Wednesday, June 24, 2020
Wednesday, June 17, 2020
Each Wednesday we will share an excerpt from a Meadowlark book. Use the "Follow our website" form on the right to receive Meadowlark updates by email.
|Publisher: Meadowlark (July 2020)|
ISBN (print): 978-1-734-2477-4-9
Purchase: Meadowlark Bookstore
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He was the size of man who could throw open a heavy, plate-glass door with his thumb. He was wearing a ball cap, a short-sleeved T-shirt, denim overalls, and fabric-and-rubber, ankle-high work boots. My horse, Chief, followed me nicely, albeit sideways, staring at and absorbing the foreignness—and by that, I mean stench (Chief’s term)—of the burros across the road. Chief, like all horses, was brain wired to believe he was a prey animal the size of a rabbit, so everything unfamiliar, like burros, probably was deadly. For that reason, I had dismounted and was leading him for comfort. I had owned him only two months. He didn’t know me yet.
The man was watching me from his riding lawn mower, canted at a thirty-degree angle on the ditch he was mowing in front of his house. I strode straight toward him and smiled brightly and waved in order to melt the guarded expression he wore that told me he wasn’t sure how friendly he should act toward a strange woman. Too friendly, a woman might feel threatened; but friendly means polite in this country, so I believed he was torn. A fifty-four-year-old woman leading a horse loaded with saddlebags, rope, canteen, and collapsible bucket through waist-high grass on a bar ditch in rural Miami County, Kansas, bore watching.
There was no full dental coverage in this man’s world. Nor likely cashmere sweaters packed away in his wife’s cedar chest while her summer things had been brought out for spring. Like me, everything she owned probably fit well enough into a six-foot-by- three-foot closet. I’d walked toward this man feeling like he was a friend I hadn’t seen in years, which happens among people who’ve haltered horses a thousand times. You can tell horse people by the way they look at your horse. The head goes back half an inch. The eyelids drop, then click on the horse’s hip, legs, chest, neck, head, back to the hind quarters. Then you. If you’ve got a decent horse, the eyes get serious—with respect. He gave me that look.
This man’s eyes were shaded by wraparound sunglasses shaped like stretched-out sports car windows and likely cost him as much as dinner for six in Kansas City. Conservatism applies to utility out here, like his sound-but-rusty stock trailers across the blacktop that more than likely took him and his grandkids to trail rides. There was probably a $45,000 pickup backed out of the sun somewhere.
I answered his questions. I left three days ago to ride my horse alone through Kansas and Missouri. I have everything I need. No, I’m not worried about somebody hurting me on my trip. I needed to get down and dirty and see my country. We gabbed nonstop for fifteen minutes.
“Do what is in your heart to do,” he said, “and you’ll be . . .” What? What did he say? I’m a writer; how could I not have said, “Excuse me, I have to write down what you just said,” and stepped to my pommel bag for my pad and pen? My later notes say, “He could have been a Unity minister.”
You walk up to a stranger and say you’re doing what you’ve wanted to do since you were a little girl, and conversation leaps not to what makes the car payments, but to what brings tears to your eyes. That doesn’t often happen with people you know. He and I had nothing to guard. We might never see each other again.
I could see his intelligence well enough through those orange glasses, so I paid no mind to his remark about not having a lot of schooling, because I already could tell he probably was better read than me. Lord knows, I’ve made such apologies since I gave up hope of finishing college in my twenties, then in my thirties, then again in my forties for different reasons. We know we’re smart, he and I, but we have nothing to prove it. What we do have, we can’t seem to admit.
“I can’t believe in evolution,” he said. “Look around here.”
We both looked around—toward the greening furrows that led in the distance to a bumper of newly leafed hedge, oak, and locust trees mingling their limbs. We stood in silence at the five kinds of herbs my horse snatched and chewed.
“If the big bang is true, then all this perfection and order is just an accident,” he said.
“I know what you mean.”
I did. Of course, I believed in natural selection. There also seemed to have to be a God, one way or another; though in truth, I think my atheist friends are smarter than I am. Maybe they would not think of me as an idiot if they could feel this presence—capital P—that I feel.
The corners of his mouth jerked down. He flicked both cheekbones under his sunglasses with the tip of his index finger. I pretended not to notice his tears.
In the thirty years I lived in the country, I never felt threatened by my dear friends and neighbors who thought there was only one way to interpret the Bible, and that my way was wrong and lethal. The worst that could happen was they’d pray for me and feel sorry I was going to hell.
The girls at the Christian Church in Hume, Missouri, where I attended high school, had never known a Lutheran before meeting me, but they knew one thing: I had not been properly dunked. Nor had I come “straight way up out of the water.” I hadn’t made a decision. I’d been given cheap grace by my church, so after trying to get me to come to their church and be saved, they invited me to a revival at Missouri Southern State University in Joplin, Missouri. I was sixteen. This was the culmination of months of prayer and discussion among them on my behalf. The dark auditorium and the music, my best friends straining toward the lights on the stage, and the call to action, lifted and carried me forward, a spirit, out of my reasoning mind to become a silent observer, above. I floated toward the stage and hovered.
I had learned to hover that way as a girl, when what was expected fell so far out of line with reason that I could do nothing else. This happened often in the home of my father, who suffered post-traumatic stress disorder from the Great Depression and having been a prisoner of war in World War II, and from being, according to some, a jerk from birth. There is not space here to explore the nature of a father who had never known security but tried to provide it for his own family in a way that seemed as if he were left-handed and all the tools given him were right-handed. I learned to hover when my father lost his temper and Mother smiled at me behind his back, “Nothing’s wrong with Daddy. Don’t you say there is.”
I registered, and floated, in silence.
At the revival, I was given a cotton gown and dressed behind the stage curtains. I was led forward in a line of other teenagers. We approached a small pool that reminded me of a feed lot’s concrete dipping trench full of liquid pesticide that cattle are run through to kill lice. Strangers held my hands on either side before the baptismal pool. I descended the three steps and went under where the water washed my nature, which, in the words of the Nicene Creed I learned in catechism, was sinful and unclean. At least I had that concept in common with the fundamentalists.
My friends at the revival cried for me. Once dressed, I even took the microphone and channeled something about having been Lutheran and suggesting that other people listen to what was being said here. That went out over the radio. I boarded the bus feeling like I had just given away my most precious possession—as precious as my horse, Honey. I didn’t speak to anyone all the way home. My best friend looked out the window, bereft, when I wouldn’t talk.
I had undone my religion. Three weeks later, my friend asked me, again, if I had told my parents I was saved. For the first time, I talked back to her—maybe to anyone—“No! I am so ashamed,” I said. “Just leave people alone!” She draped herself over the seat back of the car I was driving and sobbed. It was never mentioned again.
I didn’t hold it against her, and don’t now, but I was stepping away.
Years later, at a friend’s Baptist church, the minister repeated no fewer than six times, “God hates divorce!” My grown daughter put her arm around my shoulder and tilted her head into mine. I had been divorced twice.
God hates? I thought. The Great I Am? The omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent Love—the God-is-love, God—hates? “People,” I wanted to shout, “if we must have a god, let’s not make him need anger management classes like us.”
Growing up, I never viewed my fundamentalist Christian counterparts as anything but dear, regardless how they viewed me. This man on the mower was taking me back home to that time. I wanted to pull him onto my lap, wrap my arms around those broad shoulders draped with his graying hair and say, “It will be okay. Let God worry about the big bang. You and I will take care of the love.” We stood in the gradually building heat, cooled by a breeze that still smelled of morning.
“What is the right-of-way like between here and Block Corners?” I asked. “That’s where I’m headed, to hit as much gravel road as I can going west.”
“It’s not bad. A lot like this. You’ve got some culverts to cross along this stretch. Probably be just as easy to hop up on the road for those.”
“That’s a relief.”
“After you turn and head west, again, on John Brown Highway, the right of way is still pretty good. You’ll go through Henson. There’s nothing there but an elevator and railroad tracks. I’m sure he’ll have no trouble with that.” He gestured at Chief. My horse made me proud, standing obediently, which he always did where two or more humans were gathered.
“He’ll go through anything. He’s been a little freaked since we didn’t turn back for home two days ago. He’s not nearly as brave by himself.”
“None of them are. It’s good to make them go out by themselves. You get through Henson, and you’re still on John Brown Highway. In about two miles, you can cross the blacktop and ride along the bottoms. There’s no fence. It hasn’t rained in a while, so it shouldn’t be sticky. Once you hit Block Corners, it’s gravel for days.”
I recognized the precision of his description as coming from one who had traveled four miles per hour on horseback. He understood the impact of terrain and distance at that speed. I was beginning to understand that he, and others like him, might keep me safe on this trip.
“You need anything?” he asked, looking my saddlebags over.
“Would you pray for me?”
“What’s your name?”
“What’s your horse’s name?”
He didn’t begin to pray righ
“Be careful,” he said.
I mounted up and rode the way he told me.
Wednesday, June 3, 2020
|Paperback: 176 pages|
Published: September 16, 2019
Available to purchase
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Smashwords (all e-book formats)
(if they don't carry it, ask them to order!
This is how I remember my years at Lincoln College. There may be a few places where I inadvertently stray from exactly what happened, but looking back, that’s not so important; this is my memory.
I could have returned to Lincoln, Illinois, and interviewed the victims, the relatives, the college personnel, and the police. I could have asked them to tear open whatever emotional bandages time has given them. Then I would have been certain of every detail, but the cost would be too high. Anyway, it’s the memories and the scars that live on.
Except for Mike Mansfield and Russ Smrekar, I have changed the names of the students. They’ve had enough.
To all those involved, let me quote the late William Maxwell’s wish in his novel, So Long, See You Tomorrow:
“… whether all that finally began to seem less real, more like something they dreamed, so that instead of being stuck there, they could go on and by the grace of God lead their own lives, undestroyed by what was not their doing.”
• • •
The best way to summarize the Lincoln, Illinois, we discovered in 1972 is to talk about Gem Lunch, a modest little restaurant run by a second-generation Greek immigrant, Pete Andrews. The Gem was a gathering place where jovial, busy waitresses walked down narrow aisles to serve enormous meals to Pete’s friends.
Pete cooked as if his food could cure heartache. His basic breakfast—for about two and a half dollars—was two eggs, numerous strips of bacon, hash browns, one pancake, a pineapple slice, and a red grape. Often he would look from the kitchen to see who had placed the order. If it was a friend, he’d cook a third egg.
The luncheon specials always included great mashed potatoes and gravy with every main course, whether it was roast beef, roast pork, chop suey, or spaghetti.
Pete cooked for everyone, including those who couldn’t pay, and served many a free meal during the Depression. The Gem was the first restaurant in town to serve African Americans, long before most white Americans ever thought about desegregation.
Seventeen thousand people lived in Lincoln, which was founded more than 150 years earlier in the middle of some of the richest farmland in the world.
Lincoln was just far enough away from bigger towns that it developed its own friendly character; it wasn’t a suburb. No matter where they worked—thirty miles away in Bloomington, Springfield, or Decatur, or sixty miles away in Champaign or Peoria—residents felt living in Lincoln was worth the drive.
Because small-town stereotypes were true.
There was perhaps a murder once every half decade, so most people never thought to lock their doors. The newspaper published stinging editorials on the burning of leaves, and the high school basketball coach had his own show on the local radio station. Mama Sorrento at Sorrento’s Pizzeria always put free anchovies on my pizza because, she claimed, she and I were the only ones in town who liked them.
People drove like they’d reach their local destination in five minutes, and they would, too.
As some townsfolk described it a while back, a slick Springfield lawyer named Abe Lincoln helped pull a fast one on the folks at neighboring Mt. Pulaski and had the county seat moved to Lincoln. “And don’t think those folks have forgotten it, either,” they’d add with a smile.
If a neighbor became sick in Lincoln, folks would drop in with enough food to last until the illness was just a memory. Folks didn’t talk to each other; however, they would visit with each other.
Lincoln was a revelation to my wife Barbara and me, both twenty-six when we arrived in June of 1972. Raised in Chicago and educated at the sprawling University of Illinois, we were unaccustomed to the subtle pleasures of small-town living. We eventually bought a home that had once belonged to a long-deceased political leader. When we needed a washing machine delivered to the house from the local Sears store, we gave the salesman our address: 104 N. Union.
“Where’s that,” he asked.
“Well, it’s just a few blocks away, at the corner of Union and Eighth.” I thought it strange that he would have to ask.
“Oh, you mean the old Madigan house,” he said with a smile.
From then on, we never gave townspeople our address. We’d just say, “the old Madigan house,” and everyone knew.
Perhaps if we had grown up in Lincoln, we wouldn’t have appreciated it as much. We would have taken for granted the wonderful old homes, the evening walks down the tree-lined streets, the relaxed pace, and the peace.
Besides the county fair and the rail-splitting festival with its cow-chip-throwing event, there wasn’t much night life. That was all right. We had more pleasure gathering with good friends for dinner than we ever did in a Chicago night club. And it was so easy to make good friends in Lincoln.
We did wonder, though, how long it would take before our home became “the old Hartnett house.”
• • •
At the northeast edge of Lincoln sat the reason we came to town: Lincoln College—a small, private junior college founded as a Presbyterian school for ministerial students shortly after the Civil War. The only college named for Abraham Lincoln before his assassination, the college had dropped its religious affiliation and become a two-year school in the 1940s. Five dorms housed about four-hundred students who attended classes with about one-hundred or so townsfolk. The curriculum was liberal arts, and most students enrolled with the goal of eventually transferring to a four-year college.
If Gem Lunch epitomized the best of the town, then the college’s “Prayer Meetings” personified the best of the small college. Most Friday afternoons after four, anyone from the college who was thirsty for beer or conversation would drop into a local bar named Bachelors III. (This was when the drinking age had been lowered to nineteen, and before it was raised again.)
A typical Friday afternoon would see a dorm director sitting with three of his residents berating the Chicago Bears, a faculty member telling students about his alma mater, Barbara explaining to a would-be psychology major what can and can’t be done with a psych degree, the student senate president pressing a dean for changes in quiet hours rules in the dorms, and a basketball player telling me he should be in the starting lineup. It was a far cry from our experience at the huge University of Illinois campus.
If a particular “Prayer Meeting” lasted beyond the closing of the nearby college dining hall, Barbara and I would often invite whoever was left to the old Madigan house for hamburgers. The students who came to our home were the typical Lincoln College stereotype—frightened teenagers who enrolled because other schools wouldn’t accept them. They attended class for two years, matured, earned better grades than ever before, and transferred to four-year colleges.
The problems they caused, and had, were minor. They used the college as it was intended to be used, and they moved on.
Many of the white students seemed to be the runt of the litter. Did they all have older brothers and sisters who were brilliant doctors or lawyers, or did it just seem that way?
Many of the African American students, away from city ghettos and living near cornfields for the first time, suffered from culture shock.
Lincoln wasn’t what we expected, but after we overcame our own culture shock, Barbara and I found it was easy to like these kids.
Sometimes, though, we thought the school was too small, too informal. Most graduates would transfer to a large state university (after two years at Lincoln, some couldn’t afford a private school anymore) and some had trouble adjusting to large lecture classes, huge dormitories, and using their ID numbers instead of names.
Lincoln’s teachers were almost too good. Some students would become so excited about a field that they’d decide to major in it. A couple of years later, after being taught by university professors who weren’t so caring, so personal, so charismatic, they’d conclude that earth science wasn’t so interesting after all.
Barbara and I arrived, fresh with our master’s degrees. I was hired as the college’s only full-time counselor, and Barbara was a counselor and dormitory director.
We were nervous at first, remembering the full staff of Ph.D.’s and psychiatrists in the campus counseling center at the University of Illinois. But looking at the peaceful little campus before the students arrived, we wondered, “How serious could any student’s problems be in a school like this? In a town like this?”
We soon learned the answer.
Wednesday, May 27, 2020
Meadowlark- August 2018
or wherever you buy books!
What I wanted
was a minute or two
of his groove, up close
caught on tape
along with filtered through
my own two ears,
so I snuck a pocket recorder in
to the Dennis Chambers clinic,
sat up front at the foot
of his bass drum,
tangled in silver
cymbal stands, like a man
in a thicket. Somehow,
I pressed the play button,
and out came my baby sister’s
voice, and Chambers heard, miffed,
and hit harder, and knocked a cymbal
down beside me, felled it
with one stroke, and that
sent me packing, recorder
shut off, head down,
Copyright © 2018 Kevin Rabas