A Pilgrim’s Year, 2004:  Week 26


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Week 50, 51, 52


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


I forget.  I forget I’m feeling.  I forget I’m feeling down.  Last night I forgot to turn the burner off under the skillet I’d used to make sausage and eggs (high omega3 eggs and low-fat chicken sausage, I’d like to clarify.)  When Kate and I did our business meeting for the week, I made silly little mistakes.  “You can’t multi-task!” she said.  As if that’s a bad thing.

Still.  Bringing a task to consciousness takes a heartbeat longer, as if my cpu has overloaded, is busy in the background processing—what?  I don’t know.

Today the heaviness sits in my sinus cavities—which I learned recently are vestigial.  It seems to effect my inner vision; I don’t track on the world, or even on my own ideas with as much speed, or care, or precision.  I know the molasses metaphor gets a lotta work here, but it has merit.

When I worked in Ada, Minnesota, now over 30 years ago, the church bought me a Dodge Valiant to drive.  An old farmer told me how to navigate in the Red River Valley after a rain.  “Keep moving.  Don’t stop.  If you stop, the clay’ll suck you down.”  He was right; I did some ministerial fish-tailing, but kept moving on those Norman county back roads.  I never got stuck.

One digression here.  A piece of the weirdness ministry can bring into your life.  I was 25; barely able to walk a straight line either theologically or spiritually, and I got the opportunity one afternoon to do a pastoral visit with a couple, both well over 80, who were long-time faithful members of the Ada UCC church.

We had a very pleasant visit. I’ve always liked rural folks, I suppose because I come from rural places, so we had an easy conversation.  As I got up to go, I sensed they wanted something from me.  (This was my first ever pastoral visit.)  Ah.  A prayer.

“Should we say a prayer before I leave?”

At those words both of these dear, sweet folks dropped to their knees in front of me and waited for a blessing.  Hmmm.  I did the only thing I could think of; I got down on my knees, too, and we said the Lord’s Prayer together.  It was, for this guy who entered seminary to pursue a radical political agenda, a very odd moment, but a very tender one, too.

Ministry has so much intimacy laced into its every act.  It is no wonder to me some clergy and some laity get confused and cross the boundary line.

Anyhow, back to the wet clay and driving valiantly.  There is an impulse to apply the back roads of Norman county logic to melancholy.  Get up, get moving, don’t stop, or the clay’ll suck you down.  Still.  The whole impetus of melancholy, at least for me, is to slow down, way down.  To get stuck.  To let the clay close around you, wet and slippery, the earth’s moist embrace.

There is an art here.  The farmer’s advise is right, for sure, in this regard: never, ever stay stuck.  Staying stuck is how melancholy turns into depression and depression to catatonia.  (metaphor, guys.)  Yet there is the also the need to listen to the god who’s taking you down.

I’ve given some thought to this in my case, and, though he’s not a god, I think Orpheus, son of a king and a Muse, may be in charge here.  This feels like a descent into the underworld, a descent with a purpose, perhaps a journey after my lost fiction, my muse, the one who speaks the words of fantastic worlds into my inner ear.

If it is Orpheus, then the journey has some to go, I’ve not struck the depths yet, I know, and I need to go along, down and down and down, to see if the muse who loves me lies below...I believe she does, perhaps like Persephone or Eurydice, captive to the lord of the underworld.

All of this is tentative, I’m feeling my way.  When I went grocery shopping today, I came back completely to consciousness, the appetites focusing my attention.  But, when I dug irises this afternoon, I felt the languor, the sinking in and down, like the spading fork as it thrust below the rhizomes.

I found an iris borer, a fat pale worm with a reddish head and tiny black feet.  When I saw what he’d done to my iris, I squashed him, impaled him with the spading fork.  Shocked, I thought back to the reading I’d done in Hillman about enemies and war and war as a first principle.  Maybe so.  Was it a sudden emergence of Ares who lifted the fork and pierced that worm?  Could be.  Felt like a visceral response to me.

Well.  Enough for now.  The weight on my fingers, my shoulders, says stop.  Wait.  I’ll be back.


Mary’s leaving on Monday and now I’m a little sad to see her go.  I found these inconsistencies part of my inner life, different gods asserting themselves in different areas of my/our life.  Perhaps Bridgit, the Celtic goddess of the hearth, has risen today to remind me that Mary is my sister, my only sister, and only one of two members of my nuclear family still alive in addition to me.  Or, maybe, the reality of having her here didn’t impact me the way my anticipatometer suggested.  Or, maybe, the reality of having her impacted me in ways, positive ways, I hoped for but didn’t expect.  Anyhow...a foolish consistency...

 An Aunt I was not particularly close to died (my father’s sister), and Mary will represent me to her family at the Ellis reunion in Texas two weekends from now.  There is this connection, brother and sister, tangential as it is, and the interwoven web of connections to which we are literally heir. 

The whole of it right now, usually supportive, feels like an overhang, an overburden of relationships, so many, so much responsibility.  More.  Just more than I can.  More.  When I’m down, even small things feel more, and the big things, like family, feels way more...

Mary, Kate, and I just watched “Bowling for Columbine.”  I know, you saw it months ago.  I have a built in time lag for certain movies (serious ones not based on comic books), but I get around to them. 

I’m glad I saw it as I’ve begun to read A Terrible Love of War.  If we follow Hillman’s thesis, then Moore would, to understand the homicidal mania of Americans, try to get inside our mania.  I agree with Hillman that we cannot understand that with which we cannot empathize.

So, is America a nation given over to the worship of Ares and Nike?  Do we want Athena and Sophia only to serve our blood lust?  Is worship of these gods at the psychological core of our nation?

Or, if Moore is right, at least as I read him, what god needs us to be afraid, afraid for ourselves and our family, afraid of each other, afraid of our neighbor and classmate?  Our fellow postal employee?

What god nurtures trust and compassion?  Or, what god nurtures fear?  And how can we appease the one and worship the other?


Looking over the Rock Island line onto the glass and brick facades of Minneapolis.  The sun sets.  Golden fire.  Below us expensive Tibetan rugs are sold by someone who knew intimately someone we know.  Down further Origami sells sushi, over a bit Sex World sells..., and Déjà vu.  There’s an Irish pub nearby and the River Market, a very urban, NYC kind of store, sitting directly below the penthouse with the copper cupola.  The Guthrie thrusts a cantilevered bridge over the father of waters not far away, the main US Post Office sorts our mail, and in the Federal Building, Federal things happen.  This is the city.  A Jaguar dealer near a sex toy purveyor and a butcher specializing in foods of Central Europe.

The energy these days is more than I can stand.  Never thought I’d say that, but the old me, who took in city energy in big gulps and converted it to political action, has become a person I recall fondly, but whose reality I no longer share.  Now I find the jangle and flash of signs, metallic bleeps and groans, and the giggling, lusting crowds a diversion, no longer necessary, not even always desirable.

In this setting, with a group of men I know well, the Terrible Love of War felt apt.  Who better to discuss the terrible love of war than those of us who played army when we were kids.  Who as adults read Patrick O’Brian, Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great, biographies of generals and presidents.  Who as young adults struggled, each in our way, with the Vietnam war, and who have found each US war since a challenge, a moral challenge, one which must have a response.

War does penetrate culture.  We grant the state the right to take our sons and kill them—who says Moloch is dead?  We spend billions of tax dollars on peace-time armies.  Our civil liberties are now in trouble because we claim to be in a war against terror.

In Hillman’s vision, Ares bestrides each battlefield, unconcerned with winners and losers, rightness and wrongness, good and evil.  Ares transcends the rationales used for going to war in the name of war itself.  Ares is, in this sense, the transcendent function who subsumes the dialect of enemy.  The struggle of men and women and arms no longer knows justice or vengeance, rather it becomes, as Mark so eloquently said last night, an adrenaline rush with friends, fighting for survival with buddies. 

 No one dies for their country, they die to protect the members of their platoon.  Or, as Patton said, “Wars aren’t won by dying for your country.  Wars are won by getting some other poor son-of-a-bitch to die for his country.”

War becomes a festival, 100 times more than the 4th of July, Mark said.  And the earth opens, swallows up all this energy.  Then the next day, the energy is gone.  Trees are down, the  earth is torn up, bodies lie about. 

What I think Mark described here was this:  Ares had left the field.

Once engaged, whether for oil, or revolution, or democracy, or Halliburton Ares finds his temples, command and control tents, bivouacs for soldiers.  Mobile temples in tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles, Humvees, a warrior’s horse, the spirit of the phalanx. 


Then, there are the wars we fight inside ourselves.  The invisible struggles for identity, self-worth, self-acceptance, and freedom from fear.  Melancholy, depression, panic, alcoholism and other generals on the devil’s side in our interior conflicts chip away at our sense of Self, our grasp of our own abilities, and amplify the doubts and fears we are all heir to.

Let me tell you about the war going on inside me just now.  It is a campaign waged by a younger self, a confused and weary young man in his early twenties.  This younger self, a me congealed around the time of college graduation and dominant for many years thereafter, alternated between grandiosity and self-loathing.

The grandiosity came from academic success in college, great scores on the GRE’s and the Miller’s Analogy, a recommendation for a Danforth Fellowship, honors at graduation including top Philosophy student and top Anthropology student, English honorary for my poetry and graduation summa cum laude.  Also, I had years of leadership, high visibility on campus, and a  personal sense of accomplishment about the political work I did against the war.

The self-loathing came from many sources:  Dad and I fought each other to an emotionally grinding standstill;  I got suspended for a quarter for public drunkenness; I lost the race for Student Body President because I was a drunk and unreliable; I had no intimate relationships though sex was easy to find;  I felt much of my academic success was a sham, that I’d fooled my professors;  I still hadn’t integrated my mother’s death; I’d left Wabash for Ball State.  I imagine there’s more, too, but I can’t recall what it is.

In the chaos of graduation—with two majors:  Anthropology and Philosophy notoriously unuseful in the job market and with an uncertain draft status—I made many mistakes.  Judy was the first, but not the worst.

I married her to have somebody around after I left college.  Sad to say, but I’m pretty sure that’s true.  Why she did it, I don’t know.

I also screwed around with graduate school apps. getting far enough to both Rice and Brandeis would have let me in, but ignoring the work necessary to get fellowships, including the Danforth, for which I had a better than excellent chance.

Instead, I began a series of dead-end jobs:  WT Grant Co. manager trainee, life insurance sales for John Hancock, baker’s assistant, Party Cake Bakery, and, finally, rag cutter for Fox River Paper.

The academic life I let slide.  Just let go of it.  Never to truly retrieve it. 

This younger guy, this guy with no mentors, no adult figures he could let into his life, still shows up now and then.  He always asks the same question:  What if?  What if  you’d gone to graduate school?  What if you’d become a college professor, as  you were obviously designed to be?  What if you hadn’t been afraid?  Goalless and clueless.

These what if’s resonate still, ringing chimes of doubt and self-loathing and dragging me down into melancholy.  

The person I am today looks at this young man, a collegian with unfinished business, with empathy.  He had a difficult set of choices.  The stakes were higher than he realized.  Most of what he did was at least a mistake, if not bad, very bad judgment.

Yet.  This young man, not grown, ever mired in the midst of those choices made and those choices he failed to make, cannot break free, mature, become a man.  The intellectual, for such a person he was, in me often finds himself trapped in a maelstrom of emotion, emotion not conducive to intellectual effort.  Not just any emotion, no...but emotions like rage, shame, fear, anguish, loneliness.

When this collegian asserts himself, reminds the man in whom he still resides, of things undone, roads not taken, challenges not met; I feel sad.  I want to stop, hold his hand, say, “It’s ok.  It’s all right.  Life is fine now in spite of the rightness or wrongness of those decisions.”

Most of the time.  At other times, when he emerges full-force, it is me with my head in my hands, in need of a hug and word of encouragement.

He’s not without power.  He still sees the world of the mind with great clarity and can help me organize, sift, compare and contrast.  It’s when he projects how he feels about himself on the rest of us in here, that’s when things...

Anyhow, stay tuned.  The inner world turns, too, and mine spins just now.  Spins. and Spins.


Notice I’m still teary at certain TV prompts:  9/11 hearings, story of a drowning.  I’m not as distracted as I was; I’m back to working out:  aerobics and resistance.  That helps a lot.  Mary’s gone so I have some time to myself.  Helps a whole lot.  Wasn’t Mary per se, just having anyone here would have rattled my cage.

Don’t feel as heavy.  I can feel some energy beginning to gather, press forward and up.  Energy that can move me toward work—what work?  Ah.  The question of the hour. 

I have my project list.  It has good, interesting stuff on it.  Learn to draw.  Educate myself about SE Asia.  Research and write Course of Empire:  Magic in America.  Continue research and work on The Liberal Way:  Politics and Religion.  Continue research and work on an Ecological History of Lake Superior.  Sounds great.  But just who’s list is it?  And why do I want to write these things?

Is it just to appease the collegian, the guy who yearns for academic recognition, or is it also because these topics are important to the 57 year old adult who has to get up and do the work?  I say also because it’s a given to me that I have this unsatisfied itch, hell, it’s a whole case of poison ivy, related to using the intellect I have.  Have I done enough?  What  more can I do?  Can I help with some of the big questions of our time?

Or, is this lingering question hubris, or, even more garden variety—simple neurosis?

In the time I’ve had this week to ponder these questions I’ve decided it could be like this:  the things I work on will, always, be the things I work on...not much other way it can be, as I see it.  This could, if the collegian could see it this way, resolve the matter.

How?  Well, no matter what he feels, the only thing that can be done about his needs now are what I can do.  And the work I do will be what I can do.  Sounds tautological, and it is, sort of.  It’s not, however, in a crucial sense.  Had I not done a right turn out of the ministry long ago, I would not have the opportunity to do this work now.

Thus, if I can devote myself to this work in the same way I devoted myself to my first novels and to the garden this year, and learning to draw, then I could do work to make this guy typing right now happy and work to make the collegian happy. 

Back to the question, what about the work list?

I know why I want to write the things on my list.  These are projects that have surfaced, in differing ways, over the last three to five years, and each of them has significance and importance to me.  To me this 57 year old guy—and they are serious enough to satisfy the collegian.

Hmmm?  Is this all of the mind, and not the heart?  So hard to say, for me at least. 


The weight still there, I decide again, to write of the valley.  I want to stop, to move on, to consider some new insights about pilgrimage, quest.  I want no longer to have this dismal pall through which I see diary, journey, self, yet it has not lifted.  While here, the pall takes pride of place in my journey.  The small black horse moves slowly ahead, his pace modest, his stops sudden and frequent, and the reasons for them not always apparent.

At times his ears perk up, the gate quickens.  Then, a shadow passes, darkens the trail, brings a bit of coolness.  Again, the slower pace, the studied walk.  The attention shifting from rock to tree to shrub to inner world.  Back out.  Back in.  Back out.  Back in.

I follow the black horse and his path is now my path.  When this changes, I’ll let you know.

I’ll close today with a few thoughts about I, Robot which I saw this afternoon.  Asimov was an early idol; I read his books one by one in the early days, followed the positronic brain, the three laws of  robotics, and later the adventures of Harry Seldon and pyschohistory in the Foundation series.  First thing I noticed, most of the people in the theatre would not have been born had they been twice the age they are now when I first read I, Robot.   It may have been as long as 45 years ago when I first picked up this book.

A little dissonance here:  a futuristic novel with which I have been familiar for a generation and a half is now on screen as a futuristic movie.  Hmm.  I have this sensation often, having been interested in technical things my whole life, but I have not had it quite like this before.

What I mean is:  remember the first MOON landing?  Oh, yeah?  Well, that means you’re at least 35.  How about Sputnik?  The UFO stuff in the late 50’s?  The early days of television, personal computing, transistor radios, prop planes flying passengers between major cities and across oceans?  How about the Glomar explorer and the International Geophysical Year?  Now there was a cover-up!

I like Will Smith, but his smart-ass routine, while charming, seems to have been done.  By him.  Too often.  I found the plot line a bit thin, who would suspect a robot trying to take over the world and run it on behalf of machines? 

Still, I teared up when the pretty robotic/human interface psychiatric engineer started to decommission Sonny.  And, again, when Sonny and Will Smith shook hands as friends.  I admit this may be, probably is, my melancholy giving me an additional sentimental jolt, still, I like to be moved by movies.

The movie absorbed me and I found the issues raised, though clichéd, still important, especially when you consider the actual amount of robotic labor performed right now.  Not in the future.

My own guess on the whole AI front is this:  when it comes, it will come as an unintended consequence of another goal and its existence will escape us for awhile because it will not look like our intelligence, nor will it look like any form of animal intelligence.  Will it be benign or evil?  Probably neither.  It will just be.

Human allies will make the moral equation tilt one way or the other.

Well, the black horse has moved on and I’ve got to follow.  See you next week. 

From the trail, I am your brother...

              Charlie Buchman Ellis              Top                     < Previous     Next >