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.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Five dead on Fifth Avenue

Image result for cohen public testimony

If I were playing the role of POTUS in some blockbuster Trump film, I'd deliver the line in a completely different way today than I would have yesterday. Mr. Cohen's wild ride yesterday before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform has made me change my tune. The Trump line I'm talking about is the one he delivered here, in Siouxland, at my alma mater, the line no one has forgotten, a line quoted a thousand times yesterday again. 

This one:

I've always believed that he delivered that line with the braggadocio that's affixed to every line he says or Tweets--"the best," "the biggest," "the greatest," and MAGA, MAGA, MAGA.

If I were an actor playing Trump in the story of his years as President, no matter how many terms he finishes, I'd read that line in a different voice that--dare I say it?--would not be so  Trumpian. 

Why did the man lie about his business deals in Russia? Why did he look directly into the face of the nation and say he had no business dealings over there, when it's perfectly clear that he did? 

Cohen's overview of the Trump presidency sounds right. What Donald Trump knew about a good, healthy run for the crown was that it would pay off big time in name recognition, and this businessman has been resoundingly successful in putting his name up in lights--Trump-this, Trump-that; Trump University, Trump Tower, Trump wines--you name it. He has. 

A run for president would put that universal label on even more stuff, even more things, and in even more capital cities where it would bring in yet more capital. In his heart of hearts, he doubted he'd ever win; but he also knew a run for the Oval Office would pay off by putting that name up in places where it wasn't. 

But then, Cohen says--and he's not the first--something very unexpected happened. Trump got himself loved. A brutal, churlish bully, a mobster from Queens gets himself adored. He doesn't need to conduct the orchestra because thousands and thousands, totally un-directed, start chanting "Lock her up" before he says a word. They love it. They love him. No matter how he bullies and belittles, no matter what he says or does, or what video catches him saying about anything, even women; no matter how many babes he'd laid, no matter how many Manaforts and Roger Stones and David Peckers find a sweet home in his inner circle, no matter what he thinks and says about people of color--he is loved beyond measure, worshiped like a messiah.

I've changed my mind. When he said what he did in Sioux Center, Iowa, I honestly don't think he was bragging. He was astonished, stunned, surprised himself at the crowds and their worship.

He's in place now, going nowhere. Those damned liberal dems and the gutless rinos Lou Dobbs hates won't impeach him. They'd love to, but they can't. The country will have to vote him out because even if he shoots five men cold dead on Fifth Avenue, his faithful have his back. The scariest thing Michael Cohen said yesterday was his fear that when Trump's time comes, he won't leave.

I have begun to believe that once upon a time he was as shocked at the adoration he was getting as was the rest of the world. Once upon a time, I can't help but think even Donald Trump didn't believe Donald Trump. 

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Two Devotions from Mary Oliver*


Why do people keep asking to see
     God's identity papers
when the darkness opening into morning
     is more than enough?
Certainly any god might turn away in disgust.
Think of Sheba approaching 
     the kingdom of Solomon.
Do you think she had to ask, 
     "Is this the place?"

Among the most memorable lines from the Psalms is the opening line of Psalm 19: "The heavens declare the glory of God." Why rattle on about who God is or isn't when daybreak is "more than enough," she says. 

She's at it again in "Whistling Swans." She knows that it's just too easy to forget that "day unto day uttereth speech." That's what she reminds us again.


Do you bow your head when you pray or do you look
     up into that blue space?
Take your choice, prayers fly from all directions.
And don't worry about what language you use,
God no doubt understands them all.
Even when the swans are flying north and making
 such a ruckus of noise, God is surely listening
     and understanding. 

Rumi said, There is no proof of the soul.
But isn't the return of spring and how it
springs up in our hearts a pretty good hint?

Yes, I know, God's silence never breaks, but is
     that really a problem?
There are thousands of voices, after all.

And furthermore, don't you imagine (I just suggest it)
that the swans know about as much as we do about
     the whole business?

So, listen to them and watch them, singing as they fly.
Take from it what you can.

*From Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

More church scandal

“It’s with a heavy and sad heart I acknowledge that some of our priests and bishops have abused the grace and beauty of the priesthood. They have sexually abused innocent children.”

That's Sioux City Bishop R. Walker Nickless yesterday, at a news conference set up to announce what their own investigation into accusations of sexual abuse had uncovered. The numbers are telling: between 1948 and 1995, 29 of the priests in the diocese were accused of sexual abuse. Those priests were named and listed; most of them are deceased. None had been exposed before.

Sexual abuse is a crime that violates bodies and souls. The number of such transgressions is horrifying, but the abuse created--and presumably still does create--yet another horror that only adds to the dishonor: when it's covered, when the abusive priests are not exposed and punished, the victim can't help but feel not only violated and but also powerless.

It's been 17 years since the Boston Globe revealed systematic abuse in the Boston diocese. Last month a grand jury in Pennsylvania determined that thousands of children were abused by over 300 priests. In Australia, just this week, a Cardinal, Father George Pell, who was the Treasurer at the Vatican, was found guilty of abuse, the highest ranking member of the Roman Catholic priesthood yet convicted. 

No religious fellowship is without sin. Right here, the community still suffers from the effects of popular teacher who abused kids in the Christian school my own grandchildren attended--and still do. The largest Protestant denomination in America, the Southern Baptists, a fellowship that disdains centralized governing powers and lauds the independence of individual congregations, had to come together to determine what could be done about what it couldn't help but consider a rising tide of sexual abuse among its clergy.

Not long ago, a Vatican woman's magazine ran the story of a nun victimized by a priest. Pope Francis himself admitted the problem. “It’s a path that we’ve been on,” he said. “Pope Benedict had the courage to dissolve a female congregation which was at a certain level, because this slavery of women had entered it - slavery, even to the point of sexual slavery - on the part of clerics or the founder.”

All over the world, as we speak, Roman Catholic priests who have never done anything unseemly, never hurt people under their care, are, as we speak, readying themselves for mass, reading, praying, practicing spiritual disciplines too numerous to mention. The church has countless good, good men in the priesthood, men who love God and selflessly serve others.

Years and years ago, when I was a college student, my parents called me just to talk. Mid-conversation, my mother started crying--I could hear her over the phone. A preacher in town had run off with another woman. He wasn't my parents' preacher; he was the preacher from the church down the street. "Everybody is so sad," she said, or something like that. What he did--it effects all of us. That's what she meant.

And it does. The abused are the real victims. They need our help and God's love. 

But all of those--of us-- who believe in the institutional church are also affected. Our souls too, in a less punishing way, are abused. 

Monday, February 25, 2019

Green Book wins!!!*

Image result for green book

Just in case you haven't seen it, let me say that Green Book is a marvelously entertaining movie. It's won all kinds of accolades and is an almost certain Oscar nomination--NEWS FLASH: Last night it won the Oscar for Best Picture!

The story is in the picture above. It's the Fifties, and there's this New Yawk Italian stallion, a street tough, an enforcer, who's out of a job. As unlikely as it sounds, he gets himself hired by this super-educated African-American musician who wants to tour the Jim Crow South. A highly accomplished concert pianist, the man is an artist who deliberately puts himself in a region where rich white people delight in his Rachmaninoff but detest his race.

There will be trouble, and there is.

The story is episodic, one concert appearance lined up after another; all firmly set in America's racial history. Even though today we like to think Jim Crow is gone, racism isn't--witness our own Fourth District King. But Green Book is not just about history or racism or politics or hate. It's about two human beings who begin the pilgrimage one way, and end it another. The events of the world they experience change both of them, and there lies the trouble.

This marvelously entertaining movie has taken some shots it probably earns. Some feel it's just another story of how white people save black people, a cliche, a stereotype in and of itself. Some think it melodramatic, overdone, sappy--its travel stops deliberately underplayed to keep white audiences happy. Some claim it's just plain too cute, another Disney movie.

I loved it. Then I read the negative stuff and felt guilty that I did. 

The two men at the heart of things are instantly recognizable characters. Tony Lip (Viggo Mortenson) is a Mafia thug from a thoroughgoing racist part of town. Dr. Don Shirley is something of a diva, a Black man sworn to break through racial barriers but, by his own life experience, somewhat estranged from ordinary black folks--or their world. When the story begins, both are tenderfoots who, in the trip they take, have to come to grips with the limitations they carry but don't or can't acknowledge or even understand.

Green Book features two dynamic characters, two human beings who have to suffer before they grow. They do--both of them. Just one of the strengths of the movie is that their individual growth happens simultaneously. Their journey through Dixie hatred pays real benefits to both the white chauffeur and the black virtuoso. They both learn--and from each other.

And that makes Green Book into a human drama, not just a racial drama. And that characterization, to some, makes the movie feel like a Mardi Gras mask, a delightful smile to cover the grim darkness of American bigotry, its systemic racism. Because it makes us laugh when we should be crying, some consider Green Book to be fairy tale falsehood.

I'm white. I don't have a doubt in the world that if I were black I would see things differently, but I thought it was a terrific movie, a joy--and there lies the nature of the attack on the film: the racial problems this country faces are not a joy. 

Green Book showcases hard-earned racial reconciliation. Ironically, and sadly, it has also come to illustrate the very problems it wants to address, specifically how difficult racial reconciliation actually is.

It's a beautiful piece of work that'll have you laughing and crying, doing what movies are meant to do. If you don't know Jim Crow, you can't leave the theater without witnessing a history lesson on what it was. 

But if you think all of that is behind us, you're dead wrong. Witness the controversy. Green Book may well be nominated for an Oscar, but don't look for it to win.  NEWS FLASH: BUT IT DID!!! And when it did, Spike Lee, who took home some trophies himself, screamed and snorted and stormed out of the theater. 

We've not put the problems The Green Book addresses and creates behind us. That'll be some time.
*Published first on 1/17/19,

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Sunday Morning Meds--He knows

“But the Lord watches over the way of the righteous.” Psalm 1:6 

I know one Q & A from the catechism I was raised with (I know more than one actually, but don’t press me), and that is the very first—“What is your only comfort in life and death?” The answer begins this way: “That I am not my own, but belong. . .”

I’ll spare you the entire answer, but I’m sure that one of the reasons this particular q and a sticks to the my otherwise Teflon memory is the answer’s tone and texture, its emotional color: the word of the moment here is comfort: What is your only comfort? What makes you feel good? What settles your nerves, helps you sleep, gets you over the blues?

And the answer is, that I am not my own but I belong to God.

The first psalm’s final verse begins with a phrase you can pull up to your chin on a blizzardy morning like this one: “The Lord watches over the way of the righteous.” But just for a moment, I’d rather consider the King James, which says, “He knows the way of the righteous.”

He knows. He’s understands. It’s no mystery to him. For the Lord God Almighty, right and wrong and good and ill is all in a day’s work. He knows. He’s got it down. It’s that simple, really. And I find that immensely comforting.

Perhaps because life isn’t. Oh, I know I sound pessimistic, but really, when you add up the whole works it amounts to nothing more or less than a sidewalk eighty years long, maybe, that leads the grave. Not comforting.

I have a plaque my father was given after twenty-some faithful years at the bank where he worked. Not expensive. His employers got it from a place that turns out trophies for longest putt at company golf tournaments. On its own, that plaque is worth nothing. My father died years ago but that plaque is on the bookshelf here in the basement because I just can’t throw it away, even though the investment it represents is just gone.

Last week in church, a man stood up and asked for prayers for a woman in Chicago, half a continent away. She’s dying of inoperable cancer, and her diagnosis is grim: she’ll be gone in six months.

I could have wept, honestly, even though I haven’t seen her for years and barely know her. As I grow older, I am more affected by such stories. When I was young and the trajectory of my life seemingly had no end, I was nowhere near as affected by other people’s miseries as I am today. Maybe that’s good. Today, other people’s sadness weighs heavily.

Psalm 1 begins with a word that’s hard to define—blessed; and ends with a pretty strong hint at what “blessedness” means. In the tribulations that are ours—occasioned by sinners (like myself) and by sin itself—we’re not going to want to forget that God knows. The Bible tells me so. God knows. He gets it.

And it’s not just a sweet idea. Be assured of it, David says, the shepherdly poet. God knows the way of the righteous. He understands. His boy was once one of us, after all.

To be blessed is to know, in life and in death, in sickness and in health, that God knows—and that he loves, even us. That’s blessed assurance.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

"April, Siouxland, come she will. . ."

If you click on Simon and Garfunkle, you'll have a musical background to a tour that may well convince you that, yes, this winter too shall pass. From the prairie crocus to the mourning doves, winter's lease is running down. Someday, soon. . .

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Small Wonder(s)--A Fort Randall family

There's no fort there anymore. Unlike Laramie or Robinson or Scott or Wingate, where you can still almost hear the history, Ft. Randall has only a busted-up chapel and a long, thin graveyard. If a state highway didn't run right by, no one would ever stop; no one would know, and only a few would remember. 

Fort Randall's great claim to fame is having held Sitting Bull and his people when they returned from Canada some time after Little Big Horn. Once upon a time, Sitting Bull was detained, incarcerated here. 

Sitting Bull and his wife at Fort Randall
Unlike Fort Robinson, where Crazy Horse was murdered and the Northern Cheyenne made a mad and bloody dash north for home; and unlike Fort Laramie, where not one but two vapid treaties were signed--neither of them worth much; Ft. Randall has no memorable storied history. Beauty?--yes, nesting as it does in those broad hills just west of the Missouri. Once upon a time it must have bustled, the only place west of Yankton where you'd find enough people for a parade. 

Today there's a dam there, one of several on Old Muddy. What's more, there's a sparkling lake and perch and walleye and bass galore, fishing tournaments just about every summer weekend. But if you have the time, stop by the graveyard just up the hill from the old chapel. Take a walk around the place--it's not all that big and the graves are all marked. 

If you do, look for these three. I googled the name, but came up with nothing, in large part, I suppose, because none of them really ever amounted to much--"DAVID DEZAIRE," the first in line says, "Indian Interpreter." He died May 8, 1875, a year before Little Big Horn. Doesn't say why or how. Ft. Randall is far enough east that it stayed out of danger during the Great Sioux Wars, so I'm guessing DEZAIRE died right there at the fort. 

And I'm assuming he was Native--or part Native. The name doesn't suggest a racial or ethnic flavor, although it might be French, which would not be strange. Like so many other "mixed bloods," his genetic code may have carried the DNA of some rough-hewn French-Canadian trapper. Chances are he was of mixed parentage, although he might have been white, might have been raised on the reservation, a missionary kid. Still, even google can't locate the name.

And then there's his wife, Ashotia. Don't know how to pronounce the name really. The stone is helpful--it says she was a "colored citizen." Is that simply what somebody charged with writing on the stone wrote in, or does the designation have meaning? And why citizen? And why no date of death? 

Their daughter Sophie has one, after all--December 22, 1876, a year and a half after her father died, and three days before Christmas. If Mom was Black, Dad was Indian--maybe mixed blood--in the 1890s, Sophie likely would have had a low ceiling for possibilities. Fifty years before, Washington had designated a reservation on the Nemaha River, south on the Missouri, just for mixed bloods. That's true. 

Even though we don't know them, their being buried here beneath stones that still bear their names makes them privileged people. Translators weren't dime a dozen in Dakota Territory, especially if you were worth your salt, trustworthy, responsible. These three stones suggest a family unit intact. 

But the DEZAIRE family is long gone, along with their stories. Maybe they weren't among "the least of these" here at Ft. Randall. Maybe they had their own kind of standing. Here's Sitting Bull's people, incarcerated at Ft. Randall after "Custer's Last Stand." They look diminished. If any of them died, I doubt they got stones in the fort cemetery. 

When, after the Dakota War, the Fool Soldiers brought the Shetek captives they'd rescued to Ft. Randall, some rescuers were killed. People say that some of them dug their own graves, then fell into them when soldiers gunned them down. They were only Indians. I'm guessing those graves aren't marked.

But this family, somehow they were respected, even appreciated. They got stones. They must have had a place. Still do. Even if their stories are gone, their names remain--all three together. Someone even left descriptions. 

When you get out of the boat, clean the fish, put 'em on ice, and then drive across the dam to the west side. You'll see the chapel. The graveyard's harder to spot. But go find it, because even if that's all you'll see, those three stones are worth your time. Stop by and pay your respects to mom and dad and their little girl, Sophie. 

Ft. Randall chapel

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Morning Thanks--. . .young men dreaming dreams"

Once upon a time, when I asked how he was doing, some old friend of mine told me he had arrived at that time in life when he had to rethink his visions, lower the reach of his dreams.

I know that time. In a certain way, I suppose, it's called growing up--or, more certainly, growing old.

Maybe that's why I like this little shot of my granddaughter, who at eight months doesn't yet dream in the English language and may well believe that the world is no bigger than what she can see around her.

I don't care. When she's sitting on my lap, her grandpa thinks she has every right to believe she has the world at her fingertips. Because when she's sitting there, I become as much a child as she is.

It's just dang hard to be a cynic with a baby in your lap. And for that fact--and, of course, for him--this morning, I'm greatly thankful.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Moving water

The truth?--I was absent-minded even when I was young. I've always had an unhealthy chunk of my great-grandfather's DNA, the Dutch dominie who once skated down a canal on his way to church and was stopped and warned about open water just ahead. What theological truth was on his mind isn't known; what is, is that if he hadn't been warned, he would have skated out to sea. 

On Saturday I went out to the river for a walk because it was the first winsome day in some time, and because I wanted to fool around with that new (well, used) lens, which I then simply forgot to take long. 

You know--this kind of thing.

No matter. I was out there, the camera around my neck, and a close-up lens in the bag. The sun was shining, the wind was negligible, and even though the temp was a bit below freezing, you can live and live well in weather like that.

The most striking feature of Sergeant Floyd's River these days is the ubiquitous detritus (that's a phrase to remember). Everywhere you look, you see the beards of old men still hanging from the cottonwood branches at heights that seem impossible. 

When last summer's floods--yes, there were two--receded, they insisted on leaving their marks. Everywhere, ancient shrunken heads hang from the trees, Absalom-ish, victims of some tribe bloody post-conquest. 

I don't know that I'd call such hangings particularly artful, but it seems fascinatingly funerary (another rare word). I'm sorry--I probably spend far too much time reading Native American stuff because wherever I looked, I saw scalps. Seriously. 

Or the heads of the vanquished impaled on pikes.

What I'm not telling you is that yesterday was my birthday, which any competent shrink, I'm sure, would say accounts for the horrifying intimations of mortality. There's a kind of beauty to the story the trees and saplings tell in winter, but look for yourself at this mess and tell me it isn't the shrunken, misshapen remains of some hapless victim of the Floyd's rage.

I followed the frozen river for a while--it really was a sweet day--until I heard the unlikely sound of rushing water up ahead. Outdoor life in Siouxland has been at a standstill as of late. This is the time of year when farmers, like the seed corn in their bags, start wiggling--a kind of cabin fever thing. I just assumed the river was frozen up tight after all the cold weather, but suddenly the music up ahead seemed unmistakable. 

I don't understand it environmentally, but I do remember reading something about putting stones into streams to create rapids where there weren't any before. Prairie rivers are notoriously cumbersome, until somewhere upstream some rogue storm dumps ten inches over miles and miles of farmland. Otherwise--don't tell him I said it--the Floyd is lazy, barely there come August--lazy and harmless, and silent as a cloud. 

But sure enough, just down river a bit from all those mummies, there's a huge load of pink quartzite somebody put down on the south bank and in the river itself.

It was wonderful. Not just because I knew there was some wise environmental reason for those artificial rapids, but also because all that open water nourished my dreadful Poe-like imagination. Moving water was beautiful. It was life. Beneath all that ice, the river was alive.

Our preacher has this thing about baptism. He calls the kids up to the front and shows them the water. Not only that, he takes the pitcher and pours out water from an arm's length away to make sure they know the water is real. Yesterday, he had them come up close, and when they did, he pinched a shower over 'em. He did. 

I'm not about to say that some environmentally-sound artificial rapids in the Floyd River just south of Alton is really a sacramental manifestation of the grace of God. That might well be something my great-grandfather could preach on. What I know is that I stood right there on the bank of the Floyd River, listening and watching because our preacher isn't wrong about water being real, maybe especially in a string of frozen days around a February birthday. 

Listen again. Tell me that isn't beautiful. Felt something like a sacrament.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Sunday Morning Meds--the work of our hands

“…establish the work of our hands for us—

yes, establish the work of our hands.”  Psalm 90

The bike path east of town cuts diagonally through tall fields of corn that sometimes buffer prairie winds and sometimes channel it. In July, when the temperature is 100 degrees, that narrow corridor is a wind tunnel. Back when I used it daily, I fought prairie winds all the way down, then sailed along on a song when I came back to town.

Dry corn is noisy. Its leaves stiffen and curl up, and crack up against each when the wind bullies 'em. I’ve never been a farmer, but I’ve lived beside 12-foot corn most of my life, and I know when to get worried about drought. Back then, we hadn’t had rain for far too long. I stopped mowing our lawn when the turf was toast. From a distance that section of corn along the bike path still looked green, but up close the leaves were smacking and cracking.

The man who planted that tall corn along the bike path died that summer. My wife told me about his death weeks after it occurred. I’d missed the obituary. Had I known, I would have gone to the funeral. Once, years ago, that man told me I ought to write a book about his life. I should have.

Cantankerous and quarrelsome, his life deserved a story. We’ll call him LeRoy and protect his memory, not because he was ever an innocent. His wife left him after a couple decades of what must have been horror. For a time, fistfights with his son were public spectacles. Once, a neighbor’s sow wandered on to his yard, and he shot it dead, then called the neighbor to pick it up. That afternoon, the neighbor called the radio station to nominate LeRoy for “Good Neighbor of the Day.” The whole town laughed.

For a time, LeRoy went to the same church we did. A friend of mine told a Lutheran friend, that our church would pay for their building project if the Lutherans would take LeRoy off our hands.

"Let me think about that," the guy said. And then, "Naaaah."

There’s lots more. Some considered him a crackpot. Worse.

Later in his life, he mellowed, thank the Lord. I’m sure there were moments when he wished he hadn’t been what he was.

The day I heard that Leroy died I took that bike path east of town in withering heat and felt his absence because it bothered me, strangely enough, that there was no one around to worry about his dry, cracking corn. He would have, but he couldn’t, and he wasn’t.

I felt somehow responsible, if that makes sense. LeRoy always liked me; I’m not sure why. He didn’t like a lot of people, and he wasn’t shy about his preferences. When I rode my bike through that tunnel of his tall corn and heard its leaves cracking, I ought to worry for him.

As all of us do worry—about a bunch of things. Most of us have reasons, our own fields of too dry corn. 

Like Moses, and maybe even LeRoy, I pray that God almighty will establish the works of my hands—establish these very words I’m typing. Don’t let ‘em become dry bones in the hot sun. Keep ‘em growing and keep ‘em green, even in the heat. Make ‘em better than they are.

I'm still here, but on a day like today, my 71st birthday, "the work of my hands" seems largely past tense. 

Moses’s agonizing concern arises from a heart estranged, a thirsty soul languishing in the eerie darkness of an eclipse, God somehow hidden. Moses is asking that what he does with his hands in that wilderness where his people are serving a sentence, what he does from day-to-day, his work, his toil, his care—that all of that is blessed. That’s all he wants, as do most of us. Bless it, Lord.

What he wants is that kind of blessing, that his good corn somehow feeds a hungry world. 

Friday, February 15, 2019

Morning Thanks--Glasses

Sometimes it's just nice to believe that life is what we were told it was in Sunday School.

So we're in Oklahoma a couple weeks ago to see that darling granddaughter, who's now officially one-year old and a real charmer (we're easily charmed). Her parents live there too--I mean, she's not the only reason we went. Purd'near though. You know.

I've got my glasses along, several pairs, in fact. I've got my Sunday-go-to-meetin' glasses, the ones I wear in public, the ones that cost me an arm-and-a-leg. They're bifocals. I wear them when I need them; but, try as I might, they're just about worthless for looking at a screen. So I've got reading glasses along, too, which I wear far more often. One morning when we're on our way out, I slip on the bifocals and tell myself I really ought to wear them more often--after all, they cost me a fortune and you can pick up a decent pair of reading glasses for ten bucks or less. Besides, somehow the world looks all kiddy-whompas. 

I stagger around a bit because I can't help thinking there's something's out of whack. I finagle 'em around on my face, thinking they're sitting up on my nose crooked or something. Nope. Somehow I feel pie-eyed. Weird. So I take 'em off again--I really don't have to wear 'em. I'll be 71 in a day or two. I don't need to feel any more dizzy than I am.

Our Oklahoma sojourn ends, we pack things up and come home. Next Sunday morning, I get ready for church, reach for my bi-focals and just like that, once again, I'm walking sideways. I go out to the car, wait for my wife, and reach for the little slip of fabric we use to clean glasses. Maybe they're sinfully dirty. I pull off the bifocals, and--voila!--I see why I can't see straight. One lens is plain gone. Nothing there. 

Now I've got two problems: my fancy glasses are worthless--that's one; and the other is, I can't help but think the missing lens is down in Oklahoma. There was a time when my wife would raise an eyebrow at her husband's abject goofiness, but she's no spring chicken herself, and I could list a few dopey things she's done too. We're old. We sympathize far better than we once did.

Besides, she left a chunk of her laptop re-charger in a socket of the AirB and B where we stayed. We write a note to the owners and let them know to look in a living room socket--north side--for plug-in, and, oh yes, if you find a lens that'd be great because we can't figure where the heck it fell out.

Lost cause, I figure. So I call the optometrist where I bought the big-ticket pair, tell the assistant the left-side lens of my glasses is lost somewhere between here and Oklahoma, and tell her I'm going to have to have a new one. She can't quote me a price, but I'm seeing the numbers spin like they do on a slot. "We'll have it by the end of the week I'm sure," she tells me. "We'll let you know."

By now, we've been back home for two weeks. "End of next week" who should text us but the Oklahoma home owner, who finally got around to cleaning up. "We've got your plug-in," she texts, "and we found that lens too." 

I should be thrilled. Instead I'm thinking I'm about to have an extra left-side lens for those overpriced glasses, so I call the young lady at the optometrist's office and tell her what happened. "Oh," she says, "we really can't be responsible for that." 

Doesn't surprise me. It's not her fault, and it won't be the first time being a clutz costs me good money. I'm wondering if I can peddle a perfectly good left-side lens on-line. Cheap.

I warned you. This saga has a Sunday School end. Here it comes.

Yesterday, that young lady at the office calls. "You know that lens," she says. "The company messed up the order, so they told us they've got to do it again." And then she delivers the good news. "Since you have the original, I just told them to scratch the order," she says. "No charge."

I don't want to sound like I'm normally into "American carnage." The truth is, good things like that happen occasionally in my life. I'm no bad-luck duck. 

Still, when they do, they're worth crowing about, because somewhere in the missing lens story the old Calvinist in me can't help but hear something of an echo of Romans 8:28. 

And that's my morning thanks. 

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Poetry once again

Mary Oliver, 1935-2019
I think I've almost forgotten what I spent so many years teaching. For years, I spoonfed poetry into endless classes of college freshmen, urging them to appreciate the smell the roses so redolent in verse--Shakespeare to Frost to Koozer.

Then I retired and promptly forgot all that stuff. If I were to page through the last decade of blog posts, I'd find some poems--here and there Emily Dickinson, now and then someone else I'd stumble upon, and some from a few friends like Jean Janzen, Julia Kasdorf, Luci Shaw, Bob Siegel. But poetry has never been a steady diet; only rarely do I sit and read.

A former student messaged me yesterday, asked me which Mary Oliver book she should buy as a gift for her husband's birthday. As if I knew. I know Mary Oliver, know she's greatly loved by people I respect greatly, know she died just recently, know her penchant for the rich spirituality of little things, the glories of the natural world. But I don't really know her work.

So yesterday, having still not answered my ex-student's question, I googled Mary Oliver's poetry, and scolded myself for not doing what I told thousands of kids they should do--read poetry. This is the first Mary Oliver poem I found.

The Journey

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice--
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.

The kind of epiphany she's describing is not some blinding Demascus Road discovery. "Finally" suggests the change of heart or mood or life that's about to happen is something you or I have considered for a long time--who knows how long? And it's not whimsy either. There are voices everywhere, reasons to fear walking away from what has been.

"Mend my life!"
each voice cried.
But you didn't stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.

Dependents are all around, so many or so weighty that something in you risks being lost in their needing. Pulling away is so difficult it sends us into depression. But the poem carries resolve--"You knew what you had to do." And interesting, isn't it?--her use of you? She's telling us something we already know. 

It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.

And we're not turning back--even though the path away isn't any easier to negotiate than the mess we've left behind.

But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,

The darkness doesn't stay. Even though it's night, somehow there's light, somehow there's stars. The burden we've left behind isn't as clear as what we're already only beginning to see.

and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company

Once again, she's telling us what she says we already know. This journey all past tense. It's something we know because it's something we all have done, maybe not just once either, maybe often. There were times we had to walk away or suffer the death of something more important. "You remember," she tells us-- and it's not a question. Remember how that went?--strength increasing, courage growing, resolution refashioning our own sense of who we are.

as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world, determined to do
the only thing you could do--
determined to save
the only life you could save.

That's it. End of poem. End of story.

As it turns out, ourselves is all we have, she says, and you know it. The old moralist in me could spin all of this as idolatry, because the outline Mary Oliver traces in "The Journey" snubs your neighbor. That's what's left behind here when you walk away. 

But this isn't Sunday School. What Mary Oliver is describing is the discovery of the second half of the old biblical injunction--"love your neighbor as yourself." Mary Oliver's "Journey" is all about making sure the you each of us works with is sound and true and resolved. She's telling us what we already know but always to need to hear. She's making sure we remember that the only soul we can save is that one within ourselves. 

I think I'll tell that former student to buy Devotions, Mary Oliver's most recent collection. And I'll buy one too.