He came along in my life when I needed him, even though I didn't know I did. I wanted to write, but I knew little about it really. Some of my new friends, other grad students, told me that Ray Carver was coming to teach. They could barely contain themselves. "You don't know his work?" they said, as if I'd been off somewhere in foreign service.

I hightailed it to the bookstore and bought a couple of volumes of his short stories. He never wrote a novel.

On first reading, I didn't know what to make of him, truth be told. His stories had this angular sharpness that made me cringe, almost in fear, as if life could be cut us up into bloody pieces that refused burial. Reading a bunch of his stories together was like coming on a yard full of glass shards, unforgettable and alarming beauty. They were like nothing else I'd ever read.

That was 1980. Ray Carver was dry at the time, not the dead-and-gone drunk he was for so terribly long in his life. He was working on what most consider today his strongest stories, Cathedral, a collection that included the story "Cathedral," the story, he says somewhere, that changed his life, a story of hope that's in just about every anthology undergrads can buy these days.

He climbed Parnassus in the literary world, became a cult figure. Soon, there were thousands of Carvers doing what he did, or trying, writing something people began to call "dirty realism." Me too. Count me among the disciples. I could show you lean-and-mean stories I wrote back then, Hong Kong-grade ripoffs. Ray Carver, and his editor Gordon Lish, taught a generation of fiction writers how to be newly-minted Hemingways, sparse and tight and frightfully close to the bone.  

He liked me. And, if you're wondering, yes, there's considerable idolatry behind that statement. Consider it a confession. Raymond Carver liked me, liked my writing. The only way I can explain how much that meant to me back then is to say that it means as much to me today.

Yesterday's Writer's Almanac featured a Carver poem from a moment in his life that every Carver-ite recognizes, the moment Ray Carver discovered he was going to die from cancer that wasn't going away.  Here's the poem.

What the Doctor Said

He said it doesn't look good

he said it looks bad in fact real bad

he said I counted thirty-two of them on one lung before

I quit counting them

I said I'm glad I wouldn't want to know

about any more being there than that

Don't ask me what a poem is--I don't know. To me, this feels more like prose than poetry, but frankly I don't care because whatever it is communicates with a place in my soul few things do. There's more.

he said are you a religious man do you kneel down

in forest groves and let yourself ask for help

when you come to a waterfall

mist blowing against your face and arms

do you stop and ask for understanding at those moments

To say Raymond Carver wasn't a religious man would be shamefully judgmental and idiotic.  If "by your fruits you shall know them" is a rule of biblical thumb beyond nuance, some might judge he wasn't. He left a trail of brutal ugliness, after all. But most of us are religious in one way or another; some are, perhaps, just better at it than others. And then, of course, it's worth remembering this scripture too: not all who cry, "Lord, Lord. . ." are.

"Are you a religious man?" the doctor says. Carver replies with characteristic honesty.

I said not yet but I intend to start today

The doctor is a kind man. 

he said I'm real sorry he said

I wish I had some other kind of news to give you

I said Amen and he said something else

I didn't catch and not knowing what else to do

and not wanting him to have to repeat it

and me to have to fully digest it

I just looked at himfor a minute and he looked back

Ray Carver was not a big talker.  Trust me, he was not a stirring lecturer or a classroom stand-up comic. His ways were halting and what he said often seemed muffled. It was easy to miss some remarks. I never saw him drunk--who knows what he might have become with a quart of something running in him?  And, of course, this silent moment in the doctor's office holds the clear recognition of destiny.

He knows it. Listen.

it was then

I jumped up and shook hands with this man who'd just given me

Something no one else on earth had ever given me

I may have even thanked him habit being so strong.

The book that best documents what happened in Ray Carver's soul after this moment in the doctor's office is a book of poems he titled A New Path to the Waterfall

There's just too much in that title and yesterday's poem for me not to take heart. No one I know is God, although some presume themselves approximates. I don't know the state of Ray Carver's soul. I have no idea of what may have happened on his death bed.

But to me, at least, that Carver poem is a blessed offering I'm greatly thankful to have opened when it came in my inbox. It's gorgeously arrayed with hope.

And hope, in this world, is something I need. 

My guess is, I'm probably not alone.


Black Soil--lovely dirt


Yesterday, my neighbor came by and dumped a scoop full of black dirt on what, someday, will be--we hope--our front lawn. What some people tell me, people I trust, is that you can never have enough black dirt. 

I'm no farmer, never have been, never will be; nor am I much of a gardener, to be truthful. But there's something about that line I love:  "You can never have enough black dirt." If it was funny, it could be a Rodney Dangerfield one-liner; but it's not--it's true. "You can never have enough black dirt."

Anyway, we got it. A few days ago, we took a dying plant into a local greenhouse to get a new arrangement. The guy said he'd dig the old one out and put together some new combo for us--late season, 50% off too. He did.

But he said he put the old sad one into a spare pot he had sitting around because the old guy still had good roots. Just couldn't toss it. I like that.

Anyway, he looked up at us as if what he'd pulled out of that old pot was straight dope (this is Iowa, remember, not  Colorado).  He looked straight at me, brows furrowed. "Where'd you get that dirt anyway?" he said. 

I was being grilled. This was an interrogation.  

I hunched my shoulders and looked at my wife. "I don't know," I told him, feigning innocence. "Out of a pile in our yard, I guess."

Then, in all sincerity, deep almost religious respect, he looked me straight in the eye. "That's good dirt," he said, as if I'd better take out some additional insurance the minute we got back home. 

This really, really black and gorgeous stuff in a pile on our front yard is called "Primgahr." Don't believe me?--look it up. It's origin is O'Brien County, Iowa, just east of us, and it's just plain midnight, inky black. It's greatly beloved, as you can well imagine, blessed with a rich and well-earned reputation for producing "perfection in all kinds of grain and vegetables," one source claims.  Why am I not surprised?

This is what it looks like when it's not in a pile on my front yard.

And here's the real story, straight from the mouth of the USDA: 

The Primghar series consists of very deep, somewhat poorly drained, moderately permeable soils formed in loess on uplands and high stream benches. Slope ranges from 0 to 5 percent. Mean annual air temperature is about 47 degrees F, and mean annual precipitation is about 27 inches.

Precipitation will be higher this year, believe me. In fact, maybe the real blessing of Primgahr soil won't be so ultra-apparent this growing season because some sources insist it has to be to be drained. It's so black and dense that it retains water bountifully, which is great in drought or near-drought, but less a blessing when rain comes as it has this year. 

Josephine Donovan's novel of life among the new, white residents of Sioux County, Iowa, circa 1870, Black Soil, draws its title--and it's setting, by the way--from "Primgahr soil," which means, of course, that this very pile of dirty blessedness in my front yard is even famous. 

Well, after a fashion. Be interesting to know who were the other two or three people to read that old 1930s story in the last decade. 

If I'd been reared on a farm, if I'd planted hope every spring and worried myself sick every harvest, I'm sure I'd have thought of this long ago. But I was a professor, which means, in some very Siouxland ways, a slow learner.  

When I look out my window right now over miles and miles of prairie and think of that rich dump of black soil in my front yard, I just can't help myself, I guess. Garrison Keiler once said in Christian Century that the world would be a better place to live if everyday every last one of us would give thanks for something, anything.

This morning, I'm thankful for nothing less than lovely dirt.  


Clovis, TR, and WWJD

That's a political rally right here in Alton, Iowa, circa 1903. That's Teddy Roosevelt gesturing off the caboose of that train, making a stump speech, I'm sure, to a couple hundred locals. Good old days, right?

I didn't pay much attention to the primary races this year in Iowa. I'm just not that cranked about politics these days, when any discussion thereof brews up so much hostility you'd think that what's at the root of all the evil is money, which may well be true.

What I couldn't miss were these street signs. Any trip around the county made it clear that this Sam Clovis was the huge favorite with the locals.

Now no county in America is as true-blue Republican as this one. Two years ago, our own Steve King, a man capable of ID-ing undocumented workers by the size of their calves, won bigger in this county than anywhere in the state. 

All those Clovis signs meant he had to be, religiously speaking, the chosen, or so it seemed to this Calvinist. That's why I was flummoxed when a candidate named Joni Ernst got the Republican nod apparently for having grown up castrating hogs. Someone out flanked Sioux County Republicans--on the right? Say it ain't so.

Apparently, Clovis was the sweetheart of Christian conservatives, of which there are more than a few about. Iowa's Mr. Christian Conservative, Bob Vander Plaats, a northwest Iowan himself, supported Sam Clovis, while Ms. Ernst was a favorite of the party establishment, including the Gov, who determined she could win when Clovis--too hard-line CC!--couldn't, even if he could sweep Sioux County. 

Sam Clovis lost, but he didn't quit. He went to his website and just scratched in the word "Treasurer" instead of "Senate." He's still running, just walked back his ambitions. Watch for him. Shouldn't be difficult. He's hard to miss.

I just now read that Candidate Clovis had said somewhere that there were enough votes in the House to impeach President Obama; and, if he'd be there, he'd vote for it himself. No wonder Sioux County liked him. We haven't had a good old impeachment hearing since Clinton. 

George W got a pass, of course.  He got us into a war over weapons of mass destruction that weren't there. Thousands of people died--including 4500 Americans. Hey, what the heck--everyone else was wrong too, you know. Besides, W was a Christian. Obama's a Muslim.

Last week the South Dakota Republicans officially called for Obama's impeachment for the five-terrorist swap for that turncoat Bergdahl, the bald-faced lie about keeping your insurance under Obamacare, and seven other deadly sins. "I've got a thick notebook of impeachable offenses of the President," said the guy who sponsored the South Dakota resolution. It passed.

Among this country's conservatives, hate's become a virtue.

Research indicates the most conservative burgs in their respective states are not only close to home, they're heavy laden with wooden shoes. In Minnesota, it's a tiny place named Prinsburg, which is almost exclusively Dutch Reformed. In Iowa the hot spot is Doon, just up the road. In Wisconsin, it's Oostburg, where I was born and reared. 

What does that say?  It says that somewhere down the road of life I went far, far astray. Today, if voting laws stipulated you had to have a Dutch name to participate, Obama would long ago have been back in Oahu.

Once upon a time right here in Alton, a whole crowd of people showed up to greet Teddy Roosevelt, a candidate for President who ran on a ticket determined--get this!--to control big business. That's right. Let me say that again: "to control big business." 

If it wasn't for the mustache, you could mistake TR for Elizabeth Warren.

And he was a Republican.

And he was a Dutchman.

Look at that crowd.  It's almost embarrassing.  Wonder what they think of us in Doon?


Pioneer Women

There are two women in this story, two women and 125 years. One of them, this one, Renske, immigrated to America at the end of the 19th century, came here with her husband. She was seven months pregnant. 

The other, 96 years old, knew her once long ago. "Aunt Janet knows something about Renske," a friend of mine told me. "She says she worked for her as a teenager." He told me Aunt Janet lives in an apartment in town, across from the church. "Aunt Janet still lives on her own, and is very sharp," he said in a note.

Renske Hiemstra may be long gone, but her letters back home to Friesland got under my skin when I read them, under my skin and into my heart. Her's is just another 19th century immigrant saga, a pioneer woman who for a quarter century wrote her sister faithfully once the entire rest of the family left the Netherlands, all of them dreaming of homestead promises in Dakota Territory. 

In 1930, in Ponca City, Oklahoma, an oil magnate and ex-governor erected an indomitable, 17-foot bronze figure in a sun-bonnet, holding--leading--her son through a frontier she too saw as an avenue to a better life, an imposing statue called "the Pioneer Woman."

That she and her family displaced the thousands of Native people who called the land their home doesn't mean she and the women she represents don't have a story. She does, because white settlers on the Plains--Yankees or European immigrants--almost always found creating a life out here difficult, even terrifying, especially women, especially mothers. 

Renske Hiemstra didn't fall into the lap of luxury once she and her husband started a new American life. Farming was perilous, offered far more lean years than fat; and death stalked her like a unforgiving enemy. She and her husband Albert lost three children in their first ten years. 

The first, Lieuwe, was a joy, already two. "Nearly 24 hours he was so short of breath--oh, it was unbearable to watch," she writes to her sister. "Oh, to see that lamb suffer so. . that breaks my heart. . ." They'd been here for just three years.

Nine months later, the second child, another boy, lived for just two and a half days. "And now, dear brother and sister, what is to be said about such things?" her husband writes, Renske probably unable to put a pen to paper. "We sometimes ask our Lord the reason for such things, but our God does not answer." 

Four years later, a third child stillborn. "This is now the third time that the Lord has taken such a hope for the future from us," Renske writes. "How this touches a parent's heart cannot be understood by those who have not undergone such an experience." 

Still, stubbornly, she clings to faith:  "Nonetheless, the Lord governs, and what answer can we give the Lord and how shall we meet him? He gives and takes away that we may even in this praise his name."

It's her testimony, her refusal to question the Lord God almighty, that grips my heart in her folded hands.

Three children.  And then, twenty years later, in 1921, Albert dies: "we hope to see one another in the paradise of the later-life, where there are no troubles or worries.  It is better for Albert."  

Soon after, the letters home simply end. 

I wanted to know this Renske Hiemstra better, wanted to know that that stubborn, proud faith didn't wither through the painful seasons she passed alone. Still do. I wanted to know what she was like when the letters ended, when she grew old.  

And Aunt Janet remembered her.

When I pulled up to Aunt Janet's apartment, she was standing outside, waiting, in nearly 90-degree heat. I shook her small hand politely, and we went inside. She told me how she had never forgotten walking across the pasture to the Hiemstra place 83 years before. Her visitations there were, in a way, a weekly mission of mercy because her mother had told her that Renske was very weak and needed help. Janet was just a girl, thirteen years old. It was 1931, mid-Depression, just about the time that rich man in Ponca City put up that memorial statue. For doing all the housework, one day a week, Aunt Janet said she was paid a quarter.  

I told her why I was interested.  It's a story about faith, I said, and I told her that Renske Hiemstra had lost three children and a husband long, long ago, lost all of that but as far as I knew never lost her faith. 

Aunt Janet didn't know a thing about the children. They were gone before she was even born. Besides, she had been just 13 years old, and, she said, "You know what you're like when you're 13." Still, it seemed to shock her that she hadn't known.

But she didn't simply want to tell me what she knew, she wanted to show me. So the two of us left for the country on a tour of the neighborhood where, eighty years ago she'd been a girl--and a look at the Hiemstra place just across the pasture. 

There's likely nothing on the yard that might have belonged to Renske Hiemstra and the son who lived there in those years, maybe an ancient hen house; but once we got out there, Aunt Janet could barely stanch the memories. And why should she? Once she found the place back, there was no stopping the stories, and I loved every minute of her recitations.

What Aunt Janet related made it clear that Renske's life, after her husband's death and her only daughter's departure for California, was not at all what she and her family had envisioned when, forty years before, they'd left the Netherlands.  Nothing. Everything Aunt Janet remembered of the Hiemstra farm place was raw and dismal, even despairing--no food, no refrigeration, no strength.  Aunt Janet says Renske Hiemstra never moved from her chair in the kitchen, rarely even spoke. Aunt Janet was still a child, but the depressing story in that darkly lit kitchen she remembered very well.

I wasn't surprised, but the picture she drew wasn't what I wanted to hear because I would have much preferred hearing Renske, once again, even yet, extolling the love of God.  Aunt Janet remembered no such testimonies.

I would have much preferred Renske Hiemstra to be the powerful pioneer woman in Ponca City.

She wasn't. The life she'd lived in the new world of the prairie wasn't the story I wanted to hear or the one I want to tell.  It ended in a darkened kitchen, with no food and no running water.

The two of us circled the Hiemstra place, looked at it from every angle; and all the while Aunt Janet kept telling stories, kept remembering growing up next door, walking a mile and more to a little Christian school that folded when she was going into the eighth grade. There was no money.

When we got back to town, she asked about my family and I told her about our kids, our grandkids. And then she told me, "You know, I've lost two boys."  One to cancer, one, just 18 in an accident. 

Sometimes you start to think that there's so much you don't know. 

When we came back to her apartment across from church, when we pulled up to the front door and I got out to help her, I couldn't help but notice tears. She seemed to be crying. Her voice as she said goodbye was not at all unsteady, but the tears just kept rolling down her cheeks. 

I don't know why. It's a mystery I would like to understand because I felt both responsible and helpless at the way they fell. I'd been the one to bring all of that back, after all. I was the one who wanted to hear, to know. It seemed to me that she'd loved the telling, the remembering, the places so rich in images she'd not pulled from her memory for so very long. I thought she'd loved it. I really did.

Still, when I left there were tears, more tears, Aunt Janet's unexpected tears.

There are two women in this story, two women, 125 years, and just plain all too many tears.  


Memorials and Memories

He was, in a way, both a large part and a small part of the Allied Invasion of Normandy, June 6, 1944--a small part because that day he was just one of Gen. Omar Bradley's First Army, 73,000 Americans among hundreds of thousands of Allied troops to assault occupied Europe. In sheer scale of operation, his death that day was incidental, but the role he played was immense because he was one of thousands who knew that when they'd cast off from England's shore, some--quite likely many--would not be coming back. They knew. They had to. The cost of freedom must have been written starkly on their faces that rainy morning.

They knew, but they went anyway. That's a huge role.

He was just one of thousands of casualties, but he was, nevertheless, a man with a story, just like each of them were. Family lore says he stepped off one of those landing crafts, the one to which he'd been assigned, and just like that took a Nazi bullet. I don't know that he'd served elsewhere in the war, don't know what his role was, or how long he'd been in the service--"PVT 112 ENGR," his stone says, and then, a line below, "COMBAT BN," all upper case. Date of death: June 6, 1944.

His job was to destroy beach impediments, probably with explosives. The beach?--Omaha, scene of perhaps the heaviest casualties. Military history says his landing craft was one of the first.  

That's all we know.

Nor do I know what kind of horrifying impact his death had on the woman he left behind, the woman who would become my mother-in-law.  I can imagine, but I don't know. 

Three years after he was killed on Omaha Beach, two years after the war ended, she put her life back together and married my father-in-law, another vet, a man whose mechanical skills had been put to good use in the motor pool, where he repaired tanks and jeeps and armored vehicles behind the Allied front on the long liberating trek to Berlin.  

She married my father-in-law and life continued, as it does. The name Gerrit Ter Horst was rarely spoken. 

Little flags waved in the prairie wind all over the Orange City cemetery on Monday, Memorial Day, marking the graves of veterans galore. Some stones have summaries, but most list nothing at all, only a flat American Legion medal that describes what can be inferred from the dates carved into granite--"World War I," "World War II," "Vietnam."

The marker for Gerrit Ter Horst sits in a little covey of white stones, a couple of dozen other vets, including my father-in-law's brother, Charles Van Gelder, a young man who, sometime during his military training overseas, was a drowning victim before he ever came near a battlefield. 

I don't know how the Ter Horst family talks about their ancestor's death, or whether they do at all.  I hope they do, because there has to be more to his story than a young woman, in tears, anxiously turning a diamond ring on her finger back home, a gift from a man who will not return. Here, in Orange City, Iowa, she didn't talk about his death, never mentioned it to me at all. Some deep heartaches simply have to be put to rest.

On Sunday night, we discovered flowers on Uncle Charles' gravestone. Someone had remembered. Someone hadn't forgotten. It was a joy to find them there.

That there were no flowers on Gerrit Ter Horst's cemetery stone doesn't mean he's been forgotten. The night before Memorial Day we remembered, in hushed silence, that once upon a time, June 6, 1944, a man once engaged to be married to a woman very precious to us was killed on a beach in Normandy. He left a sweetheart, and died a hero for all of us, family or not.

The morning sky on Memorial Day seemed a perfect portrait--cloudy, a soft red band stretching across half the horizon north, an almost heavenly red badge of courage. When I stepped out at dawn, a light rain was falling gently, as if the whole world outside my door, a world Charles and Gerrit must have missed terribly, was remembering, a whole world that tearfully hadn't forgotten.