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, May 22, 2018

Morning Thanks--a Christian education

I'm not blind to the limitations. It's not hard at all for us to get a little snooty. In fact, it's pretty easy to get to thinking we're somehow better than others. You don't even have to hear that being said to start thinking it either: there's us and there's them. You got to fight the old "holier-than-thou" thing.

Because there's an inherent exclusivity to the entire operation. Not everyone goes, after all. Only some. Lots don't. Most don't. But we do. We're blessed, aren't we? 

You know?--that kind of thing.

Thank the Lord that there are more people of color these days, many more. For way too many years it was only white kids--and of a certain ethnic flavor too. For too many years, the whole business was monochrome and wooden-shoed. For too many years, Brown vs. the Board of Education seemed entirely irrelevant, as if we were immune to charges of segregation. We weren't. We aren't.

Here below, it's a chore for most of us to stay humble, not to think we've got all answers the world hungrily awaits, to look at others as if they're truly un-blessed. It's very hard for us to be reminded that there's as much sin and darkness in us as there is in that woebegone family just down the block, to have to swallow the pride the human heart, no matter what model or vintage, quite regularly serves up to all of us.

And it's just as hard to have to say you might have been really judgmental about things--about dinosaurs or evolution, about a whole host of nay-saying: about the devils and dancing, or card-playing, or a glass of wine or beards and bell-bottoms. It's difficult to have to confess we're not always right and not always righteous.

It's hard to admit that might just keep some people away simply by way of the high cost of admission. Guess what? we're expensive. Maybe too much.

Last night I parked a football field away, walked into a stuffed-to-the rafters college chapel, then watched and listened to 500+ kids dressed in ten different-colored t-shirts on a huge stage, all of them standing and singing their hearts out, telling a packed house the story of what they'd learned--each of them, each of the grades--about living in God's world throughout this school year.

It was a ball, a joy, a blessing to be there and to sing along.

This morning's thanks is primary-school easy. I'm greatly thankful that my grandson, a second-grader, was up there among 'em. This public high school graduate spent four wonderful years teaching in public high schools, four years I wouldn't trade for anything. I've never rejected or feared American public education. It's free and it's an immense blessing for all of us.

But neither have I forgotten the scripture verse printed on the report cards we lugged home every six weeks of my own grade school years sixty years ago. What that verse maintained is what I still believe, even if, back then, the marks inside weren't always God-glorifying. "The fear of the Lord," the old card said, "is the beginning of wisdom."

You can parse that sentence a dozen different ways. You can wage theological warfare with the word "fear." Go ahead and interpret it your way.

But to me what it means is what it says, and that's why this morning I'm thankful my grandson, last night, was one of those rambunctious kids up in front (in a robin's egg blue t-shirt), rockin' and rollin' through the story of his year in a Christian school. 

Monday, May 21, 2018

Lean on Pete--a review

Image result for lean on pete

With most of the movie behind us, my wife leaned over and whispered that if things didn't get any better, she was on her way out. The unrelenting darkness is almost overwhelming.

There's this kid, and he's immensely sweet. His mother is nowhere to be found, and his father is a piggish adolescent who dies in a fight about a woman from work he sleeps with. The old man cuts up his insides when he's thrown through a window and dies, the doctor says, from septic shock his whole system took when it could no longer prevent infection. For a while at least, his father's death feels like a metaphor for this entire sad story. 

Lean on Pete is really three stories, as one reviewer says, chained together inexorably by the kid's excruciating misfortunes. The first is a father-and-son story, which includes a couple of the film's only blessed moments as the kid, Charley (Charlie Plummer), finds some refuge in the employ of a horseman named Del (Steve Buscemi), who is himself at the end of his rope. 

Then, the movie becomes a boy-and-his-horse western, set and shot in perfectly endless expanses of the American west, as the two of them run away once Charlie determines that this gorgeous quarter horse he's come to love is on his way to the glue factory. It ends with most horrifying moment in the film, when the storyteller determines, for some reason, that Lean on Pete needed to die.  

That the horse's death seems as willfully random as it is makes the story seem Thomas Hardy-ish: things are bad to start with, and then they get worse and worse and worse and worse, and then they end. That description may be overdoing it, but there were moments when I too thought I couldn't take any more. 

Some see this film's sheer pitilessness as an attribute. I get that. It simply refuses any scent of sentimentality. But that refusal is its own form of sentimentality, really. When life continually takes turns for the worse, over and over and over again, we simply have trouble believing the world we inhabit is that blasted dark. 

Once Lean on Pete is dead, deus ex machina, there's nowhere for the boy to lean, and Charley's flight--he wants badly to find an aunt who, long ago, cared for him--takes him into perilous places with ugly characters, one of whom, in a fit of righteous indignation, he may well have killed with a tire iron. The third story in Charley's pilgrimage ends when he takes the money he had to kill to get back and gets on a bus to Laramie, Wyoming.

Way back when I wrote more fiction, I came to believe that stories had to somehow balance darkness with light. For a writer who believes in a loving God, someone who is, by inexorable faith, committed to a worldview in which there is hope isn't fantasy, now and forever, a story can go searingly into the tortured soul of human depravity as long as that descent is somehow balanced by a similar degree of light at the end of the tunnel. You can't really have redemption without damnation.

But a story that languishes in damnation without a hint of redemption is as false as any cheap Christian morality tale, as sentimental as Kum-bay-ya. What prompted my wife to seriously consider walking out was what we might well call the sermon of the story: for some of us at least, life is just plain bad. Really ugly. Just about bereft of hope.

Hundreds of movies never make it to your local theater because they're not created for 17-year-old kids on dates. Lean on Pete won't be coming any time to soon to your local cineplex. It's way too dark. To call it an art film suggests that it's not as "real" as it is. Lean on Pete a film that someone believed in, a script created from a novel that was much read and much beloved. 

I wasn't surprised when my wife whispered what she did three-quarters of the way through because I recognized something in myself that was kin to what she felt--I wasn't just hoping for something redemptive, I was begging for it, a move the film simply won't deliver until the very, very end--and even then life seems so very tenuous.

To say I enjoyed the film simply doesn't ring true. 

But am I glad I went? Yes. I'm guessing Charlie Plummer is on his way to stardom, and the American West always has star power. But I'm glad I went because Lean on Pete is not simply entertainment. It begged me not simply to feel, but to think about a kid and a horse and life itself. That's not all bad.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Sunday Morning Meds--Bewonderment

 Be exalted, O God, above the heavens; 
let your glory be over all the earth.” Psalm 57:4

The basic paradigm by which I’ve always seen the Christian life is a series of ideas that rise from the Heidelberg Catechism, the handbook of doctrine with which I was raised.  Those steps are not difficult.  They go like this:  “sin, salvation, service.”

The story line begins with sin—our knowledge of it, as it exists specifically within us.  Calvin starts even a bit earlier, with the heavens, specifically with our sense of God as manifest in his world in what we see and experience.  Because humans can’t help but see God’s marvelous work in the heavens and earth all around, we there is something, someone, larger than life itself and much, much greater than we are—there simply has to be.

When we know we aren’t God, we know something about sin.

That conviction draws us closer to him. Knowing our limitations is a prerequisite to knowing God. Sin precedes salvation, or so the story goes, through the second chapter.

There’s one more step. That he loves us in spite of our sin makes hearts fill and souls rejoice; we can’t help but celebrate, and that celebration leads us into gratitude and service, into offering his love to the world he loves so greatly. 

Sin, salvation, service—that’s the story line, the narrative by which I was raised.

Mother Theresa’s take on a very similar tale was a three-step process not totally unlike Heidelberg’s narrative line, but colored instead by her experience in the sad ghettos of Calcutta.  Our redemption begins in repulsion—what we see offends us, prompts us to look away. But we can’t or shouldn’t or won’t; we have to look misery in its starving face, and when we do, we move from repulsion to compassion—away from rejection and toward loving acceptance. 

And the final step is what she called “bewonderment,” sheer wonder and admiration.  Compassion leads us to bewonderment.

“Bewonderment” is one of those strange words no one uses but everyone understands, probably because, like reverence, it’s simply hard to come by in a culture where our supposed needs are never more than a price tag away.
Bewonderment is hard to come by for me, perhaps because it isn’t so clearly one of the chapters in the story I was told as a boy, the story which is still deeply embedded in my soul. “Service” is the end of the Christian life—or always has been—for me, not “bewonderment.” 
Maybe that’s why I’m envious of David’s praise here. What he says to God in prayer is something I rarely tell him.  I don’t think I’ve ever asked God not to hide his little light under a bushel, to display his radiant grace from pole-to-pole. I’m forever asking for favors, but only rarely am I adoring, in part, in part, I suppose, because I’m so rarely in awe. 

Bewonderment is something I’m learning as I age, and for that I’m thankful—for the book, for the song, for David the singer, and for the God David knew so intimately that he could speak the way he does in Psalm 57. 
It’s difficult for some of us to be intimate with God—to be so close to a being so great and grandly out of reach.  But intimacy is something a song can teach—and the heavens too.  Bewonderment is something even an old man can learn, if he has eyes and ears. 

Friday, May 18, 2018

Remembering Ike

Those in the know were not particularly surprised to see Kaitlyn Bennett come on campus around graduation dolled up as she was--her mortar board darlingly decorated with a dare, and her brother's assault rifle, with scope, slung over her shoulder. News stories claim that she was an outspoken 2nd amendment advocate during her tenure as a student and that she wasn't at all shy about shooting off her mouth about the subject. Get this--she was a student at Kent State University.

Still, there was enough in the photo--she hired a photographer--to grab on-line attention: that incredible mane flowing mightily over her back and a doll-like, sleeveless dress, hemmed several inches up from mid-thigh. Somehow, it's not a particularly collegiate composition. Then again, maybe it is, sex and violence never really going out of style. 

The photo went viral, more than 40 thousand retweets and twenty thousand likes. If the scope on your rifle sees the second amendment as most crucial of all our rights, then Kaitlyn Bennett's commencement get-up is drop-dead gorgeous, I guess. Even got her a spot on Fox and Friends, I'm told. 

Couldn't help but notice the image myself, to be frank; but another place and time flashed by just then, a place we visited just a couple of days ago, the meditation chapel on the grounds of the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum, Abilene, Kansas, Ike's hometown. He's buried there, as is his wife, Mamie, as well as their son, Dowd, or "Ikky," as they called him, who died at just four years old from scarlet fever in 1921. The biers of Mom and Dad are outlined in the floor of a quiet place lit mainly by what hues come in through stained glass.

I don't know whether Kaitlyn Bennett knows much about Ike. Maybe she does. I hope so. But those of us who remember him or have spent much time thinking about World War II know Dwight David Eisenhower not only as the 39th President of these United States, but also the Supreme Commander of the Combined Allied Forces in Europe during that war. If you remember him well, you may well remember this, too. 

That's General Eisenhower talking to GIs on June 5, 1944, the day before many of them--perhaps many of them in this photograph--were going to die on the beaches of Normandy. He knew that far better than they did, because he knew what lay in store for them when they came off those amphibious landing craft in the biggest sea-going operation in the history of mankind. Ike knew war.

And that's why it shouldn't be ironic, I suppose, that someone who knew death--death at his hands--better than almost anyone, would have, up there on the wall of his tomb, and that of Mamie, a line from a speech he gave.

Here it is:
Every gun made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed. . .This is not a way of life at all. . .Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of gold.
"The Chance for Peace" Address, Washington D. C., April 15, 1953
It's not surprising at all, I suppose, that when I read Kaitlyn's story, I thought of Ike in England, one night in early June, waiting for the skies to clear over the English Channel, waiting and hoping and praying.  And then, I'm sure, praying some more.

I feel obligated to say that I wrote this BEFORE what happened this morning in Sante Fe, Texas. 

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Small Wonder(s)--Battle of the Spurs

There's something vintage Old Testament about the whole story, something that feels decidedly like myth. But it happened; and just a bit north of Topeka, atop a hill along the road, a somewhat unkept highway marker tells part of the story, the part that can't be doubted. What can is far more fascinating.

That John Brown (yes, that John Brown) was willing to die to put an to end slavery is not news, either to us or the "border ruffians" who, for a time at least, ran the government in Kansas. John Brown was willing to die, but he was also willing to kill--and did, not only at Harper's Ferry, but also in eastern Kansas. Because slavery was of the Devil, fighting a holy war was his calling. 

That historical marker on the hill is all about him. He was, after all, at the reins of a prairie schooner full of runaway slaves that ended up in the neighborhood of that highway marker--ten--no eleven--runaway slaves to be exact, Mrs. Daniels having just had a baby. It was cold, not unmercifully so, but it was January, 1859; and for all intents and purposes, in Kansas the Civil War had begun, even though Ft. Sumter was a year and a half away.

For more than a year, Kansas had become a checkerboard of areas controlled by the slavers, who wanted to make Kansas a slave state, or the abolitionists, the "free-staters" who'd gone west to homestead land but mostly to fight slavery. 

When a pro-slavery bunch, then in power, got wind of John Brown and his runaway slaves, they formed a posse--thirty men, well-armed--to stop that criminal activity. They called themselves "law-and-order" party. 

Meanwhile, John Brown sent word into nearby Topeka, where, on Sunday morning, Col. John Richee and family had taken a pew in their Congregational church. When Richee, an abolitionist leader, got whispered the news, he stood up and said, "There is work for us," then walked out. The preacher quietly told his flock there'd be no worship. Something had come up.

A dozen church-goers hurried to the Fuller cabin just outside of a tiny town named Holton, where they found John Brown gearing up for a trip to Tabor, Iowa, the next stop on the underground railroad. Brown told the Topekans that he and the others were going to ford Straight Creek and head north, according to plan. Col. Richee, et al, suggested that because the creek was high, it might be wise to go another five miles up, where the ford was less demanding.

John Brown had mission in his soul. He was going to cross Straight Creek where God intended him to cross, come hell or that very high water, even though he knew that pro-slavery posse had assumed battle stations for an attack. Brown could not have missed them. He knew. He had to.

No matter.

He climbed into the seat, took the reins, aimed the team up the road toward Straight Creek, fire in his eyes, the straight and narrow out there clearly in front of them, as if there were no guns at all, only the arms of the Lord.

Here's the Old Testament. For reasons forever unknown, the pro-slavers held their fire, then turned and got the heck out of there, took off and ran without firing a shot, which is why, today, up there on the hill above the creek, that weathered highway marker is titled "The Battle of the Spurs." The only weapon the slavers used that wet January morning was the spurs they dug into their horses' flanks.

By the way, the Topekans were right about the ford. That prairie schooner got stuck in the creek. It took several hours to get it out.

Less than a year later, John Brown and his men, after a failed rebellion at Harper's Ferry, were behind bars, facing the hangman's noose. One of his men, Aaron D. Stevens, wrote Jennie Dunbar, his friend, to say his wounds were healing and that he wasn't feeling guilty in the least "for there was no evil intention in my heart." His note from death grips the heart. "Slavery demands that we should hang for its protection," he wrote Miss Dunbar, "and we will meet it willingly, knowing that God is Just, and is over all."

True believers they were--perfectly true believers.

At what point does faith become fanaticism? Answer me that. 

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Mother's Day at the Eisenhower's

Don't need a caption here, I'd guess.

The man on the grass is the 34th President of these United States, Dwight David Eisenhower. Even though you're not likely to have seen the woman before, you can guess--and you'd be right--that the woman on the throne is his mother.

Here she is again, this time with six of her sons, a sort of "before and after" shot--the Eisenhower boys and the Eisenhower men. And Mom.

It hangs on the wall of the Eisenhower home in Abilene, Kansas, the town where Ike--and all of his brothers--grew up on the Midwestern values so evident in President Eisenhower's personality and character. All six of them, in their own ways, made significant contributions, some to country, some simply to neighborhood. She must have been good at what she did.

Strangely enough, especially for time and place, when each of the boys left the home, they were well-versed in women's work. She made each of her sons learn to cook and sew and mend. On Sundays, two of the boys would leave church a shade early to get home to be sure the dinner was in the oven and ready to go, a dinner they'd prepared. Mother insisted on a day off.

Mid-Depression, she refused to sell the piano, even though there was no money and it could have brought some much-needed cash. Each of the boys took lessons, too, even though only a few of them ever stayed at it. One of the boys worked his way through college by tickling the ivories in a whole host of different venues.

She was, in certain ordinary ways, extraordinary. Here's her bread box, where she put the dough she kneed (excuse the can't-miss pun) when she'd bake bread, three times per week, nine loaves per prep. You do the math. That radio in the corner?--short wave. Her son, the Commander of Allied Forces in Europe, got it for her during the war so she could hear his voice.

The host looked nice, although the docent claimed it was, at best, modest in Abilene, and definitely on the wrong side of town. It wasn't in the oldest part of town, but built on what was once a cattle yard. Abilene was once full of cattle, the market for every single longhorn up from Texas. The 34th President of the U.S. of A., was born on a cattle yard. 

We just happened by Abilene on Mother's Day, didn't choose specifically to tour that day. But it may well have been the right day to walk through the house, to take note of the pictures, and imagine the mother of six boys--seven, really, but little Paul died of diphtheria at just ten months--managing the entire affair. She must have been overworked, and proud. 

But, seriously, nine loaves of bread, three times a week? You've got to be kidding.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Morning Thanks--the death of one who loved

Montana sunset from his pics
To call him a friend would be a stretch, but in some substantial ways he was a kindred spirit. The notice came via Facebook, or it's likely I still wouldn't know he's no longer with us. He was not much older than I am, and he left a record of teaching in a Christian school that was just about as long as my own tenure at the college down the road, a college he attended just a few years before I enrolled. We both were lovingly engaged in the study of literature. He was an English teacher. 

I knew and respected people who knew and respected him. The two of us shared an era, an age in which people who loved books and poems and did a little more self-reflection than may be thought commonly necessary, lived by the conviction that a little learning wasn't a bad thing, a little Hemingway and Hawthorne, maybe a shot or two of Edgar Allen Poe--all of it, good for the soul. Both of us, I think, lived by the conviction that a day or two in contemplation of beauty--even the beauty on the page of a book--was never a waste of time. 

The only conversation between us that I won't forget is the time he took me aside and told me how much he loved his granddaughter, that she was coming to college, and that he just wanted to say that he wanted me to pay her some attention because she was, to him, very special. He wasn't asking for favors, simply asking a friend, a kindred spirit, to give a little extra to someone he loved dearly. 

It may well be true that I know better what he loved, than I knew him. I couldn't have been around him more than a couple of times in my life. His obituary says he coached wrestling--I had no idea. He was born and reared in Montana's Gallatin River valley, not far from Yellowstone, as beautiful a place in the West as you can imagine. Even though he hadn't lived there for more than a half century, he chose to be buried in his ancestral home. Somehow, I'm not surprised.

His Facebook page is still a gallery of photos that probably say more about him than who or whatever stood on the other side of his lens: tons of family pics, kids and grandkids; lots of friends here, there, and everywhere: some shots at football stadiums or in gyms; flowers, lots of them; and a bevy of sunsets. I think it's fair to say--although I don't know--that he lived a good life, a very good life. People who left notes on his obituary claim they won't forget his smile.

He was a teacher--even as a father, he was a teacher; and, most likely, as a teacher he was also a father. 

Even though it's likely our paths would not have crossed again, there may be a dozen reasons why his death, far away, set my soul to grieving. Foremost among them, I think, is the sense that this week, this world is peopled by one less fine, fine man, someone who loved his work, his family, his God, and the wonderful world God made.

This morning thanks is for his life--and for his abundant love.

Wednesday, May 09, 2018

Morning Thanks--the neighbors

You may not know it, but Sioux City's Municipal Band has a storied past. It began just after World War I, when a vet named Herman Koch determined that the brand new American Legion post in town would be strengthened if he started up a band for the war vet, some of whom, by the way, had never played in a band before.

Not only were that bunch successful in Sioux City, they became national American Legion band champions several times running, even made a trip to gay Paree' where they performed before a million spectators down a six-mile route that led them right through the Arc de Triumph. I'm not making this up. There's a big display case full of Sioux City Band memorabilia in the Woodbury County Courthouse. See if for yourself.

Back to Paris. When the band won first place right there amidst all that Paris regalia, they lined up one more time and played an encore, one of their favorites, “The Iowa Corn Song.” Seriously, they did. Isn't that just perfect?

I'll never be a native Iowan, having been born and reared in exile far away; but this time of year, when the goldfinch descend on us once again, I can't help but think of the Tall Corn State because Iowa is the Goldfinch Kingdom. They are--and they seem to know it--the Iowa State Bird.
Cocky?--no kidding. 

Right now, there are four just outside my window, one of them, a bully, hates others a good deal more than he loves sunflower seeds. If any of the others come anywhere close to the sock, he'll stop eating and fight 'em off.

A goldfinch makes more noise per square gram than anyone else out there it seems, except for a couple of species of wrens. Their song--seriously--is a shriek that can make windows think they're vulnerable. Still, it's beautiful--and I wouldn't miss it for the world. Anybody who sings that well can carry a little arrogance. And nobody flies like our goldfinch either. When they take off, they bob and weave into the horizon as if sewing earth and sky.

But honestly, they unruly and hot-headed. Their "do unto others" stops right at the end of their blessed little beaks. Charity? kindness? love? Forget it.

All that arrogance may well arise from their glorification in the tall corn state--I don't know. Then again, maybe it's simply because they rank among the backyard feeder's most darling--"oh, look, little balls of pure sunshine."

Well, yesterday they lost the beauty contest, however, when a sometimes visitor dropped by. This guy, an oriole, a Baltimore Oriole, sat here for a a couple minutes, just outside my window, so brilliantly orange he might well have been a cartoon. Here he is.

For a couple of fleeting minutes, Iowa lost to Baltimore, big time.

But I'm not sure the Iowa State Bird even noticed. If they did, it doesn't seem so this morning because right now, once again, they're back at their bitching. See?

It would do them well, right now, to do a quick couple of verses of the "Iowa Corn Song." Maybe that'd sweeten 'em up.

This morning, once again, I'm thankful for the fine, feathered friends from the community outside my window. But they could be a little more neighborly.

Tuesday, May 08, 2018

Small Wonder(s)--What happened at Drum Creek

Caroline Fraser says that what Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote down about Kansas, long ago, says a great deal about her, despite the fact that the Kansas prairie was the very first home she knew, home to her very first memories. She wrote those memories down on "Big Chief" tablets and never intended them for publication, like so much else she put to writing. Just for the record, Caroline Fraser's Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, just won the Pulitzer. It's a great read.

Laura remembered her father's quiet assurances to her family. He'd remind them there was nothing to worry about, even though, late into the night, the dancing and singing of the Osage people not far away created a sound she claimed seemed to her childish imagination worse than howling wolves. Neither did she forget that some noisy nights, Charles, her father, would be awake, his gun at his side.

The Osage weren't homeless, but they were refugees; and, in 1860s, when the Ingalls family arrived, they were very much strangers in a strange land. Their native land was Missouri and Arkansas, but when white folks swarmed in Arkansas and Missouri looked prime. So, like so many others, the Osage were moved farther west. In 1825, some Osage made camps in eastern Kansas, where, some years later, Charles Ingalls determined to live. 

The Osage were--and still are--a proud people, tall and fierce, a formidable bunch. But dislocation and disease wore them down. Already in the 1850s, when Kansas went to war with itself in the opening rounds of the Civil War, the Osage, time and again, found themselves victims of violence all around. As people say, the Osage had no dog in that hunt, the hunt to determine whether Kansas would be "slave or free."

Nor did anyone ask their opinion about the attack on Ft. Sumter. The bloody Civil War subjected them to swarming armies of Yankees and Rebs looking for recruits, mercenaries. For the record, the broad plains of eastern Kansas in the middle decades of the 19th century were not the Elysian Fields. But that's where Charles Ingalls, the dreamer, took his family. And he wasn't alone.

You have to look hard to find the Drum Creek historical marker set up just outside of Independence, Kansas. It's off the road a bit, north. If you stop to find it, you won't fight off a crowd, because the story itself, mean and bloody, is itself a vagrant. You don't know who exactly to celebrate or how. In a way, it's a story without a real home.

It goes like this. Once upon a time a bunch of Rebs were working their way north, under cover, when a band of Osage found them in the neighborhood. Honestly, the Osage were going to meet Father Schoonmaker at the Indian Mission School--I'm not making this up. The Rebs were trespassing, so the Osage simply asked them who they were. "We're from the Fort," they said, an answer that failed miserably because the Osage knew by name the Union soldiers, and these galoots weren't them.

Up went the suspicion. Words were exchanged, then a little gunfire, and a death--one of the Osage went down. 

What started quite peaceably ended nowhere near. Eventually, the rebs--we may just as well call them spies--took refuge where they shouldn't have, in some horrible place, where they were killed, slaughtered, every last one of them. The Osage then punctuated their victory by doing things to the reb bodies that I'd rather not mention. Think the worst.

The story that historical marker tells is that story, the story of the Drum Creek battle, which, believe me, the Osage won, going away. It was a slaughter that somehow wasn't evil but most certainly wasn't good. 

May well be a blessing that historical marker is hard to find. Even a yankee like me doesn't quite know how to cheer what went down at Drum Creek.

Just a few years later, the Ingalls' family moved in, squatters. Charles Ingalls never once questioned whether the government would let him stay on what some worthless treaty claimed was Osage land. He simply assumed that if he built a log cabin on the Verdigris River, Washington would find a way to get those blame Indians the heck out.

And, of course, he was right. The government did just that.

Laura Ingalls Wilder, as a child, remembers wandering through an abandoned Osage camp, picking up beads, multi-colored beads, "a great many red ones," from the ground, things the Osage people left behind when they were pushed on.

That very day, she says, when she came back home to the log house her father had built, she and her sister Mary discovered their mom holding a brand new little baby, another sister, Caroline Celestia. All of that happened close by.

You have to get off Highway 160, and you got to look good to find the marker. But it's there. Just like the story, even if you don't know quite what to make of it.

Monday, May 07, 2018

Morning Thanks--River fair, river fowl

You got to know it's there or you'll miss it. It's classic "backroads," no sign to let you know that if you take it, you'll love it. Maybe there should be. Then again, maybe not. 

Even though it runs so close to the Missouri that if you step out you'll get a soaker; even though when you take that road, you're about as close to spotting the Core of Discovery as you can be anywhere on the trail of Lewis and Clark; and even though that road is so close to the water that there are times when it floods, that gravel path is as sweet a road as you can find anywhere. You can't help but think that even though you're in a Honda Pilot (or whatever), you're "on the river."

The Missouri River is "braided" here, so full of channels it has a look unlike anywhere else on its long and winding route. Right now the grassy channels are still brown from winter; so when you see it from the hills all around, it seems someone's built a pontoon bridge all the way across, wooden. In a sense, that's what the Army Corps of Engineers has done--but it's not wooden.

The Missouri River dams, built in 1957, have done wonderful things for the Dakotas, created huge, sparkling lakes full of game fish, and delivered water to farmers and ranchers who needed it. But those dams also wreaked considerable havoc. Big Muddy's tribs dump tons of sediment, as they have for eons. The Niobrara relieves itself of 1,400 acre-feet of sediment each year, enough to cover a football field a quarter –mile deep.

Once upon a time the Missouri was an outlaw whose spring floods brought misery to those who lived close--and even some who didn't. Those floods, mile-wide power washers, washed sediment farther downstream. Today, barring a flukey year a decade ago when someone fell asleep at the controls, those dams have made the river a puppy.

And that leaves the sediment, tons and tons of it, makes it look like the little video up top. Somebody has to do something. Every one knows it. But it's easier not to.

Besides, strangely enough, the braided effect has its own kind of beauty--and, because the river is no more unruly a parakeet, its dammed sweetness is kind of nice.

Last week, we took that wonderful river road east out of Running Water (which isn't really a town, but once was), and, thusly, were as much on the river, as if we were on some skiff.

Tons of waterfowl were right beside us, so many I couldn't help wondering how many more must have been here just a month or so ago, when migration had to be all the rage. The "Big Five" weren't here, but there were moments when we were creeping along as if we were on an African Safari. Wherever you looked, there were birds.

Long, skinny ones. . .

Or little-squirt squat ones merrily on one leg,

some of them in their own stunning finery.

I could have shot all day, but seeing all that cool stuff through a lens can get in the way of seeing the sometimes shocking beauty of a Creator's touch.

Wasn't supposed to be that way--all that sediment, all that detritus in the river, clogging it up like the way it does right now. Wasn't natural. Isn't how God created it. 

A stickler could get huffy about all of that, and some do.

But this morning, I'm thankful for a little waterfowl safari we stumbled on almost totally unawares, a nature trek that brought us up-close-and-personal to waterfowl, great and small, each of them as blessed as we were to be there.

Sunday, May 06, 2018

Sunday Morning Meds--Church pigeons

When we were overwhelmed by sins, 
you forgave our transgressions.”
Psalm 65:3

Some years ago now, we rotated the interior design of the church. Today, the windows which were once on the sides of our sanctuary are up front. We turned it sideways.

Our church, like many others, I’d guess, is home to a flock of pigeons that, during the service, occasionally flutter in and out of the gables. No matter how moving the sermon, the pigeons are impossible not to notice, their silhouettes dancing against the stained glass, especially in bright winter sunlight.

Once upon a time, the preacher made reference to them because, like the rest of us, he’s found it hard not to shape them into a metaphor. The doves he said, rather gingerly, seemed like the Holy Spirit. He shrugged as if to say we needn’t get too exorcised about the accuracy of this spiritual vision, but it had seemed to him—when he watched—that the Holy Spirit couldn’t get inside the church. I’d never thought of that.

He was preaching on that extraordinary story about the extraordinary limits to which the friends of a paralyzed man go to get their friend into Jesus’ presence, cutting a hole in the roof.

They did so, the preacher said, because the place was jammed with Pharisees and other men of stature and power. There were, he claimed, too many righteous inside, so many that others—less influential and, well, churchly—simply couldn’t get in, like those fluttering doves outside, unable to enter the sanctuary.

Maybe. I’ll admit I wasn’t exactly convinced. Lots of Sundays I’m not all that thrilled to go to church, and I felt double-whammied by the analogy. Maybe I should just stay home and keep a chair open for the Holy Spirit. Either that or break the windows.

It’s interesting that David is editorializing here, not simply uttering a personal confession. It’s us he’s talking about, not me. And he sounds rather like our preacher, methinks, who makes a case worth chewing on, as he likes to say. After all, even a quick read of the gospels makes it clear that Christ’s most robust enemies were the church insiders, those most confident of their own blessed righteousness.

That’s scary because I’m one of those. I go all the time. Years ago, my old non-church- attending friends were flabbergasted at the gadzillion hours I gave to church and its sundry affairs. I am an insider. These very words are an insider’s craft, aren’t they?

Maybe it would be easier if I was an adulterer, a drunk, an abuser, a thief, a con, a rogue cattleman who’d been kiting payments on stock and feed and what not else. Maybe it would be easier if my criminal record were as long as my arm.

The sins that are most difficult, for me at least, are those I’m only partially conscious of, the ones I need to be defined for me, the ones that keep the pigeons out.

But what keeps me going back to the church that’s turned sideways is the gratitude I know, just as David did—the gratitude that grows from the conviction, not only of the certainty of my sin, but also the certainty of grace, of forgiveness

That I don’t have a Bathsheeba or Uriah in my personal history doesn’t mean I’m any less unclean, any less in need of a Savior, any less joyous for the blessed assurance of grace. “I sing because I’m happy. I sing because I’m free”—Ethel Waters.

Maybe I should say, “His eye is on the pigeons”; and because I know he watches them, as Ms. Waters would say, “I know he’s watching me.”

Friday, May 04, 2018

Morning Thanks--Carpe Diem

Don't remember where I heard it, but the conversation wasn't directed at me exactly.  I must have been sitting somewhere among a whole group of people when I overheard a mom telling someone else about her son, how he was really into his own music, how he was in three or four bands and had already created and produced his own CDs, how he was going to make music his career, wanted to be a singer/songwriter.

Sure, I thought.

"That's all he lives for these days," she was saying, or something to that effect, and her tone of voice made it clear she'd fashioned her own dreams for her son out of the stuff of his--either that or she was faking it.  More than likely, she had to.  She was proud of him, or so it seemed, and I couldn't help but shake my head.

In a thousand years worth of teaching--seemingly--I've seen dozens like him, young men and women, kids driven to act, to sing, to write music or poetry, to make great films. Really, hundreds.  And I spent just about all of my teaching life at a little, liberal arts college in Iowa.  Just think of how many thousands upon thousands of kids there are who follow dreams that are mirage-like. Happens so often we make reality shows out of 'em, shows so popular that millions more watch slavishly.

I'm being cynical, but I couldn't help shake my head at that overheard conversation because I've dealt with students who are death-defyingly, soul-deep in just those kinds of seductions. You're going to be a singer/songwriter?  Sure.  Hey, hang on to your day job.

And then, just yesterday, for 99 cents I picked up an old, old book by George Catlin, who was just such a dreamer, a lawyer who found himself passing time in court sketching the judge and witnesses.  Enough, Catlin told himself, so he ripped off his lawyer's collar, sold his law books, picked up an easel he could travel with, loaded up with paints, and, in good American fashion, circa 1830, lit out for the territories, where for six years among Natives and trappers, he painted over 300 portraits, landscapes, and still lifes on what white people might still call "the American frontier."

Catlin followed his dream.

And as a result, we've got all kinds of images from a quest that was no mirage at all.  

Catlin was a huckster, a salesman with a three-ring circus of his own creation, a Buffalo Bill-grade showman who, later on, toured Europe with his paintings and took along a gang of Ojibwas who reenacted battles and even scalpings for Parisians. He was Barnum and Bailey with a paintbrush.  Mark Twain would have loved him, made him a buffoon if he hadn't been one himself.

And it's not hard to read exploitation into his work. He doesn't seem to have felt any of the odd shame one can feel when pointing cameras at people you don't know.  If he did, whatever he felt didn't stop him. I'm sure I'd look at his painting today--175 years later--differently, if I were Native.

On the other hand, we've got 'em.  He documented something no one else did, and the paintings are there--look at 'em.

He died a pauper, really, not a showboat, but today you'll find his collection in the Smithsonian.  He followed his dream.

Elders of the Sioux in the region told him he shouldn't, but way back in 1836 George Catlin, painting furiously, spent 360 miles on horseback just to find a red-stone quarry in what is today southwest Minnesota, a place where Native folks went to find the soft stone they used for their sacred pipes, stuff called today "Catlinite."  That's right--he came here.

"Man feels the thrilling sensation, the force of illimitable freedom," Catlin wrote about the region.  Right there at the monument he carved his name in the rock--I'm serious, he did.  "There is poetry," he wrote, "in the very air of this place."

 He's talking about Siouxland, for pity sake--my home.  How could I not like him?

This morning's thanks are for an old vaudevillian extraordinaire, a grade B artist maybe, who followed his dreams, silly as they may have seemed, way back when.

Carpe diem. 

Thursday, May 03, 2018

Morning Thanks--Harris Sparrows

This little guy showed up last week. He was here last year, and he and his cohorts showed up at the feeder once more, showing off his fancy headgear. He's a Harris sparrow, I'm told, named after a good buddy birder of John J. Audubon. Don't know if other Audubon friends got their own species, but this guy still has the name.

That they're part of the sparrow family is unmistakable, but the differences seemed so slight that I couldn't help wonder whether this was some kind of molting thing, that our fine fancy feathered friends were just getting decked out nicely for the prom. No, they're a special breed, unique, I guess, more than a little weird, staying around the mid-plains region as long as anyone, then packing their bags and going waaaaay up north to the tundra to breed. You read that right: they do their finest grooming where it's really cold. Does that make sense? They're not snowbirds. They're the only species that breed only in Canada. 

Researchers say that bib they wear isn't just a fashion accessory. The size determines where they stand in the power structure. If you're plentifully endowed, you get first dibs on motel rooms and what seeds you can find beneath feeders--bigger the bib, wider the clout. I'm not making this up.

It's still dark outside, the sun's got some distance to cover before it emerges out east. When I look out the window, all I see beneath the feeder is shadowy movements, most of which--when I look close--are Harris sparrows. Nice to have them around with their little black hoods and their disheveled plumage. 

The word is, the Harris sparrow's numbers are in decline. Don't know that anybody knows why. I better go fill up the feeders.

This morning thanks are for all creatures great and small, even and maybe especially, the little Harris sparrows. 

Wednesday, May 02, 2018

Prairie burn

My prairie burn
For the life of me, I can't find the story anywhere, but I'm told it's true. One of the first--if not the first--white settlers to Sioux County, the Groth family, created a domicile --a sod house?--about 15 miles north of Hawarden, before there was a Hawarden, even before there was a Calliope, Hawarden's ancestor. Had to be early 1860s. 

When they sunk a well, the story goes that a neighboring band of Yanktons drew water from it themselves, which may explain why, reportedly, those friendly neighbors came by when a prairie fire threatened the Groth family domicile and helped them save it.

Prairie fires can't rage like that today, given checkerboard mile roads. Besides, we're blessed by abundant rainfall--last night even some hail. Nobody's worried about a prairie fire.

But for the Groths, prairie fires were as fearful and as devastating as tornadoes--or grasshoppers. They could destroy everything in minutes. On wide open landscapes, they could be spotted miles away; but if you read the histories, the flames moved like wild horses. 

The tall-grass prairie, spring and fall, was a tinderbox. Spark was native: lightning capably carpet-bombed everything. And yes we have wind: fifty miles an hour is not unheard of.

To call prairie fires destructive requires a footnote. The blessed teamwork around the Groth house--whatever it was--saved the place. What it didn't save was prairie. However, when the thick cover of dead grass goes up in flame, it turns organic material to useable ash that would have taken years to rot and feed the topsoil. Native folks may have helped the Groths fight the fire, but, the the joy of the buffalo, they burned the prairie themselves to quicken new growth.

That's all well and good. We've got a chunk of prairie out back. People in-the-know have told me I should burn it, thick as it is with last year's growth. A burn'll clean the place up.

There's nothing behind us but corn field and a river. What's more, paths run through the grasses, paths I cut there. "Burning things isn't hard," my friends say. All around us, people burn ditches this time of year on the first windless evening they can. Last week our neighbor burned the old grasses on the river bank, so I asked him to come over and burn this little patch of mine. He did.

Or tried. The old grasses weren't thick enough to keep a fire burning because there wasn't enough wind to push it along. That night, the path wouldn't go up.

My wife, who is wiser than I am, suggested that me doing that job by myself was not in anyone's best interest. She knows me. But, having watched the guys the night before, I thought her fears not necessarily silly, but let's just say exaggerated. There was only a gentle breeze.

So I soaked a twist of prairie grass in lighter fluid, lit it, dropped it on the close edge of the patch. Unlike the night before, the flames got pushed along by a wind that somehow seemed stronger than it had been just a minute before. For a moment or two, the burn seemed downright diligent, moving through that quarter-acre.

Did I mention that reaching that patch with a hose is really not possible? Thus, I had no water beside me. But I sure did have fire. More than I bargained for. Soon enough, it was out of control. The truth?--it never was "in control." I assumed it would simply listen to me, I guess. 

Soon enough it swept hungrily into the neighbor's corn field stubble. Just about then, I told myself that fire could have kept going for more than a quarter mile and consumed nothing more than foot-high corn stalks, could have burned everything in its path until it came to the river. Big deal. 

No matter. That fire's roaring ignited terror in my soul because there wasn't a blame thing I could do about it. I couldn't run back to the house and uncoil some hose, or lug a sprinkling can--I couldn't even run fast enough to catch the flames. I couldn't mount a bucket brigade. Even though there was nothing in real danger, it was vivid and clear that my little prairie fire was way out of control.

Just so happens--isn't that a wonderful phrase?--just so happens the neighbor was right there in his tractor, pulling a plow. In a minute, the whole fiery mess got plowed under. Nothing got hurt, nothing got ruined, and most of my patch of native prairie got burned. 

And me?--I learned this three lessons: 1) there was more wind than I thought; 2) terror isn't fun; 3) I'm in no danger of becoming a pyromaniac; 4) once again, my wife of nearly fifty years was right.

If you're wondering, that night I didn't wet the bed. But that doesn't mean I slept well.