Disclaimer: This unedited, rough draft material is a year-long project in response to our 2004 theme: pilgrimage. It is meant to be a dialogue between myself and my fellow Mammoths and any of you who happen along. It is intentionally not polished, nor is it finished. Charlie Buchman Ellis
Glad last week is in the calendar of memories. Too full and too much. Itasca was like a chocolate layer cake: the trails, the history, the isolation, Joseph. This, plus the heat, made it less than it could have been, in, say, September or early May. Try stopping at only one piece, then the second piece somehow tastes a bit less good than the first one, the third a lot less than either that came before, and, if you take a fourth, out of some obsessive desire for sweetness and moistness it might be the last chocolate layer cake you ever eat. I stopped after the Ozawindib trail/Deer Park Trail hike ended in sweat, biting flies, and eager mosquitoes. After that I took only moderate hikes—to the headwaters, up a trail along Itasca’s northern arm, with Joseph along some trails he knew, and the wilderness drive largely in the car.
Then, home to a Kate in pain and willing to go, without prompting, to the emergency room. In the Monday announcements page there was a picture of a bald guy identified as a 90-year old pastor and a closing line that read, “We thank Jesus for this fine Norwegian.” I showed the picture to Kate as she lay in room 14 of the Mercy ER and told her I thanked Jesus for this fine Norwegian.
This morning she had a stress/echocardiogram...run as fast you can on the treadmill, then lie down while a tech passes a wand over your heart and voila’, your heart’s at work under stress and visible through the wonder of sonar. Very weird, in my opinion.
In this case her left ventricular performance increased under stress which suggests no arterial disease, thus by elimination, pleurisy. End result: a thorough examination of Kate’s cardiac health: good, and the alleviation of anxiety, pleurisy goes away by itself. Net net a fine two days with the exception of Kate’s worry yesterday (not trivial, since Docs don’t admit to being worried unless they’re really worried.).
This diagnosis also allows her to make a trip she already had planned to visit Tommie Jo Zimmerman, her college roommate, who has undergone chemotherapy for breast cancer over the last six months. Tommie Jo lives in Chino, California outside of LA. There is life outside LA and Chino proves it. They plan to quilt and talk.
This whole episode underlines, again, the fragility of our journey, on how many different factors it depends, and how suddenly its course can alter, forever. I’m glad my journey with Kate remains ongoing.
Kate’s gone now; flown away to Ontario Airport in west LA. I am alone, here in exurbia. I’ve thought back over the journey, my journey, in literal, physical terms. Life began in a southern Oklahoma town near the Red River and Texas, from there we moved to Watonga, up in the Oklahoma panhandle, a northern and somewhat western journey. Not long after the rattlesnake round-up we moved again, this time north and east, all the way to Alexandria, Indiana. All these towns were small, under 10,000, Watonga and Alexandria under 5,000.
The stop in Alexandria lasted 15 years. Next was Crawfordsville, Indiana in the western part of the state, near the Wabash River and home of Lew Wallace, author of Ben Hur. That summer I had a brief stint in Peoria, Illinois where I met America’s best lyric poet, Scharmel Iris. He lived in the YMCA, too. Don’t take my word for his status, it was William Butler Yeats who said so in the introduction to a collection of Scharmel’s poetry.
For example, this citation: Scharmel, Iris: BREAD OUT OF STONE. PREFACE BY WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS. EPILOGUE BY OLIVER ST. JOHN GOGARTY. Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, . Cloth. First edition. Very good in worn dust jacket.
Scharmel Iris, a popular poet of his day, not only borrowed from the poetry of others, but also built a reputation by using fake endorsements from other notable poets, used, in turn, to promote his works. As many believed the endorsements, he was recognized by many of his day as an established poet. (found this while looking for some of Scharmel’s poetry. And he seemed like such a nice guy.)
A digression. Sorry. One more thing. He was a gnome. White, wispy hair. He claimed his only source of funds were donations from small poetry clubs spread across the US—thus the YMCA residence. Sigh.
The Peoria YWCA gave way to Muncie, Indiana, my home for three plus years with a brief sojourn back in Alexandria thanks to an ejection from school for public drunkenness. Shoulda been a clue, but then denial is a mighty river.
After Muncie I went to Connersville, Indiana in the central southern part of the state, a stay too long by any amount of time I spent there. Judy and I headed north after Connersville to Appleton, Wisconsin. For seminary I moved first to New Brighton, then to St. Paul. I spent an intern summer in Ada, Minnesota and back to St. Paul. In order to take a job as a nighttime manager for a residential facility (and janitor) I moved to Minneapolis. Minneapolis gave way to the farm near Spider Lake, just outside Nevis, Minnesota in Hubbard County.
The personal marks laid on my soul proved too much, so I went to Lindstrom, Minnesota to escape. Didn’t work. Then to the Mark Twain Hotel in Minneapolis, Stevens Avenue, Oak Grove (one of my favorites, a view of downtown Minneapolis). After Oak Grove came the house on 41st Avenue where Raeone and I lived after our marriage and where Joseph came into my life. Then, across the river to St. Paul and Seargent Avenue near Macalester College. Divorce. Another favorite, Irvine Park. Married Kate. The house on Edgcumbe Avenue where the Woolly’s entered my life and we entertained the Russians. After, the move to Andover, now ten years almost exactly. July 10th or so, I think.
Makes me tired just thinking of it. I mention it all however to establish my bona fides for what will come next: thoughts I’ve had of late on exurban/suburban life and why we need to embrace it, celebrate it, and enhance it.
Today is July 4th; a holiday I refuse to relinquish to the love it or leave it crowd, since I love America, won’t leave, and will not accept imperialists, war-mongers, and greedy oligarchists as our legitimate authorities. Sorry, guys. Where liberty is, there is my country said Ben Franklin. Where justice is, there is my country and I will not believe that country cannot be contiguous with the USA.
Double negatives aside I always use this holiday as a kick-start, if I’m not doing it already by this time, to look at American art and literature, listen to American composers like Copeland, Ives, Harris, and Barber. I also put on jazz, the blues, and popular music of the 19th century along with the occasional folk cd and native american flute.
I say this because I find the issue of suburbia inextricable from the issue of loving or leaving America. That is, those of us who might leave (if Bush wins; I’m moving to Canada.), rather than love America—love is not easy—also wrestle with the suburbs. Many of us see the undercity, or the inferiorcity, or the lesserthancity as all of those: under (the nether regions morally speaking), inferior (culturally), and lesserthan (a haven for morally challenged, weak-kneed liberals, or openly racist, segregation loving rednecks).
When we talk about suburbs, of course, we speak not of one thing, but of a species, or, perhaps 3 species, and a number of varieties and cultivars. The three species I can identify are: the inner-ring suburb, the outer ring suburb, and the exurb. In our world here in the Twin Cities MSA it would be, say, Richfield/Fridley/New Brighton, St. Louis Park as inner-ring; Coon Rapids, Minnetonka, Hopkins, Apple Valley, Blaine, White Bear Lake as outer ring suburbs; and, Andover, Lakeville, Stillwater area, Maple Plain, Chanhassen as exurbia. We can quibble about these divisions and to which suburbs they apply, and I may refine these as we go along, but the broad divisions exist and correspond, usually, between inner and outer to time of development with the inner-ring developed first, often post WW II, and the outer-ring, later, perhaps late 1960’s/1970’s, and the exurbs only beginning to develop in the wake of a “filled-up” outer ring communities.
Exurbs, and some inner and outer ring suburbs, too, were small communities before the metropolitan area began to grow: Chanhassen, Stillwater, New Brighton, Osseo for example, all have downtowns, a sure sign of town status prior to suburbanization. On the other extreme, Andover and Ramsey, for example, city councils debate just where to put a “central shopping area.” These are communities which may not have existed at all prior to the metropolitan growth, before they were mostly farms and truck gardens. Andover was Grove Township until 1982.
The usual arguments against suburbs are these: 1. They use space poorly. Too few people on too much land, and, often the land they take is productive (farms, truck gardens, orchards, other rural businesses.) 2. They segregate core cities. 3. They result in the misallocation of tax dollars, especially for public services like police, fire, schools, sewer and water, streets and parks. This misallocation leaves underutilized, already built facilities behind while diminishing the tax base to support them—as people move further and further out taking their homes and businesses with them. 4. They’re inherently ugly. 5. Not only ugly but boring and stifling, stagnating, a conformity swamp. Think Steve Martin at the beginning of LA story driving through an enormous subdivision of identical homes, finger pressed to his garage door opener, hoping to find his own home. 6. Not to mention collecting conservative voters in handy enclaves where their votes can be vacuumed up by clever Republican gerrymandering (on the rise in the last two census realignments.) 7. They screw up the logistics of many things: transportation planning, commuting to work, efficient routes for truckers and delivery folks. 8. Last, but I could go on, the net effect of 1, 6, and 7 produce environmental disasters.
Well, God. It makes a guy embarrassed to inhabit one, doesn’t it? Not too long ago, I would have said yes. Now, I say, no.
Why? The answer is, on the hand, quite simple, and on the other hand as complex as the drivers which created suburbs in the first place.
The simple answer. People go where they want to. Think the frontier, the pristine Big Woods, the fertile Plains, the arid, but irrigable West. There was time, gentle urban patriot, before Minneapolis and St. Paul, before Chicago, before New York City, before even LA. As I have written in other places, the first mauling of mother earth happened when somebody figured out grain and animal husbandry. Before that...hunters and gatherers. But, even hunters and gatherers were not without their damaging effect on the environment. Why, we have increasing evidence early paleo-lithic hunters took out our own Woolly Mammoth, right here, in these...well, right here in whatever they called it back then. If anything. Probably home.
People go where they wanna go, and do what they gotta do. Does this mean we should endorse every mass movement, just because it has a huge imprimatur? No. But it does mean we have to acknowledge most folks didn’t set out after World War II and think: hmmm, let’s get together with some developers, move out of the racially diverse city into ranch-style homes with similar décor.
As I have also written before, the biggest smear on the wilderness landscape is not Andover...it is Minneapolis. It is not Skokie, but Chicago. It is not Hoboken, but New York City. Not Chino, but LA. My only point is this: dense use advocating, city loving Democrats do not have the moral high ground when using the central city as their paradigm for human habitation.
Now, having been a dense use advocating, city loving Democrat all my adult life, have I taken leave of my senses, am I ignoring the truth for vapid self-defense? Well, I suppose that’s always a possibility, but I like to think I’ve seen a more nuanced truth of late.
Oh, and less you think I’ve forgotten pilgrimage...no, I haven’t. Pilgrimage’s, at least the most usual kind, involve traveling from place to place, across the earth. Usually, they involve a journey from home to a sacred place, then, with the world seen in a new light, a trip back across perhaps the same terrain, yet with a changed perception of it. Then, to home. And the meaning of home may well have changed along the way...both by being seen in the context of other places and by being seen in the context of a sacred experience.
A pilgrimage could take place from Andover to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Or, a pilgrimage might take place from the Gittleman condominiums in Loring Park to the Boot Lake SNA and a certain twisted white pine. And back again. Top
It is all, in my judgment, sacred ground. I hope you can take into yourself this idea, it is all sacred ground. Not just El Capitan, the Quetico, the Cloisters, the Cathedral in St. Paul, or the headwaters of the Mississippi. Not just the bridge in Selma, or Stonewall in Manhattan, or Gettysburg. No, the parking lot behind the convention center, the bridges over the freeways, backyards filled with washing machines and car bodies, alleyways, the concrete riverbeds in Los Angeles, even the burned out hulks of the Robert Taylor homes and the dangerous neighborhoods around them, sacred ground.
The land underneath the pavement of St. Paul, sacred ground. The land beneath the runways of every airport in the world, sacred ground. The runways, sacred ground, too. Bear Butte? Of course. Wind Cave. Pleasure Land RV in St. Cloud? I think so.
Why? Because there is nothing on this earth (and off of it, too, but that extends the argument too far for this line of thought.) unrelated to the rest. The cliché, “We’re all made of star-dust.” can be recast, “We’re all made of refuse. Garbage. Offal. Lake water. Lava bits.”
In this the Buddhists are surely right. We do recycle over and over and over and over, again and again. Who knows what the very things making you who you are now, were? Minutes ago. Hours ago. Centuries ago. Epochs ago.
This is actually my argument in a nutshell. It is all sacred ground, even suburbs. Are there problematics with the way people arrange themselves in suburbs? Yes, indeed. I mentioned some of them above, but I really believe, given an expanding population, that their problematics are no more nor no less significant than those already imposed by central cities, and the most polluting form of human habitation of all, farms.
So, all ground is sacred ground. No form of human habitation is, per se, morally superior to another. I make these claims. If you don’t agree, well, what I say next won’t ring true then, I imagine.
While the great virtue of the polis is interaction: ideas, peoples, commerce, music, theatre, painting, and the subsequent fertility that springs from such interaction, such interaction and creativity is not the only civic virtue.
Here I step onto dangerous ground, so let me proceed with caution. I am a radical of old; now, like those in the 19th century, I find myself hoping for a liberal political perspective to prevail. I say dangerous ground because these political labels are hard to hold, slippery things, what means liberal in one century, may well mean the opposite in another.
I have done a good bit of reading in political philosophy, both liberal and conservative, trying to form and reform my own ideas, to present them as something congruent with my liberal religious perspective. I’m no where near done with this reading and my thinking on the subject lurches from pole to pole.
Let me illustrate. A liberal believes in the individual, in freedom, and in liberty. A liberal believes these principles are core to political and economic life, U-U’s believe these principles apply to religion and matters of faith as well. You might set these beliefs over against monarchic or autocratic principles which cherish tradition, order, and rule by the few.
This is far afield from Andover or Richfield, you might say. Yet not so. Here in the suburb the core values of liberalism find reinforcement, if you look below the surface. The interactive nature of the polis necessitates a certain friction between individuals and the public. This is, as I argued above, a central virtue of the city.
Here in Andover, for example, there is a certain push toward superficial conformity. Housing style, vehicles, educational ambition, steady workaday jobs, traditional family structures all tend to press the commuter into a similar clump, a demographic cluster as the good folks at Claritas Marketing suggest.
Yet consider. I sit here tapping away at my computer, communicating with Woolly Mammoths. I write and read the classics, garden in a way more reminiscent of the English cottage garden than the formal designs of my neighbors. Yes, but I’m a special case, you might say. A true urbanite transplanted by accident.
Maybe so. But my neighbor dresses up in costumes and chases his wife around the house. He also sails sailboats, lobbies at the Capitol, and has a daughter who is very Goth, but also very bright. Behind us an African-American family, who have been here as long as we have, live in seclusion, as do a lawyer’s family in a $500,000 log home. Across the way, the guy drives Corvettes and other fancy cars. We suspect he’s a repo man, or a car thief, but he spent this evening in his driveway setting off annoying fireworks. Over the holiday weekend my neighbor whose home fronts on Rte. 9, Round Lake Blvd., spent an apparently unsuccessful morning tuning his Harley. He raced the engine every few minutes and his pipes are loud.
All right. Here’s point 1. The individual can pursue their idiosyncrasies here. The very lack of social fabric, the oh so loose interactivity of garage sales and the occasional graduation party, allows an individual, or several individual in a household to seek a life expressive of their Self. Does it encourage this? No. Does it allow it? Yes. So, individualism and freedom converge in the most mundane place possible: the cul de sac.
A note on being sick. Every once in a while my dear and glorious physician brings her work home with here; this time an enterovirus. Makes my brain slosh around in my skull, gate unsteady, nausea in the midsection, aches and pains all over, and cyclic fever. It always amazes me how sick being sick can make you feel.
Sleep comes with difficulty, food seems uninteresting, taking a shower this morning required more energy than I had. You’ve all been there at one time or another, in episodes of more or less serious illness, but it is something we don’t write about, talk about much.
In one contemplative moment I began to think, let’s see; a disease is a matter of more or less seriousness wanting to take the body into complete entropy; so, could we also say then that birth is a terminal disease? After all...
The upside. I like sitting in my chair, for the moment other claims on time suspended. I can meditate or read or watch movies and not feel middle-class male guilt for not furthering my something or other.
This is it for now. The back of my head says, different position needed, different position needed. Go.
Let me point out something most contemporary liberals ignore. As I said above the principles of liberty, freedom, and the individual are core to liberal thought. And, I also said that the liberals apply these principles in various cultural realms: politics, religion, and economics. When you apply liberty, freedom and individualism to the economic realm you end up with some form of capitalism, in other words, not some state controlled economic system like socialism, communism or some statist solution like National Socialism. Adam Smith et al. A child of the enlightenment.
Ah. The next day now and the throbbing has subsided. Back to work.
Here is an odd thought passing through my head now. Liberals work from abstract principles and hold political policy making to critique before the bar of such big words as justice, equality, fairness, equity, liberty, freedom, individual rights. So, on the face of it what can be wrong with that? Who can be against justice?
A conservative would not say he is against justice; he would say that justice is not a principle that can define a society as a whole. Why not? Well, where is such a society? If there is no wholly just society by now, the conservative would argue, it seems vain and disruptive, to do so today. This without mentioning the unintended consequences of policies based on an abstract idea like justice.
A conservative believes things have tended to work out the way they have because of human nature, an unchanging fixture in history.
I’m sorry, but these ideas now seem faraway, not accessible for the moment. A disruption like an illness has strange disturbances in my mind, puts me off the track I was on, and on another. Somewhat like pilgrimage, I suppose, or LSD (God, to show you how far away I am from my drug-using days, I put LCD here and didn’t catch it till later.).
Writing has lost its zip for the moment, so I’m going to sign off for today—Thursday. I have not forgotten Delphi and Delos, though perhaps you have, and we will return to them soon. I’m reading a three-volume biography of Alexander the Great, finished the 1st volume yesterday. In it Phillip of Macedon goes to visit the Pythia, the oracle, in the adytum, her chamber into which flow the last mists of the chaos which preceded the birth of the planet. These vapors throw the Pythia into a sacred trance and she makes a brief utterance, the words of the God Apollo, who “rides” the Pythia like some Vodoun deity. In Phillip’s case it’s seen later that his oracle presages his assassination.
In the time period immediately after Phillip’s death Alexander takes his army on a quick strike to Theban territory. After this is over, Alexander himself stops by a Delphi to see the Oracle, too.
My visit had none of the pomp, nor the circumstance of Phillip or Alexander’s, but I think we all three visited as pilgrims.
Friday afternoon and I’ve had writerly thoughts on my mind as I get ready to close for this week. I’m not sure whether I’ve written about voice here. Voice to a writer is what style is to a painter; it is the unique expression of Beethoven or Mozart that makes a listener say, Mozart or Beethoven. Just as Hemingway’s prose voice is unique, so is Maughm’s, Faulkner’s, even Elmore Leonard.
Anyhow. I’ve given a lot of thought to voice and style since in these diary entries I’ve chosen a first person, diary-like persona. A sort of casual essay, sometimes a bit more serious. There are those in the literary community who believe essays and essayists cannot, by definition, be serious literature.
This rather peculiar position is, as near as I can tell, an example of a deep-seated bias, no less so because it comes from the groves of academe. Many of the trees in the grove have sufficient green for excellent photosynthesis, but the wood they make is often very, very hard.
Oh, hell. Here it is...I do so want to have people take my writing as a serious endeavor. Wait! No, I don’t. I mean, I don’t “so want.” What I really want is for my voice to be clear, strong, and true. After that the seriousness, worthiness, humor, insight comes or no, but without voice I am no better than the biblical clanging symbol.
So. Voice is important to me this week. So there.
I’ve also found the half-way mark coming up in two weeks an astonishing thing. I’m not sure how many words we’ve got here so far but I’d imagine they’re approaching 90,000, maybe a bit more. Thanks for being there so far.
As our good buddy and eldest brother says, “I love you and I like you.”