On November 17, I hit my four-year anniversary at Gonzaga University, a place I had my eye on for a few years before the perfect job opened for me. I remember going to campus with my mom and having her take a photo of me in front of the iconic statue of St. Ignatius by College Hall, and claiming that the job was mine before it was actually offered to me. I remember the two goofs hanging out in my office when I moved in, who instantly made me feel it was the right move. I’d always known I wanted to return to higher education, and being at Gonzaga has confirmed why.
#1.College students are optimistic, not yet so jaded by “the real world.” And when they do see a depressing reality, they respond with, “What can we do to change this?”
#2. There is positive energy on a college campus … all the time. At Gonzaga, music blares from dorm windows on Friday afternoons, students hang from trees in hammocks, they come up with creative inside jokes to just about everything.
#3. College basketball is fun. Who knew? Sports in general aren’t my thing, but the Kennel during basketball season is a ball (get it?) to watch.
#4. Jesuit students are impressive young people who naturally want to serve the greater good and not focus so much on what they will achieve for their own personal benefit. Learning and contemplating among them is a gift.
#5. Lifelong learning is never in question. When you’re surrounded by so many incredibly intelligent people, how can you not be learning constantly?
#6. A campus is a mixing bowl of art and music and meaning and growth that never ceases to produce a craving for more. #magis
#7. Jesuits are cool, thoughtful people. And their tradition of self-examination makes a significant difference in the life of a workplace.
#8. Creating a magazine chock full of examples of all these things is the best job ever.
#9. Doing that with an amazing team that has fun doing the work is icing on the cake.
Seven hundred. That was the population of Perry, Missouri, the town I lived in from age 3 to 20. It had one blinking stoplight and one non-white family, a couple that didn’t stay long. Legend says that a century-old city ordinance forbade blacks from being in town after dark, and we knew people of neighboring communities who still heeded the warning even in the 1980s.
What impact may that have had on my implicit bias, even within a home that was loving and kind toward people regardless of skin tone? What notions lingered in my mind after seeing every black student in our county-wide school succeed as an athlete, perpetuating the notion that sports are the only way for them to achieve?
The first summer I escaped the small town for the metropolis of St. Louis to serve inner-city ministries, I was surrounded by children of color who came from homes of addiction and poverty. How did that influence my notion of race?
These are questions I pondered while gathering with 10 Gonzaga University students in Montgomery, Alabama. Our spring break Mission:Possible immersion experience placed us in the nation’s most historical sites of the civil rights movement, and after long days in museums and lectures, we gathered for even longer evenings of reflection and conversation. These were tough talks where the mostly white participants challenged themselves to face their implicit biases, and where the one black student opened our eyes to her world.
“It sucks to be honest with yourself, doesn’t it?” she said. It wasn’t a question.
In a world where people often approach tough topics in the shadows of online environments, we find face-to-face discussion to be uncomfortable. As a result, the divisive nature of online dialogue has led many of us to stop discussing our views on these social matters.
And yet, we know that the ugliness of racism – in the past as well as the present – must be addressed.
We must be willing to have meaningful conversations that seek understanding and reconciliation. I liken this process to forcing myself to the gym after months of laziness. Setting the alarm extra early. Pulling on exercise clothes. Setting the treadmill at the slowest-possible speed on a zero incline. Eventually, the routine gets easier and I feel better, even craving it.
I hope you’ll read Gonzaga Magazine’s coverage of racism and diversity with the goal of enjoying that kind of mental and emotional exercise. Because as we open ourselves to the sometimes arduous exercise of getting honest with ourselves, we discover a greater hunger for truth and equity.
I arrived in Spokane, Washington, on Mother’s Day 1998. It was a beautiful day with blue skies, warm enough for me to wear light pants and a short-sleeved shirt as I roamed around the downtown of a city that would eventually feel like home. My first stop was the visitors center, a small brick building on Main and Browne, for maps and information. I wandered Spokane Falls Boulevard to see Riverfront Park and then Howard, where I found an interesting little hippie shop that seemed like a place where I might connect with other young 20-somethings.
But that isn’t where the adventure starts.
It began on an Amtrak two months earlier, trudging north from St. Louis and then branching off to the Empire Builder across the flat, snowy plains of North Dakota and eastern Montana. I journaled, I slept, I snacked. I disembarked in towns where that was allowed, to stretch and inhale fresh air. I sat in the windowed car where seats face out the walls of glass, and took in an unobstructed view of the landscape – a landscape that never seemed to change after 10 miles, 100 miles, 200 miles.
As my luck and Amtrak’s schedule would have it, the short March day would wind up for nightfall just as the terrain swelled and rolled, where brown, barren trees morphed into green conifers that trekked up hills and alongside rivers. The train meandered through mountains on high trestles over frozen creek beds, hugged the hillsides, swooped through tunnels. The sky grew darker and the engine chugged ever higher until the Whitefish train station appeared and there were aunts and uncles waiting to greet me.
It was Montana, and I loved it. A week there, with my dad’s sisters and their husbands showing me the local lakes and ski resorts, driving me as far as winter roads would allow into the outer reaches of Glacier National Park, and I was hooked. I didn’t know the grandeur that was hiding behind the fog and clouds, but it didn’t matter. Montana felt right to me. My grandmother, years after moving from Montana to Missouri, had said she could still sense the mountains calling her. I thought they were calling me, too.
But alas, that is not the big adventure either.
Me and My Ranger
After the train ride back through the mountains and across the prairies and down alongisde the mighty Mississippi, I returned to my job and put in a notice: I’d be moving. Starting a new life. Having an adventure. Recreating myself. And I’d be doing that out West.
In 1998, the great World Wide Web was still in its infancy. Google Maps didn’t exist; nor did LinkedIn or even Monster.com. Job hunting was more manual, even a little old fashioned. It didn’t take long for me to realize that finding a job in the Flathead Lake area of Montana would be next to impossible — that place was chock full of writers who were successful as freelancers and wealthy enough to live there without concern for regular work. That wouldn’t do for a young professional just two years out of college.
I spread out a large U.S. map on the family dining room table and announced to my dad, “I’m moving to Spo-KANE.” He replied, “Well, then you ought to learn how to say it: Spo-CAN.”
That was about the extent of the conversation as I remember it. My parents weren’t overly worried about me moving across the country or resettling on my own. I would box up my belongings in the house I rented from them, pack only the essentials necessary for settling once I found an apartment; the rest of it — and my dog — my folks would load into a U-Haul and drive out to me a couple weeks afterward.
The first of May came and, having said all goodbyes, I left my little white house in Hannibal, Missouri, and pulled out onto Highway 36 heading west in my 1996 Ford Ranger. It was turquoise green, a dogged 5-speed stick-shift that had never traversed mountains. It had an extended cab, which allowed me to lean back my seat when I needed to pull over for a snooze. My belongings, packed in Rubbermaid totes, were secured in the bed and covered with a blue tarp that would flap incessantly until it eventually ripped to shreds.
I had been on that familiar stretch of Highway 36 for less than 10 miles when I found myself daydreaming. What would it be like to just hit the road for an adventure and not go back to Hannibal to my daily routine? The thoughts lingered and rolled around in a familiar pattern before the neurons fired and I realized that I was hitting the road for an adventure and not returning to a normal routine.
A burst of energy and excitement shot through me — I felt it in my bones as much as in my heart. I screamed with joy and laughed aloud, rolled down my window and waved my arm back at Mark Twain’s boyhood hometown, far in the rear view mirror.
If I had kept a journal of what I ate and drank along the way, the record would likely show my penchant for Barq’s root beer, Pringles, M&Ms, peanut butter sandwiches, and an occasional burger or taco from a fast-food joint. I’ll bet mom sent me with chocolate chip cookies, too. My Sony Walkman was plugged into my truck radio with a cassette tape so I could listen to essential CDs: Lynyard Skynyrd, Pink Floyd, The Wallfowers, U2, Steve Miller Band, Tom Petty, Tracy Chapman and the Indigo Girls. There may have been more, but these I know for sure.
Scariest Night of My Life
There would be plenty of less exciting moments in that six-day trek. Kansas, for example. Plus the hail storm and pouring rain that prevented visibility, then blinding snow in Colorado and the Ranger’s struggles to muster the strength for slippery surfaces on winding, elevating mountain roads.
Each night I stayed in a different type of accommodation. In Kansas, it was a cheap chain hotel along Interstate 70. In Colorado, a lovely little cabin on a creek near the entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park. In Wyoming, I pitched a tent in Yellowstone, and that became a night to remember.
In early May, campgrounds in Yellowstone are nearly vacant; the one I chose had maybe two other campers, one of whom helped me put up a tent that was far too large for one person. I hadn’t camped enough to know the value of small tents, and I had never camped outside Missouri, which means I knew nothing of bear country precautions. I was bewildered by the sight of “bear proof” garbage cans and signs about keeping food inside vehicles. Every warning I saw sent shivers through my body, and each of them reverberated in my mind for several hours as I tossed and turned inside a tent large enough for three of the feared mountain mammals to come join me.
It sounded like that was about to happen. There were scuffling sounds in the campground, near my truck, closer and closer until at last I swore that claws would come ripping through the thin nylon that served as a wall between me and the wild. I had nothing to offer as a deterrent or a defense. I only had my vivid imagination and fear, which I was sure the bears could smell just as well as the package of lunchmeat in the cooler inside my truck.
After an exhausting period (an hour? Three hours?) of envisioning my pending death, I told myself it was ridiculous to assume there were bears out there. The scritch-scratching was probably the movement of bare limbs on nearby bushes. Just as my heart rate slowed by and imagination shut down for a bit a sleep, one of the two other campers down the path fired off a single shot from his rifle. A warning shot to scare the bears away, I was sure of it. Sleep would never come. I would simply wait for morning light, pack up my belongings and hit the road. At the Gardiner, Montana entrance to the park, I’d comfort myself inside a rustic restaurant with biscuits and gravy, eggs and toast, and then push north toward Livingston.
I was back in the land of enchantment, the backdrop of mountains among the wide-open ranches where the deer and buffalo roamed. Heading to Kalispell for a visit with my aunts, I knew that while I was making a home in Spokane, Montana would continue calling me back.
After a couple of days to recuperate from driving, I hit the stretch of I-90 that was then and remains today my favorite section of any interstate in the U.S. Lookout Pass, a stream running alongside the curving highway, the marshy meadows near St. Regis, the basalt walls of Fourth of July Pass, the elevated views above Lake Coeur d’Alene; the scenery is almost distracting, particularly for a flatlander unfamiliar with mountain passes.
The Lilac City
It was Mother’s Day when I drove into the city named for a flower that smells of nostalgia, memories of my grandmother who said the mountains called her. I was only downtown a short time when the area map I now held pointed me to Riverside State Park. That was more important to me than learning the pesky one-way streets or even finding the right place to stay the night.
In retrospect, I could have made accommodations a higher priority. I spent my first night in a very seedy hotel at the corner of Government Way and the Sunset Highway. The activities at such a location scared me nearly as much as the night in Yellowstone, and I spent my nervous moments searching the yellow pages of the three-inch thick phone directory for a hostel.
Spokane’s only (and no longer operating) hostel — The Brown Squirrel — became my first “home” in the Inland Northwest. I sheltered there with a couple of others who were long-term visitors and two girls from Seattle who were just in town for a few days. It was at The Brown Squirrel that I joined the throngs of Seinfeld fans along with fellow hostelers, to unwind in front of the tube after a day of driving around, learning the lay of the land, scouring newspapers for job openings, applying for jobs and searching for a suitable location to apartment hunt.
Within a week, I received a call at The Brown Squirrel from my first employer, and with a job, I could tell a prospective landlord I would actually have income. I became the first occupant of a corner unit with vaulted ceilings, an open floor plan, two sets of sliders linked to different patios in a brand new Bavarian-looking apartment complex that was still half empty. It had only a small stretch of grass, but my dog would be allowed, and the rent was only $495. I quickly came to know my next door neighbors: they were members of what I would soon learn to be a notorious family of gypsies in Spokane. (Does the name Johnny Marks ring a bell?) The matriarch would ask me to drive her to Tidyman’s, which was literally straight across the street, and I obliged the first time or two, trying to be neighborly. Hans, our German landlord, booted them after two months.
Over the last 20 years, I have lived in one apartment on Sprague (not the redlight district of the 90s), one super crappy duplex on 16th (it had a big yard for my hole-digging dog), one much nicer duplex on Best (a place of wonderful memories), a newer home on the South Hill (with the best kitchen ever), and now a more permanent residence off Upriver Drive. There were five years that I lived in North Idaho during my first marriage, but that’s a different story.
Over the years, I have remained unsure how to answer when people ask, “Where are you from?” Can I call myself a Spokanite? What length of time is required to claim the city and have it claim me?
I’ve decided: I cheer on the Zags, know all the great local coffee joints, support local independent bookstores, have ridden or walked all 40 miles of Centennial Trail, completed Bloomsday, watched a Lilac Parade, marched on MLK Day, planted trees with The Lands Council, read Doug Clark’s column, complete “the Best of” polls with The Inlander, and attend the Trees of Elegance every Christmas season without fail. At this, my 20-year Spokanniversary, I’m claiming it: I am “from” here.
Kate Vanskike-Bunch and her family make regular trips to the Montana mountains that call her, but they definitely feel at home in Spokane. She and husband Jeff have a daughter entering high school, three elementary-aged kids, a dog and two house rabbits. They live near Millwood, love the arts community, and contribute to the financial success of local coffee roasters. Follow Kate on Twitter.
[The following letter was sent to Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, who represents Eastern Washington in the House of Representatives. It was sent following a visit to her office by a group of Gonzaga University students which I was proud to accompany. In light of the approaching deadline for Congress to reach a bipartisan response to immigration reform and the path to citizenship for “Dreamers” under DACA, I wanted to share this more broadly. Please reach out to YOUR representatives and plead for reform that is centered on human dignity.]
Dear Congresswoman McMorris Rodgers:
Thank you so much for making time in your hectic schedule to visit with students from Gonzaga University and to hear their stories about a recent trip to the Mexico border to learn more about immigration. One central theme we heard during the many facets of our time there – visiting with both government officials such as Border Patrol, as well as humanitarian agencies and migrants themselves – was just how complicated this system is. We understand there is no easy fix that will alleviate all the concerns from all the involved parties and from the broader public.
We want to thank you for listening to our students’ personal perspectives from their families’ experiences as well. You may recall Lydia sharing about the misconceptions of “chain migration” and her family trying to bring an aunt here multiple times through proper legal channels. Rani also shared about her mother’s joy in being able to see a child graduate from college for the first time in her family’s experience, as well as the poignant question Rani raised about the parents of DACA students: it’s awesome to open a channel for those students to work toward citizenship, but what of their parents who sacrificed so much to bring them here?
Our students shared many other perspectives based on the things we witnessed at the border. Francesca mentioned the opportunities we had to see the real struggles with human dignity, and Cameron shared his concern for the environmental impact of expanding a physical wall at the borderlands. Participants in Gonzaga’s Justice in January program have written a number of short blogs to capture these sentiments, and we hope that you might be able to take a few moments to read these stories and to reflect on how they might inform the common sense immigration reform you and your colleagues in Congress are seeking to achieve during these last few days before the President’s deadline. You can find those here.
We remain hopeful that Congress will achieve a bipartisan resolution to immigration reform that:
protects all people from the dangers of gang and drug activity;
allows for DACA dreamers to achieve citizenship;
supports a simplified process for immigrants trying to come to the U.S. legally – including “family reunification” as an alternative to “chain migration”; and
advocates for the type of infrastructure our Border Patrol agents have indicated they need, which is for properly trained agents and technology rather than additional physical Wall extensions that not only endanger ecosystems but actually do little to achieve the goals of protecting our border.
This, as you know, is a critical moment for the current Congress and we think it’s one of the most important issues of our day. You have our prayers for meaningful dialogue not only with fellow Congress members but also with your constituent base here in Eastern Washington.
Thank you again for your time.
On behalf of these four fine Gonzaga students, pictured left to right:
Cameron Marsh, Francesca Nevil, Amayrani Chavez and Lydia Lopez,
as well as other members of the 2018 Justice in January cohort of Gonzaga’s Center for Community Engagement.
Author’s Note:In a Tucson, Arizona, courtroom, a dozen students and two advisers from Gonzaga University witnessed Operation Streamline – a controversial system of justice for migrants accused of entering the U.S. illegally. In less than three hours, we would see 72 individuals processed. Seventy-two times we would hear the judge repeat the same questions to people who did not speak English as a first language (some did not even understand the Spanish translation), and all but a few times, individuals were sentenced to time served and deported back to their homelands. Hearing the legal questioning and the confused answers became the cornerstone of my entire experience learning about the U.S. immigration and deportation system.
How do you plead? Guilty or not guilty? Yes.
An attorney sat with arms outstretched behind him on the bench, arrogance wafting off his puffed up chest. “I volunteer,” he says. Well so does the elderly woman in red — she knows the names of every person on the docket and what their conviction is and what might be done to help them when the attorneys and judges have gone home.
Inside the courtroom, a young girl’s age is argued by people who don’t know her in a language she doesn’t speak. She shrinks away in the presence of the two bulky white marshals who take her back to a stark room where they return her to shackles, and – who knows – maybe strip-search her for the third time that day.
How do you plead? Guilty or not guilty? Yes.
We visit a Border Patrol facility where an armed, green “guardian of the borders, America’s frontline” talks of “bad guys” – “unwanted visitors” – “a bunch a creeps” – “a pregnant chick” and the “community crap” his agency does.
Lizbet crossed the border at age 15. Sixteen years and two American-born children later, she is deported. Stuck. Separated from her sons who remain in Delaware while she sits in a cold 4th-floor room in a concrete building, spilling her heart to a bunch of Americans who aren’t sure what to do with her story.
Bullcrap. That’s what Nayelli did with her life in the States. She shoveled bullcrap. Took a job no U.S. citizen wanted – 12-hour days, 6-day weeks doing the disgusting jobs white people couldn’t handle, making more in one day than she’d make in a month back home. Having returned to Mexico voluntarily to care for a dying grandmother, she’s unable to get back to the States where her two young daughters wait.
How do you plead? Guilty or not guilty? Yes.
Getting to the states legally is a mound of paperwork, money, too many people in power, money, so much at stake, so much ambiguity. But not for me. I can walk across the border on a drizzling gray morning without fear, then get in a car and have a great lunch at a taco truck and go on about my day.
Inside a warehouse stuffed with clothing and shoes and diapers and bandages, we pretend to be real people in that maze of immigration. A border patrol officer on a power kick. A twisted attorney. An employer looking for workers to make him money. A desperate mom, a fumbling dad, people offering their fate to others.
How do you plead? Guilty or not guilty? Yes.
A fence of steel, rising up the hills and back down again. Space between slats where life in a community buzzes. It’s recess and children chase one another in a school yard while the late-morning shadows chase them, too. Unaware – perhaps – of what that metal monstrosity represents.
The wall – 654 miles of steel. A hearty person with a dream can go around or over or under, but only at great risk: being caught drug smugglers, turned in by citizen militia, or detained by Border Patrol, resulting in weeks to months in jail, and the stamp of “ILLEGAL.”
How do you plead? Guilty or not guilty? Yes.
More to come at wordsncoffee.com as well as blogs from the students at gonzaga.edu.
Let me be honest: Until the last decade or so of my life, I haven’t been incredibly interested in history. In high school and in college, it was simply a required class. In the latter, I’m embarrassed to say, history was the one course I nearly failed because I was taking way too many credit hours, working, participating in a musical and volunteering, and that was the class to take the fall. (My French class would have taken a fall too, if it weren’t for my mom doing my homework for me. Better put an ‘s’ on that confession in the headline.)
What’s my point? At age 43, I finally learned about the deep and twisted history of racism in our country. I learned that lynchings didn’t just happen “way back when” – they still occurred in MY lifetime. I learned that the civil rights movement didn’t end in the ‘60s when Lyndon Johnson finally signed the civil rights act a week after Martin Luther King, Jr. died for the cause. I learned that whites in America have continued to mold our history and frame the facts in such a way that they can feel better about themselves while slavery and racism still exist, just under softer terminology. OK, so we aren’t still “owning” people but our supremacy still flourishes while black families continue to teach their children to be cautious around whites.
I had to own up to all of these facts – and more – while spending a week this spring with college students on a trip to Montgomery, Alabama, where we were immersed in the history of our nation’s civil rights movement. Museum after museum after bloody museum called to my attention the horrible realities I missed in those history classes, whether due to my lack of interest or the lack of truth in our written records. In the evenings, the 10 students and two staff members in our group debriefed together – sometimes for two hours or more – processing what we’d seen and sharing our discoveries. Our discussions were academic and intellectual, but mainly painfully personal and vulnerable as we reflected on the natural biases we’ve carried, and ill-informed assumptions we’ve made.
As one student said, “It sucks to be honest with yourself.”
I grew up in a Missouri town, population 711, which had no black families. (Well, there was a black family once in the 20 years I lived there, but they didn’t stay long.) I went to a college that had approximately 10 black students. I moved to Spokane and lived in white neighborhoods and attended white churches. All the while, I learned from our (mostly-white) media about crime rates among blacks, little of it placed into context of the continuing harsh realities for blacks in America. (Consider the criticism of blacks taking to the streets following the deaths of Freddie Gray or Michael Brown.)
I don’t believe I’ve ever knowingly acted racist, but there is no excuse for my ignorance and the ways it has undoubtedly played a part in my thoughts and actions over the years.
And now … I have no excuses.
I have poignant encounters etched into my memory that won’t allow me to continue in ignorance. I have shared the dinner table with a professor who, at the age of 17, was a driver for blacks during the Montgomery bus boycott of the ‘60s. I have linked arms to sing “We Shall Overcome” with men who marched side by side with Martin Luther King, Jr. – men who, by the way, feel our nation’s current situation is worse than it was during that era. I have listened to the barber who cut Dr. King’s hair share stories never recorded in our history books. I have looked deeply into the old, brown eyes of a black man who recalled not having been able to look a white woman in the eye. I have stood inside the home of Dr. King with a black woman who passionately impressed on all us that Dr. King’s greatest legacy was love, even when he answered 20-30 hateful, threatening phone calls daily. I have discovered more about Bloody Sunday and decades of violence against blacks than I wish was necessary, and I have stood by monuments erected for children who were victims of white pride and stupidity. I have also witnessed the fervent hope and faith of the black community intent on trusting the same God who abusive whites claimed to follow (which in and of itself begs further reflection).
I am ignorant no more. And that means I can no longer allow instinctive unjust thoughts to take root in my head. I can no longer assume that the mass incarceration of blacks is legitimate, or that African Americans have the same opportunities as whites, or that the slavery and racism and cruelty of the past has not continued to inflict pain on people today.
What I can and must do now is to continue the education, the discussion, and yes, the vulnerability, that 12 of us experienced during a life-changing week in Montgomery, Alabama. Because the question Dr. King asked more than 50 years ago still needs to be asked today: “Where do we go from here?”
Day 1 On the plane, drifting over clouds And so it begins. We will play in unfamiliar settings and take in all the smells and textures that make up the tiny portion of the Dominican Republic which awaits us.
Day 2 On my bed, beneath a creaky ceiling fan Sweat. Drips. Sopping wet. H-U-M-I-D is how you spell Dominican Republic.
Day 3 On the bus, heading to our first community The intern announces, “It’s Terrible Joke Tuesday!”
Later, he says our gang of 6 participated more than last week’s group of 18. We attribute that to Senor Tim.
In a school room where the Village Savings & Loan members meet A woman says, “We are grateful a thousand times a thousand – grateful for so many things. If we were to share them all, it would take days.”
Day 4 On a balcony, surrounded by Dominican people, food and music The Merengue starts, with guitar and drum and guida. They sing about the hard work of coffee growers. We clap and dance.
In a one-room church building, where children line the walls, eager to engage The teacher leads a lesson on a familiar story: the birth of Jesus. Her emphasis is on a detail maybe we’ve missed before: “Jesus was born into nothing.”
Day 5 On the patio, while roosters call and shoo away the morning gray Doves embark on playful races and the chants of a dozen birds are muted by the scuffing of tired feet. Morning has broken.
On a thickly forested mountaintop A young boy and his father drive the oxen to haul logs – carefully selected trees removed for the health of the forest.
Rosa, a most impressive farmer, shows the diversity of plants she has tended. Watching the chatter between gringos and her neighbors, she wraps her arms around a tree and smiles.
Day 6 On a restaurant deck, over the lapping waves of the Caribbean Sea We eat breakfast: four weary Americans and a cheerful Dominican named Chico.
How quickly bonds are made. With or without a common language, there is joy and understanding.
Day 7 On a bench outside Denver’s Union Station Three new friends reflect on their good fortune: they have seen poverty and richness redefined by Dominicans. And they forge ahead as apostles of a gospel that blends care of the earth with care of those who inhabit it.
Written by Kate Vanskike, who journeyed to the Dominican Republic with Amber Smith and Tim Busse to experience the work of Plant With Purpose, August 2016.
For more on how planting trees has helped diminish poverty, visit www.plantwithpurpose.org.
Riding the yellow whale
through green alfalfa fields
– a roar from the back,
a glare from the front.
They are young and that is good –
self-conscious and oblivious.
Past the basalt, past the hay, past
the iron horses all graffitied and
over the wide Columbia, with white ladies
twirling on the bluffs.
Climbing the Cascades now, the black snake straightening
in the rear view mirror, and twisting, winding ahead.
It’s quiet now. Charades give way
to Mocking Jay and Anne Frank.
My Muir Hill
I named the place Muir Hill.
It belongs to the neighborhood, but really
only I and my dog and my daughter go.
We like it that way.
In suburbia, five acres of wild woods
—with deer and coyote and skunk and turkey—
are enough. Enough to hear the birds over
the traffic, nothing more than bulky basalt rocks to clamber and
Ponderosas reaching, (except those that fell victim to the November storm)
only sky overhead, only moss and pine needles below.
I think about the two stately trunks from which I hang my hammock —
I named them Sybil and Ferrell — a young widow and a farmer’s wife.
Both are my grandmothers, but those thoughts
are interrupted by the crows who are fighting —
screaming, it seems — maybe
over the tastiest bugs or the perfect branch.
All I know is they are louder today than ever — right across the street
from the old man who calls his wife Tiger and who
scolds the kids and who once pulled a gun
on a teen who rang his doorbell and ran.
I had words with him, but now
the crows are taking their turn.
I lie on a rock and watch the clouds drift slowly by. I hear
my dog – crunch crunching on the remains of a carcass, and later
when I rise to see her whereabouts, she is silently resting
in a field of wild purple lupines.
I lie back down and the next time I see my dog, she is standing
overhead, fleshy breath and glistening slobber hanging precariously.
The mountains are calling and I must go, Muir said.
I cannot flee to Yosemite today and hide for weeks in the granite crevasses
or wander through meadows and over streams.
But I do have Muir Hill and the sweet wild reprieve
from concrete and from deadlines
and from Tigers.
Rumi on the Rocks
Atop a rock in beloved Montana
watching the river rush by below
reading Rumi high above the falls on a ledge
covered by bluebells and goose poop.
He writes of running at boogeymen and narcissus and kisses
Says there are a hundred ways to kneel and kiss the ground.
Ah … Away from the roar of the man-made falls and the hum
of turbines turning water into electricity
for our phones and TVs and laptops.
I find respite in away in the woods, hearing instead
only a whisper of water, bathed in the shadows of trees.
Green, green, all around me green, for now
that’s all I need.
Wash yourself of yourself, says Rumi.
And so I sit.
Hello to the old man and hello to his Spaniel.
Hello little birds whose name I do not know.
Tall grasses toss their heads and branches softly sway
but the rocks, they do not bend, or twist, or soften in the rain.
They gather moss and lichen and wildflowers – sometimes even
give root to trees, and a stool
for a solitary derrière whose person tries to rid herself
It was my first time serving as a substitute teacher in a middle school English class. The topic was Mark Twain, and this should have been easy, as I had grown up near the park surrounding the great Missouri author’s birth home, attended a high school carrying his name, and lived in the same town – Hannibal – where Twain grew up and then used as the setting for the tales of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. I knew as much about Mark Twain as anyone in this area –how hard could it be to teach about him?
After an hour of chaos, a sixth-grade boy dropped his pants and strutted away from me with his red briefs staring me down. I made sure the school district knew that I would not be subbing for middle school anymore.
That was about 20 years ago, but the experience left me dreading the day my own child would enter middle school. I prepared her for the worst. Middle-schoolers are confused, I told her, and that confusion plays out in myriad odd behaviors.
She wanted to be part of a student leadership team at her school, which was a brand new charter school without those usual opportunities in place. When I asked the principal if there would be a student council, he said, “As soon as there’s a parent volunteer to lead it.”
I now spend every Wednesday afternoon with about ten middle-schoolers – the very beings I once swore I’d ignore at all costs.
They can’t control themselves in the rolling chairs we use in the board room. Constantly swirling, pulling the levers, adjusting the arm height. Constantly squeaking, leaning back. One boy can’t resist admiring himself and fixing his hair in the reflection of the large-screen monitor on the table. One girl never says a word. Another girl wants to do all the work. They fight over the occasional treat of fruit roll-ups like it’s the last bite of food they might ever enjoy.
But in short time, these same students have shown their adaptability and eagerness to grow and to push themselves outside their usual comfort zones. They can articulate why we need to talk to legislators about the importance of funding for their charter school. They can demonstrate the ways their international curriculum has taught them to see topics from a global point of view. They discuss leadership and agree that the three characteristics they find most important are responsibility, respect and organization, and they challenge one another to exhibit those qualities in carrying out their work.
These 12-year-olds have restored my faith in middle-schoolers. And that’s why I traveled by plane and by bus with them recently to plead their case at the Washington State Capitol. And it’s why I will continue to meet with them on Wednesdays and show them how to run meetings and committees and how to contact local businesses for support. It’s why I will help them plan an international festival and a field day, and watch them make posters for dress-down days and help them gain confidence in standing before their peers to discuss the importance of good school attendance.
I’ll even volunteer to go bowling with them and be surrounded by 60 of their peers on a Friday night. Because now – whether it’s because I’ve grown up myself or because I see their great potential – I don’t fear them as I did the kid who mooned me with his bright red briefs.
Twain said it best: “Apparently there is nothing that cannot happen today.”
Attending Zags basketball games
Taking a college class as an adult (critical thinking)
Producing Gonzaga Magazine from start to finish
Joined the board of Healing Hearts Northwest
Biking to work, and along Lakeshore Drive in Chicago
Hiking the Avalanche Creek trail at Glacier
21 miles in Spokefest
Serving as parent advisor for student council
Family Camp at Camp White
Spending my birthday at Glacier National Park
Fall harvest at Green Bluff
4 weeks of Christmas activities
1 New-ish Tradition Kept
Hosting an international visitor. And I just have to say more about this. Last year, we had a 14-year-old student from Japan for 3 weeks and she was delightful. This summer, we had two medical students from Guatemala for a month, and they were so much fun and wove their way straight into our hearts. We are somewhat leery to do it again, only for fear that our next visitors won’t be as wonderful as Saori, Ale and Julia.
4 Fun Trips
Philadelphia – living history
St. Louis – all my parents’ favorite stomping grounds
Chicago – work and reflection, and biking downtown in the rain
San Francisco – Christmas road trip
5 Books Finished
“I’m in love with Montana. For other states I have admiration, respect, recognition, even some affection. But with Montana it is love.”
Unbroken (Laura Hillenbrand)
Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil (John Berendt)
Travels with Charlie (John Steinbeck)
Tibetan Peach Pie (Tom Robbins)
The Kite Runner (Khaled Hosseini)
A Jesuit’s Journey through the Tumultuous 1960s (Paul Swift)
7 Books Started
Jesuit’s Guide to Almost Everything (Fr. James Martin, S.J.)
The Book of Wanderings: A Mother-Daughter Pilgrimmage (Kimberly Meyer)
Another Roadside Attraction (Tom Robbins)
In the Company of the Poor (Paul Farmer)
Tattoos on the Heart (Fr. Greg Boyle)
Just Between Us (Meredith Jacobs)
The Girl in the Spider’s Web (Stieg Larsson/David Lagercrantz)
1 Big Wish
Peace, in our hearts and in our world. Courage to defend what is right. Finding God in all things. Assuming the best in people. Laughing more. Drinking more spiced tea, eating more veggies, buying less crap, enjoying more music, saying thank you more, celebrating all that is good. Peace, in our hearts and in our world.