In the middle of nowhere…

elizabeth mapcampestral \kam-PESS-trul\ adjective – of or relating to fields or open country: rural

From that unpublished manuscript – Elizabeth Parsonage – just a few paragraphs… tell me what you think (and pass it along, please).

In small towns that were once frontiers of hope and promise of so much more –of gold that turned out to be lead ore, the expansive and unlimited plains and the rich earth of the Mississippi Valley where settlements supported surrounding laborers breaking rock or dark earth with heavy and rich yields. Isolated by relative circumstance, these small towns crisscross America and if one could connect all these dots it would form a patchwork blanketing the land’s contours, creating the illusion of a crowded network from one point of view. But close-up, in the space in between this and that town, there are few enough people to leave room for productive labor, not far from outlets of provision, but with space to breathe and an uncrowded landscape to see.

At first isolated settlements weren’t escapes from urban preoccupation with noise, and for few were they a comparable opportunity for riches. They didn’t flee industrialization or the growing sense that productivity was becoming the measure of human success, replacing contentment and virtue with utilitarian and pragmatic preoccupation. Enough labor for enough reward for enough supply for enough comfort for enough opportunity for contentment –enough for life that few would call happy without significant qualification. In rock or earth, both or either were a good even if hard source of living, somehow sanctified by the motto Early to bed, early to rise. Rest was welcomed but not worshipped, leisure was enjoyed instead of planned, and the evening prayer was Good night, sleep tight, wake up bright with the morning light, to do what’s right with all your might.

They may live along a lonely road, and live among lonely people –not always, but often. But loneliness is relative, sometimes coming from straightforward emotional isolation, sometimes the quiet we so earnestly desire becomes the very danger that threatens our well being, and sometimes perfectly acceptable physical isolation, like living in a perpetually small township with little variation in lifestyle save that of the four seasons, stupefies its residents so that the greatest argument is over the experience of loneliness itself. The cure of such loneliness isn’t a simple reversal of circumstances, the sensory overload of immersion in a crowded setting or stadium or even a city; the cure may be a little hair-of-the-dog-that-bit-us, but that isn’t so much a cure as it is a treatment. It is learning to live with the satisfaction of isolated living –Simple is as simple does, as the old-timers say. –And that just might be the aphorism of Elizabeth, Illinois, U.S.A.

Most of the buildings in town were constructed before World War II, but there were a few old farmhouses, a town hall, a railroad depot, and dozens and dozens of barns dotting the landscape that survived the nineteenth century. The Baptist church and parsonage next door were built just after the War to End All Wars but before the next War to End All Wars. The motto being, Use care with superlatives. Anything that was wood frame is gone, remembered but gone. And buildings that remain are wood and brick and stone, stone and brick and wood, and the township was built and torn down and rebuilt.

Of course there’d been explorers and missionaries through the area, but they’d already moved on in their interminable march to anywhere else. They wrote journals and reports of the landscape, the Indians, the climate, and the peculiarities that when compared to where else they’d been made for the remarkable. When the first white settler arrived in the territory, a surly man named A. P. VanMatre, he traveled because of the report of rich hills for land mining near the Fever River. He settled in 1825 and was too busy to be lonely; too busy building a smelter and making money with hard work and a seeming unlimited supply of lead ore. Two years later a fur trapper settled nearby and his name was Henry VanVolkenburg (and it seemed that you needed to be VanSomething-or-other to live here). It isn’t official, but folks tell a story about the two Van’s, about how they got to know each other in their free time. Then someone else who’s an insider to the joke says But I thought they didn’t know each other, and the first person says That’s because they didn’t have any free time. That’s frontier humor for you. And you say But that wasn’t funny, and the response is That’s because they were too busy working to be funny.

The area was first claimed by the French and they had a trading post in the late seventeenth century, but then an Englishman and officer of the British Commonwealth named Wolfe defeated them on the Plains of Abraham near Quebec in September, 1759 and to the victor go the spoils, including the hilly area we call Jo Daviess County and everything around it called the Upper Midwest. That is, until the Revolutionary War spoiled the spoiled in the famous Treaty of 1783 but then the area was claimed by Virginia. They gave it up, and it turned out that Virginia control of the remainder of the known world was just a formality. Speaking of formalities, without ever seeing the area Congressmen enacted the even more infamous Ordinance of 1787 that divided up uninhabited lands to the West by geographic markers like the Mississippi River and making the area West and North of the Ohio River into at least three and no more than five states. Sometimes the lines were drawn along waterways, sometimes along valley basins, and sometimes it looked like someone stretched a line from one place to another to come up with a state and as arbitrary as it seems that’s why folks live where they live instead of someplace else.

Farmers followed VanMatre and VanVolkenburg and changed the balance of odd to ordinary names when Winters and two brothers named Flack cut the rich soil and planted a first crop of corn in the area and the rest, as they say, is history. Mining and farming, farming and mining, made the area livable and that’s Jo Daviess County from its establishment February 17, 1827 to today; at first literally, then faming took over but mining became the first story in Elizabeth’s history, The Lore of the Ore, as they say.

Why mining? That’s the way it’s always been actually. Geologists call this the southern terminus of the Driftless Region, an area that covers the upper Midwest of southern Minnesota and Wisconsin, northern Illinois and Iowa. About two million years ago, back in the beginning of the Pleistocene Epoch (that’s the sixth epoch of the Cenozoic era of geologic time for those of you keeping score), this area supposedly didn’t have glaciers while everywhere else nearby did. That’s why all around is leveled land, flat and without contour, but the Mississippi River area has deep valleys that were pushed, shoved and cut by the undulation of advancing and receding glaciers nearby that teased the area only to dump their outwash deposits of silt, sand and gravel and made the mighty Mississippi a mighty drain, flushing waters but leaving the rugged and rich deposits that drew settlers to the area in the nineteenth century. Thus it was, and thus it will always be.

The first official settlers were a small crowd that stayed small; and the story always goes back to two men: John Winters the farmer and Captain Clack Stone. The Captain owned the claim to the village of Elizabeth and that meant they had all the responsibility but just a little authority. They took care of settlement claims and kept the peace, which they thought would be an easy job and they’d nurture the area into a modest infamy. Infamy it was, but not modestly thanks to a little incident known as the Black Hawk War in 1832. On May 15th Captain Clack Stone’s Company, the 27th Regiment Illinois Militia was called out of retirement to repel the aggression of the Sac and Fox Indians all because they reacted poorly to President Andrew Jackson’s order of relocation to west of the Mississippi. There’s a suspicious account of a cowardly retreat (or Was it wise? –that’s the debate) by some of the militia on May 14th that led to the Governor’s order the very next day to Captain Clack Stone and the war was on.

The battle took one farming season, May to August, which was unfortunate for the farmers, but the peaceful result of war was a happy irony that was tragic but short lived enough to become historically curious and provide the Chamber of Commerce another folksy attraction in what is now a quite farming community that it’s always been. Soundly quiet, that is until the Chicago Great Western Railroad came ‘a steamin through in 1888, stopping at the Depot on Myrtle Street in downtown Elizabeth and connecting the sleepy community to Chicago to Iowa to Minnesota to Omaha, Nebraska, to Missouri (obviously not a straight route). They built an elaborate tunnel west of Elizabeth called the Winston Tunnel. It was over a half-mile long and was the longest in Illinois –considering the topography of Illinois it was pretty much the only place someone could build a half-mile tunnel without digging straight down.

Now it’s the next century and Elizabeth, Illinois, is pretty much the same it was last century. Except the railroad’s gone now, the tracks torn up not long ago, the Depot is a historical site, and the impressive tunnel became such a burden to maintain that it was closed as well. Mining lost its luster after its glorious contribution to the Civil War armory. And the Fort the settlers hastily built in the Black Hawk War is also gone, the lumber used to build a barn for farming. Only the farming remains, and the rest are the stories of history.

These days almost seven hundred people live in Elizabeth, in 1950 almost seven hundred people lived here, and in 1900 almost seven hundred people lived here. And the same thing can be said for the town’s downtown; there is a diner named Wiler’s right along the main street cutting through town, a bar, a bank, a grocery and variety store, a B & B and a craft and antique shoppé owned by the same woman, a town hall and a township library, and two or three churches depending on how one defines the word Church. There’s the Baptist church, cleverly named Elizabeth Baptist Church, unaffiliated with any Baptist Convention. There’s a Lutheran church named St. John’s even though you’d expect it to be named after Paul, and the Saint part always bothered Baptists anyway because they say all true Christians (read Baptists) are saints themselves –at least Positionally, as they say. To call any of Jesus’ apostles Saints seemed sacrilegious to the real Protestants who called themselves Baptists and thought all other Protestants were just closet Papists. Luther didn’t go far enough and should have thrown the baby out with the baptistery water according to Baptists because the child shouldn’t be there in the first place. In town there’s also what used to be a Presbyterian church and it had one of those paedo baptisteries as well so they could sprinkle the secretly elect of God. But in the sovereign providence of the Almighty it seems Presbyterians weren’t predestined to thrive in the area and the church building was boarded up during in 20’s until a developer from Galena bought the building and turned it into a Wedding Chapel in the late 80’s, making for a sort of rural Las Vegas in Northern Illinois.

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Confession and other silliness…

confessionalConfession is good for the soul of gossips – that’s the way the expression should read.

This is a paragraph from an unpublished manuscript entitled Elizabeth Parsonage:

That was where the pastor met with people – in the study; it was a safe place, almost officially so. A confessional, but with a couch and chairs and a desk and shelves lined with books. Sometimes the books were about the Bible, sometimes about theology, but ever since the 1950s they were more and more about feelings and relationships and marriage and love and how to handle rebellious children, but they didn’t seem to help much. It was like they were commentaries but not solutions like they seemed to promise. This book could save your marriage. Follow this advice and your teenage girl won’t hate you. But they didn’t work, at least not as much as one would wish. People would come to the study and spill their guts as if the pastor knew as much as God knew, and they’d say everything with the promise that Nothing would leave this room. And if the walls could talk they’d tell you things about divorces and pregnancies and hatred and tears and deaths and scandals and sickness and pettiness and revenge and although most would be curious about other peoples’ troubles, any real human being listening to what the walls had to say would be in tears and tell the wallpaper to shut-up.

 

And this is a little something which, I confess, means more to me than it should…

Confessor Cat
There’s a black cat that visits my home every day,
walking carelessly toward my door, toward me
looking at it out my window, with eyes that flash
bright when lighted, then quickly darken again.

And when I see it, I count my sins, unprompted
I rehearse the errors of my ways while the cat
slows and gracefully sits, staring at me like it knows
what races through my mind, and how I’ve erred.

It isn’t hurried, nor is it asking anything of me;
there’s no deep-seated memory from my youth,
no intuition of the deities of ancient Egypt,
just a feral beauty at ease without need of home.

My mind races through the rights and wrongs
without a tally, and the black cat waits just long
enough for my silliness to end; and because
gifts are exchanged, I now feed my confessor
in sacramental pâté, but first returning thanks
for the privilege of a conscience assuaged
by the simple act of being seen by a black cat.

Please share with your friends – like, click, repost, report as spam, or otherwise  show the world you’re alive and kicking…

How to…

time lifeIt dates back to the 1960s and a Time Life series of ‘how to’ books which became wildly popular – how to unclog a drain, hammer a nail, fix a squeaky door hinge, install a garbage disposal, build a deck. And we bought them all. The How-To craze had begun and we were all for it.

Soon ‘how to’ became self-help and do-it-yourself merged with challenges, campaigns and that e-mail spam which promises everything from a firmer butt to millions from an African royal official (if we share our bank information).

There are tens of thousands of books with ‘How to’ in the title. Many are still concerned with good, old fashioned repairs like repairing a Briggs and Stratton engine, but most are about how to do more ordinary, everyday things like live better, accomplish more, sleep sounder or organize everything.

Today we call ‘how to’ the promised land of a #lifehack.

We’re not talking about becoming experts in life, maybe on life and that’s what’s become of us. What we’re all after is sensible enough. It’s where we all get to eventually, some later than others but everyone eventually…we’re all trying to survive life. ‘How-to’ stuff isn’t much about electric current or refrigeration repair. It is more about reconfiguring spaces, reclaiming your days, weekends, weeks and thereby reclaiming yourself. And the best part is that it doesn’t matter if what you wind up with doesn’t even come close to a certain plan, a received design or perceived goal. The activity itself is open-ended and prohibits failure (the only failure is not to have tried at all). If schools without failure are simply those institutions of baby-sitting we used to call colleges and universities, then ‘how-to’ and ‘for dummies’ literature is for a life without failure where the only disappointment is going through life without trying to be your real self (whatever the hell that may be).

How-to books used to be called novels and reading narratives was how most people learned how they might live, how to avoid ruin and peril and despair, how they might survive hard times with nobility and virtue intact, how to do well and how to do better. When narratives and fictions were done poorly they generalized and moralized as directly and bluntly as a step-by-step guide to multiple male orgasms. History books are no better with their god-like noble-izing about why everything happened the way it did (Monday morning quarterbacking and 20/20 hindsight never enjoyed as great an academic justification as history classes). Even history must give way to genealogy; just as poor novels must yield to healthy (and sometimes hard to follow) narratives. In our present climate of reading it has become too hard, too difficult, to novelize and narrate one’s life or to learn from someone else’s life because a story doesn’t prepare a plan for us. If the motto of how-to-ing is measure twice, cut once, then the moral of (good) novels is keep measuring, cut often, and try measuring once just for the thrill of it once-in-a-while. The suspicion from how-to-ers is, of course, that narratives keep measuring and never get to the cutting.

To Be Read S L O W L Y

Don’t you hate
being told how to
read, how to enjoy,
how to be you; it’s like
being told how to
breathe or piss,
both as necessary
and both problematic
eventually, so do
try not to hate
being told to do
the things we will
forget one day soon.

Anonymity and other unknown things… (part 1)

Anonymous_4The weight of anonymity is a crushing load to the egoist; a blessed burden for the insecure; and a career obstacle for any and all who wish their mediocre product to be thought magnificent by virtue of reputation.

Without Fame
His name was never known
never asked or in demand;
he nameless lived and died
after countless seeds sown
tending the many firsthand
famously fame denied.

What Isn’t There
How many a writer or poet has been ruined
by reading Thoreau’s Walden only to retreat
to her own obscure pond and wait for those
pronounced feelings of nature, god and life,
perched before a blank page, ready to write
infamous words that will change everything
about seeing the sun rise, or a low moon,
the seasonal wrenching of life from death,
or death from life in the anonymous vacuum,
only to end a long, lonely day exhausted
and uninspired by the page called life
with no words to express what isn’t there.

Please share this with your friends! Thank you…

Look for Anonymity and other unknown things… (part 2) coming soon

Prayer, and other ways to cry…

prayer-blocksHow many sayings about prayer have you heard?

Sayings like: We should pray to live, but live to pray. (Kind of hate that one.)

Prayer changes things. (Or it’s opposite: Prayer doesn’t change things, it changes the person who prays.)

As long as there are tests, there will be prayer in schools. (The culture wars are good for pissed-off prayer quips.)

Prayer is not talking, it is listening. (Wow, that’s deep – too deep for words.)

Prayer requests should become our to-do list. (i.e. Get up and do something.)

Prayer is a steering wheel, not a spare tire. (Guilt reigns supreme, even in prayer.)

There is no such thing as too much prayer. (Except when dinner’s getting cold.)

The irony, of course, is that all the sermons and sayings about prayer are sermons and sayings and not prayer.

But poetry and prayer are closer than siblings.

Two Kinds
There are two kinds of prayers prayed
at the end of each and every day,
one from the naive filled with hope
on hope on top of hope of tomorrows
that will always come and keep coming,
forgiveness is similarly unending,
and everyone and everything will be
there because it can’t be any other way;
the other is for mercy with revenge
or some karma (if that’s on the table),
maybe no tomorrow if it’s the same
as today and yesterday and yesterdays
that chase them deep into the night,
while dust crumbles back to dust
and there is no more pride. Amen.

Careening Through Life
Do trees cast off their leaves,
eager to be free of those parasites
drawing more than they offer;
do they cure and fall themselves
as birds leave nests never to return again;
or is there a romantic but exhausted grasp
which simply but reluctantly
fails in the cold of November?
Do the vivid colors of toys
cling to pathways cossetted in the
soft tissue of my memory;
a red fire truck of tin metal
and sharp edges that cut
my tender fingers as I played
the role of rescuer in the midst of
a horrible blaze; and what of the smell
of Mom’s cookies – unmistakable
and gone forever except in words
put together in strings
without sentences; is there a way back
to those sunny afternoons
with powdered sugar floating in the air
and me praying for a broken sample?

When It Rains
It’s raining on the prairie, but not in answer to prayer
as we huddle inside a dusty museum wondering
at the recreation of a settler’s life, determined by
weather and wind and rain on the cut fields of earth;
if we shiver in a sudden summer storm and wonder
at the musky air it’s best to recall that people died
here – in this room probably, because they did
everything in this one, dark room – but we can’t
wait for the storm to end and go on with our fun.