Water Gaps and Cultural Gaps

A water gap is a site where a river cuts through a mountain ridge rather than being diverted by the barrier.  In the case of the Ridge and Valley section of the Appalachians, water gaps cut through long ridges.  These mountain ridges focused migration and transportation routes through these gaps. Usually the existence of a water gap is an indication that the river preceded the topography around it.  In other words, the river established its course, and as tectonic forces acted upon the land, the river cut down through the underlying rock layers, cutting through the ridges as they formed or became exposed by erosion.  Perhaps the most famous water gap is the Cumberland Gap which Daniel Boone identified as a route for European migrant through the Appalachians and into what is now Kentucky.

I visualize the water gaps in the Appalachians as funnels through which Europeans spread into the central plains of North America, displacing Native Americans.  Had all of the eastern United States been flat plains, this displacement might have happened even more quickly.  The mountains served as a barrier until the routes through the water gaps became known.

I have read several books lately on the eras of European settlement and Native American displacement that took place in the Midwest and Great Plains from several points of view.  Caroline Fraser’s Prairie Fires places Laura Ingalls Wilder and her writing in the context of the history of the settlement era in Wisconsin, Minnesota, the Dakotas, and Kansas.  It includes instances of interaction with Native Americans, the period of the Sioux uprising in Minnesota, and the Ingalls being pushed back from settling on Native American land in Kansas.  The Heart of Everything that Is by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin is the story of the Dakota (Sioux) Chief Red Cloud.  Here is the story of the tribe being pushed out of Minnesota, withdrawing to Montana, and ending up on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.  Red Chief was a very violent and aggressive warrior, but when he went east and saw the numbers of Europeans that were there, he was a pragmatist and came to terms with the reality that faced them rather than fight to the bitter end.

I’m unsettled by all these stories because they involve my story as well and I’m not sure what to do with this history.  But I begin my journey with a hike at the Delaware Water Gap.  At the Delaware Water Gap, the Delaware River cuts through Blue Mountain, one of the main ridges and major barrier to westward migration.  My daughter and I hiked up the ridge to get a view of the water gap.  We stood at the top and thought about a time in 1775 when my ancestor, Benjamin Gilbert, took a portion of his family and settled in the wilderness on the other side of Blue Mountain.

Gilbert’s friends and family were concerned about his safety, but because he was Quaker and had good relations with Native Americans, he thought he would be fine.  What happened next is recorded in a published narrative. On April 25th, 1780, the family was taken as prisoners by a group of Native Americans. Their homesteads were plundered and burned and eventually members of the family were separated and adopted into different bands.  They experienced hardship and violence.  The English negotiated the release of Benjamin and some family members at Niagara in June of 1780 and then sent them to Montreal as King’s prisoners.  Benjamin died enroute to Montreal.  The family continued to work to get the rest of the family released and the last member was released June 3, 1782 after which the group was allowed to return to Pennsylvania.

So much incongruity comes from these interactions across the cultural gap—one captive wrote with affection many years later about her “adopted” Native American father and maintained some contact with him.  One descendent of this family went back to the site on the far side of Blue Mountain to live.  This line of the family eventually migrated to eastern Ohio and then John Curry, my great, great grandfather migrated to central Minnesota immediately following the Sioux uprising in the area.  My father told me that the settlers in John Curry’s community had a place where they would all go when there were rumors of another uprising.  And my father also said that my great, great grandfather had a Native American site on his land and he insisted that it be respected.

Even the capture narrative has an introductory disclaimer while the narrative itself goes on to describe traumatic events.  It states:

Hence it will be proper to make some allowance for the prejudices which then existed toward the uncivilized aborigines of the wilderness, whose passions were then wrought up by the aggressions of the white inhabitants—and the scenes of warfare between the colonies and the mother country…When “the revolutionary war began, the poor Indians hardly knew what part to take, fearing they would lose all their country in the quarrel between nations of white people.” Many of them took side with the British, or it was so considered—and hence the Americans by means of general Sullivan and his army drove them from their homes, and destroyed their crops and settlements along the Susquehanna and Genesee rivers. This exasperated the Indians, and they again sought retaliation “by killing and taking into captivity the white inhabitants” along the frontiers of Pennsylvania, New York, &c. —among these the Gilbert family were a part of the sufferers. It is believed the Indians who committed these depredations were ignorant of this family being Friends or Quakers, the peaceable descendants of William Penn—and friends to the natives (4-5).

My hope is that the incongruity that underlies my family’s interactions across the cultural gap between Europeans and Native Americans reflects a, cross-generational and on-going tension and discomfort as we struggle daily with issues of injustice, mutual understanding, and respect.  My older daughter’s name, Marie, embodies my own journey.  Marie is my middle name, but my daughter is named after Marie Dupre, a Houma tribe member, who welcomed me, cared for me, and served as my cultural translator when I had the privilege of working for the tribe.  She was my bridge as I moved through the metaphoric water gap from my world to the Houma Tribe’s world.  She was my guide in my journey in uncovering the ridges and valleys and cultural layers below the water’s surface.  The world needs more such guides through the water gaps.

I think I’m from Minnesota…

My daughters grew up in Iowa and Michigan.  Recently my older daughter, who continues to live in Michigan, had someone ask her where she was from.  She thought about it and finally responded: “I’ve never lived there, but I think I’m from Minnesota.” I’ve been thinking about my daughter’s response to the question: “Where are you from?”  What is involved in our answer to that simple question?

In Chinese culture, many people celebrate the Qingming Festival, or Tomb Sweeping Day.  This is the holiday where people go “home” and clean off the tombs of their ancestors. And ancestral villages, tied to clans, where families can trace their lineage back hundreds of years, are important touch points.  But how long must a family inhabit a space and place before it takes on this sacred meaning?

Like my daughter, I would also probably say that I’m from Minnesota, if asked.  But then, I have lived there.  As a first grader my family went “home” and lived with my grandmother while my father was in-between jobs.   My grandmother (father’s mother) was good friends with my mother’s aunt.  We lived two blocks from my great aunt and uncle on my father’s side and would go there for Aunt Myrtle’s homemade donuts.  And I remember going with my mother and other family members to help clean out Opa’s house (her grandfather) after he died.  I was fascinated as I opened a trunk and found a German family Bible.  And I can still picture the round pedestal oak kitchen table.  My mother took off the top and turned it into a coffee table that was always in our house as I was growing up.  Now it is in my daughter’s house—Opa to his granddaughter, and from my mother to her granddaughter.  Ties that span five generations all tied to a place in Minnesota.

Later, when I returned to live in Minnesota in my 20s, and made the trip from the Twin Cities back to southwest Minnesota to attend the burial of my great uncle Bud, I walked through the Delft cemetery seeing many of the names from the German side of my family dominated by the surname Smith.  Opa was there.  My mother’s great grandma Brinkman, who hung herself on a door, suffering from depression, was close by.  Jenny Marie, my grandmother’s younger sister, who died as a child with whom I shared a birthday and a similar name was present.

After my first grade year, my family moved to Illinois.  A year later we got the call during Sunday morning church that my grandmother had died.  I can still see my mother coming into my Sunday school class to get me.  We made the journey back to Minnesota and when we walked into the house, I remember seeing the cookie jar full of sugar cookies and thinking that this was evidence that my grandmother must have known that I was coming.  I got to choose one item of my own to take with me from Minnesota that time.  It is my grandmother’s glass swan which has gotten chipped in one of the many moves I’ve made over my lifetime, but still sits in my glass cupboard.

My grandmother was buried in Windom in the town cemetery next to a grandfather I never knew.  Always pragmatic and realistic, my grandfather had bought 6 plots to be used for he and my grandmother and for my father and his sister and their spouses, in spite of my father anticipating living in the Belgium Congo and my aunt ending up living as far away as California.

The next time I came back to this cemetery was when I traveled from Louisiana when my aunt Ruth, my mother’s sister, died.  This was Ivan’s Ruth.  I had just recently graduated from the college where Ruth taught.  We had gotten to know one another during my time there.  In my family we also had Fred’s Ruth and Ernest’s Ruth which helped us differentiate.  Ernest’s Ruth, though an aunt by marriage to my mother, was also related to my father somehow.  Ruth’s service was in the Twin Cities and then the family made the pilgrimage home to southwest Minnesota, traveling through the Minnesota River Valley with its enormous Jolly Green Giant sign that marked the passage through the vegetable production region.

By the time my grandmother on my mother’s side died at the age of 101, I was living in Michigan and had two daughters.   We drove to Illinois to pick up my parents and made the long drive in Minnesota.  One of the last Harry Potter books had just come out on tape—22 hours long—and it kept us patient on the long journey both ways.  Grandma Oma was buried by my grandfather, her first husband, in the Jeffers cemetery.  He had died in 1939 from injuries from a car accident and the tombstone that had then been put in place had both their names but the final year left blank for my grandmother (19–).  Alas, my grandmother made it to 2002 so the front of the stone had to be cut off and redone.  In this graveyard we also walked among the Courts family graves, the family of my Grandma Oma’s second husband and his first wife and extended family.  My Grandma Oma would always refer to people like this who were somehow connected to me, but not always very closely or directly, as shirttail relations.

My father far outlived both of his parent.  By the time he died, both he and my mother had moved to Michigan to be near me.  Several months after he died, the family gathered in the Twin Cities, and again made the pilgrimage down through the Minnesota River Valley to Windom to bury his ashes.  We picked up various family members along the route and then were joined by others at the cemetery for the service.  One small man was among the crowd, standing out among the tall crowd.  My daughters asked me who he was, seeing that he didn’t seem to fit in.  He was my mother’s step-brother who had been adopted into her step-father’s family.  He had left home as soon as he could and joined the navy and this was the first time in more than 50 years that he had returned to Minnesota.  By this time, other names had been added to the names in the town cemetery—My uncle Bob had taken his place in one of the Curry plots.  My father’s extended family—my aunt Myrtle Berry and cousin Ferg Croft were among the names that I recognized.

This past summer we repeated this journey as we went to bury my mother.  This time I came from Massachusetts to Minnesota.  And this next summer I will experience yet one more pilgrimage to southwest Minnesota to do our family’s version of tomb sweeping.  Ruth’s Ivan will be added to the names and memories.  And someone will probably bring a bucket of water, soap, and sponges to clean the headstones that have been there for some time as we add one more to the mix.

Curry, Groves, McBirnie, Courts, Berry, Croft, Schaefer, Sherman, Ludeman, Ewen, Carlblom, Grant, Brinkman, Smith, Groves, Rippie.  Two parents.  Two grandfathers I didn’t know.  Two grandmothers I did know and love.  Aunts and uncles. Great aunts and uncles. Cousins once-removed. Shirttail relations.  In-laws.  Family friends.

This is what happens when a family inhabits a place for a length of time.  There becomes a place where you can walk through space and see all the names that are all tied to who you are.  And sometime others will join you on this walk.

When I lived in Minnesota in my 20s, I once had a shirt that said:  If you live a good life and say your prayers, when you die you will go to Minnesota.  May it be so.



Earth, Water Air and Fire: Southern California’s Primordial Elements

A visitor to California in the 1890s described it as the “Land which the Almighty has crystallized with a smile.”  It was a land of dreams fulfilled.  Today, while that image still persists, we are also likely to associate Southern California with fires, mudslides, earthquakes, racial tensions, and violence.  How do we make sense of these conflicting images?

Clarence Glacken, in his classic work Traces on the Rhodian Shore, describes how ancient Greek philosophers’ perceived the world as a balance among fundamental elements.  Everything has its counterpart and through this, order and balance exist. The interaction of the opposites—the coldness of air or mist and the heat of fire, the dryness of the earth and the wetness of water provide the structure out of which order in the world exists.  Empedocles identified the four essential elements at work—earth, water, air, and fire—as the substances on which love as the unifying and hate as divisive—react.  These four elements were also associated with the four humors (blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm) and associated temperaments (sanguine, choleric, melancholic, and phlegmatic) of humans.  The balance among humanity was seen as but one part of larger oppositional forces in nature.

I’ve been contemplating this framework for thinking about Southern California.  After all, the ancient Greek classical elements—earth, water, air, and fire—both shape and disrupt this idealized land.  Forces are at work that create a landscape both attractive and dangerous.  Yet, in many cases, humanity acts only with an understanding of the attractiveness without the balancing force of understanding the danger.

Earth and Water.  California’s coastal landscape is shaped by tectonic forces which continue to shake the earth and gradually cause the coastal land to rise in elevation while ocean forces act to create wave-cut platforms which eventually rise above the forces of the water but whose dramatic coastal morphology reflects its geologic history.

Likewise, the tectonic forces have left California with a narrow continental shelf, sometimes less than a mile, causing ocean waves to quickly move from deep ocean to shore, creating the crashing waves that make it a great environment for surfing. These same forces unleash themselves in earthquakes where the energy of the earth’s movement leads to liquefaction where unconsolidated sediment flows like water.

Water and Air.  Glacken is not surprised that the Greeks developed a sense of balance around these particular elements.  Greece and Southern California both have a Mediterranean climate where hot is associated with dry and cold is associated with moist.  Mediterranean climate regions are found globally at approximately 35-40 degrees of latitude, on continental west coasts.  This unique climate is characterized by summers with the high air pressure associated with desert climates—hot and dry. Winters bring westerly winds off the oceans and a rainy season—cool and moist.

Air and Fire.  The summer landscape in Southern California is dry and parched.  Santa Ana winds, strong winds that blow from the dry inland deserts from the east during this dry season, adding to the drying out of the landscape.  At the end of the summer, fires break out and move through the hills, fueled by the dry vegetation and intensified in the presence of Santa Ana winds.

Fire and Earth.  Fires, having burned off much of the vegetation, leave little to hold the soil in place when the rains arrive.  The rains of the winter become the force that leads to mudslides and the slumping of hillsides.  Dry river beds are transformed into massive streams laden with debris. John McPhee, in his book, The Control of Nature, describes the massive structures in the hills around Los Angeles that are built to capture this debris in attempts to avert disasters.

Earth, Water, Air, and Fire. Elements that create beauty as they act together, and danger when humans fail to balance their optimistic temperament with humility.



Small Town Life: Multiple Roles

One of the characteristics of small town life, no matter where in the world, is that many individuals play multiple roles in a community.  The local mayor may be a local business owner who gets $5000 a year for their compensation for public service.  Volunteer firefighters are called from church services.  When I lived in rural Iowa, the same person served as county sanitarian and 911 phone operator.  Clearly few septic systems were ever pro-actively inspected.

Last week I got a note from a friend from rural Manitoba.  They had some excitement when their combine caught fire.  As my friend Margaret reported: “Brother law looked back and there was smoke so jumped out. First couple of hours of combining of the season. Ed was in the other yard dumping grain.”

Getting assistance in such an instance can be difficult.  My great aunt’s house out in the country started fire in the ten minutes between my calling her and our getting to her house and the volunteer fire department was already there—very impressive.   My friend experienced a bit of a greater challenge.  She said: “Fire trucks were slow.  Apparently 911 has different names for the North south Roads than I do and we are on a juridical boundary. Also 911 didn’t answer very quickly. Should have called the fire chief’s tire shop in Benito. Probably couldn’t have save it anyway but scary.”

Thankfully all were safe.  Margaret recently sent me a note that said: “Combining is going well. They brought in a custom combiner and will look for combine over the winter. Yields are good.”



Butterflies and First Grade

Butterflies and first grade go together.  I don’t know how many people have told me that their children remember their first grade butterfly unit more than anything else in grade school.  It is the process of seeing the caterpillars transform into butterflies as they emerge from their cocoons that create such remembrances?

I had the joy of engaging with a first grade and the Oliver Partnership School in Lawrence, Massachusetts as they took on a project with me to plant a butterfly garden in front of the school.  The funding for the project came from the Canadian Fulbright Eco-Leadership Program and involved the school, the Gordon College service-learning office, and myself.

The first stage of the project was to populate the wooden boxes with a select group of plants from the New England Wild Flower Society.  We did this on a May Saturday spring day.  Students, family members, teachers, and Gordon College volunteers enjoyed digging in the soil and bringing some life to this urban site.  We learned quickly why having the raised beds was important—the grass grows on a very thin layer of soil underlain by rock or rubble. Several highlights of the morning included: A parent who saw the enthusiasm and joy in her daughter when she planted and watered the flowers; A teacher who had never planted anything before in his life; Students and families who were transformed when butterflies were brought out of the cooler in order to be released; People on the streets stopping to find out what was going on.






































In early June we had a second release of butterflies.  All fifty of the cocoons, cared for by the first grade classes, produced butterflies.  I couldn’t wait to go and visit when the teachers and students come outside to set them free.

Over the summer I have checked on the garden to make sure it is watered and weeded as it waits for the children to arrive in August.  It is doing well.

This was truly the highlight of my year.  I need to spend more time with first graders, all of whom now want to be scientists.  I need more wonder at the world around me.  And I’m thinking about what we can do next year to enhance our butterfly garden…

Cultural Confusion: The Case of the Stroopwafel

I have lived in Dutch-American communities or socialized with those from this community for more than half my life.  Actually I still socialize with them, though I have to go some distance to do it.  As evidence of my authority to speak for this community, in spite of my lack of Dutch ancestry, is that I recently gave the keynote address at the  AADAS conference–the Association for the Advancement of Dutch American Studies.

It is out of defense of this community that I want to bring the public’s attention to the  cultural confusion around the Stroopwafel.   The Stroopwafel is a thin waffle-like pastry known within the Dutch-American community.  Recently United Airlines has started to give these out on flights as snacks during their morning flights.  I support this.  However, this move has created some cultural confusion.  Recently I overheard a passenger asking about their origin.  The steward quickly said that they were from Belgium or France in spite of the writing on the back which clearly said they were made in the Netherlands and the Dutch name–STROOPWAFEL.





If this wasn’t bad enough, that airlines personnel are not culturally competent, we have an imposter showing up on the shelves at Starbucks in Barnes and Nobles bookstores.  These imposters are called Rip van Wafels, clearly a takeoff on Rip van Winkle, an American fictional figure.  What adds to the cultural confusion is the addition of the lion on the package which is the national symbol of Scotland.  This is just not right.

There.  I’ve gotten that off my chest.




Beartooth Highway: Top of the World

The last three years I have spent a week each summer in Montana visiting my friend Lynn.  I sleep.  I read.  I look at wide open spaces from their deck.  And we usually do some outing.  Last year we went on a boat ride at the headwaters of the Missouri River.  This year, Lynn suggested that we go on the Beartooth Highway.  I’m always open to seeing a new stretch of highway!  She made this suggestion in the spring and then followed the suggestions pondering whether the snow would be gone by July and the highway open to traffic.  This made me intrigued.

When I got to Montana we started looking for a good day to go on the trip.  Lynn talked to her husband Dave, who was there for a few days.  I didn’t quite know why we were restricted to when Dave was there, but I usually just go with the flow when it comes to adventures.  We found a day; Lynn and Dave negotiated the departure time and vehicle choice.  We woke up early and proceeded to load the car with a packed lunch and the Australian Sheppard who was relieved to not be left behind.


The Beartooth Highway stretches from Red Lodge to Cook City.  It is a sixty-eight-mile road that rises 4000 feet in elevation and has five major switch backs.  It is essentially the route to the east entrance of Yellowstone.  In fact, you have to go through the park to get to Cook City in the winter when the highway is closed due to snow.  Cook City had a population of 140 in 2000.

The highway follows Rock Creek as you leave Red Lodge.  As we encountered the first switchback, I was enthralled while Lynn quickly suggested I move to the front seat while she moved to the back and laid down and closed her eyes to keep from looking over drop-offs.  Then I knew why we had to take the highway when Dave was in town.

The highway is a living field guide to glacial landforms—an incredible U-shaped glacial valley, glacial cirques and headwalls (the bowl-like features which form at source of glacier), hanging valleys (where a small, high glacial valley meets the deeper main valley), horns (sharp features formed by erosion by cirques on all sides), and rock steps or rock basin lakes.

The highway’s highest point is almost 11,000 feet, but what makes it unique is that it actually stays above the tree line for some distance.  Driving at the alpine level makes you feel like you are at the top of the world.  And then there were the beautiful alpine flowers and the mountain sheep.  What glorious views!  As you drive along you wonder about the engineering feat of building this road.  And of course, with so many such structures, it was built during the Depression and opened in 1936.



Lynn finally sat up as we descended.  I asked her why she suggested this drive if she disliked these types of roads so much.  She told me that she knew that I would love it 🙂

And indeed I did.  Thank you, Lynn, for a great birthday present!

Three Ponchos

Nothing is more pleasurable than a road trip with good friends.  My recent trip to Acadia National Park was one such trip.  The day before our departure, I went with my friends Helen and Deb to see Wonder Woman in order to set the right tone for our adventure.  That night we amused ourselves by taking a personality test.  We found that the three of us were very different.  Deb is a giving-helper, always ready to make me a cup of tea.  She was so thoughtful to bring special treats for all of us and especially three ponchos in case it rained!  Helen is the epicurean-protector.  She brought a power cord to ensure she could hook up her computer and had chosen the place we were going to stay for its amenities.  I’m the observant-loyal skeptic.  I was the one that decided we should all take the personality test because I had observed that we were all quite different.

First stop was Freeport, Maine to do shopping at LL Bean.  We actually went to three LL Bean shops.  Our second stop along the way was Boothbay.  We had a great lunch at the Steamboat Inn and Helen and Deb started their tour of blueberry pie tasting.  This was the first of three.  Deb was very giving in offering me a bite.  We took a walk along the harbor and I observed the landforms around us and shared that the Boothbay topographic map was often used to illustrate fjords and their formation from glaciers.  Helen and Deb were very appreciative of my observations.  Helen bought a homemade bar of soap so that we had something special to use while we were gone that would make us smell good.

Boothbay Area Map

We crossed the Penobscot bridge, choosing not to go up in the elevator, but did stop and view this beautiful structure.  Deb was very helpful along the way in pointing out any orange cones signaling road construction.  Helen did much of the driving and showed good defensive technique which protected us from crashes several times.

We found the turn for our final destination, an Airbnb cottage.  A sign showed that The Fuhrer lived on the same road.  I was skeptical.  When we arrived at our cottage on a lake, Helen proceeded to move lamps around, get flashlights placed correctly for emergencies, and put the soap where we could find it.  She also figured out the internet so that everything was set up just right.  Deb started to cook dinner and shared her special snacks with us.  Helen opened a wine bottle.   I looked for material on Acadia National Park so we could identify where we might want to go the next day.  Helen locked the doors before we went to sleep.

The next morning, while Deb made French toast for us, Helen told us about the lights that flashed in one window all night that made her concerned for our safety.  I remained skeptical.

Because we are three Ph.D.s, we spent the first few hours after breakfast each morning on our own writing projects.  The measure of good friendships is an ability to be in the same room and just work, getting feedback occasionally but with no further expectation.

By late morning we were ready for our excursions.  The first one was to Acadia National Park on Mount Desert Island.  Our first stop was to Bar Harbor, on the edge of the Park, where we had lunch at the Sidestreet Café.  Helen had checked out the options and found one that she thought would be great.  Helen and Deb tried the blueberry pie—the second round.  As usual, Deb shared with me.

View of Bar Harbor from Mt. Cadillac

We spent the day exploring Acadia on Mount Desert Island and learning about its landscape.  Mount Desert Island was initially a massive volcanic caldera, ten miles wide, formed from volcanic eruptions.  Underlying this caldera was an intrusion of molten granite that was two-three miles below the surface, ten miles in diameter, and one-two miles thick.  Following the end of the volcanic activity, this granite cooled, was uplifted, and tilted ten-fifteen degrees to the southeast.  With the uplift, streams began to cut into the solid rock.  The more resistant Cadillac Mountain granites grew more prominent as land was eroded around and resulted in a typical radial drainage pattern where stream flow away from the higher elevation center.  In this case, streams flowed both north and south off the higher elevations.  Finally, glaciers that were up to 5000 feet thick and flowed up to 150 miles out to sea scoured the landscape, eroding away the top layers to expose the granite, streamlining the mountains, and turning V-shaped valleys into glacial U-shaped troughs.  As the glaciers melted, the land rebounded, meaning it rose in elevation with the loss of weight from the ice, creating the incredible landscape that you see today.

U-shaped trench and glacially rounded hills









The second day our excursion took us to Blue Hill Peninsula and Deer Island, along with the port town of Stonington.  Our goal was to find Nervous Nellie’s Jams and Jellies and see what Nervous Nellie was all about.  Every turn was a surprise!  Nervous Nellie’s turned out to be an art exhibit as well as a jelly kitchen.  Each set had a theme, whether it was a medieval castle, a civil rights-related venue, or a burial site for a Viking.  We explored it all.









The Blue Hill Peninsula and Deer Island were first known for its granite.  Stonington granite was used in any number of important buildings.  The Island also produced many boat pilots who were involved in commercial marine shipping.  Then of course, lobster-fishing is very prominent.  The town of Stonington is the number one lobster port in the state of Maine.  Most recently, tourism and the arts have become important.  The island is a mix of all these things, with a wonderful playfulness exhibited in the arts.  

Public Art

In all these travels, we observed the stunning sight of fields of lupines.  We also observed what looked like rocks growing in a field.  I was skeptical of a farmer’s ability to grow rocks and postulated that we were looking at glacial moraines.  Finally, every restaurant sign claimed they had the best lobster of all.  I didn’t see this as being possible.









When we returned to our cottage at the end of one day, Helen wanted to look at the property down the road to see if she could find Hitler as a proactive move toward protecting us.  Deb went on to expertly construct a fire for us.  As we sat around the flames at dusk we heard sounds across the pond.  Deb and Helen thought they might be loons but they sounded like bull frogs to me.









Our last evening, we ate our third sample of blueberry pie, bought from a local café.  I got my own piece this time.

Such road trips create space for self-care, care for one another, and for wonder.  Road trips create the space for reviewing life’s journey:  The very hard experiences–deaths of spouses, divorces, hip replacements, struggling children, self-doubt, and deep, deep disappointments.  And the tremendous joys—your first child being put in your arms, new opportunities, deep satisfaction from seeing growth in our children and our students and our colleagues and our institutions, grandchildren, books, and beautifully crafted arguments and thoughts in writing or in theatrical productions that contribute to the world’s understanding of the human experience.

Three ponchos.  Three Ph.D.s.  Three days.  Three blueberry pies.  Three LL Bean stores which resulted in six shopping bags.  Much, much conversation.  Three very different personalities.

Deb gives through her art, crafting both theatrical texts and the casts that present them, in a way that builds understanding and empathy in her audiences.  She helps us understand our life experiences through this process.

Helen reminds us to pay attention to the simple pleasures of life—whether it be artwork or a well-crafted argument.  She advocates for clear institutional structures and policies in order to enhance the chance for human flourishing for all.

I observe in order to understand what others are experiencing and needing in order to stand with them in their joys and tears, while helping them grow.  I am always trying to understand how institutions can be built to enhance growth because I want this next generation to be able to lead us into the future.  I want them to be wise as serpents and as loving as lambs.

I remain skeptical of platitudes but I firmly believe in deep friendships because I have them.


I don’t remember asking for a tether ball.  I think I remember it being put up by my father—a pole in a tire filled with cement with a ball attached by rope.

It sat in our back driveway turn-around.  I would occasionally play with friends—each hitting the ball in opposite directions, trying to wrap the rope around the pole.  But usually I hit the ball all by myself, again and again, as hard as I could, wrapping and unwrapping the rope around the pole, one direction and then the other.  Always tethered to that pole, firmly planted in cement on my back driveway.

I don’t remember whose idea it was to make a gunny sack swing and hang it from the old cherry tree.  But we took a gunny sack and filled it with other gunny sacks so that there was a lump of them at the bottom that we could put our legs around, and tied a knot around the gunny sack with a rope that was strung up on a big branch in the old cherry tree.

Somebody found an especially tall step ladder to use in order to swing higher and save us from having to push each other.  It was a twelve-foot ladder (can that be true?).  We took turns climbing the ladder, wrapping our legs around the gunny sack and letting go, always with the knowledge that the rope was fraying as it rubbed back and forth against the limb of the tree.

And when my turn came and the rope broke, I fell to the ground and learned what it meant to have your breath knocked out of you.  I can still remember how it felt as I lay on the ground with the pain in my chest.

My mother died suddenly and it takes my breath away daily—when I have the impulse to skype with her or when I open my email and find no new news from the extended family from her.

The description that has come to me lately is that I am untethered.  She solidly connected me to places, to the people, to memories, and to the past.  She tethered me, through reminding me of who I was, in the midst of whatever happened.  Relationships among family, long time family friends tied to the various places we lived, and acquaintances were maintained through her no matter how far and wide we flew.  She tethered me.

My breath has been knocked out of me and I am struggling to be able to get back up and reattach the gunny sack to the cherry tree and climb the ladder one more time.

Midwest Party

Origins of Party Participants

I counted it up.  Over my lifetime I have lived in eight different places in the Midwest (I exclude Missouri from this count).  So no wonder I felt the need for a Midwestern party!  The planning stage for this party actually extended over a year as those of us who had grown up in the Midwest discussed what constituted a Midwestern party.  How could a party be flat in terms of terrain but multi-faceted in terms of experience?  What should make up the menu?  And what were the boundaries of the Midwest?  In other words, which students should be invited to join us?

We finally focused on the heart of the Midwest—Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana—the “I” states.  Being “nice” Midwesterners, we became concerned over the one student at my New England institution from Idaho.  Would that student feel left out?  That took some time to sort out.

Next we had to decide on menu. Again, after much discussion (months actually), we decided we need breaded pork tenderloin sandwiches, scalloped potatoes, corn on the cob, multi-bean salad, a seven-layer salad (frozen peas, salad dressing, lettuce, cheese…), apple pie and ice cream, pop (not soda), and ants on a log.  For those of you who are unfamiliar with ants on a log, it is celery and peanut butter with raisins placed on top.  It was a big hit.  The breaded pork tenderloin sandwiches were a challenge.  Our catering service was confused.  At one point they called to talk about the order and were looking at Encyclopedia Britannica to try to figure out what we were requesting.  Encyclopedia Britannica??  Britannica??  This is a Midwestern United States party rather than a British Midlands party!  We ended up with something that involved breaded pork tenderloins…

And what is quintessential Midwest?  Several individuals brought jello salads.  Initially there was some fighting over who got to bring the orange and carrot jello salad, but soon everyone returned to being nice and sorted it out.  We skipped the lime and celery version of Midwestern cuisine.


What do Mid westerners do when they get together to relax?  Well, we quickly retired to the tornado shelter.  Thankfully my finished basement serves as my tornado shelter so it was quite comfortable.  Several activities filled the evening beyond eating.  We talked about what we missed about the Midwest and the craziest questions anyone has asked you about the Midwest.

We missed straight roads on a grid pattern, the sky, and REAL pizza (as in deep dish pizza).  Also we missed Steak N Shake, Maid rite, and Culver’s restaurants where you probably could get a breaded tenderloin pork sandwich is you wanted to without consulting Encyclopedia Britannica.  We missed people accepting our being nice and friendly in public.  As one person pointed out, when you rode mass transit in the Midwest you were expected to introduce yourselves to everyone when you got on and you often left with at least 5 telephone numbers.  We miss everything you can do in Chicago.

What were some of the crazy comments people ask us or make about the Midwest?  “Is the Midwest in California?” (OK—Middle of the west coast?)   “You must really miss the ocean when you live in the Midwest.”  (Let me see…Lake Michigan alone is 400 miles long by 90 miles wide with better beaches than you will ever see in New England!!).




Typical self-deprecating humor played on “hick” stereotypes of the Midwest such as a story about a father who won the national tractor pull contest and a friend who won the Illinois State hog-calling contest.

We also formed teams to compete in a Midwest quiz.  Being all above average, all the teams achieved above 90% percent in their scores, including a 100% score on knowing where you can find a submarine and coal mine next to each other.  Everyone was nice to those on the one team that missed only one question and won the candy corn.

Near the end of the evening there was a sigh and quiet when someone talked about missing the smell of the earth after the soil was freshly turned in the spring, and how there was nothing like the tomatoes that grew in the heat and black soil of the Midwest.  Measured against the Midwest, there is nothing that passes for soil elsewhere in the world.

As one person who married into the Midwest said his first morning after arriving late the night before in rural Illinois—it is a sea of land.