Posts Tagged “death”
from Chief Seattle’s 1855 speech:
1. Your religion was written on tablets of stone by the iron finger of an angry God lest you forget.
2. The red man could never comprehend nor remember it.
3. Our religion is the tradition of our ancestors,
4. the dreams of our old men, given to them in the solemn hours of the night by the great spirit and the visions of our leaders, and it is written in the hearts of our people.
5. Your dead cease to love you and the land of their nativity as soon as they pass the portals of the tomb; they wander far away beyond the stars and are soon forgotten and never return.
6. Our dead never forget this beautiful world that gave them being.
7. They always love its winding rivers, its great mountains, and its sequestered vales, and they ever yearn in tenderest affection over the lonely-hearted living and often return to visit, guide, and comfort them.
8. We will ponder your proposition, and when we decide we will tell you.
9. But should we accept it, I here and now make this the first condition that we will not be denied the privilege, without molestation, of visiting at will the graves where we have buried our ancestors, and our friends, and our children.
10. Every part of this country is sacred to my people. Every hillside, every valley, every plain and grove has been hallowed by some fond memory or some sad experience of my tribe.
11. Even the rocks which seem to lie dumb as they swelter in the sun along the silent seashore in solemn grandeur thrill with memories of past events connected with the lives of my people.
12. And when the last red man shall have perished from the earth and his memory among the white man shall have become a myth these shores will swarm with the invisible dead of my tribe;
13. and when your children’s children shall think themselves alone in the fields, the store, the shop, upon the highway, or in the silence of the pathless woods, they will not be alone. In all the earth there is no place dedicated to solitude.
14. At night when the streets of your cities and villages will be silent and you think them deserted, they will throng with returning hosts that once filled and still love this beautiful land.
15. The white man will never be alone. Let him be just and deal kindly with my people for the dead are not powerless.
16. Dead — did I say? There is no death, only a change of worlds.
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I spent a few days in Natchez camping at the state park just out of town and alternating working at the library and the cafe during the days. Natchez is one of those towns that revels just a little bit too much in its own beauty, if you know what I mean. If it were a person, it would not be able to pass a mirror without admiring itself. But it was a great place to hang out these gray rainy days: comfortable and well-equipped places to be indoors, an attractive downtown to wander around for an afternoon walk, and an empty and peaceful park not far from town where I could hang my hammock for cozy nights. Although one night my headlamp caught the eyes of some biggish creature who wanted to come out of the ravine near my hammock to check out the dirty dishes I had left out to be rinsed by the rain. I was already zipped into the hammock, so I yelled and kicked at the tarp and made enough ruckus to scare it away. I finally feel like I am officially no longer solely an urban person, ’cause I was happily asleep a few minutes later.
On Wednesday, I crossed the Natchez bridge and made my way down the roads closest to the west side of the river: I was too wimpy to bike in the cold and wet, so I drove very slowly through this lightly settled area: it’s the place where the Red and the Atchafalaya join the Mississippi, and the Corps of Engineers has a network of control structures designed to prevent the Mississippi from joining the Atchafalaya instead, which would leave Baton Rouge and New Orleans orphaned. I remember reading about it in John McPhee’s book, The Control of Nature, but to actually see this Herculean and (according to many scientists and engineers) doomed effort was pretty intense. (You can read more about it and see some pictures here.)
And then I suddenly came upon St. Stephen’s Church, a gorgeously maintained little Episcopal church and cemetery that would perhaps look more at home in an Old or New England town than way out in this strange forsaken place dotted with a billion dollars worth of hulking dams, miles of sugarcane, and signs for Angola Prison on the other side of the river. The church was consecrated and named for the first martyr by “the Fighting Bishop,” Leonidas Polk, whose name came up as long ago as Columbus, Kentucky. (It was he who invaded previously neutral Kentucky, which then asked for Federal troops to defend the state, which ended up putting it in Union hands for the rest of the war.) Polk seems to me an inexplicably complex character: almost completely incompetent as a general, but beloved by his men nonetheless, he was also a rich planter who owned five hundred slaves. Five hundred slaves. I’ve never read a sermon justifying slavery by a person like Bishop Polk, and I think it would have to be kind of fascinating to watch the moral contortions.
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Posted by Eve in Journal, tags: alone, BobDylan, CivilRights, death, EudoraWelty, faith, ghosts, history, Louisiana, mississippi, NativeAmerican, writing
It’s been a sort of strange and unfocused few days these days: I left the river to go to Jackson to meet up with a new fellow-traveler who got laid low with asthma at the last minute and had to cancel. Somehow the combination of being far from the river, needing to re-calibrate my plans, and being in an actual city again, has put me a bit off balance.
I spent an excellent evening reading stories by Eudora Welty in the Jackson library, which has been named after her. I was given a tour of her house the next day by two lovely ladies, I stayed in a pleasant state park right in town, I hung out at an excellent cafe in a house, so there are many rooms to choose from to sit and drink your coffee and read or write, I bought some books at Lemuria Bookstore (“capitalism at its most transcendent”, David correctly describes it), I stood in Medgar Evers’ driveway where he was shot and killed in 1963.
One of the docents at the Welty House reminded me of a Southern version of my mother: she was wearing a scarf of that exact style my mother excelled at finding: artsy and unique, not something you’d ever see in the pages of Vogue or at Bergdorf’s, but probably just as expensive. And she let me know in a million small ways that she recognized me: she told me of her time in NYC as a young woman in the 60s, generously complimented me on my neat appearance for someone camping every night, commented on my handmade Irish sweater (brought home by my mother from a trip to Ireland in 1967); “each one unique so that they’ll know the drowned man by his sweater if not his face when they fish him out.” She told me about Eudora’s first love: “he lived for fifty years with another man,” she said, looking at me steadily. And when I said I was going to Medgar Evers’ house, she told me there’s a whole tour of civil rights sites around Jackson, “if you’re interested in that kind of thing.” If I were Eudora Welty, I would definitely put her in a short story.
I headed back out to the country on Thursday, to Poverty Point, an ancient Native American site in northeastern Louisiana that flourished for more than a thousand years. I was completely alone there, and wandered by foot and bike all over the place in the late-afternoon light. It is structured as a series of long concentric half-circles that radiate from a center mound which is in the shape of a winged bird. I made a big circle around to the main mound, where I walked up to the head of the bird and down again, and then pedaled around the mound itself and climbed up to the body. Standing there, I had a glimpse of something very powerful, a sense of being sheltered — held — in the body of this giant effigy bird, and close to the ghosts of all the people who had scrabbled in the dirt to pile up and carry soil, basket by basket, to build this sacred place.
We human beings are miraculous and pitiful creatures, all of us. And I think of a line from a novel of Penelope Fitzgerald’s, not about people building mounds, but about young actors putting on a show, but it’s all the same thing, really. It’s all the same thing. “Happy are those who can be sure that what they are doing at the moment is the most important thing on earth.”
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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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Posted by Eve in Journal, tags: alone, death, faith
On Saturday, after helping Mary put in at the Trail of Tears boat launch, I drove down to Cape Girardeau along the back roads, arriving in this cool old town and finding a wifi cafe without even using my iPhone to look for it. As I walked up, I was greeted by Paul, who was sitting out front finishing his morning coffee. He asked a few questions about my trip and then offered to buy me a coffee and talk awhile. Paul, like Galen a few days ago, is an enviably hale octogenarian: he goes to the gym every day, and is clearly doing just fine physically. He grew up in Worcester, MA, lived in California (both Oakland and Riverside), and came here with his wife, who had returned to the area to care for her parents, and has now herself died as well. Paul is lonely enough that our conversation dispensed with small talk almost immediately. He told me that he’s been contemplating suicide, that he has figured out how he wants to do it, but he hasn’t yet gotten up the courage: he had thought 9/9/09 would have been a good day for it, but he somehow couldn’t manage it. He told me he’s done the things he wanted to do in his life, has traveled and seen the world, and he doesn’t know why he should keep living. He described going to the cemetery and seeing a headstone with some name on it, a name that means nothing to him, and wondering what life is for, why it matters at all that any one person lives.
It was hard going, this conversation, and I have been thinking about Paul ever since I met him. There was a terrible disjunction between the grief and depression he was expressing and the jaunty engaged warmth of his manner. The guy is taking computer classes, considering moving to Florida, and buying coffee for strangers, along with planning suicide! I invited him to join me on my journey, utterly seriously: he could drive the car, he wouldn’t have to paddle (although he looked like he could probably manage the kayak also!) And I told him I would take him with me in any case, hold him in my heart as I went, and that matters to me, even if it seems meaningless to him. I am afraid I didn’t do much for Paul, and I very much regret not being able to do more. Could I have described the birds flying yesterday — how beautiful and precious it was to watch them wheel and turn against the silvered clouds — in such a way as to rescue Paul from his darkness?
While this very conversation was taking place, there was a whole table of folks listening to a man hold forth about his own powerboat journey down the river. A grizzled beefy guy in a fisherman’s sweater and overalls, who looked every inch the seafaring captain of legend, there was something about the way he carried himself, the way he talked without listening, that felt like the perfect object lesson in how I do not want to behave — in talking about my own journey or about anything else.
How does one authentically share with others the gifts one has been given without becoming a blustering blowhard like this guy seemed to be? Is it possible to convert others without evangelizing them? Is it aggressive arrogance on my part, an unseemly missionary urge, to believe that Paul’s life would be better if I could authentically communicate my experiences and perspectives to him? My insights might not save him, whatever that means, but at least they might give him succor?
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I put in this morning at the boat launch in Port Byron and paddled down to Bettendorf, passing under the I-80 bridge, which I have driven on more than a couple of cross-country trips without hardly even registering the Mississippi. It’s interesting how the small river towns make the river the centerpiece of the community, but the larger cities almost ignore the river, turning their backs on it as if almost ashamed of the very reason for their existence. You can see that the Quad Cities are working at rebuilding their waterfronts, but I’m sorry to say that most of it still feels pretty vacant, sort of like the urban renewal projects of the 20th century, rather than authentically organic vitality.
I pulled out just after the I-74 bridge pictured above, and Lori and I headed over to the one non-Starbuck’s cafe we could find (thanks, Jane!!) and then to Arsenal Island, where I bought my very own set of sexy river maps that will cover the rest of the trip. (There is such a thing as map porn, and the Army Corps does a pretty good job of scratching that particular itch.) We drove around looking for the museum to no avail: we were pretty tired, but there’s also a strange secretive lack of information on this Army-run island: maybe better signage to the museum would incite terrorists, I don’t know. But we had no trouble finding the cemeteries: rows upon endless rows of white headstones, a segregated cemetery for the confederate soldiers who died in captivity here (I gather there was a sort of concentration camp, a northern Andersonville, here, during the Civil War) and then the national cemetery, where we were alone except for two young women and a small child who were gathered at the freshest graves. In a moment I looked back, and one of the women had wrapped herself around a headstone, and I couldn’t help but picture that Iowa or Illinois boy, just about Mac’s age, the fresh young love of this young woman’s life, the father of this toddler, blown to pieces by an IED, bleeding to death in the dust of Iraq.
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My friend Cori was supposed to fly in to Moline last night, but her dog got sick and she couldn’t come, so I headed back to Bellevue where Lori (I know, I know, I didn’t do it on purpose!) arrived around dinnertime from Columbus, OH. She had read about the journey in the NYT and decided to come out and join on for a few days, very cool! Turns out we both were friends with Robert Hilferty, whose death in this summer of many sad deaths is one that truly breaks my heart, so perhaps these few days we spend together can honor his memory in some small way.
Lori helped me put in at Bellevue for my first real paddling day in a week, and it was great to get back down in the river the way only a kayak allows. The wildlife on the river remains amazing: I saw an eagle take off from about 15 feet away, the herons and egrets and pelicans and ducks and geese are everywhere, but the winner was this crazy squirrel I came across as he was swimming across the whole river. (click the photo for a slightly clearer view…) At first I thought it must be some other animal, but as I got close I realized it had to be a very nervous squirrel: he was making that scared clucking sound the whole time he was swimming, and I wanted to tell him to focus his energy just on the swimming (it looked to be hard work for him) — but eventually he made it to the other side and scampered away. What do you suppose that was about? He heard the nuts in Iowa are more plentiful?!
I pulled out at Savanna, where Lori was waiting for me with Jeff, who is aiming to walk down to NOLA pulling his stuff behind him in a little red wagon. We talked with him for a bit and he gave me a banana (thanks and good luck, Jeff!) and then we decided to head up to Galena, IL to check out the US Grant Museum. The museum was okay, but the town of Galena was sort of trippy: upscale tourist central in the middle of rural Illinois. I had never even heard of Galena, but clearly it is a destination for well-heeled tourists from all over. It’s hard to define the exact place where charming crosses over into precious, but for me Galena is definitely on the other side of the line. I suppose my complete lack of interest in buying stuff has a lot to do with my antipathy, but I also resent the way functionality is actually displaced by the Disneyfied similacrum of “town” in such places. There are real river towns right nearby, so why does anyone want to hang out in the overpriced fake version?
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After doing the beautiful drive between McGregor and Guttenberg a couple of times these days, I decided it might be time to human-power through the land for a change, so today I started from Guttenberg on the bike instead of in the kayak. The river road definitely goes through hills and dales up and down the bluffs of eastern Iowa, and it is absolutely gorgeous countryside, of a lush expansiveness my iPhone definitely cannot photograph. And my audio recorder can’t capture, either. There is long-distance hearing as well as seeing; something you can only experience when the close-up sounds subside, a rare experience for an urbanite like me, and then you realize you can hear for miles and miles and miles. For real.
When I got to the high point in Balltown, IA, there was a park bench at the overlook with the following message etched in the stone: “I’ve enjoyed this view my whole life. Why not share it with everyone!!” Can you imagine what a great guy Ferdie Klein must have been, not just to help endow the overlook, but to give us the joy and fearlessness embodied in those two exclamation points? He is right here with us!!
I never got back on the bike after Balltown yesterday, because there was a big German restaurant that has been there since 1852 or something, so I texted Mac and he came up from Dubuque (“not as glamorous as you would imagine,” Becky had said, dryly) and we had fried cheese curds(!) and huge hamburgers and more wheat beer (it is everywhere), and then Mac drove us to the Holy Ghost Grotto over in Wisconsin, which Nick had recommended (Nick, you are still with us on this journey, that’s for sure!), and I am so very glad we went there. An artwork on the scale of Watts Towers in Los Angeles or the Beer Can House in Houston, but with the additional overlay of an ardent and exuberant Catholicism, it was built in the 1920′s by the priest of the local church over a period of five years without any preplanning at all. It’s the details that delight me: I imagine him gathering all these materials and then waking up each morning to say “Shall I make a stone rose today; or maybe it’s time for the grapes. No, the tree of life, that’s it!” And did he talk about his work in his weekly sermons? I hope so: it would have been great to hear what he had to say about his project while he was in the midst of making it.
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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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As we were parking the car in town this morning, we ran into Nancy again, walking her Black-Lab-ish dog, Greta, (not kidding!) and we got to talking about parking and she told us that some residents of Wabasha complain about the parking, which had us sort of incredulous. And she told us that the way they solved it at the town meeting was that someone came up with an overlay of a standard Target store and its parking lot on the town map, which shows how the whole downtown of Wabasha is not as big as the parking lot of a Target store, and so therefore if you park anywhere in town you are within equivalent walking distance of any store in town as you are from the Target store in its parking lot. This clever argument seems to have worked; they didn’t build a parking structure downtown.
Mary Kay and I headed off to church to see the window, and wow, it really may be the best Tiffany window I’ve ever seen. The photograph doesn’t show how there’s cloudier and crisper glass that gives a really marvelous sense of distance and dimensionality to the image. And we nearly fell over when the lay reader read a sermon by none other than our beloved Father Barrie, how cool is that?! I guess Mary Kay and I made a bit of a scene when we heard his name, because after the service everyone came over to ask if we knew the author of the sermon, so we got to bask in a bit of reflected glory for a bit…thanks, Barrie!
Little House in the Big Woods is set in the woods near Pepin, which is just across the river from Wabasha. I had re-read the book yesterday for the first time since I was nine or whatever, curious as to what I’d find, especially after reading the New Yorker article about Rose and Laura Ingalls Wilder. We drove over to a wayside rest area that has a log cabin that purports to be a reconstruction. There was no cellar, the attic was a loft, and the spot is now surrounded by cornfields instead of big woods, so all in all I was not blown away by its historical veracity.
So we headed to early Sunday dinner at a waterfront restaurant in Pepin — actually, the most expensive meal we’ve had on the trip; not bad, but not exactly anything I needed — and I was really beginning to get a bit cranky. It began to feel like one of those endless Sundays Laura Ingalls Wilder describes in the book. I have always had a certain curious dread of 4 pm on a beautiful Sunday afternoon: like I might get stuck there in this enforced state of suspended merely attractive idleness and never get free. It’s occurred to me that perhaps I’m going to die on some future beautiful Sunday at 4 pm, and my aversion is a kind of odd prognostication. I would much prefer to die on a rainy Sunday. Or any other day of the week. I think Linda Norton knows exactly what I mean: see Landscaping for Privacy for evidence.
Anyway, we headed back over the river to our riverfront cafe headquarters with free internet and five bars of cell signal and three kinds of root beer to choose from, and I felt way better almost immediately, and then it was time to go to the gospel choir rehearsal Nancy had invited us to, so we drove back to Pepin to the high school, and walked in and there are what one woman described (not completely accurately, but pretty close) as “seventy-five white Norwegian Lutherans” singing serious old-school Black gospel, and I tell you, they are REALLY good. Not good-for-a-volunteer-choir good, really amazingly good. Tight, crisp, bright, beautiful, fierce singing. Absolutely committed. And hearing them sing “Let My People Go” brought tears to my eyes.
Music changes the world. For real.
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