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.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Sunday Morning Meds -- Process

“Why are you downcast, O my soul? 
Why so disturbed within me? 
Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, 
my Savior and my God.”

 One night late, years ago, a preacher friend of mine, over a few beers, starting talking about what he went through when his wife had left him, something that’s not supposed to happen of course, and certainly not supposed to happen to preachers. He didn’t blame her; he knew he’d had a hand in what happened himself, preacher or not.

At that late hour, with a bit of lubrication, I stayed with him when it appeared he wanted to talk. I sound as if I was using him, and maybe I was in a way; but what interested me was his use of a phrase I didn’t understand: “It took me a long time to process that,” he kept saying. “I didn’t have the tools at first to process what had happened.”

I’ll admit I thought it was psychobabble, cliché, a strange word drawn from what we do to legislation or cheese or brand new army recruits. But the emotion he carried as he told me the whole story made me wonder what that pat expression meant in the context of adultery in the life of a preacher. I wanted process unpacked.

By “process,” he said, he meant being able to look at the wound and not cry or rage. Process, he said, meant stepping back from the immediacy of the emotion, a step that wasn’t at all easy. And it took time, he said. And every step of getting past it took hard work. It was a process, like forgiveness.

It seems to me that in verse five of Psalm 42, David (if he’s the poet) seems to be processing something. The unforgettable opening verses of this moving psalm emerge from the core of the poet's grief; but verse five steps back from the darkness that threatens him. He begins talking to himself. “For pete’s sake,” he says, “what’s with me anyway? Why am I so incredibly depressed?”

Then he pulls out an old bromide he must not have been able to think of just a moment before, something he's always known just not experience. He reminds himself of what he’d often sung about in a whole hymnal of his own greatest hits, something the choking depth of his despair had hidden, even from him: “Put your hope in God,” he tells himself, he says to himself, as if he's been blind to the light. I think he's processing his sadness.

Picture him, gritting his teeth, almost a snarl, pulling intent and dedication out of truth he knew, inside out. He knows what's got to be done: “. . .I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.”

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe there’s a gap in this psalm. Maybe, like the preacher without a wife, it took him some time to process the emptiness, and this poem was written a decade later.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to consult some standard King David biography and discover that this song was finished years after it was started, that he’s simply, only now, telling the story?

We don’t know that, and no one ever will. All we’re left with the psalm. And in this verse—or so it seems to me—David seems to be bottoming out. Suddenly, he understands. First, there was total shock, then despair like nothing he'd ever felt before, and then, and only then, some recognition of the light he'd always known. “Put your hope in God”—that's command form, and that's what he tells himself.

In this verse, the story he's telling—and scholars don’t know the author nor the story that prompts it—is at its climax because the writer has stepped back and now he tells himself— shouts it out—“I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God” [emphasis mine, but I believe it's his too].

Sounds like a preacher friend of mine, talking to me over a beer years ago. Sounds like Job too. May well sound like a lot of us.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Book Review--Redeployment

War stories usually take on the motif of initiation because no one, thank goodness, is ever prepared for watching friends--buddies--die and die fitfully; war stories are always about men and women who are changed by warfare, changed forever. 

Experiencing the horror of war leaves those who do with memories as sharp as cut glass, stories you either tell or you don't. Many don't, but not telling them often means those stories create a din within the echo chamber one's mind and heart becomes. PTSD can result--at least that's the common wisdom.

The stories Phil Klay tells in Redeployment, a riveting collection of tales dug out of the Iraq war (does war used in that phrase get upper case yet, I wonder?) are not so much about not telling war stories. They're not about what veterans suffer for their silence. What Klay does so poignantly is explore the heartache one feels in telling them.

All vets, I suppose, are achingly conscious of the stories they have and can tell because they discover that some people somehow want to know them, for reasons that are both noble and ignoble, for everything from soulful empathy to sick entertainment.  Many want to know.

But the stories that changed the hearts and souls and minds of the vets who tell them can be manipulated or altered, reshaped for listeners simply because they hold such significant power. Tell them right and they can get you laid, several of his vets come to learn. But those storytellers also learn that toying with war experiences is its own minefield because manipulation risks discrediting both the stories and, they come to understand, the storytellers. 

What distinguishes Phil Klay's Redeployment from Tim O'Brien's Things They Carried has little to do with narrative power. Phil Klay had to have known and read O'Brien; his influence is everywhere. Some of Klay's stories, given a few deft time-and-place edits, would fit snugly within the covers of Things They Carried.

But Redeployment does something else: it studies war stories and their varied effects even while it tells them, which means it tells stories about telling stories; a hail of bullets becomes a hall of mirrors and, sadly enough, yet another form of PTSD. Klay's storytellers are haunted not only by what happened but also by how they try to explain what happened.

Redeployment creates its own echo chamber and the effect is stunning. Last week, Phil Klay walked away from the National Book Awards with the top prize, an award that is, to me, completely understandable. Like Things They Carried, Redeployment is not just a book you read, but a book you experience. 

Phil Klay was there in Iraq, a Marine, and it's evident throughout.  
When I got to the window and handed in my rifle, though, it brought me up short. That was the first time I’d been separated from it in months. I didn’t know where to rest my hands. First I put them in my pockets , then I took them out and crossed my arms, and then I just let them hang, useless, at my sides.
It may well be possible for someone who wasn't there to imagine that unique emptiness, but such sharp perception creates authority that's totally convincing. 

Redeployment takes us, time after time, into the equation all us experience when we are suddenly forced to grow up, and it does it with war, something none of us really want to experience.

That Phil Klay walked off with the National Book Award last week is absolutely great because his Redeployment is, quite frankly, a great book. The stories his storytellers spin--and what they think about and feel while spinning them--creates a hall of mirrors that's as fascinating as it is horrifying. 

This isn't a book for the beach. There are plenty of those. 

Redeployment's power is that it is, without a doubt, deadly serious, as is war itself.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Morning Thanks--Another Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving Day, 2005

Thanksgiving Day, 2007

Thanksgiving Day, 2014

It’s just before five on Thanksgiving morning in a dark house. My wife’s day-long preparations are ready. In a couple hours she’ll shove in the turkey, and then later we’ll feast—the whole family.

[Nothing's changed. We'll eat later because our son is flying home in the early afternoon--otherwise, same computer, same basement, same pix on the wall. And, of course, I'm now just two months from sixty.]

[We're in a new house, just a year old, and it's just after seven. It's a different computer, but same buy, really--Dell, refurbished. Sunrise is wide as the sky outside a huge window in a much different basement. There are tons of new pictures and things on new walls. Today, I'm two months from 67, which is to say, ancient. But we're all here, and there's a new member since my son was married. We love her too.]

I started this daily thanks business, betting on Garrison Keillor’s idea—with the hope that I’d smile more if I took a minute to thank the Lord almighty for something every day. He doesn’t need it, but I do.

[I don't regret doing the Keillor thing, spending an entire year in early morning thanksgiving--it was good for me. I really believed it was a wonderful concept for a book, but on that score I guess I was wrong. Been wrong a lot lately.]

[Often as not, I don't give morning thanks like I used to and, honestly, I think I'm missing it. Daily thanksgiving remains something as useful as fruits-and-vegetables and good hearty exercise. Better, in fact. I'm going to try to do it more often. Keillor is right.]

My son-in-law has a new job, my daughter is happy, and the two of them love each other and their kids.

[The new job has worked out well; lots of stress, but what else is new. They're still a happy family.]

[Oddly enough, he has a new job again--actually something of the old one. More important, he's happy, and, yes, they're still a happy family, although my granddaughter is no longer a child. She's become a young woman, a teenager.]

Our parents, despite their age, are doing well.

[But they're all two years older and two years closer to an end none of them fear and all wish would come quickly and easily.]

[Both of them are gone. Tomorrow would be my mother's birthday; she died just a year ago. It's a whole different world not having parents. There are no buffers between me and the grave. I miss them too. They're absence is itself a presence.]

Just a step out of the darkness for my son is hopeful, . . .

[he's doing very well in graduate school, even went to a big-time football game--he must like the girl who took him there]

[He's married, we love his wife, and all's well.]

--and those grandchildren—all they’ve got to do is show up and I giggle 

[well, these days I have to vie for attention, but they're still darling].

[They're great, but less ours than they ever were--or ever will be, I'm sure, seven years older than they were. Still, it'll be great to have them around.]

My wife and I have the loons on a lake in Minnesota

[although Bill and Nancy are selling, and while we'll get another summer, there will be no more northern Minnesota falls--unless we find some place new].

[We did, but we haven't been to northern Minnesota for three years now.  We miss it. But our new house still seems like a vacation home, way out here in suburban Alton, IA.]

This Thanksgiving morning I’m thankful that there’s always something, always hope, always the dawn.

[Amen and amen.]

[And amen again, and dawn is happening, for sure, right outside my window, as we speak, a glorious blessing, just one of a score.]

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Morning Thanks--Thanksgiving

There's no electricity this a.m. A car slid off the road and took out a pole that carried all our energy. It's been dark, completely, for an hour. I'm trying to type on a tablet, and it's not going well.

Thanksgiving can be spontaneous and often is. It doesn’t always require practice or dogged devotion. Hard times in our family are somewhat safely behind us, thank the Lord, but all I have to do is stumble over an image or walk along a familiar road somewhere, and the dark days find a way to sneak back in, my personal PTSD.

In days of old, I smoked a couple of cigarettes a day out in the barn. Standing there in the frozen cold, I remember the smoke drifting down, dissipating slowly in air so motionless that it seemed I was exhaling ghosts.  But what I also remember is that the spirit-like shapes of the smoke drew me back to an earlier time standing out there, a time when my nerves felt torn to pieces by bloody warfare in church. Just like that, total recall, uninvited totally.

I have no trouble saying I'm thankful all of that is ancient history, even if I wouldn’t mind a smoke. When I remember, I give thanks.

Still, I don't think it comes naturally for me--thanksgiving that is. I have to work at it. I have to discipline myself to do it because I’m hopelessly “Emersonian,” buoyed by self-reliance.

That pride is the first of the Seven Deadlies seems plenty obvious. There's some gluttony in me—especially this weekend; a bit of lechery I don’t like admitting; some greed, I imagine, but not a whole lot; lots of sloth, but, hey!—I’m retired. I'll admit to some envy--a really great camera, for instance; and okay, I get angry, maybe especially after elections. But none of those, in me, are capital offenses.

But pride? That’s huge. 

Me-firstness beclouds everything I do. Not arrogance--that’s a whole different thing; but the driving determination that what matters most about my life and my times and my fortunes are my life and my times and my fortune. That I got. In spades.

Most of us so cursed come off the factory line that way; it takes rugged heroism to bridle it, to love God above all and your neighbor as yourself. Such selfless regard is not human after all, it’s Godly, so much so that we know selflessness when we see it. And we remember it too.

That's why, speaking for myself at least, Thanksgiving turkey is medicine for the soul, a celebration of the discipline some of us have to be reminded to do--to give thanks. Gluttony may well be a sin this weekend, but tomorrow I say the end justifies the means.

Meanwhile, I'm still swallowed by darkness, tapping away at the tablet. The refrigerator isn’t running, the freezer isn’t either. Green lights from a dozen appliances are doused, and the darkness is appalling. Cold is creeping up my back as I sit here at the kitchen counter.

I’ve not panicked yet, although the power’s been out for close to an hour.  What on earth does one do when there is no power? You get out flashlights and light some candles, and in the curse of darkness you almost certainly give thanks for what you have when you don't, as I am now. 

There's always cause for thanksgiving, and the list is eternal. Tomorrow, right after dinner, we could go around the table and go on forever. 

I just need a nudge, like Thanksgiving.  You too?  You got my permission to take an extra helping of stuffing--if I've got yours.

This morning's thanks is for tomorrow's turkey or ham or spinach salad or those shocking cranberries. This morning's thanks is simple enough: it's for Thanksgiving.

And the light. Because it's back. The energy's on. Thanks, Lord, for that lineman in the hard hat just down the road, the one who spent a couple of cold hours up in the cherry-picker hitching up wires in the blowing snow. 

Make me good at it, Lord. Make it a discipline.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

"The threat was stopped"

"The threat was stopped," Darren Wilson told the grand jury investigating the death of Michael Brown on the street in Ferguson, Missouri. "The threat was stopped."

There's so much about the shooting of Michael Brown that can be understood in a very human way, in a way that doesn't even engage our nation's racism. There is, after all, Michael Brown's size--he was a big man, 6''4", 290 pounds. Darren Wilson claimed in his testimony that Brown came at him like Hulk Hogan. Brown was a big man; Wilson is no little guy, but Brown outweighed him by maybe 70 pounds.

And Michael Brown knew it, and when he said what he did after already being shot at, he poured salt in the wounds of Wilson who may well have seen himself as the wimp in this struggle. "You're too much a pussy to shoot me," Michael Brown said and came after him. 

Testosterone oozes from that line, and no one recognized that put down as deeply as the little cop holding a gun that had already misfired, the smaller guy with the big gun. 

Hulk Hogan is coming after him--Wilson says the kid looked like a demon--and Wilson's all alone in a street with a gun that doesn't work, and he's a cop--dang it!--he's not supposed to get beat up or worse by some Hulk Hogan kid who walked out of a store with a pack of cigarillos he didn't pay for. 

So, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang--and the last bullet goes into Hulk Hogan's head and tears out his brains. Hulk the demon goes down. 

And Wilson says, "The threat was stopped."

Yes, it was.

Take the racial stuff out, and you've still got an understandable story about two angry males-the big one mad, the little big one scared.

Once upon a time, a girl on a bike got hit on our corner. She lay there for a while until the ambulance came. Honestly, it didn't look good because there was blood, and it was coming out of her ear--that's what I remember most, that blood coming out of her ear. She was hurried off, and somewhere today she's just fine, all grown up, I'm sure, probably being a mom.

Not long after, two old men came out, neighbors on both sides of our house, retired gents. They came out with pails and brushes and cleaned up the site because her blood had stayed on the street and those two old codgers thought it proper that it not stay there. It was blood, after all, a little girl's blood.

Michael Brown's body lay in a heap inside a pool of his blood, stayed in the middle of the street for more than an hour. Every cop in the land knows that it shouldn't be moved--what was out there in the street was a crime scene, and crime scenes are not to be tampered with. Says so in the book, for pity sake. So Michael Brown's body stayed there, parts of his brains in a mess. 

Just imagine you're his neighbor, and you know the kid. He just graduated from high school. 

There's so much about that whole incident that's so understandable, even without race.

But if you're black and you know the kid and you heard the shots--twelve in all--and you see the white cop out there decked out in gizmos and badges and sidearms and whatever else, you can't help thinking that that the kid's body is out there forever, his blood flowing, for some other reason, something related to what you believe--that they all hate you, that they believe you're an animal anyway.

Throw race into it and the death of Michael Wilson becomes something much larger than some guy who's outweighed, the only guy with a gun, being scared to death of Hulk Hogan with a demon inside him. Throw race into it, and the whole story is a symbol of our nation's systemic racism. Throw race into the killing of Michael Brown and the story becomes mythic, and myths always take greater hold of our hearts than mere news stories. 

The protests--even the fires, the looting, the shootings--wouldn't have happened last night if, back in August, a big black kid hadn't gone after a white cop he outweighed by 70 pounds, a cop holding a gun that had already misfired, a cop who to this day says Michael Wilson was not Michael Wilson but Hulk Hogan, a demon, "the threat" that had to be stopped with ten shots from a sidearm. None of what happened would have if the wimpy cop hadn't filled that big body with bullets.

Darren Wilson even used the passive voice when he talked to the grand jury: "The threat was stopped," he said, with chilling remoteness. The 6'4" cop, the little guy, is still scared to death. "The threat was stopped," he said, as if the whole thing was exactly what the rioters last night claimed it was, something far, far bigger than a confrontation between a 210-pound cop and a 280-pound kid on a street in Ferguson, Missouri. Michael Brown wasn't Michael Brown; he was "the threat."

Lots of white folks would like to see the whole story in just that way--"the threat was stopped." Duty, facts, law and order.

The truth is, we all have sinned. We stand--all of us--in such great need of grace.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Morning Thanks--bare feet on a warm basement floor

Two or three days of cloudy respite, thick curtains of morning fog, yesterday's gentle surprise of a soft rain, and the snow just disappeared, stole away so completely it seems as if it hadn't arrived at all. 

But then sometime yesterday afternoon huge air masses somewhere far above rubbed each other the wrong way and kicked up northwest winds that stormed the neighborhood once again, making every thing shake and squeal and whine. 

We love our new house, but there's nothing out there behind us to fend off the beating we take whenever the wind turns terrorist, no tree line, nary a bush, so it comes in with a head of steam built up over miles and miles of open land. 

Winter's no picnic here, which is why it's just about time for the snowbirds to depart once more for warmer climes.

The Yankton Sioux pitched their teepees out here long ago, of course. The word is that just east of us, where the river takes a hairpin turn was a favorite place for camp because right there the land sits up high enough to see for miles and miles of what was then nothing but grassland, tall grass prairie. 

Fires burned inside those teepees, of course, but sometimes I can't help but wonder how they made it through so many Januarys when winds like the ones just outside our door maintained a siege. Whole families must have ducked under a ton of buffalo hides, as if hibernating.

The Reverend William Suckow remembers winters here during the 1880s, when, as a young pastor, he ministered to small gatherings of Yankee and German Methodist farmers who determined to make a life for themselves and their families in northwest Iowa. Here's what he remembers of a community of pioneers around Sibley.
In this community most farmers used slough grass for fuel. In the fall they built up big stacks of it. They would bring in a large armful at a time, throw it on the floor, twist it up and shove it into a small sheet-iron stove, or into the fire pot of the cook stove. It made a hot fire, but one of such brief duration that it took practically all of one person's time to carry and twist hay as fast as it was consumed, especially in cold weather. The condition of the floor and the room in general may be easily imagined. 
He remembers one family, the Widmans, "very humble circumstance, but warm-hearted and hospitable," where he'd stay when preaching in a nearby schoolhouse. It was early December, he says, when he'd determined to have a series of meetings, a revival. He and his young wife were staying at the Widman place. "The old lady fairly outdid herself in trying to make us comfortable," he remembers. 

But the family that cold winter's night was distracted. "They had just bought their first load of coal, and the entire family gathered around the kitchen stove to admire the blaze, commenting on the remarkable heat thrown out."

The image is just great, an entire family transfixed by the burgeoning heat of their old stove renewed by the the very first shovels full of coal. 

Nice people, affable, kind, and hospitable. "I conducted the series of meetings here," he says, "without being able to arouse much interest." 

I'm not sure how he thought he could compete with the rich blessing of a warm fire generated from the miracle of coal.

It's all of 23 degrees outside right now, but gusts of 35 miles an hour make it feel like single digits. We've had worse and we'll get worse, I'm sure. 

Down here in the basement of our new house, my only buffalo hide lies in state above the library, unused; and I'm sitting here with bare feet because the floor is heated.

I've got no reason to grouse about wind and temps, and all kinds of reasons this cold, late November morning for thanksgiving. 

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Sunday Morning Meds--"Ubi Sunt"

“These things I remember as I pour out my soul: 
how I used to go with the multitude, 
leading the procession to the house of God, 
with shouts of joy and thanksgiving among the festive throng.” Psalm 42

Those who don’t know David’s deep sadness in this verse are truly blessed, but I can’t believe there are many.

A decade ago or so I took a trip from Sioux City, Iowa, to Billings, Montana, up the Missouri River valley through the magnificent country explored 200 years ago by the Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery.  Much of that territory hasn’t changed dramatically; there are no cities to speak of, and most of the towns are dying and have been for a century or more.  Agriculture reigns throughout that region, even though making a living is just as tough as it ever was.  But the great joy of traveling the Lewis and Clark Trail a century after they did is that so much space, so much grandeur is still there waiting to awe.
I left the river and stopped at the 125th anniversary commemoration of the Battle of Little Big Horn, and then visiting a desolate place called “Wounded Knee.”  The whole trip was, for me, an epic journey, resulting in a novel—and more.  I fell in love with territory that keeps me dreaming of a life out there somewhere in the humbling reverie of so much open space and such a big, big sky.  These very words are part of that trip’s legacy.
One moment, however, was purely personal and unrelated to American history or wide prairie landscape, a moment in the Black Hills, where the Schaap family vacationed way back when our kids were kids.  Camping in the Hills was always a joy, the children so young they could spend all day on a beach no larger than a backyard and not complain a mite. 

I intended to drive through Center Lake campground, where we set up our tent.  But when I passed the lodge and store at Sylvan Lake, I was time-capsuled back to a moment when I stood in that very store and watched my two tow-head kids trying to determine which of the little Black Hills curios they were going to lug along home. 

The memory was crystal clear, almost a vision--their blonde heads, their innocent indecision, and myself, a young father who knew, honestly, little more than joy and pride and the wide horizon of expectation.  Back then, I too, it seemed to me, was an innocent.

I didn’t go into the store that day, just drove by; but when I came to the Center Lake turnoff a few minutes later, I didn’t go to the campground either but headed in the opposite direction. A visceral grief so profound I almost cried hit me like some unseen Black Hills bison, and I couldn't stop.

Ubi sunt, that grief is called in literature—a grief of soul at the transience of life, of my life and yours.  I know what what ubi sunt is. I taught literature for a lifetime; but that I knew it in a textbook didn’t heal the sad pain.

Today, remembering that moment, I can’t help but think about how much deeper Lakota grief must be for those Hills, the Paha Sapa, because Native memories are so much richer and so much more profound.  That’s another story for another day.

David’s lament in Psalm 42 has within it the same profound lament for how things were and how those things are no more.  His may well be the original ubi sunt.

Put yourself in a grand memory, a place and time now totally unreachable. Think of the Lakota at Pine Ridge, not that far away, remembering the joy of Paha Sapa.  Think of me turning away from Center Lake.  Think of David and that unforgettable mad dance of his before the ark.  That’s what’s haunting him, and that’s why he needs God. 

As I do.  As you do too.  As all of us do, I think. 

Friday, November 21, 2014

Acts of love and grace

Okay, maybe it's a fund-raiser, I'm not sure, but even if it is, I'm happy to say that tomorrow night my wife and I will be attending a gala feast spread before us and others by a local Spanish-speaking church. Like most of the rest of the world, I could eat Mexican food two or three times a day, even its cheesy American descendants--although Taco Johns is pushing it. So I'm going to enjoy this dinner, whether or not someone stands up and asks for bucks.

I'm not a member of this church, and I've only rarely attended. I know no Spanish at all. Count me among the ugly Americans whose lingual dexterity is a downright shame. Ever since high school German, I've been scared to death of foreign languages. No matter. I'm going to the dinner--we're going; and we're proud to attend because hands down, in the last 20 years what other Sioux County Christians have done for this little church and the people it serves is a portrait of grace.

A quarter-century ago 35,000 people without a tease of color lived here in monochrome with roots in Holland, Germany, and Luxembourg. Then, as if out of nowhere, all kinds of Hispanics showed up and tinted the portrait, taking jobs for a whole lot less pay than locals would have tolerated if they wanted to take those jobs at all. Last year, right here in Orange City's Windmill Park, hundreds of people were entertained by a mariachi band from Hawarden. You read that right--at mariachi band from Hawarden. Who'd a' thunk?

Just a month ago, in west Africa, I heard Muslim men and Muslim women praise local medical professionals. They'd look right into my eyes and tell me how wonderful it was that the Christian men and women right there in the office, taking their babies' temps, were a glorious blessing. That "They'll Know We Are Christians By Our Love" isn't my favorite hymn of all time, doesn't mean its intent is somehow skewed. "They" will. When believers aren't loving, they're dead, in every which way.

I know Navajo Christians who have come to the faith because long, long ago, grandfathers or grandmothers were blessed by the only hospital near the reservation, the one at Rehoboth mission. Native folks--Zuni and Navajo--came to trust the mission not because they understood or trusted the Christian faith, but because Christians showed them love, acted in a way those Navajos equated with what they believed in their own tradition was "the beauty way."

Christians win when they act in love, and I'm one who believes that what President Obama did last night was just that, a long overdue act of love.

Republicans grand-slammed a couple of weeks ago, sweeping the sweeps, winning everything in sight, thoroughly repudiating the President. This morning they're understandably angry because a man they so thoroughly despise gave five million undocumented workers and their families some room to breathe, some love.  

And when he did, he put the ball in their court. My own congressional rep swings one of the biggest racquets. His impeachment bluster has been wearying. Now Rep. King will have to get in the game, do more than chatter on the sidelines. But if he and his cohorts repeal what was done last night, they'll have to answer to a national electorate that, like Sioux County, is far less monochrome than it once was. 

Stay tuned. It'll be interesting.  

Me? I'll be at that dinner tomorrow night. It ought to be good. 

In every way. 

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The glory of gossip

They call him an evolutionary psychologist, but don't hold that against him. What he does is try to unearth the story behind some human behaviors, assuming that those behaviors develop over time, which, of course, they do. I don't think there's any monkeys in Robin Moore's lab at the U. of Liverpool. He studies language.

The thing is, his analysis suggests that the primary use of languagae may well be, well, gossip. That's right. Don't whisper a word of this, okay? “Language in freely forming natural conversations," he says, "is principally used for the exchange of social information." According to an article in the Atlantic, Prof. Moore says language itself may have developed out of the human need, yes, to talk about other people. 

Say, did you hear about what happened in Hawarden?

A half-century ago already, my father-in-law and I went downtown Orange City to pick something-or-other up from a store. I remember that day clearly because I was, back then, a resident of Phoenix, Arizona, a city where I lived in a burgeoning suburb complete with a sprawling metro mall and all the accouterments of city life, including, in spades, anonymity.

My wife and I had come back to rural Iowa for a visit, and the story on the street that day was of a kid injured in an accident. I don't remember the story, but what I never forgot is how different life was in small town U. S. of A., because several times, on the street, people stopped to chat with my father-in-law, and inevitably the physical condition of that kid came up. They all knew what happened, they all wanted to share their concern, they all wanted to know more. 

I loved it. I understood what was going on, having grown up in a small town, but I realized that day that there was but a hairline between sheer, unadorned gossip and vital moral concern. 

What evolutionary psychologist Moore is saying, or so the Atlantic claims, is that gossip, generally considered the black plague of small towns, is actually a blessing.
As the study explains, “by hearing about the misadventures of others, we may not have to endure costs to ourselves,” by making the same mistake. And because negative stories tend to stick better in the mind than positive stories, it makes sense that gossip about people who violated norms would be more instructive than gossip about people who are really great at norms.
Okay, confession.
Once upon a time I was part of a men's small group who got together early in the morning, for prayer. Okay, I had selfish reasons: I was trying to develop more piety. I met for weeks with them, but eventually stopped coming because I came to believe--like some wretched apostate--that more than half of what was said in those quiet moments was flat-out gossip. Public prayer gave us the occasion to talk about other people's twists and turmoils; I had the distinct feeling it fashioned gossip into sacrament. 

And now an evolutionary psychologist from Liverpool suggests that maybe I was wrong to hang up the prayer shawl. We were, back then, forming and nurturing, even creating community while building our own individual character. 

Gossip's aim, traditionally, at least, is to destroy, while concern for others builds them up as well as ourselves. Still, I can't help but believe that the lines, sometimes, are blurred. "People spend most of their conversational capital talking about other people," the Atlantic piece says in conclusion, "not just because it’s fun, but because it’s useful."

Well, all right, but it feels like one of those butter/margarine things. You're told your whole life that butter is anathema until one day someone with a pedigree claims that we'll all build healthy lives by eating just like grandma did--nothing better than butter. Say, what?

And now gossip's a glory. Okay.

Hey, want to go out for coffee? You can't believe what I heard.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Morning Thanks--Solemnity

In our home, going to church and Sunday school on Sundays was taken for granted as much as father's going to his shop or my going to school on Mondays. Young as I was, I never thought it a hardship to go to church, for a natural interest in the things of religion was a part of my inheritance. So far as I can recall, I never carried away a single idea from the sermons I heard, due, no doubt, to the fact that the preaching was entirely beyond the grasp of my juvenile mind. But the hymns, the prayers, the fact that we were in "the house of God," and the general solemnity of the occasion all combined to give to the services a profound significance which, although I could not fathom it, nevertheless had its influence in building up the fabric of my personality.
Rev. William Suckow grew up just after the Civil War. Here, he's writing about a church he attended as a boy in Albany, New York. Most of the memorable stories he tells of his childhood are very much "of his time"--how his father's bringing home a pineapple every July 3 stretched the joy of Fourth of July into something unforgettable, how the whole family sat around the stove in unforgettably radiant heat the first time they shoveled it full of coal.

But honestly, even though I grew up a century later, I could have written the paragraph he did about what he experienced in church as a kid.

"...was taken for granted." Not once do I remember my parents chasing us out of bed. I don't remember aching to go to church twice on Sunday, but neither do I ever remember griping about it, not even when we couldn't watch the end of Lassie. As a child, I don't think I ever saw church as a burden. Sabbath rest?--sure. But not church. It was simply taken for granted.

"...a natural interest in the things of religion was a part of my inheritance."  My father grew up in a parsonage, where religion and faith created the interior design of the household. He built his own home that way too. And my mother was forever a Mary, not a Martha. Sunday guests at our place often included visiting preachers she loved to pester with questions. My parents' abiding interest in things of faith was, I think, pure destiny for me.

"...I never carried away a single idea from the sermons I heard."  I'm sure those ideas are tucked away in some hidden synapse somewhere, but the only thing I remember about the preachers I listened to, Sunday after Sunday, is their distinctive mannerisms. Van Someren had a softness to him, a slight lisp, and alabaster hands, unusual in a congregation of masons, carpenters, and farmers; Olthoff always carried a nervous little naughtiness to him, and a penchant for saying unexpected things. Exoo's fiery profundity was thrilling. Piersma was earthy and powerfully dynamic. I remember each of them--and others--preaching, but not their sermons. I don't remember anything of what they said, which doesn't mean what I heard isn't up there somewhere in my head.

"But the hymns, the prayers,. . ."  I've been working outside more since retirement than I had been for three or four decades before. I've worked with my hands, piling stone on stone for retaining walls, mindless work reallly, but all the while I've been delightfully beseiged by ditties that emerge from nowhere at all--"Give Said the Little Stream," "The Ninety-and-Nine," "I Will Make You Fishers of Men," "Little Soldiers of Jesus are Marching Along," "Praise Him, Praise Him, All Ye Little Children." A ton of others.  They bubble up as if my mind is artesian hymnal.

"...the fact that we were in "the house of God." One night--I don't know why we were in alone in church--we got down on our backs and whizzed up and down the hardwood floor of the sanctuary by pulling ourselves along by the pews above us. It was great, I remember, in part because we did it in pure silence; after all, we were in church, in "the house of God." Maybe for that reason, just a little bit sinful, too.

"...and the general solemnity of the occasion. . ."  I suppose today, it would be judged boring, but what, as a child, I didn't understand about what happened in worship was not as important as what I did pick up--and that is, that what happened in worship was so important it was accomplished in solemnity. 

I wonder if I've ever used that word in a couple of thousand blog posts. I doubt it. It's probably not greatly honored in what Pope Francis has called "the poisonous environment of the temporary." But the Reverend William Suckow, former pastor of churches in Hull and Spencer and Hawarden, father of one of Iowa's most read writers, uses it in the paragraph above in a way I understand, a way that resonates with joy and earnest importance, with solemnity itself.

"..all combined to give to the services a profound significance."  I may not be as pious as I once was. I may not be as spiritual as my mother would have liked, but what happened in church in my childhood was certainly a profound significance in my life, as these letters and these words, right now, marching out across the screen before me clearly attest.  I'm not lying about any of this because "the fabric of my personality" has been and will be forever shaped by a childhood in and around the church, in and through worship.

And all of that, I know, is a gift of faith itself for which I'm greatly thankful. But then the Calvinist in me says faith itself is always a gift from God. 

I sound just like my father and my mother when I say things like that.  

And that's okay.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

"Out of Africa" (xv) -- To be a fool

If cars and trucks were military recruits, I can only imagine what life would be like the day a new division finished basic and were deployed. "Pvt. Chevy," some Lieuwy might say, "it's rural Iowa." He turns to the next grunt. "Pvt. Camry--rural Africa." 

Stunned silence. "Rural Africa" is a death warrant.

Probably overstatement, but not by much.

For a lot of reasons, I don't know that I'd like to be a little SUV on the pock-marked highways of rural Africa. There are no gas stations. Okay, there are a few, but most of them seemed deserted or out of petrol. 

But I learned a lesson in a squealing Toyota RAV4 on those banged-up highways: in Africa don't be fooled by what's not there.


The little Toyota was full of us and stuff, the temp outside hot, swampy and dank, as it always is. That little SUV worked hard to kick out cool air, but when the temps went up inside and the engine started squealing, it seemed to me that out there in the middle of nowhere we'd just lost some kind of belt. I figured we'd probably stay on the road, just swelter for the next several hours. I don't know how far we'd have had to drive to get to a Toyota dealer--maybe Benghazi, and who in their right mind would want to go to Libya anyway?

Nothing makes you feel so much a fool as not knowing the language, so what follows is what I could translate, a dumbhead foreigner.

We get off the pavement that's not always there when we get to a village.  In Africa, a village is a village, not a town. A village is what we might call a compound where, often, an extended family lives and moves and has its being. Some villages are larger, and this one was--but don't be fooled. At best, think Alton or Winesburg--everyone knows everyone. 

The driver is African, a Christian, a nurse, the administrator at the clinic we've just visited, a great guy. He knows his way around, but even he is a long ways from home. Twice he stops to ask questions as we leave the highway--once for a couple of little girls in a swarm of sheep. They point up ahead somewhere, maybe a hundred yards or so, where he parks, walks up to some men around a tiny fire, and asks, I assume, for the local grease monkey. 

There's no station here, no sign, no cute machine dispensing peanuts, no Coke, no display of windshield wipers. I don't even see any tools. If anything, the place is a junkyard, old cars and trucks willy-nilly, hither and yon, all shamefully abused, none of them ever going to run again. 

A young guy, a kid, emerges from the pure darkness of a tin-walled shack. He's thin, wiry, all business. He listens to our guy explain the problem, opens the hood, then swings under the truck. Then he gets up and goes to the back of some unrecognizable car that hasn't run for years and picks a couple of wrenches out of a lidless trunk, his tool box.

He gets down again, swings back under the car, yanks and jerks a bit, then comes out with a handful of metal gizmo. He bangs around a bit, twists and wrenches at it, picks apart that whatever-it-is, until he's got what he's looking for.

Then he and our driver jump on a moped--two grown men on a 90-cc moped--and leave. I'm sitting around the fire with guys who offer me tea after pouring it the way preachers pour communion wine--up and down and up and down. 

Ten minutes max, and the two of them are back. This thin young guy sticks a part no larger than a hickory nut back into the gizmo he's pulled out from under the Toyota, reassembles whatever it was he'd hacked off, dives under the car once again, then stands up, takes the key from the driver, starts the truck, and the two of them drive off again. 

Five minutes later, they're back, and we're off in a cool Toyota.

I have no idea where on earth that wily mechanic got a bearing for the motor of our air conditioner. Think Africa here, for pity sake--think huts and mud and dirt amid a scramble of sheep, goats, and belly-aching roosters. Somehow, he got that bearing. 

And in a good deal less than an hour, we were back on the road. Not freeway, road. 

If we'd lost that bearing somewhere just east of us on Hwy. 60, if we'd driven that wounded RAV into, say, Orange City, and started hunting for a mechanic to keep us from heat prostration, I honestly can't imagine we'd be up and running, back on road in less than an hour, the air conditioner pumping out relief.

It happened, I'm telling you. No quotes, because I didn't understand a word that was said. But all the way back, we had air.

And that's why I'm telling you what I had to learn:  in Africa don't be fooled by what's not there because it probably is.

Monday, November 17, 2014

First Snow

First Snow (upper case) is supposed to fall from heavenly clouds that spill feathers. It's supposed to descend as if Mother Nature, somewhere up above, opened her comely hands to the world and layered it gently in alabaster.

Supposed to. Last week, instead, our first snow came in sideways, riding a northwest wind angry enough to rip off your face with its disgraceful cold. I tried unsuccessfully to head it off at the pass when I was in Edmonton, where three inches of snow fell; but I couldn't stifle its reach. All week long, those evil winds continued their way down from Alberta. Three weeks before Thanksgiving, we were besieged by January.

This weekend was no better. On Saturday, it took me at least an hour more than it should to get to the Twin Cities, even though I took the high road, the interstate, hoping for open pavement. Wasn't to be. Get behind a truck or plow, and you lose all semblance of human choice. You're nothing more than four frozen tires.  

So yesterday, on the way back, I couldn't help but wonder how the old settlers from Traverse des Sioux were doing along that country road north of St. Peter. You can't help but feel a little sorry for those old folks buried beneath the first snow.

Besides, there are a few old missionaries there--and their families, and I've got some sympathy for them, had just talked about another bunch in an adult Sunday School. They're generally despised these days, simply cast as the front wave of America's own colonialism and the death of Native cultures from Massachusetts to Marin County. But then, the Dakota in southern Minnesota couldn't help seeing them as the white man's back-robed Special Forces. Those missionarites never thought of themselves that way. They were committed abolitionists out to bring some justice and grace and love to victims of hate. 

In 1935, this man, Rev. Thomas Williamson, was the first ordained Presbyterian pastor to come to Minnesota territory. He put down a pulpit in western Minnesota, where he ministered to the Dakotas for years and years.

But there are others out there too, lots of old settlers, all of them well acquainted with Minnesota cold. They likely kid each other about it now that winter's  once again settling in. After all, they were here when the only heat was wood fires, when the only homes were made of sod or rough-cut timber. I'm sure First Snow wasn't as joyless to them as it was to me, in the Honda Pilot, heated seats too. 

Here's a man killed in the Dakota War of 1862--Amos W. Huggins, slain on August 19, 1862

His gravestone stands alongside his brother's, who was gravely wounded at what the stone calls "The Battle of New Ulm," August 23, just four days after brother Amos had been killed. What happened to Alex and Lydia Huggins, the parents, I don't know; but a chapter of their story will be told in these two stones until the stones themselves crumble. Rufus A, just 16 years old, was mortally wounded in August, but didn't die of those wounds, the stone says, until December 16. I wonder if Alex and Lydia ever got over their losses.

I don't think any of the residents were all that thrilled to have a visitor set footprints in the first snow. They're not particularly concerned about who might set foot up on the hill, first snow or not. After all, they've been residents here for a long, long time.

Who knows? Maybe they chatted about it later--"Anybody know that heavy-set stranger in the black stocking cap? Iowa licence on that Honda, too yet."  

It was frigid out there yesterday on a Sabbath afternoon--single digits, I'm sure.  But the long winter shadows of all those skeletal hardwoods on a forest floor of first snow made the whole place feel like a cathedral. 

"For what is life," the scripture etched on Rufus's stone asks, a line that doesn't end with a question mark because that first sentence isn't really a question but an introductory clause to what follows:  "It is even a vapor that appeareth for but a little time and then vanisheth away." 

Which is why, I guess, a half hour visit to the settlers cemetery in the company of those old missionaries, even in old-fashioned Minnesota-cold, was more than enough to warm the soul.  

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Sunday Morning Meds--Hearing Voices

“My tears have been my food day and night, 
while men say to me all day long, 
'Where is your God?'"
Psalm 42

When my alma mater called to ask if I’d be interested in leaving Arizona and coming back to Iowa, I never really considered not going.  I loved high school teaching because I loved high school kids; but I understood that if I were ever going to write, I’d have to teach in college, where there simply is more time.

Greenway High School was brand new, on the edge of a northern suburb of Phoenix.  I’d been hired precisely because I was a Christian.  I was also male, experienced, and newly outfitted with a masters degree; those were also factors.  But, illegal or not, I got the job on the basis of my faith.  The district interviewer, a man named Bill Sterrett, was a Christian too.  That’s another story.
Only two years later, a college teaching offer in my hand, I decided to leave.  When I told Mr. Sterrett, I got scorched.  He looked up from behind his desk and shook his head.  “Why would you want to go there?” he said.  “Everybody there is just like you.”  He slapped that desk lightly with his hand.  “Here, you’re really different.”
Mr. Sterrett died several years ago, but that line still reverberates through the echo chamber that is my soul because he was right.  We’re not talking about the difference between Vanity Fair and the Celestial City—there’s far too much manure in the air to make any heavenly claims about up here in Siouxland.

But living out my allotted years in a burgeoning new suburb of a huge metropolitan area would have made me a different person than spending those years in an ethnic conclave huddled against the winds on the edge of the Great Plains.  I chose the monastic life, and, as Frost would say, that choice has made all the difference.

I say all of that because in my many years here I’ve never been anywhere near someone who might say to me, sardonically, in my distress, “So, Jim, where the heck is your God?”  Hasn’t happened—and won’t.  I am surrounded by a cloud of believing witnesses. 

Had I stayed in urban, public education and American suburbia, I’d know people who would ask me the very question David that burns in his soul.  Some of them are still friends.  Last summer I got an email from an old teaching buddy, a “jack” Mormon, who wouldn’t let the silliness of my faith rest, in fact, because he’s quite adamant about not having any himself.

But I’ve been cloistered for nearly forty years here, and those few voices who might mock my faith are accessible only on-line.  That doesn’t mean, however, that I don’t hear those burning questions.  They rise, instead, from inside me somewhere; and what I’m wondering this morning is this:  if I’d have stayed in a more diverse neighborhood, would the voices I would have heard supplant the ones I now do, the ones from inside?  What would be the pitch of my own personal faith?
Those questions are here, even in the cloister, and they are packaged in the same taunting voice David heard.  That voice I swear I hear, that burning question, even in a cloud of witnesses.

But I’m thankful, very thankful, that God almighty has given me, as he did David, a faith that won’t let me take those voices to heart, even though I hear ‘em.  Only by grace, do I come anywhere near to having a faith that is equal to that task.