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, June 30, 2019

Sunday Morning Meds--The Legs of a Man

His pleasure is not in the strength of the horse, 
nor his delight in the legs of a man;. . .” Psalm 147

The athlete in me is well into the fourth quarter, clock ticking down. The game has slowed dramatically. Rarely, do we miss a day at the gym. Once the last tomatoes are out, we get our exercise inside, sadly—or else walk outside somewhere, if the wind isn’t brutal, which, these days, it often is.

Inside, I get on a couple of machines and work up a heavy sweat, the blessed livery of a gym rat at any age. I lift weights, even though “buff” is a pipe dream. Basically, that’s what’s left for an aging four-sport jock, once the high school’s “Athlete of the Year.”  Years ago, I lost the gold cuff-links that came with that great honor. 

Years ago, I met a nice, young kid, a senior in high school, who expressed an interest in majoring in English when he gets to college next year. He was thinking about enrolling at the college where I taught, and my job was to sweet talk. Turned out his passion was basketball—that’s what he told me. English was okay for a major, but history or math would do the job too, he told me. What he really wanted was to coach.

Could have been me a half century ago. 

Great kid, sweet kid—I’d love to have him enroll, whether or not he ever pulls on a jersey or majors in English. His passion is basketball, he says, eyes ablaze.

He wanted to play ball in college, but he knew making the team would no cakewalk.  He told me a hot shot from his small, Indiana high school came here a few years ago and didn’t even make the team—so he said he was prepared. He didn’t.
I told him I’d seen guys emotionally hamstrung when suddenly they didn’t have to turn up for practice every afternoon of their lives, ex-jocks who said they felt as if bright lights had gone out of their lives without the steady rhythms of after-school practices.  I went through that myself—delirium tantrums from lugging no more gym bags. For thousands of kids every year, not making the team means losing some valuable component of identity.

He said he knew all of that.  He said he thought he was prepared.

But wow! —does he want to play. Basketball, he told me a half dozen times, is his passion.

Verse ten of Psalm 147 is a gift for highly-juiced jocks, a reminder to a million wannabee all-stars that there’s more to life than being MVP. Much more. I tried to tell him as much, but some lessons get learned only by experience.

That morning, when I left the gym myself, I spotted a lanky grade-school kid shooting free throws.  When he went after the ball, his long legs arched a bit like a pair of fine parenthesis, the sure sign of speed and wholesale athletic gifts.

But God doesn’t care. The psalmist says He takes no delight in the legs of man, whether or not they’re as sharply defined as a thoroughbred’s.

That’s good to hear, especially when my knees sometimes feel like a nest of hooks. Neither the size of our engines nor the thrust of our calves means anything at all. We’re loved, even when we’ve no more horsepower than a VW bus. 

Met a kid once who told me basketball was his passion. Someday, like all of us, this little verse will bring him comfort, as it does me, an old man who long ago lost his prized cufflinks.

It’s good to be reminded—at 18 or 71—that God doesn’t much care about all of that.  Some people might, but he doesn’t. Bless his holy name. 

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Morning Thanks--for all those years

We're on the road, so this one will have to do, all true, except for this--every 38, this morning, should be 47--and we're not "up north," but down south in Oklahoma.

Just what exactly do I remember? The church, First CRC, Orange City, Iowa, a truly Calvinist sanctuary, movie material really, galleries on both sides and in the back, stark and plain, not at all ornate but huge, a church whose very design spoke of the authority it had once upon a time, and even then, but no more. I remember well who married us, a man I still respect as highly as any human being I know.

Honestly, I remember the way my wife looked when she came down the aisle, a gorgeous woman with uncommonly dark features in a Dutch-American world. I don't remember the dress, but, as I stood in the front of that church with the rest of the wedding party and spotted her taking her father's arm, I do remember thinking I had me an absolute knock out (I know that's not nice language, but back then I was a sinner).

I remember the reception at a local college's dining hall, circles of people sitting on folding chairs, one of those circles composed of former profs at the college we'd both attended. I remember thinking it somehow nice that they'd all come--I hadn't always been their favorite student.

I remember meeting relatives of hers I didn't know and, right then, didn't care to. I remember being really anxious to be finished with all of that pomp and circumstance. I don't remember a thing about the reception--did we have some kind of program? Were there jokes? That's all gone.

I'll never forget my sabotaged orange VW squareback, shaving cream messed all over it, inside and out--plus, the little thing had been jacked up on blocks. I was going nowhere until I got it down. I was very angry--I will never forget that. The very first moment my new wife and I were together alone inside that car, she heard words that could have melted the dash of that VW. You'll have to ask her if she's ever again seen me that pissed. Eventually, we made it out of town, but I wasn't exactly in the mood for a honeymoon.

An hour up the road, all that heat had shifted focus easily.

But, sadly, the two of us were hippy-ish enough to regale traditional spendy honeymoons. No Niagara Falls, no Vegas, no San Diego or Maui for us, our first night together, man and wife, and the splendid consummation of those intimately prepared marriage vows took place in a roadside dive just outside of Worthington, Minnesota, a real dump where I hadn't even made reservations. I suppose I could have done worse, but it would have taken major effort. It's a wonder she stayed with me.

But she has, and today, amazingly, we've been married for 38 years.

38 years.

So this morning's thanks is a piece of (wedding) cake. An old friend of mine once said that he'd determined, rather unscientifically, that two out of ten marriages are really good. Three are tolerable. Those that remain are either painful or simply impossible. After all these years, I'd nominate the one that began in First CRC, Orange City 38 years ago today, our own, among the very blessed.

Honestly, to me, the detailed rituals with which we embellish our wedding days are barely there in my memory of that long-ago event. But then, the two of us had started dating only six months before--you might say we got married in a fever.

And as for that disaster of a honeymoon, I'm typing these words in a beautiful cabin on a bay of a huge lake in northern Minnesota, a cabin where, this morning, the sounds of a pipe organ are coming up softly from an FM radio across the room, the coffee is brewing, and this bride of mine is still luxuriously fast asleep a room away. Outside, it's cloudy and gray, but honestly, inside, there couldn't be more warmth, more sun.

For all of that, this Sunday morning of our 38th [make that 47th] anniversary, I'm more than thankful.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

The Class at Highland (ii)

There's so much not to see on the prairie that I like to take my writing classes out to show them what's really here. I've got my reasons of course, but when I tell them we're going out to look at the land, most of them chuckle as if they doubt there's really something worth looking at. But by early October, they're usually getting tired of an eight o’clock class, so a quick trip seems like a good break. And it is for me too. I don't have to prepare. Besides, how many college classes can jump in a van and drive just fifteen minutes to a ghost town? 

Highland, Iowa, is a place that is no more. What's left is a sign with a map of what once stood on the corner: a blacksmith shop, a general store, Mt. Joy Church of God, Mt. Joy's parsonage, the Rock River Lutheran Church, and its horse barn. Two churches out of five buildings. There must have been some faithful there. 

Today, one huge old cedar and a couple dozen younger pines stand like a windbreak on the west edge of Highland's only remaining feature--a cemetery. It must have been a Norwegian settlement; the names on the stones are Hemmingson, Gunderson, and Johnson. But today nothing else stands on the gently sloping hilltop where Highland once bustled, nothing but a few tipsy gravestones and that heavy, wooden sign with the drawing of the old town. 

Sometimes I think I'd like to live there myself, although I don't think it would be all that cozy with no live neighbors. What I love about the place is its lofty position on the landscape: up on a knoll, at the corner of two dissecting gravel roads that fall away from the prominence of the intersection like unfurling ribbons of dust. 

To the west is the quintessential American vision--endless waves of land rolling into a horizon that often appears almost indistinguishable from the canopy of heaven. 

Now picture this. None of my students is exactly thrilled to be out there. The Iowa kids, after all, have grown up on the prairie; they'd just as soon leave. West-coast kids certainly haven't come to northwest Iowa because they wanted a Great Plains experience. As much as they enjoy getting out of class, they harbor serious concerns about the sanity of the instructor when he parks the van at the cemetery and tells them all, Joseph Smith-like, that this is the place. 

Here's what happens. They get out warily. It doesn't matter if the sky is dark with clouds or clear as a bell. They step out of the van, clutching their notebooks, their Bics in their teeth, and take a few slow steps down the gravel road. "Here we are," I say. "Find a place to sit and fill up some paper." That's all I tell them. It's early in the morning, but all the way out there they've been talking. Once they take a few steps away from the van, however, they're silent. Maybe it's the cemetery. 

They stand there poised between the gravel of a long-gone, slivery fragment of human civilization and the liquid dreaminess of endless prairie landscape west, and, I'm telling you, the place takes their breath away. There are no curios here, no souvenir shops, and they can't get Egg McMuffin for miles. The place is so empty it's eerie, so expansive it diminishes them. 

That's when they really "see" the prairie. I love it. 

Some wander through the postage-stamp cemetery, pointing at old dates. Some sit on the long prairie grasses that grow from the ditches at the side of the road. Some sit together; most go off alone. The assignment?--they have none. Just look. Just see. 

Last year it was overcast. The sun brightens colors, and when the sky is full of burgeoning gray the whole area wears a frugal numbness. But the prairie's grandest feature is not its color. In spring the whole region wears the green haze full of promise, the fledgling corn and beans creating an emerald mist that hugs the land. In summer everything matures, the green deepens. October wears a husky yellow, and winter's white quilt is always dappled with dark and crusty earth since snow rarely covers everything here--the wind won't let it sit peacefully. What I'm saying is that I wasn't disappointed about the clouds; the plains aren't all that colorful anyway.

What they are is big, immensely big. And that's the feature that takes my students' breath away. They've been in Iowa for at least a year, driven east and west and north and south on prairie highways, but always going somewhere, rarely ever looking. So some of them--for the first time, I think--actually stop and see the power of the earth's prairie contours.

What they see astounds them. I've stuck quarters in public binoculars on Table Mountain and looked down over Africa's southern tip at Capetown. I've been on Pike's Peak several times, and the view is gigantic. But there's no mountain here at Highland. There's not even that much of a hill. There's only big sky. But that's enough to fill them.

I don't have to tell them to work. I don't have to reprimand a one of them for chatting or giggling. I don't tell them they're responsible for some dinky 500-word essay to be handed in the moment we get back to the campus. I don't even say I want to read what they write. In fact, I never read a word of that assignment because I want them simply to look, to see, and to feel with their pens.

There's something about the positioning they take out there, the cemetery of a ghost town sitting silently behind them while an endless vista unfolds before them so hugely that it makes each of them little more than a recipient of whatever awe their senses can absorb. I've always had to laugh about Ralph Waldo Emerson's great spiritual experience, a moment in nature when he suddenly became, he says, a "transparent eyeball." But out there on the prairie, I like Emerson's sci-fi image, in part because my students become, just for a moment, little more than eyeballs, their silence hinting at their own eccentric transparency. I'm convinced you don't need a mountain top for a spiritual experience.
[Tomorrow: finis]

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

The Class at Highand (iii)

So picture this. Only one vehicle comes by in the 45-minute respite we put in out there at what was once Highland, Iowa. It starts a slow climb up the hill from the north, a trapezoid of dust spreading widely out into dissolution behind it. It's a truck, a pick-up.


There's something of a parent in every teacher, I suppose, and as I watch the pick-up approach I'm concerned about my students. Not for their safety—no one's in danger of getting picked off by the only moving vehicle in five or six miles. I'm concerned, almost maternally, with how this scene looks, my sixteen kids scattered like milkweed pods through the ditches of this dusty old corner.

I just know it's going to be some stocky farmer coming by, and he's going to tell himself once again how cock-eyed education seems to be nowadays. He'll tell himself how the whole lot of us would learn a ton more if we'd do something worth doing with our hands. I'm thinking that he's going to read "Dordt College" on the side of the van and wonder why he gave a hundred bucks to the last fund drive when all those professors do is stand around with their hands in their pockets, that bearded one up by the cemetery, too. Plain nuts is what it is.

But it's not an old farmer at the wheel of that pick-up. It's a young farmer's wife, her child strapped in a baby seat beside her. I don't know her at all, but once I pick out her features, I think I know her people. You see, the prairie's own indefatigable seasons force people either to put down roots or be blown away. Northwest Iowa, I've long thought, is a sociologist's dream. Ethnic and religious conclaves still cling to the breast of this land as if the prairie were actually offering sustenance. I live in one such place. Change doesn't happen quickly when your very survival costs as much as it does. So out here, tribes of people hold as fastidiously to their folkways as they do to the land itself. Once I see her, I know her people.

The woman in the pick-up is, I think, a "mud-cricker," as some folks are fondly named, a member of the Apostolic Brethren who worship in a huge church some forty miles north of here. Either that or she's Netherlands Reformed, of the most fundamentalist stripe. I can tell by her hair—it’s not cut, not one inch, but spun into a round, fat donut and pinned to the back of her head. She wears no make-up, nothing, and she's not gaunt or thin; only her clothes and her hair make her look like something from the Depression.

I confess. I harbor a prejudice about those people when I see them in town shopping. Their women look exactly alike--same hair bun pinned up behind, same make-up-less clarity in their skin, same denim jumper draped halfway to the ankle and worn over a colorless blouse. When I see those women with a brood of kids, I think of them as people who are afraid of life, fearful of modern ways, scared to death of what they'd the "worldliness" all around them in Sioux County, Iowa.

So the moment I see this woman in the truck, I'm thinking that she's going to be scared to see all the college kids out here where Highland once was, none of them dressed as she is, most of the female students with their hair jammed up into baseball caps. We must be a strange sight out here at the ghost town, something unusual, I'm thinking. If she lives just down road, she's probably worried sick because we're so close to her nest.

But then she waves, not politely, as prairie-dwellers often do, in an effort to be neighborly. She doesn't raise a finger off the steering wheel or pick up her hand perfunctorily. She waves big at us—and she smiles.

She moves slowly through the students dotting the gravel road; and when she sees me, the old guy, she smiles so big that what she offers us was like her own apostolic welcome wagon. She doesn't look at all afraid.

I'm surprised. I'm flabbergasted. I didn't expect something so joyous from such a dour Christian sister.

She broke the stereotype--my stereotype, and forced me to try to guess why.

Here's what I figure: This is her land, too—Highland, Iowa. When she awakens in the morning out on the plains, maybe she sees the same sky as we do outside her kitchen window, the same land gently unfurling west to the river. Maybe this young mother knows the landscape too. She sees it. Maybe she's spent some time as a transparent eyeball, even though she may never have heard of Ralph Waldo Emerson, or, if she did, called him a godless heretic before she ever got to page two.

This young woman smiles at me because maybe she likes the idea of sharing her own vision of the prairie, her prairie—that’s what I'm thinking. She sees what we're doing and she likes what we're liking out here where Highland used to be. She likes what she sees because she likes what we're seeing.

But it's time to get back. I round up the students, get them in the van, and drive back to town—ten minutes at most. Not much is said, and when I leave the gravel and turn back on the blacktop, I show them the farm place adjacent to the corner, where there's an old shed out back with a phony roof line, the square kind that used to stand in every Midwestern town from the Ohio River to Oregon.

"See that building back there with the old square front?" I say. "That's the only building left from Highland. Somebody moved it to this farm place. Somebody once told me it was the blacksmith shop."

Nobody says much.

"Last year the people there lost a son in their own farm grove--three years old, I think." It happened. "The boy stumbled into an old well. Just a kid," I tell them. "The whole area came out to help search for him, and a deputy sheriff found him when he slipped into that well himself."

Nobody says a word. There's a little commemorative sign on the front lawn of that farm place for the child who is still sorely missed, and I point it out, just north from the solitary building left from a village that was once called Highland, Iowa.

And that was writing class one day, early fall, last year. We didn't review grammar or critique essays. We didn't combine sentences or peruse the great writers. Instead we went to a ghost town on the prairie, a place I wanted them to see.

About an hour later, I got two e-mails with about the same message. "Dr. Schaap, Thanks for taking us out there today. I really loved it."

I think it was the space that did it, the quiet, the reverent silence.

In my twenty years of teaching at this college, I've never seen kids more pious than they are today. Many of them wear T-shirts that celebrate their faith as if it were something to sell. Hundreds throng fast-paced Sunday evening worship services they put together themselves. Dozens and dozens enter our annual poetry contest with heartfelt lines, less poetry than testimony, faith-soaked sentiment that celebrates the Lord's own hand in their lives or asks him to come even closer. There's no end to vital and noisy Christianity today on a Christian college campus. Spirituality throbs from their praise choruses.

I wanted my students to see the prairie, to see God's own immensity in the sheer expansive landscape. I wanted them to see and to smile, like the woman with her hair in a bun.

I've got my reasons for class at Highland. Just for a moment, I wanted us out there, to be still and to know that He is God.

Monday, June 24, 2019

The Class at Highland (i)

[A few nights ago, I took some people out to Highland, a ghost town, just a couple miles east of the Big Sioux River. That little trip reminded me of this quarter-century-old essay that once upon a time was my all-time favorite. Originally, it appeared in The Banner and was reprinted in Fifty-Five and Counting, a collection of essays.]

Playwright William Inge, a native of Kansas, refused to call his homeland prairies flat, because flat suggests, well, lifeless wine and archless feet. He much preferred level.

Inge was right, topographically at least. There's nothing at all flat about the plains, but they are, relatively, level. Out here where I live we have no Pikes Peak, no Niagara escarpment, no Grand Canyon. To some, the prairies may appear featureless, but they aren't–not really. Their nearly boundless expanse tends, almost shamelessly, to feature any last thing that sits or stands upon it, like old windmills.

The adjective of choice may well be undulating--a sweet word that begins in a hum, rolls through soft vowels no less gentle than its consonants, and ends in a song. But then, I may be romanticizing because, really, there's nothing cushy about the prairie. While a sunset can spread a masterful palette of colors out over what seems half the earth, not to mention more open sky than you can imagine, the plains are not for aesthetes. Look sometime at its cottonwoods, no matter how huge. Often, they huddle in clumps, like homesteads and towns, clinging to endless, rolling land as if it were trying to shake them. Every big tree here has been battered by the march of windy seasons; they are themselves monuments to survival.

In the small town out here where I live, vast horizons surround us. When I walk home from school, I walk west up a street that rises so slightly toward the middle of town that the pavement seems to disappear into eternal farmland. Sometimes I fantasize about "the west" I can see before me. I dream of just continuing to walk, taking off, leaving behind every last thing, like Huck Finn does at the end of the novel, or Gatsby's Nick Carroway, or any of a hundred characters from American stories. The horizon looks so free, so open, that it offers dreams. "Possibility," William Kittridge says, "is the oldest American story."

If you can see for miles in almost every direction, you can't help but dream. Sheer space out here is so mighty it's almost biblical. The vast prairie space feeds the psyche of our two great nations—Canada and the United States. How else do you explain suburbanites' madness for four-wheel-drive vehicles?

But not everyone sees the prairie. Most simply fly over and, if they take the time, look down to see a huge garden, drawn and quartered in a million right angles. Others work hard at napping to get the plains out of the way while they cruise through on an interstate and wait for the first breathtaking view of the Rockies. That's forgivable, I guess. One quickly loses patience with an endless succession of promises—after all, you climb one slowly aspiring hill, only to come on another exactly like it on the other side, and so on and so on and so on and so on. Seen one summer cornfield, you've seen them all.

What people don't see is the fact that the region feeds much of the world. What's more, few travelers ever notice the undeniable force of the place, the sheer power of its vast openness. Last January we were El-Ninoed into believing that winter was no big deal; but a year before, a succession of appendage-numbing blizzards blew out of the Great White North on winds that could peel back your skin. In their wake, drifts the height and breadth of small barns piled around farms, alabaster fortress walls. I was holed up in Sioux Falls for two days, only an hour from home. When finally I drove back, stalled cars were everywhere, driven off the side of the road during the storm. You could tell when they were abandoned by the depth of the snow beneath their wheels. Snow doesn't fall gently on the plains; it gets laid into industrial-strength carpet by massive winds.

In every season of the year, there's too much of something—wind, rain, snow, heat, frigid cold--and every last weather feature comes in spades: bone-chilling winters and torturous summers. Always, there's wind. Even though people think there’s not much to see out here, what’s here is an eternal presence that those of us who live here know very well. Few places in the world are as rough-hewn as the prairies; maybe that’s why so few of us choose to live here. This nothingness is really something. 

Tomorrow: Highland, Iowa--what's left at least.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Sunday Morning Meds--Furrows

Plowmen have plowed my back 
and made their furrows long.” Psalm 129:3

            There were no clouds, the sun was going down in a limpid, gold-washed sky. Just as the lower edge of the red disk rested on the high fields against the horizon, a great black figure suddenly appeared on the face of the sun. We sprang to our feet, straining our eyes toward it. In a moment we realized what it was. On some upland farm, a plough had been left standing in the field. The sun was sinking just behind it. Magnified across the distance by the horizontal light, it stood out against the sun, was exactly contained within the circle of the disk; the handles, the tongue, the share--black against the molten red. There it was, heroic in size, a picture writing on the sun.   Willa Cather, My Antonia
If you drive south from Red Cloud, Nebraska, the hometown of Willa Cather, and look up along the hill to your left as you enter Kansas, you’ll spot an ancient walk-behind plow thoughtfully set along a fence row. I’ve never been on that road at dawn; but at a certain time of year, you likely see the vision Jim Burton notes in My Antonia, which is likely why that old plow stands there. After all, very little in the neighborhood of slowly dying Red Cloud, Nebraska, is unrelated, today, to its famous native novelist, Willa Cather.

On any of the blue highways that line the rural Upper Midwest today, you’re likely to find a half-dozen old plow lawn ornaments on any hour’s drive.  And rightly so.  Nothing within human memory changed the landscape of great America prairies more fully than the moment that rich layer of centuries-old top soil was opened to furrows, to wheat, barley, corn, soybeans and what not else. 
I wouldn’t be sitting here had someone, 150 years ago or so, not drawn that first blade through virgin prairie.  All around me, the landscape looks nothing at all like it did when tall-grass prairie swayed in the wind.  When Jim, Cather’s narrator, sees the plough, “heroic in size, a picture writing on the sun,” he knows no single weapon was more instrumental in bringing him to the place he loved, as did Cather, than that valiant agricultural tool.

Some might call it rape, what happened when that blade was thrust into virgin prairie.  Some do, in fact. Today, the ecological world of tall-grass prairie is almost as extinct as the do-do bird, altered forever into a immense garden of commodities.
There may be no more profoundly painful metaphor in all of the psalms than this one, in Psalm 129.  The plowman enemy, scourge in hand, still dripping, has left furrows across his back, the poet says.  Thousands of years later, we still grimace, the image of that weapon slashing through flesh and muscle, leaving furrows welling with blood.
“Persecution is the heirloom of the church,” Spurgeon says, in reference to 129.  He’s not wrong, but it seems to me that he’s only half right.  Persecution is an heirloom, but not the only display in the museum.  Like the plow, the historic suffering of the Christian people can be manipulated and misused all too easily.  Much of Fox’s Book of Martyrs is the story of Christians torturing other Christians, after all. 

But that’s not the lesson of the psalm. The lesson is one of perseverance, of steadfastness.  The lesson is all about moving on, holding on, knowing our only comfort, even when our backs are flush with blood. 

The lesson is simple:  here as it is so often in scripture, the lesson of the whole passage is “fear not.”

Friday, June 21, 2019

The Spectacle of Sky

Here's the world as the camera saw it just a few minutes ago outside, from our deck. The kind of proclamation doesn't repeat every day. This summer especially, there have been--as there is right now--an unending series of deeply overcast skies, even a few rumbles through all all that mess up above. Rain taps against the windows again this morning, and everything out there has no turned to a tiring gray; but for just a few moments this morning (running to get the camera is risky--it may be over in seconds) we had pure draw-dropping, breath-grabbing spectacle.

And while it doesn't take much artistry to gather the dawn through a decent lens (almost anyone can snap a picture like this, after all), When you shuffle through the files you can't help thinking that not a single one captures much more than a fragment of the beauty of the spectacle. 

I am reminded weekly, sometimes daily, of God's own universalist character, so evident even here from our deck, a psalm almost everyone knows: "The heavens declare the glory of God." To call the sky a preacher seems understatement--even sacrilege, but that's David's pitch, after all. There isn't a square foot of earth on the planet where the sermon of the sky is not heard. 

If you live some place where the sky is this broad, you probably have your favorite; but here's just  just a couple of my own, even though it's worth repeating that what's in the camera never comes close to what was preached out there, even if there was little more than an audience of one.

Just a few meditations, reminders of why tipis always faced east. 

Have a good day.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Cory Booker and Buxton, Iowa

Could be an early 20th century shot from a lot of places on the map. There's a hill up the street, but the place looks like any of a thousand small towns from almost any region of the country. That this town is in Iowa makes little difference; the place looks positively generic.

But if I could bring you up close to those folks on the wooden sidewalks, you'd soon note something peculiar--not impossible, but unique. The residents of this burg are African-American. The town is in Iowa, and its residents are black. Mostly. 

The place is named Buxton, and, should you look for it, you won't find it because it is no more. The place went boom/bust, its life created, fueled, and eventually destroyed by coal, by mining. For a time in the early years of the 20th century, as many as 10,000 people lived in Buxton; most of the men were miners, who, hard as it is to believe, earned wages that allowed them a higher standard of living than African-Americans almost anywhere else in the country, surely in the state. 

In an age-old pattern being relived every day by thousands, even millions of immigrant workers from south of our national borders, once upon a time African-American workers recruited from Southern states were promised a good living wage and equal pay for equal work in a town in Iowa. The engine of all that prosperity--and the prosperity was considerable--was the Chicago and Northwestern railroad, who needed coal. Significant deposits were available in Monroe County, and mining operations were opened. Buxton was born. It's immigrant residents were strike-breakers who took jobs white folks didn't want, at least not at the wages the company was willing to pay. When white men walked off the job, the company simply hired cheaper labor. Does all of this sound familiar?

Some white folks considered Buxton a black town--many of its professionals were also black: school teachers, medical professionals, and store owners. But historians have made it clear that its population was multi-racial, multi-ethnic. Employment opportunities were by no means limited to ex-slaves or their kids from south of Mason/Dixon. Census records indicate lots of white folks lived in Buxton too, many recently arrived in this country from Europe, men perhaps less given to racial prejudices. 

At the time in Iowa, Buxton could well have been considered a city. But once World War I ended and the need for coal dropped off, workers began to lose those well-paying jobs and, one after another, take a road like that one pictured above out of town. When finally the mines shut down, the city did too. Today, what was once the largest coal-mining city west of the Mississippi, is no more. 

Last week in Cedar Rapids, Democratic Presidential candidate, Cory Booker, told an audience I was sitting in that his grandmother was born in Iowa. It seemed preposterous to me, unless, of course, his grandmother was white, which she wasn't. She lived, quite comfortably, in Buxton, Iowa. 

Cory Booker is not making things up for the caucuses. Once upon a time a booming little city in southern Iowa attracted hundred, even thousands, of black folk from down south. For a couple of decades, people from every tribe and nation lived in what might have been for many of them unimagined prosperity in a mining town named Buxton, Iowa.

Amazing story. Amazing.

Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.), a man with Iowa roots

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

"Bear in Mind"

For me, it's always something or other connected with school. In one of the iterations, I'm in graduate school, and a victim of my own misbehavior. I haven't been going to some class because the class drives me nuts (I'm not sure why or which class). But I haven't been attending for quite some time, the semester is nearly over, and I'm not sure how I'm ever getting out of the pickle. I fret.

That's the dream.

There's another. This time, I'm a teacher, and the class I'm teaching is way, way, way out of control. I'm standing in front, trying to get students' attention, but nothing stops the constant jabbering. I'm totally powerless. It's as if I'm not there at all, and I'm freaking out. I have no control over the mad rumpus all around.

Both dreams end, blessedly, when some trigger of consciousness reminds me that in real life I'm an old retired guy, that I've not been in graduate school for forty years and not in front of a classroom for quite some time, all of which means that frozen fear is nothing more than some phantom fear from who-knows-when or where. 

"Thank goodness," I tell myself, turn over, and go back to sleep.

Anyway, that's why this poem from the Writer's Almanac just tickles me. No bears in my woods, but I'm there.

Bear In Mind

A bear is chasing me through a meadow
and I’m running as fast as I can but
he’s gaining on me—it seems
he’s always gaining on me.
I’m running and running but also
thinking I should just
turn around and say,
“Stop it! Stop chasing me. We both
know you aren’t going to catch me.
All you can ever do is chase me. So,
think about it—why bother?”
The bear does stop,
and he sits on his haunches and thinks,
or seems to think. And then
the bear says to me,
“I have to chase you, you know
that. Or you should. And, sure,
we both know I’ll never catch you.
So, why not give us both a break and
just stop thinking about me?”
But, with that said, he gets back on four feet,
sticks his long pink tongue out, licks down
both sides of his snout. Then he sighs, looks
behind himself, then at me and says, “Okay,
ready when you are.”

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

"Smells like money"

It's possible that I've lived the good life in Iowa only because I've been blessed with a third-rate smeller. If my nose was adept at its calling, life here may well have been more difficult. There is, after all, a certain constancy to the heavy smell created by Iowa's foremost industry. We are "number one at number two," as the Register quipped last week. While some days are definitely more sour than others, we live with and in an often verifiable stink foreigners recognize quickly. The air we breathe is heavy-laden with, well, you know.

Forty years ago, for a story about a northwest Iowa hog farm family, I wanted to know something about the industry itself, so I told the farmer to tell me about the enterprise. Before I left for the interview, my mother-in-law, a farm wife for all her married years, warned me about the stink, fearful my only coat (we were visiting) would be forever tainted if I spent any time at all in a hog confinement. I thought she was a bit alarmist.

She wasn't. I should have listened. The coat had to be washed, purged. Pungent is understatement. 

In 1966, when I emigrated to northwest Iowa from Packerland (which is not without its own excremental heft), one of the first quips I heard was a response to other aliens who had remarked about the foul odor. "Sheesh, what a smell!" someone would say. "Smells like money," some Hawkeye would quip. Case closed. 

The tally is staggering. Researchers theorize that, given the amount of fecal matter our abundant livestock produce, Iowa poop mass is equal to the output of 169 million people, of a nation the size of  Bangladesh. The numbers don't lie. 

There's more. If we divide our land mass by 169,000,000 reasonably stool-regular humanoids, our population density (number of people per square mile) would be unimaginable. For instance, in the section of land I can see right here out of our back window, we would need almost 3000 people to produce the poop our livestock does, considerably more than the couple dozen or so human beings who are actually out there.

What that means for our corner of the world is that we, all by ourselves, produce unimaginable quantities of shit, something comparable to the output of the world's major cities. In our far out corner of the state, we produce the same amount of fecal matter as New York City, London, and a goodly chunk of Bangkok. I'm not you.
The good news is that generally, at least, Iowa could, in fact, use more, not less poop. What the soil needs in nutrients is supplied by ordinary manure, but in lots of places the soil's--which is to say, the crop's--major needs get supplied by over-the-counter fertilizers. As much as we produce, we could actually use more, or so say the Iowa State people.

Except here. Northwest Iowa--Sioux County especially--is efficiently keeping its land fertilized by our own brood of chickens, our herds of cattle, and our whatever of hogs. From what little I know or can read, it seems the one potential horror off all this shit occurs from run-off, when loads of that manure somehow finds its way into our waterways. And that happens especially when liquid manure is incorrectly applied during winter months. 

Anyway, here's the incredible tallies. Sixty-six million chickens? Who knew? 

 Not long ago, I took some foreigners on a little tour of the region, told them that in northwest Iowa we raised millions of hogs but that we'd be lucky to see one pig all afternoon. We didn't. I did note some sheep and occasionally a crowd of cattle. But good luck on the hogs. They're all inside. 

Still, look at that tally. They're here and they're producing all right. Are they ever.

Monday, June 17, 2019

What we remember

Her husband attends her faithfully, but of that attention, she may not be at all aware. On Sundays he walks her down every hallway and into every corner of the Home. Each new walk brings her into a world in which she appears to have no real interest. 

The look on her face doesn't change. What there is of her thin white hair is cut short, wetted a bit, and parted rigorously. When you meet her and her husband, her eyes remain fixed.  

Thirty years ago, she sat around a table in a writing class for adults. The goal was to get each of them to write something memoir-ish, some little story from each of their pasts to pack into an anthology of memories. Maybe ten people reaching senior-hood, each of them capable of the kind of reflections they were themselves very interested in recording, each of them confident that their earlier years contained stories others would love. 

Today, her husband pushes her wheelchair. He's smiling when you meet them. Some days when we visit, the simple grace of that smile seems almost a sunrise. Her face is emotionless, but his lights up when he greets you. I don't believe he ever spent a moment of married life not in love with her. Even today, he shines. 

Thirty years ago, a story she remembered is one I've never forgotten, a story she didn't write out for the class. She told me that she had written it down somewhere else, but that her mother's story was not for publication. Her mother's story is the one I've not forgotten. 

When her mother had a baby, her father, a farmer, hired a local girl to come in and take care of his wife's traditional chores--cooking and cleaning, washing and ironing, "keeping house," as most people say. Having a hired girl for a time was not cause to make tongues wag. It was mid-Depression, and the few extra quarters a girl could make "working out" in some big farm family went into her own family's otherwise empty piggy bank.

But her father had sex with the hired girl, she said, and, soon enough her mother found out as much--how, I don't know. That story she told the class morning, but it wasn't the story she wanted to write in the anthology. 

And there was more. All through her mother's life, forever after, to her daughters, her mother had continually bad-mouthed her father, belittled him so much so that she claimed she grew up in a family where love between her parents was virtually non-existent. That story was private.

She claimed that, growing up, she and her sisters simply took up their mother's attitude, found it difficult to love their father, despite his having accepted the derision he so frequently endured. She told us that late in life, when her mother became an invalid in a wheelchair, he attended her faithfully, even constructed an elaborate hanging chair so the two of them could sit together at the family table. 

But suddenly her father died before her mother, and when he did she was almost totally broken. Only then, she said, only when her father was gone, did her mother tell her daughters the whole story, what had happened so many years before. It all came out in a storm of grief and guilt, a fusillade of tears from a soul so long fortressed that what emptied at that moment tore into the lives of her daughters, a pure and horrifying confession that begged their forgiveness for what she'd done to them, poisoned them so wretchedly against him for so many, many years. She told her daughters that her inability to forgive him, her husband and their father, had made her a far greater sinner.

An amazing story. 

"But what were we to do with that?" she asked us. "What were we to do?" 

That's the story I remember whenever I see her husband pushing her in the wheelchair down the long hallways of the Home. 

They must have cried together, don't you think?--mother and daughters. The girls must have cried at their mother's tears and at their own.

Today, her husband attends her faithfully, but I'm not at all sure she knows he's there. 

Still, I can't help think that if all of that poison was not part of her childhood, her life would have been dramatically different. Somehow. "Unto the third and fourth generation," the Bible says. Chilling.

I know very little about her own life. What I know is that once upon a time, she enrolled in a little writing class for adults, penned a story for an anthology I ran off on a Xerox machine, something I lost years ago, contributed a story I've long ago forgotten. It's the story she told that stays with me. 

As it had to have stayed with her. 

Today, maybe, in her senility, it's gone. 

Maybe. But it's not disappeared altogether.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Sunday Morning Meds--Envy

“Refrain from anger and turn from wrath; 
do not fret—it leads only to evil.” Psalm 37:8

“Of the seven deadly sins,” so writes Joe Epstein, “only envy is no fun at all.” Sloth may not be a party animal, but certain it is that some of us, at least, on some mornings, would choose the pillow to morning coffee.

But envy, Epstein says in his book titled, simply enough, Envy, is neither pleasurable nor fashionable—and probably never has been. Envy is the principle sin of someone who is, as he says, small-hearted, or petty. If you’re guilty of serial envy, you’re a whiner, and nobody likes a whiner.

Epstein claims that there is a word for envy in every human language, which suggests that the sin—and it is a sin—is perhaps most universal of any of the Seven Deadlies. We all know people without much pride; lots of people aren’t tempted by food or drink (I’m not one of them); some lust mightily, others not at all. Epstein may be right—very, very few could say innocently than they never envied anyone anything.

Why all this chatter about envy? The origins of the word fret are in eating, not so much as in “eating something,” as in “being eaten.” My mother’s fretting, on which I’ve already said too much, was more worry than envy; but there is something similar in both conditions because what used to bother me about her worrying is that she can be eaten up by it and thereby fail to rejoice in the joys of this life. Similarly, envy—like jealousy—feeds upon itself, as Othello knew only too well—and as did King David.

This single verse may suggest why David wasn’t allowed to build the temple, the job he wanted more than any other. The prophet Nathan told him, after all, that constructing the house of the Lord was a blessing reserved for his son, Solomon, but not for him because David’s hands were bloody. The cause/effect sequence of this line seems clear: in a verse that has much to do with anger and wrath, David is warning us, in song, that envy has much to do with sin. The implication is that those who do envy compound their sin by getting burned about it first--and then acting. I don’t think I do, but David must have—and likely did.

While envy may be nearly universal, acting in wrath as a result of envy is not. David may be warning us about some weakness he darned well needed warning about; but his weaknesses may not be ours. At least they’re not mine. I certainly envy writers who sell a ton of books and photographers who take month-long expeditions to some African veld. But I don’t think I’ve ever become angry at them. David’s envy might have.

My sins—like his—are, I admit, more than I can count; but my righteousness and his sinfulness isn’t at issue here. What may be, however, is King David himself.

I wonder whether this particular line of scripture doesn’t describe David more fully than it does the rest of us. I think it does. Yet, I think the psalm is actually more inspired because it offers us the poet himself. He was human, like us.

Even though I may not have fallen victim to King David’s weaknesses, scripture, in telling us about him, gives us a portrait of ourselves as human beings. And that’s always a gift, and a blessing because it’s the truth, a significant component in the story which comprises the whole gospel truth.

He’s not just a figure on a flannelgraph or a cartoon king. He’s authentically human, a real live person.

Because I know David better by way of this line of poetry, I know myself better—and understand grace more fully than I could have without him.

That’s the good news.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Just Authority*

Image result for comedy and tragedy

Way back in graduate school, I remember reading somewhere that only certain cultures can produce Aristotelian-level tragedy the way the Greeks and the Elizabethans could.  The requirement, if I remember right, was a certain kind of belief in the individual--that he or she could create significant change, could demonstrate leadership, but also could fail miserably, a kind of high view of the human character.  The kind of tragedy Aristotle touted had this purgative, cathartic effect--it changed us, from the inside out.  It was imminently moral.

I thought of that idea when I read David Brooks whose column "The Follower Problem," a day or two ago, wasn't so much about tragedy as it was about what he calls "just authority." Some societies recognize it, he says, even glory it in.  Some don't.  Because they can't.  

"We live in a culture that finds it easier to assign moral status to the victims of power than to those who wield power," he says, sounding like the conservative he is.  He may well be right.  He also believes that we so taken with the notion of equality that "it's hard in this frame of mind to celebrate greatness, to hold up others who are immeasurably superior to ourselves." 

But then he says the real moral problem is our inability to think about power itself--about "just authority," which, he claims, is constructed in very fragile fashion on a series of paradoxes:  "that leaders have to wield power while knowing they are corrupted by it," for instance, or that "great leaders are superior to their followers while being like them."  Leaders have to be superhuman characters who never forget that they aren't.  How's that?  

The older I get, the more I believe in reign of paradox. "Truth is always elliptical," I was told years ago by an old preacher I really respected.  It's never circular.  It always has two centers.  It forever requires balance.

Finally, Brooks cajoles us, as he often does, for being poor followers, given to believe that our leaders are only in it for themselves, that they're all schmucks, that none of them is as pure as I am pure.  "Vast majorities," he says, "don't trust their institutions."

Count me in that bunch.

Once upon a time, I received a D in geometry from an eccentric little mathematician who was, quite likely, too brilliant to be a successful high school teacher.  He loved math more than he loved us--and for that odd penchant we found him mysterious and fascinating.  In a way, I think I envied his indomitable passion for the digits scribbled all over his blackboard.
But I didn't do well in his class, and my mother would have nothing of it so she set me in the car with her one night, drove me herself to that little math teacher's apartment to ensure her wishes would be carried out.  I don't know if she had, ahead of time, set up an appointment; in my mind and memory, I was the supplicant, forced to a blind and painful confession.  

What I had to do, she insisted, was beg the man for help.  I had to tell him that I wanted, above anything, to improve, and then promise, on my honor, to do better.  I had to get rid of that report card D.

It was an extremely painful moment, as I remember.  There I stood in his apartment, towering over this strange, little man, while outside my mother's engine was running.  I took a beating that night even though no one laid a hand on me.

My mother trusted that little man's "just authority."  She simply assumed the problem belonged to her son--and she wasn't wrong.  The institution of school--she was a teacher herself--loomed more significant in her mind than her son's guilt or humiliation--or her injured pride at her son's malfeasance of office. In the classroom, he was the leader and I was the one obliged to follow and to learn, no matter what I thought of the man or his mathematical genius.

Nothing close to Aristotelian tragedy happened that night, but I think David Brooks would like that story because that moment dramatically explained to me at least what it meant to be a citizen of the society my mother inhabited, a society in which trust was lavished freely--maybe too freely--to the institutions of our lives.

There's another side, of course--there always is, with paradox. I'm a child of 60s, when authority of all kinds went up like kindling in the fires that incinerated much of the institutional trust my mother honored. That loss Brooks laments.

He may well be right here--he often is.  We'd all do well to both understand and honor "just authority."  I would.  Besides, I'd make my mother proud.
*First appeared here June 12, 2012.