IV My fiftieth year had come and gone,
I sat, a solitary man,
In a crowded London shop,
An open book and empty cup
On the marble table-top.
While on the shop and street I gazedMy body of a sudden blazed;
And twenty minutes more or less
It seemed, so great my happiness,
That I was blessed and could bless.V Although the summer Sunlight gild
Cloudy leafage of the sky,
Or wintry moonlight sink the field
In storm-scattered intricacy,
I cannot look thereon,
Responsibility so weighs me down.
Things said or done long years ago,
Or things I did not do or say
But thought that I might say or do,
Weigh me down, and not a day
But something is recalled,
My conscience or my vanity appalled.
~William Butler Yeats,Vacillation Parts IV and V
In this, the last trimester of my life, I find myself dwelling on how I continue to grow and change, as if I was gestating all over again, 68 years later. It is a time or preparation for what comes next, while not wanting to miss a moment of what is – right now.
I have plenty of opportunity to replay the many moments I’ve regretted what I said or did, or what I could have said or did….and didn’t. Recalling remorse is far easier and stickier than replaying joy that seems so fleeting in my memory.
There are times when I feel both weighed down by memories and freed at the same time. It almost always happens while sitting in worship in church, while silently confessing how I have wronged those around me or turned my face from God, yet in the next moment, I feel the embrace of a Creator who never forgets but still forgives. It is an overwhelming knowledge that brings me to tears every time.
It is in that moment that my joy no longer is fleeting; it lives deeply in my cells since I, like all around me, am created in His image.
And God saw what He had made, and it was, and still is, good. He made us for joy, not out of regret.
He is a hard one to write a poem about. Like Napoleon. Hannibal. Genghis Khan. Already so large in history. To do it right, I have to sit down with him. At a place of his own choosing. Probably a steakhouse. We take a table in a corner. But people still recognize him, come up and slap him on the back, say how much they enjoyed studying about him in school and ask for his autograph. After he eats, he leans back and lights up a cigar and asks me what I want to know. Notebook in hand, I suggest that we start with the Little Big Horn and work our way back. But I realize I have offended him. That he would rather take it the other way around. So he rants on about the Civil War, the way west, the loyalty of good soldiers and now and then twists his long yellow hair with his fingers. But when he gets to the part about Sitting Bull, about Crazy Horse, he develops a twitch above his right eye, raises his finger for the waiter, excuses himself and goes to the restroom while I sit there along the bluffs with the entire Sioux nation, awaiting his return. ~David Shumate “Custer” from High Water Mark
When my family took two cross-country trips by car, once in 1963 and another in 1965, my father, a former officer and battalion leader in the Marines during WWII, was the primary driver and keeper of maps and deadlines. He could be convinced to stop at any number of state and national parks, points of interest and historical markers, but all four times we passed the sign indicating the Battle of the Little Bighorn, he would not stop despite our pleading.
“You’ve seen as much as there is up there,” he would say as we sped past, pointing at the marble monolith at the top of the hill where the battle took place. I would look around at the desolate countryside of brown grass with no trees, in the middle of nowhere, and wonder how this place could ever have warranted a battle to the death.
Then I would get mad at my dad’s refusal to stop to learn more.
I had certainly learned about General George Custer’s Last Stand in my elementary school history lessons. But my interest was primarily driven by a 1958 Disney movie “Tonka Wakan” that I had seen in the theater and then later on Sunday nights on “Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color.” I thought I understood the tragedy of that day from the standpoint of the U.S. Calvary and the only surviving horse Comanche, who in the Disney-imagined version of the battle, was raised and trained by a young Indian boy who turned the horse over to the calvary and then later was part of the Little Bighorn Battle in defense of Indian territory.
So I had a very skewed and Disney-fied version of history and my father was not helping me understand more deeply. It wasn’t until much later that I realized the likely reason he was so reluctant to stop and examine the history of the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
My father was ashamed of it. He was a humble man who knew there could be no pride or sense of honor in that place.
He had very likely been trained in his Marine Officer’s Training in 1942 to understand that the poor decision-making of a cocky, overly self-assured General Custer led to the slaughter of five companies of the 7th Calvary Regiment as well as their Indian scouts in addition to dozens of Lakota and Dakota Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapahoe warriors.
My father had lived through three South Pacific island battles where poor decision-making was a death sentence. He didn’t feel the need to rehash the history in this desolate part of Montana.
As an adult, I’ve visited the Battlefield with my husband and children several times, have learned more about what led to the battle, what took place that day and how the indigenous people of the region have memorialized the spot from their own perspective. When we approach this spot on our cross-country drives, I’m filled with regret and remorse at the loss of life and the eventual loss of a Native American culture that could never again be as it was, despite the defeat they handed to the cavalry that day. I learned more when our son lived and taught high school math on the Pine Ridge Reservation of the Lakota Sioux people and we visited the site of Wounded Knee, another tear-drenched place in U.S. Cavalry and Native American history.
We, all descendants of immigrant Americans, comprise the U.S. government and military which doesn’t always make the best or wisest decisions. This is haunting us again this week in the miserably managed ending of the twenty-year war in Afghanistan that has cost so many American and Afghan lives – certainly beyond the scale of the horrific one day defeat at the Little Bighorn River. This long drawn-out complicated response to the attacks we suffered on 9/11/01, ended with yet more tragic bloodshed as we left so many vulnerable behind.
War, suffering, loss and death cannot and should not be Disney-fied. History is more complex than a paragraph in a textbook.
We have so much to learn about our shame and our need for greater humility. We need to understand who we have offended, not just how offended we feel. We can’t hide in the bathroom or drive on past the sites of these bloody conflicts, hoping it will all be forgotten.
A book of Barnstorming photography and Lois Edstrom’s poetry is available to order here:
You can hide nothing from God.
The mask you wear before men will do you no good before Him.
He wants to see you as you are,
He wants to be gracious to you.
You do not have to go on lying to yourself and your brothers,
as if you were without sin;
you can dare to be a sinner. ~Dietrich Bonhoeffer from Life Together
One of my Monday morning jobs in our college health clinic is to meet with any student who got so intoxicated they had to spend part of the weekend in the emergency room. Alcohol poisonings are distressingly common on all college campuses, and ours is no exception. What I do during our morning-after visit is review the records with the student so they have some idea what took place before they woke up hours later on a gurney in a noisy smelly emergency room– alcohol is an effective amnesia-producing anesthetic when it doesn’t manage to outright kill its consumer. It is a humbling experience to read about what one said and did while one was under the influence of intoxicants and yet have no memory of any of it. That is why my time is well spent with the recovering and remorseful. Not only does their stomach lining still burn from all the vomiting, but their head hurts from acknowledging the risks they took in the name of having a good time. It is rare that I ever need to meet again with the same student about similar behavior.
This, in reality, is a very effective kind of hurting, one that is crucial to future decision-making: dangerous behavior is far less appealing when one still carries the scars. Priorities change for the better.
Today I won’t be able to work in several hundred now-sober students into this morning’s clinic schedule after the unfortunate and widely publicized events that happened just a couple blocks off our college campus a little over 24 hours ago. I suspect most of the students involved remember more than they wish to about their participation in a big-block-party-gone-terribly-wrong. They were part of an aggressive mob mentality threatening law enforcement personnel trying to disperse an increasingly rowdy and obnoxious crowd. Some are finding themselves in video and Instagram/Facebook documentation of their profane words and gestures, throwing potentially lethal objects, vandalizing private and city property as well as causing thousands of dollars of city resources to confront out of control drunk rioters. These students can try to lay low but there is no place to hide from their inner knowledge of what they have done, the part they played and the irreparable damage they caused to individuals, relationships, property and as well as the reputations of the city and the university. There is no comforting alcohol amnesia to hide within this time.
The only possible healing from an event like this is to come clean about what one has done, admit the mistakes made and work to make it right no matter the cost — to dare to acknowledge the sins committed and accept the consequences of one’s actions.
Hiding is cheap — guilt and shame remain behind the mask.
Grace and forgiveness is costly but there is no longer need to hide and be eaten away by a continually hurting soul.
My prescription for this day and in the days to come: changed priorities ahead. College is about obtaining a valuable and precious education, not about finding the biggest and best party of intoxicants.