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, October 31, 2014

"Out of Africa (x) -- Moving along

If I were to say that this is the face of public transportation in Niger, it would be a joke. For some few rural folk, yes. For some, the number of camels one can park in one's garage makes a great deal of difference--the more, the merrier, you might say. Out in the country, where camels remain in vogue, a train of camels is money in the bank. (Just how many times in life does one get the opportunity to say a "train" of camels? Pardon me while I celebrate a bit.)

Let's try again. This is the face of public transportation in Niger. 

Closer to the truth and not really a joke, although I can't help but smile to watch those guys up there and wonder how many might spill between, say, Niamey and Maduaoa. Seriously, travel the blue highways of Niger or Mali--there are no interstates--and spotting this kind of public transit won't be difficult. Gets the job done, I suppose, and ticket prices can't be outrageous.

I may be jaded by far too many years as a small college prof, so I'll admit to some prejudice here, specifically, that capital improvement projects which spend oodles of money on brick and mortar don't necessarily thrill me. Any number of times during my lifetime on campus, I couldn't help but groan when the college's big contributors would fork over major cash for buildings or clock towers or fancy gates, while faculty salaries didn't go up since the Dust Bowl. You know.

But roads in much of rural west Africa are nothing to write home about.  I take that back--they are. It's what I'm doing right now. They are--I swear--infested with potholes and made totally torturous by speed bumps thou shalt not miss unless you really hate your rear axle.  

Did I mention the seemingly random checkpoints, where some dude (seriously) has a frayed rope looped over the highway to stop you for no apparent reason? He looks in, nods and waves, then grabs the end of the jump rope and waves you through. Seriously.  Here's just such a guy giving us passage. I'm serious. He's a cop. Sort of.

The only cop I've ever seen--not that I've spent my life looking--sporting a thong beneath orange pants.  Seriously.

All of which makes any kind of travel through rural west Africa fascinating, although the restrooms leave a little to be desired (there are none).  

Anyway, this jaded ex-prof with decidedly negative views toward capital improvements fell totally in love with a brand new railroad projected to run from Niamay, the capital of Niger, all the way to Benin. Cost?--1.3 billion. Seriously. It's a dream.

For miles and miles we drove right alongside endless construction--earth movers, stacked rails, yellow-vested workers by the score in hard hats. The task seemed gargantuan, a really beautiful dream, a project that is already changing the landscape. Seriously, Niger's new railroad project looked like a gorgeous promise in a region that some might say doesn't hold many. 

Just to ride beside it was a gift, actually therapeutic--all those workers busy at it, the bush being shaped and graded, tracks being laid, materials set endlessly along the flattened path. Honestly, it was invigorating. Made me think of what America might have thought while watching Hoover Dam go up, watching Gutzon Borglum carve out the faces of the Presidents on Mount Rushmore.  Made me want to build something myself, ourselves.

Seriously, I think I know how shallow putting faith in capital development can be. For years, I belly-ached. But this railroad project had me giddy. 

Think of it this way--infrastructure isn't Niger's strength. The road-more-traveled should be the road-less-traveled. Landlocked, the country is totally reliant on lumbering semis to lug in goods and services, huge overburdened diesels (like the one above) that break down on those lonesome highways and then die right there, their mortal coils stripped into rusted hulks left to bleach in the hot sun. Not pretty.

That new railroad, part of a planned loop which eventually will connect Abidjan (Cote d'Ivoire), Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso), Niamey (Niger) and Coronou (Benin) via 2500 km of track, will enliven every sector of economic life in the region and offer mobility to its people. Just to be beside it felt like being a part of a dream.

But then, lots of things have been dreams in Africa. I suppose time will tell. 

Meanwhile, right now this is the face of transportation in much of rural west Africa--mopeds with little engines that buzz, carrying, often as not, entire families--three and four people who somehow manage to hang on. Mopeds are everywhere, not just in the country, in the cities too, many of them Chinese, who are accomplished at flooding markets of all kinds. 

But it was the new railroad that took my breath away. We hugged the project for miles, and when we left it behind, I felt abandoned. 

Like I say, you got to love that brick-and-mortar.  

Thursday, October 30, 2014

"Out of Africa" (ix) -- Living water

Only once in rural west Africa did I see anything like this--a man, a male, at the community well--and this time there was good reason. We were in an isolated village in Mali, far off any easily traceable beaten track, when the men, the powers-that-be, insisted that we, their honored guests, visit their wondrous village well, a gift by the way of the Japanese, the sign said. 

They didn't say it, but it was clear they were bust-your-buttons proud of that well's modernity. No ropes, no pulleys, and no buckets, save the buckets they used--the women that is--to lug all the precious cargo back to their huts.

We had to walk quite a ways in a desert sun so intense I wished I'd worn a cap or cape. Emphasis on had to--there are things honored guests simply have to do, and we had to witness the glory of their blessed village well.

"We don't really have a choice, do we?" I said quietly to my yankee traveling companion as we walked in heat that was almost unbearable.

He tipped his head and smiled knowingly. "No question," he said, "but out here remember, water is life."

What came to me immediately was the story of a Samaritan woman with a history of five husbands and, most recently, a live-in partner, the woman at the well, the gospel story.

At dozens of villages along the road only women did the drawing. Gender roles in an Islamic society are, to say the least, well-defined. I don't remember ever eating a meal with an African woman at the table; they prepared the food and served it up, sumptuously poured it or spooned it onto our plates, but never sat beside us. Such is Islamic life even in Christian homes.

All of which simply enriches the old gospel story, doesn't it? That Jesus was there at a well like this one was itself quite something, if I can extrapolate a bit. That he, a man, actually talked to her, a woman, had to be newsworthy. But what trumped everything was that the woman was a Samaritan, and a tough one at that, a "hard woman," my mother might say, a woman with a record she'd likely rather not print up. Jesus the Christ, the only human with clearly divine parentage, trashed all the rules, broke every last one of them.  

There they were at places like this, where I had to be reminded that water is life.

It goes without saying that if you travel abroad, almost anywhere, you just don't drink the water, a rule especially difficult in overheated sub-Saharan Africa, where you simply have to drink even if you're not thirsty, a region where water is life.

That village elder at the top of the page offered us a drink of the water that blessed pump poured out richly. Warning lights flashed in my head; alarms blared in my ears. But when our Ghanian guide and friend hunched over and drank from the well, then looked at me and insisted this well was very deep and therefore safe, I drank too, hesitantly but, eventually, bountifully, the only time I actually drank the water in Africa.

Water is life after all, I reminded myself.

When we walked back to the village, I couldn't help but wonder what the Samaritan woman thought when on that exceptionally strange day she met the exceptionally strange Jewish man at the well, a man she said she could tell was a prophet, a man who actually spoke to her and told her in no uncertain terms that he was, of all things, the Messiah, the promised one. 

When she got back to the hut, I couldn't help but wonder what she said to that guy she was sleeping with. I wonder how she might have explained to him the living water because she had certainly heard something and seen someone she'd never, ever heard and seen before.

Even now, a couple weeks later, that whole wonderful gospel story is clearer, peopled by vivid characters I can see at wells I've visited firsthand. 

Like anything else, I suppose, the phrase "living water" can wear itself altogether too easily into cliche. 

Maybe it goes without saying, but I'll say it anyway: when I stood there in the hot African sun, at that precious village well, I was, that afternoon and am yet today, greatly refreshed.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Getting along

Lindneaux Painting

It's getting close to exactly 150 years ago, that Col. John M. Chivington led 700 members of a rag-tag outfit named Third Colorado Calvary onto an open field of the broad Great Plains, where approximately 500 men, women, and children, Northern Cheyenne and Arapahos, were camped. Under the leadership of Chief Black Kettle, these Native people had signaled their intention to live in peace; but Colorado was aflame with hate because white folks had been attacked in prairie schooners on their way west, murdered and mutilated.

Governor John Evans wanted them out, every last one of them. Even though what was then called "the Sioux Uprising" in Minnesota had taken place two years before, memories of the unspeakable horrors by hostile Dakota braves had lingered. In August, Gov. Evans had authorized “all citizens of Colorado . . . to go in pursuit of all hostile Indians [and] kill and destroy all enemies of the country.” Those who, like Black Kettle, had indicated their intention to live on reservations, should be spared, he said.

But very early in the morning on November 29, 1864, Rev. Chivington, a fire-and-brimstone preacher who'd founded a Denver seminary, led those 700 troops into Black Kettle's camp and killed--massacred--50 men and 110 women and children, wounding scores more. Bullets ripped through human flesh as howitzers reigned horror down on an encampment totally unprepared for any attack, on families who had already made clear their intention to move to a reservation in peace.

Today, 150 years later, there's very little at Sand Creek to catch the eye, but there's ever so much to stop the soul. What's there is endless prairie, not a woman or woman in sight. To get to the place the massacre took place, you take blue highways through cow towns that may well be dying and ten miles of dusty gravel roads because no one lives at or near the site of the Sand Creek Massacre. A couple of park rangers will be there to answer your questions. You want to listen to them. They'll tell you the whole story. Quietly.

Colorado, in the national mind, means Rocky Mountain highs: Vail, Loveland, Telluride, Breckinridge, and Powderhorn, winter wonderlands, skiers paradise. Colorado has master class hiking trails crawling up the whole range of "Fourteen-ers," rocky paths that take young and old closer to heaven than you can get almost anywhere on the North American continent. Colorado means Coors, the Broncos, John Elway, Payton Manning.

But if you want to stop at the Sand Creek Massacre, you have to go in the opposite direction down roads you wish you hadn't taken, and when you get there what you'll find is mostly nothing at all: a half-mile hike through wide open Great Plains prairie to a spot on the horizon that looks over a valley not much deeper than a dish pan.

There's no blood anywhere to be seen, no rags, no dead bodies. Aside from a few trees there's nothing to see, but so much to remember.

High school students in the Golden (CO) School District walked out of class earlier this month when the school board, packed by conservatives after recent elections, determined that the curriculum for Advanced Placement History was too radical, too anti-American, to, well, "liberal," touting civil disobedience far more than free enterprise.

I think I have a solution. Bring them all to Sand Creek, all those patriotic board members and all those striking students, their parents and their teachers. Drive them all out there in small groups of a half-dozen or so, mixed company too--rugged conservative business people and mouthy progressives. Introduce them to one of the rangers out there in all that silence, and ask them to tell the story.

Then make them walk together in a group, in silence, to a sacred place where many innocent human beings fell in an assault as evil as anything ever perpetuated in the name of the Lord.

Let them out there for a while. Let them stand there in the silence, in the wind that never dies.  Let them create the pictures their imaginations will certainly conjure once they hear the story.

Then lead them in prayer, ask forgiveness, pledge love instead of hate.

Once that's over, let them go back to Golden, carful after solitary carful, a long and dutiful procession, and see if then we all can't somehow get along.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

"Out of Africa" (viii) -- Me and cousin Henk

Maybe it really happened, but I think it's just a Dutch-American urban legend. Cousin Henk comes to America, flies from Amsterdam to NYC, and calls cousin Jake, who's out in his wood shop in Newkirk--that's Newkirk, Iowa. "I'm here," Henk says, "'ven can you come pick me up?"

Or this one. Henk and Neltje are here at Henk's, their first visit to America. They dine on huge Iowa chops then sit back, their coffee, with cream, set out before them on the table. Henk says he was hoping that during this trip they could see some sights--"Tomorrow maybe, Niagara Falls, and Thursday I 'vas t'inking maybe da' Grand Canyon."

Paris is only a few hours drive from Friesland, after all.

Just call me cousin Henk. I was flabbergasted at the sheer immensity of the African continent. I'm not sure how far we traveled in the weeks I was there, but the total had to be substantial, miles and miles of countryside that, for all practical purposes, didn't change much at all. We ambled around three countries in west Africa, in very limited regions of each, but tallied hundreds and hundreds of miles--four flights one day, three another. 

Get this--the country of Mali, a place I'd rarely heard of before we left, is twice as big as Texas. Folks in Dallas/Ft. Worth may resent my saying that openly, but you can't dispute plain fact so let me say it again: the landlocked nation of Mali, west Africa, is actually twice as big as Texas.

Mali. Don't know where it is? Look here. It's in western Africa, just east of Mauritania. What?--never heard of Mauritania? Idiot. Okay, Mali's in yellow, see it?--just below Algeria. Now you got it. That place is--I'll say it again--twice the size of Texas.

Okay, much of it is desert, but so is west Texas, right? I'll give you the fact that El Paso isn't in the middle of the Sahara, but neither of them is exactly Edenic.

I couldn't help wonder--and still can't-- why I was so dumbfounded by the endless length and breadth of the African continent. I'd been to South Africa previously, traveled around that huge country, in fact, through hills and valleys and mountains, coastal regions and open plains, all of that beauty one huge continent away. But look at South Africa way down there, little more than a hefty plug on the bottom end of a massive continent.

Africa--the continent--is the size of the U.S. and China and India and most of Europe all together. Look at that map at the top of the page. Africa is the leviathan.

Maybe you're not surprised, but I was, and I'll admit it.

Why? Consider for a moment my oversized, factory-equipped ego--we consider ourselves first because we're, well, exceptional--you know, "American Exceptionalism." It's not just tough for Texans to tolerate things even bigger than they are; we're all Lone Star folks really.

We're the city on a hill, God's all-time favorite. If we were to draw up a map of the world, it would look something like that goofy cartoon the New Yorker once featured, the Big Apple, at least in the minds of its residents, taking up half the continent, the rest of it basically pastureland, here and there maybe a memorable hill.

I watched Noah on the plane to Africa and enjoyed it greatly. But what rattled around in my mind as those strange stone people staggered, Transformer-like, through the land was a review I read, something written by a evangelical Christian who wondered what it is that makes Christians believe we own the story. Millions of people from other cultures and faith traditions include the Genesis story as theirs too, not to mention millions more who claim the flood. 

My shock at the immensity of the continent was created, in part, by my home-grown ego, a species of pride I would have certainly told you I didn't have when I left.

But I do.

Monday, October 27, 2014

"Out of Africa" (vii) -- Agriculture

Just outside my window wide sections of razor-cut farmland run to the horizon in every direction, corn and soybeans all around, real "agri-business," especially this time of year. Massive combines have been inching over the fields for a month already, harvesting what looks to me to be yet another bumper crop. Farming is business here, big business.

Very few farmers in Siouxland put things they grow on their own tables. In gardens--yes; but not in those wide sections of ground running all the way to sky. Subsistence agriculture--the economic system that drew all European immigrants to the region 150 years ago--has been dead for just about that long, if, in fact, it ever existed.

Starting communities here, I once read, wasn't a long process. Ten years is what it took, basically, from breaking ground on a brand new homestead to creating a functioning village where crops could go to market. Railroad traffic past our place this time of year is as endless as the tracks are ancient. 

Call it ignorance or stupidity, but I was surprised at how much of the African countryside was being farmed. Maybe I expected a continent-wide game preserve. In long road trips we took through Ghana and Mali and Niger, almost everywhere we traveled people grew the crops they needed to survive--corn, millet, sorghum, as well as exotics like peanuts and watermelon.

You read that right--watermelon. Amazing as it might seem in area where rainfall can be as slight as it is, people grow watermelon.  In Mali, they were everywhere.

Where I expected to see nothing but veldt, there were crops, thin crops, stunted corn by Iowa standards, but noticeable green crops from ground that would make most Siouxland farmers wince. A few tractors made their way along the highways, but most agriculture I noticed seemed subsistence, often primitive. Here and there, workers wielded hoes to break ground, as they might have for too many generations. 

But agriculture was there, almost always, even in the farthest regions of Mali, where all the roads, trust me, are less traveled. Crops get eerily patchy, even though I'm sure our being there in rainy season gave the landscape more flashes of green than it normally shows at dry times of year.  I was amazed--there was no end to fields of grain.

The world is beginning to recognize, once again, that burgeoning opportunities exist in Africa. Most experts seem to argue is that agriculture throughout the continent has to become more of a business, and it can, simply because vast regions of rural Africa could, if handled efficiently, produce more for its own people--and even for others.

Pushing that agenda isn't simply some hybrid 21st century colonialism (although that exists too), but a realization on the part of most world powers that the growing population of the planet will require more food than our harvests now reap. International experts look to Africa as a place where more can be produced to feed many more hungry people.

Images like this will exist only in scrapbooks if African farms are to become businesses; and that's unsettling, to say the least, to people who've lived like this woman for generations. In all likelihood she earns no more than a dollar a day for her work, if that.  Will she benefit from a pronounced emphasis on agriculture? Yes.

Will life change for her? Most certainly.

The row crops all over rural Africa came as a surprise to me, but it's difficult to imagine scenes like this transformed into what I see right now outside my window.

Will it happen? It may have to, not simply for Africa's sake but for the stomachs of the world's hungry people.

Such radical change will require a level of community the world's powers have rarely been able to create. Something will have to be done to make this woman's transition to a whole different way of life just and sustainable.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Sunday Morning Meds--Strongholds

“The salvation of the righteous comes from the LORD; 
he is their stronghold in time of trouble.” Psalm 37

I’ve never taken a particularly glorious shine to the praise team phenomenon, four or five people from the congregation standing up and leading singing. It’s been hot for years in evangelical culture, a sort of earmark of a church's with-it-ness. They’re no burning issue with me, and I get along just fine every Sunday when a new praise team stands up there and does its thing. I'd better--my granddaughter is part of one these days.

I remember one years ago, in a big auditorium, a praise team greatly enlarged, maybe twenty folks strong. I liked that, perhaps because with more of them singing, they were a forest, not trees—if that makes sense.

Several of that group were just kids, two or three of them a bit too young to know most of the music. But they knew one song, an old kid ditty that I hadn’t heard for a quarter century. I don’t know if the song has a title, but it’s created on the parable of the house built upon a rock: “The wise man built his house upon a rock” (repeat three times), “and the house upon the rock stood firm.”

In case you suffered a deprived childhood, the next verse compares the efforts of the foolish man, who built his house upon the sand; once the rains fall, that dwelling went “splat." I don’t remember a “splat” when I was a kid, so I'm guessing the song has been oomphed up a bit.  That's all right.  I'm not hopeless. 

Actions too, actions galore—lots of pounding because there’s lots of building.

But the final chorus made me go splat: “The blessings will come down as the prayers go up (repeat three times)/. . .so build your life upon the Lord.”

Don't I wish that were always and forever true.  It’s so blasted easy, simple as a kid ditty. First-grade math forever makes sense, doesn't it?  The more we pray, the more we’re blessed. Pray a ton and wonderful blessings will shower down.  

I suppose bringing those little kids into worship that night was important, but, honestly, the spiritual transaction "The House on the Rock" offers as undeniable truth simply isn’t as easy to believe as it is to sing--and that's exactly what I remember thinking back then.

Those of us who know depression, know blessings don’t fall upon us that simply. Back then, if I could have tallied all the prayers we brought up to the Lord in those years—and I know others who have suffered far longer—it wouldn't have been no gentle shower; it would have been a storm, I swear. 

That night, while we were singing that little sweet children’s ditty, someone we loved deeply was off very much on his own, looking frantically for himself. That night, despite this swarm of praise singers, it was impossible for me not to feel that my life was built on sand. No answers came in refreshing showers of blessings.

Years ago, in the Superstition Mountains of Arizona, I remember hiking to a place called “Cochise’s Cave,” a stronghold the old Apache chief used more than a century ago. Standing there, I had a sense of what it meant to think of God almighty as a fortress, a stronghold, even a rock. From Cochise’s Cave, you could see for miles. A fugitive could get some sleep in Cochise’s Cave, surrounded as you are by solid rock.

And I know that King David isn’t wrong when he sings what he does here, no more wrong than the kids pounding their hands through that little ditty. I know. I know. I know. I know a stronghold when I see it, when I’m in one.

But it’s just not as easy as 1-2-3, or as fun as a praise team, even when its a whole crowd up there with you. Sometimes life is just not that cute.

How does the line go?—I believe, Lord; help thou my unbelief.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Soup Supper multi-culturalism

The child's eagerness was as remarkable as it was darling. You could barely finish your coffee without her asking for your cup.  I told our friends that this kid was really in training to become the queen of Dutch Calvinism, not for her theological strength but because she was a living, 10-year-old embodiment of that ancient text "cleanliness is next to Godliness."

She was quintessentially blonde, charming pink glasses over her nose; but her eyes rarely met ours because, well, there was just too much to clean up.  She'd been assigned our table at the Christian school soup supper, and she was not--listen to me!--she was not going to let a teaspoon-full of sinful messiness get left unretrieved.

Truth? I'd have hired her in a heartbeat if she'd told me she cleaned houses, but it wouldn't have been legal. I'm not a judge of age, but I'd guess maybe fifth grade. Just a kid, but a blonde whirling dervish with a cleaning rag.

"I just love to clean up," she told me when I told her I was mega-impressed by her breathless energy. "I really do." Zeal?--way, way, way beyond her years. Cleaning up at the soup supper was a calling.

Our visitors were impressed too. The one wearing the big black cowboy hat, the one with the middle-of-the-back pony tail, couldn't help chatting to Ms. Cleanliness. "Ever meet a real Indian?" he said, being one himself.

Honestly, she could barely stop working. The question didn't seem to register. She didn't get it.  Then she pulled back the rag, stopped and looked at him as if she hadn't heard.

"You ever meet a real Indian?" he asked again, or something close.

She went into one of those kid-like stalls, wheels churning inside somewhere as she tried to determine what on earth was going on with this grandpa with the wild silver mane.  She looked at him, eyes narrowing, that handy-dandy rag still in her hand but motionless.

Seconds passed. More. She'd become something akin to Lot's wife, without the tragedy.

Finally, what was in her came blurting out innocently. "You mean you're a real Indian?" she asked, as if he might have been spoofing.

"A Navajo," our friend said, reaching out his hand to shake. "You ever meet one before?"

She shook his hand, but once again seconds passed. Her mind was a slot machine, the symbols still spinning.

And then, finally, she says what comes up. "I'm going to be an Indian on Halloween," she told him boldly, as if he really ought to be proud.

We just about fell off our chairs.  What a sweet little hoot. 

And now I've got this little necklace our Navajo friend picked up at Pipestone yesterday. He wants me to find that little girl who's going to hit the streets as an Indian on Halloween. It's just a little thing, but he says he thinks it'll help that costume along.

It'll be a joy finding her in school and getting it to her before she gets herself into her getup. She won't be hard to find. I'm sure she'll be the one cleaning up the classroom.

Friday, October 24, 2014

"Out of Africa" (vi) -- bottomless filthy lucre

It's blessedly impossible not to notice what's happening at gas stations. Even the Coop up the street is selling its liquid gold at $2.85 a gallon. Unheard of. The price may well be even lower south of here--always is anyway. Soon enough, gas prices will be a buck less per gallon than it was not all that long ago. Amazing.

Obama's huge 2009 payroll tax cut, the largest in history, put $400 into the pockets of every American family, money the government hoped people would spend and thereby right the economy after the worst dunking it took since the 30s. Barely a memory right now, but true.

That's nothing, a story on NPR said a few days ago. What economists claim, the story reported, is that "Americans spend so much money on gas that for every penny you drop the price and keep it there for a year, you've increased American spending power by $1.4 billion." Every penny. 

Really. Incredible. Let me run through that again--for every penny the price of gas drops and stays there for a year, American spending power rises by $1.4 billion dollars, a huge amount, far bigger than the biggest tax cut on record.  

I'm sure someone will dispute that, but I'm going to let it sit for a while, knowing darn well that the $2.85 I paid last weekend is a dream. I'll let you do the math. If the price stays there--and I know that's a big if--massive shifts will occur in the economy. They already are--at least for now.

I wish I were smart enough to determine what drives oil prices, what role, for instance, American oil successes have in dropping prices or how the Saudi's cut in production--or at least distribution, for all we know--fits in to the sign outside the station. I don't get it really, but I know more about piles of money oil accumulates.

Lots of it ended up in Africa, where lots of oil comes from. 

 There are places in west Africa where stunningly beautiful buildings leap out at you from areas that otherwise suffer the peculiar characteristics of African urban blight. Some of those buildings look as if they've descended miraculously from the north, where their design is more typical, in Arab Africa. They're beautiful--they really are. They're business class or better, not really high rises, but four and five and six stories at least, all of them in a stunning set, almost like toys.

To say Omar Gaddafi pocketed a fortune during his misrule in Libya is an obscene understatement. At the time of his death, he was thought to have 200 billion amassed in all kinds of places, including a goodly chunk in South Africa. He had enough to give each of the 6.5 million people in Libya $30,000, if he wanted. Which he didn't. But he did give it away. He did a lot of building in west Africa, trying to buy favor, trying to rule, just like every one else who's invaded the place.

I don't think I'll ever understand what kind of wealth oil production has lavished on those who control it, in the Middle East or elsewhere. The super rich live in ways I can't even imagine. What I do know, after traveling in west Africa, is that Middle Eastern oil has done unbelievable things.

The highway between the capital of Niger, Niamey, and Maduaoa, is maybe 200 miles of agricultural land and a hundred villages, the last one indistinguishable from the one before. Somewhere central in those tiny towns is a well, a public well, maybe with a pail and rope. The women are there, dressed in fabrics that seems astounding amid all of the earth tones. Mud huts with thatched roofs mushroom all around; and, up close to the road, a half-dozen skinny arbors lean in contrary directions, the places where the merchants set up trade and stay out of the sun. Kids play all over. Mopeds buzz around like flies.

Most of those hamlets have no more than 100 people--or so it seemed to me. But just about every one of them had one brand new building, bigger than all the rest, cleaner than all the rest, more tidy than all the rest. Those buildings weren't always the same size--some were no bigger than a double garage--but all were new and all were well-kept. Mosques. There may well have been some exceptions, but it seemed that every last village had a brand new mosque.

It seems they were gifts from afar, most of them from oilmen in Qatar. Think of it this way, it was as if the state if North Dakota had determined to build a brand new Baptist church in every hamlet in Mississippi. In every town imaginable they'd construct a tidy new house of worship. No matter how run down, no matter how ailing, where there was a town there'd be a new church. 

Gaddafi was a madman whose wild dreams included someday becoming the King of Africa, "the King of Kings," he called himself. He gave himself ridiculous titles and gave lots of African countries immense gifts to help him ascend to the unwieldy dreams he believed would certainly come true, including a United States of Africa.

Gaddafi, like Ozymandius, is gone. Look on, ye mighty, and despair.

But all that oil money, more than I can ever imagine, is still stuck in all kinds of places, including real estate in countless African places.  There was no end to his fortune.

There is, in the Middle East, in North Africa, so much oil money that it's no wonder the world can't leave the place alone. Nor is it a mystery why that immensely well-heeled corner remains a a boiling cauldron. 

Thursday, October 23, 2014

"Out of Africa" (v) -- Ebola

Power point Ebola warning mounted in a Mali airport
That we were going to west Africa in the company of not one, not two, but three doctors, helped relieve at least some of the fears that would have otherwise attended our travelling to an area of the world so much in the news this fall. Some of the fears. West Africa is no haven for tourists.

Besides, the horrific Ebola virus hot spots were war zones not all that far removed from Ghana and Mali and Niger, three countries on our itinerary. "Yes, we're going to west Africa," we told people.  They'd respond with a half smile maybe, half grimace. "No kidding," they'd say, and a minute later, "You're serious?--really?"

Now don't get me wrong. Medical professional companions or not, I didn't waltz through African customs as if my American heritage carried superpower immunity. 

That there was a crisis not all that far away was perfectly clear all over west Africa. Precautions were taken. Every airport greeted its incoming with a team of nurses, sometimes in masks, who pointed temperature guns at our heads to determine whether or not we were feverish.

Health workers in West African countries have been checking arriving passengers for fever, as this woman does in the Ivory Coast. The U.S. ordered Embassy families out of nearby Sierra Leone on Thursday.

The walls on all the gates were thick with posters displaying the suspect symptoms--stick figures experiencing blowouts from both ends, drawings far too graphic for public consumption in America, where, oddly enough, there would almost always be far more skin on display than you'll see in any African airport.

Once, we were lined up and ushered past a monitor. "Look here," the nurses said, and pointed at a fish-eye camera that brought the image on the screen in front of the nurse--and in front of us. Some kind of infra-red technology put an apple-like shine to our faces, which, if too bright, I suppose, would mean a trip to the doctor on call. 

Ebola, as just about everyone in the world knows by now, is not an airborne virus. It can only be spread--and it can and does spread alarmingly quickly--by contact with bodily fluids. Clean up a victim's mess or just touch him without precautions, and you could be in trouble, in danger, as we've all been told. Experts claim that if medical professionals don't get the disease under control in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, those countries, soon, could lose 10,000 victims a week.

Ebola is the worst mass murderer the world has seen in a while, which explains the extremes some people have taken in the U.S.: a middle school shuts down because an administrator had traveled to and from Tanzania, where no cases of the Ebola virus have even been recorded. There are other such horror stories as well.

I came back from west Africa a week ago, turned on TV news, and couldn't believe my eyes when the network interrupted normal programming to show us a nurse who'd contacted the virus, one of only two cases in the U.S.A., at the moment she was walked, dressed like an astronaut, from an ambulance into a Atlanta hospital. The whole country was watching! You'd have thought she was OJ.

What C. S. Lewis had to say about Satan, the Devil, always struck me as being solidly to the point. Honestly, I don't know where to find the quote, and I didn't dig it up myself. I'm only repeating what I've been told.  But what he said went something like this. When it comes to the Devil, we frequently make two mistakes: we can far too easily underestimate him and far too easily overestimate him. 

Somewhere there's balance. Somewhere there's reason. An old proverb, German, I think, says that fear always makes the wolf bigger than it is. It's almost November, too, when fear makes it so easy to create political capital.

In this morning's NY Times, Nick Kristof quotes Paul Farmer (anyone who's read Mountains Beyond Mountains has to listen) as saying: “A ban would be worse than ineffective, and would certainly hamper the efforts of groups like ours [Partners in Health] — and worsen the epidemic.”

When we walked through customs at New York's JFK Airport, no team of nurses or med techs were standing there with fever guns checking. As of this morning, there still has been only two cases of Ebola in this country, both of them in nurses who'd cared for the only man or woman to die here of the virus.

The rhetoric was inflamed last week, to say the least. Thank God, things are calming down.  

Here, at least.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Beaver dam, sort of

Raccoons sometimes don't make it across the road this time of year. Road kill mounts up every night as those lousy bandits in their silly masks load up on corn until they can barely waddle. If the dead ones you see on the shoulder is a tenth of the populace, as a demographic, coons almost outnumber hogs. I'm serious. 

Still, I can't help but feel sorry for 'em--they just can't lumber across the highway fast enough right now without getting whacked.

You never see dead beavers on the shoulder, although they too must number in the dozens in the neighborhood. They may be smarter than raccoons, but I'm still not sure I know the truth, whether a beaver is actually nature's own finest engineer or generally just as dumb as a box of rocks. 

When we first moved out to the country, the beavers just upstream built a dam just east of here, where the Floyd takes a hairpin turn. It was a beautiful thing to behold really, at a spot where the river was wide. Trees, rocks, corn stalks--they used whatever building materials they could to stop up the river, and it worked wonderfully. A neighbor claimed the river backed all the way up to Hospers. 

A flood came by the next spring and ripped out their workmanship, and whatever corps of beaver engineers put it up didn't bother to rebuild. They must have looked elsewhere for the perfect spot, I guess. 

A year ago or so, two of them came up out of the water and sat on the bank one night when we were standing right across the river, as if they couldn't care less about the humanoids gawking on the opposite bank. I think they were mating. Don't know if they were married, but the heat they were generating left them blind to the crowd they'd drawn on the other side. They were intense.

You got to love 'em, big fat guys who look nothing like olympic swimmers, but are. We see them occasionally, cutting a vee in the water, nose up, eyes out. Even when they step out of the muddy Floyd, their fur can shine. It might be fun to have a beaver coat if the PETA people would leave you alone. That fur is glorious, even legendary.

Yesterday, we were looking down at a creek that, in dry seasons, is not even there, And there it was, just upstream, a full-fledged earthen dam composed of little more than mud and corn stalks, behind it a little pond of water that wouldn't have been there if some brainy fur-ball engineer hadn't completed his pet project. Poor farmer couldn't get his corn out from that corner of his field because it was way too muddy, thanks to the beaver.

I'm still not so sure of their genius. My word, what kind of water park does he think he's going to build in that pint-sized creek? Couldn't have taken him long either. Maybe he's just lazy. Maybe he was alone--that wife has of his (if he was a wife) left him high and dry, so to speak.  

Then again, maybe he's just plain brainless. For the life of me I couldn't begin to guess why he'd spend his dam time patching up what he did in what's barely a babbling brook. 

Still, it's fun. We stood there for a while, hoping we'd see him; but he wasn't about to appear. He must have seen I had a camera. They seem to hate the paparazzi. 

Away on the other side of the field stood a combine, a tractor and a wagon, as if the farmer was stalled, trying to determine just how to lay waste that lousy, two-bit dam. 

And the dam itself wasn't beautiful, wasn't fancy, wasn't even ambitious--at least in my book. 

But it was fun. Poor old furry beast--today or tomorrow I'm betting that dinky dam will be gone, and the beaver will have to look elsewhere in the back 40. 

I bet he's an old guy. That's what he is, an old guy. Just tinkering maybe. Just putting up something to stay out of trouble, kind of like a bird house or some lawn ornament. Just trying to stay busy. 

Still smart enough, however, not to try to cross the road.
Update: Sadly enough for the engineer, yesterday his hard work was gone.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

"Out of Africa" (iv) -- Stranger

We stop in a village, get out of the car and walk over to a circle of men sitting in thick shade to avoid the impossible African sun. A lump of charcoal or maybe a fist-sized hunk of wood is burning in an scorched steel sleeve the size of an old coffee pot. On top of that sleeve sits a tea pot, heating.

The men are watching the pot, but not thinking much about the tea that is to come because they're yakking about something I'd love to be able to understand. But I've been in a circle of guys like this often enough to recognize good, old-fashioned They laugh, rib each other, yuk it up but good. In Africa, where two or three are gathered, there's almost always a bushel of belly laughs.

They don't seem to be bothered by these strangers who've come out of nowhere. In fact, a minute or two after we arrived they offered a couple of low-slung lawn chairs, and I took one. If I'd known French, I might have been part of the company.  

They offered me tea but I waved it off politely because I didn't know the ground rules--tiny little cups full of frothy stuff dark as chocolate. I didn't want to embarrass myself.

It wasn't quite noon, and I guessed we were going to be here for awhile. Even though the guys sitting beside me were heartily welcoming, I'm a stranger in a strange land.

A young woman walks up. Even though the world is, I'm quite sure, entirely Islamic, she's not hiding her face, as I would have expected. There's no birqua. Islamic women are not supposed to be showy, I'm thinking, but this one is wound up in a gorgeous robe so profligate with color it's almost blinding.  You can't look away. It's beautiful, as she is--young and pretty. She smiles at the men she's serving. It's clear she knows them.

She's working, trying to make a buck. The food she's lugged up brews in a couple of pots that fit atop each other. There must be standing orders because she ladles out some stew for one of the guys sitting there, then flops some meat in a long, thin French roll, a kind of Maliean hot dog, I'm thinking.  

She looks at me as if I might want some lunch. I smile, shake my head. She doesn't seem nervous in the least. She's the only woman anywhere near the circle of gents in the shade, but she goes about her work as if this is everyday, which is what it probably is.

She doesn't say much, but it's clear to me that she's perfectly at home; and what I don't hear is the kind of cat calls I would have expected. There's at least a half-dozen men a good deal older than she is, and she's a woman, all alone, standing there in front of them. I don't know French, but I swear I don't hear a thing that I could translate as sexual innuendo.

Here's the way I've been trained to generalize. Islamic women hide themselves in flowing black robes with slits for their eyes only. 

Not this one. You can hardly look away from her dazzling robe.

And the American in me would have expected the guys to toss out a comment or two. The numbers were right--a pack of middle-aged men sitting in a circle with a pretty young thing leaning down and spooning out the goods. I'd have expected her to take some hits.

Mali, Ghana, Niger--hard as it is to believe, the lands I visited don't have significant drug and alcohol problems because the price for such iniquity, for such sin, is just too high--thus saith the prophet, after all.  They let the short-order cook alone--I really think they did. I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it myself. Civility, after all, is not a word I would have associated with Islam. But I'm learning some things I never thought I would. 

I don't suppose that one incident in a village is enough to generalize, but I know the feeling of being in a little handful of men when some young thing comes along and brightens the day. I saw none of what I expected.

I didn't understand a word they said, didn't drink their tea, didn't sample the grub she spooned up from those pots she put back together after she'd sold them the lunch they wanted. I wasn't part of their world really, but as I sat there they showed me things I honestly didn't think I'd see.

In that little circle of gents I remained a stranger in a strange land, but I wasn't the same man I was when we'd pulled up in front of those guys having a good time and waiting for tea.

Monday, October 20, 2014

"Out of Africa" (iv) -- Worship wars

Years ago, some friends took us along to a Sunday night youth rally. The theory, if I'm not mistaken, was to show me some warm Afrikaaner piety. The rally was on campus in a big chapel area at what was, back then, the Pochefstroom University, Pretoria, South Africa. The Mandela era had just begun, the New South Africa.

What I remember of the youth rally is that it was really cute. I'm serious. Okay, cute is a strange way to describe religious piety, I know, but I'm not lying because it was really cute. Four hundred kids, maybe five, just about every last one of them doubled up with a sweetie. Think of it this way--250 couples, every last one of the males hanging one muscular Afrikaaner arm around his pet squeeze so that the rally looked like a huge blonde in-looped flag. It was cute. Really.

Some pastor's sermon got 'em all astir, and the eagerness was palpable. Love was in the air. Some of it was agape--sure; but you couldn't miss a touch of eros, too. Okay, maybe more than a touch. I'm not quite so old as to have forgotten the kind of rapturous zeal that can arise, even on a church bench, maybe especially on a church bench.

It's possible, I suppose, that all that youthful piety would have shown more brightly if the snugglers had been separated: males on one side, females on the other. The ardor might have been more pure if those guys had kept their arms and hands at home.

Sitting separate is the old way, the way things were done in church more than a century ago, and not just in Dutch Reformed churches. Most every northern European Protestant fellowship would have kept an aisle's width between the sexes lest communion descend into carnival.

Okay, I'm overstating. But I know very well that my ancestors worshiped in churches where, like some synagogues yet today, men and women keep a safe distance. Do women even pray in mosques? I don't think so. Put 'em together and you got a volatile mix, you know?

I don't think I'd ever worshiped in a church that split people up by gender until two weeks ago at the evangelical church on the top the page, a little church in a town predominantly--overwhelmingly--Muslim. Still, there we were--praising the Lord with men on one side, women on the other. Only the choir was integrated--well, one bench anyway.

It seemed strange, but then I remembered that crowd of kids in Pretoria, and even my own youth, the sheer bedlam of chemical reactions that will hardly stay in the test tube, even in church. Maybe--or so I thought--splitting up wasn't such a bad idea, silly as it seemed. Besides, it's a tradition as old as the hills.

Still, I just wondered why.

"I don't get it," I said to a man appointed to be my translator. "What's the deal here?--the women are all over there--" I was trying not to point, "and we're all over here." Billy Graham would never be alone in a room with a woman--I remembered that. Maybe we were missing something back home. Maybe we'd wandered.  "Is there a reason for separating everybody up?" I asked him.

"It's for our neighbors, the Muslims," the man told me. We were singing, I think, and I didn't know the words. Besides, he seemed to enjoy using his English on me.

"You split up for them?" I said, only half in a whisper.

"If they 'd walk by and see us all mixed up together," he said, then halted, as if there were no words to explain, ". . .it just wouldn't be worth it. They'd think it was terrible."

I suppose the word is taboo.

It was, I thought, a price to pay to get along in an Islamic neighborhood. Given what's happening elsewhere in the world these days, keeping men on one side, women on the other is hardly the "supreme sacrifice." One could suffer far worse.

Besides, Eugene Peterson likes to say that worship is really about learning to live with that bawling kid in the pew in front of you who just won't stop, learning to praise God in the middle of the mess of real life.

So I didn't question the man or the practice of that little church. I didn't try to enlighten him or press him to engage the Muslims. It seemed to me, right then, one of very few Christians in the community around me, that keeping men from women in church was a prudent thing to do, a wise move.

Besides, it didn't really matter a whole lot. In that little church that Sunday morning in Niger, both sides and the choir--we were all praising the Lord.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Sunday Morning Meds--End times

But all sinners will be destroyed; 
the future of the wicked will be cut off. 
Psalm 37

I believe there will be an end to the world as we know it, but, unlike millions of fundamentalists in America today, I have no idea what that end will look like nor when it will occur.

Years ago it was Hal Lindsey, a prophet who still has a website, even though I thought The Late, Great Planet Earth had all the believers delivered by 2005—lock, stock, and barrel—to the precious right hand of God, the Earth imbroglioed in pre-Armageddon politics or already aflame. He was sure that “the bear” in some minor prophet had to be Russia, which meant we were on the brink of the last days. Russia today isn't what it was, despite the chest pounding Putin regularly delivers. 

 In all fairness, I’m not sure exactly what Lindsey was forecasting thirty years, but neither do I care, one bit. All I know is he sold a ton of books. There’s always a market for end times.

And now there's yet another movie about the Rapture. Don't go.

After Black Sunday, that Sunday in the Thirties never to be forgotten by old-time Great Plains residents, the day the first of the dust storms arose like some great black fist in the western sky, lots and lots of good, God-fearing folks, sand-blasted suddenly into farming oblivion, got themselves convinced we were not all that far from The End.

And it’s not difficult to understand why. A woman I know told me she’d never forget that day because she was in church—afternoon service—when the dust first rolled in. In a matter of minutes the dust was so thick, even in church, that all she could see was the pastor’s white collar.

Is it any wonder people looked up to Lord and asked him to come quickly? No one could see a thing.

Today new natural calamities appear weekly—record hurricanes, huge earthquake, now and then some catastrophic tsunami, and always, wars and rumors of wars. That people would look to their God as a deliverer makes all kinds of sense. It’s a joy to imagine an end to suffering, to know He won’t tarry.

Prophets of doom, like the poor, we will always have with us, even though history has proved their sure-fire prophesies and end-time scenarios—every one of them—little more than swamp gas. Think Mr. Harold Camping, the radio star, who's long gone even though the rest of us aren't.

Some American Christians say it about abortion too, and gay marriage, and evolution in schools—all signs of The End. When the sky is falling, and faithful seem few, the last trumpet can sound far more comforting than fearful.

My mother went there too often, by my estimation, so often I tried to coach her out of her fears, a job at which I was never particularly successful. Who knows? Maybe a couple decades down the pike, when I’m pushing ninety, I’ll be listening intently for a blast of that trumpet myself.

In this long 37th psalm of bellowing confidence, David can’t stop singing about how good it is to know that the righteous are loved and the wicked aren’t—how just rewards are a given to those who do and don’t do the will of God.

Someday, I assume—because I believe—one of the seers with the crystal balls will get it right, and the world will end, not because it was predicted, but because the Creator of Heaven and Earth wants it done.

David isn’t wrong. Some day—maybe even this afternoon—every last knee shall bow.

That I too believe.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Zuni's "Big House" is gone

It is no more, but for a 100 years in Zuni there was only one “big house.”

To say it loomed over the pueblo risks understatement. Even in its declining years nothing in town could rival its massive triangular bulk. It was not just one-of-a-kind, it was defiantly so, as if some miscreant Kansas tornado dropped it in the middle of town.

The first buildings the Christian Reformed Church built at the Zuni pueblo were hardly spectacular, but the denomination hadn’t been in the mission business long. In fact, Rev. Herman Fryling and Andrew Vander Wagon were just about the first to leave west Michigan for mission fields teeming with what they called "the heathen." The CRC itself was only 50 years old; there wasn’t money for a mansion.

But the big mission house had to look like a mansion to Zunis, who lived in three-high adobe homes of square-cut Zuni brick. When the big house sprouted up in 1914, nothing looked anything like it in the pueblo, nor has there been anything like it for the entire next century. Nobody else had colonial windows, a spacious front porch, or a peaked gable jutting from a huge, swooping roof line. 

Zunis must have been as ashen-faced when it went up as those first missionaries were when they peeked at the Shalako dancers from those three upstairs windows. It’s just about impossible to imagine a cultural statement as in-your-face as “the big house” must have been when it was built, stud by straight-cut stud.

If you want to megaphone your intent to change people’s lives and hearts and their whole way of life, what on earth could the missionaries have done more effectively than put up the biggest, whitest house between Zuni and Gallup—or Zuni and Albuquerque? “Here we are,” that house preached. “Aren’t we something? Wouldn’t you like some of this too?”

Nothing could be more “American,” nothing more foreign, an American Craftsmen design that could have been from a Sears catalog but was likely created from a pattern by J. H. Davermen and Sons, house and church builders who just happened to be Dutch and CRC. Another sprawling Daverman home, probably the same floor plan, still stands at Rehoboth, just a bit east of the post office.

That big house was an icon of the cultural aggression missionary endeavor often was—or at least facilitated—a century ago. For someone like myself, a descendant of those who exercised sometimes unyielding control over the work at the turn of the 20th century and beyond, the big house, and what it so aptly symbolized, is something of an embarrassment because nothing could be more out-of-place than a hulking Midwestern frame house smack dab in the tawny heart of a New Mexico pueblo.

Maybe it was high time that big house came down. Maybe it’s a crime it took an entire century.

But a house becomes a home once it’s lived in, no matter how monstrous its style.  Zuni Mission’s two-story Daverman has been home, not only to dozens of families, but hundreds, even thousands of guests, Native and Anglo. It's listened in to a couple million prayers, lots of them said aloud and a gazillion more uttered in silence.

Real people lived in “the big house,” and real people have loved there too. They laughed hard I’m sure, and cried and fought hard too; some, regrettably, left in huff. It’s seen more than its share of life.

But a thousand heart-felt reconciliations have been made beneath its broad, sloping roof, lots and lots of human stories, some maybe a bit too intimate to retell, all of that life sheltered and sustained within those four wide walls. One early missionary conducted a good business as a dentist by pulling teeth right there in the kitchen.

One sad night in 1971, the fire that ravaged the mission threatened the big house next door. Zuni residents came to the rescue and hauled everything out to the river. Kathleen Klompien remembers seeing her refrigerator tip when it was lifted it up and out of the kitchen; she will never forget what was inside spilling out as they dragged that monster outdoors amid the smoke and heat so intense it broke windows and blistered paint.

After that devastating fire, those who worshiped in the sanctuary that burned down moved their worship to the big house basement, where the ceiling was so low that the hymns they sang had to rattle even those cement walls.

Verna Chavez is downright disgusted about its demise. She claims it really should have become a museum because so much history was lived within its walls. She hasn’t forgotten professing her faith in the basement, where she also baptized her daughter. The big house wasn’t a symbol of suppression or degradation to Verna Chimoni; it was a holy place.

People lived life there, ate and drank, played Monopoly and Rook and Uncle Wiggly, raised kids, had friends over, drank endless cups of coffee, baked a hundred thousand cookies. Old Zuni women used to knit together in the dining room.

When demolition of the big house began, dozens of tiny holes showed up in old cardboard insulation upstairs, where the Koning boys shouldered their BB guns and shot at targets and once in a while even themselves. Some of those BBs were still there years later.

Bannisters became slippery slides. The boys from the preacher’s downstairs apartment once strung wires up and 
a pair of tin cans so they could talk to the boys from the teacher’s family upstairs.

One young teacher kept a pet crow in a back room upstairs until that crow took off and got thumped by a car at the intersection just outside the front door. Ouch. In a flash, that dead crow was salvaged by a Zuni who had to think himself as blessed to come heir to a supply of sable feathers for Zuni ritual. Pity the poor teacher.

That big house may well be a symbol of cultural oppression; but most of those who lived there in the last century can remember times when someone—male or female, young or old, Zuni or Navajo or Anglo—showed up, any hour of the day or night, in a fit of turmoil that made being anything less than a good Samaritan unthinkable.

In the early 90s, a number of factors merged to put the whole Zuni Mission at great risk—low school enrollment, lack of funds, and other factors. News got out that the whole mission was tottering. People from the pueblo told Pastor Mike Meekhof not to let it happen, not because they were Christians, not because they’d ever professed the name of the God those missionaries have talked about for an entire century; but because, they said, the big house and the mission downtown was a citizen whose presence, they said, would be sorely missed. 

Such unsolicited comments were a joy, he says. When he asked them why they felt that way, some claimed they like to think of that big house and the mission itself as “a place of peace.”

Think of it this way. The big house fit in the pueblo like wingtips jutting out from a Navajo blanket, an ungainly symbol of perceived cultural superiority that could have made mission work doubly and triply difficult.

Still, it was sad—for everyone who has ever been there, inside and out—to see that massive icon tumble because through a century at the Zuni pueblo the big house became a home for hundreds of real people, even a church when it had to be.

Through an entire century of mission life, it has done far more than the old Heathen Mission committee ever asked. By God's own design, it
 became a great big ungainly place of peace.