Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Floyd River walk


I've never been to Walden Pond, but I know the area like the back of my hand. For forty years I trekked around at least some of it every fall, pulled on boots and became a guide when my students visited, guests of Henry David Thoreau's writing. 

Living out here in the country, I think of Walden Pond often because Thoreau's mission for the two years he stayed out there was to gain what wisdom nature had to teach--and not miss it, engaged as most of us are, he'd say, in lives of "quiet desperation."

I'm no prophet. I'm not pointing fingers, like he did. And I never thought of my life as anything close to "quiet desperation."

But I think of Thoreau often because the world outside our windows changes so bountifully. The tracks in that shot above belong to a deer who waltzed through our backyard in the darkness just a night ago. He or she was alone, but there are stories left behind in the new snow. You may notice that she was in no hurry.

Change is coming now and again to the river out back, the Floyd, named such by none other than Lewis and Clark. The levels are high now, after three fine snowstorms, none of them blizzards, which is very unusual out here. Generally snow comes sideways and takes your face off unless you cover up. Not this winter. Snow has been peaceful, a lightweight quilt of soft cold a foot deep. You walk in it, not on it. 


So it looks like this. Honestly, snow has no business looking so beautiful here. What's more, the warm temps have kept the river open longer into the winter season. On other Christmases, we've hiked the river after dinner. This year we could have canoed. 

But it won't be long now before we can hike the river again. Look at this.


The open water feels especially dramatic and runs hard and fast when there's so little of it between the expanding swells of snow and ice. 

What's more, it looks exceptionally clean. Agri-business isn't kind to rivers. Generally, they take a beating, along with those who reside within them. In mid-summer, there's basically an off-color trickle here; but yesterday when I was out, the river and its environs seemed blessedly prelapsarian. 


It made me think of what the place might have looked like when the Yanktons were out here on the land. The Floyd was rich and full and running wild. In The History of Sioux County, when Charley Dyke talks about the rivers and sloughs that once were here, he describes them teeming with life, with game fish and elk. Not all that far from here, Lewis and Clark climbed Spirit Mound and spotted their first herd of buffalo.

Okay, I'm dreaming; but yesterday, in a powdery foot or more of untrammeled snow neighboring on an abundant, healthy stream, just being out there and alone was its own kind of vision quest. 

And I didn't have to look long either. 


Or far. 


In "Economy," the first chapter of Walden, Thoreau spells out what he would like to say about wealth. Were he here, over my shoulder, I'm sure he'd say that a day out back on the river, a perfect winter's day, grants riches untold. 

But then, he was a romantic writer, wasn't he? --a dreamer, right?

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Wounded Knee--125 years ago



Dr. Charles Eastman, a Yankton Sioux medical doctor who practiced medicine at the Pine Ridge reservation, visited the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre three days after it was over. Suspicions arose that there still might have been survivors.
On the third day [the snowstorm] cleared, and the ground was covered with an inch or two of fresh snow. We had feared that some of the Indian wounded might have been left on the field, and a number of us volunteered to go and see. I was placed in charge of the expedition of about a hundred civilians, ten or fifteen of whom were white men. We were supplied with wagons in which to convey any whom we might find still alive. Of course, a photographer and several reporters were of the party.  
I counted eighty bodies of men who had been in the council and who were almost as helpless as the women and babies when the deadly fire began, for nearly all their guns had been taken from them. 
Dr. Charles Eastman
Fully three miles from the scene of the massacre, we found the body of a woman completely covered with a blanket of snow, and from this point on we found them scattered along as they had been relentlessly hunted down and slaughtered while fleeing for their lives. Some of our people discovered relatives or friends among the dead, and there was much wailing and mourning. 
It took all of my nerve to keep my composure in the face of this spectacle, and of the excitement and grief of my Indian companions, nearly every one of whom was crying aloud or singing his death song. The white men became very nervous, but I set them to examining and uncovering every body to see if one were living. Although they had been lying untended in the snow and cold for two days and  nights, a number had survived. 
Luther Standing Bear
Among them I found a baby of about a year old warmly wrapped and entirely unhurt.. . .Under a wagon I discovered an old woman, totally blind and entirely helpless. A few had managed to crawl away to some place of shelter, and we found in a log store nearby several who were badly hurt and others who had died after reaching there.
Luther Standing Bear, a schoolteacher at the Rosebud reservation, could not help but rethink his personal commitment to change and accommodation to the ways of white people. 
When I heard of this, it made my blood boil. I was ready myself to go and fight then. There I was, doing my best to teach my people to follow in the white men's road--even trying to get them to believe in their religion--and this was my reward for it all! The very people I was following--and gett my people to follow--had no respect for motherhood, old age, or babyhood. Where was all their civilized training?
Beneath an ordinary hill on the open plains of southwest South Dakota, all kinds of Sioux men and omen and children lay dead, exactly 125 years ago this morning. A snowstorm kept most away, in fact. Eastman and his company of first responders didn't go out on rescue operations for three whole days. 

But a photographer went with, so you don't have to imagine what they discovered. Those photographs exist. 



Among the dead lay the people's leader, Big Foot, who had been sick with pneumonia before the massacre, but on that morning was killed by the Seventh Calvary. He is very dead in this picture, his body frozen.



On Monday, December 28, we stopped by the South Dakota Cultural Center in Pierre, a place I've visited many times, the kind of museum that tells the important stories of its people very, very well, beginning with a wonderful exhibit of Native artifacts, a glimmering storefront of incredible Lakota beadwork.



The real museum docent you meet the moment you walk into the exhibits is a great, furry-coated beast so very central to the Lakota people and to state history.




as well as a full-sized model teepee.



Because we were there the day before the 125th anniversary of the Wounded Knee Massacre, I looked for some kind of exhibit, and found it--at long last--in a corner of the museum that was particularly poorly lit. This is the Cultural Center's Wounded Knee exhibit.



Note the splash of light on the glass to the right. The only way I could make the exposure was to engage the flash because it was dark in that corner, very dark. The picture taped to the wall at far right, on top, is a closeup of that same shot of Big Foot's body. But this is it--six pictures taped on a cracked wall in a dark corner of the Cultural Center.

The question I asked myself is a question for which I have no answer--is the fact that the story is told so incidentally and stuck in a back corner a good thing or bad thing? Does remembering what happened at Wounded Knee make us all essentially victims of our own sordid history? Or does not knowing our own history--our own Great Plains history--constitute a kind of national senility? 

125 years ago there were corpses all over the landscape at a place so out of the way today that few ever bother to drop by. They were there because of a slaughter that for all practical purposes ended the Great Sioux Wars of the 19th century.

When they were buried, those misshapen bodies were simply tossed in a mass grave.



Maybe the Cultural Center is right in putting the whole story in a dark, back corner. Maybe after 125 years it's high time those horrible frozen corpses are buried once and for all. 

Or are they already? 

For most of us, I think yes. 

But not for others, not for many others.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Triumph of the Angry


How Time chose Andrea Merkel for the 2015 Person of the Year is understandable. Keeping the European Union afloat was a task that required superhuman skills (well, requires because dissolution is still a possibility). What's more, in a year of massive displacement of populations, her determination to admit thousands upon thousands of Syrian refugees must seem to most Americans, most Republicans at least, and, post-San Bernadino, all Republican Presidential aspirants, perfectly insane.

Truth be told, to homebody Americans, Person-of-the-Year Merkel couldn't hold a candle to the U. S. of A's ace noisemaker, Donald Trump, who single-handedly sucked the oxygen out of newsrooms all year long. When the Donald declared his candidacy, John Stewart turned green right there before our eyes because The Daily Show's veteran host had already announced his retirement. The opportunity to skewer Trump made Steward wilt in envy.

Of course, at that moment, no one believed Trump would triumph as he has. Right  now, most polls have him at double the strength of any one else. In fact, Texas's Ted Cruz is in second, a man who reportedly is disliked by most of the people who know him well and has basically been drafting behind the Trump phenom.

Trump has destroyed Jeb Bush, just as he destroyed Wisconsin's Scott Walker, both of whom pundits with significant Washington cred once upon a time simply assumed would be front-runners.

The fact is, no one totally understands how the Donald has done what he has, and these very words are proof of the fact that people--me too!--can't stop talking about him. The accepted wisdom is simply that the Donald Trump has tapped into something that no one else has, some vein of something almost radio-active in the electorate.

If the common wisdom is accurate, then living in American democracy is far more precarious than I would have guessed a year ago. After two long years of almost total government inaction and hostile bickering that most claim to be more acidic than it's ever been, it's no surprise that people are sick to death of the way things are.

Still, the numbers are daunting. A new CNN poll, just released, claims 75% of Americans are "dissatisfied with the way the nation is being governed," while 69% claim to be "at least somewhat angry."

That's really incredible, but it's not new. Those percentages are similar to what they were at the end of 2014. 

Trump's base is with those angry people, and especially with those people. Among Trump's millions, 97% are dissatisfied. That's huge.  And he's scoring at what?--40% of the Republican electorate.

So the vein of radio-active sentiment Trump has discovered and so successfully tapped into, something no one else had as efficiently, is simply downright angry Americans, people totally at odds with the system, the culture, the entire American pageant as we know it today. Let me just repeat that one more time. Among Trump's loyal followers, 97% believe are "dissatisfied" with life as we know it in America. 

Maybe it's a good thing that Mr. Trump has uncovered this seething mess, but it's greatly unsettling to have to believe so many Americans really despise "how things are." That's immense disenchantment. 

"Democracy is the worst form of government," said Winston Churchill, "except for all the others."

What Trump has discovered and exposed and nurtured is something apparently no one else has--real palpable dissatisfaction with the way things are. It's there. In spades.

I don't care what anyone says, that it is, is scary. They're following a man who once told reporters he could not remember ever asking forgiveness. That's really scary.

I'm not among that 97%. I greatly prefer Andrea Merkel.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Preaching



Just for the record, what the op-ed piece says is that the coming of Christ changed the way the world thinks. When God became man in the person of a child in a manger, nothing stayed the same.

That miraculous birth, he says, ended the reign of the kind of Platonism that divided the spiritual and the natural by making, in essence, the natural spiritual. Instead of a mindset that determined the natural world to be evil and the spiritual world to be good, Christianity affirmed the beauty and utility and even the holiness of the world, a world God loved so greatly that he gave his only son.

That's not all, he says. There's more. When the Word became flesh, that action made it perfectly clear that human beings have real worth, real dignity. Christianity asserts that each one of us--all of us, not just some of us--have divine worth, which is to say, worth to the Divine. We carry his image. "The incarnation also reveals that the divine principle governing the universe is a radical commitment to the dignity and worth of every person, since we are created in the divine image." That's the way he says it.

Perhaps as an offshoot of that particular premise, he says it's not wrong to say that Christianity did a great deal to make all of us more cognizant of suffering and more willing to help those who are, even the strangers within our gates. After all, Christianity did much to end slavery and racial injustice.

Oh, and one more thing. He claims that the story of Jesus Christ isn't a philosophical textbook. Well, it may be, after a fashion, but more importantly it operates as good stories always do--they provide models of behavior for us. We see Christ's compassion for the woman at the well, and we begin to understand that our own behavior should also be ruled by a similar compassion.

Does that mean that only Christians are caring and loving? Would that could be true, but as everyone knows, it's not. And he says as much, too.

But it's all there, in case you're wondering. You may have missed it. Peter Wehner's wonderful essay came out on Christmas Day. It's possible you didn't read it, Christmas being Christmas.

In case you missed it, you can read it here.

That's right--in the New York Times.

The next time someone talks about "the lame-stream media" or "the liberal press," don't forget that you saw it here, in the New York Times, an argument for the wonderful efficacy of Christ's birth, of the life of our Lord.

And the next time some Presidential candidate tries to make hay out of how it is that Christianity is in jeopardy all across the great U.S.of A., wince a little. It's just not true. As Marilynne Robinson herself once reminded me, if her fine novels are translated into Persian and published in Iran, it means Christians are not powerless to tell the story.

Much depends on how the story is told. When Christ told us to go into all the world and preach the gospel, he didn't publish a style manual. There are Billy Grahams and Pat Robertsons, but there are also Peter Werners and Marilynne Robinsons.

The gospel will find a way even if and when some of us think we're powerless and it won't. Jesus Christ is not to be stilled.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Sunday Morning Meds--Groaning


“I remembered you, O God, and I groaned; 
I mused, and my spirit grew faint.”
Psalm 77:3

There have been times in church when I nearly lost my wife. Maybe I should say she nearly loses herself. Maybe we attend too often. Maybe we’ve attended for far too long—both of us, for our entire lifetimes. Maybe it’s the people around us—a wonderful place full of happy faces; but there have been times when I nearly lost her. She doesn’t sing, doesn’t read along, doesn’t appear to be in it. At the end of the sermon last night, she was looking down at her hands and had been for a long, long time.

She is my wife, and I think I understand her, although with each passing year of my life I’m less sure of anyone’s being able to enter the corners of any one else’s secret places. But because she is my wife, I know something of what she is feeling. After all, I too feel the weight of what’s on her shoulders.

We’ve been through times both of us hope never, ever to experience again. “No young man thinks he shall ever die,” Hazlitt once wrote, one of my all-time favorite aphorisms. But neither does any young man ever understand what he will go through when he experiences the suffering of his children. Watching kids hurt is nothing you can prepare for; and when it happens, when it’s bad, a black hole threatens to swallow everything around it.

It is the lot of parents to worry even more than their children do, even when children create the worry—and even when the children themselves do worry. We don’t live in our children’s skin. We don’t know what they’re feeling from moment to moment, so what we’re left with is the deadly sting of those few moments when we witness the poison. They may well go back to their places, turn on some music or watch a movie, and walk out of the darkness. Not so, us. We’ll spend the rest of the weekend in a midnight winter.

Their hurts inflict wounds on us, creates bleeding that doesn’t stanch easily because the older one becomes, the fewer coagulants one’s insides create. Blood spatters all over, on everything. It smears the walls in the living room and pools in the bedroom. And when we go to church, we leave tracks right into the pew.

And that’s why I say that there have been times in church when I almost lost my wife. I almost lost myself.

I know of no better way to understand what Asaph is recalling in his own life here in Psalm 77. In the night, hands extended, he hoped and prayed for blessing that simply didn’t come. What he knows all too well is being lost, is the very language of his groaning. And he knows that sound because he knows blessings, oodles of them. When those blessings seem not to exist, the spiritual, mental, and even physical pain is excruciating. His groaning takes words.

Most of us suffer the moments when our deepest cries and most fervent prayers seem as bootless as Asaph’s. When it seems to him that God has grown deaf he experiences the pain of only of those who know the Lord. When God doesn’t pick up the phone, believers feel unspeakably alone, even in worship, maybe even most alarmingly then. Then there are no words, only groaning.

“I remembered you, O God, and I groaned.”


Been there, done that. 

The psalm's real blessing, even in distress, is that we're not alone. No, never alone.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Sorcerer's Smile--A reservation story for Christmas (iii)


Gary Lokhorst wasn’t the only one there who was a little worried about BillyBates, because the minute Rev. Lokhorst yelled out that name, all over those dusty roads the people stopped in their tracks and looked around, stood still and couldn’t help look back, like Lot’s wife.

“The last one here is for Billy Bates,”Rev. Lokhorst says again.

When you’re with Indian people, you get used to the quiet because with them–at least back then–silence was a virtue.There’s not much being said, and this Billy Bates, the witch doctor, turns around himself.You see, the man didn’t much care for white man’s religion–not at least when he had his own way, proven through the centuries,he’d say too, I’m sure.

Some things about being human are just plain bigger than whatever color is painted on our faces, and right then Billy Bates knew that his people were watching him, seeing what was going to happen.And there stands Rev. Lokhorst with that bundle in his hands. He folds it under an arm for a minute and jumps back down to the ground from the back of the truck because he’s not going to hand it down to him. I think I knew that, right then.

And he meets him half way, too. I mean Reverend Lokhorst walks out to meet Mr. Billy Bates, rather than let him come to the truck and reach up for it and all of that.He goes–the preacher–out to meet him and gives him the bundle.

Meanwhile, the people are standing there still as stone.

There’s twine around the bundle, but Billy’s got a knife, see, and he cuts it without looking down. I swear it–he never looked down to cut the twine, just looked around at his people.

The twine untwisted, and just like that Billy Bates held in his two hands a black wool overcoat some old man in Michigan likely bought before the Great War. Double breasted, and a belt–you know the type?–wide collars, plenty of pockets. Not a cheap thing is what I’m saying, but maybe old-fashioned.

The sun was just marking that broad slope behind the people, a swath of land that runs up east like a berm in that red land, up high enough for pines to grow, which is why they called the place Pinedale.

Billy Bates liked the coat. First time I saw a smile pass on that dark face of his, full of wrinkles. Not that he thanked the preacher. That wasn’tit. He held it in his hands like it was the first helping of something good he’d had in a month of Sundays.

He stuck his arms through the sleeves and pulled it up over his shoulders, a big man for a Navajo. You got to hand it to the preacher for knowing that most of those people would have drowned in that thing,but those big shoulders of Billy Bates filled it up like Al Capone, and I should know–I was born in Chicago.


But here’s the thing. There the man stood right in the middle of the action, all eyes on him as if there were a spotlight up there shining down from the hill of pines.There he stood in a long black coat, buttoning it, one at a time, loving it.

And it was a little kid, some child, who said it–in the Navajo language. I didn’t get it all right away. It had to be explained later on, but all of a sudden this little boy walks right up to Billy Bates in that long black coat,and he says, “A na shoo di.”

What did I know? Nothing.

Just like that, Gary grabs my arm and pulls me down on the back of the truck. “The kid just called him a preacher,”Gary said.

You got to get this now, or the story makes no sense. The little kid called the medicine man a preacher because the little kid saw the long blackcoat priests and preachers used to wear.

A na shoo di,” the kid says,and nobody moved.

Billy Bates looked up at Reverend Lokhorst for the first time all afternoon,and slowly, Indian style, a smile grew from ear to ear, as he turned all the way around in that long wool coat. It was the last gift, and the people didn’t know how to take it exactly.
Billy Bates looked at the preacher and just nodded his head as if to say that this time, this time, the preacher one-upped him, on a cold Christmas Eve, a single warm gift, turning the medicine man into a man of the cloth, Rev. Lokhorst’s own bit of voodoo.

But Billy Bates just loved the coat. He just loved the coat.

And the people laughed–out loud too yet. And then they picked up their things and started walking home for Christmas.

So the question you asked me yesterday,right before we opened presents at your parents’ house, was, “Papa, what was your all-time favorite Christmas?” I couldn’t give you that answer just then, not sitting there around the tree. It took me most of two days to write it out.

But the way I got it figured, Max, that Pinedale Christmas had to be one of the finest ever. I stayed warm all the way home in the back of that pickup. Everywhere you looked there was joy that day, everywhere.Even in me, tough as I was, something melted with that old medicine man’s smile.

Peace on earth.

But then maybe that day we sat around your tree was better. After all, your great grandma and I don’t know how many we’re going to get like that one again, and I’mway too old to sit in the back of a pickup.

It took the Lord’s own will to make me understand some things about who I was and what I was supposed to be, Max, just as it will you. It didn’t happen overnight either. But Christmas at the Pinedale School is one I’ll never forget, for more reasons than you can count and I can write. The smile on Billy Bates’ face–and all the smiles all around–brought one to mine, too, and right then I hadn’t had that many that I remember.

When I think about it, it may have been my very first real Christmas.

But the best holiday, for me and your great-grandma, is still the one to come.You know what I mean.

Hope I didn’t go on and on here.Grandma says she could have said it in a hundred words. But I tell her she married me because I sweet-talked her, way back when, once I settled down and found the right path home.

One way or another, we’ll be at your concert again next year, if your voice don’t change. And if it does, like it will, we’ll be just as happy. We’ll hear the music, I know–in heaven above or earth below.

And one more thing. Thanks so much for the slippers. They fit good.

Friday, December 25, 2015

The Sorcerer's Smile--A Reservation story for Christmas (ii)


Well, we got out there, the Reverend and me and three of his boys–the young one stayed home with his mom. It was our job to bring the bundles to the front of the bed of the pickup, where the pastor would check ’em over and call out a name.Mid-afternoon, maybe a little later, I keep thinking it was cold, but maybe not so bad because the sun is always strong out there.

We’d parked ourselves out front of the old BIA school upon the edge of the hill, just a whistle away from a stone chapter house–middle of town, only there was no town there because Navajo people liked to keep their distance back then. Each of the families had a home place, maybe a mile away from each other. But they knew to be there when we promised we’d pull up, and they were there all right, a ton of them, more–I thought–then the Reverend had figured.About that, I was wrong.

So Gary–he’s one of the preacher’s boys–he elbows me when we’re picking up bundles from the back, and he points at a big-shouldered man, a Navajo, who was walking behind all the people, back and forth, stalking almost. “Billy Bates,” hes ays, as if I’m supposed to know what on earth that means.

I’m wondering if the guy is on the warpath,and it must have showed on my face.

“Medicine man,” Gary tells me, raising an eyebrow, as if we ought to be on the lookout. What did I know about medicine men?–nothing. He just looked mean.

“We’re in trouble?” I said to Gary.

“Dad knows him,” Gary told me, as if that was insurance.

Right then my hands were cold and I could have used a pair of gloves, too–I remember that. But when you’re young, you think you’re tough. I did anyway.

“What’s the problem?” I said, and Gary just repeated what he’d said about him being a medicine man.

“He’s going to turn us into skunks?–is that it?” I said.

“He is one,” Gary said, “or can be.”

There he stood, arms crossed, looking over his people. Later, they told me he was head of the chapter there too, almost like mayor. I guess, in a way, I thought of him then as a “chief,” but Navajos didn’t have chiefs. Neither did other Indians, but the only thing I knew about Indians came from dime novels–and I bet you don’t know what a dime novel is either, do you? Cheap stuff–let me put it that way.

Anyway, it’s Christmas and the people are happy with what they got from Kalamazoo and Englewood and wherever. Mostly it’s clothes, and it’s cold–December. I told you that.

And the kids got some toys, too–don’t remember just what anymore but old dolls and things like that, chipped faces, now and then a teddy bear or a beat up box of Tinkertoys. Cast-offs, really. Wasn’t anything I wanted, but we ate our share of peanuts.

“He’s not a Christian,” Gary said about this Bates guy.

“Some kind of witch doctor?” I said.What did I know?

What I knew was that somehow Gary didn’t like it, this Billy Bates pacing back and forth, like a man looking over a hundred beloved children.

Reverent Lokhorst was a fine man. I think he never listened to a word my uncle said about me because the moment I got out there, he handled me just like he handled any of his boys, and they weren’t angels either, let me tell you.

Before we gave all those clothes away,he had a little sermon, too–I don’t remember
what about, except there were sheep around the manger–I mean, in the barn with Jesus. Not just oxen and cattle, but sheep. I didn’t know that Navajos love sheep back then. In fact, I don’t know how anybody can. But back then they all had’em.

He didn’t speak good Navajo, not good enough to do any public speaking anyway, so he had a translator tell the people what he was saying, which made sermon twice as long. That didn’t go over big with me,but look how much time I’m taking to answer your question. Who am I to talk?

And then, when all those people had something, the Reverend turns around,steps off the back of the truck, and reaches into the cab to pull out something from behind the seat.

He grabs that bundle out, gets backup on the back of the truck, but the people don’t really see any of this anymore, see?–because they’re already walking away,starting on back to their hogans with allthe good stuff.

“Billy Bates,” the good Reverend yells.“I got one here for Billy Bates,” he said.
____________________ 
Tomorrow: A gift for the witch doctor.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

The Sorcerer's Smile--A reservation story for Christmas (i)


Your great-grandma says I talk like an old preacher, which is to say, too much. Maybe she’s right. She’s right about a lot of things. Of course, she knows all the stories, too. We’ve been married 67 years.

It wasn’t the time to tell the one I could have on Christmas Eve. Wasn’t the time because nobody around that tree wanted to hear an old man go on and on, not with all those presents calling out. The only story anyone needed was the one about the shepherds in the fields and a host of angels like that choir you and your friend Matt are in. Did I tell you how much we loved that concert? Grandma said you sounded like the angels–as if she knows what that sounds like–but then most anything would after singing with me all these years.

But you’re a serious boy, and I got to thinking that you meant that question you asked, and the real answer takes sometime for the telling.

I never sang in a boys’choir, and about the only thing I ever did in church when I was your age was carve my initials in the pews. Some people my age think that with abortion and all, the Lord is about to return and clean up the unholy mess, but just between you and me, Max, your great-grandfather was not near as good a kid as you are.

I had my reasons, too, even though when I was your age I hadn’t taken the time to think them all out. I was “acting out,”as they say now. When my mother died, my father did too; but he kept on breathing. In those days, when families fell apart, kids got shipped out as I did to my uncle’s farm, a story for another day.

I got in big trouble with them–I won’t go into that now–and was told, finally, that they wouldn’t have me. Dad was in no shape to take me back, and Mom was gone. It was Rehoboth or reform school, options that seemed to me, back then, one and the same. I'd never even heard of New Mexico.

But it was Christmas you asked about, and what I was thinking when you and your cousins opened those presents a couple nights ago was how times have changed. It was 1935, mid-Depression, and nobody had any money.

But there were peanuts. Tons of them. And the morning of the Christmas Eve I’m wanting to tell you about, we–which is to say, me and the Lokhorst boys–were filling a hundred paper bags with peanuts, and a few hard candies. I ate my share that afternoon, too, truth be known–but so did the Lokhorst boys, but some peanuts got into those paper bags at least.

I’d been out at Rehoboth for two months or so, and I was trying to lay low and keep myself out of trouble for once in my life. The Lokhorsts, the people I was sentenced to stay with, were missionaries to the Navajo people.


I’d never seen an Indian. “Maybe we’ll be lucky and they’ll scalp the kid” is what my uncle told other people, except he didn’t say “kid” and he said it with a crooked smile as if he meant it for a joke.

Did I say it was 1935? I think so. Dimes were scarce as hen’s teeth. But what the Lockhurst boys called “mission barrel clothes” still came in from Michigan and Indiana and even Chicago, where I’d come from, enough at least to pass out presents to the Navajos.

Here’s the deal. Even though it was cold on the reservation, me and the boys went up with Rev. Lokhorst to deliver the Christmas goods. Rev. Lockhorst never minded me much at all. He just stuck me in with his own four boys and figured they’d do all the heavy lifting, and they did. I got beat up some in those first few weeks, but then I don’t think I could have lived with myself back then either.

Besides, Rehoboth wasn’t Chicago.There were times we just got on horses and rode. Didn’t matter where–up into those hogbacks behind the mission and all around through that red desert. It took me about a week to see that Rehoboth wasn’t reform school, although those Lokhorst boys had to slap me around a little to get my attention.

So we get in the truck. You might think New Mexico is palm trees and cactus, but that place Denver look like flood plane. You're way high. Cold–sheesh! Terrible cold. But those Navajos used to ride in the beds of their pickups all over, and so did we. Wrap ourselves up good so that we all looked like blanket Indians–them and us.

Now the Rev. Lokhorst knew the people, knew them well, maybe knew them better than his own kids; but that too is another story. He’d been carefully picking clothes out of that donated stuff all afternoon, then twisting some baling twine around the bundles he shoved together because he knew who was going to show up in Pinedale, and he wanted to make sure they all got what they needed. 

Toys too. It was mid-Depression, like I told you, but there were a few battered toys. No matter. The kids loved ’em. And for just about everybody, a bag of peanuts, with a chunk or two of hard candy. No chocolate. It was 1935.
_______________________ 
Tomorrow: A very strange and scary Christmas visitor

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

A blessed loss of words



I'm guessing that the choices Sunday School teachers make about who's going to be Mary and Joseph and the shepherds are done on the basis of answers to two questions--which of the kids will do a good job? and which of them, well, deserve it (as in, who wasn't the star last year?)? I don't know. I'm just guessing.

Even in heart of evangelicaldom, the Judean hills these days are peopled with cross-gendered shepherds, middle-school kids including young ladies head-and-shoulders taller than their male shepherd buddies. Yesterday, one of the burlapped-clothed low-lifes, the one with the longest staff, the tallest of the boys, stood up front, took the mike from a little girl shepherd in front of him, and said his well-practiced lines pointedly and precisely. Had he been my grandson, I'd have beamed. For each of the seven acts of the Christmas play, he rattled through the verses, quite elegantly, in fact.

Save one. Act Six.

That one time, the little shepherd spoke her lines out clearly, and politely handed him the mike. But his memory, at that moment, had left the building.  As far as he was concerned, the whole world was watching and the right words were nowhere to be found. There the kid stood, resoundingly mute, his sweet little mind gone stark, raving blank as if he'd never memorized a thing. He could have squeezed like a lemon and nothing could have come. Blank--nothing at all, and his failure only increased his horror. The words were totally irretrievable.

Hundreds of kid-worshippers never noticed his silence because a host of pre-schoolers were stealing the show as promiscuously as they always do. Hardly anyone noticed. Only the boy's parents and probably a few others witnessed the deep freeze.

The show galloped on. The pianist gave him five seconds before barreling into the next number, throngs of first and second graders following her lead by romping into the next rousing carol. Hardly anyone noticed.

That he went momentarily blank wouldn't have been a problem if the poor kid could have laughed it off. But his being conscientious likely got him chosen for a major role, and because he is, he could not forgive himself. Even if the rest of the church had moved on, the poor kid read the headlines in his heart: YOU FORGOT YOUR LINE, DUMMY.

A tear came. And when one slipped out, another followed, and then another, and another, water works he was powerless to stop.

Act Seven. The shepherds have lines as another passage of Luke 2 gets recited. That same little girl shepherd hands him the mike, and this time, still sniffling, he nails it.

No matter. In his heart, the damage is done. He no more than gets out the words, passes the mike on, and starts crying again, wiping his eyes with the back of his hands.

A hundred kids are up there with him, but once the spigot opened, he couldn't close it. As irrepressible as a church giggle, those tears kept coming and he kept wiping 'em away.

Even as the stage emptied at the end of the show, he was trying to hide the evidence, trying to be the man he just could not be right then.

I'd like to think that once he opens his presents this Christmas, his oh-so-public horror will be gone, but I doubt it. My guess is that speechless moment and the flood of tears it wrought will make a print in the wet cement of his memory.

It's altogether too easy to smell the irony here too--poor kid can't forgive himself for what happened in a pageant meant to honor baby Jesus, the Lord of forgiveness. Someday, he'll figure that all out.

But it's the human story I'm drawn to: nervous as a colt, this kid wants to get it all right, then finds himself as bereft of words as the priest Zacharias. Just nothing there, and that empty brain wipes him out with a flood of tears, even though nobody cared but him.

But, dang it, he did. He messed up.

Here's what I'm thinking this morning. Someday, when his own daughter plays a shepherd in the church Christmas program, he won't mention what happened, because he won't want to risk passing along to his daughter the same tearful horror. He won't tell her; he'll be just as silent as he was yesterday.

So it'll stay there, playfully, a memory, a story, a moment in time he'll never forget. The tears are gone already, I'm sure; and whenever he'll remember last night, a decade from now or two or three or four, there will be nothing on his face but a smile.

Sometimes--and this is the lesson of Christmas--forgiveness is as easy as that.

But mostly it's not, and that, I suppose, is why we need to hear the old, old story again and again, even when it's told by screaming three-year-olds and a gaggle of cross-gendered shepherds, who listen to the angels tell them for a three-hundred millionth time, at least, "Fear not--we bring good tidings of great joy. "

Just wipe away those tears.

____________________ 
rpt. from Christmas, 2009

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Solstice and Christmas


Yesterday was so cloudy one simply had to have faith to celebrate "the turning of the sun." Old Sol has been AOL for days on end, or so it seems. The clouds, the overcast, made suffering the day even worse.

But hope springs eternal because throughout the Northern Hemisphere it was the last bad day, winter solstice. Today there's hope anew. Today, the light returns.


Ancient peoples lined up endless stones across open fields because they wanted--they needed!--a clock to point at the spot at the horizon where the sun would rise at solstice. They wanted to know the reign of darkness would finally recede.
Yesterday already before four in the afternoon, it was sickeningly dark. Seriously, sickening

Listen. For six whole weeks, neuroscientists at the University of Pennsylvania shut out the lights on test rats, who began thereafter to exhibit characteristics of genuine rat depression. (Fortunately, PETA knew nothing about it.) Uninterrupted darkness put a lid on a sweet little rat's production of norepi­nephrine, dopamine and serotonin—necessary ingredients of emotional health. Poor rats had brain damage. 

Psychologists call light deprivation "seasonal affective disorder." The only cure is light, and, starting today (drum roll please) the sun is making a comeback, thank Godly goodness. There's a new day a'comin'. Put an joyful X over your calendar's winter solstice.

Pagan cultures had their own year-end celebrations like Christmas (sans savior). I felt somehow cheated when I learned that because I thought we Christians threw the only real party. 

Not true, in the broadest sense. Historically, the whole December 25th thing is a ploy (don't tell Fox News I said that).  The idea that Jesus was born on 12/25 was created by Christians to recruit pagans, who were iffy at best when the Christians told them they'd have to give up their end-of-the-year bacchanalia, a week-long bash that included so much fleshy licentiousness early Christians simply wouldn't have it.

"What? no Saturnalia?" said the pagans. "Forget Christianity."

"Tell you what," the Christians said, "let us play around a little, whip up a holiday around a tree with gorgeous multi-colored lights and a star like the one the wise men saw."

"Holiday,  you say?" the pagans said.

They cut a deal. Saturnalia went the way of all flesh. Mostly. You can still go to Vegas.

The Bible simply doesn't say Jesus was born on 25th of December. Christmas is a Christian invention, which is to say, of course, a human thing, not a divine thing. Christ is the only real divine thing.

It's just after six right now, and the world outside my windows is perfectly black. Night is yet upon us. But soon, we will worship the light of the world because in the eternal now, darkness is behind us. Morning will dawn to relieve our seasonal affective disorder. We'll all return to dancing.

"I am the light of the world," Jesus said. "Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life."

The light of life came to make the darkness sink away.  It really is time to celebrate.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Morning Thanks--Blast from the past


This is she, hard as it is for me to say it because she's not only a grown woman today, she must be grandma, probably many times over. Her husband's receding silver hair and aviator glasses say that in a decade or so, when we're all in the Home, my wife and I could be just down the hall, if all four of us make it that long. 

Last night I thumbed through the pictures she's put up on Facebook. I ran into her on-line when some other kid-who-is-no-longer-a-kid sent me a note out of the blue when he'd run into me the same way and messaged me almost a half-century after he'd been in my very first class. When I clicked through his gallery of friends, this grandma stepped out of the album and out of whatever shelved scrapbook she'd been in in my memory.

A few kids from my last year of teaching I remember, but a seventeen-year-old version of this woman will hold down a place in my memory forever--a bit of toothiness smiling through classes that only occasionally interested her.

She was a big personality, the kind of student a teacher realizes early on requires control, the kind of student so attuned to what other students are saying and thinking that she simply has little time for whatever it is the teacher is stammering on and on about. The kind of student who doesn't dislike you, but really wants you to know that no matter what you think Ernest Hemingway, a host of things going on in the room at any particular moment are of greater importance.

She's not a high school hero, wasn't an athlete or cheerleader, never held down a chair in the National Honor Society. Physically, she wasn't not a babe, or a doll, or a sweetie, more of a Toots. I don't know what she might have done for a living, but in my imagination she's the kind of woman who had only to take up waitressing to create overflow customers in a truck stop. Give her a couple of years and she'd run the place. Energy she had in abundance. That smile, look at it, is the very same one she wore when, day-in and day-out, she came into class, a slightly slimmer version. It's no pose. It was always there. That girl loved life.

Demure? Heavens no. Even though she knew nothing about Germane Greer, never read Betty Friedan, I'd call her a Rosie the Riveter who didn't need the war. She didn't need Gloria Steinem, but Gloria Steinems have always needed her. If a girl is the shy little darlin' who sells cookies, she never was.

She could smack down boys, and did. But they loved her anyway, not simply because she was amply endowed--she was--but because in her own way she was one of them. She may well have been the kind of teenage girl other young women fear, maybe even a bit of a bully--I wouldn't doubt it.

I was her teacher, but back then you could count me among her most loyal fans.

Last night, for the first time in 45 years, I saw her in pictures a whole lifetime later. I've missed totally 45 years of her life. She plays her father's 80-year old Swiss accordion in a touring Swiss-American band. In southwest Wisconsin she's something of a tourist attraction. She'd probably whack me good for saying that, but she'd walk off with the very same smile, the kind of smile that said, "Go ahead, Schaap. Give me your best shot."

That's her, second from right.



So I messaged her. This morning she'll be surprised to find a note from an ex-teacher who exists as just as much a museum piece in her mind and she is in mine. But if I know her, she'll write something, something with a zing, something with more than a few misspellings. I don't think she became a writer.

Anyway, when sees that note from me she'll smile, and I know that smile. I recognized it immediately, here too, the same old smile her English teacher used to get a lifetime ago.

See her up on that wagon? Somewhere in that smile this ex-teacher made an investment long, long ago. 

I could have done worse with my life.

This morning I'm thankful for that very smile.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Sunday Morning Meds--A Soul's Refusal


When I was in distress, I sought the Lord; 
at night I stretched out untiring hands 
and my soul refused to be comforted.
Psalm 77:2

The huge chandelier in the dining room started swinging and all the kids—we were at a youth retreat—flew out of their chairs to watch the swimming pool.  Water was sloshing around as if the pool were little more than a cup of coffee.  The ground shook a bit—I barely remember, really—and inside of twenty seconds or so, life returned to normal.  The kids sat down and finished their dinner.  It was not “the big one.”

My daughter, who was ten or so, had not moved in all the earthquake hoopla.  She’d stayed at our table, eyes as big as open skies.  Some high school kids had been sitting at our table, and when they came back from watching the pool, they comforted her. 

“Happens all the time here,” the kids said.  “It’s no big deal.”  And then one of said, “You’ve got tornadoes in Iowa.  They’re much worse.”  Which likely didn’t help.

That night, our daughter couldn’t sleep.  I heard her quavering voice when we were in bed. “Dad?”—a single syllable pulled like taffy into sentence-length.

We were at a Bible camp, right?  I was the speaker.  I left our bed and walked to where she was sleeping on the floor in the front room of the cottage where we were staying.  “Just pray to Jesus,” I said. “He’ll listen. We’re not in any trouble—you heard those kids. They were scared of tornadoes.” Maybe that wasn’t smart.

Ten minutes later, she called and I told her again, “Just pray, sweetheart.”

Five minutes later, the same anguished cry. I told her again, more sweetly, to remember that Jesus was her savior. 

Five minutes later, the same anguished cry. Exasperated, I told her to snap on her Walkman, and she muttered not a word thereafter.

The anguish of the story embedded in Psalm 77 is deep, and I don’t want to make light of it. Picture Asaph, all night long, his hands up, awaiting a blessing that never comes—no  relief, no sleep, no cessation of horror.

The story goes on, as we shall see; but because he’s got some distance on that night, he can look back on himself and his situation with some objectivity and blame himself, a soul which “refused to be comforted” even though all night long he was sitting there on crumpled sheets like some Tibetan monk.

Few psalms take the time to tell as specific a story as Psalm 77.  For nine whole verses the poet stays with the narrative of a single night’s anguish, the whole psalm a particular isolated testimony.

All of us are right there with my daughter sometimes, in soul-ful pain for reasons that are varied and difficult and too complex, maybe, to explain (Asaph doesn’t either). Last night I slept well. I didn’t sit up, hands raised, expectant. But I’ve spent nights praying and praying and praying and praying. We all have. If we haven’t we will. 

He may be right about me too: maybe my soul was refusing comfort, rejecting the fruits of the spirit.  Maybe I needed to read a book or stick in my earphones.
      
Testimonies are lesson plans for our lives, templates by which we bring order to what seems chaos all around. Psalm 77 is Asaph’s testimony. Here’s what happened, he says, in every last jarring detail. But he can tell the story only because it’s over; it’s in the past.  It’s what happened. Past tense. The inherent pledge of a testimony is that it can happen to us too. 

And it does. Sometimes we can’t hear. Sometimes we can’t listen. Sometimes there is just too much chaos. Sometimes our souls refuse comfort.

Open me up, Lord. In my distress, unlock my soul.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Morning Thanks--hope



"People without hope," Flannery O'Connor once said, "don't write novels."

No kidding. 

Most everything O'Connor said had some kind of spiritual or religious intent because, by her own profession nothing mattered to her as greatly as the Lord and Savior who, by way of his death and resurrection, had engineered her salvation. Spiritually, I think she meant to say that the only reason people write novels is to make sense of the world they live in, to draw some kind of order from chaos, to take a mess and make it sing. People without spiritual hope don't write novels.

I may be wrong. O'Connor was afflicted with lupus that eventually took her at an age when we couldn't afford to lose her. Maybe she meant that line physically, because writing a novel, as much a joy as it can be, is a grueling physical test, a mental marathon. Short stories, essays, blog posts are all sprints, exciting but short-term. Novels require years; and years, saith this retired old gent, are something we aren't afforded a lot of.

Maybe she meant will, emotional wherewithal. Because no one I know simply whips them out (some do, I'm sure), a novel requires caveman-like stick-to-it-iveness, maybe especially for a born-and-reared Calvinist who could be doing so many other more worthwhile things with his or her time. People without hope that they'll actually finish the dumb thing don't write novels either. 

Maybe all of that is ethereal. Maybe what she meant by hope was simply the courage to believe that what it would take her months and months, even years to write, actually had a future. The average published book these days sells less than 100 copies and has only a slim chance of ever getting a real cover and spine, unless the author forks over the bucks himself. People without hope--no matter how flimsy--don't write novels these days simply because the chances of publication are, as they say, slim and none.

All these interpretations fit, I guess, every context. 

Yesterday was a red-letter day because I finished the first draft of a novel, which wasn't actually a first draft but at least a third revision of a novel I started scribbling a decade ago. Think of it this way--the novel I finished yesterday has been with me through the thick-and-thin of at least three computers (all Dells, all refurbished). Six months ago or so the two of us resumed a failed relationship when I determined that I honestly didn't have that manuscript finished even though twice upon a time I tried to tell myself I did. 

That novel--I once named it Something Broken--wasn't finished because there was still something broken. I told myself I had to live long enough to understand what was there in the story I'd been creating. I kick-started yet another really major revision because something told me that a spark still glowed therein, that the whole mess wasn't as gray and ashen as a Dutch sky. A new ending literally "came to me," and re-purposed a revision. What still animates the story is the old narrative, but the whole thing is newly fashioned. It begins like it did but ends twenty miles of ranchland away and and thereby much closer to the reservation.

Ten years ago I'd finished a year-long thanksgiving notebook, something I'd begun on the basis of the Garrison Keillor line that still festoons this blog (see it up top there). I'd just kept a kind of thanksgiving diary for a year and thought I'd try blogging. Knew nothing about it really, but figured I could do what I already had been doing on my own. 

This morning I'm going back to original purposes with this blog post and giving morning thanks. This morning the thanks I'm offering is that a first draft of a novel that's been with me for years is finished. There's still months to go, but, hey, this time around I'm retired.

Will this new novel ever see the light of day? Will it ever be anything but some electronic blips on this particular desktop (refurbished) Dell?

God only knows, and I certainly can hope he cares. 

But I have the words of Flannery O'Connor, a God-haunted Roman Catholic just as much in love with words as she was the Southern culture that had created and sustained her. She's the one who said, famously, "People without hope don't write novels."

And she's right.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

And now Wheaton



These are troubled times.

Dr. Layricia Hawkins, a tenured professor of political science at Wheaton College, decided to wear a hijab as part of her advent meditations. She is not Muslim; she is Christian. But her decision was based on her conviction that the Muslim community in this country are suffering unjustly by association with Islamic radicals in ISIS or Al Qaeda. By donning the hijab, she wanted to say that she sympathized with them, even loved them.

Hawkins announced her intentions on Facebook. "I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book, . . .and as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God."

Just a few days later she was suspended from her teaching position. Wheaton officials insist the suspension resulted from her theology, not her newly-donned headgear. "While Islam and Christianity are both monotheistic," said the college, "we believe there are fundamental differences between the two faiths, including what they teach about God's revelation to humanity, the nature of God, the path to salvation and the life of prayer."

I am greatly happy not to be in the position of Wheaton President Phillip A. Ryken, who told demonstrators outside his office door yesterday that he wanted to affirm the things they noted in Dr. Hawkins, "the values," he said. "Those are things I've seen firsthand as well." And then he told them, "At some level, I understand the frustration, and also the pain."

I'm sure he does. Institutionally, Wheaton is not pettifogging. 
Despite the Pope's assertion or Dr. Hawkins' demonstrable piety, the college's sharply-honed theological minds are, I'm sure, greatly uncomfortable with the professor's assertion that Islam and Christianity "worship the same God."

But what President Ryken also knows is that among his most devoted constituency there sits a jury of heavyweight supporters who don't particularly like the image of an Christian college professor walking around campus in a hijab, an African-American at that, not right now anyway, not at a moment when Republican Presidential aspirants are in a frenzy to nurture the already prevalent paranoia that conservatives, and Christian conservatives, feel for Muslims.

Let's just say I'm a red-blooded Christian conservative. Who's my choice for a Christian college campus leader? This man--



Or a college president who basically listens politely to the politically-correct students protesting Hawkins' suspension outside his door and then tells them that he feels their pain?

Some really bright people claim that today what separates Christians isn't theology at all. (There's yet another reason for the decline in denominationalism.) Most Christian conservatives voted for Romney last time around, a Mormon, who believes Jesus Christ already had a second coming; in Iowa four years ago, they voted for Sen. Rick Santorum, who believes the pope is somehow infallible--maybe not this pope, but most of them.

What binds believers together these days--and separates us just as surely--is politics, despite what Wheaton's administration says about theology. Prof. Hawkins' hijab may well be a theological problem for them, but it is inescapably political as well.

As I'm sure President Ryken knows. 

These are troubled times.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Calvin's problem with white supremacy


Could be you heard this, but in case you didn't, here's the news. A social work professor from Calvin College, a sister (well, mother) institution in Grand Rapids, Michigan. got some national ink from an opinion piece he wrote in the Calvin Chimes, a student newspaper with a storied tradition of pot-stirring.

Anyway, his comments responded to an incident on campus when two students (who later confessed) wrote "white power" on car fenders festooned with pure Michigan snow and then included a swastika or two, I guess, acts which led to mournful hand-wringing on campus and prompts Presidential candidates like Ted Cruz to claim (as he did last night) that America's greatest problem is political correctness.

Does such wintery finger-painting prove Calvin College racist? Of course not. What it proves is that two students should flunk Western Civ and be hereby sentenced to a dozen Saturday evenings being forced to watch newsreels shot by GIs who stumbled into Dachau and Bergen-Belzen.

Maybe Calvin ought to send those two pranksters out here in a week or so. I'll bring them to Wounded Knee to stand up on the hill where two Hotchkiss guns rained death on Big Foot and his people exactly 125 years ago this December 29. I'd love to play Dean for a Day at Wounded Knee. I'll drive. My gas.

The problem is, this social work prof comes off as the last of the guilt-tortured lefties in this opinion piece he wrote. This kind of thing doesn't go over well with white people, some of them at least, today.

Racism built America and its systems and institutions. Those systems and institutions, from Congress to Calvin College, tend to disproportionately benefit white people because that’s who built them. If, as a white person, you refuse to acknowledge this privilege, you are asserting that the game of life in America is inherently meritocratic, that it is a fair game, that those who try hardest win.
It's entirely possible that the only conservative stronghold more heavily fortified than northwest Iowa is southwest Michigan. (Yesterday, Crowdpac named Orange City, Iowa, the sixth most conservative place in America.) Where descendants of Dutch Calvinism live, work, and have their being, lo, there shall be Republicans because we work dang hard and so should you. So the professor's typically-liberal shot at our national guilt made national news. Look for Cruz to quote the Calvin prof sometime this afternoon. Maybe morning.

Here's the sticky phrase: "white privilege." If you say it doesn't exist, saith the professor, you lie. Any such proposition cues responses that include words like lazy and shiftless, food stamps and welfare queens.

That Calvin College professor is, of course, demonstrably right. It's impossible to deny that the Dutch Calvinists progeny who rule here (and there), like me, are squatters. We're the undocumented. If I were Yankton Sioux, we'd be illegal immigrants. Forever.

Not acknowledging that fact creates lies. Like this one.



In a new and proud display of love of country, Sioux Center, Iowa created a series of beautiful granite slab panels in a war memorial downtown that celebrates the honor roll of heroes, including locals, who've given their lives for human freedom.

The monument includes a panel that says "Indian Wars 1917 - 1898." I honestly don't know where the dates come from. King Philip's War let blood on both sides way back in the 1670s. White people have been fighting Indians since the day after the first Thanksgiving.

"SERVED - 106,000," it says, and "KILLED IN ACTION - 1,000*, the asterisk signifying "ESTIMATE."

KILLED has to mean whites only.  So were the thousands of Native people who died chopped liver? Shouldn't the number of Americans killed in the Indian Wars make some mention of the fact that the Indians were, in fact, Native Americans?

Or is it this?--we only list the good guys.

Then why put George Armstrong Custer on the monument? At Little Big Horn the man was far more of an idiot than he was a hero.

And if the Massacre at Wounded Knee (still called a "Battle" in government documents) occurred on December 29, 1890, why does the memorial say the Indian Wars were over in 1898? Someone's doing revisionist history, telling a skewed story.

Does all of this mean that Sioux Center is "racist"? I don't know who can answer such a question; I can't, and I won't try. I'm not the judge.

But the professor is right, no matter how hard it is to have to listen to his Jeremiad. There is such a thing as "institutional racism," and there certainly is such a thing as "white supremacy." Case in point? a beautiful new memorial, well-meant, to honor our national fallen heroes right downtown in a small town in Iowa.

The more difficult question is this one, always: how then shall we live?