Thursday, November 27, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving!

There are apples in the fridge waiting for me to put them into a pie this morning... But first a few thoughts on the day.

There are two ways to celebrate Thanksgiving. One is a festival of gluttony, followed by gluttony of a different kind out in the malls and big box stores tomorrow. When you finally get to read Eddie's Wake, you'll meet the king of self-centered gluttony, Uncle Melvin, who, on Thanksgiving, shovels in the food even as it's being passed around the table; who is the only one talking for most of the meal, but the one who eats the most. His gluttony goes beyond food to include his other self indulgent appetites.

The other way to celebrate Thanksgiving is not just to feast on traditional foods after a great prayer of thanks to God (although you wouldn't want to miss out on that!); but it is to take on a permanent attitude of thanks. It is to make gratitude a part of who we are, to live our thanks in our actions and words.

AA and Alanon talk a lot about being thankful and saying thanks... Could it be that there is a kind of deliverance in giving thanks? Could it be that there is some kind of amazing transformation in saying thank you? Could it be that giving thanks is as good for the “thanker” as it is praise to God? Maybe we could say that Thanksgiving Day is a great time to practice giving thanks, for in the thanking there is healing, and in the healing true gratitude comes to life.

So --
For the color of blue spruce against turning oak leaves...
That mosquitoes and houseflies have gone dormant for another season (at least in Wisconsin)...
For sunshine and blue sky on any day of the year...
For buzzing smoke alarms to let you know the turkey's done...
For dishwashers of every brand and every gender...
For the mute button on your remote control...
For friends and family...
For hearts overflowing with gratitude... Let us give thanks to God.

In Eddie's Wake, Thanksgiving Day brings a glimmer of hope and possibility to both Maggie Stern and for Will Denver. May your Thanksgiving bring the same to you. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Friday, November 21, 2008

A hard, cold, autumn day

It's been nearly two weeks since I posted last. Between some travel and returning to work to attend to all the tasks that come with the busiest weeks of the year, I have had little chance to think about Eddie's Wake and Karl, Maggie, Jacob, Will and Bernie.

When I awoke this morning, I had kicked off all the covers. I was too warm; had put too many blankets on the bed and the furnace was running, toasting up the house. I checked the indoor/outdoor thermometer, which read 67 degrees inside; 10 degrees outside. The absence of our four cats waiting for breakfast on the deck indicated that they were still hunkered down in their cat "houses." The water in their outside bowl was frozen solid. Why would they want to come out, even if the sun was shining?

I think about the people who don't have a warm place to sleep, and I think about people who have no idea what it would be like to have a thermostat that can be programmed to start the furnace before they get out of bed in the morning. Even though I like it cool in the bedroom for sleeping, and even though I was too warm when I woke up this morning, I am thankful for the roof over my head and a new furnace with a programmable thermostat.

In Eddie's Wake "feeding the furnace" was the first thing Karl was expected to do every morning. From the coal pile in the basement, he shoveled in enough to warm the house at least through breakfast. When his mother, Maggie, needed to save money, she didn't feed the furnace on school days until it was almost time for Karl, Lizzie and Anna to come home. Having coal in the basement was almost important as having food on the table.

The Salvation Army operates a shelter and food pantry in the community where I work. Whenever a man, woman, boy or girl leaves, they are given their own blanket and their own pillow, warmth and comfort for a new life. I think I will go through closets today and find the blankets we're not using and maybe give them away.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


A few weeks ago, we had our first hard freeze overnight. The hosta plants in the garden looked like cooked spinach the next morning, and so did the one potted plant that I'd decided not to try hold on to for another year. Early in the morning, a few yellow leaves began to fall from the ash trees, and the higher the sun climbed into the sky, the faster the leaves fell. It was like someone had flipped a switch. By the end of the day, the trees were mostly bare.

But the oak trees on our property are completely different. The oaks never seem to want to let their leaves go. Some of them hang on through rain and snow, blizzards and ice storms, all winter long, until they get pushed off by the new buds in spring. As if the old, brown, dead leaves were somehow still feeding the tree!

Here in the north, November is a time of transition in the world around us; a time when what was once green and growing has become brown and dormant. Winter hasn't quite arrived and the beauty of autumn is past. Being in the pulpit every Sunday, where the scripture readings for the weeks before Advent all deal with the End Times, I'm thinking about the ash trees a lot. What symbols of faith they can be for us! At the right time, they let go of the foliage that nourishes them, trusting that when spring comes there will be new growth and new life. It doesn't seem to bother them that ice storms could break them and the winter kill them. Gracefully, they just let go.

I would like to be like an ash tree, trusting that God will give all I need through the storms of life, and that when all is said and done, I'll be with God. But I'm afraid I'm more like the oak that clings so tenaciously to the glory of the past, scrambling to find ways to assure myself that I'll always have what I need. Like the oak, we all hang on to things that we think make us secure, but time after time, God pushes all that away--like the new oak leaves push off the old ones come spring-- and gives us new life.

Thinking about this reminded me of a short scene from Eddie' Wake where in early spring Karl notices an old oak leaf flying away in the wind.

Chapter 27 A Reckoning
Karl turned up the collar of his jacket as he waited for his sisters outside Holy Angels School. The wind blew from the east, gathering cold air from the ice caked shores of Lake Superior and spewing it over the town. He remembered his father saying that a wind from the east meant they’d have bad weather in a day or so. Even though there’d already been a few days of sunshine and warmth, Karl knew winter wasn’t finished with them yet. The overcast skies made the day downright gloomy.
As he crouched beside the gnarly old oak tree trying to keep warm, a car pulled up in front of the church. He got up, thinking Mr. D had come to give him and his sisters a ride home, but he stopped short, stunned, when he saw Melvin Straus get out. All hunched over in the wind and holding onto his brown fedora, Melvin scurried across the church yard, and went in the side door, the door where you were least likely to run into another person...
Karl’s clenched jaw began to ache. He took a deep breath. Although he didn’t know what he was going to do, he knew he couldn’t just go home and do his homework like any other day.
Lizzie and Anna came running toward him, the edges of their coats flapping in the wind. At almost the same moment, Mr. D arrived. Karl helped his sisters get into the car, and said, “I think I’ll walk, Mr. D.” He tried to act normal despite his anger.
“In this wind?”
“Yeah, don’t worry. I need to talk to somebody. I’ll be along in a little while.”
“Everything all right?”
Karl smiled, knowing it looked phony. “Yep.”
“When should I start to worry?”
“Nothin’ to worry about. I’ll be home before supper, for sure.”
Mr. D looked Karl in the eye without saying anything for moment. “Breathe deep, boy.”
“Yessir, I remember.”
Karl watched the car pull away. Soon his mother would be well again and Mr. D would go home. He realized he’d miss him, then thought of his father and felt guilty.
He leaned against the tree, shivering. He watched a few leftover oak leaves break free of their branches and sail away like little brown boats in the air...

Thanks for reading!

Saturday, November 1, 2008


Down the road a bit from our house is a small, very old cemetery. In all the years I have driven by, I have never seen a new grave being dug, or a group of mourners standing around saying their good-byes. I'd call it a lonely place if it wasn't at the intersection of a busy county road and a state highway. But last summer, I noticed a bit more activity going on there. One day folks were there doing some tree trimming, a few days later, a couple of port-a-potties showed up, then one Sunday morning a party tent was there, along with a few garbage cans. I'd like to think someone had a family reunion at the cemetery.

Today is "All Saints' Day" and tomorrow is "All Soul's Day;" the two days together making up the Day of the Dead festival. I don't know much about it, except for what I Googled - in Mexico, the dead are remembered; families gather in cemeteries, sometimes having parties, sometimes decorating the graves of loved ones. I've always thought having a picnic near Grandma and Grandpa's graves would be a really great thing to do; telling stories, remembering, eating Grandma's famous hot dish and the meringue cookies she liked to make. It would be a time to remember and honor our dead without necessarily being in the throes of grief.

At Eddie Stern's burial, Karl's mother takes him "visiting" his dead Grandma Stern and Grandpa O'Keefe. It's a sad time for them to begin with, but the remembering is good, and does bring smiles in the midst of tears. Here's a little of that chapter:

“Karl, come here,” called Maggie. “See, this is your Grandma Stern’s grave.” It wasn’t far from where they were standing. "Eleanor Burktold Stern, 1859 –1918" Uncle George followed. “Do you remember her?” “I think so, I think I remember playing with her on her bed. She called me little bear or something.” Maggie laughed a little. “No, you were her little berry boy. She had a basket full of strawberries once, and she cut some of them into tiny pieces so you could have a taste. Well, you gobbled them up and surprised everyone by saying clear as day, ‘More, more!’ She got so excited about you talking that she gave you more than anyone else. You couldn’t get enough berries and your Grandma Stern couldn’t get enough of you.” Karl noticed tears in his mother’s eyes. “She was a wonderful lady.” “Yes, indeed,” said Uncle George. “I still miss her.” Maggie bent over and touched her gravestone. Karl looked around. “Where’s Grandpa Stern?” “They buried him at the asylum before they wrote to say he was dead. That always bothered your father.” Uncle George crossed himself. “What happened to him? Did you know him, Mama?” “Before he got sick everyone knew him. He owned the newspaper, edited and wrote for it. A good man, but no one wanted him around after...” Maggie looked across the cemetery. “Come here, I want to show you where my father is buried.” Karl didn’t protest when his mother took his hand as if he were still a little boy, although he hoped none of his classmates could see him from the school. Uncle George stayed behind at his mother’s grave; Will went back to Eddie’s. Karl and Maggie stopped at a stone marked with the words "Michael Liam O’Keefe 1861-1917." “Do you remember your Grandpa O’Keefe?” “He smelled like peppermint.” Maggie smiled. “He always had candy for the children. He was one of the town constables, but he loved to have fun, too.”

That's all for now. Remember your dear departed this weekend, and say a prayer of thanks for their lives.

(Above photo of fern growing in rock was taken on the north shore of Lake Superior.)