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.

Friday, October 18, 2019

Just north of Pierre

That's President John F. Kennedy. It's August 17, 1962, one of the few times JFK ever stepped foot in South Dakota. That day he had reason, good reason. The celebration that drew him was the dedication of the huge Oahe Dam, an earthen monster that created, upstream behind it, the fourth largest man-made reservoir in the world. 

Seven mighty turbines create electricity sufficient to power entire regions of the country. This beast stands 245 feet above river bottom and required 92 million cubic yards of fill dirt, and well over a million cubic yards of concrete. Don't even try to imagine that kind of bulk in quantity. 

Lake Oahe added 2, 250 miles of lakeshore real estate to South Dakota's otherwise paltry sum, not to mention 51 state-run recreation areas and gadzillions of salmon and lake trout. Fishermen have followed, loads of them, competitions just about every weekend. Oh, and water for farmers and ranchers, water in abundance in a region where average rainfall may wander, year to year, painfully. Lake Oahe starts right there, just a few miles north of Pierre, but spreads all the way into North Dakota, a huge, veritable wonder of the world. 

Right up there on top--you have to look to find it--is a chapel, not large, but well-kept. Take a step in--it's nicely furnished with pews and pulpit, decorated thoughtfully in proper church-ly furnishings of the time. A Congregationalist preacher named Thomas Riggs and his wife, Nina, built it, determined to start a mission among the Native people of central South Dakota--and a school, too, where students could be taught to read and write in a grammar book created by Riggs' father, Stephen, who had, already in the 1830s, undertaken mission work among the Dakota out east in Minnesota. 

Why the powers-that-be named that mammoth earthen dam after a tiny little church the lake displaced is a question I can't answer but may well reflect more than a little white privilege. The story goes that a visitor to the Cheyenne River once remarked on the fact that there seemed to be no old people around. Some wise man or woman told the visitor that most had died of a broken heart, so much of their lives and their history simply gone beneath the waters of Lake Oahe.

Anyway, you can miss the chapel with all that wide-open beauty around the dam, but don't. You can honor the whole Riggs family by stopping by and poking your head in. "Bringing in the sheaves" on South Dakota reservation land was a lot tougher work than some of the old missionary hymns had made it sound. 

And then there's this too. Promise me you'll not miss it. It's just a few miles south.

The Snake Butte Turtle Effigy is neither stunning, like the Oahe Dam, nor quaint, like Oahe chapel; and it has absolutely nothing to do with displacing water or land. It sits up top one of a hundred river bluff promontories, and, trust me, you've got to hunt to find it. It's little more than a box of rocks in a chain-link fence. 

But those rocks have a shape, a turtle shape that's here roughly visible.

Let me help.

Those are my lines, and just over the hill is the Missouri River valley. Right now you're standing on private land. No problem--the good people who own the land like to share the Snake Butte Turtle Effigy. 

Age?--who knows? Origin is just as mysterious, although historians do prefer one wonderful saga. Let's just go with it. 

Once upon a time many hundreds of years ago, an Arikara village stood somewhere close to where the dam now stands. The Arikaras were in constant danger of a Dakota attack, so they posted sentries up on promontories like Snake Butte to keep an eye open for war parties. The Dakotas were as stealthy as they were dangerous. So when that young Arikara warrior spotted the sneaky Dakotas, they were already close enough to let loose a fusillade of arrows, one of which caught the young warrior mortally. 

His wound was deep and dangerous, but his people's safety was his only concern. With every ounce of strength and perseverance, he ran and ran and ran, a half-mile, a mile?--distance doesn't matter here, bravery does. Right here, at the edge of the butte, he fell and died, leaving behind a trail of blood.

The Dakota warriors had far more respect for courage than they had for the Arikara, and what they'd witnessed in the kid's frantic determination to warn his village was a miracle of selflessness that stunned them so profoundly that after marking whatever blood spots they could in the grass the kid had traversed, they sat down and created this turtle effigy at the spot where he died, to honor him and his immense and dogged courage.

Whatever you do, don't miss the Turtle Effigy. It may well be the only memorial you'll ever find anywhere created to honor a story of the courage of an enemy. That's almost biblical.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

"The Passing of the Backhouse"

That of the famous jokester Will Rogers
Course, yes--but in its country way sort of grudgingly cute, too. Sort of. I didn't grow up anywhere near a privy, so I can't say what's in this goofy doggerel is in any way nostalgic. The poem--if it can be called such--came to me in an ancient unmarked envelope and shouldn't really be reprinted. 

That being said, I had to smile when I read it, and that's why I'm passing it along. I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me.

When memory keeps me company and moves to smiles or tears, 
a weather-beaten object looms through the mist of years.
Behind the house and barn it stood, a good half-mile or more,
and hurrying feet a path had made, straight to its swinging door.
Its architecture was a type of simple classic art,
But in the tragedy of life it played a leading part.
And oft the passing traveler drove slow and heaved a sigh,
To see the modest hired girl slip out with glances shy.

We had our posey garden that the women loved so well,
I loved it too, but better still I loved the stronger smell
that filled the evening breezes so full of homely cheer,
and told the night-o'ertaken tramp that human life was near.

On lazy August afternoons, it made a little bower
Delightful, where my grandsire sat to while away an hour,
For there the summer morning its very cares entwined,
and berry bushes reddened in the steaming soil behind.

All day fat spiders spun their webs to catch the buzzing flies
that flitted to and fro from the house, where Ma was baking pies.
And once a swarm of hornets bold, had build a palace there,
and stung my unsuspecting aunt--I must not tell you where.
Then father took a flaming pole--that was a happy day!--
he nearly burned the building up, but the hornets left to stay.
When summer bloom began to fade and winter to carouse
We banked the little building with a heap of hemlock boughs.

But when the crust was on the snow and sullen skies were gray,
in sootoh the building was no place where one could wish to stay.
We did our duties promptly, there one purpose swayed the mind.
We tarried not, nor lingered long on what we left behind.
The torture of that icy seat would make a Spartan sob,
for needs must scrape the goose-flesh with a lacerating cob--
that from a frost-encrusted nail was suspended by a string
For father was a frugal man and wasted not a thing.

When grandpa had to "go out back" and make his morning call,
we'd bundle up the dear old man with muffler and a shawl.
I knew the hole on which he sat--'twas padded all around;
and once I dared to sit there--'twas all too wide I found.
They had to come and get me out, or I'd have passed away.
Then father said ambition was a thing that boys should shun,
and I just need the children's hole 'till childhood days were done.

And still I marvel at the craft that cut those holes so true,
the baby hole, and the slender hold that fitted sister Sue;
That dear old country landmark, I tramped around a bit,
And in the lap of luxury my lot has been to sit.
But ere I die I'll eat the fruit of trees robbed of yore,
Then seek the shanty where my name is carved upon the door.
I ween the old familiar smell will soothe my jaded soul,
I'm now a man, but nonetheless, I'll try the children's hole.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Netherlandish Proverbs--(ii)

I can't help it--the plain fact of the matter is that I look a ton more Dutch than Spanish. I don't wear wooden shoes, but when I walk, I klompen. So one day, by myself somewhere in the Netherlands, I was walking down Main Street among a host of others while the kind of rainy mist that's native to my country of origin was all around. 

I have no idea who he was, will never know, but a man who happened to be walking beside said something about the foggy morning, and did so with an intonation I recognized as some old proverb he knew because everyone did. It never dawned on him that I didn't, so I have no idea what he said. No matter. I looked at him and smiled, as if to tell him that about the clingy mist, he'd nailed it. 

The penchant for ancient wisdom in a wee package is, at least to me, quintessentially Dutch. Ben Franklin may well have been America's first proverb peddler--"a stitch in time saves nine." Poor Richard had a notebook full. But the Dutch are masters.

Wee wisdom is going on in Pieter Brueghel's Netherlandish Proverbs, a canvas full of sermons in teaspoons, more of a catechism than a masterpiece.  

Try this: 

I wouldn't doubt that the man's red pantlegs signify something, but what I don't know. He appears to be pulling along chunk of a trunk that may or may not have legs like a stool. By the angle of his efforts, it's a stiff job. There's a bit of Sisyphus here maybe, that poor king sentenced by Zeus to roll a boulder up a hill endlessly.  

The Dutch line is easy enough, just three words: "de blok slepen," which Wikipedia translates as "to drag the block" and explains as "to work at a pointless task." It's his punishing duty to drag this beastly thing around, for what sin or crime we don't know. What seems to be implied is that his sentence is not likely to end soon.

Somewhere, however, this little witticism developed a specific usage by what Shakespeare called "cuckolding." Apparently, there's often something sexual about this man's misery. Poor guy was deceived by a lover. He is, therefore, dragging the block. Linguistically, that doesn't work in English, which is not to say it's beyond understanding. Still, I get it.

Here's another: 

So I'm walking my kids' dog on one of those expanding leashes, which is likely a mistake, given my idiocy about things mechanical. Without letting me know, the dog bolts. He's just a lap dog whose most fearsome trait is his bark. But immediately I'm thinking the worst: he'll get hit by a car or he'll run off to Fort Sill. So I take off after him.

Well, that's a misrepresentation--"take off" bears no resemblance to what happened on that sidewalk. I'm 71 years old, and the fact is, I haven't run or jogged since having back surgery 20 years ago. I didn't "take off" because what I learned at that moment is that I can't run. Somewhere in the earlier chapters of my story, I left running, never was my forte' anyway, behind. What I learned at that moment is that I can't run--not that I don't run, but I can't. Literally. Fifty feet away, the dog stopped and waited for me. An act of mercy. Didn't giggle either. 

Brueghel's old woman here is running, doing the impossible. She is highly conscious of those beasts at her heels and thoroughly believes they mean to make a meal of her. In the fire of her adroit fear, in her madness, she runs. 

Maybe I could too with those medieval beasts salivating behind me. 

Noot doet zelfs oude vrouwen rennen--"thus doth fear make old women trot." What you can do if you have to is amazing. 

One more quickie. Gotta love it, but then, unlike the English, the potato-eating Dutch are un-apologetically earthy. 

It's not pretty. In Dutch, the line goes like this:  Paardonkeutels zijn geen vijgen, or "horseapples are not figs," which is just an blushingly Dutch turn on "you can't tell a book by its cover" or "all that glitters is not gold." Better yet, "you can't make a purse from a sow's ear," or, to return to the Dutch, "you can't put pink ribbons on wooden shoes."

That's more than enough wisdom for one morning.

All three proverbs exist in the upper right hand corner of Netherlandic Proverbs

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Indigenous People's Day

Image result for indigenous peoples day facts
Because there isn't one. 

That may be the best reason for an Indigenous People's Day, whether or not the new name erases what has been Columbus Day. People know so little about this nation's first nations that creating a holiday to commemorate them is altogether fitting. Me?--I prefer what South Dakota did: eschew both Columbus and the odd word indigenous, and just call yesterday "Native American Day."

Not all that long ago, a Washington Post article made humiliatingly clear how poorly American schools teach its students about slavery. Not that teaching about slavery isn't done; it simply isn't done well. One of the reasons is obvious: slavery isn't a nice story. Teaching about it, Joe Heim wrote in that story, "means acknowledging and exploring slavery’s depravity. It means telling the personal stories of enslaved people, the physical and psychological cruelty they endured, the sexual violence inflicted upon them, the separation of husbands and wives, parents and children."

And that's not something fun to do, especially right before the pep rally. Who on earth wants to teach "ugly stuff"? Bring on World War II, and and how we finally dispatched Hitler and Hirohito, or the Great War, when we came to Europe's rescue. The Civil War, despite hundreds of thousands of dead, isn't bad either, given the fact that, hallelujah! it freed the slaves.

For kids who are white or red, there's no easy way to teach Native American history either. A Navajo once told me he dropped out of college after taking an interim course in Native American history. He quit school altogether because he was so angry that what he'd learned in that single, short class was a saga he had never, ever heard in school before even though he'd grown up on a reservation.

There's good reason to drop Columbus Day from the calendar and Columbus himself from the pantheon of American heroes, starting with the word discovery. "Before it became the New World," says Charles Mann in a 2002 essay in the Atlantic
, "the Western Hemisphere was vastly more populous and sophisticated than has been thought." There were thousands, millions, for whom the word discovery is not only silly but a slam. Columbus didn't need to find them or to verify their existence, and he certainly didn't need to treat them as despicably as he did.

Columbus Day, Yoni Applebaum argues just last week in the Atlantic, is, oddly enough, a victim of its own success. Applebaum traces the history of the holiday back to a time in American culture when "swarthy" Catholic Italians were swarming into WASP-held America, upsetting the powerful, who felt the immigrants to be a grade or two less than human. Columbus Day originated as a means to celebrate a people who were also despised, save for their strong backs and their cheap labor at jobs in which white folks had no interest.

I'm all for "Native American Day," but it's also good to remember that its predecessor on the calendar of national holidays actually had origins in seeking to recognize yet another forgotten people.

Is there a pattern here? Probably. Should we try to understand it? Yes. 

But try teaching that to the guy in the MAGA cap. 

Monday, October 14, 2019

Morning Thanks--Last night's performance

I know it's awkward of me to say it, but I have had far more than my share of successes as a performer in my three-score-and-ten. After helping Diet Eman tell her story in print (Things We Couldn't Say), I created a readers theater presentation out of all that courage and perseverance, a presentation that toured widely in 1995, fifty years after the liberation of the camps in World War II.

After writing Our Family Album, a book about the Christian Reformed Church, I thought I could do the same thing--and did, bringing that story to the stage, the story of the denomination of which I've been a part ever since I was born--and before, if I calculate time by one of the CRC's staid old doctrines, the doctrine of "the covenant." 

I created a show for the 50th anniversary of Dordt College (now University) that also toured widely and featured videoed stories of eight specially chosen alums. I've read my own stories time and time again, throughout the U.S. and Canada. 

If my eyes and heart can be trusted, then I'll hazard this judgement: a ton of those readings and performances were greatly successful. If I sound like I'm tooting my own horn, I guess I am. I'm sorry. At 71 years old, I don't think it's a sin to do a little self-reflection.

I say all of that for a reason. Last night before a crowd in our church, five readers and I staged an unique performance that, if my instincts can be trusted, was wonderfully received (emphasis on wonder).   

A friend of mine from Vermont told me that I'd like Benjamin Myers' book of poems, Black Sunday, a series of sonnets (all all things!) that tell stories of the Dust Bowl, right there in "no man's land," a triangle of horrors cut from Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas, where that terrible Sabbath day will never be forgotten. 

I took Myers's book of poems from the package and read it, cover to cover, the only time in my life I've ever done that with any book. That recommendation was true. The stories Myers tells are heartfelt alive, brittle with the kind of electrical charge that arose from all that dust. To me, remembrances of the people who speak in that book were beautiful, but dark--very dark, as was the time. Many thousands left--Steinbeck tells their stories. 

I sent out a few emails to people I know to tell them I thought Black Sunday was an amazing work, powerfully moving, dark as a dust cloud but never quite hopeless against the wide Great Plains sky, then decided to try it, to put it up on stage for people to hear and see.

We planted an old hymn right in the middle of the performance, a hymn begun by a school teacher, who simply starts, wearily, to sing the first quiet verse of "Leaning on the Everylasting Arms." For a moment, she's all by herself, singing quietly, thoughtfully, to no one but herself. She's trying to raise some hope. On the chorus the rest of us on stage joined her, in a testimony that's also inescapably a lament. 

We'd recruited a pair of wonderful singers. When they joined in, the crowd began to understand that they too could help, all of it a capella. Something happened just then: somewhere in the back, people stood to sing with her, with us. Slowly, the rest of the crowd got to their feet as well. No one asked them to rise, no one gave any sign that we wanted them on their feet. No one up front ever thought they would, but on their own they did--they got to their feet as if helping the schoolteacher with the courage to face the deprivations of her life in "no man's land."

That moment was almost heavenly. To me at least it signified that those who attended were on a perfect pitch with the emotional heart of the poems the cast were reading. The crowd became a part of the story. I've experienced far more than my share of beautiful moments in dramatic performances, but this one was extraordinary, and pure blessing. 

On the way out, as the cast walked through the crowd, a boy, a little boy, looked at the schoolteacher, and gave her a thumbs up as if to say he'd loved it. I've had standing ovations that weren't as precious. 

We live in a culture that doesn't really value history much. The great American Dream cares not a lick for yesterday. When people lose those yesterdays, we call the condition senility. Black Sunday is a chapter in our history we forget at our jeopardy. 

The great value of history, someone said, is that it tells us what we've done and therefore what we are.

This morning I'm thankful for Benjamin Myers wonderful book, for our attempt to put it on stage, and for the blessings which understanding ourselves affords.
Listen to a Small Wonder from KWIT, public radio in Sioux City, Iowa, a short essay about the Dust Bowl and Benjamin Myers's book. 

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Reading Mother Teresa--Purity

. . . I consider everything a loss 
because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, 
for whose sake I have lost all things. 
I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ. . . . 
Philippians 3:8 

Fine and pure as summer dew
Her soft warm tears begin to flow,
Sealing and sanctifying now
Her painful sacrifice. (17)

Just before the epic battle that would forever change Native American life on the Great Plains, the Battle at Greasy Grass, or Little Big Horn, Sitting Bull, a Lakota medicine man, performed a Sun Dance, then cut chunks of his own flesh from his arms and legs as an act of devotion to the divine, or the sacred, Wakan Tanka. Bloodied and weakened, he then saw a vision of cavalrymen falling from the sky. That vision, historians say, both red and white, strengthened Native resolve for the battle which that was to come.

Barbaric. Heathenish--sure. But somehow, to a religious person, understandable. What Sitting Bull did that day was a sacrifice. He gave bloodily of himself to his god, humbled himself, hurt himself in contrition and submission to his own image of the divine.

Mother Teresa was little more than a child, when, tears in her eyes, she wrote a self-reflective poem on her trip to India, a poem that describes her mood on board that ship. I believe her when she says she cried. I believe her tears. She had to be anxious about the world she was entering and what was to come. She was little more than a college freshman; and, away from home for the first time, I’ve seen them cry in torrents.

What’s difficult for me to understand is that she considered the way she had pledged herself to God and his love to be such an immense sacrifice. If she truly valued what she might have become had she not chosen to take her orders, being on that ship and on her way to a whole new life would have been more difficult, and much less filled with the sweet promise that she was soon to become, after all, “the little bride of Christ”?

Yet, here, in the last lines of that little poem, she says her tears, “pure as the summer dew,” flowed from her “painful sacrifice.”

I don’t think Mother Teresa ever pulled out some kind of poetic license to wrench out half-truths or hyperbole. I can see her there on the deck of that ship, little more than a kid, handkerchief in hand, dabbing at her eyes.

What I don’t understand is her sacrifice.

But then, I just returned from the gym, where I work out lest my weight balloon, as it certainly could. Our house is comfy and warm. Sometime this week, I’m getting a new easy chair. Tuesdays and Wednesdays are tough teaching days for me, but I’m sure I’ll come out whole on the other side by the time by the weekend. I haven’t cut out any chunks of my flesh as of late, haven’t worn the hooks in a Sun Dance, haven’t denied myself anything to speak of, haven’t even fasted. I just don’t think I’ve done much suffering.

With so much of her storied life still in front of her, so much suffering yet to be discovered and endured, so much love yet to be given away, it’s difficult for me to understand how tears could possibly be wrenched from what this young lady, still a child, thought of as her significant sacrifice in following Jesus.

But then, maybe that’s my fault. Not long ago, somewhere I remember, we sang the old hymn “I Surrender All.” Really? I do?

Maybe I don’t recognize her sacrifice because I haven’t a clue about my own.


Friday, October 11, 2019

Small Wonders--The Todd House

Religious visions were everywhere in the years preceding the Civil War. Boom towns out west here may have been hell holes for a time, but they were also peopled by starry-eyed believers who claimed their marching orders came from on high.

Tabor, Iowa, sits on a bluff far above the Missouri, the highest point of Fremont County. The place is not in terrific shape today; but Tabor has an epic past, created when fiery abolitionist Congregationalists set up camp here, just across the river from Nebraska.

The Reverend John Todd House, in town, was a stop on the Underground Railroad in the 1850s, often a port of entry to runaway slaves who weren’t free until they could be protected from slave-holders and vigilante northerners looking to make a buck from substantial bounties. There was money to be made: slaves were property, after all.

In the 1850s, slavery was under attack, and Rev. Todd was a soldier in God’s army.

Truth is, he got into trouble before there even was a Tabor. A discussion about slavery aboard the steamer he came up on became heated. Once other passengers detected an abolitionist, they wanted his scalp. "Shoot him," someone yelled. "Kill him." One idiot told him if it was his choice, he’d straight-up trade the pastor for a mongrel dog and shoot the dog. Todd says he learned later that man was "a minister of the gospel from Missouri."

Both Iowa Congregationalists and Iowa Quakers thought the institution of slavery an abomination. What separated the two faith communities was a commitment to violence. The Quakers said no. Rev. John Todd and his Congregationalists said yes and became a prototype for an abolitionist preacher in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead.

The manse of the Reverend John Todd sits right on the square in Tabor--don’t expect a palace. But the old house still has an tiny door leading down to a dank basement. John Todd was no more than a shim over five and a half feet tall, so what’s downstairs is more his size, a cave really, not inviting.

But if you stop by, don’t not go downstairs. At one point in time that basement was an armory full of guns for the war he thought about to begin in "Bleeding Kansas."

What's there today? Nothing. No cement floor, just dirt, a humming dehumidifier, random stones, bricks. That cellar was was never meant to be lived in. It was a place to hide when the prairie sky turned foreboding.

At the request of none other than fiery John Brown, who stayed right there in Tabor, Pastor Todd stocked his house full of guns because he simply could not abide the sin of slavery. Slaves, he and his friend John Brown claimed, had a more righteous reason for rebellion than did patriot colonists a century before.

In his own memoir of that era, Todd described himself and what happened this way:

The parson had one brass canon on his haymow, and another on wheels in his wagon shed. He had also boxes of clothing, boxes of ammunition, boxes of muskets, boxes of sabres, and twenty boxes of Sharps rifles stowed away in the cellar all winter.

The preacher took up arms. His eyes had seen the glory.

You'll have to get off the beaten track to find Tabor, and you’ll have to call ahead to to get in the house. Not many Americans stop there anymore, if they ever did.

But the basement still beckons, and the memory of that time and place and the war it begat somehow seems more real when you stand beneath ancient beams on a dirt floor, where once a preacher readied himself for a war that God meant to happen, a war to free the slaves.