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.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Sunday Morning Meds--Factory Second

“How long, O men, will you turn my glory into shame?” Psalm 4:2

Were I a writing teacher (which I am) and were I to be asked to grade Psalm 4—(which I’ve not been) I’d have to admit (maybe I shouldn’t) that in my estimation this song isn’t one of David’s greatest hits.

I like the fact that it follows Psalm 3, a psalm traditionally called “a morning Psalm.”  Psalm 4 has been just as traditionally called “an evening psalm,” as we shall see.  Creates a nice pattern.  It’s somehow fits where it is.

But, just for a moment, let me make a case for what I see as its problems.  The song begins with a demand (“Answer me”) that softens rather quickly into the heartfelt request of every human being who knows he or she has sinned (“be merciful to me’).  Despite its in-your-face first line, it’s difficult to imagine that verse one could be written in any position other than on one’s knees.  Read it again, if you think I’m wrong.

Suddenly, and without notice, the supplicant of verse one turns his attention totally on those who have no faith in Almighty God, seems drawn to his knees out of concern for what the KJV used to call “sons of men,” a term of respect.
Verse three uses a whole different voice.  You should know, he says to those “sons of men,” that the Lord has chosen his own and, quite frankly, I’m one of them.  Furthermore, he says, chin jutting, he’ll answer my prayers.  Odd sentiment for a supplicant who wasn’t so sure about anything just a moment ago.

In verse 4 and 5, those pointy-fingered accusations about his enemies’ sins have melted away into a priestly blessing.  Listen, he says, his tone lightening up, look into a mirror sometime.  Once you’ve seen what’s really there (verse 5), offer good sacrifices to the Lord.
His enemies have disappeared altogether by verse 6, and verse 7 exudes joy at what seems to be the blessing he was demanding of the Lord at the outset.  Sweetly, the psalm ends with a pledge and a testimony.
Really, the emotional life—what writers call “tone”—of Psalm 4 is all over the map.  In this poem, David seems almost manic-depressive, like his predecessor, Saul.  There is little continuity here, almost no unity.  The major players in the drama—David and his vain enemies—are multi-faceted, and even God shifts in focus.
Ask yourself this:  how many people do you know who list Psalm 4 as among their favorites?
So who reserved a place for it in the canon?  Why is it in the anthology?

I’ll hazard an answer.  Because, in the words of a retail chain, Psalm 4-are-us.
Who hasn’t, in times of dire distress, panted prayers that were as disheveled as this, as madcap in structure and form?  Who hasn’t stuttered?  Whose most deeply felt  prayers honestly achieve beauty and grace?

Psalm 4, like so many other songs in this book, testifies of God’s love.  Its emotions are out of control, its rhetoric all over the map.  It’s the testimony of a man at wit’s end, a man who’s spent far too many nights tossing and turning.  Psalm 4 is David’s way, really, of falling, graciously, to sleep.

Because it’s here, because it made the collection, because it does what we do, it’s very much ours.  

Friday, February 16, 2018

Me and guns and Joni Ernst

I once shot a goose from the back of a motor scooter. Seriously, I did. I wasn't trying to show off, never guessed I'd hit it. We were riding along the Lake Michigan shoreline, putt-puttin' on the wet sand, late October probably, when a lone goose came by. My double-barrel, 16-gauge was loaded, so I aimed--sort of--let loose, and down came the goose. 

I'm not making this up.

We hunted crows with a phonograph. This old friend of mine had a record with nothing on it but a gaggle of crows gaggling. All that racket from the turntable would haul in crows from hither and yon, we thought, and we'd shoot 'em. That was the plan. Didn't happen, but we had fun. 

I hunted pheasants and deer and once upon a time got woefully lost in a Kettle Moraine forest hunting ruffed grouse I never once laid eyes on.

A day or two after JFK was killed in Dallas, a friend and I walked in a woods just outside of town, lugging our shotguns, supposedly hunting rabbits. Didn't come home with a bunny, but the two of us, not yet 16, had a memorable conversation about state of the union, as did the whole country.

In my Wisconsin childhood, I spent more time with guns than I did eating cheese. I learned to love the lakeshore woods by following an neighbor who walked as carefully through those pines and hardwoods as some Kickapoo might have a hundred years before. He taught me to love trilliums and buttercups and jack-in-the-pulpits. I watched him shoot a possum that stumbled into his trap, the first time I'd ever seen an animal die.

I've got my own treasured past with guns. I understand the attachment. I do.

On Wednesday night, a commentator on Fox News told the host that when he was a boy, he had a .22; but he never, ever entertained thoughts of shooting anyone. He was as dismayed as the rest of us, as perplexed about a problem that worsens with every passing month--18 school shootings already this year, eight inside the walls. In Florida, thousands are mourning 17 students and teachers who are dead.

I know what that guy was talking about. I shot a goose from the back of a Cushman motor scooter, but it never entered my mind to turn that 16-gauge on anyone else. Never. 

But then, I never carried an AR-15 either. Couldn't have. Wouldn't have thought of it. 

If the President can blame Democrats for the deaths of people killed by undocumented immigrants, shouldn't he also tag Second Amendment Republicans for the deaths of seventeen people this week in Parkland, Florida?

And shouldn't Joni Ernst, the hog farmer from Iowa, return the three million dollars+ her campaign blissfully received from the NRA? Shouldn't John McCain give back the seven million? Shouldn't the President himself fork over the $21,000,000 he got from a group who idiotically argue that Nicolas Cruz, a broken, parent-less, misfit 19-year-old, should have the perfect right to own a combat weapon as much like my 16-gauge as that Cushman scooter was to a Sherman tank?

What is wrong with us?

Thursday, February 15, 2018

A Chopin Triptych in York, NE

Mildred Armstrong Kadish, in Little Heathens, her darling little memoir of growing up on an Iowa farm during the Depression, claims that her family had only two oil lamps before rural electrification. It's astounding to think of how dark their world must have been  once night fell. Perhaps that's the world Lionello Balestrieri saw in the early years of the 20th century, when he did this painting for a triptych that outlines Frederick Chopin's life. 

There in the bottom left corner, in a space only slightly lighter than the rest of the painting, sits a young Chopin, at a piano. The painting is simply too dark--Rembrandt-ish--to see for yourself, and I wouldn't see it either if it weren't an explanation hung on the wall of the Anna Bemis Palmer Museum in York, Nebraska, where I saw the triptych. In this, the first of the three paintings hinged together into a wall-hanging, he's pictured creating a fuss in a German railroad station where he's consented to entertain the waiting passengers (did Chopin ever merely entertain?) Their hushed admiration is obvious in the more well-lit upper right-hand corner. 

This is, I was told by a note in the museum, the young Chopin, not yet at his prime perhaps, but already drawing regard from an appreciative crowd drawn right off the streets of the city.

In this painting, the middle section of the triptych, Balestrieri gives Chopin an almost divine diadem that puts him at the visual heart of our interest. Trust me, I wouldn't know this without that museum note, but his audience isn't a street gang from the train station. A roll call of artists, rightfully famous in their time, sit here in admiration of Chopin's genius--Lizst, Delacroix, Meyerbeer, and a woman, the only one, with the improbable name of George Sand. She's sitting closest to the front, in the best light and therefore most recognizable. She and Chopin were, for a while I guess, a thing. In every way, this portrait is suggesting Chopin at the height of his powers--all of them.

And then there's this on the far end. That's not him, cross-dressing at the piano. Chopin is the figure in the bed in the background, and he's obviously hurting, dying in fact, leaving by the medium of music, clearly, but leaving, dying, all the same. Strangely, of the three triptych paintings, this one seems to be done with most deliberate light, which may well be its own moral lesson.

What the note in that small museum in York, Nebraska, says is, "the Polish Countess Potocka sings a psalm at his dying request." 

Balestrieri created a triptych, three panels in one wide painting, a kind of visual biography of Frederic Chopin. You won't even find it on the internet. The only one I know is in a museum in York, Nebraska. 

And I'm telling you all of this because it's the piece I remember best, probably because it has an inescapable momento mori theme. It says, just as clearly as Atlas, knees buckling but still holding up the globe, be prepared--the end is always in sight. 

I'll be 70 years old on Saturday. Maybe that's why I'm sitting here telling you about a wall-hanging in the Anna Bemis Palmer Museum, a gift to a man named James A. Park from the Chautaqua Chorus, whoever that may have been, 110 years ago, the note says, in 1908. 

Just another reminder, the morning after Ash Wednesday. 

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Morning Thanks--Valentine's Day*

My wife of almost 39 years [now 46] says this gift she's got in mind is going to cover both of my big days this week--Valentine's Day, plus my birthday. She says it wasn't easy finding a new easy chair either; the space the old one fills, she says, is tricky because whatever we put there can't be too tall or it'll cover too much of the window in this century-old house of ours, and the Lay-Z-Boys are all gigantic these days, she says--really, really big. They're on sale too, she says. The sale is what drew her to the furniture store--a sale on Lay-Z-Boys.

But the one she likes isn't even a Lay-Z-Boy, so it's not on sale. I know what that means--it's even more money. My wife's tastes are expensive, but rarely used--buy once but thoughtfully. She's come by her ways honestly, however, if you knew her mother. She says she wants something smaller than anything Lay-Z-Boy makes. Anyway, she says she wants me to have a look and try this new, expensive chair on for size at the store.

Which is a strange way of saying it, but it's probably true: if you want a new easy chair, you'd better try it on for size.

So I did. It fit just fine.

But I was still non-plussed about this big Valentine's/birthday present because years ago I thought I got myself in trouble for suggesting that maybe we ought to have a new chair and a new sofa in the family room. I wasn't all that fond of either actually, and the sofa wasn't a particularly good fit, for me at least, because normally it took a winch to get me out, the kind with ropes and pulleys. Put it this way: I thought getting new furniture in the family room was one of those things I shouldn't have said, even brought up.

Anyway, now I know why.

"So I get a new one," I said, "--what's going to happen to the old one?"

She says she doesn't know exactly because she knows well and darn good that she can't just dump it because she's sure that more than fifty years ago her mother picked it up at a sale, an auction, hauled it home in the pickup, reupholstered it beautifully, and then used it herself for years before bequeathing it to her daughter decades ago already. Her mother never, ever bought cheap furniture. That I know.

There's just way too much history in that big green easy chair, especially since her mother has been gone now for almost two [now nine] years. My wife just can't just toss the heavy thing. That expensive fabric her mother put on it hasn't worn down a bit either--her mother didn't do anything half-strength. But it's more than a little dirty; after all, I've been sitting in it for a quarter century. When Ma and Pa Kettle sit in our family room, she's in the sofa, I'm in the chair.

So the old green easy chair on its way out, except it's not really leaving, which I understand, even though, truth be told, it never was my favorite. And the fact is, it sits just like a throne--it really does. You sit down and it doesn't even move, I swear, and I'm no featherweight.

It's got a matching footstool too, which we can position right between us so that both of us can put our feet up together, sort of homey, right? That big green footstool is in good shape too after 25 years. Shoot, after twice that many at least. It's hard to think about the family room without that fat old footstool.

Something about that whole Saturday afternoon new-chair business just sticks with me, in part because I honestly thought change would never happen. I thought we'd leave this old house before getting a new easy chair--and sofa. I was resigned to sit this one out, so to speak. Then, out of nowhere, my wife just decides that this old green trooper's days are numbered.

But she can't just throw it away either.

I like that. I really do. But then, I like my wife. A lot. Much better than the old green throne.

So yesterday in church, a man who reads just beautifully is reading the Word of the Lord from the book of Acts, and he reads this line: "This is what the Lord says: 'Heaven is my home, and the earth is my footstool.'"

Honestly, I think, it's not a particularly becoming metaphor. Saturday morning I was out and about on a landscape that could hardly have been more beautiful. I could have said, "You know, Lord, I really beg to differ about this place as a footstool. You can do better with your metaphors."

I could have said that, and I likely would have if it hadn't been for Saturday afternoon and my wife talking about a big, two-holiday present for me and an old throne that still holds thumbprints from her mother's precious and powerful upholstery hands, not to mention a lot of life itself between us for all these years.

Honestly, before Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning, I'd never thought of that old green footstool as being all that gorgeous. Now, it's just darling.

But then life is as full of lessons as it surprises, I guess. If you keep your ears open, you can learn a lot. So this Valentine's Day morning, I'm thankful for the teacher who's been my valentine for lo, these last 39 years [make that 46].

And a footstool, too, an ancient, lovely footstool.

*First published Feb. 14, 2011

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Saturday morning catch--The snowy Little Sioux

Almost, but not quite good enough. This is the shot I went after on Saturday morning, all the way out to the valley of the Little Sioux River. For a couple days, watching light snow fall outside my window, I couldn't help remember the bucket list shot--I want to get a buffalo in the middle of falling snow. 

Saturday, the sun rose clear and triumphant, not a snowflake in sight. However, all that light snow was still fresh, so even though there was no falling snow, the world of this character was sheer alabaster.

I got there early, as you can see, the sun still tucked behind clouds. But this isn't bad. It's close to the one I wanted and still want. And the angle is right--all that prairie behind him. They're inside a fenced enclosure, so the shot looks far more rugged than it is. 

I had some time to waste, so I left these guys and lit out into the valley itself. 

It's not the first time I've taken a shot at this solitary tree on a hill. When I came up, the sun--you can tell--still hadn't made its debut for the day. I was sure this shot was going to be a winner. It's not bad, but somehow--maybe the lack of light--I missed it. It should have been better.

Just a few minutes later, the sky was creating a welcome for the dawn, and the same tree, same place, just a few minutes later, becomes Moses's burning bush. 

I may be the only human being on earth who likes this shot, and I liked it the minute I saw it. The abandoned chicken coop is a feature, but it's not the story. That fallen branch brooms itself into the frame almost gracefully, and the deer tracks give just enough animation to make clear that life is here. The dawn's early light lends the whole just enough grace to give the whole some divinity. I just like it. There's no accounting for taste. 

This is all sun. The trees, left and right, create a nice frame, but the real joy here is that old tire leaning up against the wall, bronzed, as it is, but the dawn's glorious Midas touch. I figured there had to be a better way to take this, so I got in closer.

Not until I got home did I realize that something was printed on the wall of that old machine shed, something the rising sun was picking up. I could have done this better, but this is one of those shots I tell myelf I care about--and nobody else ever would, a bunch of junk in an abandoned machine shed. Somehow--and this is what I love about going out and shooting what I see--that tire is just beautiful. It was abominably cold Saturday morning, but if I can sit there and see beauty in an old tire, I'm blessed--that's what I figure.

There's nothing new about this shot. I probably have a dozen of them--corn stubble, shooting into the rising sun. For reasons I'm not sure of, I always think of Piet Mondrian, the Dutch (a real Kuyperian) artist who walked away but created his own kind of mystery in dozens of fascinating paintings. 

For reasons I don't understand, somewhere close to Sutherland, suddenly fog arose. It shouldn't have. The temps were well below zero, I think. There's got to be an explanation, but that foggy stuff created a soft background. I wanted this to be a better shot, but I still like it.

This is maybe the best example of a shot I thought would be perfectly glorious, but isn't. I thought the perspective was rich here, from the grass on the side of the road, to the spruce up close, then the straps of spruce extending into a soft, foggy horizon. It was beautiful. The shot is, well, meh. I didn't get it. Maybe it wouldn't go into the camera--sometimes that happens. What's out there is always more beautiful than what I come home with.

How cold was it actually? Well, here's a sun dog. They don't come out and play until you can hardly be out in the frozen air. 

All that cottony mist did wonders to the Sutherland cemetery. When it comes right down to it, I'm irredeemably morose. I can't pass up a good graveyard pic, and I like this one. Seems to me that you can't help but think it's a pretty shot. Then you realize what you're seeing. Oh, yeah. I like that juxtaposition. 

And then this one. I went back to the buffalo once the sun came up. They were on the other side of their pen by that time, up close to the pen, awaiting breakfast. I had to shoot through the fence that protected me from them. This is a shot I like, especially the guy's grizzly beard. An image like this is what I left home for.

But I can do better. I'll be back. Besides, there's more beauty around than simply the snowy snoot of a bison. 

Monday, February 12, 2018

The Preacher Dies--Edgar Ray Killen, 1925-1018

Edgar Ray Killen was a "kleagle," which is to say, a recruiter, for his hometown KKK. Think pyramid sales, if that helps. Killen recruits a man, who then pays membership fees that include a couple bucks for the kleagle. That man recruits a couple more, and Killen earns more. A kleagle. Never heard the word? That's reason for thanksgiving.

In 2005, this man, Edgar Ray Killen, the KKK kleagle, was convicted by a Mississippi court of three counts of manslaughter and sent off to prison for sixty years, where he died a month ago.

The State of Mississippi determined that Killen had been the inspiration behind the murders of three civil rights workers--two white, one black--in Philadelphia, MS, during the "Freedom Summer" of 1964. Those three men--James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner--had been locked up in a Philadelphia jail after being arrested for speeding. All three weren't local boys. They were in Mississippi investigating the fire-bombing of a black church. When released, they disappeared, their bodies found later in an earthen dam. That's their burned station wagon at the top of the page.

In 1966, a grand jury indicted a eighteen men for the murders of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner. In a jury trial, seven men were convicted, eight were freed, and three--one of them Edgar Ray Killen--were released because of a hung jury. The convictions were the first ever made by a white jury for the murder of a black man in Mississippi.

In 2005, forty years later, Killen, eighty years old and in a wheelchair after breaking both legs in his sawmill, was retried and convicted of manslaughter, for recruiting the bunch who murdered Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner. He was sentenced to sixty years, twenty each for each of the murders.

Edgar Ray Killen died in prison last month. He was 92.

Not long ago, he asked to do an interview, but set ground rules himself. He told the AP he would say nothing about the murders of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner, nor of his own role in them. He rambled a great deal but blamed that rambling on a brain injury he'd also suffered when he broke both legs. He vehemently maintained his segregationist views hadn't changes a bit while he was in prison, and made clear that he held no animosity toward African-Americans. 

If Killen had any change of mind or heart before he died, we don't know. What that single interview makes clear is that he had no interest in altering his views.

Killen's nickname is "Preacher." In the interview, he speaks warmly about the churches he served and the preaching he'd done.

That hung jury that allowed him to walk back in 1965? The tally went 11-1 for conviction. That one jurist who held out firmly against the others, said she simply couldn't convict a preacher.

Edgar Ray "Preacher" Killen is a white man, a white man's white man. But his story as a kleagle and a preacher is a telling tale for Black History Month. 

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Sunday Morning Meds--Chaos/Order

Blessed is the one
who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
or sit in the company of mockers,
but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,. . .
Psalm 1

Those who remember often call it “the hunger winter” because, in the cities at least, there simply was no food. Only the farmers had something to eat—their own produce, of course—and everyday, people say, the roads out into the Dutch countryside swarmed with city-dwellers in stumbling need of food. With no provisions, some ate their cats and called them “roof rabbits.” People did everything they could to secure what they needed to keep themselves and their families alive.
By late April, nothing was functioning. Schools weren’t open, businesses had little to trade, the government was non-existent.  Liberation was coming and people knew it, but the Allies weren’t yet there.
That’s the setting for a story a woman once told me about herself, her mother, and a block of cheese.  Somewhere the province of Friesland, the Netherlands, at a time when the Nazis were fleeing the advance of the Allies, a freight train was left abandoned, and along with it an entire boxcar full of cheese. Once it was clear that Germans were gone, the townspeople commandeered that train and everything in it, and gave out the cheese to people who hadn’t eaten that sumptuously for more than a year.

The woman who told me the story was a girl back then, a child, one of those who’d spent most of her days looking for food during “the hunger winter.” She got herself a block of cheese, she said, and, convinced what she’d been given was itself a miracle, she lugged it home blissfully to her widowed mother.

Her mother took one look at that free food and sent her back to the train. “To take the cheese is to give in to chaos,” she told her astounded daughter. 

And so a little girl walked back, placed that cheese like a sacrifice in the empty boxcar, and left, very much alone. 

That’s what she remembered, what she couldn’t forget.

Her mother’s behavior has understandable logic that feels immensely cold. What she feared more even than hunger was the madness of lawlessness, of chaos, of a life where disorder rules, as it can only do, insanely, as it does too often during war. 

When the Israelites left Egypt, their complaints began almost immediately. "Why did you bring us out here in the middle of nowhere?" they asked Noah. "We'd rather have Pharoah than this mess?"

I'll let you decide if that mother should have made her daughter return that blessed cheese. 

It’s difficult for an old late-60s contrarian like me to buy the essence of this verse from Psalm 1, difficult to believe the Psalmist took real delight, as he says, in the law, a series of “thou-shalt-nots.”  “Thou shalt not covet”—now there’s an idea that warms the soul. Thou shalt not this, thou shalt not that--that's delight? I just don’t buy it.

What the law--even its excesses--gave the people of Israel was order. What it kept at bay, the real scholars say, was chaos—both collectively and individually. What the law gave the Israelites, or so says David, the poet/shepherd, was a way of life. It made life manageable and livable. It made him feel blessed. What's more, it had come from God almighty.

Still does.