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, December 31, 2017

Sunday Morning Meds--Faith and Resignation

“He grants peace to your borders 
and satisfies you with the finest of wheat.”

I live in a pretty thoroughly conservative camp. All of Iowa is, really, but the far northwest corner has more conservatives per capita than any other region. A town not so far away—Doon—was recently determined to be the most hard-core conservative burg in the state. Here, people used to say Democrats held their party caucuses in a phone booth. That was when there were phone booths.

In August of 1932, just south of here, farmers—hundreds of them—blockaded roads to prevent other farmers from delivering produce—milk, their hogs, their cattle—to the powers that be in the dairies and stockyards of Sioux City. Not particularly conservative.

They weren’t conservatives, and they weren’t nice. They were followers of a rural swain in bright red neckties and a ten-gallon hat, an advocate for the rural life, a man named Milo Reno, who had almost single-handedly established an outfit called “The Farmer’s Holiday Association,” a kind of farmer’s union that had nothing to do with holidays and everything to do with strikes—like the one created on the highway just south of here.

What granted Reno power was the Great Depression, then on-going. Prices flat-lined, bankers foreclosed, men were out of work, people went hungry. Every town in the corn belt had a squatter’s camp of beggars and vagrants, who were going anywhere to find a job.

"The most amazing and confounding situation in the history of the world,” Milo Reno told his followers, “people starving in a land with an abundance of food; naked, because of a surplus of clothing; people bankrupt in the richest nation in the world." Milo was no friend of big business.

In 1920, national farm income stood at 15.4 billion; by 1932, it had fallen to 6.7. In just a year and a half, between April 1931 and December 1932, those numbers fell by half again.

The Thirties were dirty too—way, way dirty. Black Sunday brought parched soil up from Oklahoma and Kansas in a horrid, black cloud. Temps stayed over one hundred degrees for weeks, turning verdant soil to the kind of the dust the wind blows away.

Just down the road in 1933—it’s impossible to imagine today—a mob of farmers grabbed a judge off the bench in the middle of a foreclosure hearing, dragged him outside, blindfolded him, hauled him off on a flatbed to a place north of town, where a noose was strung from a tree. A greasy hubcap was jammed on his head for a crown. Those bibbed toughs wanted the judge to promise—to sign a paper—that he would not carry out any more farm foreclosures—not one. The judge refused.

So they roughed him up some more and de-pantsed him, left him in his birthday suit, greasy and dirty, just outside of town. They didn’t hang him. Not nice, and it wasn’t pretty.

You have to wonder how those angry men would have read this line from Psalm 147: “He grants peace to your borders and satisfies you with the finest of wheat.”

I’m sure there were times when they wondered where God was in the dark and dusty tumult of the Great Depression, when there was no wheat, no crop at all, no grain for the animals.

“Trust in the Lord,” some neighborhood conservatives might have scolded, as if putting stock in this Milo Reno character was wickedness. But life is often more complex than those who quickly wield the Bible’s truth would have us believe.

“Trust in the Lord” is never be half-truth, but faith is not resignation. Peace is not borne, ever, from passivity.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Small Wonders--Massacre of the Innocents

Coventry, England, a city of 250,00 in the West Midlands, boasted significant industrial power when the Europe went to war in 1940, industries Hitler wouldn’t and didn’t miss. When the Battle of Britain began, a specific Coventry blitz started immediately and didn’t end for three long months--198 tons of bombs killed 176 people and injured almost 700.

But the worst was yet to come. On November 14, 1940, 515 Nazi bombers unloaded, and left the city in ruins. Its own air defenses fired 67 hundred rounds, and brought down only one bomber. It was a rout.

At 8:00 that night, St. Michael’s, a fourteenth-century cathedral, was destroyed like so much else as a city turned to ruin.

In the skeletal hulk of that cathedral, the BBC recorded an ancient hymn that originated in Coventry in the 16th century, part of a series of morality plays. The BBC’s Christmas program that night was broadcast from the heart of Britain’s “darkest hour,” and perhaps because it was, from that day forward, people remembered that ancient hymn in great part because they couldn’t forget it.

Today, that hymn is called “The Coventry Carol,” and it’s unlikely any of you would find it unfamiliar. The story of that ancient hymn is told in a Christmas tale whose shuddering horror is easier not to remember. After the birth of Jesus, King Herod, determined to hold on to his own kingdom, ordered the execution of every living male child under two years old. To imagine the anguish that flowed down streets all through the region is impossible.

In the old Coventry morality plays, “The Coventry Carol” was sung by three Bethlehem women holding babies sentenced to die. Together, those mothers create a haunting melody of multiple vocal lines. If you’ve not brought the "Coventry Carol" together with its own incredible history, you’ll never listen again without hearing the horror of its setting.

Bruegel, Massacre of the Innocents

The event traditionally called “The Massacre of the Innocents,” is probably best not spoken of on Christmas Eve. It’s way too dark. That most of us sing “The Coventry Carol” right along with “Little Town of Bethlehem” and “Santa Claus is Coming to Town" may well be a blessing.

The “massacre of the innocents” shares the calendar with another historical massacre, this one a day’s travel west of here, a massacre on the open plains beside a creek with an strange name, Wounded Knee. That was exactly 127 years ago today, December 29, 1890.

For a year or more, Native people were gathering all over the West for a religious dance white men determined to be hostile, something called the Ghost Dance. Fear of and hate for Indians brought together the largest gathering of cavalry troops anywhere since the Civil War.

In late-December cold. Big Foot, a Mineconjou chief from the Cheyenne River Reservation, known as a peacemaker, was leading his band south to the Red Cloud Agency, when they were stopped by troops from the Seventh Cavalry, who, a couple decades before, had taken a beating with Custer at the Little Big Horn. On a cold morning--this morning, December 29--in a bloody action that ran on for two agonizing hours, 300 men, women, and children, the Lakota say, were massacred in the last fight of what historians call “The Great Sioux Wars.”

To my ears at least, the haunting harmonies of “The Coventry Carol” could just as easily rise from the frozen prairies all around Wounded Knee, as do the lyrics of that ancient medieval lament. Musically at least, the carol’s spectral choral line—“lully, lulay, lully, lulay”--has nothing in common with the chorus of Lakota death songs sung that day on the plains.

But don’t be fooled. Despair speaks a universal language. The words of those Bethlehem women, “lully, lulay,” are, I'm told, an old English expression that long ago fell out of usage. Linguists say that chorus—“lully, lulay, lully, lulay”—repeats the agonizing testimony of those distraught Bethlehem moms: “I saw, I saw; I saw, I saw.” Who among the survivors would not have chanted something similar?

The Massacre of the Innocents may be folklore; some would argue so.

But Wounded Knee most certainly is not, and the determined lament of the old language holds true just the same, on the killing fields out west of here. “Lulay, lully.” I saw. I saw.

Although none of us may have been there, all of us were. 

Thursday, December 28, 2017

What I didn't know and what I've learned

Fifteen years ago, I bought my first digital camera. I'd always been interested in photography, but never really indulged because photography was an expensive hobby--film, processing, pictures. Everything changed with digital. If an infinite number of monkeys on an infinite number of typewriters could produce Hamlet, then why couldn't an infinite number of my digitals create something akin to Ansel Adams? That's what I told myself. 

I don't know how or when I discovered Broken Kettle Grassland, but for some reason I thought it might be sweet to go out there on top of the world at dawn. So on August 9, 2003, (these files say) I got up an hour before dawn, took that new camera--a Fuji, I think, maybe six megapixel--and left, bound for the northernmost stretch of the Loess Hills, just north and west of Sioux City. 

What I remember best was sheer astonishment at how incredible it was to be up there when the sun rose. Dawn has a Midas touch. Everything glows bold and gold. I wanted to shoot away from the rising sun, to see what all that gold did to ten miles of broad plain between the Big Sioux and Missouri Rivers--Yankton Sioux country, although I didn't know it then.

And I didn't know what I was doing. The grasses right up in front of that picture up top?--that was a nice idea, but the little Fuji couldn't pull it off. Today, I know I'd need a wide-angle lens to make it all sharp--AND, a camera that costs more than $150. 

It's not a good landscape shot, but I like it because I haven't forgotten being there, watching the dawn draw it's royal mantel over everything. Took my breath away. I remember thinking what a blessing it was simply to be there. 

But what I wanted to do was take something of that gorgeous Loess Hills dawn home with me.

I couldn't.  A dawn like that one doesn't fit in a canning jar. A rising sun over Broken Kettle doesn't fit in a Fuji, or even a Nikon with a wide-angle lens to die for. 

But that morning, I didn't know that, so I kept shooting.

I didn't know what I was doing, but I loved doing it. I didn't even know that golden bouquet in the foreground was king of the tall-grass prairie, big blue stem. Had no idea. All I knew was that in an instant it turned to gold. 

I didn't understand a landscape shot like this can't do justice to what unfurled before me. But I kept trying. 

When the sun rises high enough, the drama flattens with the shadows. Instead of trying to get as much of creation as I could into that Fuji, I looked elsewhere. What I learned when I did--and when I got home and looked at what made it onto the memory card--is that those shots were probably more effective than the big, wide landscape shots--shots like this.

Or this.

It would take me a while to understand that composition counts, that sometimes its not what's actually there, but the lines that entertain the eye and please the heart. 

All these pictures are 15 years old. What hasn't changed is the tussle that goes on inside me every morning I'm out--winter cold or summer heat. There's always a contest: my soul wants simply to be awed once more in the presence of the Creator; my head earnestly tries to determine what to shoot and how, believing the fiction that I can get it into the camera. 

What I learned that day years ago at Broken Kettle Grassland, my first day out, is that, when the camera is in my hands, I'm most blessed when my soul wins.  

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Morning Thanks--the nurses

The accident didn't total his 1980-something Olds, but it quite thoroughly did it in. It would have cost him much more than the car was worth to fix it up to be decent. You know. 

When you took a look at the accident itself, you might have made a case for keeping him off the streets. After all, he was in his early 90s. But Dad wasn't interested in losing freedom. Not driving meant even more dependency. I honestly figured that just smacking a parked car--truck actually--was no indication of limitations. Not yet anyway. 

So we went shopping. He hadn't looked at cars for a quarter century and was appalled--seriously, appalled--at prices. Once upon a time, after all, he'd farmed with horses. I found an old Explorer for $5000, drove it to the Home, picked him up so he could drive it, and he bought it. 

Then he proceeded to read the book--all of it, every page. Some of that info stuck. Some didn't. 

Accidentally, he hit the key wrong and the horn started bawling like a crying baby. Drove him nuts. He knew nothing about that key fob, so it just kept going off until it blew itself out. 

The truth? I would have let well enough alone, chalked it up to whatever. But my father-in-law is a cause-effect man. He had no idea how it started or stopped, which meant things were way out of control. That night, that mysterious horn kept him awake and trotting back and forth to the garage to make sure it wasn't doing it again. And again. And again. 

And then he had to listen to listen to his hot shot college prof son-in-law, who doesn't know a head gasket from a water pump, explain that all of that infernal honking was controlled on that little flat black gizmo on the key. 

That's who Dad was--and still is, even though today things don't line up all that well in his head.

He's older now, 99 this June. He's always been his own boss. He loved farming because farming allowed him to hold that kind of office. He loved tinkering with mechanical things, worked the motor pool from Normandy to Berlin, fixing tanks and jeeps and trucks and anything else hauled back from the front. 

On Christmas, fleecy snow sat at the side of the road right. When I got him into the car--not without some pain--he said, "The corn's going to freeze." It's been decades since he's farmed, but crops are still his major concern. "That's really unusual," he said, "--snow in June." 

He thought it was his birthday. Several times I told him it was Christmas, but it just didn't sink in. 

Later, after Christmas dinner, when we brought him back to the Home, he was confused. "Which chair, Dad?" I said when we got to his room. "Or do you want to lie down a while?" 

"I don't know what I want," he said, both hands up around his face as if his head was somehow out of control because, I'm sure, it was.

Later, when I walked out, I stopped to tell the nurses to bring him some water because he said he'd like some. "How is he?" they said.

I told him he seemed mixed up. 

"We'll go over there," they said. "Whenever you bring him back, he gets agitated."

It wasn't a veiled reprimand. It was simply life with Dad as they knew it. And as they know him.

He's one of twenty-some in the neighborhood where they work; most of the residents--or so it seems to me--are less active citizens of this world than he is. But the nurses love him, they say, because he's funny. Many of the residents are not.

Those nurses do blessed work--they're angels of mercy. Their job is not at all pretty, but it's simple: help old men and women feel joy while they wait, often impatiently, for death. 

This morning thanks is for the angels of mercy who take care of Dad. They're at it right now, I'm sure--getting him up, dressing him, making sure he's ready for breakfast. They're amazing.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

What about the kid who stayed behind?

And what about the one who stayed behind while the rest of the shepherds took off for town? They had to leave some poor soul back in the hills to tend the sheep. Maybe it was the rookie–the last one hired, the kid. 
I bet it was the boy. I mean, as compelling as all those luminescent heavenly robes and all that divine music must have been, someone had to stay back and mind the store.
Every last one of them must have wanted to go to Bethlehem. After all, angels didn’t mince words–it was the Messiah. We’re not talking about some media star, but the savior of the world, the Messiah, the one the books are written about–that Messiah.  Someone had to stay with the sheep that night, probably the boy who’d came on the job just this December.
So there he sat alone, that incredible star’s intensity never waning. There he sat, listening to the sheep rustle and some occasional bleating. Nothing else out of the ordinary that night, I bet. Peace on earth and all of that. No wolves on Christmas Eve. He never had to lift that cudgel because that night for sure there were no assaults. Joy to the world.
Maybe a birth or two. And maybe this young kid who stayed behind attended when it happened, not that he had to. Normally, the sheep did well all by themselves anyway; but maybe when the kid heard that one ewe’s frantic crying, he took off across the hills to find her because he figured on this night it would only be right for him to be there.
When he found her, he wasn’t surprised that there were no complications. How could there be?–it was Christmas.
But the whole time the boy sat there beside her, watching that brand new little lamb come into the world and get all that royal treatment from his mom, he probably couldn’t help thinking of what he was missing in Bethlehem and how everlovin’ strange it was for all those heavenly angels to mention, as if in passing, that a sign of this grand Messiah’s birth was swaddling clothes and a hayseed feed trough. Give me a break.
And it couldn’t have been a hoax either because a company of angels doesn’t show up every night on the Judean hills, an entire choir making music no one could ever believe. Scared the bejeebees out of ’em, first.  Suddenly, poof!–they were just there.
Still, a manger? It was not to be believed really–the actual, in-the-flesh, long-promised Messiah, the king of absolutely everything in a barn? Seriously?
It had to have been an exceptionally peaceful night out in the country, absolutely nothing going on, post-angelic revelation. He must have wished he hadn’t been the rookie. He must have told himself he could have left the whole flock alone that night anyway, that no one had to stay behind, that it was the boss’s fault he’d missed the biggest night ever, because the boss was way too attached to his blessed sheep. Maybe that’s what he couldn’t help thinking in the darkness of early morning. 
And right about then probably he’d have to have heard the whole gang a mile off on those hills, maybe two, sound traveling the way it does on the open plains. He’d hear them all right, the whole crew making enough noise to wake the dead. That star shed glory over everything, I’m sure, so that soon enough he probably spotted them, a mile or so off, the whole bunch walking back to the flock. They weren’t running, but they weren’t at all quiet. 
He probably looked at his watch and wondered about whether he was getting overtime for being the only one left behind. They can’t shut up either, he might have thought, even though it’s after three in the morning. They’re actually singing.  He’d never heard a bunch of low-life shepherds singing before either. Never. Not bad either.
I bet he told himself that even if the only birth he saw was the one delivered by this sweet ewe still cleaning up the lamb just now getting up on all fours, even if he didn’t get to go to that blessed town barn in Bethlehem with the rest of them, even if he got snookered out of seeing the Messiah, this night would something to remember forever anyway. Two concerts in the hills after all, one of them actual angels with real wings–he still couldn’t believe it–and the other the guys he worked with, day-in, day-out, coming home from town, coming home from a blessed barn, coming home from the Messiah singing “The Hallelujah Chorus.”
Here they come now, he thinks. He couldn’t help but hum along himself. It never dawned on him they could do a whole lot better than just hold a tune.
How about this? All the way back to the sheep, those shepherds sing like the angels. And the kid is smiling, just to hear it, another concert. Finally, the boy breaks into song himself once they come up close. He joins in.
And then the most amazing thing happens, something he wouldn’t have believed if he hadn’t been standing right there, something only he saw. Just like that, that brand new little lamb, still wet from birth, just now up on all fours, joins in too. Really. That little lamb sings too, sings along, doesn’t miss a beat. The boy tells himself that they’re all in it together now, all in their own heavenly choir.
It’s not to believed, he tells himself, the music filling all around. How could he ever explain?
He can’t, he knows. But then, it’s Christmas.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Small Wonder(s)--The miracle truce

Okay, it’s time to get serious about this. Before you talk about miracles and magic, let's have a good cold look at what happened in No Man's Land between British and German troops, December, 1914. Before you grab the Kleenex or get all teary and sentimental, you should remember that perfectly good reasons explain why peace broke out amidst war, why, for one unforgettable Christmas, the lion lay down with the lamb (put uniforms where you’d like).

What I’m saying is, the magic of that moment is perfectly explainable.

First, it had happened before. In the public mind, the great Christmas truce of 1914 stands alone. Not so. This was not the first, so stifle yourself.

Second, war giddiness was still in the air. The Great War had just begun. A hundred thousand Brits thought marching off to France was a fine and proper test of manhood. Death had not held the throne for four long years, as it eventually would. That Christmas wasn't yet hell. So why not eat, drink, and be merry?--'twas Yuletide, so "Deck the halls."

What's more, most of the partiers were reservists who'd just arrived at the front. First line veterans had either trudged back, or else had not returned at all. Lots of rookies lined the trenches and hopped out of them quickly that Christmas.

And consider this (the Brits certainly did). Ethnically, the German troops were Saxons and Bavarians, relatively sweet-natured chums. Had they been Prussian, no one would have peeked over the edge of the trench, even with a helmet.

Fourth, in a way, you didn't have to have a crystal ball to guess that such a truce would transpire. One Brit officer smelled one coming and commanded his men not to take part:

Friendly intercourse with the enemy, unofficial armistices (e.g. “we won’t fire if you don’t” etc.) and the exchange of tobacco and other comforts, however tempting and occasionally amusing they may be, are absolutely prohibited.

And then there's this: neither Brits nor the Gerries were on their own home turf. No French or Belgian troops swapped cigars or doffed each other's grog that Christmas. The war was being fought on their homeland, after all, so pass the ammunition.

Listen! Even the darkness weighed in. No Man's Land was strewn with the dead. Dozens of bloody corpses lay where advances from either side had failed. A Yule celebration began as a burial detail--men who’d been shooting at each other teamed up to bury their mutual fallen heroes. Read Psalm 90 sometime: "teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.” Imagine killing each other with that funeral favorite playing in your soul.

There’s perfectly logical explanations for a Christmas truce in No Man’s Land. Just think about it.

Or not. Imagine how hard it would have been to shoot at men when suddenly, thirty yards away, dozens of lighted trees went up on Christmas Eve. Good German folk had sent their boys half the Black Forest. You’d have to be heartless to shoot through a candle-lit chorus of shimmering trees.

Just imagine. What an amazing sight.

And then there’s this. The world sits in silence on Christmas Eve, as if, once more, we all await the bejeweled skies above us to come alive once more with a heavenly chorus blessing us all with words we need so badly to hear—“Fear Not. Fear Not.”

There’s a king in a barn, the old story maintains. We’re living a miracle.

No matter how you parse it, the peace that came to lay over the killing fields that night still breathes life into all of us, a divine joy that warms the soul.

No organ, no trumpet, no drum—only a chorus of men’s voices finding an ancient melody, a languages drifting together in harmonies in the cold and rain that night. Silent Night, holy night. . .Stille Nacht, heilege nacht.

All is calm. All is bright.

No matter how you I parse it, I guess, that night was, most certainly, a miracle.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Sunday Morning Meds--the way of the manger



I suppose there are umpteen other references throughout the Bible to the Lord knowing saints and sinners personally, but I can’t help but be struck by the repetition and thus the emphasis given here, at the very end of the first Psalm, to the idea of there being two separate “ways” or cultures of sin and righteousness.  The implication seems clear enough:  if it’s blessedness you’re after, avoid “the way” of the sinner for that “way” will perish.  It’s not sinners themselves who are earmarked for destruction in Psalm 1, it’s their way of doing things.
Mortal flesh demonizes as if by instinct—mine too.  We create enemies to build ourselves up and diminish those who hold contrary views.  If we absolutely loved Obama, we likely hate Trump.  If we like the Yankees, we hate the Red Sox. Out here where I live, people who love a John Deere often hate a Farmall.  It’s even that way with snowmobiles, I hear—and motorcycles, and, to be sure, muscle-bound pickups.  Maybe you’ve seen those indecorous window decals of little kids peeing on Ford trademarks.

Of course, the shepherd/king is not talking about Pepsi/Coke in the opening song of the Psalter.  He’s talking about “the wicked,” not somebody wearing the wrong brand of designer jeans.  But just exactly who those people are—the wicked—isn’t always so easy to ascertain, at least for me.  And, of course, what’s of greatest moment in the verse six is not that we carry some kind of pocket guide to who’s wicked and who’s not, but simply that God does because he knows.  The psalm doesn’t say we do.

But what can we read on our own here?  There is, after all, a really deep divide in the psalm.  People sure enough wear white hats and black hats in this poem, I’ll tell you.  But it’s not “the wicked” themselves that are fingered in this verse; it’s their “way.”  “The way” of the wicked will perish.

I may be wrong, but that line pushes me back to the characterization we’ve seen blow away earlier in this psalm:  “the wicked are like chaff.”  Here today, gone tomorrow.  What characterizes their “way of life,” their culture, is its shallowness, its transience, its veneer, the world not unlike Andy Warhol once promised, where everyone gets his or her fifteen minutes of fame.  Like chaff, that way of life blows away and will perish—that’s the heartfelt promise, or so it seems to me, of this verse.  Living for the moment may well be exciting, but in the long run—and that’s what we’re talking about here—it’s not going bring the blessedness of a soul’s prosperity.

As I’ve said before, there is likely other biblical passages which threaten the wicked with eons of weeping and gnashing teeth, but Psalm 1 seems more interested in saving than damning, in laying out a view of what it means to be blessed and how all of us might go about understanding the “way” to become a recipient of that joy.
Like a tree planted.  That’s the story, or so it seems to me.  See it?  That’s the picture in Psalm 1.  Blessedness means being rooted, deeply, in something life-giving.  Avoid what blows away, no matter how promising.  All of that will perish.  Take delight in God’s way, which is, of course, today especially, the way of a manger. 

Friday, December 22, 2017

Winter Solstice*

Some friends have a couple of tipi rings on their South Dakota ranch, visible only in summer, and then, only when the cattle keep the grass down. But they're there all right, huge circles of mostly submerged stones that mark the spots where, hundreds of years ago, maybe more, Lakota people lived. Some people wouldn't give a hoot about a couple of 15- or 20-food wide circles of stones out in the middle of nowhere, but me--I think it's a treasure, an actual footprint of a whole different time.

These friends claim that they believe there is a long line of stones out there too, a line that points to a spot on the horizon where the sun rises on summer solstice. I haven't seen it, but I know that such things exist. Ancient clocks, really--they were there to remind "the people" that the times, they were 'a'changing. Once they sun would hit that spot, they'd know the winter was coming again.

I walked outside two mornings ago and the wind was blowing hard out of the northwest. It was the morning of winter solstice, and I thought of those teepee rings, and some band of Native people out there on a wide open plains 200 years ago. It's likely they wouldn't have been at that spot exactly, because most Lakota thought it appropriate to head for the hills come winter, come cold--the Black Hills, where the hills became a resort, a shelter in the time of winter storm.

Nonetheless, when December winds blow on the prairie, it's hard to imagine how a people could live here in tipis. For that matter, it's hard to imagine why anyone does. I know how the people stayed warm--I mean I know the answers--but it's still hard to believe how anyone could live through stiff northwest winds that push the temperature down to regions of cold no one should have to experience. But they did.

The book I'm reading, Radical Hope, helps me to understand some things about Native life today. What it does is speculate on the death of a culture, or at least a vastly diminished thing, and then asks questions. It calls itself philosophical anthropology. Here's it's initial assertion. The culture of the Crow Indians (not unlike most Plains Indians) essentially centered around bravery in warfare. It's central ritual was "counting coup," a strategy of battle in which the warrior would deliberately hit the opponent before anything else--making the whole thing something of a game really, or so it seems to me, a 21st century white guy. But counting coup was at the heart of Native culture.

Now take warfare out of the culture, the book argues, and nothing has meaning. Women don't make meals to keep their warriors strong because their men aren't warriors. Why take sweat baths if the purpose of life is gone? Why dance? Why celebrate anything? How do you tell stories when the signifiers of all the great stories simply are no more? How do you do anything? Why?

I'm not particularly interested in bathing my white self in guilt, but, honestly, the argument here, I believe, helps me at least far--I can understand something of what Euro-Americans like me did when we decided to build a brand new country where there was nothing but wilderness (oh, yeah--and some few Native people). It's one thing to admit that "we robbed them of their culture"; it's quite another to help me understand why they could no longer tell the stories closest to their heart. Nothing had meaning.

Today is Christmas here in the Schaap house. It's not December 25th, but our kids will be gone, come the 25th, so today we're doing the rituals: we're opening presents. Yesterday, my granddaughter and I hit Wal-Mart for what has become our annual-Christmas-present-buying spree. It goes like this: she picks out presents, and I buy. It's a joy I look forward to all year.

Someone once told me that the loss of one's parent would be almost a ghostly thing. It would haunt me--or he would, my father. My dad died already five years ago, and I live quite normally in his absence.

But then there are times like right now that miss him--Christmas. I wish somehow we were going home. I wish my parents were there.

But there is no "home" there anymore. Home is here. I can't go back to my father because he isn't there. And what I'm saying is that, oddly enough, this particular morning I find his absence unsettling. I miss him.

I'm not saying my father's death is something of the cultural genocide Euro-Americans perpetuated on Native people across this vast land. But right now, this morning, I can feel at least something of the tremors that arise in the soul when something really important is lost, even though it's only a slice of my own personal history.

This morning, the morning of our Christmas celebration, I feel the loss of my father, strangely enough. When he left, some of my reasons for telling stories was gone.

Maybe that's why I like those tipi rings. They're not virtual. They're there, in the ground. I've seen 'em--more than once. And the stones in a line toward the solstice dawn too--they're there, a testimony.

Like my father's Bible, which sits here on a table beside me, tattered and worn, full of his old letters and memories, things that meant the world to him--far less to me, his son. But it's here, like tipi rings, bearing a 1941 inscription that somehow is a vision for me this morning, a vision of Christmas past, long before I was born--and somehow, magically, not.


*First published here, December 23, 2007.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Suckow, New Hope, and Christmas

Something happened way back when, a crime long gone from the memories of anyone downtown Hawarden today. Probably never made the Sioux City Journal, but everyone in town, circa 1895, had to know because when the mighty fall the crash is as momentous as it is memorable.

This man was of high standing, among the pastor’s closest friends, a saintly man caught with his hands in the till, grabbing a fortune more than a few buffalo nickels. That good man’s fall affected a precocious little girl for the rest of her life, a child who became a novelist and never forgot.

If there’s a memory of what happened in Hawarden, it belongs only to those who read the work of the town’s world-class novelist, Ruth Suckow, the pastor’s daughter, herself long gone.

Ruth Suckow grew up in Hawarden in the 1890s, a brand new village of men and woemn who’d staked claims in the last section of Iowa unsettled by white folks, its northwest corner, pioneers brimming with new hope, which is the title of one of Suckow’s novels, a novel in which Hawarden can’t be missed.

There’s no thief in New Hope, but he’s there in Suckow’s John Wood Case, a study of how a community of saints behaves when a one of its own falls.

It’s the design of that village story Suckow never forgot because she suffered it herself. Her father was not the sinner, but something in a ten-year old child was broken when she watched a good, good man fall from grace. That fall, the fall from her innocence to experience, is a fall we all suffer. We all grow up.

Her novel New Hope chronicles the toughest passage any of us ever takes when we leave our childhoods in some dusty attic to which we will never return.

Ruth Suckow’s Hawarden novel, New Hope, is about childhood and innocence—and leaving it behind.

But there’s a Christmas moment in New Hope that’s perfectly incandescent. Little Clarence Miller is head-over-heels in love in a second-grade way with Desire Greenwood, the pastor’s daughter.

It’s Christmas Eve, and the church Mary-and-Joseph-and-the-babe pageant slowly grinds to a halt for a story they all know, even the kids.

“For behold I bring you good tidings--“

Little Clarence is wiggling in his seat in the silent night of that church, Rev. Cunningham reading the old, old story. Here’s how Ruth Suckow describes old Hawarden and all of us--
For the first time, this was not just a reading from the scriptures that came at a certain point in the program. Meaning shone from the words, and shone around them, in the scent of the evergreens and the unsteady candlelight—surrounded by the white silent glitter of great snowfields, great smooth billowing acres of winter snow, Clarence felt the awesomeness of that shining immensity that lay all around them outside the windows. But he and Delight were here together, in the midst of their own community—. . .and from their happy closeness, holding their presents, the meaning of the words spread out to everyone in church. It was true, Clarence thought with joyous wonder—he was happy, he hated nobody, not even Wilie Schnitts. He felt ‘on earth peace, good will toward men.’
Just so you know--life doesn’t stay that good for little Clarence. After all, like all of us, he grows up.

And so did a little girl named Ruth Suckow, more than a century ago, just down the road in Hawarden, where things never really sparkled again once she learned, at an age no older than Clarence and Desire, that life wasn’t as sweet as the candy in the paper bag the church gave out to kids on Christmas Eve.

No matter. The incandescence of this holiday season still makes us all children, don’t you think?

A certain glow of lights, just a few bars of “The First Noel,” our children’s or grandchildren’s eyes, an old barn with a manger—all we need is two or three images and just like that, brimming with new hope, we’re there, with Clarence, at Christmas.
This essay produced for broadcast at Siouxland Public Media. Listen here.

Ruth Suckow's childhood home in Hawarden

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Morning Thanks--Handel

Visceral reactions aren't always pretty, not in an old men anyway. I get 'em and I'm not always proud of 'em; but not being proud of 'em doesn't mean they don't come anyway--they're visceral, after all. No one asks them to show up.

I'll give you one. We're obligated to attend Christmas concerts every December. I sound like Scrooge, and I'm not; but there is a you-better-show-up thing in full operational mode because every other grandpa and grandma in a three-state region'll be there, for pity sake. What?--you don't love your grandkids? 

'Course we do. Love 'em to death. And I wouldn't mind going to Christmas programs either if every other grandparent in the three-state regions wouldn't be there by the time we arrive. BUT THEY ARE. We've got to park a quarter-mile away. Listen, we're Dutch, which means cleanliness is next to Godliness, but so is being someplace ON TIME. 

So what? Just about everybody else is Dutch too, which means we show up 20 minutes early, park halfway to South Dakota, and then walk forever, up hill, to get to the auditorium.

When I'm huffing and puffing, I tell myself the adulation we lay on our kids is akin to idolatry. Four-year-olds play soccer and hundreds lug lawn chairs out to watch. An elementary school puts on a Christmas show, and it's SRO in a space the St. Paul Symphony Orchestra or the Boston Brass couldn't fill in a month of Sundays.

I can get owly. Viscerals'll do that.

Then I get inside. Place is packed. Here and there stripes of open benches beckon, but somebody's saving that space. Hundreds, no thousands of people. Seriously. If you want a good seat, you should have come yesterday.

So last night was another, a Christmas music program featuring a couple hundred kids--pre-kindergarten to fourth grade, all of them darling, I might add, all of them sweet Yuletide angels. Nothing spectacular, not some extravaganza, just plain music, Christmas music.

And then, halfway through, something I would not have thought possible--The Messiah. That's right Handel. Okay, it was a pee-wee version, but it was, without a doubt, the masterpiece. Don't know if Handel would have approved, but if he had a grandson or daughter in the bunch, he would have been all smiles.

I was. Our grandson is a kid one of his great uncles or aunts from the Netherlands once described as "a serious little boy," a kid who can lost in Legos, who could live for days-on-end surrounded by nothing more than Transformers. 

Second-grader. There he was amidst the throng, singing Handel. Second grade. Handel.

Imagine this, a couple hundred tiny kids in matching t-shirts walk on and proceed, many of them anyway, to wave to their grandparents a mile away in the auditorium. The director steps up, raises his hands. Silence. Then, just like that "And the glory of the Lord" fills an auditorium that's already overflowing by finding ample room in the wide open hearts of  a loving and totally beguiled crowd.

Did those little kids know what they were singing? Sure. Did they know that what they performed was perhaps the most celebrated piece of music in the world, an oratorio created in just a few weeks in 1741? Did they know how blessed they were? What they know is they sang parts of the masterpiece, even the "Hallelujah Chorus" to a standing room only crowd that got to its feet and stood.

He's just a little boy on a wide stage with a hundred other little boys and girls, second graders and third and fourth. Together, they sang The Messiah. I'm not making this up.

It's Christmas, and the world sometimes feels genuinely enchanted because, in so many ways, the story we celebrate is so much bigger than we are. Last night, when I left that auditorium, what was visceral in me made me wipe away a tear because I couldn't help think that it's so good for him to know--for all of us to know--that we are very much part of something so much bigger than we are. 

Listen to this. Last night, my eight-year-old grandson sang the "Hallelujah Chorus." 

From The Messiah. I'm not kidding. Handel. My grandson.

The walk back to the car didn't take long at all--all of it downhill. 

This morning I'm thankful--oh, so thankful--I went.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

In which I admit waaaay too much

To say it was not erotic is not to say isn't wasn't a little sexy. When I woke up, I'd been looking over her tattoos--of which there were several. Oddly enough, her tattoos were clearly amateurish, as if she'd been to a summer camp where campers left their signatures in indelible ink. Parts of her looked like an autograph book. No John Hancocks--nothing that big. Just nicknames. 

Mostly, they were on her back, on her torso. They weren't particularly visible, but there was a gallery all right, and each of them required translation. Clearly, I was enjoying the show, whatever it was. 

Dreams sometimes exist out of time, right? I don't know how long this one lasted, or how it was that the two of us happened to be together, me and this tattooed girl. I don't even know who she was. The moment I woke up, I didn't. She was tall, long-legged, and she was fun, but no one I knew.

And I have no idea about myself. Was I a kid or was I seventy years old? Did I enjoy this tour of tattoos as some college guy would have, or was I an old geezer--just about seventy, too old for the  leering I was offered. 

The truth is, whatever was going on between us was fun. I wasn't hip-deep in guilt either. I wasn't thinking about my wife or my daughter or even granddaughter. I was all in, like a college kid.

And it wasn't a memory. I never knew a girl with tattoos. Clearly, she was not from my time. 

I'll admit it--the whole episode was flirty and fun, not night-marish in the least. I did not wake up howling, and therefore it would cause me no pain to return. So am I talking about a form of adultery here? I think I did lust after her, whoever she was--nothing heavy, just, well, sweet. Should I feel guilty? Was the tattooed girl something the Devil conjured? Did she sneak out of the darkened corners of my heart? If if she did, why was the whole thing so un-sleazy? Why did I feel so charmed?

Even though it was unlike any experience I ever actually had, I understood what was happening because, whoever we were, we were flirting. There I was in the middle of what psychologists call "a lucid dream"--I halfway understood this wasn't real--doing something I haven't done for a half-century. I knew it, and I liked it. I wasn't broken up when it broke up. I'm quite sure I was smiling.

I read a long essay last week by a therapist, a man who was, in that essay, a bit of a scold--but then maybe we have it coming. He said he quite regularly gets calls to come to churches to talk about LBGTQ issues, and when he does, he says, he always asks about the church's openness to talk about the whole issue of sexuality. People blush when he asks that question, and they shake their heads because few churches talk well about sex. Why am I not surprised? 

Right now, I'm worried about my telling you about the tattooed girl. Good grief, I'm just about 70 years old. What the heck am I doing--even in my dream--looking over the tattoos on a young lady's bared torso? If my daughter reads this, she'll hope to death nobody else does. My granddaughter would be sick to her stomach. My wife may spend the next 48 hours in silence.

I have no doubt the therapist is right. I'm not surprised people blush when he asks them if their church talks about sex. Listen, if someone decides to have an open discussion about sexuality in our church, I'll get a quick head cold. 

Am I a dirty old man? Is that what this is all about? 

And what about my father-in-law? Does he ever dream of tattooed girls? He's 99. I darn well hope he does. 

Maybe I'm just squeamish, ridiculously uptight, Puritanical. Do we have a right to our dreams, even if we didn't cook them up ourselves? 

Sorry about all of this. I'm just going back to bed.

Monday, December 18, 2017

That we are human

Somewhere beneath a very real cultural wardrobe of many hues and colors, we're all befitted in ordinary humanness. Ethnicity, race, gender--all of it pretty much disappears. Even personal histories fade into empty space. Somewhere down deep, we're all mortal, as subject to joy and fear as anyone else ever was, or is, or will be.

Differences exist. Old Ogallala warriors--the kind that today, mid-morning, get together in coffee shops downtown--used to talk about the worst things that could happen to a man. Some of those horrors are limited by time and place. "To be without food in winter for many days," they said, was a terrible, terrible thing. In 1902 or so, when an anthropologist recorded the conversation of some old warriors, no white man from, say, Cincinnati, would likely list a similar page of horrors.

"To be shot in the legging and to struggle home with blood frozen in the leg and moccasin," another said. Even though at the turn of the 20th century, fledgling communities in Sioux County, Iowa, were struggling to survive, it's unlikely any of its residents would have listed frozen blood from a wound as the kind of horror no one wishes on another.

On the other hand, some men might have assented in silence when another old warrior claimed that "to be left wifeless with a small child in winter," was right up there on the list of great trials a man might face. 

But the worst of those trials, the old men said, was "the loss of a young son." These were warriors, remember, not wives. There, beneath all those layers of custom and culture, is a basic humanity that's stunningly universal. 

The artist George Catlin, who lived among the Sioux people for sometime in the early 19th century, recorded the story of Lone Horn, an old man who had been in some manner responsible for the death of his only son. One day Lone Horn, heavy with grief and self-loathing, left the village on horseback in the rage he'd been in since the death of his son. He'd painted himself for war, then told anyone within the reach of his voice that, in his rage, he was going to kill the first thing he met on his path--man or beast. 

That man could be said to be fighting his own "mourning war," fueled by a rage that feeds, paradoxically, on tears, and has no rationale other than the darkness of sheer despair. 

What Lone Horn met on his path that day was an old buffalo bull, mean and unafraid. Lone Horn deftly put several arrows into that animal. But when the bull wouldn't go down, Lone Horn dismounted and went right after it  with his knife. 

When, some time later, his horse returned to the camp, others followed the trail and found Lone Horn gored and trampled and dead, along side him the buffalo, also slain, stabbed a hundred times. “So great was the anguish of his mind at times, that he became frantic and insane," the old men said. 

I'm guessing there are people in Cincinnati as well as Sioux County today--and 150 years ago--who somehow would understand. I've never lost a child and certainly never encountered an old bull buffalo on the road I was travelling. I've never prepared myself for war and made anything close to a vow to kill whatever first living thing I see. I don't know, personally, Lone Horn's level of sadness and grief and guilt.

But having heard the story, for some human reason I don't doubt its truth, nor do I doubt that men and women in every country and every age would admit the same. Somewhere beneath the layers of custom and culture, at a certain basic level we are all human.

The story of Lone Horn is told in Thomas Powers's The Killing of Crazy Horse

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Sunday Morning Meds--Instant Messaging

He sends his command to the earth; his word runs swiftly.”

It’s interesting to speculate that somewhere (on high? —who knows?) God is seated on some divine aeron chair before a control panel and a vast wall of innumerable video screens, a celestial Situation Room.

The place is wired, so there’s no need of microphone, but God (who I can’t really imagine anyway) is sitting there scanning the prayers of the world—“please let Ben Smith’s Grandma live until his birthday,” “please get some money to the people in that fire in Williamsburg,” “good night!—please steer that tsunami into the ocean,” and, “hey, Notre Dame needs a field goal, bad.” That's just the prayers in English.

Our imaginations can’t create a digital wall spacious enough to hold 6.6 billion screens—and that number isn’t counting this world’s sparrows, or crows, or seagulls, or, for that matter, the broad and blank wilderness places, landscapes totally without people. Somewhere there’s got to be a heavenly IMAX theater equipped with surround sound. “Somewhere?” Does it have to be someplace real?

Boggles the mind.

Even if I could imagine something that huge, I can’t imagine a world without time. After all, he can’t see all six billion screens in a nano second; there’s got to be some lag time between interventions, right? He can’t simultaneously handle Emperor penguins and the woman whose dad just died in Fiji. He can’t see everything, for pete’s sake.

Yes, he can. He’s God.

His son saved us. His son pulled on an unremarkable suit of ordinary human flesh and settled in among us to be our savior. It’s almost Christmas again, and the tree is up, the downtown mall blasting carols to sweeten holiday shoppers.  Creches appear all over, and one of the local churches is having, again, its own live Nativity.

Today, I’m guessing, some proud parents are worried about their five-year-old remembering her Bible verse in the Sunday School program tonight or hoping their little boy doesn’t just take off running.

God’s son came for us, scalps and souls. This time of year, we have pictures of the Son galore, thousands of images of the incarnate Lord in shopping centers, millions of baby dolls in all those Christmas programs and nativity scenes, a live one in the live manger show down the block. 

Maybe he gave us too much at Christmas. Maybe this time of year especially, we think we know him when we see that darling baby in a crib. Maybe all this business about the Word-made-flesh prompts us to create our own silly images of God, like the Psalmist here, who pictures the Creator of Heaven and Earth as if he were a dispatch officer, in headphones, on far end of our 911 calls. He’s God, the one-and-only I AM, not only to us but to every last thing, and even things that aren’t things, the whole blooming cosmos, including planets and galactical systems we’ve not yet spied. He’s there too.

Imagine that.

He’s everywhere.

I can’t.

And so I praise him, like the psalmist, in the only words I know, in the only shapes I can conjure, with only pictures I’m capable of imagining. And there he is, in that aeron chair, instant-messaging his blessed, divine imperatives to all the world. 

This baby in a barn. This baby in a manger.


Praise his name.                      

Friday, December 15, 2017

What I learned on the way to the dentist

With so blasted great wisdom in the world, how is it that it took me so long to find it? Ever think that? 

The radio is on. I'm off to the dentist. I'm not sure what program, but it's NPR so there's always somebody talking about something. It's a woman--don't remember her name, don't remember her topic. She'd published a book. Don't know the title, don't even remember the substance.

What grabbed my attention was her mentioning Erich Fromm. Name rang a bell, a distant bell. Something told me that somewhere along the line in college, I read a book by the guy, Erich Fromm--didn't even know how to spell it, k or ch, one m or two? The woman referred to his book about freedom and said how it is that people should read that book because it's just as relevant today as it was when he wrote it. I didn't catch the title.

I turned up the volume somewhere around "million dollar corner."

She said what this man named Erich Fromm had said (I know I've read something by the guy, somewhere in college) was that there were two kinds of freedom. That's what she said, and then she explained something about those two species and how we human beings want both, but often at different times. Some want "freedom to" do things--to build a new house or a new life, to have a say in what goes on in any number of institutions--family, church, government, life itself. Some--well, many--don't have such freedom. He called that "positive freedom."

This man Erich Fromm claimed there was yet another kind--"freedom from," which is a bit more negative in reach and mission, but similarly human, a "negative freedom."  

Now the radio interview wasn't about Erich Fromm. It was about the woman's book, a book whose title I don't remember. She didn't go on and on about Erich Fromm; she just mentioned Escape from Freedom and two kinds of freedom Fromm had worked out.

What she did mention is that Fromm was writing just prior to World War II (the book was first published in English in 1941) and that he was German, writing amid the growing power of Adolf Hitler. She said Fromm, in his discussion of the two kinds of freedom, had maintained that human beings seemed attracted to authoritarianism (think Hitler, think Lenin, think Mao, think Putin) when they perceive things around them falling desperately into ruin. 

I'd never heard of the book, never heard of two different types of freedom. But the whole topic seemed really fascinating in light of what's happening around us. I've never quite understood how people could "like" Trump's inaugural speech, stuffed as it was with despair and decay--"American carnage," some still call it. 

There are too many stories about people going in the ditch because they're looking at smart phones. So I waited until I got to the office, hung up my coat, sat down amidst a throng of teenagers with braces, and, like them, pulled out my phone. It didn't take five minutes--it's amazing--and I was reading Escape from Freedom

That's when the nurse came to get me. I had two cavities to fill. 

Erich Fromm's Escape from Freedom is in my phone, on this computer, and on the Kindle beside me. With any luck at all, this Erich Fromm and all his talk about freedom will get clearer when it gets in my head. 

What a world. 

Thursday, December 14, 2017


Some people I know--mostly male--remember a massive repertoire of jokes. Not me. The few I remember almost always have memorable contexts--for instance, "a guy stole into a theater with a goose hidden in his pants." That's the set up. The joke is a rip and a little graphic, but I remember it because my uncle, an old Calvinist preacher, told it and laughed uproariously. That was shocking.

But another I remember has no context whatsoever. I don't know who said it or when. It's very "male," and probably not funny at all, if you're a woman: Woman goes in the ditch somewhere, flags down a guy in a big truck, and asks the guy to pull her out. "Wow," he tells her, "third time this week I pulled a pregnant woman out."

"But I'm not pregnant," she says.

"You're not out of the ditch," he tells her. That's the punch line.

It's embarrassing to tell it now. But it's one of just a few jokes I can remember, and one of even fewer whose context--who told it and when?--has no documentation at all. 

It's a joke about rape. Maybe it doesn't have to be. Not all casual sex is unwelcome, after all. Throughout history, women have occasionally propositioned. But the humor in that guy-in-the-pickup joke has its roots in rape. She owes him, after all, and he's not asking for money.


It would be nice to think my memory holds on to that joke because my conscience won't let me forget it's evil. I remember it because I wish I didn't, if that makes sense. I remember it because I remember thinking--way back when I heard it--that it wasn't funny, but that, in the company of men, I laughed anyway. I wish I could exonerate myself by claiming that guilt makes me pure. 

It would be nice if I could say that, but I won't try. I remember it, in great part, I'm sure, because once upon a time I thought it was funny, probably edgy too, but, back then, funny--and, decidedly, because I'm male.

That old joke comes back to me now with good reason. Rumors have it that investigative reporters are on the track of countless other male legislators who've put their hands where they were unwanted. What even men, "good-old-boys," can't help recognize is that men are getting pretty much what they deserve these days. The mighty have fallen, and there'll be more, many more--hopefully, many more.

Last week, The New York Times Book Review featured the story of the editor of the Paris Review, Loren Stein, who resigned his position for his boorishness, for creating an office where sexual advances were not uncommon, a toxic environment. “The way I behaved was hurtful, degrading and infuriating to a degree that I have only begun to understand," he said.

That he was guilty is beyond doubt, but in Tablet this week, Wesley Yang, who claims he knew Stein, tries to apply some brakes to a rage that promises write even more headlines. He says that we all need to remind ourselves that "sex is an intractable conundrum rather than a solvable problem." It's a mystery, a coordination of spirits and persons that requires some intricate orchestration. While what's happening needed to happen, and while men like Stein needed to fall right smack on their faces, if we believe we'll ever escape the mysteries of human sexuality, we are underestimating our own messy humanity. 

Yang ends that essay quite boldly with a Jeremiad aimed at feminists but applicable anywhere. "Nobody is so dangerous, to themselves and others," he says, "as a person or collectivity that wields power without acknowledging it."

Nothing in that sentence means to exonerate the mighty who've already fallen. He doesn't mean to call off the dogs or rebuild reputations, only to insist that power corrupts, and absolute power. . .well, you know.

Just strikes me that what Mr. Yang says is pure Niebuhr and unadulterated Calvin, as well as, well, biblical. 

And it's not a joke.