Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Sacred Smoke and Devil's Tower

We have just returned from a two-week road trip through the west, seeing some of America’s scenic wonders, living a bit of family history (my grandmother grew up in Cody, Wyoming, and we were able to retrace a trip through Yellowstone that she made as a girl in 1904), and visiting with cherished friends (including performing a wedding in Colorado Springs). Susan read sections of “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” aloud as we drove through the places where grim massacres occurred. The trail of broken treaties is a sad and shameful chapter in our nation’s history, and I found myself grieving even as I reveled in the remarkable beauty. (Those who wish can read a full record of our trip).

One of the many stops we made was at Devil’s Tower (of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” fame), where I learned that the tension between Whites and Native Americans is still very much alive. For the Plains Indians, it is a profoundly sacred place, and the month of June is a particular sacred time of year. All about the base of the Tower we saw small flags and bags hanging from trees, left as offerings by those who came to worship.

The Tower also draws many rock climbers eager to test their skills on its sheer walls. And therein lays the tension. Plains Indians regard such climbing as a form of sacrilege, even as the Pope would likely object if the Vatican were used for paint-ball practice. In an effort to strike a compromise, the Parks Service established a voluntary moratorium on climbing Devil’s Tower during June. A reasonable proposal, right? But immediately the “nobody can tell me what to do or when to do it!” crowd launched a lawsuit, claiming that their rights were being infringed upon. The case was tossed out of court when the judge failed to see how a polite request could be interpreted as infringing on anyone’s rights. Many – I would like to think most – climbers are honoring the moratorium, but two parties were climbing the Tower the day we visited. I found myself thinking unpleasant thoughts about those climbers; some degree of cultural and religious sensitivity to others is essential to a civilized society.

Saddened, we went to the picnic area to prepare our lunch. And there we saw something that lifted my heart a bit. A Japanese sculptor is designing a series of works to be placed in the world’s most sacred places. The first was placed at the Vatican. The second was installed at the birthplace of the Buddha. And the third was recently placed at Devil’s Tower. It represents the first puff of smoke from a peace pipe, and is set in such a way that it perfectly frames the Tower. Not everyone who visits the Tower will stumble across this remarkable work, but I would like to think that those who do will think less about the aliens whose spaceship landed on top of the Tower in the Hollywood version and more about its sacred meaning to the Native American tribes who suffered so grievously because of our greed for gold and buffalo hides.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Squirrel Wars

When we remodeled our kitchen twelve years ago I had only two requests. I wanted an outlet located in the corner where I make coffee so I could keep both the grinder and coffee maker plugged in all the time. And I wanted an indoor switch for a new outlet on the outside of the house near the patio so that I could pursue my Grand Dream.
Our patio wraps around a crabapple tree. Admittedly it is not a particularly nice crabapple tree. It is badly in need of trimming, which I have not been able to do for reasons that will soon become clear. It is also susceptible to apple scab disease, so if the spring is a wet one (like it was this year) many of the leaves turn brown and fall off in June. For years we paid to have the tree sprayed with fungicide, but the only notable impact was on my wallet. But it is the only shade we have for the patio, and it was also the focus of my Grand Dream.

Many houses have a porch light by the back door, but I did not want a porch light. I wanted the crabapple tree to function as my porch light. I ran a heavy cord from my new outlet to the base of the tree and buried it. Then I spent several awkward hours climbing around in the tree, running string after string of white Christmas lights. When I was done there were 1200 lights, give or take, and when I hit the switch in the kitchen the effect was all that I had hoped. My Grand Dream was now a reality.
But the one thing I did not factor into my Dream was the squirrels. Not all squirrels, just the occasional renegade squirrel who, for reasons known only to himself, thinks that chewing strings of lights to shreds is about the most fun a squirrel can have without going to Vegas. I never know when one of these renegades is going to show up. Three or four years may pass without damage, then Chewy the Renegade Squirrel comes to call. He is back this year, and I am ready to throw in the towel.

Three days ago he chewed up three entire strings of lights. My mother-in-law was due to arrive the next day, and she loves to see the tree lit up. It was raining lightly, but I fetched my one box of back-up lights and headed out to do battle. One of the strings he destroyed was, of course, the one at the very top of the tree. If you have never clung to a wet limb 14 feet off the ground while stretching your fingers to yank at a stuck string of lights, you have not yet lived a full life. I filled in as best I could with the new string and tossed the chewed strings into the basement to attempt a bit of splicing. (Note: these strings have three wires, and the squirrel specializes in chewing all three in such a way that you cannot tell how they connect, which means hours of trial-and-error before you toss the whole mess out in disgust.)

Last night I hit the switch to find three more strings out, one of them the new string I put in place just three days ago. As best I can tell, it is now in four parts.

I do not have a clue as to why the Renegade Squirrel does this. Does he like the taste of the insulation? Or is it just a form of amusement for a squirrel with too much time on his hands? Whichever, I am dead in the water until this squirrel finds something better to do or is called to the Great Rodent Farm in the Sky (a final journey I would be glad to help him embark upon).

So this fall I will remove all the strings of lights, give the tree the proper trimming it has needed for years, and start all over. I am confident that it will look wonderful when I am finished. It may continue to look wonderful for years, or perhaps only for days. Like Sisyphus pushing his rock up the hill, I will continue my heroic efforts, even knowing I am doomed to defeat. Such is the human spirit; such is human foolishness.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Contending with The Bad Mom

Yesterday Susan and I were on a flight from St. Louis to Milwaukee in a miserable little airplane, the kind with two (very hard) seats on one side of the aisle and one seat on the other. The row ahead of us was occupied by a mother and her two children. The younger one, a boy of perhaps three, sat with his mother, while her five-year-old daughter, Madison, occupied the solo seat across the aisle. I know that her name was Madison because her mother screamed it a lot.

Madison had one arm in a soft cast, the result of a mild fracture she had suffered earlier in the week. Madison wanted to chat with her mother, but mother had her hands full with the younger child. Madison kept dangling her legs over the side of the seat, prompting her mother to yell at her to put them where they belonged lest they be amputated by a passing cart. Madison wanted to watch a movie on the portable DVD player until the movie started, at which point she didn’t want to watch it anymore. Madison wanted a cup of ice cubes to suck on and then promptly spilled the ice all over the floor. Madison, in other words, was behaving precisely the way even the nicest five-year-olds behave. Mom was progressively losing it, and she was not using her “inside voice.” Her behavior was escalating towards verbal abuse.

My first response was one of acute embarrassment for the mother, who was melting down in a manner that no-one around her could miss. It is a socially awkward situation. Do you pretend that it is not happening, or do you try to help in some way? Where is fine line between butting in and being helpful? I could see other passengers squirming as they wrestled with the same question.

Bit by bit, those of us seated nearby coalesced into a community. A grandmotherly African-American woman seated in front of Madison began chatting with the mother in a soft and soothing voice. I engaged Madison in conversation about how she got her owie. The flight attendant stopped by several times to ask if they needed anything. No one criticized her; everyone spoke in a kindly manner. Bit by bit, the situation was defused.

When we landed, I chatted a bit with the mom. They had been visiting one set of grandparents in St. Louis (where Madison fractured her arm at a theme park) and were on their way to Pittsburgh to see the other set. Given the huge diamond she was wearing on her finger, I assumed she had a husband, presumably too busy earning the money that paid for that rock to accompany them. She was clearly exhausted, physically and emotionally.

Later, Susan and I reflected on whether we were seeing a good mom having a bad day or a woman who will always struggle with parenting. Our guess is that the role of mother does not come naturally or easily to her, and that if she was at the end of her rope that day it was because her rope was not all that long to begin with. I will hold her, and her children, in prayer.

But I am always grateful when I see strangers come together as a supportive community. Hillary Clinton famously commented that it takes a village to raise a child. A village, and sometimes an airplane.