Morning Thanks

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

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Running Away and Running Back

It was an old church, a very old church, although not as ancient as many throughout the Netherlands. And it was right on the street, middle of town, lined up amid all the brick houses. It was the church where the woman whose book I was writing occasionally met her fiance, both of them involved with the Dutch Resistance during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, a time when it was dangerous for them to be together.

It was old-fashioned conservative, this church. The people stuck to principle and would not be moved, a conservative pitch it took from its own region in a town named Spakenburg a place known for its religious determinations. No way.

Strangely, there were few English speakers in the place the day we walkedin, at least not among the folks. It was a Monday, as I remember. I'd wanted to see what the church looked like because two people, deeply in love and deeply in trouble, met there clandestinely, the Nazis searching for both of them. I needed simply to see the place.

Even though my family and I were a language apart, it wasn't long before the old folks inside understood what brought us there. It helped immensely when I told them I was a Professor in a Reformed Universiteit, doing a book about the Nazi occupation.

One of them, an old man, grabbed my elbow and pointed upstairs. We followed--myself, my wife, and my children. Once climbed into the balcony, and he pulled back a huge throw rug to expose a space cut out into the wood floor, a space as tall as a man. He reached down, pulled a handle, and a section of that balcony floor opened on a hinge to a big, walk-in closet. 

He didn't have to tell me the story, and he didn't try. "Razzia?" I said, and he nodded. That hiding place would fill up with men if and when the Nazis rolled up outside during worship, which they did, looking to pick up slave labor for German factories. What the man wanted me to see was the hiding place his church, the Spakenburg church, had created for its own people a half century before.

I'll never forget looking down into that darkness and feeling some of the leftover fear that must have run through the pews downstairs when such raids came. I'd stopped simply to see what the church looked like. The balcony hiding place was pure blessing.

But another image from that visit stayed with me too. The floor up there was crawling with candy wrappers, hundreds of them, so many they had to be deliberately scattered. Once the old hiding place was back beneath its throw rug, the old man looked around, pointed at the mess, and muttered some old Dutch proverb I couldn't translate, something I knew was akin to "kids these days." 

That hiding place seemed to me to be a holy place, a holy place in a holy place; and it just seemed wrong that those kids relegated to the balcony for night church would litter up the place they way they did, as if it were their calling to make a mess. It seemed sacrilege. My mother would say it seemed like spotten. It seemed a profanation.

Not long ago, I sent for a book I'd seen referred to often enough to make me believe I had to read it. I get myself nickle-and-dimed to death buying used books at four bucks a piece through Amazon, and this one looked good--With My Own Eyes: A Lakota Woman Tells Her People's History. It's reminiscence, but more than a memoir, a story told by Susan Bordeaux Bettelyoun to Josephine Waggoner, both mixed-blood Lakota women in 1933, when both of them were winter residents of the Old Soldier's Home in Hot Springs, SD.

The tale those two women tell is very special, a delight and a feast. At four bucks, it's a steal. 

There's no candy wrappers inside, but somehow I feel the same sadness when I hold that wonderful book. It's used, removed from a library--I get that. All libraries have to clean house, hard as that must be. They have to cull their stacks, just as I do. If readers don't check out the book, it gives up its property rights to another. Times change, after all.

But the stamp on this wonderful reminiscence of a woman trying to piece together a history of her people as she knew it, as she lived and experience it, says "Sinte Gleska University Library." Its prior owner was on the shelves of a library on the Rosebud Reservation, a library for students who, I can't help but believe, should be reading this story.

All things must pass--I get that. And it's up to some of us, I guess, some who feel so called, to take hold of a hand brake once in a while and try to tell the story, just as Bettelyoun and Waggoner did. 

Maybe more than a few, too. When we reach a certain age, maybe we're all storytellers. The Minnesota comedian and prophet Kevin Kling, claims he spent half of his life running away, half his life, before starting to run back again--half running away, half running back. 

You can throw a rug over that line of his, that idea. You can litter it with candy wrappers and take it off the shelf, but that doesn't mean it's any less true--or any less worth saying. 

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