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.

Friday, January 31, 2014

August: Osage County

When you think of most anything by Tennessee Williams or a film like "Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolff?" you duck right away because there's going to be a fight and it's not going to be pretty and no one is going to win--perhaps not even the audience.  To call the genre "domestic realism," doesn't quite cover the territory because "domestic" is blood kin to "domesticated," and believe me, there's nothing domesticated about "Wolff" or "A Streetcar Named Desire."

And there's even less domesticated, it seems, about August: Osage County, a film that doesn't begin to hide the hideous dysfunction that rules like a despot. The old man drinks, his wife scarfs pills, and basically they hate each other. It's an infernal mess with roots that back into poverty and horrifying family violence, putrid, despicable people let loose into motherhood and fatherhood when someone, somewhere should have just neutered the whole lot of them years before they became old enough to breed. 

The family lines these people create are yet another Oklahoma trail of tears because the sins of the fathers--and mothers--really count in Osage County, just as wickedly as they do in the Bible.

A father's suicide brings the whole scattered survivors back home to face a mother who's alone now, having lost a double-dare-you to her husband. There are occasional moments of lightness in this play, enough smiles to make you wonder whether the script might have done better if it had steered the ship of state in a different direction a bit more often. There are great characters in Osage County, but the great characters are not great people.  August: Osage County is as stark as its unadorned title.

You might be given to wonder why a script like this attracted the heavyweights it did--Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts. But if you're man or woman enough to sit through the horror of totally disintegrated family relationships, you'll understand. There are few really, really powerful roles for women in cinema, but they're here in spades in Osage County. The characters are plain awful--they feed on hate and it's all earned because there's only one relationship that has much love, and that one features no women.

Sounds awful, I know. And it is.

But I loved it. 

I don't know that love is the right word really because love isn't what you feel when you're right there in the vortex of a familial holocaust. There are more than enough dark, dark secrets here, and nothing vomits them up as well as a poison homecoming.

You feel hammered when it's over. The only hope is a highway sign and the sense that the way to begin to live is to put it all in the rearview mirror.

It's interesting that the two quality feature films set on the identifiable territory of the Great Plains this year are both stark realism, interesting because so much in cinema right now isn't. Fantasies abound. Both Osage County and Nebraska feel as if they were shot by Walker Evans or Dorothea Lange, just another saga from the squalid days of the Great Depression. 

Maybe to people on both coasts, the Dust Bowl was our glory out here in fly-over country. Seems that way anyway.

I really did love Osage County, but if you decide to see it, just remember the dust is going to fly so thick it'll be all but impossible to breathe.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Morning Thanks--loving the feeble

I don't use the word feeble very frequently, but my guess is that few of us do. If we use the word at all we're likely to be humorous in a derogatory fashion, as in "that was a feeble attempt at a joke." Like the word handicapped, it's a word whose disuse is attributable to a fungus that stealthily grew up around it and eventually choked it. 

But people can be feeble, even if we won't or don't describe them as such. Generally, when feeble people are on stage before us, there's nothing funny about it. 

This couple seemed feeble, this old couple, the husband far more than his wife. She seemed feeble too, but weary fits her better: he was feeble, which has much to do with why she seemed weary.  My guess is it was a stroke, at least the way he carried his left arm--high up over his chest, crooked yet limp--suggesting muscles frozen in place. She had to help him with his jacket. Outside it was wickedly cold.  

"Help him" is an inadequate modifier. Getting him into his thick winter jacket was not easy, that stiff left arm being no help at all. She had to draw the back of the jacket like a curtain over his shoulders to get it around him, and then there were gloves, and scarf, and hat. She dressed him as if she were his child, and I'd like to be able to say that her great love shown like the morning sun, but I can't say it clearly. Dedication?--yes. Concern?--of course. But she seemed very weary.

It was only nine a.m., and the waiting room outside the doctor's office was filled with people who were just about the same age, including my father-in-law. We'd all come to the office for the same treatment, injections into the eyes to hold off the decimation created by a species of macular degeneration that can at least be held at bay, even though it can't be cured.

The feeble old man with the bad arm and shoulder wore a thick cotton patch over one eye, the one that likely had been treated, held there by a rude cross of tape. All the while his wife dressed him for winter, he showed no smile, no frown.  He seemed in a daze, his face flaccid, his thin hair a maelstrom to which he was, at best, oblivious. She did all the work, his helpmeet. 

Recently, we buried our 95-year-old mother. Yesterday, I was there in the office with my 94-year-old father-in-law. My wife and I have spent a lot of time in retirement homes, seen a host of feeble people.  But yesterday morning, something in the moment, the two of them taking forever to get dressed for the cold, made me realize how much work it is for some old people--and in all likelihood I'll be one of them sometime--simply to step out of their apartments, sub-zero or not. Going to a doctor for shots may well have been, for them, the event of the week. 

They left through a door that mercifully opened for them, she holding his arm tenaciously. 

It was theater, after a fashion, orchestrated movement acted out on a waiting room stage, a one-act play with multiple interpretations for those who observed, but, in our world, a drama that's staged a million times a day, always poorly attended.

And then they returned. She led him back through the automatic door, his arm still in her hand, his face just as flaccid and stoic as it had been when they departed. She nudged him to her right, found a convenient chair, set him down clumsily until he rested, that cotton patch still there over his left eye, his mouth gaping.

She went to a nurse for a phone book. 

Another nurse called my father-in-law's name. It was his turn for a shot, our turn for tests.

I have no idea why they returned, but I'm guessing, even now, a day later, that she got him out into the car, got in behind the wheel herself, pulled the key from the purse, stuck it into the ignition, turned it hard, and nothing happened. 

There was nothing she could do but get him back inside and call somebody.

A half hour later, when Dad had his own eye-patch, and we walked back into the waiting room to retrieve our coats, they were gone, the feeble old man and his weary, longsuffering wife.  She had to be 90 herself.

When my mother-in-law died after a record-setting term of office in hospice care, I would have nominated her hospice nurse for sainthood. Her care for our mother was God-like, upper-case.  

This morning I remember that nurse because of a one-act play I attended yesterday, something staged in a waiting room, where an old woman tended her feeble husband so admirably that I wanted to wish them a loving, fiery chariot home. 

This morning I'm thankful for the millions of weary caregivers--professional and not so--who care for and thereby respect the feeble. 

Those who love them.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Reading Bratt's Kuyper III

The thing hung from the front door of my trailer--that's what I remember.  I was living there--in this very trailer--alone, painfully single, or so it seemed to me, especially on weekends, never darkening a church door, even though my origins were as steeped in churchliness as the good folks all around me in Monroe, Wisconsin, were steeped in Swiss cheese. I stayed away.  It was 1971. 

But one day after school I came home to find the thing hanging from my door handle, a note on card stock touting a revival at some Baptist church or another I'd never seen nor heard of, an old fashioned revival featuring some itinerant preacher who'd open the gates of heaven with his preaching by showing us, in diligence and truth, the road to hell. You know.

It would be interesting to know exactly why, that next Sunday morning, I got up and went. Was it guilt? Probably. I hadn't gone anywhere, hadn't found what my parents would have called "a church home." Hadn't even looked. I remember going past some churches and wondering if I should, but, come Sunday, I stayed in bed or corrected papers. I was a teacher, doing the school newspaper, coaching freshman basketball, and, as if I'd had nothing to do at nights, putting on the school play.  I can't imagine any sane administrator assigning all of that to a first-year teacher, but he did.  Besides, I'd had it with surly church folks.

Still, that Sunday morning, I got into my VW and looked for a little old cracker barrel Baptist church, and found it.  Inside, there were all of twenty people looking to stoke some wild revival fires--and me the only mark, a 22-year-old single male. Can you imagine the hungry look on their faces? It took me three minutes to realize I'd walked directly into the cross-hairs of fervent prayers.  I was the one they wanted to get for Jesus.

Good preaching, or so it seems to me, convicts us all. It finds a way to seep into all our hearts, the way April's sweet warmth seeps into us. That day, people were moved, but I wasn't. Even though every last word was aimed at the stranger within their gates, from the rollicking hymns one straggly-haired guitar man banged out up front, to the triumphant altar call that finally--good Lord!--ended the thing, they wanted my scalp for the Lord.

But they didn't get it. I walked out of that church's cardboard walls and stamped the sawdust off my feet, never went back, never went to any church in Monroe, Wisconsin. 

But neither have I forgotten. I remember the woman stepping up front to bawl her eyes out about some crisis at home with her woebegone husband. I remember her confession--public as a restroom--about how she was going to live life anew this week, how things were going to be different, renewed, glorified, blessed.  And I remember telling myself that if I'd come back next week, she'd likely be saved once again.

My grad school advisor, years later, once told me he too was a Calvinist. He didn't buy the sovereign-God thing, but he was sure on board with the total depravity.  Maybe that was me back then, but I don't think so, because while I didn't go to church for a couple of years, my prayers were never so fervent, never so pressured, never so personal, which is something else I've never forgotten.

When Abraham Kuyper read of the Heir of Redclyffe, a rather ordinary popular novel of his time, a gift from his wife-to-be, whose reading tastes he sometimes harshly deplored, "he experienced a religious conversion," James Bratt says. The young Kuyper had been something of a Emersonian transcendentalist, but the way that novel humbled the arrogance of Mr. Phillip de Morville by way of the shocking death of his brother, put de Morville on his knees for the first time in years and put Kuyper on his knees because Kuyper had to have read his own haughtiness in that of de Morville, the deeply humbled de Morville. When Kuyper read that novel, he experienced "a religious conversion," Bratt says.

One of several. Like that teary woman up front at the Monroe revival, a woman who probably got to her feet again the following Sunday. And like all of us, even those who don't forget moments when such conversions didn't happen. Even a cynic who hasn't forgotten that cheap Baptist church, or the way, all morning long, that revival preacher kept his laser aimed at directly at my chest. Who knows?--maybe he got there anyway.

Kuyper had more than one, Bratt suggests, more than one religious conversion. But on that score, he's probably not alone.  More of us do. 

I don't remember where I picked it up, but on a shelf in the library upstairs sits The Heir of Redclyffe, unread. 

I'm retired.  Got more time to read.  I'll have to grab it and have a look myself one of these days.  Who knows what'll happen?

And we were in Monroe last weekend. Picked up a boatload of great cheese.  

The trailer was old in 1971, but it's still there.  

I didn't look up that Baptist church, wouldn't have known where to hunt anyway, so I couldn't check whether or not, up there on the wall, I'd have found an old scalp.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Morning Thanks--for what I had to learn

The Long Walk, by C Ortiz. Bosque Redondo Memorial, Fort Sumner, New Mexico

The subjects themselves weren't young, which is to say they weren't kids. The were adults, and, often as not, they were either at or approaching senior citizenship. They were grandpas and grandma because the focus of the interviews--and the stories I eventually wrote--was history, how the people, the Dine' and Zuni, had come to be part of the mission family of Rehoboth, a mission endeavor of the Christian Reformed Church for more than a century.

It didn't take me long to realize how little I knew because the story I heard retold, time after time, began with something called "the Long Walk," the Navajo's own Trail of Tears.  

In a story repeated for centuries after Plymouth Rock, white folks streamed into Native lands creating friction and hostility because co-existence, it seemed, was not a possibility. If there were to be peace, white people determined it would come at the expense of the indigenous, wherever they were, Massachusetts to California.

When the sheer numbers became overwhelming, the only alternative to the genocide advocated by many good people, even Christian people, was American apartheid, putting Native people their own land somewhere out of the way where they wouldn't hinder the rich blessings of American progress. Hence, Oklahoma, for thousands upon thousands of Native peoples. Hence Bosque Redondo for Navajos.

Because no Navajo wanted to depart their canyon-land home, getting them out required shed blood. Washington recruited its own dime-novel hero, Kit Carson, to do the dirty work, to clean the Dine' out of their storied land and herd them, literally, to Fort Sumner, a river-bottom cottonwood grove where as many as 9000 Navajos were commanded thereafter to create a new homeland. Those who resisted were killed. 

Think of it this way. Point guns at 1000 farm families from Sioux County, Iowa, great-grandmas and newborns, and fly the whole bunch to El Paso, then get them off the plane and march 'em east, all of them, day and night, night and day, into west Texas, a landscape so painfully unlike home that life will be not only strange but physically impossible. March 'em all--man, woman, child--in the hot sun. Feed them garbage, if anything; and when some die, let 'em rot. Then jam all the survivors together when they get to this dream world and tell them that all of this relocation is for their own blessed good. Give them a plow and a mule and tell them to raise corn where no one ever has.

The story the Navajos call "The Long Walk" began exactly 150 years ago this month. A defeated people, hunted and hungry, were driven east from their homeland to a place far, far away, to a 40-square mile compound that amounted to little more than a desert prison camp. 

What I discovered when I asked the people their stories was what an idiot I was. Just about every time I began an interview, I started with this question:  "I want to know how and when your family became part of the Christian family."

It was a question they all could answer, in part, I'm sure, because they were recipients of a way of learning that was more effective in many ways than book learning; they understood who they were by way of oral history and the close attention given to the wisdom of the elders. Time after time, the story would reference The Long Walk: "When my great-grandma survived the Long Walk. . .," they'd say, or something similar, as if I understood.

I didn't. I'm sorry to say, I didn't. I didn't know. There was so much I had to learn. Still is.

Just knowing the facts doesn't guarantee wisdom, but wisdom can't be had without knowledge. For me at least, a white man, to know the story of what happened 150 years ago, from the experience of those whose families were part of sadness, was itself a lesson in humility, a good lesson for this and all particular sons of Adam.

Not to remember is to forget and to forget is to dishonor.  

And that's why this morning, my morning thanks is for the lessons I learned from the people.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Sunday Morning Meds--Human Understanding

“Do not be like the horses or the mule, 
which have no understanding” Psalm 37:9

The University of Kansas Natural History Museum, Lawrence, Kansas, is, at least temporarily, the final hitching post for Comanche, a horse who, for decades, may have been America’s most revered and certainly was most recognized steed, despite being dead. 

What fresh troops discovered once the dust settled at the scene of the famous 1876 Battle of the Little Big Horn was 200 of Custer’s men dead, and one horse, Comanche, still alive, a fourteen-year-old buckskin gelding injured and therefore not hustled off after the battle as so many others were by the conquering tribes.

I’m not sure anyone ever thought of disposing of the injured animal—perhaps not.  Whether or not he could ever run again, Comanche was simply too stark a symbol.  So he was taken to Fort Riley, where he died, and was lovingly stuffed by the best taxidermist in Kansas, an employee of the museum where Comanche still (after a fashion) stands.

Thousands filed past him (his upright remains anyway) at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago.  Rumor had it that Comanche was General George Armstrong Custer’s own mount (not true).  Custer’s favorite horse, Vic, either died on the hill where Custer himself did, or else was snatched up by the conquering foe.  Among Native Americans, legend has it that a Santee Sioux named Grey Earth Track ended up with Vic, a thoroughbred, after the battle. 

Should you care to visit Comanche, you’ll find him enclosed in glass and wearing his cavalry blanket and saddle.  In the century which has passed since the Columbian Exposition, visitors have dwindled to a trickle, I suppose.  So it goes with legends.  The case once had a brass plaque proclaiming “Sole survivor of the Battle of Little Big Horn.”  In the Sixties it was, quite thoughtfully, removed at the request of Native Americans. 

That Comanche is still standing is understandable, given his legendary status—Custer’s own mount, and the only thing living at Little Big Horn.  He remains, I’d say, a symbol of the rough-hewn history of the American West, and he is what he was—a horse.  For more than a century, no animal was as significant to life on the Great Plains as the horse—to the Sioux, to the cavalry, to the settlers. 

King David had no idea that the horse would be as important to American culture as it was, historically.  Warring tribes he knew, but he had no notion of Sitting Bull or South Dakota.  Maybe we shouldn’t indict him for so unequally yoking the horse and mule in verse nine.  To old-timers who remember farming pre-John Deere, horses still hold special favor, after all.

I’m missing the point, of course.  Verse nine isn’t about horses; it’s about us, and animals, and what separates us—human understanding.  We’ve got it, and they don’t, despite our nostalgia, our tributes, and two or three centuries of Great Plains history. 

What makes us human—among other things—is understanding, the ability to think through our own actions.  What’s at stake is wisdom, not horse sense.  We’ve got to use it, but what the verse suggests is that too often we don’t. 

Custer didn’t.  But he’s not the only one.  All too often, neither do we.

And that’s the point exactly.  

Friday, January 24, 2014

Reading Bratt's Kuyper (II)--Sweetheart

It took the little Dutch community where I grew up an entire century before it built, with its own hands, its own Christian school. I'm sure some people, all these years later, still wonder whether it was something that needed to be.  But my parents and others were hard core, and one went up just about the year I was born. 

Here in Iowa, local Christian schools long ago celebrated their centennial anniversaries, even though the communities, farther west, are often fifty years younger. Local Christian schools are a staple of most Dutch communities, suburban or rural, but not all. The difference is traceable, really, to the tireless advocacy of a man who never lived anywhere in North American soil, visited but once, and didn't seem to be all that taken.

No matter. Abraham Kuyper's shadow looms over my life even though I never read a word he wrote (he was Dutch), not even in translation, until I was well into my forties. The college where I taught was created out of his wide-ranging influence as a preacher, a politician, and visionary, just as all those Christian schools were, none of which would be here if it hadn't been for his influence.

He's mighty, really.

But, my word, he was no lover.

For reasons even their parents didn't understand, when it came to a helpmeet, young Abraham chose a woman named Johanna Schaay, who was--and everyone must have seen it--not much at all like the young scholar. He plucked her out of her mercantile family, and both families, James Bratt says in his mighty biography of the man, pulled up their noses. Had Johanna done similarly, most people would have understood her disaffection; after all, Kuyper, lordly Kuyper, seemed insistent on making sweet Johanna over in his own image. 

When she told him she would rather read Charles Dickens than William Shakespeare, he rolled his eyes and pleaded with her to lift her sensibilities up to his. But he didn't blame her for her wretched tastes because, he told her, she'd come by them quite understandably from her own business-class upbringing. You might think poor Johanna's parents (who weren't poor) were little more than a Dutch version of Duck Dynasty. She lacked, he told her, a taste for the finer things of life, which is to say his things. 

He created a reading list for her, a list which began with John Milton. There was no Paradise Lost in Dutch, of course, so poor Johanna had to slave through what most people would think of as pretty thick stuff in a language that really wasn't hers.  When she told him she was working at the books he'd sent her, he scolded her.  You don't say "books," he preached--you say "Milton" and "Shakespeare." Once again, he must have rolled his eyes. It's a wonder she didn't take a hike.

Kuyper was, first and foremost, a theologian, so when it came time for Johanna to make profession of faith, her aspiring suitor/savior quizzed her more intensively than any consistory might have, trying to ring from her the kind of awe he himself took home from studying the catechism. She wasn't nearly so taken as he.

Bratt quotes from his notes, Kuyper's letters to Jo:  "Turn back from this smooth way, my dear, dearest Johanna! I pray, I abjure you! Shake yourself awake and become what you must be."

That, of course, was what he wanted to be.

Someday, he told her, "you will thank me for my efforts to make you happy."

Johanna Schaay married him anyway. Bore his children. Put up with his moods. Died in Switzerland on one of his therapy getaways. 

I spent 37 years teaching in a college that lionized the man, a college that wouldn't exist if it weren't for his understanding of the nature of Christian education.  My children went to Christian schools, as do my grandchildren--and that's wonderful. I wouldn't take all of that back.

Abraham Kuyper has had a profound influence in Siouxland, where I live, an influence that vastly surpasses his name recognition. He bequeathed a foundation for Christian education, showed his followers a means by which to think of the Lordship of Christ in every last avenue ("sphere" is the word) of life--you know, "every square inch." That's all grand, worthy of profound thanks.

But he sure warn't much of a lover.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

The death of pop and other good tidings

It happened right about now, the cold of January, exactly fifty years ago. It happened in a car full of guys, my 16-gauge double-barrel in my hands, all of us heading out to some woodland somewhere to hunt. Was it just rabbits? or fox?--I don't even remember.

I have no idea who else was in the car or where we were; all I remember about a moment in time an entire half-century ago is that it was January-cold and the disc jockey on WOKY, Milwaukee, 920 on your dial, was doling out fair warning that the brand new 45 he was about to spin--"in just a little while," "coming up soon," "don't touch that dial"--was turning the entire listening world stark, raving mad, a tune that was really something, a record cut by a new group called, strangely enough, The Beatles," with a sort of mad English twist, as in "the Bay-tils."

We listened. It was "I Want to Hold Your Hand." I was in the back seat in a car full of high school buddies, and we were hunting--what, where, is lost. But hearing that tune is a memory forever alive. 

I missed the Ed Sullivan Show. Sunday nights we went to church. But I didn't miss "the Bay-tils."

That whole world is irretrievable, but the world of pop music, a cultural phenomenon that had so much to do with creating the era in which I grew up, the Sixties, has altered so drastically that it's as if there is no such thing anymore, Justin Bieber and his misdemeanors notwithstanding.

Such an immense cultural alteration has people scratching their heads. There are no more Beach Boys; or, one might say, there are, but there are probably a couple hundred of them, even thousands in garages all over the world. Pop music isn't a racket anymore.  Once upon a time, it dictated taste as if the industry was run by Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Joseph Goebbels. 

And I played along.  And loved it, even though my parents hated it, just hated it. And, as I remember, even their hatred was just fine with me.

Technology is the major difference. Pandora plays most of the day and night in our house, piped in genre-favs, one after another; and for a few pennies a day, I don't even have to hear commercials. If I hear some interesting group on All Things Considered, I'll look 'em up on Amazon. Sometimes I'll even buy, and add the album, just like that, to my Amazon Cloud Player. In less than a minute the voices are here in the basement.

I lost the passion for pop in the fall of 1970, just out of college, when I broke ranks with kids to become their teacher. I remember the James Gang, but I also remember thinking they belonged to the kids on the other side of my desk. They let me have Simon and Garfunkel, but the a great chasm began to open when took the job of trying to give them an ear for Ralph Waldo Emerson, when I became what we used to call "the establishment." That's when I probably stopped buying in.

I have no idea who's hot with the college students I left behind a year or so ago, but I know that in the last decade or more, no single performer or genre could possibly capture all of them. What they were playing on those iPods was as all over the map as they were because things were different somehow, the change so widespread today that it leads some to believe that there will never be any more Rolling Stones because there can't be. Oh, my, listen to this--there will never be another Dylan.

Neal Davenport, in a Spiked review of Bob Stanley's Yeah, Yeah, Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop, claims blaming mp3 downloads for the end of pop (which is to say popular) music is to miss a much broader societal change. "For previous generations, pop music was as much about the social side of music as it was about seven-inch singles and chart rundowns," he says, I think accurately. And then this:

Today, when young people are encouraged to hunker down in the bosom of the family well into adulthood, and with the outside world presented as a fearsome place to be, pop music is no longer quite so resonant as a symbol of excitement and independence, sex and romance.
For better or worse, it seems to me he's in tune with something here. "The desirability of pop music has faded," he says, "not because of MP3s and free downloads, but because the desire to be extraordinary, independent and free is less of a smash hit today."

I think he's right.

As she grew older, my mother became more and more convinced that we were living in "the end times." The signs, after all, were plenteous: abortion, gay marriage, drug use, young people losing their way. I used to tell her that the college students I knew were vastly more spiritual, more steady and trustworthy, more dedicated, more studious, more guarded in their behavior and far less rebellious than was her son and his old bell-bottomed circle. She wouldn't believe me; she really wanted to believe Beck, Limbaugh, and some shock jock appropriately named Savage.

But it's true.

For sure, all that glitters from the Sixties is not gold. My now-retiring generation left sad desolation in its wake, no question, including children hungry to be the kinds of parents we weren't, children famished, even driven to love better than they were loved. There ain't no "golden age."

But I have to laugh at how it sticks, that Saturday in January, fifty years ago--"I Want to Hold Your Hand"--I can belt out a few bars if you'd like.

Free will be hanged, saith the voice of the old sourpuss in me: we're all nothing more than creeping creatures of our age. 

The therapy I need is little more than a good stiff shot of the olden days.  Go ahead, listen in. I will.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Reading Bratt's Kuyper (1)--The Conventicle-ese

Conventicle is an odd old word, but kind of fun actually, a word which suggests, by its composition, what it is--a kind of "mini-convention." Only historians use the word anymore, but conventicles have never been as popular as they are these days. In fact, it's entirely possible that there has never been a time in church history--at least among the American evangelical subculture--when "mini-conventions" were anywhere close to being as ubiquitous as they are right now. Thousands meet daily across the continent, hundreds of thousands, I'm sure, every Sabbath.

Yet, they are, by definition, tiny. Mega-churches, I'm told, work hard at nurturing them because they swear their conventicles, their mini-conventions, their small groups, are the building blocks of their ministries. Without their small groups there could be no big group, so the church's considerable mass is created and sustained by the precious warmth where just two or three are gathered.  

Think of them as cell groups, the tight little circles spawned by Al-Qaeda, by militant Islam, the tiny brotherhoods the NSA works so blame hard to find. 

Okay, that's pushing it.

Real historians would likely date their entrance into religious life earlier than this, but I know the word only because I know that conventicles were alive and kicking in the late 18th and early 19th century Lowlands, including the Netherlands, from which my people came. 

There, they burned with religious fervor and factionalism, an especially potent mix. Those who attended conventicles felt distinctly counter-cultural and may well have operated outside the law in simply showing up and meeting with like-minded dedicated saints. Once together, they 'd read deeply devotional literature, sing psalms, pray long and hard, and, it must be admitted, even do some plotting because often their existence back then depended on a state church that had, the conventicle-ese would claim, lost its doctrinal way.

Mega-church small groups have nothing clandestine about them. I'm sure they'd all welcome visitors, day or night, front door or back. 

But those small groups are kissing cousins in a way--like-minded souls who grow tight and close and intimate. When they do, they create a building block of dedication.

In his Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat, James Bratt claims that Kuyper's people, both sets of grandparents, were among those who attended conventicles, part of a movement that, by fervent piety and deep commitments, eventually undermined the authority of a religious structure that was itself dying--the state church system. 
. . .the orthodox gave up on purifying the Reformed church as a whole and concentrated on cultivating true religion in smaller circles.  Sometimes as study and discussion group and sometimes as well-defined conventicles, sometimes supplementing official church services and occasionally replacing them, the pious gathered to read classics of confessional and devotional orthodoxy by "old writer" (oude schrijvers) like Voetius, Willem 'a Brakel, and Bernadus Smytegelt.
Education can have pernicious effects. It can and does, when successful, make people think after all.  And when it does, where it leads is anybody's guess. Protestants--Calvinists especially--were so dedicated to the Word (sola scriptura) that they believed absolutely everyone ought to be reading it. When everyone did read it, the organized church, the old state church, was in trouble.

Conventicles were hotbeds of piety and dissent. Like the followers of Anne Hutchinson in Puritan New England, the "conventicle-ese" gave their all to their own small group, more allegiance certainly than they gave to the established church and, often enough, ordinary, respectable church attendance. 

I grew up with the descendants of the conventicle-ese--oh, what I saw around me was no hotbed of dissent, neither was my family a matchbox of malcontents. They were conservative to be sure, but not radical. But when they got together with family or others of their own deeply pious stamp, they loved nothing better than talking, at length, about God's rich grace to our unworthy selves, his lovingkindness, his miraculous entries into their own hurried, everyday and often God-neglecting lives.

They sometimes took an odd kind of pleasure in recounting their own sin, the depth of the darkness in their souls, the horrors of life apart from God, if for no other reason than to trace God's grace and thereby trumpet the magnificence of his love. My ancestors--like Kuypers' and so very many others--loved to trace the twin towers of Calvinism in the day-to-dayness of their own lives, to locate anew man's sin and God's sovereignty. 

There was lots of heavy breathing in conventicles, just as there were in my family gatherings when I grew up, maybe even a little touching, and almost certainly there were tears. I've seen 'em myself. 

The conventicle tradition was in my mother and in her father before her, so much so that Grandpa's wife, my grandma, who wasn't an heir, had all she could do at times to tamp it down when it got out of hand--because it could. That hefty spirituality, like any strength, can morph into its own weakness.

And right now I'm coming out of the conventicle closet because it's in me too, in these very words that appear right now across this screen.

I don't belong to any church's mini-convention. I'm not a member of a small group in the church that holds my membership. 

But I know this--for better or for worse, I'm very much a child of the conventicle-ese.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014


"If you want to know again what good news is, think back to the situation in the Netherlands in the year 1945."

It's not hard to do that, even though I wasn't born until three years later and never really knew much at all about World War II in occupied Europe until I got to college. But I've heard the stories before. No matter.  The pictures keep coming.

"It was spring, after the most fearful winter Europe had ever known."

I remember being told people made up names, "roof rabbits," to help them justify eating their own cats. They had absolutely nothing. Thousands of city dwellers swarmed out into the Dutch countryside every single day, the roads full of starving people in search of enough food to live. I remember stories of books being burned in kitchen stoves to stay warm--there was no fuel.  Children looked like the living dead. The last cold months were what the Dutch still call today "the Hunger Winter."

"Sons were murdered, fathers were powerless, daughters were insecure, and mothers could no longer give daily food to their children."

It's the voice of Andrew Kuyvenhoven, a pastor and writer, in an grand old book of devotionals titled, simply, Daylight.

"People died of starvation. And they cried to God under the heel of the Nazi oppressor. They met in churches. And in the long, dark nights (there was no electricity), they prayed fervently for freedom, for help, for a way out."

This is the meditation he means to be read on December 17, just eight days before Christmas.  

"On the evening of May 4, a rumor went through the country. It was an electrifying rumor, and it went faster than a prairie fire:  "It's over! The war is over! Peace!"

Liberation---the real point here is the almost unimaginable glory of Liberation.

"Not one healthy person stayed in his chair. Crowds went out into the dark streets.  Someone started to sing--a song of liberty. And all were filled with joy."

The long, dark night was over--just imagine.

"This comes closest to what happened at Christmas. It was in that night that the heavens were opened and a voice said: 'It's over! It's all over! Now the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God."

That's the thought we read together a month ago, a description we saw clearly from a meditation that is really an album of photographs that hasn't been closed since, an analogy Kuyvenhoven wrote with ink drawn from his own life's experience, a moment in time that transcended time, and therefore, the absolute best he could do, he says, to bring us to what it must have been like to be out there with the sheep on the Judean hills, silence all around, just a cold second or two before a company of angels literally drew open the massive curtains of the sky.  

"When the gospel has become an old tale and the sermon a piece of information, we are in deadly danger," Kuyvenhoven says, "for the story about Jesus is,, first and last, good news, a tiding of joy."

Just thought I'd mention it.

Monday, January 20, 2014

MLK Day--reprised

If you scroll back through the years, you'll find this post just two years ago. But, as the post itself insists, bringing back the story is something that needs to be done annually at a predominately white and self-confessedly Christian college.  This morning, I'm saying it again.


Not until I came home from school yesterday, walked to the front of the house, pulled back the brass door of the mail box, and discovered it empty did I realize that it was a holiday, Martin Luther King Day.  Not until then.  

We don't celebrate MLK Day at this Christian college for a good reason--because the semester began just a week ago, and if we were to give the students their first Monday off, a ton of them would simply stay home for the first half week or so, some of them for good reasons, others for bad.  Furthermore, if the college would shut down on MLK Day, boat loads of students would head up to the Twin Cities or west to Denver or wherever, putting literally hundreds on the roads, mid-winter.  Students would spend all sorts of cash goofing off, and risk their lives in what could well be horrible travel weather.  They could be killed.

What's more, our non-compliance isn't really racist since we don't celebrate Labor Day either.  School always starts before summer's last fling, so for thirty-some years I haven't had a Labor Day when I wasn't laboring.  I teach on Labor Day.  I teach on MLK Day.  It just makes good sense not to shut things down, good economic sense.

When I was a college sophomore, four of us went to Florida over spring break to catch some sun.  We pulled into Ft. Lauderdale late at night, had made no reservations, so ended up looking for a place to stay at an hour--and a time of year--when finding a room wasn't exactly a breeze.  

I don't know how on earth we ended up where we did, but I remember the place very clearly--it seemed to me then to be an abandoned military barracks, at least that's what it looked like, rafters for ceilings.  We went into the office.  We were third in line.  I remember being anxious and we sure weren't picky, believe me.

The group in front was from Notre Dame--I remember that.   Four guys.  The seedy old man behind the desk gave them a key.  But then, horror!--the couple in front of us got turned down. "Sorry," the guy said.  "You saw it--that was the last room."

That meant, of course, we had to look elsewhere.  Once the couple left, there we stood, bereft.  We too started to walk out.

"Where you going?" the guy said.  "I still got a room."  Wink and a smile.  "We don't take their kind here."

That young couple in front of us were black.  

I'd never experienced anything close to that before.  I'd heard about it, read about it, wondered about it--but it had happened right in front of me.  Besides, my father had believed that MLK was an leftie agitator who people claimed had buddied up with known communists.  I grew up in Wisconsin in the early Sixties, when the shadow of Joseph McCarthy still loomed over politics.  I'm sure that my wonderful, God-fearing father--one of the sweetest men I ever knew, honestly--probably believed that Joe McCarthy was a far better man than this Martin Luther King.  

Were he alive, my father would probably still have all kinds of trouble celebrating MLK Day.  It would bug him no end.  He might well appreciate the fact that we don't celebrate.  Yet, no one I know would doubt my father's deep and abiding Christian faith. 

There are good reasons why this Christian college doesn't celebrate the holiday, and I understand them.  But I also know that historically for my people, who surely do like to watch the dollars, it's much, much easier to work on MLK Day than it is to remember the man or his vision because what there is to remember of King's time for many, many white evangelical Christians isn't pretty at all, it's racist. 

David Brooks is in South Carolina now, and yesterday, on Martin Luther King Day, in the New York Times, he speculated about the folks he'd been meeting, especially the mood of their rallies, like last night's debate.  He says that the audiences want "a restoration" because they're sure that American once had strong values, "but we have gone astray."  They believe we need to return to the values we once had, Brooks says.

Brooks doesn't disagree with that assessment, but he also says he wonders if the people he's been visiting have become "the receding roar of white America as it pines for a way of life that will never return."

There are many good, good reasons for our not celebrating Martin Luther King Day, but at this mostly white Christian college, it behooves us, every year, to rethink our motives because there are also many, many good reasons--moral reasons--to remember both who he was and who we were and maybe still are.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Sunday Morning Meds--What we see and what he does

“I will counsel you and watch over you” Psalm 37

Procreation may well be humanity’s major interest in any relationship between the sexes, the perpetuation of the species; but marriage has other great benefits, to say the least.  One of them is lessons in how we see. 

I’m not interested in some gender war, but I’ve found—through forty years of marriage—that my wife and I perceive things in different ways.  Let me say it more bluntly:  often as not, my wife and see different things in different ways.
Years ago, she told me she didn’t trust one of my acquaintances.  I had no idea what she was talking about.  “His eyes,” she said, as if the answer were thus apparent. 

No clue.  “What about his eyes?” I asked her. 

“Just look at them,” she said.

Didn’t help.  I still didn’t get it.  The guy remained a friend, but not quite as close, not because I’d saw clearly what she had but because of what she had, and I trusted her. 

It struck me then—and it has since—that men and women perceive things in different ways. I’m no anthropologist, but here’s the way I came to understand the differences.  A woman’s perceptions have been sharpened by the necessity of centuries of the defensive maneuvering they have to do, living as they do among, well, predatory males. 

I know, I sound like an evolutionist. But consider this. My wife and I are not, nor were we ever, in the same weight class. I’m not a violent man (ask her), but for all of our lives together my wife has had to eat, drink, and sleep with someone who outweighs her by (shamefully) more than 100 pounds, so big, in other words, that he could, should some madness attack, break a significant number of bones in her body. 

Now I, on the other hand, have never lived with someone who could hurt me so easily, but most women do. That her perceptual strengths differ from mine—and that she’s inherited perceptions in her DNA that aren’t my own—seems to me quite obvious.  All I’m saying is this: we don’t always see the same things, and part of the reason for that is that “male and female created he them.”

The God of the Bible is beyond gender.  Our assessment of the Trinity includes the designation “Father,” of course, and the Bible speaks of him as a male most often.  As the creator and sustainer of the universe, he—make that God—has never really had to think defensively.  Maybe his perceptions are closer to mine, not my wife’s. I’ll never know that, of course, and I’m not about to lose any sleep because I don’t.

The NIV translates the second half of verse 8 of Psalm 32 this way:  “I will counsel you and watch over you.”  That’s just fine with me.  But I prefer the King James’s “I will guide thee with mine eye,” a divine eye hovering somewhere around, all. the. time. 

Reminds me of that eye in Poe’s famous short story, “The Tell-tale Heart,” the eye that wouldn’t let the murderer alone. It also brings to mind the invisible eyeball in Emerson’s “Nature,” that odd image Waldo creates to document his vision as he was crossing what he calls “a bare common.” 

“I will guide thee with mine eye.”  There’s something memorable about that image.

“Male and female created he them.”  God’s perceptions, I’m sure, include both of ours—mine and hers.  And if that’s true—and I’m sure it is—then I have no reason to fear, no reason not to sleep in his care and love.  

Friday, January 17, 2014

Morning Thanks--various contagions

Once upon a time, I wrote a story on a man who, for a living and for a lifetime, moved entire houses and other titanic things. He was, as you can imagine, fully stocked with the right gear, including flatbed 18-wheelers and other really macho-like toys; but I never went out into the yard. For the entire interview, we stayed in the office of his place in Hull, Iowa, and talked, me asking questions, him going on and on about his work, his craft, his art.  

I went out to a site to watch him work sometime later, just to see how they did what they were doing. It was interesting, but, oddly enough, it's the interview I'll never forget, and what I remember--don't ask me anymore how on earth he moves whole houses, although I knew at one time--what I'll never forget about the interview is that when I drove away that night, something in me wanted to turn around, get back out of the car, walk back into his office, and fill out a job application. His love for what he was doing was as contagious as a winning smile. Spend a couple of hours with him and his enthusiasm alone lights up the night. That's what I'll never forget.

The brand new living room in our brand new house looks brand new again this morning after a few deft touches by a young woman who knows how to create deft touches and what to create deft touches from. She spent half a day or so yesterday, hanging some strange, gossamer-like white curtains on either side of our windows--of no real purpose but really cool looking (on sale at J.C. Penney's), and then loading up the spacious south wall with an whoppingly big hanging created from more than a dozen 1908 Sioux County township maps (Hobby Lobby frames, half price, unmatted too, not all that expensive). 

Nice. It's great. We love it. 

But what was even more fun was having her here. Don't know how to describe it exactly, but my mother would say it this way--"that young lady was tickled pink." She was. Finishing up our living room, putting up 15 big framed maps, hanging them ship-shape, was just as much fun for her as it was for us. Every once in a while, she'd step back, take a deep breath, and just gush wordlessly.

That higher education is becoming far more professional that it was is not news. That it would is understandable: college costs mega-thousands.  Parents want more for their buck than an insider's understanding of John Updike or the Peloponnisian Wars.  Still, what do real live stats say?--people change professions, not just locations, a half-dozen times in their working lives. Why spend all money preparing for a job you're likely not to stay in? What's a job? What you need is a calling.

What is a calling anyway? Here's a catchy answer: "where you're passion meets God's needs."  That's cute, and I'll use it the next time I'm a youth pastor. 

But I'd offer this answer too, from that house mover you spot in a pickup following an old frame house lumbering heavily down a country road, or an interior decorator who's just got to stop working every 15 minutes to remind herself how great what she's working on is going to look, and more important, be in her customer's new house. A calling is doing what you love.

What's left from yesterday is a brand new look in our living room. That's really nice, and I'm thankful this morning. 

But this morning I'm offering deeper thanks for contagion of joy, a blessing, that people who love what they do bring to all the rest of us. 

Thursday, January 16, 2014


Okay, we binge, but then so does half of the television viewing world these days, or so it seems. That's not an excuse. We binge because we can--we're retired. I know--that's no excuse either.

I never watched much television. For most of my life, the news was about it, plus maybe some late-night stuff to ease into sleep--and occasionally, when they're winning, the Iowa Hawkeyes.  That recipe hasn't changed post-retirement, except the late-night stuff is no longer comedy. It's The Good Wife, Parenthood, The Wire, Downton Abbey, The Tudors, or any of a dozen others, lots of mysteries, in mega-doses, one after another until the old episodes have run out. We watch nothing on network schedule, everything in super-size. 

And it's fun, but not always. Some binges are almost nightmarish. Honestly, we weary of boldface total depravity, characters with so little redeeming value that you continue to watch only because you can't believe their propensity for creative, endless villainy. 

Netflix's House of Cards was created for bingers like us. When the series debuted, it was released in its entirety so that people--some even more addicted than we are--could watch every last episode in a long weekend. We're not that gone. It took us a week, maybe. Maybe.

Lately, for us anyway, it's ABC's big winner, Scandal, the eternally circling story of Olivia Pope, a tough-as-nails "fixer," who gets rid of other people's problems but can't begin to unwind her own, a good guy who's really a bad guy, but underneath all that is really a good guy with a bad problem she may not be good enough to get rid of.  You know--just another blindingly strange tv anti-hero.  

How bad is she, you ask? She's rigged the last Presidential election in tandem with a whole cadre of thugs who perform their dastardly feats, including murder, at government's highest level, including the President, with whom, by the way, she's having an on-again, off-again torrid affair, a President who got shot through the head not many episodes ago (a set up by one of his closest advisors), then experienced a miraculous recovery, only to become a drunk because he finds his every move corralled by scheming b____ of a wife, who induced her own labor in order to create photo ops that would keep her philandering husband from divorcing her, thereby holding on to power. Or something like that. Last night (by our binge calendar) this Pres murdered an aging, scheming Supreme Court Justice by choking her, but then she was already in a hospital, dying of cancer. It might have been almost euthanasia, if he hadn't been blind with anger.  

I'm not making this up. 

It's soap opera, but then almost all of our stories are these days. We're an American viewing public--and reading public--so bored with our lives that we imbibe forms of fantasy like a drunken sailor on a weekend pass. Even reality TV isn't, Storage Wars or Duck Dynasty. 

If we are our stories, then most of us are dreamy-eyed and drug-addled. We lose ourselves in fantasies like Scandal because in those shows, thank goodness, nothing's real.

And then, along comes Gov. Chris Christie. Really, I like the guy. He's no-nonsense, and he cuts through so much of the prissy fabric of milk-toast political sweet talk that you can't help but think he's a man you'd like sitting for a spell in your own back yard. He's capable of and willing to cross party lines, a Republican whose through-the-roof ratings are made more unbelievable by the fact that he's in the cockpit of a heavily Democratic state.

And then along comes Bridgegate, and we're slumming in yet another soap opera, even though the stakes are less prodigious--nobody's dead, for pity sake, even though thousands upon thousands must have been mightily p.o.ed. 

Is there no end?

We watched House of Cards, one episode after another, and by the end I started to get sick unto death of the peregrinations of a particularly perverse congressman and his own Lady Macbeth, a couple who live in a world where the only redemption is revenge and play political hardball in a fashion that makes Chris Matthews look like a t-baller.

I think I'm getting jaded. With Bridgegate, life imitates art (so to speak) in a fashion that makes me wonder what medium I should quit first--tv news or tv entertainment.

But I can't stop now--we're just about through the second season of Scandal and things are staying white hot. Don't touch that dial. There's a mole in the Oval Office. Seriously. I'm not kidding.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014


She kept them in her desk, I think, but I'm not at all sure if I'm the one who found them. One way or another, in the flurry of activities surrounding my mother's death and funeral, I don't remember exactly how it was they ended up in my laptop case, but they did. It's where they stayed for the last six weeks or so, until Sunday afternoon, when I needed the laptop, pulled the it out of the closet, and opened the case.

There they were, jammed in beneath the Dell. I'd forgotten about 'em.

No matter. It's entirely possible that no one has looked at those letters for years and years and years. I'm guessing we all have them. . .somewhere. I do, and I don't look at them, don't read, don't wax nostalgic, don't even need those letters and notes really. But neither do I throw them away. They document a life.

As do my mother's, the ones I just discovered.
Our baby is definitely the darlingest baby I’ve ever seen (they all say that, you say?) No, honey, it’s the truth. All the nurses say that she’s the main attraction in the nursery!"
That was written 71 years ago yesterday, January 14, 1943, my mother having just the day before delivered her first born, my sister, a gorgeous baby she tells her absent, Navy husband belongs very much to him too--note the line scratched in beneath "Our."
Thick black hair, kinda short, (one nurse tried to curl it), big blue eyes, cute little round head, soft white, fat cheeks—oh, hon, I’m so proud of her. You will be too, I know. I’m so anxious to have you see her!!!!!!!
He wasn't yet deployed to the South Pacific, but it wouldn't be long and he'd be gone. Wherever the Navy had him placed right then, he wasn't in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, when his loving wife gave birth to what must have been a beautiful baby girl. By the way, I counted the exclamation points--I didn't make them up.
Your dad was here yesterday afternoon, and he said he was so glad and thankful that it was all over (he can’t be any more thankful than I am :). He said your mother was a little worried that I might have a long labor because it was overdue but I fooled ‘em.
"Your dad" was the preacher, and "your mother" would be gone in less than a year when she would die of some lingering illness.  During the war, the two of them put five stars in the front window of the parsonage in Oostburg, Wisconsin, one for each of their five kids serving in the armed forces. The nation was at war. 
10:00 water broke, and we left for the hospital immediately. I had three cramps on the way and after my enema then the real ones started! By 1:09, Judy came into the world. Was it ever wonderful when I heard her cry! 
It's fun to try, but I don't know that I'm capable of imagining the level of emotion she must have put into this letter in my hands, or what sheer incredulity my father must have felt when he read this note, somewhere far away.  "Yesterday I gave her a little practice at nursing, but she just laid there and slept—lazy bones, huh?" :)  Flush with birth, a newborn in her arms, my mother didn't need a computer to start pounding out emoticons.  I'm not interpolating.  If you can, just imagine him reading those words.

There's more, but not everything is meant to be shared with the world. The upshot is obvious--"everything's fine, shipshape, in fact, except you're not here. So please come home."  

That's it in a nutshell--and then this little postscript from the baby:
P.S. Hey, daddy—why don’t you shine around now so we can get a look at you? Mommy has your picture standing on her dresser, but says you’re so much nicer than the picture. I love you too.  Judy Mae
Yesterday, on NPR, a man spoke about finding his family history in logs created by slavery overseers, along with a note about this great-great grandpa finally being granted his freedom:   "I felt grounded," he said. "I felt like, 'Wow, why didn't I know this all of my life?' This is what I needed. I needed this to help me in difficult times. I needed to hear that they survived and that I could survive as well."

I don't know that I'm the one to pour over my own kept letters, but I know I'm blessed to read my mother's, because even though there is nothing so awful as slavery in my Dutch Calvinist past, and even though what Mom did when she wrote that letter is what literally millions of women were doing back then--and some yet today--telling deployed husbands their mutual joy, there's something so very grounded here and therefore humbling, something that not only puts us in our places, but gives us a story, an identity, a humanity.  

When I read these letters, I also know their lives are gone, both of them now residents in whatever heavenly world exists; and I feel both proud and humbled, proud of their love, and humbled to know that I'm not alone, none of us are. 

You feel it in the psalms too--we're all somehow alike.

Reading these letters is an exercise in humility that I can't help but think is good for the soul.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Morning Thanks--January Thaw

When I was a kid, I don't remember people talking about a "January thaw," and I think I know why.  If we were to get in the car and drive almost exactly 500 miles east, we'd arrive at the lakeshore hamlet where I was born and reared, a place no further north than we are here. But there, Lake Michigan was almost biblical in its moderation--summers were far less fierce, winters less insufferable, the cold real but not killing.  

Out here on the plains, every season comes in spades. It's hot as anything short of damnation here, come July, and colder than a witch's, well, you know, in January. Thunder storms build like purple fortresses then billow in from the west in a swirling, angry mess come early summer, finally unleashing themselves like a wet plague. Our own Floyd River flood, Memorial Day last, arrived in the wake (not a cliche, by the way) of a foot or so of rain, a torrent upstream in just 48 hours. We've not been blanketed this winter--or last, for that matter--with any kind of a blizzard; but not long ago, transforming some old vhs tapes into dvds, I ran across some video I shot years ago when coming home from two days I hadn't intended to spend in Sioux Falls. Seriously, drifts were so deep they filled up the space beneath a railroad bridge and had to be blown out by a truck affixed with a snowblower so powerful that from ten cars back the gusher made Old Faithful look like an artesian well.

Right now, the wind is brutal. It's dark and it's clear outside my windows, but the wind is throwing body slams all over, and this brand new house, honestly, is not happy, moaning in places it shouldn't. It's not cold--not really, really cold--but the wind's ceaseless lambasting makes you shudder with a particularly Siouxlandish species of fear. It's that strong.  

Okay, maybe I'm overstating a bit, but not much.

I'm now living in the country for the first time in my life, and I understand some of the blessings of living in town. People bunch up with good reason in the cold--even libertarians like community come January.

But for the last two days, we've been graced with a legitimate January thaw, an identifiable 
winter moment that Siouxlanders tend to miss if one doesn't arrive because a January thaw is just about as sweet as that first day in March when the world turns mud-luscious. A January thaw reminds people that winter won't kill us all, that eventually the frigid temps, like weary troops, will simply withdraw and go wherever horrors go. Spring will come.

Maybe people on the lakeshore, where I was born and reared, talk about January thaws, and I just never heard. But out here on the edge of the Great Plains, where weather is a word that's always printed in upper case, a reprieve in the deep freeze of January is something warm and wonderful, something remarkable, something not to be missed.

So even though it was yesterday--temps in the 40s--I'm more than thankful, as is everyone else, for a bit of vacation and a touch of March in a real, Siouxland "January thaw."

You hear that? I'm telling you, we're going to blow away out here.