Readings at Red Sandcastle Theatre in Toronto by authors in Body & Soul: Stories for Skeptics and Seekers, edited by Susan Scott.
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?”
“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.
“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.
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.
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.”
“I don’t like her.”
“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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.
by Susan Scott & Ron Grimes
first published in The New Quarterly, https://tnq.ca/sleeping-with-the-author/
“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).
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.
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?
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.
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.
As 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.
If 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.
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.
But what is your business?
You have to figure that out first.
What’s your business here?