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.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Me and T. S. Eliot--R. I. P.

T. S. Eliot

The study of T. S. Eliot is now decades behind me, fifty or sixty years, most of a lifetime, and I'm not at all bothered by that confession. Not that I didn't appreciate mining his oh-so-formidable poetry way back when; but for me at least, understanding him was like climbing hand over hand up a stone wall without the use of one's legs--which is to say, just about impossible. Eliot himself famously maintained that poetry had to be difficult, and for me, his was, desperately so.

Apparently there is a brand new two-volume study of Eliot. A review by Marjorie Perloff in the Weekly Standard put me in mind of the trials I had with Eliot's "The Wasteland," as well as other poems of his, poems equally impossible to understand and therefore far more difficult to appreciate than the professor (I don't remember who taught me my Eliot in grad school) thought proper and fitting for an English major. Two new volumes of critical work. I'm not in line for copies.

The real problem back then was that I knew I was supposed to like him. You weren't really part of the English major family if you didn't. I had to climb the Eliot Parnassus or be forever relegated to literary peon-dom. So I did. I tried. And tried. And tried. 

But all the while I couldn't help thinking that any poem packaged with its own footnotes was cheating, wasn't a poem at all, wasn't music but scholarship in verse, if the lines could be called verse at all--and totally arcane scholarship at that.

For years I taught "The Love Song of Alfred Prufrock" with relative success, at least by English prof standards. Since no student in the class understood anything at all about what was right there before them in the text, I could sound brilliant by opening up so many impossible lines. 

"Do I dare to eat a peach?" The famous last line of that poem offers English majors grand opportunity to unpack meaning like true academics. As a prof--I'll admit it now--it was fun to be smart and to make the students feel smart too, to offer them membership in the club. 

I know that Eliot's "The Wasteland" helped me understand the deadly moral fatigue felt in the Western psyche after the madness of World War I. I know that "The Four Quartets" offered me a look into an empty soul, and that "Ash Wednesday" began an answer which does more than suggest Eliot's own transformation/conversion to Anglicanism.

I know all of that, but I don't "like" the poetry. 

So I couldn't help feel a little liberated by Perloff's evaluation that "when Eliot was good he was very, very good but when he was bad he could be quite horrid," although I might have turned down the volume of the first bald assertion in that sentence.

What seems clear to me now is that I was blessed to be an English prof in what might be considered the Golden Era of English teaching, a time when people--in the club and not so--actually believed that what the poetry of T. S. Eliot said carried more wisdom than almost anything else dressed up in words. I started my college teaching career when all college students in this country had to take American literature, every one of them, hard as that is to believe today. I taught literature when wise men and women believed that every college student should know the work of Ezra Pound.

That era is over. 


But I don't know that we didn't do the right thing in making sure the only the people who have to read T. S. Eliot today are those who really want to. Eliot was, without a doubt, the kind of elitist who's hard to love and hence hard to believe. I'll grant you that he deserves the long Wikipedia page he's got. I won't fault him there. But our worship?--nah.

No part of my dalliance with Thomas Stearns Eliot do I remember fondly. May he rest in peace. I just hope I'm still a member of the club--emeritus status.

Monday, May 30, 2016

From the museum--The Book on Uncle Edgar

["From the museum"--11/11/10. Occasional old posts from yesteryear. Life has changed; some stories endure.]

I was never formally introduced to my great uncle Edgar Hartman. He was dead long before I was born, even before my mother was born, in fact. But I knew of him by way of his only sibling, my grandmother, who used to tell me the same story, over and over, whenever I, as a boy, mowed her lawn.

A single ice-cube floated around at the top of a glass of lemonade she’d always bring out when I’d finish the grass on the north side of her house. She’d set that lemonade out, wave me to the porch beside her, then push that glass at me with a warning.

“You drink that slowly now,” she’d say. “Years ago, I brought my brother Edgar a quart jar of lemonade when he was working in the canning factory–one of those hot summer nights.” Her head would rise slightly, her eyes lose focus as she’d bring back the incident. “Edgar drank it in one gulp–never even brought it down,” she’d say, not without some admiration. “When he was finished he took one look at that empty jar and passed out–right then and there, flat on the floor.” She’d point at the lemonade. “Not so fast now.”

That was just about all I knew of this great uncle Edgar. I knew he was dead, of course, and that the local American Legion Post was named after him–Hartman-Lammers Post–and that he’d died in the Great War, World War I.

I was a kid then–maybe ten–and a half a century had passed since Uncle Edgar took leave from this vale of tears. He died somewhere in France, maybe in a scene like this—I don’t know—but for years the only story I knew about him featured a bout of heavy lemonade chugging and a quick trip to the cement floor at Oostburg Canning Factory, circa 1910.

Years later, my grandma passed along fistfulls of old scrapbook stuff to me, thinking, I suppose, that of her grandchildren, I seemed most fascinated by her stories of the past. Those old pictures and documents continued to yellow in a box I’d come heir to, each dutifully described in her chicken-scratch writing so I’d remember who was who and what was what.

When Grandma died, I dug into that box and found a bunch of things having to do with her brother Edgar. Odd. I was 500 miles from the Oostburg Canning Company and American Legion hall, but here I was, fated to be the sole caretaker of a life most everyone else had forgotten.

Edgar Hartman was not married when he was killed instantly by what his commanding officer called a German “one-pounder.” He was just one of millions killed in the endless horror of trench warfare that came to define the military madness of World War I. My mother never knew him; she’d been born a month and a half after his death. As far as I knew, no one alive knew my uncle Edgar.

I suppose that’s why I put all those Uncle Edgar documents, photographs, and letters my grandmother had given me into a scrapbook with “Photo Album” embossed in gold across a non-descript, tan cover. There’s no picture of him sprawled out on the floor of the Oostburg Canning Company here, but there is, quite frankly, everything else anyone on earth knows of him. I’ve got all of that here in this scrapbook, so when I hold it, as I am now, I have in my hands every last shred of the life of a real human being, a man who happened to be my great uncle. You might say, I’ve got the book on Uncle Edgar.

Had I known him, I suppose I would feel slightly different than I do. Had I known him, grief would certainly play a role in way I feel when I sit here, paging through the photographs. Honestly, I don’t feel the grief my grandma certainly must have when he didn’t come back from France. For years, my mother says, our family’s attendance at the Oostburg Memorial Day cemetary “doings,” as Grandma herself used to call them, was mandatory. After all, her only brother had died in “the war to end all wars.”

In fact, my grandmother’s anguish is here vividly here in the Uncle Edgar scrapbook. You can feel it. You can see it in an old envelope that never got through to her brother, and the letter it holds, dated March 14, 1919 (four months after Armistice Day, November 7, 1918), and written on her husband’s stationary–“Harry H. Dirkse, Village Clerk,” it says; that note, written in a much livelier hand than the scratchings on the back of the photos, is signed “Your sister, Mabel.” That’s my grandma.

Here’s what it says: “Dearest Brother, Am making another attempt to have you hear from us. I have now had eleven of my letters returned to me but none the last month so will send another in search of you. We have been unable to find any trace of you up to now, nor received anything from you since your field service card reached us on August 7th. We are all well and have a fine baby girl 3 mos. old awaiting your return. Will write more when I learn whether or not this reaches you. With Love.”

The “fine baby girl” is my mother.

The field service card she refers to is here too, in my hands. “Y * M * C * A,” it says at the top, with the words “With American Expeditionary Force” beneath it. The message is terse: “Dear Sister M, Just arrived safely in England will write again as soon as I have an address. Edgar.” It is not difficult for me to imagine how closely my grandmother must have guarded that postcard over the ensuing months.

And there’s more. My Uncle Edgar scrapbook has a childhood picture of the two of them, brother and sister. There’s even a baby picture, as well what seems to be an eighth grade graduation picture taken about 1910 or so—that’s him, back row, second from the tallest. There are five pictures of him in his military uniform. In one, he’s saluting; in another, a fat cigar juts from the corner of his mouth, while he stands beside his brother-in-law, my grandfather, behind him Oostburg’s Main Street as it must have looked in the early years of the century, a horse rail clearly recognizable out front of my grandfather’s blacksmith shop in the very middle of town.

The scrapbook also includes other things—a stampless post card from Basic Training in North Carolina, which mentions having to hike fifteen miles, a number of letters, the only historical record of what was on his mind in those last years of his life–amazement at the unending length of army chow lines, news of the mumps that kept him from sailing overseas with his company in April of 1918, joy on having run into Jim De Munck, another Oostburg boy–“good to see someone from home,” he writes.

And I have here in my scrapbook the official letter from the War Department, The Adjutant General’s Office, Washington, deeply-stained and dated August 23, 1919, more than a year after his death, and almost a year after the war’s end. It’s addressed to Mrs. Harry Dirkse, Oostburg, Wisconsin, and concerns a man the army noted as “201 (Hartman, Edgar J.) CD.”

“Madam,” it begins, and then, “It is with profound regret that I confirm. . .” You can guess the news.

On the next page is another document, equally official. “Army of the United States of America,” it says in a headline that tents over the top of the page and includes the official symbol of American government, an eagle with palm leaves in one grand claw, arrows in the other. “This is to certify that Edgar J. Hartman, Private, Machine Gun Company, 58th Infantry died with honor in the service of his country on the sixth day of August, 1918.”

The date for the certificate is itself profoundly sad. “Given at Washington D. C., office of The Adjutant General of the Army, this eleventh day of June, one thousand nine hundred and twenty.”

What exactly happened to this man, shown here with two little children, one of them my uncle, the other the great-grandmother of several Dordt students, this man standing across the street from Wykhuis Store, which is now the Pizza Ranch in Oostburg, Wisconsin?

Well, his story is here too, at least what one man claims is Edgar Hartman’s story. My grandmother’s documents include a two-page, hand-written note from a man named Leo B. Zastrow, who described doughboy Edgar.

“He was a member of my platoon but was in another squad about 300 yds to the left of my squad of which I had command in a sunken road leading to Ville-Savoy they were dug in the banks of the road. We had just finished a barrage of 15000 rounds for a covering of our infantry’s advance across the Vesle River. They were fired upon by German one-pounders immediately after our barrage and according the Corporal’s information to me he was instantly killed.. . .I later seen the body when relief came to my Division on my way from the front and recognized the body only by identification tags.”

As to any last words or message, Zastrow says he has none, but he wishes to assure Mr. Hartman’s folks that “he was my most trustworthy man.. . .I can assure them that he died a ‘Hero’ [capital H]. And then, strikingly, “Hoping this information will be of value to you.”

My scrapbook also includes an impressive obituary from the Sheboygan Press, June 18, presumable 1920, which tells much of the story I’ve already related, and adds this: “In the village he was regarded as one of the most prominent young men. He was of a quiet disposition and was well liked by his friends.”

On the final page of this scrapbook is the solitary picture of a solitary cross in a sprawling military cemetery, somewhere in France, I suppose. In very light letters on the cross piece, the words “Edgar Hartman,” and the number “178.”

Edgar Hartman was one of 126,000 American doughboys who didn’t return from the French killing fields or oceanic cemeteries. He was 28 years old when he died, single, and had been employed at the local lumber yard when duty called. He left behind a girlfriend, who later married and had her own life.

It’s entirely possible that no one at Hartman-Lammers American Legion Post knows anything about Edgar Hartman, so think of this: if next June some prairie monster tornado would lift Sioux Center, Iowa, off the gently rolling plains of the American midwest, scattering the household goods of the James Schaap family hither and yon, and this scrapbook of all there is to know about Edgar Hartman were to disappear from the face of the earth, then no one could ever know much at all about the man. His story would be gone, his life as indistinguishable as his body the day that one-pounder killed him in a French ditch.

To hold this scrapbook in my hands has always been a profoundly humbling experience, not only because what’s here is all there is left of this man Edgar Hartman, but also because one can’t help realize how many others–my ancestors and yours, hundreds of millions of earthlings–have vanished from this world without leaving even a trace of themselves. My Edgar Hartman scrapbook, placed on a shelf above my desk, has become my own momento mori, an memento of death’s reality; because what’s truly humbling about having everything anyone on earth knows about Edgar Hartman between two covers of a Wal-Mart scrapbook is the nearly inescapable perception that someday each one of us will also be less than a memory.

But there’s really no big news here, is there? “Dust to dust, the mortal dies,” we used to sing, “both the foolish and the wise.” Later the old song says, “Yet within their hearts they say, that their houses are for aye; that their dwelling places grand shall for generations stand.”

I need Edgar Hartman. We all do. “No young man believes he shall ever die,” wrote William Hazlitt, long ago, and I don’t think he was discriminating.

But now, this Veteran’s Day, it’s good for me to think of the anguish in these letters, months after the Armisitice was signed at five a.m., in a railway carriage in France, November 11, 1918. It’s good for me to think of what my grandma went through, not knowing. It’s good for me to think of that anguish repeated 125,000 times in one year here in this country during and after World War I; 8,500,000 times, worldwide by the end of that war.

On this Veteran's Day, it’s good for me to remember the cost of freedom.

That’s the book on Edgar Hartman, an old story that, like the other worthwhile old stories in its genre, needs to be told over and over again until each of us recognizes it as our own.

That’s my addition—and his, this Great Uncle Edgar—to the story of Veteran’s Day.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Sunday Morning Meds--Keeping our God

 “Look upon our shield, O God; 
look with favor on your anointed one.”
Psalm 84:9

The first association of the biblical phrase “a city on a hill” with these United States occurs in the words of John Winthrop, Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. He used the phrase in “A Model of Christian Charity,” a sermon he preached before he even arrived on these shores.

The association Winthrop created with that sermon (and Ronald Reagan quoted in his second inaugural) is that the United States of  America is especially favored by God almighty. It is a “city on a hill.” That mythical truth is so ingrained within us that every year I taught American lit I asked foreign students in class to explain it. It’s the water in which American kids swim, the air they breathe. We are, we’re sure, a chosen nation, blessed by God, a Christian nation—or so the story goes.

Throughout history, the marriage of patriotism and religion has been wonderfully appealing to human beings because both call upon very real emotions set so deeply within us that they may, from a distance, seem almost one. Look at the way we fold flags or repeat, hand-over-heart, the Pledge of Allegiance.

On what we used to call “Decoration Day” (now “Memorial Day”), I’ll never forget the way my grandma wouldn’t miss the annual “doings” (her word) in the local cemetery—color guard, marching band, and a sermon by some local pastor, calling the United States back to God. She insisted on going. It was a matter of faith to her, I’m sure. My parents were never so "faithful," even though my father spent years in the South Pacific during the war. Grandma lost her only brother in WWI—I’m sure that had something to do with her devotion. But it was devotion. It was faith that compelled her.

I honestly don’t know if my grandmother was ever particularly political, but we are, certainly, today. Whether or not this country is in a profound moral crisis is worth a good discussion, but many of my fellow believers are confident the whole nation needs to be returned to its Christian roots--and fast. (See above)

John Winthrop was a Christian; but 150 years after he was gone, at the time of the American Revolution, many of the movers and shakers were deists, who could rather easily shrug off Christ’s divinity. America has never been Islamic or Hindu or Buddhist, but the idea that we are or ever have been “chosen” by God, like Israel was, or even “a Christian nation” is mostly myth. But then, myths have some substantial power.

Mixing patriotism and religion is probably inescapable, but it is a complex exercise, or so it seems to me, creating a brew that is almost always toxic to both, but harder on faith than on patriotism. I rather like Tony Campolo’s take: “Mixing politics and religion is like mixing manure and ice cream—doesn’t hurt the manure much but really messes up the ice cream.”

The more time I spend with the psalms, the more impossible it seems to me to be a real fundamentalist and assume that a verse like this one has absolutely clear application to our time and our lives. It does, but it doesn't crown candidates.

Psalm 84 is an incredibly beautiful psalm—Spurgeon calls it “one of the choicest of the collection.” But if you simply fill in the blank with your favorite politician, the verse becomes a roadside bomb. “Look on our flag, Lord,” one might paraphrase, “and look with favor on your anointed [insert your favorite politician].”

Winthrop, fine man that he was, was actually kin to advocates of radical Islam today. Both believed in theocracy, in a rule by God.

I don’t think Grandma would have understood that. “Look at this verse,” she might have said. “Shouldn’t we be praying that way too?”

Tomorrow is Memorial Day. I’ll think of her and her brother and the story of his death 98 years ago. And I’ll pray for America too.

But I won’t be mistaken into thinking that this political season my vote will “keep our God." Neither will yours.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Calvin and the Yanktons just across the river

Not far away, just across the road and the tracks and around the bend of the river a bit northeast of here, there's a spot across the Floyd that's only slightly higher than anything else around, a spot someone told me used to occasionally give up arrowheads and stone kitchen tools for grinding grain. Used to. All things must pass.

Such artifacts imply a once-upon-time Indian camp, Yanktons probably, who roamed the region. I don't know if the whole scenario is accurate; I've never found an arrowhead up there; but that some Yanktons would choose that particular chunk of high ground is perfectly understandable if you stand there for any length of time. You can see a long ways, all the way to Orange City, almost four miles away. Of course, Orange City wasn't there when some Yankton band threw buffalo skins up against the poles that would form their tepees, built a fire, and determined to stay awhile.  

Yes, I am a hopelessly romantic. I like to think real ghosts are up there on that bend, that some morning if I walk out along the road and look east, I'll see thin trails of smoke from a campfire or two or six. Fat chance, really--there's always too much wind. 

But what's a life without imagination? So I keep it up. Lewis and Clark came up the Missouri and spotted their first herd of buffalo just about an hour west of here. Why not think of this ground as it might have been once upon a time 200 years ago, Yanktons for neighbors. 

The sky is huge this morning, some remnant storm still passing away, flashes of orange at the horizon below mounds of dark blue fleece. I'll step out and get a picture. 

Okay, it's no stunner. Not all dawns are created equal, and out west, thick darkness is right now threatening more rain (we've had our share). Still, countless morning skies inspire. I like to think--as the mythology goes--that those Yanktons up at the bend, were they here right now, would be at the flaps of their tepees, looking eastward, welcoming the sun as if it were the Triune God. It was a ritual, people say, a spiritual discipline.

You could do worse than establish a prayer life at the opening of the day, as thousands--even millions?--of Native people are thought to have done long before white folks came along toting their black books. 

Is such ritual doable? I don't think so. But a week or so ago we visited a nephew who lives 33 floors up, mid-town Atlanta. We were there one sunny afternoon for an jaw-dropping view of the city. Great dawns--like great sunsets--must be beautiful from up there, even though a couple million people just below. 

Calvin maintained that when we honestly note what we can of God's immensity, we simultaneously recognize our frailty, that we simply are not what he is and therefore in great need of great grace. That realization, often done in nature, Calvin said, is the beginning of wisdom, We see something of his power and understand our lack thereof. Just across the river from me, some Yanktons on some mornings like this may well have sat outside their doorways and noted the exact same thing. Maybe not the same God, but certainly the same vital relationship. 

In his new book American's Original Sin, Jim Wallis makes the claim that our problems as a nation have something to do with white America's inability to make peace with its own past, a past that included treating ethnic and racial minorities as immaterial, as men and women and children who were simply not quite fully men and women and children. That iniquity, Wallis says, emphatically, is America's "original sin."

"If white Christians hope to build multiracial and multicultural communities of faith," he says, after a long chapter that outlines ministries that do just that, "they must be prepared to listen to and include worldviews and technologies of nonwhites and non-Westerners." And then this preposterous line: "That process can begin by recognizing that many non-Western expressions of Christian theology have just as much to teach us about God as Calvin, Luther, or German popes do."

Come now, Wallis. Calvin? You can't be serious.

But then look at this:

That bend in the river is just beyond those trees. 

Thursday, May 26, 2016

When storms gather

Just outside my window, our acre-sized backyard is taking shape. The first year, it was weed pandemonium. We put in a species of field grass way out back, a species meant to grow long, if so desired. I tried to transplant some ditch stuff now and then in that field grass and mostly failed. No, totally failed. Mostly what we did all summer was battle weeds. We had no lawn, waited for September to plant. "Twas a mess.

The next year we put in a couple of garden boxes and discovered those dang ground squirrels living in the rocky retaining walls loved lettuce even more than flowers. But they let the tomatoes alone, so we had salsa for half the winter. Some beans too, and a dozen peppers. Newly retired, we'd become gardeners. Not an unfamiliar path.

Meanwhile, that field grass grew as thick as promised. I tried another round transplants from the ditch--Iowa's own prairie rose, even some milkweed for the monarchs. Mostly failure. We're retired rookies.

Last week a friend, an agronomist in point of fact, showed me how to sew native prairie grass and wildflower seeds into a chunk of our acre that for the last two years was alfalfa. I'm waiting for signs of life, ever hopeful. But people tell me that maintaining restored prairie is a ton of work. We're going to try.

Last fall we finally put down a balloon-shaped patio of pavers that changed the look of the place. This spring I transplanted tons of hand-me-downs from friends--bee balm, spider wort, coreopsis, They're all doing nicely, not that transplanting them required a degree in horticulture. 

The well-worked soil in the garden boxes felt like a treasure when I put in the tomatoes, and yesterday a load of perennials showed up from the greenhouse. I put in a dozen and a half last night, just before dark, just west of the deck, just before the storm. 

Things are starting to take shape is what I'm saying. What's just outside our windows is at least something of what we've imagined it might be, and it looks good, the sun just now arising.

Okay, I'm sore this morning, but then I'm sore every morning; but what's a retirement for if you can't do what the heck you want to--and we love working out back.  

Tell you what, here's a little gallery I just snapped, just as the sun came out from last night's storm clouds.

There's the garden, two new boxes, the smaller ones, new this year. The closest plants, the ones surrounded by mulch between the pots, is the grass that won the west, Big Blue Stem. We hope they tower over everything by August, like the monarchs they are. 

We're supposed to pray for that Red Bud everyday, so says a green-thumbed retiree who came here to check things out a week or so ago. So we do. That stretch of bald soil behind it and in front of that old bale out back is the plot now hand-planted with original prairie stuff. 

Here's what I put in last night, hasta heaven and a bunch of other greenhouse perennials. 

Then it rained. Again. Hard. Very. Hard. That picture, way up top, I took of a setting sun two nights ago, after another storm. Storms have been menu specials of late. They sweep in nightly, in fact--big, bad ones, scary ones. No one's talking drought. 

Last night was downright rancorous--first, all kinds of warnings. Then, after dark, the wind came up as if out of nowhere and knocked over a lawn chair on the deck--that hardly ever happens. Even in a new house, the scary noises create shivers. A bedroom door downstairs kept shaking, even though no windows were open. It felt as if malevolent spirits had come in under cover of all that gusting. 

I couldn't help fear for what's outside. It was hard not to worry. All that work. I could see it all flattened, shredded, done for.

My wife's parents, just married after the war, moved out in the country, where Dad wanted to farm, a dream he must have carried with him from Normandy to Berlin, fixing jeeps in the motor pool just behind the Allied front. He wanted to farm in ways so many Iowa boys did and some still do. He had his own dreams for what would grow in his forty of this same Iowa ground.

Late 40s. The crop was in, the plants marched straight as GIs up and down the fields when one of those angry Great Plains storms blew in a reign of hail that, in just minutes, wiped them out, took out the whole crop and sent Dad into town to a garage in order to make enough to put food on the table. 

Three miles away maybe, as the crow flies, a bit less than seventy years ago, July something probably. He's soon to be 97, but if I'd ask, I'd bet he'd still remember the month.

What do I know about storms, I asked myself? What do I know about loss? I was worried about was hastas. You can buy them anywhere these days, on sale. 

It's perfectly calm this morning, the radiant sun the kind of blessing the Yanktons, who once roamed here, came to worship. Here in my backyard, a lawn chair is tipped over on the deck. 

Sometimes storms come along so tough they wipe people out. That's what I heard, what this retired man needed to, last night in voice of the violent, rushing wind. 

Wednesday, May 25, 2016


If we actually lived in Orange City, what I'm about to say would be judged as heresy. We live in Alton, which has always been rather a somewhat embarrassing suburb of Sioux County's own citadel of righteousness, Orange City, the town Manfred always called "Jerusalem." Because we live in Alton I can say this and save my scalp. Here's the bald truth: I've never been all that fond of Tulip Festival. 

There, I said it. Hang me. 

But I'm learning. Last weekend I spent three very enjoyable hours as a tour guide through the Native American section of the Sioux County Museum, then half a gorgeous Saturday behind a Walmart folding table, selling books. Tulip Festival. I enjoyed being there in the middle of everything, just as I had last year. What's more, I sold books.  

For almost forty years, from behind the walls of Fort Sioux Center, Orange City's deadly serious rival in all things, I giggled, took pot shots at the dopey street dancing and idiotic costumes OC people don annually for their precious fest. And wooden shoes. We went once or twice when the kids were little and needed cotton candy, but mostly I did the lawn on Saturday and stayed away from the madness a dozen miles south and east.

On Friday, an older woman (a difficult phrase these days) came up to me in the museum, grabbed my sleeve, and leaned in toward me as if to whisper intimacy. "We love your town," she said, plain and simple. Things got all shook up in my head because she was talking about Orange City, which has never really been my town at all.

"So do we," I said. Not a lie, but not exactly heartfelt testimony. 

It's over now. Real Orange City-ans love to reminisce, to go over specs and dimensions, to tell each other stories of this year's pageantry, which inevitably leads to old yarns of hallowed festivals gone by. Last night, I listened to countless reminiscences, precious really, all of them. Three times, Mid-May, it actually snowed--did you know that? There were tales of peashooters, squirt guns, float mishaps. One guy said the first year they lived here, he went to every single parade--six of them in two days--and loved every one. Since?--well, not so.

Last night the combined choirs of Unity Christian High, Orange City, surrounded the crowd at the Knight Center, lined the rows and stairs in a kind of hug, and then sung "Peace Like a River." Some hymns pull my heart right out of my chest for all the world to see, the old Horatio Spafford hymn one of them. Mr. Spafford wrote out the text, the story goes, on a ship that was just then going by the spot in the wide Atlantic where, not long before, a killer storm had claimed the lives of all four of his children.

O Lord, haste the day
When my faith shall be sight--
the clouds be rolled back 
as the shore. 
It is well with my soul. 

That hymn's history doesn't stop with a tear-filled hymn-writer aboard a ship on the watery grave of his beloved children. It has become itself a lifeboat, holding up a dozen renditions in time and place that have sustained me like scripture itself through an entire lifetime. Something pulls at the corners of my eyes with every rendition. To say I know it by heart is itself a testimony.

This particular rendition was no different, with one exception. Somewhere in the lines of those choirs stood my granddaughter, brightening the earth's own darkness with a confession that has since Spafford wrote it been offered to the Lord God almighty millions and millions of time. 

No matter. That she was a part of that hymn in that beautiful way last night was a moment like none other. I hope she felt something of the rich privilege it is to make music that has brought so much eternal joy to so many sinners lavishly blessed by grace alone.

It is well, it is well with my soul. 

My parents, both of them deceased, would have loved hearing that hymn last night and seeing their own great-granddaughter as part of that choir holding a crowd of parents and grandparents, as it were, in their arms from all around the hall. 

But then, to be honest, what do any of us know about death? Absolutely nothing. 

So let's just say they were there, Jocelyn. Let's just say from some promontory somewhere, your great-grandparents were listening too, wiping a tear or two just the way your grandpa did. I bet they were. I know they were.

Don't get me wrong. I don't have to be a real Orange City-ite to say I really enjoyed Tulip Festival this year. 

But last night was something different. Last night was heritage

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

A Tulip Time Night Show

I may be wrong but I recognize some of our newest neighbors here as Guatemalan, distinguishable from other Hispanic newcomers by their height--among Frisian-American volley-ballers, they'd all be setters--and the long colorful dresses the women wear on city sidewalks.

If those cultural markers are accurate, the young mom standing in the grocery line ahead of me Sunday night was Guatemalan. At her side were three little clingy brown-eyed girls, the oldest of whom may have been in kindergarten, but not a smidgen older. That the Mom and kids were brand new to the community was clear by the way the clerk carefully explained the check-out procedure--what buttons to push, where to sign--all of it accomplished beautifully, by the way, in fluent Spanish. 

The tall high school kid at the register shyly told his bi-lingual co-worker that the Guatemalan mom hadn't answered the final question on the card reader, so the clerk who knew Spanish gently took the woman back four or five steps to be sure she understood the procedure, all of the explanations in Spanish. That little drama was, by itself, a thing of beauty.

But there were more acts to the drama. The oldest of the little girls--she could barely see up on the counter--had herself a Hershey bar and a crinkled dollar bill she laid out for that giant of a high school kid, who duly punched in the purchase. It came to $1.06, and there was only that crinkled dollar bill. 

The tall kid never flinched. Mom was being schooled at the end of the counter and the little girl with the Hershey bar was already starting to unwrap her treasure, so he just reached down and pulled out six pennies from the plate on the counter. I couldn't help thinking it was one darling act of love.

But more was coming. You couldn't help notice that when the younger sister saw her big sister's treasure and didn't get a bite, that little girl's bottom lip curled up in a fashion that needed no translation. 

And soon enough there was a whimper. 

Now the clerk who knew Spanish was oblivious to the offending Hershey bar, so she asked the Guatemalan mom how it was that her little one had suddenly turned sour. When Mom pointed to the chocolate, the clerk quite magically produced a big dish of what, decades ago, we used to call "penny candy." Where she got it from, I don't know, but just then it looked like five loaves and two fishes or some other miracle.

That little down-turned lip straightened out into one glorious smile once the little tyke reached into the miracle bowl of goodies. Goodbyes were said, and I just happened to be there, next in line with a couple of oranges and a little bag of stroops.

It was the Sunday after Tulip Time, a kind of sabbath all its own, a moment in time when most of Orange City sits down and takes one huge breath. 

But right there before my eyes a sweet drama went on, a ethnic play whose story line was perfectly universal, a midtown Sunday "night show" just as poignant as West Side Story, and maybe even more darling, a Sabbath blessing all its own.

Monday, May 23, 2016

What I think about Willa Cather

Don't get me wrong--I love Willa Cather. But anyone who can't make out at least some gender issues in My Antonia is wearing pretty thick rose-colored glasses. The voice of the story belongs to Jim Burden, who Ms. Cather appears to want us to believe is male, a man remembering his boyhood, specifically an old girl friend (two words there) named Antonia, someone he calls "my" Antonia. 

Maybe it's just me, but I don't think so. Jim, whose voice guides us through, just doesn't "feel" male. His perceptions and memories "feel" far more female. If Jim Borden, the fictional character and narrator of one of America's greatest novels, ever walked the streets of Red Cloud, Nebraska, Willa Cather's home town, he must have cut something of a unique path.  

The truth of the matter is, his creator, Willa Cather, did. For a time s/he cut her hair off and wanted to pass herself off as "William Cather." That kind of behavior is something s/he exhibited in his/her teenage years already, and if you think I'm pulling your leg, here's the famous picture of her affecting a gender switch that must have been more than passing strange in the late 19th century. 

For decades already, gay scholars--and not so gay scholars--have tried to bring Willa Cather into their already substantial list of LBGT writers and artists. There is no real proof; her sexuality is not something she openly discussed. She never came out of the closet, if, in fact, she was ever in one. What's clear is those who would argue for her being a lesbian have some grounds.

For several years, I took classes out to Red Cloud, Nebraska, always a delightful experience, in part because My Antonia or O Pioneers were almost magical books in class, almost always blessedly received. Getting off-campus for a long day (it took the best part of five hours just to get there) was a ball, of course, and the landscape of that old railroad town is unique and truly "Great Plains." 

The Willa Cather Foundation would set up tours of the region for us when we arrived--Willa Cather lived with her grandparents, who homesteaded ten miles or so out of town (I pulled a break from the prairie grass of the homestead--see above). Some local woman (I don't remember ever having a male guide) would jump into our van and talk about the Cathers and their era in Red Cloud. Always a perfect delight.

Inevitably, the gender question would arise: was Willa Cather a lesbian? Annually, it was asked and answered, always a bit different, depending on the guide. 

One year, the guide answered with an anecdote. She was real native Red Cloud-er, her family having lived in town for generations. She told her grandfather used to say that when he was a boy--at about the time Willa Cather lived in town (eventually her own family lived just a block off Main Street), his father had told him in no uncertain terms that Willa had a little of both male and female in her, a mix that made her just a bit "different," a catch-all adjective frequently chosen for a variety of eccentric behaviors in small-town America. 

But there was more. She said her grandfather had told her his father had made it very clear that Willa wasn't exactly like everyone else, but that she wasn't to be mocked or made fun of. There was two answers to the question the guide's grandfather had asked of his father back then on the dusty streets of a frontier town: one of them was, yes, she's different; but the second was, you respect her anyway.

I loved that answer. In subsequent years when subsequent town guides would answer the question about sexuality in different ways, I'd often bring that answer up on the long ride back to northwest Iowa. I'd be sure to tell the students in the van what a woman said a couple of years back about difference and respect.

I don't know that the story has anything to do with the Obama Administration's charge to respect gender differences, especially transexuals, by allowing them the rest room of their choice. I'm not particularly taken by the federal government creating a mandate that could cost every school district in the country major bucks because of the possibility of disrespect the rest of us pay to individuals who, according to Time magazine, make up significantly less than one percent of the population. 

I'll let others argue pro and con, but I think there's good sense in what some Red Cloud, Nebraska gentlewoman told my students more than a decade ago when we stood right there in Willa Cather's home, just off Main Street. People are different. Just remember, respect 'em.

2006 Red Cloud Excursion

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Sunday Morning Meds--"The Furnace of Doubt"

Hear my prayer, O LORD God Almighty; 
listen to me, O God of Jacob.”
Psalm 84:8

Woody Allen’s movie Match Point received truly mixed reviews when it was released. Some called it the best movie he’s done ever; some warned Allen’s legions of fans to stay away, “lest their idea of Allen’s genius become ever so slightly dented,” as one wrote.  

In Match Point, or so it seems to me, Allen’s interests are metaphysical, as they often are. In fact, the film is not so subtly crafted, prompting one to think the story is an object lesson in grace—amazing grace, in fact, but perverse grace, certainly not the species that prompted one-time slave-trader John Newton to write the famous hymn.

A handsome, ambitious and well-read tennis pro named Chris Wilton falls into the gravy when one of his students ushers him into the intimacy of a well-heeled family. He marries a beautiful daughter and soon finds himself at the helm of a family-owned multi-national. Sadly, however, his libidinous self won’t be suppressed, even though he risks all the blessings he’s received. Wilton can’t keep his hands off a woman who is not his wife, and when she gets pregnant, she threatens everything. He kills her and a neighbor. Double homicide.

Relatively ordinary potboiler, until the surprisingly metaphysical last few moments of the film. By sheer luck—a series of coincidences the murderer doesn’t even know himself Wilton gets away with his heinous crimes. As Allen makes visually (and somewhat painfully) clear throughout the film, fate is simply a matter of where the ball bounces. The trajectory of our lives has less to do with our designs than plain old luck.

All of which reminds me, in a way, of a famous Woody Allen quote: “If it turns out that there is a God, I don't think that he's evil. The worst that you can say about him is that basically he's an underachiever.” Don’t look for moral order in the universe, Allen is saying, just deal the cards.

In an opening scene, Chris Wilton is reading Crime and Punishment, a set up that’s irresistible, as if Allen is taking great delight in revising Dostoyevsky’s famous tale, taking the novel to task for its clear suggestion of the importance of faith and salvation.

And yet, perhaps, differences are merely a matter of degree. After all, it’s Dostoyevsky who once wrote, “It is not as a child that I believe and confess Jesus Christ. My hosanna is born of a furnace of doubt.”

Woody Allen has plenty of his own furnaces, I believe. Match Point is as memorable as it is because it takes on cosmic issues, the way Allen’s work always does. If we aren’t in charge, who is? Is anyone? Is there a God? If there is, is he an underachiever? Not many films ask such questions so openly; that he can’t untangle himself from the messy mysteries of existence suggests an eternal battle, here as elsewhere in his work.

 Faith may well seem the opposite of doubt, but I doubt it. In Psalm 84, the seemingly boundless faith of the psalmist is undercut, even deconstructed by the command form he employs, the vehemence, the raised pointer of his begging. “Listen to me, God!” he says, suggesting that the Creator of heaven and earth hasn’t always kept his end of the bargain. There are almost equal portions of faith and doubt in the words of this verse, as much joy in the promise of God’s presence as there is stiff fear of his absence.

Isn’t it amazing that a single line of scripture can hold so much tension, so much humanity, so much of what we recognize ourselves to be?

So much of who we are.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Book Report--Slave of the Sioux

There's no accounting for taste, and I'm not trying to sell a book. The fact is, I really loved Slave of the Sioux, not because it's riveting or factual or because it has any of the characteristics one might expect of a literary ancestor of the memoir, a genre greatly beloved by our age. It does, but that's not why I read it.

What's worse, I can't imagine anyone recommending this book. It's insanely politically incorrect. Fanny Kelly was kidnapped by a terrorist band of Ogallala (Sioux) after what some would call a totally unprovoked attack that killed several of her travelling companions as they, like millions of others, wagon-trained over what had been traditional Sioux lands. 

Once in the story, she seems to understand their anger; she stops and explains the hatred they harbor for those endless train of white men and women and children aboard thousands of prairie schooners. But for the most part what she suffers at the hands of her captives determines her attitude, and it's simple: they are savages. 

The s-word was universally appropriate in the late 19th century, and Ms. Kelly sprinkles it liberally--"savages here," "savages there"--and sprinkles is most assuredly too kind a word. That usage also earmarks the fascination I have, I guess, for a book like Slave of the Sioux.

As its genre-ancestor almost two centuries earlier, The Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mary Rowlandson, Fanny Kelly's story had to have been something of a best-seller back in the later decades of the 19th century, when the story of the West was vastly more interesting than it is today because people--red and white--were still living it. Kelly's story is set when it happened, 1864, when the white nation, for the most part, was far too taken by its own Civil War to pay close attention to what was happening in the great open spaces west of the Mississippi. 

But out here on the Northern Plains, a war was also going on, a clash between the armies of immigrants coming into the region and the red folks those newcomers so mindlessly displaced. Fanny Kelly is a casualty of that war. In the attack that led to her captivity, her small caravan of wagons and pioneers were murdered, massacred really, except for her and her adopted daughter. 

Ms. Kelly and her Christianized ways became something of a role model for disgruntled Ogallala wives; she simply did what her Native husband commanded. That compliance not only saved her life but made her so valuable that cavalry enterprises created to buy her back from her captors failed. She was, to her husband, too valuable. 

A community founded on violence as a virtue could not have been a happy home for her, and it wasn't. She found Lakota life brutal and merciless--and says so. To a contemporary reader who's adopted the "noble savage" characterization of Native America, what happens to Fanny Kelly will seem deliberately staged to make her white readership regard Native people as even more hideous. I'm sure it did in the mid-19th century.

But contemporary readers--no matter how they view the story of the American West--read a book like Slave of the Sioux in a completely different way 150 years later; and, for the most part, that's where my love of the book grows. What's of great interest to me is that significant difference. I can't help but read a story like Fanny Kelly's with a level of comfort and objectivity that, for the most part, wasn't available when it was first of all experienced and then subsequently published as a popular read (1871). The book is interesting in the way a thoughtful museum can capture our fascination.

Example? Easy. Fanny Kelly's family owned two slaves who traveled with them out west. Both were killed when in the Lakota ambush. Ms. Kelly doesn't really question the legitimacy of her family's owning servants, and when the survivors from the first attack have to bury the victims, they argue--seriously, she says--about whether or not Black victims can be buried with white victims. Finally, it is resolved that they will be, and when it is, Ms. Kelly notes it as a mark of their compassionate liberality. Amazing.

What happened in the American West--what happened in all of North America since the arrival of  this nation's first undocumented populace--was a cultural clash that had countless victims, the vast majority of whom were Native people. That raw fact is something that Fanny Kelly only obligingly understands and largely looks past. There was, after all, free land out west, land her husband and she simply determined offered for them and millions of others a far better life.  Call it "the American dream." That they could make such a blind determination still strikes me as greatly amazing as it is appalling.

But so it went with my people, even with my own family; all of which makes Fanny Kelly's story my story too, for all its sadness and horror. In a way, I was there too, just a bit downriver.

I don't need to apologize for reading Slave of the Sioux, and I'm not. To say I enjoyed it probably misses the point; but I did, not for the vivid action of the narrative (it is a 19th century action/adventure story), but for what it contributes to my own understanding of our own recent past and the story of America, a story I am very much a part of.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

How we remember

Major General Patrick Cleburne

Chickamauga was a costly Confederate victory. The total of 16,000 Union casualties was second only to the Battle of Gettysburg that summer, but the Confederate Army lost even more--18,000. No matter. After significant defeats at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, for a while at least, the Rebel army could hold their heads high after Chickamauga, the huge battle (the Rebel line stretched out for 15 miles) just south of Chattanooga. 

But then came Lookout Mountain, a big win "above the clouds" for the Feds, and Missionary Ridge, where an odd unplanned assault that probably shouldn't have happened, miraculously evolved into the rout it became. Soon enough, Sherman would begin his fiery march through the heart of Dixie. 

Regretfully, I'm sure, Confederate General Braxton Bragg assigned Major General Patrick Cleburne (an immigrant, by the way) to basically stall what he knew would be an imminent Federal advance that would likely follow the railroad through the Ringgold Gap, a narrow span of bottom land between White Oak Mountain and Taylor's Ridge. Cleburne's assignment was really nothing more--allow Bragg to get his legs beneath him after the stinging losses he and the Rebels had just suffered.

Patrick Cleburne was no fool. He scouted the area himself late at night, then deployed his 4000 troops or so as stealthily as possible, tucking them in around every nook and cranny to await the Union advance. Think of it this way: the line of Union forces is marching four abreast. It's November, and it's cold, and it's sickeningly muddy. What's more, everyone--Feds and Rebs--have been through hell in the last month already, losses have been awful, almost lethal. Sherman's "March to the Sea" didn't start with great ceremony, but already there at Ringgold Gap they ran into significant fireworks.

The numbers are telling. Cleburne's four thousand bravely held off the Union's fifteen. It was, for the moment, a clear Rebel victory, even if the Union advance, not to mention the direction of the war, was only temporarily sidelined.

Today if you want to do some shopping in the town of Ringgold, Georgia, you head on down to Cleburne Mall because the Irish commander is a war hero. His statue graces a commemorative park along Hwy. 72, the very route the Union Army took when it ran into withering fire from Cleburne's deftly placed troops and batteries. Hard as it is to believe Cleburne had been in this country for less than 20 years when he won a victory along the tracks here. But in Ringgold, as you can imagine, he's a hero. 

On April 27, 2011, a rare EF-4 tornado formed over Catoosa County, Georgia and stayed on the ground for fifty miles, ripping through the town of Ringgold, Georgia, where seven people died. It did immense damage and laid waste an old cemetery right there along Hwy. 72, where ancient stones tumbled and fences around gravesites got themselves hideously twisted. 

Someone mows the lawn in that cemetery today. It's not a weed patch, not totally unkept. Still, the place could use some TLC. Stones are down and scattered, but there's a memorial there that's unmistakable from the road out front, and it's intent is pure and sure. Look for yourself.

 The flags are brand new, still crisp enough not to have torn or shredded in the wind. They're here and they're elsewhere on graves throughout. 

I'm not interested in casting aspersions, but it's clear that what matters more to the residents is the identification of these graves with the noble cause of the Confederacy than who it is may be who lies beneath the stones. I've been on dozens of cemeteries in this country as well as Europe, seen hundreds--maybe thousands--of American flags on grave sites, including the flag on my dad's. But I'd never seen the Rebel flag on a grave before, never seen a stone marked "CSA."

Okay, I admit it. It was a bit startling, given the outcry over the stars and bars in South Carolina and the fact that Gov. Nikki Haley signed a bill taking it down from the State House after the murders in church at Charleston. Those fresh clean flags seemed to this yankee to be an outright statement of rebellion.

But there's still blood in the soil of the place where Gen. Patrick Cleburne's brilliant maneuvering meant 4000 Rebels successfully stalled 15,000 Union troops so Braxton Bragg could reassemble his routed army and live to fight another day. There were some 900 casualties at Ringgold Gap. Let the people tell their story, I told myself. Let 'em remember. No one should forget.

It's a forlorn place really, that little tornado-ravaged cemetery of ancient stones. The flags, on the other hand, are fresh and bright. Obviously, they mean something important to someone. Maybe more than they should.

After all, what Claborne did, no matter how brilliant or heroic, is only stall the inevitable direction of a much bigger story. 

In that old cemetery I didn't become more of a rebel, maybe just a bit less of a Yankee.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

A Rookie and the Darkness (ii)

(continued from yesterday)
John the counselor had never once struck me as a hard person to live with. That he could be telling me to temper my sense of mercy with an hard shot of justice seemed wholly uncharacteristic. “You kidding?” I said.
"Schaap," he said to me, "don't ever let him by like that again.  You want to help the kid?—then don't let him pull that stuff. I don’t care what he's got at home, he can’t get by pulling that song-and-dance anymore.  He’s using it, and he can’t.”

I felt green, perfectly green.

“You’re not the only one,” he told me, and then he put his hand on my shoulder, just as I had done two days before with a teary gymnast.

That night, I suppose the rookie felt he had some more evil to write home about.

Not long ago I pulled out some of the remnant memories of those high school teaching years, including a dozen stapled pages or so by a girl named Theresa, who wrote out some assignments on the topic of family.  That same year, Bob's junior year, I red-penciled the spelling on those assignments during Christmas break, just a week before hearing on the television news how Theresa's father had murdered her mother, then shot himself, the whole bloody business carried out in front of the kids right there at home on the northern edge of the city.

“I don’t ever want my mother to die,” she wrote on that paper. "But sometimes life is just that way.  Everybody’s got to go when their time comes.  I will always remember my mother for what she is—my mother.” Less than a month later, her mother was murdered before her daughter's eyes.
There's nothing particularly elegant about the style of those sentences, nothing stunning or profound about the sentiment. But I'm not about to throw it away. I too, like Frost, have been acquainted with the night. 

So I still have Theresa's assignment because those words were—and still are—of significant meaning to the rookie this old retired teacher was and is and probably forever will be.