Posts Tagged “Bible”

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It was a rainy and gray weekend, and I spent most of it at Poverty Point Reservoir State Park, doing some much needed housekeeping (my computer was misbehaving, laundry needed doing) at this quite wonderful spot that has free wifi and laundry and good showers. I did take a drive up to the town of Lake Providence, looking for a cafe that turned out to be closed on Saturday, and ended up having an excellent oyster po’ boy at a little place overlooking the lake. The town felt oddly exposed somehow: I could feel almost viscerally what high water must be like for a town like this, on a promontory almost completely surrounded by lakes and rivers, and miles from any other town. The fields surrounding the town don’t really feel like they count as actual dry land, somehow: you know that if the water breaches the levees it will just pour down and across however many miles of farmland there are. Five miles, fifty miles, once those levees are breached, the water will be everywhere.

On Sunday, I came into Vicksburg for church at Bethel AME, a tiny congregation with a new young preacher. The sermon text was from 1 John 4, about how it makes no sense to say you love God and hate your brother. “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.”

My first view of the river from the town of Vicksburg really took my breath away. To be up on a bluff again, overlooking the river after so many weeks of being right down in it in the Delta, was somehow deeply moving to me. I guess because I feel like the river is part of me, or I of it, I immediately felt protectiveness and kinship for this town that so honors the river.

I spent the whole afternoon at the battlefield park, which is a pretty overwhelming place. Miles and miles of statues and markers and memorials dot a landscape of hills and mounds and ravines and trenches. I had talked a bit with Shawn, one of the rangers, in the Visitor Center, and I ran into him again at the Illinois memorial, a Pantheon-like structure with really beautiful resonance. We talked for a good long time about Native American as well as Civil War history: he’s worked at a succession of parks over the years, so he knows about lots of things that interest me. He showed me a name on the wall of the Illinois Memorial and asked if I knew the story of that particular soldier. Turns out he served the Union for four years, returned to Illinois to work as a handyman and gardener, was hit by a car and taken to the hospital, where they learned Albert was actually a woman. The sad ending of the story is that Albert ended up in an insane asylum, where he was forced to wear women’s clothes, and died from a fall he sustained tripping over unaccustomed skirts.

In the midst of all these Civil War memories, in a town that perhaps has embodied the Confederate spirit longer than any other place (they did not officially celebrate the Fourth of July here until World War II, because Vicksburg fell, after 47 days of siege, on the Fourth of July 1863), I finished Anne Moody’s memoir, Coming of Age in Mississippi. Somehow I had never come across this book before, and once I started reading it, it was hard to stop, and it is definitely hard going. It’s painful to walk around rage-filled and mourning the casualties of racism as you visit a place like the Old Courthouse Museum in Vicksburg. Honestly, I don’t recommend it.

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(The caption reads: “$500 REWARD for the arrest and conviction of Johnny Black alias Possum, has black skin, white eyes, kinky hair, smooth face and has a frightened look.”)

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At a certain point on Monday, I reached a pretty dark place. I’d been looking too closely at the evil we can do convinced of our honor and virtue and righteousness, I’d been alone too many days in a row, that late-November desolation is in the air, and all of this together was beginning to be a bit too much. This journey is definitely about putting myself out there, but I had really reached my own limits.

And then in the course of a couple of hours, everything changed. Mary Rowell texted me to say she’s coming back out for Thanksgiving, dear Melissa was her unflappable and kind and competent self, organizing getting me insurance cards and audio interfaces, I talked with Mac, who told me he’s almost done with his grad school apps and he’s going to try to join on in ten days or so, and Linda Norton’s going meet me in New Orleans in December. Is that an embarrassment of riches, or what?!

But that’s not all!

My friend David Lehmann had introduced me to H. C. Porter’s gallery in Vicksburg and told me a bit about her powerful post-Katrina work. The gallery was closed on Sunday, but I stopped in Monday afternoon and met Lauchlin, who sent me to the cafe down the street and said Chris would stop in when she got home. And she came and retrieved me and immediately took me in and told me many good stories and gave me excellent dinner and a warm bed in her beautiful space that has a rooftop balcony overlooking the river, and we have approximately four hundred eighty six thousand things in common, and suddenly everything feels transformed, a light switches on in the darkness, and I can move forward, chastened by my awareness of how very much I need other people, how reliant I am on the kindness of friends and of strangers, both.

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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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We’ve spent most of the last couple days in Memphis: serious rain (plus a blown-out bike tire and a boring computer problem that both needed addressing in town) made it seem like coming down here might be a better way to explore right now than trying to paddle or pedal in the downpour.

We spent a morning at Graceland, which was oddly moving, somehow. I’ve never been a giant Elvis fan, but the guy was incredibly generous with his gifts, and I can’t help but think of him and Michael Jackson as twinned doomed casualties of the culture of celebrity, sacrificed and devoured by the success they yearned for and had earned. So many parallels between the two lives, it’s really kind of spooky. And because I’ve been reading Bob Dylan’s autobiography these days, I think with even greater respect and understanding of how Dylan has navigated his own fame and success, and I end up forgiving him his false fronts, his mannered artifice, his refusal to come clean. There is a kind of openhearted generosity that will destroy a person — cagey bullshit crankiness, even as it veers into pretension, begins to make a whole lot of sense.

Not being myself a celebrity, I end up studying Dylan’s model not so much for self-protective purposes, but as inspiration for how delving into one’s own weird, idiosyncratic passions and interests can end up being fruitful and satisfying in ways one could never imagine in advance: and, embarrassing as it is to admit, even after all these years of foregoing the expected paths and rewards, I still need reassurance that I’m not throwing my life away by focusing on things like paddling down the Mississippi instead of commercial success, or orchestra commissions, or tenure. Not that I’d necessarily turn any of those things down(!), but Dylan’s model urges me to get more out there, more idiosyncratic, rather than succumbing to toeing some invisible line of reasonableness.

We stopped in for lunch at a place downtown called Earnestine and Hazel’s. We were the only customers there on this rainy afternoon, so after making us really excellent hamburgers, Butch took us upstairs and showed us around the former brothel, and told us stories about musicians — how, for example, Little Richard worked as a dishwasher here for a time. Butch’s training is as a geologist, and he has worked all over the world, and we had a fine time talking about skateboarding, and earthquakes, and kids, and the river, in addition to music. You want to come here next time you’re in Memphis, for sure for sure.

Nearby is the Lorraine Motel, which has been turned into the National Civil Rights Museum. At first I wasn’t so sure how I felt about having the museum right in the motel where MLK was assassinated, but after going through the museum, I think it’s absolutely right, somehow. Having real remnants of the 1960s — the motel sign, the cars parked below the room — brings that terrible time vividly to life. I am not enough of a baby boomer to valorize the 60s as free love and flowers and all of that — I see the 60s through my parents’ eyes, and they were horrified, sickened, by the murders and the assassinations and the bullhorns and water hoses and the bombs and the bomb shelters. And talking about the museum with Mary Rodriguez later, we agreed that the right adjective for the museum is sickening. You get a feeling in your throat and your belly and it is awful. The obviously monstrous Bull Connor and Bobby Frank Cherry are dead and gone, but racism has just gone underground, gotten coded so that hate radio and TV can spew their bile with a certain deniability.

Reverend Abernathy chose to put this on the marker in front of Room 306: “They said to one another, ‘Behold, here comes the dreamer… Let us slay him… and we shall see what becomes of his dreams.’” (Genesis 37: 19-20)

I take this as a heartbroken exhortation to keep dreaming.

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This morning I went to the Joy Baptist Church in Fort Madison. I think it’s the first time I’ve been to a Baptist church, and it’s a step towards visiting a form of Christianity that is pretty foreign to me. People were very warm and inviting, there was lots of enthusiastic singing of hymns that are definitely not in the Episcopal hymnal, and the pianist was really good (the song-leader guy said she used to be an opera singer in NYC, check it!) And the sermon was a discursive journey through Philippians by a pastor who evinced utter certainty about the efficacy of beating children (it was Family Day), along with the utter certainty that he is saved. Towards the end of the service, we were asked to raise our hands if we are sure we are saved, sure that we are going to heaven. I couldn’t raise my hand, (as I left, one man patted my shoulder and said “Keep coming back,” sort of like at a 12-step meeting) and it got me to thinking that probably according to these folks I am not really a Christian, not really a believer at all. I left the service thinking hard about what it might do to a person’s life if one were to live it in the utter certainty of salvation and forgiveness, sure of a beautiful upcoming afterlife. One might embrace his sinfulness and brokenness, as this pastor did in his sermon, but insist nonetheless that heaven certainly awaits him. He said at one point, “I am not interested in justice, I am interested in mercy.” Yes, I can follow that, I can, but I don’t like the self-satisfied certainty of this guy’s approach, which colors all his pronouncements, all his opinions. God’s mercy is very strange indeed, (as Graham Greene so beautifully articulates in Brighton Rock,) but I don’t think I would want to live in the certainty of mercy as opposed to justice. I think perhaps faith in justice and hope of mercy might lead to a more generous and honorable life, but what do I know?

A few other little things I am beginning to notice. The regional accent has begun to change. Maybe south of Davenport it began — certainly by Burlington you can begin to hear vowels that sound vaguely Southern to me. Also, the church activities are divided by gender (I began to notice this at the Presbyterian Church in Le Claire last week, actually) — the men are asked to do maintenance work on the church and the women (ladies, actually) to cook and serve lunch, for example. And it gets me thinking about how gender roles are so deeply embedded in our culture, in most cultures of course, and how very lucky I feel to go to churches in both New York and Vermont where you aren’t required to have breasts to serve on the hospitality committee and don’t have to have a penis to preach.

*

I had planned to do a second split day of paddling and biking after church (yesterday was my first day of implementing this wacky plan of putting the bike at the pullout point, paddling the kayak down to the bike, and biking back up to the car, and it was very cool to have this doubled experience of the river from both the water and the land), but when I got to the launch where I had left the kayak, I realized the wind was against me at about 13-15 mph, and would definitely make for too long a day on the river. So I decided to check out the restored Fort Madison, a very early 19th century settlement that was once the only stop between St. Louis and Prairie du Chien. The soldiers had burned the fort to the ground when they abandoned it in 1813, and it was reconstructed about twenty years ago by volunteers from the maximum security prison here in Fort Madison, led by a lifer named Walter Smith. I ended up having a long conversation with the historian who runs the place, (I didn’t get his name), who was dressed up in period clothing as the Lieutenant of the fort. The actual Captain had been a brutal man, so awful that the doctor assigned to the fort had complained to the authorities about his behavior. I got a detailed description of the various tortures the Captain regularly visited upon the fifty or so enlisted men under his authority. Do you suppose he also was sure he was saved?

Walter Smith, the prisoner who headed up the rebuilding effort, is in his seventies now, if he is still alive. Perhaps he is at the penitentiary still. I’d be interested to know how he thinks about his several years’ work heading the team that re-built the fort. Do you think he is sure he is saved?

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My paddling day yesterday ended at Battle Island, site of the last Native-White battle fought east of the river, on 1-2 August 1832, killing so many of Black Hawk’s band that the river ran red with their blood. Is it a coincidence that the perpetual prayer of the Franciscan sisters in La Crosse began on 1 August as well, some 46 years later? I would like to think not. I would like to imagine the Franciscan sisters repenting on behalf of the white soldiers, on behalf of all of us, and I would like to think that redemption is somehow possible.

Mac and I drove up to Ferryville, where we stopped at the post office to mail off a ridiculously late nameday present to agapimeni Despina, and were welcomed by Margie, the postmaster, who has decided to retire after 44 years of working, first in the La Crosse PO and then down here in Ferryville, where she grew up. She loves this place immoderately, and wants time to enjoy it fully before (as she put it) she’s “pushing up daisies.”

An older gentlemen came in and burst into tears (pride? grief? both?) when he told Margie that his granddaughter was heading off to the University of Minnesota. After he left, Margie allowed as how she loves men who cry, that she cries very easily herself and that she’s not going to give a retirement party because she would cry all the way through it. She had told a little girl at bible camp that she was just going to fly away on a broomstick (she’s retiring on 31 October), and the little girl had answered, very worried and serious, “You know, there’s no such thing as magic.”

Upon learning where we’re from, Margie told us that she herself hadn’t done a lot of traveling. She said she’d like to visit Vermont someday, that she’d been to Boston once and touched Teddy Kennedy’s sleeve at a meet-and-greet, and we laughed about the trope on “Who touched me?” Talk about redemption, but I’ll leave it to you to decide whether Margie or Teddy was more in need of it.

She also told us she’d been to Salt Lake City once, where she had come upon a man begging with two beautiful dogs reposing on each side of him, like the lions flanking the entrance to a library, and that he seemed to be an extremely successful beggar, because, as she said, ”People love animals much more than they love one another.“

I love Margie very much, and feel very very lucky to have met her, and I hope her retirement is full of joy and adventures and peace in just the balance she seeks.

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While I was paddling from Bemidji to Cass Lake today, Richard spent some time in the library in Bemidji and found some microfilms of early nineteenth century local newspapers – a fascinating trove recording the lives and voices of lumberjacks, shopkeepers, etc. who were part of a temporarily flourishing economy in the area not unlike the gold rush farther west. It was a timber rush, and after the trees were downed and floated down the river, towns that had sprung up overnight to support the lumber trade disappeared nearly as quickly.

The first night of our travels, we stayed at Wanagan’s Landing, wanagan being not the name of a person, but of a traveling kitchen boat that moored along the river to feed the loggers. we learned this from Keith Butler, who lives just up the road from the campsite, and who came down to visit and tell us stories. He also told us about a ghost town called Mallard, a couple of miles away.

Here’s a picture of the town at its height (from an information board posted at the site):
Mallard Then
and here’s a picture I took of the same location on 2 August 09, after going to the church I told you about the other day:
Mallard Now

Makes me think of Ecclesiastes more than Jonah:

Generations come and generations go,
but the earth remains forever. [1:4]

It’s an interesting thing: we read each night about Schoolcraft, Tolliver, and Sibley, about Chief Hole-in-the-Day and Little Crow, but as I paddle along this river during the day, no matter how well I keep in mind the layers of human history this river has witnessed, there is very little in the way of actual markers or voices to embody that history. The Mississippi River is not the Parthenon or Stonehenge or Macchu Picchu. Quite the contrary: it obliterates human history, or is at least indifferent to it. The bones that the Ojibwe buried on the ithsmus between Lake Andrusia and Cass Lake where I pulled out this afternoon have been washed into the river. And no traces of the mission the Episcopalians built there remain, either.

The birds remain, the reeds, and the new trees that have grown to replace the ones cut down in early nineteenth century. And the river itself: that definitely remains.

In a way, it’s all very melancholy to think about, but I find it oddly comforting. Walmart and the Super 8 and Applebee’s will also disappear sooner or later, and probably no one will lament their loss.

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Today I was scheduled for a driving day, so Richard set off from Wanagan’s Landing in the kayak, Mac on the bike to meet him at the next overpass, and I headed out to the local church for morning service. Because I’m looking to meet people in the various communities we’re passing through, I thought going to whatever local church seems promising every Sunday might be a good way to enter in to a local experience. Jonathan Raban stopped at bars in the towns he passed through, and of course ended up with a pretty depressing view of American life. not being much of a bar type myself, I figure churches might serve a similar function in terms of allowing me to interact easily with strangers, but perhaps somewhat less depressing. we’ll see!

so I arrived at the sort of Lutheran church just in time for the service: a congregation of about 25, all the men wearing checked shirts, seems to be a uniform, the women wearing hopeful summer sandals (it’s about 60 and raining.) the pastor is a supply priest (probably there’s a different name for it) from the local non-denominational evangelical college, and there is a guest speaker/guitar-player, Tim, a Gideon volunteer. Tim looks like a middle-aged version of the young Elvis (i.e. not like the actual middle-aged Elvis) and has brought his wife and two tow-headed children. he plays a song about how God made the tree that got turned into the cross, and the hill that was Calvary, and then he does a spiel about the importance of placing Bibles in hotel rooms, and tells a story about the daughter of a Hindu priest secretly converting due to a Gideon Bible, then being swept away in a flood, having left a note in her Bible that causes her parents, including her Hindu priest father to convert to Christianity. trouble is, this same story slightly transposed to Japan, where the young girl dies in a plane wreck, is printed in the pamphlet he hands out to all of us. did this same story coincidentally happen to both the Indian and the Japanese teenage girls? are all foreign heathens the same and the details unimportant? it is not clear to me.

the text was Jonah 2, and that was kind of great: the shroud of seaweed is instantly recognizable to me as the turtle muck that I just paddled through yesterday. and the organist was utterly dear, she must have been eighty, with a fabulously idiosyncratic sense of rhythm that was almost a species of swing, and Thelonious Monk-ish clusters to go along with it, and thrilling control of the volume pedal on her electronic organ.

at coffee hour the people were friendly if a bit wary. I don’t think they get visitors very often, and it took them a bit to warm up, they were far more NewEnglandish than my Vermont church congregation had been the first time I went there.

I headed out to the highway bridge to meet up with Mac and wait for Richard, who we soon realized was quite overdue. eventually a guy drove up to tell us Richard had gotten balled up in the swamp and turned around and was back at the previous bridge. so Mac and I headed there to find a pretty bedraggled Richard, and Mac decided to try the same patch of swamp, and eventually he got through, pretty bedraggled as well, and I felt really bad that both of them had a kind of rough start to their river kayaking. Mac continued on to the next campsite, Coffee Pot Landing it’s called, and I set up the tent in the rain, and we decided to head to Bemidji for dinner instead of cooking in camp, ’cause everyone was tired and wet and cold. Applebee’s never tasted so good!

got back to camp in time for a really gorgeous sunset: a red molten sun collapsing into the clouds. really hoping that red sun at night is indeed the sailor’s delight!

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