Jan 08

High as the Listening Skies, Loud as the Rolling Sea

People often ask me how I hack it in Wyoming. Don’t I miss, well, culture? There are all sorts of things wrong with that question, not the least of which is that every place has a culture. But I know what they mean: don’t I miss living in a place where there are concerts and lectures and people who get the New Yorker? You can find all of those things in Wyoming, though often they’re a little far flung.

In truth, for the most part, I don’t miss the culture I left to come here. Oh, now and then I get a hankering for Indian food, but I manage.

I’d forgotten until today what the other thing I miss is.

My friend called on her way to the Twin Cities wondering if I could look up the time of a particular Martin Luther King Day celebration that she wanted to attend. Unfortunately, it was held last Tuesday, on his actual birthday. “But wait!” I said. “There is a whole page of MLK Day events.”

So tomorrow afternoon, my friend will be going back to her undergraduate college to hear Ekwueme Michael Thelwell, an early SNCC organizer whom I’ve read about in books. And I. . . will be at work. Although MLK Day is a national holiday, it is not one recognized by Park County, Wyoming, and thus, as a county employee, I do not have it off.

It is popular nowadays to celebrate MLK Day as a “day on” instead of a day off: a day where you go out and work in your community to make the world a better place. I’m glad that people are feeling moved by the day to do that kind of work. The priest at my church once said that going to church is your reward for being a Christian all week long, and I tend to feel the same way about MLK Day. I try on a daily basis to make decisions, and to encourage others to make decisions, that make the world better for the poor and the oppressed. One day a year I want to celebrate that work. I want to listen to speeches and spirituals. I want to lift my voice and sing until earth and heaven ring with the harmonies of liberty.

I took that for granted before I moved here. Oh, I remember signing the petition to get MLK Day recognized by the University of Iowa, and I remember, in later years, getting told we couldn’t leaflet for political causes outside the big MLK Day celebration. I got plenty cynical about the University’s supposed commitment to human rights, which seemed to consist of freeloading on the reputation of a great man every year around his birthday, and which, like most remembrances of King, focused solely on his early civil rights work and not at all on his campaigns against poverty and war. I didn’t realize until last year, my first MLK Day here, how much that ceremony meant to me, despite my doubts as to the appropriateness and sincerity of its sentiments.

Martin Luther King Jr. is one of the first people I remember learning about. I surely knew about kings and queens and presidents and actors at least dimly, when I was seven. But one night when we still lived on Rider Street in Iowa City my mother saw that there was going to be a special program on television about Martin Luther King, and she told me that, if I wanted to, I could stay up past my bedtime to watch it. In all the years that she had a say over my bedtime, this is the only occasion on which I can recall my mother allowing me to stay up late. She explained that Dr. King had been an important man, and that her best friend in high school had taken a bus all the way from Chicago to Washington D.C. to be at a march where Dr. King had given his famous speech. Thirty years later, my friend–the same one who’ll be at Augsburg College tomorrow–and I went to an anniversary march in Washington, and I spent the night at the house of the mother of my mother’s best friend, and she packed a lunch for me of peanut butter sandwiches on raisin bread–just what she’d packed for her daughter for the bus trip, since the bus would be unable to stop at segregated restaurants along the way.

I think I shall have to make my own ceremony here, and that ceremony will begin with turning back to the language. Dr. King’s famous quotations are generally taken out of context, and while the words still ring out, they lose specificity, and, in doing so, become platitudes. People always remember the beginning of the Declaration of Indpendence and forget all about the list of greivances that make up the bulk of the document. Similarly, people tend to remember only the end of the “I Have a Dream” speech and forget the rest of the speech, where King discusess the promissary note “to which every American was to fall heir,” the promise of that first part of the Declaration of Independence, and the “shameful condition” that, for so many, that promise has not been kept.

I offer tonight two selections from “A Time to Break Silence,” the speech in which King first came out agains the Vietnam War. Space, time, and copyright prevent me from offering anything but excerpts, but I hope that I leave as much context as possible attached.

Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government’s policy, especially in a time of war.

Increasingly, by choice or by accident, this is the role our nation has taken–the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investment.

And then, because it is celebration I wish to provoke, not merely action, I leave you with perhaps my favorite paragraph of all, a passage from King’s first book, Stride Toward Freedom, about the Montgomery bus boycott:

A second basic fact that characterizes nonviolence is that it does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his friendship and understanding. The nonviolent resister must often express his protest through noncooperation or boycotts, but he realizes these are not ends in themselves; they are merely means to awake a sense of moral shame in the opponent. The end is redemption and reconciliation. The aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community, while the aftermath of violence is tragic bitterness.

Oct 07

All Hallows Eve

I’ve never much cared for candy, at least not of the sort you get on Halloween (maple sugar candy? — sure, truffles? — lovely, Butterfingers? — entirely missable). The holiday itself, though, I adored.

My town’s big Halloween event — a chili supper and dessert auction hosted by the FFA — is going on right now. I’m hoping I get some trick-or-treaters or I’ll feel really irked about having shelled out $10 for candy (a bargain, I realize — we routinely spent several times that when I lived in the ‘burbs).

What I loved about Halloween was partly the costumes, but what I really loved was running around at night. (I loved running around at night so much that I figured out a way to get paid for it when I was in college, a feat I haven’t managed since).

For four glorious years, from third through sixth grades, I went out and about at night with one or another of my friends, and we roamed through the neighborhood, sizing up the houses, sizing up eachother, sizing up the other groups and gangs of kids out doing the same thing. Halloween was wonderful not because of the candy, and not even because of the costumes, though I loved the costumes. It was wonderful because kids were in charge. We were all over, and we were in control of the night.

Or so it seemed.

Really, of course, we only got that impression because we were fortunate enough to live in a place where our parents believed we could be let out at night, because they knew one another, and new we’d be taken into someone’s kitchen if things went wrong, and that that someone would likely do more or less what they would do.

I hate it when my most treasured memories turn out to be the products of socio-economic privilege, but I suppose that’s part of the price one pays for that ease. Just for tonight, though, I’m going to try to remember the leaves crunching underfoot and whirling down from the trees, and the darkness that seemed darker that night, despite our flashlights and throwaway luminescent wands, and the way we all looked like ourselves but not quite like ourselves, the way our costumes seemed funny inside but outside began to fit us like a second skin, and the way we ran through the streets and gardens and shortcuts that only kids knew. I’m going to remember running and spinning and whooping and standoffs that put your average western to shame. I’m going to remember night, and I’m going to remember freedom.

Aug 07

On the Importance of Landscape, and the Landscape of the Imagination

The other day my friend Sara and I were discussing camp. She went to a number of camps; I went to one camp for many, many years. Neither of us had a particularly good time.

During the first five years of my life, we went to Enosburg Falls, Vermont every summer to stay with my father’s parents. The summer of 1981, though, my grandfather died, and a month later, my father died, and after that we never went back. The summer of 1982, when I was six, I went to the hippie summer school (a bit different then from what it is now), which, despite the fairly free flowing nature of the Montessori school I’d gone to before that, was too free for me. It seemed like going to school with an amoeba, never knowing which way it was going to move next, or when it would gather you in and when it would spit you out. The next summer, I started going to camp in Maine, and for seven weeks every summer (with one exception, when I was seventeen), starting after first grade and ending right before college, I went to that camp, first as a camper and then, the last two years, as a counselor. And then, just as suddenly, I stopped going.

Today I was reading through Booklist at the library and came across a familiar name in the Cookery section: Phoebe Damrosch was a girl a year or two younger than me who went to the same camp.� We were in a play together, and when I was a junior counselor, she was in my cabin.

It was a bit jarring, because although I think about camp quite often, I almost never see or talk to or even much think of any of the people I knew there.

Wohelo was very big into having its campers make lifelong friends. I learned a lot of things there–swimming, sailing, windsurfing–they even tried to teach me tennis, though with miserable results–but I never made any real friends. I spent a lot of time there as the odd one out, and though that bothered me, it must never have bothered me very much, because I kept going back. When I remember things about camp, they rarely involve other people. I remember the day I passed my windsurfing solo. I remember sailing idly by myself, often drifting off whatever course I was supposed to be on: I loved to sail, but I was never very good at it, and I finally gave it up after capsizing an MIT Tech Dinghy for the umpteenth time. I remember swimming miles and miles–we swam, at the older girls’ part of the camp, between two docks far enough apart that it took three round trips to make a quarter of a mile. I remember walking back from the showers once or twice a week, feeling cleaner than I ever have before or since.� And I remember watching the sun set over the lake every night.� In my first cabin, when I was seven, I had to hold my head up to see out the window.� My last few summers there I climbed out onto the rocks and lay back, nothing but rock below me and water around me, and the reds and golds and pinks and purples of the sunset of the sunset spilling into the water.� At that point, it didn’t seem to matter very much to me that the girls in my cabin had asked me why I brushed my hair funny, or told me I had to say swear words or they’d push me out the fire escape door, or whispered among one another just loud enough for me to hear, or made fun of my underwear. All those things bothered me while they were happening, but when I was looking out at the lake, they didn’t seem to matter very much.
My mother went to this same camp for one summer, when she was fifteen, and for all the years that I went to camp, she came at the end of the summer and stayed for a week of family camp, where old campers and their families came back to see how very little had changed. When my mother was there, they still bathed in the lake, but other than the addition of showers, she could find nothing different.

A few years ago I had a dream about a garden that my family and friends had made for me. The garden was a circle cut into four quarters. Sara made one quarter into a prairie with tall grasses and wildflowers. Another friend made one quarter into a southern Utah red rock desert, with juniper and piñon pine. My grandmother made a third quarter into an English garden, with a crumbling stone wall with roses running over it. And the last quarter my mother made into a little piece of Maine, with granite boulders and white pine and hemlock and birch. It is, I think, the loveliest dream I have ever had, but it seems notable to me that none of the people who made the garden were in the dream. I knew they had made it and put it there for me, but the dream was just about the garden itself, and that was enough.

It took me a long time to realize that landscape was the most important thing in the world to me. The landscapes of the garden are only partly real — I have been to Maine and to southern Utah, and they look, in part, much as my dream garden did. The English garden comes from Beatrix Potter and The Secret Garden; I have never been to England myself. And though I grew up in Iowa, I grew up by corn and soybean fields, and in cities and towns. There are prairie restoration projects in Iowa, but there is no more original prairie: my image of that part of the garden comes entirely from Laura Ingalls Wilder.

It sounds ungrateful to say that the land is more important than the people, but for me it seems to be true. The people are important, of course. But when Carole King sings “I always wanted a real home with flowers on the windowsill/But if you want to live in New York City, honey you know I will,” I can’t really get behind her. I love and want people in my life, but I need land. I need the dear muddy earth, or the dear dry dust. I need space, and I need to be able to see the sun set. I learned that, or much of it, I am sure, at camp, but it took me a long time to understand it.

Mar 06

Faith of Our Fathers

My mother has always said that had my father chosen to join another church, he would have leaned toward the fundamentalist and that were she to chose another church, she would probably go to the Catholics. I may have pointed out that though different in style, there is, from a secular viewpoint, a great deal of similarity in substance between the two, but I’m not sure I ever did. Instead I said that were I to stop being an Episcopalian, I would probably become a Quaker.

As it happens, only my father ever left the Episcopal Church, but he never joined another one. He opposed the ordination of women, and so we stopped going to church in 1979. By 1981, he was dead. (That sounds, of course, as though it was leaving the church that killed him, which isn’t true, though it makes an intriguing theory.) Some years after that my mother asked if I would like to go to church again. “Your friend Heather goes there,” she said, which seemed like a good enough reason to me. We started attending Trinity Episcopal Church, which, at the time, had a female associate rector.

It took years to escape from my father. A few years after he died my mother asked at dinner one night if anyone would object if sometimes we had regular green beans instead of French cut. The live-in sitter and I both said we would not mind. My father would only eat French cut green beans, which were one of about three vegetables he tolerated (and all had to be just so–carrots had to be cut into sticks and then placed in a small bowl of ice water in the refridgerator for half an hour or so; green beans had to be French cut. I can no longer remember what the third vegetable was.)

I often wonder what our lives–my life in particular–would have been like had my father lived. The other day over at Hermits Rock, one writer related a story he had been told about the conversion of a former women’s studies professor:

a girl in her women’s study class convinced her that there is such a thing as evil, thus such a thing as absolutes, thus that the bible was right and that her women’s study class was teaching error because women’s studies doesn’t jive with the bible.

As I commented, the logic of the story was chilling in a variety of ways, but alarming most particularly to me because it could so easily have been a story someone told me about my father. A former student and later friend of his told me once of one of his early encounters with my father. “He asked me if there was anything that was absolutely true, and, being a good little relativist, I said no. He said, ‘Do you exist?’ I knew he had me, but I was young, and stubborn, and so I said I wasn’t sure. Your father then turned in his chair and went back to the papers he was reading on his desk. ‘Aren’t you even going to talk to me?’ I said, shocked. ‘I don’t talk to non-beings,’ your father said. ‘When you have decided you are sure of your existence, come back and we can talk.'”

I always thought the story charming and funny until a friend pointed out to me that it could just as easily be quite obnoxious. And intellectually speaking, it is obnoxious: by refusing to engage with anyone until they agreed in the existence of absolute truth, my father set the stage for the eventual triumph of his point of view, which followed inexorably from that first premise, just as the student’s argument did. Absolutes exist, therefore women’s studies is wrong. The Bible is right, therefore ordaining women is wrong.

I sometimes wonder why I am a Christian. I wonder not because I suffer from any crisis of faith but because there are so many ways in which it seems like a poor fit for me. I am no theologian, and I couldn’t really explain the historic episcopate to you if I tried. I know there are important theological distinctions between different branches of Christianity, but I could not explain them to you, and I doubt that most could. I go to the Episcopal church, I am sure, because it is comforting to me: I like the cadences of the service and the music. I am familiar with them, and familiarity breeds comfort and makes a foreign place seem a little like home.

It helps, I am sure, that the Episcopal Church has been, during my life time at least, progressive in many of its views and practices. We ordain women and now gays. Episcopal Relief and Development earns generally good scores as a charity. We look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come, but we also work in this world. Back in Iowa City, Trinity has been active in providing overflow housing for Shelter House in the winter since the program began a few years ago, and we have helped out with the Free Lunch Program for decades. The Episcopal Chaplaincy at the University of Iowa runs the Agape Cafe, which serves breakfast to those who are homeless and in need once a week. While its true that there is still plenty of class privilege at work in the church (and in some places a degree of sexism: when we attended a church in Indianapolis when I was in junior high, they did not allow women to be ushers. When I asked why not, I was told that because they had three ushers at each service, it simply wouldn’t look right to have one couple and a single man. I still can’t fathom the logic that led to such a position–could they not use three women, if a mixed group was so offensive to them?–but that seemed not to be an option).

Had I grown up in that particular church, or in any Christian community in which women were undervalued and gays not tolerated–had I grown up, say, in the church as my father would have wished it–I can imagine quite easily that I would be agnostic today. Had my father lived, I know I would have argued with him, but I don’t know whether I would have found myself able to stay with a religion that, however far its practices had drifted from his beliefs, was something he still believed in.

I would like to think that I still would have found my way, but I do no know.