Our two-and-a-half-year-old grandson comes over regularly, while his parents work growing food and community on Urban Roots Farm. What I like best about his visits is the perfection. He absorbs the world and scribes it on his brain, narrating the scene in flawless sentences, not always limited by the syntax of mere mortals. As I’m writing, he is marching past the door of my office singing, “Yittle wed taboose, chug-chug-chug, yittle wed taboose chug-chug-chug, yittle wed taboose behind da tain.” He is empathetic and funny. He is smart and he is pure. He’s perfect. (Oh, you’d like to argue he’s been tainted by original sin, fallen short of the glory? Fuck off.) This beautiful boy isn’t all that’s perfect. Betsy (aka “Beppy”) is a kid-whisperer of the highest order. The way she gracefully finesses him from drawing to singing to vocabulary to birdwatching to potty training to the development of emotional health to lunch and nap time…it’s craft and it’s art and it’s magic. It’s like watching Jimi Hendrix play guitar – there’s an alchemy in it I don’t understand, but it’s awe-inspiring to witness. I’m happy to lend a hand where I can, but I understand my role in the organization. 

As great as grandparenting is, travel has been more limited for us lately. This last week we carved out five days for a vanabout to Tulsa, Oklahoma and Mount Nebo, Arkansas. We went to explore and learn from these places we hadn’t really visited before. 

My interest in Tulsa was intensified after my friend Robert P. Jones spoke to my Drury grad students last week. Robby told us about the manuscript for his forthcoming book which references the public efforts at reconciliation the city has made in response to the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. The Greenwood neighborhood, also once known as Black Wall Street – a robust, vibrant African-American community – now has a historical center called Greenwood Rising. The story it tells is unflinching in its honesty about the brutality of white citizens killing nearly 300 people and burning their homes to the ground. When you also consider the Greenwood Cultural Center, Reconciliation Park, the public art, and renaming of streets, it’s apparent the city is owning its shame and attempting a rehabilitation. I can’t speak with authority on how well it’s going, but I can say it’s far more work than my own city has done. Springfield was the site of a lynching in 1906 (and subsequent racial violence) that prompted a mass exodus of Black families from the city. Little has been done to change that. As one of the whitest cities in America, with only about a four percent Black population, we’ve done little more than erect a marker about the lynching in Park Central Square, a marker most residents couldn’t locate. Of course some members of the community have done more than that, but there’s been little unified commitment to the issue as a priority. It’s definitely not part of the city’s public consciousness and discourse. The legacy of white supremacy and our historical shame lives on.

As we toured Greenwood Rising, Betsy and I met a Black woman and her family. Grandma was sharing fascinating stories from her past. Her 15-year-old granddaughter wasn’t holding back her lack of optimism about the future. “We’re not doing enough, and we’re doing it wrong,” she kept saying. They were from Boston, living in an RV and traveling the country in search of their people’s story. They were heading north next, toward St. Louis, and wondered what they would see when they went through Springfield. “A lot of white people,” I said. “Sorry.” They had learned to stay away from some places, because things had gotten worse over the last few years, and they didn’t always feel safe. “Never going through Texas again,” the grandmother said, shaking her head. “There’s just something in the way people treat you. And the more you learn, the more aware of it you are.”

I feel bad I didn’t ever get their names. We were enjoying talking to each other so much, I guess we all just forgot to ask. As I thought about it, though, it seemed right. Sometimes, when we ask people for their names and contact info, we are trying to own or manage the relationship. Instead, we just connected and enjoyed the company, then we went our separate ways, acknowledging that the way we moved through the world was never going to be similar.  Communication scholar, Barnett Pearce, once said, “Every conversation has an afterlife.” Discourse keeps shaping and shading our ideas and meanings even after we’ve quit talking. Our conversation with that family was a hopeful and heartbreaking moment in time for us. It will live on for a while.

Along with Greenwood Rising, I’d been hearing about the Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie Centers for a while. They were amazing. We went to the Guthrie Center the first day, and I found myself as interested in his journaling and art as his songs. Even though I felt the lyric “I ain’t got no home/In this world anymore” deeply, I was strangely at home in Woody’s world. Early in our 2017 journey around the country, when we were in Los Angeles, we were invited by Marco Pascolini‘s sister, Francesca, to stay in Topanga Canyon for a few days. We parked near the cabin in Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum where Woody lived and wrote for a while and where Geer (perhaps best remembered as TV’s Zebulon “Grandpa” Walton) recorded spoken word parts on the “Bound for Glory” album. There was something about the geography and the light in that place, and the smell of history that made me profoundly grateful for Woody’s life and work. When we were in Tulsa, I felt that warmth again.

While at the Guthrie Center, I came upon pages from one of his journals, dated January 1, 1943, where he had outlined his “New Years Rulin’s.” Among such goals as “WASH TEETH IF ANY,” “WRITE A SONG A DAY,” “LEARN PEOPLE BETTER,” and “DON’T GET LONESOME,” was one of my favorite phrases of his: “KEEP HOPING MACHINE RUNNING.” The song “Hoping Machine” remained unrecorded, until Jay Farrar and some others put it to music about 10 years ago. The chorus goes:

Whatever you do, wherever you go
Don’t lose your grip on life and that means
Don’t let any earthy calamity knock your dreamer and your hoping machine

Out of order

I love these words. It felt like a good title for this trip, hell, for my life these days.

We were parking on the street in downtown Tulsa, but at night we were 15 miles away,  beside the lake at Keystone State Park. It rained a fair amount of the time, so after patching a leaky van window and walking the dog in the wet, we drank, fixed meals, and played board games. When we were riding out the weather, with our Border Collie/Lab mix Maybe at our feet, we also listened to Ann Patchett read about writing, travel, friendship, and the transcendent love of dogs. 

“People seem able to love their dogs with an unabashed acceptance that they rarely demonstrate with family or friends. The dogs do not disappoint them, or if they do, the owners manage to forget about it quickly. I want to learn to love people like this, the way I love my dog, with pride and enthusiasm and a complete amnesia for faults. In short, to love others the way my dog loves me.”

The next day of our trip, we went to the Bob Dylan Center. We ended up staying a couple of hours, but I could easily go back for a repeat visit. While a great number of my friends are far more knowledgeable about Dylan than I am, he pulls on a thread that runs through my life. His words and music have been a soundtrack for my politics, my friendships, my emotions and intellect, my approach to teaching, my deepening of religious faith and subsequent departure from religious faith.

“I didn’t know whether to duck or to run, so I ran.”

He has influenced my songwriting and my scholarship. I wrote a paper for the 1999 National Communication Association Convention called, “A Simple Twist of Faith: Spiritual Ambiguity and Rhetorical Perspectivism in Bob Dylan’s Infidels.” It’s overly earnest, a bit arrogant, and hard for me to read now – but it’s also an illustration of how Dylan’s tendency to contradict and reinvent himself and embody Whitman’s “I contain multitudes” shows up in my story as well. 

I have felt his passion and transcendence. I sometimes find him in the words of others. I can’t help but hear lines from Blood on the Tracks and Knocked Out Loaded in this passage by Ann Patchett:

“There are always those perfect times with the people we love, those moments of joy and equality that sustain us later on…These moments are the foundation upon which we build the house that will shelter us into our final years, so that when love calls out, ‘How far would you go for me?’ you can look it in the eye and say truthfully, ‘Farther than you would ever have thought was possible.'”

When I see Dylan’s quote on the wall, “I try to live within that line between despondency and hope,” I don’t just nod my head like a sycophant in the choir, I understand it, I feel it. I’ve been feeling it for decades. I think this is why he won the Nobel Prize in Literature – not because of singular, towering works or the indelible mark he left on the American songbook – but because, for many of us, his corpus of work, his music, his words, his art, his persona, style, beliefs, commentary, appearance, and behavior have described and authored our experience. He tells and is our story. He’s helped us be and tell our stories better.

“I’ll let you be in my dreams if I can be in yours/I said that.”

Later, we made our way to McNellie’s Pub for a few local beers before heading to LowDown for a show by Kalup Linzy, sponsored by the Dylan Center. Kalup’s lyricism is not in Bob’s tradition, but the way he pushed the boundaries of performance, sexuality, and identity for a very diverse audience was a great way to end our time in Tulsa.

The next morning we headed east for Arkansas and Mount Nebo State Park. As one of highest points between the Appalachians and the Rockies, the park boasts panoramic views of the Arkansas River and Lake Dardanelle. From your perch a thousand feet above the surrounding communities, you can see a hundred miles on a clear day. Supposedly. The day we arrived was not clear. Powering the van up an 18% grade and 2.5 miles of switchbacks, we started sinking into a fog. By the time we reached the top, we were enveloped in a cloud. Not only could we not see the stunning views, we could barely find our way from our campsite to a hiking trail. It was interesting to hike in a ball of cotton, where all you can see is your feet and the murky image of the person or dog directly in front of you. Without context, the brain plays tricks on us. We were intellectually aware but experientially ignorant of the sheer drops only a few feet from our path. There’s something comforting about being wrapped and ensorcelled by the vapor of illusion and mystery. Throughout the night, we would hear things we couldn’t identify, because we could only see a few feet around us.

We woke the next morning to partially cloudy skies, but enough visibility to see the nuclear power plant near Russellville and a scattering of farmhouses dotting the landscape below us like Legos. Worried we would lose visibility again, we headed out for a five-mile hike. 

I like late winter hiking. Maybe it’s the Clan Wallace DNA from my mother’s side that draws me to the gloom and chill of the Scottish Highlands. Late winter in the American Midwest is the time of Lent and darkness. There’s a simplicity to things. Crowd traffic is light and the weather is usually comfortable enough. Biting insects and poisonous snakes haven’t stirred fear and hatred into the cocktail of our emotions yet. Spring and autumn are great times to walk in the woods, but if you aren’t too high in the mountains there’s something about being able to see and be seen through the trees. There’s nowhere to hide. The vulnerability and austerity is disarming. 

After lunch we packed for our descent from the mountaintop and back to alchemical grandparenting. The trip home was pleasant and reflective. Ann Patchett had told us a lot of things, but there were two that stuck:

“The love between humans is the thing that nails us to this earth.” 

And the one that made my face a little wet:

“Forgiveness. The ability to forgive oneself. Stop here for a few breaths and think about this because it is the key to making art, and very possibly the key to finding any semblance of happiness in life.”

Of course this is harder than she makes it sound, but for me it’s the key to everything. I still have a lot of work to do to reach that kind of happiness, but I’ve been making progress. The day before we left, I went to Barak Hill’s studio and laid down tracks for a couple of songs – one about Jimmy Carter, and one about recovering love amidst the bullshit.

This trip helped me along my path. I was reminded there are things in our lives, and maybe they’re chiseled in our destinies, that are gigantic…significant…important in scale. We shouldn’t shirk from them or avoid our calling. But there are a multitude of things that are ordinary and familiar. They are nearby and worth exploring. Maybe they keep hoping machine running.


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