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, October 31, 2016

Tending Ritual

It was a moment off teleprompter, even though there wasn't any on the pulpit. He'd been reading his sermon, doing a fine job attacking one of the seven deadlies, greed, when, just for a moment, he departed from text.

I'm guessing what Donald Trump has learned about speech-making is that departing from text is richer if and when you spend some quality time at the teleprompter. Infrequent shooting from the hip probably makes shooting from the hip more effective, not less. 

If the whole speech--or the full sermon--is improvised, we smell chaos. What seems most effective, at least in my view-from-the-pew, is a speaker/preacher who does a little of both.

Yesterday, our pastor had his ducks in a row, but when, just a time or two, he pulled his eyes up from text, he swept up his congregation's attention more firmly than he had when he wasn't shooting from the hip. 

What he said was that when he was a kid, he remembered singing "We Give Thee But Thine Own" in his home church, every time the deacons came forward to bring the offering to the front of the church. Every time. A thousand times. "You know, when you hear that idea that often," he said, improvising, "it's bound to sink in." 

Honestly, that little aside is what I remember best about the sermon.

In part because there was some irony afloat in the nave. The congregation where I have my membership was created by people who'd grown tired of worship services where "We Give Thee But Thine Own" is sung at EVERY service. A half-century ago already, they felt themselves part of an institution that had become institutionalized. They wanted new life, new breath in what went on every Sunday morning. They wanted more improvisation. 

In fact, to most members of the church, nothing would be more stultifying than having to stand to sing "We Give Thee But Thine Own" EVERY TIME AN OFFERING IS TAKEN. Paaa-leeeeeeeze. Yesterday's service included no hymns I knew.

Tending rituals is hard work. Right at that moment, when our youthful pastor remembered his boyhood church, I couldn't help thinking of David Brooks, who recently begged high school football players not to "pull a Kaepernick" and take a knee during the singing of the national anthem. His argued for the importance of patriotism, but not simply rote behavior. To me, what Brooks said made sense.

"There’s been a sharp decline in American patriotism," he wrote in his NY Times opinion piece. "Today, only 52 percent of Americans are “extremely proud” of their country, a historical low. Among those 18 to 29, only 34 percent are extremely proud. Americans know less about their history and creed and are less likely to be fervent believers in it."

True? I believe Mr. Brooks.

And then he said, "When we sing the national anthem, we’re not commenting on the state of America," he wrote. "We’re fortifying our foundational creed. We’re expressing gratitude for our ancestors and what they left us. We’re expressing commitment to the nation’s ideals, which we have not yet fulfilled." It's the ritual itself that's important.

That's why he was telling high school football players not to take a knee. "If we don’t transmit that creed through shared displays of reverence," he said, ". . .we will lose the sense that we’re all in this together. We’ll lose the sense of shared loyalty to ideas bigger and more transcendent than our own short lives."

Tending ritual is hard work because it requires some kind of balance between shooting from hip and sticking to script. I'm thinking maybe it wouldn't hurt for a few years to go back to "We Give Thee But Thine Own."

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Sunday Morning Meds--A modest proposal

Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us, 
for as many years as we have seen trouble.
Psalm 90:15

For three days, the child bled profusely from the nose. She was six years old, and doctors had no idea what was causing the bleeding. What’s more, they understood that if the bleeding didn’t stop, her life was in grave danger.

It was 1913. The doctors knew very little about transfusions, but they’d started to believe in the importance of somehow getting good new blood back into the little girl’s system, so they asked her father to give his daughter some of his. He complied, one of the first blood transfusions in the state of Michigan.

The yellowed newspaper story is titled, “Minister Saves the Life of Daughter By Giving Blood,” and the story it tells ends by explaining how the father “was considerably improved and was able to dress.” Then it adds, “The child was also considerably better and hopes are entertained for her recovery.”

Two weeks later she was dead. Little Agnes Gertrude, my grandparents’ oldest child, succumbed once the hemorrhaging returned. For a time, her father’s blood had brightened her face as well as her possibilities, but his gift—as odd to the newspaper readers as it must have seemed to him—would not and did not save her life.

Family lore says, at the time, the doctors knew nothing about blood-typing. Her father, my relatives speculate, was as good a choice as the doctors could have made, but he was not a match. Agnes Gertrude, my aunt, died two weeks after that strange new procedure the doctors called “a transfusion.”

I have no newspaper accounts of my grandparents’ grief, but I know some oral history. Agnes’s little sister told me how her father lay face down on the rug of the living room for almost a week after Agnes’s death, as if unable to move. She told me my grandfather was lethargic, depressed, his whole countenance darkened by the mysterious and horrible death of his child.

Nothing changed, she said, until he accepted a call to another congregation, a small country church up north. She told me how she remembered riding on a wagon up to that country church, all their possessions packed up behind them, then being greeted by the entire church right there on the lawn, all of them waiting for the new preacher and his family.

“And then it was over,” my aunt told me. The darkness ended.

I can’t imagine all the sadness was completely over. If my grandparents were still alive today, I’d love to ask them about that loss, if even today they could talk about it. But in the eyes of their five-year-old daughter, the one who told me the story, the darkness ended on a summer day on the lawn of a country church full of welcome.

I wonder how someone like my grandfather, the preacher, read a verse like this one from Psalm 90. He probably read it a hundred times, at a hundred funerals. I wonder what he thought of its modest proposal: “Lord, give us as many days as you do nights, as much joy as sorrow, as many smiles as tears. That’s all we’re asking.”

Charles Spurgeon says the request is dear because it’s so childlike. Maybe he’s right. What it is—and thank God almighty for it—is so very human. What he's asking so understandable, so understated, so obviously wrenched from a mournful heart.

Once in a while, Moses says, just let us laugh, Lord—we’re not asking for much.

Is it any wonder why people love this psalm?            

Friday, October 28, 2016

Who buys radios?

I'd like to know exactly when my grandfather realized his stock-in-trade, his profession, was going the way of all flesh. I wonder whether that happened when the first noisy motorcar kicked up dust on the streets of Oostburg, Wisconsin, when it sputtered past the blacksmith shop where he held forth, day after day. He had to feel it when one of his farmer-customers bought a tractor, although he might well have been put at ease by the hundreds of plowshares he'd have to sharpen every winter. 

Somewhere I've got a picture of him and his son, my uncle, in the shop, a whole gallery of shares hanging from the rafters while the two of them carry on around the bellows. 

My father worked in the front office just down the street at a factory that made cement mixers, little ones on wheels, so that a gadzillion GIs home from war could, if it so pleased them, pour cement for homes many of them--my father included--built with his own hands. 

Seems to me that my dad didn't think about the demise of the personal cement mixer all that much because someone in the upper echelon of the company had recognized long before he might have that the whole outfit had to retool itself into something else or risk drowning with all those mixers tied to its ankle. Somebody put a huge barrel mixer on the back of a truck, and that pretty much ended the story.

There had to have been some awful pain in all those transitions. I never heard much about them, but it must have been agony to be there. Mom used to talk about her father crying because the farmers whose shares he sharpened couldn't pay him during the darkest days of the Depression. Like them, he was working on speculation, hoping the next season would be different and there'd be a crop. Soon enough, his own business had dried up.

My earliest memories of Grandpa the blacksmith are of his shop, the hissing of the cooling tank, the rhythmic ring of his hammer, sooty light seeping through the windows, sweat lines on Grandpa's shirt, the nickles he'd give me for a candy bar at the store next door.

All of that ended.

Soon enough, the whole place turned into a garage. Instead of shoeing horses, Dirkse Blacksmith became Dirkse Garage and eventually Dirkse Oil, those work horses replaced by a flying red horse on the big sign out front on Main--Mobil Oil. 

But no more shoes. 

All of that comes to mind because the toughest moment of my yesterday happened in a radio recording studio where the CEO, a friend, told me off-handedly that people simply aren't buying radios anymore. His station had just come up short on a fund drive and he may well have been a little more morose than he needed to be, but what he said felt blistering right there in the studio: people simply aren't listening to radio. And radio is his thing.

If you can pick up any of the specialty shows on public radio by simply going to websites that deliver all of what's there, why should someone do anything as antique as tune in at a certain time to catch a certain program? We're lords of our own lives now--there are hundreds of TV stations, dozens and dozens of networks. Grandpa and Grandma Dirkse used to sit on both sides of a radio so big it was a well-designed piece of living-room furniture. Today, if we listen at all, the news comes from a slot in an car or up from a cell phone. Podcasts are scattered all over the internet, ripe for downloading.

The radio isn't dead, but somewhere in the dust lies its true golden era. Most stations run for the most part without people. Someone just buys programming and computers hum. Lots of jobs are just plain gone.

And this friend of mine is in the radio business. It's sad. It really is.

But it's also life. Technology has altered the patterns of our lives completely, just as the gas-powered engine grabbed the hammer right out of my grandpa's big hands. No matter how creative he tired to market that anvil, it had to go or it would have taken him down. 

What Donald Trump is doing is inciting and exciting those workers who remember what was with a vision of returning and "making America great again." There are millions. That NAFTA was the worst piece of legislation in American history is a broadside Trump levels in every stump speech, even though experts at the Wharton school don't think it's as obvious as one of their most famous graduates does.

But whether Donald Trump is right at this moment probably doesn't matter. Yesterday I sat with a friend who is not among Trump's fervent loyalists, but when I left I can't help thinking I understood more fully how it is that so many want Trump so badly to bring back what likely isn't going to return.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Dickinson #32--Our trinkets

The morns are meeker than they were - (32)

The morns are meeker than they were -
The nuts are getting brown -
The berry’s cheek is plumper -
The rose is out of town.

The maple wears a gayer scarf -
The field a scarlet gown -
Lest I sh'd be old-fashioned
I’ll put a trinket on.

It's fall, that's sure. Summer's stunning dawns are gone. Outside the window, the sun rises somewhat glamorously, but "meeker," as Emily Dickinson says, often in mist. And the nuts--were there any in our backyard--would be more, well, ripe, if acorns can be said to ripen. Berry season is over, but our fledgling raspberry patch of did their best work little more than a month or so ago.

The first three scattered pictures in this Dickinson poem carry some delight; after all, calling autumn dawns "meeker" is hardly trashing them. But the last line of the first stanza--"The rose is out of town" feels more hefty, even grave, not something you smile your way through. It's lament, and coming where it does seems almost off key. Maybe Miss Emily would like to redo that line. We'll never know.

The first two lines of the second stanza return to reverie. And make no mistake--it's Mother Nature we're talking about here because the world as Miss Emily sees it is female: here's a scarf, there's a gown. It's fall and the world's inspired fashionably in gorgeous earth tones, the field actually scarlet--with fallen leaves?

But then there's that weak rhyme in the last couplet, and that very odd word, trinket, that feels like a clunker in what otherwise would be a tribute to fall in Amherst, the town she so rarely left. She'd like to be part of all this beauty, she says, so she'll "put a trinket on."

A trinket?

It's pretty much impossible not to think of a "trinket" as something one picks up for a buck-and-a-half at Wall Drug. A trinket is not a coordinated accessory like a scarf and not close to a scarlet gown; but it'll have to do for Miss Dickinson, who seems to want to be part of October's own Easter parade but somehow can't or won't. Right in the middle of all that reverie, she sticks some cheap broach on her dress, something stamped out in Hong Kong. Seriously?

Helen Vendler, who wrote far more about Dickinson than anyone else, claims it's the absence of the rose that makes all the difference, the rose who is just plain gone. The rose, Vendler says, is a traditional symbol of love, so she calls the poem "a plainspoken elegy for Eros."

At least for me, nothing in Emily Dickinson is "plainspoken." Number 32 is a postcard of New England in autumn festooned with a trinket. Go figure.

I'd like to think this Dickinson puzzle is pretty much pure reverie, wound up and around and through Miss Emily's thoroughly Calvinist soul; for amid all those glorious fall colors, she's discovered once again what Calvin says about the magnificence of Creation.
We see the world with our eyes, tread the earth with our feet, touch God's works with our hands, inhale a sweet and pleasant fragrance from herbs and flowers, enjoy boundless benefits; yet in those very things of which we attain some knowledge, there dwells an immensity of divine power, goodness, and wisdom, as absorbs all our senses.
His magnificence teaches us, Calvin says, that our trinkets are just that. His magnificence brings us on our knees to him because the best we can do is a trinket.

Then again, all of that may well be nothing but Calvinist dreaming. Poetry is at its best when it haunts us, when it leaves space for wonder, leaves space for us. 

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Morning Constitutional

“Trump’s threats to sue any other women who might still come forward were an important part of my motivation,” [Lawrence] Tribe said. “Nobody should be able to use the legal system as a battering ram to deter victims from taking the often difficult and sometimes traumatic step of exposing themselves and their intimate lives to investigation and ridicule.”

“It’s hard enough for the victims of a sexual predator like Trump to come forward without the added chilling effect of having to confront their assailant all by themselves on a distinctly uneven field of legal combat,” Tribe added. (Fusion)

Fewer than half of Americans are very confident that their vote for president will be counted correctly — and most say their ballot will not matter anyway because the political process is so dominated by corporate interests. (NY Times)

Waterford Township trustees in Oakland County, Michigan, passed a resolution on Monday telling the federal government not to resettle any refugees, including those from Syria, within the township’s boundaries, until the program “has been significantly reformed.” (Breitbart)

The idea that Trump, who in some polls trails Democrat Hillary Clinton by double digits, might lose the presidential election because of voter fraud is incredibly far-fetched. Still, he has peddled false theories about how the election will be “stolen” from him because the American voting system is “rigged.” And his calls to his supporters to watch certain polling locations has left election watchdogs increasingly on edge. (Huffington Post)

“I will charter Donald Trump’s plane if he’ll let me, and I will charter it to the country of your choice,” Hannity said in comments posted online by Media Matters.

Then he added:
You want to go to Canada? I’ll pay for you to go to Canada. You want to go to Kenya? I’ll pay for you to go to Kenya. Jakarta, where you went to school back in the day, you can go back there. Anywhere you want to go. I’ll put the finest food ― caviar, champagne, you name it. I have one stipulation: You can’t come back. (Huffington Post)

Let us be clear: If Hillary Clinton is elected president, all of the problems we see around the world today will continue to fester — because she will continue the same policies that got us here. Four years from now, if she is president, the United States will be weaker, China will be stronger, Russia will be more dangerous, terrorists will be more emboldened, the Middle East will be more unstable, and conditions in Europe will be worse than they are now. We already know that our current policies lead to these results. Why would we want to let things worsen for four more years? (Laura Ingraham)

Trump, responding to Biden’s suggestion last week that he’d like to beat up the GOP presidential nominee for his comments toward women, mocked Biden and said he’d welcome a confrontation.

“Did you see? Biden wants to take me to the back of the barn,” Trump said at a rally in Tallahassee, Florida. “Me. I’d love that. I’d love that. Mr. Tough Guy. You know, he’s Mr. Tough Guy.

“You know when he’s Mr. Tough Guy, when he’s standing behind a microphone by himself,” Trump continued, standing behind a microphone by himself. (Huffington Post)

A new analysis published by Pew Research Center Tuesday showed that more than a third of American social media users are "worn out" by how much politics they see in their social media feeds, and more than 80 percent of social media users try to ignore political posts with which they disagree. (Drudge)

Lord my God, you are very great;
you are clothed with splendor and majesty.

The Lord wraps himself in light as with a garment;
he stretches out the heavens like a tent
and lays the beams of his upper chambers on their waters.
He makes the clouds his chariot
and rides on the wings of the wind. (Psalm 104)

Read more here:

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The blessing of Laurel Hill

The only means of getting everything--man and woman, beast and wagon--across the rain-swollen Niobrara River was by rope and hand over hand over hand. Dozens of oxen and as many as 500 horses had to get to the other side, as did 523 Ponca men, women, and children. 

And the rain just wouldn't stop. It was an excruciating day, all those wagons disassembled and shouldered through and over the raging Niobrara. It took a day to recover, yet another rainy day. 

In May of 1877, after endless haggling and heartless bureaucratic inertia, someone in faraway Washington had determined that what remained of the Ponca tribe in northeast Nebraska would be forced to leave their villages, their homes and schools and churches, their sawmill and their flour mill and just about every thing they owned. and walk to Oklahoma.  

Just imagine 500 people in soggy early May trudging up and out of endless muddy hills along the Missouri. Imagine rains so heavy and never-ending that on some days it was impossible to travel. 

Just try to imagine you and your family, your people, walking the entire state of Nebraska, north to south, and then all of Kansas, only to reach a place your elders had already determined so "stony and broken" they could never live there and would never love. Imagine endless days and nights of rain, forever cold and clammy. No rest for the weary. No shelter in the time of storm.

And you didn't want to go. You just plain hated the idea of leaving home, the place where your people had lived for generations. That last night in the village, no one had slept. There was simply too much crying.

Is it any wonder people took sick? Is it any wonder that some of the most vulnerable would die? Should we be surprised that the Ponca's Trail of Tears has countless unmarked graves? 

Truth be told, the Ponca people were never troublesome. They hadn't attacked wagon trains or stolen horses, were never war-like or even belligerent. From the Ponca tribe, in all honesty, Washington had little to fear. But Washington determined for no good reason that the Ponca had to leave for Indian Territory. They were, after all, Indian.

On May 23, not far from the Elkhorn River and near a tiny frontier town named Neligh, a little girl, the daughter of Black Elk and Moon Hawk, succumbed to pneumonia. White Buffalo Girl was all of 18 months. 

Her parents, who watched her die, were frantic, beyond grief. A Neligh carpenter nailed together a wooden cross. The family was Christian. 

Up on the hill in a cemetery called Laurel Hill, Black Elk, distraught, talked to the white folks of the town who, with the Ponca, had gathered around that wooden cross. 

"I want the whites to respect the grave of my child just as they do the graves of their own dead," Black Elk said. "The Indians do not like to leave the graves of their ancestors, but we had to move and hope it will be for the best." 

Imagine that setting, up on a hill above a thick strap of trees that follow the snaking river below. Nothing anywhere else but an endless ocean of grass. 

"I leave the grave in your care," Black Elk told those white settlers. "I may never see it again. Care for it for me."

And so they did. And so they do yet today, 140 years later.

You'll find Laurel Hill cemetery way atop Neligh; and you'll find there, just a short hike from the road, a stone that memorializes a Ponca child named White Buffalo Girl. 

Won't be hard to locate. Her grave site is the only one in the yard that stays decorated all year long. Just get out of the car and look for flowers. Look for a wooden cross and lots and lots of flowers. 

Tell you what--go there. Go to Neligh some morning. I don't care how far you have to drive, just go there, to Laurel Hill. Go up there and visit the grave of little White Buffalo Girl. It'll bless your heart. Call it a pilgrimage, if you will. Better yet, make it one.

Call it a blessing. Because it is. A shelter in the time of storm.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Morning Thanks--Sunday dishes

Because I was raised by a father who washed dishes, you may think of me as one of those proverbial apples who don't fall far from the tree. That's not true of every last male in the universe, but probably far more today than once was. 

Among the good farm folk of the region, daily tasks were once strictly segregated: men worked outside, women worked in. I remember watching my mother-in-law serve her husband coffee and what not else, as if they were master and slave. They weren't. He just happened to be occupying a principality where he lifted no fingers. He was inside.

I'm not complaining about doing dishes, and I'm troubled to admit my wife and I don't share household tasks. She does far, far more. I do them once in a while. Sin abounds.

But on Sunday, after dinner, lately I have been appointed to all the clean up. Everything. It's a dastardly plot created by our grandson, a first-grader, who steals his grandma away into the basement to play Legos. He neither needs nor cares about me because she gets right down there on the floor with him and does whatever appointed task he has in mind. Last Sunday they were making a movie. She was a gaffer or something. 

"Papa can do the dishes," he ruled long ago on a Sabbath, grabbing his grandma's hand. She leaves smiling, a mess of dinner detritus in her wake. 

I don't roll my eyes, just my sleeves. I don't go into some kind of black funk. I do the dishes. As appointed. By myself. On Sunday. After the biggest meal of the weak. Alone--did I mention that?

My wife, the farm girl, likes this new Sabbath tradition. She makes dinner alone, because in her kitchen helpmeets are hindrance. She's the kind of artist who will only work alone in her studio. She creates Sunday dinner. Ergo, I clean up after.  Just and fair division of labor.

Okay, maybe I was a not thrilled yesterday. It's my job and I know it, but just because I know what I have to do doesn't mean I relish doing it. I was scraping dishes and scouring pots, all by my lonesome, when I realized my father-in-law, who's 97, was standing close by.

Age has made most of his physical movements troubled. He doesn't walk well, even though he's at the controls of a walker he could no more do without. He probably needs a wheelchair, but seems to understand that he will be sentenced to one the moment he stops exercising; so he walks around the room after dinner, unsteadily and not without strain and pain, as he did yesterday. And then, once he'd circled things, there he was a couple arm reaches away, watching me, watching and dreaming he could help.

He used to. He used to do absolutely everything for his invalid wife. When she died, he used to help with dishes here, carting dirty glasses and dishes from table to kitchen counter. He used to do what he could. No more because, in truth, there's very little he can. He's got his mind, but his world is ever smaller and doesn't include doing Sunday dishes.

There he stood, in silence, tap water running in the sink in front of me when suddenly it dawned on me how much he would have loved being able to do what I was doing. How much he would have wanted walk down our stairs and get down on the floor with his great-grandson. All of a sudden I knew he would have done anything to help. Done dishes alone. Spent all afternoon in the kitchen, if he could somehow make himself useful.

With him standing beside me, that walker between us, just for a moment in my soapy hands those dirty dishes turned into a blessing.

And that's why this morning I'm thankful for washing dishes, and humbled by so much I can do. 

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Sunday Morning Meds--Satisfaction

Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love, 
that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days.”
Psalm 90:14

Received an e-mail from old friends a while back, who told me the news of their son, their oldest child, who, at 53, started feeling a bit weak, they say, a few weeks ago, and therefore went in for tests. The tests turned up something significant, and he was sent to a specialist, who identified the problem as ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease.

You can imagine their shock.

But all is not hopeless. Some who suffer ALS keep going for a very long time. Others, of course, don’t. “Won't get into numbers,” his mother wrote. Right now, their son “has to be pulled up out of his big comfortable chair if he wants to get up. Has to use a walker. Totally weak arms and legs so far. Can hardly pick up his arm or hold spoons when he eats. We go see him......often.”

He has three little grandchildren who live almost next door. “They perk him up,” the note says. His wife is wonderful and caring.  She pushes the wheelchair when they go anywhere. And then this: “So........... it is finally sinking in to me that this is happening to our oldest ‘child.’ I seem to call him ‘Danny Boy’ now.”

And what about him? What about Danny Boy? “He will enjoy each day as they go along.”

Ironically, most of us wish we could say that.

That Moses would write this line, that makes sense: Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love, that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days.” His people rarely were.

It’s hard to read the story of the Exodus and not be anti-Semitic. After all that God had done for them--taking down Pharaoh and his minions in the Red Sea, then establishing his own tent right there among them thereby granting him the glory of his presence—miraculous, really! But those Israelites, never satisfied, still found things to bitch about.

Yahweh splashes manna around every morning, and they want duck in wine sauce. He gives them duck and they want sirloin. Is it any wonder they annoyed him. Should we be shocked that he told them an entire generation had to die before he’d bring them home? Seriously, the Israelites give Jews a bad name.

Once, at a burning bush, God instructed Moses to speak for him—and, in a way speak for his people before Pharaoh. In Psalm 90, that’s what he’s doing, speaking for them in Psalm 90:14, maybe especially here, as well as all of us. He’s asking for something few of us ever feel—true, rich satisfaction. Maybe lions get it; after all, they sleep away ninety percent of their lives. But do any of us? I don’t.
I don’t know Danny-boy, his kids, his darling grandkids or his loving, caring wife. But I know his parents, and I know at least something of their sadness and their great and totally understandable fears. I wish they weren’t suffering as they are and will. I wish Danny Boy wasn’t dying. I wish those grandkids weren’t losing a grandfather. Things just aren’t right in the world. There are always things to get angry about.

Moses’s prayer resonates with anyone in human skin; we all know the impulse very well of the unquenchable thirst for love, for nothing less than satisfaction. “Satisfy us,” he begs of God. It’s a song we all sing, every day and every night of our lives.

Except, oddly, Danny Boy, who will, as he says, “enjoy each day as they go along.” Except maybe him and some few like him.

Maybe better than the rest of us, they understand this great old psalm.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Two stories of the Black Snake

Last night, late, I crossed "the black snake" three times on my way home from Rock Valley. Things have changed in the last few weeks. For months, the wide scar through neighborhood farmland looked raw and painful, especially after rain. But last night I couldn't help notice that the precious topsoil had been spread back over the wound. 

Roads run square in Siouxland, and that meant that I came up on triangular signs that mark the pipeline three times. Energy Transfer, the Fortune 500 company that's doing the heavy lifting, has encountered no problems in our neighborhood. Just down the gravel, less than a quarter mile from home, a dozen trailers fill the lot, all of them belonging to Energy Transfer employees. In Alton, right downtown, barely a mile away, there's a dozen more, another camp of pipeline workers. They've been here a couple of months. 

If Energy Transfer could grow corn and soybeans overnight, you wouldn't know the pipeline is there. It's buried. Bare ground will be there until planting next spring, but when the corn is knee-high you'll never know all the pipes are down there and whirring with North Dakota oil.

We're all capitalists here, and few, if any in the area considered what Energy Transfer was doing to be any kind of invasion. Real card-carring environmentalists--the kind who paint protest signs--don't live here. Land-owners loved the money, I'm sure. Had to be plentiful.

Wasn't that way in North Dakota, where this summer as many as 5000 protesters, most of them Native, banded together to keep "the black snake" away. Two of my friends described what a joy it was to come together out there on the broad empty land along the Missouri, what spiritual nourishment they got from the company of all kinds of Native people, biggest get-together since the Battle of Little Big Horn, someone said. 

I'm sure there are angry North Dakotans. I'm sure they see protesters (not all of whom are Native) as agitators and thugs, people determined to hold back progress. I'm sure they'd love to unleash the dogs as they did one day a couple of weeks ago. They'd love to arrest the city people who've come to North Dakota only for headlines, the do-gooders who don't know what's good for them. And how is it they can just show up out there? Lazy bums don't even jobs. 

I've not heard that rhetoric, but I'm guessing it gets played. 

I just happened to come across this passage last week.
The Indians knew as well as anyone that if peace was accepted it would mean extinction, it would mean peace at a terrible cost, it would mean death and destruction and the end of the race. Their land was coveted and would sooner or later be taken. The wild game over a thousand hills that meant life to an Indian would be all a thing of the past. The wild life of roaming in fresh fields free from diseases, camping on the perfume of new-grown flowers, the pure air of the prairie, the breath of the pines and sparkling streams--what God had given the children of the prairies--would have  to be exchanged for goods that they were not used to, foods that did not satisfy, foods robbed of the natural vitamins, minerals, and proteins. 
Susan Bordeaux Bettelyoun wrote that paragraph almost eighty years ago when she was almost 90 years old. She'd seen first hand much that had happened west of the Missouri River since the Civil War.* 

If you want to understand at least some of the differences between my people's acceptance of "the black snake" and Native defiant rejection, walk through that paragraph again.

I don't slap righteousness sticky notes on movements. I'm not saying 5000 Native people are acting in their own best interest or that my neighbors and I should be out there down the road lying in a non-violent protest of locked arms. I'm not even much of a tree-hugger.

But if you want to understand why a raucous encampment of people from the Standing Rock reservation doesn't want the pipeline, listen to the words of old woman writing eighty years ago about a lifetime she spent not all that far from the neighborhood where Energy Transfer wants madly to bury that black snake. 

If you don't hear her voice in the North Dakota protest, you're not listening. 
Susan Bordeaux Bettelyoun, With My Own Eyes: A Lakota Woman Tells Her People's History, p. 85-86.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Morning Thanks--Hammerin' Hank remembered

He was just 23 years old when, in 1957, he won the MVP award. I was in third grade, and hard as it might be to believe, I don't think I thought of him as black. He'd come up from the Negro league, in fact, the very last player from there to arrive in the Bigs, at a time when African-Americans were just beginning to get a place in MLB dugouts. 

Seems to me that Billy Bruton played next to him in centerfield, so he wasn't alone on the roster. But he was early. Those old pics of that 1957 team--World Champ Milwaukee Braves!--have four or five others. There were others.

No matter. All I know was that when I was a kid, on many a night I fell asleep with the Braves game still playing on that little radio up above my bed, it's soft yellow light over the dial. I loved going to bed with the Braves on, loved it so much that there were nights when I didn't even nod off.  

Coming into the ninth, the Braves may have trailed, but if the heart of the lineup was on its way to the plate, there was always a chance. Hank Aaron was there, batting in the third position, followed by Matthews, the third basement, at cleanup. Those two guys could hit. And did. That's what I remember thinking about Hammerin' Henry Aaron--the guy could hit. 

Really, he was a little guy. Eddie Matthews was beefy; he looked like he could jack the long ball out of County Park Stadium. But Henry was a wiry six-footer who weighed in at a good deal less than 200 pounds. Muscle-y? --sure. But Aaron had great wrists, my father used to say, great wrists that snapped that bat with so much torque the stadium walls came tumbling down. 

The biggest story of his professional life was how he finally outdid the Babe and ended his career with 755 round trippers. That was two decades later, in 1976, the year of the American Bicentennial, the year our daughter came into the world. By that time I was well aware of his being African-American, as was the nation, because hate mail and death threats arrived in his mail daily as he climbed ever closer to Babe Ruth's otherwise untouchable record. All that hate on its 200th birthday made the country look menacing.

"You are not going to break this record established by the great Babe Ruth if I can help it," some guy told him in a letter. "Whites are far more superior than jungle bunnies. My gun is watching your every black move."

Generations of kids today can't imagine someone capable of such wicked hate, but it was in the air in 1976. The man who wrote those lines wasn't alone. An African-American was threatening a great man's home-run record, a great hitter who was white. Things like weren't supposed to happen.

The Postal Service gave him an award that year for getting mail, nearly a million letters (long before email), thousands and thousands in that massive bag full greatly supportive and loving. But America's finest racists couldn't go down without threatening a noose from the old days. 

But they couldn't stop him. He was just too good. Hammerin' Hank still owns a shoebox full of major league records: most career runs batted in at 2,297, total bases at 6,856, and extra base hits at 1477. 

There's more--lots more, but I thought of him on Saturday, couldn't help it really when I saw his name on a stone beneath my feet. Here it is.

There's his footprints on the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame at the Martin Luther King National Monument in Atlanta. He's in good company--Thurgood Marshall, Dr. Ralph Abernathy, Senator Edward Brooke, Rosa Parks, President Jimmy Carter, and more than a dozen others. Some things tells me Hammerin' Hank is fully as proud of being here as he is in Cooperstown.

Breaking that record wasn't easy, not at his age. He played in 3300 ball games, third place all-time. But it wasn't easy either to live as long as he did in the eye of a racial storm that will likely never fully pass somehow off the cost and out to sea.  

When Barry Bonds broke Hammerin' Hank's record in 2007, Aaron didn't make a big deal out of it because, he told a reporter, baseball isn't about records. It's about playing to one's own greatest potential. 

That day in Atlanta, he hit number 715, one more than the Babe, that day when some people were actually scared of what could happen, the image I like best is that when Henry Aaron came around third, there at the plate stood his parents. Isn't that just the greatest? 

It was nice seeing him again last Saturday. This morning, I'm thankful for that sidewalk, those footprints, and the tracks he left in my own life.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Really, it's not at all funny

For years, I've rolled my eyes at the madness that sent thousands to gun stores to buy whatever firearms they could find on the racks. Somewhere in the area of 52,000 sales were registered EVERY DAY just last June when, once again, word got out that evil Obama, who's been Santa Claus to gun manufacturers, was going to somehow, all by himself, enact those draconian gun laws the NRA swore he would hammer in place eight years ago already. And didn't. 

As if he could. 

By this time, those Donald Trump calls "second-amendment people" have to be well-armed, gussied up for war as if Guadalcanal was just outside their garage, even though Obama the Muslim never did confiscate anyone's assault rifle and gun laws haven't changed since '08. No matter. Right-wingers went perfectly apocalyptic even before he won the election, had nightmares of Vader-like government thugs, late at night, going house to house for every last .410 shotgun, one's own children somewhere back there bawling and screaming.

"Our sales have doubled across the board," Justin Anderson, marketing director for Hyatt Guns in Charlotte, N.C., a mammoth gun store, told the Washington Examiner after the massacre in the Florida nightclub. "More and more are coming to realize that their personal safety is at risk and their government cannot protect them." Then he stuck in this additional come on, "This is likely the beginning of a long rise in gun sales leading up to the election." Guess why. "Should Hillary Clinton take a significant lead," he said, "it will only boost sales."


All right, I'm in. Can I get buy what I need to on Amazon? Where can I pick up an assault rifle cheap?

If Trump loses--and he's taking his own campaign down the stool--then it's time for me to get armed big-time. I'm considering a bazooka because Trump's "second amendment people" love America so dearly. You've seen 'em at rallies. They bleed patriotism. They're pledging themselves to the streets. They'll make America great again if they've got to beat on liberals to get it there. 

Why? Because he's telling 'em to, their man The Donald. The whole thing is rigged, you know. If he gets in, he's going to lock up Hillary, going easy because his people want her to hang in the street. That's if he wins. No political candidate in the history of America has used language like that. 

But if he loses there'll be hell to pay. He's telling his SS to monitor polling places because should he lose, a worldwide conspiracy of some really, really evil people--he's not saying who--will take over everything and that'll be the end of American democracy. It's rigged, he says. The whole thing is rigged. And no political candidate in American history has said that either. Welcome to The Donald Show.

Look. It's hard to be cute about this because it isn't.  Listen to Steve Schmidt, a long-time Republican operative.

And I can't help thinking that they're coming. His people are coming. Maybe we all better gun-up because they certainly have and they're mad and they're crazy. It's getting hard not to think that if Hillary decks the Savior, second-amendment storm troopers will soon be spilling from black helicopters in a backyard near you. Hyatt Guns, Charlotte, NC.--they got a website.

Honestly, nothing about Donald Trump is funny.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Dragon slayers

On stage with a dozen other Republican candidates, he was a hot knife through butter. He surgically destroyed what had become a financial conglomerate created for Jeb Bush simply by referring to him, to his face, as a low-wattage light bulb. He destroyed "little Marco," "lyin' Ted," and a woman whose face, he claimed, virtually eliminated her as a candidate, for after all who would ever vote for someone that uncomely? He took on a stage full and slayed 'em all.

He started rolling his bandwagon through America by talk of building a Great Wall of China along our southern border, because Mexican rapists were pouring into the U.S. of A.--and maybe a few good ones. He claimed he'd send 11 million back, every one of them would go. He didn't say how big of a immigration force the government would have to hire, but there'd be money for sure because under his watch the rich would get more return on their investments so they could see to it that the poor get jobs, just as they have for the last two or three decades. 

Some said the man's career was going up in smoke when he told America that he didn't care much for John McCain, because McCain was a prisoner of war. Personally, he said, he liked heroes who didn't spend time in the enemy's prisons because he liked winners not losers. He liked strong, like Putin, not weak like Obama.

But the McCain thing didn't hurt him a bit, and it was only the beginning.

When finally someone discovered that, in fact, he'd likely paid no taxes in the last umpteen years, he told America that kind of tax dodging proved him to be the smart man he'd always claimed he was. He made billions, he claimed, and paid no income tax, a real hero to the working class. 

Some thought he'd go down when he talked about how much women love him. And how many--when he said only he knew how to treat them, when he bragged about where he liked to grab them and how he always got away with it because he had money and power and celebrity. 

Didn't stop him. He just got angrier, and so did his disciples. 

People wondered whether he really said what he did about end times, about the end of democracy should lyin' Hillary be elected. Once he said some of those "Second Amendment people" really ought to do something about her--and probably would, should the horror of her winning actually, God forbid, come to pass. 

The apocalypse is upon us, he said last night. Darkness is descending. The end of the American dream is 24 days away unless true believers, the only patriots, unite. Otherwise, that woman will come into office and choose four pinko baby-killers as Supreme Court nominees at the same time she's admitting millions of undocumented rapists to swarm our borders and bloody our streets. Not to mention terrorists. Only he, he said a million times, can "make America great again." 

The press is evil. They're despicable people, bad people, vermin, except Hannity and Fox and Friends--they're okay because they know too that "this is not simply another four-year election," as he told a crowd last night. "This is a crossroads in the history of our civilization that will determine whether or not we the people reclaim control over our government." 

He's St. George, and to his loyalists the whole rest of the world is the dragon. 
This election will determine whether we are a free nation or whether we have only the illusion of democracy, but are in fact controlled by a small handful of global special interests rigging the system, and our system is rigged. This is reality, you know it, they know it, I know it, and pretty much the whole world knows it. The establishment and their media enablers will control over this nation through means that are very well known. Anyone who challenges their control is deemed a sexist, a racist, a xenophobe, and morally deformed. 
Last night, he signed up to be their sacrifice. He wants to be their martyr. All of this he said to the clamor of his beloved, whose anger feeds on his every word and is chorused as obscenely as anything he's ever said. 

It's madness. It really is. 

You want reason to hope? You want something to cheer? 

Listen to this. 

We're belly-deep in the kind of mud it may take a whole generation to get off our boots. But here's an irony greatly worth celebrating: yesterday Donald Trump got himself put away in a drawer by an African-American woman who spoke truth with passion that came directly from the center of a mother's gracious heart. Michelle did something no one else could. With the poetry of her own injured soul, she took down Goliath.

There's cause to rejoice and always reason to hope.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Men, women, and locker rooms

As I remember it, it was one of those nights when long talks somehow emerge from the miasma, not for any particular reason, at least none that I can recall. We were lying in bed and just started talking. I don't remember any rumpus or argument. It was, years ago, one of those married-people talks that couldn't find the on/off switch.

I'm guessing the subject came up because I'd been thinking about a female colleague who'd told me once upon a time, mid-80s, that the only difference between men and women was hardware. I liked her, but I couldn't buy the argument. She was an early feminist for our tribe of conservative Christians, but her characterization seemed to me to be on the other side of unreasonable--and just plain hard to believe.

So the two of  us, my wife and I were talking that night, and it was late, and, as I said, there really wasn't any provocation. It was all about gender and what a puzzle that really is. Sometimes. No, often. 

That night she told me something I'd never considered and therefore never forgot. I'll put it in quotes, but exactly how it went is long gone: "Here I am, in bed, with someone twice my size," she said. "Men don't understand that a woman has to live with the fact that she's always smaller, always at risk." 

Let's be clear. I'd never abused her. She was simply telling me that physical size played a significant role in human perception. "Think of it this way," she said in the darkness, "--I know very well that any time you wanted to beat on me, there's not much I could do." Something like that. "Men never think that way. Women always do."

She was explaining a radical difference in perception I'd never thought about, that women perceive physicality via givens men don't begin to know or therefore can even imagine. That's what the woman I married taught me years ago, in bed, in the wee hours of the night. Even now, decades later, I can tell you I know what she meant, but I can't--nor will I ever--know exactly what she feels.

I'm not interested in laying more curses on Donald Trump. He has sufficient burdens to carry with probably more to come. 

But I couldn't help but remember that late night discussion when Beth Moore, for the first time in her immense bible-study ministry, started talking politics this week, something she'd never done before.

"I’m one among many women sexually abused, misused, stared down, heckled, talked naughty to. Like we liked it. We didn’t. We’re tired of it,” Moore said when she determined she could no longer be silent. Then she turned her attention to evangelical men: “Try to absorb how acceptable the disesteem and objectifying of women has been when some Christian leaders don’t think it’s that big a deal.”

Moore speaks from experience, uniquely female experience.

I've heard some of Donald's female supporters claim, as does he, that his cock-and-bull with Billy Bush was basically "locker room talk," something--chortle, chortle--every man does when he's with the boys. Really? Maybe the good Dr. Ben Carson is right when he told some female journalist it was her problem she hadn't heard men talk about grabbing women's privates. 

But I can't help but wonder whether men who don't see what Trump said as anything more than regrettable locker room banter don't hear--and feel--what Donald Trump said in a wholly different way than most women do. 

Beth Moore knows very well that she hears and feels Trump's words with pain far greater than anything felt by Gary Bauer, Dr. James Dobson, Jerry Falwell, Jr., or any other male (so-called) evangelical. 

Or me. 

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

"October 10" by Wendell Berry

Now constantly there is the sound,
quieter than rain,
of the leaves falling.

Under their loosening bright
gold, the sycamore limbs
bleach whiter.

Now the only flowers
are beeweed and aster, spray
of their white and lavender
over the brown leaves.

The calling of a crow sounds
Loud — landmark — now
that the life of summer falls
silent, and the nights grow.


Poem from Writers Almanac, photos from northern Minnesota, ten years ago.