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.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Joy, Mike, and Diet

Defining God is tricky business. Think not? Read a few pages of human history. 

Few of our forbearers or our contemporaries, clothed as they may be in animal furs or beaver hats or Superman shirts, didn't or don't have an opinion on who God (or god) is or was or forever shalt be. Classic atheists exist, to be sure, but not in significant numbers. Most of us have dreams we align with a theology of some type--and a revelation, whether it's of the Bible or the Koran or some midnight moment alive with bewonderment--or some weighty hybrid thereof. 

So I think Vice President Mike Pence had reason to be aggrieved by what Joy Behar claimed was a joke. She apologized, claimed herself a Christian ("I give my money to a church"-- apparently a substantial part of her definition). For the record, what Behar called a joke was a bit more than a tease: she said that if Pence actually thinks he hears from God, he's crazy (or something to that effect).

Which had Fox News and every conservative on the face of the earth bare-fisting both Ms. Behar and The View, the show she's part of. 

What's more Behar's snarky quip came from the report of a woman generally thought somewhat loony herself, Omarosa Manigault, who has made it to the top so successfully that, like Oprah or The Donald, she is recognizable only by her first name. Omaraosa, who worked for Trump in some as yet unknown capacity, claimed that of the two national leaders--the Pres and the VP--the really crazy one was Mike Pence, because Pence believes that God (in this case, upper case) speaks to him. That's the opening salvo.

Talk about an old fight! Here's the question:  "What is revelation?" Talk among yourselves.

My roots are in a pious culture in which people speak of the Almighty (if I use almighty, I'm defining my theology; if I capitalize it, I'm even more specific), as if he (if I use the masculine pronoun, I'm revealing my theology too) were a good buddy. I know very well how that goes. I'm a part of that world. In a way, it's the language of Mike Pence and millions of evangelicals. 

The intimacy inherent in being able to say, for instance, that "God told me to write this book," is comforting, but, as Omarosa claims (and Behar reiterated), it can also be, well, scary. Think Harold Camping, for instance. Think David Koresh. Think Warren Jeffs. Think about a thousand men and women--Ralph Waldo Emerson, for pity sake--who claimed their own individually-wrapped revelations from God or god or whatever name you'd prefer.

I listened, last week, to a recitation I'd heard innumerable times before, but not often in the last decade or so. On You Tube, I heard Diet Eman tell a story, her story, of life in occupied Holland during World War II. 

One of her favorite episodes--and one of the most memorable descriptions--occurs when her resistance group gets together to talk about what they can do. They have an immediate and huge problem, one they hadn't anticipated when they began to relocate citified Jewish people throughout the Protestant countryside: they need ration cards. Food was scarce anyway, but if a family took in two or three Jewish people--they thought the war would be over in a few months--keeping people fed became a matter of life and death.

What they decided--those good Christians, following what they believed to be God's own will in rescuing Jews--was that they had to willfully break a commandment, "Thou shalt not steal." They had to break into government offices to get more ration cards to save more Jewish people, and Allied pilots, and others in hiding from the Nazis.

When she tells the tale, the words she uses are both interesting and defining. She says the whole group went down on their knees to ask God for help, not just in doing the robberies, but in outlining for them what their calling was to be in these horrific times.

Her story about the desperate need for ration cards starts at about 17:05. Her explanation of the answer to prayer is about 17:35. Listen to how she tells it.

And "it came to us," she says when she describes what happened. She says it twice: "and it came to us" that we had to do robberies. She could have said, "God told us to do robberies," but instead she stays somehow cautious and deliberately uses a passive construction--"it came to us," she says. That too is a definition. She doesn't say, "God spoke to us" or "God told us to do robberies." She's less sure about their actions than she is about God's love.

Joy Behar wasn't all wrong. She says be wary when people say that God told them to do this or that or that the other thing. There's good reason.

But neither was Vice President Pence wrong. Every believer thinks God speaks to him or her in some way or another.  I do too.

But I must admit I like Diet Eman's choice of words. I like the hesitant way she described what she and the resistance fighters heard when on their knees during those nights they planned robberies in the name of their God.

I think she knows God is always, always, bigger than we are. 

Monday, February 19, 2018

Kids nowadays!

Hard as it is for me to believe, it's been 46 years. We'd just arrived in Phoenix, newlyweds, and, at the appointed time, we showed up at the little school where Barbara would be teaching, where we got a look at the place and at the room which was hers. At least part of the tour and the introduction was given by a sweet old veteran (read old, here, as somewhat relative), who'd been teaching kindergarten at the school for years. 

"Yeah, well, it won't be long and they'll be here, you know," she said, or something to that effect. "But it's fun. I'm kind of anxious." Honestly, I think of her as a kind of angel--most kindergarten teachers have to be. "But it's different, too," she said. 

"Different?" I said.

"Kids, I mean."

"How so?"

She scrunched her shoulders as if a little shy about complaining. "Used to be when they'd come into my room I had to work for a week to get them to open up, they were so scared," she said. "Nowadays, they come bustin' in, swaggering, and sayin', 'Who's in charge here?'"

It wasn't an indictment. She wasn't thinking the end of the world as we know it was near. It was just an observation about how kids had changed. Five-year-olds, she claimed, were far more brash and bold. That was almost a half-century ago.

I've been reminded of that moment when I hear the Florida kids talk about what happened last week at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School, especially their brassy bashing of the President of these United States. When Trump tweeted that the FBI should have been tracking the kid that did the shooting instead of investigating Russia, a torrent of kids' voices stuck fingers in his face:

That's cheeky stuff.

And it's just a few. You don't have to look far to find a thousand others, just as belligerent, just as "in your face." 

They don't seem to know their place. An old friend of mine who's almost 100 years old, told me that when, in occupied Holland, the Nazis would be around, the Dutch would jam their hands in their pockets because they'd always been taught it was disrespectful to stick your hands in your pockets.

We've come a long way. 

It wouldn't be difficult, on the basis of those students' barefaced sauciness to wonder about the state of the world, might even be easy to think the end is near, if it weren't for the fact that those kids learn impudence from the Master Bully himself, the Shah of Shamelessness, who cranked out own cheeky insolence all weekend long and clearly doesn't know his place either.

If you don't like the way those kids slam the President, consider how he talks to us just about every day. They're just good students. 

For the record, all of that doesn't mean the end isn't near. 

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Sunday Morning Meds--Factory Second

“How long, O men, will you turn my glory into shame?” Psalm 4:2

Were I a writing teacher (which I am) and were I to be asked to grade Psalm 4—(which I’ve not been) I’d have to admit (maybe I shouldn’t) that in my estimation this song isn’t one of David’s greatest hits.

I like the fact that it follows Psalm 3, a psalm traditionally called “a morning Psalm.”  Psalm 4 has been just as traditionally called “an evening psalm,” as we shall see.  Creates a nice pattern.  It’s somehow fits where it is.

But, just for a moment, let me make a case for what I see as its problems.  The song begins with a demand (“Answer me”) that softens rather quickly into the heartfelt request of every human being who knows he or she has sinned (“be merciful to me’).  Despite its in-your-face first line, it’s difficult to imagine that verse one could be written in any position other than on one’s knees.  Read it again, if you think I’m wrong.

Suddenly, and without notice, the supplicant of verse one turns his attention totally on those who have no faith in Almighty God, seems drawn to his knees out of concern for what the KJV used to call “sons of men,” a term of respect.
Verse three uses a whole different voice.  You should know, he says to those “sons of men,” that the Lord has chosen his own and, quite frankly, I’m one of them.  Furthermore, he says, chin jutting, he’ll answer my prayers.  Odd sentiment for a supplicant who wasn’t so sure about anything just a moment ago.

In verse 4 and 5, those pointy-fingered accusations about his enemies’ sins have melted away into a priestly blessing.  Listen, he says, his tone lightening up, look into a mirror sometime.  Once you’ve seen what’s really there (verse 5), offer good sacrifices to the Lord.
His enemies have disappeared altogether by verse 6, and verse 7 exudes joy at what seems to be the blessing he was demanding of the Lord at the outset.  Sweetly, the psalm ends with a pledge and a testimony.
Really, the emotional life—what writers call “tone”—of Psalm 4 is all over the map.  In this poem, David seems almost manic-depressive, like his predecessor, Saul.  There is little continuity here, almost no unity.  The major players in the drama—David and his vain enemies—are multi-faceted, and even God shifts in focus.
Ask yourself this:  how many people do you know who list Psalm 4 as among their favorites?
So who reserved a place for it in the canon?  Why is it in the anthology?

I’ll hazard an answer.  Because, in the words of a retail chain, Psalm 4-are-us.
Who hasn’t, in times of dire distress, panted prayers that were as disheveled as this, as madcap in structure and form?  Who hasn’t stuttered?  Whose most deeply felt  prayers honestly achieve beauty and grace?

Psalm 4, like so many other songs in this book, testifies of God’s love.  Its emotions are out of control, its rhetoric all over the map.  It’s the testimony of a man at wit’s end, a man who’s spent far too many nights tossing and turning.  Psalm 4 is David’s way, really, of falling, graciously, to sleep.

Because it’s here, because it made the collection, because it does what we do, it’s very much ours.  

Friday, February 16, 2018

Me and guns and Joni Ernst

I once shot a goose from the back of a motor scooter. Seriously, I did. I wasn't trying to show off, never guessed I'd hit it. We were riding along the Lake Michigan shoreline, putt-puttin' on the wet sand, late October probably, when a lone goose came by. My double-barrel, 16-gauge was loaded, so I aimed--sort of--let loose, and down came the goose. 

I'm not making this up.

We hunted crows with a phonograph. This old friend of mine had a record with nothing on it but a gaggle of crows gaggling. All that racket from the turntable would haul in crows from hither and yon, we thought, and we'd shoot 'em. That was the plan. Didn't happen, but we had fun. 

I hunted pheasants and deer and once upon a time got woefully lost in a Kettle Moraine forest hunting ruffed grouse I never once laid eyes on.

A day or two after JFK was killed in Dallas, a friend and I walked in a woods just outside of town, lugging our shotguns, supposedly hunting rabbits. Didn't come home with a bunny, but the two of us, not yet 16, had a memorable conversation about state of the union, as did the whole country.

In my Wisconsin childhood, I spent more time with guns than I did eating cheese. I learned to love the lakeshore woods by following an neighbor who walked as carefully through those pines and hardwoods as some Kickapoo might have a hundred years before. He taught me to love trilliums and buttercups and jack-in-the-pulpits. I watched him shoot a possum that stumbled into his trap, the first time I'd ever seen an animal die.

I've got my own treasured past with guns. I understand the attachment. I do.

On Wednesday night, a commentator on Fox News told the host that when he was a boy, he had a .22; but he never, ever entertained thoughts of shooting anyone. He was as dismayed as the rest of us, as perplexed about a problem that worsens with every passing month--18 school shootings already this year, eight inside the walls. In Florida, thousands are mourning 17 students and teachers who are dead.

I know what that guy was talking about. I shot a goose from the back of a Cushman motor scooter, but it never entered my mind to turn that 16-gauge on anyone else. Never. 

But then, I never carried an AR-15 either. Couldn't have. Wouldn't have thought of it. 

If the President can blame Democrats for the deaths of people killed by undocumented immigrants, shouldn't he also tag Second Amendment Republicans for the deaths of seventeen people this week in Parkland, Florida?

And shouldn't Joni Ernst, the hog farmer from Iowa, return the three million dollars+ her campaign blissfully received from the NRA? Shouldn't John McCain give back the seven million? Shouldn't the President himself fork over the $21,000,000 he got from a group who idiotically argue that Nicolas Cruz, a broken, parent-less, misfit 19-year-old, should have the perfect right to own a combat weapon as much like my 16-gauge as that Cushman scooter was to a Sherman tank?

What is wrong with us?

Thursday, February 15, 2018

A Chopin Triptych in York, NE

Mildred Armstrong Kadish, in Little Heathens, her darling little memoir of growing up on an Iowa farm during the Depression, claims that her family had only two oil lamps before rural electrification. It's astounding to think of how dark their world must have been  once night fell. Perhaps that's the world Lionello Balestrieri saw in the early years of the 20th century, when he did this painting for a triptych that outlines Frederick Chopin's life. 

There in the bottom left corner, in a space only slightly lighter than the rest of the painting, sits a young Chopin, at a piano. The painting is simply too dark--Rembrandt-ish--to see for yourself, and I wouldn't see it either if it weren't an explanation hung on the wall of the Anna Bemis Palmer Museum in York, Nebraska, where I saw the triptych. In this, the first of the three paintings hinged together into a wall-hanging, he's pictured creating a fuss in a German railroad station where he's consented to entertain the waiting passengers (did Chopin ever merely entertain?) Their hushed admiration is obvious in the more well-lit upper right-hand corner. 

This is, I was told by a note in the museum, the young Chopin, not yet at his prime perhaps, but already drawing regard from an appreciative crowd drawn right off the streets of the city.

In this painting, the middle section of the triptych, Balestrieri gives Chopin an almost divine diadem that puts him at the visual heart of our interest. Trust me, I wouldn't know this without that museum note, but his audience isn't a street gang from the train station. A roll call of artists, rightfully famous in their time, sit here in admiration of Chopin's genius--Lizst, Delacroix, Meyerbeer, and a woman, the only one, with the improbable name of George Sand. She's sitting closest to the front, in the best light and therefore most recognizable. She and Chopin were, for a while I guess, a thing. In every way, this portrait is suggesting Chopin at the height of his powers--all of them.

And then there's this on the far end. That's not him, cross-dressing at the piano. Chopin is the figure in the bed in the background, and he's obviously hurting, dying in fact, leaving by the medium of music, clearly, but leaving, dying, all the same. Strangely, of the three triptych paintings, this one seems to be done with most deliberate light, which may well be its own moral lesson.

What the note in that small museum in York, Nebraska, says is, "the Polish Countess Potocka sings a psalm at his dying request." 

Balestrieri created a triptych, three panels in one wide painting, a kind of visual biography of Frederic Chopin. You won't even find it on the internet. The only one I know is in a museum in York, Nebraska. 

And I'm telling you all of this because it's the piece I remember best, probably because it has an inescapable momento mori theme. It says, just as clearly as Atlas, knees buckling but still holding up the globe, be prepared--the end is always in sight. 

I'll be 70 years old on Saturday. Maybe that's why I'm sitting here telling you about a wall-hanging in the Anna Bemis Palmer Museum, a gift to a man named James A. Park from the Chautaqua Chorus, whoever that may have been, 110 years ago, the note says, in 1908. 

Just another reminder, the morning after Ash Wednesday. 

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Morning Thanks--Valentine's Day*

My wife of almost 39 years [now 46] says this gift she's got in mind is going to cover both of my big days this week--Valentine's Day, plus my birthday. She says it wasn't easy finding a new easy chair either; the space the old one fills, she says, is tricky because whatever we put there can't be too tall or it'll cover too much of the window in this century-old house of ours, and the Lay-Z-Boys are all gigantic these days, she says--really, really big. They're on sale too, she says. The sale is what drew her to the furniture store--a sale on Lay-Z-Boys.

But the one she likes isn't even a Lay-Z-Boy, so it's not on sale. I know what that means--it's even more money. My wife's tastes are expensive, but rarely used--buy once but thoughtfully. She's come by her ways honestly, however, if you knew her mother. She says she wants something smaller than anything Lay-Z-Boy makes. Anyway, she says she wants me to have a look and try this new, expensive chair on for size at the store.

Which is a strange way of saying it, but it's probably true: if you want a new easy chair, you'd better try it on for size.

So I did. It fit just fine.

But I was still non-plussed about this big Valentine's/birthday present because years ago I thought I got myself in trouble for suggesting that maybe we ought to have a new chair and a new sofa in the family room. I wasn't all that fond of either actually, and the sofa wasn't a particularly good fit, for me at least, because normally it took a winch to get me out, the kind with ropes and pulleys. Put it this way: I thought getting new furniture in the family room was one of those things I shouldn't have said, even brought up.

Anyway, now I know why.

"So I get a new one," I said, "--what's going to happen to the old one?"

She says she doesn't know exactly because she knows well and darn good that she can't just dump it because she's sure that more than fifty years ago her mother picked it up at a sale, an auction, hauled it home in the pickup, reupholstered it beautifully, and then used it herself for years before bequeathing it to her daughter decades ago already. Her mother never, ever bought cheap furniture. That I know.

There's just way too much history in that big green easy chair, especially since her mother has been gone now for almost two [now nine] years. My wife just can't just toss the heavy thing. That expensive fabric her mother put on it hasn't worn down a bit either--her mother didn't do anything half-strength. But it's more than a little dirty; after all, I've been sitting in it for a quarter century. When Ma and Pa Kettle sit in our family room, she's in the sofa, I'm in the chair.

So the old green easy chair on its way out, except it's not really leaving, which I understand, even though, truth be told, it never was my favorite. And the fact is, it sits just like a throne--it really does. You sit down and it doesn't even move, I swear, and I'm no featherweight.

It's got a matching footstool too, which we can position right between us so that both of us can put our feet up together, sort of homey, right? That big green footstool is in good shape too after 25 years. Shoot, after twice that many at least. It's hard to think about the family room without that fat old footstool.

Something about that whole Saturday afternoon new-chair business just sticks with me, in part because I honestly thought change would never happen. I thought we'd leave this old house before getting a new easy chair--and sofa. I was resigned to sit this one out, so to speak. Then, out of nowhere, my wife just decides that this old green trooper's days are numbered.

But she can't just throw it away either.

I like that. I really do. But then, I like my wife. A lot. Much better than the old green throne.

So yesterday in church, a man who reads just beautifully is reading the Word of the Lord from the book of Acts, and he reads this line: "This is what the Lord says: 'Heaven is my home, and the earth is my footstool.'"

Honestly, I think, it's not a particularly becoming metaphor. Saturday morning I was out and about on a landscape that could hardly have been more beautiful. I could have said, "You know, Lord, I really beg to differ about this place as a footstool. You can do better with your metaphors."

I could have said that, and I likely would have if it hadn't been for Saturday afternoon and my wife talking about a big, two-holiday present for me and an old throne that still holds thumbprints from her mother's precious and powerful upholstery hands, not to mention a lot of life itself between us for all these years.

Honestly, before Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning, I'd never thought of that old green footstool as being all that gorgeous. Now, it's just darling.

But then life is as full of lessons as it surprises, I guess. If you keep your ears open, you can learn a lot. So this Valentine's Day morning, I'm thankful for the teacher who's been my valentine for lo, these last 39 years [make that 46].

And a footstool, too, an ancient, lovely footstool.

*First published Feb. 14, 2011

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Saturday morning catch--The snowy Little Sioux

Almost, but not quite good enough. This is the shot I went after on Saturday morning, all the way out to the valley of the Little Sioux River. For a couple days, watching light snow fall outside my window, I couldn't help remember the bucket list shot--I want to get a buffalo in the middle of falling snow. 

Saturday, the sun rose clear and triumphant, not a snowflake in sight. However, all that light snow was still fresh, so even though there was no falling snow, the world of this character was sheer alabaster.

I got there early, as you can see, the sun still tucked behind clouds. But this isn't bad. It's close to the one I wanted and still want. And the angle is right--all that prairie behind him. They're inside a fenced enclosure, so the shot looks far more rugged than it is. 

I had some time to waste, so I left these guys and lit out into the valley itself. 

It's not the first time I've taken a shot at this solitary tree on a hill. When I came up, the sun--you can tell--still hadn't made its debut for the day. I was sure this shot was going to be a winner. It's not bad, but somehow--maybe the lack of light--I missed it. It should have been better.

Just a few minutes later, the sky was creating a welcome for the dawn, and the same tree, same place, just a few minutes later, becomes Moses's burning bush. 

I may be the only human being on earth who likes this shot, and I liked it the minute I saw it. The abandoned chicken coop is a feature, but it's not the story. That fallen branch brooms itself into the frame almost gracefully, and the deer tracks give just enough animation to make clear that life is here. The dawn's early light lends the whole just enough grace to give the whole some divinity. I just like it. There's no accounting for taste. 

This is all sun. The trees, left and right, create a nice frame, but the real joy here is that old tire leaning up against the wall, bronzed, as it is, but the dawn's glorious Midas touch. I figured there had to be a better way to take this, so I got in closer.

Not until I got home did I realize that something was printed on the wall of that old machine shed, something the rising sun was picking up. I could have done this better, but this is one of those shots I tell myelf I care about--and nobody else ever would, a bunch of junk in an abandoned machine shed. Somehow--and this is what I love about going out and shooting what I see--that tire is just beautiful. It was abominably cold Saturday morning, but if I can sit there and see beauty in an old tire, I'm blessed--that's what I figure.

There's nothing new about this shot. I probably have a dozen of them--corn stubble, shooting into the rising sun. For reasons I'm not sure of, I always think of Piet Mondrian, the Dutch (a real Kuyperian) artist who walked away but created his own kind of mystery in dozens of fascinating paintings. 

For reasons I don't understand, somewhere close to Sutherland, suddenly fog arose. It shouldn't have. The temps were well below zero, I think. There's got to be an explanation, but that foggy stuff created a soft background. I wanted this to be a better shot, but I still like it.

This is maybe the best example of a shot I thought would be perfectly glorious, but isn't. I thought the perspective was rich here, from the grass on the side of the road, to the spruce up close, then the straps of spruce extending into a soft, foggy horizon. It was beautiful. The shot is, well, meh. I didn't get it. Maybe it wouldn't go into the camera--sometimes that happens. What's out there is always more beautiful than what I come home with.

How cold was it actually? Well, here's a sun dog. They don't come out and play until you can hardly be out in the frozen air. 

All that cottony mist did wonders to the Sutherland cemetery. When it comes right down to it, I'm irredeemably morose. I can't pass up a good graveyard pic, and I like this one. Seems to me that you can't help but think it's a pretty shot. Then you realize what you're seeing. Oh, yeah. I like that juxtaposition. 

And then this one. I went back to the buffalo once the sun came up. They were on the other side of their pen by that time, up close to the pen, awaiting breakfast. I had to shoot through the fence that protected me from them. This is a shot I like, especially the guy's grizzly beard. An image like this is what I left home for.

But I can do better. I'll be back. Besides, there's more beauty around than simply the snowy snoot of a bison. 

Monday, February 12, 2018

The Preacher Dies--Edgar Ray Killen, 1925-1018

Edgar Ray Killen was a "kleagle," which is to say, a recruiter, for his hometown KKK. Think pyramid sales, if that helps. Killen recruits a man, who then pays membership fees that include a couple bucks for the kleagle. That man recruits a couple more, and Killen earns more. A kleagle. Never heard the word? That's reason for thanksgiving.

In 2005, this man, Edgar Ray Killen, the KKK kleagle, was convicted by a Mississippi court of three counts of manslaughter and sent off to prison for sixty years, where he died a month ago.

The State of Mississippi determined that Killen had been the inspiration behind the murders of three civil rights workers--two white, one black--in Philadelphia, MS, during the "Freedom Summer" of 1964. Those three men--James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner--had been locked up in a Philadelphia jail after being arrested for speeding. All three weren't local boys. They were in Mississippi investigating the fire-bombing of a black church. When released, they disappeared, their bodies found later in an earthen dam. That's their burned station wagon at the top of the page.

In 1966, a grand jury indicted a eighteen men for the murders of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner. In a jury trial, seven men were convicted, eight were freed, and three--one of them Edgar Ray Killen--were released because of a hung jury. The convictions were the first ever made by a white jury for the murder of a black man in Mississippi.

In 2005, forty years later, Killen, eighty years old and in a wheelchair after breaking both legs in his sawmill, was retried and convicted of manslaughter, for recruiting the bunch who murdered Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner. He was sentenced to sixty years, twenty each for each of the murders.

Edgar Ray Killen died in prison last month. He was 92.

Not long ago, he asked to do an interview, but set ground rules himself. He told the AP he would say nothing about the murders of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner, nor of his own role in them. He rambled a great deal but blamed that rambling on a brain injury he'd also suffered when he broke both legs. He vehemently maintained his segregationist views hadn't changes a bit while he was in prison, and made clear that he held no animosity toward African-Americans. 

If Killen had any change of mind or heart before he died, we don't know. What that single interview makes clear is that he had no interest in altering his views.

Killen's nickname is "Preacher." In the interview, he speaks warmly about the churches he served and the preaching he'd done.

That hung jury that allowed him to walk back in 1965? The tally went 11-1 for conviction. That one jurist who held out firmly against the others, said she simply couldn't convict a preacher.

Edgar Ray "Preacher" Killen is a white man, a white man's white man. But his story as a kleagle and a preacher is a telling tale for Black History Month. 

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Sunday Morning Meds--Chaos/Order

Blessed is the one
who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
or sit in the company of mockers,
but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,. . .
Psalm 1

Those who remember often call it “the hunger winter” because, in the cities at least, there simply was no food. Only the farmers had something to eat—their own produce, of course—and everyday, people say, the roads out into the Dutch countryside swarmed with city-dwellers in stumbling need of food. With no provisions, some ate their cats and called them “roof rabbits.” People did everything they could to secure what they needed to keep themselves and their families alive.
By late April, nothing was functioning. Schools weren’t open, businesses had little to trade, the government was non-existent.  Liberation was coming and people knew it, but the Allies weren’t yet there.
That’s the setting for a story a woman once told me about herself, her mother, and a block of cheese.  Somewhere the province of Friesland, the Netherlands, at a time when the Nazis were fleeing the advance of the Allies, a freight train was left abandoned, and along with it an entire boxcar full of cheese. Once it was clear that Germans were gone, the townspeople commandeered that train and everything in it, and gave out the cheese to people who hadn’t eaten that sumptuously for more than a year.

The woman who told me the story was a girl back then, a child, one of those who’d spent most of her days looking for food during “the hunger winter.” She got herself a block of cheese, she said, and, convinced what she’d been given was itself a miracle, she lugged it home blissfully to her widowed mother.

Her mother took one look at that free food and sent her back to the train. “To take the cheese is to give in to chaos,” she told her astounded daughter. 

And so a little girl walked back, placed that cheese like a sacrifice in the empty boxcar, and left, very much alone. 

That’s what she remembered, what she couldn’t forget.

Her mother’s behavior has understandable logic that feels immensely cold. What she feared more even than hunger was the madness of lawlessness, of chaos, of a life where disorder rules, as it can only do, insanely, as it does too often during war. 

When the Israelites left Egypt, their complaints began almost immediately. "Why did you bring us out here in the middle of nowhere?" they asked Noah. "We'd rather have Pharoah than this mess?"

I'll let you decide if that mother should have made her daughter return that blessed cheese. 

It’s difficult for an old late-60s contrarian like me to buy the essence of this verse from Psalm 1, difficult to believe the Psalmist took real delight, as he says, in the law, a series of “thou-shalt-nots.”  “Thou shalt not covet”—now there’s an idea that warms the soul. Thou shalt not this, thou shalt not that--that's delight? I just don’t buy it.

What the law--even its excesses--gave the people of Israel was order. What it kept at bay, the real scholars say, was chaos—both collectively and individually. What the law gave the Israelites, or so says David, the poet/shepherd, was a way of life. It made life manageable and livable. It made him feel blessed. What's more, it had come from God almighty.

Still does.    

Friday, February 09, 2018

Who is this man?

Jesus went to the district of Tyre. He entered a house and wanted no one to know about it, but he could not escape notice. Soon a woman whose daughter had an unclean spirit heard about him. She came and fell at his feet. The woman was a Greek, a Syrophoenician by birth, and she begged him to drive the demon out of her daughter.

“Let the children be fed first. For it is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.”

She replied and said to him,“Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s scraps.”

Then he said to her, “For saying this, you may go. The demon has gone out of your daughter.”
Thrice lately, we've stumbled into passages where Jesus is no Boy Scout, where he utters things we might consider downright mean if he weren't who he was. Here's one. When the Greek woman begs his attention for her demon-possessed daughter, he tells her he's got only so much love, so little Greek dogs like her and her daughter aren't about to get served.

She won't take no for an answer, so he relents, commends her faith, and moves on, having dispatched another miracle.

Okay, he delivered the goods, but did he have to be so mean?

Or how about this moment? Here, his boosters get ripped.
Jesus summoned the crowd again and said to them, “Hear me, all of you, and understand. Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile.”

When he got home away from the crowd, his disciples questioned him about the parable. He said to them, “Are even you likewise without understanding? Do you not realize that everything that goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters not the heart but the stomach and passes out into the latrine?”
Render his response in the vernacular, and the smack down would be greatly more graphic. Is it just me, or does this Jesus seem a goodly distance from the "Sermon on the Mount"? This Jesus simply doesn't fit.

Or this, from earlier in the gospel of Mark:
Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. Simon and his companions went to look for him, and when they found him, they exclaimed: “Everyone is looking for you!"

Jesus replied, “Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.” 
Come now, Jesus doesn't like crowds? Then why does he gather them? "The people are wondering where you are, Jesus--let's have at 'em."

"How about this instead?" he says. "Let's not and say we did."

Such passages jump off the page, creating an image of the Light of the World who's almost owly. Is he uncomfortable with his appointment? Is he something of a germaphobe? Does he a bit bi-polar? Did he just plain get sick of it? Who is this guy anyway?

We're human. We honestly believe mysteries have to be solved, passages have to be interpreted with clear and abiding logic. If we're believers, all of this has to make better sense because we like our savior to be beautifully groomed and haloed, and in prayer. We don't like him sick or tired or disagreeable, certainly not mouthing off.

I get that. Count me among them--I always want to know what Matthew Henry says.

But sometimes I rather like this very mysterious Jesus, someone who doesn't fit my profiling, a divine eccentric, a savior who is, at once, half-divine and, every once in a while, half-not. 

I won't speak for anyone else here, but sometimes I think it's good for me to shake in sheer bewonderment. 

Thursday, February 08, 2018

Morning Thanks--Morning Sun

It ain't going to make a penny's worth of difference to anyone else, but the degree of joy in my heart is worth sharing anyway. For the first time in months, this neighbor of mine, a junko, is in the sun. It may not have been his first morning to bask the way he is--perhaps I didn't notice it before because the morning sky was overcast. But yesterday when I looked outside, this is what I saw--and it was wonderful.

The word is, Punxsutawney Phil emerged from his dusky suite, saw his shadow, and went back to sleep for six weeks, or whatever is the requisite time. Bah, humbug! You got to be a pagan to believe such notions. Besides, who knows how the local groundhogs fared that day? Not me. You don't see them anyway all that often--once in a while, maybe, and when you do, you pull a rifle off the rack.

But what I see when I saw this--the sun outside my window--is all I need to see to know the end is in sight. Soon enough, it'll be my birthday, a day I would say, if I were Lakota, that I've lived for "seventy winters." It wasn't just a fancy turn of phrase; that description carried with it a shaggy coat of hard knocks: seventy summers out here means bearing up under some significant heat maybe; seventy winters gives a man or woman some gravitas. 

The good news is, right outside my window the sun made itself at home again. 

I'll admit it--that junko has his feathers fluffed. It's so regrettably cold as of late, I think I just might become a Republican. I'm not saying that little guy was comfortable out there. What I am saying is that the pitch of the house is sort of kiddy-wampus, so that for most of the fall and winter the sun spreads dawn's early light elsewhere. But yesterday, for the very first time, I noticed the feeder and the deck lit gloriously by a sun I'm going to see a ton more of from here on in until fall. See?

That's a picture of beauty. This guy's a recipient of the blessing--just outside my window. First day in months the feeder is catching whatever warmth there is in the morning sun. 

Calls for a song, I say, if you've got time, a great old Beatles tune spun out here by three old coots who made some pretty fine music in their own seventy-plus winters--in fact, still do. 

This morning's thanks is nothing more or less than the blessing of a morning sun.

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

"The Widow Leaves the Home Place" -- a poem by Leo Dangel

Our life had no sudden tragedy.
The kids grew up and left one by one,
and a slow cancer killed my husband.
People remember a barn that burns down
but forget a dozen that weather away.

I'm used to seeing deserted farms
I never thought ours would be one.
Leaving would be easier if a new family
were moving onto the place.

I can imagine decayed gray boards,
broken windows, and tall yellow grass
up to the sills, but I can't bear
thinking about the years of dusty silence
that will settle in here. 

So I have decided before I leave
I'm going to cook dinner--fried chicken,
mashed potatoes, fresh bread, peas,
cucumbers strawberries and cream.
I'll set the table the way I did
twenty-five years ago, fill the plates,
pour the coffee, and then I'll go.

Let the detectives search for clues,
something out of place
like a butcher knife stuck in the door,
where life was always ordinary
with never a sign of violence.

By Leo Dangel, from Home from the Field: Collected Poems, Spoon River Poetry Press, 1997.

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Small Wonder(s)--Local Farmer Makes Good*

When James Fennimore Cooper complained about the novel he was reading, his wife told him to put up or shut up, to write a better one himself. That tiff launched the Cooper’s career, a man considered America’s first novelist. His output was huge, even though Mark Twain claimed, “his English is a crime against the language.” That's an unsettling review.
Oscar Micheaux did the same thing—just figured he could write a better novel and so he did. Micheaux, who should require no intro to Sioux City, was born in a Mississippi River town, son of a slave. When he was 17 he picked up and moved to Chicago, where a significant chunk of his first novel, The Conquest: the Story of a Negro Pioneer, is set (1913).

But a whole section of that book is set in South Dakota, Not all that far from here, where Oscar Micheaux homesteaded—or tried to. If you have trouble thinking of African-American homesteaders, so did I—but there were, Oscar Micheaux, among ‘em. Micheaux put down roots just outside of Gregory, and started into farming. 

Land homesteaded by Oscar Micheaux, Gregory, SD
Thousands of African-Americans tried their luck at "proving up" Great Plains homesteads. Most failed, just like most white families did, my own among 'em. It takes some wherewithal to weather the seasonal blows of Great Plains misfortunes.

Oscar Mischeaux’s novel feels autobiographical because it is. Oscar Devereaux Micheaux's hero is a man named Oscar Devereaux--that didn't take much twisting. Both Oscars homesteaded. Both Oscars wrote novels to make some cash. Both Oscars failed at first marriages.

Conquest: the Story of a Negro Pioneer likely wouldn't be remembered at all if it weren't for the oddity of a black man breaking Great Plains ground just west of the Missouri, a black man surrounded by white ethnics and displaced Yankees all trying their hand at making a life on what seemed to be free land (no one asked the Lakotas).

Conquest is not a great novel, but it offers is a look at late-19th century African-American life, at Black culture of the time, a world that had its own issues, even bigotry and racism. The cursed villain of the tale is a snake-oil preacher-man, lionized by his meek disciples and an out-and-out sociopath daughter. Conquest often feels like melodrama.

But then, novels tell us who we are even if they don't try. If we believe the story, Micheaux wrote The Conquest to make some bucks. But the novel's gift is a glimpse of time and place no one else explored. Micheaux’s homesteading was unique. Thus, so is the tale.

Besides, Oscar Devereaux Micheaux himself is a wonder, an African-American homesteader, the son of slaves who made it out here on the open prairie, a South Dakota novelist who became a film-maker. How many of those do you know?

When a Hollywood director wanted to make Conquest into a movie, Micheaux agreed, then pulled out when the director didn't want him to have a say in how the story was told. In a snit, Micheaux quit the company, said he could do it better, and, as some know, set about starting his own film company right here in Sioux City before moving to Chicago--that's right, Sioux City, Iowa. Micheaux is partly ours too, or we are his.

The man didn’t stay here long because he had his eyes on bigger things. Soon enough, he left for Hollywood, where he was writing, directing, and producing "race films," named that way because they were intended to play to segregated movie audiences, to black folks who could get into only those theaters open to African-Americans. If you’re wondering, most of those who know Oscar Mischeaux would say he was far better at film than he was at novels.

I dare say nobody will ever lug The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Homesteader along to the beach. But I liked it, and I liked visiting the ground the man worked out east of Gregory. I liked thinking about him out there on the Plains, about him starting his own film company right here in Sioux City, Iowa, about the star with his name beneath it on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

He was the son of slaves. He wrote novels and made movies for his people.

The Conquest may not the world’s best novel, but it's great, great story. Pick it up from the library. It’s our story too.

*First published August 1, 2014.

Monday, February 05, 2018

Morning Thanks--Staying warm*

Outside, the winter darkness isn't darkness at all. Our new carpet of snow is a bright, moonlit stage against the inky sky. But it's stinking cold out there--six or seven degrees, windchill of -8. Tomorrow night will be colder, twelve degrees colder, in fact, and that's not counting wind.

An old man, now gone, once told me that when he was a boy, his read of temperature out here was the gauge the thickness of the frost on roofing nails coming in from the un-insulated ceiling in the upstairs bedroom of his parents' farm home, where he and all the boys slept. If he'd look up and see those nails were perfectly white, he said, the temp was unbearable.

And I know the special design of a teepee facilitated a good roaring fire within. Sure, I get that. What's more, I'm guessing buffalo hides were fully as good as fleece or feathers-- probably better; still, in winters like this out here in Siouxland, in these bargain-basement temps, I just can't imagine what it would be like to live just on the river bank out back in that kind of mobile home.

In the 19th century and even halfway into the 20th, people took warm bricks into unheated upstairs bedrooms. My wife claims that on the farm when she was a girl, she made sure that she got dressed for school downstairs, not up where she slept beneath a sea of quilts. Back then most folks wore all-over suits of woolish long underwear--maybe the kind with the cubby hole, an access hatch. 

Speaking of drop seats and union suits, in freezing temps like this it's just as hard for me to imagine using an outdoor john as it is a chamber pot. Seriously? You did what had to be done outside in wind like this, in temps this cold? Good night, we owe a great deal to Mr. Thomas Crapper, the Englishman oft credited for inventing the toilet, a great deal for sure.

For years I wanted some kind of tanned buffalo hide, a kind of emblem of the region. Really. But right now, outside, even though the dark land looks almost regal adorned as it is in alabaster, I don't know that a buffalo hide would even help much. You know, it's so cold that Grandpa's teeth were chattering--in the glass beside the bed! It's just plain bitter cold. Bitter, bitter, bitter.

What I know is this: there's pure joy in running upstairs about 15 minutes early at night and punching a couple of buttons so the dial reads "PH" on the controls right there at the bedside. This unreasonably cold winter morning, I'm thankful for a ton of blessings--roof insulation, a hearty furnace, this hoody I'm wearing, fuzzy house slippers and, for sure, indoor plumbing--and the almost sinful comfort of a pre-warmed bed.

This morning I'm thankful for the electric blanket. Beats a buffalo any day.
*An earlier version of this post appeared here on January 20, 2011.