Mississippi river near train tracks in Hannibal Missouri

Thirty Years Later On the Banks of the Mississippi

Here on the banks of the Mississippi, in Hannibal where I lived two decades ago, I wonder:

How much time has really passed? Have I grown up enough? Too much?

This river, these tracks, all the trees along the winding path to get here – they know me.  They remember watching me weep, laugh, pray, sing.

Those tracks – even after a million train cars have squealed by, they sense me and draw back to the time a thoughtless (soulless?) boy ripped the pantyhose off a 17-year-old girl in a black skirt with pink flowers.

The river – down the way by the old ice factory – remembers its heavy ice blanket in the winter of ’96 or so, holding up a recent college grad as she tested the frozen bay and traversed to the opposite shore.

These mighty oaks and maples, they remember my love – how I adored them, especially in fall when they showed off their talents, and a few weeks later, showered me with floating leaves they’d discarded, and a few weeks after that, listened as I crunched over those lifeless leaves blanketing the pathway.

They all – the river, the tracks, the trees – watched with delight as my dog ran free, and chuckled to discover I had no control over my furry friend when it was time to go back up the bluff toward a truck that would take her home.

journal on a stone ledge above the Mississippi RiverUp above at the stone wall overlook, I would sit for hours, days, months, years – the river, tracks and trees still collecting my thoughts. From there, they would see me scratch out bad poems in journals, watch over my arguments with a guy – a different one, one who definitely had a soul – who would push me to discover more of the world, of myself, of truth. They would nod in recognition that this was good, even as I drove away from a heated discussion, crunching new glasses beneath the tires of a little blue car.

Even Mark Twain himself, made of granite, towering over the river he loved (and maybe hated, too), observed as friends gathered beneath his gaze, taking stupid photos that one day would be prized possessions. Did the river know, or the tracks, or the trees, that one of those giggling friends would die too soon, would crush our spirits, and yet, even in death, make us laugh again?

What did the river, the tracks, the trees think when I visited for the last time before a journey 2,000 miles west, to take photos of my dog and my truck? What did they think of my urge to leave this place behind and to find myself somewhere else? Did they know I would settle along another river, other tracks, among other trees, ones that would never shower me with falling leaves? Did they send wishes through the wind to their distant friends the pines, to be gentle with me, to allow me to continue my journey of discovery? Did the Mighty Mississippi send currents of encouragement through tributaries that would find their way to the Pacific Northwest to say, “Watch this girl. Support her when she walks on your thin veneer in winter”? The iron tracks, did they reverberate codes along rails that traverse the Rockies, and say, “Be steady for her. Be still when she navigates the paths of loneliness, and failed marriage, and parenting alone”?

Did these old friends from Missouri – the river, the tracks, the trees – send me off with well wishes that I didn’t hear? Did they know that someday almost 30 years later, I’d return to feel their presence again? Did they sense – or at least hope – that this time I’d come with a soul mate who would never threaten my trust, who would support me in continuing to grow and learn and search and be myself? And that he would love this river, too – for different reasons, but nonetheless would honor all that my friends, the river, the tracks, and the trees had meant to me?

They may not have known. They may not have planned it or even guided the journey, nor sent good intentions. But it seems they rejoice, today, that all this has come to be.

 

Talking About Racism

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.

Kate Vanskike sits in the home of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr

“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.

Story here: “Raising Our Voices”