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.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Morning Thanks--My own first noel

Truth is--and I'm proud to say it--my wife's gift is somewhere in the mail. I'm way ahead-of -time on that one. And it's a dang good choice. Not only that, but this year she's not going to know what it is before Christmas because I'm keeping my mouth shut. She's not going to know until she opens it and it's nothing she asked for, so in every way it'll be a surprise, and that's rare and that's good.

But I haven't thought much about Christmas.

There's a tree planted--so to speak--in one of our garden boxes just outside my window, a nine-foot reject from my daughter's attic. I put it out last week already, and it blew down the first night so I piled up a bunch of boulders beneath it, stuck in some stakes and wired it back up.

Hope springs eternal. 

I can't imagine that prairie winds won't tame its temerity--and mine. The lights are bad, all green with an odd white girdle. I've got to do something about that, if the old thing stays up.

That little candelabra up top stands in my window down here, an old plastic thing from the 40s, I'm sure. But its age and history make it priceless. It belonged to my wife's grandparents, and I'm blessed to have it down here next to me. She put it up a week ago already. I love it. Isn't it great?

That does it, really. Upstairs, there's a wreath on our front door and a few things around, here and there. There'll be more, I'm sure. We've got ourselves a tree the day after Christmas, but we haven't decorated yet. That'll get done.

We're not big Black Friday people, never have been and probably never will be, so that passed largely without notice.

What I'm saying is we hadn't done Christmas yet, not that we're off to a late start. We'd had a first snow, but still--it wasn't even December. I didn't think we were far behind.

And then came Sunday. The church up the road was full of Christmas trees. Someone spent serious Saturday time getting the sanctuary Christmasy. It was nice, but no big deal.

But then the organist started in on a prelude-- "The First Noel," and when she did she just about took my breath away. Simple old carol, no huge chancel organ, no inspiring cathedral, no Mormon Tabernacle Choir--just a few bars of "The First Noel" and I got planted far more sturdily than that shaky nine-foot tree outside, right there in the heart of Christmas. 

No precious old stories rise mystically from the bars of that old hymn. I didn't flash back to a living room moment long ago around a tree or the Christmas Eve my parents hid a J.C. Higgens 26" bike, with streamers, behind the couch. Nothing like that. In church on Sunday morning, in that quiet time before things really start, it was just the idea--"the first noel," no caps, no upper case, the old hymn became very much my own carol. And it was good. It was very, very good.

Advent, I know, is supposed to be all about waiting, but right then I felt far less anticipation than deliverance. It's been rough on everyone, this whole election season, very difficult. We've all taken a beating. I have, and it's still not over. 

But Sunday morning in church on the chorus of that old carol--you know, when the line reaches way up for a moment?--right then, my heart broke into its own"The First Noel" because once upon a time in a old town barn outside a cheap hotel in Bethlehem, an unmarried girl, little more than a child, tired and beat from travelling on a donkey, gave birth to a King who still last Sunday made all things new--old candelabras, reject trees, and beat-up pilgrims.

All of that in just a few blessed bars from the chorus of "The First Noel." This morning, this brand new Christmas season, I'm thankful for the first noel.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

A Saturday Dance Macabre

I don't mean this to sound like a "dance macabre," the old late-medieval allegory of death. I swear it wasn't. Don't think of that Saturday morning as a dirge. Far from it, even though what I have to show for it is an endless parade of monuments. 

Stay with me. 

The cemetery I wanted to revisit sits high above the mouth of the Niobrara River. I knew ahead of time that neither the grave of Standing Bear (the first Native man or woman the white man's court declared human), nor his son's (who wanted his remains to be returned to the land of his ancestors and prompted the Ponca's long walk) are marked. 

No matter. You stand up there above the rivers, and you just know they're there, where they both wanted so badly to be. 

Ancient ritual and customs festoon Native cemeteries with things for the dead to enjoy in the life hereafter, all kinds of things. Even so, the figurine up front here--actually behind the stone--is Roman Catholic. But then syncretism is far less a sin among Native people than it was or is to the white folks in black robes who brought the Book. 

Beyond (see it?) is the river and its abundant hills. 

If you turned west that morning, buffalo roamed. I'm not making this up. 

If I'd simply spent an hour or so wandering that graveyard, I'd have already seen enough to make the long trip west worthwhile; but I'd only just arrived. One stone I wanted to revisit, a place where thirteen years ago some proud ritual must have taken place, attended, I'd guess, by hundreds. Must have been a drum or two, some singing, some Ponca, some Pawnee. Still, the inscription begins "Our Father in Heaven." 

Stories haunt the place, as they do in any cemetery. 

Back down the hill, I found Buffalo Chip. Couldn't help but smile at the poor guy's name. It took me a couple of days to trace down his story, even though lots of his life stories are there in the space between dates of his birth and death. 

The Missouri River is "braided" between Springfield and the dam at Pickstown, SD, so the old river looks at least something akin what it did before being drawn and quartered by the Army Corps of Engineers. You can't turn back the clock, but seeing it here, from Ponca State Park, is both blessing and revelation, a reminder of how things looked when Lewis and Clark came up and back, it's big shoulders powdered that morning with fresh snow. 

Back in town, I stopped for a sign along the highway. 

Three brothers from rural Niobrara, Nebraska, died together in June of 1969, when an Australian aircraft carrier collided with an American destroyer, cutting that destroyer in half and sending 74 American sailors to their deaths, including these three Sage brothers from right here, rural Nebraska. 

Can't help but pause. Ages 22, 21, and 19.

The Standing Bear Bridge links Nebraska to South Dakota. I had to walk back a ways to get some shots of the river's deftly carved sandstone.

Up there on the ridge, two makeshift, snow-covered memorials right at the precipice remember deaths I couldn't help thinking were suicides. 

Not so far up the road, I stopped at a pioneer cemetery, same date, 1880, as the Ponca graveyard.

Once upon a time a colony of Dutch Reformed, my tribe, put down roots and left a graveyard--no Buffalo Chips or Standing Bears; nothing but Boschmas and Wynias and Talsmas. 

Once I wrote a story of a woman who lived out here during the Depression, a grand old grandma who remembered the Dust Bowl, who'd gave birth to all her children out here at home and, each time, gone back to work a couple hours afterward. She lost a son in World War II--he's probably buried here. She left South Dakota when her kids established lives elsewhere. But when I remember her telling her story, it's only right to say that she took some of this world with.

I ate an Indian taco at Ft. Randall Casino, got back in the car and went west across the river to the the old fort cemetery, where there are more stories--like this one: the Dezaires, an American family: a mixed blood Army scout and translator married to an African-American woman, both buried here, beside their child. Someone somewhere, maybe, has the names written in a family tree. I hope so. 

And this one, Lawrence Nugent, who died in July of 1871. The roll just outside the gate attributes his death to suicide. Stand there some time and you just can't help asking why. 

And then I turned east and went home. I know, I know--the whole thing sounds like a dance with death, but it wasn't. Not at all. It was a great day. Really was. I learned a lot. Really did.

That Siouxland dance macabre was an exercise not so much in death as in life. “Stories make us more alive," Madeleine L'Engle once wrote, "more human, more courageous, more loving.” 

I hope that's true.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Morning Thanks--Thanksgiving

Our son's absence couldn't be avoided. He's got a new job, and taking off for a couple days simply wasn't a possibility. Still, he and his wife were missed. There was a bit of a hole in our holiday.

Otherwise, it was all just about perfect. My wife, who ritually takes on the turkey singlehandedly, did it up wonderfully once again. Starting, well, Monday or so, she sweats about the menu, then works like a coal-miner all by her lonesome for 48 hours straight to come up with a meal that defines the holiday. 

This year her first-grade son mentioned to his mother that he hoped Mema (their name) would have cranberries. Wish morphed immediately into mandate. Two varieties, including something called, "Pink Stuff," were on the table on Thursday, even though "pink stuff" is at least 98% marshmallow and therefor not her cup of tea. If the Thanksgiving table is a book store, Pink Stuff is a silly romance novel. But, voila! there it was. 

My mother died three years ago already. She was 95, and her leave-taking, honestly, was just about as sweet as anyone could wish or imagine. Some kind of snarling cancer was discovered on Friday, and Monday morning she walked away quietly, as if she didn't want to bother her loved ones. That wasn't like her. For most of her years she loved bothering people, her loved ones especially.

Particularly me maybe, about politics especially. Once upon a time, she set her life's compass by way of the words of Dr. Joel Nederhood or Rev. H. J. Kuiper, or whoever edited the denominational magazine. She grew up in an era when the sturdy walls of her Christian Reformed culture was all she needed for guidance. What the preachers thought, she simply determined to think herself. 

By the end of her life, those walls had largely disappeared; her newfound dominies were a glossy array of TV preachers, her truth-tellers talk show radio hosts like Michael Savage. As she aged, the world she saw from her window in the Home got much smaller, and what got left behind became less understandable and therefore more to be feared. She was convinced that the Lord would come sometime before next Tuesday, if not sooner, given the rampaging evil right there on doorstep of Pine Haven Home.

That her son didn't share her politics or her fears was of great concern, because Mom was born and reared in a world were there were only two paths to the celestial, only one of them the straight-and-narrow. The other led to Las Vegas or the Democratic party. Mostly, she let Michael Savage draw up definitions of who was and who wasn't on the right one.

Every visit home, she'd bait me for a political inquisition, set me up with some "when-did-you-stop-beating-your-wife?" question. "So, honey, you still like Obama?" That one, she used more than once because she knew it would open the door. 

She liked to fight, my mother did. Loved it. 

But I missed her too this Thanksgiving. She wasn't here and I wasn't there. 

Today is her birthday, which meant that for years and years a trip back to Wisconsin covered two bases, two holidays in one fell swoop. All I really had to remember was Mother's Day, which always falls on a Sunday and therefore "shouldn't be Mother's Day at all because it's really the Lord's Day." That having been said, she expected you'd remember and told you if you didn't.

This weekend I found myself missing the long trip home for the holiday, something we did most of our married lives. I found myself missing the lakeshore, missing the woodlands all around, missing family who stayed in the place that for some remarkable reason I still find myself calling "home."

And Mom and I made our peace, in case you're wondering. Not long before she died, I told her in no uncertain terms that she didn't have to worry about her son's salvation, that she could go to her eternal rest unsettled, all that Obama stuff notwithstanding.

The last time I visited, I was alone. I took her to Culver's, where we drove through and picked up a couple of butter burgers on a gorgeous Indian summer afternoon. Then we stopped at a south side park. I got out the wheelchair and pushed her up close enough to the lake to pick up just a little sand in that burger as we munched away. 

People quite naturally address old people in wheelchairs. They condescend sweetly, just like they might do to little kids. They're not afraid, and Mom loved attention as much as she loved to preach, loved to attribute all that lakeshore beauty to the Lord, or so she'd say to whatever strangers said hello as they walked by.

It took her a while to finish that burger, but when she did we went back to the Home, and for the first time in my life--and the last--we sang together, just the two of us, "Blessed Assurance," Dad's old favorite. A month later or so she was gone.

Some instinct in me is pigeon-like, I guess. Truth is, on Thursday I had a terrific, a blessed Thanksgiving. I'm not complaining. But this morning, her birthday, I just can't help feeling that somehow we missed something this holiday, something back home.

For better or for worse, I think it was Mom. She'd smile at that, I'm sure. 

Good night, she could drive me nuts, but this morning I'm thankful for her.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Sunday Morning Meds--Splendor and Majesty

“Praise the LORD, O my soul. O LORD my God, 
you are very great; you are clothed with splendor and majesty.”
Psalm 104:1

We stumbled through Chicago, via its interstate system. We thought to avoid rush hour traffic by coming through the city mid-morning—and on a weekend. No matter. Those of us not accustomed to spending wholesome chunks of our day in traffic find unending traffic snarls infuriating. All the way through—from the Indiana border to the Wisconsin state line—we were locked in.

Just a stone’s throw off those angry highways, people were laughing and singing, watching soccer games and eating fresh, crisp salads. I know that. Dogs were chasing frisbees, and park pools were teeming with happy kids. But on the road, those highways were anything but super. The rush—which wasn’t--actually made me want to sing “Home on the Range,” top of my voice, in shameful self-righteousness.

If Psalm 104 didn’t include so much about the sea, I’d like to think of it as a tune belonging to a cowboy because in its range and vision this panorama of a psalm suggests a writer sitting beneath a big sky, the kind one can’t see from bottle-necked traffic, nor from city life itself (or so it seems to this country boy). Which is not to say that all many farmers hum Psalm 104 in their air-conditioned cabs while they pull half-million dollar combines.

But I can visualize the splendor and majesty of the God of verse one best in nature. I suppose I could find him on a busy city street too, in the sheer breathlessness of immense human activity. But, like the Psalmist, I prefer a broad and open world. Give me a partly cloudy dawn from a chunk of highland prairie, and I’ll point out a landscape that defines his splendor and glory.

But not long ago I heard a Lakota healer talk about addiction, particularly alcoholism. He said that the indigenous way of dealing with significant problems was, basically, to honor them, because anything that carries the wallop of alcohol should not be hidden away but given a spiritual existence by acknowledging it, honoring it, even making it a relative. In the words of the healer, “you ask it to be your teacher.” When he himself did that, he said, alcohol became, in his view, the greatest teacher he ever had.

At that point in his description, it seemed clear that this man’s Lakota ways had morphed into verifiable human truth, his culture had become all cultures. The Chinese character for crisis, I’m told, contains both danger and opportunity.  If our curses can become blessings, then it’s completely understandable how the horrors of alcoholism could become, for him and for all of us, deep and abiding inspiration.

It seems clear to me that the person who is not sorry for the things he or she has done wrong will never understand forgiveness—and thus, more significantly, grace. But this morning, listening to that Lakota healer talk about his alcoholism, I was given a different kind of vision of God’s glory and radiance, his splendor and majesty, for in him alone can we find dancing even within our mourning—and that’s majestic. He uses our sin, the very worst of what we are, to teach us his grace.

In his splendor, even those loathful traffic jams can morph into emerald landscapes and unending azure skies.

As the Psalmist says in the opening line of this memorable psalm of praise, you are, Lord, very, very great.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Buffalo Chip

A full rack of baby back ribs, with beans and slaw, will cost you twenty bucks at Buffalo Chip Saloon and Bar, Cave Creek, AZ. Sounds reasonable, even inviting. But seriously, who'd want to eat anything served up at a saloon named by way of ruminant manure?

Then again, if you know anything about the Plains, you know darn well that buffalo chips were, once upon a time, pearls of great price. Hard as it is to imagine today, most white settlers--as well as their Native neighbors--used happily what thirty million bison plentifully left behind in their wanderings. Lots of kids, all kinds of hyphenated Americans, grew up on victuals cooked over buffalo chips. Some people claim a buffalo-chip fire created food that needed no pepper. I wouldn't know.

In a land so bare naked as the plains, if you wanted to survive you simply had to make do. If you had nothing but a potbelly stove in the middle of your world, and if there were no trees to speak of as far as the eye could see, you sent the kids out after buffalo chips. Voila! fill up a sack and you've taken care of two of life's necessities: fuel and food--well, at least you can cook. 

Such useful manure added to pioneer folklore. Real estate chiselers liked to say the plains were a fine place to live because "the wind draws the water and the cows cut the wood." All I know is it had to be tough for my own Dutch-American ancestors out here because where cleanliness is next to Godliness, bringing manure right into the house must have seemed nothing less than sin.

So I'm out tramping around Ponca country last week when I come up on gravestone with a comical name. I'm not Ponca or Omaha or Yankton Sioux, and I'll admit that once in a while I can't help smile at Native names. I know a couple whose daughter-in-law is named "Kills a Hundred." She told me her proud Sioux name had a definite downside because it limited her professional choices. She couldn't be a doctor, she said. "Imagine you're a patient, and all of a sudden the intercom says, 'Calling Dr. Kills a Hundred.'" She's right.

The gravestone I bumped last week into belonged to someone identified as an "Indian chief of the Ponca Tribe," a man named, well, "Buffalo Chip." Cemeteries don't do much joking around, but when I saw "Buffalo Chip" on that stone, I had to smile. I'm not one to talk; after all, I'm named after a sheep. But "Buffalo Chip" is a whole different handle.

But there's more to a story than a character's name. According to this stone, Buffalo Chip probably died a Christian--there's a supplicant at the foot of a cross cut into the granite, and the words "Rock of Ages" in a banner beneath the image.  

What's more, the date of his death, "June 13, 1906" and his age, "80 years" and the fact that he's here beside the Missouri River means a whole lot of his story can be known because he had to be among those Poncas the government considered hostiles, even though they never lifted a finger against the cavalry. Washington determined the Ponca's future would be in Indian Territory. End of story. 

Some Poncas, Standing Bear among them, refused. His great American story is a saga for another time.

But history tells us that, like Standing Bear, Buffalo Chip, "Indian Chief of the Poncas," refused to leave his homeland, the very broad shoulders of the Missouri River. It tells us that, with Standing Bear, he walked twice, back and forth, between northern Oklahoma and northern Nebraska, through weather that took a terrible toll in death and suffering on his people, who were determined only to be free and live here in the place where the elders rested.

When the cavalry insisted they return, once again, to Indian Country, Buffalo Chip looked the law in the eyes and flat out told them no. This Buffalo Chip, with no malice or rancor, simply told the soldiers they'd have to shoot him right then and there because he and his people were not going back.

You can't help but smile when you know the whole story of Buffalo Chip. After all, here he is, beneath an aging gang of cedars. Here he is, more than a century later, at home.

May he rest in peace.

Buffalo Chip

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Morning Thanks--To enjoy our essential robustness

A dozen years ago, I kept a thanksgiving journal. It was all Garrison Keillor’s idea in a 2003 Christian Century interview. “Gratitude is where spiritual life begins,” he said, and then offered a lesson in daily thanks.

Thank you, Lord, for this amazing and bountiful life and forgive us if we do not love it enough. Thank you for this laptop computer and for this yellow kitchen table and for the clock on the wall and the cup of coffee and the glasses on my nose and for these black slacks and this black T-shirt. Thanks for black, and for other colors.

And then he said, “I could go on and on and on. One should enumerate one’s blessings and set them before the Lord. Begin every day with this exercise.”

Terrific idea, I thought. And then he made a promise:

. . .you will walk through those gates of thanksgiving and into the fields of joy, break through the thin membrane of sourness and sullenness – though we should be thankful for that too, it being the source of so much wit and humor – and to come into the light and enjoy our essential robustness and good health.

Some people might question my listening to Garrison Keillor sermonize instead of John Calvin or St. John of the Cross. But what prompted me to walk that path was what I read between the lines: Keillor wasn’t bound and determined to save my soul, only to make my life – and his and yours –somehow better, “to enjoy our essential robustness.” (Makes me giggle, that line--but it makes me thankful too.)

I was convinced. I determined to try it – and I did, starting every day with thanks for an entire year, writing it all down.

I’ve just been paging through hundred of those thanksgiving notes, and I came on this.

Day 135
The sky was perfectly clear when I left the house, stars shining so brightly I swear you could hear them. That’s good, because a clear night sky promises a bright sun; but it’s also not so good if you’re lugging a camera: clouds create drama, and good landscapes, like good stories, require conflict, some roughing up. 
What seemed a single cloud moved quickly east when I was out in the middle of a field, awaiting the dawn. That’s when I realized the sky was going to fill, and fast.  And it did. That single cloud grew into a shield that itself reflected the brilliant rising sun. The two of them – sky and sun – burnished everything. I stood in a Midas world turned to gold. There I was in a plain old soybean field, but I was there at exactly the right moment.

This morning it’s for that marvelous light show I am thankful.

That was my morning thanks a dozen years ago. When I read through those words now I can’t help thinking how easy it seemed to be to see God’s hand in everything – and how hard it might be today to remember to think that way again.

I doubt we come from the factory as little fountains of thanks. Thanksgiving, I've learned, requires discipline, even when you count things as mundane as a momentary glow in a bean field.

There's something human in us that makes it work to think in thanks, even though here in God’s world it’s so marvelously easy. 

You don’t need a camera. You just have to look, I guess, and smile. Robustly.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Unequally yoked

Years ago, I read a novel, a manuscript, from a young Roman Catholic writer. The novel was set in a city--I don't remember where--in the late 1950s. The story was comedy, and I remembering thinking that I should be laughing harder than I was. Truth is, reading it for someone other than the writer was something of a burden, and an obligation, which makes for particularly heavy burdens. 

That I remember that manuscript means it wasn't as bad as I'm suggesting, and it wasn't. Still, I don't have any memory of the plot line. What I remember best and probably won't forget is the bizarre--and, well, humorous--prejudices held by the characters for that cult of unwashed Protestants all around and the host of peculiar rules good Roman Catholics lived by to swear off sin and worldliness.

If all of those madcap orthodoxies hadn't been so silly, they would have been tragic. Who on earth would want to walk down the paths of that much self-righteousness? 

Well, we did. My people. Roman Catholic exclusivity--"stay the hell away from people who aren't like you"--wasn't a whole different in my tribe. I remember calling them "minnow munchers" after all. Truth be known, my parents chafed when my sister dated a guy who went to a different fellowship, despite the fact that his family used the same three "Forms of Unity." Marrying a Roman Catholic could have meant banishment. Sometimes did.

A summer ago we had a great time at my sister and her husband's 50th anniversary. 

I'm not surprised at what Pew discovered when it asked married couples about their respective faith traditions. The uptight Roman Catholic world of that manuscript is has gone the way of all flesh, as has a good deal of the exclusivity that once characterized my own wooden-shoed people.  

When we think about making America great again, most of us probably dream of what we believe the post-war era must have been like in the U.S. of A., the time when my parents were young, when "the boys" were coming back from Europe and the South Pacific, a flood of men and women looking to establish lives in a time they couldn't have appreciated more, a time of peace. Half of those young couples were from similar faith communities. Look at the numbers. 

That era we're not likely to see again.

The Roman Catholic world that made that manuscript funny is gone too, finished. My own adult children don't think Garrison Keillor is all that funny. They don't giggle at the peculiar joy of all those dark Lutheran jokes. That world is largely gone.

Look at the numbers. Amazing. Will the world of the millennials be different than the world of "the greatest generation"? 

You best believe it will. 

Will that world be better? 

Unequivocally, yes.

And without a doubt, no. 

Beneath our cultural differences rests our mutual humanity, for better and for worse. 

So help me God, as you always have. And will.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Going to war out here

One of the grunts claims the battle over the Presidential election a couple of weeks ago seemed a skirmish next to the war created by a school merger. Communities just down the road from here are still at it, and ain't pretty. Consolidation wars have been going on for years, almost a century. Ye olde atlas shows township school buildings every four miles or so. Back then, smaller farms created more kids in huge families. 

Once upon a time the school just up road could enroll thirty kids. Today, it's gone. There are maybe five kids on the whole section. Farms grew, families didn't. Today country kids--far fewer of them--are all bused into town sometimes a half hour or more away. Consolidation comes with the territory out here. Mostly.

My very first teaching job, rural southwest Wisconsin, was in a school that had consolidated just that year--"South Wayne-Gratiot," two towns who together got nowhere near tallying a thousand souls. Both were farm villages even though the region once sported all kinds of iron mines. And miners, the original "Wisconsin Badgers," people liked to say, were iron miners who fought off Black Hawk to become the first white settlers of the region. 

Times change. The mines are indistinguishable holes in those gorgeous hills that ripple through the countryside. Like most of rural America, things have been withering for a very long time. So in what must have been a rancorous election back in 1970, the vote for consolidation went through and all the Gratiot kids got bused down the road to hated South Wayne.

I had no idea. I don't remember if I was warned, but even I had been I would have been unprepared to understand the ramifications. I didn't get it, and I wouldn't for most of the years. Cheerleading tryouts meant half my class was mad at the other because four SW kids made it and only three G's.

When you're a first year teacher the only way to understand why some kids sit with others is plain old friendship. Even thought every last kid in that school was Wonderbread white, they ran in gangs branded by hometown. What I said about Hawthorne or Hemingway, what stories I assigned which students to write for the paper, who I chose for the school play--everything was part of a drama I didn't even know was being staged.

And the reason was simple. You lose your school and you lose your kids and the town you love starts looking like an old folks home--or worse, a graveyard. 

So today, according to the Register, four towns are looking to team up--Ida Grove (population 2100), Odebolt (1000), Battle Creek (700), and Arthur (200). It may be difficult for city-dwellers to understand the fierce rancor boiling up, but think of it this way: when you don't have much, you fight harder to hold on to what little you got. Gets ugly.

And, according to the story, it has gotten ugly, even though there's already a history of merger, Odebolt-Arthur joining up 60 years ago, Battle Creek-Ida Grove tying the knot in 1994. That school merger is a banner headline this morning doesn't mean it's a new story. If your roots go deep, a retired farmer speaks for you when he says, "You lose a school, you lose part of your town."

I wish 'em all the best. In my experience, a good ball team will change a whole lot. People need something to cheer for. 

And some towns just waste away. Some even die, but most of them just waste slowly away. 

That's life for lots of folks in the rural upper Midwest. It ain't pretty, but it's what you got, and, as  mother-in-law used to say, "It's not what you want, it's what you got."

That's old fashioned rural wisdom. Blessings to Ida Grove/Odebolt/Battle Creek/Arthur. What a handle.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Morning Thanks--Teachers

I remember thinking, fall of '76, that there wasn't a significant difference between high school kids I'd taught and the college kids who that fall walked into my college classroom. Not in intellect anyway. Wasn't day-and-night. Not at all.

What was striking was a difference in psyche. A high school teacher was half-time teacher and half-time therapist because half the kids were basket cases half the time. When the drama shut down, the other half took the stage. Someone was always bawling. A high school English classroom was as much about literature as crisis.

I don't remember falling apart when I was in high school. I didn't have time. I was always slinging something around on a court or a field and I just wanted to win. There was no Greek tragedy in my life, nothing remotely Shakespearean--just ball games and cheerleaders, a great life.

As a high school teacher I was a shoulder to cry on during all that high drama. Somewhere in my army surplus file cabinet, I've got yellowing notes galore from kids, most of them overexercised about some catastrophe, often petty, sometimes not.

But college kids didn't need me, and for some time that business-like attitude bothered me, not because I wanted to play the outsized role that came with high school teaching, but because I felt as cold as an information kiosk. Kids walked in, stayed awake, took some notes, asked a few questions, and walked out. End of story. No harm, no foul. No tears, no drama.

My own adolescence is a half-century behind me, all that high school teaching forty years of wilderness wandering ago. I remember my children's adolescent dramas, still carry a grudge against some kids who made my kids cry or scream, even though the whole bunch is forty years old today. No matter. This dad is still mad.  

My granddaughter is midway through the second act of high school drama. I asked her about her friends not long ago. Specifically, I wondered whether young women--because the problem belonged primarily to young women--still suffered through eating disorders like they did a couple of decades ago. Social worker friends used to talk about "Siouxland Syndrome," a debilitating condition created--mostly in young women--by high expectations they picked up on their hair-trigger radar, expectations created by family and friends and community that expected nothing less than righteousness.

"Still true?" I asked her. She shook her head no, not that she knew of. 

They're all liars, of course, kids that age. But this one is my granddaughter. I took her at her word.

So I'm thinking that progress has been made here, but then Time breaks that spell with a huge story about fried teenage psyches. Two million teens tell researchers their depressive days sometimes shipwreck happiness, and those kids are only the ones who talk. Not all do. 

What's more, Susanna Schrobsdorff says in that article, today kids live in "a cauldron of stimulus" unlike anything I ever felt, in part because they have not only their own tempestuous lives to calm, but a seething social media life they carry along in a pocket or purse, another life that's capable, at any moment, of exploding. They're on-line all. the. time., in ways no kid in Oostburg, Wisconsin, in 1966 could even imagine. "Every fight or slight is documented online for hours or days after the incident," she says. "It's exhausting."

No kidding. 

She says all of that, in a morbid way, helps explain "cutting," an awful behavior I knew nothing of in ye good old days. "Starting in the late 1990s," she says, "the body became a kind of billboard for self-expression--that's when tattoos and piercings went mainstream." Today the billboard body often carries self-inflicted scars. When kids "can't cope with anxiety or depression," studies say, some--many--engage in behavior we've begun to call "self-harm."

Not every kid cuts. Not every kid starves or deliberately tosses cookies. Not every kid locks him or herself up in anxiety. What I think I know is that high school teachers deal with kids at a time in their lives when the world seems a cliff and every step a fearful risk. Some things don't change. But back then there were never knives and certainly no blood.

Saturday morning, standing up on a looming cliff above the Missouri River, I came up on one of those roadside memorials that grow where friends died--you know, flowers and ribbons and toys. But this one was a hundred yards from the highway. Had to be a suicide, I thought, and somehow had to be a kid.

This morning, all that drama behind me and that long and difficult Time essay in my memory, I am thankful, deeply thankful, for men and women, young and old, information kiosks with broad, soft shoulders, who stick it out and simply are there for kids whose crackling live-wire psyches are often hard to live with. I'm thankful for teachers who are there for all the kids. 

Just promise me you'll keep an eye on my precious granddaughter.  

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Sunday Morning Meds--Establish our work

 “…establish the work of our hands for us—
yes, establish the work of our hands.”

The bike path east of town cuts diagonally through tall fields of corn that sometimes buffer prairie winds and sometimes channel it. In July, when the temperature is at 100 degrees, that narrow corridor is a wind tunnel. Back when I used it daily, I fought prairie winds all the way down, then sailed along when I came back to town.

Really dry corn makes all kinds of noise. Its leaves get stiff and curl up lengthwise, then crack against each when they get bullied by wind. I’ve never been a farmer, but I’ve lived beside 12-foot corn most of my life, and I know when to get worried. Back then we hadn’t had rain for far too long. Weeks before already, I stopped mowing when our lawn turned to toast. From a distance that section of corn along the bike path still looked emerald, but up close it was smacking and cracking.

The man who planted that particular tall corn corridor died that summer. My wife told me about his death weeks after it occurred. I’d missed it myself. Had I known, I would have gone to the funeral. Once, years ago, that man told me I ought to write a book about his life. I should have, but never did.

Cantankerous and quarrelsome, his life deserved a story. We’ll call him LeRoy and protect his memory, not because he was ever an innocent. His wife left him after a couple decades of what must have been horror. For a time, fistfights with his son were public spectacles. Once, a neighbor’s sow wandered on his yard, and LeRoy shot it dead, then called the neighbor to pick it up. That afternoon, the neighbor called the radio station to nominate LeRoy for “Good Neighbor of the Day.” The whole town laughed when he awarded the distinction.

For a time, LeRoy went to the same church we did. A friend of mine told his buddy, a Lutheran, that our church would pay for their new building project if the Lutherans would take LeRoy off our hands in the bargain.

Thanks but no thanks, the Lutheran said.

There’s more. Lots more. There should have been a book. He was never a saint. Some considered him a crackpot. Worse.

Later in his life, he mellowed, thank the Lord. I’m sure there were moments when he wished he hadn’t been what he was.

The day I heard that Leroy died I took that bike path east of town in withering heat and felt his absence because it bothered me, strangely enough, that there was no one around to worry about his corn. LeRoy would have, but he couldn’t, and he wasn’t.

I felt somehow responsible, if that makes sense. LeRoy always liked me; I’m not sure why. He didn’t like a lot of people, and he wasn’t shy about preferences. When I rode my bike through that tunnel of tall corn and heard its leaves cracking, I felt sad because I told myself he ought to be there to worry, like all farmers do.

As all of us do—about a bunch of things. When it comes to worry, most of us have fields of too dry corn.  

I’ve got no crops to worry about, to cattle to feed. But I’ve got my concerns.

Like Moses, and like LeRoy, I’m sure, I often pray that God almighty will establish the works of my hands—establish these very words I’m typing. Don’t let ‘em dry in the hot sun. Keep ‘em growing and keep ‘em green, even in the heat. Make ‘em better than they are.

Moses’s agonizing concern arises from a heart estranged, someone whose thirsty soul has been languishing in the eerie darkness of an eclipse, God himself hidden. What Moses is asking for is that what he does with his hands in that wilderness where his people are serving a sentence, what he does from day-to-day, his work, his toil, his care—that all of that is blest. That’s all he wants, as do most of us. Bless it, Lord.

What he wants is nothing but good corn to feed a hungry world, something to grow up gloriously from a little more than a cracked pot.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Love in Granite (ii)

Daniel Freeman and Agnes Suiter's marriage, way back in 1865, may seem like pure convenience when you consider photographs of actual homesteaders. You’ve seen those homely pictures a hundred times--sun-scorched cheeks, greasy hands, stiff-with-dust work clothes on sober folks in front of a sod house. Why would a young educated lady like Agnes come out to frontier Nebraska for weathered old veteran and homesteader 17 years her elder?

I think the letters document one possible answer. Pioneers like Daniel Freeman are, at least by reputation, incapable of expressing feelings, if in fact they have feelings at all. Therefore, it may surprise you to hear that it's Daniel who brings up the grief he felt at the death of his brother and Agnes's fiance’: “. . .the caus of my writing to you on the 4th I was thinking of James no one can tell my feelings unless they hav lost an only Brother,” he tells her in his own bungled style; and then, “Before his death I never was lonsom or homesick no difernce where I was But now I am lonsom wheather in company or alone in a city or on the Planes.”

(I may be hopelessly romantic, but it seems to me that his burden, his urgency, is only heightened by all those scrambled spellings.

Daniel writes her because he's been thinking about James's death, he says. “I always got leters from him and that was the caus of my writing to you thinking you might write a friendly leter in return—“

That may be a ruse. I'll give you that. But something in that explanation struck home in Agnes. When she writes back, she opens up with a confession rising from as close to her soul as her heart can be. "Tis Sad to loose [sic] an only brother. I lost my only sister last Spring. She was young—had not attained to the age to share my joys and sorrows—and I know I feel lost without her.” 

She’s answering him directly, but not without some nuance, moving slowly and carefully into a dialogue he'd begun, a discussion of hurt and the loss of the man she loved. Because she has more to say, more this Nebraska sod-buster has to know. "But when James died it was more than a friend,” she tells him. “It is strange how we learn to love some one person more than a brother or sister.” And that's her underlining, not mine.

What a great line, full of life and truth and double meaning.

What she risks in that approach is minimizing the wound Samuel Freeman had revealed for her--his brotherly love. "But Natures laws are such," she says, "and we can not avoid it. You know perhaps all the facts in the case. Theirfore I need not tell you that I loved James—your brother—more than any other person living or dead. He was indeed my first love and I often think that no one other can take his place in my affections. . .”

There, it's out--exactly what Samuel needs to know. But then, subtly, this warm and surprising qualifier—“at least that is the way I feel now.”

She's being both definite and open-ended, honest and playful. It's a darling line because there can be no mistaking the way it asks for more.

Her consciousness of Samuel’s reactions suggests an admiration, and then even some defined boldness. “Excuse me for telling you this if you did not wish to hear it,” she tells him.

She's got will.

I can't help thinking that letter is the beginning for them and of them. That’s how their relationship, by post, began. The honesty both of them offered each other in these opening letters were found by each of them to be of such great value that more, much more, begged to be requested. Being honest about the depth of their mutual sadness opened something in both of them. That's what I'd like to think.

The names of Samuel and Agnes Freeman are carved in stone up on the monument hill. Both of them, I’m sure, were made of granite—had to be to live life where they did and do it successfully and joyfully. And all those kids. 

But I can't help thinking that what the letters suggest about them is not simply the strength of their characters but the tenderness of their love.

An odd couple, really. America’s very first homesteaders. 

Lovers, I’d like to think.

The letters of Samuel Freeman and Agnes Suiter are available at the National Homestead Monument’s website. 

Friday, November 18, 2016

Love in Granite (i)

In the barest of outlines, their getting together seems, at best, a marriage of convenience.

The husband, Mr. Daniel Freeman, way out on the cusp of the frontier in the 1860s, hunting buffalo and fighting hostiles, wants relief from at least part of the high drama life is still handling him. Throughout the Civil War, he worked as a Northern spy. These days, despite the wild pioneering life, he’s flat out lonely. He’s got land now, a place of his own. What he needs is wife.

So he asks a woman who seems convenient, Agnes S. Suiter, a schoolteacher back in Iowa, a woman he knows her well because she’d been engaged to his brother James, who, most sadly, didn’t return from the Civil War. Early on in their correspondence, she addresses him accordingly as "Brother Dan." but then, once things change subtly, she starts things differently: “Dear Friend Daniel," an only slightly hidden smile.

It's easy to judge their coupling as loveless, too easy in fact. Daniel was a divorcee, and Agnes a widow. Given the trajectory of their lives, both seemed destined to loneliness; both recognized that future, however, and opted for the alternative. And why not? "Better than living alone," each of them might well have thought.

So letters were exchanged. Little more than a year passes, and they marry, bringing an end to their mutual loneliness. Agnes bears Samuel seven children, suggesting their relationship could not have been bereft of passion, although on the mid-19th century frontier, a passel of kids may not evidence romantic love or even intimacy.

Maybe it's their shared gravestone up the hill at the Homestead National Monument that suggests something cold, something merely convenient. I don’t know why. Daniel could be ornery and by all accounts was no sweetheart, and Agnes Suiter, after all, was a entire generation younger than he was, 17 years. Could those two have loved each other?

And then there’s the strange fact of their meager correspondence doing all the relationship's heavy lifting. Daniel Freeman wrote Agnes S. Suiter first sometime in 1863 (that letter is lost); the two of them were married in her parents’ home in Iowa in February of 1865. There's barely a dozen letters total.

Here's the thing: it didn't take many at all before promises were offered.

Tomorrow: the sweet letters of two lonely pioneers becoming "a thing."