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.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Sunday Morning Meds--Glory

“May the glory of the LORD endure forever; 
may the LORD rejoice in his works.”
Psalm 104:31

On some balmy early fall days out here it’s not hard to believe that we are not where we are.  Warm southern breezes sweep all the way up from the Gulf, the sun smiles with a gentleness not seen since June, and the spacious sky reigns over everything in azure glory.

On exactly that kind of fall morning, I used to bring my writing classes to what I call a ghost town, Highland, Iowa, a place whose remnants still exist, eight miles west and two south of town, a village that was, but is no more.  Highland likely fell victim to the sad reality that far more people lived out here when the land was cut into 160-acre chunks than do now, when the portions are ten times bigger.

What’s left of the place is a stand of pines circled up around no more than twenty gravestones, and an old carved sign with hand-drawn figures detailing what was once a post-office address for some people—a Main Street composed of a couple of churches and horse barns, a blacksmith shop, and little else.  The town of Highland, Iowa, once sat atop the confluence of a pair of non-descript gravel roads that still float out in four distinct directions like dusky ribbons over the undulating prairie.

I bring students to Highland because what’s not there never fails to silence them.  Maybe it’s the skeletal cemetery; maybe it’s the south wind’s low moan through that stand of pines, a sound you don’t hear often on the treeless Plains; maybe it’s some variant of culture shock—they stumble sleepily out of their cubicle dorm rooms and wake up suddenly in sprawling prairie spaciousness.

I’m lying.  I know why they fall into psychic astonishment.  It’s the sheer immensity of the open land that unfurls before them, the horizon only seemingly there where earth seams effortlessly into sky, the rolling land.  They open their eyes and there’s nothing here, and that’s what stuns them into silence. 

Sixteen years ago, on a morning none of them will ever forget, we stood and sat in the ditches along those gravel roads, describing what we saw.   No cars went by.  We were absolutely alone—20 of us, all alone on a swell of prairie.

That’s where I was—and that’s where they were—on September 11, 2001.  My class and I left for Highland at just about the moment the first World Trade Center tower was attacked.  While the world watched in horror, my students and I looked over a landscape so immense only God could live there—and were silent before him.

No one can stay on a retreat forever, of course, so when we returned to the college we heard the news.  Who didn’t?  All over campus, TVs blared.

But I like to think that my students, that morning, were best prepared for horror, not by our having been warned, but by our having been awed.

Every year it was a joy to sit out there and try to describe the character of the seemingly eternal prairie, but that year our being there on September 11, I’m convinced, was a great blessing.

And that’s what the psalmist feels on the heels of the panoramic vision of Psalm 104—perfectly stunning awe for a God whose might will withstand the horrors of our warfare, the treachery of our deceit, and whose creation brings praise even when our voices are hushed.  May his glory endure forever.   

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Saturday morning catch--at the crack of dawn

"The crack of dawn," it's usually referenced by sweat-of-the-brow work, as in "meet me at the crack of dawn." But I'm retired, so to me it means something else altogether. Witness this morning.

The cloud cover that's been with us, a quilt, throughout the day today was ranging quickly toward the eastern horizon when I looked out my window. I had to scurry, for this particular "crack of dawn" wasn't about to tarry. 

So this morning "crack of dawn" was itself actually what we might call a window that closed rapidly, soon after this shot. But before this retired guy's "crack of dawn," that incredible anticipatory morning light was sheer epic.

Nothing builds drama like contrast, so this morning, cloud cover on the way, we had it in spades, stunning spades.

The Floyd was happy to catch what there was, I'm sure, at least I'd call this something of a smile, if rivers can. Maybe the show was more intense because so fleeting--you know, "make hay while the sun shines." If that doesn't work, try your own little maxim. There are dozens, I'm sure.

Sadly, the show was over in ten minutes, maybe less. But if you were there at the time, like me and my camera, you got yourself a blessing. For years I've called this painted desert aloft something akin to "heavenly preaching," taking my cue from King David's "the heavens declare." There are times--and they are fleeting--when the sermon in the skies isn't just words, it's pure revelation. 

Friday, April 28, 2017

Coming Monday night to Orange City. . .

Seriously, he's an immense talent 
who brings all of his own life's experiences--
and they include some significant trials--
to his humor and his wisdom. 
His laughter goes to the heart.

Book Review--Plainsong, by Kent Haruf

Kent Haruf, sad to say, is gone. He doesn't need my praise, and neither do his books, Plainsong especially, a finalist for the National Book Award when it was published in 1999. I read it then, and loved it. Read it again last week and loved it again, this time I think, even more.

I know readers who crack the same novels over and over again, many of them kids, of course, but adults too. Millions Netlifix their favorite movies as if those movies were a high; once upon a time an old friend of mine could recite every last line of The Wizard of Oz. I don't believe I'll start traipsing back to my favorite novels anytime soon, but reading Plainsong again, umpteen years after the fact was pure joy, not because I was surprised by the goings on--I was the first time around--but because the givens of the story are so darn good.

Don't be mistaken--there's enough sin to go around in Holt, Colorado: bad kids and good kids who do bad things. There are lousy fathers and mothers who don't have a clue they are; there's sex that probably shouldn't have gone on; and there's abject abandonment that leaves people's souls in tatters. People do bad things in Holt, and there's even bad people, men (mostly) who don't come around when they should and do when they shouldn't. "Is this heaven?--no, it's Iowa." Maybe so, but Holt isn't heaven.

But the place has its glories, even its angels. People, most all of them troubled, do good things in Holt, Colorado. They take on others' burdens. They give themselves away in a fashion that feels almost miraculous in modern life. They confront sadness, grief, and rejection. They help. They give food to the hungry. That doesn't make them sinless, but they can and do bestow grace that steps forth boldly in and from the darkness.

No one who's read the novel will ever forget the McPherons, a pair of bachelor farmers about a month or so away from the eccentricity that accrues in people who simply don't get out anymore. Just exactly how it is that Maggie Jones, a divorced teacher, even thinks of bringing a little pregnant high school girl out to stay with them is beyond me, but she does--and it's believable, and those old farts take to their needy border as if she were the child they never had. She needs them, but, Lord a'mighty, they need her--and that's what Maggie knows.

Not everyone, but some in Holt operate in the trust that is there but almost always goes unspoken. Once upon a time a student of mine, in class, told me and the whole bunch in the classroom that when his father told him to get out to the barn and milk the cows because it was time, what he really meant was "I love you." Holt has just enough of those kinds of people. 

In one of the most beautiful scenes in Plainsong, a pair of kids with a mother suffering from depression begin to understand that she's not going to come home and that their parents' marriage is over. Dad's not around. He has his own business, his own pain. Besides, in Holt the only parents who talk much to their kids too often say the wrong things. These two little boys wander, really, to the upstairs apartment of an old woman who's on their paper route. Maybe they go there because they don't know where else to get the love they need. I'm not even sure they know why they visit the old lady, but they do. 

Together, they bake cookies. The old woman, who has no apparent family anywhere near, gets visited by two boys she comes to understand need her. Even though nothing is said about their mutual loneliness--they don't talk through their problems, not at all--when the boys leave an hour or more later, everyone knows that what's hasn't been said, has. They've all been blessed, and so has the reader.

My mother used to get a colorful magazine on expensive paper, something called Ideals. I have no idea if it still exists, but I remember it because it seemed imported, something from far away. I suppose the danger of Kent Haruf's Plainsong is that it too comes on thick and shiny paper, that it somehow deludes us into thinking that human beings are, as if by nature, warm-hearted and warm-souled. It's easy for me to be so hoodwinked.

I hope I'm not, however, because my second trip to Holt was just as much a blessing as the first, maybe more. To people who live out here in rural America especially, Holt is forever just up the road. Stop by sometime, even if you've been there before. I swear a good visit over there will make you smile.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Visions of the First Americans

Of the making of many books, there is no end. Ecclesiastes 12:12

This thing in front of me, this marvelous brain and its keyboard beneath my fingers, has changed everything. I don't have a smart watch, but if I did I could wander through a thousand libraries and never take my eyes off my wrist. Once upon a time, when I was writing devotions for kids, if I needed to know where the average sperm whale tipped the scales, I'd send my eight-year-old son two blocks down the road to the library, then give him a buck or two when he returned with the tonnage. He's forty now and long ago lost that job to google, who tells you in tenths of a second how much time has lapsed between question and your answer in a thousand websites. 

Technology has made me and a gadzillion others into photographers, sort of. If you or some local monkey takes a million pictures on your Canon, one of those shots, nicely photo-shopped, may look at least something like an Ansel Adams. For the first time in history, the number of books published in 2009 (eight years ago already) topped a million, four times what it was just four years before in 2005. Say you own a bookstore--how on earth can you or anyone else keep up?

Last week I got rid of an entire box of books, books that, once upon a time, I probably wanted. Three times in the last five years I've tried my best to get rid of whole shelves of books--and have. Still, the sheer volume of volumes down here makes the basement look like a hoarder's den. 

But nothing in my library(s) comes anywhere close to this behemoth. It's huge--eighteen inches wide, a foot tall. You don't hold this thing--not really. It's too big. It's coffee-table size, if your coffee table is a soccer field. It's big and it's beautiful.

There's a very good reason for its existence and its mammoth size. Back in 1900, the man whose portraits it celebrates set out on a photographic pilgrimage to capture images from what he thought to be a vanishing people--American Indians. Edward S. Curtis devoted his life--and his family, his fortune, his marriage--to putting faces and places on film, faces he thought endangered by acculturation and the ordinary passage of time.

What he envisioned was an immense folio of portraits of North American Indians, in twenty volumes, beautifully photographed and bound in a spectacular collection and sold for more than most Americans made in half a year. No one proposed a paperback or some kind of Wal-mart edition. Into those 20 mega-expensive volumes, Curtis placed about 800 prints, approximately one-third of the 2400 silver-gelatin photographs he took during his lifetime of travel among Native tribes. 

Edward S. Curtis: Visions of the First Americans includes but a fraction of the photographs he left, but they're beautiful, and the book is a treasure. I spent a couple hours with it yesterday, on loan from the local museum, where it was recently donated by a friend who, like a ton of people my age, is down-sizing.

The museum isn't sure it's for them, despite its valued history and breathtaking photography. People don't come into a museum to page through a book, no matter how big or how beautiful. 

Library? Nah. People don't go to libraries to page through a huge book of photographs either. 

Still, this book has pages so thick they'd work for building materials. It's an immense wonder. By its size alone, I figured Visions of the First Americans was worth a fortune, even if we don't know quite what to do with it.

So I looked. I sat here at the keyboard and googled Visions of the First Americans. 

Ten bucks. Seriously. New? Just twenty. I'm still breathless. Amazing. 

But if you want to page through the Edward S. Curtis collection--a collection much, much bigger than what's here in this single volume, I know you can do it more easily on-line. Here, at the Library of  Congress, or here, at Northwestern University's collection. You can sit all day long and look. at digitized originals. You can. Those libraries keep no hours either.

There all on line, every one of the Curtis portraits, and they don't require a separate library shelf. Look to your heart's content. 

The internet delivers them far more quickly and completely. 

Just not as beautifully. Ten bucks. I'm serious. 

Without the Curtis photographs, the world would be a lesser place, but they're worth almost nothing. Amazing. 

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The story of Crow Butte

There were horses. Stolen horses. That’s what’s at the heart of this delightful old western myth recorded more than a century ago by Dr. Anna Robinson Cross. There were horses, and the Crows had them and Sioux didn't, and the Sioux wanted them. Badly. Badly enough to fight.

But then, truth be told, fighting wasn’t uncommon among those two warring tribes. The Lakota were not fond of the Crows, and the feelings were bloody reciprocal. Warriors from both tribes created and maintained their places in society, in part, by showing courage, by prowess in battle, not by good, clean farmland with razor-like corn rows. They fought. Hard. For keeps.

For just about everyone, horses were money in the bank. In both tribes, if you were rich, you had horses; if you had horses, you were rich. Everyone wanted horses.

This time the Crows had them, the Lakota didn’t. As valuable as they were, stolen goods slowed the Crows down so they decided to break up the band and send some warriors on with the booty, while others stayed behind to slow down the horse-hungry Sioux hotly after them. That rear force scaled Crow Butte, a 300-foot high miniature mountain in western Nebraska, and armed themselves to hold off the Lakota.

T’was a noble effort, but it left the rear guard subject to the sad deprivations of a siege. For a time, the fighting ceased but the suffering of those who scaled the butte certainly did not. It grew, grew monstrously. Time passed—without food, without water.

They were safe but so dangerously isolated that they determined the younger warriors would descend in the dark of night and hopefully escape--which they did. Meanwhile, those who remained--the old guys—would keep up their music, their singing, their drumming, as if nothing had changed. Their staying behind was something of a suicide mission--their songs, death songs.

And so those older ones sang themselves, quite literally, to death. Without food or water, their strength dissipated, but they kept up the drumming and the singing, a subterfuge, kept it up until they had no strength to sing, no strength for life itself.

And not, at this point, the story, as told by Anna Robinson Cross, ascends into the miraculous.

When finally the music died, the Sioux, down below, noted billowing clouds in the form of huge, sky-sized birds descend carefully to the top of the butte, then slowly lift, as if messengers from heaven had floated to earth to take those aged warriors home to happier places. That’s what they witnessed, or claimed to.

So struck were they by those huge, bird-like clouds that the Sioux determined right then and there never again to fight the Crows.

That's how the story goes, as told by white pioneers like Dr. Cross. Truth be told, that version of the story is only one of many given to explain the name given Crow Butte, that famous western Nebraska landmark.

I hate to say it, but it’s probably pure myth. After all, history records no such peace alliance, and it's painfully clear that the Sioux and Crow fought again. And again. And again.

But Dr. Cross’s version of the story of Crow Butte is worth retelling, as most myths are. They tend to show us for what we are--myth makers. We like our stories to carry meaning and hope. We like our stories to say what we wish them too because they can then drive us to hate and despair or joy and love. Even when they fail to bring us where we'd much rather go, they stay with us because they’re our stories.

I sincerely doubt any Lakota or Crow people told that particular Crow Butte story, but white folks did, including all those billowing clouds and the miraculous messengers from above.

Down here beneath the butte, and elsewhere, hope springs eternal.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Morning Thanks--new life

It's not the same, but there's some sameness, I swear. You know that moment when a newborn is tucked into a corner of a her crib, lying on her stomach, arms up around both sides of her baby-soft face--you know that moment when you stand there crib-side and look and look and stay there looking for another ten minutes, maybe more because you don't want to leave because, to be sure, there's nothing quite as beautiful as anything in all the world?

You know that moment? 

Well, it's not the same, and I won't try to say it is; but right now, when things just start greening out back, when warm temps and gentle rains just begin to awaken what for too long has been blah and lifeless and nowhere to be seen, right now when those very first blossoms appear as if out of nowhere, by sheer miracle, I can stand there and stare and stare and stay way too long, for half of forever, just looking. 

It's not the same, but those moments are cousins, I think. 

This bunch of dwarf irises are up before anything else out back right now, a proud little stand of fragile flowering purpleness, a gift from friends' gardens last year. They're here and they're gorgeous. They're just gorgeous. I could stand out there half the morning and look.

The Reverend B. J. Haan, first president of Dordt College, was an old man when he told me years ago that he had but one regret in life, and that was that it took him too long to learn that laughter was the best way to people's hearts. Those who knew him will smile when they read those words.

I hope I have some years yet, but when I stand there over those dwarf irises, I tell myself it took this old guy far too long to realize what depth of beauty there is in living things--far, far too long. And if that realization is simply a gauge of old age, then I'm willing to say, bum knee and leaky plumbing and what not else, that putting on years still offers some blessings. 

This morning I'm thankful for new life and blessed beauty just out back these days especially. For an old man, there's nothing quite like it.

Monday, April 24, 2017

The Crisis before us

You've got to hand it to New York Times columnist David Brooks. He seems to be on a one-man quest to refurbish the American soul. Himself Jewish, he can occasionally sound almost evangelical. That he reads widely is obvious by frequent references to "Christian" thinkers, who don't regularly find a welcome place in his political forum. His Times column Friday, "The Crisis of Western Civilization," sets out to create a revival of faith in what some call the great "liberal experiment," democracy itself.

That demise, he claims, has been advanced primarily by those who reference its shortcomings--and there are many shortcomings. On Saturday, I sat through a horrifying 90-minute presentation of an horrible place once upon a time just down the road, the Hiawatha Insane Asylum, Canton, South Dakota, where Native American people from reservations all over the country were sent, essentially to die. 

No one cared. That's the story of Hiawatha. No one really cared about and therefore for its inmates, and those few who did blew whistles and were shamelessly dismissed because no one cared. What happened during Hiawatha's forty-some years of operation is not just scandalous, it's evil. 

Here in our corner of the world, people allowed it to happen, even condoned its inhumanity. Good Christian people looked the other way as hundreds of Native people, many of them not "insane" at all, were treated were far less favor than the hogs and cattle in fields just outside the hospital.

David Brooks says we've been taught a steady diet of the evil machinations of American democracy, so much so, in fact, that we've lost faith in "the liberal experiment," the incredible belief--really almost unheard of before the American constitution--that people can actually rule themselves. That's "the liberal experiment," and people have begun not to believe it anymore, says David Brooks. 

Brooks goes so far as to claim that dream has died, an assertion he grounds in a sharp appraisal of the times: "The first consequence has been the rise of the illiberals, he says, "authoritarians who not only don’t believe in the democratic values of the Western civilization narrative, but don’t even pretend to believe in them, as former dictators did."

Brooks is a conservative, but he fears what he calls "the age of the strong men," leaders like "Putin, Erdogan, el-Sisi, Xi Jinping, Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump,"

Yesterday's election in France bears witness to what he sees happening all around: the two winners could not be farther apart politically, one from the far right, the other from the far left. The middle is gone, Brooks says. When center-right and center-left political parties collapse, whatever power they once wielded is simply moves to the fringe parties, who really don't believe in democracy.

Finally, he says there is "the collapse of liberal values" at home. I'm no fan of Ann Coulter, but when she can't speak at Berkeley, the home of the "Free Speech Movement," fifty years ago, some major doctrine of American life is simply gone.

As someone who spent his life in a classroom, I'm not ready to buy the notion that somehow education is to blame, that we haven't taught western civilization in Western Civilization, touted democracy's atrocities instead.

If he's right, there's more to blame than education. Believe me, he doesn't mean the word "liberalism" as an indictment but in its broadest sense when he says, "liberalism has been docile in defense of itself."

He sounds like an OT testament prophet, like Jeremiah himself, without the theological imperative: "These days, the whole idea of Western civ is assumed to be reactionary and oppressive. All I can say is, if you think that was reactionary and oppressive, wait until you get a load of the world that comes after it."

Seems to me that, to kids around here, you don't not tell the story of the innocent victims of the racism that perpetuated the Hiawatha Insane Asylum, but you make sure to tell the story of the whistle blowers too, the men and women, those few who tried to change things, whose voices may not have been heard, but who tried, who spoke truth to power.

Brooks may be after the American soul in ways few are. He's always worth reading.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Sunday Morning Meds--Sinners in the hands of a rejoicing God

“. . .may the LORD rejoice in his works—
he who looks at the earth, and it trembles, 
who touches the mountains, and they smoke.” Psalm 104:31

Pity Jonathan Edwards.  Every year, millions of bored high-schoolers, supposedly learning American literature, suffer through the insufferable scolds of 17th century Puritan fathers and mothers, poets and essayists and historians who are just about as sexy as an old folks home. Good stuff!--like liver and spinach.

The only voice in 150 years of American history that comes even close to garnering their attention is Jonathan Edwards, whose famous hellfire and brimstone sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” features some show-stopping images—loathsome spiders dangling mercilessly over flaming pits. Such word pictures at least wake kids up.  

But, pity poor Jonathan Edwards.  A century of instruction in American literature has created an image of the old preacher that probably bears little resemblance to the real thing.  He wasn’t stern, didn’t pound the pulpit, didn’t spit and steam and unload fear on the meeting house.  Arguably the best mind in 18th century America, Edwards was once President of Yale; he was a prolific writer and a loving pastor and father. But mention his name today, and those few who may recognize it cower, hearing a fearsome rant.

Maybe it’s just me and my Calvinist soul, but it’s somehow tougher to imagine a God rejoicing in us than threatening damnation. The fuming God Edwards pictures in that famous sermon of his is easier for me to picture than the God the psalmist evokes in this verse from Psalm 104, a God who sometimes toys with his world the way my first-grade grandson might, pushing buttons and pulling tabs to make it shake and smoke—and then smiling, thinking good things. Fear comes to us more easily than joy, I think.

I know something of the story of a man in town—but little of him. I know that he drinks far too much, so much that he can’t hold a job. I know some folks around here have tried to help him, even though he hasn’t been a jewel and lacks the wherewithal to change the overall direction of his spiraling.

Today he’s parked at a rehab center, where he should have been for a year or more.  Probably more.

But I know another man too, a man who owns a salvage yard where a thousand wrecks rust and rot slowly before getting crunched up and hauled away. People go there if they need a hubcap or an engine block. The office space could use a squad of Dutch grandmas with scouring pads; it’s a grease pit, unwelcoming to anyone who wasn’t born with a wrench in a side pocket of their bibs.  That’s where the boss sits.

For more than a year, that man, stoic and silent, allowed the drunk to live in a rental place he keeps just down the street from us. No rent payments have come in because the drunk brought a good deal less money home than trouble. A few weeks ago, he stole a kid’s bike—and that’s not the half of it.

I don’t know how many people in town realize that for more than a year the junkman’s heart created a free home for a man few could love. Then again, I don’t think the junkman would want the story told. I may be leaking something I shouldn’t right now.

But if God almighty ever high-fived his people, I swear that he’d visit that sleazy junkyard office for a chance to do just that to the grease monkey inside. He’s rejoicing, I swear.

It’s wonderful to think of God almighty enjoying what we do, isn’t it, rejoicing in his world? A whole lot better than spiders and firepits. 

This little half of verse 31 is a gem, isn’t it?  Just between you and me, with what I know of Edwards, I’m very sure the old Puritan liked it too.  

Friday, April 21, 2017

Morning Thanks--The Secret Place*

It came in the mail not long ago, direct from an Amazon-linked, used bookstore somewhere, a forty-year-old paperback titled A Secret Place, the novel which single-handedly changed the course of my life.

That may be overstatement, but not by much.

Years ago, I picked that novel up in a bookstore, almost on a whim, when I’d just started college. I’d heard of the writer, a man named Frederick Manfred, a tall novelist born and reared in the area, this area actually, a writer who'd become, I'd heard, deeply hated by the real locals, a Dutch Calvinist writer who wasn't highly regarded by Dutch Calvinists. Imagine that. I knew I had to read him.

For reasons I only partially understand, when I read it I loved it, studied it closely, wrote a paper about it for my Freshman English class, and then determined—on the basis of my reading and study of A Secret Place—that someday I wanted to write books myself.

The Secret Place--also published as The Man Who Looked Like the Prince of Wales--is a real Siouxland book, featuring real Siouxland characters, Dutch names, Dutch Reformed conflicts, and, for the time at least (late 60's), some considerable and fleshy steaminess, all of which I found mesmerizing. In it, I found my people--I guess I'd have to say it that way, now, in retrospect. In it, strangely enough, I found me.

It cost me $2—I mean, last week when I ordered it. Cost me $.75 forty years ago.

I read it again recently. Honestly, the novel simply wasn’t all that good, a fact which made me chuckle a bit at my own 19-year-old, impressionable self.

Here's what I think: how lucky I am—and thankful too—that God almighty doesn’t let me make all the significant decisions of my life.

It's on the shelf now, with the rest of Fred Manfred's books, a man who became, later on, my friend.

Only cost me two bucks. Someone else's trash, I suppose. Not mine. Not at all.
*First published April 9, 2008.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

"In, but of" stuff

She'd asked me to drop by her class because the topic seemed like something I'd have some thoughts about. That's what she told me in a FB message, an invite. She guessed I have thoughts she bargained I could share and would. High school seniors, two classes. "Be nice, if you could visit. . ."

I was apprehensive. My bum knee isn't the only reminder I'm pushing 70. It's been a while, after all. Many of her students' grandpas are nowhere near retirement. I'll just listen, I told myself. I know next to nothing about kids today.

Dream on. She stood me up in front of the room, gave my string a pull, and wanted me to spin stories. Which I obligingly did. I've been out of the classroom for five years, but a hybrid teacher's rhetoric re-forms, a long-dormant voice with roots as deep as big blue stem. 

A homemade apron-like creation is hung on the wall of that classroom. It's festooned with color-coded pockets in which students slip their smart phones the moment they come in the door. That's new.

The students were kind, respectful, and, to a person, it seemed, tuned-in. But they didn't have much to say. I tried. Volunteers were few. They much preferred listening to the old bald guy.

The essay in question was from a magazine titled Relevant, its thesis obvious from the title: "Why the 'Faith-Based' Film Genre Must End: These kinds of labels can be destructive to art." New twist on an old question. Christians should not dedicate their artistic selves to a genre of Christian film or music because in so doing they will be depriving a wider audience, a secular audience, of their work. That's the way the argument goes.

Kind of "millennial," I thought, so couched in privilege, assuming, as it does in the first place, that the readers' "work" could earn a wider audience, that anyone with a good guitar can be Bono. 

Ought to be interesting, I figured, so why not? Visiting her class was a well-meant offer, and she's a gem, an ex-student who's been a wonder as a teacher for longer than I could guess.

Truth be told, I left that classroom somewhat moderately depressed, not because the kids were disengaged or rowdy, not because the topic seemed irrelevant or silly. I think she wanted a wise man; what she got was someone who doesn't know the answers.

I could have brought up the Benedict Option, a book raising all kinds of commentary within the evangelical community, another option on how exactly to interpret the age-old paradox of being "in, but not of." 

I could have said I remembered being their age and thinking that being a Christian writer meant churning out Sugar Creek Gang stories or Sunday School papers; and how wonderful, how free it felt finally to think that even as a Christian I could try to write like Hemingway.

I could have told them about a man I know, raised in the church a half century ago, who, for the very first time in his life, stole into a darkened theater, then tore out, warp speed, when God chased him out once Satan lit that huge screen.

I could have told them how my mother once offered to buy me the very best Selectric typewriter on the market (before an Apple IIe) if I'd promise never to type out a four-letter word. Truth be told, I did tell them that. (And that I had to turn her down.)

I could have told them about an essay of mine aired just the day before on public radio, aimed at an audience that wasn't "Christian," in their sense of that word, written instead for a much wider bunch--and how my mother wouldn't have liked that little essay for that reason.

What I couldn't tell them was exactly what it means to be "in, but not of." Is there an answer? What I couldn't answer is how Christians use those smart phones up on the wall, whether or not vaping was biblical, what words should be blazoned over their t-shirts, or what to think of Donald Trump. I might have liked to answer some of those questions, but I couldn't, not because it wouldn't be wise but because the answers to so many questions about this world they are about to enter are often hard to come by.

What I couldn't say was exactly what they should think of that article in Relevant magazine, or what to do exactly with "in but not of" in 1967 or 2017. What I ended up saying, I guess, is not that there are no answers, but that there are many. Start sorting.

What I could have said is, "You're seniors, right? Welcome to real life." 

And then listened. I should have listened. 

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Butter dump, 1933

I must have been through the place a thousand times, but I didn't even know it was a place--James, Iowa, just up the road from Leeds. From up above on Google Earth, James, Iowa, looks more like a camp ground than a town; but right there on highway 75, it sits peacefully alongside the meandering Floyd, far southern Plymouth County. 

Truth is, this story has little to do with James, Iowa. It requires mention here only as a setting, as in, "this whole business went down right here in James, Iowa." I'm guessing nobody in James had a thing to do with it.

The trouble started with optimism, too much of it. It started with the Roaring Twenties and stock market bubbles that had everyone plus the family pup investing. Out here in farm country, the Great Depression started with bumper crops--way too much wheat, way too much grain, way too much of everything, so much that farmers suddenly found their produce worthless.

By 1933, four years after Black Tuesday's legendary crash, prices for hogs were well beyond abysmal--$3.85 for hundred weight, four cents per pound. Even a city slicker knows you can't raise livestock if your ledger goes that far south. People not only couldn't make money, all they could do was lose it.

And thus lose their farms. Which is what happened. Bank foreclosures skyrocketed, and, in time out here in the country, there were more farm sales than hymn sings. 

Things weren't better for milkers. In 1932, farmers who milked were getting a dollar per hundred weight, two cents a quart. Like owning a tractor whose only gear is reverse. Good farm families were going under.

Along came a firebrand missionary-type who felt called to save the farmer, a man named Milo Reno, Des Moines, Iowa, who preached the gospel of solidarity and tried to create a farmer's union, something he called "The Farmers Holiday Association." It's impossible to imagine today, but Milo Reno and stinking farm prices started Iowa farmers singing "Solidarity Forever" as if they were a steel-mill union.

Some farmers from "the Holiday Association" got together one night in James, Iowa, on Highway 75, just north of Sioux City, where pickets created a blockade. Some might well have called them a mob, but others, more sympathetic, a collective action. Truth is, it wasn't peaceful, and it was, well, violent.

Markets had tanked. Farmers were losing their shirts and schievies because of too much of everything, so the Holiday boys decided to dump produce, to block roads so farmers couldn't bring their goods to market. 

Dumped it. Just outside of Moville, Holiday pickets dumped 400 gallons of milk in a ditch. At Kingsley, another bunch stopped a milker from Cherokee and dumped 100 gallons right there on the street.

They weren't kidding around. These boys were serious, but their lives and families were at stake. 

Now back to James, Iowa. What happened that cold January day on highway 75 was a butter dump. Some poor farmer who probably didn't like the Holiday boys to begin with was bringing his butter to town. Highway pickets stopped the truck, took that butter, and dumped it over the bridge and onto the frozen Floyd, then simply picked up the farmer's pick-up, turned it around to the north, and spanked him on his way.

But what seemed a crime to those Holiday ruffians was to let that butter sit on the icy Floyd, so they came down off the bridge and retrieved it once the victim was fleeing home.

And just in case you're wondering, all those coveralls out there had a silver lining. This James, Iowa story's got a bit of Robin Hood although there's no forest and the men are all in bibs. But it's worth retelling because the next day on County Trunk C-70 going east out of James, when farmers and their wives picked up their mail, they pulled three or four pounds of free butter from the mailbox, descended it must have seemed, from on high.

It was no Holiday back then, really. It was a sad time, an angry time right there on the Floyd River bridge just outside James, Iowa, right here in Siouxland. 

And there's a whole magazine of more stories too--including one about a judge who got beat on and threatened with a rope. But that's a story for another time.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Salt tablets, leather aprons, and work shirts

He was management, not labor, but images from the factory behind the office are what I remember. If I'd drop by, he'd take me on a path through a labyrinth of machines where men in coveralls or blue shirts were standing or sitting at jobs I don't remember, jobs he never really wanted his boy to covet.

The painting stall had a piercing smell; but I remember that part of the factory best because everything was orange, not fluorescent orange, a sold, dull orange like all the cement mixers that came out of the place. 

Around the corner and near the door stood the pop machine--put in a nickle and slide a bottle out some chutes through cold water, lift the cap on an opener above a little bucket on the side. Up on the wall was a big glass jar of salt tablets my dad let me sample when I came in, bitter things but interesting. Salt tablets for those summer days when the men in blue shirts sweat right through the  fabric. More clearly than anything else, I remember that jug of salt tablets. That whole factory was all-male.

At noon, Dad would stay around on summer days for a game of horseshoe during lunch. He knew the wizards, but he wasn't bad himself for some white-collar guy from management. Post-war, most the guys who worked at Gilson Manufacturing, Oostburg, Wisconsin, were vets and friends. There were problems, even fights. Once in a while, a blue shirt had to be fired, I'm sure. Life in a factory wasn't just a cold bottle of soda on a hot day. There had to be problems. 

But going to work there was what my father did for most of his life. For a time, at least, he rode across town to a factory by the tracks where maybe thirty guys put cement mixers together for thousands of vets who, like my dad, were building their own family homes on their way to the American dream. When it was hot, they took a soda from the cold water and grabbed a couple salt tablets. At five, they quit. That was the working day. 

Nobody made big money, I'm sure. Maybe the owners--I don't know. But Gilson was, for a time, a way of life for men who never dreamed of much more than an hourly wage to bring home to a family, men who needed only a few blue shirts, a leather apron maybe, rolled-up sleeves, horseshoes, and a July picnic. And it's long gone. 

Researchers at Princeton have determined that for the last fifteen years, middle-aged, white Americans with a high school education or less have died at an astounding rate, like nothing seen in the industrial age. Death rates climbed from 281 to 415 per 100,000, a phenomenon those researchers characterize as "death by despair"--drug overdose, suicide, alcoholism.

Mechanization, computerization, and globalization closed the doors on factory jobs that once gave meaning to life for lots of men in Oostburg, Wisconsin, in the post-war years. Those jobs no longer exist. 

What people call "the opiod crisis" only makes things worse. Half of those men who are not presently in the working force are taking pain killers. Minority members of the work force today suffer unemployment at a similar or higher rates, but not the same rate of death, an amazing fact. Why? No one knows for sure. 

Perhaps a history of factory life creates higher expectations among white men whose fathers pitched horseshoes on their lunch hours at a thousand factories around the nation. Perhaps the sons of those white men expected more of themselves than in possible today, or so researchers speculate.

J. D. Vance explains his people's hatred of President Obama on the basis of white folks' thwarted dreams. What made Obama's ascension to the Presidency painfully galling was that he was rising--a black man--as they were falling off a cliff. 

Those men are, often as not, disciples of the President. They voted Trump. He said he'd bring back jobs to coal country, to the rust belt, to American steel. Maybe he's a miracle worker. 

But what those Princeton researchers suggest is that this downward spiral among America's old working class won't be reversed easily. Those who risk "death by despair" won't suddenly find themselves in a brand new world of leather aprons and salt tablets. 

There just ain't that many places to work in those tough old blue shirts.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Morning Thanks--An Easter raspberry army

We were warned, but my wife's love of raspberries is unrelenting--if we were to have a garden (and in this new house of ours we've got a whole sunny acre), we were going to raise raspberries. We were destined to have a patch, destined as in foreordained. I like 'em, but she'd trade her husband in for a flat and never look back.

So two years ago, we grabbed some cuttings from friends whose patch is legendary. "All you got to do is stick these things in the ground and get out of the way," they said, or something to that effect. Sure, we said. Husbandmen, we weren't, really rookie raspberry-ers. 

We stuck 'em in and watched. And watched. And watched. At least they didn't die. But flourish? Hardly. It wasn't a miserable year because we were told not to expect a thing. "They've got to get established, but in a couple of years they'll be coming out of your ears."

Rank me with those disciples of little faith.

Last year we went back to the raspberry champions when they told us they'd just culled that world-famous patch in their backyard. We took four more healthy cuttings, a root ball on every plant, stuck them in the ground with last year's sorry offerings, and waited. And waited. And waited. 

Like I said, maybe a dozen berries--that's it. Not enough for a handful. 

"Just wait," our friends said. Pardon my lack of faith.

Just so happens they dropped by yesterday, on one of the most beautiful Easter afternoons in human history. We took them out back to have a look at Easter in the garden. What's back there right now is a scramble of scratchy little patches of new growth on otherwise buzzardly-bald ground. Honestly, to call it a garden right now is to profane the very word.

But on easter, to me at least it was perfectly beautful.

And you know where this is going.

"Check our raspberries," I said, and tugged them out to the patch. I'd been out there on Saturday. Things were popping. "Look at this," I said proudly, as if they were my own brood. Last year's growth were dressed for St. Patrick's Day. "They're really going to town," I told them in the same voice I might have bragged about the grandkids.

"Look at that," they said, pointing at a couple dozen guysers stopped in time but busting out all over, a gang of new growth pushing through the grass clippings, a virtual raspberry army I'd never seen.

Took my breath away.

Did you know that as we speak raspberry researchers are beginning to formulate an assertion arrived at by years of study that raspberries (I'm not making this up!) can control obesity. It's a fact, not just something my wife might say. 
Scientists now know that metabolism in our fat cells can be increased by phytonutrients found in raspberries, especially rheosmin (also called raspberry ketone). By increasing enzyme activity, oxygen consumption, and heat production in certain types of fat cells, raspberry phytonutrients like rheosmin may be able to decrease risk of obesity as well as risk of fatty liver.
I could not have written those sentences if paid or pained. Or this.
New research in this area has shown that the anti-cancer benefits of raspberries may extend beyond their basic antioxidant and anti-inflammatory aspects. Phytonutrients in raspberries may also be able to change the signals that are sent to potential or existing cancer cells. In the case of existing cancer cells, phytonutrients like ellagitannins in raspberries may be able to decrease cancer cell numbers by sending signals that encourage the cancer cells to being a cycle of programmed cell death (apoptosis). In the case of potentially but not yet cancerous cells, phytonutrients in raspberries may be able to trigger signals that encourage the non-cancerous cells to remain non-cancerous.
And we got 'em in our backyard. Wahoo, do we got 'em! Just saw 'em yesterday, they're busting out all over, dozens of new shoots--there and there and there and there.

What a glorious Easter afternoon.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Easter Dawn and a poem

Edmund Spenser (1552-1599)

MOST glorious Lord of Lyfe! that, on this day,
Didst make Thy triumph over death and sin;
And, having harrowd hell, didst bring away
Captivity thence captive, us to win:
This joyous day, deare Lord, with joy begin;

And grant that we, for whom thou diddest dye,
Being with Thy deare blood clene washt from sin,
May live for ever in felicity!

And that Thy love we weighing worthily,
May likewise love Thee for the same againe;

And for Thy sake, that all lyke deare didst buy,
With love may one another entertayne!

So let us love, deare Love, lyke as we ought,
--Love is the lesson which the Lord us taught.


Saturday, April 15, 2017

Morning Thanks--Remembering Black Sunday

Yesterday was the anniversary of Black Sunday, the day in 1935 when a windstorm picked up a part of the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles and blew it elsewhere across the southern Plains. Tons of drought-stricken topsoil that had been plowed up (often for the first time) by thousands of mechanical tractors on the southern Plains billowed up by mighty winds, the first great day of the Dust Bowl. 

Land rush did it, and the age-old desire to get rich. No one thought much about the land, no white men anyway. Horrible, inescapable drought that turned the recently-turned topsoil into sand.

Once the cloud covered the southwestern sky, people saw it wasn’t hail or rain but dust so thick some of them got lost just a few yards from their homes. Some died, months later, when it filled up their lungs. Timothy Egan's The Worst Hard Time tells the story as well as any book I've ever read.

A woman from South Dakota told me she was sitting in church when a huge dust storm came to that state sometime earlier. Soon, the air even inside the sanctuary so thick with dust, all she could make out up front behind the pulpit was the shine of the pastor’s white shirt.

I’m not thankful for Black Sundays or the Dust Bowl, but I’m very thankful to know that history is capable of teaching us very specific lessons, out here on the Plains as elsewhere, moral lessons we neglect, as we do so easily, at our peril.