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, March 20, 2018

The stories of the Fool Soldiers

Mad Bear

What's not at issue is what happened.

Here's the story. Some Lakota warriors, at great peril, rescued the white hostages, two women and five children, who'd been taken captive after White Lodge and his band attacked the settlers at Lake Shetek, on August 20, 1862. During the day-long fighting, 15 whites were murdered; 21 escaped.

The Natives, who were Santee Dakota, went north and west with their prisoners, once it was clear the Dakota War had come to an abrupt end. They stayed on the run for weeks, in part because they were toxic to tribes and bands out west and north, bands who had not slaughtered settlers.

Wikipedia describes the story this way: "A band of pacifist Lakota later ransomed the eight surviving captives, who were reunited with their families." However, on the very same page, a different scenario is offered: "The captive settlers were freed four months later when other white settlers ran across a group of Dakotas with the captives and traded supplies for their freedom."

That second explanation is wrong. The men who ransomed the surviving captives were a Lakota warrior society from the Cheyenne River Reservation, many from the Two Kettle band. The rescue they accomplished was an act of courage and moral resolution that not all the members of their own band appreciated. They had named themselves "the Strong Hearts," but eventually came to be known as "Fool Soldiers."

Now should you read the Sioux City Register of late 1862, you might assume that the Fool Soldiers were mercenaries who had no stake in the conflict and, with a pocket full of cash, determined they'd take on White Lodge and bring the prisoners back to civilization as directed by the fort commander who, according to the account, wanted credit for the entire operation. That's way wrong.

Lakota oral history claims one of the men had had a vision which, together, the rest of them interpreted with immediate relevance. What that vision meant was that this warrior society had to do acts of kindness and charity, not go to war. Let that register a minute--they determined that, as warriors, they would not go to war. 

Now White Lodge and his people had stayed with the Two Kettle band for a time; when they left, the Strong Hearts became real Fool Soldiers and determined they'd do everything they could to ransom the hostages.

They found White Lodge where the Grand River empties into the Missouri, near Mobridge, SD, at a spot now long ago buried beneath Lake Oahe. That rescue was fraught with danger, at first with White Lodge himself (he'd taken one of the women as his wife) and later with treacherous sub-zero temperatures. Some of their number froze to death. But as Wikipedia says, eventually the hostages were reunited with their families. They should have been heroes. In 1863, if they weren't Lakota warriors, they would have been.

Of the two versions of the story, I have no trouble believing the story from Lakota oral history. The newspaper account is self-serving; the writer wants only to get credit for what he claims was his heroic work.

But what I struggle to understand is why these young men, who'd already proved themselves in war, who were already warriors in the eyes of their people--why did they decide to risk their lives to rescue the prisoners?

Last night, I thought I'd have a look at Josephine Waggoner's monumental study, Witness. It's a huge collection of stories meant to preserve a culture Ms. Waggoner, a Lakota woman educated at Hampton Institute, felt was being lost with the deaths of thousands of men and women who'd grown up in the old ways. During the 1920s and 30s, she traveled throughout the South Dakota reservations, to gather a chronicle of witness to the events of decades earlier.

When Ms. Waggoner tells the story of Yanktonai band leader named Mad Bear, she says something I'd never seen before:
When Father DeSmet came to Fort Pierre in 1851, it was an event to be remembered by the Indians. Cholera had taken its toll from the lives of the people; there was suffering everywhere, and to cap the climax, smallpox was coming on. The Indians were in terror, but the good Father had had the cholera the year before as he traveled up the Missouri in a steamboat and had also had the smallpox. He was familiar with the treatment of these diseases, and he went from tent to tent relieving the sick and baptizing the dying. Many Indians remarked on the mercy of a man whose religion took him to minister to those with the dread diseases. Many a man, woman, and child were saved from death. At this time Mad Bear was a mere lad of about fourteen years, but like many at the time, was greatly influenced and impressed by the principles of the black-robed priest.

Ten years later, some of these young warriors who Father DeSmet had taught formed a society. They pledged themselves to uphold what was right, always to do good as far as they could, and to right all wrongs that came their way. These men who formed the first Christian society west of the Missouri River among the wild tribes were. . .The society called themselves Strong Hearts, but because they did so many unusual things in fulfilling their pledge to keep law and order and in punishing many a lawless man, the other Indians called them Fool Soldiers.
That story took my breath away. Is it true? Did the Fool Soldiers get their sense of mission from a vision, a very Native source?--or was it Father DeSmet's witness? Could it have been both. 

No one will ever know, I suppose. Josephine Waggoner had her prejudices, just as all of us do. 

But I'd love to believe the DeSmet story. I'd love to believe that the Fool Soldiers' moral compass was created somehow by the witness of a beloved priest who'd come among them to care. 

Monday, March 19, 2018

Me too

How old? In case you're wondering, this foul ad was created and ran in 1969. Ads for cigarettes and Tipalets (they're gone, by the way) are long gone from magazines these days. For that matter, lots of magazines are museum-pieces. The graphics style of the ad doesn't look all that old, at least to me; but the presumptions it assumes are ancient and today off-color. No media anywhere would run this ad.

It's not the suggestion of casual sex--we're far beyond that. It's the assumption of idiot female compliance that's obscene, the belief that a woman will give herself away in a moment when in the presence of a man's man, in this case, a guy fingering a Tipalet. 

The "Me-Too" movement has taken loads of Harvey Weinsteins down, along with Hollywood stars of every genre, esteemed NPR editors, an commencement parade of academics, dozens of TV personalities, and even more politicians. For reasons few of us understand, only our madcap President gets a pass, a mulligan, the good Christians say. Every last American, no matter his or her political persuasion, has watched some alpha male he or she respected fall spectacularly from grace.

That ad up top comes from a wholly different era, and era that's behind us. 

Recently, the press that was about to release the paperback version of a Sherman Alexie's latest book announced they wouldn't. Alexie is the second most-read Native writer in America, bested only by Louise Erdrich. He's a popular lecturer and speaker, a writer who associates himself with what some might consider the most "literary" genre in this country. He doesn't write dime novels. In 2007, his book, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian won the National Book Award, and just this year his You Don't Have to Say You Love Me: A Memoir took home a Carnegie award for excellence in non-fiction. 

But awards aren't the whole story, or so it appears. He's exploited his talent and success by abusing women who looked up to him and respected him, especially Native women, especially young Native women, most specifically, young Native women writers. And he's done it by presuming what all powerful men do--that their power and success in business or media or sports or politics or art means they can power their penises where they will.

"Me too" says they'll be no more of that behavior, as men as wildly different as Garrison Keillor and Bill O'Reilly have discovered, having been outed.

So what do we do with the work, with Garrison Keillor's "News from Lake Woebegone"? What do we do with any of a dozen movies created by Harvey Weinstein or a thousand captivating interviews by Charlie Rose. Want a list? Kevin Spacey, Warren Moon, Richard Dryfuss, John Hockenberry, Casey Affleck, James Franco. . .

I read Alexie's memoir about his mother not long ago. It's not an easy read--trust me. You can read my own reactions here. I was undecided about it when I finished it, profoundly moved by some sections maybe, and heart sick about having to read others. It persistently went where I thought it didn't need to, but who am I to judge such things, the child of wonderful, loving, Christian parents?  It was, at times, sickening; at others, a blessing.

Still, after the revelations of last week, the stories of Sherman Alexie the bully, I can't think about what he's written in the same light. I just can't. 

Me-too has forever tarnished the lives of those men it's outed; of that there can be no question. 

But it's also changed the rest of us.  Me too. 

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Sunday Morning Meds--"Mighty ones"

“Ascribe to the Lord, mighty ones, 
ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.” Psalm 29:1 

Mighty, I’m guessing, is a word like rich, a word people give to others, never themselves. Few of us would consider ourselves the “mighty ones” specifically addressed in the first verse of this thundering psalm, in which David the King seems to be addressing some tenth-century elite council of the United Nations. But let’s eavesdrop.

Think football. The quarterback fakes a handoff to the tailback, then drops back, eyes ranging downfield. He pumps once, and the linebacker chasing him goes for the fake, allowing him a few extra seconds. The flanker is on a fly pattern, so the QB heaves the ball up with everything he’s got, and somewhere down the field his man runs under it, grabs it, holds on, shuns a tackler, and waltzes into the end zone. The crowd ignites.

Today, almost inevitably in pro football, the flanker will perform. He’ll slam dunk the football over the goalpost or high five the first dozen teammates who greet him. Or T-bow. But most of the time what follows is some bizarre chicken-like strut, a gangly prance, a knee-dipping, elbow-flapping sashay. You know what I mean.

If it’s the home team, the crowd goes nuts, not simply because they love the dance but because they too feel the juice of that big-time touchdown pass. They love the score just as much as the flanker. Fortunately, the cameras never pan the stands. I’m sure just as much ostentatious prancing goes on in the bleachers.

Give all of that to God. That’s what David is telling his fellow potentates. Take hold of all that bravado, all that bellicose swagger, and lay it where it belongs, at the throne of God. Dance in joy to him. Cavort blessedly. Prance your praise.

To me, far too often, prayer means supplication. Some of the most earnest prayers of my lifetime—I remember them—have been uttered when I’m begging Him for something I can’t get or maintain for myself: a cure for cancer, an end to war, a balm for grief, a shelter in the time of storm. We draw closest to God, it seems, when our own reservoirs are depleted, when we know we need showers of blessings.

It may well require more of us, however, to bring him our glory and our strength, to thank him for a great class, to bless his name for the end of a story or a novel that just wouldn’t come. For rain. For the music of the birds. For sweet Sunday mornings.

I don’t know about you, but I think it’s vastly easier to give him our worst than it is our best.

Ascribe to the Lord all strength and glory—that’s what David tells his potentate pals. Give him your finest diplomatic coups and the very best of your battles. Beg his love in your distress, but give him the praise for your everything.

Shouldn’t come as news to those of us reared in the Presbyterian tradition, in which the very first question and answer says as much. David’s song is more bellicose; the catechism, perhaps rightly, is more restrained; but the idea is the same: What is the chief end of man? The answer is simple: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.”

Give him your victories. Bless his name with your triumphs. Give him your laughter, your smiles, your greatest achievements. They’re his anyway.

Glorify God and enjoy him forever.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Thomas Paine, Sunshine Soldier

THESE are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.
To say that these are the words that lit a fire that became a revolution is not in the least overstated. Thomas Paine, a sometimes patriot himself, penned them in a pamphlet that jumped off the shelves in 1776, a year of some significance, you may remember. Every school kid ought to at least recognize those words, even if they don't know who set them down on paper.
Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value.
We call him an American, but he was, for the most part, an undocumented immigrant, arriving here in 1774, just two years before his best seller. He was here when the fire was hot, played a significant role in lighting it; once it was behind him, he left for more combustible environs. He loved revolution.
Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated. Britain, with an army to enforce her tyranny, has declared that she has a right (not only to TAX) but "to BIND us in ALL CASES WHATSOEVER" and if being bound in that manner, is not slavery, then is there not such a thing as slavery upon earth. Even the expression is impious; for so unlimited a power can belong only to God.
I'm not sure Thomas Paine has a right to talk about God. After all, Teddy Roosevelt called him "that filthy little atheist." One of his greatest works rips organized religion and establishes a universalist god most theologians of his time thought to be downright heresy. The Age of Reason sold thousands of copies. He wrote it in France, in jail.
I have as little superstition in me as any man living, but my secret opinion has ever been, and still is, that God Almighty will not give up a people to military destruction, or leave them unsupportedly to perish, who have so earnestly and so repeatedly sought to avoid the calamities of war, by every decent method which wisdom could invent. Neither have I so much of the infidel in me, as to suppose that He has relinquished the government of the world, and given us up to the care of devils; and as I do not, I cannot see on what grounds the king of Britain can look up to heaven for help against us: a common murderer, a highwayman, or a house-breaker, has as good a pretense as he.
Basically, he got along with no one, once dropped by at the home of an acquaintance, then ended up staying for five years. He ego left little room for anyone else in the room, and friendships too often ended in wreckage. People found him a tramp and a rogue. He wasn't nice, and he drank way, way too much too often.
But, his words were more than a spark to the creation of the Republic--they were the fuel. 

He's something of an embarrassment in the grand story of the American Revolution, a story which can't be told without his famous words.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Bob and the Rookie*

Bob, the gymnast, sat right in front, a kid with Popeye's powerful forearms and a saint's pale blue eyes. I'd never known a gymnast before. In my previous life as a high school teacher, I'd known cocky shortstops, thick-headed defensive tackles, thoroughbred point guards, and track stars of every shape and size. But I'd never taught in a city high school big enough to sport a gymnastic team.

I was a rookie, growing up as I had in the loving security of a Midwestern small town, where I had only one friend who ever talked back to his father, where I'd never seen my parents fight, if they ever did. I'd seen drunks, but they were all fun-loving kids with their fingers wrapped around shortie Millers. I'd read about bad things, but my Christian home hadn't prepared me for the lives some people live, day in and day out.

One day after school Bob told me that he didn't have a paper finished. He was a nice kid, quiet and unassuming, never bold.

“What’s the deal?” I said. "You need another day or two?"

He looked down at the books he had pinned up against his chest. "Don’t know if I can."

He’d already passed a test or two, but he’d never struck me as a kid who couldn’t do the work.

“When then?” I asked him. “Name a day.”

He eyes searched the rug as if there were some answer down there folded up in a note. When his teeth went down over his bottom lip, I knew there was more to the story. The buff kid who wore his shirtsleeves rolled above his swelling biceps cried.

“I can’t get anything done at home,” he told me. “I just can’t.” He brought his hands up to his eyes. "My parents," he said, "they’re on each all the time, and I just can’t take it.”

In my college English methods class. we hadn't talked much about guys bawling.

“Every night it goes on,” he said, “and if I go away I can’t get my work done. I don’t know what to do.”

I reached for Kleenex for him. Even now, forty years later, I don’t remember any other guy crying like Bob did that days, his eyes red and bruised by the way his hands constantly pushed at them, as if to stanch what he couldn't stop.

"It’s okay," I said. "I understand—I understand.” That was a lie. I didn't know what else to say. "Listen, get that paper in whenever you can, all right? I understand." I put my hand on his shoulder.

When he left, I felt as if I had something to write home about--how the world was an awful place, and how I really didn't understand darkness so well as I did now that I was there, in the city.

A day or two later I met one of the counselors coming up the walk toward the English building, rocking on his toes the way he always did, rolling along that way as if simply a smile weren't enough to show the need for happiness.

“Schaap,” he said, “this kid—Bob Ranzig—you got him, right?—short guy?—muscular?”

"I ought to talk to you about him," I said.

He turned his head away and looked down at the cracks in the sidewalk as if what he had to say wasn't going to be easy. "You're a saint—you know that? All you small-town Midwesterners are sweethearts.” Then he giggled. "He pulled one over on you the other day. He’s pulled that stunt before, and I've been trying to explain he can’t do it anymore. It’s a crutch, and he’s got to learn to live with who he is.”

“A crutch?” I said.

"Don't let him by. You want to help the kid?—don't let him pull that. I don’t care what he's got at home, he’s using that song-and-dance, and he can’t.”

I felt perfectly green.

He put his hand on my shoulder. "You're not the only one who let him by," he said.

That was just about fifty years ago, but I remember where on the sidewalk outside the building we were standing, remember the way that counselor, a friend, teased me. 

I felt naive, but in all those years in the classroom thereafter, I think I probably stayed a rookie, a small-town, Midwesterner.  I don't think I'd care to be who I would be without trust.
*Published first March 31, 2009

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Oprah and the farm up the road

Harry Herman Roseland, To the Highest Bidder (1906)

It's up in her house, she says. You can't miss it when you walk in. She keeps it there because it is a reminder of her roots, she says, and that kind of reminder is what she needs more than occasionally. Oprah is one of the richest women in the world.

That's not all either. She claims that when she gets depressed--don't we all?--she gets out a folder of slave narratives, stories about men and women who never tasted a day of freedom and didn't have a painting like this up on a wall where you simply can't miss it, or a house to put it in or a wall to hang it on. To the Highest Bidder triggers a human reaction that's only difficult to understand if you've never felt it--it brings her up by bringing her down. 

There's a farm down the highway from here, just on the other side of the river, that draws my attention every time I go by--and has, really, for a long time. I know the couple who live there, sweet people in every way. 

She's alone now because she lost her husband. They're younger than we are, but he's not dead, only gone. She brought him to a place, maybe twenty miles away, who'll take patients like him. I don't know if she goes everyday, but I'm guessing she does, right now at least. He's been there only a month or so. 

When I drive by, sometimes the garage door is open and I see the car. She's home. Alone. 

It just got too hard to take care of him, their friends say. She had to get up whenever he did because he'd wander. He didn't know where he was or where he was going, and it wasn't always easy to persuade him to come back. She tried to take care of him, but, over time, through the years, it just got to be too much. Still shakes my soul to think of her leaving him there. But it was something that had to be done.

"I had no shoes and I complained until I met a man who had no feet," or so my mother used to say. It's been said a million times, so often it's become a cliche, a joke. People laugh when they say it. I have myself.

That it is a cliche doesn't make it wrong.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Going to war

President Woodrow Wilson, like each and every President--and all of us--was a bundle of contradictions, his very soul a nest of hooks. From the time he was a kid, he wanted to be in government. A portrait of Gladstone hung in his boyhood bedroom, and he made no bones about it--he wanted to be a statesman.

In private he was an entertainer. He could dance a jig, tell hilarious jokes, imitate people with enough talent to put him on a stage. But he loved ideas more, and was, for better or worse, a no-holds-barred intellectual. His father, a Presbyterian minister, home-schooled him until he was 13 years old, took him all over, to museums and factories and cotton gins--and gave him thereby a sturdy understanding of the world of his time. He became a thoughtful scholar, a much beloved teacher, and, eventually, President of Princeton University. Prof. Wilson wrote highly acclaimed books on American government. 

He'd grown up in the American South, in the bloody maelstrom of the Civil War. His very first memory, he used to tell people, was hearing someone say that Abraham Lincoln had been elected President and now there was going to be war. He was four years old. 

Throughout his life, he remained a segregationist, a racist. His father's church became a hospital for the bloodied Rebel troops. What he saw in that church, he never forgot. Some call him the only President of these United States to grow up in a defeated nation. 

Still, what he experienced in the American South during and after the Civil War made him dedicate himself to peacemaking. It was difficult, very difficult for him to bring America into the trenches of the First World War.

But it became impossible not to when German U-boats sunk American shipping. The Lusitania wasn't the only vessel to go down with its innocent passengers. And when intelligence discovered Germany was attempting to enlist Mexico's help in defeating America and the Allied nations, the peacemaker understood that once again, America was going to have to go to war. 

Woodrow Wilson was the last President to write his own speeches. He didn't have a cadre of writers around to make his rhythms dance and his metaphors glow. Any lyrical sense to his words came from his soul. 

On April 1, 1917, the scholar-President pulled an over-nighter on a speech he would deliver the next evening to a joint session of Congress, one of the most important speeches in American history, the speech that would carry a single line to the practice of American foreign policy for generations: "the world must be made safe for democracy."

"The challenge is to all mankind," he said. 

Each nation must decide for itself how it will meet it. The choice we make for ourselves must be made with a moderation of counsel and temperateness of judgment befitting our character and our motives as a nation. We must put excited feeling away. Our motive will not be revenge or the victorious assertion of the physical might of the nation, but only the vindication of right, of human right, of which we are only a single champion.

A peacemaker was going to war. 

With a profound sense of the solemn and even tragical character of the step I am taking and of the grave responsibilities which it involves, but in unhesitating obedience to what I deem my constitutional duty, I advice that the Congress declare the recent courses of the Imperial German Government be in fact nothing less than war against the government of the United States. 

When he finished, Congress got to its feet and gave him a thunderous ovation. 

He was dumbfounded. "My message today," he told an aid, "was a message of death for our young men. How strange it seems to applaud that."

Then, at that moment, President Woodrow Wilson, having declared war on Germany, laid his head on the Cabinet table and cried. 

Monday, March 12, 2018

My mother's righteous bargain

1981--maybe 82. Right there somewhere, right there before the computer changed everything and shoved typewriters right out the door into obsolescence. I had a Sherman tank of a machine, a huge thing that printed beautifully but took up half an office desk and simply wasn't getting any younger. Got it cheap. Used. My dad found it. I don't remember the particulars.

But I was coveting something new. I was doing my dissertation, typing every day, every last day, all day, and I couldn't help but think my life would be greatly improved if I had a new Selectric. You know--one of those with the jumpy little circular print heads. Something 20th century at least. 

That's when my mother made me an offer I couldn't win. A IBM Selectric was not something our limited budget could handle. I was a graduate student, and Barbara was working part-time at the bank downtown. My assistantship was nothing to sneeze at in those days, but we weren't swimming in cash. 

We were already a family, two kids, and I was far too proud to ask my parents for a typewriter; but my mother must have picked up on my covetousness because she made a legitimate offer. She said she'd buy me the very best typewriter I could find if I would promise that no "naughty words" would ever emerge on paper from that little rotating ball. It was a righteous offer; but then, my mother was a righteous woman. 

Now had I known what was about to happen, had I known I'd get my first Apple (Magic Window software) just a year later, I suppose I could have been sleazy about it, taken her up on the offer, then sold that grand Selectric a year later for peanuts probably, and picked up a IIe. Could have done that. If I would have, I'd have been freed from the legacy she wanted desperately to leave me.

But I wasn't keeping up with what was coming down the pike technologically. I didn't see what was coming, so I was left only with my mother's saintly proposition, which really didn't offer alternatives because taking her up on her offer meant promising something I simply couldn't promise. So I typed all 300 pages of that dissertation--a novel, by the way--on that old Sherman tank (did a little cussing in the process). And, if you're wondering--yes, there were a few naughty words in that dissertation.

My mother died several years ago now, but she still sits here over my shoulder; and right now she's shaking her head and trying once again to determine exactly where she went wrong on her only son, because there's some significant cussing in Looking for Dawn, my latest. The truth is, I never used naughty words as wholesale as I did in that novel.

She knows it, and, what's worse, I know she knows it.

A new book, Swearing is Good for You, by Emma Byrne, claims, well, that it is. Swearing manages stress, after all--ask anyone who sorts hogs or once upon a time typed dissertations; it can be safety valve, restraining us from letting things get really out of hand, more violent, she says. As our President knows, a few choice words in a few choice places makes an impact, adds exclamation points, and, for better and for worse, demonstrates power. Cussing remains a dynamic signifier. For a writer like me, a realist, it's the vulgate. It's what we say and what we do. 

So there, Mom. 

I don't think she'll read that book. Once she sees the title, she'll never pull it off the shelf.

In case you're wondering, my dissertation--a novel--passed through my committee with fine reviews. The only moment I remember vividly was when one of the writers on the committee, a novelist himself, looked up at me and smiled. "You know," he said, "the cussing seemed almost out of place, a little awkward." I wasn't worried. He'd already indicated his appreciation. "You probably need to keep in mind that you're not that good at it."

I never told my mother that story, but I'm saying it now because, honestly, she is still here, right over my shoulder. And smiling.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Sunday Morning Meds--Still waters

“He leads me beside still waters” Psalm 23

I was 32 years old when someone at Bread Loaf Writers Conference called to tell me that my application for a scholarship had been accepted and they were offering me a position as a waiter, a waiter in the lunch room. I had no idea what that meant, but I understood clearly from the conversation that the offer was a good, good thing.

The house where we lived at that time is long gone, as is the tiny kitchen where I stood, phone in hand, listening. The call had come in the middle of the day, in the middle of a meal. Our two little kids were sitting beside us.

It’s now almost forty years later, but I will never forget receiving that call because I had the distinct sense that my being chosen for a waiter’s scholarship to the granddaddy of all writers conferences, Bread Loaf, was a sign that fame and fortune lay just down the road. I had just published a book, my first, with a tiny, local press; now, and now Bread Loaf beckoned. The New York Times Book Review was a year away.

When I flew into Burlington, Vermont, for the Conference—early, because I was a waiter—I met a beautiful woman, my age, married with two children, an aspiring but accomplished poet. She’d also be a waiter. Someone from the Conference picked us up, but we took the hour-long drive together into Vermont’s Green Mountains.

Ten days later, when we boarded a plane to leave, she and I stood on the stairway to a small jet, waiting to enter the cabin. She looked at me and shook her head. “I hope this plane crashes,” she said, and she meant it.

She’d been wooed by a celebrity poet, and she’d fallen. On the dance floor at night, the two of them looked like smarmy high school lovers, which might have seemed embarrassing if it hadn’t happened to so many others. Another waiter—also married with kids, two of them—told me it was important for him to have an affair because, after all, as an artist he needed to experience everything in order to write with authority.

I am thankful to God for sending me to Bread Loaf, but it wasn’t an easy place to be, for a waiter or anyone else, I’d guess. I’d lived most of my life in small, conservative communities who prided themselves on their church-going. Adultery was real, but a scandal and a tragic loss of trust and faith; it wasn’t commonplace.

The atmosphere in that mountaintop retreat was electric. Aspiring writers like me flirted daily with National Book Award winners, editors, agents, and publishers. Life—dawn ‘till dawn—was always on stage.

I am thankful to God for sending me to Bread Loaf because I learned a great deal about writing, but much more about life itself and my place in it. In the middle of that frenetic atmosphere, on a Sunday morning, I walked, alone, out into a meadow, away from people. Out there I found an unoccupied green Adirondack chair and sat for an hour, meditating. I tried to imagine what the soft arm of my little boy would feel like in my fingers, while I recited, over and over again, the words of the 23rd psalm.

I remember a beautiful mountain stream, but there were no still waters at Bread Loaf Writers Conference the summer of 1980. If there were, I didn’t see them. But that Sabbath’s very personal worship, right there in the middle of the madness, brought me—body and soul—to the very place David has in mind in verse two.

Honestly, I know still waters. He led me there.

Friday, March 09, 2018

The Signs of the Times*

I don’t remember much about coming into Sioux Center, Iowa, in August of 1966. I was 18 years old, and I’d never been to northwest Iowa so I was a little nervous, just about to start college. I certainly wasn’t sleeping, because, oddly enough, one of the only memories I have is a pair of glaring hand-painted signs planted firmly on both sides of the highway several miles north of town, someone’s personal roadside evangelism project crudely blasting out some prophetic exhortation, like “What road are you on?–-heaven or hell?” Huge signs, looming over the single-lane highway like doom itself.

That’s what I remember, coming into Sioux Center, 45 years ago.

I wondered if maybe this place was going to be too much for me, the elders of the village like the dark men on the cover of a Dutch Masters cigar box–black robed, unbending, zealots, duty-bound to scare the bejeebees out of any kid a foot off the highway of Sioux Center righteousness.

Those signs stayed there for years, some are still there in fact, and, not more than a week ago, I passed a new one, which is strange because I know that the man who once put them up there--and elsewhere around Rock Valley--is gone, moved to Michigan, where he died. I know because he doesn't call me anymore.

It took me several decades, but I came to know the man behind the signs, a man named Richard Gerritson--and his story. I visited with him and wrote up his story, something he always wanted published. Maybe it will be. Part of it is here. Read on.

On October 11, 1958, a Saturday, Richard Gerritson was ripping a house down twenty miles south of his home in Rock Valley, saving the scrap to sell, trying to make a few extra bucks, when a man drove up from the gas station down the block, asked him if he was Richard Gerritson, then told him he’d been called to get him because there’d been a terrible accident that involved his son, Larry Wayne Gerritson, just 12 years old. That’s all he said—a terrible accident that involved his son.

By the time Richard got home, cars were parked on the road in front of the little house on 15th Street. An elder from the church met him on the sidewalk, didn’t tell him the whole truth. But soon enough the preacher did. Once Richard stepped in the house, the preacher took him by the hand, Richard told me—it’s something he said he'd never forget, that preacher holding his hand. Just then he overheard his wife sobbing in the living room behind him. The news was bad—-the worst. Larry Wayne was dead.

The Gerritson family hadn't been much for church and only recently had started going. Not more than a few years before, they’d come along to worship with friends. He started attending for his wife and kids' sake, he told me, not for himself or because he really wanted to. But the family—-Mom, Dad, two girls and a boy—-were already members when Larry Wayne was killed just a hundred feet or so from Grandpa’s house, spilled on his bike on Highway 18 and broke his neck when he was hit by a car.

For three weeks after Larry died, Richard Gerritson couldn’t make it through a church service. For three weeks straight, he’d leave the pew in tears and walk home to that place on 15th Street. His wife took the car.

On that third Sunday night, sometime after two in the morning, he came up out of bed, wide awake, and picked up a Bible, something he’d rarely, if ever, done in his life, he told me. He read from the book of Matthew, 10th chapter, words that struck him right between those sky blue eyes of his. “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Jesus said, “Take up my cross and follow me.”

So he did. And part of that cross was twenty years with M-2 prison ministry, inmates with whom he shared the gospel that changed his life, one-on-one—-black, red, and white inmates, “who just made some mistakes is all,” he told me. Part of that ministry was three-times-a-week Bible studies, one of which—the one at the Town House restaurant—is itself more than twenty years old. And part of that ministry was annually changing those graphic, hand-painted signs on the highways in northern Sioux County, the ones I saw from the back seat of my parents' car the very first time I came to Sioux Center. For fifty years and more those signs have been there.

Richard Gerritson is gone, but I just noticed that now, on highway 75, someone else has put up a new sign where his old ones once stood, sentry-like, just outside of Hull.

There's always more to the story. A half a century later, at least some of what I've learned is that sometimes first impressions aren't greatly perceptive because, if you look and listen you might just learn there's more to the story.

*Republished from June 30, 2011. Richard Gerritson, 91, went to be with his Savior on March 12, 2008.

Thursday, March 08, 2018

Walking the line in West Virginia

Image result for west virginia school strike

My life as a union thug was totally uneventful. I don't remember there being pressure to join, but I'm sure I felt some among the faculty and staff of a suburban high school in Phoenix, where I taught English--and loved it, and where I joined the union. 

I don't remember union meetings, if there were any. I don't remember being dissatisfied with working conditions or salaries, or what we used to call "fringe" benefits (before medical care went up in a skyrocket). I don't remember anything about my two-years in the union, other than a newsletter once a month. And, oddly enough, what I remember best about that broadside is a sickly feeling from triumphalism surrounding mention of those schools whose valiant teachers walked out when negotiations tanked. 

My dad disliked unions, hated them. He was enough of an elitist to believe ordinary blue-collar workers needed smart people to help them find their way through life. He was a Republican from the soul, and he believed in the authority of management, period. Regulations on corporations?--creeping socialism. Real Americans cut loose free private enterprise to let it make all of us rich. 

He was too much a moralist to admire Trump, but he'd have to swallow hard to cross him. 

I never picketed anything, never protested lousy pay, never drove downtown and chanted in the statehouse. I wasn't much of a union man.

But I became far more sympathetic in my years in Christian education, when abiding by the will of management was somehow coordinated with the will of the Lord. In Christian education, there was no union--thus, no leverage. Successive administrations regularly appointed a faculty-salary committee, then pretty much set their own agenda because somewhere in Leviticus the Bible makes clear that administrations make righteous decisions. 

Which left a faculty powerless. 

That's why my heart swells at what happened in West Virginia. I haven't been a union member for decades, but I appreciate the fact that in this Republican era those teachers went to war with the statehouse. It's easy for "management" to assume salaries should be the first item of business when the books don't appear to balance. 

Those West Virginia teachers did it. Solidarity forever. Many of them are descended from the mine workers Donald Trump claims to love. When they walked out of their classrooms--and stayed out--they were doing what comes natural to old line union stiffs. 

And then there's the porn star. Trump claims he and a couple dozen other women accusers are all just dirty, rotten, filthy liars. Consensual sex or p----y grabbing makes little difference to many, many women. They've got his number, despite his denials; and that's why thousands more, nation-wide are running for office right now for the first time. 

At Phoenix Greenway High, I was a member of an English Department, twenty strong, seventeen of whom were women. That West Virginia school strike was ginned up by loads and loads of school teachers, women, sick to death of flipping burgers on weekends to support their families.

Trickle-down Republicans need to be reminded of a line from an ancient play by William Congreve, a line that would be perverse if it weren't entirely relevant right now--"hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. . ."

I'm sure they're all happy to be back in the classrooms, men and women. But what they did--how they fought, how they won--is an inspiration.

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

Winners in wooden shoes


'Twas an off year this year. I don't know why, don't follow local sports as closely as I might and most do. 'Twas an off year: Des Moines had no Hollanders, or at least very few.

An Iowa State Tournament without a Western Christian High team--boys or girls--is a rarity. Not only did no Western team grab the big prize, neither girls or boys even had a place. Last year, it was both boys and girls--both wins. That's rare, but plain old state championships are not. 

No Unity Christian team either, although bringing home the bacon isn't quite the annual ritual in the school down the road. The Sioux Center girls went to the tourney this year, again, but no MOC-FV teams made it either. Of all things, George-Little Rock and West Sioux both sent squads, but neither came home with the nets or the honor.

Nobody from Pella either, hard as that is to believe--either Christian high or public. It was as if someone set a quota on Dutch kids this year. Ordinarily, kids with unpronounceable names are everywhere. Some in the diaspora were on other teams's rosters, I'm sure. Check your Vanders to be sure.

In the state of Washington this year, Lynden Christian boys won it all, Lyndon Christian girls won too. As if that wasn't enough, Lynden Public boys won (they play in different classes), and Lynden Public girls got a place, but didn't come home with all the marbles. Just to be sure, Sunnyside Christian won its class. Thusly, in Yakima last Saturday there were more Dutch names than half the province of Gelderland. 

Someone somewhere determined that the tallest people in the world are from Friesland--and their descendants--which is why people who stumble into Sioux County, Iowa, or western Michigan or the far northwest corner of Washington feel diminished in the land of the giants. Size matters in high school sports. 

But no ball team can run the tournament table by height alone. There has to be will. There has to be desire, and desire has to have a foundation, a following. I'm told most of Lynden was over the mountains in Yakima last weekend. I don't know who may have been minding the store.

There are no winners where people don't care, where they don't work up a sweat by way of a work ethic that won't quit, where moms and dads and grandpas and grandmas don't truly believe the pursuit of excellence is quite simply heavenly. Wooden shoe kids get pushed. Sioux County's churches are alive and kickin', but if you're want excitement, hang out at some local monster gym.

We're tall and we're good, even a little self-righteous about it. That doesn't hurt either. 

Right now, all of Lynden is proud, and that's not a sin either, people will tell you. Here, among the Hollanders, this year there simply wasn't much glory to go around.

But there's always next--ain't it so? You can bet some kids--and their parents--are already dreaming of taking home the prize.

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

Small Wonder(s) -- Siouxland Ozymandius

Oddly enough, the empire began by way of a very sore bum. An Englishman named William Brooks Close, who, with his brothers, was in Philadelphia for a rowing match in 1876, so banged up his posterior in practice, that he could not sit without pillows. While the rest of the crew continued to work out, but he had to sit out.

And so, he met a wealthy American from Illinois, a Mr. Daniel Paullin (who lent his name to the town of Paullina). Mr. Paullin made very clear to Mr. William B. Close, the dandy from Britain, that good money could be made in still largely unsettled northwest Iowa. 

Now the Close brothers were rich, Cambridge grads kids who loved playing polo and hunting fox. William B. may well have been “yearning to be free,” but he and his brothers should not be mistaken for “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses.” Sore bum or not, the Close brothers didn’t sit on their laurels.

They found America's beckoning frontier to be a thrill. Rather than return to England, he traveled around, south into Dixie, north into Canada, and west into Kansas and Nebraska.

But when it was time to invest, he chose the unsettled rolling prairies of northwest Iowa, convinced good money could be made here. More Euro-Americans were coming, after all, as they had been coming to every corner of the map.

Their first purchase, 3000 acres at $3.50@acre, was between Mapleton and Denison. The Close Brothers' empire grew when they determined the best way to colonize all that open land was by tenant farming, sharing the cost—and the income—with those who actually worked the land. They were, trust me, marvelously successful, not only because thousands of those huddled masses wanted in, but also because Europe crop failures pushed commodity prices delightfully up.

So they started looking north for more land, which they bought at bargain-basement prices, when grasshoppers, three years running, made life totally miserable here. In 1879, only three years since that East coast rowing match, William B. Close, who'd married Mr. Paullin's daughter, teamed up with venture capitalists and bought 16000 acres of land in Woodbury, Plymouth, and Cherokee County at just $2.40 an acre, then moved their business north to LeMars, where their Brit roots prompted yet another grand idea—why not bring over more rich young English boys and give them a shot at the American frontier, build them a pub or two, let them hunt fox on a huge landscape unlike anything in jolly old England? Bring in some trusty ponies and play polo, downtown LeMars. For some time, everything the Close Brothers touched turned to gold.

In 1880 they bought 19,000 more acres in Lyon County, and plotted out their own first town, Quorn, in far southern Plymouth County. The Sioux City Journal crowed about the Close Brothers this way:

Some idea of the magnitude of the English interests in Northwestern Iowa may be inferred from the taxes paid by Close Bros. & Co., for themselves and the investors represented by the firm, in this county, $1,400; Plymouth county, $4,000; Sioux county, $1,600; Lyon county, $5,000; and in Osceola county $1,500. In the latter county there is beside this $10,000 taxes paid by the Iowa Land Company, Limited, of which the Duke of Sutherland is the heavy man. 

At the height of the power in 1884, the Close Brothers owned 450,000 Siouxland acres, or 700 square miles of the richest agricultural land in the region.

Today, here and there in the countryside some grand house remains, a mansion or two, where English gentry spent some years in Siouxland. They left their polo sticks behind. You can see them on the wall at the Plymouth County Museum. And this year, LeMars will celebrate its sesquicentennial with--you guessed it--a polo match.

But be sure you go to Kingsley some time (the name is a gift from the British invasion), turn west off the main drag, and follow a woeful road, even when it turns to gravel. Watch the pot holes, or your car will hate you. Soon enough, you’ll roll up to a cattle yard, and there to your right, you’ll see a nicely printed sign standing high enough above the road not to get mud-spattered.

It’s says "Historical Site of Quorn, Platted 1880." Behind it sits a darkened woods along the west branch of the Little Sioux River, and a T in the road. That’s it. Nothing more. That's it really--just a sign on a gravel road is all there's left to see of this whole epic tale.

It's an odd place to pull over, but do it, sit there and read the sign. Take a good, deep breath because what you see is all that's left of a kingdom. It's like Percy Bysse Shelley said, ". . .nothing beside remains. . .boundless and bare/The long and level sands stretch far away."

Monday, March 05, 2018


Kathleen Parker, who is traditionally a "conservative" writer but isn't now nor has ever been a Trumpster, began a Washington Post op-ed last week, this way:

Dear World, 

Please pay no attention to the man behind the golden drapes."

Ms. Parker meant to warn her readers about believing any political pronouncement the President makes (he's notoriously fickle), her warning might well have been a fast rule for anyone who took the stage during last night's 90th Academy Awards show because it was perfectly clear they paid no attention to the wizard behind the drapes.

No one doubts all those stars and artists could have taken turns chewing up and spitting out the man we used to call "the Donald"--there's enough fare there for everyone. Furthermore, Hollywood isn't the man's Garden of Eden. He's no fave with the celebrities he'd love to smooch. The long procession of winners could have gone on and on and on talking about a man they consider a loser--and worse. But they didn't. 

The word on the street was that word got out to mute the slap shots, to hold your tongue when you picked up your Oscar, to just plain stifle it, as Archie Bunker used to say. 

And that's what happened. 

Honestly, I don't remember hearing his name all night long. Seems impossible. But it happened.

Thus, everybody wins. Instead of having to listen to endless leftie blather, they could spend a pleasant evening watching the stars and the drama and the spectacle, and never once have to roll their eyes, or scream, or flip to FOX to for a breath of fresh air. Last night, the stars paid no attention to the man with orange hair behind the golden drapes.

Those who believe he's been a wrecking ball didn't have to hear endless repetition either. The longer he's around, it seems he gets easier and easier to bash. Even Colbert has to reach to be fresh. Last week, we found out Stormy the porn queen threatened to tell to go public with his privates right before the election, but Trump's personal lawyer shelled out $130,000 of his own cash to shut her up at the same time Mr. Trump was making America great again by saying all those women were flat-out liars. 

So, last night, a no-Trump night made everyone happy. It was a no-Trump evening. Personally, I would have preferred Dunkirk or The Darkest Hour to get Best Picture, but the endless acceptance speeches didn't include any bully-badgering. And that was nice.

Trump may have even liked it. 

Then again, maybe not. No one likes ink like the Pres. 

"Please pay no attention to the man behind the golden drapes," Kathleen Parker wrote. 

Last night's Oscars was a Trump-free zone. What a blessing.

Sunday, March 04, 2018

Sunday Morning Meds--Heavenly Preaching

“The heavens declare the glory of God. . ." Psalm 8

In a sense, you could set your clock to the sun. I’m not sure who determines such things, but if you’d like to know exactly when dawn will arrive eight years from Thursday, you can check any of a dozen readily accessible sources. Count on it.

What you can’t know is what it will look like. A dawn is a dawn—the sun nudges itself up from the eastern horizon and spreads its glorious gold over the world. But no two dawns are exactly the same.

For years, I’ve been a chaser of the dawn. I leave home in the darkness, camera in hand, to hunt dawn’s early light the way some folks hunt deer. I chase down empty country roads, gravel cracking up in my wheel wells, trying to get to the best possible place at the best possible time for the best possible shot. Dawn is, after all, fleeting. 

More often than I care to admit, I come home empty-handed. Last Saturday, rain fell about an hour before dawn. When I stood outside and looked up at the sky, it was perfectly clear above me and all the way to the west; so I loaded up the cameras, made some coffee, jumped in the Tracker, and took off west to where the land rolls like a bunched up carpet and the landscape’s yawning breadth is huge.

But the clouds that had dropped the rain kept up a thick curtain, so when I stood out there in an open field I had nothing to shoot at. I got back in the car and headed home, slowly, thinking maybe something worth shooting would appear, as it often does.

Some mornings, even out here, miles from open water, mists lounge in low spots like gossamer, like satin left behind. Fog make the sun look as perfectly cut as a communion wafer rising like something offered mysteriously from the night. 

On windy mornings when the skies are clear, the sweeping light of dawn can be overpowering. The moment sun rises, it washes everything out as if it were midday. The only place to shoot is west, where shadows run long and deep.

The most beautiful dawns are not perfectly clear because what turns the sky into a palate is clouds. They break the intensity or create immense crowns of shimmering rays leaping up to heaven. They take what the sun offers in innumerably different ways, to offer a light show that’s new every morning. Dawn is the most incredible show anyone will ever see, and it happens every day on a limitless theater screen just outside our door. 

Dawn is God speaking—or so says the psalmist here. “The heavens declare the glory of God,” he says, which is to say, the sky is a preacher whose sermons are never derivative nor stultifying. What the heavens tell us is big and glorious, ever-changing, and always new, even though themes never change.

What the dawn says is that God is God. When we acknowledge him to be the Supreme Architect, the creator of the very fabric of the universe, says Calvin, then we can’t help but be ravished with wonder.

I’ve been a church-goer for most of my life. I feel guilty if I don’t go. I wonder why I don’t feel the same about dawn. The heavens declare his glory, after all. Just outside my window, God himself, a noted clergyman, is on the pulpit. His sermon is the sky.

Friday, March 02, 2018

"Abandoned Farmhouse"--Ted Kooser

He was a big man, says the size of his shoes
on a pile of broken dishes by the house;
a tall man too, says the length of the bed
in an upstairs room; and a good, God-fearing man,
says the Bible with a broken back
on the floor below the window, dusty with sun;
but not a man for farming, say the fields
cluttered with boulders and the leaky barn.

A woman lived with him, says the bedroom wall
papered with lilacs and the kitchen shelves
covered with oilcloth, and they had a child,
says the sandbox made from a tractor tire.
Money was scarce, say the jars of plum preserves
and canned tomatoes sealed in the cellar hole.
And the winters cold, say the rags in the window frames.
It was lonely here, says the narrow country road.

Something went wrong, says the empty house
in the weed-choked yard. Stones in the fields
say he was not a farmer; the still-sealed jars
in the cellar say she left in a nervous haste.
And the child? Its toys are strewn in the yard
like branches after a storm—a rubber cow,
a rusty tractor with a broken plow,
a doll in overalls. Something went wrong, they say.

Thursday, March 01, 2018

Great is Thy Faithfulness

Related image

On Sunday, with Dad, we attend worship services in the Home. 

All the residents are in wheelchairs. One at a time, they're ushered in by the weekend help to take their places behind long tables set on angles before a pulpit and a couple of lighted stained glass windows built into the meeting room especially for Sundays. 

The hymnal, bound by a red plastic hinge, is printed with its own economy--no more than three verses from any selection because you can only get so much on the page with all that over-sized lettering. No notes, no music, nothing obscure, only the favorites too. Every week we sing, "Great is Thy Faithfulness." If one of the residents don't choose it, the visitors do.

Some residents sing. Some can, some can't, some are tuned elsewhere, if they're tuned at all. Some slump, several sleep.

Dad can't read the hymnal's words, but he turns to the right numbers. Besides, there's remnants of the old standbys in his memory, enough so that mostly he stays with the program. A really active mike might pick up a word or two if you held it up close, but I'm thrilled just to see his lips move at all on "Amazing Grace."

An old man who spent the war in England, he told me, developing pictures created by Allied bombers over Germany, comes with his wife every Sunday. He pushes her into the room himself, and they sit up front. He sings, not well. He turns his wife's hymnal to the right page for her, then shoves it at her, as if by force he can prompt her to sing. She seems oblivious, rubs her fingers over her forehead as if her worries have left her voiceless. Eventually, he gives up.

The woman front-and-center has been in a wheelchair for most of her life. Once she was a teacher. Once she was married. All of that ended with a withering diagnoses already decades ago. She appears to know all the words, and she smiles when she sings, her face uplifted as if what's up there above is all that she needs to see. 

Years ago, a friend and colleague told me how his senile mother, a woman who long ago stopped speaking altogether, would speak only in song, in the hymns she'd learned as a child. Otherwise, her condition seemed to have left her mute. "It's as if  'Jesus Loves Me' was all that was in her in those last years," he told us.

I never forgot that story. To believe that each of us has a battery that never runs out of childhood inspiration, even when the now is a blur or nothing at all, is a blessing, whether or not it's true. 

Did I mention? He's here, too, that very friend who told me about his mother's singing. Forty years after she surprised him by singing along when he'd visit her, he's here too. Sometimes. When he is, he's strapped in his chair, always bent over. If he sings at all, I don't know.

There's a distance in the faces of the residents that might make you think their singing is a chore. It may be for some--I don't know; but when I sit there among them, I think not. 

Last Sunday, the visiting church group brought some children along, and one of them, a four-year-old darling, stood up front and sang "Jesus Loves Me." In the Home, children are just about the best medicine a doctor could prescribe. Where there are so many years, few years are a blessed miracle. Her mother, holding the mike, stooped beside her to help.

She knew nothing of the second verse, but then "Jesus Loves Me" was a favorite when her grandmother was a girl. Today, every Sunday there are new songs. Little tyke stood up front mouthing words that didn't match, just like the whole room of patients who were, just then, joining her in making wordless music all the same. Blessed harmony from all that mumbling.

And me?--I was no help. I was trying to hold myself together. What those voices raised in the meeting room with the stained glass wasn't much really. But I never doubted for a moment that we were--all of us, even in our mumbling--making music.

Great is thy faithfulness.