojibwa from up north, who refused to go back to Pipestone ever, even though the quarries outside of town hold the only reserve of the precious, soft stone Native people from all over the west use to fashion pipes used in spiritual ways, a tiny piece of ground that belongs to Native people by way of a treaty signed by the Yankton Sioux way back in the 1850s. The Ojibwa man swears he will not return to Pipestone, they said, because of what went on at the school he attended as a boy--this school.

Only one building still exists these days. This one, the old administrative building created from Sioux Quartzite, far left on the old post card above.

The front porch is falling apart now, but once upon a time lots of Native kids--Dakota, Ojibwa, Lakota--probably sat inside waiting to see the headmaster. Were all of them in terror? Did what happened inside scar every one of them? 

On the day before Halloween, it wasn't at all hard to imagine this place a real haunted house.

What's most troubling about "What Happened to the Children?" an exhibition of photographs at the Glenbow Museum, Calgary, Alberta, Canada, is the panicky look on the faces of so many children. Look at the faces in that picture at the top. 

The photographs document a story of Native people, aboriginals.

But it's my story too.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Morning Thanks--an incredible world

There's some disagreement about where the Great Plains begin, although most would not include the far western edge of what was once tall grass prairie, the place where we live. Some say the Missouri River is where the Great Plains begin, some say the 100th parallel, and some say wherever people simply can't get an average of 20 inches of rainfall. 

What's not in any dispute, however, is where the Great Plains to the west.  It's really difficult to imagine what on earth Lewis and Clark thought when suddenly, way out there beyond the blue, they started to see these gargantuan shoulders, like a broken wall against the sky. Couldn't have been all that far from where I was standing last weekend, really, although there were no fences back then. But out there around Great Falls, Montana, somewhere, I'd guess, their young men started to see visions and dream dreams (they didn't have any old geezers).  

You can't help but think that some of them wouldn't have entertained the notion of turning back to St. Louis. Can you imagine a barrier like this?  By this time, however, they had a 14-year-old girl named Sacajawea, who'd come to her trapper husband (that's a generous description) by way of a card game. Sacajawea claimed she knew a way up and into and even through those mountains, and she did. 

One of the proudest ironies of Native American life and history is that a Shoshone girl, not even a woman really, ended up directing the whole show.  Would have been a flop without her. Lewis and Clark and their adventuring band wouldn't have stood a chance against those Rockies if she hadn't shown them the way. They needed a savior, and they got one when a French trapper won a kid, hardly a woman, a illegal concubine in a poker game.

Can't help but wonder how amazed the Corps of Discovery were at the world they entered once they crossed the foothills and started up the Rockies. Must have been too grueling for sight-seeing. 

Too bad, really. It's a ton sweeter today from the warm confines of a someone else's rental car. Still, they had to take a breath once in a while, had to look up and out at what must have been simply amazing. 

Of course, they had no idea what they were going to find on the other side of peaks like this one, so adventure must have kept their adrenalin charged. But still, they must have stopped every once in a while in simple drop-dead awe.

Had to. Just had to.

This morning's thanks are for an awesome world.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Book Review--Angle of Repose

Wallace Stegner doesn't really need my cheerleading. His Angle of Repose, some claim the man's most ambitious and successful novel, won the Pulitzer in 1972. It probably should have been read then, when realism was still in vogue, which is to say when realism still had power.

One gets a sense that Wallace Stegner was an Ernest Hemingway who really aspired to be F. Scott Fitzgerald--in style that is. The sentences throughout this tome are each separate works of art, or, by today's standards perhaps, artifice. Paragraphs are so perfectly crafted, one might thing that Stegner was running for office. Seriously, if you're interested at all in the way a highly crafted realistic novel reads, just spend an hour or so with Angle of Repose. It's a graduate class all by itself.

If I sound criticial, I'm not. I loved the novel, but then I'm an incorrigible realist by nature and by experience. My loving it almost guarantees few will read it today, and I understand why. The pace lumbers along as one might think it would with such gorgeously fashioned sentences. 

The plot is simple enough--a professorial type who just lost a leg and a son's love is wading through his grandmother's letters, trying to find a story he doesn't know clearly but wants badly to make flesh. Meanwhile, his own life is falling apart, which he both understands and despises by treating the rest of world with the cynicism he can't help but feel. His only refuge is the imagined story of his grandparents.

Stegner was, for better or for worse, often considered a "Western writer," which does not mean a descendent of Louis L'Amour. Stegner's "westernness" is on gorgeous display in Angle of Repose, not only because so much of it is set in the turn-of-the century frontier, but also because Susan Ward, his grandmother, spends most of her life wishing she weren't where she is, even as she falls in love with the west her husband has so roughly taken her into.  Susan Ward is a quintessential Easterner, and Stegner rather ambitiously loves her for it. Western lit often sets up Easterners as shysters, the enemy; and there is some of that in Susan's characterization. She is, after all, convinced that life ends somewhere not all that far beyond the Hudson and that she is, therefore, forever banished to the Land of the Uncouth. But she becomes, strangely enough, its leading correspondent through sketches and drawings she sells to major American magazines back in Eastern gloryland.

Susan Ward never really falls in love with the West, but she has a torrid affair she can barely talk about, except on paper and canvas. Her husband, a mining engineer, is never quite so happy as when he's off in some far off corner, looking for whatever mineral deposits might make someone else rich. He loves Susan for whom she is, and there's is a wonderful relationship until a series of failures leaves Susan stranded and angry.

All of that, Lyman Ward exhumes from endless letters his grandmother, Susan, sent back to an Eastern friend, a woman named Augusta, who today would almost certainly be assumed to have been her lover. Back then, who knows? But the two of them write to each other faithfully, and its from those letters that Lyman--and Stegner--begins to piece together a mystery he never quite understood.

(The novel makes significant use of those letters, actual letters written by writer and artist Mary Halleck Foote, a woman whose work Stegner championed by the way. The use of those letters created something of a scandal, in great part because Stegner may have crossed the line into plagiarism.)

That mystery of his grandparents' relationship parallels a mystery in Lyman Ward's own life, and the confluence of the two major conflicts doesn't occur until the very last line of the novel, meticulously orchestrated by a writer who is supremely conscious of his craft.

The novel is a tome. Only the very best readers will turn pages quickly; the rest of us will plod along, wondering if the story will ever reveal itself fully, even questioning if it will ever end.  Which is not to say Angle of Repose is boring--it isn't. Stegner develops character in a way that makes any reader shout aloud that really, character is plot. And, of course, the style is sublime throughout.

I don't know that I read as good a novel all last year. Angle of Repose I loved, even though I knew, even as I was wading through, that its time had come and gone. This is a novel that tries to gather a world into what space it has between two covers. It's plottedness is thoughtful and artsy, but its strength is not what happens on every page. It's strength is its art.

I loved it, but I fear few might. 1972 is already another era.