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.

Monday, December 06, 2021

Morning Thanks--Soul Food

It's not a great shot. I'm not sure that, should I be there today, I could do any better. It doesn't have the focus I'd have liked; but then I'm trying to shove ten square miles or so into the camera, asking my Olympus to do work the human eye can't fully accomplish. West River South Dakota is plain huge. 

After the Ft. Laramie Treaty of 1868, any bands of Native people not on the the ground they were appointed to, the ground the government declared to be their home, they were officially "hostiles." What led to Little Big Horn was the government's insistence that Indians had to be where white folks said they had to be. What Custer was up to was creating, militarily, a giant ever-tightening circle around bands and tribes who, like naughty kids, had run away.

In a nutshell, that's the story of West River during the final years of the Great Sioux Wars: white folks amassing land once home to nomadic Native tribes who had for a century or more, essentially, chased buffalo, which, by the way, were disappearing. 

Anyway, as open as it looks and as open as it is, 

often as not, cavalry troops under the direction of Civil War vets, simply couldn't find them--or, like the brass at Little Big Horn, were utterly thunderstruck at the sheer numbers of Native men, women, and children there on the banks of the river. 

Every time I'm out there, I'm struck by scale, by how immense the world really is out there and elsewhere in the region we call, as we fly over, the Great Plains. Honestly, it seems endless when you're in it and not a native (small n), the kind of place where, as I've said a dozen times, for three days you can watch your dog run away in any direction. 

And yet, I'm dumbfounded by the fact that, often as not, the U. S. Cavalry could not find Indians. Let me emphasize that, "They couldn't find them." Not because of their military incompetence (although some might allege that), but simply because the world out there was so absolutely endless (and I'm reaching for paradox). 

Up in the right hand corner of the shot at the top of the page--you have to look good to see it--is one of those behomoth John Deere tractors. Trust me, it's there. Tell you what, I'll pull it up again so you know I'm not fibbing. 

There. What you might have missed (I did!) is the fact that the rancher might well be dropping some goodies off for his cattle. They're all in a bunch anyway, as if just now feasting. Just for kicks, I tried to find out how much a John Deere like that might cost, but most places on line want you to call. On a screen, price tags loom huge, I suppose. 

Look again at the top picture. Find that John Deere. The cattle are ants, a hair-line fracture in the sweep of the land.

What was "the Great Sioux Reservation," included just about everything west of the Missouri River and beyond. It was mammoth, so big that even here, where I'm tempted to say there would have been nothing at all distinguishable on the long carpet of buffalo grass, even here, the U. S. Cavalry could go for miles and miles and not find an Indian. Even here, where from any knoll whatsoever you can see for twenty or thirty miles, they were nowhere to be seen.

I just find that immensity staggering, and impossible to photograph. 

I'm not sure I buy everything Wallace Stegner says in Wolf Willow, but I'm on board with most of it: “It is a country to breed mystical people, egocentric people, perhaps poetic people. But not humble ones…Puny you may feel there, and vulnerable, but not unnoticed. This is a land to mark the sparrow’s fall.”

I don't live out there, but whenever I'm perched aboard its massive shoulders, oddly enough I can't help but feel small.

And that's okay. Unlikely as it sounds, it feels--to me at least--like a place to pick up soul food. This morning, I'm thankful to have been there again.

Nebraska plains, fifteen years ago. Just the second time I was out on the Plains with a camera. 

Sunday, December 05, 2021

Sunday Morning Meds--Darkness


. . .all your waves and breakers have swept over me.” 
Psalm 42:7

Lots of my students affix Bible verses to their e-mail messages, but the message that sticks with me every time I read it belongs to Colleen, a secretary, whose notes always end this way: “***You cannot really live until you are ready to die***”—including the asterisks.

I can’t know all the reasons why she has attached that particular line to her e-mails, but I think I know one of them: she lost a child. Some might disagree, but, as a parent myself, I can’t imagine any single event in any person’s life being more devastating.

Years ago, when I was a toddler, an aunt of mine was killed in a freakish car accident. I know how hard that death was on my mother, but I never knew how awful it must have been for my grandma until another woman told me a story that happened just a few years later, the story of her own brother’s sudden death. She told me that she’d never forgotten how my grandma was the first to visit her mother after her brother’s death. They were neighbors, so her visit made sense. But I knew why Grandma went to visit there right away, even though I didn’t know my grandma’s grief. She walked across the street and through her neighbor’s back door because she knew exactly what that mother was going through. She could bring real comfort. She’d been there.

I’ve never known that depth of grief. In some ways, when I look at these words from Psalm 42, I realize I’ve been blessed with innocence and serenity because I’ve been spared something of the worst.

Just now I stood outside and remembered telling myself, a quarter century ago, that, should I die on the airplane I was boarding, I could live with that—that I knew my wife and little children would go on, that they’d be cared for, that, with time, life would continue on its way without me. I told myself that, 
like all things, I too must pass. That realization on a stairway into a jet is a moment I’ve never forgotten, an affirmation, in a way. What I knew, were I to die, was that I could live with who I’d been.

Nothing’s changed. A quarter century later, I stand by that determination. I honestly believe I can meet Colleen’s challenge because I’m okay with the life I would leave behind me.

But what I know now, for the first time in my life, is what a blessing that is, that affirmation; and I know it because now I know something of the ravaging horror of depression, of those who can’t say it. Depression has taken hold of someone I love as much as Colleen loved her son; and even though I don’t know personally the terrors the poet David describes in this line, I do know, and love, someone who does. I’ve seen the tremors from those breakers. I’ve felt the waves of darkness storming.

I can only hope and pray that he, like so many others who suffer this darkness, can take heart from this line in an especially memorable Psalm because King David offers us this, for sure, some company in grief—as this psalm might have for Colleen, for Grandma’s neighbor, for Grandma herself, for all of us, not to mention my mother in her son’s trying days. To know that David knows profound sadness, fear, and despair—and God himself knows, the Father who himself lost a son himself—just to know that is a breath of blessed assurance.

We’re not alone. That’s the theme of these lines of David’s story. Even though there is darkness, that He is with us, all of us, is no small comfort.

That’s the single story of the Bible, I suppose.

Friday, December 03, 2021

Bicentennial Banners (ii)

Once upon a time, some blessed two-year-old, now fifty-something, took a red crayon to this handsome local pair. Mom and dad, I'm sure, were greatly taken by their sweetheart's obvious talent, even if the descendants of Mr. and Mrs. Chris Geels, Orange City, Iowa, might feel their ancestors rudely besmirched. 

When this Mrs. Geels passed away--before her time, as they say--Mr. Geels remarried, and his second wife bore him a son named John, who was,  a retired CRC pastor in 1976, or so the magazine notes.

No, it's not Saskatchewan, although it could be. If you have any experience at all in the rural Midwest, that bare and endless prairie says Dakota.

It's Corsica, SD, on some holiday or another, probably the Fourth (note the platform up front and the crowd forming at bottom right. The ordered, center aisle parking may well have simply been the way it was done back then, but the promenade those Model Ts create suggest a town and a people proud of what they've grown in that empty land.

The steepled church just a block down Main is the local CRC. Another, half a block to the right. . .well, if you're following these at all, you can guess its identity because where two or three are gathered, in all likelihood there'll soon be two or three churches. 

(It's the local RCA.)

And this is nowhere near Corsica. As the inscription makes clear, it's a log church. In Corsica a century-and-a-half ago, you would have to travel a considerable distance for logs. This is the place my dad grew up, at least that's what he used to tell me. He was a preacher's son in Lucas, Michigan, which is to say northern Michigan, a phrase that even feels cold, as it must have been when whatever filled those gaping cracks between the logs dried up and fell away.

No matter, of course. Just like the Catholics just up the block from where I live, one of the first orders of business in this new land was to construct a place for worship. Cold?--sure. But first things first.

Who knows what'll happen this year or the next, but for 75 years or so, forty percent of the CRC was Canadian. This young family in the Frazer Valley are "old-timers," immigrant Dutch whose roots were set firmly into gorgeous British Columbian land already a century ago. They're looking prosperous, aren't they? Of course, back then, before cell phones, a photograph was a rare and blessed thing.

For decades, the denomination didn't worry much about church growth as waves of immigrant Dutch came to Canada following the mess the Netherlands had become during and immediately after the Nazi occupation. Many of them--men and women--were or aided the Dutch Resistance. If you fought Hitler's henchmen, the perils of immigration didn't amount to much. 

Couldn't pass this one up. Featured here (Kellogsville, Michigan CRC, circa 1898) is the good Reverend R. L. Haan and the juffvrouw, Mrs. Maggie Haan, nee-Hemkes, as she would have been noted back then. Goodwife Haan's sister, Gertrude Hemkes (both daughters of Geert K. Hemkes, a seminary professor) was Mrs. John C. Schaap, herself the juffvrouw of yet another reverend, my grandpa. Reverend R. L., stayed at Kellogsville only two years, an abbreviated tour. Why he left, I don't know. Might well be an interesting story.

But then, his brother-in-law, same era really, stayed in his first charge for only two years also. What letters right here in my files suggest is that Grandma Schaap's  professor father back in Michigan felt his sweet daughter simply way too far from civilization in a place called South Dakota. Why, they still had Indians out there!

This one yet, and I promise I'll quit. 

If you're thinking some kind of prison camp, the smiles suggest otherwise. The pails--and that historic vacuum--suggest a cleaning detail, an army of Dutch-American women armed for battle against dust and dirt and whatever foul agents stand in their way, cleanliness being right there beside Godliness.

It's an army of church women ("Onward Christian Soldiers) from the CRC in Highland, Indiana, circa 1925, on their way to clean the church. 

Despite the smiles, no editor would put this shot on the cover of any magazine today because it testifies, some would say, to the exploitation of women, who were considered worthy of getting down on their knees to scrub sanctuary floors, but little else in the church. 

Some, I'm sure, would consider the photo demeaning, even repugnant. 

We live in a different world today, a world where the church's history can no longer include the dreams of strangers in a strange land. Our history is still our history, but we can no longer own it.

And that's a good thing, because an fortress whose walls are built of ethnic tales has no future in a multi-cultural world. But it's a bad thing too because a people without story is not a people at all. 

The people who sent me a manilla envelope full of old Banner covers were right--they knew I'd like them. I did and do, and I hope you did too.

But now I'll do what they couldn't and slide them into the wastebasket because while they sure enough do tell our story, that story can feel blushingly self-centered, seeking only its own, featuring only its own and, in the telling, marginalizing all others. 

Even if it is no longer the story of a church, a denomination, it's a human story. I can't help but think we imperil our future by not telling it. 

No matter--the whole bunch are going in the wastebasket. Still, somewhere, I know, a library has digital copies. 

They exist. So does the story.

Thursday, December 02, 2021

Bicentennial Banners

This is how it came off the press in ye olden days--it's the printing crew of The Banner, circa 1930s (?). Used to be that printing the mag was an in-house job; years later, it got shopped out and still is today. This is the veteran squad who made it their calling to get out the denominational magazine the old fashioned way, by tending the big press. 

In 1976, The Banner, the official magazine of the Christian Reformed Church, ran a series of covers drawn from the old days. It was, after all, the year of the American Bicentennial, and people all over the country were digging up roots. Just for fun, here's a bunch.

This Banner production room pose is one of a couple dozen covers sent to me by old friends who didn't know where to get rid of things they hated simply to burn, and therefore decided I might well be a convenient waste basket. 

"Because we thought you'd like 'em," they said. Little hand-written note. 
Problem is, they're right, and that's why you're seeing them right now.

This year's Synod promises to be a cooker. LGBTQ issues dominate. There'll be the ordinary stuff (as there had to be in 1936, mid-Depression here), but the angst to come in summer, 2022, is all "gay marriage." 

Most everyone on the floor that year had no clue what the word "gay" means these days, which isn't to say there were no gay people around. Quite likely, there were. But gay marriage didn't tear the place up in '36. Other issues did, like "modernism," always handy, or "worldly amusements" like dancing or playing cards. 

Meanwhile, there were places in the denomination where real growth was taking place--like the hospital at Rehoboth, New Mexico. The undeniable success of that mission (not to say we white folks got everything right) has to rank as one of the denomination's most precious gifts to American life and culture, a gift that came, at least initially, by way of the hospital's special blessings to the Navajo and Zuni people.

Hard as it is to imagine, this farm sits right on 28th Street, Grand Rapids, Michigan, August, 1903, a family portrait all the rage back then, especially for immigrant families looking to show people back home in Holland how well they were doing. Everything and everybody is on the picture--Mom behind the fence, holding the baby.

With a family portrait like this, you didn't have to say much. "See that horse?--see that child aboard? We're doing just fine over here. Big places, bigger plans. Wish you were here."

Iowa, you're thinking? Good guess. That corn's hardly up there by today's standards, but it was sky-high in 1912, when these two young ladies waltzed out to check it out. Sorry--it's not Peoria or Hull, but (are you ready for this?) Hudsonville, MI. What's more, that young lady on the left is a celebrity, although her fame grew from Nigerian soil. It's Johanna Veenstra, who would become the most beloved missionary figure the denomination ever sent abroad. 

The corn doesn't look all that bad really, and I'm an Iowan.

More tomorrow. This is fun.

Wednesday, December 01, 2021

Morning Thanks--Cerulean

With cheek and jaw stiff with Novocain, I figured I could spend that ugly frozen time outside yesterday, given that the weather was scandalously warm for what should be winter. 

The story of the pond I often circle on a walk is hardly worth your time. It's here, south of town, because of the highway overpass just beside it. If you want to see what was here before the water, the trucks just north of you are on it. God didn't create that little pond; some highway crew did.

And the tawny world around it is unremarkable right now too. It wears winter's garb, a bit of blush maybe, in the dead grasses, but nothing to light up a camera. 

For me at least, yesterday the South Pond was beautiful because the temps were, and because it was so much better to be outside than in. What I couldn't help but notice when I got there was that the water--the plain, old water--was royally gorgeous. 

My granddaughter's eyes are strikingly blue, as are her father's, and his mother's, and her father's before them all. My son says people often notice his daughter's eyes, remark about them, almost as if stunned. Throughout the population, less than ten percent of us are so blessed. Sorry, I can't help but think she's stunning too, even though blue eyes in our family are not at all foreign or rare.

My mind was stuck on the word cerulean, not because I knew exactly what it meant, but because I know people use it when they see the deep blue of a rich, prairie sky or what was coming up just then from the overpass pond. 

It's not a strange color. It's up-front primary, and sits between two other beauties--purple, the robes of royalty; and green, the treasured hope of early spring. Still somehow, blue is and forever will be associated with bleakness and blahs and feeling somehow bummed. "The Blues," a genre of music some consider the unique American gift to the arts, rise from the darkness of slavery and will forever carry at least some appreciative dolor. 

But yesterday, with stuck cheeks and lips, taking a hike around that cerulean gem seemed--and was--a blessing. At one season or another, Thoreau called Walden the eye of God. I get that.

I told you the story: the south pond is nothing more than what was left when a half-dozen diggers dug out good Iowa dirt that now lays beneath the overpass an eighth of a mile north, and less. Just last month, the whole southern edge of that little pond was a mess of yellowing lily pads. 

But yesterday, the mess was gone, and what was left was perfectly cerulean, a mirror of the endless heavens above. 

I sat down east beside the river for a while, then came back and circled the northern edge of the pond before returning to the truck, my mouth considerably unstuck by then, loosened up enough at least to smile.

The blue in that water--like the blue in my granddaughter's eyes--that's subject enough for this morning thanks. 

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Morning Thanks--Homecoming

It was a sweet opportunity. From the moment it was offered, I knew it would be, for me at least, a joy. It's been 55 years since I graduated from high school and a building that, years ago already, was used-up and torn down, outgrown in the village where I grew up. 

By chance (my Calvinist dad used to tell me there's no such thing as chance), a former student is teaching these days in the new high school; she asked if I'd like to speak to her creative writing class because, she said, she mentioned me as someone who did some writing and was actually, like them, from Oostburg, Wisconsin.

That she's a darn good teacher wasn't surprising. She had them primed to meet me, via Zoom, a medium they're far more used to, thanks to Covid, than I am. So there I was, looking into a room full of high school kids (24--a big class) and at a young woman I remember for being as full of talent as she was personality. 

First question: "What was Oostburg like when you were a kid?"

I can't help but think that they must have felt I was stalking them, moving back and forth, up close to my computer's camera, then back again, all in an effort, I think now, to get out of the blasted screen.

It was an understandable question, not something I didn't anticipate; but it did assume I had some level of understanding of what it was like to live in Oostburg today--which, I don't, my visits, at best, spotty through the years. 

I don't remember exactly what I said, but I did reach for history, explained that the town was much bigger today, that there was no I-43 scooting by just east of town to manage the buzz of traffic between Milwaukee, Green Bay, and "up north." For work, that highway made commuting to Milwaukee possible, and thus planted all kinds of new housing along the lakeshore--in all probability, some of their houses. 

I told them we used to hang out along Lake Michigan's shoreline, in the swampy woods and dales and sand dunes. I told them today they wouldn't be welcome where we were free as seagulls. I told them I remembered driving over the frozen sand in winter. Today, they'd be arrested. But I told them they were blessed to grow up in a place as beautiful as the Wisconsin lakeshore. 

I said I remembered that the population back then was 898--for some dumb reason, that number sticks. I asked them what it was today. No one seemed to know. I took a guess--maybe three times that. I told them growing up in Oostburg these days must be much different.

But we talked about writing too, about how to get over writer's block, about how to know what to write, about finding material and making it good, about why writing is a good thing. I told them how when I was their age and working at Terry Andrea State Park, I sold a park sticker to a bunch of kids from Milwaukee, who'd come in pulling a rack of canoes. I told those writing students it was windy that day and I knew it was really dumb to think anybody could canoe in the big lake, especially when the water was rough.

But I didn't tell the canoe gang as much. I didn't mention it because the kids were all about my age, and I didn't want to be somebody's old picky aunt, harping. I sold them the sticker. I let them in.

Four drowned. 

Later, the boss blew up, told me I should have warned them. "You were born here," he told me, meaning I should have known better.

I told those OHS kids that story. I said I went home that night and, after my folks were in bed, for some dumb reason I took out a piece of paper and just started writing stuff--what, exactly, I don't know.

"No," I said, "I don't have that piece of paper." I told them what I said probably wasn't even all that wonderful or important. But I somehow got the sense that if I tried to write how I felt, it might help. 

Even though I was sitting at this very desk, 500 miles west, I just can't help but think that story got in to their minds--and maybe, if I'm blessed myself, into their hearts. While Oostburg may not be at all the same as it was 55 years ago, there's something in our human character that has never, ever changed and likely won't. 

Music can make years and even differences disappear, but so can writing. "I don't really know what I think until I try to write it." I shouldn't use quotes because I'm not sure right now of her exact wording, but I'm repeating something Flannery O'Connor once wrote or said, something that has struck me. 

I had a great time. I hope that big class did too. This morning, I'm still smiling, greatly thankful for the opportunity.

Poster for a reading on campus, Dordt College, 1979,
a poster done by Norman Mathias.

Monday, November 29, 2021


Trust me, I could tell you her story. I've been living with it for five years, although the Covid year (and more) can't be counted inasmuch as the tribe determined the entire Cheyenne River Reservation off-limits to anyone but its own. I couldn't get to Eagle Butte, South Dakota, even if I had tried, couldn't get in. She leveraged her own considerable tribal clout to get me in, but the quarantine wouldn't budge, even though Governor Noem, who was not her favorite anyway, got hoppin' mad about it. 

(Let's just say this about that. Marcella LeBeau, a matriarch among her Cheyenne River people, was never hesitant about becoming an old Testament prophet, found it her role, in fact, more than once during her many, many years.)

But she couldn't get me in, so the work stopped and the book never really got finished before she died just last week, 102 years old. Cancer got her finally, took her home to the Spirit World, she would say. 

You may have read her obituary. The Associated Press did one, and it got picked up by newspapers all over the country. She was a war hero, an Army Nurse during the Battle of the Bulge. There may well have been more Lakota Army nurses during WWII, more Native American nurses, but I don't know of any. She was most proud of serving her country, a country she was not at all ashamed or afraid of criticizing angrily for the way it has treated this nation's Indigenous, including, of course, the Lakota people.

I won't try to tell the story. It's been condensed wonderfully and is now available all over the internet. Here's the AP's obituary.  My version is 150 pages longer.

So, I missed the funeral. Misdirected or mistaken, I arrived exactly one day late. Things like that happen on the reservation, but they're not supposed to happen to old white men. The funeral was Saturday; I was sure it was Sunday, a massive snafu, but it all worked out, as things often do way out there. Had I been in Eagle Butte on time on Saturday, I would have been one of a huge crowd. I wouldn't have had much time with her family. Yesterday, I sat in her house for the last time with a goodly bunch of LeBeaus who were sitting around remembering, occasionally dabbing at their eyes. That was a blessing I wouldn't have had.

I'd planned to go to Promise, the town where she lived as a child. I'd been there before, with her, seen all the important places. Her church (or at least the contemporary manifestation there of)

And her neighborhood--a house her father built long, long ago

"Neighborhood" doesn't quite seem to cover it really. Yesterday, alone, I visited the immense landscape in which she was raised (she'd be happy I said it that way, so proud she was of her heritage). My best camera is simply not big enough to get that landscape in, but here's a fragment

And the cemetery (see it?--behind the convoy of trees) where her mother and father, her sister and brothers, already gone, greeted her, I'm sure. 

That's where I found her, a place I'm sure she wanted to be--

I was alone, which is maybe the best way to visit cemeteries anyway. But yesterday's mile-long caravan that came all the way out to the Promise cemetery from Eagle Butte--a long trip, considerable chunks of which are on gravel--had left its mark all around, including this touching imprint, a child's hands in the dirt--

The funeral was live-streamed on Facebook, I was told, so I can watch it at my leisure. The pilgrimage I needed to take was a trip alone to a little town named Promise, where I'd been before when I'd asked Marcella to take me to the places most near and dear to her heart. I'd stood here before to meet her mother, who died here when Marcella was just ten years old

And her father, an Irish-American who'd come out to the reservation to work for the government, putting up housing, when he met a woman. . .well, you know that story.

I was out there, alone, Sunday, November 28, 2021, my own mother's birthday, among a people not much my own

and yet, yesterday, out there very much my own, among fellow pilgrims in this incredibly wide and limitless world, this immense, jaw-dropping creation of an Almighty who is, it seems, forever bigger than our fullest grasp, always out of reach but never far away.

It was a holy experience, a Sabbath all its own.