Tag Archives: writing

putting it together

I think most of you know that I’ve pictured this river journey as happening in three phases: the first phase is the human-powered journey I’ve been taking down the river, having adventures on the river and near it, meeting people, camping in parks, reading in libraries, visiting churches, and writing and posting as I go. Starting in January, the second phase will begin. I’m going to settle in at a series of artist colonies and write music in response to this whole amazing journey. I’ll be at Montalvo in California from January through March, at the Hermitage in Florida in April, and at Ucross in Wyoming in May, and then spend the summer up on my land in Vermont. In the fall, I imagine beginning phase three: revisiting the places and people I met on the first journey, performing the music I have made for and hopefully with them, doing residencies that enlist townspeople as fellow performers.

I need your support to realize the total vision for the project, so I’ve set up this tiered list of possible contribution levels. I’ve never done anything like this before, so it’s an exciting experiment for me, and I really hope you will want to participate, at whatever level is meaningful for you. If every person who has visited this Riverblog were to sign up to pre-order the mp3s, I could live for the whole writing period without worrying about bills. If enough of you donate at higher levels, I will be able to do residencies and give free concerts in towns that can’t afford to hire me to play.

$10 download high quality mp3s of the CD

$20 one download for you, and one free download for another person

$25 pre-release physical copy of the CD

$50 pre-release physical copy of the CD for you, and a free copy for another person

$100 pre-release physical copy of the CD for you, two free copies for others, and a totally cool EVBVD Rivertrip T-shirt

$250 signed pre-release physical copy of the CD for you, three free copies for others, and two totally cool EVBVD Rivertrip T-shirts

$500 all of the above, plus special thanks on the CD

$1000 all of the above, plus executive producer credit on the CD

$3000 all of the above, plus you’ll be listed as commissioning one of the pieces on the the CD

$5000 all of the above, plus I’ll do a free concert at your home, OR at the school, church, gallery, museum, or community center of your choice

$10,000 all of the above, plus you can guest in as a performer on the recording of one of the pieces OR we can collaborate on choosing/making a text for one of the pieces

Click this button to contribute at whatever level you like.





If you are interested in participating at the $500 level or above, please contact me first, and we’ll work out the details and arrange for your support to be tax-deductible.

Thank you for participating in the river project: I couldn’t do it without you!

only a pawn in their game

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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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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.

from the trenches

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Mary started paddling today from Fort Defiance so that she could have her own experience of the confluence, and had planned to do thirty miles, but the headwind was very strong, and it took her five hours to make it to Columbus, only fifteen miles downriver. I had gone down on the Missouri side to wait for her, and I was really relieved when she texted me: it’s the first time in all these months of traveling that I was really worried about the whereabouts and safety of my traveling partner. Rather than driving back up to the bridge at Cairo and down the Kentucky side, Google very kindly told me to take the ferry at Hickman, and routed me north to Columbus over really beautiful back roads.

After I gratefully retrieved Mary, we decided to stop into the diner in town for lunch/dinner and were reading the chapter about Columbus in Life on the Mississippi when Jim Kerr came in to check out the folks with Vermont plates and the red kayak on the roof. What a delight this man is: the last of a family who settled here in the 1810s, he is a self-described radical who spearheaded a successful effort to keep a giant garbage dump from being located here, has worked towboats and dredges on the river, hauled racehorses on land, worked in real-estate and insurance, and has a soybean farm in the bottomlands. He drove us over to a beautiful crumbling house with an incredible view of the river that he rightly thinks would make an excellent artist’s colony; and then showed us to the state park, which has an equally gorgeous view. It also has trenches that were built by confederate soldiers during the war; our hammocks are hung from trees that line the trenches. I imagine I will dream tonight of honorable boys dying valiantly for the wrong side.

another confluence

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Because I wanted to go to church this morning, Mary decided to paddle the first part of the day, so I helped put her in at the tiny town of Commerce, well-named, since an unpleasant guy there actually charged us ten bucks to put in at his decrepit ramp, which I had to clear of logs and trash before we could use it. I decided to forego church in Commerce, and drove west to Charleston, MO, and ended up at the First Baptist Church. I was a bit worried what I would hear, after my experience of Baptist church in Fort Madison, but I really liked the service. There was a strong chorus, accompanied by both piano and organ, and the conductor was skilled, and she would have us sing the final verses of the hymns without accompaniment, a fine way to experience the coherence of the gathered congregation.

The sermon was good, nothing about beating children or the fires of hell, but an exhortation to give of the gifts we have been given, not just the offerings required by law, but freewill offerings from the heart. And he spoke vividly of time and talent, as well as treasure: it was not all about money, for sure. The sermon was all the more effective because he got quieter at the climaxes, drawing us in to follow his argument. Not unlike the a cappella final verses of the hymns.

I was repeatedly and warmly invited to stay for dinner (no coffee and donuts here, it’s a whole meal!), but I had to leave right after the service to drive way out on farm roads to the boat launch where I took over paddling from Mary. The last bit of road was too muddy and pitted to drive, so I left the car and hiked about a half mile to the ramp. Beautiful place, really remote: it’s at the beginning of a ten mile meander the river takes, shaped like the Greek letter omega, almost doubling back on itself before continuing down to the confluence with the Ohio. When Huck and Jim traveled this stretch it undoubtedly looked very much as it does now.

It’s becoming a Sunday afternoon tradition to hit a big confluence! I took a back slough at mile 5 (the river mile numbers start again at Cairo), and came out on the right side of the ”long tongue“ below Cairo Mark Twain describes, and there’s actually a point, the tip of the tongue if you will, where the Ohio and the Mississippi come together. It was a bit intense getting across the confluence and down a couple of miles on the left where I had told Mary I wanted to get out. The swells were big enough that the kayak disappeared in the bottoms of the troughs, and down in them I couldn’t see land at all. The ramp was obscured between some dry docks, so I almost missed it, and had to paddle hard to get in. No boils or breakers this time, just fierce big water. I take it very seriously.

We drove back in to Cairo and picked up a bottle of wine to celebrate the official completion of the upper river. 1325 miles. I am very moved to be here in the heart of the heart of the country. But it is heartbreaking to see the state of decay Cairo is in: practically a ghost town except for some pretty awful barracks-like projects on the outskirts. The liquor store was virtually the only functioning place in the whole town. We camped completely alone at Fort Defiance, which felt a bit risky, but somehow necessary, and were rewarded by a clear night with a million stars. I kept Uncle Bob’s very sharp knife in the hammock with me, more as a totem than as an actual weapon, and slept without fear.

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Wherever the river goes

I slept til noon on Sunday, and when I woke up, my cousins Emma and Spencer and Amy (Frank had to work) had figured out where they wanted to take me in St. Louis. The place is called the City Museum, and it’s hard to describe how cool this place is. Imagine Tom Sawyer’s island at Disneyland, cross that with the Holy Ghost Grotto in Wisconsin, and then multiply wildly, adding in two ancient airplanes, a schoolbus cantilevered off the roof, several bulldozers used as staircases, lots of masonry from torn down buildings, many mosaics and sculptures, all welded together and connected by heavy metal mesh (outdoors) or concrete (indoors), so that you can crawl or climb or slide through and among all these wonders. A kid can crawl or climb or slide through even more of it: some of the spaces are definitely too small for a full-grown person. It is a totally incredible place, and the guy who made it keeps adding new marvels, and I’m in a bit of delighted shock it can manage to exist in these litigious days. Next time you get to St. Louis, you really must pay a visit, pictures definitely do not do it justice!

*

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Monday morning I picked up Mary Rowell at the St. Louis Airport and we immediately headed back north (Susan, you didn’t really think I’d skip it, did you?!?!) to Hannibal, where we wandered around town and visited Mark Twain’s boyhood home and other haunts, and climbed Cardiff Hill and read aloud the chapters in Life on the Mississippi where he describes revisiting Hannibal. Tourist Hannibal is really very nicely done, the shops and cafes along Main Street are pleasant and inviting, and I was happy to spend an afternoon wandering through it. Even the nostalgia is not laid on too thick: given that Twain himself can fall prey to that illness, I think it’s impressive that the town succeeds at honoring its history without wallowing in it.

Mary and I camped out at a commercial campground Monday night and as we were setting up camp, a gentleman came over to talk with us a bit. Galen is 83 years old and bikes and lifts weights five days a week. I would have placed him at least ten years younger, not just because he’s in great physical shape, but because he was so engaged and warm and curious about our adventure. The next morning as we were packing up to leave, he came back and offered us a blessing, a formal blessing, that I welcomed with my whole heart: thank you Galen, you are indeed a physician of souls right there in the Mark Twain Campground.

So after ten days away, I finally got out on the river again in my very own kayak this morning. We drove over to a boat launch on the Illinois side directly opposite Hannibal and I put in and paddled past downtown Hannibal and down the back sloughs in and among the islands, one of which must be the place where Huck and Jim launched their journey, and I couldn’t help but stop paddling and just float, imagining how it would feel to be rafting down this river, running away from slavery or an abusive drunken father, giving in the power of the river, thinking about the trippy irony that in this great American novel, Huck and Jim float south to freedom. What they do is not Calvinist effortful striving, not sweaty action-movie heroics: they just let the river carry them.

And after a while the clouds and rain cleared and the sun came out and the wind came up in gusts, so sometimes it was fighting me and others it was helping me along, and the whole undertaking felt like a game, a series of jokes between me and the wind and the water. And I can’t tell you how much I love being out here, and how happy I am to be underway again.

I gave the kayak over to Mary about 1 pm, and she should be getting here to Louisiana any minute now (the town, not the state(!) recommended, like Quincy, by a friend I haven’t met yet named Linda Smith) and I’ll see if I can find wi-fi to post this.

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outing myself

This morning the phone rang while I was in Walgreen’s in La Crosse and it was Nick Lichter, who wrote The Road of Souls, an account of his 1991 solo journey down the Mississippi that we’ve been reading and re-reading as a sort of treasure hunt. Nick seems to have a knack of finding cool out-of-the-way things that we’ve not always successfully tried to find ourselves. We drove around Itasca State Park one afternoon looking for the marker commemorating the first sermon preached at the headwaters (by Archdeacon Gilfillan) to no avail — we even asked at park HQ and nobody knew; and we found the Chief Hole-in-the-Day Business Park (not kidding) and a set of beehives northeast of Little Falls, but not the burial mound of the Chief we were actually looking for.

But Nick found us, no problem, and invited us to stay with him and Margaret, whom he met on his trip (talk about life-changing!) and their three children in their house just up a coulee in La Crosse. And he suggested I go take a look at the Franciscan convent a couple blocks away since I had a bit of time before picking up Mac.

So when the laundry was done, I headed over to the Franciscan Sisters’ Motherhouse, and Sister Dorothy gave me a tour of this really beautiful chapel, which among many treasures has faux Norwegian pine columns that I can only call glorious, and she was so kind and so free and so playful in that way nuns and monks can sometimes be, and when they are it is just the best ever. And she left me at another chapel where there has been a perpetual prayer for peace going since 1 August 1878. When the bell rang the hour, everyone got up and recited some prayers including that line about doing the work God has chosen for us to do. And I know it sounds completely dumb to say this, but I really feel like this journey is the work I have been chosen to do right now. I don’t really have a clue why, exactly, I mean, prior to a year ago I really had no particular connection to or interest in the Mississippi River, it’s not like I’ve been fantasizing about doing this journey since childhood or anything like that. It just came over me and now here I am. And I feel pretty foolish posting this for all of you to read, and you are totally welcome to scoff if you like. I mean, really!?!? God told her to paddle down the river. Whatever. But there it is.

Anyway, as I was leaving, Sister Dorothy hugged me and blessed me, too, so now I think I can go to Catholic Church one of these Sundays after all. I’ll carry Sister Dorothy with me and everything will be fine.

After retrieving Mac, we headed over to Nick and Margaret’s and had a really wonderful evening with them and their children. Paddling the river builds a very deep connection, that’s for sure! And Nick’s way of immersing himself the history and stories of the river along with the physical, tactile experience of being out there is something I appreciate very much. They offered us their vacation house just down the river in Ferryville, so we’ll be spending some more time with Nick (and maybe his family, too), and I’m really looking forward to that.

reading the river

I begin to learn the very basics of reading the river: learning to see the difference between ripples in the water caused by wind and those caused by branches or rocks just under the water. It’s a funny thing how the kayak wants to go right where the obstructions are, to join the faster water that’s created there. I am aware that I am a rank beginner at this river reading: it’s about equivalent to my Ojibwe recognition: a ”g“ at the end of a word makes the word plural, I know that much!

I’m actually quite good at being a beginner at things: perhaps it’s my only real expertise. I know 300 words and the conjugation of the present tense in as many as 10 languages, but I can’t really speak any but English. I can play simple music on virtually every instrument, but I’m not a skilled performer on any of them. I realize I am in certain ways a total dilettante, a ”generalist“ as my father described me to my chagrin as a teenager. I berate myself all the time for not mastering Greek or the piano, I put myself on disciplined schedules of study that invariably fall by the wayside because the next project requires me to learn the rudiments of the Persian radif and carpentry, kayaking and Ojibwe. After first spending some time with my music, my friend Susan pronounced me a bricoleur, without a trace of disdain, so I’ve decided finally to embrace my bricoleur self, make my peace with my own nature. I have the confidence that I can learn almost anything I need to know to do what I want to do, to make what I want to make. But sometimes I do get lonely for that sense of pure mastery of a single subject. I think of Mark Twain’s immortal description of the river pilot’s expertise in Life on the Mississippi, and I would like to have that mastery in something more, I don’t know, elevated than driving a car, using a Mac, editing audio, setting up a tent.

Although writing this, I’m suddenly realizing that the pleasure I take in dumb little rituals like organizing the car, setting up the tents elegantly and efficiently, keeping my databases and hard drives ridiculously tidy, and a million other tiny tasks, which I execute in a laughably OCD and control-freakish way, are a way of counterbalancing my openness to beginner status and serendipity (otherwise known as ignorance and luck) in the most important parts of my life.

And there is a moment sometimes when I’m writing a new piece when everything falls into place, and suddenly I do have that sense of mastery of the needs of that exact piece and no other, and I feel this oceanic sense of utter certainty: it didn’t exist at all, then the fragmentary thread of something shows up, and then all of a sudden, I know exactly how it goes, what it needs to be. It doesn’t feel like MY mastery at all, more like something visited upon me. But perhaps that’s my version of reading the river. I’ll take it; it’s enough for me, for sure…