Friday, October 18, 2013

The Tales in Crosses, Mint Juleps, and A Store That Sells Tack

Kebler Pass, CO
Glorious mountain majesty, aspens of gold, peaks reaching to the heavens glazed with a frosting of snow.  This is how I often talk about where I live.The mountain community I call home, nestled at 7700 feet in Colorado, certainly fits all this lush description. However, there is another side to our community that defines our local culture.

Gunnison was originally inhabited by the Ute Indians. During the mid-1800s, settlers came to the valley in hopes of cashing in on the rich minerals believed to be in the soil. Mining soon busted, but the community continued in a ranching tradition. Because of our climate—long, cold winters and relatively arid—successful ranching required leveling of land and irrigation systems. But the lifestyle took hold. Today, we still have a 114-year-old national rodeo tradition and 4-H thrives. 

Cattlemen's Day Rodeo

One of the things I love best about traveling across the US-- our own "homogeneous" country-- is noting how different and unique it really is. The businesses, graffiti, religious institutions, landmarks, sports, arts, billboards and traditions, the symbols and icons, all provide a visual story and breathe life and spirit into each region.

This past summer when we drove through the Midwest, I was fascinated with all the obvious religious influence. From huge crosses outside Missouri to billboards with giant Bible verses juxtaposition to warehouse-sized, highway-side, porn shops. One of my favorite signs was a billboard, no words, just Jesus in the midst of a corn field. I wished I could have got a picture of it. It wasn’t near a place we could pull off, but what a reflection of the values and culture of the area.

The  huge cross somewhere in the Midwest.

One of my favorite destinations is Santa Fe, New Mexico. Embedded in the art culture is a religion imbued with mysticism. Even the Christian religion takes on a more mystical quality. The famous Loretto Chapel and its miraculous, winding staircase is a great example. It’s as if the ancient beliefs of the Indians and Catholicism swirled and blended together.

A hand-painted cross from
Santa Fe. 
Of course, unique attributes of a region aren’t all religious. I’d never heard of a Bob Evans restaurant or biscuits and gravy until I went to college in Indiana. I grew up in Pittsburgh, which is still strongly associated with the steel mills and working class, even though the industry hasn't darkened the sky or buildings for decades.

I loved visiting Louisville, KY—an area where horse races, mint juleps and bourbon are the symbols of the city. 

I spent a long weekend, several years ago, for a work-related conference, in Memphis, TN—home of Beale Street, blues, great BBQ, and the restored Lorraine Hotel, where Martin Luther King was killed.

A sculpture in Louisville, KY

About a month ago, a new store--a chain store no less--was built in town. Now while this may not sound iconic or even vaguely startling, it was kind of a big to-do here. A huge Tractor Supply Company warehouse now sits at the end of town. I’ve never lived in an area that could support or would have use for this kind of store before. Today, my son and I went on a “field trip”, as we call our little outings, and took a gander at the new place in town. I was in awe. Plaid shirts and Wrangler jeans, overalls and Carharts, feed for livestock, pet supplies, rabbit hutches, all kinds of tools and parts for tractors, bits and bridles, and even an array of books on farming, canning, raising dogs and building cabins. An entire store devoted to the symbols, supplies and preservation of a lifestyle.

Aside from all the ranching stuff, foreign to my background and knowledge base, I realized that, in a sense, this is a part of our culture—a consumer-directed icon of our heritage in this area, as much as the fly and tackle shops, “welcome hunter” signs on sporting good and liquor stores and the various ski and snowboard rental shops.

I don’t hunt, or snowboard or ranch but I'm interested in and proud of all the bits and pieces that make up my community, its history and spirit, and that somehow we've managed to retain our unique flavor and not succumb to a mass-commercial, blase personality.

What does your area have that you would say represents its culture or heritage? Maybe I'll plan my next adventure out your way. 

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The Prayer Shawl

It’s 4:30 in the morning. I ease myself out of bed, careful not to wake my husband. I get up, throw on my robe and pad out to the kitchen for my coffee. The hot liquid stimulant is as much a part of my ritual as any other aspect, and on some mornings, much more needed. At this hour the house is still and quiet. I can hear the clock tick and the refrigerator hum. This is my meditation and prayer time, before the sun rises, before the clutter of the day attacks my consciousness.

I like to open the curtains on the window so I can stare out to the sky. If it’s cloudless, I can see the stars. This week, I’ve been able to see Orion’s belt from my east-facing windows. I always hope to see a falling star, like a sign God is joining me, but I rarely do. It’s been cooler in the mornings, the chilled breath of fall seeping inside. I throw a blanket over my legs and settle in to "my chair" with my coffee mug warming my hands. Then I reach down for my prayer shawl, holding its sacred length tenderly.

When my son was first diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, we were cruelly launched into a whirlwind of appointments with specialists and life-altering conversations and decisions. One Sunday, when I felt like I was drowning in all the medical hoopla and worry, I grudgingly showed up for church, feeling more like hiding and skulking than "fellowshipping."  Despite my furtive demeanor, a friend approached me. Catherine, dressed in a long skirt, peasant top, and sandals, walked up to me and handed me a small, brown bag, “I have to go to work, but I’m glad I caught you,” she said.

I smiled. Reaching into the bag, I pulled out a lovely crocheted scarf.

“It’s a prayer shawl,” she said.

I knew it was her creation; I’d seen her handiwork before. It was made of the softest of yarn, a lovely subtle green, like the color of lichen, with bands of purple and turquoise and mossy brown decorating it. I gasped. “Oh, it’s so lovely!”

“I hope it brings you comfort.” She smiled and gave me a hug before leaving.

Once home, I looked up the meaning and tradition of prayer shawls, sometimes called a mantle, peace or comfort shawls. Prayer shawls come from an ancient Jewish tradition, rooted in the Bible. The word tallit, the Hebrew word, is made up of two smaller words, tal meaning “tent” and ith meaning “little”.  A prayer shawl is meant to be a hiding place with God, a covering and protection while praying.

According to the Shawl Ministry, green symbolizes the earth, healing, prosperity, fertility, clarity, sympathy, hope, renewal, health, balance, confidence, abundance, growth and life. 

As I snuggle in my chair with my coffee and reading material, watching the sun awaken the sky, I finger the soft mantle, draping it carefully over my shoulders. It's leaf-like hue is appropriate for the many emotions and needs brewing in my heart and unsettled mind.

When I cover my shoulders in this shawl, I think of Catherine and all the friends who have reached out to us, and I feel wrapped, not just in yarn, but in sweet love and comfort. I feel their prayers.

As the yarn’s journey starts,
It becomes a prayer that comes from the shawl maker’s heart,
The yarn becomes a journey of silent prayer,
Through it’s twists and knots, the prayer is still there,
The quiet clicking or the swish of the yarn,
Tells you the prayer is still going on,
The Shawl maker adds on another skein,
The prayer is anew and doesn’t wane,
As time goes by and the shawl maker’s mind sometimes wanders,
The yarn goes on and prayerfully ponders,
A prayer is said and the stitching subsides,
The yarn comes to an end and is knotted and tied,
It begins a new journey and given with prayer,
It’s Hope, Faith and Love the recipient wears,
But in the silent echoes you can prayerfully hear,
The prayers, the quiet clicking, and the swish of the yarn,
The yarn never ceases and its silent prayers are still going on…
(prayer source)