What do you want to debate? How much the president paid – or, more to the point, didn’t -- in federal income tax? Whether or not there should be hearings for a Supreme Court nominee not only in an election year but as the election process is already underway? What each candidate proposes as far as the nation’s health care is concerned?
No, I will not be watching – or listening, either. What each man will say is pretty much a foregone conclusion, and my only question is how big a train wreck it will be. Will there be name-calling? Shouting? Will there be onstage stalking? We will find out soon enough, but the morning after will be soon enough for me, so although I know many of you will, I don’t need to follow it “in the moment.” I’d rather be elsewhere.
We are having a lot of rain this week here in northern Michigan, but bright, fast-changing colors gleam in the rain, and this morning we had a shot of bright, bright sunshine, welcome for however long it may last. And yes, I am here in Michigan. But I am also on the Great Plains, and for a few minutes of every morning and evening I am in France before I was born. Mine, you see, is a magical life, and if you are a reader (as I hope you are), your life is magical, too, not limited by time or space. Is that not a rich blessing?
The drowsy heat of middle August lay heavy as a furred robe on the upper country of the Shell River, the North Platte of the white man. Almost every noon the thunders built themselves a dark cloud to ride the far crowd of Laramie Peak. But down along the river no rain came to lay the dust of the emigrant road, and no cloud shaded the ‘dobe walls and bastions of Fort Laramie, the soldier town that was only a little island of whites in a great sea of Indian country two thousand miles wide.
- Mari Sandoz, Crazy Horse: The Strange Man of the Oglalas
So it begins, this lyrical biography called “one of the great stories of the West” (Atlantic Monthly), a “glorious hero tale” (John C. Neihardt in the New York Times), and “a splendidly done thing” (Washington Star). Mari Sandoz wrote many books set in her native Great Plains country (Old Jules, the story of her father, among them), and thanks to the University of Nebraska Press, with their Bison Books imprint, these titles are available in well-designed modern paperback form for a new generation of readers, as well as those of us still catching up to books missed earlier in our lives. I’m already thinking that Crazy Horse belongs on the American classics list. Maybe Old Jules, too. (I’m sure many people would think so.) The books Sandoz wrote were and probably are still considered “regional,” but every book set in the United States is set in one or more regions of the land; there is no reason, then, to set “regional” in opposition to “American,” in my opinion, that is, the opinion of someone who loves to travel, either by automobile, train, or armchair.
If you’re the kind of reader I am, you usually have more than one book going at a time (sometimes as many as four, in my case), and the other one I’m enjoying at an extremely leisurely pace -- only a page or two at a time -- is one I’ve read before, the first volume of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. I’ve written about Proust before and will not try your patience with a long quote in French, but I’ll tell you that the two pages I read this morning performed a near-miracle, pulling me out of the Slough of Despond and into the light of day. “Life is worth living so we can read Proust,” I exclaimed happily to the Artist over our morning coffee. “He saw and felt and noticed every last detail in his surroundings and then every association those details called up. What a rich life!” The Artist was amused.
Once in a while the Artist gets bogged down, as so many of us do, in the relentless stream of what seems like uniformly bad national and world news. “They’re not telling us the good things,” I say, and he asks rhetorically, “What good things? What’s happening that’s good?” In truth, sometimes I’m the one who’s down, and he has to remind me of all our blessings. I’m only reporting our conversation from this one Tuesday morning.
There was bad news from the agencies too – more soldiers there, with little soldier chiefs for agents and more treaty men coming to buy the Black Hills, making a strong talk of starving the Indians into going to the Missouri or the south place called Indian Territory.
The news! When has it ever been good? One of the hardest things about reading the story of Crazy Horse is that he lived during dreadful times for the Lakota Sioux. “Culture clash” is one way those times are sometimes described, but the phrase completely leaves out the power dynamics of a strong, armed national government and a relentless flood of pioneering homesteaders overwhelming traditions of those who had lived off the land for generations.
The news! Big, bad happenings! Disastrous events and ongoing horror shows!
I think the good things -- some of the best things – never make the news cycle precisely because they are not disasters or horror shows. Not “newsworthy,” in other words. Instead they are background constants, such the regularity of night and day and the annual round of seasons; parts of ordinary life too easily taken for granted because of their ordinariness, like family and friends and health and beauty; and stunning moments encountered in the natural world or in human interaction that surprise us with their grace. A peach tree growing in the compost or an understanding smile where we fearfully anticipated an angry frown.
May you experience today moments of grace, as well as the strength, although we cannot literally shake hands these days, to extend a metaphorical hand of friendship to someone rather than yield to the temptation of an angry gesture. Are we to be outdone by bonobos?