A river runs through it (my life, that is)

Laramie Peak - from a shorter distance than my childhood vantage

Laramie Peak – from a shorter distance
than my childhood vantage

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On a bookshelf in my apartment, next to the two histories of our family my dad wrote and published, are three books (1).

Yesterday I was nostalgic—no, feeling a tad sorry for myself because here at 68 when I should be seeing the world with my husband and joying in the company of my grandchildren, I am alone with three cats. My mild nostalgia/self-pity is not a big deal. But I saw the books and my mind wandered to Dad’s work when he was my age.

At that time my parents lived in Sacramento. He was semi-retired, doing interesting work as an interim pastor sent to various places to work with churches without pastors. One of those places was Spokane, WA. My then partner and I visited my parents, and the four of us made a trip to Glacier National Park. A delicious outing.

For some time before he died (until he could not physically or mentally maintain his concentration—he was, after all, 97), Dad was writing a memoir tracing his life’s journey along the Oregon Trail.

He was born in Kansas City, MO, and lived (after five years in Wyoming) in Kearney, Scottsbluff, and Omaha, NE, all on the Platte River—and the Oregon Trail. Eventually he moved to California, that home in Sacramento—the ultimate goal of many pioneers who traveled the Oregon Trail.

I am, as I said, in a nostalgic mood (or something related to that), so I will do a bit of river-remembrance of my own. And in the process, some Oregon Trail thinking which will be of interest to my siblings and about two other people.

My brother and I were born in Douglas, WY, on the North Platte River. Douglas is a small town nestled at the foot of Laramie Peak.

Later, we lived for two years in Kearney, NE, where my sister was born. The city is on the Platte River which is formed by the confluence of the North Platte and South Platte Rivers about 100 miles west of there. From Kearney, we moved to Scottsbluff, NE, which is (once again) on the North Platte River. “Nebraska,” by the way, is an Anglicized version of the name French explorers gave the river as a transliteration of the Omaha Indian name meaning “Flat Water.” Folks in Western Nebraska say the river is “a mile wide and an inch deep.”

A mile wide and an inch deep

A mile wide and an inch deep

Scotts Bluff, a siltstone outcropping (once under the water of the great inland sea) which has remained intact because limestone deposits harder than the sandstone kept the soil beneath them from eroding away, looms over the city Scottsbluff. From the top of the Bluff, Laramie Peak, 120 miles west, is visible on a clear day. That as I was growing up I could look west and see the (to a kid, faraway) place where I was born gave me a kind of comfort. Two promontories, both beside the Platte River.

We used to say ruts on the south side of the Bluff were made a hundred years before by wagons on the Oregon Trail. I doubt that, but I’ve never looked into it seriously.

We moved from Scottsbluff to Omaha, about 10 miles north of the confluence of the Platte and the Missouri (the city may have expanded that far south by now, for all I know).

The romance of the river ends there for me. I boarded a Greyhound bus in the fall of 1963 and headed to Redlands, CA, to go to college, and except for the following summer never lived in Nebraska or by the Platte River again. I was, however, in the state that was the destination of those pioneers on the Oregon Trail. I’ve lived all over the country since then, but I did complete the “westward ho!” as my father did.

Somewhere I have pictures of Laramie Peak faintly visible on the horizon from the top of Scotts Bluff. I took them before I had digital photography (the last in 2001). I, of course, can’t find such pictures on the Internet because people look east where the towns are when they are on top of the Bluff.

If you read my blog regularly (thank you) you know that you have to tolerate a great deal of sappy sentimentality and a lot of self-revelation no one should make in public. Yesterday I saw my psychiatrist whose job is to help my neurologist keep my meds in balance. [Note to myself: write someday about the “entitlement” that makes me eligible for this incredible care that I can’t afford. Hmmm. ACA anyone?]

At any rate, Dr. Bret. She always schedules me at the end of the day so we can talk for an hour instead of the 15 minutes my insurance (without co-pay) pays for. She understands all of my “issues” better than anyone else. Depression.

The chasm I cannot cross

The chasm I cannot cross

She said, “I think you have trouble finding people to be kind to you.” What? And then, “You know, you are fragile.” What? Ho, ho, ho! you’re saying to yourself if you know anything about me and co-dependency and addiction and all of those ways in which I’m screwed up.

I do have trouble finding people to be with who are kind to me. I’ll write about that the day after I write about my “entitlement.”

But fragile? I’m the bull in the china closet most of the time (not to be confused with other closets). I do not have a delicate nature. And I do not have one of those fine, sensitive “artist’s” minds.

From the time I was six years old until I was fifteen, I was regularly in a place (not figuratively, literally) from which I could see, staring over a chasm of 120 miles, the place where I was born. The chasm was (is) the earth. I don’t have pretty language for this. But I have known my whole life that I’m caught in that space, that I can see the place from which I came. But I can’t get there from here.

Yet.

________________ (1)

•             Franzwa, Greory M. The Oregon Trail Revisited, 4th Edition. Tucson, AZ: Patrice Press, 1988.
•             Haines, Aubrey L. Historic Sites along the Oregon Trail. Tucson, AZ: The Patrice Press, 1981. (Foreword by Russell E. Dickenson, Director, National Park Service, United States Department of the Interior.)
•             Mattes, Merrill J. The Great Platte River Road, Second Edition. Lincoln, NE: Nebraska State Historical Society Publications, 1979.

Acrophobia is a comfortable disease*

Watch out for kids from Sierra Leone

Watch out for kids from Sierra Leone

With apologies to e.e. cummings.* I’m not sure why that poem popped into my head. It has nothing to do with what I’m thinking about. Acrophobia is not a comfortable disease.

I am terrified of heights. I’d do almost anything to wiggle out of playing tour guide to a group of Lutheran kids from Sierra Leone who want nothing more than to go to the top of the JPMorgan Chase tower (55 floors) in Dallas. You can’t get to the top, but there’s a spectacular observation deck at the bottom of the “keyhole” on the 40th floor. About seven years ago I took those kids up there. We were almost chased away by the guards because the kids were taking pictures. Terrorists, you know.

Yes, I’m pretty much a wall-hugger by whatever definition you give the term.

Another wall I hugged was the stairway to the top of the steeple of the First Congregational Church of Nantucket in about 1979. I was there with the organ tuner. The tall ships were coming into the harbor. We left our work and scrambled up the tower. But when I got to the open space, I could go no further. The organ tuner yelled at me to come on up, or I’d miss the sight. I had every intention of missing it.

The first tall building (not that tall—only 34 floors) I was dragged to the top of was the Kansas City Power and Light Building, the Art Deco masterpiece that dominated the Kansas City skyline when I was a kid. Dragged there by my dad and an uncle when I was in elementary school. I remember my brother and cousins running around the observation deck and leaning over the balustrade as if they were on the ground floor while I hugged the wall.

About the time I hugged that wall, I had my scariest climbing experience. There was no wall to hug. My parents knew the Forest Ranger at the fire lookout tower near the top of Laramie Peak in Wyoming. We lived for the first six months of my life in Douglas, at the foot of the peak, and the ranger was a member of Dad’s Baptist Church (my brother and I were born in Douglas). One summer after we moved to Nebraska, we returned to Douglas and drove up the peak see the forest from the ranger’s perch. The family clambered up the open staircase while I sat in the car. A thunderstorm blew up. My terror of the stairs was not as great as my fear of the storm, and I managed to climb the tower alone in the rain.

There. Four examples of my acrophobia.

But (and I’m not getting all gooey and inspirational here—simply stating the facts) they are also examples of my overcoming my terror and having pretty wonderful experiences.

Art Deco from childhood

Art Deco from childhood

I know what Dallas looks like from above. I found my apartment, and I achieved some sense of how this city is laid out (John Neely Bryan or whoever set down the streets was, I am sure, drunk). I saw the Tall Ships in Nantucket harbor, even more magnificent than they had been at Boston in 1976. I had a real sense even as a kid how the Missouri river cuts between the two Kansas City’s.

And I saw the natural wonder near my birthplace. I don’t know how to explain that experience. In 2005 I tried to get there again and discovered that my dad had accomplished a remarkable feat simply to find the tower. I spent half a day driving around with the instructions of a park ranger at the base of the peak. But I didn’t find it on my own.

OK. So here’s the gooey inspirational part of this story. (Oh, puleeze!) In a very few instances I have overcome my fears and had important, exciting, lovely (you find the word) experiences as a result. And the fact is that, operationally at least, I am no longer acrophobic. That’s a lie. I never put my full weight down in an airplane, doing my part to keep it in the air. I still hate heights (you will never under any circumstance find me on the masochism machines at Six Flags).

I have demonstrated against the Viet Nam War. And against the unconscionable invasion of Iraq (see, we were right). And in support of the Holy Land Foundation five. I’ve stood in front of groups of people and talked about my beliefs. And I write here about myself in a way I shouldn’t.

Fear greater than lightening

Fear greater than lightening

I do quite a few things that belie my nature as a wall-hugger.

I’m not saying that climbing a fire lookout tower on Laramie Peak made me brave. It didn’t. But I’m going to die soon (oh, come on, even 50 years would be “soon” in the grand scheme of things) and I guess I’m beginning to understand that participating is the only thing that makes sense of my having been here in the first place. So I do it sometimes against my better judgment.

Perhaps cummings is appropriate.

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*pity this busy monster, manunkind,

not. Progress is a comfortable disease:
your victim (death and life safely beyond)

plays with the bigness of his littleness
—— electrons deify one razorblade
into a mountainrange; lenses extend
unwish through curving wherewhen till unwish
returns on its unself.
A world of made
is not a world of born—— pity poor flesh

and trees, poor stars and stones, but never this
fine specimen of hypermagical

ultraomnipotence. We doctors know

a hopeless case if — listen: there’s a hell
of a good universe next door; let’s go
——  
e. e. cummings

“Unto the hills around do I look up. . .”

Scotts Bluff National Monumentpainted by Ruth Wright

Scotts Bluff National Monument
painted by Ruth Wright

  • In 1945 my parents lived in Douglas, WY. The town is situated at the foot of Laramie Peak on the Laramie River, a tributary of the North Platte River.  I was born in Douglas.
  • In 1945 our family moved to Worland, WY, situated about midway between the Grand Tetons and the Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming.
  • In 1950 our family moved to Kearney, NE. The city is situated near the confluence of the North Platte and South Platte Rivers.
  • In 1952 our family moved to Scottsbluff, NE. The city is situated at the base of Scotts Bluff National Monument on the North Platte River.

From the top of Scotts Bluff on a clear day, one can see Laramie Peak, about 120 miles to the west.

  • In 1960 our family moved to Omaha, NE, situated at the confluence of the Platte and Missouri Rivers.
  • In 1963 I struck out on my own to go to college at the University of Redlands in Redlands, CA, situated at the base of Mt. San Gorgonio sixty miles east of the California Pacific ocean beaches.
  • In 1974 my late ex-wife and I moved to Iowa City, Iowa, situated on the Iowa River on the (former) prairie between the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers.
  • In 1978 I moved to Massachusetts and lived for seventeen years within a mile of the Atlantic Ocean.
  • In 1994 I moved to Dallas, TX, situated at the base of Cowboys Stadium.

A few days ago my sister and I took a day trip up into the Sierra Nevada Mountains, fifty miles east above her home in Rancho Cordova, CA.

As a wannabe writer and sometimes musician who lives in fantasy more than reality I have been, for most of my life, affected by prominent- preeminent- overarching- glorious geological formations. Until I left home, I lived with my family in a series of towns and cities that have a direct connection through their proximity to the Platte River. I have always (with the exception of my time in this place where football stadiums have replaced natural wonders) lived in close proximity to rivers, oceans, or mountains.

Laramie Peak

Laramie Peak

But, it’s the mountains.

I have mountains in my blood. And that’s the truth. For all of us, I’ve come to understand. “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein,” my father would have said, quoting Psalm 24. The earth and all of us who dwell herein are made of the same stardust.

Today I am in mourning. Partly the mourning of being older than I was yesterday. Mourning (not regretting) the loss of ability to move and think and laugh and love as I could even five years ago, much less ten or fifteen. Mourning the process of being forced to retire a year earlier than I had hoped.

“Retire” is an odd word** to use for what SMU has decided I must do. “To retreat.” Dean Peter Moore believes it is best if I retreat. Retreat from what into what? I must ask. Oblivion? Is that what sixty-eight year old men do?

Retire is an odd word to use for ending one’s career. Or is it odd? I shall retreat. Yes, I shall retreat into safety, into the “everlasting arms” of the mountains—of the stardust from which both Laramie Peak and I are made.

I will retreat there soon enough. Perhaps my retreat is already complete. Perhaps it began the day I was born. Dean Moore only believes he has control over my retreat. In our arrogance we all believe we have some sort of power. It’s the illusion that drives us to “work” to feed, clothe, and shelter ourselves. Most of us pay lip service to a “god” or some other force to which we have sworn allegiance. We say we believe that force has control over our lives.

And then we act as if we have some power over the stardust of which we are made—and, more pathetically, over the stardust of which others are made.

I have little use for the language that John D. Campbell invokes to praise his particular god. However, I am coming to understand the truth of his image. I do lift up my longing eyes to the hills. My language—as I come to say here nearly every time I write—is no better than Campbell’s. Different but not better. How can it be? How can any of us explain our certain knowledge we are made of the same stuff, the exact same stuff, of which Scotts Bluff is made. My comfort is knowing that my retreat there is certain. It began the day I was born.

“Remember, O Man, of dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return.”

“Thanks be to God.”
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**retire:
1530s, of armies, “to retreat,” from Middle French retirer “to withdraw (something),” from re– “back” (see re) + Old French tirer “to draw” (see tirade). Meaning “to withdraw to some place for the sake of seclusion” is recorded from 1530s; sense of “leave an occupation” first attested 1640s (implied in retirement). Meaning “to leave company and go to bed” is from 1660s. Baseball sense of “to put out” is recorded from 1874. Related: Retired; retiring.
**retirement:
1590s, “act of retreating,” also “act of withdrawing into seclusion,” from French retirement (1570s); see retire + –ment. Meaning “privacy” is from c.1600; that of “withdrawal from occupation or business” is from 1640s.
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Dana Levin has written this post as a poem that says what I am trying to say ever so much better. She has language artistry I do not have.

Big Horn Mountains

Big Horn Mountains