I recently picked up my great-great-uncle, Will Lillibridge’s book, Ben Blair and landed on a few passages that seemed to fit what i was pondering in the moment.
“Ten miles out on the prairies,—not lands plane as a table, as they are usually pictured, but rolling like the sea with waves of tremendous amplitude—stood a rough shack, called by courtesy a house.”
—Will Lillibridge—Ben Blair—Chapter II Desolation
Usually in January I make an annual pilgrimage to my hometown of Burke, South Dakota. This year, because of COVID19, I won’t be traveling. So, on this Winter Solstice 2020, I’m reflecting on the prairie, my ancestors and revisiting my photographs.
I’ve always assumed that my love of stark landscapes was simply due to where I grew up. However, as I age I’m increasingly aware that it’s far more complex than that alone. I’m drawn to spaciousness in any form. In paintings, film, photographs, literature it’s what’s NOT there that I love and am so drawn to. Oh, and when there’s a well-placed pause in a song—damn, I swoon.
There’s a duality of growing up in rural America that I understand now at fifty-four and having lived out east for thirty years. There’s on one hand, a fiercely independent streak born out of generations of hardscrabble pioneer and homestead life, but there’s also what’s in the negative space everywhere that I’m more curious about lately.
For that pioneer spirit to survive on such isolated terrain, there’s often a high need for conformity. To me there can be a false sense of security that comes from conformity. When we conform too much, we might be leaving some of the best parts of ourselves hidden in the negative space.
INDEPENDENCE + CONFORMITY = ?
While being around the like-minded often puts folks at ease, the opposite can be quite true as well. When people are different, or deemed outsiders, it might be natural to fear that they might upset the social order in some way. Is this really true,or does it just FEEL true?
The psychology of geography, interesting enough in the year of a world-wide pandemic, is rooted in outsiders potentially bringing disease to a region. Of course illness was greatly feared when folks were trying to populate a new territory…all lives certainly mattered back then just as they do now.
To honor that fierce independence it seems to me that different skills, ideas, and perspectives should be exceptionally valued, hell, even celebrated—now more than ever regardless of one’s geography.
We really need all types of thinkers and doers to face the world’s many challenges. Perhaps this first day of winter is well-timed for some quiet contemplation on what seems likely to be an isolated, and potentially sorrow-filled season before the light returns.
“To-night, for the first time, and with a wonder we all feel when the obvious but long unseen suddenly becomes apparent, the primary fact of human brotherhood, irrespective of caste, came home to him.”
—Will Lillibridge—Ben Blair, Chapter XXII Two Friends Have it Out
This morning my coffee-fueled internet meanderings landed me a famous mugshots site. They’re quite remarkable, raw, and they all seem to just dare you to learn more about the arrests. I’m a true crime junkie.
David Bowie was arrested in Rochester, NY for marijuana possession on March 21st, 1976. He was held for three hours and released on bail. He pleaded guilty and the grand jury later decided to pass on his case. Even his mugshot is classy, of course.
With some regret, I’ve never been arrested. So, with the help of my daughter, Willa Govoni’s photography and highly intuitive stylist skills I now have my very own menopausal mugshots. Perhaps a protest arrest is in my future? #2021goals #resist #goodtrouble
I thought about my characteristics that feel like crimes sometimes. They came to mind quite quickly…judgment, regret, and procrastination.
Willa, you’ve got a good eye kid. Let’s do lunch and discuss more projects.
“Once the seduction of taming and conquering never seen western lands took root, homesteading men must’ve been often blinded by their brave proclamation. The planning of their upcoming adventure, I suspect left little room for dissent of any kind. Homesteading wives just had to get on board, regardless of any fears or sorrow they felt about leaving everything familiar behind. They did what determined women have always done throughout history, they relied on their ability to make something out of nothing
It seems likely to me, the descendants of homesteaders just might hold some ancestral unsettling, some vague restlessness of that migratory gamble. I know I feel some ancient unsettling myself, and I always have.”
Excerpt from Personal Homesteading—a work in progress
Resmaa Menakem’s book My Grandmother’s Hands has confirmed many feelings I’ve had about generational trauma make sense to me. I’ve often wondered how my ancestor’s emotional landscapes have affected me. I don’t want to be at the mercy of emotions that were never mine in the first place—and now have lost any appropriate context. Sorry prairie ancestors, it’s time to cut you loose.
“All of this suggests that one of the best things each of us can do—not only for ourselves, but also for our children and grandchildren—is to metabolize our pain and heal our trauma. When we heal and make more room for growth in our nervous systems, we have a better chance of spreading our emotional health to our descendants, via healthy DNA expression. In contrast, when we don’t address our trauma, we may pass it on to future generations, along with some of our fear, constriction, and dirty pain.”
We all possess some generational trauma to varying degrees. Right now our collective unhealed traumas could be part of what’s tearing families, communities, and our nation apart. I believe we can heal by learning ways to let trauma move through our bodies (metabolize it) and not keep us in a perpetually hypervigilant, anxious (fearful), and distrustful state of being. I’m an optimist AND a realist. I believe we can heal AND it’s gonna take a lot of heart, humility, and hard work.
This morning I awakened at about the time I got the call from my sister two years ago letting me know that our father had died. I get up early, not usually in the 4 o’clock hour though.
I wasn’t surprised I stirred early today with Dad on my mind. I got up, quietly pulled on yesterday’s clothes, and waited for the clock on the stove to say 5:00 before I made my coffee. I sat outside and watched the sun begin to rise over the Cape Cod Bay.
My Dad was not an early riser, definitely more of a sunset guybut he would’ve appreciated my sunrise images, especially the coyote tracks in the sand and my obsession with them now.
The coyote is the mascot of my Dad’s much-loved, alma mater—the University of South Dakota.GO YOTES!
A few days before Dad died I called to tell him that Jeff and I got stung by jellyfish while on a kayak excursion. We were FaceTiming so I showed him the welts on my arms and described the way they stung…sort of electric-like if my memory serves me correctly. I had a flight booked to come see him in a few days so we kept our call short.
This morning I remembered a song Dad used to sing to me:
Lisa, Lisa I’ve been thinkin’
what a fine world this would be,
if all the Lisa’s were transported…
far beyond the northern sea.
I miss you Dad, thanks for the company this morning.
A few Saturday mornings ago while walking down the hill to the Cape Cod Bay, my daughter, Willa told me that she had never seen a coyote. She’s traveled to South Dakota at least once a year her whole life to visit my family and I was surprised. We stepped on the beach before sunrise and the very first thing I noticed was a coyote in the shadows walking the shoreline. The shape was haunting, and instantly familiar.
“In Plains Indian stories, Coyote nearly always takes the shape of a man. He is clever but reckless and is constantly getting himself and the people around him into trouble with his socially inappropriate behavior like greed, boastfulness, lying, and chasing women…
Growing up in South Dakota I frequently heard coyotes howling outside my bedroom’s eastern-facing window that overlooked acres of the uninterrupted prairie where my horse, Honey Bear lived.
Like the mystery of fog and the way it makes me feel, coyotes also hold a similar sacred space. They are a tether to the wide-open plains where I grew up and the inner wildness instilled by the freedom I was granted to roam that spacious landscape. Coyotes, I’m now realizing are part of my interior geography.
In Native American storytelling, the coyote plays a crucial role. Interestingly enough though, the coyote is seen quite differently from nation to nation, region to region. The familiar thread is that the coyote is generally viewed as a trickster meant to serve as a example of traits that don’t always serve the community. The flip side though is that the coyote’s cleverness can often get them out of certain pickles and predicaments.
When I got out of college, I wanted an adventure. In September of 1988, I went to Auckland, New Zealand to volunteer in the public relations department for a non-denominational radio station, Rhema. While I was there an American man who claimed to be a prophet arranged a visit. I don’t remember his name. He wanted to pray with us all right away when he arrived. I was the only American on staff.
He gathered everyone in a circle, my hair stood up on my neck and arms. I was so certain he was a fake. He singled me out and said, “come here, Dakota, please join us”. I said “no” without any explanation. My colleagues were surprised, but not pushy and let me hang back. Kiwi’s are wonderfully respectful and polite. I looked up while they prayed and watched his body language closely. He opened his eyes to look at me. I didn’t blink.
Of course, the American Prophet wanted the only other American to lend authenticity to him and help advance his narrative. He was seeking, as many before and after him, donations of course, and a larger platform to spread his message about what those donations could do for his personal cause and humanity.
$ I grew up in a household with Tammy Faye and Jim Baker on in the morning. I saw the tricks used to get donations, create false narratives, and get people hooked into the drug of magical thinking—a high that is never ever enough.
As a 22-year-old, I knew that American claiming to be a prophet was a snake oil salesman. I’d been in training to spot what’s inauthentic from a very young age, not the message intended by watching the PTL Club. However, an education I now find myself quite grateful for in hindsight.
This story was a pivotal event in my life. This was when I realized that I no longer had to accept the dogma of my childhood. Or at least that I could personally reject what felt inauthentic to me and navigate the world in a way that honored my inner knowing. I also understood, with maybe even more significance that I could handle the fall out if others thought I was wrong.
“Coyote is a revered culture hero who creates, teaches, and helps humans; in others, he is a sort of antihero who demonstrates the dangers of negative behaviors like greed, recklessness, and arrogance; in still others, he is a comic trickster character, whose lack of wisdom gets him into trouble while his cleverness gets him back out. http://www.native-langages.org/plains-coyote.htm
This morning I awakened at five, it was still dark and there was a bit of coastal fog in the air. I sipped my coffee outside and watched the light shift over the bay. In my head, I walked through what I would do if I encountered a coyote on the beach or during the half-mile walk down the hill this morning. I imagined I could be the trickster and outsmart him…magical thinking indeed, Lisa.
I arrived at the beach to pick up garbage and scanned east then west. There was now enough light to see the coyote. I didn’t. I was a little disappointed at first, but then I felt safe to walk the shoreline.
I started noticing the tracks in the sand . I never felt this way before. I had some unfamiliar energy and vigilance.
I thought about my northern Quebec ancestry…fur trappers perhaps? Maybe I should become a wilderness guide or a private investigator? I was heady with possibilities as I walked along.
Then I came upon these sandals and I got a little concerned.
The potential coyote tracks awakened my curiosity today in a way that led to further investigation. I don’t feel tricked. I feel sparked and pretty damn grateful.
PLEASENOTE: I’ve tried to identify online the difference between tracks. I’m well-aware that I could be wrong, but without human prints closeby, it seems to me these are coyote tracks and not those of a large dog. Please let me know. I would like to learn how to easily discern the difference.
As I age, it seems much of life is experienced within the gray areas of uncertainty. Thankfully, now at fifty-three, I’m finding not knowing is sort of interesting, perhaps even a bit wonderfully mysterious.
I’ve been reading Pema Chödrön’s book When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times, she writes about hope and fear—
“Hope and fear come from feeling that we lack something: they come from a sense of poverty. We can’t simply relax with ourselves. We hold on to hope, and hope robs us of the present moment.”
HOPEverb: to cherish a desire with anticipation, to want something to happen or be true
FEAR verb:to be afraid of, expect with alarm
Hope was on my mind, so this morning Dusty Springfield’s 1964 song—Wishin’ and Hopin’ popped into my head as didEmily Dickinson’s poem—Hope Is A Things With Feathers. Oh you brilliant, creative women…you’ve been homesteading in my psyche the last few days. Thank you, your timing is impeccable.
Wishin’ and hopin’ and thinkin’ and prayin’ Plannin’ and dreamin’ each night of his charms That won’t get you into his arms So if you’re lookin’ to find love you can share All you gotta dois hold him and kiss him and love him And show him that you care
Songwriters: Hal David / Burt Bacharach—Artist: Dusty Springfield
All of this hope talk made me think about parenting, religion, and my childhood. My mother’s prayers for me when I was growing up were that I would eventually become someone or something else—an idealized version of the raw potential she saw in me. Please help Lisa stop picking her fingernails, overeating, cussing, being lazy, not caring about her grades, reading the wrong books, listening to the wrong music, drinking beer, or NOT believing the way I do.
I don’t blame her, this was her programming. I’m sure it felt quite loving hopin’ and prayin’ for my needed improvements. She feared who I might possibly become, and truly believed her prayers could turn things around for me. Her faith then required that she gave the God of her understanding credit whenever my improvements, no matter how barely detectable emerged.
I did the same thing to my children—always hopin’ they would become the best version of themselves. I guess I thought wishin’ for the hidden potential in them to emerge would reflect what a stellar job I’ve done mothering and flatter my ego. Damn, that was my programming too.
Emily Dickinson’s poem, Hope Is The Thing With Feathers reveals the unsettling nature of the never ending loop of constant hope…and never stops – at all -.
Hopin’ I believed would make all of my sleepless nights and heartache worthwhile. However, instead, what I’m finally understanding is that all of that motherly wishin, hopin’, thinkin’, and prayin’ kept me from accepting them as they were/are in the present. I’m truly sorry Ellis, Lucy, and Willa that I did not learn this sooner.
Wishin’, hopin’, thinkin’, and prayin’ doesn’t seem to actually be working in any part of my life now that I give it more though...and never stops – at all—thanks Emily for that reminder.
What if I practiced more acceptance in all areas of my life? What would that feel like? Complacent? Uncaring? UnAmerican? Untethered? Unbelievable?
Let’s experiment, take a moment…breathe, just let the word acceptance settle into our soul a bit…repeat it a few times. Thoughts?
What if right now in America we just quit wishin’, hopin’, thinkin’, and prayin’ for things to be different than they are? What if collectively we ACCEPTED that the God of our personal understanding is desperately trying to reveal to us that all of the political division, rage, wounded egos, destruction, inequality, brutality, greed, spiritual aches, righteousness, grief, and suffering requires our heart’s immediate attention right now and we can no longer keep hopin’ and prayin’ for it to magically disappear?
All you gotta doishold him and kiss himand love him Andshow him others that you care