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, December 18, 2014

"Where are the children?"

Perhaps it was the camera that frightened the young lady in the bottom right hand corner. After all, the caption says this photo was taken in 1892, a time when lots of kids hadn't even seen a camera, had no idea what such a thing did, and certainly had never before been a target. I'd like to think that what has her so terribly uneasy is a stranger with a black veil over him behind a huge camera on a heavy tripod. 

Maybe a flash, too. The corners of the photo aren't lit. That may have been a lens problem, or maybe that hooded photographer carried one of those wide flash guns that exploded with light and fire. Maybe that's what made her afraid--she certainly looks scared.

But then, she's Blackfoot, and lots of Native people believed that a photograph somehow steals away a part of his or her soul. Maybe the look on her face is fear of what might happen to her once the picture is taken.

What's startlingly evident in the photographs on exhibition at Calgary's Glenbow Museum, an exhibition titled "Where Are the Children?--Healing the Legacy of Residential Schools," is that this little girl's fear isn't unusual. Other photographs of residential school children feature similarly affected students. And it's not hard to see that in this one, no one--not one student--looks in any way happy.

"Don't generalize," you're saying. Chances are that same hooded photographer in a school in Ireton or Indianapolis, in Sioux Center or Pocahontas would have caught the same look--"readin' and writin' and 'rithmetic/taught to the tune of a hickory stick." Violence was simply the way education was accomplished in ye olden days--even the Bible invites it:  "spare the rod and spoil the child." Maybe abuse was the curriculum.

But what the Glenbow photographs document is a peculiar phenomenon because this residential school, public or private, really wasn't like its counterparts in Ireton or Pocahontas or Indianapolis, circa 1900, because the mission of this school was to end a way of life, to destroy a culture, to reshape children into something they'd never been. No white parent would have stood for that mission, a school dedicated to retooling children's minds and hearts and spirits. 

Still, it's hard to look at these pictures and demonize all the white folks.  Here's a faculty.

It's really hard for me, a white man, to believe every one of these teachers is an abuser, a closet criminal, men and women who have chosen to teach in residential Indian schools because no one cares about what happens there and they'll be free to carry out their horrors.  
Okay, maybe the older men in the background and the woman with her arm up over the guy with fancy bibs. Maybe them. What's more, her elbow points at a man who looks for all the world as if he's hiding something. 

But what about the young couple, second row, far right? They look as young and idealistic as any first-year teacher, don't they? 

Not long ago, we drove past the last remaining building of what once was Pipestone (MN) Indian Training School, an institution that once upon a time was simply massive.

It was the day before Halloween, and the friends we were with told us about a friend of theirs, an Ojibwa from up north, who refused to go back to Pipestone ever, even though the quarries outside of town hold the only reserve of the precious, soft stone Native people from all over the west use to fashion pipes used in spiritual ways, a tiny piece of ground that belongs to Native people by way of a treaty signed by the Yankton Sioux way back in the 1850s. The Ojibwa man swears he will not return to Pipestone, they said, because of what went on at the school he attended as a boy--this school.

Only one building still exists these days. This one, the old administrative building created from Sioux Quartzite, far left on the old post card above.

The front porch is falling apart now, but once upon a time lots of Native kids--Dakota, Ojibwa, Lakota--probably sat inside waiting to see the headmaster. Were all of them in terror? Did what happened inside scar every one of them? 

On the day before Halloween, it wasn't at all hard to imagine this place a real haunted house.

What's most troubling about "What Happened to the Children?" an exhibition of photographs at the Glenbow Museum, Calgary, Alberta, Canada, is the panicky look on the faces of so many children. Look at the faces in that picture at the top. 

The photographs document a story of Native people, aboriginals.

But it's my story too.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Morning Thanks--an incredible world

There's some disagreement about where the Great Plains begin, although most would not include the far western edge of what was once tall grass prairie, the place where we live. Some say the Missouri River is where the Great Plains begin, some say the 100th parallel, and some say wherever people simply can't get an average of 20 inches of rainfall. 

What's not in any dispute, however, is where the Great Plains to the west.  It's really difficult to imagine what on earth Lewis and Clark thought when suddenly, way out there beyond the blue, they started to see these gargantuan shoulders, like a broken wall against the sky. Couldn't have been all that far from where I was standing last weekend, really, although there were no fences back then. But out there around Great Falls, Montana, somewhere, I'd guess, their young men started to see visions and dream dreams (they didn't have any old geezers).  

You can't help but think that some of them wouldn't have entertained the notion of turning back to St. Louis. Can you imagine a barrier like this?  By this time, however, they had a 14-year-old girl named Sacajawea, who'd come to her trapper husband (that's a generous description) by way of a card game. Sacajawea claimed she knew a way up and into and even through those mountains, and she did. 

One of the proudest ironies of Native American life and history is that a Shoshone girl, not even a woman really, ended up directing the whole show.  Would have been a flop without her. Lewis and Clark and their adventuring band wouldn't have stood a chance against those Rockies if she hadn't shown them the way. They needed a savior, and they got one when a French trapper won a kid, hardly a woman, a illegal concubine in a poker game.

Can't help but wonder how amazed the Corps of Discovery were at the world they entered once they crossed the foothills and started up the Rockies. Must have been too grueling for sight-seeing. 

Too bad, really. It's a ton sweeter today from the warm confines of a someone else's rental car. Still, they had to take a breath once in a while, had to look up and out at what must have been simply amazing. 

Of course, they had no idea what they were going to find on the other side of peaks like this one, so adventure must have kept their adrenalin charged. But still, they must have stopped every once in a while in simple drop-dead awe.

Had to. Just had to.

This morning's thanks are for an awesome world.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Book Review--Angle of Repose

Wallace Stegner doesn't really need my cheerleading. His Angle of Repose, some claim the man's most ambitious and successful novel, won the Pulitzer in 1972. It probably should have been read then, when realism was still in vogue, which is to say when realism still had power.

One gets a sense that Wallace Stegner was an Ernest Hemingway who really aspired to be F. Scott Fitzgerald--in style that is. The sentences throughout this tome are each separate works of art, or, by today's standards perhaps, artifice. Paragraphs are so perfectly crafted, one might thing that Stegner was running for office. Seriously, if you're interested at all in the way a highly crafted realistic novel reads, just spend an hour or so with Angle of Repose. It's a graduate class all by itself.

If I sound criticial, I'm not. I loved the novel, but then I'm an incorrigible realist by nature and by experience. My loving it almost guarantees few will read it today, and I understand why. The pace lumbers along as one might think it would with such gorgeously fashioned sentences. 

The plot is simple enough--a professorial type who just lost a leg and a son's love is wading through his grandmother's letters, trying to find a story he doesn't know clearly but wants badly to make flesh. Meanwhile, his own life is falling apart, which he both understands and despises by treating the rest of world with the cynicism he can't help but feel. His only refuge is the imagined story of his grandparents.

Stegner was, for better or for worse, often considered a "Western writer," which does not mean a descendent of Louis L'Amour. Stegner's "westernness" is on gorgeous display in Angle of Repose, not only because so much of it is set in the turn-of-the century frontier, but also because Susan Ward, his grandmother, spends most of her life wishing she weren't where she is, even as she falls in love with the west her husband has so roughly taken her into.  Susan Ward is a quintessential Easterner, and Stegner rather ambitiously loves her for it. Western lit often sets up Easterners as shysters, the enemy; and there is some of that in Susan's characterization. She is, after all, convinced that life ends somewhere not all that far beyond the Hudson and that she is, therefore, forever banished to the Land of the Uncouth. But she becomes, strangely enough, its leading correspondent through sketches and drawings she sells to major American magazines back in Eastern gloryland.

Susan Ward never really falls in love with the West, but she has a torrid affair she can barely talk about, except on paper and canvas. Her husband, a mining engineer, is never quite so happy as when he's off in some far off corner, looking for whatever mineral deposits might make someone else rich. He loves Susan for whom she is, and there's is a wonderful relationship until a series of failures leaves Susan stranded and angry.

All of that, Lyman Ward exhumes from endless letters his grandmother, Susan, sent back to an Eastern friend, a woman named Augusta, who today would almost certainly be assumed to have been her lover. Back then, who knows? But the two of them write to each other faithfully, and its from those letters that Lyman--and Stegner--begins to piece together a mystery he never quite understood.

(The novel makes significant use of those letters, actual letters written by writer and artist Mary Halleck Foote, a woman whose work Stegner championed by the way. The use of those letters created something of a scandal, in great part because Stegner may have crossed the line into plagiarism.)

That mystery of his grandparents' relationship parallels a mystery in Lyman Ward's own life, and the confluence of the two major conflicts doesn't occur until the very last line of the novel, meticulously orchestrated by a writer who is supremely conscious of his craft.

The novel is a tome. Only the very best readers will turn pages quickly; the rest of us will plod along, wondering if the story will ever reveal itself fully, even questioning if it will ever end.  Which is not to say Angle of Repose is boring--it isn't. Stegner develops character in a way that makes any reader shout aloud that really, character is plot. And, of course, the style is sublime throughout.

I don't know that I read as good a novel all last year. Angle of Repose I loved, even though I knew, even as I was wading through, that its time had come and gone. This is a novel that tries to gather a world into what space it has between two covers. It's plottedness is thoughtful and artsy, but its strength is not what happens on every page. It's strength is its art.

I loved it, but I fear few might. 1972 is already another era.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Morning Thanks--Sweetly bifocaled

I'm not sure how David Brooks of the NY Times gets so smart; after all, he's just a whipper-snapper. More than occasionally he makes great sense, as he did last week in a op-ed about growing old, a phenomenon I've been doing for a long, long time, but only recently thinking about.

Brooks claims research shows that older people--"experienced" people, he calls us--are happier than people half their age. Not once throughout the whole essay does he use the word "retirement," so he's not necessarily talking only about those who've walked out of the office or the barn. He's talking about "experienced" people, he says, people who have become, by way of time and space, capable of seeing clearly both what's on their plate and what's down the road. He calls that being "bifocaled."

I've worn my glasses up atop my head for a long time because I've not been able to become comfortably "bifocaled," but I'm doing better lately so there's hope. Brooks says my discomfort is not at all unusual, physically or spiritually. It just gets easier to "bifocal" with some age on you.

Honestly, I think one of the reasons my wife and I could build a house was because we'd become "bifocaled," not young and hyper about picking just the right doorstop or light fixture. What's back there in our minds these days is the sure knowledge that building a house ain't forever. Sooner than we think--hopefully later--we'll be down the road at the Home, so there's no particular panic about the shape of the couch in the family room. We like what we have, but if we don't, it's no big deal. Even gravestones weather.

I remember one Sunday a decade ago when I happened to look across the sanctuary at a particular young family--four kids, the oldest just getting into high school. Right then and there I told myself that the congregation I was a part of was really in their hands now, the mom and the dad, and not in mine or ours. I'd been heavily deployed in such matters when I was their age, at a time when just exactly how we did church was a really big deal to me. Now?--c'est la vie. Whatever.

That kind of "so it goes" is really quite a joy. Today, I just enjoy going to church; a quarter-century ago, I was trying to build it. Today it's no longer mine to build. That's a relief.

Years ago, as a teacher in an Phoenix high school, I coached basketball. Not well. We got whipped more often than we won, far more often, in fact. After one such spanking somewhere in the city, we climbed back on the bus on the way home--in the dark, I remember, in the dark in every which way.

My coaching buddy felt the heat coming off me, looked over and told me to go lightly. "Look at it this way, Schaap," he said, "there's a couple hundred thousand people in San Diego who right now could give a shit."

Some lines just stick. That one did, even though today I'm half a continent away from San Diego.

An old friend (literally, by the way) used to maintain that the theological doctrine of sanctification was nothing more or less than fiction. By the books, sanctification is "the work of God's free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man, after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness." (Heidelberg Catechism)

The key therein is the phrase "more and more." Sanctification is a process that operates on us and in us, cures us like wine or bacon, makes us smart and sweet and sensitive supposedly, delivers from evil and plants on us something akin to halos.

That's all fine and dandy, my friend used to say. But he claimed he didn't know anybody who got sweeter in old age because the old men he knew were cantankerous, contentious, and flat out combative, old farts who, like the old fart dogs on their couches, did little more than growl at most anything that stood at the door to their lives. "There's no such thing as sanctification," my friend used to say, "or if there is, I haven't seen it."

I'm thinking that maybe, if he's right, it's true only among the Calvinists because Brooks claims I'm still maturing: "The people who rate themselves most highly are those ages 82 to 85," he says. It's getting close to another birthday. For me, it's worth remembering that I'm still 16 years away from real happiness. 

That's something to look forward to. 

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Morning Thanks--John Milton

I shouldn't bad mouth the guy--he was only doing what he considered his job. Besides, inside, I'm sure he respected Milton, author of Paradise Lost. But what I remember of the prof's treatment of the almost endless poem was his intro to the whole thing, when he said that Milton was way off base in determining that he would "justify the ways of God to man."  

That, my college English prof insisted, was a species of blasphemy because no human being, poet or prophet, ever could "justify the ways of God." The herculean task, he insisted, would have been its opposite, to "justify" the ways of man.

No matter. I don't remember much of my college introduction to Paradise Lost, but I was hardly an eager student, more conscious, I suppose, of the girl beside me or ball game at the end of the week, more taken whatever was going on outside of class than what was plodding along within.

That I was a better student some time later when enrolled in graduate school goes without saying. I was married by that time, newly married in fact; there was, therefore, an extra measure of discipline in me, responsible as I was to someone in addition to myself. I didn't want to screw up or squander my privilege because, after all, I loved this woman and didn't want to disappoint her. My goodness, I had been something of a gamble, after all.

And all of that may explain how it is that I came to love John Milton's Paradise Lost, not when I was an undergraduate at a devotedly Christian college, but when I was a grad student at a university that wouldn't have pumped it's faith even if it had some. In grad school I walked through the portals and into Paradise Lost like a kid in a candy store, every last overflowing shelf resplendent with goodies. I read footnotes, gloss, secondary sources--everything I could get my hands on, and all of this was decades before anything came packaged with a www.

I loved it. That sprawling epic spoke to me for a ton of reasons I'm sure, but one was that I was reading this Calvinist thing in a classroom where I thought I may well have been the only Calvinist. Paradise Lost was, therefore, my poem. I was in it. I understood it because I knew the grand narrative and it's peculiar Calvinist spin. 

I had more than a few gaps in my undergraduate education, and the grad school sought to cover them with courses that I needed (this sounds like the 19th century, I'm sure, but it's true), and one of them was, quite simply, "John Milton." So for a semester, we studied Milton, much of it an examination of Paradise Lost which I absolutely loved.

I'd not been a saint and had only recently begun to go to church after a two-year hiatus I'd instituted not because I didn't get along with God but because I didn't get along with his Christian people. It was the late 60s, alright? 'Nuff said.  What I needed was someone to explain the ways of man to God, particularly evangelical Christians. But let's not fight that war.

Yesterday happened to be the birthday of John Milton, 17th century poet and, well, mystic, who penned the most ambitious epic in the history of English literature, an epic which, more than the preaching I was hearing, brought me back to faith, if that makes sense. 

For years I dreamed of making Paradise Lost required reading for every Dordt College student--that's how greatly I respected that sprawling poem. Most any two-dollar analyst would say that silly dream was created because I was simply reliving my past, rewriting my own sordid history. Still, if I were calling the shots. . .

John Milton was totally blind before he was fifty, and therefore wrote Paradise Lost, or so the story goes, by narrating it, verse by verse by verse--this huge poem--to one of his daughters. It would be interesting to know what kind of review she gave it.

Twenty years ago I'm sure, I taught a special topics course in which the six or seven students who signed up read all of Paradise Lost--everything. That experience was, for me at least, a kind of "paradise regained," not because I had the opportunity once again to go all the way through the epic, but because, as I remember, those students loved it.

Yesterday was John Milton's birthday. Sorry to have missed it.

This morning's thanks are for him, who likely did, after a fashion, "justify the ways of God" at least to me. 

And then there's this, for Christmas, from his "On the Morning of Christ's Nativity," a poetic celebration of what Christ gave up to pull on a suit of human flesh:
That glorious Form, that Light unsufferable,
And that far-beaming blaze of Majesty,
Wherewith he wont at Heav'n's high council-table,
To sit the midst of Trinal Unity,
He laid aside, and here with us to be,
Forsook the courts of everlasting day,
And chose with us a darksome house of mortal clay.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Obit--New Republic

I'm toying with an old novel that never sold, retooling it, livening it up, trying to find the right way to tell a story that I still like, even though no editor I tried did.

I used to kid students, years ago, about writing fiction. I used to tell them that none of them would read much of what their prof wrote unless I'd write a novel about a silver-haired college president who seduces his students--male, female, whatever--at a small Christian college in northwest Iowa. bringing them down to his basement where he subjects them to sexual tortures, then snuffs them with the aid of a beautiful but Satanic Dean of Students who buries the bodies at a landfill just south of Sheldon.

Maybe now that I'm retired I'll work on that one. It's got promise.

The story wouldn't be the story. The story would be the story of the story--how a prof at a small college poked a sharp stick in the eye of that college with something akin to a Dutch Reformed Fifty Shades of Gray--well worse. If I'd publish that book this semester, I'd say, only the super-righteous wouldn't read it. They'd order if from Amazon because the college bookstore wouldn't carry it, but they'd get a copy somehow. Good marketing loves good scandals.

Writers, musicians, film makers, magazine editors, visual artists--we all have to be businessmen and women. Unless you're Sheldon Adelson or Christy Walton, some tycoon with money to burn, you have to meet at least some demands of the market. That's life in the big capitalist city, where freedom reigns, where bootstraps will still get you up if you pull hard enough, right? If you want to put bread on the table, you better design a better mousetrap.

Last week the New Republic died. Sort of. If you've never seen a copy of the magazine, let me tell you what it looked like--thin, very thin, and amassed with copy. Few pics if any, no ads to speak of, just endless columns of copy. Nothing in the magazine would take you less than a half hour to read. Seriously.

Is it any wonder the New Republic died? Of course not.

It died because Chris Hughes, the kid who made gadzillions from Facebook, bought the enterprise a few years back and has now determined he wants to make the New Republic a magazine that wasn't a financial black hole. 

How? More pizazz, more sassyness, more bright lights and entertainment, a mag whose online presence feels more like BuzzFeed than a plodding old intellectual journal, a “vertically integrated digital media company," he says. No matter that America's leading political wonks and policy analysts have read the old fart magazine for decades, no matter that it's a century old, no matter that its content included all kinds of culturally-related talk and thought. No matter that the heady thing had tons of clout in rare political circles, the truth is it didn't sell and never--never!--made a dime. 

What it needs is more cleavage, more spectacle, more kidnappings. If you want 'em to watch the movie, you got to get 'em in the theater, right? 

Most of the staff quit last week, which is why the mop-haired mogul who owns it went on the offensive in the Washington Post on Sunday and said good riddance to warty old-timers who wouldn't get with the program.

Look, this morning yet, I'm going back to that novel that didn't sell. I'm going to try something to liven it up, make it edgy, give it spirit or heart, crank up the action to bring readers to the edge of their sofas. I've got to do something if it's going to sell.

But I'm also sad about the New Republic, not simply because it's a magazine for lefties, but because sometimes it's hard not to believe that the medium is, in fact, the message, that to play ball in contemporary media means finding your way to a ball park that looks more like the Huffington Post than Wrigley Field. 

Times change. I get that. The New Republic never made money. Everyone knows that. 

But that it must now become another BuzzFeed is hard not to reckon a cultural loss. On this theme, Ross Douthat of the NY Times and Dana Milbank of the Washington Post agree. That doesn't happen often.

Digital technology may well be changing everything, but it doesn't hurt to chart its course so we can try to guess where we're going and once in a while see what's been left behind.  

Monday, December 08, 2014

Morning Thanks--a hymn, a story

That he was an orphaned as a twelve-year-old only adds to the story. That after attending a revival by none other that George Whitefield, that shining star of the Great Awakening, is also certainly worth mentioning too. That he had no silver spoon only makes his work more remarkable.

When John Fawcett became a preacher, a Baptist preacher, in England, in 1764, he served a woebegone church, a place called Wainsgate, for seven years, during which time he and his wife Mary had four children. His congregants were illiterate and, by some reports, not all that far down the road from their ancestral paganism. They had no money, which meant that John Fawcett's salary was a pittance, much of it coming to their door in potatoes and beans.  
So when an opportunity arose to go to a bigger church, a church in London, a place with a wholesome salary, John And Mary Fawcett determined it was time to move on. But they loved Wainsgate, and Wainsgate loved them; it was just that a church full of folks who simply didn't have the wherewithal to pay him the kind of salary his growing family stood in need of. 

It must have been tough to announce his departure. I'm sure people were shocked and saddened to think their young pastor and his wonderful family was leaving.

The Reverend John Fawcett sent many of belongings on to London, however, because it seemed to him that he had no choice. What things he didn't send, he and Mary determined to take with them in the final wagon full.

The day came, and the whole church turned out to see them off.  You've heard people say, of course, that "the Devil's in the details," and sometimes that's true. But sometimes the Holy Spirit hangs out there too, and in this little story the details are just too good to have been left behind by the Evil One.

So when the good folks of Wainsgate stood there around him, broken hearts poured out love that must have been radiant and unmistakable. The story goes that Mary was the first to break, telling her husband that she just couldn't leave. At that, the Reverend John Fawcett looked around--maybe even a tear or two in his eyes--and tallied the love he couldn't help but witness.

Then he stood in the wagon that would take him to London, and right then and there told the good people of Wainsgate that he and his family were not going to leave.

They stayed.  For 54 years.  

True story, people say. 

Some time later--not long--he wrote a treasured old hymn that's almost as widely known as "Amazing Grace," a song that may well have wrung more tears than any song in your hymnal or mine: "Blest Be the Tie that Binds." 

It's Monday morning in our broken world. Maybe I should have waited for the weekend to retell that story. "Blest Be" may well be one of the fittingest doxologies ever penned, but that doesn't mean it can't be a fine way to start the week. Go ahead a hum along. 

This morning's thanks is two-fold: I'm thankful for that old rugged hymn and doubly thankful to know the story.