Friday, November 4, 2011

The Distributist's Camera: Snapshot in a small town

The Distributist's Camera:

Snapshot in a small town

by Miki Tracy

"I am bound to praise the simple life, because I have lived it and found it good. When I depart from it, evil results follow. I love a small house, plain clothes, simple living….[T]o be in direct and personal contact with the sources of your material life; to want no extras, no shields; to find the universal elements enough; to find the air and the water exhilarating; to be refreshed by a morning walk or an evening saunter; to find a quest of wild berries more satisfying than a gift of tropic fruit; to be thrilled by the stars at night; to be elated over a bird's nest, or over a wild flower in Spring - these are some of the rewards of the simple life."

~John Burroughs, from Leaf and Tendril

Just beyond the fifty-seven glistening, verdant hills, in the far "nort"-eastern corner of St. Croix County, in west-central Wisconsin, around a lazy bend of sweaty, shimmering corn fields, past a fragrant swath of deep, dark alfalfa, and just a quarter-mile ahead of the granite-strewn knoll where so many of the local ancestry rest beneath a canopy of ancient creaking maples beside the old railroad track, there is a place called Kuehl's (think the keel of a ship), named for it's owners, sandwiched between the old dilapidated brick building that houses Mr. Cronk's tractor garage and the rural post office.

Most every weekend afternoon, I take a Benadryl and an aspirin to trick my sinuses and prevent my blood from curdling due to the assault of tobacco smoke I'm about to subject myself to, and I travel the three miles from my little house to Kuehl's to hold court with my friend Travis, the proprietor's son, and while the day away.

Travis is convinced that this geography and its people (which we have affectionately christened "Flannel Land") are going to crush his dreams and kill his soul if he does not flee…quickly. Like every young man with half a brain before him, he's got itchy feet, wings to fly, and lint in his pockets. I tell him that the only thing standing between him and Scotland, or Syracuse, or Spain, is his own front door--but he's not yet convinced.

Honestly, though, who needs to travel when you've got all of Tolkien and Dickens' motley brood living right here on Main Street's stoop? Who needs a ticket to the opera when there are juicy dramas fomenting right under your nose?

Kuehl's is one of those magical places that hides its true self from all but those who are really looking for it. One of the last truly tenacious Mom&Pop shops, it sells gas and liquor and all the sundry stuffs that one might need on a fishing trip, including worms. It boasts a hot, steaming kitchen from which emits the curling lilt of country music on the radio, the delicious smells of onions and searing meat, and piles of the best fried chicken and potato logs (called "broasted" and "jojos" in the local patois) that you will ever find. Jim Kuehl, a proud, gruff, soft-hearted Mason (who reminds me so much of my own grand-dad) mock-begrudgingly owns this place with his equally soft-hearted wife, Mickie, and does himself a serious disservice by keeping his prices lower than most other businesses in the region. But in doing so he has also been of great benefit to his neighbors who will gladly drive out of their way to patronize him.

High atop the soda cooler sits a small television, which always seems to set the agenda for conversation during a lull, be it politics, the current headlines, a horse race or the weather.

And, so, here I sit with Travis and my needlework on lazy afternoons, watch the people come and go, listen to their many stories and do what one cannot, or does not, do in the Big City….I spend time with my neighbors and share in a life lived the way it should be.

Around the chipped white formica roundtable under a wall tacked with peppered sheets of all the local happenings, calling cards and smarty-pants signs ("Caution: Old Grump Crossing"), vociferous discussions play out over the ever-changing clutter of beer and soda bottles, coffee cups, and deli wrappers filled to brimming with luscious things that are supposed to kill us because they taste so good. Veterans from the last five wars, a few bent and broken, others full of memories and sympathy, drift in and out and bless anyone who's willing to listen with their own hard-won experiences. Teachers from the local school, the publisher of the Tribune, the librarian from two towns over, the local Lutheran pastor, and the state trooper who lives down the road--all appear at varied intervals to purchase gas or bread or a bottle of spirits, and stop just long enough to hear the news and tell what they know.

Did you hear that the Obermeuller girl is taking her calf to State?...Pray for Josh; he's going to be in rehab for the next six months….Mr. Jeske died the other night; would you make a hot-dish for his wake?...Natalie got kicked whilst gelding a horse....Mandy is finally getting married!

It seems that the more time passes, the more varied and layered the lives of these people appear to me. Like the patchwork of fields that roll away out beyond the glass door of this storefront, the lives lived around this valley are pieced together with relationships and interests and talents and beliefs as varied as the hues of a brilliant crystal prism. They weave in and out of one another, blending here and there, contrasting at short intervals, some shiny, others dull, each with its own character, all interesting and lovely to contemplate.

…Marcella arrives with Eleanor to sit in the corner booth, have their lunch, and talk quietly for hours about whatever it is that little old ladies talk about; Nelson the Anarchist Beekeeper rails against the perversities of big government before running out the door to his next project; Lloyd blows in like a small storm, all glower and snark, tanned and sinewy from tending the golf course under the wide, blue sky, to flirt sheepishly with Natalie; Carly has dyed her hair an ungodly shade of black, and sits quietly, dark eyes watchful under long, heavy bangs whilst she chews absently on that cupid's bow lip of hers….Sharon straggles in with a weird expression behind her brow to tell me that she has been diagnosed with ovarian cancer and it doesn't look good; might she "borrow" our dog, Daisy (that she loves so much), for company when she starts chemotherapy? Gail arrives to sit at our table because it's been a very long week at the factory and she just needs a good laugh….

What is supposed to be the hard-earned living of a single family in a small town, many miles of blacktop ribbon removed from the nearest large city, is, in fact, the proverbial kitchen table and confessional of an entire community. Out of this gathering place is borne the first word of births and deaths and accidents, weddings, separations, Darwinian mind-benders and so many fine accomplishments. From so many of these people come news of farmers in need of help, children in need of clothes, elderly in need of hot meals and anything else that might be important enough to broadcast via the Tin-Can Telegraph Wire which, as it just so happens, is pretty much anything and everything. And as I perch here, needle in hand, in this swirling, heady, smoke-filled store, raucous with laughter and music and near-constant chatter, I catalogue the memory of each bit of news, every story I hear, every prayer shot up, every Sven and Ole' joke, into the coloured cotton floss that pierces my linen canvas to remember where I was when.

Every Chesteronian who knows G.K. as their spiritual father knows well that the living of life is most often discovered in small, seemingly-inconsequential things. No need to pack a bag and go elsewhere! Entire, vast galaxies are contained in a word, a glance, a bottle of beer. I am peering through the lens of one who knows exactly why one should believe in the impossible, and why it is good to spend an occasional day lying on one's back, painting sweeping murals on one's ceiling with a broom and buckets of brightly pigmented paint. I consider afresh life in this too-small-to-be-on-the-map, dream-crushing, soul-killing town with a heart set ablaze with the realization that if I want to find faeries and castles and dragons to slay, I need go no further than the garden in my own back yard. Magic reveals itself in the turning of soil, the planting of seeds, the breaking of bread, the making of wine, picking wool off of fence posts by the roadside and flowers from the ditch, and in the hot, sweaty kisses of a play-wearied child. And falling in love--real, true, abiding love--happens all on its own, without warning, sitting at a chipped white formica table on a Saturday afternoon in the smoky, unassuming haze of all that is simple, sweet, common and holy, listening to tales told by one's neighbor and hearing in their voice the echo of GOD when you least expect it.

"The traveler sees what he sees, the tourist sees what he has come to see."

Yep. I get it….

Friday, October 7, 2011

On the Supreme Importance of Family: A Love Letter to My Kids (and you all know who you are....)

My Mother did not want me.

It's just as simple as that.

Not because of any really imperfection in me. Not because of any flaw or fault of least not any which were not imposed on her by circumstance or misunderstanding.

I was not tiny and delicate like one of her white-faced, ruby-lipped china dolls. I walked before I knew I could crawl, talked before I knew (or cared) not to speak bluntly, and preferred my daddy to her--a fact that she pointed out in aggravated prose in my baby book. Worst of all, I was not a boy, and I would pay for that wrong dearly for many years.

She can't be blamed, though. She wanted to be Daddy's Little Girl; that vocation was given to another. She wanted a brother; she, the dark little Indian girl found herself instead sandwiched in between fair-haired, blue-eyed, dazzlingly dimpled sisters who all seemed, to her, to be adored by everyone who met them whilst she waited unnoticed and un-missed (so she thought) in the shadows.

Life made her cold, quiet and envious. She worked hard, perfected her passions, made herself enviable. She became an artist, became mysteriously aloof, and when the time was right, she let me have no illusions that I might still be part of her life. She used me for what I could be used for, and when I no longer served her purposed, she shed me like an old coat.

Maybe that's why the last therapist I ever wasted good money on told me that mine is an orphan psychology? Maybe not. But, still, I know what it is to feel like you've been dropped into a stranger's family. Not to fit in. To be unwanted. Pushed away and pushed under by cold, hard unmaternal hands. I know what it is to be beaten down, called names and told that you're stupid, worthless, and a burden. I know what it is to be abused and neglected from whence you came.

I know that you know this too. And I want you to know something else just as strongly.

A couple of you were given to me by your own mothers when you were born because they knew that I would love you just as much as they did, should anything ever happen to them. A few of you I rescued as a matter of necessity from dark, screaming corners that the Devil himself could not tolerate. A few others I have found along the stony parts of the steep and winding trails of my life--places no child should ever have been left, even if it were to die.

I've trundled every single one of you off to the deepest, safest, warmest places of my own heart, and in there you will always have a safe and welcome home.

I will never care if you become a doctor or a bus driver or a clown in the circus. I will be blissfully happy with whatever you choose to do with your life as long as it makes you happy and gives service to the world you inhabit.

You are beautiful.

You are brilliant.

You are lovely.

You were made not to be comfortable, or popular, or rich in this life (though, sometimes, it helps to be all of the above!); You were born for greatness. You were placed in this world to change it for the better, to fulfill a divine purpose--a purpose that you will not even realise yourself until it has long since passed you by.

Obey the law, unless it is unjust. And if the law is unjust, fight to make it right. If you get arrested, I will not bail you out of jail. But I will bring you chocolate, bubblegum, colouring books, crayons and chalk, and The Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton to while away the hours with as you do your time.

If you have no home or need to hide from the great big world, come home to me, and I will feed you and cry with you in bed and make sure you get kicked right back out the door when it's time to get off your ass and go do something productive.

If anyone ever hurts you, strikes you down, cheats you, or tries to take your life, they do not deserve to have you in theirs. If they tell you that you must stay, and that they love you because you "make them happy," RUN before they smother you to death like a wet, moldy towel. And you had better tell them, too, that your mama has a baseball bat...and she knows precisely how to use it if she needs to. >: (

I love you because you exist. I love you even when you do not please me, do not make me happy. I love you when you rage, when you make trouble, when you act like you've lost your mind, and when you are a royal pain in my ass. I love you even when you are at your worst, because you are, and because I love you, I hope for what I know you can be to your own self and to others.

DO NOT ever allow anyone to tell you that you are not good enough, bright enough, strong enough, thin enough or big enough. Do not ever let anyone tell you that you are not worthy, that your life is a mistake, an error or a waste. Never listen to those who hurt you for the sake of hurting you, keeping you down, or keeping you in your "place." People who say any of these things are bullies...and bullies always lie.

You have the power to save the world one soul at a time--starting with your own.

You are capable of changing society all by your self.

You have the very power of GOD within you, and because of that you can do any damned thing in this moment of time that you choose to do, so long as it does not harm you or anyone else.

Wash your face, brush your teeth, and go out each day with the knowledge that wherever you are, whatever you do, however you choose to do it, I am in your corner, and I love you more than life itself. And if anyone ever tells you different, tell them that your mother said that they can go get bent.

As long as I'm in this world, you *do* have family. As long as I draw breath, you have a home.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Current Request

Dear XXX,

As you know, we failed in our attempt last year to criss-cross America and chronicle Homelessness and Poverty in a personal way. Carly fell in love with a newborn baby and never made it past Tacoma, Miki got septicemia in California, spent eight days in the hospital and struggled weakly through the rest of the summer, and the e-publisher who had promised us page space cut us off without any word or explanation.

We have not given up on what we think is an important story to tell. And, our vision has grown. We not only want to put a compassionate face on the poverty issue in America, we want to do "An American Family" scrapbook, dedicated to telling the story of one homeless person in every town and city we get to, and making them as well-known to you, and as well-loved, as any other relative you already know.

We've hit a brick wall. Many people have promised financial support to help make our vision a reality. None has actually followed through. For some it has been a matter of personal necessity, for others we aren't certain.

Miki was supposed to leave on this newly planned trip June 1st. She's still here at home working in the garden, working at a friend's farm, and praying desperately for an angel to help her.

We located a small camper for her to drive across America. We have the camper (if we can pay for it), and all of the materials she needs to do the photo-journalism part of things. We have a programmer to build us a new website, and a tentative offer to submit our articles to America Magazine for publication. At some point, we'd like to make this project into a documentary, and we have a couple of filmmakers who have expressed interest in helping us with this.

We need ten thousand dollars, last week.

It sounds like alot until you remember that everywhere Miki goes, she will be working voluntarily in shelters and soup kitchens across America, whilst chronicling the experience.

We also plan on using this trip as a way of getting a final commitment from other Catholic Workers to come and build a sister house to Gilbert House in Menomonie, Wisconsin as soon as possible. We have a friend of our house who has prayerfully put up the necessary seed money to fund that house's start up costs, all we need are the bodies to get it running.

Please help us.