Letters I Should Have Sent
I have stayed in boarding houses only two times in my life. Each one was in a town I wished I could live in. The first was in my home town of Long Prairie where I took a room at a rate of a dollar a night, seven dollars paid by the week. It was in a house on Second Avenue North, the home of the widow Rose Wolf, an orderly old woman living alone except for her boarders. My own room was at the top of the stairs and left, the bath was across the hall. The room itself was little more than a bed and a small chest of drawers for my things. I also had a small balcony over her back yard. I went out there on summer evenings and looked at the houses and the quiet yellow light coming out of people’s windows.
The first perch I ever caught on purpose was on Lake Osakis with George Duda, we used small pieces of colored rubber bands instead of grubs. The coldest car ride I can remember was in the Jaguar my friend Norm bought with his student loan that we drove to Moorhead from Minneapolis on a night in January before he got the heater working. I learned to fly-fish at Cedar Lake with small poppers and caught sunfish. When I was in college they printed my poems in the Lower Stumpf Lake Review and, later, someone gave me a book with stories by Franz Kafka. The biggest fish I ever caught fly-fishing was an eighteen pound king salmon out of slide hole in Deep Creek; I used a nine weight, which is good for salmon. On Pine Island Lake, the sunfish and pumpkin-seed split is almost fifty-fifty. I used to fish just east of the island and remember lying on the ice with my face over the hole to watch them swim past. Just before dark I walked back to my pickup at the public landing where the wind could be heard in the large white pines near there. The barn at my grandmother’s farm had one extra rafter on the north side of the roof; it was from the raising when all of the neighbors put it up in a day, one crew on each side.
Civil disobedience is not necessarily breaking laws; more often it is breaking expectations. It might be simply thinking everything through that we are taught, and everything we teach. But we have such meager tools. A book that was written at a time women were considered property is often the basis for judging our morality. The one or two times non-violence is mentioned in it, we use it to comfort someone who has already been beaten. Anyone who advocates for a peaceful reaction to violence is pushed aside, ridiculed, or worse. It is one thing to dabble a little in these things in some little church somewhere but how often do we hear that they are teaching nonviolence in our schools. Yet it seems like a necessary survival tactic for the times ahead.
I believe in art. I believe in its ability to connect us to each other in ways that are not attainable otherwise. I try to do my best to respect you but I have never been black, or a woman, or anything but what I am, so have some patience. I have been in love and know better than to tell someone they’re not, or it’s with the wrong person. I believe children should be allowed to live as children, the real world will come to each of them soon enough. Join them when you can.
There is a lone tree standing at the end of the largest field on our home farm. A white oak left to permanently watch over the growing crops. It has always been a mystery to my brothers and me why our father had left it standing when he had otherwise been so thorough at clearing every tillable corner of his land. Now it has survived a hundred years of farming and proof can be found on Google Earth where it appears in a picture from winter, its limb shadows on the ground beneath it.
Growing up it was a sanctuary during the long days of picking rocks and baling hay in that field. When our mother or one of my sisters brought lunch or ice water from the house, we rested in its shade. It was always there, dark against the snow in winter and green and cool in the summer. I have a picture of my brother Thomas and his children, Lydia, Elliot, and Sawyer climbing in it. They are holding themselves just below the wide canopy to pose for the camera. My wife says Thomas and I look alike and there is a resemblance in the children. I take something from that, it’s a family thing.
Recently, while researching some of the aspects of institutionalized poverty, I found myself looking at similar trees and realized again the way histories vary between different groups of people in this country and how this can change the way people look at the world. In her book Black Faces, White Spaces, for instance, Carolyn Finney makes the point that a tree standing in a field may mean something other than sanctuary to a person of color. Think of the Abel Meeropol/Billie Holiday song “Strange Fruit” which presents an image of a hanging tree. This is the first verse. “Southern trees bear strange fruit, Blood on the leaves and blood at the root, Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze, Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.”
I listened to the song and found the pictures; the trees don’t look much different than the one back home, except that everything was wrong. One of the more disturbing lynchings happened in a northern state, in Duluth Minnesota, where a mob hung three black men from a visiting circus. Bob Dylan refers to this incident in his song “Desperation Row” “Their selling postcards of the hanging…” That’s where I found the pictures, they survived because many of these photographs were posed and made into postcards. They are difficult to look at; the way the thin rope tightens around the neck and only stops at the spine, the straightness of their arms, the open eyes, bodies that were reclothed for the sake of the photograph. Many of the victims have never been identified and will be nameless forever. I try to imagine the person inside, the family and friends and hopes and the pleasure of their living, or their terror of what was happening to them. I wonder how people could do these things. My gaze moves to the standing mob, posed on either side of the hanged men. I am disgusted by their satisfied faces. They are clean shaven, wearing shiny shoes and suit coats with hats, and then an unexpected chill gathers in me as I realize how exactly like these men my brother and I had looked on the day of our family’s celebration of his and Amy’s beautiful autumn wedding.