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
This diary, sermons, and the Great Wheel e-mails have priority in my daily life. By this I mean that if I have spare time and a deadline for one of them looms (usually self-imposed—for example I try to have sermons done by Monday of the week on which I’m going to present them) I’ll probably use the spare time to work ahead.
They don’t take priority over working out, but in the main, everything else gets set aside until work on them is done.
These forms, ones I’ve utilized for over 25 years in the case of sermons and diary entries, and four years in the case of the Great Wheel, amount to a good deal of writing, self-expression, creativity.
Even so, I don’t consider them my work, though they may be, perhaps obviously are; I consider my work the novels and short stories I write. So, when, like now, I’m not writing a novel, or even doing much steady research or thinking for one, I don’t feel as productive.
I’m not sure why I feel this way; it may have something to do with the fact that I always had an ambiguous relationship with the ministry, an outsiders perspective while working on the inside. It may also have to do with the underlying sense, discussed a few weeks ago, that my real life might have an academic one, rather than that of a street politician, a clergy, church executive.
Perhaps as I integrate the role of intellectual, as a person outside the academy engaged in serious thinking, my sense of my work might expand to include the non-fiction material. We’ll see.
My journey has marked my face; given it lines. I imagine the journey carves similar grooves in our memories and in our personalities, if only they could be seen like the face.
Today I preached at Groveland on grandparents. We each brought pictures of our grandparents, named them, called their spirits to the room, and told brief stories about them.
The human story, no matter from whom, never fails to have drama and interest. One man, a student teacher, described the object he’d left behind on his desk, a small glass plaque inscribed in Swiss, here rests—......She was his great-great grandmother. His great-grandfather “cavorted with the help” and became the black sheep, and, not coincidentally I’m sure, the family’s first emigrant to the US. Larry described how his father’s sisters, when touching the plaque for the first time earlier this year broke down in tears.
His great-grandfather apparently went to the cemetery and stole this memento of his mother to console him on the lonely trip to America, then hid it in the rafter of a house he built by hand. Larry’s brother found it while engaged in some remodeling work.
Another moment today. After Groveland I worked on the Japanese Art Cart, explaining the Japanese Tea Ceremony to museum visitors. At one point a man and a woman, nicely dressed, perhaps in their late forties came up and we got into a lengthy conversation. She had on a black suit with padded shoulders, plain jewelry, and had a head, bare, shaved as if from chemotherapy.
One thing the Japanese Tea ceremony teaches is that this moment, this tea ceremony, is a once in a lifetime experience, that is, this ritual of tea, tea master, guests, art, and teaware can never happen again, for tomorrow some of the elements will be different, effected by the transition of a day if nothing else.
The conversation carried a deeper level of meaning than I had intended and we all, in a quiet way, acknowledged it. They both shook my hand as they left; I’ve never had anyone do that after a tour or an art cart presentation. It was, well, a once in a lifetime experience.
Life holds these moments if we open ourselves to them; some come with the turning of the Great Wheel, some with an inner look, some between strangers in an art museum on a Sunday afternoon.
Annual physical this AM with Charlie Petersen. Charlie practices what he teaches; he eats vegetarian, takes phyto laden vitamins, and exercises. A former hockey player for Harvard, he’s a surprisingly thin guy.
Often, I have some anxiety around my physical, but this time I felt pretty much ok. Got advice about the trip to SE Asia, turns out Charlie worked in a refugee camp on the Thai/Cambodian border in 1980 during medical school. His wife, like Kate, goes out for mission work; she goes to Bangladesh at the end of this month. He’s a bit worried; the muslim terrorists have gotten active there.
He recommended two books, neither of which I’ve seen: The Doctor Oliver Sachs, a French book about patients and others visiting a doctor told through the patients eyes rather than the doctors and Mountains Beyond Mountains, a story of Paul Kramer, a Harvard prof in infectious disease who works three months teaching and travels the world the other nine months: Soviet prisons, refugee camps, Africa.
He also rode elephants in the Shan, the famous Golden Triangle, through fields and fields of red, waving poppies. Sounded like fun to me, though he did advise elephants, when hot, have a disconcerting habit of discharging via their trunk a mucousy gledge onto their backs,. Which is, of course, where you sit.
On the way back I visited Push, Pedal, and Pull and picked up 20 and 25 pound free weights, but had to have help from the lineman they employ as a salesman to get them to the car.
Bachman’s, also on the way home. A sack full of bulbs tulips, daffodils, scylla, and crocus. I love planting bulbs, as I have said elsewhere.
Anyhow, I don’t like the heat, even though the summer itself has had such a nice cool overtone. Spoiled, I guess.
This week male Woolly Mammoths return to the sinkhole, site of so many deaths. The pilgrimages converge for a time, and follow the ancient trail over the plains to the Black Hills.
A short week due to the upcoming trip. I’m looking forward to a journey where my input will be small and I can coast for a bit. SE Asia will require hypervigilance for a full month and that can be tiring.
I recall a moment during the dogsled trip, a moment I used in my sermon for the Ministerial Fellowship Committee of the Unitarian-Universalist Association when I transferred my ordination.
After we had seen the petroglyphs, scrambling up to see them, written communication from centuries before, we turned back to camp.
Out on Saganaw, I think, we ran into a whiteout. The horizon disappeared and we became moving objects on a featureless plain, a plain or a bowl, as far as my eyes were concerned. The way behind us had no landmarks, neither did the way ahead so the distinction between them dissolved into white.
Had I to rely on my senses to guide me then, I was lost, for good, on a frozen lake with night about to fall.
I needed guidance and I found it in the form of small furry creatures with great, great heart and senses not challenged by the blowing snow. They knew where the camp and their evening meal were and they went for it.
In order to be saved I had to quit relying on my own senses, on my own guidance, on any knowledge I brought to the situation except this: these dogs know the way. That was a saving trust.
Later, if you recall, the whiteout lifted and we moved quietly across yet another frozen lake, stars in the sky and a moon hanging high, lighting the way.
We had come from a spot where, during the day, we could not see and had no sense of direction, to a place where, at night, with darkness all round, the path lay clear and safe ahead of us.
As for the trip that lays ahead. Like some of you I have been over this ground before, but not often. April of this year, though, was the last time, so it is fresh. What will be new for me will be seeing it with friends and brothers.
I have another memory about this journey, many really, but this one stands out. It was 1973. I was in Seminary, my middler year. A group of us had decided to show our support for the occupation of Wounded Knee.
After conversations with AIM leadership here in Twin Cities we were told the occupiers needed food. Dennis Zimmerman, current Minneapolis city councilmen, was then engaged with other of his friends in what later became known as the Co-op wars. He and his buddies in the Co-op movement donated 50 pound sacks of flour and rice, butter, peanut butter, dried milk, that sort of thing.
Late at night the five of us who were going along drove over to Dennis’s place on the West Bank, loaded up Larry Mens’s rusted out Chevy Suburban and set out for South Dakota. I can’t recall now from thirty years distance if we intended to be clandestine or the timing just worked out that way, but given the paranoid nature of the times, I imagine it was the former.
We were headed, after our trip down to Wounded Knee, to Pine Ridge to join up with others from across the country who would form a non-violent interventionary force, ready to go between the Federal Marshal’s and the people in Wounded Knee.
We hit the road to Wounded Knee about sunup after having driven all night. AIM had a checkpoint up at the road into town and we had to convince a very suspicious guard that we were not spies for the government. The guards carried weapons and did not seem glad to see us.
After they had opened the back and checked out the supplies they waved us on through and we went into the occupied territory. All round the little town of Wounded Knee there were AIM members and members of Vietnam Vets Against the War, rifles loaded and eyes alert toward the circumference around town. They anticipated an attack by the Marshal’s that morning.
Dennis Bellecourt and Russel Means received the food, but they were nervous about us being there as non-combatants. It wouldn’t have helped them if we got caught in the crossfire.
As I recall, the big worry that day was that some of Vets, jumpy and angry, fresh from the killing fields of Vietnam, might just pop off a few rounds and bring the Fed’s down on everybody. There was, in other words, worries about the Marshals outside and the Vets inside.
It made for nervous tics on everybody’s part. This was the first and only time I have been in a situation where there were lots of people with loaded guns who intended to use them to shoot other human beings. Except, come to think of it, for Bogota and Mexico City. Anyhow, I had my own tic that morning.
We unloaded and left after having been in Wounded Knee for less than half an hour.
On the road back to Pine Ridge, our ultimate destination that morning, we ran into a road block. While we were down in Wounded Knee, the Feds had put road blocks and sentries all round Wounded Knee and were not letting anyone in or out.
We debated, for what reason I’m not sure now, running the road block, but as we approached two riflemen knelt down on either side of the road and took a bead on us, as did two others directly in the road ahead of us.
They ordered us all out of the truck.
“What were you doing down there?” the one who spoke for them said, “Did you take weapons in?”
Oh, oh. This hadn’t occurred to us. Gun running would not make them happy, I could see that.
Their faces were grim and tight. Everybody had nervous tics.
“No. No, we didn’t.” Larry said.
I said, “We took in food.”
The scowls tightened. Aid and comfort to the enemy. Jesus, had we just committed treason? In the way of the times I sure hoped so.
Then, a Marshal noticed Larry’s empty knife holster on his belt.
“Where’s the knife?”
Oh, oh again. We’d left it in Wounded Knee to help them open the sacks of flour and rice.
After we convinced them we had not run M-17’s and ammo down, and that Larry’s knife was culinary equipment, not an offensive weapon, they decided to let us go, thinking, I imagine, Jesus Christ, what are these weirdoes doin’ here anyhow?
We went back to Pine Ridge, got filled in on the betrayal of AIM by the Tribal President, bedded down for the night in the Episcopal Church and were not called on again the whole time we were there.
As time went on, the story got more complicated, with the Lakota angry that the Ojibwe leadership of AIM had brought the wrath of the Federal Government down on their res. Eventually, Leonard Peltier got a long jail sentence and other trials of Wounded Knee dissidents spawned the modern day jury selection consultant—an irony to say the least.
So, that’s one of the things I did in the war, when I was young.