Archive for the ‘Omaha World-Herald’ Category

182. Christmas Season Provides Time for Rebirth and Renewal

Atheists, having nothing better to do this time of year than rankle true believers, have busied themselves erecting billboards saying of Christ’s birth, “You KNOW it’s a Myth — This Season, Celebrate REASON.”

We’re taught in school that myths are something ancient people believed, celestial soap operas recounting the all-too-human failings of sundry divinities.  It’s no wonder that in today’s world myth has come to be equated with irrationality.

Nothing is more mythical than the Christmas season (whether you’re Christian or not).  We’re taught from our first year of life to play a role in it.  We catch on early, and we’re soon participants in a feeding frenzy of wish fulfillment, all encouraged by myth.

Christmas is supposed to be for children (another myth).  Twice I’ve clambered up on our frost-slickened roof to make it more magical for my kids, once to lean a wrapped present against the chimney and another time to imitate Santa’s footsteps.  It was precarious but the excitement that ensued made it worthwhile.

Somewhere along the line children begin to figure it out (I did in first grade).  As we grow to understand how the world really works, stories of Santa, flying reindeer and industrious elves just don’t ring true.

And yet we still have a role to play.  When I asked my father if there really was a Santa he stared off into the distance, finally saying, “No, but don’t you dare tell your little brother.”  At that moment I went from being a believer to being an enabler, and have remained so ever since.

For while it may be a strange collective immersion into irrationality for believers and non-believers alike, at least we get to turn a blind eye to the dog-eat-dog reality of life for a little while.  We justify it all under the pretense that buying unneeded gifts can somehow make up for a year of inattention to those we care about, and again, both the giver and the receiver buy into that myth.

It’s sad perhaps that that’s what it takes to create “the most wonderful time of the year” – buy-in to a myth.  But it is a stark reminder of just how important myth is to the human psyche.  Myth – when properly understood – is as important to humans as reason (big problems arise, of course, when either is mistaken for the other).

People have been renewing themselves in one way or another during this darkest time of the year since deep in prehistoric times.  This is the death of the Year, and one can only imagine the fear ancient people harbored that the days would never get longer, that Light would never return.  So great was this fear that it has shaped who we are today.

Our myths – whether commercial or religious – help us synchronize our lives with the death and rebirth of the length of the day, the end of an old and the beginning of a new year.  We harmonize ourselves with Nature in part by acknowledging what we mean to one another, a ritual that breathes new life into our social relationships.  And by doing this through the giving of store-bought gifts, we renew our economy as well.

It’s no wonder we train our children to participate in Christmas from their first year of life, and reasonable men and women – regardless of their personal beliefs – are wise to leave at least a little room for myth in not only their own lives but in the larger world as well…

178. Role of Preservation Poetic to Modern Children of Land

As a boy I swam through a sea of endless summer, through dew-sodden dawns and dust-drenched afternoons towards that which, should I have ever grasped it, would have vanished at my touch.

In the mornings a lone heron would eye me from the mists that formed on the little stream separating our fields from the rest of the world, a stream that mirrored the Milky Way, the ancient pathway between this world and the next.  Dust raised by feet that had once waded this stream still lingers in the midnight sky, marking the journeys of those who came before us across — and finally beyond — this land.

But there were winters too, winters possessed of a stillness beyond comprehension.  Simply to breathe was to shatter the air; the vapor of one’s breath an affront to the dignity of the cold.  It was a cold that ate into one’s feet, singed one’s cheeks; the cold of Death.  But a reminder too that life arises from Death, from stillness too deep for Nature to endure…

Our lives are marked by the seasons of the Plains, seasons that slowly etch themselves into the faces of those who have worked hard and lived well.

Such a face graced Maude, an old Pawnee woman who late in her life came to visit this, her ancestral home.  I remember her talking of her grandparents, the last of her people to have lived on this land.  They too had navigated the shimmering waves an ochre sun still draws forth from this boundless sea of green.  Grown from this soil, Maude’s ancestors were no more able to break free of this land’s spell than the willow from the stream bank.  In her heart she carried the echoes of her people’s dreams, dreams that glistened like moonlight on fresh-fallen snow, echoes fading slowly like the call of a crane into a poignant, upwelling forever.

Though often harsh and uncaring, there is a poetic quality to this land.  Yet in a world where we’ve come to believe every ounce of strength, every millisecond of attention, must be focused on outrunning the rats, there is little place for painting this wind-swept mélange of stark and subtle textures with words and song.

Which is a shame; poetry lies at the root of life’s narrative and is essential to weaving people with context.  Poetry expresses what it means to be human, giving voice to our timeless search for meaning in the convoluted interplay of inner and outer worlds.  The Pawnee captured what it means to be part of this land in song, as long ago even we Westerners had a habit of doing before gradually capitulating to the bureaucratic utility of prose, a more precise if less-encompassing means of accounting for the sundry minutia of life.

Dreams still speak in this archetypal language of the past; not through rhyme, but in the varied and symbolic meanings rhyme once conveyed.  Dreams remind us we are not merely farmers, retailers and accountants but deep and complex beings, ephemeral yet firmly rooted in the fecund loam beneath our feet, nourished by ancient and numinous streams.

I told Maude once of watching ripples on the Beaver Creek dance with the sunlight filtering through cottonwood leaves.  I told her of how this place had — for reasons beyond my understanding — taken the trouble to teach me that to endure we, like all those before us, must become “children of this land.”

Her grandparents had approached our ancestors without guile, without malice.  They would welcome us if only we would allow them to stay.  By and large we would not.

We wrested it from them one homestead at a time, draining away their strength in a long battle of attrition.

And now it is our land, claimed with sweat and grief, sacrifice and determination.

But do we understand that by taking this land it is now our responsibility to protect it, to hold it as dear as every people before us has?  Do we understand that the color of one’s skin doesn’t matter – that in displacing the Native Americans we have taken on an ancient obligation to forever care for both this land and the communities we build upon it?

We stand today as the new Natives, modern “children of this land.”  In spreading across it we have implicitly agreed to cherish it every bit as much as those before us have, letting go only when the last of our kind finally vanishes into the shimmering tides of endless tomorrows…