198 / 365 – That’s How It Works

FRED VANEK

They weren’t really close enough that you could see who they were. You could tell by the uniforms. Olive or yellowish brown, you saw that and then you shot at them. You shot at the uniform. They saw green, they shot at us. I didn’t even want to wear that uniform, I hated that uniform. I wonder if they would have shot at me if I was wearing a Czech uniform. Would they have hated someone in pale gray instead of green? I don’t think it would have mattered. Somebody has a gun, they are dressed different, you shoot at them. And they shoot at you. That’s how it works.

166 / 365 – Bluestem

SHIRLEY HARMANSON

My grandfather was a young boy when my great-grandfather brought the family out and claimed their homestead. My grandfather said he had always had vivid memories of leaving the town in Wisconsin where he had been born, and of coming out on the wagon. He said he remembered it, but later in his life my aunt had taken him on a trip back the way they had come, and to that town, and he said it looked nothing like he had remembered it. And that was when he realized it was all imagined. He had heard stories about it all his life, from his father and his mother, and it was just pictures in his head. Pictures that felt more real than the country he visited. When he told me that, I could tell it felt as though he had almost been robbed of something. But my grandfather wasn’t a man to brood about things. Got up every morning and praised god for the new day. He used to say, “Not everybody gets to get up every day and see the sun rise and step out onto land he owns, even though it often seems like the land owns us and she’s a cruel mistress sometimes at that. But dang it, there’s not too many people in this world can live as free as we do.”

He liked to talk about freedom and god and our blessings. It’s not unusual. I think a lot of people out here feel that way.

He told lots of stories, stories that had been passed down. Of life in Norway, when my great grandfather had come over as a young man, with a young bride. Their first few years, in lumber camps and mining camps in northern Michigan and Wisconsin. Stories about winters. About clever things they had to do to have enough to feed all the children. Then finally scraping together enough money to come out here, put down for a homestead. They had come from a coastal town in Norway, a fishing town, I think, and since they had been in the US they had lived along the Great Lakes. Always by big water. I’ve always wondered what they must have thought when they got out here, an endless sea, but of grass.

I got the idea that my great grandfather was a little lost in it, in the long winters, especially. He went out in a storm one morning to milk the cows and they didn’t find his body until Spring. My grandfather was still young then, maybe only six or seven, but he had older brothers and they worked on, finishing the homestead, breaking the sod. My grandfather said he only helped a little in those days, he was still too small to do the heavy work. Once he said, “I was too young and too small to do the really hard work my older brothers did, breaking the sod, turning over the prairie soil so we could plant wheat. Otherwise I don’t think I would have this memory. On the north part of the section we had, we had a stretch of bluestem grass, tall grass that would come up to the low branches of a tree by the late summer. I guess it was once all over here. He and his cousins played hide and seek in it. It could hide his tallest brother. He said the tips grew a sort of blue and purple but in the late summer they would catch the afternoon light and the prairie seemed to be made of gold. It was magical to him.

I used to make him tell me stories from that time, especially the time the grass was reaching up into a tree, and he climbed the tree and hid from his cousins and watched the prairie turn gold without anyone finding him. The country sounded so raw and fresh and new. Not like the country I knew, all fenced and furrowed and mapped out in straight lines of rows and shelterbelts. I imagined it must have been something different before we captured it in our straight lines.

He said years later it turned out it wasn’t magical at all, except in the worst way. I guess bluestem put down deep roots and the sod was near impossible to turn with a horse-drawn plough. They were still turning the soil in far parts of their land by the time he was of age and big enough to help. He said he cursed the days he had to follow the team through that tall grass. He said, “It’s only now in my memory, now that we have tractors, and that land has long been tamed and tilled and served us well, that I see that grass again, in all its height and gold.”

In appreciation of Joe Biden

As with last night’s debates, so often when I hear Joe Biden talk I get happy. It’s less about his politics, with which I don’t always agree, and more about two things that stand out with him:

First, the guy has heart enough for a community of people. He lost his wife and youngest child just as he turned 30 and he responded to that heartbreak in ways that most of us could never have done. He elected to commute daily, by rail, an hour-and-a-half each way, to Washington so that his sons could stay and grow up at their home in Delaware. They had lost half the foundations of their lives; he didn’t force them to give up so much else of what they knew and could trust for the sake of his career. He has said he “liked to [walk around seedy neighborhoods] at night when I thought there was a better chance of finding a fight … I had not known I was capable of such rage … I felt God had played a horrible trick on me.” He continues to honor the wife and daughter he lost (he never works on December 18, the anniversary of the car accident that took them). At the same time, after five years, he managed to walk on, meeting and eventually reforming his family with Jill Tracy Jacobs, to whom he has been married 25 years. There’s a bit of old wisdom that you don’t get more tragedy and heartbreak in your life than you can handle. Most people in our country could not handle the heartbreak that he’s born with a lot of grace.

The other thing I like best about old Joe is a trait that is often portrayed as a weakness: his lack of a working filter. He’s portrayed in the media as a gaffe machine. What I see is a guy who says out loud what he’s thinking, the way we expect almost anyone in our lives to do – except, for some reason, for our politicians. He’s probably a nightmare for his handlers or for the people who try to manage a consistent message and I’m sure he gives the opposition plenty to play with. If you actually listen to him, you know what he’s saying and that’s not usually the case.

Whether you agree with Joe’s politics or not, you have to at least grant him for being a bigger human being that is usually stuffed into a politician’s suit. We need more leaders like him.

Fathering, pt. 82

I came across this quote from Cheryl Strayed’s latest, Wild:

“The father’s job is to teach his children how to be warriors, to give them the confidence to get on the horse to ride into battle when it’s necessary to do so. If you don’t get that from your father, you have to teach yourself.”

I don’t usually hold with the idea that there is a necessary role for a mother or father to fill. I know enough families that break the molds: two dads, two moms, stay-at-home dads who give everything for their kids while their wives pour themselves into work. At the same time, I think this may be right. The mother provides the safe haven, the place that children come back to. The confidence from the father is to help the children set forth bravely into their futures.

And that’s the rub. In the story I’m writing, the fathers have failed at that, even though many have done it themselves. I’m not sure why or how but it’s clear the gaping hole is there. I suppose I will learn as the characters slowly reveal themselves to me.

About Writing, Part 6

“To write with taste, in the highest sense, is to write … so that no one commits suicide, no one despairs; to write …  so that people understand, sympathize, see the universality of pain, and feel strengthened, if not directly encouraged to live on.

If there is good to be said, the writer should say it. If there is bad to be said, he should say it in a way that reflects the truth that, though we see the evil, we choose to continue among the living.

The true artist … gets his sense of worth and honor from his conviction that art is powerful.”

— John Gardner

Goodbye to summer (and early fall)

The last week or so has been my favorite kinds of fall days, warm and quiet afternoons, sharp and cool mornings. Even though it’s said to be a bad leaf year, the maples are bright orange and red and yellow. The temperature is expected to drop 20 degrees by Thursday and bring with it rain. Feeling a little sentimental for summer.