Category Archives: Journal

when the levee breaks

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Monday morning, I drove down to Rosedale and headed first to the library, where Martha the librarian gave me an excellent orientation to the town and its history. Turns out this area was a big center for making moonshine during Prohibition — instead of the requisite cannon displayed in front of the State Park visitor center, there’s a whiskey still. The most famous moonshiner was a guy named Perry Martin, who was the son of a successful rice farmer, and had trained for the ministry. He lived on a houseboat on the river side of the levee, and had a bunch of stills set up on Big Island. He eventually built a house on the dry side of the levee, got sick the first night he slept there and never did again. But he would come over the levee every day for lunch with his wife.

I camped out for two nights like Perry Martin, on the river side of the levee, in the state park. The weather is beautiful–clear and warm–and I can sleep in the hammock without the tarp over me, so I get to look at the stars as I fall asleep, and wake up with the dawn. I’ve been doing a good deal of reading: finally got to Lanterns on the Levee, which is a heartbreaking book. The wisdom and the wrongness are so inextricably interwoven, there’s no way to pull them apart. And it’s not just that Will Percy is a white supremicist aristocrat living past his time, it’s also that he is so obviously a closeted self-lacerating gay man who knows he will never live up to his father’s standards. It is a tragic and awful book, but it is beautiful. Read it and weep.

The towns here are hideously far apart: to find an internet cafe, I had to drive 35 miles to Cleveland, where there’s a great coffee place in an old gas station, they roll up the garage doors and you sit in the former repair bay as if it were a terrace.

On Wednesday, I drove down a bit, past the town where Baby Doll was filmed, up to the levee and then biked around the area where the levee broke in the 1927 flood. There were No Trespassing signs everywhere, and I was spooked into imagining someone might shoot me for ignoring them, so I loaded the bike back on the car and drove down into Greenville, which, like all these Delta downtowns except maybe Cleveland, the college town, seems at first glance to be in such a state of decay and poverty that you can hardly imagine how people continue to live here. The buildings in best repair downtown are the churches, including the one built by Will Percy’s Dutch tutor and priest with his own money, (see pp. 86-91 of Lanterns on the Levee), and the synagogue (there has always been a thriving Jewish population in Greenville), and the First AME, which has been visited by Langston Hughes and Leontyne Price (and Herbert Hoover during the flood.)

I had made a plan to meet up with the musician and ethnomusicologist Mark Howell and his wife, Stephanie, at the BB King Museum in Indianola, so I drove out the back way through Leland, site of the old Percy plantation, where there is now quite a nice town with houses along a bayou, and arrived in time to meet up with Mark and Stephanie and hear an interesting panel discussion about this book. Afterwards, Mark and Stephanie and I had dinner and headed over to Lake Village, which is the town across the river from Greenville on the Arkansas side. Mark, with the help of his father and brother, has built a house right on Lake Chicot, based on a design adapted from excavation data for a Mississippian-era house in the Delta. It is a totally great place, surrounded by just enough trees to feel cozy but not obscure the view of the lake. And the light is gorgeous! I went down to the dock and watched the sun set into the lake while having a fine long call with Despina in Athens, and a little gray cat came and sat on my lap and sang a song to me, and I am very happy to be here.

everybody’s doing it

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I went to church in Clarksdale Sunday morning. No one I had met in town could recommend a particular place to go, so I went over to Martin Luther King Blvd. and chose the first church along the street: First Baptist, which ended up being a relatively small congregation, with just a pianist and a few singers. This is definitely not Al Green’s church, with visitors from all over the world: I would guess they probably haven’t seen a white person at First Baptist in years. The welcome I got was authentically kind; the preacher, learning I was from New York, threaded the Yankees’ win into his sermon, people came up and spoke to me enthusiastically of having lived in Brooklyn or Camden; and at the end of the service, they have a tradition I like a lot: the preacher and deacons get into a receiving line, and the congregation goes down to the front, greets those already there, and then each person joins the line themselves, so that by the end, every single person has greeted every other. There were a couple of people in the congregation who greeted me only perfunctorily, perhaps not so delighted I was there, and it got me to thinking: if I were a black person, I’m not sure I would want to see my white self in my church. If I were a child of slavery and sharecropping and lynchings and all that, I’m not sure how much loving-kindness and openheartedness I would be ready to muster for every white stranger who walks in the door. I am grateful and a little shocked by the warmth and welcome I am given by almost every person here. Church is after all the most segregated institution left in America, and I doubt that’s going to change any time soon.

I spent the afternoon at John and Sarah and Emma’s house: which may be a sort of heaven. They have a big old rambling house right on the other side of the Sunflower River from John’s shop. It used to be a boarding house; in fact, a girl lived here with a collection of glass animals that inspired Tennessee Williams when he was living in Clarksdale. John has painted the house Greek blue and white, and has embedded decorative river creatures in wavy curlicues, and everything about it feels good. I had been working in the study for hours before running across Mara, who also lives there, and is a visual artist currently working with addicted mothers and their children. Everything about this place and these people is so excellent, it makes me feel kind of shy and awkward and self-lacerating. I begin to feel like my whole life has been one of self-absorbed elitism, living and working in the provincial bubble of the NYC new-music scene and its international tendrils, in an abstract self-congratulatory liberalism that actually doesn’t do much to improve the world or give hope to those without it. Yes, compared to an investment banker or a fashion photographer, I feel confident that my life and work have meaning and value, but compared to people like John and Mara, I’m really not so sure.

I didn’t want to leave Clarksdale without getting out to one of the clubs at least once, so I pulled myself away from Mara and Sarah (John was upstairs putting Emma to bed), and went over to Red’s, where Super Chikan’s son was doing a low-key solo Sunday night show, singing his original songs, and accompanying himself on an electronic keyboard. The songs were built from Casio drum patterns with funky bass lines and simple comping — the lyrics were about his girl being his best friend, about being glad to have had the parents he’s had: totally heartfelt and artless in the best sense. The audience was a couple of tables of locals, some of whom would get up and guest in on one song or another, and some very dear visiting young people from Australia.

The whole scene felt like a tiny glimpse into a community where basically everyone I’ve run across is making art of some kind: music, paintings, dance, whatever. And it isn’t separated from the rest of life, it’s not like there’s a professional class of artists and then a bunch of art-consumers. Everyone is making things. Who would have thought: Clarksdale is the Bali of America!

already the river

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John had invited me to join him on an all-day paddle he was scheduled to do Saturday with a father and son, so I was awakened early from the hammock I had set up behind his shop and overlooking the Sunflower River, with John offering me coffee and oatmeal and introducing me to Ellis Johnson, a younger brother of Super Chikan Johnson, one of the outstanding blues players flourishing in Clarksdale. Ellis himself is more dancer than musician, he said, and he is also a fisherman, and he told me about the huge turtle he caught the other day.

Tim, a prep-school fundraiser, and his college-age son, David, showed up and got outfitted, and then we all headed out to Quapaw landing and put in. It’s my first paddling since above Memphis, and it’s hard to articulate how happy I am to be back on the water. It’s a strange reality that as the boundary between water and land gets more porous down here, with all the back channels and bayous and swamps, getting to the river from land actually gets harder and harder, so my bike rides don’t really bring me close enough to the river to fully satisfy my river jones. It makes sense: the bottomlands are a no-man’s-land where it is not practical to imagine permanent roads or houses. The river side of the levees are in a sense already the river.

Paddling with John, who knows this river the way I know the streets of New York City, is really a wonderful experience. We did all sorts of things I would never have been able to do alone. Instead of freaking out about the big stuff floating down the river, for example, we took advantage of its speed and power. We tied off to a huge tree that was plowing downstream and just effortlessly coasted down through the windy stretch. I was finally truly rafting the Mississippi! A giant barge and tow were coming downstream at the same time, and watching it pass us at an excruciatingly slow pace — since we were traveling nearly as fast — reminded me of that endless circus trailer in Bela Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies.

We stopped at two different blue holes to eat and explore, and then John began to take us into back channels, wending through groves of trees. I could happily paddle back through thickets finding oxbow lakes and odd back bayous for many days to come. I think what I like the very best about this lower river is these liminal spaces, neither land nor river, exactly, but some curious inseparable hybrid of the two.

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John took us through one final back channel right near sunset, and we paddled into the setting sun surrounded by birds and the departing light. I didn’t want the day to end, but paddling up a good ways and then across the main channel in the dark was tiring enough that I was happy when we finally landed and Ellis pulled us out and took us home to Clarksdale.

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goin back to friar’s point

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I didn’t leave the River Museum in Tunica until long after it had officially closed, so I ended up staying in Tunica overnight, since, as in most gambling towns, the motels are super-cheap. The next morning I got in touch with John Ruskey, one of the masters of the Mississippi, a musician and painter and the proprietor of the Quapaw Canoe Company in Clarksdale. Most of you probably know Clarksdale as a famous crossroads of the blues, there’s a Delta Blues Museum here, and Morgan Freeman is one of the co-owners of the Ground Zero Blues Club. For river people, John Ruskey is another huge draw for Clarksdale. When I had my adventure in Fort Madison, John — who I had not yet met — wrote to reassure me that the river code precluded theft, and he was of course right about that. I’ve been looking forward to meeting John for weeks, and when I woke up in Tunica and looked at the map, I realized it was finally time!

John was heading out to gather a log (one of his projects is to craft dugout canoes with schoolkids in Helena, how cool is that?!), and I told him I was thinking of biking to Friar’s Point, so he invited me to park my car at his shop and left me a map with directions for a good route. I rode out to Friar’s Point through fields that go on for miles with vistas of sky and clouds that make me think this, too, should be called Big Sky country, along with Montana. Friar’s Point is a tiny little town on a sort of promontory of one of the meanders of the river. David told me that Conway Twitty’s father used to pilot the ferry there, but my main reason for wanting to bike out there was the description of the girl in Robert Johnson’s Traveling Riverside Blues, one of the hotter songs ever recorded.

David had told me there was a museum in town, by appointment only, but when I got there it was open. I walked in and was greeted by a man named Sonny Pharis, who showed me various treasures among an impossibly varied array of stuff. I particularly liked this pitchfork, and these old gas pumps of a sort I had never seen (pre-electric), but there was much much more: old dentist chairs and miscellaneous medical tools, Indian artifacts, booty taken from the Nazis in WWII, a collection of very fancy hats.

Sonny told me he wished he could go with me on my journey, and I would have been happy for him to join me. He was a lovely man, and he made me remember Stephen King’s beautiful short story, Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut. (For the moment, you can read it here.) As I was leaving, Sonny told me he would remember me forever and asked if I would do the same. I will remember you forever, Sonny. For sure.

On the way home, I rode past the Stovall Plantation, where Muddy Waters grew up and where Alan Lomax first recorded him in 1941. I am probably just imagining things, but I begin to feel as if the music is growing right out of the ground. There’s something really powerful going on around here.

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gars and gambling

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This morning I finally left dear David and Shawna, who have been so so wonderful to hang out with, and tearfully bid adieu to my fuzzy bedmate Fred, and started heading south out of Memphis on the east side of the river this time. At Tunica I saw signs for a riverpark, so I turned off and drove over to the river, where this multi-million-dollar facility sits right on the river’s edge. Clearly, casino revenues are allowing all sorts of things to flourish in Tunica! But before I could even get to the door of the museum, a gentleman on a golf cart rode up and offered to buy me lunch and show me around. I’m definitely beginning to understand what is meant by Southern hospitality! Craig, who was the Construction Supervisor of the park but is now its unofficial mayor, took me over to the Hollywood Cafe, a great place nearby, (mentioned in the song Walking in Memphis,) where he showed me pictures of his carpentry and woodworking, and told me many excellent stories about Tunica and environs. Then he took me back to the grounds of the park, where they have built miles of wooden bridges for walking through the bottomlands, although the water is high enough now that portions of the bridges are impassable. It’s a wonderful place, one of the few I’ve come across that makes it easy to explore the river side of the levees from the land. Other than boat launches, there isn’t much chance of that.

Here is one of Craig’s stories, just to give you an idea of how I might have spent the whole afternoon with him: he and two employees were building one of the bridges when a machine broke. Craig asked his workers to take a break and go away for a while, because it made him nervous to be watched while he was trying to fix something. They left, but after a moment he wondered if they’d snuck back and were spying on him, because he felt eyes on him. He looked up and there was a black panther, just along the other side of the bridge. I keep picturing Craig looking up in irritation, about to upbraid his employees for coming back too soon, and locking eyes with a black panther instead. I bet he was really grateful when his workers got back and the panther melted off into the woods.

The museum itself is really beautifully done; it turns out that John Barry, the author of Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America, one of the books that inspired this journey of mine, was an adviser for the exhibits. Along with a simulated diving bell, and many cool videos and photographs, and some fine Native American artifacts, there is also an aquarium, with some river creatures even stranger and more mythological-looking than I had known existed. Alligator gar, anyone? If that doesn’t creep you out a little bit, nothing will!

Alligator Gar caught on Moon Lake
Alligator Gar caught on Moon Lake, March 1910

starting somewhere

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We drove through Forrest City on the way to St. Francis National Forest because I was curious to see the town, which had been described to me as one of the most segregated places in America. The downtown is a ghost town almost on the level of Cairo, but with this hopeful spray-painted message on a downtown building and a very excellent mural of a modern-dress St. Francis feeding the birds at the courthouse.

The ride through St. Francis Forest was the best biking day I’ve had on the trip so far. The road starts by wending past an excellent lake, where various folks were fishing, including Maurice, a very kind man, who expressed delighted amazement at my journey. “And you like camping, too?! You’re from New York City, you’re supposed to be shopping!”

The road turns to gravel and is more varied than most Delta roads because it follows Crowley’s Ridge. There are farms nestled back here, but it is mostly woods: deep ravines and trees festooned with vines. I kept expecting a snake to drop down from one of the vines onto my shoulders, but thankfully that didn’t happen. I like Vermont snakes, the snakes out here are way too scary. As the road gets closer to the river, you end up in the swamps, with cypress trees growing out of the water, and the sound of birds and frogs and insects is almost overpowering. I rode out to the mouth of the St. Francis River, where it meets the Mississippi, and I heard a woodpecker tapping in the trees. I don’t know if it was the famously elusive Ivory-Billed Woodpecker. But since I didn’t see it, I’m free to imagine it was…

At one place in these swamps, there was suddenly a sign for the Louisiana Purchase Baseline Survey. Turns out this exact spot in the wilds of eastern Arkansas swamps is the point from which the entire Louisiana Purchase was measured. You got to start somewhere, why not here?!

Eventually the road comes out in the northern part of Helena, but not before passing two cemeteries: the first is pretty derelict: a bunch of falling stones on a dark and wooded hillside. The second is the Confederate Cemetery, where David greeted me with a bag of pecans he had gathered while he was waiting for me to arrive.

We drove into town and visited the Blues Museum in downtown Helena. I like this harmonica holster a lot.

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Al Green in Minnesota

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I didn’t want to leave Memphis without doing a pilgrimage to the Stax Museum. Mary had gone last week while I was immersed in my deadline, and had raved about it, so instead of continuing south today, David and I headed over there and spent a really fine few hours reading and listening. The Museum is very well done, both a wonderful overview and lots of tiny, offbeat tidbits. For example, did you know that Al Green was born in Forrest City, AR (yup, one of those places named after Nathan Bedford Forrest) but then moved to Grand Rapids, MN?!?! That’s right, Judy Garland’s birthplace, still on the Mississippi River, just a thousand miles north! His first recording was made in Grand Rapids, and is about trains, which makes total sense when I think of the number of trains that go through Grand Rapids to this day. Here it is, in case you’re curious:

free-range ruminating

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Today I finally started down the river again, with David as my companion and helper. We crossed the river over to Arkansas, the eighth of the ten states on the river, and I started out biking along the levee. The Army Corp leases the land surrounding the levee to farmers, so I encountered many cows and some horses grazing below me, and long long vistas of farmland, mostly cotton fields. About every half mile there were fences to demarcate the different fields, so I would lindy the bike under the fence each time. At one point, there was a man in a pickup truck waiting as I rode up to the fence. I was afraid he was going to yell at me and order me off the levee, but instead he asked me how I was planning to get the bike past the fence. I looked, and indeed it was lower to the ground than any of the previous ones had been, too low for me to get the bike through. So he got out of his truck and told me to lift the bike up to him and hefted it over the fence for me, and after asking how far I was going, and wishing me luck, he drove off into the endless delta. As I began biking again, I really began to wonder if he had been an apparition. I mean, it’s pretty unpeopled out here. I hadn’t seen anyone for miles, and suddenly at the moment I was going to need help even though I didn’t know it yet, there was someone waiting to help me.

Eventually the road was close enough to the levee that I decided it would be okay to bike along the road and skip the drill with the fences. This country is flat! I don’t think I’ve ever ridden so far with so little elevation change. I really enjoyed the ride, there’s something delightful to me about where my mind gets to go when I do long stints of not-very-hard exercise. On more varied terrain, biking is hard enough work that I don’t usually have a chance to get into that meditative state, but here you can ride for miles and miles without really working very hard physically, so your mind is free to range. After a while I rode past a tidy resort community called Horseshoe Lake, where virtually every other house was for sale (clearly the economic crisis is hitting hard here), and down very close to the river, where I stopped to meet up with David. As we were hanging out there on the levee, two women drove up and asked us about the kayak and the trip: it turns out one of the women is the mayor of Horseshoe Lake, gotta love it!

After about five hours of biking, I put the bike up on the rack and we drove on this wacky back road to Helena and across the bridge and back up on the Mississippi side, and up to Tunica for excellent fried green tomatoes and fried okra and fried chicken, and back to Memphis and my comfortable bed with Fred the cat. I want to bike that back road for the next leg of the journey, for sure!

Al Green and geophysics

I had planned to go to Al Green’s church on Sunday in Memphis before the Mormon opportunity came up, so right after the Mormon service I headed over to the other side of town to the Full Gospel Tabernacle, where Al Green has been presiding for thirty-five years. Luckily, the service started at 11:30, a deeply civilized hour for church, and it was everything you might imagine Al Green’s church would be: incredible singing, an outrageously excellent band, dancing in the aisles, powerful preaching, a warm welcome to us visitors sitting in the back pews, and that feeling, that wonderful feeling of God’s love repairing every rift, wiping every tear, that radical righting of every wrong that the black church embodies in every gesture, every utterance. When I was taking care of my mother, I listened to gospel music at full volume every single day. It’s what got me through the hardest time of my life. And while I don’t honestly know whether the Full Gospel Tabernacle would actually welcome someone like me any more than the Mormons would, the fact is that not one word that was said there on Sunday locked me out or pushed me away. I’ve been reading a book called The Theology of American Popular Music which helps me understand why I love the black church so much. I really may end up there for good one of these days, who knows?!

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A couple of months ago, a generous stranger wrote to me and told me about the research the geo-physicist Maria Beatrice Magnani is doing on the faults that lie under the Mississippi River, so I sent her an email and we met up Sunday afternoon for a really amazing and interesting coffee. I hope to have more to tell you about all this down the line, but in the meantime I just want to expostulate about how great it is to meet another river-lover, from Umbria of all excellent places!, who is a really fine scientist with the soul of an artist. How cool is that?!

Mormons in Memphis

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The last week has been a very different experience from the whole river trip so far. Last Sunday afternoon, when I paddled in to the Shelby Forest boat ramp about twenty miles above Memphis, Mary had met a couple, David and Shawna, who live in Memphis and had come up to Shelby Forest on a Sunday afternoon fall outing. It turns out that David is a real, honest-to-goodness riverboat pilot, straight from the pages of Life on the Mississippi. How’s that for a busman’s holiday: heading to the nearest boat ramp on your day off? David has been piloting towboats on the lower Mississippi (and the Orinoco, too) for something like 35 years. And he’s a literary pilot, a poet and a real reader. How cool is that?! And Shawna is a musician, she plays the cello, as well as being a nurse, and her uncle is a mandolin maker in Vermont who Mary knows, so it really felt like we had run into members of our extended family out there on the boat ramp. David had read the article about me in the New York Times, but hadn’t gotten around to emailing me — clearly, that wasn’t necessary: the river gods had already decided we should meet.

So Wednesday, after Mary left, (a million thanks, Mary, for an amazing time!) I headed over to David and Shawna’s house, and I’ve been there for almost a week! It’s the longest I’ve stayed anywhere on the trip so far, and I really needed the break, partially because I had some non-river-project work I needed to catch up on, and also because I wanted some reading time to get oriented to the southern part of the journey, and David’s library is full of exactly the books I want to read. And even though I’m staying in the same place, sleeping happily with Fred the cat every night, I must say I’ve been having some amazing adventures.

It happens that Shawna has decided to join the Mormon Church, and Saturday was her baptism. She generously invited me to come to the ceremony, so Saturday afternoon, I arrived at the appointed time, and was met at the door by a beautiful young man named Elder Bird, who was dressed all in white and barefoot. It became clear that Elder Bird was the one who would be baptizing Shawna. The service was done in a small chapel that has a pool behind sliding doors, which are opened for the actual immersion. There were some hymns, people testified in a deeply heartfelt way (there were lots of statements that began “I know…”), David read a beautiful translation of Rilke he had made, (I’ll try to post it soon), and the whole ceremony was a very compelling combination of simple, specific ritual and informal, sincere preaching.

At the reception afterwards, Elder Bird and his fellow missionary, Elder Meyers, began to explain some things about how the Mormon Church is structured: for example, there are no paid clergy, the Bishops and Presidents and so on are lay leaders, the missionaries have to raise the money to support themselves on their two-year travels. Joseph Smith and his Book of Mormon do not supplant the Old and New Testaments, but are meant to extend the Bible, perhaps not unlike Mohammed’s approach to Christianity in early Islamic faith? (How much trouble am I in now?!?) Congregations are determined by street address: you are put into a particular ward when you register. There are three services at this particular church (at 9 and 11 am and 1 pm each Sunday,) and it’s determined which one you go to based on your address, not on personal choice or any other affinities.

All this, plus the authentically warm welcome I received from every single person there, made me decide I would go back for the Sunday 9 am service with Shawna. (David is not likely to convert to Mormonism any time soon.) It was fascinating. I really think that Mormonism might be the most quintessentially (white) American religion I have come across. The lay leadership, the multiple testimonies, with their curious echoes of Quaker and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings are part of it. The fact that happiness is central to the religion is another striking thing. Happiness?! Straight out of the Declaration of Independence, but hardly mentioned in any church I’ve ever gone to. (I just checked. The word “happiness” does not appear in the NRSV of the New Testament at all. The word “happy” appears precisely once in the NT, to describe how the tax-collector Zacchaeus felt when Jesus consented to visit him.) And check this out: I would swear the bread of the eucharist was Pepperidge Farm white bread and the wine is of course water, since Mormons don’t drink alcohol.

The other striking thing is that family is elevated to being right up there with God. There is the Holy Trinity of God, Jesus, Holy Spirit. And then there’s the other Trinity of God, spouse, and children. It’s powerful, people. And all the church groups are gender-based from childhood. Powerful.

I understand in a new way how gayness really messes everything up for these folks. Not so much because of sex, but because it disrupts the clarity of gender roles. Would you put both women of the lesbian couple into the women’s group, or send one to the men’s group? How would any of this get decided without breaking the whole neat and tidy structure? So, yes, you just have to reject gay people because the structure rests on a very clearly delineated set of assumptions which cannot easily be altered.

And I’ll tell you, I sat there in church feeling very strange and terribly lonely. There’s something very excellent about having this whole edifice to reinforce intact families and spousal love, aligning the messy strange difficulties of human love with the eternal love of God. It’s really a great idea to have this whole network of traditions and people to help you make sense of intimacy with your God, and with your beloved, and with your children. And there’s no way on earth I could ever participate in any of this. And my heart goes out to my gay ex-Mormon friends: I begin to get a glimpse of how awful it must be to be forced out of this clean, well-lighted place, away from these otherwise completely generous and lovely people, and into a world where each of us has to figure it out on our own.

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