Saturday, March 1, 2014

A woman of two cities

The Dakota named their home, "The Land Where the Water Reflects the Clouds." 

A name full of shining sacredness, and thus the best kind of name. 

The Europeans who took the land from the Dakota and the Ojibwe called it "The Land of 10,000 Lakes." 

They built two cities, side by side, on both banks of the Mississippi River.

Before I continue this tale, there are some things you need to understand. For context.

Minneapolis is the City of Lakes. This is where I was born, and where my parents were born, and where I have lived for 99 percent of my life. Except for the river gorge, it stands on flat terrain, where the Chain of Lakes and wetlands reflect the sky. Scando-protestant-hipster-liberal. 

St. Paul is the Capitol City. St. Paul is the older, smaller, hillier city, with more historic buildings and old neighborhoods than Minneapolis--Irish-Catholic-traditional DFL-blue collar. 

So to simplify greatly, St. Paul, history. Minneapolis, lakes

But both river. The Mississippi manages to snake through both downtown hearts, even though they are 10 miles apart. 

Native Minneapolitans rarely move to St. Paul, and vice versa. 

It's just how it is. 

But if they're me, chances are they will end up working in St. Paul quite often. Like I am now. 

Every morning, I drive from Minneapolis to St. Paul over the Meeting of the Waters, Mendota, where the Mississippi joins the Minnesota River.  I sneak glances through the highway bridge railings at the river, and it looks like a wide, blank expanse of snow. If it weren't for the Cottonwoods that delineate its banks, and the fact that there is a bridge over it, you wouldn't know a wild river slept beneath. All appears still.

But I know the river is napping with one eye open, alive and restless even in winter, its water brown as a hibernating bear and bristling with ice crystals, creeping through ever-rushing arteries within the frozen architecture of its slumber.

As I cast my eyes outward, I see too the mystical island at the confluence of the rivers, the sacred place that the Dakota considered to be the center of all things, where their stories tell that humankind was created.

Remember the times I have walked across the sandy flood plain of that island--a somehow-hushed, between-the-worlds, silver-green place, even with the traffic from the bridge rushing over and the droning of jets overhead and the occasional speedboat sending the river water washing against the low banks.

I do not like its modern name so I won't write it here. The island's sacredness can't be hemmed in by powerlines or desecrated by broken is native to the place, unconquerable. That's what I tell myself, when I see it beset on all sides by civilization, so that I don't feel as sad.

But at times it is meet and right to feel sad, isn't it?

For most of the trip I follow a road at the base of the river bluffs, close to the Mississippi. If only I had a way of taking photos as I drive. My hungry eyes take sustenance from the sights each morning--the fairyland of snow-covered trees in a ravine, the bold, medieval hulk of a grain elevator against the sky, billows of pale pink and lavender steam-clouds unfolding from smokestacks in the morning sunlight. 

This is what I see after I get out of the car...thus I share a small part of my daily journey with you, wherever you are. 

The St. Paul Cathedral on Cathedral Hill, the view to my left...

...the Minnesota State Capitol, the view to my right...

...the young river birch maidens I pass on my daily walk from the parking lot to the building...

...looking toward the Cathedral, lofty Austrian pines...and the entrance to the history museum where I work, which has taken up residence between the domes of St. Paul.

There are so many kinds of history, and there is no history without a story. The one that is calling to me is the story of this land itself. I don't mean Minnesota as a political entity, but something deeper and older and bigger than that: this Place that was loved by the native peoples who knew it and honored it and cared for it and were part of its story for centuries upon centuries.

I'm coming to understand that there is so little I understand about being a part of the essential Here.

Is this making any sense? I realize I write things like this rather often. More than half a century of living, and sometimes I wonder what it is I've been doing up to this point. Is that how everyone feels as they grow older? That maybe it takes years to even begin to ask the right questions?

I feel I'm a child in the world, even now, in all that I'd like to understand. I'm curious. Once again, I'm hot on the trail of something. Might get hold of it, might not, but no matter; I'm sure to find something.

Maybe I'll start this round with the museum store. It has many books on Dakota culture. I have a lunch hour and an employee discount.

P.S. And perfectly in line with Raquel's intuition on this, I was guided to an excellent post on Priscilla Stuckey's blog, This Lively Earth, about her journey in relationship and spiritual helpers.


  1. I think the land itself is speaking to you, Carmine. It's good for you to sense it... but to make sense of land-language is difficult, especially at first. The land doesn't speak in linear terms... on our terms. It speaks in symbols, sensations, colors, whispers, in a dream-like language. Perhaps it will speak to you more in dreams, too!

    And even though we have lived a certain amount of years, we live in cycles, and so it feels sometimes like we're babies, just learning things, because we come around to the same early lessons, or because we've completed a cycle and are experiencing beginnings/newness again. That's what I think anyhow...

    I wish you well on this new venture... I have a feeling it's going to bring you someplace very beautiful.

  2. True insights, Raquel. I'm starting to think of the land as someplace that lives inside me, a spirit place I can go. I may have dreamed of it last night, because I held it in my thoughts before is becoming central to me, somehow. It is a good thought to access it through other channels than thought, thank you for your wisdom.

  3. It is great to read your encouraging stories about even daily life in a place you’ve spent nearly all your days—and yes, it all made sense to me. It shows that you are not failing to see what’s around you, as most people do when they have seen it for so long a while; they miss each thing that’s there, and it holds no special meaning to them.
    Recently I got this big book on Hopi Kachina dolls and how to identify them and what each represents. I then realised that the book was written by some anthropologist from Boston or someplace like that and that this was an interpretation of what any of these sacred dolls meant. I got rid of it quickly thereafter. The reason being that I said to myself, if I want to know about the Hopi I’d best go ask them. I thought I’d tell you that since you wanted to read books about the Native inhabitants of Minnesota. There may be some of them about to talk with or maybe some who wrote books too. As much as I like Patricia Stuckley, when I heard her give her talk about one of her books and after sat with her at her signing table and spoke with her, I was struck that she saw her glimmerings of realisation as to the connectedness of all things as something new—and even more so that the other people present also saw what she was saying as some novel concept. I asked her if she knew that the things she’d scratched the surface of in her own realisations had always been around, and that the human race had worked hard to forget that we are part of and connected to the world around us since its extended divorce proceedings of the past few hundred years. Of course I was encouraged by her or her reception, because it showed a glimmer of hope for the over-fed, under-nourished populous around me, whose sometimes hopeless perspective makes me want to live in a cave or put a paper bag over my head and hide under the bed.
    So I’ve been very interested to come up to the north this autumn and see if I’d like to stay there a while. Minnesota definitely has got me interested, as long as I can somehow deal with the cities and buildings and cars and names people have made up for everything. But I’ll likely have a supply of paper bags with me just in case. I try to remember each day how it is that I’ve lived much of life amongst all of this and I somehow just looked through it, whereas now it offends or saddens me. I suppose I’ll be like Lord Dunsany and tell the world to wait, as one day all this modern stuff will be gone, and it can go on living and breathing again. I hope so.
    Hope is a good thing.

  4. I know what you mean about the perspectives and paper bags...I do believe that we're here to learn from each other, and we're all in different places, so I'm encouraged when people are at least open to old/new ideas--we are spreading the word, right? This is why it is lovely to find a community of like-minded spirits who are connecting with each other and who can mentor each other, or at witness and support our journeys through this life--thank you for that, Reifyn! There is indeed a community of native American peoples living in and around the cities and maybe working as curators of native artifacts at my new workplace, as well. And at the casinos of course, which can only be run by the tribes in MN. MN has a lot going for it and at least there are getting to be more options in the Twin Cities metro for getting around if you don't own a car--buses, expanding light rail lines, car sharing services like Smart Car and Hour Car and more bike lanes. Still, winters are at least 5 months long here, which scares off most people. :)

    1. Hi Carmine. I'm not sure about the Twin Cities, because the cost of living is beyond the pale of human reason. However, I wonder about the North. I've lived in places that make MN look real nice, sunny and warm. I miss having at least a winter, and you can make an igloo if you want: hot places are kind of awful actually. Woke up to blazing sun after 2 days of rain (that makes 5 days of rain since August—we had one day of snow too. Imagine that: one day of snow! Makes you laugh doesn't it?). You're fortunate to work in that nice area there. I like that cathedral very much—I only wish they'd put them to better uses. I covet the idea of getting a disused church one day for an art studio.
      Thank you for your words. And I do think indeed that we are here to learn from one another—but as to planting seeds: the only ones I've ever seen grow for sure were put in actual soil by me; other than that, I haven't seen much other germination (which doesn't mean it hasn't happened). I'm very careful about that sort of thing, as I don't really want to influence others more than making them see the ridiculous or ironic side of things. The Fool Archetype, they call it I suppose. That's me.

  5. I do believe we are here to learn from each other so it is our job to plant seeds in receptive soil, yes? At least some are open and the old is made new again. There is a small native american community in MN (only 2%) and I'd guess some of the local curators of Indian artifacts are native peoples at the history center where I work...and in MN only the tribes can run casinos. MN has a lot going for it but the winters are at least 5 months long so that scares off a lot of people. :)


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