Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Let me count the ways

It'll happen, and it'll happen tomorrow: the man-who-would-be-President will step into the office with approval ratings twenty points lower than any other President-elect. Only forty percent of the American public approve of him, but you can bet that forty percent is convinced.

Ever since November, we've been scratching our collective noggin to determine how this amazing thing happened. Donald Trump broke every political rule-of-thumb, promised rainbows and unicorns, bullied people out of his way, and behaved in ways we wouldn't tolerate in our own kids. 

But tomorrow he's in. 

Mr. Trump, how did we get thee anyway? Let me count the ways.

1) Because we were choosing between the lesser of two evils.

2) Because Hillary thought she couldn't lose against a someone so unfit for office.

3) Because someone really does have to drain the swamp.

4) Because white folks thought she cared more about who's in whose toilets than who's out of work. 

5) Because "those damned emails" went drip, drip, drip.

6) Because Putin kept leaking Podesta emails.

7) Because FBI Director Comey thought it right to reopen the case against Hillary.

8) Because someone needs to make America great again.

9) Because America is a business, and Trump knows how to run a business.

10) Because he made money and still does.

11) Because he has such good kids

12) Because Fox News loves him.

13) Because mainstream media hates him.

14) Because people loved him on The Apprentice

15) Because he's for a holster on every belt. 

16) Because he doesn't take any shit.

17) Because his midnight tweeting is such a gas. 

18) Because if nothing else, he sure will entertain us.

19) What did I miss????

And how was it that 80% of that 40%, the American Evangelicals, continue to love him?

1) Because he promised to end abortion.

2) Because he's a baby Christian.

3) Because God wanted him.

End of story. 

Beginning of story.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Betsy DeVos and the Kingdom

I'm not particularly sure I like my people being called "a conservative Protestant sect," but lately at least the shoe seems to fit, so I'll have to wear it, despite the pinching. But then, most of those I call "my people," would say, "Okay, Schaap, what would you expect from Mother Jones, that kind of leftie journal?"

I don't know Kristina Rizga, but she's been following the Betsy DeVos story for some time already; and it's clear she's done her homework on what on the traditional CRC, "a little-known, conservative Dutch Calvinist denomination," she calls us in the latest issue. But her Mother Jones article on DeVos, Donald Trump's choice for Secretary of Education, gets an awful lot about us blushingly right.

Betsy DeVos is just about my age and therefore probably carries the same stamp from our mutual CRC rearing. She's went to Holland Christian and Calvin College, and, even though she and her husband aren't CRC today (they went over to a mega), like so many others she can't really wash away that stamp (Trump would say "brand").

There's are differences between us--five billion dollars worth, and that's spare change. The DeVos kingdom probably exceeds that of the the man who chose her. We don't know that to be true because he won't release his tax returns--you know that story.

I used the word kingdom for a reason. Kristin Rizga does too in Mother Jones. "Betsy DeVos Wants to Use America's Schools to Build 'God's Kingdom.'" That's the title of the article, but Rizga puts "God's Kingdom" in quotes. Why?--because Rizga thinks what Betsy DeVos means by "God's Kingdom" is something akin to the U.S. of A. being "a Christian nation." Soon enough, Rizga's warning goes, we'll all become characters in The Handmaid's Tale.  Rizga may know different--she's not dumb; but the spin she puts on her fascinating DeVos (and CRC) profile, and especially on the word kingdom, is to make her billionaire subject into just another right-wing troglodyte with diamonds on the soles of her wooden shoes.

I may be wrong here, but I think Betsy DeVos means something different by "the Kingdom," and I'd like to believe it has nothing to do with patriotic excesses or America being a "Christian nation." I'd like to believe that because that's what we both were taught. I'm no theologian, but I have spent my life in schools that used that phrase as their bottom line, and I never, ever associated "God's Kingdom" with America the Beautiful. To me that phrase always meant the day the lion lies down with the lamb, the day the only thunder birds flying overhead have feathers. As some of us may be too anxious to say, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’”

So I'd like to believe that Kristina Rizga is wrong about what Betsy DeVos means when she uses the word "Kingdom." I can't help but think DeVos is thinking about a sovereign God of all of life and not Old Glory.

But whether that's true, I don't know. I'm watching her congressional hearing with interest, not leftie enough to burn her at the stake, and still tribal enough to want her to do well, even succeed. I'd like to think of her as one of us.

But Kristina Rizga may be right. After all, Betsy's brother Eric Prince, of Blackwater fame, long ago left and took up the bloody Christian jihad.

For the record, here's what the CRC web page says about the word "Kingdom": 
. . . Kingdom takes in all of human culture throughout the world. Unlike nations on earth, God’s kingdom does not have defined borders. It is not restricted to a certain location, like a cathedral; nor can it be reduced to “religious” activity. By God’s kingdom we mean God’s sovereign rule, God’s sphere of influence. We believe that God’s Spirit is busy extending God’s rule all over creation.
If you ask me, "the Kingdom" means something much closer to what Navajos might call "the beauty way," than it does anything Franklin Graham or James Dobson believe about our politics. 

I think I know what Betsy DeVos was taught. What I don't know is what she believes. 

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Morning Thanks--English Class

Even in my dotage, I'd like to believe I was never as schoolmarmish as the old woman at the heart of things here; but I know what's inside this Robin Chapman poem straight from this morning's Writers Almanac. I know it inside and out because I lived it on both sides of the that podium up front.

Twelfth grade reading lists stretched out
as endless as the sentences we diagrammed,
as orderly as the outlines for our senior essays-
"Humanism in England in the Fourteenth Century"
I think I wrote about, cobbling facts together
about Erasmus and the Church, forgetting
those were plague years,

Cobbled together term papers?--I wrote 'em, then read 'em by the thousands. I remember one, way back when, on the Scarlet Letter, a novel I hadn't read and didn't have the heart or time to wade through. I went to an out-of-town library to get something fresh, did a Cliff's Notes thing on Hester Prynne, zipped through what I could cull from an index page or two, and hammered out a paper. Probably got a B. Should have been much worse.

And yet, in my forty years of wandering through the classroom wilderness, I don't know that I taught any other novel as often as Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter and loved it every last time I read through it, loved it more than any of the kids in front of me did, I'm sure. Truth is, I could read it again today and love it some more--so dark with secret sin, so treacherously Calvinistic.

And there's more to this Robin Chapman poem:

and Henry David
Thoreau’s pithy quotes, marching to a different
drummer, hooked me for a solitary ramble
of Walden, not knowing he’d dined every night
with Emerson and Alcott;

I wonder how many others were hooked on some bizarre 19th century abolitionist transcendentalist madly chasing Oversouls. I was. My first year of teaching, I was naive enough to believe I could make Henry Waldo Emerson a holograph in rural Wisconsin. And I didn't do badly. I remember lit up eyes. In graduate school I learned Thoreau regularly marched off to town to sponge meals. So much for purity.

But no matter, even today. The world would be a better place if this week especially we all spent quality time alone at Walden Pond.

and our teacher
always turned to us with hope, searching
for some sign that we’d found a spark,
an engaged liveliness, in all those endless
marching words--her eyes lit up, her thin hair
frizzed, her faith in us fixed,

No kidding. I had no hair to frizz, but when I think of how greatly I believed in them, those kids in desks, I can't stop grinning. I see some of them once in a while, kids I once had in class, and feel strange, as if once upon a time we were lovers. They don't know how much hope I invested in a single spark of engaged liveliness.  
Teaching was a good life.

And then, this marvel--all that faith, Robin Chapman says,

stirring fugitive regret in our adolescent gaze,
preoccupied with who to ask to the Swankette Ball
and who to sit with at the Friday football game
(whom, she’d certainly have made us say).

That's how the poem ends, in Ms. Frizzy's dizzy-ness.

I don't care. I don't care how little that schoolmarm's soulful regard for them actually meant to kids obsessed with what they were going to say at their lockers, or do that afternoon in the gym, or behave that night on a couch. I don't care how incidental Walden was to their storming teenage passions. I really don't.

And neither would Ms. Frizzy if this morning she'd read little Robin Chapman's "English Class." All she needs to do is to see it on the page, this poem by her ex-student, and she'll swear her transcendental passion wasn't just blowing in the wind.

I'd like to tell Ms. Frizz this: that if she can't read the poem her ex-student wrote about her, I did, and that I loved it for her, for that old schoomarm, loved it in the way I'm guessing both of us once upon a time loved them.

Life is good.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Postcards from the MLK National Site

I know how it feels in my hand. I know how it opens and shuts, I know how to set it. I know how compactly it folds up. I'm not sure why, but years and years ago, when I was a boy, a clock just like this ended up somehow in my possession, even though I didn't buy it or use it myself. I just remember it very, very well. When I spotted it, I recognized myself in it, long ago.

This one belonged to Dr. Martin Luther King, and it was his possession that day in Memphis when he walked out on the balcony of the motel where he was staying and was shot dead by a white man named James Earl Ray, who, with that bullet, made some white folks very happy and millions of black folks weep.

For someone my age, stunning familiarity stares at you when you're at the Martin Luther King National Site. This little travel alarm could have been mine, but this one was there in his motel room that night, standing on a table beside a bed he never slept in.

There was no choir loft in the church where I grew up, and no baptistry, but otherwise Ebenezer Baptist, the church he attended as a boy and where he preached as a clergyman isn't unlike the church I remember, front-and-center an oak communion table with "This Do. . ." carved beckoningly into the top, three throne-like chairs standing guard behind a single pulpit in the middle of the stage up front. It's not unfamiliar, even when you sit in a pew and imagine his family filing in.

I didn't grow up in the middle of a major American city like Dr. King, so the streets where he lived and the house he called home don't look much like mine and ours. But that doesn't mean there isn't a species of familiarity here either, a middle-class African-American section of Atlanta. 

It's still a wonder to stand out front on the street here, where a dozen or more old houses are being restored, and to think that once upon a time that little King boy was here, a kid who, with his neighborhood buddies, used to play in the fire station across the street. 

Dr. King wasn't of my generation--he'd be 88 years old today. And there's much in the Martin Luther King National Site that's not familiar, images and remembrances I'd rather not own or even remember, photographs of that time that make me and anyone else, black or white, shudder--chilling photographs frighteningly familiar but somehow unimaginable.

Where am I in this picture? For someone whose memory holds at least some of the story told in Dr. King's boyhood neighborhood, that question is not easy to answer. Who are my people? What did those I loved at the time see when they looked at this image a half century ago? Where did they stand? Why? It's easy to know how MLK got into this picture, but how did it happen exactly that we didn't?

Perhaps the most searing images are not photographs but words to move hearts and minds and souls, words no less difficult today than they were in 1968. 

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Sunday Morning Meds--The Rivers Form

But at your rebuke the waters fled, 
at the sound of your thunder they took to flight; 
they flowed over the mountains, 
they went down into the valleys, 
to the place you assigned for them.”  Psalm 104:7

To record all of this, there would have to be a helicopter running for centuries on solar power, I suppose. It could be positioned almost anywhere; but I would choose some place on the eastern edge of the Rockies, where I’d position that whirlybird a mile high or more and start the camera rolling in time-lapse mode.

One can only imagine. An endless sea shakes out waves rhythmically, when suddenly, unperceptively at first, a mountain begins to emerge, jagged, triangular. Years pass, and that single peak is surrounded by a host of younger siblings, all of them rising until that sea forms waterways that rush with tidal-like power.

We’re a long way from the Plains, from the flat land, but if that camera pans east, it catches the way the water bellies down over a region where there are no silhouettes—or none so startling as the peaks beneath us, now hugely revealed.
We don’t have that huge of a camera, so the helicopter sallies off in that direction, where the water levels out and recedes from land, then falls into crevices, cracks, and fissures, and ten thousand lakes in a place someone will call, an age or three from now, Minnesota. A vast network—a spider web—of rivers push the land into valleys and settle in, as permanently as anything can in nature.  

It’s time-lapse photography, but the phenomenon is stupefying. All that water settles into routine, that mass of chaos into order.

That’s what the psalmist sees. There, to the east, the Mississippi widens, while beneath us the Missouri, the Mud, spatters on south. Everywhere from this height, myriad meandering tributaries have formed, lifelines on your hands. And it all works. Land has been called into being from a vast sea, and that immense space is veined with life, with rivers.

I know scientists who would laugh at the film we just shot because the whole process didn’t happen in the manner we’ve just now caught on tape. There were vast seas all right—and there were frozen, vast seas. There was an ice age or two, and immense bulldozing glaciers. And there was mystery.

I don’t think the poet has it right, scientifically. The psalmist knew very little geology, had no clue about glaciers or aquifers. But when he sat in his helicopter and recorded what he saw, the images arranged themselves in such a way as to form the face of the Creator right before his eyes. That much he caught dead-on.

When the first Dutch folks wandered up to northwest Iowa, they determined what would be their land by setting in the requisite stakes. But once it was all official, they brought their families, one of the first things they did was cut back the tall prairie grass to the rivers because the only way they'd know where they were in that sea of grass was by way the rivers.

Because the heavens declare the glory of God, all nations hear the sermons. Psalm 104 is how the psalmist thinks about the preaching God does in land and sea all around.

And I, for one, am blessed by what he sees of God’s own world around him, and thankful for his gift, in part because I know what’s in his heart and soul—because I've seen rivers too, and I've listened too to what he hears and sees of the Creator.

Friday, January 13, 2017

The Blizzard of 1888

A January thaw is what all of us look forward to right now, a breath of warmth that reopens our hope that someday soon April will return. Two cold-of-winter days, maybe three, of forty degrees. No wind.

Heaven comes to Siouxland.

That’s the relief people felt early on January 12, 1888, when most of those who’d put down homesteads had just arrived.

Here’s how David Laskin describes that morning:

Everyone who wrote about January 12 noticed something different about the quality of that morning—the strange color and texture of the sky, the preternatural balminess, the haze, the fog, the softness of the south wind, the thrilling smell of thaw, the “great waves” of snow on the prairie that gleamed in the winter sun.

And then this: “The one aspect they all agreed on was the sudden, welcome rise of temperature.” A January thaw, a morning to remember, but a balmy prelude to horror.

Laskin’s book, The Children’s Blizzard, tells the story. When that strange warmth suddenly lifted, hundreds of people, most of them children, perished in a blizzard that made prairie skies dark as night and created massive drifts in winds that drove crystallized snow into your face so ferociously it filled up what flesh it didn’t tear away.

Seven miles east of Freeman, South Dakota, five boys died, lost in the unremitting blast of snow. Three of them were Kaufmanns--Johann, Heinrich, and Elias. What they and two other boys intended was simply to get to safety at the Graber house, a quarter mile east of the school, Ratzlaff #66. The wall they hit was a zero-visibility blizzard.

The victims’ families were all “Schweizers,” German-speaking Mennonites booted from Russia, who’d come to the Dakota Territory with fifty other families seeking the religious freedom they’d looked to find for 200 years--and the opportunity to live a good and safe life. None of them had it easy; sometimes their children would alternate attending school because families didn’t have shoes enough to go around.

But there was promise here in Dakota.

Then came “the Children’s Blizzard.”

Those five Freeman boys just disappeared; and even though search parties went out the next morning in the swirling remnants, no one found them until three days later, on the Sabbath, when a man spotted an arm jutting from a snowbank, an arm belonging to the eldest Kaufmann, Johann, who was likely holding up a coat to shield the younger boys from the killer.

They ended up two-and-one-half miles southeast of Ratzlaff #66, buried by the blizzard, just forty feet from the farm house of the man who found them.

The story goes that man went to church with the news that Sunday. I don’t know if he interrupted worship. I don’t know what they might have been singing, but I can guess how hard they prayed.

No one knows precisely how many people perished in that massive blizzard. Most estimate the grim death toll at somewhere near 250.

It all began with a sweet January thaw that quick as a fox descended into madness. At Valentine, Nebraska, the temperature was 30 degrees at 6 a.m., six degrees at two in the afternoon. and 14 below at nine that night.

Somewhere out in south central Nebraska you’ll find a highway marker that tells that neighborhood’s chapter of the story, but there’s nothing up at all east of Freeman, where five boys died. There’s no sign, no story, only endless rows of corn and soybeans. Even the farms are gone.

All the way from Russia, those Schweizers carried with them an old Mennonite hymn, something with a first line that went like this: “Wherlos und verlassen sehnt sich oft mein Herz nach stiller Ruh”—“When I’m lonely and defenseless,/my heart longs for rest and peace.”

Maybe that Sunday, that old favorite was the one they went back to, all of them. If not that Sunday, surely the next.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Small Blessings

From her chair in the living room, she knew something was wrong because the sound she was hearing just wasn't right, as if the door was open or something, which it could be, she thought, because maybe her husband hadn't thought of closing it. She swung her legs from the hassock, reached for her cane, pushed herself up from the chair, and took those first slow steps toward the bathroom, where things just didn't sound right. 

And she was right--he hadn't shut the door. But that wasn't all of it either. When she got into the bedroom, she realized that he'd not only forgotten to shut the outside door, he'd also forgotten the curtain behind him, and when, finally, she was able to get past the edge of the bed, she saw him standing there under the shower all right, but she also saw that the water was gushing, really, into her bathroom, all over the floor.

It was all she could do to get there. Yelling was something she really couldn't do anymore, something she left behind like so many other things, so she hurried into the bathroom herself rather than try to yell and walk at the same time. And she shouldn't have hurried because when her shaky feet hit the slippery tile of the bathroom, she went down--not badly either. She knew immediately it hadn't been a bad fall, not like some falls people suffer in the home, but it was bad enough. She could feel the pain in her hip, and she knew that's where the problem would be, and that the pain and the break or whatever would mean hospitalization, and there was no way her husband, standing there in the shower, the curtain wide open, could be alone.

So there she lay on the floor, unable to get up, her husband naked as a baby in the shower, probably wondering just exactly what he was doing there, she thought.

She tried to yell above the stream of water, but she couldn't. So she simply had to wait, there, on the floor of the bathroom, sprawled out like a child, watching her husband trying to figure out what he was doing in the shower.

When he turned, finally, and saw her there, he was dumbfounded. Some time ago, already, he'd lost the ability to think the problem through--just exactly what he had to do with his wife at his feet, sprawled on a bathroom floor that was rapid flooding. He couldn't do a thing. It was as if he was paralyzed. He had no idea what to do, standing there on a wet floor with his own wife lying at his feet.

It took some time before people found them there, the two of them, just one old couple in the home.


We have the single bed that their children had moved in to that bedroom for their father. It was clear, after the incident, that she was unable to care for her husband anymore, that he had to go to a place where he could receive the level of care and supervision he needed, care she simply couldn't give the man she lived with for 68 years.

It wasn't easy for my wife to find an adult, single bed. This one was a Godsent, the only one in town. We bought the bedsted too, and the frame, and the sheets and mattress pad. We bought everything because the children of the old man with Alzheimer's had moved him down the road to more comprehensive care. They didn't need the bed anymore, that bed they'd owned for only three weeks.

And what we told ourselves last night when the whole deal was through was what an incredible blessing it was to be able to secure not only a adult, full-length, single bed for my father-in-law, but all the necessary accessories.

For about a week now, the old man in the shower hasn't complained, hasn't pleaded with his children to take him home from his new digs. He didn't want to be alone in this new home, the one without his wife. He didn't know exactly where he was, but he knew he wasn't home.

But that fear or whatever is gone now, one of his sons told us. It's done. When he visits his father, his father doesn't beg to come home. He just smiles.

Small blessings. Like that bed the old man slept in for three weeks. Small blessings.

From the collection: November 16, 2007