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.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Sunday Morning Meds--Understanding

“Great is our Lord and mighty in power; 
his understanding has no limit.” Psalm 145:5

I just emptied my trash.  There were 300 old e-mails packed somehow within, and, with nothing more than a key-stroke, they’re history.  All those words are simply gone, as if they’d never existed. 

But where do they go?—that’s what I’m wondering.  Isn’t there some law of physics that matter simply doesn’t disappear?  I suppose those 300 email notes had no matter; they were nothing but electronic impulses of some kind.  But even if they had no matter, they held matter.  I’m sure that sometime in the next few days I’ll remember something I should have done, go to the trash file to find some tossed note, and discover it and the horse it rode in on, gone.  At one time, they mattered. 

But now they’ve vanished, never to be seen again.  Strange. Almost scary.

An old friend called last night, just to check in.  He said his wife, who’s been fighting depression for years, has switched meds. “A scary time,” he told us, and I understand.  What I don’t understand is how a pill can actually change character, alter personality, replace the dynamo of whatever it is that makes us each who we are. That’s scary. But it happens, and it happens all the time.

And why is it that I feel so much, of late, that I’d rather be alone than in the blessed company of other people?  Once we were social.  Once we looked forward to weekends because they meant games and gatherings.  I still look forward to weekends, but the only frivolity I seek is peace and quiet and solitude. If the skies are clear, the dawn compels on Saturday morning. I go alone. That’s the way I like it. Why?

Or this. Yesterday in a crowded shopping mall I read a short story from a new collection, read it almost straight though.  I was sitting on a bench near the food court, at the very heart of things. Thousands of people passed me by. I saw few. It was a great story. I loved it. But I told myself that something had changed in me. Ten years ago—certainly twenty—I could never have sat there amid the thronging shoppers and focused so intensely on a single short story. What has changed in me, and why?

There’s so much I don’t understand.

Why do we suffer—honestly?  The older I become, the more Job appears, just off my shoulder, one hand raised to heaven in a fist. Three of my friends are dying of cancer; all of them would love to live. None of them are ancient. Yet, all over North America people are building nursing homes to tend the millions who would, any day of the week, volunteer tomorrow for a long-sought trip to glory. 

I was born after the Second World War, but I’ve spent more time reading the literature of the Holocaust than perhaps I should have.  Arbeit Macht Frei—there’s a sign in my mind that will never leave. I know where Mengele stood right there at the platform as the trains rolled into Auschwitz. I can see his hand determining. And even though I wasn’t there, I can hear millions of bootless cries to heaven.

There is so much I don’t understand about life and about death, about suffering and joy.  So much mystery. 

And the greatest of all is a gift because somehow, even though I don’t know, I’m confident He does. Faith is a sumptuous gift. I don’t know why his grace comes to me, but I believe this affirmation, that even though don’t get it, even though this flesh will corrupt and I will like those emails, simply vanish, in mystery, he knows. 

His understanding has no limit.    

Thursday, October 12, 2017

American stories

I'm sure there are those who will shrug their shoulders. After all, "history is bunk," right? James G. Whitman's new book, Hitler's American Model, is, after all, little more than a footnote, a story from long, long ago of use primarily to history profs and their obliging undergrad students.

The story Whitman explores--or so says a review in the Atlantic--is a trip taken by a goodly number of Nazi theorists and legal experts who, in 1935, traveled here, to the land of the free to study how America had canonized its systemic racism, its legal discrimination against people of color. Third Reich officials came here, to the U. S. of A. because they were greatly taken by the manner by which this country had been able to keep races separate.

Whether they used American models to construct their own racial laws or whether they found those laws simply to be helpful in carrying out racist designs they'd already fashioned and would soon implement isn't clear; but it's really shocking, at least to me, that they would look for help and guidance and direction from us, here, in "America the Beautiful."

For the record, history records the lynchings of 117 black men during the 1930s, although it seems quite fair to presume history doesn't record them all. What Whitman explains--and what the German officials must have known--was that no other country, not even South Africa, had such a fortified legal system of racial discrimination. 

In the late 1890s, when the first white folks put down roots here where I live, making one's way was just about all one could do. The deep economic crisis of the era was as devastating as the Great Depression would eventually prove itself to be. People here, right here along the Floyd River and throughout the region, simply had nothing.

Charles Dyke, in the History of Sioux County, tells the story of VerSteeg family, immigrant Dutch, whose stove gave out, mid-winter, in horrifying cold. Mr. VerSteeg took his sleigh to the Hospers store for a new one. The Dyke brothers, who ran the place, knew very well that the family had to stay warm, had to cook food, but they also knew that the VerSteegs had no money--zero, not a dollar to their name. 

Cold winter weeks pass, and the VerSteegs, like their other customers, still can't pay their bills--not because they're lazy crooks but because they simply have no money. The brothers determine they can't continue to exist without income, so Brother Charlie is given the thankless job of going out here to the farmsteads where their customers live and trying to collect something, anything. 

When he gets to the VerSteegs, the family seems to be thriving. "How do you do it?" he asks, and Mr. VerSteeg says they've got vegetables canned, and, blessedly, they eat all kinds of rabbits, trapping 'em, then pan-frying or baking them. 

It's an absolutely charming story of perseverance and determined human will to make do. Eventually, VerSteegs got some egg money or something to pay the bill for that stove (Dyke says he paid it off faster than he needed to). Eventually the wooden-shoes made it. Those children, raised on pan-fried rabbit, made good--became doctors and lawyers and veterinarians. It's a story that cheers the heart.

It's also a story we want to remember, a story of how we made our way in times so desperate they would otherwise beg to be forgotten. It's part of our mythology, our identity; it creates the images of how we see ourselves. It's an American story of an immigrant family whose persistent determination to succeed brings them the dream they were certain they'd find in America.

But there's other stories that belong in the American canon. One of them, sad to say, is of thoughtful Nazi theorists visiting here in order to understand just exactly how it was that we Americans could so neatly codify racism. They came here for a model of hate. 

Both those stories are ours.  Choosing to believe either one but not the other means living on half-truth, which is never the whole truth, so help me God.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Morning Thanks--Beauty

From an Iowan, there's no denying that it's not good ground. Sunday, when I took Dad back to the Home, he talked like he often does. We're passing through Alton, the pond along the road and the woods, and he says, "Too many trees." What he means is that it wouldn't be smart to farm the land.

We're up top of the hill, up at St. Mary's Church, a gorgeous old small-town cathedral, and he tells me that it's too hilly right here by the cemetery, that this wouldn't be good ground either. 

He's not priggish about it. He's not putting anyone or anything down. It's where his mind is stuck these days, his final days. We just get him out, and he's happy. Aside from a tour in Europe during the war, he farmed every day of his working life. In the Home, he's dying; but he gets out between fields of corn and soybeans, and, honestly, he can breath. He starts seeing again, making old-time judgments. They come to him quickly, joyfully even.

I thought of him often last week, passing through Utah and New Mexico, thought of him as if he were beside me looking at all this desert, because I know what he would have said. He would have talked about the land, would have to admit that it wouldn't be much good for corn and soy beans.

I know this desert environment has an lively ecology of its own, its own catalog of uses; but when I'm in it, mile after mile after mile, I hear his measurements. And I can't help asking myself why--why so very much land wish so very little use? 

It wasn't a question that plagued me all day because the answer came after an hour or so in the middle of all of that red rock beauty. God almighty keeps some places open for just plain awe. I don't think Dad could get a crop off most of the land I traveled, but oh, my word, can a man or woman harvest a blessing just to see His world.

They're clothed, as you can see. But this couple reminds me of Adam and Eve in the garden. Look at them--just bursting with awe. That's me last week in the middle of world created for beauty's sake.

All day I spent slack-jawed in awe that's good for the soul. 

This morning's thanks is for the sheer beauty all around.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Book Review--Katy Tur's Unbelievable

Once, just before an appearance on Morning Joe, Presidential Candidate Donald J. Trump ran into Katy Tur, the reporter NBC assigned to cover his campaign, and kissed her. Just up and kissed her. Out of nowhere, shockingly, he kissed her. 

Ms. Tur tells that story very well in Unbelievable: My Front-Row Seat to the Craziest Campaign in American History, tells it well and without animus. Given the rash of downright dirty old men in the news as of late (Roger Ailes, Harvey Weinstein, Bill O'Reilly), Trump's quick green room peck seems downright innocent, more goofy than gross. But it's a reminder of his "grab them by their. . ." line with Billy Bush, when he so joyfully confessed that, try as he might, he just can't stop kissing beautiful women.

Katy Tur's memoir will bring that all back again, a long with a ton of sludge from a campaign that, as she says, was "the craziest in American history." Tur, who was quite comfortably ensconced in NBC's London bureau, was selected--she still doesn't know how or why--to return to this country to cover the unlikely Presidential campaign of Mr. Trump, a campaign everyone thought would go belly-up within a month. When it didn't, and when Trump clearly wore more Teflon than Reagan ever hoped to, Tur found herself in a stunning position, the ace reporter covering a man who not only sucked the oxygen out of whatever room he was in, but out of the entire country, daily, hourly. For months, Trump was the news. Everything else--everyone else--fell away into zombie land, even men and women with dynasty written all over them, a Bush first, and then a Clinton.

Trump's real enemy (real means fake in Trump's world) soon became the national press. In a particularly delightful moment in the book, Tur describes quite painfully what it felt like to have Donald J. Trump call out her name abusively in the middle of his rallies--"Little Katy," he called her, pointing her out to the crowd. The first time he did it, she was astounded--and scared because Trump loves to militarize his base. Once, a man spit into her face. Regularly, his mobsters came up to the press area and assaulted her with profanity.

But the memoir captures her toughness. She spends some time describing and defining her parents, news freaks in LA, the first reporters to use a helicopter. The newsroom wasn't a foreign land to a little girl who flew along on big scoops, her mother hanging out of the door to get the shot, her father at the controls. She may be "little Katy," but she's tough.

And it's clear that "the Donald" didn't intimidate her, not in the least. Scare her?--yes, in part because of his vicious minions; but intimidate her?--no. It's a gutsy book, something of a tell-all, done in a rambling, journalistic style that captures the absolute madness of Trump's character. 

Why NBC chose her to follow Donald J. Trump isn't clear, but they did--and there lies the story she alone can tell. Trump's campaign didn't flop, even though dozens of journalists penned post-mortems dozens of times. Katy Tur's delightful memoir brings all of that back, the whole list of sins, of things he shouldn't have said, tweets he shouldn't have written. 

If you love the guy, don't read Unbelievable; Katy Tur doesn't worship "his majesty." If you hate him, be warned that running over the man's truly bizarre rise to power will trigger painful memories you'll wish you didn't have. 

Honestly, it's a book that will make you sick--not because of Katy Tur, but because of the madness that we've already forgotten in light of the latest Trump excesses, excesses that keep coming, and keep coming, and keep coming. Remember!--the man who so frequently vilified Katy Tur, kissed her. He calls the press "Public Enemy Number One," but he knows darn well he'd be nowhere without them.

He's our President. 

Monday, October 09, 2017

The Patriots

The night began like every episode of Hill Street Blues, in a meeting room full of blue uniforms shooting the breeze and waiting for the captain, who walked in a couple minutes late, rapped his fingers on the podium, and called the place to order. Once he got it, he listed the problems "out there" that night, got the beat cops up to speed (thirty or so in the room), and laid out some warnings about tough customers. 

Lasted maybe twenty minutes. The squad was all male, all white. It was 1982, long ago. It felt like a locker room, last-minute instructions from a husky coach who knew how to inspire if he wanted to or rattle cages if he needed to. 

But I knew I couldn't write what I heard. I was doing a story about the life of a cop in West Palm Beach. He got permission--and special instructions--to take this civilian along, so I rode with him that night, all night. As luck would have it, the squawk box happened to be abnormally quiet. The two of us were never in any kind of danger. Just a couple years later, he was shot in the line of duty.

What I couldn't write was that during that Hill Street Blues-like briefing, the racism was startlingly evident. I understood why even before I got into the squad car: if there was going to be action that night, it was more than likely going to take place in the middle of the city, not in the suburbs. Those cops talked as they did because they knew who was the enemy.

Was it wrong?--absolutely, and I knew it. I was shocked and knew I couldn't write what I'd heard. Was it understandable?--yes, especially from my point of view, a white man. Not for a moment did I envy their job.

Because I'm white, I suppose, I've never said anything about the juries who let cops who shoot black men walk. Maybe I should have. 

But because I once sat in a briefing room, I don't doubt for a moment that raw prejudice exists in the corps. What I witnessed was forty years ago now, and I'm quite sure that today West Palm's force has African-Americans and women. But back then, when the white guys in blue went out to their cars, they knew how to look at what they were going to see. What happened in that briefing room was racist.

Colin Kaeparnick lit a match when he took a knee last year during the national anthem. No one--not even Donald Trump--has the right to tell him not to protest the obscene deaths of too many black men at the hands of the police. We've all seen too many and too much.

Last week there was another. Here's the way Newsweek wrote up what happened in Salt Lake City--you read that right, Salt Lake City

The District Attorney’s office had previously said Harmon threatened officers with a knife as he fled, with officials also claiming officers were in fear of their lives. The footage, which was shared by local media, does not show the moment Harmon allegedly threatened the officers.
Mr. Harmon, fifty years old, was pulled over on a bicycle because he didn't have a light. A few minutes later he was dead.

That's why black men take a knee. They're not wrong and they're not unpatriotic.

Yesterday, the President of these United States told his Vice President to leave the game if any NFL players took a knee, so the VP did. He'd flown into Indianapolis from out west, told the chauffeur he'd be back quickly, took a seat in the stadium, put his hand over his heart at the playing of the national anthem, then marched out and took another plane west. Whether his reaction was heart-felt only Pence knows. But it was, clearly, a gambit, a stunt.

Watch the Salt Lake City video for yourself. Isn't protest inevitable? 

Yesterday the President of the United States threw gasoline on racial fires. Yesterday, when at least some of the conflict seemed to have been abating, Donald J. Trump made sure the hate didn't die by playing to his base, who see the racial protest as unAmerican. What he cares about right now is keeping his disciples in the faith.

"I could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose any voters."

That's our guy. What a patriot.

Sunday, October 08, 2017

Sunday Morning Meds--Each and every one

“He determines the number of the stars 
and calls them each by name.” Psalm 147:4

[Written a decade ago.]

Yesterday, I was walking up the grand stairway [today I’d take the elevator] in the Campus Center, when some kid came racing out of the offices upstairs and literally flew, right past me, down the stairs and out the door. Flew, feet a whirr. Awesome, literally. I stopped going up myself because it was so artful, even shocking—Fred Astaire on steroids. 

Once upon a time, I could do that too—that’s the realization that almost made me a fatality right then and there. I was stunned. I’d become my grandpa, who’s long gone. I’d become an old man. [Not much has changed.]

I have a cold, and it’s nothing to shake a hanky at.  It started way down in my lungs about a week ago already, fetching a retching cough I’ve been battling ever since.  Yesterday, the enemy forces climbed up my windpipe and invaded my sinuses.  This morning I awoke with a mouthful of sickly gook. [Happens to be true today, too.]

Haven’t heard from our son in more than a week.  We hope he’s doing well, all alone so far away. We hope there is no relapse. We pray he’ll find some friends, some folks with whom he can be at home. We want him to go to church. We’re scared, and we have been for several years. [All’s well on that score. They’re expecting a baby in a few months. Yesterday we bought a new car so as to get there more safely and regularly 😊.]

This, my 36th year of teaching [I made it to 40], hasn’t started out with great joy. [I’ve been retired for five years.] For the first time in all those years, I think I’d move if the right opportunity came up. But I’m nearly 60 [make that nearly 70] so who on earth will invest in someone who’s barely going to be get into the parking lot before leaving again?  Makes me dismal. [Listen, retirement is a dream.]

I’m facing a ton of papers today, but I have to get them read because I’ve had them far too long. My students have every right to roll their eyes when I come into class without them. I’ve got to get them finished. [Blessedly, all of that is barely a memory.]

My wife’s cholesterol spiked. She never knew she had a problem until the good doctor called a week ago after reading her test. “You better start some pills,” he told her, wrote out the prescription.  She’s been on them since. I’ve been starving since supper last night because this morning it’s my turn for the test. [We’re both fine, just older.]

Her mother’s life is precarious, and in many ways she’d rather be gone. She’s not morbid about it, nor deeply depressed; but she has little sense of her own use anymore on this wintering earth, and she thinks she herself a burden. She’s thought that for years.  Last week there was a bout with an ambulance. She vows, never again. [She’s long ago departed, as have my parents in the last decade. Her father is now just about at life’s end. Soon, we’ll be parentless.]

There are probably more laments, if I would sit here and listen to the dark voices within me. I’m sure I could dredge up a few more. [Well, that might be tough. Life isn’t bad. Honestly, I don’t think I spend as much time wringing my hands.]

To imagine that the Creator of Heaven and Earth has his eye on that whole laundry list of personal ills is really beyond belief, isn’t it? [True.]. To believe he loves me despite my curmudgeonliness, my abundant laments, seems impossible [Also true.]. To imagine that somewhere in that divine mind of his he’s drawn a bead on my aches and pains is incomprehensible not only because of the paucity of my ills [yet another hurricane came ashore yesterday!] but even more so because there are millions and billions of me’s [most of whom have much worse problems.]

“He determines the number of the stars and calls them each by name,” the psalmist says, sure as anything.

I think I see the night sky’s expo of stars better than most [Back then we were living in town. Right now, I can just step out the back door to see stars by the gadzillions]. The comfort of Psalm 147:4 is that he knows them all, every one of them, knows what’s happening in their incredible air space. “He calls them each by name.”

He’s got it all in hand. [Did then. Does now. Not much has changed.] 

Friday, October 06, 2017

The Liberation of Colorado City

Just exactly how many wives he had—or has, since he’s only out of circulation, not breath—isn’t clear. Estimations go beyond what you can count on toes and fingers. Maybe forty, maybe more. Youngest? —just twelve years old.

Warren Jeffs was a long-time resident of the FBI’s Most Wanted list, right there with other major-league offenders. Today he’s in jail in Texas, where he’d started yet another polygamous community.

He’s not finished as a prophet and has told his devoted that one day soon Jesus Christ will break down prison walls, step into his cell, and spring him as if that day were yet another resurrection. Together, they'll come back home. To that end, from prison, Warren Jeffs told his people to build him a compound where he and the Lord—and his favorite wives—could take up joyful residence.

So they did—right there in Colorado City, AZ, a desert hamlet of 8000 spread lazily beneath breath-taking sandstone mountains, a village where most everyone believed in “Celestial Marriage,” even if many didn’t practice it. Jeffs’ loyal following built a spacious compound for him, more hotel-ish than residence. Accommodating all those wives and children requires endless rooms.

Polygamy has a long history among the Mormons, a history and a practice that Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) believe the liberal Mormons should never have abandoned. Already in 1890, the prophet Wilfred Woodruff had a vision shaped more deftly by practical circumstance—a desire to fit into American culture—than it was by profound, divine revelation. Woodruff’s Manifesto officially terminated polygamy, a (upper case) Principle Joseph Smith himself had proclaimed, some argue, because he couldn't curb what his wife considered serial adultery.

These days, those who know something about life in Utah know it isn’t only the FLDS who practice polygamy; lots of LDS folks live in “Celestial Marriage" beneath the radar. Bigamy is officially illegal in Utah, but many polygamists are not abusers or child molesters.

But Warren Jeffs of Colorado City, AZ, certainly was, and that’s why he’s in prison. When Jeffs was picked up outside Las Vegas, he had 16 cell phones, three wigs, and nearly 60 thousand dollars. He’s serving a life-plus-20-year sentence.

But when Jeffs went off to jail, his physical absence took the edge off his authority in town. No longer could he determine who lived in Colorado City and who didn’t. Ex-members simply would no longer take his bullying from afar. His power diminishing, he commanded his followers to end all building. Today, around town, ghostly houses haunt almost every block.

But things appear to be looking up in Colorado City, AZ. A new church plant is getting on its feet, a church Jeffs would not have tolerated. What’s more, around many compounds in town, walls are coming down, walls that once sealed secrets. One of Jeffs’ own compounds has been turned into a bed-and-breakfast with the saucy name of “Most Wanted.”

What was once locked up tight behind walls is no longer. One of the most fearsome images I saw downstairs in those dormitory domiciles was a couple of bedrooms that only locked from the outside. Took my breath away.

But there's this, this wonder: one of Jeffs’ residencies, a hotel-like place with more than forty bedrooms is, as we speak, in the running to become a halfway house for women freed from sex-trafficking. You read that right.

Forgive me for gushing, but I can’t help saying there’s something breathtaking about that oh-so unlikely transformation, so impossible that it begs a smile, maybe even a laugh. Listen: an institution-like, walled-in prison house created for several dozen sister-wives living under the dark hand of a despotic, madman prophet, that place is now magically—gracefully!—restored, reupholstered, refurbished—dare I say redeemed?--to become instead a prayerful medium to liberation, hope, and praise.

Wednesday, in an post in The Twelve, Jes Kast opened the doors to her New York City congregation to make a point that is just as valid in a strange village stuck up on the dusty high country desert. a place so deliberately far away people have to hunt to find it.

"Grace specializes," Jes wrote, "in the mess of humanity."

No kidding. No kidding.

Thursday, October 05, 2017


The only picture we have of the guy makes him look like a criminal. His nose seems overlarge, as if swollen, as if he might have been beaten. If it weren’t for the thin moustache, he’d pass for a boy, a kid, someone more than slightly afraid of whatever was before him the moment the picture was taken, of whoever held the camera. His hair is tousled, as if he’d not slept.

He doesn’t look like a criminal, although the picture itself looks like a mug shot, which it might have been.

He was one of his parents’ nine children, six of whom died in infancy, a tragic toll that suggests his family’s poverty. He was—they were—very poor, so poor, in fact, that the priest who baptized him suggested he be named after the angel Gabriel, which just might, the priest said, give him a leg up on life. This Gabriel’s life was, in no sense, angelic.

His father was a Christian, a farmer who worked a couple acres of land and paid over a third of whatever income he could take from that ground to the landowner, a Muslim. That may be important in understanding the kid in the picture, his son, as might the fact that his father suffered more than his share of ridicule for his beliefs.

Anyway, this kid, was smart, a whipper-snapper, even though the old man didn’t want him to go off to school. He didn’t, until he was nine. At first, he plodded along, but once he caught on to reading, he quickly became the apple of his teacher’s eye, so proficient that history records remarkable success. His teacher gave him a collection of his region’s most famous and epic poetry, a kind of present, a prize.

An older brother took him to the city, where he intended to go to military school. He was only 13. But plans changed because his brother didn’t want him in training to someday kill his own people. For three years the young Gabriel went to tech school until he transferred to the gymnasium, a more basic academic institution.

Where he got in trouble. Where politics came to bowled over any other interests. He became convinced that people like his parents, like him, were suffering under the burden of tyranny. He was a kid, smart, and radicalized—so radicalized, in fact, that he was booted from school after he marched around threatening his classmates with his fists if they didn’t, as he did, join the rebel ranks.

He was only 18, so he went home to his native land and kissed the ground when he crossed the line, then joined real rebel forces fighting the tyrants. Or tried. Twice, those in charge told him he was too small, too weak to be of any good.

On the 28th of June, 1914, near a café on Franz Joseph Street in Sarajevo, the kid named after an angel was armed with an FN Model 1910 semi-automatic pistol. He and a half-dozen others were planning what they thought of as tyrannicide, the assassination of the Archduke of Austria.

Plans had been made for murder, but they’d been foiled by missteps and mishaps, so the kid named after an angel had to have been surprised when suddenly, right before his eyes, the Archduke’s car rolled up beside him, stopped, and attempted to turn around. In a way, the Archduke’s driver had, without thinking, rolled right into his assassin’s sights. Not only that, but the engine stalled.

The kid named after an angel realized this was his chance. He walked up and shot just twice, killing both the Archduke and his wife. Tyrannicide.

His name was Gavrilo Princip, and what he did that day, unbeknownst to him, was cast the entire world into war, World War I.

In some odd ways, something of a chance meeting between an Archduke and his wife and a kid named after an angel, a kid with a gun on Franz Joseph Street in Sarajevo, started a bloody conflict that would conclude with 41 million casualties, 23 million wounded and 17 million—including seven million civilians—dead.

A hundred years ago, men lined up right here in Siouxland, anxious to go to war. In France, the trenches were already built, already full of horror. It would be the war, people said, to end all wars.

And it started with tyrannicide, and a really poor kid named after an angel.

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

A Calvinist with a smile

It's up there so high you can see it only with binocs or 300mm lens, but it's there. It's in a gallery of etchings and signatures all around. I'm not sure how many years will have to pass before it will be thought of as "historical," but right now, just about a century later it's only sort of what?--well, rare.  He's the only "Rev" up there.

So sometime in 1919, this Rev. Ypma, in all likelihood Rev. Lambert Ypma, passed through this cavern while visiting a new Navajo mission just east of Gallup, NM; and when he did he took the time to write his name on the wall of the canyon, First Canyon, as it's still called today. 

Now sandstone is more like a blackboard than it is cement. Lots of other etchings have disappeared, as you can see.  Some manage to stay, however, on account of the elbow grease that put them there. A person could walk First Canyon for a week and not record all the multitudes who left what, when, where; but up and down the stretch of the canyon, this is the only "Rev." I could find--"Rev. Ypma." (Look at that--he even put in the period.)

In his circles, in his denomination, the Christian Reformed Church, Ypma was not anonymous. He started a Christian school in Minnesota, and ended his distinguished preaching career just down the road in Sioux Center. He died in Grand Rapids, Michigan, like a host of CRC pastors. Today, you don't have to surf all that long to see that some glorious things of him are spoken.

But I have no clue what he was doing in First Canyon in 1919, just off a dusty rutted road that ran east of Gallup to Rehoboth Mission. He may have been simply visiting, although that's unlikely, given the list of out-of-the-way pastorates he had, places where there wasn't a budget for New Mexico vacations. Rehoboth history doesn't record his being a missionary. 

He might have been a board member of "The Heathen Mission Board," out there visiting the place, making sure it was running with efficiency and preaching the unadorned gospel truth to the Indians. But it's hard to imagine this Rev. Ypma as being hard-core. Any preacher who'd take the time to carve his initials into the mountain couldn't be too self-righteous.

I took this picture with my big lens. Don't think you can get up close because successive gully-washers have done what they always do in First Canyon--and always will: they lower the floor, scrape up detritus and push it down as far as it'll go, so far, like I said, that you need a lens to see what the man left in the rock a century ago. Where he stood to write his name is now halfway up the side of the canyon.

But it's there, I'm telling you, even the period.

It's not graffiti. If you wanted to get up tight about it, yes, he deliberately defaced the side of the  mountain; but the scratching all around his name makes it difficult to consider what he did somehow akin to the unforgivable sin. 

Besides, you got to think he was smiling when he did it, don't you? You got to think he sat there with a jackknife or whatever, chuckling to himself, adding his name to the gallery.

It had to be fun. He didn't slap a Bible verse up there, no line from Jeremiah. Just his name--and the Rev part. Maybe he looked around at the baby blue sky above that promenade of glorious sandstone all around and just loved it. Maybe all he wanted to say is that he'd been there and found all that New Mexico beauty perfectly breathtaking.

What kind of preacher was he anyway, this Rev. Ypma? I think he may have been something out of the ordinary, not just your run-of-the-mill, early 20th century Dutch Calvinist. I think he may have been a smiler.

Hike First Canyon yourself sometime, read the walls. But if you want to see the etching of a bit of goofy Calvinist pastor, bring a lens. 

It's there. Trust me. 

Monday, September 25, 2017

Desert Sojourn

Vacation? Well, hardly. But I'll be gone for the next week or so, bound for the Great Southwest.  If you visit here regularly, you won't find anything new for a while, but I'll be back in a week or so. 

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Sunday Morning Meds--Wounds and faith

“He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.” Psalm 147:3

A few years ago already, our newspaper cunningly stopped doing obituaries for free; today you pay. Those notices still spread over two whole pages; because even though no one has ever escaped it, death is still news.

And yet, if you spend any time in an old folks’ home, you realize how many old folks leave this world almost seamlessly. Some deaths, however, are never to be forgotten.

Years ago, a high school senior fell to a mysterious killer that slowly took her life away, while all around her—even in her hospital room—hundreds of prayers arose daily. A teacher at the Christian high school she attended told me that year was the worst he’d ever spent in a classroom because the kids—unaccustomed to death and given to fervent emotions—simply couldn’t study, their good friend in deadly anguish for so very long. She was dying, and no one—not even God almighty—seemed able to lift a finger. 

It took months, but a death that once seemed beyond belief came on inexorably. Months after she first felt some ordinary flu symptoms, she fell to a mystery—mercifully, I suppose. Try to imagine the minds, hearts, and souls of her parents, the endless, heartfelt prayers of hundreds of high school friends.

One of the most difficult lessons is that there are times when God doesn’t seem to answer prayers, no matter how arduously we beg. Sometimes we just don’t get what we want, even when what all we want is precious life.

It’s been years now, but her parents carry wounds whose flow of grief has never been fully stanched.  Their daughter’s death stands in their souls like a black obelisk of cut glass, and it will be that way until the day each of them are gone.

Long ago, life in that high school returned to normal. Talking about what happened so many years ago would be as ho-hum today as a power point on the Peloponnesian wars.  A few staff remember, but most who were there are gone. Someplace in a hallway her picture may be hanging, but none of the students who daily open lockers nearby have any idea of who she is or was.

Even though we know mysterious killers stalk the countryside, believers like me live in the assurance that assertions like verse three— “he heals the brokenhearted”—aren’t just cheerleading. Faith somehow consents to the illogical assertion that somehow, He will be there, even though it seems he’s out of the building, that, as promised, he will heal, he will bind up our wounds. Faith sinks its teeth into that promise and just tries to hold on.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Book Review--Land of the Burnt Thigh

The incredible speed of the transformation of the untouched plains; the invasion of the settlers in droves, lighting on the prairies like grasshoppers; the appearance, morning after morning, of new shacks, as though they had sprung up overnight; the sound of hammers echoing through the clear, light air; plows at last tearing at the unbroken ground—the wonder of it leaves me staggered now, but then I was caught up in the breathless rush, the mad activity to get things done.
A South Dakota rancher from west river told me I really should read The Land of the Burnt Thigh, a kind of homesteading memoir by Edith Eudora Kohl, and I'm glad she did. By definition, I suppose, the book is a novel, because Kohl uses her own life in the telling, and her sister's; but she compliments their story with the lives of other women homesteaders she knew in a telling that documents how really tough it was for men and women, white men and women, to put down roots on land that had really never been broken.

That it had never been broken doesn't mean, of course, that it was uninhabited. There were people throughout that endless grassland, people who hadn't determined the land beneath their feet was theirs to "break," to "conquer." "The buffalo and the Indian had each had his day on this land," Ms. Kohl says, "and each had gone without leaving a trace." The blindness in what she sees is almost as breathtaking as the land she describes so richly. But there's no lament here, no memory, and nothing but awe in the face of human possibilities.  
It was untouched. And as far as the eye could see, it stretched, golden under the rays of the setting sun. Whether the magnitude of the task ahead frightened or exhilarated them, the landseekers were all a little awed at that moment. Even I, seeing the endless sweep of that sea of golden grass, forgot for the moment the dry crackling sound of it under wheel and foot, and the awful monotony of its endlessness which could be so nerve-racking.
Ms. Kohl writes very well. It's hard not to get swept away in the rhapsody she creates. If the story is closely biographical, it's clear that Ms. Kohl and her sister, adventurers from out east, never intended to stay in South Dakota. Once they arrived and found the tar-paper shack some crook told them was a house, they could think of nothing but leaving, maybe even the next day. 

But they fell in love with the openness, the freedom, the opportunity, the creativity required simply to live and even to flourish. Last year at this time, I spent two weeks at the National Homestead Monument, just outside of Beatrice, Nebraska, a place that tells the epic story of ordinary people making a life out of a land that wasn't and still isn't all that hospitable. The poverty was immense, the heat unbearable, the cold deathly, the winds constant. That story Edith Eudora Kohl tells and tells movingly. 

But what she doesn't see, what her racism blinds her to, is the displacement of a people and a culture who thrived on the plains, "a people who had gone without leaving a trace," she says, eyes shut tight. I really like the book, but anyone who's read Black Elk Speaks can't help but be shocked at what Ms. Kohl doesn't see.

Mark Charles is a Navajo activist, writer, and speaker, who says unequivocally that one of the reasons for the divides which exist and even threaten this country and its people is the fact that we have no collective story. We tell and believe different histories. Until we can create a story together, we'll not live in the same world.

Edith Eudora Kohl's The Land of the Burnt Thigh is a lovely book. It really is. I enjoyed reading it. It documents the hard road white people took to make a Great Plains home for themselves. I'm glad that west river rancher told me it was a book I had to read. She was absolutely right.

But The Land of the Burnt Thigh is also an embarrassment. It documents the racism of white man's blindness. In so many ways, it's a memoir that has so much teach.

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.