The View From the Crypt

Where the rain never falls and the sun never shines, it’s dark as a dungeon way down in the mines – Miner’s song

I’m trying to find my sense of humor. I seem to lose it this time of year but I know it’s around here someplace, probably in the passage in my brain known as Places You don’t Want to Revisit. The last time I went there I was looking for a bit of macabre humor to support my latest thesis on What’s Wrong with the World in Five Hundred Words or Less.

Well, if that’s where it is, no wonder I lost it! That place was like a dungeon, like dark shafts in a coal mine. It was the pits. An utter nightmare that sent me running so fast I must’ve left my sense of humor biting the black coal dust behind me. But I have to go back in; I must find it. I know God does not expect me to live the rest of my life without my sense of humor. He gave it to me to help me through the travails of this world; without it I will flounder in a mass of black despair.

As I go in, I find the passage to the Places You don’t Want to Revisit and turn onto the Black Humor Trail. Since I am armed with resolve to find my sense of humor, I march forward firmly into the dark, into the place from which things have on occasion sneaked into my conscious awareness, providing me with chilling humor of the worst kind. Alongside the trail I spy an instance of macabre humor and feel compelled to stop. Since everything plays its part in the order of the Universe, I assume I am meant to pass this story along.

It is a thing that leaked out many years ago from the crypt of a widow I will call Mrs. Wallace, who lived near us in our old neighborhood. This was in the days of Beige and Butte Knits and Simplicity and the widow Wallace walked with an erect carriage in her proud clothes. I knew from another neighbor that Mrs. Wallace had gone to school with another old lady who lived across the street from her, a little old lady in a print housedress. But Mrs. Wallace had nothing to do with her former classmate because, she said, the woman had “no class”, referring to the print housedress and the gray, frizz-permed hair, I presume. Mrs. Wallace also had a sister who lived in town whom she never saw for the same reason. Her sister had “no class”, she said.

When Mrs. Wallace died I missed her funeral but another neighbor came over for coffee after I got off work to tell me about her view of the widow in her open casket. “I couldn’t believe she had that dress in her closet!” my neighbor said. She described the dress Mrs. Wallace was buried in as a print dress with huge red roses all over it. I looked at my neighbor for a moment, open mouthed. “She didn’t have it in her closet” I exclaimed. “Her sister bought her a new dress to bury her in.” Now, this might not strike some people as funny at all, but I found it so hilarious I couldn’t stop laughing.

That’s what I mean by my macabre sense of humor, you see.  Imagining this poor little old lady with “no class”, tears of grief running down her withered cheeks as she bought the pretty new dress to bury her sister in, and Mrs. Wallace in the open casket for all the world to see, trying to roll over so nobody would recognize her. Here she had all those classy clothes in her wardrobe and her sister had probably given them to Goodwill! I’m sure when Mrs. Wallace reached the pearly gates she apologized and explained to St. Peter about the dress, but I wonder what she thought of the robe. Or, for that matter, if St. Peter let her in.

The thing is–even though I’ve recovered my lost sense of humor, I find I am unable to wash away the black coal dust. My mind has become tainted with it.  It clings like bats to the walls of a dungeon.

God, the American Dream and the Select Few

It’s not enough that the rich have co-opted the American Dream. Now they are trying to co-opt God. Forget all that stuff about the poor inheriting the earth, it being easier for a rich man to go through the eye of a needle than to get into Heaven, or that Christ tossed the usurers out of the temple–the rich are not worried.

Because they don’t believe it. They believe God is on their side. After all, He made them rich, didn’t he? And He lets the poor live in poverty, doesn’t he? Which obviously means He finds the poor undeserving. Old Rockefeller said “God gave me my money!” and it is more obvious than ever before that this is what the rich believe.

Until recently I had not realized how pervasive the idea of the deserving rich is in our society. I mean, I knew money bestowed power, but I had no idea it also created and supported such a belief system. For the very rich, according to the Congressional Budget Office, the after-tax income of the top one percent rose 228 percent from 1979 through 2005, while the earnings of men in their thirties, based on a study released by the Pew Charitable Trusts, have remained flat over the past four decades. Improvement in family incomes during that time has been mostly due to the increase of wives and mothers in the work force.

I guess you could blame my naivete on my birth as a member of the undeserving poor. I was born into coal, on the excavating side. My father was a coal miner for twenty-five years before he pursued the American Dream by getting out of coal to become a barber, upward mobility to much cleaner and less dangerous work. Meanwhile, families who had never seen a coal mine lived wealthy lives provided by royalties from coal while romping beneath the golden Sun on the French Riviera.

This belief system of the rich that God gave them their money works as well as it does because it is supported by other belief systems that are working in tandem. One, built around the theme of entitlement, inclines the believer to acept the rich’s approbation of themselves as deserving of their immense wealth because they think that with time and chance, they too can belong to the select few. Although the second group hasn’t yet arrived at the very top, they, like the rich, feel entitled to the best of everything. Based on what? Their looks, talent, intelligence, education? Culture? Their sparkling personality?

When my father died, my family was thrown into poverty. Despite how hard my older siblings worked to keep us together–warm, fed and clothed, I remember one day at school having nothing to eat for lunch and I hid from the other children until lunchtime was over so they wouldn’t know. I was ashamed of being hungry.

Except for a small group who provide much ammunition to the welfare critics, most of the poor do not feel entitled to anything, and even blame themselves for not doing better than they are. After all, this is America, land of opportunity and the American Dream. Or was. But even though the Dream has died for many, God cannot be co-opted. He lives within the heart of His people. His love shines on us all.