Part of the ritual of leaving on a trip, at least if I am flying, is driving to Cody in the dark. Most flights out of COD leave early in the morning, which gives you a passing shot at making a connection in Denver or Salt Lake City, the only places you can fly to directly. So I get up in the dark, carry the last of my garbage out back to the dumpster, throw my bags in the car, and head out.
I could see just the faintest shimmer of the Milky Way outside my yard this morning, and the first half of my trip, along the river valley, up and over the rims, down to the halfway stage stop, was lit only by the stars and the occasional faraway light on a ranch. Around that time the very edge of the sky behind me started to turn gray. It’s funny to me that dawn starts out gray but sunsets don’t end that way. I saw perhaps five cars headed the other way on my drive, which suggests in part our rural existence but also suggests I was driving at the wrong time to catch the morning shift at the oil field, so it’s not all bucolic bliss.
The Cody airport is tiny — it’s about the size of the Cedar Rapids airport, many years ago, before it was remodeled. A Delta affiliate and a United affiliate fly from here, and, as mentioned, you can go to DEN or SLC. I always try to go to Denver, since that airport has free wifi and since my godparents live there, so if I get stuck, I have place to say.
Right now I’m sitting in the lobby, waiting for them to open up the security line. This is the only security checkpoint I’ve been through that has a bootjack, and it cracks me up every time. Fox News (of course) is playing, going on about how they can’t believe that NOW would endorse Jerry Brown after his wife called Meg Whitman A Name and the possibility of The Government banning cell phones in cars. It’s strangely fascinating. I’m particularly fascinated by the backdrops behind the news anchors, which are like static laser light shows. And to think I was impressed as a kid by the CBS newsroom in Chicago. There were typewriters then. Typewriters!
I’m off on this trip to visit friends and family all over the Midwest (Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, possibly Wisconsin, Indiana, and Michigan). Google tells me I’ll be driving 27 hours over the course of two weeks. Many people seem horrified by this, but it sounds good to me. I think I was a truck driver in a different life.
In a matter of hours, I’ll be landing at O’Hare, smelling fumes of many, many cars for the first time in many months, walking through an airport with more people that I usually see in a week. A man in hunting gear is loading four coolers onto the baggage check counter, presumably with the spoils of his trip. It’s a different world out here, to be sure.
The picture you’re looking at is my copy of Bill Ayers’s memoir Fugitive Days, inscribed to me in early November of 2001. The inscription reads
To Laura —
With hope — wounded but alive — for a world at peace and in balance.
Ayers’s memoir is only in part an account of his fugitive days. The rest of it is a political autobiography — the story of a person who was born into enormous wealth and privilege after World War II and who went from rather pedestrian boyhood concerns to being concerned with, and appalled by, his country’s involvement in a place called Vietnam, and its callous disregard for those who lived in poverty, those who were born with the wrong color of skin, those who lived and died for his country’s mistakes.
Some readers of this blog will know of Bill Ayers from back when this memoir was published; others from even before that, but most Americans know who he is because his name came up so frequently in the 2008 election. He’s the terrorist Sarah Palin accused Barack Obama of palling around with. He was a founding member of the Weathermen, later the Weather Underground (whoo hoo feminism!), which is what part of Students for a Democratic Society became after its disastrous 1969 convention in Chicago.* The Weather people were responsible for a string of bombings of various targets, including the United States Capitol, although the only lives they ever destroyed were there own, in a botched bomb-making attempt in a New York City townhouse. They were, as terrorist organizations go, actually extremely careful not to take lives with their bombs, although it’s not entirely clear that that was the original intent. The bomb that killed three of their members in that townhouse was packed with nails — it was their imitation of the same kind of anti-personnel bomb that the United States was using in Vietnam.
Ayers’s book was published on September 11, 2001. I interviewed him, by phone, for what had been planned as a simple review of his memoir for a local alternative paper, a day or two later. The first thing I remember doing, after learning about the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, is making a peace sign in the window of my apartment out of masking tape. It stayed there for the next two years. The next things I remember are lying on my futon sofa, listening to NPR and realizing that any chance for peace was far flimsier than my improvised sign. I remember sitting on that same sofa and talking on the phone to Bill Ayers about what a terrible, terrible time it was.
Last Wednesday, April 28, Bill Ayers spoke on the campus of the University of Wyoming, on what would have been my father’s eighty-seventh birthday. Few people are in a position to realize both the irony of that coincidence and its deep appropriateness.
Ayers had been invited to speak earlier in the month by the Social Justice Research Center at the University of Wyoming. Protests poured in — to the University, to sundry officials, even to the governor, and as a result, the Center’s director withdrew the invitation. Shortly thereafter, a University of Wyoming student invited Ayers back to speak on campus. The University of Wyoming said they would not allow him to speak. The student booked an alternative venue, just in case, and Ayers and the student sued the University. The Casper Star Tribune has a collection of articles on the controversy; WyoFile has a more succinct account with links to the final decision by Chief Wyoming US District Judge William F. Downes, a decision which will cheer you greatly and give you hope for the future if, like me, you are a fan of the First Amendment. “When the Weather Underground was bombing the Capitol of the United States in 1971,” Judge Downes writes,
I served in the uniform of my country. Like many of my fellow veterans of that era, even to this day, when I hear the name of that organization, I can scarcely swallow the bile of my contempt for it. The fact remains Mr. Ayers is a citizen of the United States who wishes to speak. He need not offer any more justification than that. The controversy surrounding the past life of Professor Ayers and the widely held public perception of his past conduct cannot serve as a justification to defrock him of the guarantees of the First Amendment.The Bill of Rights is a document for all seasons. We donâ€™t just display it when the weather is fair and put it away when the storm is tempest. To be a free people, we must have the courage to exercise our constitutional rights. To be a prudent people, we have to protect the rights of others, recognizing that that is the best guarantor of our own rights.
In April 1969, when the Weathermen were not yet a fully formed idea, some students at Grinnell College, a small liberal arts college in rural Iowa, decided to turn the American flag upside down as a protest against the Vietnam War. The move, in the context of that time, was not even that radical. The Iowa Young Democrats — Democrats! — had passed a resolution at their convention earlier that year stating that all schools should be encouraged to fly the flag upside down, at half staff — the signal for a ship in distress — for the duration of the war as a symbol of a country in distress. The Grinnell chief of police, however, did see it as a radical act, and he, along with the Poweshiek County sheriff and two sheriff’s deputies came to campus to confiscate the flag. Students organized quickly, with one group going to talk to the President of the college, one group going to write, print, and distribute flyers explaining their action in the community, and one group going to law enforcement headquarters to recapture the flag.
The flag did arrive back on campus, only to be turned upside down and then righted again. My father spent the next two days, from dawn to dusk, standing vigil next to that flag to ensure that no one could turn it upside down again. Some of his students came to stand with him, and eventually convinced him to let them take turns so he could get food, or at least use the bathroom.
My father is generally described as “making the John Birch Society look a little pink around the edges,” and while he did not live long enough for me to solicit his opinions on the Weather Underground, I can guess with great assurance that his opinion would be, if possible, lower than that of Judge Downes. But I like to think that he would have agreed with Downes in another way: I like to think that he would have agreed that Ayers should be allowed to speak, and I like to think that he would, as an academic, shared my disgust with the University of Wyoming for refusing to allow the speech.
I am an odd case for a radical. I was raised on dead white men, and I chose to study them when I got to college. I read the same texts my father did — sometimes from the same books he read — but I came to utterly different conclusions about the world. When I was little, I liked to imagine that heaven was a sort of endless tea/cocktail party, set in brownstone buildings on cobblestone streets, where like minded — and un-like-minded — people would gather to converse and argue. I always liked to imagine my father hanging out with Plato and Aristotle and Samuel Johnson and Thoreau. This is a vision of heaven that I think could only be dreamt up by a faculty brat, and I’m sure it’s far from many people’s ideal. I like to think that someday, though, I may sit around a coffee table with my father and Judge Downes and Bill Ayers and hash over all these things.
In the meantime, I, too, wish for a world at peace and in balance.
*The Weathermen are often blamed for the downfall of SDS, but they don’t deserve all of the credit. I’ve read far more history of student activism in the 1960s than any sane person should, and it’s evident from many accounts that the tactics of the Progressive Labor Party were at least as destructive as the Weathermen were at that convention. As it so happens, I watched the same group use exactly the same tactics to attempt to derail the national convention of United Students Against Sweatshops in the same city thirty-two years later.
Planning a near-daily routine is all very well, but when the second week of that routine involves daily rehearsals that add a good four to five hours to your day, it does not work that well. I’m happy to say that the play went off splendidly, but, much as I love it, I am glad to have my evenings back. . . except that I don’t quite have my evenings back.
Last night I attended, in its entirety, a nearly four-hour special school board meeting to which the public was invited and encouraged to give feedback. The public showed up, in force. Our official town population is 342; our town plus the outlying areas that make up our school district brings us up to perhaps 600, and there were, I would guess, fifty or so people at last night’s meeting.
Our school, which is a K-12 school that is also its own school district (and thus we have, for our 109 students, a superintendent, a principal, a business secretary, and three other secretarial staff, which seems somewhat insane but which is apparently not the cause of the current problems), is in the same uncomfortable position as a lot of other entities in the country these days. They either have to spend $374,000 out of their reserve fund or cut 4.17 positions — or some combination of those — in order to keep going next year.
The school, like the state of Wyoming, is of course much more fortunate than many other entities. The school has a reserve fund, which many places do not. People are tearing their hair out over the idea of the University of Wyoming raising tuition this year, the first in-state tuition increase the state has seen in some time (I’d look for the numbers, but I have to head back to the school shortly for, believe it or not, another meeting). During the five years I lived in Iowa after I finished college, tuition went up by double digits every year. In many ways, I am tempted, for perhaps the first time in my life, to quote my fathers most obnoxious line: “I understand, but I don’t sympathize.”
But what I want to talk about here is not the rightness or wrongness of any particular plan of action. What I want to talk about is democracy.
Last night’s meeting was full of misunderstandings, of ancient grudges, of personal agendas — of all sorts of things that tend to derail our political discourse. But it was, for all that, remarkably free of what we now refer to, disparagingly, as rhetoric. In actuality, of course, there was lots of rhetoric, but it was rhetoric in the non-derogatory sense: it was speech that was both considered and impassioned, both personal and political. It was speech that, on more than one occasion, resulted in applause.
One of the teachers in attendance told me today that her husband said, “Gee, I’m glad we got rid of cable — this is way more entertaining!” I’m not sure that he really wants to do this sort of thing every night, but in it was entertaining. And it was important. And despite being kind of sick of four hour extensions to my 8.5 hour work day, I am glad I went.
I’ve been attending meetings of various sorts for almost twenty years now, and I am almost as fascinated by the process and organization of meetings as I am by the content of the meetings themselves. One thing I like about living here in my insanely small town is how personal a view I get of the meetings I attend here, and the way they end up emphasizing just how much I am an insider as well as just how much I am an outsider. I can’t say much more specifically about that without impugning people’s privacy in a way I don’t want to do, and so perhaps this won’t mean much at all to the people reading this. But I am, in some weird way, looking forward to heading out to tonight’s meeting, because it’s not very often that you get to see the cogs of democracy quite this close, and even though they’re a tremendous mess, they’re also, to me, an irresistible puzzle.
This has been a difficult summer. I work year-round — my library is a public one as well as a school one — but summer still always seems like an off-season, a time when you do other projects, when the days last so long that it seems like you have a whole other day in which to do things. But that wasn’t the case for me this summer. Most days it was all I could do to drag myself out of bed, all I could do to get through the day, even with an upped caffeine intake. And then, when I came home, all I ever wanted to do was go to sleep. It was not uncommon for me to come home from work, collapse on the sofa for two hours or more, get up for a bit, and then go back to bed. Some afternoons I’d collapse on the sofa and not wake until two or three in the morning. This was not fun.
I tried any number of fixes — changes in diet, vitamin supplements, more exercise, less exercise — to no avail. In the end, the culprit was not the lack of a drug but too much of one, and once we cut that dose in half, my problems disappared.
I was never much of a summer of a summer person, and I used to welcome the coming of fall, at least until fall started to be the season I got depressed. This year, though, I’ve been happier about fall than I have in over a decade. This is the best time of year here, in many ways: it isn’t too hot, as it sometimes is in the middle of summer. It’s not yet dark out when I get out of work. And, at long last, the Farmers Market in Cody is brimming with produce. At this altitude, produce doesn’t start to show up for real until July, and so when I see people talking about their CSA boxes in May, and watching them eating the fruits of their labor all summer, I get a bit sad. This year it snowed in May and June.
But now there are tomatoes and peppers and greens and beets and onions and corn and green beans and sugar snap peas and cucumbers, and it’s all I can do every Thursday not to buy everything in sight.
Practically everyone I know seems to be playing Farm Town these days. I haven’t ever even really looked at the game, since my general feeling about games on the internet is “dear God, I spend enough time there already” — I mean, I love it, but there are offline things that I love as well, things I sometimes wish I did more of.
I don’t really know what the game involves, although people seem to be constantly on a quest to find someone to harvest for them. It’s been amusing me lately, because while they’ve all been looking for virtual farm workers, I’ve been, with my new-found energy, putting up food and feeding my friends’ menagerie (I even made a little video about it). I would never confuse either of these activities with actual farming, but there’s a great satisfaction to seeing that line of jars on my shelf, and looking forward to opening them many months from now, and thinking about sunlight in darkness.
Count today as the first time I’ve ever been at a church service whereat communion consisted of garlic flatbread from the grocery store and grape-flavored Gatorade. It was, shall we say, not the best combination I have ever tasted, but the Holy Spirit arrives in a variety of forms, and it is up to us to recognize it. Mustard seeds seem rather rare and precious these days. Perhaps if Jesus were around now, he’d be telling us that the kingdom of God is like unto a plastic bottle, BPA and all.
This marks the third summer that St. Andrews Episcopal Church has held an interdenominational service in the park with the Meeteetse Community Church, Western Frontiers, and, nominally at least, St. Theresa’s Catholic Church. For the past two summers, I’ve helped out with the music, which is to say that I’ve been one of the half dozen people standing up at the front and singing.
We music people meet a couple of times in the week before the service to hash out just what hymns we’re going to sing and in what manner we will sing them. It’s always a little bit interesting, because the people from the Community Church play guitars and sing from memory, and we Episcopalians have a piano (and sometimes an organ/accordian) and tend to like to see notes in front of us as we sing. They’re a little bit country, and we’re a little bit. . . Anglican. We sing “Come Thou Font of Every Blessing” in our best English choir boy fashion, and they sing “Shout to the Lord” with a bit of a twang and with improvised harmonies, but somehow it all works out.
We don’t always agree on things within my church, either, and we’ve nearly come to blows in recent weeks on the subject of gay marriage (with the added bonus subject of abortion! I said, “Hey, next week let’s talk about the death penalty!” For the record, I am pro, pro, and anti). Yet you could see us relaxing during the bits of today’s service that used the liturgy and tensing up somewhat during the bits where people said rambling prayers and lifted their hands up and said amen a lot. Familiarity breeds comfort, and though it’s good, I think, to be taken outside that comfort zone a bit, as we were today, it is that very comfort that makes it possible for me to pray each week along side people with whom I do not always see eye to eye.
The scripture read at the service today was one we read back on Trinity Sunday, Romans 8:12-17, which ends
When we cry, “Abba, Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ — if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.
Being a child of God means a lot of things, and one of them is the work we do in order to be joint heirs not only with Christ, but with one another — even if that means joining in worship in ways that are not always comfortable, even if it means trying to reconcile garlic bread and grape Gatorade with one another in your mouth.
I have a friend here called Dutch. He is maybe in his sixties and is the youngest boy of nineteen children, all with the same parents. His father, at age 108, still visits his mother’s grave every day. She died just a few years ago at age 102.
Dutch was in the Marines, and then he worked as a carpenter and cabinet maker and various other jobs. Nowadays he lives out in the country with his dog Katie, who is named for Katherine Hepburn, and a barn cat who doesn’t have a name. He goes to town on commodities day, and when my friend Jim still lived here, he used to drive Dutch to the VA in Powell pretty regularly. Dutch has had a few heart incidents, and they’ve made him a little panicky. I don’t know who drives him now, if he can’t drive himself, but he has a lot of friends and acquaintances.
Every few months, Dutch invites me over for dinner, which is usually served before 5 p.m. I have also had him over for dinner, although we learned that if he comes here, he has to take Katie to the babysitter’s, because she is terrified of my cat Sam. Once he said to me, after looking around my somewhat unfurnished living room, “Do you want a sofa? I have one you could have!” I said, “Sure, that’d be great,” thinking, oh, next time I’m over there I’ll take a look and make sure it doesn’t have mice in it or what have you. A few days later I answered the phone at the library.
“Laura! It’s Dutch! Your sofa’s in your living room!”
Ummm. . . I thought. “Thank you,” I said. And when I got home, there was indeed a sofa in the middle of my living room. I pushed it over against a wall, put a sheet over it, and the cats and I settled down for a nap. There are worse things than coming home to find new-to-you furniture that has already been installed in your house without you having to do anything about it.
Last Sunday Dutch invited me over for dinner, and when I got there around 4:30 he said would I like a glass of wine, and I said sure. He then began to hunt for a corkscrew. He recently moved from one somewhat dilapidated house to another one, and apparently the corkscrew didn’t move with him. I said not to worry, that I was not insistent about having wine, but he was distressed. “I have an icepick,” he said. “Do you think I could get it out with an icepick?” I wasn’t sure, but watching him poke at the cork with the icepick, I had an idea.
“Do you have a screw?” I said, “and a screwdriver or something, and maybe a pair of pliers?”
Of course all these things were on hand, and so Dutch, under my direction, screwed a long screw into the cork with an electric drill and then, when the screw was solidly in the cork, I held the bottle and Dutch pulled at the head of the screw with some pliers, and lo, the cork came out.
Dinner at Dutch’s means meat, potatoes, vegetables (which are sometimes from his garden and sometimes home pickled and sometimes canned), bread and butter, and pie — and, on this occasion, a glass of wine. And it was all good.
Last January my friends Edie and Deb and I made a plan to ski out to the cabin on the South Fork of the Wood River and spend the night, and in February we actually did it, which is more than I can say for many of the plans I make. Deb took many great pictures, and one of these days I’ll post some of them. The snow was a little bit slushy when we went out — Edie and I skiied and Deb snowshoed, and we each went at our own pace — but the moon that night was beautiful. Edie kept running out and then running back in and saying, “It’s good moon! It’s good moon!” and then we’d go out to look, too. Overnight it snowed, and so we woke up in the morning two miles from the nearest road, with the snow all over everything and no tracks in it at all, and Deb got the woodstove roaring again and I made eggs and coffee and oatmeal for breakfast, and later Edie did the dishes and we packed up our things and skiied and snowshowed back through the snow, which went all the way over our skis.
I didn’t start out to write about this, but it’s where I’ve ended up. Deb died just before Christmas. I don’t think I have quite taken that in yet. 2008 had its good parts, but it was also a year in which far too many people that I knew died far before their time. My godson Phelim; Ashton, the daughter of our superintendent; Deb; and then, New Year’s Eve day, Jim Pusack, a friend who was a last-minute member of my MFA thesis committee.
I hope that 2009 holds fewer such events for me and for any of you who may be reading this.
I lost my father and my grandfather within a few months of each other when I was five years old, and then for a long time nobody I knew died. One does not get such a reprieve forever.
One thing I am thinking about in 2009 is how to go about both mourning and remembering the people I care about who have died. The only useful thing I know about grief is that it does not end, and that it isn’t necessary for it to end. You can be a little bit sad every day for the rest of your life. You don’t have to get over it. This year I’m going to be thinking about how to recognize those little bits of sadness and honor them. (I sort of can’t believe that I just used honor as a verb with feelings as the object, but that’s what this world does to you.)
I first read Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway when I was seventeen years old, and I was stunned, simply stunned, by the book. If you don’t know it, it’s the story of one day in the life of a woman in her fifties, but in the course of that day, when she has a big party, she remembers all these other various people and places in her life, and there’s a good bit that has to do with the summer she was eighteen. Until that moment I had no idea that grown ups dwelt in the past as well as in the present and future. I was so used to adolescence being dismissed by grown ups that I figured none of them ever thought about the past. I suppose there are grown ups who don’t, but I am not one of them, nor do I wish to be. The things you remember are, in some ways, all you have. I strive to remember as much as I can.