Meditation on a Turkey Carcass

Today was the first day-after-Thanksgiving that I’ve spent processing our leftover turkey carcass.

I’ve made my own broth before — from chicken bones, vegetables, etc — but this is the first time I’ve taken a whole carcass and processed every bit of it. First I boiled the carcass (put it in when we got home last night) to make broth and get all the meat off the bones. Then this morning I strained out all the broth, separated out the meat from the bones, and put the bones back in the crock pot to make bone broth.

turkey bones on day after thanksgivingAs I was sorting through the pile of meat and bones left after the first round of boiling, I actually sort of had fun picking out all the little (and big!) bones. They were fun shapes, and it was cool to pull out a few I could sort of identify — leg bone, wishbone, ribs, and even vertebrae! I inwardly smiled when I recognized one of those spine-y bones — and then as I cleaned the meat off of it, I noticed that there was a stretchy tube left inside the vertebra’s center hole. Maybe a nerve or something.

All of a sudden, I realized that I was picking through the dead body of a formerly living creature. I was holding its bones and cooked muscles in my hands. I was boiling its remains as many times as possible to pull out every bit of usefulness and nutrition from its carcass. It felt a little surreal.

At first I thought I might feel a little grossed out… but as I kept sorting through the bones, it started to feel sort of intimate. Like I was spending time with this turkey, like we had a connection. The growing pile of clean-boiled bones in the crock pot started to feel sort of familiar and friendly and warm (and not just from the heat of the crock pot, either).

I’ve never killed and eaten an animal myself before, but today I felt like I might understand a bit of why many traditional hunters place so much importance on gratitude. Over the course of my reading books about Native history and practice and talking with several Indian friends, I’ve learned that traditionally many Indian people (including Dakota, Lakota, and Ojibwe — all in my neck of the woods) will often leave tobacco as a thanks when they gather plants or hunt game. It’s meant to be a physical symbol of (and often accompanies) a prayer of thankfulness.

I didn’t have any tobacco — plus that’s not my culture — but as I finished digging through the gelatinous tendons, tender meat, fat-greasy skin, and still-warm smooth bones, I thought a little prayer of thankfulness for that turkey, whose little life will sustain and nourish mine for quite a while, and for the reminder that even though I’m a (relatively) smart creature, I’m still a creature.

I also said to myself, “As for humans, God tests them so that they may see that they are like the animals. Surely the fate of human beings is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; humans have no advantage over animals. Everything is meaningless. All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return. Who knows if the human spirit rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?”

So I saw that there is nothing better for a person than to enjoy their work, because that is their lot. For who can bring them to see what will happen after them? (Ecclesiastes 3:18-22)

I think I have a new Thanksgiving tradition.

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In which Madeleine L’Engle is one of my favorites!

For some of you fellow bookworms who have chatted with me about books, you know that Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time is one of my favorite books. I already loved it to pieces when I read it (and its sequels) as a kid. Then I found an audiobook version where Madeleine herself narrates Wrinkle, and I loved it even more because it feels like you sort of know her  by how she reads the book (which is perfectly how I imagined it).

a circle of quiet lengleI remember my mom once told me, “You know, Madeleine L’Engle has written some adult non-fiction books, too. You should check them out.” But I sort of let it drift into vague-land… until recently.

I found and bought a copy of the first book in “The Crosswicks Journals”,  A Circle of Quiet, and let it sit on my to-read shelf for a bit. I had a full plate working through my Little House / Wounded Knee project, so I didn’t pay Circle much attention. Then about a week ago, when I was lolling around with nothing in particular to read, feeling a little down about life, I saw this book out of the corner of my eye. I picked it up and flipped to read the reviews on the back and found, “My favorite of all Madeleine L’Engle’s books. Lovely, charming, a book to cherish. I know it will give great consolation to ordinary people who sometimes wonder why they bother to get out of bed in the morning.

Needless to say, I was sold!

I snuggled in on the couch and started to read… and was BLOWN. AWAY. by the simple, thoughtful, soulful musings of Madeleine L’Engle, writing her thoughts on life, nature, philosophy, marriage, and writing (among others) from her family’s farm house, Crosswicks, in New England. It really did lift my spirits. It felt like this book was A Wrinkle in Time for grown-ups, because it’s about real life, but it’s the same sensible, spiritual Madeleine at the helm.

Anyways. I could rave about this book all day — I’m really excited to read the second one — but for now I just want to let Madeleine’s writing speak for itself and share a few of the way-too-many-to-write-down-because-I’d-write-the-whole-book passages that really struck me and stuck with me.

On community & identity:

Grandma gave me herself, and so helped to give me myself. (p.58)

On illness, death, and relationship:

She was not our mother, child, wife. Our lives would be basically unchanged by her death, except in the sense that our lives are changed by every death. And I think that we all, except perhaps nurses and doctors who see it all the time, have a primitive instinct to withdraw from death, even if we manage to conceal our pulling away. There is always the memento mori, the realization that death is contagious; it is contracted the moment we are conceived.

I always took a bath when I got home from the hospital.

It takes a tremendous maturity, a maturity I don’t possess, to strike the balance of involvement/detachment which makes us creatively useful, able to be compassionate, to be involved in the other person’s suffering rather than in our own response to it. (p.118-119)

On community, the Establishment, and revolution:

Because we are human, these communities [family, village, church, city, country, globe] tend to become rigid. They stop evolving, revolving, which is essential to their life, as is the revolution of the earth about the sun essential to the life of our planet, our full family and basic establishment. Hence, we must constantly be in a state of revolution, or we die. But revolution does not mean that the earth flings away from the sun into structureless chaos. As I understand the beauty of the earth’s dance around the sun, so also do I understand the constant revolution of the community of the Son. (p.131)

Seriously, so much wisdom and humor and real life words in this book. Go grab a copy and give it a try. You won’t regret it!

Little House / Wounded Knee: Week 16, Life & Death on the Plains

In the sixteenth week of Little House / Wounded Knee, Laura, Almanzo, and Omakayas tough out life on the Plains, and we finally arrive at Wounded Knee. Sound interesting? Then let’s get started!

The Laura Ingalls Wilder Family

first four yearsThe First Four Years is the only book in the Little House series that was published posthumously. In fact, it was even published after the death of Rose, Laura’s daughter, whose birth takes place in this book and who served as Laura’s editor. As such, this short book is much less polished and feels much more like Laura’s unedited thoughts looking back — which is what it is.

The title of the book comes from a conversation that begins the book: we re-see the story of Almanzo and Laura’s engagement, but this time we hear Laura tell Almanzo that she doesn’t want to be a farmer’s wife:

A farm is such a hard place for a woman. There are so many chores for her to do, and harvest help and threshers to cook for. Besides a farmer never has any money. (p.3-4)

In essence, Laura is asking why she should sign on for a life of dawn-to-dusk toil when Almanzo could easily do something else, live in town, and have a more stable source of income. Almanzo takes the same line as his father did back in Farmer Boy: “But you’ve got it all wrong. Farmers are the only ones who are independent” (p.5). After considering this, Laura agrees to try farming for three years, and Almanzo agrees he will make their living some other way if their farm is unsuccessful at that point.

I found this whole premise really interesting — it presents a much more nuanced partnership between Laura and Almanzo than anything we saw in the last book, which spent most of its time with Laura confused about whether she liked Almanzo or not. Out here in a brand new town, they really are partners. Later in the book, when Laura is pregnant and needs fresh air, she even lets the housework go and joins Manly (as she calls him) out in the fields. We get the sense that they really love each other, and that Manly is truly concerned with Laura’s happiness rather than her wifely submission and/or servitude (which would have been not uncommon at this time).

The main theme of this book, however, is not romance, or even marital partnership. The main theme is the “great American dream” struggle for individual success and against debt. As year after year the little Wilder farm encounters challenges, the debt mounts higher and higher, and Laura’s worry and tension are palpable. There are entire pages devoted to counting their hundreds of dollars of outstanding loans. As Laura struggles to keep up with all the farm chores, especially when she is ill during her pregnancy, she starts to see the farm as a burden rather than a dream like Manly does: “There was so much to be done and only herself to do it. She hated the farm and the stock and the smelly lambs, the cooking of food and the dirty dishes. Oh, she hated it all, and especially the debts that must be paid whether she could work or not” (p.119).

By the end of the book, the Wilder family has added a daughter — Rose — and weathered many storms. Their financial situation is uncertain, but they decide to continue farming because “It would be a fight to win out in this business of farming, but strangely [Laura] felt her spirit rising for the struggle” (p.133). In fact, the prospect has Laura waxing poetic about the Spirit of the American Farmer:

The incurable optimism of the farmer who throws his seed on the ground every spring, betting it and his time against the elements, seemed inextricably to blend with the creed of her pioneer forefathers that “it is farther on” — only instead of farther on in space, it was farther on in time, over the horizon of the years ahead instead of the far horizon of the west. She was still the pioneer girl and she could understand Manly’s love of the land through its appeal to herself. “Oh well,” Laura sighed, summing up her idea of the situation in a saying of her Ma’s, “We’ll always be farmers, for what is bred in the bone will come out in the flesh.” (p.134)

And so, what starts as doubt about the viability of farming ends as an ode to the Spirit of Individualistic Farmer Optimism — the American Spirit. And our series concludes. The tiny “Half-Pint” who was such a sassafras back in the Big Woods has now grown up to be a strong farmer woman who fully espouses the American Optimism of both her father and her husband and his father.

Laura Ingalls Wilder… What happened after?

laura and almanzoThe little homestead farm did not succeed, and after a brief few years of rest and recooperating with family the Wilders moved to a farm plot in Mansfield, Missouri in 1894. They named it “Rocky Ridge” and this was their home for the rest of their days. There, Laura began to write a column on pioneer life, which began her professional writing career. Their daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, also became an accomplished writer. When the stock market crashed in 1929, finances got tough again. Laura asked Rose what she thought about an autobiographical story she had written, and after much expansion and editing with Rose’s help this story was published in 1932 as Little House in the Big Woods. The rest of the books were published thereafter, and Laura gained her fame as an author as well as financial security for their family for the first time.

Laura and Almanzo lived on their farm at Rocky Ridge until Almanzo’s death in 1949, at age 92. Laura lived on at the farm until her death in 1957 at age 90. You can read more about Laura’s life here.

The Omakayas and Animikiins Family

chickadee - erdrichChickadee, the fourth book in the Birchbark House series, jumps forward about ten years to Omakayas’s young family. All our favorite characters are still present — including Nokomis, who is still my favorite! — but the narration shifts to primarily focus on Omakayas’s son, Chickadee. I don’t want to spoil too many of the plot twists in this book, so I’ll just sum it up by saying that the story involves Chickadee taking a journey around Minnesota and the rest of the family relocating to the Plains (which is weird for them, as they’re from the North Woods).

One of my favorite things about this book is the loving care with which it shows how the strong familial relationships of the previous three books have expanded, but not weakened in the slightest, with the addition of another generation. Probably the most touching scene in the whole book comes when Chickadee has gone off alone into the forest after being harassed about his “weak” name, and Nokomis comes looking for him:

Although she was ancient, his great-grandmother always saw into his heart. Because she always listened to him, Chickadee always told her the truth. (p.27)

Not only that, but after she finds out that Chickadee is being teased, the next time she hears crap out of the teaser she literally whaps him on the head with her walking stick and squashes his hat. I LOVE NOKOMIS FOREVER!

As Omakayas’s family travels and expands, we start to see a lot more points of interaction between Anishinabe culture and white/Anglo/American/settler culture. A few examples:

  • Chickadee meets a group of nuns who take him in. One is kind, but one is overtly racist and cruel: “He is a filthy savage… He could kill us in our sleep” (p.87). Upon learning that his name is Chickadee, the cruel nun remarks, “He’ll be baptized and given a proper name, a saint’s name. How typically pagan, to be named after a bird!” (p.89)… which got me wondering, what do the saints’ names originally mean?
  • We learn that Quill is MARRIED! His wife is Metis, a people who blended Anishinabe and French culture. When Omakayas and family first arrive, she welcomes them, but “her face said, I wish you’d go away” (p.98).
  • Quill has a job driving an ox cart loaded with furs to trade them in St. Paul. We get to see quite a picture of Minnesota’s capital in 1866. As Chickadee views a big city for the first time, he has this to say: “The ones who built and lived in those houses were making an outsize world. … Everything that the Anishinabeg counted on in life, and loved, was going into this hungry city mouth. This mouth, this city, was wide and insatiable. It would never be satisfied, thought Chickadee dizzily, until everything was gone” (p.155).

I loved the way Erdrich uses the characters’ travels around Minnesota to give us a really diverse picture of what Minnesota was like for both white/Anglo/American/settlers and Anishinabe and other Indigenous peoples. And, of course, it’s extra delightful to explore all these different types of life with characters that I’ve already grown to know and love in the previous three books.

The Anishinabe: Where are they now?

turtle mountain chippewa reservationSince the Birchbark House books are loosely based on author Louise Erdrich’s ancestors, I’ll focus on the history of her band, the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa IndiansChickadee takes place in 1866. In 1863, a treaty was signed by several Ojibwe bands ceding land to the United States. In 1882, the Turtle Mountain Reservation was established in North Dakota. Today, the Turtle Mountain Band has 30,000 enrolled members, nearly 6,000 of which live on the reservation itself. You can read more about the various branches of Anishinabe people here.

The Massacre at Wounded Knee Creek

The last two chapters of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee follow Sitting Bull of the Hunkpapas and the rest of the Lakota people as they surrender onto the Great Sioux Reservation, are swindled out of much of their remaining land, have a last movement of hope, and then endure the slaughter of innocent people at Wounded Knee Creek.

As I read these final two chapters of the Lakota story (in this book anyway), what struck me was how twisted and convoluted it was.

  • Chief Sitting Bull was still safe in Canada with his people, but then the Long Winter of 1880-81 caused many to surrender rather than starve or freeze — eventually including Sitting Bull himself.
  • Originally all the Sioux had a pretty substantial “Great Sioux” reservation… but then it was carved up and swindled from them even further to the four smaller Sioux reservations we have today.
  • The agent at Standing Rock Reservation and other government officials weirdly made it their mission in life to de-leaderify Sitting Bull: “You are not a great chief of this country… you have no following, no power, no control, and no right to any control. You are on an Indian reservation merely at the sufferance of the government. You are fed by the government, clothed by the government, your children are educated by the government, and all you have and are today is because of the government. If it were not for the government you would be freezing and starving today in the mountains. …The government feeds and clothes and educates your children now, and desires to teach you to become farmers, and to civilize you, and make you as white men.” (p.425-6) They fail to mention, of course, that the only reason the Lakota were ever starving and freezing in the mountains is… because of the US government!
  • A “Paiute Messiah”, Wovoka, began to preach Jesus-like messages of hope and deliverance from the oppression of the whites, and to teach the Ghost Dance. Unsurprisingly, many wanted to cling to this hope and joined the dance. Also unsurprisingly at this point, large groups of Native people gathering and doing something that whites didn’t recognize as being basically a Christian revival freaked a lot of white people out.
  • Because Sitting Bull was so respected, the powers that be decided he was the source of the “rebellion” that was the Ghost Dances. They decided to stop it by arresting Sitting Bull. They sent a huge force to do it, and Sitting Bull was shot twice and killed.

As all this craziness got people scared, many fled to Ghost Dance camps for protection, and one group started toward Pine Ridge for safety. They were intercepted by a large Army group who told them they had orders to disarm them and bring them in. They camped overnight at Wounded Knee Creek — 120 men and 230 women and children. In the morning, everyone assembled to be disarmed. Then the Army searched people’s tents. Then the Army searched the people. One Minneconjou man, who was reported to be deaf and who had just purchased a brand new rifle, tried to say that he didn’t want to give it up and waved it around a bit.wounded knee massacre chief spotted elk Shots were fired, at which point the Army immediately began mowing people down. After the first volley, they brought out their huge artillery and fired on this group of innocent civilians, who tried to flee through the snow. As the killing ended, a blizzard began. The bodies were left overnight. When crews and photographers came the next day to clean up the bodies, many were frozen in grotesque shapes.

It seems to me that the Wounded Knee Massacre was a summary — a tipping point — a microcosm — of everything that had happened before. All the theft, all the domination, all the murder and the hatred and the fear and the religious hypocrisy that was planted earlier bore its poisonous fruit at Wounded Knee. And that, I think, is part of why it’s so infamous and remembered — because it contains all the pain that came before it, and it gave birth to all the pain that came after it. It’s like a funnel, or the narrow point on an hourglass.

When I first learned about the Wounded Knee Massacre in history class, I remember thinking, “How could they do that? Why would they ever?” But now that I’ve read about 50 years of US-Native relations, honestly, the circumstances of this massacre don’t really surprise me. It’s the same thing that happened at Sand Creek. It’s the same thing that happened at Camp Grant. The whites had so much fear of and hatred towards Indians in their hearts that the slightest excuse — even made up ones! — set them off and then they just kept firing.

How sad is it that after reading even a short segment of the history of US-Native relations, the senseless massacre of 150-300 women and children doesn’t surprise me?

There is so much brokenness and pain in our collective past here on this land. And because we have never dealt with it — because our government and all of us immigrant settlers continue to benefit from this pain without ever looking it squarely in the eye — there is still so much brokenness and pain in our collective present. We need healing. Individually, corporately, as a nation, as a family of humans surviving together in the same place. I don’t know yet what that looks like. I don’t know if anybody does. But I’m going to keep trying and muddling and praying and failing and trying again, because we are all still broken.

The Lakota: Where are they now?

By 1890, all the various tribes of the “Great Sioux Nation” had been defeated and relegated to a variety of reservations around the US. The Oglala, the tribe of Red Cloud, are today federally recognized as the Oglala Lakota nation. They primarily reside on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in western South Dakota. You can read more about the Oglala here. The Hunkpapa, the tribe of Sitting Bull, today have a large population at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, which straddles the border between North and South Dakota. You can read more about the Hunkpapa here. In 1973, a group of Lakota associated with the American Indian Movement (AIM) took over and occupied the Wounded Knee site for several months. You can read more about that incident here, and more about the American Indian Movement here.

We’ve reached the end of my reading list for this project. 

A brief announcement: Next week I will be traveling to Pine Ridge Indian Reservation with a group from my church on a NON-mission trip. Our purpose is somewhat nebulous, but generally our goals are to learn, be present, discuss, and grieve in a place which has become such a lightning rod for American Indian issues. We will also be visiting the massacre site at Wounded Knee, which I’m sure will be an emotional day. I’m looking forward to a powerful trip, and I will likely write about it after I return.

In the meantime, thank you for reading along with me throughout this journey. I hope you will continue to ponder these issues — I know I will!

[Edit: Here’s my post about my trip… and here’s the first post in my next reading project about colonizing the land…]

The Light shines in the darkness…

Ugh. I feel so gross.

This morning there was yet another school shooting.

At an elementary school.

Mostly in a kindergarten classroom.

Apparently perpetrated by a 24-year old dude who had a thing against his mom, since he shot her and many of her 6-year-old students.

UGH.

This is SICKENING. How could anyone ever ever EVER get to a point where they think it’s a good idea to massacre kindergarteners???

Gross. Gross. Gross.

My soul feels all dirty and I just long so much for heaven, where children will run and never tire, laugh and never cry, and definitely not get shot just for showing up to school on the wrong day.

When tragedies like this happen, I always start to see the world as one big  juxtaposition. And at the time the horrific events occur, it always seems in my mind that the bad outweighs the good, and I say “quickly come, Lord Jesus!” with more longing than usual.

However, having gone through this several times now recently, I know that eventually the emotional overload will pass and this day will become just another horrible part of our nation’s history, and I will remember how people can be good again. And today, I was reminded of the goodness of people in advance.

This morning I met with my group of eight 9th graders. We meet every Friday as a part of their Christian high school’s discipleship program to spend time together, chat, laugh, pray and figure life out together. Today was the last meeting we have before Christmas Break, so some of the girls brought in treats and I had planned for us to have a little “Christmas story time” by watching Charlie Brown Christmas. So we sat down, grabbed some munchies, opened in prayer, and began our usual round-robin of updates.

This week, instead of our usual highs and lows, the girls wanted to share what they were doing for Christmas and in what I’m sure was a moment of Spirit-inspiration I added the question “What’s something that’s been on your heart lately?” I began by sharing my Christmas plans and then explaining how lately my heart has been worrying about future plans — what is my purpose in life? what am I put here to do? — but that God has been helping me learn to have peace even in the not-knowing. The girls nodded, and as we continued around the circle I found that there was quite a lot on our hearts recently. A best friend’s mother with an unknown illness. A grandmother with severe Alzheimer’s. A girl who had made some changes in her life and regained trust with her parents.

As we arrived at the last girl, she began with a deep breath and it became clear that something was weighing on her heavily indeed. “Well… things have been really tight financially in my family this year… my dad lost his job and we’re running out of money and my parents are really worried… they say we might only have one or two presents this year… and it’s hard because I don’t know if I should quit my sport… I just want to help, and I know it costs a lot…”

And then something amazing happened.

As Jessica (not her real name) poured out her worries, the others began to share their stories too. Stories of times when their parents were struggling financially, and when they didn’t know what to do.

Sensing a bit of the overwhelm, I said, “After all that I feel like I want to pray. Anybody else feel like they want to pray?” Silence. “Well let’s pray for a little bit and I’ll just leave some time and then I’ll close when we’re done.” I opened briefly and then just sat and listened.

“Lord, please be with Jessica and her family and help them to find more money so they don’t have to worry as much…”

“God, please help Jessica and her family through this hard time because we know that you don’t do this on purpose to be hard on them, but to teach them…”

“Father, give Jessica strength and comfort that you are there with her, and that you love her and her parents love her and that this isn’t her fault…”

By the end, Jessica was sniffling and my heart was bursting with love and appreciation for these wonderful, caring, supportive, strong, thoughtful humans. We didn’t even get to watch all of Charlie Brown — the bell rang literally 30 seconds before the Christmas story recitation scene (and the whole point of the movie)… but as I listened to Linus proclaim the story from Luke 2, I realized that we had seen the light of the Christ child anyway.

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

 

Creative Writing: Portrait of a Grandpa

Thick, squarish glasses perched on a hawkish nose; five white hairs, bravely alone atop his head; age-thinned plaid shirts partnered by the gray cardigan that went with everything; the easy-flashing smile, revealing antique fillings — and wrinkled face never far from that hearty, oh-so-desirable laugh.

In fact, when I think of Grandpa, the first thing that comes to mind is his mischievous laugh, leaping out of him but still reserving that little hint of a prank well-concealed — or one about to be born.

The second thing that comes to mind when I think about Grandpa is how much he loved (and still loves) Grandma. I cannot remember when I first heard the story of how they met — Minnesota German and Pennsylvania Slovak, brought together by a World War and some scheming Lutheran church ladies — but now I have heard it told so many times that it seems I have always known.

When I think of how blessed I am, he says, that a beautiful lady from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, would come all the way across the country just for me–. He still tears up every time he tells their story, worn smooth and warm and familiar by countless repetitions, familiar like the fthppp of the playing cards as he shuffles them to deal another hand of Cribbage.

He cries a little more, now she is gone. Talks a little more of death and heaven, as if those are now his reality, which, in a way, they are.

Someday soon, he says, I won’t be around anymore–, and this repeated phrase, more than anything, betrays the creeping of his heart towards eternity.

The thick, work-weathered hands still shuffle the cards, but now the fthppp is accompanied by a wince.

Can you shuffle those for me once? My arthritis is giving me trouble.

I take the cards, begin to shuffle as he taught me. Split, shuffle, bridge. I smile, crack a joke about my impending victory, and am rewarded by that laugh, that infectious laugh. I wonder if that laugh is what brought my grandmother to Minnesota.

Ding, ding, ding. The grandfather clock begins to strike the hour. I straighten out the cards, and deal.