Living Through the Dry Days

“It’s the dust,” the old man said. “I can’t stand the damned dust.” And he couldn’t.

Moving through the house, he dusted reflexively, compulsively: the dampened cloth swinging and swiping in defiance of the elements. He considered dry heat a personal affront; wind an insult; dust a threat — inescapable reminders of those wretched childhood days atop the Caprock when dust was not merely an annoyance but a destroyer.

Even after the worst of the Dust Bowl years had passed, he absorbed his family’s grief and fear-filled stories. There was the blowing sand, stripping his uncle’s car of paint in less time than it takes to tell the tale. There was his mother, wedging damp towels into cracks around the windows and doors of the old house, re-wetting them with her tears. One neighbor, caught out in a fast-moving storm, became disoriented, unable to see and certain of death by billowing and unconstrained dirt. Although he survived, it was said he never recovered.

Even the apocryphal stories rang true. Did a Panhandle priest flee back to Illinois after that terror-filled Ash Wednesday service: seeking solace in the valleys, verdant fields, and rivers of his midwestern home? No one had proof, but no one doubted it was possible. Priest or not, what man could endure reminding his fellows that from dust they’d come and to dust they would return, even as the dust of destruction overtook their lives?

“Were you afraid it would happen again?” I asked. “Sure,” he said. “It didn’t take much to remind folks. Still doesn’t. When the rains don’t come, people get nervous — kind of alert. They watch the sky; look for clouds; sniff the air. When the first well goes dry, if there’s no hay, if the springs stop running…”

He trailed off, considering. “When I was a kid,” he said, “I’d sit on the front step of the house. There wasn’t anything around but the lane out to the road, and the fields. I’d sit there and watch the wheat blow, bending and waving. It looked like I thought the ocean would look if I ever could see it.”

“I looked at that wheat and thought about water while I waited for the clouds to build. Sometimes I’d think about what it was like to have a really good rain. Anybody living in the Panhandle better hold on to a few good rain memories. They’ll stand you in good stead in the dry days.”

It’s a dry day, now. Coastal marshes are growing shallow, leaving water birds perplexed. Tendrils of smoke curl in from distant fires; even the frogs are silent. Perhaps the creatures are remembering other dry times: considering their own experiences of endurance and survival. Perhaps, like people of the drought and like the earth itself they, too, are waiting for refreshment; for renewal; for rain.

Seed takes no pleasure in a thin and heat-parched earth.
To root and hold demands a different soil:

damp, receptive loam turned and broken,
fields unrolled from horizon to horizon
with a firm and measured hand.
Straighter and less complicated than a river’s curl
furrows slice across the land, silent and predictable.
Their simplicity refreshes.

Around them,
rotting fences dissolve in mist
while birdsong drips like dew
and coursing torrents
from billowing clouds
wash clear both air and sight:
sluicing through fields and flooding ditches,
joining seed to furrow and enlivening growth
before ebbing and flowing
away.
~ Linda Leinen

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An Easter Journey

 

Faith
is the instructor.
We need no other.
Guess what I am,
he says in his
incomparably lovely
young-man voice.
Because I love the world,
I think of grass,
I think of leaves
and the bold sun,
I think of the rushes
in the black marshes
just coming back
from under the pure white
and now finally melting
stubs of snow.
Whatever we know or don’t know
leads us to say;
Teacher, what do you mean?
But faith is still there, and silent.
Then he who owns
the incomparable voice
suddenly flows upward
and out of the room
and I follow,
obedient and happy.
Of course I am thinking
the Lord was once young
and will never in fact be old.
And who else could this be, who goes off
down the green path
carrying his sandals, and singing?

 

                                          “Spring” ~ by Mary Oliver

 

As always, comments are welcome.

How ‘Bout Them Cowgirls?

Ready to ride the fences

Any Houstonian who hears “YeeeeeHaw!echoing down the corridors of a Fortune 500 company, or notices the distinctive click of boot heels on polished granite, knows what’s happening. It’s Rodeo time in Houston.

Founded in 1931, the Houston Fat Stock Show & Exposition eventually became the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo, but for most Houstonians, it’s just The Rodeo: a mélange of trail rides, barbeque, bronc riding, , baby animals,  quilt exhibits, livestock auctions, calf scrambles, and concerts. Staffed primarily by volunteers, it’s also a rich source of scholarships: more than 2,300 students attending more than 80 Texas colleges and universities currently benefit from Rodeo scholarships valued at more than $50 million; nearly 20,000 scholarships have been awarded since 1957.

This year’s event will close Sunday night with a concert-only performance by George Strait, who’s performed at the Rodeo thirty times since his first appearance in 1983. His performance with Lyle Lovett and Robert Earl Keen in 2019 set an attendance record that  may be broken this weekend. Personally, I prefer a smaller venue, but I do hope the Rodeo crowd gets to hear a favorite song I heard Strait sing at Gruene Hall in New Braunfels.

How ’bout them cowgirls, indeed. With the Rodeo in town, everyone’s a cowboy or cowgirl. Even the slickest, most citified sort begins wearing boots and overblown belt buckles. People who tend to equate beef with the ribeye on their plate discuss the finer points of Longhorn breeding. Local broadcasters trail behind trailriders, sopping up stories like so much sausage gravy, while dance studios cope with a surge of people demanding classes in Western Swing and the Texas Two-Step.

It’s Rodeo Fever, and even a Yankee can catch it. After moving to Houston, I discovered I had no immunity. After all, as a child, I didn’t long to be a princess, ballerina, or nurse. I wanted to be a cowgirl.

I didn’t want to jump ropes, I wanted to twirl them. I didn’t want to eat my carrots, I wanted to feed them to a horse. I tuned in to the noon market reports not because I cared about corn futures, but because I wanted to sing along with the Sons of the Pioneers. Tumblin’ Tumbleweeds was my favorite, and the most famous member of the group, Roy Rogers, was my hero. If Roy liked Dale Evans? I’d try to like her, too.

I watched them on television, and collected their comic books. I carried my school-day sandwich in a Roy Rogers lunch box, and my milk in a Dale Evans thermos. Eventually, I received a passionately longed for black-and-white cowgirl outfit: minus the boots, but with a pair of six-shooters and a faux tooled leather holster. What the Smothers Brothers sang as parody, I believed to be true:

I see by your outfit that you are a cowboy,
I see by your outfit you are a cowboy, too.
We see by our outfits that we are both cowboys,
If you get an outfit, you can be a cowboy, too.

 I outgrew my outfit before I stopped wearing it, but a new life in Texas moved me beyond childhood fantasy into a deeper appreciation of what being a cowgirl actually entails.

Eventually, I became friends with real Texas cowgirls, and began to hear stories of some famous ones. Louise O’Connor, a fifth-generation member of a family that’s been ranching near Victoria since 1834, published a book titled Cryin’ for Daylight, a reference to a statement made by an itinerant cowhand named Will King: “We loved to work cattle so much we’d just be sittin’ around, crying for daylight to come.”

Cowgirl Connie Douglas Reeves taught generations of girls to ride at Camp Waldemar in Hunt, Texas, before being tossed from her horse and dying at the age of 101. She taught far more than riding. Her most insistent bit of advice – “Always saddle your own horse” – became the unofficial motto of the Cowgirl Hall of Fame and a touchstone for thousands of women who’d never touched a real horse. The day I found her words painted onto a cedar board that had been wedged into a pile of rocks along the Sabinal River, I smiled; she would have been pleased.

Hallie Stillwell, who continued to ranch in Texas’s unforgiving Big Bend country for years after her husband’s death, became one of the larger-than-life ranch women of the American West through a combination of classic sharp-shooting skills, political acumen, ordinary town jobs, and a syndicated newspaper column.

My favorite image of Hallie, produced by artist Debbie Little-Wilson and called “Hallie’s Moon,” was imprinted on tee-shirts for the Texas State Arts & Crafts Festival in Kerrville.


As author Kenneth B. Ragsdale wrote in his book Big Bend Country, “People throughout Texas either knew, claimed they knew, or wanted to know Hallie Stillwell.” One of first women ranchers I met, who’d known Hallie personally, put it this way: “Hallie really knew what it meant to cowgirl up.”

At the time, I didn’t understand the phrase. Later, I learned that it’s a variant of an old rodeo warning call from the chute; “Cowboy up” meant the rider was seated on the back of a bronco or bull and was ready for the gate to open.

Over time, the expression took on a broader meaning. It suggested that someone was ready and able to tackle the next challenge: physically and mentally prepared for difficult or dangerous tasks. Used as an exhortation, “Cowboy up!” came to mean, “Get with it. Don’t shirk your responsibility. Give it your best.”

One woman who understood what it meant to “cowgirl up” was Helen Bonham, a rodeo cowgirl who also served as Miss Wyoming in 1917. During the year of her reign, she traveled broadly, delighting crowds with her considerable riding skills.

In 1920, she arrived in New York City to invite Mayor John Francis Hylan back to Wyoming for Frontier Days. During her visit, she entertained 15,000 Girl Scouts during their own annual Field Day by roping and riding her way through the Sheep Meadow in Central Park.

Travel can be frustrating, lonely and tiring, even when undertaken in pursuit of a dream. Bonham helped to balance the challenges of her life by staying in touch with those she’d left behind. Without email, Twitter, Facebook, or Zoom to help her out, she coped in the same way that previous generations of travelers had coped. She wrote letters.

This famous postcard, showing Helen using her saddle as a desk, was incorporated by Debbie Little-Wilson into her print titled St. Helen Bonham, Protector of Email, part of a series she called Cowgirl Saints.

While rodeo cowgirl Helen Bonham corresponded religiously back home,
she would never have imagined that one day letters would travel at the blink of an eye.
She would have ridden cyberspace with the same daring as she did her horse.
Saint Helen protects the sending and receiving of email
and the mystery of it all.

Today, St. Helen’s image hangs above my computer desk, next to a copy of the postcard which inspired it, watching over my wisdom and my foolishness alike. Helen Bonham never had a computer, and I never got my horse and saddle, but we both benefited from still-living traditions: traditions of self-reliance, adaptability, resourcefulness, and the flat hard work so necessary for life in a real world.

Not everyone needs a horse, but a clear eye, a steady hand, and a ready willingness to “cowgirl up” always are in order. Where those exist, someone surely will say, “How ’bout that cowgirl?”

Comments always are welcome.

History and Hope

Revolution in Hungary

Because it was a school night, my tenth birthday celebration remained a small affair, confined to our family’s dinner table.

As I blew out the candles on my cake that October evening in 1956, whatever sweet, midwestern wishes I made hardly resembled those of children a world away. Those children were marking a different sort of occasion with their own parents: an uprising that would come to be known as the Hungarian Revolution.

On October 24th, or perhaps the 25th, I passed through the dining room on my way to breakfast and noticed the Des Moines Register lying where my cake had been. A single photograph filled the space above the fold, together with a bold caption: “REVOLUTION IN HUNGARY.”

At the time, no 24-hour news cycle existed. We had no CNN; no internet; no Facebook or Twitter. We had only a newspaper, motionless and mute, waiting on the table while my father readied for work and my mother drank coffee in the kitchen.

I stood at the table, transfixed by the photograph. Eventually, my air of concentrated astonishment caught my dad’s attention. Stopping behind me, he asked, “What’s happening?” I pointed to the photograph. He picked up the front page, scanned it, then brought it to the kitchen. He showed it to my mother, then handed it to me. “Maybe you should take the newspaper to school,” he said. And so I did.

At the time, I thought nothing of my teacher’s willingness to set aside her lesson plans and talk with us about events in Europe. We made a special trip to the school library, where the librarian helped us to find the 1848 Hungarian National Poem. Back in our classroom, we made a poster of the words, tacked it to the bulletin board, and read it in unison.

Stand up, Hungarians, your country calls.
The time for now or never falls.
Are we to live as slaves or free?
Choose one. This is our destiny!
By the God of all the Magyars, we swear.
We swear never again the chains to bear.

Even as children we were moved by the straightforwardness of the poetry. Decades later, turning over events of the time in a somewhat different context, I found myself equally stirred by Karoly Nagy’s The Legacy of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution:

Liberty, democracy, human rights are like health. Servitude, oppression, discrimination are like sickness. Totalitarian tyranny is death. A revolution that overthrows tyranny and achieves liberty is a resurrection. During the last week of October and the first few days of November, 1956, most of us in Hungary felt as if we were risen from the dead…
It was euphoria. We sang our long-forbidden national anthem, embraced each other on the streets, laughed and cried with joy. We felt redeemed. We were intoxicated by hearing and saying words of truth.
We learned the truth and demonstrated it to the world, that what defines a country, what qualifies a society is not any ideology, but the presence or absence of freedom.

Thirty-three years after I stood, transfixed, before a photograph of Russian tanks moving into the streets of Budapest to quell the popular uprising there with determined brutality, true revolution and an overthrow of communist government came to Czechoslovakia.

British historian and political writer Timothy Garton Ash, noting the series of revolutions cascading through Eastern Europe in 1989, adds a reminder that, “in Poland, the transition [from communism to democracy] lasted ten years, in Hungary ten months, and in Czechoslovakia ten days.”

Those ten event-filled days between November 17th and November 27th, known to Czechs as the ‘Velvet Revolution’ and to Slovaks as the ‘Gentle Revolution,’ embodied a remarkable, non-violent resistance whose effects reverberated throughout the world.

Reflecting on those events in a New York Review of Books article, Ash said:

In the autumn of 1989, the term ‘Velvet Revolution’ was coined to describe a peaceful, theatrical, negotiated regime change in a small Central European state that no longer exists.
So far as I have been able to establish, the phrase was first used by Western journalists and subsequently taken up by Václav Havel and other Czech and Slovak opposition leaders. This seductive label was then applied retrospectively by writers, including myself, to the cumulatively epochal events that had unfolded in Poland, Hungary, and East Germany as ‘the Velvet Revolutions of 1989.’

Ash’s description of events as “theatrical” never was meant to suggest they were in any sense ‘staged,’ but they certainly were dramatic. Marketa Hancova, former Dean of Education at Platt College in San Diego, California, was present during those ten days of transformation; her accounts of the events are intensely personal and extraordinarily detailed.

…It is late at night and I cannot sleep. And who can? The telephone is ringing, the radio is on, people are stopping by, so my friend and I are going out at four in the morning to buy a newspaper. Prague is bubbling, steaming, the city is in a frenzy and people delirious with certainty of victory, by their strength and by the historical moment we all feel palpably burning under our skin. The air smells sweet, and you can drink and eat for free. Everyone is sharing, everyone is offering, everything is open twenty four hours a day.
Revolution does not know night or day. It is one big day that ends with achieving our goal. I am tasting the life in paradise. If nothing else, these incredible moments have already made up for the years under the Communists’ despotism. The sense of giving and sharing offers me a rare opportunity to experience the uniqueness of human closeness.
Day three… The crowd is bigger. We are in the main square again, and the Communist vice-president is trying to deliver a speech. All of a sudden I hear a key chiming. Everybody pulls out their keys and we are all chiming above our heads. The whole of Prague is chiming and the politician cannot finish his address. We sing instead the Czech national songs…

The chiming in Wenceslas Square as citizens rang their bell-like keys in a final, dismissive gesture to the communist regime was memorialized in The Key Sculpture (Klícová socha) by Czech artist Jiří David. Formally installed on March 9, 2010 in Prague’s Franz Kafka Square, its 85,741 metal keys pay tribute to the courage and intransigence of pro-democratic demonstrators, the vision of leaders like Václav Havel, and the unexpected power of a million jangling keys when Češi udělali revoluci – the Czechs made a revolution.

Today, those same Czechs once again are gathering in Wenceslas Square: this time to protest on behalf of another beleaguered people — the citizens of Ukraine.

Even as Czech citizens were singing and chiming in the streets of Prague, The Estonian Singing Revolution did its own part to help secure democracy in Eastern Europe. Incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1940, Estonia was occupied by Germany until reannexation by the Soviet Union in 1944.

Despite the deportation of tens of thousands of Estonians to Siberia and Central Asia and the forced resettlement of Russians into the country, one aspect of Estonian culture held firm: their Festivals of Song. First held in 1869, the Festivals quickly became a revered tradition. The Tallinn Festival, held every five years, can draw as many as 25,000 singers.

In 1987, Estonian singing began to serve another purpose. Initially, smaller groups gathered at the Song Festival grounds to sing patriotic songs that had been banned by the Soviets. In the words of participant Artur Talvik,

“We sang all night and everybody went home early in the morning. It was emotionally so strong that the next day there were even more people. The day after, there were even more people. People took out their hidden flags. They had these flags hidden for 50 years and now they took these out and started to wave them.”

For reasons best known to themselves, the Soviets ignored the first song gatherings. In response, the people’s courage increased. In June of 1988, 300,000 Estonians gathered at the Tallinn Song Festival Grounds to sing patriotic songs, including the banned Mu isamaa, mu onn ja room (“My Fatherland, My Happiness and Joy”).

Ten thousand people singing may be a song festival, but 300,000 people singing and waving flags is a revolution. By September, political leaders were participating in demonstrations and insisting on the restoration of independence.

In the midst of Estonian singing, alliances were forged and pressures on the Soviets increased. By August 23, 1989, the 50th anniversary of the secretive Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact between Hitler and Stalin, more than a million Latvians, Lithuanians, and Estonians were willing to travel “The Baltic Way“, a human chain stretching 360 miles from the foot of Toompea in Tallinn to the foot of the Gediminas Tower in Vilnius, Lithuania.

Their mutual goal, re-established independence of the Baltic States, was nurtured by an assortment of national movements – the Popular Front of Estonia (Rahvarinne), the Popular Front of Latvia and the Lithuanian Reform Movement, Sąjūdis. Milda Mendeleviciute provides one reminiscence.

I was less than 8 then, so I can remember very little. As my Mom tells, we went to this small town close to Vilnius, hoping there would not be overcrowded, and we were right (only two cars there on that site when we came)… we had to struggle to reach each others hands. The pictures prove that many children participated in that peaceful demonstration.

The human chain of the Baltic Way

Despite some differences in the struggles which took place in Hungary, Estonia, Czechoslovakia, and Latvia, they share certain truths: particularly, that revolution never is purely about politics, and freedom never is abstract. Human dignity is rooted not in the lofty pronouncements of autocrats and dictators, but in the freedoms of daily life, the intimacy of personal relationships and the twin joys of creativity and responsibility.

In another entry from her journal, Ms. Hancova speaks movingly of dignity and freedom.

There are many events I happily experience and one of the episodes sticks clearly in my mind. We are walking with my friends in the Wenceslas Square and we notice a big crowd in front of a record shop. We come closer and see a small cassette player sitting on a stool and playing a Christmas carol.
We are so happy to hear – for the first time in our life – the Christmas carol being played publicly. We are staying for the longest time and together with others listening, singing and enjoying a sliver of already gained freedom.

Her experience is worth pondering. Inundated as we are by carols from the day after Thanksgiving, by Christmas we hardly hear them. Cynical, irritated, or bored by what we consider an intrusion into our personal space, we forget that, in our lifetime, in Prague’s Wenceslas Square, a woman bearing a name and a history experienced publicly-played Christmas carols for the first time in her life, and rejoiced with friends and strangers alike in the freedom to listen and sing.

Today, wherever voices are threatened or silenced, whenever hearts grow weary or fearful, the same power that enlivened Czechoslovakia, surged through Estonia and made straight the Baltic Way seeks to revivify the human spirit.

Wending through city streets, holding hands across the miles, filling the public squares with a sense of  commitment and joy, it offered to those nations what others sought to destroy: a swelling chorus of freedom and self-determination.

Comments always are welcome.
The next Estonian Song Festival will be held in 2024.

Practicing Resurrection

Ten years after ~ Bastrop State Park

On September 4, 2011, the Bastrop County Complex fire ignited in central Texas. The most destructive wildfire in state history, it became a 32,000 acre inferno, destroying over 1,600 homes and killing two people.

On that same September day, high winds directed the fire into Bastrop State Park. Long known for its area of isolated Loblolly Pines — colloquially known as the ‘Lost Pines’ — the park was damaged so severely that early estimates suggested it could take generations for the area to recover.

Nonetheless, recovery efforts began almost immediately. After the initial clearing, reforestation began, coordinated by state agencies and assisted by volunteers from around the state. When I visited the park ten years later, in October of 2021, the recovery was well underway. Newly planted pine seedlings were taking hold, and flowers like Liatris, Snake Cotton, and Flowering Spurge were abundant.

I found myself especially charmed by expansive fields of Maximillian sunflowers. Rising up alongside charred and broken reminders of the fire, they fairly glowed with life. While any number of words could be applied to their appearance — recovery, resurgence, regeneration — poet and essayist Wendell Berry would apply a different word to the phenomenon: resurrection.

For Berry, resurrection is far more than an experience belonging to the past or a feast day designated for celebration in the future. Instead, its dynamic is threaded through life: emerging in the midst of even the most difficult circumstances, and capable of being nurtured.

No work of his speaks more directly to the issue than his poem “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.” As this Lenten season begins, the practice he recommends is more relevant than ever.

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die,
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millenium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion – put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

 

Comments always are welcome.