The Universal Theme

It’s good for the ego, when I call and they come
running, squawking and clucking, because it’s feedtime,
and once again I can’t resist picking up little Lazarus,
an orange-and-white pullet I adore. “Yes, yes, everything will be
okay,” I say to her glaring mongrel face. Come September,
she’ll begin to lay the blue-green eggs I love poached.
God dooms the snake to taste nothing but the dust
and the hen to 4,000 or so ovulations. Poor Lazarus—
last spring an intruder murdered her sisters and left her
garroted in the coop. There’s a way the wounded
light up a dark rectangular space. Suffering becomes
the universal theme. Too soft, and you’ll be squeezed;
too hard, and you’ll be broken. Even a hen knows this,
posing on a manure pile, her body a stab of gold.

~Henri Cole “Hens”

Every few minutes, he wants
to march the trail of flattened rye grass
back to the house of muttering
hens. He too could make
a bed in hay. Yesterday the egg so fresh
it felt hot in his hand and he pressed it
to his ear while the other children
laughed and ran with a ball, leaving him,
so little yet, too forgetful in games,
ready to cry if the ball brushed him,
riveted to the secret of birds
caught up inside his fist,
not ready to give it over
to the refrigerator
or the rest of the day.
~Naomi Shihab Nye “Boy and Egg”

I’ve bonded with chickens since my birth, living in a farm house adjacent to a large chicken coop. I was taught to gather eggs at a very young age, learning to approach the hens respectfully and steathily, ignoring their scolding clucks as I reached under their feathered bellies to find a smooth warm treasure. Carrying eggs to the house was a great privilege, knowing what a delicious meal they would become. I became a grateful friend to those hens.

I also learned that chickens were tragic figures, either sacrificed young as meat birds so large they could barely walk or after a few decent years of declining egg production for the hens. Participating in their butchering made me respect them even more for their unwitting willingness to suffer the indignity of the process to give their all for the survival of our family.

They are an ideal farm animal; the coyotes, weasels and raccoons think so too, digging into the chicken yard at night to steal unsuspecting hens from their nighttime roosts. Our compost pile has absorbed too many chickens murdered by varmints and left partially eaten in a pile of feathers.

Suffering is universal in this sad weary world. Somehow it is offset by an amazing ability to produce a perfect egg day after day after day.

Thank God for the muttering hens.

Original Barnstorming artwork note cards available as a gift to you with a $50 donation to support Barnstorming – information here
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The Need to Praise

A blue horse turns into
a streak of lightning,
then the sun —
relating the difference between sadness
and the need to praise
that which makes us joyful,
I can’t calculate
how the earth tips hungrily
toward the sun – then soaks up rain —
or the density
of this unbearable need
to be next to you. It’s a palpable thing —
this earth philosophy
and familiar in the dark
like your skin under my hand.
We are a small earth. It’s no
simple thing. Eventually
we will be dust together;
can be used to make a house,
to stop a flood or grow food
for those who will never remember
who we were, or know
that we loved fiercely.
Laughter and sadness eventually become
the same song turning us
toward the nearest star —
a star constructed of eternity
and elements of dust barely visible
in the twilight as you travel
east. I run with the blue horses
of electricity who surround
the heart
and imagine a promise made
when no promise was possible.

~Joy Harjo “Promise of Blue Horses” from How We Became Human

Birds embody the shapes of my heart
these days


holding the warmth of a hug
in their feathers


the gleam of a kiss in
their eyes


building a home for my love
in their beaks


and spreading, with their song,
the promise of blue horses.

 

“A blue horse turns into a streak of lightning,
then the sun—
relating the difference between sadness
and the need to praise
that which makes us joyful.”
~Marjorie Moorhead, “That Which Makes Us Joyful” from Literary North

Even when my heart isn’t feeling it, especially when I’m blue (along with much of the rest of the world on this September 11 anniversary), I need to remember to whisper hymns of praise to the Creator of all that is blue as well as every other color.

I’m reminded of the goodness of a God who provides me with the words to sing and a voice to sing them out loud.

That reality alone makes me joyful. That alone is reason to worship Him. That alone is enough to turn blue days, blue horses and blue hearts gold again.

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The Salt Water Cure

The cure for anything is salt water–sweat, tears or the sea.
~Isak Dinesen

I go down to the shore in the morning
and depending on the hour the waves
are rolling in or moving out,
and I say, oh, I am miserable,
what shall —
what should I do? And the sea says
in its lovely voice:
Excuse me, I have work to do.
~Mary Oliver “I Go Down to the Shore”

photo by Nate Gibson

…when he looked at the ocean,
he caught a glimpse of the One he was praying to.

Maybe what made him weep was
how vast and overwhelming it was

and yet at the same time as near
as the breath of it in his nostrils,
as salty as his own tears.

~Frederick Buechner writing about Paul Tillich in Beyond Words

I grew up an easy crier.  Actually growing up hasn’t cured it, nor has getting older.  I’m still an easy crier – a hard thing to admit especially when my tears flow at an inopportune time in a public place. These days, it is most often in church, while singing favorite hymns, but I can cry just about anywhere.

These days, simply reading the headlines warrants weeping.

It might have had something to do with being a middle child, bombarded from both directions by siblings who recognized how little aggravation it took to make me cry, or it may have been my hypersensitive feelings about …. everything.  I felt really alone in my tearful travails until my formidable grandmother, another easy weepy, explained that my strong/tall/tough/nothing-rocks-him former WWII Marine father had been a very weepy little boy.  She despaired that he would ever get past being awash in tears at every turn.  His alcoholic father tormented him about it, wondering if he would ever learn to “man up.”

So this is a congenital condition – my only excuse and I’m sticking to that story.

A few years ago I read about how different kinds of tears (tears of joy, tears of pain, tears of grief, tears of frustration, tears of irritated eyes, tears of onion cutting) all look different and remarkably apt, when dried and pictured under the microscope.  This is more than mere salt water leaking from our eyes — this is our heart and soul and hormonal barometer streaming down our faces – a visible litmus test of our deepest feelings.

I witnessed many tears every day in my clinical practice, usually not tears of joy.  These were tears borne of pain and loss and rejection and failure, of hopelessness and helplessness, loneliness and anguish.  Often my patients would describe having a “break down” by which they meant uncontrollable crying.  It was one of the first-mentioned symptoms they wanted relief from.

Tears do come less frequently as depression lifts and anxiety lessens but I let my patients know (and I remind myself) that tears are a transparent palette for painting the desires and concerns of our heart.  Dry up the tears and one dries up emotions that express who we are and who we strive to be.

When I’m able, I celebrate the salt water squeezing from my eyes, knowing it means I’m so fully human that I leak my humanity everywhere I go.  Even God wept while dwelling among us on earth, and what’s good enough for Him is certainly good enough for me.

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Let the Wound Lie Open

When the heart
Is cut or cracked or broken,
Do not clutch it;
Let the wound lie open.
Let the wind
From the good old sea blow in
To bathe the wound with salt,
And let it sting.
Let a stray dog lick it,
Let a bird lean in the hole and sing
A simple song like a tiny bell,
And let it ring.

~Michael Leunig “When the Heart”

photo by Harry Rodenberger

The birds they sang
At the break of day
Start again
I heard them say
Don’t dwell on what
Has passed away
Or what is yet to be

You can add up the parts
but you won’t have the sum
You can strike up the march,
there is no drum
Every heart, every heart
to love will come
but like a refugee.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
~Leonard Cohen from “Anthem”

photo by Nate Gibson

Wounds come in various sizes and shapes,
some hidden, some quite obvious to all. 

How they are inflicted also varies–
some accidental,
others therapeutic and life-saving,
and too many, as happened this week,
intentionally and horrifically inflicted.

The most insidious are wounds so deep inside, 
no one can see or know they are there.
Those can cause fear and anger
that break a heart and mind with
a desire to control one’s destiny
by destroying others’.

These scars of living damaged,
these horrific wounds that don’t heal,
either lead to forever darkness
or can sting in repair, bathed by a Light
where before was none.

No wound is as deep and wide
as what the Word made Flesh
has borne for us:
love oozes from them,
grace heals from within.

Let the bells ring and never be silenced.

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They Are No More…


    …mourning and great weeping,
weeping for her children
    and refusing to be comforted,
    because they are no more.
from Matthew 2:18 and Jeremiah 31:15

Newtown, CT December 2012
There are the fields we’ll walk across
In the snow lightly falling.
In the snow lightly falling,
There are the fields we’ll walk across.

There are the houses we’ll walk toward
In the snow lightly falling.
In the snow lightly falling,
There are the houses we’ll walk toward.

There are the faces we once kissed
In the snow lightly falling.
In the snow lightly falling,
There are the faces we once kissed.

Incredible how we laughed and cried
In the snow lightly falling.
In the snow lightly falling,
Incredible how we laughed and cried.

Incredible how we’ll meet again
In the snow lightly falling.
In the snow lightly falling,
Incredible how we’ll meet again.

No small hand will go unheld
In the snow lightly falling.
In the snow lightly falling,
No small hand will go unheld.

No voice once heard is ever lost
In the snow lightly falling.
In the snow lightly falling,
No voice once heard is ever lost.

~Dick Allen “Solace”

In mourning for the families of Uvalde, Texas

There is no comfort for these families.
Their arms ache with emptiness,
their childrens’ beds and pillows cold tonight,
dolls and stuffed animals awaiting all night hugs
that will never come again.

There is no earthly consolation;
only mourning and great weeping,
sobbing that wrings dry
every human cell,
leaving only dust behind,
which is our beginning
and our end.

Christ came to us
for times such as this,
born of the dust of woman and
the breath of Spirit.
God bent down to
be cradled in barn dust,
walk on roads of dust,
die and be laid to rest as dust
to conquer such evil as this –
the slaughter and massacre of innocents.

He became dust to be
like us
He began a mere speck in a womb
like us
His heart beat
like ours
breathing each breath
like ours
until a fearful fallen world
took His
and our breath
away.

He shines His Light through
the darkness of tragic deaths
to guide our stumbling uncertain feet.
His tender mercies flow freely
when there is no consolation,
when there is no comfort.

He hears our cries
as He cried too.
He knows our tears
as He wept too.
He knows our mourning
as He mourned too.
He knows our dying
as He died too.

God wept as this happened yesterday.
Evil comes not from God
yet humankind embraces it.
Sin is our ongoing choice,
a decision made from our beginning,
but we can choose to end it now.

Only God can glue together
what evil has shattered.
He asks us to hand Him
the pieces of our broken hearts,
abandon our evil ways
and sin no more.

We will know His peace
when He comes
to bring us home,
our tears finally dried,
our cells no longer just dust,
as we are glued together
by the word and breath and voice
of God forevermore.

the tender mercy of our God,
    by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
to shine on those living in darkness
    and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.
Luke 1: 78-79

The Groaning and Travailing World

…deeds are done which appear so evil to us
and people suffer such terrible evils
that it does not seem as though any good will ever come of them;
and we consider this, sorrowing and grieving over it 

so that we cannot find peace
and this is why:


our reasoning powers are so blind now, so humble and so simple, 
that we cannot know the high, marvelous wisdom, the might 
and the goodness of the Holy Trinity.


And this is what he means where he says, 
“You shall see for yourself that all manner of things shall be well”, 
as if he said, “Pay attention to this now, faithfully and confidently, 
and at the end of time you will truly see it in the fullness of joy.

~Julian of Norwich from Revelations of Divine Love

Christ did not descend from the cross except into the grave. . . . He must forbear to reveal His power and glory by presenting Himself as Himself, and must be present only in the ordinary miracle of the existence of His creatures. Those who wish to see Him must see Him in the poor, the hungry, the hurt, the wordless creatures, the groaning and travailing beautiful world.
~Wendell Berry from Jayber Crow

Once again we read of an inexplicable mass shooting, a racially motivated killing of innocent victims due to incomprehensible evil.

There is no finding of peace in their deaths.  If I were their family member, there could be no peace for me in the ongoing anguish and despair of such an untimely senseless loss.  Only the intervention of the Holy Spirit can possibly change shock, anger and grief to the fullness of joy. It would come as slow and imperceptibly as God’s still small voice.

I pray that those who have been hurt, those who may never fully recover from their physical and emotional injury, and those who continue to feel their very existence is threatened, may understand how it is remotely possible that God could use evil such as this for good.  Christ Himself was murdered and descended to the grave so that we can see God lying alongside the dead and dying. It is hard for our simple blind human reasoning to accept that all manner of things shall be well…

-even now as we groan and weep until we are dry as dust.

The Stones Themselves Will Start to Sing: I’ll Not Stumble or Fall

For you have delivered me from death
    and my feet from stumbling,
that I may walk before God
    in the light of life.
Psalm 56:13

God alone can deliver a soul from its death,
lift a life from a wasteland of need.
God alone can replenish with blessings untold
until into His light we are freed we are freed.
~Susan Boersma from
“Father of Light

Wait, for now.
Distrust everything, if you have to.
But trust the hours. Haven’t they
carried you everywhere, up to now?
Personal events will become interesting again.
Hair will become interesting.
Pain will become interesting.
Buds that open out of season will become lovely again.
Second-hand gloves will become lovely again,
their memories are what give them
the need for other hands. And the desolation
of lovers is the same: that enormous emptiness
carved out of such tiny beings as we are
asks to be filled; the need
for the new love is faithfulness to the old.

Wait.
Don’t go too early.
You’re tired. But everyone’s tired.
But no one is tired enough.
Only wait a while and listen.
Music of hair,
Music of pain,
music of looms weaving all our loves again.
Be there to hear it, it will be the only time,
most of all to hear,
the flute of your whole existence,
rehearsed by the sorrows, play itself into total exhaustion.
~Galway Kinnell “Wait”
 from A New Selected Poems 

If everyone abandons you and even drives you away by force,
then when you are left alone
fall on the earth and kiss it,
water it with your tears,
and it will bring forth fruit
even though no one has seen or heard you in your solitude.
Believe to the end, even if all people went astray
and you were left the only one faithful;
bring your offering even then and praise God in your loneliness. 
~Fyodor Dostoyevsky from The Brothers Karamazov

Suicide rates of teenagers in the United States increased well over 30% since 2009. Their voices echo loudly:

“It would be easier if I were dead”
“No one cares if I live or die”
“The world would be better off without me”
“It’s too painful to continue”
“I’m not worthy to be here”
“It is my right and no one can stop me”

Let us protect our holiness as created in the image of God
even though weak and frail and prone to helpless hopelessness. We will be restored. In His Light, He will not let us stumble and fall.

Dear ones,
please wait a little longer, only a little longer:
don’t go too early – your bud will soon bloom in His Light.

This year’s Lenten theme for Barnstorming is a daily selection from songs and hymns about Christ’s profound sacrifice on our behalf.

If we remain silent about Him, the stones themselves will shout out and start to sing (Luke 19:40).

In His name, may we sing…

From the comments on this video:
Written by Susan Boersma and based loosely on Psalm 56, this piece was commissioned by the Sanctuary Choir of Third Presbyterian Church in Richmond, Virginia, in memory of Jonathan Richard White, the son of its music director John Stone White. Jonathan was a teenager who struggled with long-term depression and who, despite his persistent faith in God, in the end took his own life. In the aftermath of this tragedy, Jonathan’s family came to more deeply appreciate the magnitude of his struggle, as witnessed by what he wrote in his journal and Bible, and they noted that he returned frequently to the Psalms to find comfort in his distress. In contrast to the sadness surrounding this young man’s death, Craig Courtney’s writing in this piece is uniformly strong and triumphant. “Father of Light” opens with a vocal solo—indicative perhaps of a personal statement of faith—expressing confidence in God’s leading and protection. This solo is followed by unison singing in the lower voices which echoes the sentiments of the soloist. As the piece progresses, more parts are added and the harmonies become richer, until at last the music moves into a higher key, the piano drops out, and all the voices reiterate the words of the opening solo at a loud dynamic. A final entry of the soloist brings this work to its close and reminds the listener that God is sovereign in all things—even great suffering.

All praise to the name of the Father of Light
One Who listens and hears when I call
Ev’ry step He ordains, I shall walk without fear in His light
I’ll not stumble or fall In His light
I’ll not stumble or fall


What can mortal man do while I’m safe in His hand?
He is God on His word
I rely in the midst of my fear
I will trust in His name for I know He will hear when I cry
He knows all of my feelings,
the depths of despair all the limits my soul can endure.
I will trust in His name,
I have nothing to lose, for in Him all my hopes are secure.


All praise to the name of the Father of Light
One Who listens and hears when I call
Ev’ry step He ordains, I shall walk without fear
In His light I’ll not stumble or fall
In His light I’ll not stumble or fall

God alone can deliver a soul from its death,
lift a life from a wasteland of need.
God alone can replenish with blessings untold
until into His light we are freed we are freed.


All praise to the name of the Father of Light
One Who listens and hears when I call
Ev’ry step He ordains, I shall walk without fear
In His light I’ll not stumble or fall In His light
I’ll not stumble or fall
Ev’ry step He ordains, I shall walk without fear
In His light I’ll not stumble or fall

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My Mourning Bench

…we all suffer.
For we all prize and love;
and in this present existence of ours,
prizing and loving yield suffering.
Love in our world is suffering love.
Some do not suffer much, though,
for they do not love much.
Suffering is for the loving.
This, said Jesus, is the command of the Holy One:
“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
In commanding us to love, God invites us to suffer.

Over there, you are of no help.
What I need to hear from you is that you recognize how painful it is.
I need to hear from you that you are with me in my desperation.
To comfort me, you have to come close.
Come sit beside me on my mourning bench.
~Nicholas Wolterstorff from Lament for a Son

Spring 1980

I wondered if 8:30 AM was too early to call my friend and mentor Margy. As a sleep-deprived fourth year medical student, I selfishly needed to hear her voice. I wanted to know how she was doing; she was not sleeping well either these days. She was wearing a new halo brace—a metal contraption that wrapped around her head like a scaffolding to secure her degenerating cervical spine from collapsing from metastatic breast cancer growth in her bones. When she was fitted into the brace, she named the two large screw-like fasteners anchored into her frontal skull her “Frankenstein bolts”.  I had reassured her that with a proper white veil draped around the metal halo, she would be more suited to be Frankenstein’s bride.

Each patient I had seen the previous 24 hours while working in the Emergency Room benefited from the interviewing skills Margy had taught each one of us medical students. She reminded us that each patient had an important story to tell, and no matter how pressured our time, we needed to ask questions that gave permission for that story to be told. As a former nun now married with two teenage children, Margy had become our de facto counselor, and insisted physicians-in-training remember the soul thriving inside the broken and hurting body.

“Just let the patient know with certainty, through your eyes, your body language, your words, that you want to hear what they have to say. You can heal so much hurt simply by sitting beside them and caring enough to listen…”

Now with her recent diagnosis of metastatic cancer, Margy herself had become the broken vessel who needed the glue of a good listener.   She continued to teach, often from her bed at home and I regularly visited, in need of her wisdom and she still needed her students.

That night I had felt uneasy about her all during my ER shift and felt compelled to visit her and her husband and daughter that day, maybe help out by cleaning their house, fixing them a meal or taking her for a drive as a diversion.

Her phone rang only once after I dialed her number. There was a long pause; I could hear a clearing of her throat. A deep dam of tears welled behind a muffled “Hello?” Something was deeply wrong.

Her voice shattered like glass into fragments, strangling on words that struggled to form. She sobbed out the words that their college son, Gordon, was dead. Earlier that morning, a police officer had knocked loudly on their door, awakening her and her husband with the news of a tragic highway accident.

I sat in stunned silence, listening to her sobs, completely unequipped to know how to respond. None of this made sense although I knew her son was on college spring break, heading to Mexico for a missions trip.

She paused and took in a shuddering breath.

“Gordy died as they were driving through the night. He was sleeping in the camper as they drove. They think he sleepwalked right out of the back of the moving camper, fell onto the highway and was hit by another car.“

I felt strangled by her words and could only imagine how difficult it was for her to keep breathing enough to say them.

“They’ll bring him home to us, won’t they? I need to know I can see him again. I need to tell him how much I love him.”

I assured Margy she would see him again, both in his broken body and, some day yet to be determined, whole.

Up until then, I knew in my head this life was full of sorrow, but I had been spared the full heart impact of grief until I witnessed such intensity of an acute unbelievable loss – how loving one so deeply meant suffering immeasurably.

I understood, for the first but surely not the last time, how it is the only way to love.

During the remaining few months of Margy’s life as she waited to join her son, she continued to teach me about how to come close in to the suffering and grief of others, and also how to sit together, even in silence, on that too-often lonesome mourning bench.

…for the Jude Veltkamp family who lost their teenage son, grandson, nephew, brother this week to a relentless cancer.

But our God is even more relentless in His love and comfort for His mourning children…

I knew this life was full of sorrow
But still I believed
That good times would follow
That the evil would falter
And true hearts would rise
True hearts would rise
That simple dream ended
On the night that you died

And even the sound of a whistle fading
Brings back the longing
And stirs up the aching
Peaceful companion that grounded my soul
You grounded my soul
The world spins without meaning
Now that you’re gone

Sometimes I still think
I will see you in New York
And we will meet on the platform of the train
And with your great leaning stride
You’ll cross back to my side
And my old life
Will be my life again

You were quiet as a winter sky
Where planets turn
And the North Star rides
My sweet brother, so reasoned, so calm
My brother, my own
The world spins without meaning
Now that you’re gone
~Fernando Ortega

Supper Will Be Soon

Twilight comes to the little farm
At winter’s end. The snowbanks
High as the eaves, which melted
And became pitted during the day,
Are freezing again, and crunch
Under the dog’s foot. The mountains
From their place behind our shoulders
Lean close a moment, as if for a
Final inspection, but with kindness,
A benediction as the darkness
Falls. It is my fiftieth year. Stars
Come out, one by one with a softer
Brightness, like the first flowers
Of spring. I hear the brook stirring,
Trying its music beneath the ice.
I hear – almost, I am not certain –
Remote tinklings; perhaps sheepbells
On the green side of a juniper hill
Or wineglasses on a summer night.
But no. My wife is at her work,
There behind yellow windows. Supper
Will be soon. I crunch the icy snow
And tilt my head to study the last
Silvery light of the western sky
In the pine boughs. I smile. Then
I smile again, just because I can.
I am not an old man. Not yet.
~Hayden Carruth, “Twilight Comes” from From Snow and Rock

I am well aware how precious each day is, yet it necessitates effort to live as though I truly understand it.

So many people are not living out the fullness of their days as they have been taken too soon: either pandemic deaths or delayed treatment of other illness, tragic fatalities due to increased overdoses, accidents and suicides. I try to note the passing of the hours in my mind’s calendar so I can appreciate the blessings I have been given.

Each twilight becomes a benediction for preparation for the meal ahead. I pause to see, hear, touch and taste what is before me and what awaits me. And it never fails to make me smile.

I’m always hungry for the supper that awaits me, provided from the land through sacrifice and handed to me in love.

I’m not too old, at least not yet, to look forward to the gift of each next day until, in the fullness of time, there will be no more.

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There is No Center Any Longer

The mass gravesite at Wounded Knee, Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota
Burial of the dead in the mass gravesite at Wounded Knee

Big Foot, a great Chief of the Sioux often said,
“I will stand in peace till my last day comes.”
He did many good and brave deeds

for the white man and the red man.
Many innocent women and children who knew no wrong died here.
~Inscription on the Wounded Knee Monument

I did not know then how much was ended. When I look back now from this high hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes still young. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people’s dream died there. It was a beautiful dream. And I, to whom so great a vision was given in my youth, — you see me now a pitiful old man who has done nothing, for the nation’s hoop is broken and scattered. There is no center any longer, and the sacred tree is dead.
~Black Elk, (wounded trying to rescue his people after the Wounded Knee Massacre)  from Black Elk Speaks

From today’s The Writer’s Almanac:

December 29 is the anniversary of the massacre at Wounded Knee, which took place in South Dakota in 1890. Twenty-three years earlier the local tribes had signed a treaty with the United States government that guaranteed them the rights to the land around the Black Hills, which was sacred land. The treaty said that not only could no one move there, but they couldn’t even travel through without the consent of the Indians.

But in the 1870s gold was discovered in the Black Hills and the treaty was broken. People from the Sioux tribe were forced onto a reservation with a promise of more food and supplies, which never came. Then in 1889 a native prophet named Wovoka, from the Paiute tribe in Nevada, had a vision of a ceremony that would renew the earth, return the buffalo, and cause the white men to leave and return the land that belonged to the Indians. This ceremony was called the Ghost Dance. People traveled across the plains to hear Wovoka speak, including emissaries from the Sioux tribe, and they brought back his teachings. The Ghost Dance, performed in special brightly colored shirts, spread through the villages on the Sioux reservation and it scared the white Indian agents. They considered the ceremony a battle cry, dangerous and antagonistic. So one of them wired Washington to say that he was afraid and wanted to arrest the leaders and he was given permission to arrest Chief Sitting Bull, who was killed in the attempt. The next on the wanted list was Sitting Bull’s half-brother, Chief Big Foot, known to his own people as Spotted Elk. Some members of Sitting Bull’s tribe made their way to Big Foot and when he found out what had happened he decided to lead them along with the rest of his people to Pine Ridge Reservation for protection. But it was winter, 40 degrees below zero, and he contracted pneumonia on the way.

Big Foot was sick, he was flying a white flag, and he was a peaceful man. He was one of the leaders who had actually renounced the Ghost Dance. But the Army didn’t make distinctions. They intercepted Big Foot’s band and ordered them into the camp on the banks of the Wounded Knee Creek. Big Foot went peacefully.

The next morning federal soldiers began confiscating their weapons and a scuffle broke out between a soldier and an Indian. The federal soldiers opened fire, killing almost 300 men, women, and children, including Big Foot. Even though it wasn’t really a battle, the massacre at Wounded Knee is considered the end of the Indian Wars, a blanket term to refer to the fighting between the Native Americans and the federal government, which had lasted 350 years.

One of the people wounded but not killed during the massacre was the famous medicine man Black Elk, author of Black Elk Speaks (1932). Speaking about Wounded Knee, he said:

“I did not know then how much was ended. When I look back now from this high hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes still young. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people’s dream died there. It was a beautiful dream.”

Like most twentieth century American children, I grew up with a sanitized understanding of American and Native history.  I had only a superficial knowledge of what happened at Wounded Knee, a low hill that rises above a creek bed on the South Dakota Pine Ridge Reservation, gleaned primarily from the 71 day symbolic standoff in 1973 between members of the Oglala Sioux and the American Indian Movement and the FBI, resulting in several shooting deaths.

Nine years ago, when our son was teaching math at Little Wound High School on the Pine Ridge Reservation, we visited the site of this last major battle between the white man and Native people, which broke the spirit of the tribes’ striving to maintain their nomadic life as free people. This brutal massacre of nearly 300 Lakota men, women and children by the Seventh Regiment of the U.S. Army Cavalry took place in December 1890.

The dead lay where they fell for four days due to a severe blizzard. When the frozen corpses were finally gathered up by the Army, a deep mass grave was dug at the top of the hill, the bodies buried stacked one on top of another. The massive grave is now marked by a humble memorial monument surrounded by a chain link fence, adjacent to a small church, circled by more recent Lakota gravesites.

Four infants survived the four days of blizzard conditions wrapped in their dead mothers’ robes. One baby girl, only a few months old, was named “Lost Bird” after the massacre, bartered for and adopted by an Army Colonel as an interesting Indian “relic.” Rather than this adoption giving her a new chance, she died at age 29, having endured much illness, prejudice in white society, as well as estrangement from her native community and culture. Her story has been told in a book by Renee Sansom Flood, who helped to locate and move her remains back to Wounded Knee, where in death she is now back with her people.

There is unspeakable desolation and sadness on that lonely hill of graves. It is a regrettable part of our history that descendants of immigrants to American soil need to understand: by coming to the “New World” for opportunity, or refuge from oppression elsewhere, we made refugees of the people already here.

As Black Elk wrote, the dreams of a great people have been scattered and lack a center. He was not only speaking of his own tribe, but was presciently speaking of our current divisiveness – due to extremism, we lack “a center” in our current governmental discourse.

We must never allow hope to be buried at Wounded Knee nor must we ever forget what it means to no longer be safe in one’s own homeland.

Lost Bird after her adoption

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