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, September 21, 2017

Small Wonders--Maria Pearson

This story begins during the summer of 1971, on Highway 34, southwest Iowa, with a digger, some lumbering monster doing dirt work, widening the highway maybe—I don’t know. It starts with some huge machine with healthy jaws opening the earth and eating it, a monster which had to stop munching when the ancient graves of 28 people got in the way.

That night, one of the men, a district engineer with the Iowa Highway Commission, a man named John Pearson, came home to Maria, his wife, with the news.

I don’t know how Mr. and Mrs. Pearson started talking, but let’s pretend Maria asked him a standard, spousal question: “Well, dear, now tell me, how was your day?”

Okay, that’s unlikely, given what we know of Maria. Most who knew her would steadfastly declare Maria was no June Cleaver, a fact which husband John must have known only too well because the story says he preceded his news of the day with a stern warning: “Sweetheart,” he said, “you’re not going to like this.”

And he was right on the money with that one. She didn’t.

Because she didn’t, her world—and his and ours—changed at that very moment.

John Pearson told Maria that when his road crew turned up the graves of 28 people that day, 26 were set for reburial at an previously appointed place just up the road. Two of them, however, were not--a mother and child, whose remains were sent to the office of the State Archaeologist in Iowa City.

Because they were Indians.

As was Maria Pearson, born and reared on the Yankton Reservation, where as a member of the Turtle Clan, she was named Running Moccasins, and where her grandmother made sure her granddaughter learned everything she should know about her Native people and their ways.

What the Pearsons had for supper isn’t written up anywhere, but John wasn’t wrong—his wife was hot. The two of them barely finished drying the dishes before Maria left for Des Moines, where she stormed the office of then Governor Robert Ray—and then Iowa City, where she ambushed Marshall McKusick, the State Archaeologist.

She wasn’t demanding special treatment, only equal treatment. What she told them both is that she expected the remains of that Native mother and child to be buried just like the others, not stored in some museum or lab like a dead bull snake. She got so mad she sat—that’s right—she sat on the governor’s office desk, even though she’d never been there before. She could barely contain her righteous indignation.

And that was only the beginning. Maria Pearson spent the rest of her born days making sure honor was granted where it was due, creating the nation’s first legislation to protect Native American graves and provide for repatriation of remains. Those state laws led to what some call “the most significant legislation pertaining to Native American cultural identity since the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924.”

Wasn’t easy either. Mary Pearson took on politicians, museum officials, and the scientific community, to create the landmark Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990, which protected the rights of Native Americans “to certain human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony with which they are affiliated.”

At the core of the arguments was Maria Pearson’s Native religion, a religion that holds that the past and present are one and that a person’s spirit abides with their remains. When those remains are disturbed, their spirits grow unsettled and unhappy. Standing Bear’s argument for taking his band of Poncas back, once again, on the long walk from Oklahoma was that he had promised his son he would be buried with his ancestors overlooking the Niobrara.

Maria Pearson, through all those years of activism, liked to tell people she heard her grandmother’s voice in the leaves of a cottonwood gently shaking in prairie winds. And what her grandma told her in the voice of those trees—make no mistake about it because Mary Pearson didn’t—was that her granddaughter named Running Moccasins should always and stand up for her people.

When, that first day in the governor’s office, he asked her what it was she wanted, she told him. "You can give me back my people's bones,” she said, “and stop digging them up."

Twice, Maria Pearson was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for her work in preserving once abundant communities all around us. 

“You’re not going to like this,” her husband said. He was right.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Morning Thanks--a growing lawn once more

The old one started good, cut cleanly, purred like pet. When I bought it, years ago, it was the bottom of the line at the Coop, but the Coop doesn't sell junk. It was doing well, but it was tiny, and once we moved, we had a huge lawn.

At the old place I had a rider too, especially for the leaves that swamped the place every October, knee-high if I didn't pick them up three or four times a fall. That rider was model A, an ancient Toro I bought, used, twenty years before, when I had to find some way dang way to deal with those massive lindens and their frying pan leaves. I sold that old buggy before we left.

The old walk-behind is gone too. It was just too small. The new one is huge, a Timemaster no less. We planted a goodly chunk of our acre with native wild flowers, and, first year, cut it just as often as the lawn, so the new lawn mower had to take a big bite. I figured, retired, I needed the exercise. It's not a rider. 

Wasn't cheap, but it starts quick, cuts cleanly, purrs like a pet, and takes out a swath of lawn a yard across. Okay, that's stretching it.

Last year I used that tank of a mower all the time. Enjoyed it too. Told myself for once I'd made a good decision. This year I stopped mowing the prairie, let all those wildflowers grow. Otherwise, nothing's changed except the weather, which didn't seem anywhere near a drought; but for some reason the grass never grew a whole lot, didn't brown either just took the summer off. 

So that tank mower spent most the summer in the garage, which is  fine. It's not a Lamborghini or some big, bad Harley. I'm not dying to get it out on the road.

But there's just enough cool and just enough rain these September days to make all that emerald around the house shine again, almost like spring. With the big spindly sunflowers and the blossoming asters, a few flashy greenhouse annuals, and those clattering aspens, there's green out back and all around, summer's last show. It's time to get out the big mower. 

Retirement is real joy in just little things. I've always enjoyed cutting lawn, but never got up smiling, knowing that new Toro would start on the very first pull. Today, I won't change the world, I'll only mow the lawn. And that's just fine with me.

This morning, I'm thankful for a September lawn that's lush and green and the opportunity to take the time to love it.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Morning Thanks--the clean-up crew

I'm about to say something that should make generations of students, my students, irate. It's a confession, and confession is good for the soul, or so I've been told. Trust me, it's not easy admitting this. I'm five years on the other side of a classroom career, far enough away to believe I'm free to say what I need to, although I may have to lawyer-up.

I taught English for forty years and read thousands and thousands of student essays, even enjoyed it. Not everyone can do that and not everyone can say that, but I can. I'm not lying.

But I am sidestepping. I promised a soul-scorching confession, and now I'm just dancing. (Deep breath). Okay, here goes. I'm a ridiculously bad proofreader. Proofreading is a job I can't do, a skill I don't have, an art I can't practice. I know people who are good. I know people who are terrific. I'm not.  

I've graded countless papers, marked them up in war paint, dressed them up--and down, cajoled, upbraided, stroked, sweet-talked, massaged, sent kids to their doom and brought them close to classroom glory, tens of thousands of 'em; and for all that time, red pen in hand, I was a outright fraud.

I've officially given up on a novel I've had around for years, finally determined that at 70 years old I'll never see it in print if I don't publish it myself. I'm too old to get some whipper-snapping agent to take me on. It's not like I've got a dozen novels in me anymore--I don't. 

Besides, publishing is a whole new world these days. Everybody's self-publishing--well, just about everybody. If you're a celebrity, publishers will beat your door down for whatever ink you can muster. But if you're a schmo, good luck. Still, a couple hundred publishers will be glad to take your money.

That means I've got to do the hard work--proofreading--and I can't. An old friend of mine says that in order to proof well you got to go through the manuscript backwards. Sure. I can't.

That doesn't mean I don't try. I read a sentence, any sentence, and tell myself I can do better; so I delete half of what's there or add a dependent clause or two. I combine sentences, check the thesaurus, manipulate character, throw a little more salt into plot. In other words, I read twenty pages and what's behind me is a bloody battlefield that's got to be proofed again because I can't change things wholesale and expect spotlessness. I've got to do it again--fourth time, fifth time. 

And when I do, I slip right back into editing, changing sentences, cutting out the fat, making things better. I can't help it. 

Really good proofreading creates sinless copy. Really good editing makes it saintly. But saints can't be sinners. Dumb thing's got to be clean. I'm a decent editor, but a hopeless proofreader.

So I enlist my wife, who's much better. 

Anyway, here's hoping. Today, I'll type in her final corrections. That's it. No more. Just what she marked. 

Fat chance.

When finally this novel comes out, I'll have nightmares starring old friends who will shake their heads and whisper to each other that Schaap is losing it. I can see it already.

This morning, this woebegone writer is thankful there are those who have, throughout my life, accomplished a job at which I am worthless. Proofreaders are good men and women adept at cleaning up after those of us who can't. They're the saints, my wife among 'em.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Morning Thanks--Monarchs among the asters

I won't try to be something I'm not. The fact is, I didn't "walk beans" often in my life, but I did do enough acres to know farming wasn't for me. My father-in-law was very specific when it came to identifying the enemy, and one of the villains was milkweed because, he said, that stuff has a lateral root--you chop it off here and it just comes up again over there, a beast of the bean field. Then he'd give me my machete, and we'd start walking.

Lo and behold, that very hated milkweed is fundamental foodstuff to monarchs. Dad didn't know that, and neither did I. Keep milkweed out of the soybeans and you make it tough for monarchs to find apartments when they need to because that pernicious milkweed is the only domicile they'll take. Monarch caterpillars are insanely picky eaters. 

So I was thrilled, really, when the little acre behind our house birthed a half colony of milkweed this year. Last year maybe three plants came up--that's it. This year there must be a dozen. 

Now you don't have to be a horticulturist to see that these monarchs, yesterday, were nowhere near the milkweed. They were thrilled by an aster bush. 

No matter. I was happy enough to see them, and in volume. Once in a great while, a few individualist monarchs flitted through the backyard, but yesterday, for reasons all their own, six or eight chose to dine at once on the asters, playing peek-a-boo with me and the camera. 

Nah, that's not true. They were busy and pretty much oblivious to me. 

The sun was behind the clouds, or else these pics would be stunning. But the monarchs were anyway, and I felt grateful to host 'em. Monarchs in their unabashed beauty are ridiculously fragile for royalty. If they were really kings, there'd be no war. 

Monarchs among the Asters sounds like a novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

It's about time for them to pack up for Mexico. Yesterday, that end-of-summer cool rode in the air like a blessing. Here and there, whole cornfields are already gone for silage, and where the beans aren't yellowed, they're clearly on their way. Another growing season is behind us, sadly enough, which may have made this whole drama even more comely. Soon enough they'll be gone, the monarchs and the asters. 

So, gather ye rosebuds while ye can, as the poet saith. 

The asters aren't bad either, but this morning I'm thankful the fanciest nomads on the plains, royalty to be sure, just happened to stop by. 

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Sunday Morning Meds--Frauds and grace

The LORD builds up Jerusalem; 
he gathers the exiles of Israel.” Psalm 147:2

At least Arthur Dimmesdale wasn’t married.  At least there wasn’t a a wife and kids around to suffer the dismal fallout of their husband and father’s tryst with Hester Prynne.  At least Dimmesdale was a bachelor when he dirtied the sheets.

Not so the latest evangelical pastor to bite the dust—he had a wife and children, not to mention a church of some 15,000 souls in the heart of the suburbs.  Not only that, but the whole sordid truth came gurgling forth, like hot tar, right before a national election in which, as his congregation would have it, the forces of evil were so obviously pitted against the forces of God—or their side.  And now there’s a fox in the hen house, or, to put it more boldly, a real rooster. So much for family values.

The whole truth wasn’t as ordered as the army of the faithful assumed it was. The general got himself tripped on his own lance, so to speak, and he’s limping today, groveling as well he should. After all, it’s one thing for him to have done what he did, quite another for him to have acted for so long as if he were blameless. 

Dante relegated hypocrites to the lowest circles of hell because he thought of fraud, a peculiarly human sin, especially displeasing to God. Sexual vices are only sins of the flesh, not the spirit; you can do much worse than love someone when you should not. But when humans deliberately mislead people who are in their trust, especially when it's done with false piety, Dante considered that kind of hypocrisy particularly evil and put its practitioners way down there on circle eight of the Inferno, with Cain and Judas, where the heat is really bad. 

The fallen pastor wrote out a confession of his sin, and when that confession was read to his congregation, many of the parishioners explained quickly that they were ready to forgive. Wonderful. We no longer live in Puritan New England. The question is, will they perhaps rethink some of the ardor of their political judgments? Will be they at least a bit less quick to judge others? 

Probably not. What characterizes contemporary American evangelicalism these days is its forever carping tone, its commitment to drawing lines in the sand. Changing that is not easy, even when their preacher confesses to the sin they most despise.

The glory of this verse of Psalm 147, the truth of the scripture itself, is that God will gather his own as he sees fit. He will use his own interpretation of his revelation, not ours. He won’t really care who we vote for or whether folks are murderers or sleaze-balls, gangsters or self-righteous snobs. He’ll reach down into the lowest circles of our conceptions of hell and pull out overheated hypocrites. He’ll offer grace hither and yon, broadcast his love throughout the cosmos. Count on this: He’s much bigger than we are. 

The shocking truth of the scripture is that, even if God almighty creates our theological coloring books, he never stays within the lines himself.  And that’s good news. Not only does God have a place in his grace for those who the preacher and his people despise, he’s even got room for the preacher.

He’s always bigger, always greater than we are, always cleaning up after us, always gathering the sheep who wander, as all of us do.

"He gathers the exiles of Israel." That’s us, and that’s the gospel truth.                

Friday, September 15, 2017

Tales of the soddie

The word is that we're sort of unique in Iowa, the only corner where people cut sod to create their first dwellings. What passed for housing for quite some time after Euro-Americans moved in were lean-tos and sod houses, domiciles whose thick walls created a level of insulation against ridiculous seasonal extremes that Siouxland dwellings haven't experienced since, I'm sure.

But soddies were nobody's dream homes. Why not? The neighbors, for one, creatures God meant to be outside the walls of human habitation, not in. The fact it, lean-to families never knew what kind of critter might emerge from the dirt ceiling and make himself at home, here and there a gopher or ground squirrel maybe, all manner of vermin, even an occasional garter snake. Creepy things, not house guests.

And rain. Anything significant and mud floors were the pits, literally. Sod houses were dark and wet and clammy and impossible to clean. When it didn't rain, the dust could stifle you. It's a marvel those immigrant Dutch women didn't suffer more breakdowns, living in dirt the way they did. If I'd look out my back window over a couple miles of rich prairie, it would likely take some work to see the neighbors, not because of distance, but because those lean-tos and sod houses blended in so well. The prairie school of Frank Lloyd Wright?--who cares. Sod houses were from the earth, in the earth, and of the earth. 

I've never done a search, but I don't believe I've ever heard a prairie hymn brimming with nostalgia for good old days in a soddie. I don't know that I've ever seen a sod house in a movie or a TV show. They were meant to function, to make do. They were dirt-filled starter houses any family could build. But I don't think anyone ever liked them. 

Minnesota's Laura Ingalls Wilder museum will send you on a road trip to see a hole in the ground on the bank of creek, the place where little Miss Laura lived before there was a little house on the prairie. That show ran for years and never put her in sod. Yucch.

Sod houses were how you got by until you got wood. They were what people lived in when they tried their best to put down roots in a land only the Yanktons had ever lived in with any joy. They had to be built, but didn't have to be loved. No one's first real home was ever so joyfully left behind.

No matter. There are a thousand good reasons to remember the place sod houses hold down in the epic drama of the Great Plains, even if there aren't a thousand stories people love to tell. 

But here's one. It was time for huis bezoek, an old Dutch Calvinist ritual for which there is no English translation. The preacher was coming to visit, along with an elder, to speak and pray and to determine thereby, formally and formidably, evidence of righteousness. 

There simply weren't chairs enough in the sod house that day, so Pa hauled in a couple of pumpkins. That late afternoon, for huis bezoek, Dominie Vander Snipe and his sidekick elder sat on pumpkins and quizzed the family on the Heidelburger.

It pains me to say it, but you have to be really old to like that story. Today, it won't be worth mentioning. Today, I'll be stationed right at the sod house at Sioux Center's Heritage Village when 900 school kids come through, look around, amazed, in the darkness, and, if they dare, touch the walls. It's a good job--trust me. I've done it before. Those kids can't believe people actually lived in such places. 

But they did, and today it's my job to let all those kids know where they come from.  Ought to be fun. 

Thursday, September 14, 2017

September mists*

A fine mist seemed to flow, hither and yon, across the land west of town. You'd drive in an out in a minute, really, but when the sun came up--there were some clouds out east--that fine mist made the world something special, running like water through low spots. For the life of me I couldn't figure out why it would be in just beyond some hilltops and not beyond others.

It'll take a better photographer than I am to get that stuff into the camera. The camera itself doesn't know quite what to do with it. A ton of exposures simply weren't there, as if that electrical brain inside went nuts trying to determine what the idiot snapping the shutter wanted to get.

Ran into some pretty nasty looking spiders who create these elaborate webs in the grass. Just amazing. With just a bit of dew, those intricate webs hang like ropes. Those spiders are unbelievable weavers.

It was good to get back out again, and the morning was beautiful, even if I didn't get it all through the lens and into the files. Siouxland is yellowing deeply, the soybeans ripening, and the corn starting to get to that place where the crackling makes it noisy, even in a breeze. June's astounding emerald is almost overwhelming, but right now the variegated sloping hills west toward the river are a quilt of many colors. And that's good too.


How chunks of Siouxland looked on September 26, 2009.