Category: story & essay

Performance is Currency in the Deep World’s Gift Economy Show

An Incantatory Riff for a Global Medicine

Prior to publication, this was a script for oral performance. Publication required the decorum, the civilizing influence, of those speed bumps we call paragraph breaks. Even though the original script was not written as poetry, it looked more or less like poetry on the page. It looked that way to assist the eye in keeping up with a mouth fondling words in an incantatory way. The performance was preceded by the showing of a scene from “The Music Man,” a 1961 film in which Robert Preston plays the huckster, Professor Harold Hill. He conjures up parental fear that the young men of River City, Iowa, are going to hell in a handbasket unless they stop playing pool and join the big brass street band that he proposes to lead despite his abysmal musical ignorance. 


A young woman asks poet, environmentalist, Buddhist Gary Snyder:1 “If we have made such good use of animals, eating them, singing about them, drawing them, riding them, and dreaming about them, what do they get back from us?” 

 “ . . .Excellent question,” replies Snyder, “directly on the point of etiquette and propriety, and putting it from the animals’ side. The Ainu say that the deer, salmon, and bear like our music and are fascinated by our languages. So,” continues Snyder, “we sing to the fish or the game, speak words to them, say grace. Periodically, we dance for them. A song for your supper. Performance is currency in the deep world’s gift economy.”2

This line is the Torah fragment around which I build a fence, the plenary axis I circumambulate. When I first read it, I scribbled questions in the margin: What? Animals care about performances? What kind of performances? Currency? Performance has cash value? Deep world? What’s that—a place below this one? And, what do you mean, gift economy? This is a dog‐eat‐dog, country‐eat‐country global economy. 

Daily newspapers and popular books are riddled with eco‐factoids:  

  1. We are extinguishing ten thousand species each year.3 
  2. We are destroying the rain forests, earth’s most luxuriant life system, at the rate of one acre per second.4 
  3. So few farmers are there now that the U.S. Census Bureau has quit counting them as a category.
  4. Humans have destroyed enough species that it will require a full 10 million years for the planet to recover—twenty times as long as humans have already existed.

Chant a few eco-factoids a sufficient number of times and either you begin to pace, or you become strangely calm. Either you levitate into an apocalyptic frenzy, or you drop down into a surprising stillness. 

A few centuries ago we graduated from homicide, patricide, matricide, and suicide, to genocide. Now, we’re on to bigger deeds: ecocide and biocide. To destroy a life, even a bevy of lives, is one thing; but to destroy entire species, the genetic templates, the utter seeds of life is quite another. This life‐on‐earth arrangement is likely a rare, if not a one‐shot, deal, but we, our very selves, have become the gravest danger to this tumbling, swirling, teeming entanglement we call life. 

Ecocide is slower than homicide but surer, because it is total and irrevocable. War between nations is dramatic and destructive, but industrial waste, lacking the drama, is as deadly. The game of eco‐eightball may look benign (because there’s always some warranty promising to repair any damage with a technocratic fix), but techno‐fixes are patches on a crumbling dam. So we are in dire need of some foolish vision, some brassy, instrument‐free band to keep the old boys club occupied, away from the lakes and bays and nesting grounds. 

 The soiled state of the global nest is just as evident in the fate of ritual as it is in the blitz of eco-factoids. Our choreography, naturally, apes our cosmology. A few years ago, my family and I were invited to an outdoor service. Ecology was in the air and the pastor smelled it. It was time this particular Christian tribe risk a little sunburn on the pale forehead. So the congregation moved all the chairs outdoors, leaving their sacred, suburban canopy empty for that particular Lord’s Day. 

It was an awkward spectacle, clerical robes blowing up thigh high, bulletins flying, chairs tipping this way and that on the uneven slope, adults squinting in the sun, and kids, invited into action by fresh‐cut grass, romping and rolling . . . . 

Despite the claims of the sermon, everything about that performance (except the oatmeal molasses brown bread from the hand of the pastor’s mother) was a testimony to alienation from the environment, to the utter unsuitability of this liturgy to this place. The pastor held an ecologically respectable view of the universe, and she did distribute her mother’s homemade oatmeal molasses brown bread instead of paper-thin wafers, but this liturgical celebration dishonored the dirt upon which it was done. 

The state of the world nest is reflected in the failure of the old “services” to service that nest. Liturgies around the world have been caught in the act of doing disservice to the planet. Ritual disservice to the planet—ponder that. 


You wouldn’t expect it, would you, for performance to be anybody’s answer to the question: How can we save River‐City‐Bay‐Town‐Mountain‐Village from death by conspicuous over‐consumption? Unless, of course, we are required to entrance the plants and animals with our song and dance. 

The question of planetary survival is a conundrum, a koan. A koan is not just a cute riddle, a brainteaser for Buddhists. A koan is a bottleneck‐in‐being, a belly full to meditate upon for the duration. The incantation, “Performance is currency,” implies a koan‐like question: What action, rightly performed, can save the planet? This koan of planetary performance, let us call it, when it is properly contemplated, should burn like a jalapeño in the belly of the soul. 

If you are among the quick‐witted, you may think you already have the answer, and it is: “There is no such action.” But if this is your reply, you are too quick for your own damned good. A koan, it’s true, is an impossible question, but, as a dutiful disciple of the earth, you must answer it, not evade it. In fact, you not only must answer correctly (for your heartbeat and breath cycle depend upon it), you must embody your reply. The reply can’t be evasive or merely verbal. If your reply is that there is no answer at all, or that there is no gesture performative, ritualistic, or otherwise that could possibly save the planet, then the master, the lord of the beasts, sends you back to square one to meditate on the koan of planetary performance. 

As long as performance is confined to performance halls, performance is no answer to the problem of saving the planet from toxicity and species evacuation. The best that aesthetic art can do is to mime the problem. 

The same is true of religious religion and scientistic science. The problem lies in the sectoring and the scissoring. In the sectored‐and scissored‐up world, performance is one thing, religion, another. Performance is entertaining and religion, serious; performance is pretend and religion, real. Performance is fictive and subjunctive, shot through with as‐ifs, while religion is believed—absolutely and without question. 

But Gary Snyder, our testy teacher whose aphorism I am shamelessly and publicly milking, assumes no such divisive dualism. He keeps performance together with religion; singing to the fish together with saying grace. In the deep world, ritual enactment and theatrical performance are not enemies; they are cousins, kissin’ cousins. 

So what kind of performance could possibly gain the attention of the creatures and thereby save the world? If you consider the world from the animals’ point of view, the answer is obvious: Performances in which the performers are animals, human and otherwise. Coyotes and baboons are as narcissistic as we are. Why, they’ll trade their skins to witness good singing and dancing. Performances are currency only if they are deep‐world performances, and they are deep‐world performances only if their metaphors are embodied—radically, to the bone, to the quick. 

To dance the peacock or play the snake, you must become the peacock, be the snake. A deep‐world performance is one in which performers are so drastically identified with the objects of their performance that there is no difference, even though everybody knows animals and humans are different. 

Such a world can be frightening. Why, when your very lawn or your beloved garden—object of costly love and chemical affection—rises up against you, subjecting you to tough, inquisitorial questions, well, what can you do but tremble? 

Fearing the magic that always arrives on the heels of drastically embodied metaphors, people are tempted to resist the call to right ritualizing by setting performance and ritual in opposition. 

Ritual is religious, traditional, unchanging, and purged, by god, of magic. Accordingly, performance is irreligious, experimental, theatrical, and, shame upon its head, fad‐driven. 

But the congregation of earth creatures has no use for squeaky‐clean, safe religion and just as little use for aestheticized entertainment purged of harmony, humility, and prayer. Neither earns the applause of butterflies and milkweed.  


Another surprise: Ecology activists, especially poetic Buddhist ones, don’t talk much about money. But consider this: Currency is any medium of exchange, the stuff which, though worthless in itself, we work for, buy with, die for. Currency: paper that stands for gold or silver which in turn stands for food and shelter and air and water. Currency: the symbolic stuff with which we buy our way out (or in). 

When sneaky Snyder teases us into believing that performance is currency, he isn’t talking about box office revenues, or the sort of performance the governments have in mind when they declare that grants to universities will hereinafter be dependent upon multiple performance indicators. He’s saying performances themselves are currency. The performances, not the money, are what earn the attention, the grace, and the forgiveness of the animals and plants and spirits, the council of all beings. 

 The reigning view is that science and technology, allied with industry and commerce, can mint the currency with which to buy our way out of the ecological mess. But, of course, the ecological mess is bigger than science, because scientists (like the rest of us) are smaller than the universe. Earth contains science and scientists, not the other way around. 

The world’s planners and managers like to construe the state of the planet as a problem with a solution. But solutions are discrete and specific, whereas the eco‐crisis is systemic and pervasive; it implicates the whole, not just some part such as the sludge in the Great Lakes, the air over Mexico City, or salmon who refuse to run West Coast streams in British Columbia. So a planet‐saving performance requires the participation of the entire council of creatures, not just some special class like scientists or priests or band leaders or professors or artists or even humans. 

There is no ecological problem—except earthly extinction, which is to say, problem solving is the wrong model. We will never know enough in time to solve the earth’s human “problem.” To echo Yeats, we can embody truth but we cannot know it. A problem assumes a problem solver who stands apart from the problem. A problem concerns some thing in or on the earth. A crisis concerns the fate of the earth. 

The difficulty, then, is not with this trombone or that violin but with the whole damn concert, in fact, with the music that underscores it. There is only one concert playing on stage‐earth, and we have no choice but to play together. So, by all means, let there be scientists and technicians in Mr. Music Man’s big brass save‐the‐planet band, but also call the bricklayers, boom operators, old cranks, young crickets, and master tinkers. 

Some scientists fret that so many non‐scientists are showing up on an already overcrowded stage. Other scientists welcome the tinkers. On the one hand, the talk becomes fuzzier. On the other, the arrival of ritual‐makers and musicians, parading Fundies and be‐caped witches, game animals and domestic vegetables makes the medicine show a lot more entertaining as the music, the squawking, and the metaphors begin to flap and fly. The currency‐confusion is godawful. What’s the medium of exchange—formulas and equations? Or musical scores and incantations? 

When religious people arrive at the ecological market where planetary salvation is up for auction, they usually arrive with a wallet full of moral currency. They typically tender ethics, statements about what ought to be, hoping to stem the tide of what is. The currency of religion, as well as religious studies, is not rules of scientific procedure or musical scales but canons of belief and codes of behavior. 

A series of conferences was held at Harvard. Out of them emerged the Forum on Religion and Ecology 7 and several volumes on the environmental contributions of the multinational religions. A remarkable feature is how much attention the volumes pay to beliefs, myths, ethics, and worldviews and how little they attend to ritual and other kinds of performance. The Forum’s brochure describes its mission as that of “highlighting the important roles religious traditions play in constructing moral frameworks and orienting narratives regarding human interactions with the environment.” Even though the brochure mentions ritual practices, it rapidly drops the topic to return to the theme of a “distinctive ethics of respect for nature.”8

The framers of the Earth Charter are ethically preoccupied too. They speak of their carefully hammered out ethical principles as “soft law.” They hope nations and other human groups will give these principles teeth by transforming them into “hard law,” the kind you are fined for violating. 

For sure, ethical reformulations and new laws are required to protect the planet. And we could do worse than subscribe to the sonorous principles of The Earth Charter:

  1. Do not do to the environment of others what you do not want done to your environment. 
  2. Respect Earth and all life. Earth, each life form, and all living beings possess intrinsic value . . . . 
  3. Share equitably the benefits of natural resources . . . . 
  4. Treat all creatures with compassion . . . . 9

The Earth Charter is a generically religious document. “Earth” is capitalized, and the principles echo those of several faith traditions. Charter principles are lofty and worthy, but can they create the realities they aspire to? Probably not. That’s why the framers of the Charter hope to inspire legislation, “hard law.” 

I’m in concert with the aims of the Forum on Religion and Ecology and of the Earth Charter, but what strikes me about these and other examples of religiously attuned environmental activism is the recurrent, liberal‐Protestant‐sounding assumption that the obvious way to proceed is by formulating ethical principles and then putting them into action by challenging political institutions. 

The strategy is necessary but insufficient, because moral principles and new legislation don’t—by themselves, disembodied—change attitudes. Attitudes and worldviews are related; each conditions the other. Attitudes are not merely emotional, or worldviews merely intellectual. Each conspires with the other in determining how we act, what we perform, and therefore how we behave. 

Deep World 

Performance is currency in the deep world . . . What is this “deep world”? Surely not some place below the ground, or some supernatural envelope surrounding ordinary reality, not even the human unconscious (which we in the psychologized West imagine as deep within the psyche). 

 We in the sectored‐and‐scissored West are habituated to dividing things into warring camps: shallow world/deep world, this world/the other world. The philosophical label for this particular form of deviance is dualism. Our dualistic tendencies lure us into setting part against whole, part against part. Dualism is not the mere making of distinctions but the setting of them in hierarchical and antagonistic relation to one another and then assuming that one of the two parties is not necessary while the other is. 

Dualism lives in the marrow and blood; it’s taken root in languages and brains. But Earth is declaring dualism taboo. Earth people are recognizing that the survival value of a scissored‐and‐sectored cosmology is diminishing at an ever‐increasing rate. We have stumbled over the obvious: The ankle bone is connected to the shinbone is connected to the knee bone is connected to the thigh bone is connected to the planet Jupiter is connected to the crawling things beneath the sod is connected to the price of Canadian lake water exported to Japan. 

So we’re pausing to take stock. We’re asking: What’s the cost of stashing science in labs, art in galleries, education in universities, government in parliament buildings, and religion in temples?  

Answer: The cost is the rarification of religion, the preciousness of the arts, the bureaucratization of government, and the reign of technocratic scientism throughout the land. 

If there is to be an enduring deep world, some superseamstress somewhere must find a needle capable of stitching together the swatches. 

The deep world, then, is not the opposite of the shallow, or this, world. Rather, it is—now you may choose your metaphor—the center of the six directions, the kingdom of God which is among you, nirvana which is no place other than samsara. In short, the deep world is the planet, whole cloth, earth’s space and history, all of a piece. The deep world is this very world on occasions performative, when creeping, crawling critters and tenacious, clinging weeds join things vegetative, hopping, and contemplative to sing and talk and dance and eat together with the beclothed, us humans. That’s deep. 

The deep world, because it is an imagined, performed cosmos, is momentary and occasional, but it is also metaphorically and utterly real, as real as anybody’s smokestack or weed whacker. The deep world is fed on things sprouting in the dark root cellar of the human animal’s imagination. 

Participants in international religion and ecology discussions sometimes recognize that more than ethical principles and just laws are needed, that deep‐world transformation is necessary. One religious studies scholar declares, “As a Buddhist, I would emphasize that inner personal transformation is most basic.”10 For her, consciousness is the deepest, or most fundamental, layer. The logic seems to be: A change in consciousness eventuates in an explicit ethic, which in turn inspires ecologically sensitive laws, which in turn bring about collective and institutional compliance, thus transforming the planet into a just and sustainable environment. 

 But spiritual change alone makes no more sense than legal change alone. It is as profoundly counter‐ecological to posit consciousness or spirit as basic as it is to claim that law or matter or production is basic. Neither survives for long without the other. 

 The urgent task, then, is not in deciding which is deepest, spirituality or politics, religion or theater, but learning how to nurture such an attitude of interconnectedness that we are no longer the aliens on the earth. We human creatures have always tended to levitate off the planet. By thinking, emoting, imagining, calculating, and inventing, we rarefy ourselves into the ether, fancying that we are not food. But if we cannot learn to be food, our species will become a dead‐end branch on the evolutionary tree. So the question is how to ground ourselves, admit that we are food, and become the animals we are.  

Gift Economy 

Performance is currency in the gift economy. A gift economy is a ritual economy, a performative means of exchange in a stitched‐together, bricolage world. A gift economy is related to the economy, but it’s not identical with it. A gift economy has a certain holy foolishness to it. In the economy, gifting would seem an unlikely answer to the “problem” of ecological disaster. The economy is supposed to be sufficiently rational that, having conducted a calculation of risks and benefits, one can cash into it. The gift economy, however, originates with a giveaway, a proffering of gratitude magnanimous, of play excessive and impractical. 

To the council of all beings, bodied and disembodied, masked and unmasked, the gift economy makes a certain ridiculous‐hilarious‐utterly-essential sense, and it assumes the necessity of loss, even of deliberate and celebrated loss, of sacrifice, of giving up what you’d rather keep. 

 The economy would never countenance offering African beer to ancestors already in the ground, spilling the blood of perfectly edible Haitian chickens, yielding up only begotten sons, giving away first fruits, or promulgating a jubilee cancellation of third world debt. 

In a gift economy, the animals are willing to trade their very skins and feathers for a song and dance. So the people‐dancers and the people‐singers must condescend to trade their skins and their masks for those of animals or plants or water or clouds. 

What the creatures have to lose in the gift economy is their lives. What the people have to lose is their false sense of themselves as superior. 

 Deep‐world performance transpires any place where a gift economy, even temporarily, undermines–or better, suffuses—“the” economy. But what kind of performance is appropriate to a gift economy? It’s easy enough to say: Do the dog. Wiggle the worm. Howl the jackal. Admit to being fodder or cabbage or bran. 

 Ritually speaking, we are not only what we eat, but also what we sing, proclaim, dance, chant, drum. If I am what I sing, what will singing this song make of me? If I am what I dance, what will doing this dance make of me? These are gift‐economy, ritual, questions. 

The peanuts in the gallery only care if the dancing and eating and singing make of us, plants. The snaky creatures of the orchestra pit only care if the dancing and eating and singing make of us, animals. The earth only cares if the dancing and eating and singing make of us, earthlings. 

If we can’t earn either the respectful silence of carrots or the applause of vultures, we won’t survive the third millennium. Like all performers, we are radically dependent upon our audience. So drastic is our dependence upon the council of creatures that they are the real auditors of earth’s books. They are the true congregation, the real tribe, the original extended family. And the kind of performance they require is ritualistic. The only kind of performance capable of saving the planet is the kind worms applaud with their peculiar sort of silence, the sort to which geese respond with bawdy squawking and clacking (silence and racket being earth’s main gestures of approval). 

Planetarily significant performances transpire in times and places where the deep‐gift economy is actualized, because these are the only spaces where geese and worms and bears and bugs are welcome as congregants. 

Snipes and turtles and other creatures rooted or bipedal are utterly fascinated with human performances in which they themselves appear, and they can only appear when ritualizing humans sacrifice their sniveling little dignities in order to don skins that the creatures sacrifice. 

 Just as the pool‐playing boys of River City, Iowa, need a big brass band to stem their lapse into delinquency, so we ought to dress in the plumage of deforested pines, make offerings of Erie water, and meditate beneath the bridges of the Don Valley Parkway. 

Too grandiose? Too full of bilgewater and balderdash? Well, okay, for the likes of us who’ve made it to the twenty‐first century, it may be that ritual is possible only in a ludic‐ironic‐metaphoric, clowny‐subjunctive‐disjunctive fiddledeedee mode. But embraced‐to‐the‐point‐of‐embodiment, metaphoric‐ironic ritualizing, however perverse and silly, is a way in. 

The deep world is stitched of metaphors, and if you cut them loose from one another and yourself, you skin the world, peel it like an onion. No net of metaphor, no earth. No earth, no place for an audience to stand. No place, no performance. No performance, no performers. No performers, no students of performances entertaining and efficacious. 

 We are engaged in a global conflict over metaphor. The mere‐metaphor school is content, thank you, to leave metaphor a mere turn of phrase; these folks aren’t about to chant their metaphors, much less inhabit them. The deep‐and‐drastic school, on the other hand, insists that metaphor is not empty talk, that world metaphors should be practiced, so convincingly embodied, that even alpha male apes can’t be sure if those strutting on the stage are animals, or men, dressed up like animals, so convincingly performed that even the muses can’t decide whether those are goddesses or women gussied up like birds. 

 Ritual is the predication of identities and differences (metaphors) so profoundly enacted that they suffuse bone and blood, thereby generating a cosmos (an oriented habitat). In rites we enact a momentary cosmos of metaphor. A cosmos is not merely an empty everywhere. It is an everywhere as perceived from somewhere, a universe as construed from a locale. A cosmos is a topocosm, a universe in this place, an oriented, “cosmosized” place, a this‐place which is also an every‐where. 

 Each cosmos has its characteristic lilt: If your universe is a womb, your rites go rotund; they moan, slip, and slide. If your universe is an orderly, law‐abiding, clocklike place looked after by a kindly watchmaker who prefers really, really big grandfather clocks, your rites will run regular as clockwork, be performed as if ritual were, by definition, repetitive, orderly, stately, vertical, and by the book. 

Cosmologies are as important for what they tell ritualists not to perform as for what they tell them to perform. In the middle‐of‐the‐road world many of us inhabit, we are not ritually supposed to sweat, stay up all night, sleep in the sanctum, enter trance, or let wild sounds escape the throat. 

Otherwise, the critters might arrive in droves, and mama earth might heave her big buttocks smack into the middle of our decorous assemblies. In the middle‐of‐the‐road world, entranced, drum‐driven bouncing, and trembling buttocks are out. So is just sitting, eyes down as if quieted belly buttons and round cushions matter. 

All rites, even the holiest of liturgies, express time‐bound values and space‐bound peculiarities. They are suffused by the same spiritual and intellectual pollution that we all breathe in order to stay alive. Even so, ritual systems are not free of the obligation to serve the ground we walk on, the water we drink, the air we breathe. 

With rites we have served gods; now, with rites let us serve the ground, the air and water, the frogs and rutabaga, even our cranky ancestors buried book‐in‐hand in six feet of clay. 

What might it look like to turn book‐serving liturgies into earth‐serving ones? In Thailand, where the rate of deforestation is exceptionally high, monks have begun ordaining trees. By ordaining these upstanding ones, the monks inspire bulldozer drivers to stop, chainsaw cutters to balk, and developers to reconsider. Thai “ecology monks” are crossing the line that has traditionally kept them from political involvement. Would you cut down a seventy‐year‐old, fifty‐foot tree‐priest in his prime? 

Clear-cutting in Thailand had become so extensive that monks began preaching about the suffering of trees and land. In order to sanctify forests so wildlife and plant life would be protected, the monks began hammering old Buddhist rites into new activist ceremonies. 

 In the 1970s, after his ordination, Phrakhru Pitak began to notice the deforestation around his home and the consequent damage to watersheds and local economies. He began to preach against the destruction but found that the villagers, even those who believed him, went home from temple services only to continue clearing the land. Moral admonition was not enough. So in 1991 he ordained a tree, wrapping it in monk’s robes. To down an ordained tree would be to kill a sentient being and incur religious demerit. 

At first, the monk led people in sprinkling holy water on the trees. Later, he upped the ante by requiring village leaders to drink holy water in front of a statue of Buddha by a tree. This way, community leaders ritually enacted their identification with the tree, and thereby pledged themselves to its protection. Sometimes, posted on an ordained tree would be a sign saying, “To destroy the forest is to destroy life, one’s rebirth, or the nation.”11 Sincere Buddhists don’t want to tamper with their rebirth. 

This improvised ritualizing is now attracting upstanding citizens. As a result, the Thai debate is no longer purely political but also moral and religious. The metaphoric act of ordaining trees has made it so. If trees have Buddha nature, to saw one down is to slice yourself in half. Now, it costs moral and religious capital to lay low the ancestor‐teacher trees. 

The so‐called world religions claim to have a repository of wisdom that can help save the planet from ecological destruction. But the large‐scale, multinational faiths have been slow to mobilize, and they are typically saddled with environmentally hostile or indifferent myths, ethics, and rites. 

 Religious leaders are now scouring the scriptures in search of images capable of inspiring ecologically responsible behavior. The big religions are defending their traditions against attacks that blame them for the sorry state of the environment. In self-defense, they launch criticisms of economic greed and human failure to exercise stewardship of the land. 

The monotheistic traditions bear a large share of the blame, because of their entanglement in Western ideologies of natural domination and dualistic separation. The truth is that none of the large‐scale religions has resources adequate to the crisis. None of the “world” religions is an earth religion. The non‐local religions are in no better shape than the multinational corporations. Because so much pollutes the spiritual environment, cleaning it up is every bit as urgent and challenging as cleaning up the physical environment. 

The ecological question can be posed politically, biologically, economically, legally. I have put it ritually by asking, What gesture can save the planet? You, of course, know this is a silly question, a trap. You’re educated, smart enough to know that by calling the question a koan, I’m either sidestepping or teasing you. I am trading on what I surmise about readers, that you are devotees of the well‐posed question. There is nothing finer in the reading‐and‐writing life than a question that requires a koanic response, a disciplined, passionate identification with the question. 

So again I put it to you: What gesture, rightly performed, might be so compelling that the creatures would be entertained and thus, the planet saved? We can put it in other, more local ways: What does the south shore of Lake Erie ask of men on Tuesdays? Women on Thursdays? Why is the Rio Grande weeping? Where on Highway 7 should the northbound tundra swans land during rush hour? 

I’m sure you have your own environmental koans, conundrums in need of direct action but also of divination and contemplation. Just remember that the point is not to turn cute phrases or to moralize but to identify yourself bodily and attitudinally with the questions. Otherwise, the grackles and sparrows won’t give a rip about our celebrations, liturgies, meditations, and performances. 

A koanic attitude practiced ritually helps participants divine a way of acting that resonates with the world. Ritually, people don’t dance merely to exercise limbs, impress ticket‐buying audiences, or even to illustrate sacredly held beliefs. People who dance in a sacred manner do so to discover ways of inhabiting a place. (This is what we call the noetic power of a rite.) If we ritualize only to confirm what we already know, our ritualizing is in a state of decay. 

So here’s the pitch. Here’s what I’m trying to sell you on instead of a brass band: Just as there is an emerging global culture over-top local cultures, and civil religion alongside denominational religion, so there are emerging global ritual gestures boiling up under the liturgies of specific religious traditions. The Olympic Games are the grandest example. So a global earth rite parallel to a global ethic in the Earth Charter is not an impossibility (even though the notion is as ridiculous as that of a salvific street band whose leader is a musical ignoramus). 

A few decades ago we’d have thought it ridiculous to consider drafting universal, ethical declarations. We’d read enough history and anthropology to know that different societies have different values and differing ways of doing things. We’d have said that only a powerful act of coercion could bring about a global ethic. But a global ethic is now on the horizon. Maybe it will require another millennium for every nation to sign on, and such an ethic will not be framed without compromise, but there is a surprising consensus in documents such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. So, why not an earth‐embracing, earth‐encircling rite?  

If that’s too grandiose and you worry about a globalized rite for the same reasons you’ve become suspicious about globalization and multinational corporations, then ritualize in your own back yard. Literally. Physically. Bodily. 

For now, imagine just a single gesture or posture that might become the seed of a rite. Make it one worth doing, or holding, over and over. This is ritual, so again, again, and again. Even when no one is watching: again. 

What is the shape and duration of your gesture? What’s the basis of your posture? Sacred texts are too tendentious a basis, so what else might a gesture to the creatures be based on? In what posture would we not scare them away, would they not fear to creep up on us?  

The universe is curved, they say, just closed enough to maintain cohesion, just open enough for transformation and creativity. So why not a curvaceous gesture based on the shape you imagine the universe to have? 

Now, this brass‐band‐foolish gesture not only has to make the monkeys laugh loud enough that the hyenas and dingos come to see what’s up, it must be a practice that helps people root themselves in the planet like old trees worthy of ordination. It should be a gesture so simple and profound that, even if it doesn’t attract the hordes or save the planet, you’d keep doing it anyway, hoping to hear cabbage heads chuckle and frogs titter, because performance is currency in the deep world’s gift economy. 

So . . . What are you imagining? Bowing like a Muslim at prayer (but sneaking in a ground kiss)? Standing, Navajo‐like, thrusting your child high so the rising sun can see? Circumambulating a tree in your back yard until a circular path is worn deeply into the ground? Washing each of your neighbors’ feet each time they enter your front door? Maybe you are curled up, your head in Big Mama’s lap. Or maybe you are handing a clear glass of water, without spilling a drop, hand over hand over hand down the serpentine miles of a river’s course. Perhaps you are prone, lying on the warm desert sand, your arms spreadeagled so that from on high, a god’s eye or cloud would spy only a tiny swatch on the landscape. 

A sustainable gesture to the creatures is possible only by a dialectical dance. So grab your partner and all go round. Leap locally to the left. Leap globally to the right, all at the very same, very curvaceous time. This is a riprap romp, a locally global medicine show. 

If exercising your imagination this way makes you feel foolish, a little like you’re pretending to be the leader of the band when you never went to music school, a little suspicious that ritual gestures and postures are as useless as, what? a roll of waxed toilet paper, well, you can relieve yourself of this self‐conscious foolishness by chanting. 

By now, surely, you know the words . . . 


Originally published in Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, 9.1: 149-164.



  1. My thanks to Gary Snyder for his generous encouragement and support and for not wincing at being riprapped off. This presentation was performed several times: first at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada; then at “Between Nature,” a conference on ecology and performance at Lancaster University in England; and at an annual meeting of the Eastern International Region of the American Academy of Religion at Ithaca College in New York. Financial support for this research included a grant from Wilfrid Laurier University and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. 
  2. Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild (San Francisco: North Point, 1990), 75. 
  3. Paul Erlich cited in Swimme and Berry, The Universe Story from the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era: A Celebration of the Unfolding of the Cosmos, 247. 
  4. Swimme and Berry, The Universe Story from the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era: A Celebration of the Unfolding of the Cosmos, 246. 
  5. Wes Jackson, ʺBecoming Native to This Place,ʺ in People, Land, and Community: Collected E. F. Schumacher Society Lectures, ed. Hildegarde Hannum (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997), 158. 
  6. Carol Kaesuk Yoon, Study Jolts Views on Recovery from Extinctions, 2000. Available at‐environ‐wildlife.html. 
  7. Forum on Religion and Ecology Web site: 
  8. Harvard’s Center for the Study of Values in Public Life sponsors an environmental ethics and public policy program. Like the Forum, the Center places its emphasis almost exclusively on ethics, policy, and justice issues.  The Boston Research Center for the 1st Century sponsors consultations on the Earth Charter and publishes a series of books on war, peace, and the earth. In a presentation entitled “The Earth Charter and the Culture of Peace,” sociologist Elise Boulding, one of the key participant, offers a formal definition of “peace culture,” which she takes to be essential for generating a transformation of consciousness that will permit planetary survival. “Peace culture,” she says, “is a mosaic of identities, attitudes, values, beliefs, and institutional patterns that lead people to live nurturantly with one another and with the earth itself without the aid of structured power differentials. That mosaic,” she says, “enables humans to deal creatively with their differences and to share their resources.” From Elise Boulding, ʺThe Earth Charter and the Culture of Peace,ʺ in Womenʹs Views on the Earth Charter, ed. Helen Casey and Amy Morgante (Boston: Boston Research Center for the 21st Century, 1997), 32. 
  9. Earth Charter Web site: 
  10. Rita Gross, ʺPersonal Transformation and the Earth Charter,ʺ in Buddhist Perspectives on the Earth Charter (Boston: Boston Research Center for the 21st Century, 1977), 54. 
  11. Darlington, ʺThe Ordination of a Tree: The Buddhist Ecology Movement in Thailand.ʺ 

Disarming Boys

Originally published in The Canopy Review 01 (2019): 10-26. Excerpts read at the Langston Hughes House, Harlem, September 23, 2019.

World War II rages as my parents rivet B-24 bombers at Consolidated Aircraft. Home from the graveyard shift, Dad’s teaching me to box. Knees knocked, I’m punching back.

Later, he’s equipped me with a toy pistol, its holster drooping to my knee.

Home from her swing-shift, Mom models my friend Nancy and me into permed and lipsticked girls, then poses me on my trike. Nancy and I whirl in newspaper hula skirts. Our bodies soar, down to the San Diego beach. Then, half way to Japan, we’re in Hawaii, where kids in grass skirts hula to ukulele music.

Each night we Americans pull the shades so Japanese bomber pilots can’t see our lights and drop bombs through our windows.


I’m eight. The war is history. Our family has returned home from “Egypt,” California, where people lose their souls. Mom says people are friendlier here in the Southwest. We’re dirt farmers, losing our land to the drought that’s scorching the high plains of eastern New Mexico.

Man-making is now a joint parental project. They pose me in patched blue jeans and deck me out in a black denim jacket and a felt cowboy hat. I drip with sweat. The stampede string cinches so tightly under my chin that the black hat twists right. Later, when I understand color-coding, I switch to white. I’m posing heroic in front of the Kodak Brownie in Mom’s hands, ready to whisper in a low cowboy voice, “Gotchya.” The right pistol drills a hole through your gut. The other one veers left, mortally wounding a buddy or a girlfriend. The kid is still learning to shoot straight.

Below the picture, Mom pens, “Wild Bill Hickok.” In movies, Wild Bill turns his pearl pistol butts forward towards you, the enemy. When he draws, his hands slice a dramatic X across his belt buckle, then “bang-bang.” Two bullets and you bite the dust.

Even without guns, belts and buckles are badges of authority. Mom says Dad’s dad used to beat him with a chain. My dad’s a notch gentler. He whips me with a belt. After a severe beating, I lie bawling across the bed. When I peek up, guilt is spreading like measles across his face. He’s gone too far and knows it.

Decades before The Christmas Story becomes a classic seasonal movie, I ask Santa for a Red Ryder BB gun. Dear Santa, I want a rapid lever action. No single shot. No reaching into your pocket for a single BB. And, Dear Santa, I want loads of BBs in cardboard tubes. I love the clickety-click sound they make as they trickle down the tube.

Santa delivered—not quite a Daisy lever action, but a pump, where BBs line up in a row like grade school kids. If you live in a drought, you learn to weather short pay.


I’m twelve. Dad and I are strolling down Main Street after a buzz cut at Wood’s barbershop. Before he dusts the back of my scalped neck with talc, Mr. Woods presses a dime into my palm. I can put it in the bank across the street, but there’s a cowboy movie down Main. Strolling toward the Lyceum, Dad shows me circular chunks blown out of the wall of the old Citizens Bank, “They used to have gun fights here on Clovis streets.”

“You could carry a gun on the street like Roy Rogers?” I ask.

“Yeah, still can, as long as people can see it.”

The answer surprises me, “Wouldn’t that scare people?”

“Sure, that’s the point.”

“You mean, scare people off so there won’t be a gun fight?”


The rationale makes perfect Christian kid sense: use weapons to keep the peace.

“What if you hide your gun?”

“If you don’t have permit, you’ll be arrested.”

“You need a permit to hide a gun?”


“Why? Isn’t that cowardly? Wouldn’t that make you slow on the draw?”

I pepper my parents with questions.


Little boys long for real guns. Longing for the real is just the beginning. Real guns kill cottontails and sparrows. Asked, why kill, I retort a grown-up answer, “Sport.” Even your gentle mom or sucky little brother, who refuses to shoot sparrows or bunnies, buys into the sporting explanation.

Like water pistols, BB guns are for kids. When I come of age—for a boy in New Mexico that’s twelve or thirteen—I am ravenous for arms: a .22 rifle for sport, a shotgun for quail, a 30-30 for deer. Three guns and you are a proper man, poor maybe, but still a man. If you can show off more firearms of a higher caliber behind the glass doors of an oak cabinet, you are indeed a wealthy white man.

In junior high, I add a fourth to my list: a .45 Colt Peacemaker. I have not outgrown the eight-year-old fantasy of owning a cowboy gun. I want to draw faster than Dee Woolem, the national fast-draw champion. If I can beat his time, I’d be a real cowboy, not the kind who sweats and swats flies while driving cattle up the Goodnight Trail, but the bigger-than-life kind in movies. The kind that never draws first but always wins.

Since I can’t afford an ivory-handled six-shooter, I buy a sleek .22 Ruger semi-automatic pistol and learn to fast-draw, hitting tin cans tossed in the air. But fast-drawing with an automatic resembling a German Luger fails to make me into a righteous cowboy with his left hand flying over the hammer. Instead, I’m a German soldier, on the wrong side. Within a year I sell the pistol.


Dad teaches safety. Although he’s on the other side now, his voice whispers in my ear. A day before deer season, I slip my rifle out of the closet, wipe it down, point it toward the curbside mailbox perched like a hawk on a post. I click off the safety and smoothly squeeze the trigger. Instead of a click, there is a deafening roar.

From Hillcrest Park across the street play-noises pierce the air. What if I killed someone?

Murder. Jail. I’m only fifteen.

I can’t stand. I lie on the floor panting and sweating. The screaming of playing kids thickens the air.

Unable to stand and witness the damage, I keep listening. After what seems like an hour, probably five minutes, I go check. There is a 30-30 hole in the screen. I wait a few minutes before opening it. Knees wobbling, I tiptoe to the mailbox. There’s a bullet hole in the back side, one in the front too. Dad will notice. Maybe there’s another in the park, a hole in a body. Blood. I stare across Sycamore Street. No dead bodies. No police cars. No ambulances. Not yet.

I go back inside, lie on the floor again. Dad will soon walk through the door. My belly is tumbling, about to toss its cookies, when he walks through the door, “Dad . . .”

After I tell the story, he looks me hard in the face, man to man. I’m shaking. To my utter surprise, he thanks me for speaking the truth and refrains from telling me what I already know: guns are always loaded.


Despite my lapse in judgment, Dad lets me join him and the uncles. We wagon-train to Corona in pick-ups stacked high with homemade campers. Once ours was red, but the sun has bleached it bloomer pink. These bedroom-rigs tower above the cab, bucking air, transforming gas-guzzlers into gas-hogs.

At night we perch on logs around juniper campfires, gobbling down bologna sandwiches, pork ‘n beans, Fritos, Dr. Peppers, and vieenees (Mom’s name for canned Vienna sausages). The men smoke and urge us kids not to. A couple of uncles sneak into the woods for a beer. Meanwhile, Dad is complaining about idiots who stay up all night drinking, “When deer season opens tomorrow, those morons will crawl out of their tents, shooting at every sound. The problem is, the deer know. They hear the first shot of the season and begin racing. Watch which way their noses are pointing, toward the game reserve—no guns there. The deer know.”

It’s ritual preparation: showing off firearms, eating bad food, boasting about deer killed, sneaking off into the bushes to “deposit wolf bait” (dump a load).

A handsome Marine uncle, newly married into the family, arrives in a convertible. His wife is my favorite aunt, so instantly he’s my favorite uncle.  I ask, “Can I hunt with Buddy, huh? He’s just back from Korea.” Dad nods, he knows. I keep nagging, “He has an M1 rifle and knows what he’s doing. Dad?”

Less than sure, Dad agrees to let me hunt with Uncle Buddy. Deep into the woods, he teaches me a song that dads shouldn’t hear, “This is my rifle [he points at the M1 on his shoulder], this is my gun [points at his dick]. This is for fighting; this is for fun.”

He and I have been barging through the bushes for a few hours when shots ring out. Wood chips are flying around us. Buddy grabs me, shoves my head down behind a log. The firing continues for a few seconds, then a faint click in the distance. Empty. The racket stops and Buddy, head still tucked, rolls onto his back and shouts furiously, “Hey, you dumb shits, we’re people down here, not deer. What the hell do you think you’re doing?” All we hear is the retreating sound of crunching twigs.

Up and hunting again, Buddy and I rehearse the story to tell at camp. We have the tale down pat as the sun begins to set. Then Buddy confesses, “I think we’re lost.”

I don’t say aloud what I learned in Scouts, “He couldn’t find his ass with both hands in the dark.”

Blackness is creeping in when we hear horns and gunshots in the distance. Dad and the uncles are searching. We fire into the air, then bushwhack toward the sounds. There they are. Dad hugs me off my feet, then steps back, glares at Buddy, sizing him up and down.

Buddy coaxes me to save our other story for the next night.


Another year, another hunting trip. It’s noon. We’re gathered into an arroyo, gobbling mayo-slathered white-bread sandwiches. Sprawled between my cousin and me are two dozing uncles. An octagon-barrel Winchester lies across my lap as I gaze into the woods. A half-hidden doe is studying us. I glance at my drowsy cousin. So as not to alert him or the deer, I slowly raise my rifle and fire.

My cousin jumps, grabs his rifle, and fires too. “I got it, I got it,” he yells.

“Nope,” Dad says, “she was already down.” Buddy agrees.

The other uncles hatch a compromise: “They both got it.”

Furiously, I whirl around to glare at stupid adult faces.

Back home, the aunts hear, “Together, both cousins got their first deer.”

Dad tells Mom what actually happened. Her smile cheers me up, but I remain pissed at my Texas cousin. One Christmas, when we were kids, he got two pistols with white handles. I got only one and had to wait until next Christmas for a second, with dirty brown handles. Poor me, I’m the poor New Mexico cousin.

But I shot the damned deer.


The next hunting season I carry a .35 Remington and am about to ask if I can hunt with Uncle Bill. I admire his expensive rifles topped with scopes. Imagine your big buck under a magnifying glass.

But Dad asks, “Hunt with me today?”

As we hike away from camp, he mutters, “Bill walks like a maniac. He’s noisy, strides fast, twenty miles a day, and returns to camp without a deer.” Then Dad pauses and says, “Let’s try something.”

We find a tree. “Stand by it and be quiet. I’ll head out, then circle back toward you. Maybe I’ll drive a big buck right past you.”

I squat in the bushes that huddle around a thick pine tree. I wait and wait. Half an hour, still nothing. Then a faint sound. Twigs snapping. Dad’s coming back?

I’ve had been taught religiously, “See what you shoot.” I click off the safety but don’t let my finger stray to the trigger. I point the rifle toward the sound.

Don’t shoot your dad.

I wait. More silence.

Again, twigs are breaking.

A buck is weaving through the scrub oak. He ambles, stops, looks, then repeats the pattern. I’m waiting for the next pause when he begins to run. I swing the sight just past his nose and squeeze. He falls. I wait, then fire another round. No chasing after blood trails.

I sneak toward the downed deer, keeping my distance until I’m certain he’s dead. I stare at the crumpled body in the grass, find a long stick to poke him. Dead. I count the points, eight. One brown eye is still open asking why. No dad, no uncles, just this deer and I, alone in the woods, contemplating life and death.

Now what? I pull the Old Timer hunting knife out of its sheath. Dad taught me to cut off the musk bags quickly so the meat wouldn’t taste wild. The bags aren’t really bags, more like fuzzy shaving brushes. I use a leaf to grab the patches on the rear legs and slice around them. Foul-smelling buck scent floods my nostrils, so I bury the stinky stuff under rocks.

I cut the deer’s throat. Blood spills onto the ground. I open the deer’s rear legs, slit him full-length. Guts spill onto the ground.

Then, more twigs. A human gait?

Dad lopes in yelling, “I heard a shot. Wow, you got him! He ran right by you, huh? Don’t cut those guts. That’s shit in there, you know.”

“Dad, I’m seventeen. I know where shit comes from.” He pauses. I say, “I have some rope but no pulley.”

“Me neither,” he says.

We’re gutting on the horizontal when an uncle arrives carrying block and tackle. Up goes the deer, head down so the blood can drain.

Not being Native Americans, we have neither a dance of celebration nor a prayer of apology, so we indulge in poor white Protestant back-slapping.

The next day we tie the buck to the fender of our pickup, stopping at way too many gas stations on the way to Clovis. I’m happy to have Dad brag for me, but I’m eager for Mom to marvel at the antlers and admire our meat-getting prowess.


Pappy, Mom’s dad, owns a semi-automatic shotgun in the days when the rest of us could afford only single-shots or double-barrels. When he clicks the trigger rapidly, you might think he’s shooting an automatic. But who brings home the quail? Not me, for sure, but not Pappy either. The boom-click-boom excites him, us too, but the bobwhites keep flying through the hail of shot. Some of the uncles, equipped with simpler shotguns, are more effective at toting home a canvas bag full of fowl, feathers, and lead.

Occasionally, we’d encounter a brood on the ground, the chicks clustered around the mother. Once I was about to blast them to kingdom come, but I was stopped. A shotgun, the men said, would hammer blood-soaked meat and feathers into the dirt. The birds would be torn to shreds, and the chicks would be unrecognizable. Nobody thought such shooting was sportsmanlike, so this scene was unanimously censored. Real men don’t kill families.

Even as a teen I thought automatics were a cheat. When I earned my first and only NRA marksmanship medal at Scout camp, we were taught that one bullet does it. Today’s NRA, in servitude to gun companies, wants you to collect assault weapons. A single click and you hose the enemy with a wash of bullets.

I didn’t think of hunting as murder, but twice I murdered animals.

Bow and arrow in hand, I stroll through Hillcrest Park toward the archery range at the back of the lion’s cage at the Clovis zoo. A crow is cawing from the top of a scraggly elm. Knowing I’ll miss, I whip up my bow and let the arrow fly. The crow, pierced through its breast, bounces from branch to branch to the ground. I’m shocked, guilty. You can’t eat crow.

Before deer season, I carry a refurbished .30 caliber Springfield to Running Water Draw. A rabbit waddles across the path. I don’t think. Instead, I aim and fire. The rabbit collapses. As I get closer, I see it’s a jenny, not a jack. I’m shooting hollow-points. When they hit, they spread rather than pierce. Dead baby rabbits are writhing in the dirt. Shamefaced, I resolve never to shoot females, only males. Real men don’t kill girls, much less pregnant ones.


Drained by drought, our family loses the farm and is forced to move to town, where I become fair game for bullies. In the sixth grade, pummeled and crying, I retreat home. I’m telling Mom what just happened when the neighborhood band of bad boys strides down the middle of Sycamore Street.

Sounding too much like Dad, Mom insists, “You have to fight, Ronnie, or this will go on forever.” She pushes me out the door and locks it behind me.

Under the brutal weight of a dual parental commission, I fight. I’m about to lose when Mom, her kindness having caught up with her, storms out the front door crying to stop the fight.

One bully, now shuffling away, mutters, “Ah, Little Suck gets his ass saved by Mommie. How cute.”

I’d never live it down.


Having just returned from church camp, dating a new girl, we stroll hand-in-hand across the Clovis High campus.

A loud male voice shatters our enamored gaze, “Hey, asshole!”

It’s Bart. He’d beaten my nether regions to a pulp when I entered high school last September. “Initiation,” he sneers, as he and half a dozen others line up to see if they can break oak paddles over my buddy and me.

I ignore his taunts.

“Hey, Greasy Grimes, motherfucker, I am talking to you.” I start to turn in Bart’s direction, but Marlene tugs at my elbow and we turn a corner around the library.

That afternoon Dad arms me with a lead-filled rubber hose, then sends me to consult with Ozzie Fulgham, chief of police. He recommends that I carry a shotgun in the car. His only caution, “Let Bart open the door first, then pull the trigger. I’ll come pick up his remains off the street.”

I spend the night in fear and shame, praying, swearing, crying.

By the next morning I have a plan.

Bart is surrounded by shit stompers and football players. His sneers are louder and more aggressive than last time. He reissues his unholy invitation, “Hey, you miserable son of a bitch, why don’t you come over here and let me shove this fist up your ass? Motherfucker!”

I’ve coached Marlene. She lets go of my hand and heads to the dining hall. I turn and stride toward Bart.

David and Goliath. High Noon.

“What did you just say?” I ask with uncharacteristic bravado. The group tightens around us.

This is a huddle. I am a football.

“You heard me, shithead,” he says.

“Yeah, I guess I did.” He outweighs me by sixty pounds. He’s six-two; I’m five-six. He’s a tanned country boy; I’m now a pale townie. He loads hay; I toss newspapers into people’s yards.

I reach into my back pocket and pull out a Gideon New Testament. “See this?” I say. Someone gasps. “This is a Bible. You ought to read it.” I shove it toward the horns on his belt buckle.

He leaps back. The Word of God is radioactive.

“You goddamned son of a bitch,” he screams, his voice rising to girlish heights. “I ought to kill you!”

“Love your neighbor,” I retort, my confidence soaring. “Read the Good Book; it’ll save your soul.”

I have his balls in a vice.

Bart’s eyes are wide, streaked red. As I turn to walk away, an astonished hubbub arises among the guys. Bart’s venomous stream pelts my back.

Later, when I retell the story, I’ll spice it with a verse from St. Paul, “For thou shalt heap coals of fire upon his head, and the Lord shall reward thee.”


A year passes. Bart avoids me.

Late one afternoon I return from quail hunting with Pappy’s semi-automatic shotgun. It’s propped up—where else—against the shotgun seat, its barrel aimed at the floor. I decide to drag Main. After a loop, Bart pulls his pickup beside me, gunning its eight cylinders so the dual-chrome-stacks howl. I’m driving Dad’s turquoise station wagon, a suburban embarrassment with a quiet muffler. We stop at a red light. Bart opens his door, starts to get out. I push the shotgun barrel out the window toward his face. He gets back in, slams the door, shouting fucker as he drives away.

The borrowed shotgun was happenstance, not a plan. But suppose I’d followed Chief Fulgham’s advice. I’d have gotten off with a self-defense plea, but who would I be now? A righteous killer.

After this encounter I felt like a coward, so as a graduate student, I start martial arts training. For years, when I returned to Clovis, I hoped Bart would find me, alone, without Pappy’s shotgun.


I inherited Dad’s deer rifle, a .300 Savage, but I leave it in the care of a Texas-dwelling brother. Thirty years later I’ve not reclaimed it.

Before moving to Canada in 1974, I sell my treasured .22 Browning. Its receiver is etched; every curve is right. I touch this object of beauty gently, as if it were a new car worthy of hand-waxing. I can dismantle it into two pieces and stash them in my suitcase, but it would feel like a breach of decorum to carry a gun-infested suitcase into my new country.

The .22 is an icon, with a history, so getting rid of it is a sacrifice. I was a senior in high school when I saw an ad for a coyote call. When it arrived in the mail, I ripped open the package, stuck the thing in my mouth and blew. The sound surprised me—didn’t sound like a coyote, so I read the instructions. This thing makes the sound of a rabbit in distress, not a coyote. Dumbass.

One morning I grab the .22 and head for the sandhills beyond Portales. By the time I wiggle through barbed wire, it’s almost noon. I’m hungry, so I settle into the shady, soft side of a dune. Unbeliever, I half-heartedly blow the coyote call, then stuff my mouth with a big bite of fried bologna sandwich. I’m almost asleep when I hear a sound at the top of the hill behind me. I’m twisting toward it as a coyote leaps over me, landing just below my feet, too close to shoot. He’s as scared as I am, so he turns on me. I smash the wooden stock of the Browning across his back. He limps off into the sagebrush while I check to see if I’ve pissed myself.

Years later, I repair the Browning .22 as you would a child’s beloved rag doll, then sell it before crossing the northern border.


As a kid, I associated guns with courage because brave cowboys deployed them against Indians who threatened to rape your wife or burn your kids. I was in my twenties before it dawned on me that cowboys armed with rifles, peeking through the spokes of wagon wheels, seemed cowardly. Those Indians on the screen, they’re going to count coup on you or die. Almost naked, they’re coming at you bareback. Closer by the second, they’re letting arrows fly off charging horses.

After the movie, as you stumble, from the cinematic cavern, into the bright light of a New Mexico day, ask yourself: In this scene, who is brave? who is skilled? who is riddled with fear?

We white boys are.

At thirty-five, I did what Dad did, taught my son, no taller than my belt, to shoot. At twelve he died of a rare bone-marrow disease. Well-armed, he journeyed to the Great Beyond.

Guns rarely protect you from the forces that will actually take your life.

Today most of my Texas Panhandle relatives are licensed for concealed-carry. Stats don’t matter. It’s the American way; gun-toting is an article of faith. Dad armed my sister soon after she graduated from New Mexico State. She was a traveling court reporter. He bought her a pistol for the glove compartment. When I asked him why, he said, “She’s my only daughter, and she’s traveling up there.”

“Up where?” I asked.

“Taos, Raton, Mora County, places with lots of . . . you know, violence.”

Dad is speaking in code. He means places with a high proportion of Hispanics. Around Clovis, when whites killed whites, the news died out quickly. When Hispanics or blacks killed whites or each other, laws and assumptions were endlessly debated. The key assumption: their killings are worse than ours.


After the massacres at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopan Church, then at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, I ask my brothers about their experience with guns. One brother, four years younger, says he’d been deer hunting twice. One year he missed a standing deer three times. Later Dad and he discovered that the front sight had slid almost out of its groove. The next year he got a deer. Today he punches holes in paper human silhouettes at a firing range and carries a gun in the glove compartment, but his favorite story is about refusing to use his pistol by talking down two gun-toters instead.

My other brother, eight years younger than I, says his experience with guns was short. “I shot a rabbit. Our cousins said it wasn’t dead, so I had to shoot it again, close up. That was the end of my hunting career—no desire to shoot bunnies or Bambi.” He too fires at paper, for sport.

Since the election of Trump, my sister and I can only make peace by walking circles around religion, politics, race and guns.

I ask my youngest brother if he was jealous of my hunting trips.

“Are you kidding,” he says, “I was relieved.”

Both brothers talk about “hunting” trips with Dad and his friend Gibb after they retired. The brothers wouldn’t buy a license or carry a rifle. The old guys would ritualistically buy licenses and carry rifles, but Dad said he didn’t care whether he got a deer. By then he was middle-class and didn’t need the meat, so the pressure to hunt and shoot eased up through the birth-order and slackened with Dad’s increased age.

“What’s the point?” I ask.

One brother says, “Nature hike.”

The other says, “Fellowship.”

I tease him about giving a Baptist answer.

“No, I actually heard him use that word.”

“Male bonding,” my other brother says.

“So,” I ask, “guns don’t really matter for male bonding?”

“No,” we all agree.


As a kid I didn’t think of guns as weapons. They were farmers’ tools for killing rattlesnakes and rabid dogs, a hunter’s way of feeding the family. If you are poor and your family in need of food, killing deer isn’t sport; it’s survival. Growing up though, I learned that guns can become weapons. Weapons imply enemies. In old cowboy movies the enemy is scruffy and ugly, wears a black hat. In old war movies, the enemy speaks another language, doesn’t look like you, lives overseas. Today, movies, TV and computer games wrap their tentacles around our imaginations, teaching us that the enemy is across a border, desperate to breech our walls. You need an arsenal for self-defense. Worse still, the enemy is an internal scapegoat to whom we assign the tasks of stealing our white male identities, raping our women, abusing our kids. Ours, it’s all ours. You need spies.

Some families hope to make homes, churches, schools and cars safe by stashing pistols in nightstands, purses and glove compartments. If Americans decide to take the further step of arming teachers and wearing pistols to churches, surely, we should tell parents and kids the truth: This is a war in which we shoot ourselves.

For me, disarming has been a long process, beginning with a bullet hole in a mailbox and a shotgun aimed through a car window at a bully’s face. The Kennedy and King assassinations, the wars in Vietnam and Iraq, and moving to Canada prompted me to put down arms. Now the election of Trump, NRA money-bullying, the murders of native and black people, white domestic terrorism, gang-shootings on streets, the killings of worshippers, concert-goers, feminists, gays, and kids—all reinforce my commitment to end a love affair with guns.

Gun violence bedevils our friends and relatives to the south. Now, homing north of the world’s longest border, my Canadian family feels safer; comparative statistics comfort us. But, like every plague, this one leaps national boundaries. In 2018 the rate of gun violence in Toronto jumped 200%. Shootouts are happening in safe neighborhoods where our kids live, on streets we stroll as a family.

Our adult-kids grew up disarmed and multicultural. When I tell them coming-of-age-with-guns stories, my son Bryn teases me with a question, “And replace that bad gun habit with what good habit?” He whips out a harmonica, “How about a 10-holer (or should I say, 10-gauge)?”

He gives me a quick lesson at the end of Canadian winter. We muse and laugh at our grand revelation: Men can bond while playing out their manhood on 10-holers and bicycles.

Old dogs can learn new tricks, but only if the young teach us to play. And we can learn to play only by disarming.

Body & Soul: Stories for Skeptics and Seekers

Readings at Red Sandcastle Theatre in Toronto by authors in Body & Soul: Stories for Skeptics and Seekers, edited by Susan Scott.

Responses to “The backsides of white souls”

Below are responses, edited slightly for clarity, to “The Backsides of White Souls.”

There’s nothing like a story told by the Keeper of the House of the Dead!–You cut through life’s rawness and seduce the reader into realizing there’s a moment in each paragraph where they can think to themselves, “I know what he’s talking about.”  You are out there with one leg flailing through the ethereal fields and one foot sunk deep in the stink of the feedlots.
     My father had one of those huge black leather King James versions and my mother never took a sip of  alcohol her whole life. You and I both know a thing or two about growing up with white racism in the 40s, 50s and 60s in the midwest. I was drenched in racism, growing up on the Kansas plains, as both of my parents hated the Mexicans who worked in the slaughter houses an hour south of our white town, as well as black people, who never even ventured into our community of wheat farmers. And they didn’t ever talk about Native Americans as real citizens, even though my dad hunted for arrow heads on the farm lands around  our county and collected Indian artifacts. I finally found out, in my 50s, that my beloved piano teacher for over 10 years was a full-blood Native American, but my parents hid it from me while growing up.  When I would ask about her dark skin, my mother would explain, “Well, you know, she spends a lot of time out in her gardens.” I guessed she meant it was a pretty good suntan.
     At least you had enough courage to go back at Thanksgiving to face your family members and touch on the ludicrous political climate/crisis of our country.  As for me, I haven’t spoken to my nieces and nephew in Kansas, all Trump voters, for over a year. They’re all that’s left of my Kansas family. I finally decided it was energy wasted–but still feeling “the quicksand of unfinished business.”
     I hesitate to plan my burial plot details. Once I thought I would have my ashes buried by some kind of stone in my family plot in the Kansas  cemetery, next to the marker for my first child, where her hair was buried.  Now I just think it’s best to fling those ashes out into the Poudre River flowing through a canyon 10 miles from my home, and let them follow the curve of nature as long as possible.
     With no illusions, I know we are in an ecological time of Death. Yet offering sacred rituals to the earth and staying connected to magic and mysticism in a corn-and-potatoes way with my medicine gift of art, keeps me hoping and singing on.  Some kind of savage grace . . . .

If you needed years and 26 drafts to process and eventually produce your piece, I can imagine that Black readers will also have to process the essay for a very long time in order to be at the same time truthful to their deep-down feelings, while taking into consideration the very honest and respectful way you handled the issues, while keeping yourself in the picture. It is a very good piece but impossible to dismiss the horrifying facts it is about. Trying not to be offensive to you and having to face the negative feelings is a real challenge. But you know all that… An Australian Aboriginal reader wrote to me, “A good read about a brave and decent bloke, but a disturbing feeling lingered with me. The KKK, ugghhhh.” It’s interesting to see how much you and Susan had to re-attune yourselves. Now that you have written with her, perhaps a similar dialogue would be possible with Black writers. Might be risky for sure.

I finally had a chance to read your piece. I think it’s excellent; very well written and riveting at points–necessary at this time, as well. It’s an important revelation that the politics in the States are dividing families as well as a nation.

I’ve read your essay and to my mind it’s an impressive work. I think you’ve achieved the literary style you were going for, and framing it with the dreams is highly effective. This is a sweeping, layered story but the reader doesn’t get bogged with complex family trees or extraneous details. In fact, it is the casual telling of these details such as your choice of jeans—Lee vs Levis, for example, that give us a closer look at the family landscape. You have a strong storytelling voice and it comes through here, the tone luring us into a seemingly innocuous family narrative.  This essay reveals a lot about beliefs, and made me wonder about acquired beliefs (passed on through families) and those we seek out on our own. This also goes some way towards explaining how entrenched beliefs like those of your grandmother, and of your sister become enmeshed in political discussions. _____  said it has a literary tone and especially liked how you wove the dream sequences into it, and the irony of when you had to apologize to your grandma about writing KKK on her doorstep, your small-boy view realizing that her Christian beliefs would have kept her from such a group, when they in fact they claim their ideology is based in Christian beliefs.

This is a powerful piece of writing, Ron!! I had goosebumps through the final page. You have been as careful and objective as possible, and it would be difficult to imagine family members taking exception. But, then, families are families, and there can be long, convoluted emotional histories that defy reasonable intercourse.

Thank you for sharing this. Interesting, really well written, and disturbing in places. That heartbreaking image of the man who just wanted a drink.

Thanks a lot for sending this. Good to read your own heart-wrenching account of the personal impact of public/political circumstances. Liked the way you weaved the historical and current threads into the family story. Powerful.

In terms of content, I never, ever thought about a woman’s branch of the KKK; didn’t know there was such a thing.  In fact, I wondered for a half-a-second if this part of the story was true!  As a “family secret,” it goes back so many generations, it seems like a timely reveal for 2017.  There were turns of phrases, of course, that made me chuckle, not knowing where they were headed–the kid writing KKK in the dust, staggering under the weight of confederate ancestors, the sign on the gate.

I find myself, once again, really enjoying (maybe that’s not the right word) but getting into “Sleeping with the Author.”  I am still amazed and envious in the way you two work through issues.  I find myself identifying with both of you, maybe jumping in on both sides of the discussion.  I catch myself thinking, “Ah, good point.”  Also I have to say that I’m glad I’m not on either side.  It would be difficult.  Susan makes a number of points that are to my way of thinking.  AND Ron I believe in what you are trying to accomplish.  No easy task.  I think Susan says editing is probably easier when you are not familiar with the writer. Well that was just amazing. I love the dynamic between you two. Also, I now have to go back and re read the essay to see if I think it’s in your voice. I must have thought it was because I sure was caught up in the thing.

Wow, a fascinating exchange with Susan you dish up here! A family story not unlike yours has turned up many times, hasn’t it? … And in some of the damnedest places … Is there something special, unique, something keenly compelling and singularly revealing about your version? There must be for you. What is it? Make it in some gripping way the focus of your attention …. God, forgive me for saying what I have, but I had to say it.

I like your piece a lot and it certainly is timely. It is solidly provocative in all the right ways. Formally, I very much liked the way you evoked and layered different narrative positions and time frames. My hesitation was that it lost a bit too much of its momentum in the later part. Seemed to narrow it’s focus a bit too much? Quite possibly this was due to the constraints of the word count limit. Seemed it either needed to be longer or needed to not cite so many details about the Klan. That said, I am indeed happy that it is being published! And I wholeheartedly support you in doing more of this “kind of writing.”

CNQ is a perfect fit, a publication that supports critical thinking and would ‘get’ your essay. We need more of these thoughtful, probing pieces floating around in the public sphere for there is certainly enough that is nowhere near reflective or thought-provoking. Congratulations on seeing this through from a seed of an idea to a published thing in what would be considered lightening speed in most publishing circles. I think that’s called focus and perseverance.

A real value of your item, Ron, resides … I think … in your depiction of your young self, and your admiration of your grandma. Like a robin teaching a youngster its song, our folk teach us about the “objective,” the “real” world. And later, if we are lucky or persistent or of a certain character, we pull back the veil, just a little bit. Otherwise – this is the world as it is. And I think you illustrate this mightily well.

Congratulations on getting your piece published! Perfect timing, and perfect place for it to come out. (Too many p’s.) I found it on the CNQ website and I’ll share it with my social media friends (and the others who wisely stay away from that stuff). It’s a beautiful essay, a reminder that the roots of prejudice are deep, and often hidden from us as we receive the “wisdom” of our elders. As you describe in your own family, for many it is too dangerous and uncomfortable and too much work to question that wisdom. As if life should be easy or the world unchanging.

So pleased and honoured that you sent this to me. Thank you. You really did get your shit together. And how beautifully. I hear your voice so clearly. That great, raw, powerful honesty and thoughtfulness of yours. And the touch of your beloved editor, I hear that too. I know how talented she is as well.

Thank you so much for sending this essay along. What a story! A compelling read.

Thank you for sharing the essay with me … I loved reading it so much. I learnt so much about Ron growing up and having been lucky enough to have met you and knowing what a wonderful person you are. I can’t wait to see you and ask you some questions about the piece and about Rituals you teach at university.  I thought it was very brave and important story to share with the world. I love seeing the photos of you as a child. I loved the interview with Susan and you  … I imagined both of you sitting at the dinner table drinking tea (coffee) and eating date squares as the interviewed rolled. Anyway, Congratulations on a great essay and I can’t wait to read more of your work. I like the way you tell a story and your writing voice, you kept me engaged all the way through.

Thanks for sharing. I read the essay and the dialog and can certainly empathize with many thoughts expressed in each. I can recall my first knowledge of the KKK that happened in 1964 while our family was on a brief cattle buying/ family vacation to my mother’s home state of Arkansas. Shortly after lunch hour my father took us to a small town diner for our lunch break.  The tables were all dirty when we arrived , but we sat down at one while our parents went off to the washrooms. On the table was a meager tip and a small white card that I mistook for a business card. I read it briefly then slipped it into my pocket. I was ten years old and somewhat “well read” for a child from “Forked Island” but extremely sheltered from the racial tensions of the day. I was sharp enough to pick-up on the tone and purpose of the card so I hid it for several days but would secretly study it at any private moment that I had.  I contemplated what type of person would intentionally leave a note like this that was designed to “threaten” the recipient and at the same time it was part of what was left as a tip to thank the server. The message on the card was simply. “You have just served a member of the KKK.”  There  was a USA flag, a confederate flag and an illustration of a burning cross on it. After returning home and some time had passed, I showed it first to Mom who At first told me to get rid of it then she told me that my father could explain it to me better. So I took it over to Dad and he did tell me a bit about racial hatred and that the KKK was a thing of the past and that our country was beyond such organizations and individuals who harbored such hate! Boy did the events of the next few years ever prove him wrong.

I have sat down and re-read the article twice since you sent it. I find it revealing and important and it leads me to question deep, hidden prejudices that I have inherited. Makes me think and leaves me uncomfortable. What will you do with the ritual manual? Will there be a family ritual were it is burned. Perhaps the life you have lived and the integrity and struggle that you have brought to these questions has already burned the book.

I’m glad you were able to get those demons exposed, out in the world.

Many resonances here with my own childhood on the border between Friona and Clovis, and complicated ancestors who settled that area in the early 1900s with roots in the church and racism. Can’t say that I’ve ever been to Munday. But spent lots of time in Clovis enjoying chile rellenos.

I read your piece in Canadian Notes & Queries and really liked it – though “like” isn’t quite the right word for the subject matter.

A friend of mine, sent me your essay, “The Backsides of White Souls,” and recommended I read it.  I live in Australia and have not seen any writing on the subject before. (Nor have I come across any writing by white Australians whose ancestors took part in the massacres and other depravities suffered by the indigenous people here, though some may well exist.)  I found your essay most interesting.  The dialogue between you and your editor/wife was fascinating, too!  Thanks for sharing your musings on what you have been grappling with.

This morning I found the time, at last, to read your “Backsides.”  I think there’s a good novel in the family history you sketch here.  Have you ever thought of writing it? One passage stirs me to comment.  You write, ” Sometimes overt and personal, racism is also institutional and entrenched. In either form it is armed and deadly.”   These, I think, are not two different forms of racism but overlapping ones.  Racism is the default position in the USA; and your essay suggests it may be about the same in Canada.  As I see it, no one in the US is free of the infection of racism, the expression of which is white supremacy.  Some people (whom we call overt racists) know this and dig in to maintain white supremacy.  Most non-black people since the Civil Rights Movement deny it.  A minority know it and work against it.  But no one, whatever their color, is free of it.  Perhaps I should avoid that last, absolutist statement, but if there are exceptions they are very few.  The currents of culture and history run very strong.  I guess that’s what your essay is about.

Thanks so much for the article.  It’s certainly a great and timely piece for Black History month. It’s also a gracious offering of your own troubling experience to help others ‘shut up and listen’ and ‘get their shit together’.

There’s a great need for poop in a group behaviour, with the White House providing leadership sound bites like,  “a nice guy like Rob Porter wouldn’t do that”, comments about mud huts in non-white countries, immigrant are what’s wrong with America, yada. And don’t we all love a great military parade! Especially when there’s little aid for Puerto Rico…

I just heard a podcast where they called the inevitable and future process of disinfecting America from the virus of the alt right as “detrumpification.”  Yeah, we will need a great deal of this – miles to go before we sleep….  Let your article strike the first blow for detrumpification with your strong dose of penicillin!  I guess the other problem is building a better immune system for the future.

I also appreciated the opportunity to understand the process you went through in writing it. Oh, and I liked the title and the related quote.

Something else I liked was that you didn’t assume a position of superiority or moral authority when you differentiated your views from those of your right wing family members.  I would have found that challenging if I was writing the article, because I tend to equate the left with moral authority.   However, I realized that your neutrality added to the quality of the article.

Can’t think of anything that I didn’t like or that even made me go hmmm…

On a personal note, I have wondered about your experience of writing the article. I assume that there was a pain factor in writing the article and in releasing to the world. Not that you need to share with the group, unless you are so inclined. I recognize that some of that is included in the article, but I figured there was a lot emotional work that went into decisions about what to include and what to omit.

I also had a thought that somebody like Sam Harris might interview you on his podcast if you sent the article to him.  I know you have much better gigs than this but I would love to see your article and thinking get out to the common folk. I think this is such an important article.

Having come this evening from seeing a live performance of Antigone here in Montreal, which, though not as much about racism as it is about gods, ghosts and grief, I might just have been in the perfect frame of mind to read you “Backsides of White Souls” piece, which I have just done.  I hope you’ll take the following criticism as constructive, and maybe healthily un-Canadian in its risking not being nice. I take your word for it when you say it is a seminal, even dangerous testament for you, a vital interrogation/unveiling of your family’s dead.   But how deeply, really, has it scoured your own soul? Examined or exposed thoughts or actions of your own that might not have been as noble as you’d like?  Troubling dreams of visitations, and a knife on the bedpost, don’t tell me very much at all about the darker sides of you.  You stay pretty safe, hidden like what was inside the Life magazine envelope. A less weighty thing: the single paragraph on white nationalism in Canada, though that phenomenon is unarguably terrible, true, and growing, feels gratuitous, (an add-on for your TNQ editors ?), who, if so, should have told you that your own American family’s story was enough of a bitter tonic in itself. It is a real shame, and I suppose telling about this time, that you weren’t able to find an American publisher. Don’t give up on that one. All that said, I do feel I know you a tad better, after having read your piece.  And that’s to the good.

I find the essay inspiring, comforting and sad. Sad because of the chasm it opens to the readers’ face and the melancholic longing to transcend it, knowing transcending is impossible.  Comforting, because your essay does not conclude to chasm but keeps alive the longing. Someday the chasm might be transcendable, although probably not by us. The longing is a thread, a runway, a beckoning for a generation to come. I find the essay inspiring, I felt it makes sense to word your emotions and carry your thoughts. They have become digital paper planes across the divide. You ask questions, your sister prays. You might not get back your planes in plain paper, they arrive transmuted in a different shape, out of a strangely similar longing. You have transcended the gulf that divides you and your family by taking up your pen. The wide gulf is still there, but you have painted a picture that holds everyone together.That is the magic of writing. Thank you for that.

Thanks for your brilliant essay. From my understanding, it showed the knit relationship and events that have taken place in your family. To me, it was a good narrative and an intermarriage between oral tradition, historical events and sound memory. I enjoyed every bit of it. As they say, history is the study of the past in relation to the present and which serves as basis for understanding the future.  I am beginning to think about how to weave and craft the many things my deceased grandmother and other loved ones told me before they passed on. I think that I will share it first with my children and see their reactions.

The backsides of white souls

The backsides of white souls

Ronald L. Grimes

Black History month starts on February 1, so I am re-posting this essay from its original publication in Canadian Notes and Queries (CNQ).

A selection of films for Black History Month: National Film Board of Canada.

For background on the writing of this essay see “Sleeping with the Author” from The New Quarterly.

Image: Daniel Donaldson

I know many souls that toss and whirl and pass, but none there are that intrigue me more than the Souls of White Folk . . . I see these souls undressed and from the back and side. I see the working of their entrails. I know their thoughts and they know that I know. This knowledge makes them now embarrassed, now furious.

—W.E.B. Du Bois, “The Souls of White Folk”

Presence dreams slice open my sleep. The night hangs heavy as an intruder lurks over the bed. The Presence is so haunting and deadly that it jolts me awake, sometimes howling.

As a teenager growing up in New Mexico, I hung an Old Timer hunting knife on the bedpost. Although I used its curved blade to skin a deer then, it can’t protect me now from the Presence.

In the mountains outside Corona, I carried a cranky antique Springfield rifle bought with paperboy’s wages at the army-surplus store. I steel-wooled and re-blued the barrel and magazine, then carved a stock from a hardwood blank. My uncles admired the handiwork and cheered my incipient manhood for bagging a buck.

Before moving to Canada in 1974, I sold the rifle, but for years the Old Timer, dozing in its leather scabbard, dangled from the bedpost collecting dust. One evening after Trump’s election, I desperately wanted to shout over the world’s longest, wall-free international border, “I’m so glad I live here, not there!” Instead, I locked the knife into an attic treasure box, a wooden soy sauce crate lugged home from an alley in Toronto’s Chinatown.

Recently, a new nightly series has emerged: House-of-the-Dead dreams. These dead are ghost-story frightening, not terrifying like the Presence. The multi-storey house rambles to the top of a hill then burrows into a warren beneath it. Below ground, the dwarf-like dead keep the boiler room running but scurry out of sight when I appear. Like them, I work to keep the House of the Dead alive. It’s raining. I worry the place will collapse. I search the attic for leaks, tiptoeing so as not to disturb the ghosts, some of whom float vertically, others horizontally. They utter sounds. I reply in a language I can speak but don’t understand.


Grandma and Pappy’s house has a basement, a rare architectural feature in Clovis. I sneak into it, cutting through spider webs and stepping on centipedes. Pappy approves, Grandma doesn’t, even though she owns a stylish black dress with spiderwebs sprawled across it.

Leaving their home one afternoon, I spot a thick layer of dust on the concrete coping atop the bricks of the front porch. I crane back to see if Grandma is watching. She isn’t, so I finger “KKK” into the dust, then bike home.

Mom meets me at the door. “Did you write KKK on your grandma’s front porch?”


“Did you?”

“Yeah, what’s wrong with that?”

“Do you know what it means?”

“No, I heard it and liked the sound.” I lilt, “Ku Klux Klan, Ku Klux Klan” hoping she’ll sing along.

She doesn’t.

“Come in,” she says.

We spend the next half hour at the kitchen table, where she instructs me about the Klan. “Members,” she says, “carry weapons, wear dunce caps, and perform secret ceremonies. They hang Negroes from trees and say ‘nigger.’ The KKK looks down on colored people. And you should know they’re God’s children, just like you and me.”

Mom is the only white person I know who says “colored” or “Negro.” She reminds me that at age three I had pointed to a black couple, asking, “Nigger? Nigger?” Now I am ten. She is determined that the N-word should never again come out of my mouth. KKK shouldn’t come out of it either.

“Don’t ever say that word, and apologize to your grandmother,” she said at the end of our talk.

I assume Grandma is outraged by my being complicit with such an un-Christian group, so I yield to Mom’s demands.


During my high school years, I study the Bible with Grandma. Compared with my siblings and cousins, I am studious and devoutly fundamentalist. Grandma chose me for this instruction, knowing that God himself had. Mom’s mom is articulate, sure of herself, the smartest woman I know, so I readily consent to her tutelage. A black, leather-bound King James Version spread across her lap, she dominates my religious life until I leave for college at eighteen.

Grandma loves the Bible. She’s fond of sweets and bacon fat. “Fat’s not good for you,” she says with a girlish grin, “but I love the taste.” She smacks her lips, playing up the minor gluttony in a mock-confession across a can of Log Cabin syrup at the kitchen table, where we are discussing Bible verses over pancakes and bacon. I ask her advice, “Do you think I should drink coffee or tea?” I want to live a pure, Methodist life, no bodily encounters before marriage and nary a taste of alcohol. Coffee and tea are debatable.

Llano Estacado

When Grandma becomes president of the New Mexico Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, she badgers her kids and grandkids into signing cards pledging they will abstain from spirits—the wet, not the ghostly, kind. Curry County is her territory to “dry” out. That goal now seems ironic, since we lived on the llano estacado, a region so lacking in water, trees, and landmarks that Spanish conquistadors drove stakes into the ground so they could find their way back to Mexico. Thanks to Grandma’s activism, my Clovis High classmates have to drive forty-five minutes to Taiban, in “wet” De Baca County, for booze.

Grandma’s WCTU white ribbon

Grandma stands by most WCTU abstentions: alcohol, tobacco, abortion, homosexuality, premarital sex, prostitution, gambling, pornography, immodest dress, and drugs. Like many temperance activists, she keeps her distance from Catholics, Jews, communists, and black people. She believes in keeping Christ in Christmas, the reading and display of scripture in public places, and defending blue laws that prevent paid leisure activities like going to movies on Sundays. However, she also believes women should vote and make their voices heard publicly. And despite being a fundamentalist, she would argue down the apostle Paul, who insisted that women should remain silent in church. Whereas Pappy sleeps through worship, she dominates Trinity Methodist Church. The WCTU white ribbon symbolizes purity, but far from being acquiescent, these women couple purity with activism. Their motto: “agitate, educate, legislate.”

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the WCTU was the largest women’s organization in the United States and one of the first to send professional lobbyists to Washington, DC. Sometimes called “the White Ribbon army,” WCTU women carried a pure white flag. Its members pledged allegiance to the “Temperance flag, emblem of total abstinence, self-control, pure thoughts, clean habits; the white flag that surrenders to nothing but purity and truth, and to none but God, whose temples we are.”

In Grandma’s world, what you are against defines you as a Christian just as much as what you are for. I carry in the back pocket of my Lees—we can’t afford Levi’s—a John Birch Society pamphlet printed in red ink. It lists communist movie stars whose films we faithful should boycott. The comedian Lucille Ball is among the traitorous. She is, after all, married to Desi Arnaz, a Cuban musician, and we all know it’s a slippery slope from Catholicism to communism.


In 1966, after Pappy’s death, Grandma authors a book called The Truth Seekers as Mary Sargent Williams, highlighting her ancestry by replacing her middle name, Arlevia, with her maiden name, Sargent. The book’s epigraph is from John 8:12, “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” The first sentence of this, her only book, rings with self-assurance, “Every statement of mine in this book is true….” Its hundred pages, a sermon laced with Bible verses, are to be her legacy. All her kids and grandkids, as well as members of the Truth Seekers, the Sunday school class she teaches at Trinity, are expected to read the book and live by it.

New Mexico’s ex-governor Andrew W. Hockenhull writes an enthusiastic blurb for the self-published volume. She and Hockenhull are mutual admirers—his woodwork graces her living room. In the years we study the Bible together, as her face bends over the holy book, my eye drifts to the curvaceously layered cherry and maple of the lathe-turned lamps he’d made for her.

In The Truth Seekers, Grandma tells the story of travelling to Atlanta as a WCTU delegate. Her imagination being steeped in biblical imagery, a trip east from the drought-ridden high plains to the home of her ancestors, lush with magnolias and pines, surely makes her think of Eden. While in the city, she visits the Cyclorama, a large diorama of the Battle of Atlanta, where she finds the name of her great-grandfather, a Confederate soldier. She’s thrilled at the sacrifice her ancestors made for their country. It would not have occurred to her that slavery had already sacrificed a large portion of the population or that, by seceding, the Confederacy risked sacrificing the entire country.

Confederates on both sides of my family made their way from Georgia or the Carolinas, through Tennessee, then to Texas and New Mexico. Confederates on both sides of the bloodline—I stagger under the ancestral weight of their presence.

Between 1966 and 1968, when Grandma is giving away copies of The Truth Seekers, I drop two sacred flags, American and Christian. By leading mixed black and white study groups in Atlanta and by marching the streets of New York to oppose the war in Vietnam, I indulge in forms of activism that render me unpatriotic, not just to Grandma but to Dad and other church members. I carry The Truth Seekers on a bus from New Mexico to New York City, then flip through the pages, and throw it away. Years later, after Trump’s election, I borrow a copy from my sister, hoping to understand the entanglement of religion and racism in our roots.

In 1972, after a two-day, sleep-deprived bus ride from Appleton, Wisconsin, to Clovis, I slip into Grandma’s room behind a cluster of aunts and uncles. A stroke has robbed her of speech. Curled into the bed, her skin is a translucent bag barely able to contain her bones. Her sunken eyes peer through black circles. Her oldest son, not one to display emotions, is praying, then wailing. When Grandma sees me, she turns her face to the wall. The deathbed scene terrifies me. I am now an intruder, an unwanted presence, lacking the courage to push through the circle to touch her hand as she prepares to enter the House of the Dead. That, not the flag-dropping, was a shameful failure.


I weigh my grandmotherly heritage. The Grandma of my memory is really, really old. Now, I am older than she ever was. I am her senior, but she is my ancestor.


Compared to Grandma’s lay-preacher flamboyance, Mom is spiritually shy, discreet about religion, politics, and sex. But at age eight, when I ask how babies are made, she gets two dolls and shows me; she answers my barrage of questions without batting an eye.

No matter the degree of your devotion, adolescence ramps up rebelliousness, so Mom devises a strategy for dealing with her question-asking, talkback son. She invites me to the kitchen table. If I’m lucky, there’ll be devil’s food cake, if unlucky, angel food. Then she tenders the offer, “Let’s exchange compliments.” I know the ritual—first the compliments, then the criticisms.

Years later, Mom becomes the only Anglo teaching at La Casita, a racially mixed school near the smelly stockyards, some of which are owned by her father. White racism in Clovis focuses more on Hispanics than blacks. Mom struggles, not very successfully, to learn Spanish. Even so, Hispanic and black women sometimes visit our home for coffee, cake, and discussions about teaching strategies, a scene I never witness at Grandma’s.

Mom dies in 1985; Dad, two years later. After his death, while cleaning out drawers and closets, we siblings and spouses discover terse accounts of dreams that marked her last days, when she was struggling with breast cancer that metastasized to her lungs. In one dream she is jerky, “meat hung up to dry.” Before her death she confessed to having upsetting dreams but wouldn’t talk about them. Now, after Dad’s death, we discover her cryptic notes about them on the backs of old Citizens Bank checks.

Shortly before she dies, Mom calls my sister into the bedroom, shuts the door, and hands her a tattered Life magazine subscription envelope.

A few years later my sister gives the envelope to me.

“What is it?” I ask.

“I don’t know.”

“Why are you giving it to me?”

“Mom gave it to me. She said not to show it to you, but she’s been gone for a while, so I thought maybe you’d know what to do with it.”

William O. and Cassie Sargent, Mary Arlevia, far left.

Later I open the envelope. Its top has been cleanly slit by a letter opener. Inside is a booklet. Folded into the booklet is a carbon-copy resolution dated 1924, Munday, Texas. The letter expresses “heartfelt sympathy” to William Osborne Sargent for the death of his wife, Grandma’s mom. William O. was a respected farmer and Sunday school superintendent in Munday’s only Methodist Church. One paragraph reads, “Resolved further: that in the loss of our noble Sister, the husband has lost a loving Companion, her children, a kind, patient and affectionate Mother and the Community, a noble Citizen, which loss to all is irreparable.”

The resolution, signed in black ink by two women, a Ford and a Campbell, testifies that one copy has been “spread upon” the minutes and another sent to the Munday Times.

Hubert Thorpe Williams and Mary Arlevia Williams

William O. had moved from Cherokee County, Georgia to Texas, where he married Cassie Griffith. The firstborn of their twelve children was named Charles Wesley after the hymn-writing brother of John Wesley, founder of the Methodist Church. The sixth child was Mary Arlevia, my grandmother.

At sixteen, she married Hubert Thorpe Williams and moved west to New Mexico, where they obeyed God’s command, “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” They bought cheap land from the government and dominated it. Pappy fished. My uncles hunted. Together, Pappy and Grandma brought forth from their loins seven offspring, who in turn spawned myriads of cousins. We poor Methodist cousins lived in sand-blown eastern New Mexico. Our wealthier Baptist cousins lived back across the staunchly upright line that severs the west Texas panhandle from the high plains of New Mexico.

After rereading the consolation offered to my great-grandfather Sargent, I trip across a declaration that escaped my eye on first reading: “Mrs. W.O. Sargent was a worthy member and beloved Klanswoman.”

The line is a sledgehammer swung into the side of my head.

Harriet Tubman

I spent much of the sixties engaged in civil-rights activities and now live in Canada, 128 km. west of St. Catharines, where Harriet Tubman helped build the first African Methodist Episcopal Church in Ontario. Here, many slaves, following the Underground Railroad, entered Canada. Although slavery ended in Canada in 1834, in 1850 the US passed the Fugitive Slave Act, also known as the Bloodhound Law, since it compelled citizens and officials to return escaped slaves to their owners.

Holding the Kloran, my hands shake. Also called the White Book, it is a ritual manual. The condolence letter, typed on onionskin paper, has been tucked inside for safekeeping. On the book’s cover is a white knight on a rearing white horse. Were it not for the pointy hat and crudely punctured curtain mask that makes his face resemble a Halloween pumpkin, he might look heroic.

Trying to weather the shock of touching a taboo object, I open the well-worn handbook and read aloud to the books and masks in my study, “The Kloran is ‘THE book’ of the Invisible Empire, and is therefore a sacred book with our citizens and its contents MUST be rigidly safeguarded and its teachings honestly respected. The book or any part of it MUST not be kept or carried where any person of the ‘alien’ world may chance to become acquainted with its sacred contents as such … No innovation will be tolerated, and no frivolity or ‘horse-play’ must be allowed during any ceremony.”

On another page, “Constitutional law was stripped by profane hands of its virtuous vestments of civilized sovereignty of four thousand years in the making, and was mocked by polluted political pirates in legislative assemblies; and by the diabolical enactments of these assemblies the hands on the dial of the clock of civilization in the tower of human progress were turned back thousands of years.”

The Kloran is fundamentalist not only about the Bible but about itself. It wants its readers to believe it is sacred: a direct descendant of the American Constitution, which is a direct descendant of the Bible, which came directly from God 4,000 years ago. It claims mere politicians—likely scholars too—have desecrated the Bible, the American Constitution, and the Kloran with horseplay and criticism, thereby turning back the progress of white American civilization.

On another page, among the “qualifying interrogatories” is the question, “Are you a native born white, Gentile citizen? Do you believe in and will you faithfully strive for the eternal maintenance of white supremacy?”

The manual and letter riddle my soul and rattle my brain. Why did Mom have them? Why give them to my sister? Why not to show them to me? Who had given Mom the package? Grandma probably, but where had she gotten them? From her mother? More likely from her father, to whom the letter was addressed. Was he a KKK member too? Probably. But why had Grandma, then Mom, then my sister kept this stuff? Why was the booklet so worn? The Life envelope was a disguise, protecting the manual from prying eyes, but whose? Mine, for sure, but who else’s? In the 1920s and ’30s, women moved readily between the Women of the Ku Klux Klan and the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. Had Grandma continued, or escaped, her mother’s legacy by joining the WCTU?


I have a truckload of questions for my ancestors, but the dead speak a language we mortals don’t understand—even if we can mumble a few words while dreaming in the House of the Dead.

My sister thought I would know what to do with the manual. I should; I study ritual. Each year I intend to do more research, but each year I sequester the shameful booklet and letter back into their Life envelope and stuff the bundle into the locked “treasure” box below Grandma’s Bible and the Old Timer hunting knife.

When I enter the House of the Dead, what ritual will my family invent to sacrifice these fraught objects?


I am a teenager, still living in Clovis. Grandma is explaining why the Bible, and therefore God, wants to keep the races separate. Like Mom, I am becoming an integrationist, although we don’t use the term. I listen dutifully as Grandma amplifies her biblical exegesis with an exposition, a story about a large black man who appears at their house back in Munday, “I see him coming down the lane. He stands there at the gate. He is huge. His presence is terrifying. I look at him through the screen door, and I know exactly what he has in mind.”

The story ends there, dangling. I listen and blink, not knowing what’s in her mind, or his.


Now it dawns on me what Grandma’s story is about. The Kloran, along with other KKK publications, considers it the solemn duty of white men to protect the virtue—the virginity—of white women from black men. Grandma had been taught well. She knew what was in the mind of the field hand, and she feared it. She couldn’t imagine that the visitor at the gate might have come from the cotton fields for a glass of water.


The Ku Klux Klan was founded in 1866 at Pulaski, Tennessee, by six young Confederate soldiers. John Lester, one of the Klan’s founding members, claimed its rituals were based on those of Kuklos Adelphon, a North Carolina college fraternity. The original KKK was a secret fraternity that performed blackface satire, indulged in racial mockery, and performed awkward ceremonies in a stilted imitation of King James English. Between 1871 and 1882, this first wave of the Klan died out, suppressed by governmental and military intervention.

The Klan’s second wave was improvised a few days after D.W. Griffith’s film Birth of a Nationfirst played in Atlanta. The filmmaker was the son of a Confederate veteran, and Birth of a Nation was the first film ever shown in the White House.

At midnight, on the eve of Thanksgiving 1915, a Methodist minister named William J. Simmons dubbed himself Imperial Wizard of the renewed Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. He and thirty-four others set fire to a cross on Stone Mountain, twenty miles from Atlanta, where they took the oath of allegiance to the Invisible Empire. The next year, they published the edition of the Kloran that now lies open on my desk.

Between 1912 and 1972, on Stone Mountain’s north face, massive equestrian figures were carved of three southern icons: Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.


In Decatur, an Atlanta suburb half an hour west of Stone Mountain, sits a white Plantation Plain Style home belonging to Mr. and Mrs. Cobb, an old but stately couple. I never presume to call him Cully or her, Lois. To my untutored New Mexican eye, their house is a mansion, even though it was long ago severed from its original 87-acre plantation. Access to the property is through large gates framed by an imposing white wooden fence. A bronze plaque hangs on the gates: “Be ye coming or be ye going, be ye soon or be ye late, be ye sure to shut this gate.” It is the mid-1960s, and I have been awarded a graduate scholarship to Emory University that includes residence in the garage apartment at the back of the Cobb house.

I make my way into civil rights in Atlanta without knowing my ancestors had migrated west from just north of the city. I organize a Bible-study group for black and white teenagers and later discover my name is being circulated on a blacklist of theology students involved in civil-rights activities. Church officials tell me not to ask the North Georgia Methodist Conference to ordain me as a Methodist minister.

Hearing about my growing involvement in civil rights, the Cobbs offer friendly advice: “You don’t want to cross a purebred Tennessee walking horse with a mere workhorse.” The couple declare their love for Mattie, the black maid who cooks and cleans their home. At Christmas, the Cobbs deliver money and presents to black Baptist churches, “to help keep those churches alive.” They also know that maintaining the churches discourages African Americans from arriving at the front door of Peachtree Baptist Church, which the Cobbs attend.


Not long ago, another House-of-the-Dead dream troubles my sleep. Several waves of young people begin moving into the Cobbs’ dilapidated old mansion. They are making messes, stealing each other’s food. Tensions are rising. Rain is sloshing on the roof. I hear a crash inside one wall. I pull aside a piece of crumbling plaster, and a load of rubble spills onto the floor. I say to my wife, “I’ll get Mr. Cobb. He owns the house and will know what to do.” Instead, I run upstairs to close the windows. Rain is blowing in. If Mr.  Cobb sees the open windows, he’ll know I’m not taking care of the house.

The Cobbs have long since departed and the mansion has fallen into disrepair, but I dream about their crumbling house in Canada, having carried a carpetbag of unfinished business across the border.

The air north of the border is better, but not pure. White nationalism lurks in Canada’s past and, some say, organizes while we sleep. In the 1920s, Saskatchewan boasted 40,000 Klan members who announced their presence with public cross-burnings. In Ontario, the Klan held large rallies in Smithville, Kingston, and London. Ku Klux Kanada was anti-French, anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant. It failed to take root in Ontario because many of its goals were already pursued by the Orange Lodge. Both organizations aimed to preserve the Britishness, and therefore the whiteness, of Canada. Currently, La Meute—the “wolf pack”—an anti-Islam group, claims 40,000 members in Quebec. Although the number is probably exaggerated, hate crimes in Canada have been increasing since 2012.


In recent years my siblings have been reversing decades of westward migration by following money and jobs back to Texas—once a Confederate, now a Republican, state. When Barack Obama was elected in 2008, one of my brothers told me some of his Texas buddies were buying guns. I asked why. He said they were anticipating a race war. Eight years in the White House brought no war, but white racism pumps up fear and hatred so poisonous that nothing Obama proposed would ever be supported by Republicans. We don’t call this behaviour racism, but it is. Sometimes overt and personal, racism is also institutional and entrenched. In either form it is armed and deadly.

In 2015, Dylann Roof desecrated a prayer meeting in Charleston, South Carolina by murdering nine worshippers at Emanuel, the oldest African Methodist Episcopal Church in the South. Photos of him posed with a Confederate battle flag were displayed on his website.

By 2016 Donald Trump is running for president, endorsed by David Duke, a former Imperial Wizard of the KKK. In 2017, after white racists descend on Charlottesville, Virginia, Duke publicly thanks Trump for his honesty and courage. Membership in the Klan is growing. “Make America Great,” is shot through with the same assumptions: make it white, protect it with guns and fill it with believers who look and sound like us.

Upon Trump’s inauguration the world convulses and realigns. I slog again through The Birth of a Nation. I re-read W.E.B. Du Bois’ “The Souls of White Folk,” Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son, and Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian. I discover Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, written as a letter to his son, and wonder what I could say to my own son and daughter about our family, about America, about the world?

I retrieve the Kloran and letter and tell them as much of the story as I can piece together. Surely this Trump-inspired, third revival of the Klan will inspire white people like us to ponder race, our own. By telling this story in public, I am prying open family closets. If we love our ancestors, let us feed them questions that will set their bones to rattling.


A month before the 2016 election, I propose to my American siblings that we meet in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for American Thanksgiving. We last gathered in 2010. I ask my brothers on the phone how they are going to vote. One, reluctantly, for Hillary; the other, reluctantly, for Trump. After procrastinating, I put the question to my sister.

“Not for Hillary, I can tell you that.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t like her.”

“Why not?”

“I just don’t like her.”

“Your brothers don’t like her either, but one will vote for her, the other against her … So maybe you won’t vote?”

“I’ll vote all right—just not for Hillary.”

“I doubt there will be a third, viable candidate, so that just leaves…You would vote for Trump?”

“If that’s my only option. He’s anti-abortion. Hillary isn’t.”

“There’s only issue one issue you care about?”

“That’s all that matters.”

After the November 8 election, I suggest to my brothers and sister that we exchange online articles and cartoons, hoping an external focus will prevent us from chewing each other up. My sister won’t enter the discussion. She has heard from my brothers that I am angry. They don’t like my comparing our upcoming Thanksgiving meal to that of a pre-Civil War family gathered at the table. They seem to think I want to start a civil war rather than avert one.

Grimes siblings, early 1950s

Misgivings aside, my brothers come to Santa Fe. On Thanksgiving morning we three sit at Denny’s, the only place open, to talk about national and family troubles over eggs and waffles. My younger brother rehearses his reasons for voting for Trump. I just listen. My other brother, who claims he and I have never argued, says he was surprised at my anger during an earlier Skype call. I explain, yet again, that I am not mad at him. I am mad at everybody—Republicans, Democrats, myself—hell, the whole world for witnessing the pornographic scene of America going down in shame.

We discuss a dangerous old family argument. The story isn’t easy to tell or hear, since the result is a deafening silence in the family: Dad and I agree never, ever again to talk about race, politics, or religion.

Our conversation is tense, but it ends with a round of apologies and an air of exhilaration as we begin to plan a Thanksgiving feast of margaritas and chiles rellenos at Rancho de Chimayó. We leave Denny’s slapping each other’s backs and declaring, “I love you, brother.”

Between the election and Thanksgiving, my sister insists she won’t talk about politics, race, or religion in Santa Fe—not her Tea Party politics, not her End-Time Handmaiden religion. She doesn’t want to defend her beliefs or hear about mine. We agree that she can sit silently; she can avoid or leave any discussion. “My beliefs are strong,” she declares several times. “All I want is for the family to be happy at Thanksgiving.” I say I see no problem with her Texas family arriving happy and my Canadian family arriving in mourning. What are families for?

My sister might have guessed I’d arrive with troublesome questions: How could any Christian—conservative or liberal—support Trump’s vitriolic hatred? How are we to mourn the loss of America’s moral credibility? But I swallow the questions and try a diplomatic move. “Hey, when we come down for Thanksgiving, what would you think about getting together and driving over to Munday, Texas? Do you know where that is?”

“Sure, it’s not too far from Lubbock, east maybe. What would we do there?”

“I don’t know. Have a brother-sister talk, like we used to. Trade Grandma stories. Visit our great-grandparents’ grave. Consider our roots.”

In the end, my sister digs in, refusing to come to Santa Fe for Thanksgiving. She confirms her decision by consulting a woman who walks and talks with Jesus and has visions of Grandma weeping in heaven over my soul, so the refusal is final. Since then, phone calls have stopped, and emails dried up.

We haven’t yet survived Santa Fe. And we may never get to Munday. My sister prays; I question. Yet prayer has not saved us, nor has the truth made us free.

Like the nation, my siblings and I are up to our necks in the quicksand of unfinished business. We failed to gather the whole family. We failed to elect a worthy president. We failed to open the doors of the House of the Dead to question our ancestors. We failed to pay our debts for the land our ancestors took and the bodies they devastated.


If our family were ever to gather around our great-grandparents’ graves in Munday, Texas, I’d want to tell the myth of the town’s origins:

In the beginning, there are two villages separated by a thousand yards. Some say the split is the result of a feud about building the first church. One day a new Methodist minister arrives on the scene of this great divide. Using his considerable homiletical skill, he inspires townspeople to use skids, cables, and thresher engines to drag the buildings of West Munday to East Munday. In the end, the citizens founded a happy, unified town—with a cotton gin.

I’d have to bite my tongue to keep from asking who picked the cotton.

Holocaust remembrance


Remembrance is supposed to be good for a community, but much depends how those who remember actually remember.

The Daily Beast reports on Mike Pence’s way of remembering the Holocaust:

“Many Jews have pointed out that Pence, who is an evangelical Christian, imposes a Christian narrative on the Holocaust, comparing victims of the Holocaust to Jesus. His tweet also paints Jewish victims of the Holocaust as martyrs for Israel, as if every Jew who died was an ardent Zionist, deliberately laying his or her life down for a future Jewish state. Pence treats the Holocaust as a holy validation of evangelical support for Israel. Many American evangelicals believe that Israel has a role to play in the apocalyptic end times. The Holocaust, then, for Pence becomes a kind of providential working out of God’s divine plan for the Jews. Israel makes the Holocaust worth it, at least from an evangelical perspective. Hallelujah.

“Pence is unusually blunt in framing the Holocaust as Christian resurrection narrative, but he’s not the only one to try to turn Auschwitz into inspiration porn. The majority of high-profile films and fictional narratives about the Holocaust focus on upbeat endings and salvation. Films like Defiance (2008), The Zookeeper’s Wife ( 2017) and, most famously Schindler’s List (1993) all tell stories about people who saved Jews during the Holocaust. They all end, ritually, with text informing the viewer how many people the protagonists rescued from death in the camps.”

If we want to reflect on the ways that rituals mobilize human memory, we need to take into account some basic distinctions, for instance, short- and long-term memory; muscle, or sensory, memory; emotional and intellectual memory.

When we say that someone has a good memory, we usually mean that he or she is quick at retrieving stored information such as names and faces, directions to work, or the contents of grocery lists. But when we memorialize, is that what we’re doing: recalling information?

In ritualized memorials, who or what is doing the remembering? Each individual? The group? The ritual itself?

And what about forgetting—is it always bad and remembering always good? Alzheimer’s patients can’t remember, and that is bad. But PTSD patients can’t stop remembering, and that too is bad. So we might want to distinguish functional from dysfunctional forgetting, functional from dysfunctional remembering.

That communities and individuals utilize their memories during and after ritual events is obvious enough. After all, memory is required for almost every human activity. But rituals are not exclusively about remembering. They are also about envisioning. (This is the less than perfect word I use to signal ritual’s capacity to look toward the future.) We humans often treat as memories things that we never knew in the first place. I cannot, literally speaking, remember the sacrifices made in the Great War. (In case you’ve “forgotten,” that was WWI.) Why? Because I wasn’t there. I experienced both world wars vicariously—by hearing stories, seeing films, and reading books.

What I actually remember (or forget) are old photos, war stories, newsreels, and memorial ceremonies. Even though commemorations may be indirectly about ancestors or heroes, they are directly about representations. Even if names remain engraved on tombstones forever (and many don’t), the dead will, eventually and inevitably, be forgotten as individuals. Someday, in the future, no one will be alive who remembers the actual people who died in the Holocaust, Norway on the 22nd of July 2011, or in the United States on the 11th of September 2001. Even if people, declaring that they will never forget, continue to memorialize these historic events, they will eventually forget.

We have memorials not only because we remember, but also because we forget. Most memorials, most of the time, are actually acts of imagining, not remembering, the dead. Eventually, all that remains are the collective dead, the ancestors, whom we know only by deploying our ritualistic and artistic imaginations retrospectively, toward the past.

I’m not saying that we invent the dead, but we do imagine and then utilize them for purposes they could not possibly have anticipated. However surely the dead once were, they are now made up. The dead become fictive personages whom we deploy in the present to help us wade into the deep waters of the future.

Assuming we remember, the next question, the bigger one, is what  we will do in the future? In The Night Trilogy Elie Wiesel writes, “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.”


Which news is the devil’s news?

Temptation and Fall of Eve, William Blake, 1808

On January 24, 2018, Pope Francis released a statement about fake news. It’s worth reading even if you are not a Francis fan.

As you would expect, it’s a homily (for Protestants, a sermon). His use of the story of Eden’s serpent is engaging. Francis equates the serpent with the Devil. (I would not.) Anyway, Mr. Serpent-Devil tempts Eve (never Adam) by giving her fake news, telling her a lie. The lie’s effectiveness consists in it’s sounding like a Big Truth, the one God is hiding from Eve and Adam, for their own good, of course. If you are in the know, the Big Truth is: You can live forever. And the Devil can put you in the know. Here, he says, have a bite.

Tradition says the instrument of truth was an apple. More likely it was a fig. Today it’s a tweet.

Francis pleads for honest and true dialogue coupled with honest, dig-deep journalism written by reporters who care about people:

“I would like, then, to invite everyone to promote a journalism of peace.  By that, I do not mean the saccharine kind of journalism that refuses to acknowledge the existence of serious problems or smacks of sentimentalism. On the contrary, I mean a journalism that is truthful and opposed to falsehoods, rhetorical slogans, and sensational headlines. A journalism created by people for people, one that is at the service of all, especially those – and they are the majority in our world – who have no voice. A journalism less concentrated on breaking news than on exploring the underlying causes of conflicts, in order to promote deeper understanding and contribute to their resolution by setting in place virtuous processes. A journalism committed to pointing out alternatives to the escalation of shouting matches and verbal violence.”

Who could argue with this? Journalism, the pope declares, is a mission. I’m sure for him “mission” is a term of elevation, like “calling,” not like the missions of missionaries, whom some journalists would regard as agents of religious imperialism.

The truth, the pope says, is not only true facts but also the life that proceeds from them. And the guarantor of truth is God. You expected that, right? Fair enough; the pope is a Christian.

But here’s the problem: Men and women of God, from the pope down through the hierarchy, are not gods. In theory, they know they are human spokespersons. In theory, they know they get things wrong. Like us, like the snake, they too lie, are misinformed, or are self-deceived. The problem is that there is no way to get the pure, simple truth straight from God, the guarantor of truth. Always there is an evangelist or pope or priest or pastor or rabbi or imam speaking for God. And their speaking for often becomes speaking as: Listen to what I am saying as if God were talking through me.

I love the talking through metaphor. Jeff Dunham is a ventriloquist. His puppets are funny and controversial. Watch Dunham on YouTube and meet his friends, Walter, a crabby old white racist, or Ahmed, a skeleton who wants to blow everything up. Jeff literally talks through, or talks as, each character. We viewers don’t know how much Walter or Ahmed speaks for Jeff, the performer-animator on stage. Jeff can always sidestep by declaring to his manikin: I didn’t say that; you said that. A viewer can never know “the truth,” so the truth cannot make us free. Rather the multiple truths issuing from the mouths of puppets make us laugh. We in the audience are always spinning among perspectives–never quite getting at THE truth–and laughing at ourselves when we can’t.

The problem is not only that the Devil is a ventriloquist, presumably speaking God’s truth, it is that clergy too are ventriloquists. What they say may be truthful or not, biased or not. They may convey true news but they also may convey fake news.

Recently, the pope formally apologized to Chileans for sexual abuse in the church. A good first step. But, as Francis was leaving, he snarled back at a journalist, “There is not one shred of proof against him [a bishop accused of molesting children]. It’s all calumny. Is that clear?”

Chilean courts have found otherwise. So pick your devil: the journalist and courts versus the pope defending his own. In Chile confidence in the church has dropped from 80% in 1997 to less than 40% in 2017. The papal visit might have helped stem the tide of distrust, but the pope’s accusation of calumny undermined his credibility, leaving us in the audience spinning, trying to figure out who is the serpent and who is the spokesperson for God.

Unfortunately, the joke isn’t remotely funny.

We croak?

Want to be reminded fives times a day that you’re gonna croak?

We Croak will do that for you.

Presumably based on an old Bhutanese saying about the secret of happiness, the app sends you wise sayings or poetry or a line to remind you that you should contemplate death at least five times daily.

A spiritual protein diet.

If the app promised to kill at least five pieces of email in my inbox, I’d sign up.

If five times a day isn’t enough, there are t-shirts. That way you can forget your own death (unless you read your own t-shirts upside down or backwards in the mirror). This way your friends and colleagues can contemplate their becroakment in the mirror of your t-shirt.

In “The App That Reminds You You’re Going to Die” (Atlantic) Bianca Bosker writes:

I’m eating lunch with my husband one afternoon when WeCroak presents a line from the Zen poet Gary Snyder: “The other side of the ‘sacred’ is the sight of your beloved in the underworld, dripping with maggots.”

I welcomed these grisly reminders into my life in the hope that WeCroak, along with half a dozen other mindfulness apps, could help transform my iPhone from a stressful distraction into a source of clarity and peace. According to a study by a research firm called Dscout, Americans check their phone an average of 76 times a day for a cumulative two and a half hours—and while many would like to cut back, simple willpower isn’t always enough. Amid growing concerns over our phone fixation, Silicon Valley has, in typical fashion, proposed technology as the solution; there are now more than 1,000 mindfulness apps designed to help us disconnect.

A thousand mindfulness apps? How mindful is that?

Probably more mindful than 76 times a day.

Mining words

Robert Fullerton, an ex-shipyard welder in Glasgow, says, “Imagine going down into the dirt to find a word that you’re going to elevate up into poetry. That’s mining for me.” Drawing inspiration from the sparks, he imagines them as “wee possibilities or wee ideas,” Fullerton began crafting poems while working at the shipyard. He discovered that his dark, solitary days provided the “perfect thinking laboratory” for mining words.

Directed by Callum Rice for the Scottish Documentary Institute.

What about ritual and religion?

When Cailleah was a kid, she complained, “Creativity, creativity, creativity…that’s all I hear in this family. I’m sick of all that C stuff.” Twenty-five or so year later she’s released her first documentary film, She Got Game, and Bryn, his first music album, Room on Ossington.

We must have seduced them into creativity and imagination. We can die happy now.

Before her 13th birthday Cailleah said there was no way we were going to do any of that R stuff like they do to African girls. I’m not sure what she imagined or where she picked up the images stuck in her brain, and she wasn’t about to say the word “menstruate” or “period.” When I asked if we could do C stuff, she asked, What? I said, Celebration. That made her happy. So we C instead of R.

There are two troubling R’s, ritual and religion. We didn’t succeed in making our kids religious, but we didn’t succeed in making ourselves religious either, at least not in the way “being religious” is usually understood. We’re not members of a religious group or institution. We don’t identify as SBNRs (spiritual but not religious)  or Nones (no-religion people). Even so, I say I’m a religious animal. And Susan says, “If I’m anything at heart, I’m religious; that’s all there is to it.”

I’d define the words this way:

Creativity: practicing one’s gifts for the sake of the planet

Ritual: embodied, condensed, and prescribed enactment

Spirituality: life as lived in resonance with fundamental principles and powers, usually symbolized as deepest, first, last, highest, or most central

Religion: 1. how people tie things together (the etymology of the word); 2. spirituality organized into a tradition, system, or institution and typically consisting of interlacing processes: experiential-mystical, mythic-historical, ritualistic-performative, doctrinal-cosmological, ethical-legal, social-personal, physical-spatial


How shall we question our big questions?

This bit of musing is an experiment in querying your big question.


Ron is me. Don is Ron playing the Devil.


Ron: Am I going to die?

Don: Of course. Silly question. Get serious.

Ron: Okay, when will I die?

Don: You really want to know that? Don’t you get anxious just waiting for the bus or train to arrive? Just think how paralyzed you’d be if you knew when you were going to croak.

Ron: Knowing when would help me prepare.

Don: Would it? If you knew you’d go tomorrow, would that help? You’d panic, wouldn’t you? Or if you knew your day was coming in 25 years, you’d do what? Get lazy?

Ron: True, panicking or loafing. What’s the use in either?

Don: Maybe you have a better question.

Ron: Like, How will I die?

Don: If I said, By auto accident, you’d…?

Ron: I don’t know. Quit driving?

Don: Right. So then you’d get hit from behind, that’s all. Well, suppose I said, You’ll die of Alzheimer’s, starting next year and running for 10 years, just to grind down your family. What then?

Ron: Dread. I’d have great dread for them and for me, but at least I could prepare.

Don: You don’t have to know how you’d die in order to prepare. Since you’ll never know the answers to future questions, why bother with the future? You could prepare now without knowing.

Ron: I’m wondering what I would do. I mean, day to day, what would I do to prepare for the Big Day? Probably the same thing I’m doing now.

Don: Better, but you sneaked the future back in. I’m going to press this buzzer every time you do that (a loud wrong-answer squawk). And what’s this “die right” stuff? What is it? And you get to pick that do you?

Ron: Well, I hope to have a good death.

Don: Hope (wrong-answer buzzer)?

Ron: Hoping for a good death then, how shall I live now? How’s that?

Don: Better, but you could just drop the front part, the hoping bit, eh?

Ron: So, you’d be happy with, How will I live now?

Don: There’s more resolve in that. But what kind of an answer does that question require? A description? A scene? An account of daily events? Or just a set of abstract virtues, you know, a good, true, and beautiful life following Plato or a trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly life following the Boy Scouts? Let me ask you a question, Is there a big difference between the life you’re living now and the one you’d live if you were acutely aware of your impeding death? How big is the gap?

Ron: Not too big. I’m living the life I want to live.

Don: Is that really true?

Ron: Pretty close.

Don: Such bullshit. What are you really saying is that you don’t have a big question at all?

Ron: Wouldn’t that be ironic since I’m hawking Big Questions, but I don’t have a BQ!

Don: Why bother even asking about death? Get a life.

Ron: I’m approaching 75. I am trying to ask an age-appropriate question.

Don: (laughs)

Ron: Okay, let’s start again. These are real questions: Will my wife ever finish her book? Will my kids ever earn a living doing something they love, something meaningful?

Don: Those are their questions. Let them ask them. Ask your own damned questions.

Ron: Well, their questions are mine, sorta.

Don: Sorta? Are you sure your hidden question isn’t something like, How can they possibly get along without me?

Ron: (laughs) Maybe, but they are already doing that. They’ll be fine without me, sadder for a while, but fine. I want to come back to “age-appropriate.”

Don: I thought you were joking.

Ron: I was, but, look, I’ve lived a pretty full life, not perfect, but full. It feels like I’ve lived a couple of lives actually. If I died today, I’d die happy.

Don: You’re a pain in the ass. So why bother questioning then? You are a man-without-a-question. What a lonely soul!

Ron: I have lots of questions. Querying is my life’s motor. No more questions, no more life. I’m curiosity-driven. I want to know what’s over the next hill.

Don: Future stuff again (wrong-answer buzzer).

Ron: Find. I don’t know whether the Big Drop-Off is over the next rise, but I’ll risk scouting it out.

Don: While you’re still alive, right?

Ron: Right. I’m a 1-3-2 person.

Don: A what?

Ron: I jump from the beginning to the end, then I have to back to do, or re-do, the middle.

Don: Trouble is you can’t go back and re-do your 30s or 40s.

Ron: Yes, that’s my life’s problem. But I’m, what shall I say, in mid-late life?

Don: That would be funny if it weren’t such absolute crap. Let me make sure I get this straight. You want to creep up the edge of the canyon, peer over it, see the bottom, and live to tell about it, right?

Ron: Right.

Don: How do you propose to do that?

Ron: Imagine. How else?

Don: What do you imagine? Heaven? Hell?

Ron: No, nothing like that. In heaven, Which wife would I be married to? Singing all day, you gotta be kidding. Eating fried catfish all day, no thanks. Wing feathers everywhere. Gold streets hurting my feet. I can’t even imagine, much believe such poor imagined scenes. And your place, well hell, if God lets you get away with that, he/she is not God. So I imagine I am sand, dirt, sucked up by plants and trees. No thought. No heart. No breath.

Don: Isn’t that scary? Sad?

Ron: No, none of that.

Don: At peace?

Ron: No peace. No war.

Don: That’s not much. Are you running out of imaginative juice?

Ron: (begins to sing) “The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out, the worms play peanuckle on your snout.”

Don: I see, saved by your childhood antics. You probably chased girls with that song.

Ron: True, but it reminds me that I’d become compost, plant food, fish food, universe food.

Don: Universe food? That’s good. I like it.

Ron: Great, so my big question must be, How to imagine my post-life as universe food? What’s my taste? My smell? My smell after being eaten?

Don: (presses wrong-answer button) Now you did it.

Ron: Did what?

Don: Fell off the edge. You’re cheering yourself up with scatological humor? Food-become-shit, come on.

Ron: It’s a Grimes thing.

Don: Get over it. That crap won’t help you on this side or the other.

Ron: Okay, okay. What’s my post-death life? How to imagine it? Hmm, I biodegrade into beautiful red and gold and white desert sand. I’m in my version of heaven now.

Don: Just to remind you, it’s hot there. No water. Sounds like you in that other place—with me.

Ron: No, in hell you’d have consciousness, feelings, regret, pain. As desert sand, I’d just be.

Don: Sure, until a dunebuggy ran over you or until you landed in the bottom of an aquarium with goldfish pooping on you from above. No, even the deserts get messed with.

Ron: Don’t bother me. I am being sand. Windblown.

Don: Until someone runs an atomic test over top of you.

Ron: But would I care?

Don: You should, but even if you wouldn’t, you do now. You want to be pure sand, no radiation, no dunebuggies, but whatever you are, it won’t last. It’s all temporary. This life is temporary. The next life is just as temporary.

Ron: I’m ignoring you. My body is burned, and my ashes are scattered off the rim of Canyonlands, and I am one with…

Don: You are not one with anything. You are daydreaming. You’d might be alone for a bit, until some noisy kid shouted over you to hear the echo.

Ron: Now that’s a good question. As canyon sand, can I listen? I am listening sand. How can I keep listening?

Don: You’re lost. You don’t know which end is up. You’re distracting yourself by being sand in a silly canyon sandbox. See you later, or never, which is the same thing.


Here the dialogue ends, but the night I wrote it, I fell to dreaming. In one dream Susan brings home relatives to live with us; we have such a big fight that it ends the marriage. In the dream that followed, all I see are heroin needles and tiny bottles; I am alone, a heroin addict.

Just to be clear, our marriage is not on the rocks, and I’m not an addict. Still, what’s up here? Imagining myself as listening canyon sand, even though Don the Devil tells me that can’t happen, is for a few minutes comforting. But circling the question has thrown up some hard stuff from deep sleep. I would actually be afraid if the relatives were to move in, but that’s not an ultimate fear. I have no fear of becoming a heroin addict, so that dream is not about the dope but about the final state: being alone. What if I were conscious and alone in the universe? That’s scary, but the presence of a god is just as scary. I like the idea of being part of a dead family, but as soon as I ask, Who is in the family? that idea is scary too.

So, what’s the lesson here? Circumambulate your question a few times and see what you dream.

Sleeping with the author

by Susan Scott & Ron Grimes

first published in The New Quarterly


“When it comes to fighting against white supremacy, it’s not just what you stand for, it’s who you sit with.” –Jamaya Khan, Maclean’s, August 16, 2017

“Now, mind, I recognize no dichotomy between art and protest.” –Ralph Ellison, Paris Review Spring, 1957


Editing the work of friends and family is a common goodwill gesture, often done as a favour, or, as is the case with certain literary couples, by design. John Gregory Dunne once told the New York Times that he and Joan Didion serve as one another’s “first reader, absolutely.” Glen David Gold described his and Alice Sebold’s harmonious writing-and-editing rhythms as expressions of the couple’s “complementary neuroses.”

My spouse and I are three decades into editing one another’s work, a lively partnership we safeguard by confining ourselves to separate sandboxes—his, in academia; mine, in arts and culture. The rise of Trump disrupted this peaceable arrangement. Suddenly, my husband was exploring explosive family history in a personal essay I’d encouraged him to write.

 What I discovered in the process was unsettling. As an editor, I want the truth exposed. As a spouse, I sometimes dread it.

The following exchange with Ron Grimes took place in August and September, 2017, while he was submitting “The Backsides of White Souls” to literary magazines in the U.S. and Canada. If the essay is published, we will link to it, here.

                    –Susan Scott, TNQ nonfiction editor


Susan Scott: Canadian editor, American scholar. I wonder, have I done justice when it comes to your incendiary essay?

Ron Grimes: Sure you have. You’re doubting?

SS: The aftermath of Charlottesville, Virginia, got me thinking about the marriage of editing and culture. Megan Garber wrote in The Atlantic about Trump’s addiction to flouting norms—even when he’s handed a statement that’s been vetted, he will not stay on script.

His behaviour reinforces this dismissal of the rational, cooling space that editing affords. Left and right, we’re seeing that cultural cooling space collapsing.

But cooling off can also mean constraint. Editing can just as easily undercut what the cultural moment calls for. “House of the Dead” exposes racism in an old American family. Looking back, I wonder, have I simply reined you in?

RG: Sometimes, but I knew you would do that, and I invited it. This essay is personal and dangerous. I kept losing perspective on it and needed your editorial eye. We both know the value of trying to imagine “the reader’s” eyes. We both believe that blindly accepting an editor’s suggestions is a mindless exercise. But we’ve done this before. The ultimate decision is the author’s, so I had to figure out when to let you rein me in and when not to.

SS: Fair enough. I wanted to think with you as you wrote, and I wanted you to think with me—not just resist, or capitulate to my suggestions. Not that you’d ever capitulate, really, but the creative tension between us colours how you write, and how I edit.

So, what about the spousal edit? When is it effective?

RG: Well, for instance, you helped me rethink the knife on the bedpost. I had that image in early drafts, and you wanted me to take it out.

SS: Right, the early draft you sent to friends confessed …

RG: Sorry, it wasn’t confession, it was fact. That knife had hung on the bedpost since my teens. You never complained about it until you read the essay, when you said …

SS: I said, “Okay, even if the knife does hang there, is that how you want to introduce yourself to readers? Unless you want to shock them, think about cutting the reference to the knife.” You still had ghosts and guns. Page one, no less. The knife’s important to the story; how it was handled was the question.

RG: Right, I don’t mind if people dismiss me in the last paragraph, I just don’t want them to dismiss me in the first paragraph.

SS: So, was it a loss, excising the knife?

RG: No, I didn’t excise it. The literary knife is back in now—reframed. I put the actual knife away one day when you were gone (and pulled it back out momentarily to stage this photo). I thought, “I don’t need this ritual object hanging here anymore.” Did you notice?

SS: Ah, so that’s what happened. Editorial prompt as ritual prompt; that’s novel. Anything else come to mind?

RG: You and I both love economy and compression in writing, so I asked you to steal some of my words. I also love hyperbole, sparkle, and spew, so I sometimes dump economy. You suggested cutting:


Having moved north of the border to Canada in 1974, one might wish the load of baggage had been left behind, stuffed in a carpet bag and stashed in some remote, deep-south alley. But, as kids used to say in New Mexico, you can’t pee in only one corner of a swimming pool. Canadians put it more discreetly: When America sneezes, Canada catches cold.

SS: Yep, that had to go. Shall we talk about why, or is it obvious?

RG: I still like the passage, but I followed your suggestion. The context was too serious for horseplay. Those lines are now composting in my fragments file, waiting to jump into the next essay.

SS: Right, you know that I’m uneasy, still, about “House of the Dead” going public.

RG: Sorry to hear that. You urged me to write the essay. Why dread it now?

SS: I asked what you wanted to accomplish, and you said you wanted to make a racket, dragging skeletons out of the closet.

RG:  I want white people to talk about being white. So, yes, open the closets and let the skeletons out, let them rattle their bones.

SS: Absolutely, but then what? Scott Gilmore called out Canadian racism in Maclean’s after the violence in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2015, and that was well before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report. As a country, we’re just now admitting we have skeletons, let alone rattling them. Editing your essay made me realize I need to own up to that reluctance.

RG: Meaning what?

SS: You were starting brush fires using religion and politics as kindling. My response was to tamp down the flames. I argued that the longer the thematic checklist, the greater the danger that your characters would be flattened to little more than props. And on the one hand, that’s true. The more themes piled on, the more the clutter, and the less oxygen for power and precision.

On the other hand, your instinct as a writer is to fan the flames. I edited in favour of a smoulder.

RG: Compared with what’s happening in Charlottesville, I’ve built a tiny Boy Scout campfire surrounded by rocks to keep it from spreading. “House of the Dead” is a complex essay, but I had a hard time figuring out what the argument was. In academic writing I’d start with the thesis and argument. But in this essay I had characters, dialogue and a plot. My problem was less with characters than with plot and setting. They were too elaborate You had to keep straightening out my chronology. Anyway, we agree that an essay needs both a story and an argument, and there’s only so much you can do in 5,000 words.

SS: True enough, but I suggested that you try creative nonfiction (CNF) because it would expose you to techniques for exploring disturbing insights. Of course, like any art form, CNF is demanding. “The essay must be artistically rendered,” as Phillip Lopate says.

Sure enough, there you were, struggling with the form.

Let’s just say, I’m culpable on two fronts. I suggested CNF as a kind of discipline, then pulled back once I saw exactly where it took you.

RG: I asked you to give me homework, and I’ve done it. Sure, “House of the Dead” needs to be artistically rendered, but it also needs to be ethical and critical. The essay takes up unfinished family, ethnic, and national business that implicates living members of my family. I can’t think only about characters. I also have to think about people. Across five generations mine has been a “good” family, respected in the community. Among us siblings one is an atheist, one “believes pretty much what he believed as a kid,” one is far to the religious and political right, and I am, what shall I say, ludically religious. All these categories are inaccurate, but they will do for now. Two of us voted for Trump, two didn’t. If you asked my siblings, probably we’d say we’re not racist; some of us have non-white friends. In the 1970s we had a shouting match, not typical in our family, followed by an agreement never to talk again about race, religion, or politics. We may love each other, but in the current political climate we’re dysfunctional. America is failing, and the family so far is unable to deal the rifts. We haven’t faced our heritage, so we are unable to negotiate America’s loss of moral credibility.

SS: I see that. I also see ethical tripwires in your writing: whether to use people’s names; how fair it is to expose the voting choices and religious beliefs of family members; how to depict polarizing figures like your grandma. Then there’s the question, do you want your readers to empathize with all these figures?

RG: I do fieldwork on ritual, so empathizing is a part of my academic research. I have to consider the ethics of privacy as a part of my profession. I’ve rewritten the voices and depictions of my brothers and sister dozens of times. I care about their feelings, but I also want to tell the truth—as I see it, of course.

SS: I like that you’ve explored the use of dialogue. Now we hear real voices.

RG: Well, my reconstruction of real voices. My sister’s voice was the most difficult to represent, since our conversations kept breaking down. Trump supporters and Christian fundamentalists will likely read her character as courageous, standing up for her beliefs. Liberal readers will read her religious and political views differently.

SS: Either way, what readers want, I think, are compelling characters who make us think and feel. I want to understand your family, and I want your essay to help me do that. Is that an undue burden for the author? Maybe it is.

Are you showing the essay to your siblings?

RG: Maybe it’s a fair expectation of novels or great short story writers, but for me it’s an undue burden. This is a brief essay, and I’ve presented selected bits—characters, not actual personalities—and that’s as true of me as narrator as it is of the other characters. Even though I don’t use my siblings’ names, I decided against springing the published essay on them, so I am showing it to them before publication. I’ll listen to them, but I may not always take their advice. The essay reveals a big family secret. Some relatives may not like that I’ve told it publicly, but the current political crisis in the U.S. makes hiding irresponsible. Anyway, I first sent the essay to readers whose opinions I respect, people who could help me improve it.

SS: That surprised me, your circulating such an early draft.

RG: That’s part of my writing process, to send an essay out early to colleagues, while I’m still open to criticism and suggestions. Later, I’ll dig in, becoming more resistant to changes.

SS: Another classic difference between us: we have a radically different sense of timing. I suggest that authors hone their work before they show it, on the assumption that, the greater their confidence in the piece, the greater their resilience, weathering critique.

But it’s your essay and your process. And, let’s be frank: no matter how well the work is crafted, it isn’t going to heal the family.

RG: You’re guessing. Sure, it could be a bombshell, but it could also lead to some good, difficult conversations. I read Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir and Writing the Memoir by Judith Barrington. Both tell about writing controversial family stories and getting surprisingly receptive reads by relatives. It’s a risk I’ve decided to take. Are you worried?

SS: I am. We seldom see your family. It’s hard enough, resolving minor conflicts at a distance, let alone your airing family secrets. You also take a stand on how the family functions. People will feel hurt. How that’s going to help, I wonder.

RG: People “may” feel hurt. You’re now playing therapist rather than editor, right?

SS: What can I say? It’s a hazard, sleeping with the author.

We both want good, hard conversations about equity and justice, but we both know that those are often easier to have with strangers.

Part of what I love about the small magazine world is that we’re exercising whatever modest power we have to open doors for writers. Releasing work that’s vital and authentic is what attracts me to publishing. Editing, for me, is deeply moral work. So here’s the irony: editing your essay made me aware of fears and inhibitions I wasn’t owning up to.

RG: Okay, I have a question for you. Is this the hardest editing you’ve ever done?

SS: In one way, yes. Academic-creative crossover pieces are hard to edit. Knotty. Resistant. But the truth is, it’s been a hard project because I am invested. We’re a small cross-border family that’s ill-equipped to deal with a lot of fallout.

Unintended consequences—I stew about those, too.

RG: Between us?

SS: No, we’re fine. We have a long history of bumper-car editing. You value hyperbole, I value understatement. We clash a lot.

RG: I’m from New Mexico, you’re from Ontario. Bang, bump!

SS: (laughs) Yes. You’re expansive, vocal. Your last book was over 400 pages. I’m a minimalist who works towards peaceful resolution.

Alice Quinn of the Poetry Society of America has spoken to the New York Times about the sense of urgency she’s seeing, what she calls the “reckoning and responsibility” that’s supplanting the introspective, personal tone of yesteryear’s poetry. We’re seeing the same shift in creative nonfiction. As an editor, I’m a fierce advocate for transgressive stories, but inhabiting “House of the Dead” with you has made me see that I’m also caught between private and public.

Now’s the time for reckoning on several fronts.

That’s where I’m at. And you?

RG: For sure, it’s a time of reckoning. As a Canadian, I too long for peaceful resolution, but as an American I’m not sure that’s always possible. Anyway, I’m still nosing around in literary journals where I hope to publish. I found “The Old Grey Mare,” an exquisite personal essay in the Yale Review by Colin Dayan, who also wrote The Law Is a White Dog: How Legal Rituals Make and Unmake Persons. We write about some of the same things—ritual, racism, mothers, the South. Reading her essay, then the book, made me realize how similar and yet how different the South is from the Southwest. I sent her an appreciative note. Now we are trading essays.

SS: Say more.

RG: When I read her essay, I thought, wow, that is literary. I wish I could write like that. I vented to you in frustration, “Please, make me sound more like me.” And you retorted that you were trying to get rid of my academic formalisms, make me sound more literary.

SS: Right, storyteller and scholar—you veer between the two.

RG: I don’t care much whether I sound either academic or literary. I would like my writing voice to “sound” like me.

SS: Fair enough. I love your cowboy storytelling voice, but there’s a time and place for it. “House of the Dead” isn’t it.

Umpteen drafts later, did you find the right voice for the essay?

RG: I’d be the last to know.  I’m sure the editors and readers will let me know.

SS: Submitting to this world is new for you. After doing your research, you ended up with fifty-plus pages of notes on literary magazines in the States and Canada. Now you know more than I do. I’m curious, what’s the take-away?

RG: Having taken a grand tour on both sides of the border, I’d say that while magazines might be muses, they’re also Scylla and Charybdis—a rock shoal and whirlpool separated by a narrow pass through which your rowboat essay must pass. Several times I saw submissions rates in the thousands and acceptance rates of two percent. The literary rite of passage is just as daunting as the academic one. I’ve submitted to seven literary magazines and to the radio show, This American Life. I have ten more magazines lined up for September. I expect success, but many failures first.

SS: Okay, but you’re still reading, too. What’s the draw? Why burrow into lit mags?

RG: Same as you, I care about writing. I want to write better. I just read Terence Byrnes…

SS: Montreal writer-photographer, featured in TNQ 106 (Spring 2008).

Ron’s maternal grandparents

RG: “South of Buck Creek” in Geist is a fabulous photo essay, so I wrote him. I’m busy trading stories and essays with him too. I rarely communicate with authors, but I am thoroughly enjoying it. But you ask why. This essay could die on the vine, or, if published, the shit could hit the fan. Either way, I want company. I love being a student. I’m hungry to learn from writers who struggle with the same issues. I want to learn how to honour but also to question the ancestors—well, my ancestors. By dragging the skeletons out of the closet, then talking publicly, I want to learn how live more justly—on stolen land, and benefitting from slave labour.

SS: On that we are united. So, you’re not about to quit my sandbox, are you?

RG: Why quit? I’m just getting started.


Bios: Ron Grimes is co-editor of the Oxford Ritual Studies Series and the author of several books, including Fictive Ritual: Reading, Writing, & Ritualizing. Susan Scott is TNQ’s lead nonfiction editor and the editor of Body & Soul: Creative Nonfiction for Skeptics and Seekers.

Where Is here?

A colleague in New York City used to teach a course called “Hinduism Here.” A brilliant idea! Students walk out the door of Barnard College, Columbia. They look up and down Broadway and ask, “Where are the Hindus.” They start where they are, not in India.

Northrop Frye, famous literary theorist from that “other” university down the highway, wrote, “It seems to me that Canadian sensibility has been profoundly disturbed, not so much by our famous problem of identity, important as that is, as by a series of paradoxes in what confronts that identity. It is less perplexed by the question ‘Who am I?’ than by some such riddle as ‘Where is here?'” Now that I am here, I too wonder. The trouble is I have been here over 40 years and I still don’t know. Is “here” Canada? Ontario? Waterloo, my home address? And here, where I live, is it the bedroom, where…. or the study, where I work? Or the dining room, where the family gathers when the nest refills? Or is my “true” home where I’ll live when I “go.” And where on earth is that?

NO-JUNK-MAIL-Recently, I’ve been trying inhabit this place, but how do you do that? Some do it by joining CORE, the local neighborhood activist group. Some join City Council. None of those is my way. I tend to be apolitical until Big Causes arise, but what’s a big cause? What isn’t? Always there are people knocking on your door announcing that theirs is the real big cause. I say no to all door-knocking and phone-ringing causes. Later, I may give or join, but I don’t want to reinforce the habit of disrupting suppertime, so I say NO in big print.

A big spiritual problem: how to say yes to here.

Bury me where?

I have retired five times. Now I’m blogging about the little things to which life and death appear to be tethered. Some call Big Questions “religious;” others, “spiritual.” Both terms are troublesome, so I try to avoid them. I don’t believe in blogs any more than I believe in what most people call religion. Too many blogs are off the top of the head. Here I hope to ruminate rather than spew. I have nothing to lose or gain, not tenure (I was once a professor of religious studies), not a salary, not entries on my CV. I am now a Professor of Nothing. Entries in your resume won’t get you to heaven (even if you believe in such a place). As a professor, I wrote lots of questions, often in green ink, in the margins of student papers. “Oh, you got the Grimes-green-ink treatment.” My kids used to say that I like the word “query.” I do. A query is a big question persistently circumambulated. You circle the question because it bird-dogs you, inspires you, or drives you around the bend. So you walk it down, into the ground.

skeleton on bike b&wAs a kid sitting in a sandbox on the high plains of New Mexico, I talked to a craggy, stunted Mr. Peartree, and it (or the sandbox) endowed me with thorny questions and a quirky imagination. Now, as an old guy riding a bike with a well oiled chain, I’m still rolling down the Iron Horse Trail in Kitchener-Waterloo. It connects with the Trans-Canada Trail, supposedly the longest in the world when it’s finished.

In 1974 I crossed the border from the Homeland, the God-blessed United States of America. I was not a draft dodger, although I would have been if my lottery number had been called. Now I carry two passports.

I became a religious studies professor because I’ve long enjoyed stalking the the big questions and the metaphors that make up the universe. I study ritual because I am attracted to it, repulsed by it, and don’t understand it. This is the home page of a blog about little things that link to big things. It’s about home, the place where I live, even though I’m not very good at living here.

Where is here? Ideally, home is always right here: this page, the place where you are sitting or standing right now. That’s straight Zen (which I practiced for 20 years). That’s how I’d like to live. But I don’t. Really, home is too often back there or over there. You left it, or you’re not quite there yet. Where is home? That is a big question, often one with no single or easy answer. I hesitate to label this my “home” page, because, as a matter of fact, I have another. But that is just a glorified CV, nothing more. I don’t live there. I hope that’s not all of me.

Many of us have other homes or homelands. Some of us have nothing we’d call home. Too many of us have no homes except streets and parks or bus stations–if you’re willing to call those places home. For 40 years I’ve lived here in Waterloo, Ontario, which is joined at the hip with Kitchener. But K-W still doesn’t feel like home even though the kids were born on the living room floor, and dead or handmade things inhabit the depths of the yard. Not feeling at home isn’t the fault of neighbors or city councils. It’s my own problem, although I’m not the only one who has it. Kitchener used to be called Berlin, but it changed its name since, during World War II, it couldn’t sell shoes stamped “Made in Berlin.” And Waterloo, well, Napoleon met his in Belgium. I seem to be meeting mine here.

In the basement there are still old cardboard boxes from previous moves, as if one day my wife and I are going to pack up and pedal toward the Rocky Mountains. Surely, you too are about to leave for somewhere. If not, what’s wrong with you?

Do I want to be buried here in K-W? I sometimes ask Susan, my wife, knows the question is rhetorical. We both know the answer: Not on your life! O bury me not in Mount Hope Cemetery (although we enjoy biking through it). First there’s the question of burial (death is not a question), then there’s the question of how the postmortem deed will be accomplished, by fire or dirt-and-worm. I don’t want my ashes scattered in the Region of Waterloo, where I’m most likely to die, any more than I want them scattered outside Clovis, New Mexico, where I grew up. So where is home? Where should they put me when it’s time?

Maybe scatter me at Grimes Corner, which is near Madrid, half a hour from Santa Fe on the back road to Albuquerque.

I have to ask myself, in the interests of economy if nothing else: Why not along the Iron Horse Trail, which is just a few blocks away. I ride or walk it almost daily. When someone inquires why I do it, I reply, “Why else, to stay alive.” At first, my quip was ironic. Now it’s not.

bakfiets-nijlandIf this community would wake up the Spirit of the Iron Horse Trail, fine, I’d be willing to exit from here. Assure me that my remains (and yours too, if you like) can be biked in procession down the Iron Horse Trail in a Dutch bakfeits, with big masks dancing around, and I’ll consent to cross over from this very place.

When is the right time?

Will you finish what you start?

Books you can finish, articles too. But blogs?

Either they die young or go on interminably.

My aspiration for this one is that it will die a timely death.

That’s my aspiration for me too: die on time.

When is that?

Not now, not now.

the endYour business has to be finished.

But what is your business?

You have to figure that out first.

What’s your business here?