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, February 28, 2014

Expect some turbulance

Here's what I'm thinking. If Emily Dickinson had written just this poem and only this poem, it would be lost, as would she. This morning's Writer's Almanac features #827, a number placed there by her loving relatives despite that fact that it--and the hundreds of others so enumerated--makes them sound like convicts.

The Only News I know
Is Bulletins all Day
From Immortality.

The Only Shows I see—
Tomorrow and Today—
Perchance Eternity—

The Only One I meet
Is God-The Only Street—
Existence—This traversed

If Other News there be—
Or Admirabler Show—
I'll tell it You—

Seems almost shamelessly simple for Ms. Dickinson; at the same time it feels remarkably more "religious" or "mystical" or "spiritual" than she usually sounds. The Belle of Amherst isn't above shaking fingers or raising fists at the heavens or even occasionally denying the existence of God altogether, all of which makes her a highly religious poet because she could neither accept God on the terms offered her by the religious establishment she was uncomfortably a part of, nor could she walk away, slam the door, and shake the dust off her feet. 

Here, she seems almost saintly, as if, like some New England Puritan postulant, she'd determined to seal herself from the world to do little else than commune with the Lord. That's unlike her, to say the least: to listen to no news but God news or to see nothing at all through her shining eyes than divinity, and maybe, just maybe, "perchance eternity." 

Perchance feels like relief almost, as if she's reminding us she's not left this world entirely--at least something of her is still here.  By stanza three she admits that the only street she lives on is "Existence," which, if I'm reading this cryptic stuff correctly, she just as soon not "traverse" if there's even a chance of yet another blessed meeting with God. 

Emily Dickinson was not above creating narrative voices. Is she mocking hyper-spiritualists (and they were legion in her neck of the woods back then, the Second Great Awakening)? On the other hand, we know #827 went to the man she thought of as her editor, Rev. Higgenson, at a time in her life when physically she was mostly bed-ridden. Is she telling him that her sad existence right then, in a single bedroom, left little room for life? Is the poem really quite sad?

Talk amongst yourselves.

I think there's likely room for faith and doubt here in these lines, but I say that only because I know there is room for faith and doubt in the entire Dickinson canon, which makes #827 rather typically Dickinson. 

Poetry, particularly the Psalms, N. T. Wright says in his wonderful little book, The Case for the Psalms, forces us to know we live in two time zones: in the here and now, and in the forever, in time and eternity, one foot down on both sides of the line. It offers us roses that aren't merely roses.

Having to live in two worlds can be occasionally uncomfortable and more than a little precarious, as anyone my age knows. Losing balance isn't hard at all

But straddling comes with the territory, I guess, and no one gets by without some tottering, even those--sworn atheists and holy fools--who believe, with great certainty, that they do.

I don't claim to know this poem's secrets, but I know enough about it and about Ms. Emily to believe that she, like all of us, could be sometimes tipsy. 

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Winter dreams

A coal train is passing right now, its single brilliant headlight opening a luminous path that moves away slowly along the tracks, creating a space through all the ink outside my window. 

The seam between earth and sky at this moment is visible only by farm lights spaced hither and yon across a horizon otherwise non-existent. The exquisite jewelry of the sky is laid out perfectly, endlessly, so intense and so imminent that if I had a telescope, even a cheap one, I could look into fiery beaming and see angels.

Beautiful? No.

It's abominably cold. Today, tomorrow, this weekend, the already wretched temperatures will fall to numbers that shouldn't be spoken of in public. And it's March. Well, almost. And the furnace is running, full-time. I'm starting to think it's time to build a guerrilla movement and knock off one of those coal trains--we're going to need the fuel down here. To heck with St. Paul.

This computer, just now, would barely start, as if it were little more than an old Ford 150 standing in the icebox outside. And wind, too.  Last night it reminded us once again--it never stops--that we've got no protection, no trees, no nothing out here in the country--just the bare naked side of the house cutting a swatch into a Siberian river of air that finds slits and crevices and turns the northwest corner into a kazoo band. 

The Great Lakes are little more than hockey rinks. The continent's great rivers are log-jammed. I keep thinking of the pheasants out back--how do they make it anyway? Stop at a gas station, fill up with gas and you lose fingers. 

If I were of some primitive tribe, I'd start looking around for human sacrifice, thinking about it anyway--it's too blame cold to leave the igloo.  

The eastern sky, perfectly cloudless, is beginning to glow right now, opening up brilliantly, all that heavenly jewelry retreating back in the cold face of the dawn that's coming.  Such frigidity puts the world in shockingly vivid focus. If it wasn't so cold, it would be beautiful. Maybe it still is. 

No, it isn't. It's just too blame cold. 

Yesterday, on Hwy 10, just above Million-Dollar Corner I met a monster truck with a bright yellow sheet over the grill announcing a wide load. That beast was so unwieldy I had to steer the Tracker over to the side to let it by; and I might have been angry if I hadn't seen what that huge 18-wheeler was lugging.

When I did, I thought seriously about phoning the whole Orange City populace and getting them out for a ticker-tape parade because on the back of that huge semi was one gorgeous John Deere corn planter, a massive thing that felt as much a relief as the dove that lighted on Noah's pointer.  

It can happen--spring, I mean.  It's never not come.  Someone somewhere is soon to receive a brand new mammoth corn planter because he doesn't want to get behind once this abysmal cold retreats to its evil lair.  

This weekend we'll spend inside again--more cabin fever. 

But yesterday I saw a green vision. I'm not going to sabotage a train or begin a search for human sacrifice because just yesterday a harbinger of spring nearly shoved me off the road. No matter. It's all I needed to see.

'Twas a blessing. 

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Review: Ian McEwan's Sweet Tooth

Despite the cold, the wind, and the snow, Ian McEwan's Sweet Tooth was great company yesterday--and the day before--on a trip to and from Wisconsin, down a road that is hardly less traveled, at least by me. Sweet Tooth is McEwan's latest novel, but it stayed, unplayed, on my iPod for a year and a half because its Brit-ness seemed too unfailingly prim in the workout room at the college down the street.

But on a quick trip east, I loved it--I really did. It's got a bit of a hint of John Fowles's French-Lieutenant's Woman in it, a novel I've always greatly admired in spite of its meta-fictional character--well, maybe because of its meta-fictional character.  Sweet Tooth has that cute meta-narrative touch too, in delicately fabricated suggestions and hints, all of which get aired when the whole masquerade ends with an unforgiveably long letter a young writer named Tom Haley leaves for his love, a lusty liar named Serena Frome, who narrates the story and is, stem to stern almost, it's victim.

This novel is, like some are, about writing.  No, it's a love story. No, it's about espionage. Well, it's all of those things, but mostly, I think, it's about writing. If you don't like the incestuous nature of novels about novels, no matter--you'll probably like Sweet Tooth anyway. 

I'm not sure what true feminists might think of Serena, who is clearly intelligent but is, throughout, clearly not her own boss. Her mother will not let her major in English, despite her love for reading; she's engineered into a position with the Brit CIA, MI5, by an older lover; she is clearly unhappy when she is not loved; and her own indecision threatens to end the relationship that gives her life, until finally the shell game ends and the truth is told. She is an almost shamelessly passive heroine--"love rides the rails."

But then we all are passive victims in any plot as deceptively rendered as is Sweet Tooth, despite its goofy title. 

No matter about passivity. Sweet Tooth is a wonderful read (I can't really call it a listen), and besides, character, passive or not, isn't at the heart of things here. Plot is. This is genre-fiction at the masterpiece level because McEwan's literary power is such that just about every scene, every character, every setting is laced with visual detail that's Vermeer-like. Seriously. "Writing is seeing," I used to say to students, another version of the proverbial "show, don't tell." McEwan writes the book on seeing.

There's an obvious danger in too much description, too much detail; but McEwan is as good as any writer in the English language at knowing how much is too much or when less is actually more. It's probably dangerous, but the truth is I was seeing this story, not reading it, not just hearing it, while going 75 miles an hour down I-90, from Portage, WI to Worthington, MN. And it was a great vision.

No matter how you cut it up, Sweet Tooth is a love triangle, plain and simple, except not plain and simple, and maybe not even a triangle because there are just too many fascinating corners. The beautiful Serena sits at a desk at MI-5 until the honchos give her an assignment. It's the Cold War era, and not far away Northern Ireland is suffering successive terrorist bombs. To keep jolly old England from disintegrating altogether, the secret service looks to help along certain young writers they believe offer intellectuals a conservative slant or worldview, just to be sure those writers keep writing. They believe that the battle for the English mind is itself one they shant not lose.

Should the writers who are chosen be known to take money from MI5, they would be immediately silenced; so the legendary spymasters simply hide behind a series of foundations and literary societies and hand out the covert earnest money. Young Tom, who is a lecturer at Bristol with nothing more than a couple of intelligent short stories to his name can hardly believe he's been chosen for all the loot he gets, but then he too has to be kept in the dark. The beautiful Serena is the agent in charge the operation, dubbed, of course, "Sweet Tooth."

Serena's love for reading gets her that job. She does, she and Tom fall in love, hard and passionately. Holding on to her secret while falling in love with her mark creates tremulous guilt and makes the lovemaking even more spirited because every tryst is precarious. 

That's it. That's the plot. It twists and turns and slides into seeming ditches until the very last mile, which is quite darling actually.

Sweet Tooth is beautifully written, lavishly plotted, and glowingly concluded, equally sweet and dangerous as a traveling companion.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Now listen. . .

Even though Willa Cather never moved back to Red Cloud, Nebrasks, part of her never left. Her finest work is a testimony to the life she lived out on "the Divide," on some of the most unforgiving land one can find on the Great Plains. 

But make no mistake, back home she still had her druthers. For instance, she thought life out in country was vastly more interesting and stimulating than life in small towns. In fact, some critics call it a theme her fiction--once the country people move to town, a town ethos whittles off their sweet and thorny eccentricities and interesting people become, well, bovine.

When she lived in the country she was surrounded by American ethnics--Germans, Bohemians, Swedes, and imports like her own grandparents, from the east or the southern U.S.  In the country she lived in a simmering melting pot swimming with ethnic peppers cut on the slant.

I couldn't help thinking of Cather this weekend when the Dutch skating coach shot his big mouth off about the lackluster performances of the usually reliable American skaters. "We have found something that makes the suit very fast--," he quipped when asked about the America skaters whining about their supposedly dreadful apparel, "the man inside the suit."

Sometimes I think Dutch-Americans shed their brash in-your-face bluntness more quickly than they did their wooden shoes--or certainly their language. Ask some real Dutchmen what they think and you'd better be prepared to duck because out there in the lowlands there's no connections whatsoever between discretion and valor.  Truth is ever unvarnished. Fortunately, Coach Anema was in Sochi and not Green Bay or he would have ridden out town on a rail in a cape of tar and feathers because he said--he actually did--football "sucks." 

I am, as we speak, in the land of the cheeseheads, in the cheapest motel I could find, hoping I could write these words and not have some Packerland SS squad break my leg simply for repeating it. Can they tap cell phones?

That was his criticism anyway--Yanks waste their athleticism on a sport that sucks--football. 

Rush called him a "little commie SOB" and a "glittering jewel of colossal ignorance." There are those who say, of course, that any Limbaugh bushwhacking generally means there's wisdom in abundance somewhere. 

Anyone who's been around the Dutch much--not their sweet and reticent relatives in Siouxland and western Michigan--knows very well that if you ask a wooden shoe for an opinion, you may well get a sharp stick in the eye. Could be dangerous. Sometimes is. But sort of fun, too, as long as no one gets hurt.

By this time, Coach Anema is likely back in Gronigen, a royal hero after his skaters won more medals than most countries and dominated speed skating as no country has dominated any single sport in Olympic history. 

Who cares, right? We got the SuperBowl, after all. All they got is soccer, a bunch of skinny minnies in orange t-shirts.  And, oh yeah, tulips.

And cheese. not the really good cheese either.  want good cheese, you've got to. . .well, you know. 

(SSSHHH.  I think there's someone outside my window).

Monday, February 24, 2014

Reading Bratt's Kuyper (v)

NYTimes Logo

Dear Reader:

We are pleased to announce the launch of Motherlode, our free weekly e-newsletter about all things parenting. Raising healthy, well-adjusted kids isn't easy. The weekly Motherlode newsletter covers it all -- homework, sex, child care, eating habits, sports, technology and much more. Motherlode features lead blogger KJ Dell'Antonia and includes the feature, "How I Do It," profiling a full day in a parent's work-family juggle.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Last week, me and a gadzillion others opened an e-mail that tried to sell us on a new project created by the venerable NY Times, something they call Motherlode, an e-newsletter aimed at parents--not just mothers, as in women, despite the sweet joke in the title. 
They're not idiots at the Times. They know--better than most--how the times have changed. They're aware that every day thousands of people across North America drop newspaper subscriptions and pick up what they want to hear elsewhere, news-wise, on-line. They know--better than most--that the only magazines to make it these days are highly specialized, with titles like Mud-Wrestling Times, or Quality Muskrat Trapping--niche stuff.
They also understand that in this information-glutted world, how-to books still do very, very well since most of us tend to believe that the answer to most of life's vexing problems lie somewhere in Google's vast domain--if we only knew the right questions.
So, the nation's most venerable newspaper is starting an e-newsletter just for moms (of both genders) with a daily feature no one can possibly turn down:  "How I Do It."
The New York Times is going niche because that's where the bucks are. That's serious marketing.  The world seems niche.
You don't have to be an old testament prophet to know America will never have another Walter Cronkite, an entire nation's anchor.  But then, once upon a time, the dial on every American TV featured only three networks, each of whom ran advertised programs at TV Guide-scheduled times. 
Today that remote on your coffee table features hundreds of programs, and if your TV is wired, a million others. Netflix releases an entire series of hot, dark TV drama, House of Cards, complete--every last episode right there so you can spend your entire weekend watching nothing but Kevin Spacey.
The remote's in your hands. You push the buttons. You put what you want up there on the screen.  It's beautifully democratic.  No more genuflecting to network execs. You watch what you want, when you want. Want the news your way?--go to FOX or MSNBC.
It's a brave new world.
There will never be another Walter Cronkite, but neither will there ever be another Abraham Kuyper. He was, of course, a preacher; but he was also a politician, Prime Minister of the Netherlands. He was a political organizer, the dynamic behind his own political party, and he started a major university.  Busy guy.
But James Bratt says the key to most of that endless crusading was the fact that Abraham Kuyper was an indefatigable journalist, writing op-eds and meditations at a rate to suggest he did nothing at all but turn out copy. 
In fact, even his newspaper was new. Kuyper published it first on April 1, 1872, not April Fool's Day, but the anniversary of a brawl of some significance to Dutch independence, an event of historic importance whose magnitude, Bratt says, paraphrasing Kuyper, "could be matched today if people paused amid their patriotic hoopla to remember God and recommit themselves to the sacred mission for which their nation had been raised up."
Kuyper was the editor of the Standaard for the rest of his life. Here's how Bratt distinguishes that office:
The Standaard editorship was. . .the role where he could combine all the others through which he passed in the mean time--preacher, teacher, and politician. The paper was the only place where most of his followers ever heard him, but there they heard him to great effect.  For many it provided a post-elementary school education, a sustained induction into politics, culture, and social affairs. In the process Kuyper not only promoted a party but organized a movement and shaped a people.
It's not likely to happen again.  I wonder how he'd have fared on Facebook.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Sunday Morning Meds--Rejoice!

“Rejoice in the Lord and be glad, you righteous. . .” Psalm 32

All day yesterday, an intermittent screech would come crashing through the open basement window of my office.  A son of the man who used to live next door—before he died several years ago—was cleaning out his father’s three-stall garage, one old two by four at a time.  Today, out front, there stands a pyramid of junk, which attracts me for some shady reason, but I’ll do my best to stay away.

I couldn’t see him from where I sat, but I heard every last armful of trash come down on the pile whenever he’d emerge from the shadowy interior of the old garage.  What made the job worse was that his father was an ace tinkerer.  I’m not sure whether he was, by nature, a pack rat, but his father’s ability to fix anything meant that nothing lacked value.  It was a huge job, and my guess is his son will be at it again today.

I found the whole operation scary.  The detritus one accumulates throughout life is incredible.  Sometimes I think I’d like to move out of town and into the country somewhere, where the massive prairie sky is a daily—and nightly—art museum.  What keeps me from looking for another house is the gargantuan task of moving, which would necessarily include the job my neighbor’s son was doing yesterday—tossing junk.

Here in my office, I’m surrounded by it, stuff I wouldn’t think of tossing that will be just so much junk to my kids.  Maybe I ought to buy one of those little guns that produce lettered plastic tape and label everything—“this is a pin I got when I was asked to read an essay at a commemoration of 9/11—a year later.”  Who would ever know otherwise?  And who—well, no one—would ever care?

Upstairs, I’ve got two shelves of old Dutch books, some of which come from my grandfather and my great-grandfather, preachers in the old days.  There others, a dozen at least, that I bought for almost nothing at an auction.  Some of those were printed before the American Revolution.  When I’m gone, will anyone care?—or will those ancient texts simply be returned to another auction, where some anxious fancier will gleefully buy them, and put them carefully on another bookshelf until she dies—an endless cycle.

That next door junk pile reminds me, all too clearly, of my own life, a thought that would never have entered my mind twenty years ago, but now, as I approach sixty, may well be all too haunting.

By human standards, it’s impossible to deny that life is tragic; there’s no escaping the grim reaper, after all.  Everyone must die.  Count on it.  All things must pass.  Someday, my books, my baseball trophies, my ergonomic keyboard—it all must go.  Even my wife, even my children—and theirs, my beloved grandkids; we all will die.

Like so many Bible verses, it’s altogether too easy to pass over the triumph that sounds at the end of Psalm 32.  “Rejoice,” King David the forgiven says.  “Rejoice in the Lord and be glad.”  It’s not a whimper or a whisper.  It’s a shout because what needs to be routed is the despair we all come heir to as flesh weakens and spirits collapse before a square hole in the ground.

Rejoice, David says, as do all believers.  Rejoice and be glad.  Rejoice in His love because the Lord, the almighty tinkerer, makes all things new, even the junk next door—and the pile here in my heart. 

Rejoice and be glad because God our Savior never tosses a thing. 

This meditation is six or seven years old. The Dutch books stand proudly in a little room we call the library in a brand new house that looks out over miles and miles of open country Siouxland. Sweetly ironic--all of that: everything's changed, and nothing has.   

Friday, February 21, 2014

An American Story

On Saturday, January 2, 1847, a young Senecan named Ha-sa-no-an-da, or Ely Parker, then just 18 years old, visited the U.S. Capitol on a trip to Washington D. C., to see President Polk, who'd he'd actually met earlier in the company of a couple of highly revered Seneca sachems. He'd gone to plead with Polk to let his people to stay on their New York reservation, to keep what land they still had and not be sent out to the frontier far, far from home. 

Ha-sa-no-an-da had his reasons; they included the normal treaty violations forever a part of any transactions with white people.  A sizable number of New York Native folks had gone out west to visit the Indian territories, 150 in all. What they found was not only disappointing, it was deadly. Eighty of them had died. Meanwhile, powerful Washington voices made it clear that there was more than passing interest in taking the land the Senecas still owned, and that it might well be in the Indians' own best interest to seek their fortunes out west.

Ely Parker would have none of that. Even though he was only 18 years old, he returned to Washington to plead with senators, representatives, and the President himself, asking only that his Seneca brothers and sisters be allowed to stay in the country where they'd always lived, where there fathers were buried.

On Saturday, no government offices were open, so Ely Parker, by himself, visited the U.S. Capitol, where he found, ironically, a series of pictures of Native Americans, of all things.

Here those pictures are, reassembled, along with Ely Parker's diary entries from that Saturday visit in January, 1847.  In the Capitol Rotunda, he found this picture of the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock.

He described this drawing this way:  "They [the pilgrims] are represented as in a starving condition, and being about to land, an Indian has come forward offering them provision of his bounty. Who now of the descendants of those illustrious pilgrims will give one morsel to the dying and starving Indian?. . . May the Great Spirit reward & keep the red man."

Then, there was this scene featuring William Penn, the illustrious Quaker who made treaties with the Native people of his beloved Pennsylvania.

"What virtue is there now in Indian treaties?" he asked himself. "Methinks Indians are right when they say that letters lie more than the head."

"Turning round a little more," he wrote, "we observe another representation, that of the young and beautiful Pocahontas saving Captain Smith at the risk of saving her own life.  Who now among the descendants of those whom she saved will risk his or her life for an Indian?" And then, more universally, he wrote, "How ungrateful is man to his fellow man."

The next and last portrait young Ely Parker noted was Daniel Boone, "the hero of Kentucky in a mortal contest with an Indian."  Boone, he noted, had already killed an Indian and "has trampled upon his mangled body. Such is the fate of the poor red man. His contest with the whites is hopeless yet he is not permitted to live even in peace, nor are his last moments given him by his insulting foe to make his peace with his God." 

And then this:  "Humbly we ask whether justice will always sleep and will not the oppressed go free?"

That was Saturday. On Sunday, Parker, a Christian, determined that what he didn't find at the Capitol he would find at worship--peace and acceptance.  But the usher, the sexton, refused to seat him in the sanctuary and sent him upstairs. Parker said nothing.  He turned away, walked out the door, and left.

You may have noticed, at the top of the page, Thomas Nast's "Peace in Union," Grant and Lee at Appomattox.  What you may not have noticed is the man with dark face, a Senacan, behind Grant, Gen. Ely Parker. 

Ha-sa-no-wan-da's story is, in every way, as much an American story as any of those he saw depicted and glorified in the U. S. Capitol one cold January day in 1847.  

Probably more so.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Welcome to my nightmare

When I was a boy, I got absolutely no joy out of this little lie, which hung, suitably framed, in the cramped office of Dr. Failor, a man we couldn't help but dub Dr. Failure, out of spite, I suppose, the same species of spite this graffiti artist in knickers is feeling. I thought hanging this picture on the wall of his dentist waiting room was a bitter joke. It wasn't funny. It was the plain truth because I was--and still am--one of those poor souls blessed with a double whammy: teeth so soft they seemed to shop for cavaties, plus zero tolerance for pain, especially that inflicted orally by Dr. Failure. 

That picture was not funny because I knew that when I'd emerge from Failure's torture chamber, I would be that kid, sans headband, scarred for life. That pup gets it. There's more sympathy on his mug than the kid is likely to get from anyone for the rest of the day or week, which is why, I figured, people called 'em man's best friend. "So there, you a_ _hole," that mutt is saying.  Look at him. You can read his lips. Pardon his French. He knows darn well the whole setup is not funny at all.

This morning, barring a blizzard, I've got an appointment with a madman who's spent his entire working life in a chamber of horrors. He's going to pull a tooth of mine, somewhere so far back that the dark hole it leaves behind won't make me look like some grinning asylum escapee. All night long, my overactive imagination has been exploding with horrors.  You know, like this. . .

or this--

or this--

or this--

You guessed it--that fancy necklace ain't pearl. Think the worst.

I'm serious. All night long it's been nightmares.

. . .and this. . .

even this.

So this may be it for me. No more stuff from the basement. I may never return. 

On the other hand, I may just take my revenge.

Note the tense. Note it carefully. Wish me luck.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Suckow: ". . .no real renewal of a thing once gone"

Her world is a world about which no one cares--the rural Midwest, where, sadly enough, I live, fly-over country. That's one reason she's gone, I suppose, but there are others--the overall stodginess of the lives she recounts in that world. Faulkner had a whole different world down there in Yoknapatawpha County, rural Mississippi, because the war--the Civil War--was omnipresent in its myriad effects. But what does she have, really, in rural Iowa, early 20th century?  Small-town foibles. Really, who cares?

Well, I do, because there's a special joy inherent in reading stories that grew from the soil beneath your feet. Ruth Suckow (1892-1960) spent the early years of her childhood just twenty miles west, in Hawarden, where her father was the pastor at the Congregational church. When he left for another pulpit, she left too; but there's a sense, I think, that something in her never rode out of that river town just down the road because there are traces of her childhood home left scattered along a path all through her work, and just finding them springing up from familiar soil is a joy all of its own.

She made something of her homeplace in Hawarden in a story called "The Homecoming," which, if you've got a half hour, you can read it here.  Go ahead--won't hurt you, and I'm guessing it'll stick with you just like it sticks with me.

"Home-coming" is Bess Gould's story, an ex-patriot who's found herself a husband she's loved and traveled the world after leaving home, seeing and experiencing things the sweet, country folks back home could only dream of. But Bess comes back for an Old Settlers reunion, and when she does she's the talk of the place because everyone remembers the Goulds. They had standing. Bess, to the natives, is a real prize.

There was a boy once, Charlie, and the two of them shared most everything. To say they were lovers would make the story feel late- rather than early-20th century. They were buds, friends, blessed friends who likely shared more than a few kisses. But Suckow is an old writer, and she's not into steamy backseats. Still, Bess Gould's triumphal return excites old feelings she didn't know still had some heat.

Now it just so happens that Charlie's good wife is off visiting relatives, which leaves Charlie rather blessedly alone. The two of them end up together and alone, and I must admit--child of the Sixties that I am--that I wondered if there was going to be some passionate stuff. There is, but none of that.

They do share a moment, however.  
It was as if the world, suddenly and yet easily, had swung back into its own right orbit--and there was the old singing sense of miraculous peace and rightness together. It was as if all at once the woods and the water came close again, and the right earth was under her feet, the right sky over her head--while the summer landscape, her own summer landscape, intimate and alive, stretched away from that central moment of reunion to its far horizons of green tree-tops.
He's taken her back, this Charlie has. In fact, Charlie is her past, more her blessed childhood in this old town than he is some old lover. Suckow brings them together delicately, builds sweet tension, but then douses it when Bess realizes, clearly, that he isn't what he was, not because he's a bad man, but because neither of them are anymore what they were. This whole home-coming has prompted sweet dreams; left to roam the town where she grew up, she finds herself a kid again--and it's a joy. Charlie is part of that dream.

But Thomas Wolfe is here too--"you can't go home again," he wrote. There really is no such thing as homecoming.

They were really different, she and Charlie," Bess tells herself. He had, after all, "a provincial air" because he'd "settled into a slower rhythm and she into a swifter," which meant "they had lost their peace together." And then this:  "There was, after all, no real renewal of a thing once gone." 

And that would be it, if "Homecoming" ended with the line. But it doesn't. Her moments with Charlie leave her "restless and strange" because she knows she is neither in this river town nor of it anymore, and that's a loss she feels more deeply than she had before she'd come to the Old Settlers reunion because it's fragrance is, sadly enough, deathly.

In the story's final scene she stands at the window and longs for her husband to take her away because it is no more a home. It's become instead something from which she needs to escape. In her imagination, she sees her husband return: 
. . .she saw Mac, the stranger, tall and impetuous, enter the little house. She had never, even in her first rapture of impatience when she had let him sweep her off her feet--never wanted his arms with the abandon of desire, the finality of surrender, with which she wanted them now. He had come as a stranger and carried her off from this place before.
Now, however, something has changed, Bess tells herself.  "But there had been something never wholly real about it. She wanted him to take her again, and with no remembrance left." She's almost angry at what's happened, at her own inability to return to girlhood.  "She felt lost and all alone, and her heart was wildly begging Mac to come . . . "Take me away with you. Be everything. Make it up to me. Don't let me die away from home."

And so the story ends, in ambiguity with the very word that's at the heart of the way in which most of us define ourselves--"home." Is Bess simply acknowledging that her hometown is no longer home? Has it really been death to be here, as the line suggests? Does she hate it now, having come back to something that could not have possibly been what it once was to her? And did she really believe she could return some a magical place that hadn't changed? 

"Home-coming," the story and the idea, is more ambiguous than you might have guessed, prompting as it does those kinds of questions. She was a fine writer, this Hawarden native, thoughtful, devoted, humane--and, well, old-fashioned. Bess Gould is, rather obviously, no feminist hero.

Once upon a time, in my office, a student of mine was lamenting something or other about her life, her foibles, her uncertainty about her future. "I just wish I was ten again," she said.

I remember nodding. So did Holden Caulfield. 

At one time or another, don't we all?

Maybe for Ms. Suckow too, "there's no renewal of a thing once gone. . ."

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Review: Good Tidings of Glad Tidings

. . .Some people continue to defend trickledown theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still wanting.
It's brash statements like that one, lefty statements, that prompted his majesty Limbaugh to pronounce the Pope a communist.
. . .almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people's pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else's responsibility and not our own. This culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase.
That too. But if you listen to Limbaugh and stay the heck away from the Pontiff, you'll miss one beautific blessing from The Joy of the Gospel, the Pope's own Evangelii Glaudium. It's less than 200 pages long, available on-line, or, from Amazon, just ten bucks. It's an absolute joy to read, saith this Calvinist, and I'm not saying that just because he serves up nothing more than a hefty course of liberal sweetmeats. If you're busy and you can't spare the time some retired old gents have, just read through the first few chapters, where Pope Francis sits back and appraises the state of the world with sharp attention to sociological and theological detail that makes evangelization, he says--the very heart of his joy--difficult. Pope Francis is a very, very wise man, who cometh not out of the east, but out of the west, Brazil. 

Honestly, reading through the Pope's ideas about faith and culture in The Joy of the Gospel is like taking a great class full of fresh and insightful analysis. Maybe that sounds too professorial. Joy is not just professorial--it's just plain good.

There are times when the Pope--my ancestors probably called him the Anti-Christ--sounds more like John Calvin than those who live and have their being in his--and my--Calvinist tradition.
Reading the scriptures also makes it clear that the Gospel is not merely about our personal relationship with God. Nor should our loving response to God be seen simply as an accumulation of small personal gestures to individuals in need, a kind of "charity a la carte," or a series of acts aimed solely at easing our conscience. The Gospel is about the kingdom of God (cf. Lk 4:43) [emphasis his, btw] .
Or this: "It is no longer possible to claim that religion should be restricted to the private sphere and that it exists only to prepare souls for heaven (182)."

Listen to him! He sounds absolutely Kuyperian.
Our mandate is to "go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation (Mk 16:`5), for the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God (Rom 8:19). Here, "the creation" refers to every aspect of human life.. . .
And here's the seedbed for the famous, "Who am I to judge?" response the Pope gave to the reporter who asked him about gay marriage: "neither the Pope nor the Church have a monopoly on the interpretation of social realities or the proposal of solutions to contemporary problems" (184). 

Say, what?

It's that kind of humility, that kind of grace, that kind of mercy that earmarks the entire study. The entire Christian world would be blessed by reading it.

His ecumenicity doesn't keep him from being Roman Catholic. He rolls out Catholicity 101 on most of the hot-button issues, doesn't back off an inch. He stands with tradition on the role of women with respect to the priesthood (nope) and rejects abortion as soundly and roundly as any of his predecessors. 

What's more, a substantial chunk of the late sections of The Joy of the Gospel gives the Virgin Mary her traditional, honored and beatific place:"With Mary we advance confidently toward the fulfillment of this promise, and to her we pray," he says, and much more. 

But for those of us who've not listened closely to traditional Roman Catholic doctrine on the Virgin, it's interesting to hear what has been, for centuries, pivotal Catholic dogma: "Contemplating Mary, we realize that she who praised God for 'bringing down the mighty from their thrones': and 'sending the rich away empty' (Lk 1:52-53) is also the one who brings a homely warmth to our pursuit of justice."

He is a big fan of personal piety. 
Without prolonged moments of adoration, of prayerful encounter with the word, of sincere conversation with the Lord, our work easily becomes meaningless; we lose energy and as a restulf  of weariness and difficulties, and our fervor dies out.  The Church urgently needs the deep breath of prayer, and to my great joy groups devoted to prayer and intercessio, the prayerful reading of  God's word, and the perpectual adoration of the Eucharist are growing at every level of ecclesial life. 
But then he quotes from John Paul II, concerned that personal piety not morph into something proudly self-centered. "Even so, 'we must reject the temptation to offer a privatized and individualistic spirituality which ill accords with the demands of charity, to say nothing of the implications of the incarnation.'"

My appreciation for The Joy of the Gospel was created in part, I'm sure, by just having finished a tour of the various battlefields of the Reformed Church in America, a fellowship not at all unlike my own, where a fisticuffs have been a way of life and today a host of fiefdoms live comfortably in their own fortresses. 

I'll admit it. When I read Pope Francis, I couldn't help but long for a more authoritarian system, something less fractious, even, dare I say it?--less, well, democratic. I couldn't help thinking how great it would be for my fellowship to speak, in a way, like this, with one voice.

I've read too much fiction from Roman Catholic writers to buy some idyllic vision of millions of Roman Catholics simply closing ranks behind this pope or any other. His word is not law. After all, he's the one who famously said, "Who am I to judge?"

On the other hand, The Joy of the Gospel, is the Roman Catholic heart of things right now because he said it. If you want to critique Catholic piety and practice, you start with Evangelii Glaudium, which may not be the Word of Life, but will certainly bring you closer to it than anything else recently penned.

When I finished The Joy of the Gospel, I wished we had a pope. There, I said it. Burn me at the stake, dang it, but I did.

I found it flat-out inspiring.  

Sorry, Rush. 

Monday, February 17, 2014

Marks of the beast

Here's how it goes, if you're wondering.  A long, long time ago--way back in 1917--a couple of guys from Bartlesville, OK, the Phillips boys, got rich with oil. That, of course, is no man-bites-dog story: Oklahoma. Turn of the century. Black gold. . .what else is new? 

Anyway, the Phillips boys tried out their new gasoline on Route 66--yes, that Route 66--where it crosses Oklahoma on its long, sweet swoop down from Chicago to the West coast. Apparently, the Phillips' new brand of petrol worked just fine because the automobile it was empowering way back in the roaring 20s ate up the miles at a rate that was breathtaking--you guessed it, 66 miles per hour. Hence the name and the gas.

Just thought I'd mention it, because the other association for  the number 66, the one that leaps biblically into mind is far less inspiring--"666," the mark of the beast, which gives me the shivvers this a.m., not that I'm all that into the Bible's hard-core black magic. 

Still, our new house number is 103; if it were 666, I'd change it, as would most the English-speaking world. Satanic cue or not, who wants to be number 666?  Okay, a rock band.

66 isn't quite as scary as 666, but neither is it a comfort. 65 was an almost darling novelty, like becoming 21, the starting gate of a whole new life. It was--the times are changing, of course--the ticket to ride, the advent of retirement. 65 still fells like freedom. 66 feels just a shade too beastly, biblical or not.

But then there is the highway. Most of the country breaks into song at any mention of the old Route 66, a highway to heaven that still carries the connotations it did for decades--the dream of escape and opportunity to a land flowing with milk and honey, if it wouldn't be for crippling drought. 

Lament.  Lament.  

"If we had eggs, we could have bacon and eggs," an old friend used to say, "if we had bacon." Fits my mood this morning especially, the morning of my 66th birthday.

This old steel bridge sits out in New Mexico, along I-40, very much abandoned, a memorial to old 66 that once ran through it, along with all those adventurers. The traffic has moved a couple hundred yards south, over to the interstate; and just down the road sits a sprawling casino, one of two virtual cities on what is otherwise mostly wide-open New Mexico desert. Who cares about an old bridge when you can still break the bank down the road?

Look at it, poor old abandoned thing. Very sad.  

The sign up front, should you care to leave the interstate and ride up, then walk over to read it says 

It's called a "Parker through truss," because the patent belonged to Charles A. Parker, who, back in 1870, was the first to create that interesting curved top you see, and utilize, I'm told, the polygonal structures throughout. Generally "Parker through trusses" were used when a bridge needed to be 200 feet or more.

Just sayin'.

And so, this morning, at 66 years old, I've become a blubbering old fool, jabbering on and on over stuff so incidental that it should be a crime to let me loose on the public, as old hat as some Parker through truss, errant facial hairs sprouting like weeds from cracked cement.

At least I'm not a beast.


Sunday, February 16, 2014

Sunday Morning Meds--The Michelin Man

“But the Lord’s unfailing love 
surrounds the man who trusts in him.” Psalm 32

Our preacher once said that the first words that famous chorus of angels offered to the quaking shepherds on the hills of Galilee are the entire scripture in a nutshell: “Fear not!” Thar’ ‘tis--the whole Word of the Lord to those who love him: “Fear not.”

Those two words are the heart and soul of this verse from Psalm 32 too, as well as the answer to the first question of the catechism I was reared with.  The question is, “What is your only comfort in life and in death?”  And the answer is simple:  “That I am not my own, but belong, in body and soul and in life and death, to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.”  Same as.

“The Lord’s unfailing love surrounds the man who trusts in him.”  Surrounds.  When my grandson and I go to the park a couple of blocks from our house, he’s a terror.  He’ll try anything.  The only way for me to keep him from scoring something purple on his forehead is to stand beside him or around him or behind him, close enough so that at any moment I can save him from his own. . .his own what?—silliness, childishness, inexperience, innocence, stupidity?  Maybe I should say, save him from being a kid.  Not unlike us.

That’s not exactly what the verse implies, perhaps, but it’s close.  Try this—God’s love makes us all look like the Michelin Man.  In our every moment, he outfits us with rubber bumpers.  Okay, maybe it’s not the best image.  They’d get a little cumbersome, I think, and one couldn’t tap dance all that well.

How about this?  When we trust him, we’ve got airbags on all sides, like a Lexus.  I don't know, somehow it doesn’t quite ring true—maybe because of the level of wealth the Lexus connotes. 
The first time I put on our children’s DVD player and heard the sound of Tora, Tora, Tora—or whatever—through speakers mounted in every corner of the room, the soundtrack took my breath away. I was in the middle of the action.  God’s love is like surround sound.  We are cocooned.  We’re swaddled in his love.  Whatever happens, we’re in his hands—always, forever.
Maybe I’m getting there.
If you think I’m being a little glib, you may be right.  I’m sitting here smiling, but then I’m not sure that a smile is the wrong tone of voice.  You may even call it childish, if you’d like, but the implication of this verse is soooooooooo good that it’s tough not to be a little goofy.  It’s hard to write without a smile.
Two weeks ago, a woman told me a story of how, one night here on the prairie, her husband and young son were killed by a tornado that left her hospitalized on the edge of both death and despair.  She told me that the only thing that got her through her travail was her repetition of the answer I quoted above:  “I am not my own.  I am not my own, but belong, body and soul, to my faithful savior Jesus Christ.. . .I am not my own.”
A Calvinist mantra, so to speak. 
In life and in death, David says, fear not.  The love of God surrounds you unfailingly. 

Say it again and again, Michelin Man.               

Friday, February 14, 2014

Morning Thanks--Valentine's Day

It'd be interesting, I suppose, to see what elementary schools allow these days on Valentine's Day.  I mean, how many and what kind kids can bring, or whether they even allow kids to haul an armful of little cards or pass out chocolate kisses or exchange those hard little candies that whisper sweet nothings. Maybe not. Maybe, sadly enough, Valentine's Day has become only an extra-curricular activity.

My guess is that a lot of ye olde rituals have been nixed--you know, some cute kids end up get all the candy bars and the little tubbies with dirty faces and the wrong kinds of tennies get little or nothing at all. 

Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe first grade at the school down the block is a joy today, Valentine's Day. It would be nice to know that this morning in schools across this country, little tykes were still being sweet to each other and passing out red and white M&Ms.

Little girls are better at it, of course, always have been, always will be--I mean at being sweet. You never see third-grade boys walking through a schoolyard holding hands, although who knows now that gay marriage is the law of the land. Chumminess takes different expressions generally among genders, I suppose--or has. It's just different if you're a boy--or has been. There's lots about gender that I don't get.

Somewhere back in my Christian education I learned about four kinds of love in the Bible--Greek words as I remember. Let me see if they're still there.  There's eros, of course--who can forget that one?

Somehow most memorable, even when you get old. Okay, I admit it. It still crosses my mind. There, I said it. Go ahead and wince--"eeeeuuuuu."  I don't care.

There's philia--I think that's how it's spelled--what my wife feels for her youngest grandchild.  He can do no wrong. He's without sin. Not only that, he's simply one-of-a-kind. He comes over, and she's his. Totally. And whatever he does, she smiles.  

There's agape, the one that preachers like as I remember, because it's something akin to what God's love is to us--you know, as constant as Siouxland wind--even more so. A wise old friend of mine once told me that the story of the Bible was no mystery:  we mess up and somehow he keeps taking us back. That's all there is to it, really. Agape--that'll be on the test.

And there was another too, something brotherly or sisterly almost, like those little first-grade girls, hand-in-hand down the hallways. That's it's miniature version, of course. But it exists where'er there are good buds, I suppose, and especially and most powerfully among those people willing--not just able either, but willing--to be there, as the saying go. Seriously, be there. Like all those righteous Gentiles who risked everything--their lives and fortunes--to help Jewish people survive Hitler's madness.

My sister sent a box this week, a box full of cards we collected at the funeral of my mother--all kinds of cards bearing similar well-meant sentiments, expressing grief and sympathy and often saying really nice things about Mom, a woman who lived for a long, long time and generally was known for her outgoing--and loving--personality, if those cards are to be believed. She was persistent in her piety and wasn't shy about sharing her faith in the Lord. Could even be a little pushy. No matter. She was human, as all of us are. 

With the death of others, it seems there is no end to little things that, one way or another, are similar to throwing that first spade of dirt into the open grave. One of them, certainly, is throwing away all those cards, all that testimony. My sisters, unmercifully, left that job to me. They'd gone through the whole bunch themselves and just passed them along.  So I read them yesterday, one after another, which is, as I said, it's own kind of torturous ritual.

A few of them struck me with a kind of poignancy that made me lay them aside. All were open and honest, all were celebratory, all said wonderful things about my mother.  But one that stays with me came from the old woman right across the hall in the retirement home. Often when we'd visit, mom's door would be open, and so would hers. Without too much trouble, you'd see her sitting there, even hear her TV. 

It so happens it was a woman I saw almost every time I went to church at Mom's church, the church where I grew up, because our family and hers always entered from front of the church instead of from the back. Both our families sneaked in from the side and sat either in front of or behind each other. I remember her from the time I started remembering anything--Mrs. Gabrielse.  

This is what she wrote to us--to her kids--on the card she left for us, for Mom.

 ". . .and I loved her" is more than enough for me to celebrate this Valentines Day. I'll let the theologians determine the proper category, but it has to be somewhere because what she says and how she means it, I'm sure, makes those three words as beautiful as they can be in this vale of tears.

My wife will get her flowers and a card--it's early yet; don't tell her. But La Verne's testimony is just about as pure as anything anyone will say all day long--and night--on this February 14.

This Valentine's morning I'm thankful for her card.