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, October 16, 2018

Italy ii--Dante Alighieri, a ghost story

Strangely enough, Dante loved the church's teaching--his Divine Comedy follows just about everything he'd learned; but the church itself, in the Comedy, is a wretched den of thieves. Seems odd. The path he himself takes to salvation--his epic poem is something of a memoir--is the very same path the church laid out as the road to redemption.

But priests and friars?--by Dante's measure, they were philanderers, cheats and crooks. That his Divine Comedy was not blacklisted when finally it appeared in 1472 (once the printing press was rolling) can only be attributed to the likelihood that his distaste for corrupt clergy was not a minority view. Most everyone must have agreed.

Dante had been banished from his beloved Florence, but not for heresy--for politics. He'd sided with the losers a steamy power grab, lost his station, and ended up dying far away from the city of his birth, the city he so greatly loved. That today his statue is in Florence is a blessing he would have treasured--and still may.

There's confidence in his face, don't you think? But then, Dante was not just some obscure Tuscan scribbler. People knew him, knew his work; and when he died, this face might well have made the cover of Time.

He considered himself a channel of God almighty, was greatly confident that in the process of writing the Divine Comedy, he'd been in touch with the voice of God, a "sacred poem," he calls his work. He may not have thought of what he wrote as scripture, but there seems little doubt of his conviction that God had pushed that quill along the parchment when he described in poetic detail the path to Glory. 

What he tried to do, what he wanted to do, and what he did is to explain almost everything known in the late Middle Ages. It's all there on the path to heavenly glory: the horror of Hell, the irresolution of Purgatory, the sublimity of Heaven. Dante himself is both narrator and protagonist. The Divine Comedy is his and, as he would have it, ours as well.

In his book Dante: A Brief History, Peter S. Hawkins claims that, at the end of the Comedy Dante can't help but mention his very personal longing to return to Florence:

If it should happen. . .If this sacred poem--
this work so shared by heaven and by earth
that it has made me lean through these long years --
can ever overcome the cruelty
that bars me from the fair fold where I slept,
a lamb opposed to wolves on it,
by then with other voice, with other fleece
I shall return as poet and put on,
at my baptismal font, the laurel crown;
for there I first found entry to that faith
which makes souls welcome unto God, . . . 

Little more than a week ago, for two nights I slept right there, across one of Florence's own cavernous streets from Dante's little church, and, presumably, that very font where he was baptized as a child, the spot he locates as his entry to the faith that propelled his pilgrimage through the afterlife.

It doesn't look the same exactly. He was born in a house, a little one, something of a hovel. Today, four and five story buildings stand all around, as they have for centuries.

But the church is still right there where it was a thousand years ago. 

It was a joy to think that somewhere near that very spot, that Algihieri boy ("you know--the one who became the poet"), that little boy began to learn what he needed to know to write that long, long poem about life and death and all of what comes after. 

I'd like to think he still haunts the place, smiling, very much at home. For two days and three nights, I slept less than a stone's throw from where he was born, just across the street from his church where he was baptized. 

You shouldn't consider all of fuss to be worship, but if you want to think of me right there, you certainly may imagine me in the silence of sheer awe.

Monday, October 15, 2018

How it might have happened

Uncle Edgar and his brother-in-law Harry Dirkse

Almost a year passed before she heard anything at all from her brother. Not that she didn't try. She did, hard and often, writing letters that would return stamped, "Addressee Transferred" or "Return to Writer." One has a note penciled-in: "wounded 8/7/18. We have no further record of this man," then a date "4-2-19," six months after the First World War ended. 

She must have been worried sick. The war, people claimed joyfully, was clearly drawing to a close. But what did she know of her brother? Nothing. A profound, inconsolable emptiness must have left her sleepless in a nightmare.

On August 23, 1919, my grandmother received official notice from the War Department's Adjutant General: "It is with profound regret. . ." More than a year after his death, finally she knew her brother would not return. 

Long before, she must have heard an anti-war ditty that sold nearly 700 thousand records: 

I didn't raise my boy to be a soldier,
I brought him up to be my pride and joy.
Who dares to place a musket on his shoulder,
To shoot some other mother's darling boy?
Let nations arbitrate their future troubles,
It's time to lay the sword and gun away.
There'd be no war today,
If mothers all would say,
"I didn't raise my boy to be a soldier."

But Edgar, her only sibling, had enlisted in November, 1917, and gone to Europe because, well, because he thought it was the right thing to do. The Adjutant General's letter must have offered her some relief; not knowing occupies its own level of hell.
All of that was exactly 100 years ago now, and no one knows exactly how Edgar died, even though thousands of others were killed in that action, in France, somewhere around the Vesle River. By August of 1918, the war left those hellish trenches behind when the German army began a slow but deadly retreat. 
Imagine your own home town without a single soul in it, wrecked after a great storm, and partly burned, with all the evidences of the familiar activities of everyday life about, but that life and movement cut off suddenly, turned off like a light, and you will have a little idea of Fismis.

So writes Hervey Allen, in Toward the Flame, a memoir published just eight years after the war, a memoir recounting the travail of the Doughboys, who, like my great-uncle, fought the Bosch from the Marne to the Vesle River. Is what Allen remembers, what Edgar saw before he was killed, a ghost village beaten, starved, and deserted? And if he did, did he, like Hervey Allen, think of home?

Maybe my great uncle Edgar is actually in the action Allen remembers. He could be.
It was our intention to take up a position along the river, using the railway embankment as a trench to resist the enemy should they attempt to cross the stream. I instructed the first sergeant, who had about half the men, to move over into the factory on the left as we advanced. After taking a few seconds to get the automatic rifle teams and the skirmish line properly disposed, we started forward on the double. 
The sergeant led his men off to the left, while we made straight for the river, a stretch of about two hundred yards. About halfway the enemy turned his machine guns on us. The air suddenly seemed to be alive with a swarm of vicious wasps, and I saw the dust cup up all about our feet. . . .About fifty yards back where three or four quiet bundles that had been men a few seconds before. I watched them from time to time, but there was no more movement.  
One of those "quiet bundles" could have been my great uncle--or yours. Maybe he was one of the boys caught in a storm of bullets, a hero who laid there in breathless silence. Who knows, really? Soon, the war would be over. Who will ever know just how he died? 

Maybe these lines from a poem written just then belonged to his sister back home: 

. . .Though kind Time may many joys renew,
There is one greatest joy I shall not know
Again, because my heart for loss of You
Was broken, long ago.*

One hundred years later, on his stone in the family plot, my Uncle Edgar's name is barely visible. 
*"Perhaps," by Vera Brittain, 1916.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Sunday Morning Meds--Shine, Jesus, Shine

"Let the light of your face shine on us, O Lord." Psalm 4:6

Like all of us, Moses’s brother Aaron stumbled through a life that was less than perfect. Because he conceded to the Israelite mob that demanded an idol to worship, Aaron was almost single-handedly responsible for his brother’s wrathful smashing of the God-inscribed stone tablets, not to mention the display of God’s wrath on his own chosen people.  No one ever mentions Aaron in a roll call of the saints.

Yet, Aaron’s words ring throughout millions of church fellowships around the world every week.  The Lord told Moses (see Numbers 6) to have Aaron bless the Israelites with words that you can still hear almost any place two or three are gathered to worship God:  “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you. . .”

If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a million times. King David likely did too.

And maybe that’s why the line itself has lost its visual character; simply said, I’ve heard it so often. Just for a moment, it’s helpful, I think, to create the picture this famous benediction offers. Penitents, millions of them through the ages, are on their knees (it’s almost impossible not to see them in some kind of supine position physically) and in some kind of darkness, waiting for a brightening glance of Godliness, just a glance.
Now delete millions of those people from that image and picture just one penitent. Put yourself there, on your knees, eyes slightly arched but staring downward in helplessness, a nervous shakiness in hands and arms and legs in anticipation of a passing glance, and repeat: “Let the light of your face shine upon me, Lord.”

I dare say that the only people who can effortlessly create that image of themselves are those who, for whatever horrifying reason, have spent time themselves in that position.  Those who, like me, have never suffered significant bouts of abandonment or grief or despair have trouble creating an image of so great a helplessness. After all, I might say, I’ve got fairly substantial bootstraps to prove my internal strength. What I’ve done, I’ve done on my own.

It seems so medieval almost, doesn’t it?—the image behind the blessing; so, well, Islamic: hoards of people, face to the floor, hoping for a fleeting glance from the King of Creation. Good capitalists create their own blessings, after all; we seal our own successes with our dogged industry. We make our fate.

But the line we repeat so often—and hear repeated as a blessing to us—offers a wholly different portrait. There’s zero self-sufficiency in David’s abject request here: “Just a glance, Lord.”

Shine on me. Please. Shine on me.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Italy i--A story told in marble

There's some significant antecedent action that makes all the difference here. These young folks, Apollo (the Apollo) and Daphne were shot with arrows that created their sad undoing. Cupid (the Cupid) nailed Apollo with an arrow that made him lusty with love. In his mad pursuit of the fair Daphne, he was, as men can be, witlessly consumed. 

But Cupid had sunk yet another arrow into the heart of Daphne, one Cupid had loaded with a potion that carried, sadly enough, the exact opposite effect. Thus, the relentless pursuit so evident in this 17th century sculpture by Gian Lorenzo Bernini.

If you've not seen it before, you can't help but notice that for some strange reason Daphne's fingers are sprouting leaves. Strange things happen in classical lore. Her hair, too, is looking leafy. 

Apollo, being Apollo, is, of the two, the stronger; so when Daphne knew her refusals were going nowhere, when she was, I hate to say it, caught, she prayed to her father: "Destroy the beauty that has injured me, or change the body that has destroyed my life." And so the story claims that when she felt Apollo's touch on her, at this very moment, the beautiful young woman became a tree. 

You might think such a sudden transformation would appall Apollo, but he's a god. In a way, his ardor didn't miss a beat. Even though, in his hands she had become a tree, he felt her heart beneath the bark, held her branches, even kissed the wood, which, sad to say, made Daphne wince. According to the story-teller, all true. But that you don't see here.

The story continues, even though the sculpture does not. The story goes that wince did not linger. Apollo made Daphne his very own tree, which must have struck Daphne as at least passing sweet because classical lore claims (undoubtedly a male writer) that finally "the laurel bowed her newly made branches, and seemed to shake her leafy crown, like a head giving consent."


That nod is not here in Bernini's sculpture. Maybe the master didn't buy the sweet denouement. But everything else is--Apollo's fierce desire, Daphne's horror, and those fingers on her belly, the very moment of transformation.

In the 1620s, the audience for such Bernini's sculpture probably knew the story. What they saw executed in marble before them was a huge, stunning take, full of life and the human spirit, something alive. 

And it's still there, in Daphne's anguish, Apollo's desire, and those fingers creeping round her.

from Galleria
It's still there.

Monday, October 08, 2018

Haan's people

One of my favorite people of all time, the Rev. Bernard J. Haan, founding president of the college where I’ve taught for thirty years, was a remarkable man, one of those folks who could fill a room just be walking in.

A decade ago, when he was dying, my wife and I went to the hospital to see him. A book of mine had just come out, a book I’d dedicated to him, and I wanted to show him because I respected him greatly—in part, because he’d always respected me, even when a ton of folks didn’t. But that’s another story.

That day, he seemed almost cadaverous, his long face thin and gaunt; but when we came close to his bed, he looked up and recognized us, greeted us warmly.

His eyes blinked a bit when he looked up at the open book I held in front of him with my hands. I don’t know whether he could read the dedication or not, but I read them to him—“To B. J. Haan, who understands.”

“Oh, Jim,” he said, “that’s wonderful—that’s just wonderful.” Then his head fell back to the pillow a bit, as if simply to read was a strain. “You know,” he said, cutting a grin, “I’ll remember that as long as I live.”

And we laughed. 

 A thousand people have a thousand stories about B. J. Haan, but no one can tell that one but me.

It would be wrong to say that Haan never really sought power; he did. He had his causes, chief among them a college where I spent forty years of my life. But he never sought wider power than what he might use, lovingly, for causes he believed righteous. He was a mover and a shaker, but, chances are, very few people reading these words ever heard of him. He was a leader of his people, of whom there really weren’t very many.

It’s an odd phrase in this age—“his people.” But Haan himself used that phrase frequently in her sermons and his radio commentaries. “Our people have to talk about this,” he’d say about some theological flare up. “God’s people have to think about what the Sabbath means,” he’d say from the pulpit.

What B. J. meant by that phrase was a thin fraction of God’s people, the descendent generations of Dutch Calvinist immigrant stock in an area we call Siouxland—and members of a particular denomination, the Christian Reformed Church.

Today, that phrase is almost meaningless, even here, where he used it most effectively. No preacher in the county would use it. Today, in our multi-cultural world, that phrase, no matter how biblical, sounds inherently discriminatory because it reminds us all that some people aren’t “God’s people” or even “our people.”

When I hear lines from the Bible like God’s first line in Psalm 50, I hear Haan. “Gather to me my people,” it might read, or, even closer, “Gather our people together.” That’s the command. 

It seems worth noting that the sermon about to be delivered isn’t going to be proclaimed in a seeker-sensitive worship experience. What God almighty is about to say isn’t aimed at unbelievers but disciples, “the consecrated ones,” which is not to say it isn’t meant to save souls. It is. Read on. 

But I wonder if old B. J. is smiling right now at my saying what I just have, nodding his own consecrated head as energetically he might have years and years ago. 

I’d like to think so.

Sunday, October 07, 2018

Sunday Morning Meds--My bad

Image result for angry teacher cartoon

Sacrifice thank offerings to God, 
fulfill your vows to the Most High, 
and call upon me in the day of trouble; 
I will deliver you, 
and you will honor me. 
Psalm 50:14

It’s nowhere near an about-face, but the abrupt change in tone from verse 13 to 14 stops you in your tracks.  The razor-sharp sarcasm has died—it’s  just plain gone—and the God of the psalmist’s vision moves on, almost ironically, to what seems a formality, laying out once again the way to his graces, as he has a thousand times before.

You can hear divine exhaustion. “Go ahead and sacrifice your best, do what you’ve promised me you would do, and, when you need me, call”—that’s what he’s saying. You know the pattern, he says, now just stick to it and do it right for once.  Don’t phony it up with spiritual pretensions or try to outmuscle each other in righteousness.  Worship me and not yourselves or your snake-oil posturing.  Get it right, okay?

Maybe ten years ago, for the first time in thirty years, I chewed out students in class. Two of them were chatting—as they’d done before, too often—and I just plain blew up, went ballistic, as they say. I reamed them a new bodily orifice, if you know what I mean, and I did it no uncertain terms, in language (words and tone) very much unbecoming a Christian teacher.

And I knew it. I knew it right away.  It’s a wonder I made it through a long class discussion afterwards, a wonder that anyone did, I guess; but the class kept going, on Hawthorne, a short story. Later, I apologized—not for telling them to be quiet, but for the sarcasm, the cutting words, the despicable venom in the rebuke.

There’s no apology in this psalm, but I swear, on the basis of my own behavior, I can hear a God I recognize in these verses. Listen again to the angry rhetoric of the preceding verse: “Do I eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of goats?”  That’s no sweet, small voice. 

But that anger falls away, the smart-lipped sarcasm disappears.  Honestly, it’s a weary God one hears in this verse, a God whose probably dispensed these same words a thousand times before, but knows, darn well, that there’s nothing new he can say or do. 

“Just do it,” he seems to be advising, “but do it right, okay?”  I swear I can feel the guilt in the way this verse opens up, the same guilt I felt after lashing out at a couple of students who shouldn’t have been talking. 

Is this really God? Does the creator of heaven and earth sometimes feel guilty? Of course not. It’s an artist’s conception.

Does that mean God would not act that way—so, well, humanly?  The answer to that question is, nobody knows. 

What’s undeniably true about this whole passage is that we get things wrong—time after time after time, we get things wrong.  We do it wrong, too.  We often do it wrong. No, we always do it wrong.

But here’s the stupendous miracle of the Psalm, the whole blessed story, and gospel itself—here’s the whole truth and nothing but:  he still loves us. 

That’s the story he tells us at Christmas and Easter and every day of our bloomin’ lives, time and time again. Here’s the gospel truth: even though we mess up all the time.  He loves us.  Even if our worship is sham-ish, our promises soon forgotten, he loves us. 

He loves us.  He loves us.  Amazing. 

Friday, October 05, 2018

"What a Man Would Do" (end)

The end of the story,a kind of beginning.

He backhanded the window to his parents' bedroom, the glass splashing inside. With the end of the log, he spattered out the jagged pieces from the frame, pulled the curtain aside, climbed up on the metal chair just outside, as if to pull himself through, then looked at the bed. When he and Steph were asleep on the bunks upstairs, his parents slept there--before the princess accountant or whatever. His step-mom. Whoever wants a step-mom? Who asks for one? All he could see now was this other women, his father's bulk over her in this bed, their bed, destroying absolutely everything with a hot time in the old cottage, getting his jollies.

There's matches on the mantle, he thought. He pushed his legs through the open window then leaned back to pull his upper body through. Dark inside, but he didn't need light to know his way around. He moved through the bedroom, felt the rug quit before he came to the apron of stone in front of the grate. The kerosene lamp. He held it in his hands, saw the shade. Things got clearer.

Two boxes of matches stood beside a kachina doll his father had taken back from New Mexico. Round, flat stones from the beach lined up in a row that he'd put them there himself when he was a kid, ones he'd picked up on the beach, jammed in his pockets. Magazines down below--kindling.

He put down the log, slipped open the box, and picked out maybe ten wooden matches, lit one quickly and looked around. He had every good reason in the world to burn it down, every last excuse rising from something in his heart--no, not in his heart. It wasn't his heart. It was something in him spilling hate and already burning so hot he didn't need matches. All he had to do was to touch his finger to a grocery bag and the place would go. Hate was what it was. Hate in him.

He stood there, lit another match when the first went out, turned and looked around the place--the chairs, the couch, the games beneath the corner table. Not out of anger, he told himself. He couldn't do this because he was pissed. That was wrong. Something just had to go, he thought. Something had to die. Something had to burn. There had to be an end to something. There was something right about it--the cottage goes up in flames and they know who did it. It was like telling him something he couldn't say. The place is burned down and they look at him and they can't say a thing because they know too well why. They can't even yell. Nobody can. His old man can't--and his mother either--because then they'd very damn well know what they'd done. More than he could say. Better than he could ever tell them with words.

He balled up some newspapers and dropped them on the throw rug, then picked the kerosene lamp up and smashed it over the floor, lit another match, and waited. In his hand, the flame of the match broke into pieces on the shaft. Ben Warren would do it, he told himself, turning the match in his fingers to keep it lit. Ben Warren was a man. Ben Warren wouldn't hesitate here for a minute. Ben Warren would do it and smile. Ben Warren would be proud of himself. Let it go, let it drop. Ben Warren would just laugh. Ben Warren would make it a big deal--high fives all around. A man would just do it, he thought. A man would burn the place down and laugh. Like his old man. Just laugh.  Something's his old man would do, sure thing.

The night sky was clear when he walked back towards the lake and sat, still in his sweats, alone on the crown of the beach, the moon still scattering sparkles over the rough hide of the water, the sky dark as velvet spread with stars, the cottage--the love nest, their cottage, Grandpa's cottage--completely hidden in darkness, but still there, still standing. No flames. Quiet and still. With the edge of his hood, he dried his eyes.

Behind him, the sound of waves lapping. Like rain at night. You can listen to that all night long, he thought--just listen to a mystery. Like looking into a fire. You can sit and stare forever.

He took a wooden match out of the pouch of his sweatshirt and lit it with his fingernail. You can sit and stare for hours. He pulled the match up in front of his face, flicked his wrist and twisted it out, then looked at the lake, so gentle it seemed untouched, a field of soft gray darkness no single disc had ever cut. And beyond and over it, a sky and a hundred million stars in galaxies so far outside of anywhere that nobody had ever dreamed they existed. Black holes big enough to swallow continents. So much out there, so very much.

There's things that are bigger, he thought. There's got to be.

Thursday, October 04, 2018

"What a Man Would Do" (vii)

When Darren leaves, he takes off north to the family cottage. The story I knew that prompted this whole exercise was told me by a friend, a poet, who said the son of a man who'd left his wife tried to burn down the family's cottage one night, for reasons, everyone understood to be anger at the whole situation. That's the anecdote that I'm working with here. Now Darren, in white-hot anger, is up north at the place he loves, a place and a time that his parents have seemingly forever abandoned.

He was still in his sweats when he got close to the cottage. It was almost two hours north, and he was proud of himself for what he'd done--leaving without going home, just driving up the lake shore alone. It was dark, but he knew the roads without looking, felt the highway narrow the closer he came to the cottage, traffic falling away because it was a Tuesday night in late spring, there was no traffic north of the city, and it's still cold on the lake shore.

What his father told him that night they talked for the first time, for the only time, was that someday he'd understand what his father had done. "You're almost a man," he'd said. "Someday you'll understand because you'll know, too. You can almost grow a beard," he'd said, laughing. Laughing. The guy's laughing. "It never was right, Darren," he told him. "What you have to understand is that it never was right between your mother and me, and you can't live with what you don't love. You'll know. You're almost a man. You'll understand. I don't expect you to forgive me now, but some day you will. I'd bet on it."

In the old days, they'd stayed up late after long days on the beach, feeling that glow you get from all day in the sun. They'd play Rook and Old Maid and Chinese Checkers in the light of a lamp or two and the fire, snapping and crackling, a fire you could gaze at for hours with the sound of the waves outside rocking the whole place into sleepiness. Looking into a fire, hearing the water. Things like that put you to sleep almost--staring into a fire, listening to the surf quiet down for the night. Something good, something forever.

Right there at that cottage, his father laid the secretary. For months it went on, and now he was going to burn it down, he told himself. It didn't just come to him either. He'd thought about it for a long time. When he got to the lane, he parked the car up at Rasmussen's. No one was around. It was cold on the lake.

He hiked up the beach past the Andersons, the Burrells, the VanGorps--past the old bleached stump shining like a ghost in the moon just coming up over the waves, cold as silver ice. He jogged in the cold, hard sand along the shore until he came to the cove, and then came to the place where the cottage stood beneath the pines, this little cottage, Grandpa's cottage, nothing spectacular either, an antique just over the dune at the edge of the woods. It was no palace, but they'd had good times there. No kidding. If it were lighter out he'd have been able to see the peak he'd painted himself not that long ago, leaning down from a perch on the roof.

He walked to the door and tried it, but it was locked; so he went around back, picked up the big pail at the back porch, and when he got to the bathroom window put the it down to get up high enough to reach above the sill for the key. It wasn't there.

Had to be his father that took it. Had to be. They always kept it there.

Ever since he left the track, he'd been thinking that he had to do it. The place had to be torched. There had to be an end to something. Couldn't be anything new before something old burned down.

He checked the sill again, but found nothing. He had no matches. He could knock out a window, get inside, and rip the place apart. For sure he'd get away with it because it happened all the time on the lake, kids trashing cottages. Nobody would know except his parents--and they would know. Make no mistake about that. They'd know. But trashing it wasn't the point. The place had to go.

He pushed the pail under another window and felt along the wet sill, thinking maybe his old man hid the key. Nothing. He stepped down and kicked the pail. It tumbled down the hill and into the trees. He walked around the side porch, past windows drawn and curtained. The moon lit the place brightly, the birches still leafless and white as dry bones.

He felt through the cut wood piled at the side of the house, found a log small enough to wield, something he could get in his hands, then looked around. Nothing moved anywhere. Nobody was down at the lake shore this time of year. He was the only one around.

He'd married her, that accountant or secretary or whatever, the woman he brought up here.

He rolled the chunk of branch in his hands as he stepped up on the porch, and took a swing at the porch light. Glass shattered and fell over the floor.

Your old man drinks, and you do. Your old man beats your old lady, and you do. Isn't it that the way it works? Your old man lies and you do. You are sure enough what your old man is. 

(to be continued)

Wednesday, October 03, 2018

"What a Man Would Do" (vi)

Ben Warren says not to outrun him on the hand-off of the relay. Ben Warren says he never has much juice left when he's finished 'cause he's a stupid runner, going flat out the way he does and Darren shouldn't outrun him because he's likely to fall flat on his face when he finishes. Ben Warren says he starts out like gangbusters and forgets he's got to pace himself. It's all I know how to do, he says. Ben Warren says not to make him look like a fool. There's people in the stands. Women.

The four of them prance around in the middle of the field, practicing hand-offs. Ben Warren says he doesn't want to drop the baton because there's a college coach in the bleachers, and it's not track he's gives two hoots about anyway, but football. The guy's from Stevens Point, he says, and he wants him to play football. He doesn't want to look like a turkey and mess up the whole relay, even though the race doesn't mean shit. That's what Ben Warren says.

"Just don't outrun me," he says. "And remember you don't have to look back, because I'll blast you with the baton. You'll feel it. I like to ram it home, you know," and then he laughs.

Those are the words he remembers when the gun sounds and Blake takes off in the lead, like always--when he watches him round the track, body low to the ground, arms pumping, that baton up there eye level when his hand reaches. What Ben says is in his mind when he sees the first hand-off, smooth as silk, and watches Ben Warren hold the lead, even gain for awhile--ten yards in front of the guy from Dickinson. What he's thinking is how Ben likes to ram it home.

And it's just like he told him--when he's coming up the stretch, Ben's juice is gone. So he doesn't take off too fast. He turns around to watch him coming, holding his body up too high the way Ben always runs, the baton out front in the wrong hand, and all the time he tells himself he hates this guy's absolute guts. The whole party was his idea, chicks from some other school--who cares anyway? And then he feels that baton slam into his hand, and he knows very well who it was. He knows it was Ben Warren.

His legs flow. His feet eat up the track, and he knows, too, that he has never run faster. He feels like the wind. He's riding on something on high, like the disc, and the whole time he's running, he feels as if he's leaving earth behind. It's all back there because he's leaving it, running, flying. He keeps reaching, his lungs big as the sky, and he's not fighting a thing as his legs come up beneath him like featherlites, the track disappearing. He feels like he wants to keep running right into eternity, right off the track and out of town to some new place--not Shorewood either, not Mallard, just keep running and put all way behind. He could run for miles, all the way to the Chicago, all the way to Atlanta.

Wilkerson breaks out ahead of him, and he knows that all he's got to do is deliver it, and he does, perfectly, in a way that makes him to go his knees when he's finished, not because he's tired--because he's not, but because he's got to cry, dammit--he's somehow got to cry. He's stoops right there, all the way across the track from the crowd in the bleachers, holds his jersey on his knees to hide the tears even though he doesn't even know the reason why.

When he looks up he sees Ben Warren and Wilkerson doing this big dance right in front of the crowd. High fives. Blake is already over there. Victory dance for a two-bit dual meet in some podunk town where they were going to build a new life. But he stays down as if he's beat, nauseous or something. Coach is there in the middle of it. And then they all come to the middle of the field, for him.

The first slap from Blake makes him wince. "Good night," Coach says to him, "and into the wind. I'm going to put you in more often. What a split."

"Hey, city boy," Ben says, and he comes at him, both hands raised.

He doesn't raise his hands, doesn't want to prance, doesn't want to make it this big thing, doesn't want to touch anybody. So Ben picks him up in a bear hug and lifts him off the ground. He wants to cuss and scream, but he can't. He can't, and he can't be stupid either. He can't be a jerk now, can't be someone who doesn't make a big deal so he does the thing he doesn't want to do, does the thing he hates himself for--he lifts his hands like this is Olympics. He lifts his hands in triumph so he doesn't look like a girl or something. He's in Ben Warren's arms and he acts like this stupid race is the really biggest deal of all.

He avoids Kristine when he leaves. He comes off the track at the far side, close to the road, swings the fence shut behind him, hurrying to get back and get showered. And that when he sees his mom standing beside her car.

"I don't know how you can do it," she says, because she knows every last thing. She knows it's Ben Warren. "I don't understand how my son can do what you did, knowing everything." Everything, she says, meaning not just the party. She's got her arms up over her chest, and she's leaning against the door of the car. "If anybody knows what's right, you should--after what we've been through, Darren."

She's crying. He's seen it before, too often this last year. She's bawling. And then she leaves. She doesn't say another word. She leaves him.

Tuesday, October 02, 2018

"What a Man Would Do" (v)

Darren Nikkles has been haunted by what happened the weekend before--and by his mother's accusations. He's been awaiting his turn in the ring at the discus circle. 

He snaps back. He's at the meet. It's a dual, and he's got one lousy throw out there, and the judge yells his name. "Nikkles, Mallard--on deck," he said. It's Tuesday, right? But the whole business isn't over by a long shot. He's got two more throws and he's got to go face his mother again.

And the fact is he knows who did what she said. If somebody raped a girl that night, he knows very well who it was.

He steps back into the ring, winds up his arm, and pulls himself into the crouch. He stops for a minute and looks over towards the fence. Coach is already back across the track now that the far stake belongs to a Mallard kid.

He glances over to the shot circle, where he sees Ben Warren holding the shot-put high above his head while he stretching his hamstrings. "When I went in that bitch, I could have been driving a truck," he'd said that night. "She was eating out of my hand." And then he turned to him, looked over the front seat, and he says, "What'd you get, Nikkles?"--as if it was the day after Christmas and they were comparing gifts. Ben Warren leans up from the back seat, flicking the pop-top of a Miller Draft. "What'd you get, big-city boy?" he says again, as if it was a contest.

Two more throws. His arm was loose. He waited for the wind to rise--then, once it did, he went into his spin, stayed low and exploded. The disc took off into a gust, perfect plane, going up and up and then flipping over and carrying out way past the chalk line.

"Foul," the judge said.

His toe was over the line. The kid never put in a stake because she heard the judge yell.

"Too bad, Nikkles," the judge said, the band director. "That was a whopper."

He walked out the circle and spotted Kristine coming over to the circle, wearing his old Shorewood jacket, and trying to keep her hair out of her eyes in the wind.

"What you tell Kristine is your problem," his mother had said last night. "Don't ask for any sympathy from me, but you better tell her."

It was stupid and bad and wrong and he felt like shit after he'd left this party. Party. You want to call it a party? Country boys idea of fun--get polluted and get women.

He turned around and pulled his sweatshirt over his shoulders and his arm, pretended he didn't see Kristine, his eyes on the guy from Dickinson in the ring.

"That must be yours way out there," she said when he felt the points of her fingers in the back of his ribs, a little hug from her arms. "Way out there?" she said. "So what's up?--how many left?"

"One," he told her, not looking back.

"Coach said I shouldn't come over because everything was right today and you were going into outer space--that's exactly what he said." She dropped the little hug and came around beside him. "'Don't distract him,'--those are his very words."

She didn't know, and maybe she wouldn't have to.

"Got a B in chemistry, Darren," she told him. "I could have lit a match and blown the place up."

"Got a B?" he mimicked.

"Really stupid test," she said. "So you want me to stay or not?--last throw, right? You need to concentrate?"

"Last throw," he said.

Lois whatever, the giggle-box. Not in bed with her, just on it. Little, small-town girl all goosey over the big-city boy. "I always dreamed of going to high school in Milwaukee," she said. Lois or Leah or whatever. He's lying there in a bedroom like Steph's and he thinks of the cottage and his old man.

"Want me to leave?" Steph said.

"Stay," he told her.

The night it all broke loose between his parents, his mother bawled and screamed and swore and he was the one with his arms around her, the man of the house all of a sudden. Both of them hated the old man that night--the man he still couldn't call his father, wouldn't ever call his father, not any more.

When he climbed into the ring, he saw his old man's face over the field like a huge sand bag target, a face with an gaping mouth cut out of wood. What you remember is Brewers games, chipping golf balls, and the time he came home with a new set of weights; what you remember is the cottage, the smell of the lake, the sand--hot on your feet and gritty in your food. What you remember is the times when everything is the way it ought to be and good like that. You don't even imagine what crap can happen, not really--when you're a kid. Who could imagine? Who'd want to? Who'd care to know what kind of shit happens?

He spun, harder and faster, staying low, and when he exploded out of the crouch, he stuck that throw. He pushed every last ounce of strength and weight into the end of his finger, winged the disc up into that great wind, and he got it. He got the big one. The monster. He got the throw off he wanted to all year long. It kept on going and kept on going. He got it up there almost forever. Nobody spoke. Nobody said a thing. It was that kind of heave. He got the gold and all of that shit. He got the school record. It sailed over the kid's head, out there beyond the chalk, lifted a puff a dust when it came down in the next county.

"Huge," the judge said. "You got that one up there, Nikkles."

And he did.

Big deal.

Kristine hugged him when he stepped out of the circle--when he stepped out of the circle, she actually came up and hugged him. Her arms felt like pain.

"I got to run," he told her, pulling away fast. "I got a relay." He didn't even wait for a distance. It was out there past 160'.

Monday, October 01, 2018

"What a Man Would Do" (iv)

(cont.) Mom and Darren are in the heart of a very important talk.

"She got raped, Darren--this girl," his mother says. "I don't care what the guy says--how you excuse it, who did it, how it happened, what she was wearing--this girl got raped and she can't tell a soul--for reasons that are dead wrong, I think, but they're hers."

She hadn't been that mad since the old man left.

"Nobody's supposed to know about this party, about the drinking." She tosses her head back as if it's plain nuts, and it is. "She gets raped, and nobody's supposed to know about beer, and I'm the guidance counselor and I've got to play along, see?--even though I want somebody to hang." She's got fists. "She got raped, dammit, and somebody got away with it--some cocky high school kid, some--"

"Guy," he says. "Just say male, Mom--that's what you want to say, don't you?"

"Okay, some guy," she says. "Some guy who thinks he's a man because he put a notch in his gun--whatever it is men do."

"Geez--" he says.

"Well, it's true." She points at him. "Who's bragging, Darren?--that's what I want to know. Who's the loud mouth? You know." She's got that finger raised. "Who came out of that party bragging. You've had to have heard." And then, eyes full of blitz. "It wasn't you?--God Almighty, I pray it wasn't you--"

"It wasn't me," he says.

She wipes her fingers through her eyes.

"How do you know you got the whole truth?" he says.

"I do," she says.

"Because we're all alike--is that it? You can't trust any of us? Because that's the way we are--every last guy on the planet? We're all bad asses."

"I know when people are telling the truth," she says.

"Maybe I am telling the truth," he says. "Maybe she's lying--this girl. You ever think of that? There wasn't any Barbie dolls at that party, Mom--""

"No Kristines either," she says.


"You know, don't you?" she says. And then, right away, "She got raped, Darren. That's the truth. Some things you just know." She took his hand. "I want to know who," she said. "I can't do a thing legally, but I want to know--and I want you to know. You're my son. I raised you better than this."

What he wanted to say was something about the old man, but he couldn't--not just then. He could have too--he could have brought it up, how he was raised. He could have thrown it in her face. Outside the patio door the lawn is starting to green. It's a late spring, and a squirrel is hanging upside down from the clothes line pole, trying to get to the bird feeder like they always do.

"So who were you with?" she says. "Kristine is gone for the weekend. There's a bunch of girls from another school, plenty of beer. Which one of my students were you with, Darren?"

"Nobody," he says. A lie.

"I know better," she says. "Kids tell me things. I'm the counselor, remember?"

"Does everybody know everybody here?" he says.

But he can't help but remember. The bedroom in that party house belonged to some little girl. There's a picture of great-great grandparents, a man in a chair and his fat wife behind him, something out of the Gold Rush or something--that old, like saints on the wall. A dresser with two Japanese boxes full of earrings and bracelets--girl stuff, like Steph's. A Bible on the little table beside the bed. Kid's Bible--white cover, with pictures, one of those. And there he was. Kristine was gone. Some girl it wasn't dark enough not to see in the light of one of those huge farm lights making the whole place bright as day through the window, even though the shade was drawn. Whatever he'd do, she'd giggle. Lois, she said, something like that. Dumb name--Mayberry name if he ever heard it. Two open beers beside parked beside frilly photo albums on the table with a Daffy Duck light. And there's some giggle-box beside him.

"It wasn't me," he told his mother, because it wasn't him either. He wasn't lying. Not that he wouldn't have gone the whole nine yards right then and there. But he didn't force anything. The whole room smelled like his little sister. And more. His old man was in there, too. His old man was in him, in his molecules, in his genes. He's lying there beside this giggling girl and he gets this big bad look into the darkness inside him, and what he finds is his own old man. "I didn't rape anybody, Mom," he tells her, because he didn't.

"I believe you," she says. "But you know who did." She's grabs a hold of his hand. "And I want to know."

"Why?" he says.

"Because I don't want the guy ever again in my house."

That's what happened.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Sunday Morning Meds--He speaks

There is no voice or language where that voice is not heard. Psalm 19

“Israel’s singer of songs”—that’s what old King David called himself just a chapter or two before he died. If it wouldn’t be for the medley of great tunes rising from every Bible printed on earth, we might think the old monarch a bit forward about his abilities. But the Psalms speak for themselves. As do the heavens, the triumphant subject of Psalm 19.

You can feel it here, I think, David’s own poetic soul, that which made him Israel’s greatest singer. It’s just not enough for him to say that the heavens preach God’s glory. For David’s rhapsodic sensibility, it’s just not enough to sing out the joy of knowing that heavenly sermon is aired, literally, day after day. He’s on to a truly divine idea here, and the poet in him is not about to let go.

What he might have said in verse three is that there is no nation or tribe where the voice of the heavens is not heard. He might have said there is no city or town, no country or habitation where the sky can’t sing praise. But Israel’s best singer lovingly tweaks that savored metaphor one more time and says that there is no speech or language where God’s heavenly word isn’t there just for the listening. God’s heavens speak universally.

There’s no Babel of languages here, no multi-culturalism, no quilt of ethnics. The sky creates a divine melting pot all over the world because everyday, on every square inch of the globe, people can hear God’s glory preached in a language that transcends verbs and nouns and retained objects. That’s what astounds the poet. That’s what makes him sing it again and again.

What the psalm offers is immensely radical for any limiting theology. What David is saying is that God speaks to us in Orion, the Big Dipper, and a harvest moon. His voice is the dawn, the dusk, and searing heat of midday. He’s there over us, every minute of our lives, telling us about himself, a language we might simply call azure.

What is at once most scary and most triumphant here is God’s democratic disposition, the fact that this speech of his, that which literally surrounds us every day out here beneath the open skies of the prairie, is as accessible anywhere, to all tribes and all nations—even to our enemies.

Not long ago I listened to a woman from Laos tell a frightening story of her escape across the Mekong River. Five adults swam alongside a boat barely bigger than my desk, a leaky little skiff that filled with river water just about as fast as the children inside could bale it out. She prayed and prayed and prayed for deliverance, she said.

Only recently did she become a Christian. When I asked her who she was praying to in those years before she knew the Lord, she told me that she didn’t really know—not even then, up to her neck in the waters of Mekong. She says she didn’t know who was listening.

Now she does, she told me. Now she knows Jesus Christ.

On that scary night on the river, I’m guessing that she was praying to whoever it was she’d heard in the sermons preached by the sky. And I’m thinking—and I want to believe—that He was listening.

Friday, September 28, 2018

"What a Man Would Do" (iii)

Mom and son talk.

"We'll talk about it later," Mom says, opening the dishwasher. "You go practice piano. "We got things to talk about--me and your brother."

"What things?" Steph says.

"Things you don't have to hear."

"That's not fair--"

"We got things, too," she'd tells her, "your brother and me. You and I aren't the only ones with personal stuff."

She'd known everything, his mother had--who was at the party, what and how much there was to drink, what time people left--the whole sorry mess. Somebody came into her office, she'd told him, some teary girl, and spilled her guts.

"I want you to know that I know," she says. "But I want you to know this too--I'm breaking every law in the book by talking to you like this. It's unprofessional, but I'm doing it because you're my son," she says. And then, "A girl came to see me--"

Had to be the one called Adrie.

"She told me about this party with Mallard guys. At Sumner's house. She said it was at Angie Sumner's house on Apple River Road--Friday night."

He carried their glasses to the cupboard.

"Don't run away," she says. "I know very well somebody is getting by with it, and it's not right, Darren. It's not right and you know it, because you know what happened."

What did he know?--I mean, really. That he shouldn't have been there--sure. That he'd been with this chick he shouldn't have been with, not with Kristine out of town--he knew that too. That some guys had too much to drink--yeah. That things happened--okay, things happened. But if those women didn't want they heat, they shouldn't play with fire. He flipped open the dishwasher and started pulling out dishes.

"You were there," she says. "I'm sure you were. Kris was out of town. You didn't have a date. You were out with the boys, right?

Out with the boys, she says.

Adrie has got to be the one spilling the whole mess. No dream date either. Got hips like a sow. "Guys want a party?" she says when they saw them in the square. What did she expect--church?

"You were there," his mother says again. "What happened?"

He put the glasses in the washer, slipped the plates like a deck of discs into the bottom rack.

"What happened, Darren?" she says again.

"You already know," he told her. "What'd she tell you--this girl?"

"I want your side," she says. "I've breaking confidence just mentioning it."

Who gives a crap about confidence when the three of them are living in Andy's Mayberry podunk town because everything in their lives fell apart when the old man left? Who gives two bits about some promise to some big party girl animal cruisin' for guys anyway? Who gives a shit?

"This girl came to me," she says, "because she didn't have anybody else--couldn't tell her parents--you know how people are around here, how strict." He can feel the way she's talking at his back, and she's mad. "This girl doesn't want anybody to know what happened--because of the beer, Darren." And then she says, "Dammit, look at me. Come back into this room and sit down. I mean it."

He could have told her to back off, but he would have killed her. He could have sworn at her, but he would have broken her back. She was double-barrel mad. But he hadn't done anything except cheat on Kristine, and that wasn't the big deal because it wasn't anything to speak of. That wasn't what his mother was after either.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

"What a Man Would Do" -- (ii)

Mom and the kids left Shorewood when her husband did, left for small-town America, where she hoped maybe all three of them could get back on their feet. The kid--Van Baren--is mad, at her, at him, at the whole world. They'd left suburban Milwaukee for the sticks, and he doesn't like it, doesn't like anything really. 
So he and Steph went to Mallard High School and his mother taught at Dickinson, and they were forever away from Shorewood, where he would have been on an ace track team if it wouldn't have been for his whoring father, who never gave them diddly except for money, really. Plenty of that. "Need this?--sure." That kind of thing. 

That was the bottom line with the old man, he told himself. Bastard took some hot-pants accountant or something to the cottage, their cottage, and planked her right there where his own family had spent what people called "quality time." Found himself a brand new sweetie, something with sparkle to haul around on his arm. Burned his mother but bad with a hot time in the old family cottage. Isn't that the American way? And he was doing it for more than a year already when his mother finally caught on to what the old man was doing at the family cottage. Family cottage--sure.

The kid from Dickinson let out a throw that got out to maybe 130 feet, but he spun out and flopped in front of the circle. The judge didn't yell "foul" because he didn't need to.

"Van Baron, Dickinson--up," the judge yelled.

Dickinson--his mother's school. Guidance counselor. Divorced woman she was--"tell your problems to somebody who's already seen it all." That's the way he had it figured.

Last night--Monday--she'd cooked up something special. Soup mix over chicken and rice, something with onion in it, and peas, a hot dish, something different he'd recognized right away as either a treat or a guilt trip or something weird. Most of the time she'd come back from school dead tired and stick something frozen in the microwave. Not last night. Hot dish in a casserole. Fancy rolls he and Steph liked--those big, flaky round things. Some kind of special night--he'd recognized it right away, but she didn't say a thing right off. That's what made him think it was guilt. "We don't eat well. Don't eat the right kinds of foods," she'd say sometimes, punishing herself, and then start on a crusade of pot roasts, stuff like that.

You couldn't really tell about her since the old man left. His mom was different. They all were--he was too, and so was Steph, his sister. The whole world belly-flopped when the old man picked up the bunny and burned them all. His mother was tougher in a way, but sometimes not. More scared probably, sometimes soft as a girl. Maybe that was to be expected. She got her bell rung. She's running down the field, doing her thing, and out of nowhere the old man blindsides her. That's the way it seemed, although maybe he didn't know everything either--maybe she'd known a whole lot more than she ever put on before the whole mess blew up. Maybe she had something figured about the old man--something she smelled. Mom wasn't dumb. And in a way they got closer too, the two of them--him and her. Probably had to, really. All she had left was him and Steph.

Steph was too young to get the whole picture. Last night, his mom had this whole banquet thing cooked up, but Steph didn't know how to read her, didn't figure the fancy catering and the silence was covering something. So the whole time they were eating, Steph kept up this silly seventh grade jabber. All during the meal and even after, when they're cleaning up. "Leslie's parents let her go out with Paul," she says. That wasn't news, it was a gripe. "You know?--Leslie Friedley?--the one with the hair, Mom? She can go out on weekends and she's not even thirteen."

What she meant was, why can't I?

"We'll talk about it later," Mom says, opening the dishwasher. "You go practice piano. "We got things to talk about--me and your brother."

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

"What a Man Would Do" -- (i)

Long ago, I threw the discus. For a kid in a little high school, I wasn't half bad--went twice to state, once got sixth. Other than that, this isn't my story, even though I wrote it.  There's no prototype really, even though early in my profession I was a high school teacher. The only bit of story I picked up won't occur until the last day--maybe second--of this series, this story. 

"What a Man Would Do" is one of the last short stories I wrote. I know it was published somewhere, but I haven't a clue where anymore, probably as many as a dozen years ago. 

It's not nice. It's about rape--or attempted rape or something; but I thought I'd put it up for as long as it runs for two reasons: 1) my wife and I will be gone for two weeks, looking around Italy at some of the world's most beautiful and celebrated art. I won't be able to keep up this blog.

And 2) because the issues this story raises are about as old as any--the conflicts between genders and among 'em. Accusations of rape are sounded in this story, and problems are pretty much left unresolved, as they almost are when there is he said/she said. This one take a bit of a different tack, however, in that the opposing parties and son and mom--and the behavior of a dad who left them both behind. 

If you can stick with it, I do hope you like it. 

His head wasn't in it, and he knew it. Not until he stepped into the circle and pulled himself into a crouch did he realize the wind was gusting from the west, perfect for a record. Any other day he would have felt it first thing in the morning. But the meet was the last thing on his mind.

He pumped three or four more times, carrying the disc behind him, then, in three quick turns in the circle spun every bit of anger and frustration into his hand, his fingers, and the disc, heaved it out and up with a grunt he had to fake. The big wind picked it up, but turned it over way too fast and it dropped dead, ten feet inside the chalk line.

"Good throw," the judge said.

Like hell. He stepped out of the ring from behind and saw his coach leaning up against the fence, showing him thumbs up, a big smile on his face as if the throw were major league. "Don't forget that 200," Coach mouthed, pointing behind at the track.

Darren nodded and turned back. Some kid was poking a metal pin in the ground where his disc had sliced the turf. At best 153, he thought. The difference between big time and playground stuff was having his head together. And his wasn't.

And he knew why. He knew very well why. Saturday night was why. It hadn't been his party and it hadn't been his booze. The whole business of going over to that girl's place wasn't his idea of a good time. He didn't like it the moment the guys he was with decided they were going. Didn't like it because of Kristine being out of town--sure, but his girlfriend wasn't the whole reason it was a bad deal either. There was more to it. The whole idea of some big-time party with some women from some other school--it was trouble, right from the start. But he hadn't said a thing. That was his fault.

"Hensley, Dickinson," the judge yelled, and a tall kid with glasses stepped into the ring.

It was a dual meet, and nobody expected him to lose. He could have taken first place simply by standing at the edge of the circle and grunting out one humungous reverse. That's what he felt like doing--perfect wind or not. Just grunt one out, win this thing, and get the heck out of there.

"Dickinson" it said on the guy's jersey--his mother's school.

And moving--moving out of Shorewood wasn't his idea either, wasn't his fault. It was his mother's idea, picking up the pieces and coming to a town nobody'd ever heard of, just down the road from the school where she'd taken a new job to start all over again. "I don't want to live in a glass house, a single mom in a small town--new and everything," she'd told them. "I don't want to live in the same little town where I teach." She'd looked at him, the oldest. "You don't mind, do you, Darren?" she'd said. "What's the difference?--I'm the one who's got to commute."

What did he know about small towns? The only place he'd ever lived was Shorewood. What could he say? Besides, he'd seen her broken, his own mom coming apart at the seams when his father left her behind like dried-up bait. And he'd been the one to hold her up. He'd held his mother in place himself for more than a couple months or she would have tucked away in some loony bin.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Our world, just about now, nine years ago

Just about ten years ago, I was out southwest of town with the camera. In preparation for a trip to Italy, I thought I'd try to quickly learn how to put together a video in this kind of system.

Sweet morning, as I remember. Then again, if I'd forgotten, I'd have a record, I guess. 

Monday, September 24, 2018

Morning Thanks--our Monarchs

It's a girl.

And, no, she's not being manhandled. She can take it, the naturalist says. Not to worry. For this little demonstration, she plucked one from a branch, pinched it delicately to open its wings and to reveal that this little beauty is lady. Men have spots down there on the bottom of the wings, and women have stronger lines, so this one's a girl. 

Who knew? Not me. 

They're unlikely rulers, these monarchs, so feathery fragile that they appear to be wholly unable to govern; but gorgeous they are, maybe like the royal family. If they qualify for their name at all, they do so only because they're the fairest of nature's fair, at least out back of our place. The truth is, they flit drunkenly from flower to flower, alight when there's bounty, then feast on whatever nectar they locate, nature's most delicate royalty.

For years, my father-in-law walked his bean fields, corn knife in hand, to knock down the blasted, persistent milkweed. He knew where it sprouted amidst those soy beans, because he knew very well he never got 'em all. They'd come back like a plague whenever and wherever you knocked 'em down. 

Once upon a time, those surgical swipes we took when walking beans was the only way to stop them. "They've got lateral roots," I remember him telling me when I came along, similarly armed. "If you knock 'em down here, they'll only come back there." 

Made the job feel like an endlessly frustrating county fair midway game until herbicides came along. Milkweed started getting, well, rare, so rare that crowds of these flighty little beauties seemed to thin, milkweed being their all-time favorite feast. It depends, I suppose, on how you measure your losses, but fewer monarchs seemed to leave the world a whole lot less beautiful, at least to me. 

It may well have been an off day, but a half-dozen years ago or so, I took my grandson to Oak Grove Park to tag monarchs. We got a wonderful lesson in butterfly lives, then took to the woods in search of these beauties, but found none. Not one. It was a beautiful day, the naturalist did a great job, but we saw no monarchs. None.

That didn't mean there weren't any. It's just that right then, they were probably all at a rock concert or a ball game. Maybe a swarm had stumbled on a warehouse of nectar. I don't know what happened, but that day they weren't to be found.

Saturday morning, a half-dozen years later, same place, same time of year, they were all over. All's right with the world.

Even so, they're packing right now, I guess, because some of them--the ones mysteriously chosen to be outfitted with the strength of wing a 3000-mile trip requires--will soon catch wind currents to southwestern Mexico. If any specimen of Noah's Ark collection seem ill-fitted for such a trek, these darlings, with their paper-thin wings, do so seem. What they do, year after year, is truly epic.

This young lady won't make it back to Oak Grove Park, but her descendants just might, and her people will. 

And that's just wonderful because out here on the prairie, as slender and slight as royalty could ever be, these fragile miracles, in all their tangerine glory, beauty to behold, still earn their name--they're monarchs. 

And this morning, they're blessedly deserving of my morning thanks.