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.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

"You get a whole lot smarter when you die."


This is how the publisher, New Rivers, describes Up the Hill, a new book of short stories by yours truly, available as an e-book next week, August 5:
Set in a small prairie town, and narrated from the grave in a voice that is humorous, elucidatory, and enlightening, these interconnected folk tales capture how the dearly departed handle being spirits in a world that continues on without them, but also with them. In Up the Hill, death is intimate, and sometimes painful, but it is a threshold to understanding—not only for the deceased, but for the living. The result is forgiveness, redemption, and divine intervention and proof that “you get a whole lot smarter when you die.”
I like that. They call the stories "folk tales," and so do I. There's nothing real about them because they're really all about dead people, Calvinist zombies mostly, about people from a small Iowa town, all of them dead, who are in a kind of suspended but sweet state of grace.

They're in the cemetery "up the hill."

Here's a little Q and A that New Rivers uses for a press release. Maybe this'll help. It's weird, but mostly it's fun.

Q: What a weird idea.  How did you ever come up with the idea for Up the Hill?

A: The theologian N.T. Wright, who knows much more than I do about the afterlife, says quite unapologetically that he doesn’t have a clue what happens to us—to our souls, our essence—post-mortem. Is there a holding bay somewhere, full of the dead? And if we will, someday, exist in what the Bible calls “the new heavens and the new earth,” why couldn’t that holding bin be the local cemetery—where everyone’s a frequent flyer?  And what about the New Testament’s assertion that we are surrounded by “a cloud of witnesses”?  Really? These questions are a joy to entertain, and that’s what I’m up to in Up the Hill.

Q: What is unique and/or important about your book?

A: I am, for better or for worse, a regular inspector of cemeteries. I have always liked them because there are so many stories. As I stood in the Doon, Iowa, cemetery, early one morning, trying to take a photograph of the bronze look of dawn through the stones, I very much accidentally bumped into the grave of a woman who died at the age of twenty-one in 1920. In a moment, I knew her because of a novel by one of Minnesota’s finest old novelists, Frederick Manfred. That got me to thinking the place was alive.  One of the stories in this collection, the first one I wrote, is titled “January Thaw,” the story I wrote after the incident.

I decided to try another, after all there were more souls alive-and-kickin’ in the Doon cemetery. Soon enough, I decided on a narrator, an old newspaper man with a penchant for stories, a man who wishes, in the afterlife, that when he’d been alive in the town of Highland he could have written better than he did.

Up the Hill is not unique.  I found myself a copy of Edward Arlington Robinson’s Spoon River Anthology to read through, and went through some other fictional attempts at cemetery stalking, including Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, just to be sure that I wasn’t trespassing. Some think of Our Town.

What is unique about this book, or so it seems to me, is its simple acceptance of faith—that when we die we are glorified to some sweet state (I’m not a theologian), something higher or greater than we presently inhabit.

If I were a publicist, I’d tout the idea that the book is peopled by redeemed zombies.  (That’s only partly in jest.)

Q: Do you think cemeteries are haunted?

A: Yeah. That’s why I visit them.  I’ve never met Casper or some TV zombie, but I’ve stood beside people, like my great-grandparents (whom I never knew) in a place where I swear I could feel their very real presence.
 
My mother died a few months ago. Just a week or so before she did, she said my father stopped by to visit her—he’d been dead for ten years. She was 95, just seeing things, right? Maybe.  Maybe not.

Q: These people are all, well, “saved.”  Isn’t it difficult to write stories about people who are redeemed or glorified?

A: Yes, very much so.  Try it sometime. Stories are born out of conflict, and these folks abide in a place where there isn’t any, where every last story has a happy ending.  That paradigm can get old really fast for a writer who is very much a citizen of the here-and-now.

Q: You’re a Christian believer yourself, aren’t you?  How do you dare to do this?

A: Yep, I’m a Christian believer.  But I’m far more certain of what I don’t know than what I do, and I guess that puts me on the far side of the river from those who believe Jesus speaks in their ears.

Q: One thing that happens in these stories is that redeemed souls, after death and in some kind of glory, still learn things.  That amazed me.  If they’re in some kind of heavenly perfection, how can that be?

A: The answer is easy and forever tough—grace.  Let me put it in upper case: Grace.  I don’t get it, and I’m not sure when I die I’ll get it, either.  Besides, I rather like the idea that, even in heaven, we can learn things.  I don’t know that I’d want to live in a place where learning stops.  I think learning is a blessing.

Q: To what extent are the stories “real”?

A: The fact that the folks “up the hill” are all glorified doesn’t rob them, or us (the ones down the hill), of our humanity. A kid commits suicide, a man plays a viola in the cemetery, an old redneck farmer dies and his sons fight over their inheritance, a woman who was the subject of a novel feels somehow degraded by how the writer used her—that’s all real stuff, real stories, many of which have prototypes in real life.

Q: Do you think there is such a thing as “Christian” writing?

A: Of course there is—tons of it, and it sells.  And then there’s lots of “Christian” writers—people like Larry Woiwode and Flannery O’Connor and C. S. Lewis, and tons more I’d name, but I’d likely bore you to death.  I’d just as soon not use the phrase “Christian writer” that way. How about “writing done by Christian believers”?  I’m quite sure most Christian writers I know and respect wouldn’t say that the stories they write are meant to lead some poor soul to heaven or even baptism.  We all try to tell the truth in one way or another.  That’s what I’m doing, as a believer, in Up the Hill.

Q: Do you think this book will appeal at all to people who are Christians?

A: I don’t think I can answer that.  We’ll see, I guess.  I hope that its humor and intrigue will be a delight to tons of readers.
 
Q: I bet you had fun.

A: No kidding.  Loads of it.  Once I discovered the voice here—the old newspaper man trying to write the stories he couldn’t when he edited the Highland paper—it was a ball to bring him into all kinds of situations.

Q: There are tons and tons of Dutch-Americans in this collection.  You are, too?


A: For better or for worse.  My sense is that writers can use what they know to reach what all of us do.  This is, in a way, My Big Fat Greek Wedding in wooden shoes.  You didn’t have to be Greek to like that movie, and I don’t think you’ve got to gather tulips to enjoy Up the Hill. After forty years—and almost all of my life—in small Dutch Calvinist towns, these are the people whose lives I know best.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Hot, hot air



I get what John Boehner says, and he's likely right: the Democrats are using this silly impeachment talk to recharge their base and ring up the bucks. He's right, and it's worked. He says the Democrats are the ones doing all the talking, not him, not them. 


That's where he's wrong. Ms. Sarah Palin probably didn't start it, but she didn't let the Democrats do all the talking. She's the one who made headlines; and, lest we forget, should John McCain have won the 2008 Presidential election, Ms. Sarah, who didn't even complete her first term as Governor of Alaska, was just a heartbeat away from being POTUS, as they say in Washington. How does this sound? "President Sarah Palin." 

Here's the ex-gov:  
It’s time to impeach; and on behalf of American workers and legal immigrants of all backgrounds, we should vehemently oppose any politician on the left or right who would hesitate in voting for articles of impeachment. The many impeachable offenses of Barack Obama can no longer be ignored. If after all this he’s not impeachable, then no one is.
Last time I checked, Ms. Palin wasn't a Democrat.


And then there was Rep. Steve Scalise's (R-La.), who, it seemed, even when pushed, would not answer the question Chris Wallace of Fox News Sunday kept asking--"Will you consider impeaching the president?" He, like Boehner, kept telling Wallace that it was a Democratic ploy. But he never really said no, which means, of course, that he kept the notion alive--and he's the new House Majority Whip, not an also-ran.

Republicans have been talking impeachment--and big-name Republicans too.

And now my own rep, Steve King, promises Breitbart kick-starting the impeachment process if Obama does anything to change the status of undocumented workers, including, I guess, doing something about all those kids who've come across the border. King, you might remember, says lots of them are drug runners and you can tell because they have calves like cantaloupes. But then, he thinks of the headlines he gets as virtues, as do lots of Iowa voters, I guess, 80-some per cent of Sioux County.

And now it turns out that yet another Iowan, Joni Ernst, this one not yet in the House, several months ago already told a like-minded Des Moines audience that impeachment was definitely a way of dealing with Obama and actually called him a "dictator." Really? It's nice to know that our reps are unified, I guess. She and King will make a great pair, working for all of Iowa in Washington. 

It's nutty, and it's awful. It's a combustible mixture of hate and hot air, and I honestly don't get it. 

Recent poling determined that 57 percent of Republicans, a clear majority, would like to impeach President Barack Obama for what the constitution labels 'high crimes and misdemeanors."  More than half. Of course, what percentage of Republicans believed he was born in some foreign country and therefore ineligible to be President?  Wasn't that number somewhere in the forties too? Dream on.

I never was a Clinton fan, but I thought his impeachment process regrettable. "I never had sex with that woman" was a bald-faced lie, but impeachable? The Republicans ended up losing big-time, just as they'll lose big time on this one.

Besides, catting around with an intern is small potatoes when compared to what we've lost in Iraq--thousands of Americans, many thousands of Iraqis, gadzillions of dollars. A case can be made, and has, by those who don't have political leanings, that our invasion of Iraq upset the Middle Eastern apple cart even more fully than it was. There's dominoes there, and they're spilling all over the region.

If anyone committed some kind of national travesty, George W did. But nothing he did was either high crime or misdemeanor. He had the Congress on his side. He and his VP developed the case, and, for the most part, we all bought it. Maybe the American electorate--me included--should be impeached.

Sometimes it's hard to believe that political life in this country could get any worse. It's not hard to worry nowadays; if, as some say, tragedy unites and politics divide, then we are going to have to suffer big-time before somehow we learn once more to get along. 

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Morning Thanks--Four men from Berwyn



The old Timothy Christian School 

Late Sixties images should include a gallery of burning cities all over America, images most of us would rather forget. People died in violent street protests. People were killed. Shot. In the middle of the horror in Vietnam, National Guard troops were called up to police burning streets in Newark, Detroit, LA, cities all over America. The nation was torn asunder by racial hatred. 


In Cicero, Illinois, a small, community-based Christian school, faced its own racial crisis when African-American parents from one of its supporting churches asked to have their children enrolled in what had been an all-white school in an all-white section of the city. The board agonized but finally refused, claiming that admitting the black children to what had been an all-white school would put the entire student body and the school itself into jeopardy--no, into danger that was very, very real. 

Fifteen or so years before, a black family attempting to move into Cicero, came home to discover everything they owned stacked up in the street, a mob of 4000 having formed to make sure they understood African-American people were not welcome in Cicero. Animosity is too lean a word; hate is what motivated that mob, hate fueled by the fear the white and ethnic population of Cicero saw on a slippery slope: if there's one black family, next week there will be a half-dozen. A year from now there'll be a score. 

Many of them had experienced similar neighborhood transitions, often difficult, often violent, in other Chicago communities. They didn't want black people in the neighborhood because they were sure that, soon enough, black people would be the neighborhood. 

When the Timothy Christian School Board determined those black children would not be enrolled, they argued that those black children could not be enrolled because the fever of racial hatred--which is to say racism--in the neighborhood was so high that every last dear little child--white and black--would be in danger at the hands of the same mob who had piled that black family's belongings in the street outside their home. Warnings were given--shots would be fired, the school would be torched--bloody threats were made. The board decided they could not risk the torch of hate.

All of that happened almost fifty years ago, but I remember it because I was convinced, and I was not alone, that what happened at Timothy Christian School, Chicago, was the outing of inherent racism in my own ethnic and religious community.  I was a college student with decidedly liberal leanings at Dordt College, a very conservative place.  My father--a wonderful Christian man--considered Martin Luther King an "agitator" who couldn't be trusted because he'd frequented the company of known communists. King wanted war, not peace, my father would have said. Wherever King went, racial animosity didn't diminish, it grew, like a fire.

Timothy, to me, proved beyond a doubt that my people were racists.

Just a few weeks ago, at a restaurant in Berwyn, Illinois, I listened to four retired white men remember that era in their lives, four men who were part of the community that rejected those black children, four men who still attend Berwyn Ebenezer Christian Reformed Church, four men who were, back then, accused of the sin of racism by people like me because those men sided with the board's refusal to admit black children. 

Two of them cried when they recounted those days. All four spoke passionately.  Even though almost a half century has passed, they look back on that crisis as horrifying in every detail. The tensions, the threats, the impossible decision, and the hate that decision created, all of that constituted a moment in their lives like few others.

I'll tell you what I expected to hear from them: I expected confession. I expected these retired men to say they were sorry for refusing admission to black children. I may have even expected tears wrung from heartfelt repentance.  

There were tears, but I was wrong. Each one claimed that if he had to determine an answer to the request of those black parents again back then, if he had to relive all that hate, his answer would be the same because each of them was absolutely sure that horror would result, not from African-Americans, but from their own white neighbors. That's how much hate they witnessed and feared.

I listened to their stories, as did our whole committee, a committee composed almost totally of people of color. It's important to know that the white folks--me included--sitting around that table were a minority. 

There we sat, a church committee, a denominational committee, whose most pressing concern is racial reconciliation, listening to four white men tearfully recount the horror they'll never forget in all its heart-rending detail, but sticking with a decision that made them look and sound, back then, just like their own racist neighbors. 

It was a powerful and tearful moment, a precious moment I'll never, ever forget.

Back then, were they right? 

I think not. But there's far more hesitation in my voice when I say that, fifty years later. Today, I know them. Today I understand them far better than I did when I was twenty because I've heard their memories and their life stories both before and after the Timothy crisis. I listened to their testimony of faith. I saw tears. I felt in all of those stories the very real humanity of those men, which is to say, by way of my faith, I felt the image of God right there in them as they sat and talked around that breakfast table.

The work of racial reconciliation is never easy, but it is blessed; and this morning, I am greatly thankful for those four men, for what they told us, for how they opened their hearts and filled ours.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Morning Thanks--Revery


To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee, 
One clover, and a bee.  
And revery. 
The revery alone will do, 
If bees are few.
So saith Ms. Emily Dickinson, the Belle of Amherst. No need for purple prairie clover out back of our place, no need for bees even.  No need, really, for prairie itself because we can, all of us, simply create a prairie of the mind. 

Sure.

She sounds like Milton. "The mind is its own place, and in itself/Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven." 

That too. And that line would be touching if I didn't know it belonged to Satan who was, at the time, taking a good look at the depths of Hell all around him. 

I prefer prairie.

So Saturday, I Robin-Hooded a few ditches, stole a half-dozen clumps of black-eyed susans, some purple prairie clover, and anything else with July color, dug out holes in our backyard, and dropped those clumps of native plants in, watered them, then stood back and watched 'em dance in a glorious summer breeze--our own colorful prairie beneath the open sky. 

For one day at least, it was beautiful.

Saturday was a day for life. And death. All morning a funeral. If all that remained of the deceased was what was left behind, then the preacher was blowing smoke because the man whose life we celebrated actually lost an epic battle with cancer and death was the victor. But the preacher claimed he'd won because there's more to life than meets the eye, more to prairie than what waves for a moment in a gentle breeze of a warm July afternoon, more to life than life.

And Saturday it also was my father's birthday. My guess is his daughters, my sisters, remembered too, but probably no one else on the face of the earth. Calvin Schaap was born on July 26, 1918, somewhere in Michigan, just a couple months after the doughboys put boots on the ground in France. He was the seventh child of ten, son of a preacher and the woman his parishioners would have called the juffvrouw, his wife. That child was my father. He died about a decade ago, but Saturday, when I was dropping those black-eyed susans in the backyard, after the funeral of a wonderful man, Saturday, my father's birthday, I was thinking of him too when trying to transplant all that beauty.

I was thinking of parents and how strange it seems to be parent-less, as if I were an orphan, nobody back there to write to, to call, to think about. The child in me says, no one back there any more to care. 

I know very well that digging up those ditches and transplanting all that sweet color may have been an exercise in futility. Purple prairie clover survives out here because its roots roots run so deep I would have had to dig a hole as deep as a grave to get it all out. 

And I didn't. This morning, right now, in the face of a cloudy dawn, those transplants are all still standing; but they don't look as if they've got much fight in 'em any more. They're droopy and peaked. My mother would say they look sad--they look vlauw, a Dutch word I don't have a clue how to spell. I could call her and ask; but even if she was still alive, she wouldn't know herself, I'm sure.

Still, Saturday afternoon, after the funeral, on my father's birthday, a dozen bunches of prairie flowers out there dancing in the breeze behind our place looked, at least for a moment, as lovely as Wordsworth's daffodils. And that was good enough for me, good enough for the time being.

Somewhere down beneath the top soil of our back yard, I'm told, there still are elaborate root systems from a time long, long ago, a treasure chest of native prairie, roots still vital enough to send up new growth if given the chance. They're still there.  Even if my back yard funeral day projects don't take, there's still life down there somewhere beneath the ground.

Isn't that great?

Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the Bible says, the evidence of things not seen.

Even if my transplant black-eyed susans look vlauw, life is more than meets the eye. I like that.

The preacher wasn't lying: that good man we buried didn't lose the fight. 

Death has an awful sting, but there's much more to life, so much more. And that's reason to give thanks this morning, the sun just now rising behind me.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Sunday Morning Meds--"Play it again, Sam"


“. . .those the LORD blesses will inherit the land, 
but those he curses will be cut off.” Psalm 37

We’ve been over this before, of course, as in verse 11: "But the meek will inherit the land and enjoy great peace.” As I read through Psalm 37, verse by verse, it seems the world’s greatest poet is stuck on a chord. You don’t have to be an English teacher to realize some redundancy. Where was his editor anyway?

Far be it from me to criticize the Word of the Lord, of course. For that matter, far be it from me to critique the world’s greatest poet. Those who pulled together the canon, inspired as they were, gave scant thought to the possibility that their readers would be hoity-toity literary critics. They weren’t thinking of art.

But let’s ask the question anyway: why does King David repeat things so often?

Maybe it's because we're kids. Several years ago we spent the entire day without phone service because our grandchildren hiked up to our bedroom, played with the phone, then left the receiver off the hook. Hence, no one called. How do I know they were the culprits? Because playing with the upstairs phone is step eight or twelve or 23 in their weekly ritual when they come to Grandma’s house. Our two-year-old grandson pulls at the room dividers and slides his pudgy bulk under the couch pillows. He goes to the cupboard and pulls out a can, then proclaims to all of us that it’s corn, as if it were gold. Children love repetition and ritual; they love doing the same things over and over. As do we, I think.

Why? I suppose it's because the rituals they’ve created relive joy. It was fun to grab the corn the first time; let’s do it again—and again, and again, and again.

I wonder if David repeats himself in this psalm because the each repetition offers another jolt of joy--well, and confidence too. Say it again. And again. And again. “I have a dream” is a line with a built-in echo, not simply because it rose singly from a famous speech by a famous man, but because Dr. King repeated it, time after time after time.

Repititon is a reinforcer too, of course. Maybe David doesn’t ever, ever want us to forget our inheritance. He wants to drive the point home, so it becomes the chorus, the refrain. And we love it because we love repetition. Maybe that's why so many songs have refrains.

Maybe he says things again and again and again and again because he knows he’s only too well that his own personal doubt requires a battering ram of repetition. Maybe he repeats himself to hold himself together. Maybe he says it again and again because he fears the silence. We do that too, most of us anyway. One doesn’t have to be Buddhist to have mantras.

“Play it again, Sam,” an unforgettable line from Casablanca, one of the most famous movies of all time, is memorable not simply because of who said it or the movie itself. It’s famous because we know, from the heart, its impulse. We too have fears.

“Play it again, David,” we might just say. I want to hear it. I need to hear it. I can’t go on without hearing it again. So say it again. Play it again. Sing it one more time. One more time, David.

For all of those reasons, I like reading the line again: “those the Lord blesses will inherit the land,” a land without tornadoes and grasshoppers and hail, a land He’s given us forever. The land of eternity.

Let me hear that again. One more time. Play it again.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Best Burgers


My son-in-law, who grew up in California, can barely get off the plane before stopping at In-N-Out for the kind of luscious burger he claims he can't get even close to out here in beef country. He's even got t-shirts, multiples. I've tried those burgers and they're good; but I think he and the rest of the In-N-Out mob are just cultists. 

I haven't had a Big Mac for a long, long time. But for years I've loved 'em. I guess I just don't do the McDonalds thing much anymore, except when I'm on the road and really need fast food. Then, I get snack wraps. Still, I like Big Macs. I doubt they've changed. I could stop today and pick one up--no problem.

No matter. In a poll just now conducted by Consumer Reports, McDonalds burgers ended up on the trash heap--seriously, dead last. In-and-Out, by the way, was waaaaaaaaaay up there, but in second place. Sorry, son, but your burger got bested. (That'll have him in a rant for the rest of the day.) 

There are times when I'll pick up a Whopper from Burger King because I'm in the mood for what seems the closest I can come to a Subway/hamburger combo. I like Whoppers. Always did. They're like taking a bite out of the garden. Just don't eat 'em without a bib.

Outside my window, through our backyard and over the soybean field, all the way to the other side of the river, there's enough beef on the hoof to keep us in steaks and burgers for the rest of our lives--Angus, too, or so it looks to me, a dozen or so left to pasture on the river bank. What we see out our window is landscape; those beefy black cattle out there for the last week have turned it into a sweet still life.

This is beef country. Well, this is pork country too. And we do very well with dairy, as long as I'm on a roll. Not bad lately with chickens and eggs either--which came first I don't know.  Ag is big business here, keeps the merchants and non-profits cheerful, the fields military-straight, and puts new houses up all over the section. Ethanol doesn't hurt either, of course. We're doing well. 

There are nay-sayers, of course, those who claim that too blasted much of this region's blessed rich topsoil is given to beef cattle to satisfy the world's deplorable burger habit. They're probably right, but who wants to take on the financial titans, right? 

I confess. I love a burger--Whoppers, Macs, and even the ones served up from the new kid on the block, Culver's, a place close to my heart because it's headquartered in the land of the cheeseheads. Culver's call theirs "the Butterburger" because if you want a real Badger state burger or brat (we invented brats, by the way; once upon a time they all came from Johnsonville), you bathe a hard roll in butter before slapping on the patty. Try 'em--Culver's Butterburgers--one word.

Top of the heap, you ask? What burger is really King and not just a trade name?  Consumer Reports asked their subscribers, and they said it belonged to yet another California chain--The Habit Burger Grill. Never heard of it. Never had one. But next time I'm in the state with the bear on the flag, I'll stop. Count on it. Looks like this.


Sheesh. It's now just after six in the morning. I confess--if I had one here beside me in the basement, it soon wouldn't be, despite what it might do to my stomach this early.  

HOWEVER, my favorite--think no ill of me!--is our own. They're not for sale. I got a grill I don't take good care of. It's ancient and so greasy it's off limits to public viewing. We've got wholesome beef from a local farmer whose business isn't business. When I slap one of our own on a wheat bun from the Dutch Bakery downtown, southern Cal's pride-and-joy gets shuffled to the back of the bus, although on a good day I still might swap for a Sheboygan County double brat (but only on a hard roll).

So, Consumer Reports, that's my two cents worth, straight from the heartland, from a place as likely as any to be called hog heaven. Bottom line or top of the heap--I like mine best. 

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Morning Thanks--Ray Carver


He came along in my life when I needed him, even though I didn't know I did. I wanted to write, but I knew little about it really. Some of my new friends, other grad students, told me that Ray Carver was coming to teach. They could barely contain themselves. "You don't know his work?" they said, as if I was born in a barn.

I hightailed it to the bookstore and bought a couple of volumes of his short stories. He never wrote a novel.

On first reading, I didn't know what to make of him, truth be told. His stories had this Bowie-knife sharpness that made me cringe, almost in fear, as if life could be cut us up into bloody pieces that never really went away. Reading a bunch of them together was like coming on a barrel of glass shards, full of unforgettable, yet alarming beauty. They were like nothing else I'd ever read.

That was 1980. Ray Carver was dry at the time, not the dead-and-gone drunk he was for so terribly long in his life. He was working on what most consider today his strongest stories, Cathedral, a collection that included the story "Cathedral," the story, he says somewhere, that changed his life, a story of hope that's in just about every anthology undergrads can buy these days.

He never attempted it, but he climbed Parnassus in the literary world, became a cult figure. Soon, there were thousands of Carvers doing what he did, or trying, writing something people began to call "dirty realism." Me too. Count me among the disciples. I could show you lean and mean stories I wrote back then, Hong Kong ripoffs. Ray Carver taught a generation of fiction writers how to be newly-minted Hemingways, sparse and tight and frightfully close to the bone.  

He liked me. And, if you're wondering, yes, there's some considerable idolatry lurking beneath that statement. Consider it a confession. Raymond Carver liked me, liked my writing. The only way I can explain how much that meant to me back then is to say that it means as much to me today as it did 35 years ago.

This morning's Writer's Almanac features a Carver poem from a moment in his life that every Carver-ite recognizes, the moment Ray Carver found out he was going to die from the cancer that wasn't going away.  Here's the poem.
What the Doctor Said
He said it doesn't look good
he said it looks bad in fact real bad
he said I counted thirty-two of them on one lung before
I quit counting them 
I said I'm glad I wouldn't want to know 
about any more being there than that
Don't ask me what a poem is--I don't know. To me, this feels more like prose than poetry, but frankly I don't care because it communicates with a place in my soul few things do. There's more.
he said are you a religious man do you kneel down
in forest groves and let yourself ask for help
when you come to a waterfall
mist blowing against your face and arms
do you stop and ask for understanding at those moments
To say Raymond Carver wasn't a religious man would be sinfully judgmental.  If "by your fruits you shall know them" is a rule of biblical thumb beyond nuance, some might say he wasn't. He left a trail of brutal ugliness, after all. But most of us are religious, in one way or another; some are just better at it than others. It's worth remembering this scripture too: not all who cry, "Lord, Lord. . ." are.

"Are you a religious man?" the doctor says. Carver replies with characteristic honesty.
I said not yet but I intend to start today
The doctor is a kind man. Listen to him, to what he tells a dying man.
he said I'm real sorry he said 
I wish I had some other kind of news to give you
I said Amen and he said something else
I didn't catch and not knowing what else to do
and not wanting him to have to repeat it
and me to have to fully digest it
I just looked at him
for a minute and he looked back
Ray Carver was not a big talker.  Trust me, he was not a stirring lecturer or a classroom stand-up comic. His ways were halting and sometimes even muffled. It was easy to miss some remarks. I never saw him drunk--who knows what he might have become?  And, of course, this silent moment in the doctor's office holds the recognition of eternity.

He knows it. Listen.
it was then
I jumped up and shook hands with this man who'd just given me
Something no one else on earth had ever given me
I may have even thanked him habit being so strong
The book that best documents what happened in Ray Carver's soul after this moment is a book of poems he titled A New Path to the Waterfall

There's just too much in that title and this morning's poem for me not to take heart. No one I know is God although some presume themselves approximates. I don't know the state of Ray Carver's soul. I have no idea of what may have happened on his death bed.

But to me, at least, this morning's poem is a blessed offering I'm greatly thankful to have opened. It's gorgeously arrayed with hope.

And hope, in this world, is something I need. 

I'm probably not alone.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Hell to pay (2)


Not so long ago, I told myself I should really change the little picture that identifies me somehow on Google+. It is a shot like this one, a silhouette on a winter morning in a pasture, a kind of self-portrait. It was cold and crisp and pure that morning, and my shadow formed a dark outline against the snowbanks shouldering a creek. It like this one. (It shows up mysteriously if I make a comment below--check it out.)

I saw myself in this picture, even though neither subject nor setting is the same.  Why would someone take it? One answer is "because we can."  Digital photography makes three-year-olds into photographers. But why this particular shot? Some kind of mystery, maybe?--after all, there's something both real and insubstantial about a shadowy silhouette. It's as if we're there and not there simultaneously.

I think I was 17 or so when I sensed something of the odd brevity of life for the very first time. There was no sudden death, no lingering disease, no horrible accident; it was nothing more than a walk on some lonely section of Lake Michigan beach, my footsteps disappearing behind me. Something felt astonishing, the eternal beauty of the lake shore erasing, oddly enough, and in seconds, whatever trace of me I'd left behind.

I stole this silhouette picture from a Facebook site, same one as this picture, the first installment of what appears to be a series documenting a project--the rehabilitation of a backyard.  Look for yourself.



Obviously--I hope you can see it--it was raining or maybe snowing, long white lines veering toward the wet earth. Some work is being accomplished, a couple of tarpaper-covered holes have been dug in the ground.

Then, there's this one. Same backyard, same holes, one of them now holding a kid in a New York jersey, work tools slung hither and yon. Something's going forward here.



And then there's this one, thick with the pride that issues from accomplishment. Same two butterflies on the wall, but flowers everywhere around a little grassy infield.  Seagulls maybe?--on a big portrait hung from what looks to be a patio screen. The backyard is done, finished, and now livable. That's the story.



I don't know if it's legal to lift pictures from a Facebook site that isn't yours, but if it isn't, FB shouldn't make it as easy as they do. I know, I know--I'm blaming FB for my thievery, and I shouldn't. I'm the one who clicked the copy button. 

Here's the woman whose site I raided.



And here she is with her son.


I don't know her life story. It seems there was no husband. At least no appropriately-aged male appears in her photos, only her son.

And even though Facebook doesn't tell us that this big kid is her son, we know as much today because we know that the two of them (big-time travelers, by the way, if you look at more of her pictures), were on their way to Malaysia for some kind of conference for single parents and their children, just the two of them and 296 others aboard a jet zooming along at 33,000 feet in the air when it was shot out of the sky by a damned Russian missile. 

Her name is Petra H. van Langeveld and her son is Gary Slok. They're citizens of the Netherlands. He's 15. Was. They're both gone, no longer with us.

The sudden tragic loss of 298 lives in a plane crash perpetuated by drunken, mindless murderers is a devastating horror that makes us all reach for revenge. 

But they were 298 men and women and children, each with separate lives, individual human beings who loved and won and lost and laughed and cried together, who redid back yards to make their homes more warm and inviting, human beings who smiled on mountain tops and saw something worth remembering in sandy silhouettes. And they were, each of them, somehow cast in the image of their Creator, no matter where they stood and how they were clothed. 

Evil erased their footsteps. Once they were us; now they are gone. 

John McCain wasn't all wrong. There should be hell to pay.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Book Review: Latinos: The Next Wave


There are richer, more nuanced, far more serious studies, of course, scholarly books that are tomes, huge theoretical arguments and expansive histories. This one isn't even a book; it may be what we call a "booklet."  Well, maybe it's a little big for a booklet, but it offers some thoughtful and playful insight into one of our most difficult problems, our meaning Anglo-America.  

And that is, of course, the sudden and overwhelming presence of so many Hispanic neighbors. Last week's Wednesday "Night in the Park" here in Orange City was a mini-festiva--food, games, a local Mariachi band--all kinds of fun set up and run by a growing ethnic community that, 25 years ago, didn't even exist here; and most of us, back then, wouldn't have guessed it ever could. Today, Hispanics are everywhere in the neighborhood.  It think Sioux Center, Iowa, has five Mexican restaurants, and that's not counting Taco Johns. 

Several of my friends, pastors all, Hispanics all, put together a booklet titled Latinos: the Next Wave:  You Don't Have to Speak the Lingo because they felt, as do many others, that a good many Anglos need to be formally introduced to the new families down the block.  Formally may not be the best word here because The Next Wave is not formal. It's graced with lively humor and a charming personality, and it's not afraid of spoofing itself.

It's an easy read and a good read, mightily beneficial for Anglos who find themselves surrounded by people  who chatter in Spanish and laugh and hug and carry on with none of our characteristic, upper-Midwest stoicism. None of them worship at First Church of Iceburg either. They're not like the rest of us, with one major exception: they're human. The Next Wave won't let you forget that. 

Republicans--many of them, even Karl Rove--were shocked when Barack Obama won a second term. One of the reasons was the Hispanic vote, which Obama won overwhelmingly and they simply hadn't factored into the equation. They didn't, Hispanics went to the polls, and Obama won. Decisively. 

That surprise led to a regular festival of hand-wringing by people like Reince Priebus, the head of the Republican party. Whether or not there's change amid the Republicans remains to be seen, but Priebus might do well to assign his party regulars this book, if for no other reason than it's become impossible to avoid the Hispanic presence all around us. It behooves Priebus's Republicans--and all of us--to know our neighbors better than we do.

Rev. Pedro Aviles did the heavy lifting on The Next Wave. Aviles, who is Puerto Rican and a true Chicago-ite, pastors Berwyn Ebenezer CRC, the only CRC to stay in the community during the neighborhood's long and sometimes difficult and even dangerous ethnic and racial transitions. Today, Ebenezer finds itself in a lower-middle class community of homeowners, right next door to burbs that each have their own ethnic and racial flavors. It does what it can and what it must and what God asks to be a good neighbor. 

Aviles's The Next Wave is like a Q and A. He sets out to answer questions an Anglo audience might have about their Hispanic neighbors, questions like "What Do I Need to Know about Showing Respect?" Hispanics, like Native Americans, frequently defer to others by not looking at them, a behavior Anglos can easily misinterpret:  "Don't be surprised if Hispanic kids look away when you speak to them," he says. "Non-Hispanics frequently misinterpret lack of eye contact as a sign of concealment, deception, and/or dishonesty." In truth, Aviles says, nothing could be farther from the truth.  "In a Hispanic culture [looking away] actually results from a recognition of authority, a sign of respect, a means of giving deference." 

What this wonderful little book does is introduce Anglos to the history and the life and the personality of the whole catalog of ethnics we sometimes impolitely gang together under titles like Latina/os and Hispanics. As Aviles points out, most of our Spanish-speaking neighbors think of themselves first of all as Mexicans or Puerto Ricans or Guatemalans, the countries of their origins.

Let me perfectly racist here. The Next Wave is for white folks. In it and with it, you'll discover everything you wanted to know about your new Hispanic neighbors. It's published by the Office of Race Relations of the Christian Reformed Church, and I am proud to have had an editorial hand in its production because The Next Wave does a task that needed--and still needs--to be done: it makes all of us more neighborly.

One story from my own ethnic past.  Only recently have Dutch scholars been able to name all of those Dutch passengers who died in the flames of the Phoenix ship, just off Sheboygan, Wisconsin harbor, in November of 1847. Only recently. For years, no one in America really cared who or how many died, even though the sinking of the Phoenix was the greatest Great Lakes disaster of the 19th century. No one really cared back then because those passengers were immigrants, and who on earth really cares about immigrants? 

Once my people too were strangers in a strange land. That's worth remembering.

Use Latinos: The Next Wave with church groups, in small groups, and adult Sunday Schools programs, or just read it yourself. It's goal is nothing more or less than understanding, which is to say, peace.

Monday, July 21, 2014

An epic battle


For most of last week, it's been me and the weeds in a battle for the ages. I won't say I won, but right now I'm ahead by a half a yard, if you can trust my judgment (I'm hardly an objective observer).

The weather, thank goodness, was perfect. This week's temps promise oppressive summer heat. I don't know that 90-degree temps will change the outcome, but I can't help but worry. Advantage: weeds.

The landscaping crew convinced us that a brand new lawn would start better if they waited until fall. I was okay with that, but the decision left us with as fine a crop of weeds as you'll find in Siouxland, in Calvinist Siouxland, I might add, where weeds, glorious blossoming weeds, are as much a public sin as an illegitimately rounded female belly. Weeds like ours speak for themselves, and what they say is sloth---yes, Sloth of the Seven Deadlies.

Now the backyard soil is sandy and gravely, a blessing from our neighbor to the north, the river. The front yard is blessed with decent topsoil, so the enemy I'm facing is somewhat varied lot-wise, as has been my military strategy. We sprayed once, took most everything out. Agent Orange'll do that. 

But when our garden started producing mutants, guilt raised its ugly head. To some of my friends, 24d is a curse word--I get that. Drifts can kill you and your neighbor. 

Still, when panicked last week, when it looked as if the cause was lost, I sprayed again, not shock and awe, like the first round, but here and there some surgical strikes. I'm sorry, but it felt and looked as if I was in a strangle hold. I had no choice. I had to up the fire power.



But I prefer conventional arms like this guy, adept at both beheading the enemy and improving your golf swing. However, like its descendant, the gas-powered weed whacker, ye old scythe secures a temporary win since it leaves the roots and therefore multiplies enemy forces in something less than a fortnight. The yard looks almost righteous for a couple of days, but when sin returns it's legion.

Really, the most sure way to fight is hand-to-hand.  Jerk 'em, all of 'em, pull 'em up from the roots one at a time. When the ground is as sandy as ours is, that's not hard but it's really tedious. If, like me, you've already had one back surgery, it also means emptying the Aleve just to get out of the chair into bed at night.

But here's the glory--when I pull 'em, they're gone. 

Look at these two shots:  

BEFORE clean-and-jerk


And after.

Viola! See what I mean? That's why jerking 'em, roots and all, is the nuclear option.  And that's what I did.  Mostly.

Now multiply this square inch of God's creation by a whole acre, and you'll begin to understand the pitched battle I'm in. When I was a boy in the Cold War, wave after wave of Chinese soldiers kept me awake at night because a couple of kids in a pillbox just couldn't keep mowing them down. It's like that. I may have won the battle, but the war is far from over because somehow they just keep coming. 

And this week, heat too yet.

Now all of this is of biblical proportions. Pulling weeds is God's work--well, Adam's anyway. It's all the fault of the fall, right? If we lived in Eden, there'd be button weed, no Aleve in the cupboard. It's that simple, right? Cleaning up weeds is our mutual calling.

But I've got friends--good friends, good Christian friends, good Christian friends who are scientists, in fact--who like to say that without a doubt humankind was deeply affected by Adam and Eve's dalliance with forbidden fruit, but nature wasn't, which is to say that weeds aren't somehow sin. I'm not making this up.

Listen, all week long I picked 'em and I've still got a yard full--all week long by scythe, by whacker, by Roundup. But mostly I pulled 'em, one at a frickin' time; and this mastadon-shaped pile, once yellowed, will soon be deliciously devoured in hellish flames.


So I don't want to know it's not sin I'm fighting here in my own square inch. Don't tell me I'm not subduing the earth. If that's in any way true, I don't want to know. The battle is too big, too epic, too biblical. 

I won't hear it. I won't. It's blasphemy.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Sunday Morning Meds--Enduring Inheritance


“. . .and their inheritance will endure forever” Psalm 37

I’m told that one of the all-too-human urges behind a desire to write is a somewhat unconscious wish to create something timeless.  We want to be a Hemingway or a Dickinson, a Milton or a Shakespeare.  We want to speak, long after our voice box has been dusted away from whence it has come.

Maybe.  When as an undergraduate I stumbled on a love of literature I never knew I had, I’ll admit believing that one of the perks of the writing life was the possibility of being included in those fat lit anthologies.  That was before I knew the word “remaindered,” and long before I realized how many of us actually sit here, fingers curled over the keys, shooting for immortality.  

A friend of mine, the book editor of a major American newspaper, gets 100 books a day to review.  There’s lots of competition to get a place in those anthologies.
           
Some time ago, I corresponded with two antiquarian book sellers in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.  Years ago, I stumbled on a moldy cardboard box of old Dutch books in an antique store.  The woman up front told me she’d just as soon get rid of them.  “Five bucks,” she said, shrugging her shoulders.

Inside, I found ancient theological tomes, literally hundreds of years old.  Simply to hold one is a thrill.  But they have no vital relationship to me, even though my own DNA wears wooden shoes on both sides of the family.  My great-grandfather came from Holland to teach theology in the 1870s; I’ve got many of his books too.  Those I wouldn’t sell.

When finally those booksellers got back to me, I was amazed at how little those books were worth. The cost to ship them to Holland would, on its own, devour whatever those old books promised. They’re back on my shelf.

What real value they have derives from their age, not their authors.  The most ancient was published in 1655.  It’s a bit smaller than a paperback, has an abundance of bronze, liver-spotted pages, and is some kind of theological study—De Yverigan, Christen, den Hemel door Heyligh Gevvelt:innemende.  I have only a faint idea of what that means.  I’m not even sure there is an author listed.
           
Most books published today won’t endure like Christen, den Hemel—it’s a matter of physics, I'm told, of the quality of ink and paper.  Okay, I admit it—that’s a bit unsettling.  Somewhere in me I must have this jaded wish to live forever by way of the words now appearing on my screen.  However, read ‘em and weep, because these old books say, “Listen, brother, don’t count on it.”

And then there’s David, whose words are animating every last key stroke I’m making right now, thousands and thousands of years after he sat down with the parchment. But the promise he’s giving us in this verse of Psalm 37 has nothing to do with his poetry or his music, even those softly plaintive tones from the harp, the ones that calmed King’s Saul’s soul.

The enduring inheritance David promises in this line is nothing more or less than eternity, life forever, the gift of God to those the psalm calls “blameless,” recipients of God’s own grace.  We will live forever.

And that, I’ve long been convinced, is mine.  Even if these words slip away from the cloud after a decade or two, even if nothing I ever say lasts any longer than an hour or two after lunch. 

Eternity, by grace, is mine. 


That, no matter what I say or write, is an inheritance that endures.  Forever.            

Friday, July 18, 2014

Hell to pay


Why not ask John McCain? A Malaysian airliner goes down over disputed Ukraine territory, and 298 are dead, totally innocent victims of war. Why not ask Senator John McCain what he thinks? No one in Washington knows war quite like he does. 

And no one else seems so ready, willing, and able to pull triggers.  Here's what he told MSNBC yesterday:
This was an airliner headed towards Russian airspace and it has the earmarks — and I'm not concluding — but it has the earmarks of a mistaken identification of an aircraft that they may have believed was Ukrainian. If that's true, this is a horrible tragic event which was certainly unanticipated by anybody no matter who they are. And there will be incredible repercussions if this is the case. If it is the result of either separatist or Russian actions mistakenly believing that this is a Ukrainian warplane, I think there's going to be hell to pay and there should be."
Just what "hell to pay" actually means isn't clear, of course. Might it mean American boots on Ukrainian ground? I doubt it. Might it mean American weapons in the hands of the the independent Ukraining forces? Possibly. McCain isn't in a position to determine military ramifications; he's simply indicating to the present administration what he's going to expect once the truth is known--and that's hell to pay.

McCain is a war hero's hero. Few men or women suffered as greatly as he did during the Vietnam War. That he can even stand up is a miracle. That he can continue to lead his Arizona constituency and the American public is a tribute to his desire to serve his country. That he has never stopped serving the U.S. of A., is simply incredible.

But he's always the first to show a fist. Given what he's been through, you might think he'd be last.  

Yesterday's news was simply awful all around. Smoldering wreckage strewn over three miles of Ukrainian farmland, and Israel, tired of those needling Hamas rockets, sends ground forces into Gaza, just a day or two after four kids were killed playing on a beach. Yesterday's news was once again dominated by war on two fronts, so much news that there was no time for Afghanistan, Somalia, Egypt, or South Sudan, not to mention the 28,000 to die, just this year, in Syria.  

Violence is an equal-opportunity employer, and the propensity for doing it seems universal. If you listen to the Bible's account, the world's first baby boy turned out to be a murderer. Makes you wonder about peace, really, doesn't it? Is it simply a pipe-dream? Remember that one Chinese gentleman standing, front and center, in front of that tank? Remember the hippie girl putting a flower down the barrel of some reservist's rifle? Remember Jesus? Maybe exceptions simply prove the rule.

There's a little of John McCain in all of us, a goodly chunk of easily offended human spirit that wants to fight back, to raise a fist, to smash somebody's head, to take revenge, to watch someone else, some perp, suffer or squirm or sweat.

You want absurdity? Try this line on for size:  "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

Are you kidding? Not on my watch. There'll be hell to pay.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Beneath Siouxland skies



According to Robert Swierenga, the Dean of Dutch-American scholarship, immigrants from the Netherlands were serious clusterers:  not only did they originate in the same Dutch communities, they arrived in America with folks from those communities and then stayed in communities they created in America. We were--at least the 19th century Calvinist brand of Dutch immigrants--quite unashamedly clannish, even tribal. 

To anyone who knows us, that's not news.

Take the immigrant Schaaps, seen above.  Old Cornelius C., the bearded patriarch, took his family over in 1868, when, family lore has it, he could no longer abide the scandalous liberalism of the State Church, the Dutch Reformed Church, in Midsland, on the island of Terschelling, where he lived and where there was no pious seceder church. I doubt his reasons were totally spiritual--that is, I'm guessing economic motivations prompted the move as well; but when the Schaaps came to America, they came with a whole gang of like minded folks, malcontents the local Terschelling parish was probably happy to see depart. 

Once in America, they didn't go their separate ways. They got on a train for German Valley, Illinois, because a woman they knew back home knew the preacher there, who said he'd do what he could to get them acclimated, the whole bunch.

It was three years after the Civil War, and free land was to be had not all that far west (what paleface gave a thought to the Native people?). So when C. C. and Neeltje Schaap got a hankering for a chunk of their own land-of-the-free and home-of-the-brave, they lit out for the northwest corner of Iowa, where a bunch of Hollanders claimed good land was to be had. Once again, en masse, they settled in just a bit north of here, between Newkirk and Hospers. All of them. Most anyway. They stayed together. 

They left together and stayed together, maybe more than the other European ethnics, even though the rural Midwest is still mapped with their footsteps--Brussels, Luxumbourg, New Prague, New Berlin, New Holland, New Glarus, and etc.

When we moved to Siouxland (was there ever such a terrible misnomer?), the Schaap bloodline was, in essence, returning. Not one of my father's generation ever set foot on Siouxland soil, even though C. C. and Neeltje are buried right here. Their son, a preacher, left children sprinkled hither and yon in the pilgrimage of his pastorates. My father, born in 1918, never knew his Schaap grandparents, who'd died a decade before. 

But C.C. and Neeltje's great-grandson--me!--grew up in Dutch-American America; and even though I never knew a soul who wore wooden shoes or wore orange during World Cup soccer, my world was almost totally Dutch-American. When, after college, I lived among Swiss folks from southwest Wisconsin, I knew I wasn't what they were--but I also knew that they weren't much different--except their cheese of choice was. . .well, you guessed it.



Last night in Siouxland (note name), in windmill park in Orange City (note name), a mariachi band played for an hour or so, eight or nine men in fancy, traditional outfits, a couple of fiddlers, three or four guitars, two trumpets--you know the sound. Thousands of mariachis sing and play and make weird noises all over this country today, but, listen to this!--this one was local. They were from here. Their address is Hawarden, Siouxland.

I'm not making this up.

At the turn of the 20th century, my great-grandparents, who died here, could never have guessed that a gang of local Mexicans would make the music they did--and not a psalm all night long. When C.C. and Neeltje's great-grandson moved to Siouxland, 75 years later, I still would not have guessed that would happen. A gang of men's quartets wailing out gospel faves--sure. Mariachis, no way. 

When my father-in-law started farming, horses did the heavy work. He had a car, but he'd never been on an airplane. Rural electrification came along during his lifetime--poof! just like that there was light. Most people his age couldn't afford books. They ate food they grew, had basements shelves lined with canned goods, and kept their houses warm--through mean winters--with coal, and sometimes corn cobs. They did their business outside; if they were rich, they had a two-holer.  

But no neighborhood change, I'll assert here, is quite so dramatic as today's immense Hispanic presence. 

Some would move them all back, line up buses from here to Hawarden, fill 'em up with gas, and point them south. The bottom would fall out of the economy in a day or two.

Last year, when this house was going up, I liked to stop by and watch craftsmen do their work. I'd been in a classroom too long, never really knew people who framed a house or hung drywall. One day the insulators came in, a gang I knew were Netherlands Reformed, a particularly staunch and clannish form of Dutch Calvinism (not redundant).  

I stepped up into the house, looked around, had to hunt a bit, but finally found them, filling every nook and cranny with insulation. All--every last one of them--were Hispanic.

There we sat last night, in our lawn chairs, out front of the band shell, listening to a mariachi band from just down the road in Hawarden.

Amazing. 

One more thought.  Here's this morning's dawn.



Just up the river from here, just behind those trees, the Floyd takes a hairpin turn and circles back on itself. Right there at the crook of the stream, an old vet says he once found Native American artifacts from a time--say 1800--when the Yankton Sioux lived right out here on the bank. 

It's interesting, isn't it, that some July morning this sweet pastel sky might have looked exactly the same to them, long before C. C. Schaap and before his grandson and before those mariachis. 

It's His, you know, this world. Not ours.  For clusterers, that's humbling.