The vast majority of the essays seemed remote from what I’m interested in. One thing missing
almost totally is God and thinking about anything— whatever it is—from a faith perspective.
John Wilson, Books & Culture Podcast with Stan Guthrie on The Best American Essays 2012, 10/29/12
The stars are the tracks of Raven in his snowshoes crossing the sky—
Smithsonian Institute, Arctic Center Studies Exhibit, Anchorage Museum, Alaska
This is about a westward movement traveling in my car, as if it was a covered wagon, not
leaving it, day and night, except for gasoline and something to eat. To hold the world together in the car is to drive from northeast Kansas to wherever I’m going. To live in Kansas is to be equal
distance from the coasts. I can go east or west with the same fervor and spend the same time
getting there. The rest stops become familiar, pulling in after dark for anonymity and invisibility
so it isn’t obvious I travel alone. I like the larger rest areas— the ones with room for long rows
of cars, which there are every night. The new motel without rooms. It must be the economy.
Often, there are railroad tracks nearby. This is a country of travel— of trains running
everywhere along major highways. There are places that say, no sleeping. Other places limit
cars to a four-hour stay. I look for the blue signs— Rest Area 2 Miles. Once in snow, the snow plow plowed around my car leaving it buried in a mound of snow. That rest stop was west of St. Louis when I was on my way to the Green Bay Independent Film Festival. Heat is the only thing
that keeps me from sleeping in the car, though it cools down once I stop late at night.
Once a flock of geese flew above the road. I saw their white undersides, their black wings
beating a narrow corridor against the sky. It was a moment in which I saw the visage of a
pattern. I imagined the universe as a Mobius strip. In my boltings, I could move on and on
without stopping. There is no end of the road on a Mobius band.
Traveling by myself for a long distance makes a vacuum that draws the voices of the land
into it. I drive until there is a vortex, and I am in a different realm. A long journey is a small,
black hole in which the land, the past, the possibilities of imagination are stuck.
It would be too much to catch the mind moving the way it moves on its errant path. A
little ship on a stormy sea. But I am camped at a rest stop locked in my car after driving all day.
I couldn’t sleep, but listened to the rain on the roof of my car, the trains that pass, and the trucks
that pull into the rest stop, or leave after a few hours’ sleep. They grunt like a herd of restless
animals. It is my thoughts that can’t sleep, but rise and fall from the sea, which thinking is,
locked in the fretful memories, associations, driftings and tempests. Maybe I drift off now and
then. Sometimes sleep is like that.
I travel alone. That’s where the voices of the past are. I drive— trying to reach something going
farther away— and if I reach it, it seems not as it was, but changing even as I hold it in my hand.
It’s like the sound of a plane overhead going somewhere. It is still there, in the air, just farther
away, out of reach, until it reaches its landing.
This is what I know. That is what I understand from the land and from rocks I pick up
during travel. I am not able to see the earth as it was except in brief moments because of the
grief it would cause. I would hold that early feeling to my face if I could. I would enter again
those brief glimpses of return. It seems sometimes the older I get, the farther away I can see—
both back and forward.
The road offers voices— and thoughts of what should be written— if I am quiet and
traveling by myself, and have asked to hear what is there to hear. This is what I know. I was
created. I suffered loss. I was restored.
I have a memory of Bible school as a child— there was a lost sheep on the flannel board.
There was a feeling it was me, and Jesus left the others to find that lost sheep that was darker
than the others. I remember the thought, or lesson, that Jesus wanted his sheep with him. Later,
I found the verse in John 17:24— Father, I ask that these also, whom you have given me, be with
me where I am, to see my glory which you have given me because you loved me before the
foundation of the world.
In that mix, or mux, or flux of language, where phrases seem to run together, and
meaning is buried, is the explanation of what I feel. Something other calls me to itself—
diligence in my work— which has been teaching and sometimes a creative research for writing.
Certainly, there is the work ethic of my mother’s German / English heritage— the way things
should be done— which I didn’t always receive happily from her.
Once, she pushed me out of the house. I don’t remember what I was doing to get in
trouble. I sat on the front steps in the dark, except for the streetlight on the corner. I remember
the man next door walking down the street. I sat against the post of the front-porch to hide my
punishment. I must have been six or seven. It was a first realization that art has its front-porch in the yard of ostracism from the acceptable, though at the time I didn’t realize what I knew.
Often art goes into alien territory to find solution for what cannot be reconciled or even fully
It was my father’s undocumented and marginal Cherokee heritage— a distillation of what
he was, and could not be in the world he lived in to earn a living, to migrate into the world he
found to migrate into, and had to move forward in, according to its ideas of punctuality and
getting with the plan and achieving goals. He was a steady influence in my life. Circumspect.
Always there, until his death. And sometimes when I travel, I’m aware of him. He provided for
us. He had a recognition of the being that is the land. He was in church with us. He may have
been the reason we went. I also remember his respect for me, and it has informed my life.
Somehow it came through in the discordant house.
And when they called in the apostles, they had them flogged. Then they were ordered not to
speak the name of Jesus, and let them go. As they left the council, they rejoiced that they were
considered worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name— Acts 5:41.
It is in dreams, in passing off to the side— in peripheral vision— I often find what I know to
deal with— even though I have lost the ability to see, or know it as it is— yet I can discern it, or
recognize it as similitude. Often it waits at rest stops when I pull in for the night— the neighbor
would never see me there— sitting on the porch-step in the dark. That is my definition of
Christianity— a hiding from trouble.
I have aloneness, though at times I feel them around me— the traveling-beings [or
helpers] who like travel. I am confident of their presence. Recently, someone asked if I minded driving after dark on my long trips. Without hesitation, I said that helpers are there on the road
at night— and they are. There’s an endurance or resilience in the spirit world— when endurance
is necessary. There’s a presence that comes, even if it is only an attitude from within.
I am not a scholar. I am not a full-blood anything, but a mixed-blood with a search-
engine trying to find the lost puzzle parts in an intricate pattern that appears to me in the creative
field. The voices bond together with all the other voices— is usually what I find. It is my past
that the voices find. It is my past and their past where the voices connect. It is where I have
found place for the mulling over inconsistencies, contradictions, injustices, the silenced, the
effort to reclaim, to tell, to be heard, to connect with the fabric of imagination, which is where
stories and the act of writing reside.
I have felt called to set upright that which has been perceived to be slanted.
My creative scholarship is on the road by myself, following the trail of some historical
character. The land has memory. It keeps a journal of what has passed upon it. It is in the
elements— if I stand there long enough. There is something solitary I continually deal with. It
is in that solitary shape that I find connection to the past.
Maybe our memory is found in the land. I remember because the land remembers—
This stone will be a witness to us, for it has heard the words of the Lord he spoke to us— Joshua 24:27.
This is what I know. This is what the land has said—
They shall dwell safely in the wilderness and sleep in the woods— Ezekiel 34:25.
The Bible language is the trail I follow— when I am alone at rest stops— when I am
alone in the wilderness. How can I explain this to the scoffers that inhabit the colleges and universities? I am the odd ball. The odd woman out. The one who stops in the woods. The one
who sleeps in the wilderness. It is written that I can. That’s how I know I can do it— reading
about those old campers in the Bible. Those desert travelers.
Words are existence. Language is a living being, especially the voice in motion during
story-telling. Our existence and language are inseparable. In the beginning of Genesis, God
spoke the world into being. But now the word must be written. The old ways of oral story-
telling have changed— the orality of making as it happened.
The first writing must have been the making of marks that somehow conveyed meaning. Mere words that looked like animal prints in the earth, or sticks or scratches or marks on stone or papyrus or scraps of hide. Or elk antlers or deer horns scraped against a tree. I’ve heard biblical scholars say that Seth, Adam’s third son, was the one who began to keep written records. That old betrayal, the spoken language stuffed into written form. The agony of the voice no longer on its own, but carried by those inferior marks on the page. The disappointment of the voice when it found it had to be carried in written words that needed the mediation of reading. How it diffused the direct approach of story-telling that rode on the wings of air directly into the ear.
Yet the written words also have an enlarged way of seeing— the extended forecast—
this thing is like that. If words weren’t written, how would I know that an Inuit once saw the
myriad of stars, and said they were bird tracks?— Or how could I see bird tracks in the snow,
and say, they are stars?
I do not live in the native community. If I did, it would be Tahlequah, Oklahoma. But I am
aware of the long Christian history there, where conferences have begun with Amazing Grace
sung in Cherokee. My great-grandfather was a fugitive of sorts. He fled Indian Territory after getting into trouble. He set up a momentum in the family that has lasted these three generations. I still want to cover my tracks. Stay low. Keep moving. Elijah and his chariot of fire— I Kings
2:11— has been my forerunner. Christianity my somewhat community. Scripture my Rand
McNally Road Atlas. Writing about it are the stones that hold me down and give me place.
You may not want to hear, but I would say I prevailed when moorings were laid bare and
holdings came loose and I was sent away on my own without any means with which to make my
way. When I was torn. Desolate. I knew a state of momentum. To this day, I can drive 700 or
800 miles a day and sleep in the wilderness of rest stops along the interstates.
Jesus was pushed out of the house also. I can sleep like he did, and not be afraid.
He found him in a desert land, and in the waste, howling wilderness; he led him about, he
instructed him, and kept him as the apple of his eye— Deuteronomy 32:10.
It is the Judeo-Christian heritage I’m talking about. Maligned. Despised. Rejected by
men. No comeliness that would appeal to anyone. Yet my sword is bathed in heaven— Isaiah
If it is true [Jesus alone was given for the salvation of humanity], why isn’t it more
obvious? Why can’t I leave it behind as others have? I thought at times it couldn’t be true. The
gospel— the good news that Christ died for my sins. I had a colleague who wanted to remove
the cross from the campus chapel. Another wanted to change our days to a calendar based on
something other than Christ’s death on the cross. But here we are in the year of our Lord. I could not bolt as yet. A child’s options are limited. I had two heritages as land masses with a
narrow isthmus between them. It was the corridor I rowed.
I think the land speaks. The clouds. The wind. The river. Sometimes the fog on
mornings above the lake and rivers. And voices that were here. Mainly, I hear voices that did
not have a chance to speak. Voices of the unwanted. When I travel, I hear them in my
imagination— in my drivings over the land unfolding what is folded there.
I am defined by land— but I have been cut off. Removed from a particular place. My sense of place is in the journey. I have lived many places over the years. My identity is in
its moving fragments.
It was my father’s Cherokee part that was a dangling participle— a modifier that didn’t
quite fit the modified. When I was a child, the Cherokee lived in Oklahoma— as if they lived
there only when I was a child. But, it was as a child I heard this, and it modified what I knew of
the Cherokee. When I started writing, it was to pin down this floating part of my identity.
There were a few trips to my father’s mother in Viola, Arkansas, but my grandmother
was silent during the visits. She never came to our house. She died when I was 11, before I
knew what to ask. But when we visited her those few times, there was sense of erasure— a
sense of distance from something else. Our voices were a necessary distance because something was there that couldn’t be looked at. Something my great-grandfather had done made him run. There was an unknown history between us. Something not to be asked. Something unanswered. What was I? It was in elementary school in Kansas City where I recognized the outcast status I felt on the front steps when my mother pushed me from the house. Maybe I was looking for something other than what she didn’t want.
Look to the rock from which you are hewn— Isaiah 51:1. Sometimes I hear the old
voices in the rocks I pick up. I listen to what sticks to me— like seeds on the legs of my trousers
and socks when I walk in the woods—beggar’s lice— someone said they are called.
This is for the hidden. The disappointed. Though I have held a job teaching creative
writing. Another position that needs argument for its being.  A fraudulent course among
disciplines with tacking and rigging attached to proper academia.  A fraudulent course for
the now business-minded universities in the process of banishing the arts and letters.
Why was I willing to be an eye-sore in everything I did? Why was I willing to be a
Christian? And what did all of that mean? The last thing usually tolerated at the college was the
gospel. It was the gotten-beyond, even in the religion department. The unacceptable word of
God. And the believers who professed that belief. But I found myself believing more all the
time. I was on a collision course. Life would come to an end. I was getting there. Why was
there a stigma to those who proclaimed faith? We’d gotten beyond Christianity, they would say,
thank goodness. Why didn’t they believe? Well, it seemed obvious— Christianity with its
unwanted threat of hell. Other problems were manifold— There is a God. We are separated
from him. He sent his son to die on a cross, so we could be returned to him, if we so desired.
There is nothing we can do to earn salvation. It’s not an easy religion. There are many
interpretations. The fundamental precepts of Christianity wear thorns. Yet it is the one I choose
to wear, though wearing one’s faith openly sometimes ostracizes one.
What pushes out more than the narrow channel of renegade, fundamental Christianity I
have chosen to row. A Protestant Christianity left on the front steps— outside its confines. On
the road instead of the pew. Or in the pew, if pews could be seen as east-west interstates— I-
90. I-80. I-70. I-40. I-10. I think that’s how each pew in church should be marked.
I like these troubled waters— these waters where I get in trouble. When I felt the ship
breaking apart as did the Apostle Paul in the end of the Book of Acts, I held to the broken pieces
of the boards. We all are here to break apart, to fall desperately into the cold sea. It is that way
in academia. God is dead. Let all that is past be past. We’ve crossed the border into the new sea
where there is just us and what we can think up in our own heads. That is the new beginning.
The new world in which we’ve arrived.
Even in church, I always placed myself on the back row, ignored, yet I raised two
children, became a professor, and made two independent films, which took more faith and
endurance than sitting in church.
After church on Sundays, I visit with an aunt as she nears death. She never went to church.
Jesus is Lord, I tell her, though she does not hear and is unable to answer. It seems a secret
message, sinister in its covert action. Does God pluck those he chooses from the doomed and let the others perish? I have these questions as snapshots from an interior landscape, a travelogue of inquiries. An album of discontent. Even the rocks are not sure what to answer.
It is my act of disobedience in the world. I believe the Christ, the invisible one the world
would crucify all over again.
One afternoon as I sat with my dying aunt, I think there was a flurry of activity in the
room. I was alone with her, but others were there, though I couldn’t see them. She had said as
much anyway, when she still could communicate. Her sister always was there, though both her
sisters were dead. By the time the dying get to the mysterious place, they can’t talk. They can’t
tell us what they see as that world becomes more visible.
Come now, let us reason together— Isaiah 1:18— which will it be? Who among us shall dwell
with the flames— Isaiah 33:14. Who shall be counted among his flock? These questions fly
through the Bible.
I often wonder what I’m doing with my writing. What is my focus? Where is my
direction? There are plunges into every pond, pool, puddle, quagmire, lake, river, ocean.
Reading Isaiah, I recognized a book of many directions— a record of current events, which is
now Biblical history— prophecies, visions, warnings, promises, invasions from Sennacherib,
narratives of battles and captivity. Isaiah continually goes back and forth among them. He must
have written on the run, or at least the move, as he goes from one subject to the next. In fact,
isn’t the whole Bible a conglomerate of many voices, times and places? Aren’t there many
jumpings here and there?— though they all seem, to me, directed on a certain road.
Later in the winter, I flew to Alaska for a 10-day writing workshop. The native participants, who
were mainly Inuit, came with the desire to put into writing  their oral stories and  the
abuses from missionaries / boarding schools— and the alcohol / drug-use that rampage their
villages. I like to think about the shape of voice as it moves into the written word, even in
suffering. The snow-covered trees and the frost in the air also wove their voices. When the
workshop was over, I flew from Anchorage to Seattle, and still had two more flights to Kansas,
where I was returning. It also snowed in Seattle on Sunday. I like a plane as it rolls down the
cleared runway scattering snow, even when it’s a runway not used to snow. I always imagine the
plane on a crank and pulley as it lifts from the earth, as though someone above was pulling it
toward them. The setting sun made a small fire through the brush of clouds on the top of the
horizon. Then the gray wing lifted over clouds and turned slowly away. It is in those times I
feel the vast, blank spaces inside me. It is what I cover with the fabric of my words.