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.

Monday, August 31, 2015

"Dirty books"

A hundred years ago, when I interviewed for a teaching job at Dordt College, the only question I feared being asked was something about "dirty books"--"would you teach 'em, young man?"

I was afraid of it because that kind of question is far easier to ask than answer. I had no plans--covert or otherwise--to introduce Dordt kids to porn, but what Aunt Harriet thinks is"dirty" may be greatly different than what Cousin Ernie does.

That scary question was asked, but I must have answered it satisfactorily. I got the job and stayed nearly forever.

Sad to say, the question of "dirty books" is the one question about literature that can still grab headlines, as it did a week or so ago when a Christian student enrolled at Duke University made it clear that he wasn't going to read a graphic novel (graphic as in comic book, by the way) titled Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel, author (and artist) of a syndicated comic strip Dykes To Watch Out For.

Got that title? Then you know where this is going. Fun Home is a memoir, still a hot genre, the coming of age story of Ms. Bechdel. Some of the cartoon panels (few, but some) feature drawings of unclothed women doing lesbian things, and the Christian students who protested were particularly adamant about not having to look those panels.

The committee who chose Fun Home determines a reading list to create what they call "the Duke Common Experience," a strategy for inciting thoughtful dialogue among incoming freshman. It's a noble idea, I think: if you're standing in a registration line beside a couple of kids you don't know from the Katzenjammer kids, you've got a couple of books to talk about, including one that includes a cartoon panel or two that makes clear what it is lesbians do in bed. Obviously, the committee's strategy worked.

“I think it will be a great vehicle for conversations among the incoming class about art and storytelling; about personal and sexual identities," said Professor of History Simon Partner. "[It's] about truth and lies, and the harm both can cause; and about judgment and forgiveness."

He's right. I know. I read it because it raised the cane it did at Duke.

It wasn't the only book the committee recommended, by the way. The list included All the Light we Cannot See, It Happened on the Way to War, Red, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics ad Religion, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains.

[Note to reader: if you haven't read All the Light We Cannot See, please do. It's unforgettably good. The others I don't know.]

I bought Fun Home for my Kindle because this time I was sure I would side with the Christians. I really was. After all, The Duke Common Experience Committee knew darn well they'd raise cane. “Because of its treatment of sexual identity, the book is likely to be controversial among students, parents and alumni," Prof Partner said in a note introducing the selections. "I think this, in turn, will stimulate interesting and useful discussion about what it means, as a young adult, to take a position on a controversial topic.”

No kidding. 

Ms. Bechdel's family was a grand mess. Her father, a closeted gay man, wandered after the boys he taught in high school. Yes, sexually. His daughter's relationship to him is at the heart of things. Meanwhile, her mother is cold and distant and self-obsessed. What there is for love in that home is strained at best, and greatly unhealthy. Fun Home is also immensely literary with long and involved homage given, unsurprisingly, to Marcel Proust, James Joyce, and Oscar Wilde. If you're in to memoir and gay life, the novel--what Bechdel calls a "tragicomedy"--is an English teacher's dream.

It ain't my cup of tea, okay? I'm glad to have read it because now I understand better what happened at Duke to gather all those pointed headlines, but it isn't a book, a graphic novel, I would have picked up otherwise. I also know more about the American family--not mine, but some.

The greater danger--or so it seemeth to me--is that colleges and universities continue to move toward being purveyors of professional competence and forget the significant calling higher education has taken on for centuries--the task of making students think, a job most definitely created by literature and ideas that are almost certainly not what students like or appreciate.

I have no idea how I answered that board member's question years ago when I was asked about teaching dirty books, but I think today I'd tell them that Dordt College students had best be reading some books they don't already agree with or else Dordt College isn't making them reflect, making them think--and that remains, in my book at least, the most important task of higher education.

Fun Home wasn't required reading. The students who were offended and made headlines for their refusal to read it--or look at its pictures--didn't have to. They were free not to crack a cover. But I understand why Duke's Common Experience Committee assigned it. I wouldn't have, but I'm not about to fault them. Duke's students aren't Dordt's.

But if there were a Common Experience at Dordt Committee--not a bad idea, by the way--I'd hope that some title on the list would raise ire or concern or problems. 

Because in the real world, ideas do.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Sunday Morning Meds--Heavenward

“For great is your love, reaching to the heavens; 
your faithfulness reaches to the skies.”  Psalm 57:10

Those of us who are Christians have a hard time not thinking of heaven as someplace up.  Jesus Christ “ascended,” after all.  Jacob saw a vision of a ladder descending, and Elijah boarded a chariot that left this earthly station for all points upward, right? 

This upward proclivity of ours results, at least in part I suppose, from some ancient Platonism in early Christian thought, the idea that this world is somehow less than sweet, that we’ve got to leave it behind like our old natures before we can "ascend" to something, well, heavenly.

There is, or so people tell me, nothing above us for miles and miles (nothing is overstatement, of course, since all sorts of planets and stars and whole solar systems are up there, so many that astronomers have never located a dead end).  

I have theologian friends who claim that the new heavens and the new earth really mean that “heaven” will be here, on earth.  What Richard Middleton argues in a new book titled, simply A New Heaven and A New Earth, is that our eternal future is not in some home away from home, but right here down the block as fully embodied as we ever were--more so, in fact. We'll be here on this "new" earth, which will be itself a fully redeemed creation. 

The argument, radical as it may seem, is that we won't ascend anywhere. Instead, we'll just be here. Just no more hog lots.  (I'm being glib. The argument is serious.) 

Everything on the terra firma will be garden-like—a la Garden of Eden.  We won’t be one big choir; instead, we’ll employ ourselves as we do now, maybe, only there’ll be no back aches or seat belts.  (Go ahead and create your own list.)

I don’t think David is being metaphorical here, although he is using his official poetic license.  I think he’s talking about the sky, not angelic heaven. The Old Testament patriarchs (the literature on the matriarchs is scanty) weren’t obsessed with heaven, as we are.  Last week I saw a pick-up with a license that said, simply “TNKHVN,” and I understood at least something about why they call those special order tags “vanity” plates.  

I don’t think David is talking about heaven, per se; he’s settled on the greatest expanse of infinity his finiteness can locate—the skies.  Saturday morning I went out with the camera, the first clear Saturday in a month, only to find the skies crystalline.  A cold wind had swept away dust and fog, and the sky was tin foil-bright and shiny.  

Just as we need sin to make stories, camera bugs out here on the Plains need clouds to create art when the skies are as expansive as they are here.  But then David is not toting a digital in Psalm 57.  He’s just praising the Lord, and what I’m thinking is that this sky—not a particularly good subject for photography—but this sky, the one where there is absolutely and blindingly nothing, is the one he’s seeing or imagining, the sun not a disk but a huge burning smudge of colorless luminescence.

That kind of sky goes on forever—and now I’m making metaphors.  That kind of sky is seemingly as limitless as he wants us to imagine.  

But then, the literal subject matter of this line is not the sky but God’s love, which David says, like Saturday’s skies, simply can’t be contained.  In his ecstatic praise, he reaches for the only comparison he can imagine, and there’s just nothing else anywhere under the sun as endless than a perfect crystalline sky.  

Sadly, even the sky—the limitless sky—is no match.  The heavens, even when they appear to stretch out forever, can’t compare with God’s love.  Nope. Like all of us when we have no words, David is doing the very best he can.  

Someday we’ll all have new vocabularies.  I’m not sure where we’ll be, but we will have the words to make sense of what is now so immensely far beyond us.  

Friday, August 28, 2015

Book Report--Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman

The man in the middle with his hand up is unmistakable. The man to his right is his top military general, Ulysses S. Grant. To his left sits Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter. The man holding forth across the room is General William Tecumseh Sherman, remembered (and vilified) still today primarily for "Sherman's March to the Sea."

The story goes that this meeting was somewhat serendipitous. It was March of 1865, the war was drawing to a close, and President Lincoln was aboard a river boat somewhere close to Grant's headquarters. It just so happened that General Sherman was in the neighborhood. Thus, the meeting of "the peacemakers," a meeting Admiral Porter later described like this: "I shall never forget that council which met on board the River Queen. On the determinations adopted there depended peace, or a continuation of the war with its attendant horrors."

The painting, done by George P. A. Healy, is titled The Peacemakers and meant to celebrate this moment, "an occasion upon which," Admiral Porter wrote, "depended whether or not the war would be continued a year longer. A single false step might have prolonged it indefinitely."

In Fierce Patriot: the Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman, military historian Robert L. O'Connell, claims this famous portrait captures Sherman perfectly. He is obviously holding forth. The others, each of whom outrank him, of course, are his audience. Lincoln seems spellbound, but Admiral Porter and General Grant seem, well, wary. O'Connell says where Sherman was there were always words. Sherman could fill and room and did so, time and time again. And he was good at it.

As you can imagine, no one was better at telling the stories of the March, and everywhere Sherman went once his men cut the South in half and basically ended the war, people--important people--wanted to hear them. O'Connell says the system of warfare that Sherman created was, for all intents and purposes, brand new to military history. General William Tecumseh Sherman was, O'Connell says, an innovator, a man who not only created basic techniques of modern warfare but also designed what O'Donnell claims is the unique strength of American military units ever since, the indomitable strength of a democratic army.

Whether all of that is true I'll leave to military historians who know the history of the American military far better than I. But have no doubt about O'Connell's purpose in this fascinating biography: he is determined to show that Sherman's March to the Sea is the forerunner of every great American military victory since 1865. Sherman, known lovingly as Uncle Billy to his men, was the man and mind who created it.

What O'Connell marshalls to the fore in his retelling of the March is Sherman's methodology. He gave his men a very clear and abiding sense of the purpose of their mission, but turned them loose to get there on their own, four separate military movements through the heart of the South. His troops knew the direction, but how they got to the destination was up to them. 

It was, in some ways, the beginning of a species of guerrilla warfare, O'Donnell says, and when it worked--and it did--Sherman's democratic strategy, letting his troops determine their own fate, living on the land as they did, that strategy ended the bloodiest war in American history. 

In war, Sherman was fierce and unrelenting; but the moment his men brought a measure of peace to the country they conquered, he became, O'Connell says, a paragon of virtue, dispensing aid as if he were a father dispensing discipline to rebellious kids whose abominable behavior required a strong hand.

During the "summer of  Trump," it's good to be reminded that men with over-sized egos have manipulated the press and the public for more than 150 years in this country. Sherman hated the press but had a knack for ringing banner headlines from them and stories that created respect, even adoration for him in the minds and hearts of American people. He was beloved as a military leader, but he could be a shyster.

He was subject to depression that at times took him out of the character he wanted to show to the country and away from the kind of rule he needed to maintain as a rising star in the American military. He had to have been a strain on those around him, up and down like the war effort itself in those early years. But Grant wouldn't have been without him. Neither would Lincoln.

Sherman's relationship with his zealous wife was on again, off again. She was herself no wall flower, but her passion was her Roman Catholic faith and she fought him, tooth and nail, for the love of their children. Like a famous recent President, General Sherman wasn't above an occasional roll in the hay with other women.

That O'Donnell admires Sherman is not only clear by the central argument of his biography. But his admiration blind him to Sherman's humanness. I have relatives in Ringgold, Georgia, a small town just outside of Chattanooga that was in Sherman's sights as he began his Atlanta campaign, My relatives say their neighbors don't hold General William Tecumseh Sherman in such high esteem. I'm sure that's true.

General Sherman is undoubtedly worth a dozen biographies, maybe more because there's likely always more to be said about a man who himself always had more to say. To Robert L. O'Connell, William Tecumseh Sherman was to many in his day an American hero. And still is. Or should be.

Fascinating character. Fascinating reading.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Morning Thanks--Highway markers

When finally we came to the place on the highway where he was killed, I realized neither of us knew exactly where it was--specifically, under which overpass.  I had deliberately avoided the stretch of road in previous trips up and back to Wisconsin, but this time I decided it was time that I passed the spot where it happened. 

Being told of my brother-in-law's death was the kind of experience one wishes never to have, and, once experienced, more boldly wishes never to repeat. It was a call. Cell phone. We'd just come out Knobloch's Nursery, out in the country, a car full of plants, on a sunny spring day. We were ambling down country roads on the way home, no more than a mile from a tiny once-upon-a-time town named Alvord. 

"Is this James Schaap?"

The caller gave me his name, claimed to be the hospital chaplain at Mauston, Wisconsin.

"I am very sad to report that there's been a terrible accident," he said. No preliminaries. "Your sister is not in any danger, but your brother-in-law didn't make it. He died."

That's all I remember. Hard-edged, no formalities. Firm yet considerate. All business, but not at all thoughtless. Merciful even in its economy. 

It would have been out of place for him to ask about the weather, wouldn't it? He had only one reason to talk to me, so he went at it with considerate immediacy. No one can dress awful news in niceties. 

When the conversation ended, we happened to be at Alvord, the little town my brother-in-law listed as his hometown. I turned in and we drove through just a few minutes after being told Larry was killed in a horrible accident.

Sometime later I learned that the rescue squad had taken him to Lyndon Station, the closest town along the interstate, where there was a good place for a helicopter to land. But the helicopter never came because the love of my sister's life was killed right there on the highway, killed instantly, at some spot we were passing. 

It happened in highway construction. The man who hit them was ticketed for inattentive driving. They were hit very, very hard from the rear, and it happened, I remember from news photos, somewhere beneath an underpass.

There are three along I-90/94 just south of Lyndon Station. That it could have been any of three somehow diluted the sadness and horror. 

Which is not to say I won't remember. I will absolutely never forget those three overpasses every time I'm there on an otherwise featureless stretch of Interstate 90/94.

We were on our way back to Iowa. Early that morning I'd visited my parents' grave at an obscure cemetery a mile north of Oostburg, Wisconsin. They're all there--all the grandparents too. I always stop, but it's not like I have to make a visit. I want to.  I wouldn't call it a pleasure, nor do I feel it an obligation. It's just a visit I want to make. 

R. T. Wright says--and everyone knows--that what happens when we die, what happens in the now once we've shucked this mortal coil, is total mystery because no one has been there and back, despite claims aplenty.

Christians believe--as I do--in the resurrection of the body, but that my great-grandparents will peel themselves from the earth beneath that tipsy stone is as much fancy as any other view of death. We don't know.

I don't know that anything of Larry abides at the underpass where he was delivered from this life. I honestly don't think so. Nor do my parents await the second coming from muddy seats given them in the terra firma at Hartman Cemetery, a place named, almost certainly, for my own great-great grandparents. The people we knew and loved are certainly not there at a spot on the highway or a graveyard little more than a mile from the shore of Lake Michigan.

But something abides, doesn't it? Something startles the memory. Something won't let us forget. Highways all over the nation wear crosses in unusual places, some of them unmistakably ornamented. You see them everywhere. They celebrate lives most of us don't know but loved ones won't ever forget.

Something abides there, something is very much alive as long as we are.

I don't know where the accident happened exactly, under which underpass of the three just south of Lyndon Station; but to me and all of Larry's family that stretch of ordinary interstate will never be anything the place where Larry died. 

That it's unforgettable is a blessing. What's more, it's a blessing for which I'm thankful this overcast Iowa morning.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

JFK, the Pope, and Netanyahu

It was Sunday night, after church. We stayed because my uncle was going to speak on a topic he was carting to Dutch Reformed churches throughout the county, a topic that drew a crowd among all those Republicans. It was 1960, and one of the candidates for President of these United States was a young and handsome senator from Massachusetts, a war hero blessed with a striking wife, both of them drawn charmingly from the nation's elite.

That candidate was known affectionately as JFK, and he was Roman Catholic.

My uncle's traveling soap box was created to warn Dutch Reformed churches like ours, how Kennedy's election to the nation's highest office would spell the end of American democracy since the nation would be run thereafter by the Pope, who our Calvinist ancestors considered the anti-Christ. Etc.

I was 12 years old, just beginning to take interest in politics. Honestly, I don't remember what I thought about Uncle Jay, but I was proud of his startling witness. I'm sure I was thoroughly Republican myself back then, and I likely nodded my approval throughout the hammering he gave the Catholic Kennedy.

We all know how that worked out.

But last week I thought of my uncle up there in front of church years ago, trying to rip the camo off a Roman Catholic conspiracy when I read Roger Cohen's NY Times op-ed, a piece which mentioned almost off-handedly that he was among thousands of American Jews invited to watch a webcast produced and broadcast in Israel, by Israel, to oppose the administration's treaty (in fact the world's great powers' treaty) with Iran.

I remembered Uncle Jay's patriotic (and anti-Papist) passion because the scenarios seem somehow similar, except this one was real: a foreign power was doing what it could to affect American politics and culture. I'm unaware of the Pope every campaigning JFK.

The two scenarios are not the same, of course. The papacy was not at risk; Isreal is--or so Netanyahu fervently believes. What's more, my uncle's argument was theological (and Republican): because JFK was a practicing Roman Catholic, he had to listen to the Pope. Thousands of American Jews asked to view the webcast are ruled by no similar theology.

Still, I wonder whether any other ethnic or religious group might operate similarly. Would the Dutch government contact everyone with Dutch surnames if some trade American trade bill put the Netherlands at risk? Polish? German? 

Churches attempt to influence political thinking certainly. Most muster troops for one side of another of whatever culture war is raging, but none of those who do are foreign-grown.

Even if the most aggrieved of our minorities were fighting legislation they found disdainful, their criticism would be home-grown. African-Americans don't get together to watch webcasts from Kenya or Nigeria, and Native people have no foreign roots.

Good people, thoughtful people, disagree about the Iran nuclear deal. But I found myself in church again, circa 1960, when I read Cohen's article, and I couldn't help feeling like Uncle Jay did back then because what he thought was going to happen with JFK--and didn't--is happening today with American Jews.

I hope I'm not anti-Semitic when I say that, somehow I can't help thinking, 
like Uncle Jay, that it sort of stinks.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

A Victory

"Temple of Baal-Shamin, Palmyra" by Bernard Gagnon

Anyone familiar with the Old Testament--well, anyone who takes it seriously, I suppose--might well think of what ISIS did last week as almost righteous. After all The Temple of Baal-Shamin was at one time a temple to Baal. Most orthodox theologians summarize the entire New Testament as an exercise for Israel to learn that there is only one God, and He is their God, Jehovah, a word sometimes thought too divine to even spell.

I don't know what Pat Robertson says, but I would suppose that the super-righteous might just think ISIS was merely accomplishing what the Israelites didn't or couldn't accomplish thousands of years ago: they took out a temple to a god who is not god. If you don't know Baal, read the Old Testament prophets sometime. Start anywhere; the Bible's prophetic literature rumbles along with the same turbo-charged animus: Baal means enemy.

When Elijah's Mt. Carmel Championship sacrifice blew up in flames, 450 prophets of Baal must have crawled into the innards of their own sacrificial pyre because, embarrassingly, theirs hadn't (see I Kings 18). Elijah destroyed 'em. Google the story sometime. You'll find dozens of Sunday School plans. Why not? It's a great story to tell. "Maybe your god is on the toilet," Elijah taunted when 450 holy men couldn't get their bull lit. I've always loved that line, Elijah as a kind of 1000 B. C. Bill Maher.

See that temple?--reportedly it's gone, a temple to a what ISIS and Elijah both would call a pagan god. So ISIS got the job done two thousand years later.

But we mark our years with an A.D. and not a B.C. Along came Jesus Christ, and threw everything off balance, as the Misfit says in O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find." Things have changed in the post-Jesus world.

I'm a believer, always have been and likely always will be, and I think what ISIS did is perfectly barbaric. ISIS wants only one story told--theirs. Every other story is pagan. Every other story is evil. That doctrine allows them to behead their enemies. Nothing has worth but what they say has worth. They live in a vile and violent world of righteous us vs. evil them.

So this week, as yet another Sunday school lesson in orthodoxy, they drilled dozens of holes in what's left of this bit of Canaanite antiquity, filled those holes with explosives, then blasted away, bringing the temple down. It's pagan, after all--always was and always will be.

Perfectly bright people, men and women who grew up in the West, have signed on to barbarism, to rape and murder in the holy name of their god. It's madness.

And that's why what three men did on the train from Amsterdam seems Elijah-like. They took down some ISIS would-be martyr confessionally-bound to kill pagans on their way of Paris. They saw the AK-47, recognized the madness, and ended the carnage before it could begin, right there on the tight quarters of the train.

In Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman, Robert L. O'Connell makes a claim that might well be outrageous to Southerners, but it's the thesis of the biography. Sherman's famous March to the Sea was undertaken with a strategy that made war democratic. Sherman's men were often separated from the command structure and therefore free, within guidelines, to operate on their own. Sherman left crucial decision-making up to individual platoons and soldiers, O'Connell says, in a way that foreshadows what happened in Normandy in early June of 1944.

I'm no more a military historian than I am a theologian, but it's clear to me that three American military men--none of them in fatigues, none of them armed--acted completely on their own when they wrestled the would-be assassin to the floor of that Paris-bound train.

Last week ISIS planted dynamite in one of humankind's grandest antiquities, an ancient temple with Old Testament roots. Blew it up. I'm sure they killed people too, likely hundreds of them. The treachery spawned from their evil orthodoxy knows no limits.

But this week, blessedly, three American military, off duty, and one French-American musician brought down a ISIS fanatic on a train to Paris. When they did, for a moment they disregarded their lives for the sake of the hundreds on board that madman had in his sights.

"He who saves one person," an old Jewish proverb says, "saves the world."

Greater love hath no man than this," Jesus says, "that a man lay down his life for his friends."

Somehow, this week, what they did feels like a great victory, a raging fire on Mt. Carmel. 

The assassin's god must have been on the toilet.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Descent into God's Country

It would be interesting to know how often I've made the trip between northwest Iowa and southeast Wisconsin, hundreds of times, I'm sure. And again last weekend, leaving Alton just before six. 

Leaving that late in the day may well have been a first, but we're retired folks now, and there were late afternoon commitments so we simply figured we'd go half way on Thursday, take a motel, and journey on the next morning. Leisurely. You know, like old folks.

That trip takes most of nine hours, sometimes more, depending on what you eat and where; and brings you through goodly chunks of two geographic regions--tall-grass prairie (mostly corn as long ethanol production is so amply blessed), and the bushy, woodsy Great Lakes region full of sneaky curves on a thousand roads once upon a time laid atop deer tracks and Indian trails. 

The seam of those two geographic regions is a place Old Style beer used to call "God's Country." The assertion that the Mississippi River valley is God's country and Anywhere Else, U. S. A. isn't is entirely arbitrary, but I've often thought about Old Style beer when I-90 begins an awesome descent on Minnesota's eastern border. I love that sudden drop off, always loved the way the highway courts the river for a dozen miles or so, finally crossing it and all its tribs just west of LaCrosse. I've no quarrel with Old Style.

Other places on the globe may resent a brewery for making the outrageous claims that it used to, but when you come off the bare-naked plains and descend into those gorgeous wooded hills, you can't help thinking they've got it right. But then, for me, the Great Lakes region, the shore line coast of Lake Michigan, is home.

And that's why, Thursday night, on our way to a halfway motel on the Mississippi's French Island, I suddenly and for the first time got scared. It was pitch dark when we made that steep five-mile long descent, and in the sheer darkness, the highway's otherwise familiar meandering seemed foreign. I could see no farther than the reach of my headlights. I was tired, too, but I was jumpy as I've never been before, not in all of those trips through the hills.

I'd probably never driven that stretch at night. 

I didn't feel like I normally do when the prairie ends and the highway drops out from under the car. It didn't feel like another wonderful homecoming because the hills were lost in the darkness. The winding road seemed treacherous because I didn't recognize it, couldn't. In a hundred trips back and forth, I'd probably never driven into God's Country at night. Not once, and the way home seemed almost dangerous, not like home at all.

It was scary, not simply because the highway demanded so much of my attention but because I honestly thought I knew that road like the back of my hand. And I didn't. Not in the darkness. What seemed so beautiful and so ordinary seemed suddenly a stranger.

It's not a pleasant feeling to know, suddenly, that that which was familiar is somehow not so, when what you see before you is new even though it really isn't. I don't know that I can explain it exactly. Things shouldn't have been the way they were. 

Don't get me wrong. We had a great time at a short little reunion, a celebration for my sister and brother in law's "golden" anniversary. But for a moment last weekend, I felt something quite scary, something this old man is guessing there will be more of down the road as they say, an uncomfortable fear that what should be familiar somehow isn't.

The motel was just fine, the visit was short but sweet and greatly blessed, the weather was perfect, just a touch of fall now in the air. It's just immensely clear outside my window this morning because a northwest wind came by and blew out all that cloudy summer humidity. Colors jump. This morning, once again, just outside my window, I can see for miles.

But that strange and even scary descent through the dark hills and into the deep of the valley, a trip I thought I knew, is something I can't help remembering, even in the soul.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Sunday Morning Meds--Harmony

“I will praise you, O Lord, among the nations; 
I will sing of you among the peoples.”

Strangely enough, I have but two memories of an early childhood trip to New York City, and both of them emerge from kinds of fear. I had to be less than ten. We visited the United Nations, because I have some kind of memory of standing in front of that building, but no memories at all of being inside.

What I’ve not forgotten, as I said, is two images, both from the street. In one a woman who is apparently mad is shouting and screaming wildly. The words make no sense, as I remember; but the scene is distressing, largely because no one seems to care. People—thousands of them—walk right past on her sidewalks 
wider than I’d ever seen. Someone should tell her not to scream, I must have thought. But no one did, and she kept it up. Finally, we were out of earshot.

The other memory is also from the street—a man in a sandwich board saying “Repent” or something. I was just a kid, but I remember being kind of embarrassed, almost the same feeling I had when that mad woman wouldn’t stop screaming. This guy was preaching, and I knew it; but I found him and his preaching rather nuts. I didn’t want him drawing such distressed attention to a faith I knew better by way of the Christmas eve programs or morning prayers over Sugar Pops.

Those two memories are filed away in a scrapbook--memories of a trip to the big city.

Gratitude is the beginning of the Christian life—that’s what I believe; and gratitude makes us sing. No question. Gratitude makes David pipe the dawn in this psalm, or believe he can—or at least make the outrageous claims he does. 

Our thanks for the salvation that has come so shockingly into our lives sends us cartwheeling into the world. “I will sing of you among the peoples,” David shouts, ecstatic, and some guy in New York in the early fifties adorns himself in a sandwich board and stands out on the street where he scares the children and the horses.

Our pastor used to talk about an adult male in a previous church who wasn’t blessed with full cognitive abilities (I don’t know how to say it). This man had a special love for a certain organist’s playing. Whenever she’d play, he’d dance in the aisles.

Maybe we all should. Maybe we all should pull on sandwich boards or paint “Jesus Loves me” across the side of our houses. There’s a man just down the block that loves to sit outside on Sunday afternoons, his stereo cranked, the sounds “The Old Rugged Cross” being sung by a men’s quartet with bluegrass roots taking over the entire neighborhood.

I know David’s impulse here. I know what’s in him. He’s almost gone in his deep affection for the God who has saved him from death so often, and here, in the cave, has done it again. The Lord almighty has delivered him, and it makes him sing.

But how? And what tune? And how loud? Snare drums or Native flutes?  Pipe organ or ukulele? Bold type or fancy font? Stories or poems? Amish romance or dirty realism? Classical or folk rock? Johnny Cash or Mahalia Jackson? Flannery O’Conner or Pat Robertson?

One man's deliverance can be another boy's embarrassment, right? There's just no accounting for taste. 

The older I get, the more I think the answer is simply, “Just sing.” Just sing and let the Lord almighty do harmony.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

The latest evil

This man, Khalid al-Asaad, 83 years old, a resident of the city of Palmyra, Syria, was taken to the city square and beheaded on Tuesday by ISIS. They'd been holding him for weeks, having overtaken Palmyra some months ago.

Al-Asaad was the city's archaeologist, the man responsible for keeping up and taking care of Palmyra's extensive archaeological treasures. “He was a very important authority on possibly the most important archaeological site in Syria,” according to a specialist on Islamic art. Virtually self-taught, al-Asaad regarded the wealth of antiquities in Palmyra as his passion.

His head, his glasses still on his face, lay between his feet as his bloody body was suspended by red twine from a traffic light right there where he was executed, an old man, an expert in Islamic art and antiquity, an enemy, apparently, of the jihad.

Speculation has it that ISIS wanted information on the whereabouts of the very treasures al-Asaad had studied for many, many years. The horror of his very public death some attribute to the strong possibility that al-Asaad died doing what he did all during his life--protecting those antiquities, not revealing their whereabouts.

If you think that ISIS cares about antiquities from its own Islamic faith, you're wrong. The history ISIS wants told is the history they write. Nothing else matters because everything else is the work of infidel apostates to whom death is due.

News was released last week that Kayla Mueller, the American relief worker captured and then killed by ISIS months ago already was likely repeatedly raped by her captor, a man who was said to have married her, a jihadist named Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. ISIS, I guess, rapes in the name of Allah.

Anyone who's seen pictures of the flotilla of Syrian refugees washing up on the shores of Greek islands has seen fear, despair, and finally relief on Syrian faces. They believe--and who can doubt--that the only way for them and their children--and their babies--to stay alive is to find sanctuary in the west. More than 21,000 have already come ashore on island coastlines.

Although no religious group has suffered more at the hands of ISIS jihadists than fellow Muslims, an article in the NY Times last week legitimately questioned whether Christianity in the Middle East would soon simply disappear. Every atrocity known to humankind has been perpetuated by jihadists on Christian believers, "crusaders," as some militants call them, bloody persecution beyond imagination simply because Christian believers confess the name of Jesus.

That the rest of the world can't seem to stop ISIS is incomprehensible. But that young people from all over the world daily continue to pilgrimage to the Middle East, where they volunteer to join their ranks of jihadist rapists and murderers is as mystifying as it is horrifying.

An 83-year-old archaeologist from Palmyra is just the latest evil. 

It's easy to feel that way, isn't it? An old man is beheaded--that man in the picture at the top of the page. It's just the latest evil.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

What I learned on Hwy 75

Kansas State Capitol

An extra day in Topeka, Kansas wasn't on our agenda. The car wasn't repaired yet--it had been, from the get-go, that kind of vacation weekend. There was no choice but to stay, so we holed up at a motel not far from the Honda garage and dug in, even though we would much rather have been chugging along north, back home. Wasn't going to happen.

We could have done worse. The temps had topped a century since we'd come to Kansas, and we could have been in the little old vacation house we'd rented, a Grandma's house if you've ever seen one, where the only air conditioning was in the bedrooms. There we'd sat with our kids, four of us sitting around a bed. Having fun yet? 

At least Topeka had things to do, things to see. The C of C website had a ton of can't-miss attractions, including the State Capitol and the Kansas Museum of History. There were other possibilities, including, oddly enough, a museum commemoration Brown vs. Board of Education. Imagine that, I told myself, a whole museum commemorating the end to racial segregation--never thought of that. 

But I was looking for another Brown, John Brown the famous abolitionist/madman. Part of the reason we were in Kansas was to know more about the famous bleeding of the 1850s, so we got in our rental car--a truck!--and visited the capital and State Historical Society's new museum just outside of town. Great choices, both of them.

Justice Alan Page

Yesterday, Alan Page, 22-year veteran of the Minnesota Supreme Court and, not incidentally, a star defensive end for the Vikings and an all-Pro Hall of  Famer, told an interviewer on Minnesota Public Radio that for him football had been pretty much of a means to an end. He'd always wanted to be a lawyer, he said, but when an uncle and an older brother played football and did well, he took it up himself and managed a startling good career. 

Why a lawyer? the interviewer asked.

He just always wanted to be one, he said. Maybe too much Perry Mason. But then he said something that stopped me in my tracks right there on Hwy 75. He said he remembers Brown vs. Board of Education. He said that ruling had changed him and changed life itself. He said he was nine years old in 1954, but he can still remember reading newspaper articles and somehow understanding that the decision was going to have a profound effect on the country in which he lived. "Somewhere deep inside me," he says in that interview, "that decision had a deep impact."

I'm almost his age, and at 67 I can't do too many museums; my feet are real compainers. But I love 'em. I really do. But, truthfully, it had never dawned on me to go to the National Historical Site museum celebrating the Brown vs. Board of Education decision, right there in Topeka. It never dawned on me to go because, unlike Alan Page, Brown vs. Board of Education didn't really matter to me in a lily-white town, up north, where I grew up.

So I'm riding along yesterday, late morning, on my way back from a keynote speech I'd given to a bunch of teachers facing schoolrooms this morning for the first time in the fall term, and Alan Page is on the radio telling me that he'd watched too much Perry Mason as a kid and held the opinion that lawyers didn't do a whole lot but get rich and drive big cars--that's how it was he thought lawyering was something he wanted to be. 

Then came Brown vs. Board of Education. He knew, even though he was only nine years old, that the world had changed.

Racism isn't always hate. Sometimes it's just a matter of neglect. "Hmmmm--a museum for Brown vs. Board. Isn't that interesting? There any coffee left in that pot?"

Black lives matter. 

I'd just been telling teachers how important their jobs really were in the scheme of things, but I forgot to say that one of those jobs, one of the offices all of us fill even when we stand in the front of the classroom, is the profession of learning. 

Call it a Minnesota epiphany, if you will, right there on Hwy 75, somewhere around the Hills turnoff. In a moment, Brown vs. Board made so much difference.

Michelle Obama at the Brown vs. Board of Education National Historical Museum, Topeka, Kansas

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Teach the gospel

Tomorrow morning I have to speak to a whole gathering of teachers, people who are what I once was. I'm going to tell them some things I hope they'll find memorable and wise, but I'm also going to share something of this with them, a meditation from a new book of mine--soon to be out--meditations on the life of Mother Teresa--working title, Reading Mother Teresa. I wrote this two years ago or more, but just proofed the book and read it again. It fits for tomorrow. 

You don't have to be a teacher. But then, we're really all teachers, I guess, aren't we?_____________________________

From May of 1931 until 1948, Sister Teresa taught Indian children at St. Mary's Bengali Medium School for girls.

Now I’ll admit to a decidedly draconian view of childhood education in Catholic schools in the early years of the 20th century, here in the States that is. Jowly nuns nearly bursting out of their strait-jacket habits rule medieval classrooms by thumb-screws and other unthinkable persuasions.

I don't know where those images come from—perhaps from my own Protestant (which is to say, anti-Catholic) boyhood. But maybe Louise Erdrich is to blame; the nuns in her novels reach out from between the covers and author evil in your own worst dreams.

Somehow it's hard for me to think of little Sister Teresa, this diminutive young lady, barely more than a child, holding forth before an overcrowded classroom of little girls and being anything less than cherubic. Honestly, she couldn’t be draconian if she tried, right?

Who knows what little Sister Teresa might have been like as a teacher? Eventually she rose to the esteem of the world, not by way of creative lesson plans or cool classroom tricks, but on the basis of her sacrificial rescue work among the world's poorest little ones, those otherwise mostly abandoned. Later on in her life, she wasn't teaching multiplication tables, she was simply keeping wasted children, “in their holes,” as she says later, alive.

But in her starchy black habit she stood before 17 successive classrooms of poor Indian children. We know how she saw her calling--or at least we know how she wanted others to think about how she saw her calling, her work. This is what she wrote to a Catholic magazine back home:

The heat of India is simply burning. When I walk around, it seems to me that fire is under my feet from which even my body is burning. When it is hardest, I console myself with the thought that souls are saved in this way and that dear Jesus suffered much more for them. . .

Wasn't easy.

And then she goes on, in a very general way, to describe her classroom in terms any teacher will understand. "The life of a missionary is not strewn with roses," she says, "in fact more with thorns. . ." Aha. Like all teachers at some time or another, she must have noted short attention spans, vagrant eyes and minds, belligerence and boredom in her students. She had to know children whose out-of-the-classroom problems loomed so terribly before them that they simply couldn't sit.

Think of her this way--she wiped noses, buttoned buttons, slapped hands that reached where they shouldn't have. I bet she read more than her share of lousy assignments. Kids likely tangled in her class, hazed each other, made each other cry.

". . But with it all," she writes somewhat generically, "it is a life full of happiness and joy when she thinks that she is doing the same work which Jesus was doing when He was on earth, and that she is fulfilling Jesus' commandment: 'Go and teach all nations!'"

Funny, even after 40 years in the classroom, I always thought Jesus's departing command was not to teach but to preach. But then, I'm Protestant, and I'm not a woman whose vows to be the bride of Christ gave her a very clear and cozy sense of mission in the classroom.

Maybe I’ve been wrong. No matter. Even though I've been a teacher for forty years, I can still learn.

And Mother Teresa, long after she quit and long after she died, can still teach.

All nations, too.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Morning Thanks--what I did on my summer vacation

I've got water in my ear. Again. I'm halfway to stone deaf. Church was a horror yesterday because whenever we'd sing all I could hear was myself. That's no blessing.

I've got to go to the doctor today, third time this summer. Once for poison ivy--I never had poison ivy when I was a kid, and I grew up on Wisconsin's lakeshore, where everywhere you look the woods is an ivy garden. Then there was this devilish little something on my foot that turned out to be a wart, of all things. 

And now I'm going to have to go in again, this time for swimmers ear. They'll think I working on a hypochondriac badge. I went swimming with my grandson on Wednesday night because he was happy as a clam in motel pools on our little Black Hills trip. He even got his grandpa in--first time in years.

I told him I had to be careful because I'm prone to get water in my ear, where it has this nasty habit of holing up; but in just a few minutes he had me being a kid again. I spent whole epochs of my boyhood in Lake Michigan and never heard of swimmer's ear. Now, an old man, I'm besieged. 

Listen, I've also heard enough of my grandson's music to know that I'm over the hill. He wanted it on the car radio, and we really couldn't say no since we'd already scotched electronic games and the movies he'd downloaded on his iPod. The fact is, he's still a couple years away from his sister's fanaticism, just old enough to know that he's supposed to like it. When I'd ask him who the heck was singing, he'd shrug his shoulders. 

Did you know the Disney Channel runs laugh-a-minute middle-school trauma 24/7, non-stop emotional bedlam? It's true. They're on, all the time

We let him watch. Late too. One morning I got up early, sneaked out of the room, and went to the big chairs in the lobby to read a book. When I came back--just after seven--he woke up, picked up the remote, and looked at me. "Not yet" I said, making a claim for sanity.

Somewhere in Hollywood an entire industry is devoted to creating never-ending middle-school epics with preposterous laugh tracks. Most of the time there are a half-dozen kids on screen because things are mega-social. Well, like junior high.

Whatcha' don't learn with your grandkids. 

Pardon my being so disgustingly facetious. Despite my deafness, I want it perfectly clear that our grandson is a keeper. After all, it took him the better part of three days to get museum-ed out. He loved Rushmore, absolutely adored Wind Cave, got a big kick out of Wall Drug, and would likely have hiked through the Badlands if the temps hadn't turned everything to bacon.

Last week I tried hard to keep my head above water in the world of a seventh grader, and failed. But I'm really no worse for the wear. After all, I'm on Medicare.

Last week, I felt authentically like a grandpa; and it wasn't half bad. We had a great time.

So this Monday morning I'm blessedly grateful for three pretty dumb good days in the Black Hills with our thoroughly middle-school grandson. 

He's a great kid. But then, don't listen to me--I'm his grandpa.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Sunday Morning Meds--Gratitude

My heart is steadfast, O God, my heart is steadfast; 
I will sing and make music.  Psalm 57

I need to thank Garrison Keilor for drawing my attention to this verse of Psalm 57—not in so many words, but in spirit. I need to thank him for reminding me in an interview in Christian Century that the Christian life begins in gratitude. The source of faith itself is certainly elsewhere and mysterious beyond my ken, but gratitude is the starting block for what ye olde’ theologians called sanctification.  “I will sing and make music” is David’s brash pledge, his testimony of how he will live. He says it because he knows God’s promises are sure, his faithfulness will ooze into all generations, and beyond, upward and forever outward into eternity itself.

Here’s what Garrison Keilor said:
Thank you, Lord, for this amazing and bountiful life and forgive us if we do not love it enough. Thank you for this laptop computer and for this yellow kitchen table and for the clock on the wall and the cup of coffee and the glasses on my nose and for these black slacks and this black T-shirt. . . .Thank you for the odd delight of being 60, part of which is the sheer relief of not being 50.
And then he said, “One should enumerate one's blessings and set them before the Lord. Begin every day with this exercise.”That’s the idea that birthed this blog 2500 posts ago, trying to begin each day with gratitude, making a discipline of thanksgiving. Sometimes thanks comes easy as breath itself; sometimes, come the wee hours of the morning, it’s just plain hard work.

What he said in that Christian Century interview grabbed me because I sometimes feel too much the curmudgeon as I creep into those supposedly blessed, therefore golden years.  A friend of mine once made the claim that the doctrine of sanctification—that believers, as they age, inch closer and closer to the Lord, to godliness—is really a myth. “Most old guys I know,” he says, “are crotchety.” 

And they are. It’s an itch I’ve been scratching too much myself.   

It all starts with praise, Keilor says:  “Gratitude is where the Christian life begins.”  We all ought to work at it, he reminds us.  “Begin every day with this exercise. . .”  That idea struck me as priceless, so that’s what I’ve been trying to do for years already--there's the quote up top of the page.

Maintaining a discipline of gratitude with dawn’s early light hasn’t morphed me into some kind of saint.  You can’t make a silk purse out of a pig’s ear.   

But neither has not been, for me, a waste of time.  Not at all. I’m not a great a singer, but I make my own kind of music here in front of a screen in the basement. And for that—for my music and the source of its energy and Garrison Keilor’s sweet reminder of something I’ve always known—for all of that, I’m thankful. 

Hear my song.  

Saturday, August 15, 2015

"Driving West" by Linda Pastan

[We've just returned, driving east, but for a man my age, yesterday's Writers Almanac poem, "Driving West," feels personal, drawn to the past as I am.]

Driving West
by Linda Pastan

Though the landscape subtly changes,
the mountains are marching in place.

The grasses take on the fading
yellows of the sun,

and cows with their sumptuous eyes
litter the fields as if they had grown there.

We have driven for hours
through bluing shadows,

as if the continent itself leaned west
and we had no choice but to follow the old ruts-

the wagons and horses, the iron snort
of a locomotive. 

We are the pioneers

of our own histories, drawn
to the horizon as if it waited just for us

the way the young are drawn
to the future, the old to the past.

"Driving West" by Linda Pastan from Traveling Light. © Norton, 2011. reprinted by and broadcast on Writers Almanac, August 14, 2015.

Friday, August 14, 2015

A Glimpse of the Buffalo--a story (end)

Mornings in a campground begin with the slap of the screen door on the pit toilets. Campers rise early, but they respect mornings. If there is any talking, it’s more a hum than a chatter. No one laughs. The only sound is aluminum poles clanking as someone pulls up stakes. Normally, there is no wind so the pines, tall and straight above the tent, hold in the quiet. Once in a while the rip of a sleeping bag zipper darts through the stillness. Car engines whine a little, cough in the cool mountain temperatures, then pop to a start. The smell of smoke singes the air.

It was three days’ worth of dirt on my face that got me up that morning--that and maybe Jamie's being out there alone again. You never feel clean in a tent, and even though I like the warm corners of my sleeping bag, some mornings I can't take the layer of grease around my nose. Only in a campground can a chilly rag full of soap make miracles, turn your senses inside out.

That morning I sat out at the table with a cup of coffee Jamie made for me and watched him sweep up sharp handfuls of pine needles to toss on the fire. Fire entrances him. He can stand there and stare as if the flames startle cartoons out of the logs. But I wanted him to be careful, and I knew that he heard the warning in my mind. I didn't have to tell him.

The man from the little trailer next door was up already, alone. In all the trips he made to the restrooms, he always wore white shorts with a perfect crease, sometimes without a shirt. But that morning he'd thrown a green windbreaker over his hare shoulders. He had the kind of stun­ningly silver-streaked hair that really doesn't need combing. When he walked back up the path past our place and towards his, he smiled, and I pulled my hood up around my ratty hair because I looked as if I'd just crawled out of a bag.

It was just before nine, I think. The ranger had already been around to pick up foes. Jamie was arranging the half-dozen logs he'd taken from the back of the truck, and I was worried about the way he was laying them on his fire, when a car pulled up, a big car-I think it was a Caddy. The woman driving was angry. You could tell by the way she stopped, throwing the car in park while the wheels were still turning, the car finally jerking to a stop.

The two women who jumped out had to be mother and daughter. You know about those things. You just know. The older woman gestured toward the other, pointing her head at the trailer.

Jamie stood beside me, because from the first moment, from the minute they flew up to the site, the whole thing seemed jarring, out of place in the leisure of a quiet park morning. It all happened so fast that both of us hadn't the time to do anything but watch.

By the time those two were at the trailer door, the older woman had a camera out of her bag and was holding it in her right hand. They had a key. The mother slipped it in the lock, found it open, then barged right in without knocking, the daughter just a step behind, the door leaning open behind them.

Some muffled yells, then a series of flashes-two or three. The older woman yelled, and the man's cussing broke out of the doorway and cut through the trees. Jamie watched it all.

Then the daughter appeared, her hand on her mother's forearm, drag­ging the older woman along down the stairs and back out to the car. They drove away, slowly, as if they wanted to make up for the disturbance.

No sound next door.

I held my coffee in both my hands and saw little rings form across the surface from my shaking. Jamie faced me, waiting for his mother to pass a sentence, I suppose, waiting for something profound. When I didn't speak, he picked up a couple of pine cones from the pile his sisters had laid on the table, and held them in his hands as if they were baseballs.

"He's screwing her, isn't he?" he said finally, tossing those pine cones into the fire-my boy, my child, his hair still stuck up in a rooster tail, his shirt pulled on inside out, the tag flapping off the back of his neck. It's not the kind of language I can just let go.

"That's no way to talk, Jamie," I told him.

"It's true," he told me. "She's not his wife either-the pretty one. I can tell that." There he stood, staring into the flames.

What was I supposed to say? I looked at him standing there, in a way that I thought, even then, seemed angry-really, as ifhe hated the man with the white shorts. I sat there at the picnic table and ran through a thousand lines, none of which seemed right. So I let the silence go on.

"Admit it, Mom," he said. "It's true."

What could I tell him?--what could his mother tell him, really? What could she say? I looked at something angry in him, in the way he posi­tioned his cocked shoulders, braced as if expecting to deliver a blow-at his face, tight from the eyebrows, the glow of the fire in his cheeks; and yet, I had this horrible sense that he was fighting back tears he didn't understand.

"It's an awful thing," I told him, almost out of nowhere. "It's trust that's broken, isn't it? It's a promise they made, he and his wife, and now it's broken."

That's what I said, hoping, even praying, that this boy I've raised pretty much myself for the last three years wouldn't read it as an explanation for the broken world of his own parents. I didn't mean it that way. I really didn't. But I think that's what he felt. Someday it will be time to end the silence, I suppose, but I don't know what I'll say then either. Maybe he knows already.

His eyes never touched mine. "It's all his fault," he said, as he threw on the last of the pine cones. "He's the one," he muttered as he walked past me, slipped his stringless sneakers off at the door of the tent, tugged the zipper up quietly, and stepped in.

"Where you going, Jame?" I said, lamely.

"Lake," he said. One word.

I was still shaking. It all happened so fast. I felt as if I had to say something more to him, so I got up from the table with my coffee in my hand and walked to the tent and saw my daughters sleeping, smothered in the bundle of empty sleeping bags. I remember them all as babies, all three of them-remember their crying and fussing and the perfect peace of their baby sleep so many years ago already, those last minutes every night, so full of peace and beauty that I couldn't turn out the lights and go back down to my work.

The tent flap was half-opened, so I couldn't help looking at him, my son, through the screen, the girls fast asleep. He had his shorts off, and he was looking through a pile of clothes for his swimming suit. He stood there naked in front of me, unconscious of my presence, his back to the girls, and he pulled his trunks up slowly, wiggling his long legs into the damp tightness, the soft light of the open screen erasing the shadows completely from his hips so that I could see my little boy standing there as the man he knows he's becoming.

"You going swimming, Jamie?" I asked him. He half-turned quickly, as if ashamed. "It's cold in the morning," I told him. "The water is probably warmer than the air."

He shrugged his shoulders and slipped on a different shirt. "Nothing to do anyway till breakfast," he said.

"Take a sweatshirt," I told him, "one with a hood so your head doesn't get cold," sounding so much like a mother.

He nodded as he stepped back out, then grabbed his sneakers and a towel from the rope at the end of the hammock.

Our site was on a hill that sloped to the lake south of the campground.

There were no sites directly beneath us, nothing but a field of long, thin grass beneath the trees, and a path he'd already cut when the four of us had gone down to the beach. The day before, I had tried to in­terest him in the sharp pieces of white quartz that lay there as if strewn like memories for Hansel and Gretel, but all he'd cared about was a graying buffalo chip that looked as if it had rotted there for years.

He had showed it to me where it lay, pointed at it directly. "See, Mom," he'd said. "Buffalo get up here. Bulls. They call it rutting. I read it in a book. They wander."

"Rutting," I said, "you know what that is?"

He looked at me and rolled his eyes. "Of course, I do," he said. "What do you think?"


The morning, after the screaming next door, I sat back at the picnic table and watched my son walk down that path to the lake. I saw him deliberately step off the path and kick into the grass where that buffalo chip lay, then look back at me as he stood there, not a smile on his face, but a pose and a look that seemed to me to be affirmation.

He stood at that very spot, at the sign of the buffalo, as if to tell me that we both knew very well there was some deep secret the two of us, a mom and a son, would somehow never be able to share.

When he disappeared down the hill, I looked at my cup, the coffee now cold and steamless, and at my hands, the thinness of my fingers, the shaped nails, the thin skin, so much, right then, a woman's hand. Not since my husband left, Lord help me, did I feel so much alone.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

A Glimpse of the Buffalo--a story (iii)

On Wednesday, Mount Rushmore was full of motorcycles for the big rally, one whole tier of the parking lot lit with chrome and glistening colors in a perfect arc, like a juke box. Some of them leaned forward on long forks, looking as mean as their owners. I choked back a little fear, right there at the foot of democracy's great mountain monument, because everywhere you looked there were grungy-looking bikers in sleeveless black T-shirts with blazing colors across the front.

I held the girls' hands on our way up the steps, but not Jamie's. He was walking tall out front, dressed in a pair of cut-offs I would have washed the day before if we'd been home. He wore his new sneakers, no socks.

"I see George Washington," Jerelyn said, pointing from the sidewalk, up through the trees, over the heads of people walking back and forth beneath the parade of state flags.

"Who's George Washington?" Amy said.

"He's the 'Father of our Country;" Jamie said, still close by, even though he was too proud to hold hands. I think he could feel all those bikers, just like I did.

"Who's the mother of our country, Mom?" Jerelyn said.

I didn't think we had a mother, so I told her Betsy Ross, probably because of all the flags.

The four of us stood up at the wall outside the visitor's center, and I asked a lady in a dress to snap a picture using my camera.

"Smile," I said to the kids, holding them.

The lady waited, then put down the camera. "The boy isn't looking this way," she said, trying not to scold.

I told Jamie to pay attention, and she took the picture. When it slid out, she'd missed the whole monument.

Later, Amy sat on my lap on a couch inside the Visitor's Center, and we watched a movie about the man who carved the faces. Jamie sat in a crouch on the floor, his legs crossed in front of him, looking wor­ried, even though I thought he'd love the story on the screen. Jerelyn's hand was locked in mine. It was cool inside, very cool, or I couldn't have taken the way she leaned her weight into me.

At another viewer station across the room, a bunch of bikers slumped against the wall as if they were bushed. Some of the men wore no shirts, and the women looked bored, I thought. None of them were young anymore-their faces were creased, and the sheath tanks they were wear­ing, braless, weren't exactly flattering to their sagging boobs. "My body belongs to a biker," one of those shirts said, "but my heart belongs to Harley Davidson."
They didn't scare me. You could tell that somewhere they had kids because they had real hips and their stomachs rolled where they snap­ped their tight jeans. The men were red-eyed and sunburned, grizzled by the wind, their hair knotted in clumps, and they all sat in a daze, staring at screens, no more dangerous, it seemed to me, than tourists with expensive cameras bouncing off their bellies.
But on our way out, six bikers, all men, sat around a cement bench right beneath our state flag. We walked between them as if they weren't there. One of them, a kid with a red kerchief for a sweatband, tipped his head at me, maybe because I was alone. When I didn't smile back, he flapped his tongue out like a snake, flashing his eyes.
"Those guys are assholes," Jamie snarled, when we were fifty feet away.
"Jamie!" I said, "don't use that language."
He shrugged his shoulders, then walked away from us, out in front, his hands clenched, his calves bunched up into little fists when he walked.
The next morning he was up early again, like every morning. Not so many years ago, Burt would get up early for the paper on Sunday mornings and Jamie would crawl in the moment he was gone, this little tub of warm flesh snuggled beside me. But every morning at the camp­site, I'd hear him slip out of his sleeping bag and fuss with the wood until flames would pop.
I'd sling his sleeping bag over Amy and tell myself I should warn him to be careful with those flames, but I never did. I didn't want to wake the girls, so I let him scrape around for kindling until he had something crackling. I hoped he was old enough to play with fire.
I haven't the backbone to play Mom when the sun isn't yet clearing the tips of the pines. My body is dead weight, even on a flattened mat­tress. I'd lie awake on the ground in a thick morning daze while the girls lay asleep against me, pushed up against both my sides.
Tomorrow: The ruckus next door.