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, April 26, 2018

David Wagoner's "Lost"*


Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you,
If you leave it you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.

~ David Wagoner

What Mr. Wagoner suggests in this little fable is that no matter how sure you are that you’ve lost your way, you haven’t--not really, because the world around knows very well where it is and what it is and even where you are within it. The world may feel entirely out of whack, but your dislocation is quite personal, he says. You may think yourself lost, but rest assured the trees around you are not.

And if you listen, you’ll hear as much. After all, those birds know very well which of a thousand branches is theirs. The forest knows where it is and what it is, Wagoner says, so just stay tuned. Listen. Watch. Look around until you get it because “If what a tree or bush does is lost on you,/you are surely lost.”

Isn’t that a sweet line? Confused? Wagoner says. Then “stand still” because surely the real world around you knows where it is and where you are.

The only thing I understood about landscape difference when, 40 years ago, I moved to Siouxland, was that there was an east here. I’d grown up a mile or so west of Lake Michigan, which meant there was no east. “Go east ‘till your hat floats,” people used to say, a quip that had this faint hint of nothing less than death.

Siouxland had an east, which, at first, seemed odd. It also had very few trees, leafy smudges on a long yawning landscape like nothing I’d seen.  I remember reading, once upon a time, that the literature of the Great Plains was frequented by mad women, wives and mothers who, in the days of sod houses, sometimes went crazy in the endless openness with no place to hide, no place to nest. On the Great Plains in those early treeless days, some felt continually exposed, forever naked.

I grew up on a lakeshore. The richest moments of my childhood probably happened in and around woods, trees, like the ones that stand so knowingly in David Wagoner’s poem. The only real painting I own is of those very woods, a painting that’ll get thrown out when our children sift through our things someday; after all, I’m the one who knows what grace is in the lakeshore.

If I’d waited for trees to tell me where I was when I got to Siouxland, I’d have been lost. Five minutes in any direction from where I live and I’m a wanderer in a treeless world. I’ve got to drive about a half hour west to take a walk in a woods, and what’s there doesn’t sprawl far enough to allow me or anyone else, for that matter, to get lost.

But Wagoner’s poem isn’t about trees, even the cartoon trees who give directions when you’ve lost yours. It’s about finding a place. About listening to the sounds of the place you’re in, hearing the place the wind, being still and small enough to let the place find you.

I think that may have happened in my life; but I also know that, as Wagoner says, it’s something one has to work at: one has to listen, to see, to hear. With regards to the world around me, I think I’ve become, in a way, as much of a Siouxland native as I ever will. I found myself and found my way, but not without help.

There's a commemorative medal hanging from a tree stump behind me. It was a gift when I retired from teaching just down the road for 37 years. Add four more years for the time I spent here as a student, and the tally amounts to most of a lifetime in a place with few trees.
It's the fifth year of my retirement. Just down the road from where we live, there's a woods and a river, rarities in the region. We feel blessed to be here.

I'm happy to say I'm not a stranger out here on the emerald edge of the Great Plains. I’ve become, landscape-wise, a native. That's what I think, David Wagoner. It seems to me that endless landscapes all around have found me.


*First appeared here on April 12, 2012.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Small Wonder(s)--a cross-cultural mess

Old Elizabeth--she picked up a white woman's name--never heard of Elizabeth Cady Stanton or Susan B. Anthony. Couldn't have. She didn't know English, knew nothing about a right to vote; but that didn't mean she wasn't a feminist. No sir and no ma'am.

She had little to do with men, but a lot to say. Outspoken? Yes, on all things gender-related. Opinionated?--maybe to a fault. She just flat out didn't like men.

Could be argued that she had cause. Corabelle Fellows says old Elizabeth had "merry eyes and many chins." Miss Fellows is kind, but it doesn't take a sleuth to catch the hints. Old Elizabeth may well not have been an American Beauty rose. The Cheyenne River Reservation had many more comely females. She was, Miss Fellows says, an "old-maid Indian." Thus, she was left out by her people, who had, Miss Fellows says, the unpleasant tradition of putting women of forty winters out of the village if they'd never married.

This feminist Lakota woman was, however, Miss Fellows' host when Miss Fellows came to Cheyenne River to teach school, her boarder, you might say. Old Elizabeth offered her log cabin, nicely furnished, lacking little--well, running water you had to run for, but on the reservation in the 1880s, who knew about faucets? 

Elizabeth held strong opinions about men, which must have made Miss Fellows' English night school for men--they met at Elizabeth's place--something of a trial. No matter. In the one-room cabin, Elizabeth lay right there beside them sleeping. Well, snoring. 

Three men--Miss Fellows calls them "boys"--brought along a friend one night, who carried the most amazing, white doeskin blanket. The three who'd asked her to teach them were eager learners, she says, but this companion said nothing that night. He was stone silent. But she couldn't take her eyes off that "pure white gleaming doeskin, entirely unornamented," she says. 

Now old Elizabeth had warned Miss Fellows repeatedly not to go out by herself after dark. But that night, with her hostess apparently sawing wood, she stepped out and was, in a flash, "seized by strong arms, wrapped tightly in a white doeskin blanket, and borne swiftly away by noiseless feet." She could not move as much as a little toe, she says, before her captor dropped her in a snowbank. 

Corabelle Fellow had spent a couple of years teaching at the Santee Reservation before being reassigned. But being grabbed in the darkness was terrifying. Her nerves weren't frozen, they were fried.

Oh, my word, did old Elizabeth get mad. It took no more than a few minutes for the old woman to chug down the same path towards the river in the dark, where she found Miss Fellows. Then she half-dragged, half-carried her back up, mad like you wouldn't believe, boiling like stew over an open fire. When they got back, Miss Fellows nose about quit functioning in the stink put up by the horrid concoction brewing on the stove, a kind of insect repellent to keep men away, she was told. 

Two hours it took before either of them could settle down--Corabelle from bone-chilling terror, old Elizabeth from flat-out rage. 

At her. That's right. Old Elizabeth blew a gasket because Miss Fellows had left the cabin alone and thereby just about given herself away to the guy with the handsome duds. She'd done everything that silent visitor hoped she would: she'd asked him to speak, looked at him fondly, then left the cabin alone just after he did. 

Old Elizabeth told Miss Fellows she was acting like some cheap hussy. Out there on the  Cheyenne River Reservation that night, two women--one young and white, the other old and Lakota--got it all decidedly wrong, the blind leading the blind. Nobody understood a thing about the other's world. 

That's the story Corabelle Fellows tells in her memoir, Blue Star

And, yes, in that log cabin, the whole cultural mess finally got straightened out. Miss Fellows knew no more about Lakota marriage customs than old Elizabeth knew about white folks' courting rituals, so both proved idiots. Once they got things straightened out, the old feminist quit stirring that horrid herb charm, and the two of them laughed. And laughed. And laughed. 

Which is where all such stories should end, don't you think? The two of them came to understand each other's ways--isn't that sweet? Corabelle even kissed old Elizabeth, something that just wasn't done on the reservation.

One more thing. If you're male, don't go feeling sorry for the poor guy with pretty white doeskin. He may have gone home empty-handed that cold night, but he didn't go back to an empty tipi. He already had several wives. 

All's well that ends well.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Seriously, how do you fight a bully?

"Donald Trump is contagious. He turns everyone he touches into Donald Trump. Now he has done it to James B. Comey."

So saith Karen Tumulty in a Washington Post column recently, but so have tons of others--many of them card-carrying liberals. They all look a little askance at Comey's getting down-and-dirty with the Duke of Down-and-Dirty. They all wish he'd taken the high road--you know, Michelle Obama's old campaign slogan: "They take the low road, we take the high road."

They wish Comey had done without references to a pee tape and the size of the man's hands, not to mention his talking about Trump's weird hair, his pink saddlebags, and strange orange aura. Let it alone, lots of libs have been saying. It would be a better book without the mud.

Sure. Tell that to Jeb Bush. Tell that to 18 Republican primary candidates the wild man wiped out last year in a tempest of trash talk. Tell that to Hillary, who once claimed Trump's kids were really nice people. Tell you what--tell that to your kids when they get flattened every other recess by some fat schoolyard bully. Just turn the other cheek. Sure. Let him run all over you.

Here's Frank Bruni, from the New York Times, a couple days ago:
James Comey’s book is titled “A Higher Loyalty,” but it surrenders the higher ground, at least partly. To watch him promote it is to see him descend.

Not to President Donald Trump’s level — that’s a long way down. But Comey is playing Trump’s game, on Trump’s terms. And in that sense, he has let the president get the better of him. 
How, pray tell, do you grab a pig? Do you wear fine deerskin gloves, or do you hop into the pen? Even the man's loyalists know he's a bully. How does anyone deal with bullies?

Liberal criticism of James Comey has roots. The splendid October surprise he gave Trump just two weeks before the November election was like none other in American history. We're reopening the case against Hillary Clinton, he told the country, at the same time the Russkies were Facebooking her demise (two of my FB friends re-sent stories about Hillary's pizza palace child porn ring.) Comey told the American people the FBI found a thousand Hillary emails on the laptop of Anthony Weiner (it's  difficult to keep your chin on the curb these days, isn't it?). BTW, that's Anthony Weiner whose wife is a known terrorist.

Twice last weekend, Trump called Comey a "sleaze ball," even tweeting that Comey should be in jail (who can forget "lock her up!"). How do you fight fire out here on the open prairie? You light your own.

But all of those anti-Trump voices may be right. Maybe Comey shouldn't have mentioned the pee tape at all, not even brought it up.

Maybe fighting Trump requires people who, like the President, hung out at places like the Playboy mansion with his old buddy Hefner, people who make a good living by turning out porn, people who get paid top dollar to be fix up the rich guy's messes. Maybe they're the best ones to take on the bully.

Last week, ex-bunny Karen McDougal won her day in court. Look for her story to appear somewhere soon--and what she scored with the billionaire President is a whole lot more than the one-night fling the Donald had with Stormy the porn queen. Not that we need more sleaze.

What it takes to fight a bully may well be another one, or two, or fifteen--in this case, all of them women. "Liars," he calls them--everyone of them. What everyone knows is that not all of them are. 

We'd all be smart to keep your hats and boots on through the next three years because far more mud will be flung. Just look what he's done to the word evangelical. 

We've got both feet in the Trump era now, and it's only just begun.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Silence is golden

For someone like me, an evangelical born and reared with the words of the Great Commission ringing in my ears and soul, the whole scenario was perfectly understandable. A man/woman, a "trans" as people say, rather pointedly dressed as such, is sitting in a park somewhere when a few Christians interrupt her/him, and ask, politely, if he/she will allow them to pray with her.

It's call witnessing, and it's almost a sacrament among evangelicals, who believe (as I was reminded thrice yesterday in sermons in separate churches of separate denominations) that witnessing is our mutual calling, something we do out of love. I get that. I even believe it. As recipients of His grace, it's our joy to bring others into His love. There's something sort of automatic about it--we can't stop.

I get all of that, and, ironically, so did the trans woman sitting in the park. She'd spent her entire childhood in an evangelical church, and is still a Christian, although not a Mike Pence-type. She says she understood very well what those sweet Christians were doing: they'd determined, on the basis of what she looked like, that she needed their prayers.

"These people did not want to know more about me," so says Charlotte Clymer in yesterday's Washington Post. "They wanted to talk at me and pray at me."

As they likely would have at anyone sitting in the park yesterday. The whole mission of that species of cold evangelism is to "bring the good news," under the twin assumptions that those we pray with don't know what the good news is and, thank goodness, we do. So, let us tell you

What's more, the prophets in the park receive the added benefit of fulfilling, personally, the Great Commission. They're doing what Jesus--and preachers--tell them to do. And if you get rebuffed, so what? Christians suffer indeed for His sake, you know; so you win that way too. Welcome to the surely blessed.

To many evangelicals, Charlotte Clymer looked for all the world like someone whose obvious brokenness meant he/she was standing in need of prayer. But, this Charlotte Clymer is a Christian, and someone who knows very well what the Bible says about prayer. When she referred them to the book of Matthew, they seemed stunned. Then she tells them, "Yes, a prayer would be nice. Let me begin"--or something to that effect.

She says she started in, being "wholly honest with God about how I hoped She would bless my new friends, encouraging them to affirm, and be inclusive, of others. I was hopeful that their community would honor all as God made them and value the strength of diversity."

That wasn't exactly the prayer they'd rehearsed. Once the amen was sounded, she says, they scurried off.

On Saturday, at a conference, I listened to a Lakota woman detail the wisdom of her uncle's life in a memoir he'd written. One of the attributes of wisdom, he explained in that memoir, was the discipline of earnest listening--not preaching, but simply listening. Silence is, we like to say, golden.

Seems to me that the Great Commission is spacious enough, divine enough, eternal enough, to hold a place for listening, don't you think? 

Occasionally, the Washington Post can put together a pretty good sermon.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Sunday Morning Meds--Amazing

“I have no need of a bull from your stall or of goats from your pens,
for every animal of the forest is mine,
and the cattle on a thousand hills.
I know every bird in the mountains,
and the insects in the fields are mine.
If I were hungry I would not tell you,
for the world is mine, and all that is in it.
Do I eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of goats?

Sacrifice thank offerings to God, 
fulfill your vows to the Most High, 
and call upon me in the day of trouble; 
I will deliver you, and you will honor me." Psalm 50

It’s nowhere near an about-face, but the abrupt change in tone from verse 13 to 14 of Psalm 50 stops you in your tracks. The razor-sharp sarcasm has died—it’s  just plain gone—and the God of the psalmist’s vision moves on to lay out once again the way back to his graces, as he has a thousand times before.

It's like divine exhaustion: “Go ahead and sacrifice your best, do what you’ve promised me you would do, and, when you need me, call”—that’s what he’s saying. You know the way, he says, now do it right for once.  Don’t phony it up with spiritual pretensions or try to out-muscle each other in righteousness. Worship me and not yourselves. Be done with your snake-oil posturing. Get it right, okay?

Once upon a time--only once that I remember--I chewed out students in class. Two of them were chatting—as they’d done before, too often—and I just plain blew up, went ballistic, as they say. I reamed them a new orifice or two in language unbecoming of a Christian teacher.

And I knew it right away.  It’s a wonder I made it through a long class discussion afterwards, a wonder that anyone did; but the class kept going, on Hawthorne, a short story. Later, I apologized—not for telling them to be quiet, but for the sarcasm, the venom in the rebuke.

There’s no apology in this psalm, but I swear, on the basis of my own behavior, I can hear a God I recognize in these verses. Listen again to the angry rhetoric of the preceding verse: “Do I eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of goats?”  That’s no sweet, small voice. 

But that anger falls away, the smart-lipped sarcasm disappears.  Honestly, it’s a weary God one hears in this verse, a God whose probably dispensed these same words a thousand times before, but knows, darn well, that there’s nothing new he can say or do. 

“Just do it,” he seems to be advising, “but do it right, okay?”  I swear I can feel the guilt in the way this verse opens up, the same guilt I felt after lashing out at a couple of students who shouldn’t have been talking. 

Is this really God? Does the creator of heaven and earth sometimes feel guilty? Of course not. It’s an artist’s conception.

Does that mean God would not act that way—so, well, humanly?  The answer to that question is, nobody knows. 

What is undeniably true about this whole passage is that we get things wrong—time after time after time, we get things wrong.  We do it wrong, too.  We often do it wrong. No, we always do it wrong.

But here’s the stupendous miracle of the Psalm, the whole blessed story, and gospel itself—here’s the whole truth and nothing but:  he still loves us. 

That’s the story he tells us at Christmas and Easter and every day of our bloomin’ lives, time and time again. Here’s the gospel truth: even though we mess up all the time.  He loves us.  Even if our worship is sham-ish, our promises soon forgotten, he loves us. 

He loves us.  He loves us.  Amazing.  

Thursday, April 19, 2018

More snow again

The old man kept a diary, she told herself, so she thought she might try writing in one herself. Dust was just about choking them, had for a couple of years already. Sure, there were good days, but the dusters kept coming so often she thought she ought to keep track of things because the old man remembered a lot about the bad years, just from having written it all down.

So she started:

April 11. Everything covered from last night, and still blowing. But we have at least a peel of daylight through the dirt. 9:30. Still dirty. 10:00 Little lighter. 11:00 Still too dirty to start cleaning. We ate some potato soup standing up, too dirty to sit. Looks favorable to dust to keep up. 7:00 Cleaned up at last. We will sleep better tonight.

April 12: What a day! Sun out bright. No one could ever believe it was such a week. Must start in moving furniture and cleaning out. Milt shovels dirty up, takes it out in buckets. He's going to wash clothes while I clean. We can't lose a good day.

April 13: Dirty again and blowing. Sifting in all over my clean house. The last few years of dust are about more than people can stand but this year is just awful.

April 14: Dad found Bossy dying this morning. We all did everything we could think of but she was wheezing hard and choking and finally died. We had to tie the horses out till we go ther out and skinned. The horses sniffed and rolled their eyes. They are frightened by death same as we are, poor things. Dad says he is going to sleep in the barn and spray the air at night. If we had a better barn it might help, but nothing would keep this dust out. The kids cried about Bossy, then we all did. The animals are like persons to us. I feel worried that the kids won't have milk now. 

She is Julia Dunne, a character in Sanora Babb's novel Whose Names are Unknown, a novel scheduled for publication when Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath came out. Bennett Cerf held Whose Names back right then because he thought America couldn't handle two books about the Dust Bowl, one after another. Years later, it finally came out.

It's fiction, sort of. Significant digressions run in and out and through the narrative, in part because Ms. Babb, who was herself born and reared in the Oklahoma panhandle, was holding down a writing job for FDR's Farm Security Administration. Her assignment was to write about the suffering. She was living in California among the uprooted Oky ex-pats who knew she was one of them and therefore dared tell her their stories. There's more.

April 17: Kids just left for school. It's so clear I can see the others walking from their homes. 9:30. Kinda hazy. 10:30. Teacher sent the kids home before it gets bad. They got here just in time but the dust is thin this time.

April 18. Blew all night but clear this morning. School today.

April 19. Rained a little last night and showered this morning. Myra came home from school saying the little Long girl died. Poor Mrs. Long.

April 20. Well, today is one of the worst we ever had. A black duster. Just when we thought it was better. I don't know where this dirt is coming from but not here. We listen to the radio and know we are not the only ones to suffer. it is just terrible for everyone. The drought years are bad enough but this is almost more than people can stand on top of being so poor from the depression and all.

So here's what I'm thinking, all these years later, about yesterday: 

April 18. Eight inches of really wet snow. School called off again. Third major snowfall in ten days. Last year at this time, temp was 80 degrees. Cabin fever anyone? This afternoon, read Whose Names are Unknown. Wow. I think we'll make it. Spring is coming. It always does. 

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Morning Thanks--Phil

Fifty years after it went out of style, he still wore his hair--great hair, by the way--in a duck tail. Had he let it grow only a little more, he might have passed for Sikh and never worn a turban. He was the quintessential fifties guy, loved cars, and never really stopping lovin' cruisin'. 

He could spend hours in his own garage, stoking a pipe maybe, tinkering, keeping the dust off his buggy, cleaning up. Quiet, meticulous to a fault, he arranged his life the way he did his shop, not a thing left carelessly where it shouldn't have been.

He had opinions, I suppose, but he certainly didn't air them all over creation. You had to work to get them out of him, if they ever made it off the rack at all. That he wasn't particularly opinionated may well help explain how it was he was pretty much satisfied with the way life had worked itself. He never wanted much more than he had. We should all be so blessed.

I lived in his basement for a couple of months when I was a college kid, did so because he was gone, in the military. It was 1968, and there were others from the small town who were gone, some of them called up with the National Guard. There were women living upstairs in his house back then, some GIs' wives, including his. We got along well, sometimes flirted a little.

He was a townie who, early Sixties, managed to pick up a college girl, got her into his buggy somehow--maybe it was that duck tail--and she never left. In the Iowa village where he'd been born and reared, the two of them had three kids and no huge problems. Sweet and wonderful grandkids too. Life is good, he might have said, if he'd say much at all. Mostly, he just smiled.

His communications specialty in his Army years translated into a job with the phone company when he returned to his wife and the house with the rental basement. He fixed phones every day of his working life--yours, mine, and the neighbor's. Had his own truck, rigged up thoughtfully with the tools he was going to need to get the job done, all of them in perfect order. Of that you can be sure.

He hung around the college where I taught because he was the phone guy for the entire institutional system. Phones were big and mechanical then--rotary dial, the kind you have to go to a museum to see. Then push buttons replaced the old ones, got sleek and had memory. Technology took a jump into the next century. Just about then, he retired. 

The truth is, he had more health problems than most of us will ever see. That hefty tool belt he will always wear in my memory circled a girth so slight that you couldn't help wonder where he found belts that small. He was our phone guy. Got a problem, call Phil. Won't slay you with gabbing either. He'll just get the job done. Big smile. In the twilight of his phone company job, he was always around. 

You don't think much about people like him until they're gone, and you start to remember how it was they were there when you needed them. Some knew him as a father, a brother, a grandpa. Some knew him from work. Some knew him because, like him, they loved cars, preferably old ones, one of those from American GraffitiAnd some of us, like me, knew him only because he was a servant, which is, biblically speaking, a noble calling, even if we often forget as much.

This morning, once again, snow is falling, as it is in the cemetery where his mortal coil has now been laid to rest, same town he was born in. If he'd been Native, he'd be wearing his tool belt right now. 

This morning, the morning after his funeral, I'm thankful for him and his quiet life, and for so many others whose service is epic, whose servanthood--what a biblical word that is--we still too easily take for granted.