Don Christie is a retired mental health therapist who has lived in Crookston for 25 years. He is a long-standing student of history and the human condition with a special interest in all things Midwestern.
Mid April. It is a cold-cool spring only recently escaped from winter’s icy grip, but seems to have exhausted itself in doing so. Now the land lies struggling to burst into full life, awaiting those few days of hot sun that up till now have been as bashful and hidden as a wallflower. Of course there is some green anyway, but a reluctant green at best, and yet lovely in its shy and hesitant meekness. In many years spring up here is fleeting and almost none existent, and in others early and committed. But often it teases with false promises and enticements, only to turn its back with a careless capriciousness.
This is land in the heart of the North American continent. As far away from the oceans as is possible. It feels somehow insulated, as if the great land mass around it is a thick protection from the tumultuous edges. It is a place where the harsh arctic cold frequently slips down in the winter, and where warm moist air from the Gulf of Mexico occasionally rises in the summer. It is a land of extreme contrasts: harsh and fertile, settled and wild, vast and minute. The expression ‘middle of nowhere’ is frequently used in description, and yet it is really the ‘middle of everywhere’ on this huge and wondrous land mass. Perhaps seeing the middle as an empty wilderness is indicative of the reluctance of our national and personal psyche toward careful introspection, and our corresponding fascination with edges and the surface of things. But when we lack depth we lack perspective, and without perspective we are often seen as shallow and silly, or even immoral. On the edges lie the great cities and the surging swirl of art and commerce. It is often exciting and dynamic there, but to live out here, in the center, in the middle, requires something more. To consistently find beauty and dynamism here it is absolutely necessary to engage in depth and to see below the surface of things. This requires intention, time, and patience, the same qualities necessary to see the incredible inner beauty of a wise old woman. It is as much an inner journey as an external observation; but perhaps one can do both at the same time.
Out here there are varying degrees of flat. Some of these differences are subtle, yet clearly evident to the careful observation that living in a place can bring. But who is attracted to flatness? And yet who isn’t? There is a strange and wonderful roundedness that accompanies the flatness of the earth. When standing out on the prairie, the sky is a vast round dome overhead, and the horizon a perfect circle with your vantage point the exact center. But it is often the huge sky that attracts attention. Big sky country indeed. When spending a full day in such places the sun can be watched as it first rises above the edges of the earth as if it had only just then arrived here from millions of miles away. Its view is unimpeded, and its journey across the vast sky creates a day that is as long as possible. In the forest or the mountains this daylight is cut short, leaving people with prairie in their hearts feeling somewhat claustrophobic and cheated. There is an interesting completeness about these long days, a visceral and acute awareness of both beginnings and endings, of seeing things all the way through, in a daily display of a matter of hours. There is nothing subtle about this transition, and in the same way the four seasons of the year are as dramatically unsubtle, at least regarding winter and summer. There is absolutely no doubt which holds sway. And yet spring and autumn are another matter, and in some years seem hardly to exist at all. Two weeks ago it snowed, and it is mid-April.
Up until a hundred years ago or so, people throughout Northern Europe were forced to spend the long dark winter months largely confined in small spaces with a small group of people. Without the distractions of radio or television, or the ability to easily travel to other homes, people were forced to endure each other’s company for long stretches of time in difficult conditions. As a way to survive people learned to control their emotions, contain their passions and treat each other with restrained civility. Anything less could easily result in mayhem of all sorts. At the same time the people in Southern Europe were not nearly as confined and as such were freer to express these things. As a result these cultures developed a much more animated and dramatic style of speech, gesture and expression. These contrasts exist even today as anyone who has traveled both in Italy and Scandinavia has surely noticed. And it is these same Scandinavian and Northern European people who settled here in the late 19th. Century when much of the Great Plains farmland in warmer climates had already been taken. They were hard-working people, grateful to have the land, winter and all. They endured, calling on the stoicism of their heritage to deal with the harsh conditions and the brutal work. It was not a place for whiners and big-talkers. And it was certainly not a place for over-emotional histrionics.
Before the immigrants came, the land was almost entirely “cleared” by force of its original indigenous inhabitants who had lived here for thousands of years. These American Indians shared many characteristics and values with the northern Europeans who came to occupy their stolen land. They too were stoics with incredible endurance. They developed a culture and personal characteristics that blended perfectly with the reality of the beautiful, but harsh and spacious land in which they lived. Their origination stories taught that all of the plants and animals were here before man and as such we human beings were latecomers making all plants, the four-legged creatures, the winged-ones, and the swimming and crawling creatures our elders. The Indian people’s life on earth was therefore a matter of living “with” the rest of creation, rather than having “dominion” over it. The patience and acceptance necessary to do this resulted in a natural emotional restraint that in turn fostered a calm personal dignity.
Almost all of the people who live here today are direct descendants of those immigrant farmers and Native Indians, and still retain many of the same characteristics. This is still not a place for flash and glitter, for ostentatious displays of consumption or for unbridled efforts to demonstrate the latest of anything. It is also not an isolated utopia and is far from perfect. But it does have its character that is a reflection of the people and the geographic realities that permeate this land. And there is something to be learned from this.
Certainly we humans beings all over this earth are much more alike than we are different, in spite of our tendency to deal with our individual inadequacies by identifying with some group that we convince ourselves is somehow special and unique. And yet there are differences between groups of people that are sometimes attractive and at others frightening. And in spite of the obvious erosion of those differences through the great leveling and homogenizing influences of modern media, there are still things to be learned.
So, what can be learned from a place like this? Certainly one of the necessary human qualities required to live here is to be able to endure. The bitter cold and snow must be endured in the winter. The long dark winter nights must be endured.
There is an old story that contains the idea that human beings are not allowed to see their own future because if we knew of all that was in store for us we would live in constant dread of what is to come. All of the spiritual and philosophical traditions teach that life is often difficult and painful with untold sorrow and grief in store. And yet we are expected to endure. In deed we are made to endure, in spite of the many times we may say “I can’t stand it” or “I can’t take it anymore”. The truth is we have the potential to stand a great deal and to take a lot more than we can imagine. But like all things for which we have a potential, achieving that potential is another matter. And so there is a “building of endurance” that comes from effort and will and from the experience and practice of dealing with difficulties and depravation with grace and wisdom. And yet what is the point of this potential for endurance? Is there something in it beyond simply the ability to put up with a lot of pain? Did Jesus intentionally go out into the “wilderness” for 40 days and 40 nights simply to be able to brag about being able to endure? Did he intentionally face death on the cross to prove His courage? Did the Indians supplicant go through the pain and deprivation of the vision Quest, the Sun Dance, or the Sweat Lodge simply to prove courage? Obviously there is something much more in these acts. There is the profound teaching that it is through pain and suffering that we have the potential to discover our true selves and in so doing, rise above the limitations and tragedies of this life. There are countless examples of similar stories throughout all spiritual literature that underscore the importance, even the necessity, of going through pain and difficulty as part of the path to enlightenment.
But there is another part of us that is lazy and hedonistic and that seeks comfort at all costs, and to avoid pain at all cost. And yet the cost of this quest for comfort is high indeed. Again we live in a time of comfort unimagined by even the most wealthy and powerful people of a few hundred years ago. But perhaps this comfort has made us soft and weak. Perhaps even spoiled. We have come to see any kind of pain as an enemy and as something to be avoided at all costs. But in this process we are missing out on the great learning and growth inherent in these situations.
No difficulty, problem or loss carries with it any specific automatic human response. Our reactions to these events are tremendously mitigated by our own individual skills and resources to deal with these situations. Skill is the result of both learning and practice. So how are we to be able to practice coping with difficulty and hardship without experiencing difficulty and hardship? One of the most profound keys to learning to live life deeply and meaningfully is to learn to be open and receptive to all that life offers, including the painful and uncomfortable, for it is in doing so that we can encounter opportunities, unimagined at the time, for learning and growth. Consequently, when encountering emotional pain, rather than asking ourselves how we can make it stop, we can ask ourselves what we can learn, and in so doing transform suffering to enlightenment.
It is often windy on the prairie. Weather fronts move across the land unimpeded by mountain ranges or forest. Thunderstorms can be watched as they approach from many miles away across the vast expanse with an inevitability of arrival. It is also a thinly populated land with communities scattered far apart. When traveling on county roads one can often go many miles without encountering another car. There is an openness to all of this that stands in major contrast to many other parts of the country. And what can be said for things being open and for openness itself? Openness is a necessary condition of both physical and mental health. When our respiratory system is open and clear life is sustained. When our circulatory system is open and our blood flows freely we are vibrant with life. When our digestive system is open life moves through us sustaining itself. The same is true for mental and emotional health. When our minds are open growth and learning are facilitated. When our hearts are open love is given and received. When we are open to intuition and imagination, life is rich a vibrant. And when we are open to all that life brings we live at a depth of meaning and aliveness unmatched. Being open to life involves being aware, and being open to all that life offers including all that is pleasant and unpleasant, delightful and tragic, joyful and sorrowful.
Perhaps the single human trait that causes the most pain and suffering is our tendency to repress the unpleasant, including those parts of ourselves that we would rather not acknowledge. History, right up to the immediate present, is replete with men who have unleashed incredible harm all the while being totally out of touch with the dark forces and motivations within themselves. Convinced of their goodness and the justification of their cause, they wreck their havoc on the world, both through their own actions and their ability to convince others to join them in their blindness. They are not open to their “dark side” and therefore are unable to acknowledge or control it. To be fully open is to both acknowledge and to be aware, and in doing so to be grateful. The ancient teaching advises; “To you who are grateful (open) for all things, I will give you all the blessings of this earth, yea even tenfold”.
We humans are generally extremely curious creatures and we find ourselves living in an amazingly complex, varied and beautiful world. This curiosity coupled with the incredible richness of this earth seems to draw us always onward to explore, discover, understand and experience the seemingly endless complexity of this place. But is this drive to understand based solely on curiosity?
Certainly there seems to be a role for fear here as well. We have a tendency to feel comfortable and safe with the familiar, and to be somewhat anxious and uncertain in the face of the unknown. For thousands of years we humans lived comfortably with a great deal of mystery. We easily attributed most of what was unknown to the gods and did not feel compelled to tread on their territory. But with the advent of Western Civilization, and particularly the scientific method, we came to believe that everything in the universe could be understood and explained, and in so doing we could remove the mystery and the fear of the unknown from anything.
With advancements in the technology of communication and transportation the whole world opened up to us and put a host of possibilities of experience and learning at our fingertips. With the advancements of manufacturing, goods that would have been inconceivable to even the most wealthy and powerful people of only one to two hundred years ago became common and available to masses of people. In modern culture our homes are filled with a truly amazing plethora of objects and goods, and our minds and attention are overflowing with information, entertainment, and distractions. For most of us our days are filled from beginning to end with an endless onslaught of data and requirements, and even in leisure the patterns of “getting” continue unabated through television, music, and every sort of “entertainment” imaginable. Rapid, and even astounding, change has become commonplace, and in response there is always more to learn about, more to acquire and more to consider. Even the acquisition of information that is meaningless and irrelevant becomes something to be extolled and people become adept and renowned for the amount of trivia they can remember. The life of a modern human is complex beyond the wildest imaginings of even the most inventive and forward thinking people of very recent history. And yet what has all of this brought? Perhaps there is a connection here with the epidemic of anxiety and depression that has millions of people taking anti-depressant medication. And perhaps there is a connection with millions of other people who feel disconnected and alienated, even from their own families. And perhaps there is also a connection with the abusive use of alcohol and drugs and the underlying feelings of emptiness their compulsive use seeks to fill. But whatever the effects of this complexity and frenetic pace our consumerist society, there seems to be a longing in many people for a more simple and meaningful life.
Perhaps a way to begin the process of simplifying our lives is to consider the difference between what we want and what we need. Our needs are really simple and few; food, shelter, clothing and meaningful human connection and relationship. These basic needs are relatively easily met, especially in our current American culture. But wants, are an entirely different matter. Of course there is nothing inherently wrong with wanting something, and yet they can all too easily become endless as the pleasure they bring becomes more a matter of getting rather than having. Perhaps a legitimate question we need to ask ourselves is do I need this, rather than just want it.
We could also accomplish this by simply giving things away and giving things up. Logically it would seem that giving something away is much easier than working to get it in the first place, and yet our homes and our lives continue to get more cluttered and busier in spite of a desire for simplification. And yet at the very least a simplified life will have to begin with a desire for simplicity, and in the face of this desire we can use our basic human ingenuity to strategize about ways to simplify.
And finally, we may learn a lesson from living in the middle by simply looking for the value inherent in the middle of things rather than on the surface. Perhaps we can try to go deeper into our own heart and minds. Perhaps we can work at looking beneath the appearance of other people to discover the sacred essence inside of them. Perhaps we can pay attention to things long enough get in touch with the depth and significance of the object of our attention, rather than the immediate and shallow judgments we usually make.
We have all had spontaneous moments of emotional intensity when we suddenly find ourselves entranced by a sunset, or the joy of a child’s laughter, or the night sound of rain on the roof of our home. Perhaps we could more actively look for the beauty of these simple things and in so doing discover a depth beyond our imagination.
Earlier the flowing words tumbled.
Now they stop and start
with halting obscurity
and too much wanting.
On the ladder, washing windows
A rush of exaltation, the great upheaval
with perfect timing, washrag in hand
no wanting at all
There was a dream
of eloquence, of music
delightful in the doing
a gift from the great beyond
And even in wakefulness
a surprise of insight, clarified description
flowing through, more unexpected
than rain in the sun
A late afternoon rain
the westerly sun whining on my face
Each drop a rainbow
Each drop a universe
And finally it has come. The prevailing northwest winds have given way to the warming breezes from the southwest that are common here in May. The sun has brought its healing and nourishing warmth, and life is bursting from the earth with an energy and intensity that comes only when a great potential has been held in abeyance for many months. This eruption of life is astounding, magical and transforming. It is a profound reality and yet also a metaphor for the transcending power of a spiritual awakening, both of which are preceded by a period of harsh and painful purification in the bitterness and darkness of a literal and figurative winter. This lush miracle of life happens every year and unfailingly serves as a graphic reminder of the promise of rebirth given in all of the great spiritual traditions. When Jesus returned from his self-imposed exile in the wilderness He did so with a new and profound understanding of who He was. And when the young Dakota brave returns from his many of days of fasting and isolation in the Vision Quest he does so with a new and profound understanding of who he is. This miraculous enlightenment awaits anyone who is willing to be open to the purifying and transforming grace of even the most bitter of life’s medicine. There is a place of silence and spaciousness in which we encounter the depth of our soul, if only we are willing to endure its presence. This is a place of mystery, and a season with no name.