Tag Archives: faith

native and christian

(my notes on Native and Christian: Indigenous Voices on Religious Identity in the United States and Canada, a collection of essays edited by James Treat)


The Christian church is made up of creatures on a planet that revolves around a small sun, in a small galaxy that is only a small part of the cosmos. As our knowledge of our creation grows and as our search for meaning expands, can we really continue to believe that the truth that forms the basis for our faith is exclusive or that God has chosen to reveal truth only to Christians? At the same time, does the realization of other truths have to mean that the rich history, tradition, and faith in the truth of Jesus Christ is any less vital? I do not think so.


We must begin to discover the vast, mutual ethical basis of religious experience and begin carving out theology with peoples of different faiths. We must begin to share our faith, not as a tool of conversion, but as a means of mutual spiritual growth in which learning becomes as important as teaching. We must begin to share in spiritual understandings, spiritual expressions, and even spiritual beliefs, not to convert, but to grow in understanding. We are compelled to do this not only out of self-interest (to strengthen our faith) but that in this sharing, we along with others may grow in our understanding of God’s purpose for creation.

from Indian Spirituality, Another Vision, by James L. West (Baptist Cheyenne)
in Treat, Native and Christian (p. 36)


the idea of three Testaments: the Hebrew Scriptures, Native American Tradition, and the New Testament, that there are perhaps multiple “Old Testaments” that can assume a similar role for Christianity as the Hebrew Scriptures… articulated by Steve Charleston (Episcopal Choctaw) in “The Old Testament of Native America”


the idea that the Native Americans are the Canaanites to the Israelite/Europeans, the indigenous people who must convert or be destroyed, who are the original inhabitants of the promised land, proposed by Robert Allen Warrior (Osage, Methodist) Response from William Baldridge (Cherokee, Baptist) tells the story of the Canaanite women who comes to Jesus to beg for healing for her child, who dares to say “Yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Baldridge says: “What happens next is a miracle: The Son of Yahweh is set free. The son of the god of Canaanite oppression repents. Jesus not only changes his mind, he changes his heart. He sees her as a human being and answers her as such. “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly… and so, I believe, were the wounds of bitterness in the Canaanite woman.”


There is real concern among the reservation traditions of the impact and meaning of spreading the tribal teaching to anyone who has a spiritual or emotional need. The belief has always been that the Great Spirit and/or the high spirits are also watching others and they will provide the proper religious insights and knowledge to others. Therefore it behooves Indians to obey the teachings of their own traditions and hold them close. If they were meant for other people, the other people would have them. Such thinking has prevented most tribes from engaging in religious imperialism, and the humility underlying this attitude is admirable.  (Vine Deloria, Jr. Yankton Sioux historian)

mountains and mounds


After the Easter trip to Mississippi, I ended up first in Sarasota, FL, at the Hermitage, then home to NYC for a minute, then back to Montalvo to retrieve my car and kayak and bike, and then I drove to northeastern Wyoming, where I am spending May at an artist’s colony at Ucross. I was here once a long time ago, and since then, they have built the most perfect composer’s studio ever. I really really love it here. Wow.

On Saturday I took a hike up to some teepee circles that are on a hill overlooking the tiny intersection that forms the town of Ucross (population 25.) It turns out that the name teepee circle is misleading: archaeologists do not find evidence of encampments or any domestic life at these sites, and seem to think the circles have something to do with religion or vision quests. And they are very old, at least 1000 – 2000 years old, maybe more.

What I found deeply striking, and the reason I am writing about it on this RiverBlog, was that the location of this teepee circle, on a plateau/promontory beneath the crest of an even higher hill, overlooking the river valley from a good height — removed, but not so high above as to be inaccessible or feel terribly remote — is that it seems like the natural analogue of the man-made mounds I encountered from Cahokia near St. Louis all the way down to Natchez. It almost feels like the Native Americans along the Mississippi river decided they needed to build artificial versions of this mountainous landscape along the river where no landscapes like this would ever naturally be found.

And because the migration of Native Americans I’ve been mostly thinking about is the 19th century exile from the East to the West, it’s really strange to imagine that perhaps Native Americans who had lived here in Wyoming and Montana moved east to the Mississippi river valley and decided to replicate an important Western geological/spiritual structure by hand. (I’m totally making this up of course, I have no actual knowledge of the migration patterns of Native Americans a thousand or more years ago.)

These teepee circles and mounds are ghost towns in some special sense — not abandoned villages, but evidence of a lost or abandoned spiritual life — more like Stonehenge than Derwent. I’m thinking that in the Middle East and Greece and Italy, (to name my own preoccupations,) certain places have always had mystical or spiritual significance, and those places often get re-purposed, re-visioned, as different religions and religious rituals develop. Are there churches in the UK that were purposely built on prehistoric religious/ritual sites? I’m not thinking of an example of that kind of re-purposing in the US: the National Cathedral is not on a Native American religious site as far as I know, and I think there’s not enough respect for the Native American spiritual tradition to even think in terms of wanting to borrow or re-imagine the spiritual power Native Americans found in a particular place.


more pictures here

Journeys in New Worlds

from Journeys in New Worlds: Early American Women’s Narratives (Wisconsin Studies in Autobiography)

“an account of my peregrination” is what Elizabeth House Trist called her travel diary, written for her friend Thomas Jefferson as she journeyed from Philadelphia to Natchez in 1783-84

[Latin peregr?n?r?, peregr?n?t-, from peregr?nus, foreigner; see peregrine.]

[I tried to keep all the spelling the way it is in the original]


29 December 1783

[The old people] have but one Son who is married and has a house full of children. They have given all up to this son and have a room in the House; he maintains them. It gave me pleasure to see so much harmony subsist among them. The son’s wife told me they had lived together fourteen years, and she never saw the old people out of temper. They are very religious presbeterians; prayers before every meal and after; but their conversation chearfull and happy. I believe if there are good people in the world, they are to be found at this place. My heart overflow’d with benevolence, for it could not be envy to see an old couple that had lived Sixty years together endeavoring to please each other and to make every one as happy as themselves. A true picture of rural felicity: God continue to grant you his blessing, my worthy old man and Woman. p. 204

[Pittsburgh] Grants Hill is a delightfull situation. I think I would give the preference for to live on [the hill] as you are more in the World. The river is more confined, but the Objects are not so deminitive below you. p. 213

I dont like this river. The passage is attended with much more danger than I had any Idea of.  p. 226

[15 June 1784] Every one thinks their troubles the greatest, but I have seen so many poor creatures since I left home who’s situation has been so wretched, that I shall begin to consider my self as a favord child of fortune. p. 226

[18 June 1784, at the Chicasaw Bluffs] I some times conceit — I am got to the fag end of the world; or rather that it is the last of Gods creation and the Seventh day came before it was quite finnish’d. At other times, I fancy there has been some great revolution in nature, and this great body of water has forced a passage were it was not intended and tore up all before it. The banks are now about 50 feet high, very ragged, and every here and there great pieces of the earth tumbling in to the water. Often great trees go with it, which fill the river with logs. Some places along shore there will be great rafts of fallen timber. The water is as muddy as a pond that has been frequently visited by hogs. Alltogether its appearance is awfull and Melancholy and some times terrific.

[19 June 1784] This is a Passionate sort of a climate, quickly raised but soon blows over.

[30 June 1784 Great Gulph, 75 miles from the Yasou] A Mullato Woman nam’d Nelly was exceeding kind to us, gave us water mellons, green corn, apples — in short, everything that she had was at our service. Her conversation favord rather more the Masculine than was agreeable. Yet I cou’d not help likeing the creature, she was so hospitable. She gave us the history of her life. She may be entitled to merit from some of her actions. But chastity is not among the number of her virtues.


Pervading the earliest expressions of the autobiographical impulse in America, we find, according to Patricia Caldwell, “the important alliance between migration and conversion,” a consequence of the passage across the ocean that made the first white settlers in New England a unique people. The narratives testify to the continuing validity of this association between spatial movement and psychological transformation to later generations of American life-writers.

William L. Andrews’ Introduction, p. 9

only a pawn in their game


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.”


Mormons in Memphis


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.


reaching out

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?


Today was one of the best days of my life.

I got up and went to First Presbyterian Church in Alton with Wita, which maybe was backsliding in a way, since I’ve been aiming to go to churches that are theologically and liturgically less familiar and comfortable to me as the journey continues, but I was really glad I went: the people there were so very welcoming and kind, and the sermon (on that tricky passage about the rich camel going through the eye of the needle and all that) was really excellent. A guy who quotes Hank Williams as a spiritual advisor is a guy I am happy to listen to.

After church, we headed out to brunch with Dale and Linda Chapman, the President and Dean for Academic Affairs, respectively, of Lewis & Clark Community College, an institution that gives me a whole new understanding of the phrase “community college.” What a team those two are! They are building a River Research Center just down from the Alton Dam that is going to be an incredible place for research on all aspects of the river, and after brunch they took us for a tour of the nearly finished structure, which is completely self-powered (hydro and wind), built of limestone layers (really beautiful) with a green roof, and full of labs that will allow scientists to study the river on a scale and intimacy that has never been attempted before. And this is just the start: they are planning the second building as this first one nears completion, and we can all hope that this will be the Woods Hole for river research, an international center for understanding rivers. How cool is that?

But this was just the beginning of the day.

We said goodbye to Dale and Linda, and to dear Uncle Bob and Wita, and drove over the bridge to the boat launch just south of Alton Dam, where beloved Mike Clark, who I paddled with last week under the full moon, had within a matter of a couple of hours managed to get a canoe up to Alton and to wrangle Steve to be a shuttle driver so that Mike and Mary and I could go out on the river together.

Mike and Mary got into the canoe, and I got in the kayak, and we paddled south through a back slough, where Mary saw her first eagle in the wild, a very excellent thing, and then we headed down the main channel to, yes, you’ve got it, the confluence of the Missouri and the Mississippi. Oh my, oh my! I imagine it’s a miraculous thing every single day, but I felt really lucky to experience it after these few days of rain have swelled the river. The Missouri appeared actually to be uphill from the Mississippi, I’m guessing because all those locks and dams hold back the flow of the Mississippi, and the afternoon light shone on this fierce flow of water coming from far far in the West, and at that moment there was no question in my mind that the Mississippi is the tributary here, the Missouri is the MotherFather river for sure for sure for sure. And just after I paddled into the actual confluence, a wave materialized before me, deep down in the water, a real breaker like you see on the ocean shore, and that breaker somehow transformed into a spiral, and it circled first down and then rose up and pulled me into it and I lifted my paddle above my head to let it take me around, amazed, and after it had let me feel it, let me know its power, it released me downstream and I soared into the meeting of these two great streams, exultant beyond anything I have ever experienced before.

I think this must all sound pretty over the top, I wish I could fully articulate the ferocious beauty of this water, this complex and ravenous flow. I had always thought real power resided in the circular, but this river, with its braids, both horizontal (in its sloughs and meanders and coursings) and the invisible multiply braided currents and knots that flow vertically, beneath the surface, creates an unbelievably complex directed line, made up of all these uncountable curves and circles that knit together to make this inexorable directed flow. It is counterpoint on a vast, overpowering scale — counterpoint that you can’t subdue or resist, can’t even comprehend or encompass.

We paddled on for a bit and then stopped at 4 pm for Mike’s river version of high tea on an island, and then Mike took us through the vaunted Chain of Rocks, which were safe riffles as opposed to the murderous rock course it would have been a week ago, and we paddled down to Mosenthein Island, where our campfire of a week ago is under 14 feet of water today, and we stopped to visit the cottonwood tree the beaver is almost done with, and I found an intact and beautiful turtle shell, and then we paddled hard across the channel to land at North Riverfront Park, where not only Steve but also Scott were waiting to take us back north to the car.

Mike has been telling me bits and pieces about Scott Mandrell and his re-enactment of the Lewis and Clark expedition, a project he has been doing in segments for years now. Scott is an incredibly charismatic man: I could immediately regard him as the Captain after being in his presence for about thirty seconds.

It turns out Scott and Steve had returned this very day from the last phase of their re-enactment. They had been riding horses through the wilds of Tennessee yesterday, living out the 200th anniversary of the last day in the life of Meriwether Lewis. Scott is absolutely certain that Lewis did not commit suicide, and he has a totally thrilling theory about what actually happened in those woods 200 years ago, but I will not tell that here, leaving it for Scott to explain in his own time.

The idea that Scott and Steve would come and drive a van around in order to allow Mike and Mary and me to go out on the river together — on the very evening of a day that started for them in the deep woods of Tennessee following Lewis’ journey to the end — completely blows my mind. These people are teaching me something incredibly powerful about the merging of the practical and the conceptual, the physical and the spiritual. I begin to understand what confluence really means.

darkness visible


After all the adventures of the past few days, despite the amazing generosity and warmth of everyone I met in Burlington and Fort Madison and the miraculous recovery of all my stuff, I really hit a wall Thursday night. I keep thinking about Gary, the protagonist of the Stephen King story, The Man in the Black Suit, a story I’ve been working on turning into an opera for several years now. (You can find the story in Everything’s Eventual : 14 Dark Tales.) Gary escapes a visit from the devil completely unscathed — he, too, finds that nothing terrible has in fact happened — but nothing is ever the same for him, and at the end of his life he is still waiting for the devil to return and destroy him. The Man in the Black Suit is a cautionary tale about a loss, not of life, limb, or property, but of faith, which is the most unrecoverable loss of all.

I drove down to Quincy Thursday night, past the reach of the newspaper stories and back into anonymity, but I was spooked enough that couldn’t bring myself to camp out alone, so I checked into the cheapest motel I could find and spent the whole next day exploring Quincy, a wonderful town, full of great old houses (Maine Street is like Park Street in Brandon on steroids, one excellent house after another), visiting the crazy Moorish house right on the river that serves as the Visitor Center, and being given a long private tour of the house that belonged to the founder of the town, John Wood. I bought a book, The Underground Railroad Ran Through My House, by a local woman whose kids found a secret room while playing hide and seek one day, had an excellent lunch of spanakopita and Greek salad at one of the two(!) Greek restaurants in Quincy, hung out at the bookstore run by gentle and friendly folks, and then headed down to Hannibal for another cheap motel night.

When I woke up Saturday I realized it made no sense to continue traveling on in this frame of mind, so I drove back up to Quincy to take a look at the Eells house, home of another leading citizen of Quincy who was active in the Underground Railroad, before driving down to St. Louis, where I joined up with an absolutely great guy named Mike Clark, who among many other things, organizes monthly Full Moon Floats where he takes a group of people out on the river for a night paddle and dinner. On the way to meeting up with Mike, I stopped at a gas station in a sketchy part of town, and during the two minutes I was in the bathroom someone tried to clip my bike off the top of the car, no joke! So I put my big NYC chain and lock around the bike and the roof rack, now both my kayak and my bike are pretty seriously locked down to the top of my car, and I’m hoping we’re done with this theft story for good.

Mike and Betsy and I set off in a canoe around 6:30. It was cool and overcast, seemed like a pretty unprepossessing night for a paddle, but I just needed to get out on the river in the company of people who get it. Wow, it was totally totally the right thing to do! We put in south of the confluence with the Missouri, so this Mississippi is a whole new story: no more is it a series of pools created by the network of locks and dams, it is a free-flowing river with more than twice the volume now that the Missouri has joined it. Just crossing over to the island (i.e. not the whole width of the river) was a real undertaking: you have to find an eddy and paddle upstream a good ways before heading across or you’ll end up downstream of the island you’re heading to. We landed on this island and headed to a spot which is under the river during high water but turns into a huge sandy beach with blue holes, pools up to 25 feet deep of river water that connect to the main channel deep underground. You can see some daylight pictures here.

We gathered some wood and lit a fire and finished cooking up some excellent jambalaya and opened some wine, and suddenly the clouds parted and there was the full moon rushing upwards, creating an open space in the clouds and shining through and illuminating the whole scene, including a coyote off by the tree line who imitates the bark of a domestic dog so well that you can only tell he’s a coyote by the telltale upward yip-howl he can’t entirely suppress. And the talk was wonderful: Mike has paddled the whole Mississippi a few times, and the whole Missouri, too — he is a real river rat on a level I can’t even aspire to attain, and to talk river on both the practical and the mystical level with these wonderful folks in this amazing secret place in the middle of St. Louis was healing and inspiring on so many levels. Wow.

I got to my cousins’ house at 2:30 am, totally fried and totally happy. Thank you, Mike and Betsy, with my whole heart!

sure to be saved?


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?