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.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Morning Thanks--ye old photographs

My father-in-law came heir to this old, cracked photograph not long ago.  He's featured, in fact--the little boy farthest to the right on the bottom row.  Third grade maybe?--I don't know.

This guy--

My father-in-law is 93 today, and this old picture is the student body at Ireton Christian School, late-Twenties, I'd guess.  It's a delight, isn't it?

Look at this close-up.

What can I say?  Every one of those kids has an untold story.  The vast majority must be gone today, I'm sure.  But look at the innocence on their faces, save the kid in the last row beside the teacher--he must have been headache.  I remember my mother talking about naughty boys in the one-room school close to the lakeshore in Wisconsin, where she taught.  She told me once how she let one of her rowdies, a kid nearly her age, drive her car.  But then, really, what do we know about that big kid?  He may well have become a preacher.  Much, much stranger things have happened.

They look remarkably eager, don't they--these kids?  But then, it's pre-Depression, pre-World War II (many of the boys, a decade and a half later, must have gone). A bunch of these kids might well have been immigrants, yust off da boat, ya.  What did they know about war or horror in this brand new country?  Good night, they were kids. Apples were sweet, June days were beautiful, horses were great, the cows had to be milked, and dirt was dirt--big deal.  Life was good.  Look at those faces. Look at the sailor in the front row.  You could enter him in some cute kid contest today and he'd win, hands down.

Moving forces us to open cupboards and closets and albums we hadn't for years, makes us dig out pictures that hadn't seen the light of day for far too long.  You keep some, but then some you just have to toss.

But they make me smile.  Life was good at Ireton Christian in 1929, and somehow it's a blessing to know that it was. Look at those faces.  

For them--the kids and their almost cherubic smiles--this morning, I'm thankful. 

Thursday, March 29, 2012

My grandma's war prayer

If I google it--any part of it--I can't find a source.  I was sure that it had to originate in the Book of Common Prayer, which would have surprised me, given that all four my grandparents were foursquare Calvinists. War can bring out the best of us, so the source could well have been Anglican, even if none of the four of them would have considered the Anglicans particularly orthodox.

But I can't find the words anywhere--google says, no match.  So I'm left thinking that someone--maybe a grandparent--simply wrote it.  The handwriting is feminine, but it's not my mother's; and there's enough angularity in it to argue for someone older, maybe his mother.  She died while her son, my father, was in the South Pacific in 1944.  So I'd like to think it's her handwriting and her work.  I didn't know her.  Not at all.

People claim she was a saint, her children that is--and even her in-laws; I believe it because so many of my aunts and uncles were, well saintly themselves; and that relative sainthood had to originate somewhere.  If it is hers, it's the only bit of handwriting I think I've ever seen.

But it's not the handwriting that's amazing, it's the piety, the sincerity of the language.  It's old-fashioned prayer language, diction and usage withheld from ordinary life a century ago and given only to divine supplication--there's even a beseech.  If it weren't for the context, I admit that I might even giggle.  But it's written on single piece of stationary, the back side, just one of several notes I found in my father's Bible, all of them letters he received or wrote while aboard a Navy tug that plowed ever closer to Japan in the last two years of the war.

"Oh, God," it begins, "we know not what these troubled times may bring.  In perfect confidence may we place our hands in Thine and follow thee ['& follow thee' scratched in above the comma, an edit], knowing all all [repeated by mistake, maybe] will be well! [I think it's an exclamation point]. We know not what is good for us.  Thou knowest."

I don't know that it makes a difference if it's a prayer she read somewhere or wrote out herself.  And I understand that it's accomplished in language we've long ago abandoned. I don't care, really, I am moved.

"Scatter the darkness of our ignorance and have mercy upon all who hope to bring peace with war and destruction."  That's not only a complicated thought, it's a remarkable thought. She seems to be asking God to forgive Hitler and Hirohito--the Nazis and the "Japs," as my father's letters refer to them, at a moment in time when she, as a mother, had five stars in her front window, five children on two fronts in 1944, the year she died.  And then she adds, "Teach us to love our enemies, not recompense man, evil for evil."

Two of her children--one male, one female--were medics.  I wonder what she knew of what they saw.

"May we be merciful even as Thou Our Heavenly Father art merciful [her capitalization], so we may face life without fear and death without fainting."  She had to be close to death herself when she wrote those words--or copied them--as were her children, far away.

"Satan goeth about seeking whom he may devour, but Thou oh God art on our side, the side of the repentant sinner."  There's no punctuation in that first sentence and more seemingly random capitalization.  I think she actually wrote it.  Either way, I think it's amazing she doesn't simply assert that "our side" is the U.S. of A's.  The Almighty, she asserts, is on the side of the repentant sinner, and then, finally, "We thank Thee for this promise."

Then this:  "In the midst of a world filled with confusion & strife lead us Lord [no internal punctuation].  No glimpse of light can we see on our future path, but our hands are in Thy strong hand and Thou canst see & will guide us [that last little clause added later, scratched in, edited in]."

It's only a prayer--this whole back side of a single sheet of stationary.  There's nothing else on the sheet, either side, simply this long prayer.  

My father kept it.  How could he throw it away?  And how did he react back then, on the other side of the world, when he read in another letter that his mother was gone?

Here's her last paragraph:  "We beseech Thee mercifully to hear our prayer.  Stretch out ['out' scratched out and 'forth' edited in] Thy hand ['hand' scratched out, 'power' scratched in, then 'power' scratched out] of [then 'of' scratched out] power against all who are [scratched out, 'fight' inserted] against us, and Thy will.

Lots of editing at the bottom of the page.  Her grandson understands how hard she wanted to get it exactly right.  

And the traditional supplication:  "We ask it through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen."

That's it--no more room on the page.  

What I know is that he kept it, this prayer of hers.  It was in his Bible, where it stayed for a half century.  I will never know if it was my Grandma Schaap wrote it, but I don't think the Lord God she's invoking will think less of me if I want to assume that it was. 

To me, these words at that time--maybe 1944, the year of D-Day and the year of her death--are the words, the prayer, of a saint I never knew.  

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Swan Song XXXVII--the Incurious (iii)

There's a certain poetic justice in my getting rankled about my students being "incurious," especially when I say that "incurious-ness" arises from a conviction of irrelevancy. After all, if anyone should know what it means to be irrelevant, good night, I should.  

I'm a little too old to have used the phrase "dead, white males," but I remember telling the most "with it" English prof we had back then in the late 60s that the problem with the literature major I was getting was it was hopelessly irrelevant, that it featured no Dalton Trumbo, no Allen Ginsberg, not even a smidgeon of John Updike--no contemporary literature at all. Just ancient stuff.

Last week I ran across some old poetry collections from Lawrence Ferlinghetti, including A Coney Island of the Mind.  When I saw them again, I knew exactly why they're in my possession.  They are what I wanted to know, even to be. The stuff I was assigned, however, was irrelevant.  Only I knew "what was happenin'."  My parents and most of my profs were simply hopeless.

Who really cared about Sherwood Anderson or Sinclair Lewis?  Somewhere in my books there's a paperback edition of Main Street, its title deftly erased from the cover and in it's place something wildly sophomoric scratched in, something like "Under the Bleachers" by Seymour Butts.  Wordsworth and some dreamy field of flowers?--give me a break. Emerson and Thoreau seemed interesting because they were so vividly counter-cultural, but Jonathan Edwards?  Washington Irving?  How about Jane Eyre?  The streets of America were on fire, and where ever you looked there were culture wars and yawning generation gaps.  Who really gives a hang about Hamlet?  I remember a wonderful old prof of mine who told me, in the early 70s, when I was a grad student, that he had no choice but to redo his whole approach to Shakespeare, to pivot and start anew with the Bard because Late 60s students walked into class with wildly different expectations than those of just a decade earlier.

To be labeled "irrelevant" in the late Sixties was the kiss of death, and I was a prodigious smoocher.  I should apologize to the whole range of my college profs right here on this campus, for thinking them so totally irrelevant.  If I'm in that dust bin today, it couldn't happen to a more worthy soul.  I remember very well what it's like to look at a some ancient chrome-dome and roll your eyes.

I want to say that irrelevancy meant something different back then, and I think it did. It was vastly more political, a diatribe hurled at those who didn't see the real world--the evil of Vietnam or American racial attitudes, the horrifying vacuousness of ticky-tacky suburbia, the complete irrelevancy (there it is) of Ozzie and Harriet.  To be irrelevant back then meant that you didn't understand Bob Dylan or "The Sound of Silence," or supported the War in Vietnam.  Maybe I'm simply working hard at self-justification, but it seems to me there's a difference between Simon and Garfunkel and The Hunger Games.  Irrelevancy was ideological--it had to do with ideas.  Today, it's different.  It's not about ideas.  It's about jobs.

But then maybe I'm just a child of my own generation.   

Back then, to be irrelevant meant being hopelessly mired down in an antiquated view of the world.  Last night I saw some footage from one of the first documentaries, Primary, which featured the political battle between Hubert Humphrey and John F. Kennedy in the 1960 Democratic Presidential race.  Watching Kennedy, a real rock star, stroll through an adoring crowd reminded me of my father's disdain for him.  Had he known JFK was a womanizer, it would have been worse.  What he feared and disliked, even hated about Kennedy was that the man was Roman Catholic.  I thought that attitude hopelessly silly.

In the Sixties, I thought we were cleaning the closet of dirty old orthodoxies and, right there on the street, creating our own, many of which haven't been all that healthy on the culture we wanted to change.  Start here, for pete's sake?--"do you own thing."  

Back then, to be irrelevant, at least to me, meant being way behind the times, and the times they were a'changin'.  Today, to be irrelevant, means, I suppose--and it hurts to admit it--pretty much the same thing.  The fact is, I was totally "incurious" when it came to Victorian novels or an introduction to Reformed Doctrine served up by an old man I considered a crypto-fascist.

So are these reflections simply the same old song?  Am I simply what my old profs were?

I don't know.  

But maybe they do--my students.  Today, I'll crawl into class with Faulkner and Tillie Olson and two of America's most distinguished short stories, "Barn Burning" and "I Stand Here Ironing."  I'm scared to death I'll take a beating.  I'll look around and see boredom, and that vision will send me back to the office like Elisha, ready to call in the grizzlies.  

Maybe I'm wrong.  Maybe it'll be a wonderful day.  That would be nice.

What all of this means, or so it seems to me, is that it's time for me to go.  And it is.  

Just like every generation before me and not at all unlike my own famous Late 60s crowd, this one, the one who will be sitting in front of me in just a few hours, is going to have to find its own way.

Once upon a time, Walter Wangerin, an old friend, told me after finishing a novel of mine, Romey's Place, that he came away more sure that no matter how hard we try we can never really teach anyone else about grace.  Grace, he said, is something that can't be taught--not from a father to a son, not on a blackboard or a whiteboard or a smartboard.  It can only be learned by experience.  I can preach grace to my own children, but it's something they'll learn only on their own.

Maybe there's just a lot you can't teach.  Most of life, I suppose, gets learned in the living.

It's time for me to go.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Swan Songs XXXVII--the Incurious (2)

I find students today quite remarkably incurious, if that’s a word, and that attitude is displayed most promiscuously in a phenomenon I witness every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday morning.  I'll ask my students to open their books, and most of them will respond; but a quarter of them, sometimes more, won't have one.  

A student’s not taking a book to class is something new in teaching at the college level.  That didn’t happen 35 years ago, even five years ago.  And it happens elsewhere.  I just read a syllabus from another prof at a state school in Colorado, a syllabus that makes it clear that students will get extra credit for taking a book to class.  I’m not kidding.

What’s going on?  The astronomical cost of higher education isn’t new, but it is increasingly astronomical.  I remember paying $700 for my last college semester—room and board.  That’s not a joke, but today it is. 

They're saving money by sharing books—I get it.  The text for my class isn't more than $30 or so, and I've been using it for five semesters, so most students can buy it from some kid who's already highlighted all the salient passages.  No matter.  They figure one book works for three or four students. 

So somewhere along the line, some students decide they can get by in Schaap's class by sharing an anthology, thereby keeping some bucks in their pockets.  Since they have no books, they generally count on someone—not always them—to take notes; when a test is coming, they somehow apportion time with the shared text.  I think that’s the way it works.

The decision not to buy a book is probably a sound economic decision, but it’s not—or so it seems to me-- educational.  And while I sympathize with their huge educational bills, I can't tell you how awful it is to say, "Let's read from page 137 here," and look out at a room half-full of empty desks.  

“Big deal,” they say. “Big frickin' deal.  I got to take this class to get through.”  As a good student said to me not three weeks ago, "Can you tell me how reading this stuff is going to help me with my business degree?"

If my students' reading levels hover somewhere approximate to middle school age (which I don’t doubt), it's because they've decided some time ago that they really don't need to read much, or to know about a Danish King murdered by his brother long ago, nor the prince who found it hard to take revenge.   They just got to pass the test, all right?  AND, keep their scholarships.

Their incurious nature—and I have no research to back up my claim but my own experience--arises, as it has to, at least in their English class, from the likely conclusion that what happens in Schaap’s class—the study of literature—is pretty much irrelevant to their lives.  I don’t know that any of them ever thought that all the way through; it simply is assumed in their bookless behavior.

Neuroscience may well be the hottest thing going in research today, and I’m nowhere near a disciple, nor even a well-read follower.  But an article in yesterday NY Times on Sunday makes it perfectly clear that reading stories means brain fitness.  That fact alone may argue for lit’s relevancy.  

No matter.  Lots of them don’t have a clue about literature, nor other courses in the humanities or liberal arts.  What they’d really like—some of them—is a how-to store college where they can graduate with a handy, marketable skill set. 

And in a way, I can’t blame them.  A kid told me yesterday that his sister graduated from another Christian liberal arts college three years ago and still has an $80,000 debt. 

Not all of them, of course, but to many of them, CORE 180, an intro to lit course, is occasionally interesting but largely irrelevant. 

But really, is all of this any different from 1968, when I was their age?  That’s a good, good question, and I hope these aren’t the ramblings of a crochety old Jeremiah limping off into the sunset.

The truth?  Once upon a time I remember thinking that a whole lot of college education was entirely irrelevant too. 

Tomorrow, I’d like to think a little about “irrelevancy.”

(to be continued)   

Monday, March 26, 2012

Swan Songs XXXVII--The incurious

People have been trying to answer the question of "Why Johnny can't read?" for years, and there are probably a dozen good reasons why not to go hysterical about yet another study, recently released, which makes similar claims, this one that the average reading level of what high school students read these days is somewhere around fifth grade.

The people who did the study have a vested interest in making their point, after all. Recently, Renaissance Learning, Inc., released its study of K-12 education in America, a study which determined just exactly what it is that high school students are reading.  Numero uno--Hunger Games, which coincidentally almost broke box office records during its film opening last weekend.  I asked my class on Friday why there were so many students missing, and one of them told me a ton had gone to the late-midnight premiere at the local theater.  Okay, if I were their age, I likely would have too.

But I'd bet no high school English teachers--or very few--require Hunger Games; we can assume therefore that reading that series of books is cultic, which is to say, high school kids read it because they've determined collectively that they want to.  That's fine.   

As I said, the disturbing aspect of the report is that the average reading level of the books high school students read is somewhere in the area of my granddaughter's age--fifth grade.  Ouch.  Really, not very complex stuff.

There's always more.  SAT scores in reading fell to a record low last year after a prodigious three-point drop, and national 12th grade reading scores just last year were lower than they were in 1992.  

Renaissance Learning, Inc., would really like America to go nuts over such statistics because they're not a bit objective.  They'd love the whole country to buy into their system, a reading program designed to do exactly what the doctor ordered:  require students to read more complex literature.  I'm not sure they're the objective source on the subject.

That doesn't mean they're wrong.  Are our students that bad?  Here's what I think--forty years of teaching English being my only source of reference.  Students don't read less these days; in fact, they may well read more.  What they don't do is read at any significant length.  It's VERY difficult for many of them to get through a short story, let's say 20 pp.  Even though I suspicion that they have no such problem with The Hunger Games, it's seems hard for them to sustain interest in anything assigned in class, unless it moves as fast and has as many hairpin turns as computer games.

As much as I hate to say it, I don't think the problem lies in what it is we teachers assign or what it is they don't read.  I see two really disturbing trends in the behavior patterns of college students these days, and one is what I believe to be an almost shocking level of what I don't know what to call by any other name than their being incredibly "incurious."  They don't care about much that exists outside of their immediate circle of reference or whatever might lie beyond their ken or what they think they have to know to get out of college and get the job that will pay them they kind of money they think they deserve.  

They don't really care to read a story about contemporary Egypt, let's say, or the 19th century American West.  Who cares about Huck Finn, for pity sake, slavery being pretty much ancient history?  Why do we have to read that stuff?  Please pass The Hunger Games.

(to be continued)

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Sunday Morning Meds--Better than Best

“You have filled my heart with greater joy 
than when their grain and new wine abound.”

Twenty years ago already, my father-in-law, as if out of nowhere, took me out to the barn one Sunday afternoon and told me he was going to leave the farm.  My wife and I had often wondered what her parents would do when the time came for them to retire, but neither of them had ever whispered anything about leaving.  In fact, we’d wondered whether her father ever could really quit.  The farm—and the land it stood upon and the work it required—was the only home he’d never known.  And he’d loved everything about it.

I must have looked shocked that day because I was.

 “I just don’t want to go through another harvest,” he told me, and that was about all he said by way of explanation.

But my wife had told me about the noticeable tension her father always carried come fall, when the crops had to get in and everything had to go smoothly, when rain and snow had to hold off until the corn and beans were safely in the bins.  I didn’t grow up on a farm, and I had no idea of the tension that can build in someone whose family’s livelihood depends on finally putting up a whole crop and doing it safely.

That tension—the tension my father didn’t want to fight anymore—is my way of understanding the burgeoning emotion embedded in the allusion of verse 7 of Psalm 4, because it seems to me that the tension my father-in-law felt at harvest is probably directly proportional to abundant joy he felt once, in years gone by, the barn doors finally swung shut in the first howl of a winter wind.

But it’s not just farmers who can relate to the joy David speaks of in his heart.  Not long ago, a niece of mine was married in a gala celebration that, all tolled, took several days.  The wedding ceremony itself was accomplished in a quaint country church, but the reception had more significant proportions: the downtown Yacht Club.  You choose:  stir fry, roast beef, pasta—all the trimmings.  Open bar.  It was a feast of biblical proportions, and a grand time was had by all.

When, a month later in a supermarket, I bumped into my niece’s proud grandma from the other side of the family, a woman significantly into her eighties, she was still all smiles.  “Wasn’t that something?” she said of the wedding, raising a hand to her mouth, as if feigning embarrassment.  “I tell you, that will be enough joy for me for a year.”

It strikes me that that’s exactly what David is saying here in this comparison.  My overflowing joy, Lord, is greater even than what others feel at their daughters’ weddings, when the food and the drink abounds.  It’s more than that blessed last look back on shorn fields once ripe with corn.  It’s better than the best that this world can offer.

He’s still got his mind on those those who don't know, the ones he’s been thinking about in Psalm 4—David does; and what he’s telling the Lord is that he is flat-out bursting with joy, greater than the are even in their best-of-times.
He’s crowing, really, but not at unbelievers.  Instead, he is just braying out his joy at a God who, the Bible says, rather likes being so lavishly praised by who love him.

A full heart always trumps a full belly, David says—which is not to say that a full belly is something to sneeze at.
What the Lord has given him is just that good.  Lord God, he says, it doesn’t get any better than this.          

Friday, March 23, 2012

Morning Thanks--a fashion accessory

I've lugged a scar along for all of my life really, at least for as long as I can remember.  It's a gash as long as a child's finger and it runs straight north and south on the left side of my face.  It's immediately noticeable I suppose, but I really can't imagine a life without it.

Years ago, my mother told me she'd read somewhere that a doctor can somehow wipe such things away. I told her I didn't even want to think about life without a scar; after all, mine bestows character, and besides it makes me scary, a characteristic most teachers can find useful. Honestly, I rather like the idea that when people look at me they create stories about dark alleys and redneck bars.  Trust me, the real story is an embarrassment I won't relate, lest it inflict more guilt on my sister.  Besides, it's human imagination--yours--that turns me into some Calvinist Al Capone.  

But one is enough.  For the last three weeks or so, I carried another (as in above), where a deft surgeon cut out some kind of half-open thingee that wouldn't heal. The mutant aberration that was there wasn't particularly bothersome, but it didn't heal and needed to go.  It did, but the surgeon--a man with an exquisite reputation for cleanliness and beauty--cut it out but left yet another gash full of stitches, yet another slash across my face, this one slightly contrary-wise to ye olde standard bearer.  My New Mexico friends must have gasped when they saw me, I imagine.  Shoot, I gasped when I did.

Didn't someone say that half of what we pay toward medical care will come in our last two years.  Good night, I better duck.  In the last two weeks I've had two bona fide "procedures," the other being a high-tech camera stuck down my throat to determine why I have trouble swallowing.  This "procedure" put me out completely--whoosh! gone from the world, the second time in six months.  My mother, who's 94, tells me it gets much worse.

Anyway, the doctor, one of Sioux Center's only Indian--as in Bombay--citizens, told me yesterday that what that periscope told him wasn't worth worrying about.  Could have been much-o worse.  

The report on the spot on my face was darker, but no worse.  It was, the good doctor told me, cancer all right, but only by definition, not by reputation.  In other words, no sweat.  

So that facial thing is gone, and I'm now taking some kind of safe, over-the-counter medication to heal a little irritation of the upper stomach--acid reflux, he called it, my doctor from New Delhi.  Much ado.  

There's still a shadowy scar across my left cheek, but the headline gash is but an after thought now, two weeks later.  It's healing quite nicely.  

And I just figure, what the heck?  That other one, the one I've had forever, people were getting used to.  Maybe this new one will stop them in their tracks, give them the willies.  I'm an old man after all, just a month from retirement. I need all the help I can get.

So this morning I'm thankful--as is anyone my age--for my health. Good Lord, it could have been worse.  It could have been much worse.  

A inch-long, little scar, another one?  Big deal.  A fashion accessory. 

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Morning Thanks--his searing song

Our lindens are just about the tallest trees in town, I swear.  And there he was, high up top, singing his heart out, that searing melody so perfectly "cardinal" that it couldn't be mistaken for anyone else's.  Even with a horse of a lens, my camera couldn't have caught him way up there because cardinals seem almost always nervous, flighty, jumping from skinny branch to skinny branch as if it were just ten minutes before the wedding.

Speaking of weddings, I haven't see his mate around lately, and I'm starting to get worried, like Whitman did when the that visitor from the south, the mockingbird, lost its mate on some New Jersey shore.  Whitman turned his angst into a full-blown meditation on death ("Out of the Cradle, Endlessly Rocking"), an opera of arias that concludes with one of the least forgettable lines in all of American literature:  "Death, death, death, death, death."  That's right--five of them.  That's the dramatic climax.  But then, the young Walt hadn't really thought much about it before--death, that is--so he knew very well it was something worth repeating, I guess.  And about that he wasn't wrong.

The longer this sometime neighbor of ours in his dressy red tux flits about in the upper echelons of our lindens, begging for attention with that unmistakable song, the longer I grew Whitman-like, for the cardinal had to be singing to his sweetie--most birds do, after all.  I'm not lying.  Most of the beautiful singing in the world is about sex.  

But where was she?  I hadn't seen her around for a long time.  In my mind, I started an elegy myself, maybe even understood Whitman's gasping grief for the first time.  Broke me heart not to see her, made the song even more operatic, in fact.

I want to keep them around, those two.  I don't want to share them with anyone.  I want them to be our cardinals, our backyard buddies, even though we're selling the house.  In fact, when we move, I want them to come along.  They're so bright and beautiful that I don't want a morning to pass without them.

Anyway, he was still way up in the linden when I get on my bike and rode to school, two blocks away.  He hadn't left, and I was feeling good about the way he was favoring our trees.  Maybe the two of them--when his wife returns--will nest somewhere in our backyard, I'm thinking.  We'd love a sweet pair of scarlet neighbors.  

Now I'm not kidding about this.  When I got to school, his song was still unmistakably loud and clear.  Robins do miracles with their music, blackbirds I could do without, and blue jays, despite their bold backyard beauty, leave a gash in the air with their infernal scolding.  But cardinals sing songs that carry on forever it seems, as voluminous a song as anyone in the bird world.  I swear, as I parked my bike I still heard him.  

But from two blocks away that song morphed into a sermon because its ability to carry reminded me that that redbird in the hoodie is really everybody's prize.  That searing song soars for blocks.  We all love him, the whole neighborhood, and I'm a Silas Marner-type jerk, wanting him only for my own.

The devotions we read last night after dinner reminded us of sin, told us that none of us took it seriously, chided us for thinking more of ourselves than we should, lamented the wretched darkness of the human race--you know what I mean: one of those.  It was a meditation on a single petition of the Lord's prayer--forgive us our sins--and it scolded us for thinking that our having to ask for daily forgiveness was somehow tedious. We think we don't need forgiveness.  You know.  That was the message.  

I admit it--I rolled my eyes.  I didn't need some well-meaning pastor to hector me on a subject I know far too well, a subject perfectly clear to me just that afternoon when I got off my bike at school, the redeemed song of the cardinal still shimmering in the air two blocks from where he sang.  That blessed cardinal filled the pulpit all by himself, a true stemwinder.  I got the point the moment I heard him as I got off my bike.  

He ain't my cardinal, much as I'd like him to be.  He belongs to all of us, thank goodness, and it's pitifully sinful of me to think he should just favor us by making his home only in our backyard.  I know my sin.  

I admit it begrudgingly, but it's true nonetheless--my thanks this morning are for that cardinal's searingly beautiful sermon just yesterday afternoon.  You should have heard it.

Still, I'd like to tell him--and her, when she shows up--that the Schaaps do offer some great trees. 

Wednesday, March 21, 2012


Neighborliness--in one of its myriad manifestations--is likely responsible for the fact that around town here no one ever asks for an "Inspection" when they sell their house--upper case, that is, something official, something that results in what we might call a real "document."  Neighborliness, of course, is not always a virtue. The truth is, if you're going to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in some new abode, it makes good sense to send some objective outsider in to check the furnace and the dang faucets.

But, truth be known, it feels a bit like an alien invasion, as it did yesterday when some nice enough out-of-towner with a HP laptop came in, set up, and proceeded to peek into this old house's every last dark corner, not to mention under its skirts and into its shorts, checking for whatever abnormalities lay hidden there or elsewhere, trying to find crimes deftly covered to escape a buyer's scrupulousness.

I admit it:  it wasn't fun.  It was trying, even for me, someone who can't tell a phillips screwdriver from a monkey wrench, someone whose ability to screw up anything he tinkers with is the stuff of legends.  The fact is, as my wife knows, I don't need viagra.  If I fix anything--say, a leaky toilet--I get a shot of something so extraordinarily male my loving wife just about leaves town. Sexual aggression aside, she well knows, on the other hand, there's nothing more dangerous around this house than her husband with a hammer. 

I'm old enough to know that's true myself, so I rarely pick one up. A friend of mine told me, years ago, that he was putting in a toilet in his basement. That's a claim I've never forgotten because it's so extraordinary that he could just as well have told me he was lighting out for the territories to pan for the gold.  By himself?  A toilet?  With some lame internet instructions?  Was he nuts?  He did it.  

And so, I've always been among those whose hands sport no callouses.  I'm a man with preacher's hands, the kind of man Jesse James would rob on a train, while leaving my toilet-expert friend's pocketbook alone, him with the callouses.  I'm no man's man, never have been, and my wife would say, I'm sure, that's just fine.  Last summer, I took it upon myself to fix a broken window and shattered the new one in the process. 

So, honestly, when the Inspector came yesterday, I wasn't worried about his uncovering jerry-rigged wiring or leaky plumbing.  This hundred-year old house, when we move out, will bear few signs or scars of my all-thumbs fix'r'up good intentions--none really.  If our Inspector found any indecencies, they weren't my work, thank goodness.  In 27 years, I've cut the grass religiously, tended the plants and shrubs, occasionally grown some saucy tomatoes, but done almost nothing else, man-wise.  When it comes to tinkering, I'm not only a fool, I'm certified as dangerous.

Two years ago I tinkered with the spokes on my bike.  I screwed 'em up badly.  When I brought that warped rim over to my friend the bike repairer, who knows me well, he looked up at me, rolled his eyes, and asked the kind of question he thought an English professor could answer:  "Schaap," he said, "is there a hyphen in dumb-ass?"

So, this morning, the day after the Inspector checked our every outlet, I found this wonderful little video on line, and when I saw it, I winced, but I also invoked Socrates; because if this man was unwise, his idiocy stems from lack of self-knowledge. 

I, on the other hand, know myself.  I know this would be me, should I try. But this guy didn't understand who he was, and he obviously felt he could fell this tree, with an axe no less, an all-day project he must have assumed would do wonders for his testosterone.  

But then, I can only guess what his wife said.

This is why I'll never pick up an axe.  I know my weaknesses, as does my wife of forty good years.  (And btw, pardon the expletive.  I'm sure you will.)

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Morning Thanks--the last lap

Marathons have no laps, I'm sure, but I'm starting out on the last one this morning, the final oomph anyway, the last charge after the very last vacation, my last spring break.  'Twas a good one too, with almost a week in New Mexico, then a visit from our Oklahoma kids, and in between three days of ridiculously dedicated essay test reading to stay ahead of the mess that starts once more in just a few hours this morning.

I think some sweet hue of nostalgia colored my previous announcements in this genre--"this is it," and "today will be the last time," etc.  I could say such things before with a tender smile, looking ahead at what remained of my professional life with the soft focus a good lens can put on an aging TV star.  But now, I'm a wreck.  I'm out of breath.
This morning I just want it to be done.  I want it all to end.  My hands are down on my knees, and I'm sucking air.

Last night the house was full of family, and I was worried about this morning, about my class, about what was going to happen, about whether it would be good.  Last night, a good chunk of my family played Scrabble on the dining room table while I babysat the youngest, notes in hand, all the while trying to determine just how this morning was going to work.  And I'm tired of it.

So this morning, I'm not teary one bit.  I haven't a breath of wistfulness, and I honestly have no tinge of sadness.  This morning, I'm anxious for these forty long years of teaching to be over.  To be done.  To be finished.
Go ahead--call me heartless.  I think I've got enough to make it to the finish line, but that's about it.  Not a step farther.

And that's what makes this morning's thanks a piece of cake:  I'm very thankful I've got less than six weeks to go.

Glory, hallelujah.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Swan Song XXXVI -- Task and Calling

Once upon a time, years ago, the writer Raymond Carver spent a summer teaching at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.  I was there.  I took his class.
Carver was just beginning to get his reputation under him at the time.  I hadn't read him, but a friend of mine told me I had to so I went to the bookstore and picked up a couple of collections of his stories.  When I read him, I understood the fuss but I didn't necessarily take a shine to the work.  Carver's stories seemed to me to be fragments as sharp as cut glass--memorable because so oddly shaped, so cutting, in a way, but fragments nonetheless.  He seemed to me to be a determinist, an old fashioned literary naturalist who flattened character by way of an assumption that, in life as in fiction, the cards were simply stacked against his frequently depressing characters.  Reading early Carver was like meeting up with a whole company of walking wounded.

I liked him more than I did his work back then.  He was exceptionally soft-spoken and loving as a teacher, neither proud nor in any way intolerant.  He was a fine man.  One thing about the class seemed very strange:  he required us to read Flannery O'Connor's Mystery and Manners.  The first time I ever read the book was in his class.  We never talked about it, but it was required reading.

It struck me then that there seemed to be little connection between Flannery O'Connor and Ray Carver, but what did I know?  I'd known of O'Connor ever since I'd become interested in writing myself, O'Connor the quintessential "Christian writer," someone so talented and blessed that she could slip beneath the radar of a modernist world that hated Christianity and still achieve widespread acclaim.  The woman was read preciously by everyone, believers and not.

I was reading Mystery and Manners again yesterday, in preparation for my last time through it in a fiction class, and it just about killed me to do it because I realized the grand ideas about literature she nurtures are so badly dated.  I'm not sure my students will either understand it or want to, and I'm almost positive none of them have the kind of rich perspective about the mission of literature which O'Connor did.  She actually felt that literature is food for the soul.  I don't know that any of my students do anymore.  Few students really regard literature as anything more important than, say, opera.  But even those who do--even those who would like to write--don't see the task as a religious calling, a peculiarly old-fashioned idea they simply wouldn't recognize.
I've got Mystery and Manners on my required reading list this semester, as I have for most of the years I've taught fiction.  Like Carver, I rarely use it well in class; but this semester, my last, I thought I'd try to change a bit.  Then I read through several of the essays and realized that O'Connor's views really wouldn't register anymore, if they ever did.  As extraordinarily strange as it sounds these days, I know one of the reasons I wanted to write way back when was because I honestly thought literature could change the world. Writing was, to me, high calling.

Culturally, that kind of regard seems mostly to have disappeared in a world in which, technologically, everyone writes.  Few students I know have that old-fashioned attitude that I did when I was their age, bless their hearts.

Yesterday's NY Times Book Review features a review by David Brooks of a book by Alain de Botton, Religion for Atheists, which I've not read and which Brooks says offers a fascinating cultural critique, as well as a number of proposals for atheists that are little more than silly.

It's the critique that interests me, and Brooks' summary of it. "De Botton looks around," Brooks says, "and sees a secular society denuded of high spiritual aspiration and practical moral guidance."

I think I know what he's talking about.

"Today’s secular institutions," Brooks says de Bottom maintains, "have an absurdly high and unrealistic view of human nature. We are each charged with the task of coming up with our own philosophy and moral laws. We are supposed to have the ability, on our own, to remember the key things we learn and to put these ideas into practice. The key thing is that we are given enough freedom and autonomy to complete the task."

Me too?  Have I  morphed into secularism myself?  That my students don't see writing as mission and calling is no excuse for me to not say it is, to maintain the religious character of what I do and what they do.  Maybe, years ago, I wasn't wrong about things; maybe they are.  Maybe it's my job to make them aware of the high calling of what it is we do, all of us, day-to-day.  

I was about ready to call off the O'Connor assignment, about ready to throw in the towel to a what seems a decidedly secular cultural character that's formed in my students' minds and hearts.  But Brooks is right, as is de Botton.  O'Connor may well seem strange to my students who do not have her soulful sense of mission--religious mission--because they don't.  

All the more reason to make them open the book.


Sunday, March 18, 2012

Sunday Morning Meds--Shine, Jesus, Shine

“Let the light of your face shine upon us, Lord”

Like all of us, Moses’s brother Aaron stumbled through a life that was less than perfect. Because he conceded to the Isrealite mob that demanded an idol to worship, Aaron was almost single-handedly responsible for his brother’s smashing of the God-inscribed stone tablets, not to mention God’s own anger.  No one ever mentions Aaron in a roll call of the saints.

Yet, Aaron’s words ring throughout millions of church fellowships around the world every week.  The Lord told Moses (see Numbers 6) to have Aaron bless the Israelites with words that you can still hear almost any place two or three are gathered to worship God:  “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you. . .”

If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a million times.  King David likely did too.

And maybe that’s why the line itself has lost its visual character—I’ve heard it so often.  Try to create the picture this famous benediction offers.  Penitents, millions of them through the ages, are on their knees (it’s almost impossible not to see them in some kind of supine position physically) and in some kind of darkness, awaiting a brightening glance of Godliness, even a glance.
Now delete those millions from that image and picture just one penitent.  Put yourself there, on your knees, eyes slightly arched but staring downward in helplessness, a nervous shakiness in hands and arms and legs in anticipation of a passing glance, and repeat:  “Let the light of your face shine upon me, Lord.”

I dare say that the only people who can effortlessly create that image of themselves are those who, for whatever horrifying reason, have spent time themselves in that position.  Those who, like me, have never suffered abandonment or grief or despair have trouble creating an image of so hefty a helplessness.  After all, I’ve got fairly substantial bootstraps to prove my internal strength.  What I’ve done, I’ve done on my own.

The whole supine business seems so medieval, the image behind the blessing so—dare I say it?--Islamic:  hoardes of people, face to the floor, hoping for a fleeting glance from the King of Creation.  Good capitalists create their own fates, seal our successes with the sheer tonnage of our ambition and sweat.  We make our fate.

But the line we repeat so often—and hear repeated as a blessing to us—offers a wholly different portrait.  There isn’t a dime’s worth of self-sufficiency in David’s abject request here.  “Just a glance, Lord.  Just spare me a glance.”
Embedded in there somewhere is the sun, of course—God Almighty as iridescent force whose rays bless abundantly.  And what David wants, as has each and every one of us who’ve been in that prostrate position, is but a glance of divine favor, a glimpse of light in the darkness.  We’re not even asking to meet God’s eyes; the line begs for something to take away those heavy shadows, just a glance.

Still, it’s so medieval, so lords-and-serfs and country manors.  It’s so impotent, so paralyzed, so defenseless.  It’s so blasted un-American.

And yet I know—I really do—that such helplessness is what He wants.  

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Reading Mother Teresa XXVI--God's will

Probably the most famous line in all of theater belongs to Prince Hamlet:  "To be or not to be."  Won't be long and I'll be going through Hamlet again, and it'll be my job, once more--for the last time--to try to explain why that ubiquitous question of his is somehow timeless, arising formidably in our lives, as it does, with sometimes alarming frequency, although the context is always different, thank goodness, few of us struggling with revenge for a murdered father.

For believers, like me, really difficult decisions about what to do are made more trying, or so it seems, by a transcendent, even eternal dimension to our decision-making, something we call "God's will."  Joel Nederhood, in his book of devotions, The Forever People, claims that what Jesus himself gives us in single petition of the Lord's Prayer is that we human beings become more like the angels, simply taking God's orders without question.  "The reference to heaven in the perfect prayer," he says ("Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven"), "reminds us that there is a realm where the will of God is absolutely supreme."  Therefore, he says, "Those who want to live eternal life beginning now realize that God's will must be supreme," a realization and commitment that should make Hamlet's indecision silly, even, dare I say it?--sinful.

Emphasis on should. If only complete submission to the will of God were that simple.  In my life at least, determining God's will has never been a piece of cake. Am I alone here?

Mother Teresa had no such problem.  When, occasionally, she was accused of acting without thinking, she excused herself on the basis of her commitment, her vow, to do God's will always.  Always.  

She had to have been blessed with a mind cleansed of filtering agents.  She must not have had a b.s. meter as sensitive as mine, nor could she have a dime's worth of cynicism, that still small voice that says, so frequently (at least to me--and Hamlet), "well, hold on just a minute here."

I once wrote an article about a retired missionary who lit up my life for a few hours with jubilant recitations of the abundantly good life on the mission field.  I came away from that interview truly blessed.  The woman breathed joy.

Some time later, another old missionary told me that she had been nigh unto indefatigable on the mission field, but her overflowing energy sometimes got her into trouble.  If she was scheduled for a meeting somewhere, she'd forget such obligations in a heartbeat if, on the way, she spotted some children playing under a tree.  She'd get out of the car, wander into their presence, and tell them about Jesus.  Meeting be hanged.

She knew God's will.

I couldn't help think of her when I read that Mother Teresa "developed the habit of responding immediately to the demands of the present moment," something she did so regularly that "this swiftness to act was misinterpreted and taken for impetuousness or lack of prudence."  Maybe such transparent commitment to God's will simply comes with mission work--you wholeheartedly equate your mission with God's will. End of subject.

As for me and my house, we're more Hamlet-like, forever stuck between between a rock and hard place.  I probably think too much, and, right now, smarting from Nederhood's admonition, I'll not repeat that petition from the Lord's prayer without seeing my own ink-faced sin in the mirror--"thy will be done."  Sounds so stinkin' easy.  Just like that--no brooding, no worrying, no sleepless nights.  Just do it.

One of the few theological words with earthy Anglo-Saxon roots is atonement, which means, as it says, to be "at one" with God. I know two now-deceased women, missionaries both, who obviously got there--at one with God. 

But my cynical mind says so did David Koresh and Harold Camping and a thousand other cultists who thought they were "at one," but, as it turned out, certainly were not.  Once upon a time, they were just as sure.

See?  There I go questioning again.  I am absolutely hopeless.

May God have mercy on me.  And Hamlet.