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September 18, 2020

from Singing the Land: A Rural Chronology, by Chila Woychik

Outside our artificial constructs—house, vehicle, shops, and schools—the real cosmos teems. We pass it or ignore it day after day, and then life ends without us ever having shimmered in the moonlight or cajoled along a rocky ridge bereft of civilization, without our letting the cry of the coyote raise goosebumps on our evening-chilled flesh.

We cart in pinecones to decorate our fall tables, embellish our cabinets with turban squash or yellow gourds. Organize perfect rows of viburnum or bottlebrush buckeye in a landscape stripped and homogenized to look like every other landscape for city blocks. Then we wonder why our eyes weary and our spirits sigh at the sameness. Why “getting away” often entails a trip to an uncultivated, disorganized setting; for rather than chaotic, nature is merely free, as we so often wish to be. Structure helps us achieve; random helps us breathe.

—Chila Woychik, Singing the Land: A Rural Chronology

July 1, 2020

from Singing the Land: A Rural Chronology, by Chila Woychik

The cold October air settles around my neck and I don’t really care that I left my scarf inside. The chickens still need fed and the sheep bleat. They need me, I tell myself; I am valuable. Then I finally realize I may never have anything earth-shattering and brilliant and Pulitzer-worthy and puddingish and great big like that one oak tree with the split trunk and diameter that would take three people to get their arms around, to leave a legacy about, then, when, it all and suddenly turns okay. There is peace. A softness falls. Sometimes it’s the simplest things.

—Chila Woychik, Singing the Land: A Rural Chronology

June 30, 2020

from Lead Me, Guide Me, by Kathy Ewing

“Everything is very simple. I can see this so well now,” he said. “We make life complicated. We start wars. We create conflict. We worry. But all everyone really wants are family, sharing a meal, playing some games, having fun. Even Donald Trump. That’s all he really wants. But we make everything complicated. All we really want is to be with family and friends and find joy in one another.”

That was what he wanted to tell me. I inferred that he wanted me to share it, so I wrote it down, and here it is. I’m sharing it now. He repeated some version of these thoughts several times during my visit.

I asked him what he’d learned. How was this realization different from what he had known before? “When I look back,” he said, “I see times when I thought I understood things better than I did. I saw them in a complicated way and was sure I had them all figured out. I couldn’t see through to the simple need, the simple humanity. I couldn’t see the simplicity.”

“All people want,” he repeated, “is someone to love them, someone to talk to them, someone just to provide a little bit of care.”

—Kathy Ewing, Lead Me, Guide Me

June 26, 2020

from Lead Me, Guide Me, by Kathy Ewing

Before you dismiss his attitudes as simplistic and Pollyanna-like, you need to understand how Father Dan spent his time, amidst more darkness and pain than most of us ever encounter. He sat by countless bedsides of people dying and performed hundreds of funerals, averaging three or four a week in recent years. In his large family, he witnessed debilitating illnesses and terrible accidents. Seven years ago, the diocese of Cleveland ripped away his church, his community, and his home of thirty years. He counseled victims of incest, rape, and other abuse. He had a special ministry to people with addiction. He endured his own profound losses of parents, siblings, and friends. He himself suffered various ailments, even before the cancer that took his life. He knew and loved way too many people who died of gunshot wounds, suicide, and overdoses. He saw and confronted injustice everywhere.

No wonder that sometimes the good cheer gave way to dark humor and startling bluntness. I’ve heard more than one sermon in which he said, “You know those people Jesus healed? They’re all dead now.” He meant that Jesus didn’t come to take away our problems. In fact, if you choose faith, you often choose a harder way. A few months ago, I heard him preach, “Our stories never end happily. It’s always a sad ending.” Of course, he had profound faith in an ultimate happy ending, but he was talking about the end of our lives on earth. “Life always has a tragic ending,” he said, and I thought then he was preparing us for what came on Saturday.

The astonishing thing about Father Dan is not his sunny optimism. It’s that it was so hard won. It’s true he was blessed with a sanguine temperament, but in order to deal with exhausting pain in his life and ministry, he dived deep and prayed. He spent hours alone in nature, alone with Scripture, alone with music. He deliberately worked his way through grief and sadness. When I asked him once why he was so happy, he said, “It’s a decision, it’s conscious, and it’s a habit.” He didn’t avoid the dark tunnel. He chose it. He entered it willingly and suffered his way to the bright light at the end.

—Kathy Ewing, Lead Me, Guide Me: The Life and Example of Father Dan Begin

June 24, 2020

from Singing the Land, by Chila Woychik

Makes sense Iowa feels home to me. Crop plats so large you drive a mile and the spread keeps going. They say South Dakota’s are even bigger, some five or seven miles square.

Grandpa’s piddly seven acres behind the old Illinois homestead with a kitchen pump handle and no other plumbing grew corn. The John Deere tractor’s flywheel took all that three-hundred-pound man could give it before the characteristic pop pop popping began. But he didn’t work those rows for nothing; his payout was mealtime when he ate and ate and ate. Half a dozen eggs, half a pound of bacon for breakfast. Sausage gravy and biscuits some days. Roast and potatoes, supper. Fried chicken. Corn on the cob. And homemade pies tasty as anything you ever had. The crank on the ice cream maker hardened along with the ice cream when the rock-salted ice started melting in earnest.

This was our growing-up, the land and seasons, the old-timey meals and the Hicksville blood running agrestic, green, and good. But our strange breed also had a German mother, as European as they get, strange indeed when you realize we settled smack in the middle of a provincial Midwest. Mother, lover of all things wurst: knockwurst, liverwurst, bierwurst. Maker of spaetzle and dumplings, red cabbage and rouladen. A small cold beer with each dinner meal.

The palate learned diversity that way, tongue split along the lines of Bavarian and backwoods. I took a twenty-year hiatus from that lineage to experience urbanity, discovered fine restaurants hold charm, hefty prices, and unique savor-jumpers, but even so, those memories of youth hover hard, and I’ve never junked the urge for home-cooked meals.

In my own kitchen, I fumble, knowledge, a lost vision in the presence of such worthy childhood ghosts. The acumen, I have, but lacking is desire, except the desire to be a child again alongside Mutti’s counter, watching her make Bavarian Zwetschgenkuchen, fresh plum cake, attuning my ears to her lovely throaty phrases, hearing an old German polka record spinning on the turntable. Or in Illinois Grandma’s cold winter / hot summer home where I felt secure, ran free, and feral, where her third-grade education and stories of working in the humid Arkansas cottonfields at age eleven gave rise to imagination and family strength and a can-do spirit of endurance still bound tightly to our pith in the face of each new adversity.

—Chila Woychik, Singing the Land: A Rural Chronology

March 19, 2020

from “Last Words,” by Douglas Cole

JD Mason on

“When my grandfather was dying in the hospital, his body almost done with, he struggled mostly to breathe. He had been good and strong his whole life, never went into the hospital that I knew. Then something happened with his stomach. I was never sure what. He vomited and aspirated some of the vomit and developed a lung infection and that was it. Another doctor said it was emphysema. What difference does the name make at that point? I went to see him in the hospital, the last time I would ever see him, and like in a movie, when he saw me he took hold of my wrist and through his oxygen mask said, ‘Think good thoughts!’ . . .

“I’ve been mumbling it for years. Think good thoughts. As simple as pipe smoke. Think good thoughts. As beautiful and graceful as his garden. Think good thoughts — in the forest when there’s nobody to hear, as enigmatic as his life, his character, but elegant and clear as well — think good thoughts. It’s almost a kind of Zen koan. A pragmatic American pioneer law: think good thoughts. That’s all I know. And so I think, okay, I’ll try to think good thoughts.”

—Douglas Cole, “Last Words,” Still Point Arts Quarterly Spring 2020

March 17, 2020

from To Everything a Season, by Janet Sunderland

BlueCanoe, White Wild Indigo, 2011. WC CC
When did I fall in love with the road? I wonder. It seems most of my life has been lived watching a double yellow line. When I was less than a year old, my mother, my sister, and I moved from San Francisco to Kansas while my father went to sea; a year or so later we moved back to California; then to Arkansas; then to Barnes, Kansas—all before I reached five. I remember a roadside neon sign on the highway going to Grandma and Grandpa Sunderland’s—maybe in Marysville since that’s the only town between Barnes and where they lived. EAT GAS it said—the red neon EAT in vertical letters while the horizontal red neon GAS met at the middle A. And I remember a winter’s night drive from Grandma and Grandpa’s, snow billowing from every direction as it does so well in a Kansas blizzard. My father hit a patch of ice and the truck flipped over to land on four wheels in a snow bank. At least that’s what I remember. We might have just spun off the road. There had to be at least five of us in the cab since three sisters and two parents had moved from Arkansas, but I don’t remember anyone hurt. And I don’t remember a baby, so I don’t think Julia had been born yet. And Jack wasn’t born until five days after my father died. And then, a year after my father died, Mother married Dad and we moved to the farm. At seventeen, I married a soldier and went off to see the world. When I divorced, I kept on moving: Kansas, Texas, California, Louisiana, New York, Old Mexico, Washington, D.C., Hawaii, Georgia, New Mexico, and back to Kansas. I’m still traveling—following the yellow line on the three-hour stretch to visit my mother in the small-town nursing home where she now lives.

—Janet Sunderland, “To Everything a Season,” Still Point Arts Quarterly Spring 2020

March 12, 2020

from On the Arts, by Naomi Beth Wakan

Having ploughed through a thousand pages of adultery, I have now definitively selected de Maupassant as my role model for future short-story writing efforts, and I have three hundred of his stories to learn from. By the way, Guy de Maupassant penned his own epitaph: “I have coveted everything and taken pleasure in nothing.” I won’t follow him in this respect, and I hope mine can read: “I have taken pleasure in everything and coveted nothing.”

—Naomi Beth Wakan, On the Arts

March 11, 2020

from Can Love and Manners Get Us Through? by Angela Wright

Levi Clancy, Holding My Grandmother’s Hand When
She Was 87 and I Was 26, 2017. WC CC
I didn’t become the good southern girl my grandmother wanted me to be. Instead, I became an activist for social justice and a pastor—roles she found unbecoming, especially for a woman, and more especially for one of her granddaughters. I marched, lobbied, and advocated for all kinds of things she didn’t agree with: labor rights, voting rights, immigrant rights, civil rights. As smart and independent as she was, she didn’t even agree with the notion of women’s rights. When I asked her to help me pay for seminary, she said, “No one wants to hear a woman preacher. They want a man’s voice because it sounds like God.” All this she said while writing me a check.

After seminary, I strayed even further from my roots. I started an alternative church in downtown Birmingham where Black, Brown, and White people worshipped, worked, and gathered at the table together. And I fell in love with a Black man.

Regardless of our disagreements, every time I turned into my grandmother’s driveway, I found her standing with the screen door wide open, a huge smile on her face as she called out, “Hey, Sugah!,” and walked toward me to gather me up in her arms.