Jeanine Hathaway, Professor of English at Wichita State University, is the author of the novel, Motherhouse (Hyperion, 1992), and The Vassar Miller Award-winning collection of poems, The Self as Constellation (UNT Press, 2002).
Searching for Sacred Ground is a journey, all right, with the bridges and crossings one expects on a journey. The text itself bridges and crosses borders, those categories that libraries use for ease in acquisition. It combines history, cultural studies, biography, autobiography, a loose weave of creative nonfiction. The multiple-genre structure of the book reveals the variety that interests its author. My response reveals the variety that interests me.
I am not Mennonite or Cheyenne or rooted in the Great Plains. The book’s family stories,
people and place names, anecdotes and official history, don’t have a familiar ring. A Roman
Catholic ex-nun with generational roots in Chicago, I still don’t pronounce
Washita right on
the first try.
The Journey of Chief Lawrence Hart, Mennonite is far different from my own.
What’s a reader to do, I wondered. Do what Lawrence Hart would do: Keep the conversation
going. Where do I belong? Who are my people? What are our vital rituals? Are they vital in the
way a cottonwood tree with at least 40 growth rings is vital to the Sun Dance? Hart’s story
stretches from the buffalo hunt to Bethel’s buffalo barbecue. My people have buffed ourselves
into a position where the heft and smell of the natural thing has been made tidy, eaten over a
gold paten and starched linen (even if in a cloud of store-bought incense). Hart’s story
sometimes reminds me of what I miss in my own rituale.
What I miss in Searching for Sacred Ground is more about the bridge and crossover
author, Raylene Hinz-Penner. In the front matter, we’re given information about who she is and
why she created this project, about her desire to provide as much information as Lawrence Hart
was willing to give about himself. Raylene was curious about the connections between
Cheyenne and Mennonite, how it happened that two vastly different peoples, centuries apart,
ended up on the American Great Plains, both groups deeply committed to
living in peace with
all things (10). After the front matter, in the course of the book, she appears with some
frequency, casually reminding the reader that she is the lens through whom we’re meeting the
man who is an incarnate connection between Native and immigrant peace cultures. These
reminders, the appearances of the first-person narrator, cross genre boundaries and establish
expectations that her presence will be significant, will affect the story. Perhaps the effect is that
the story is here at all, since Hart has not written an autobiography and does
not wish to be seen
as boasting (30).
Raylene amasses historical information, questions the truth of the
questions her own limits in understanding what Chief Hart is telling her:
I asked many
questions, but the explanations were often lost on me (181). She doesn’t let the reader forget it
is she who is writing this life. She opens the book with an anecdote about herself as a child
wondering how life might be different if one had a name with a literal referent like (15). She begins statements with
I remember that he said…, and
I was surprised that
he…, and in the epilogue, she closes the whole book by saying,
Of course I chose the words to
tell Lawrence’s story, and this particular journey with Lawrence is my journey--one tells what
one sees and follows one’s own interest in the pursuit of another’s story (190). Because she
does include herself in the telling, I had expected more of her own story.
Once, about another book, a reviewer took a creative nonfiction writer to task for associating
with holy people rather than doing the work of becoming holy herself. That criticism has always
bothered me. How else do we become wholly and holy ourselves except by choosing our own
heroes, models, mentors? Imitation as flattery? Well, yes, from the point of view of the one
imitated, perhaps. But it seems more like close study. How does one learn except by study, the
careful investigation of what’s outside oneself so it can awaken and shape what’s inside? When
they come together, when in effect, they
rhyme, that’s life-giving. It gives the story life too.
At Vespers, we ask: What gave me life today? Spending time with life givers, clarifiers, peace chiefs, indicates the desire to cultivate those aspects of oneself, to bring them to fruition.
I know Raylene as a poet, one with a deep and active interest in cultural diversity and
restorative justice (most recently through prison arts programs). We met years ago at Wichita
State University, when she was a student in the MFA program and I was her teacher. So, when I
heard last year that she had a book coming out, I assumed it was a collection of her poems. The
title is certainly poetic. Though the book’s breadth of information is overwhelming, sometimes
frustrating, there are passages that ask me to stop and ponder, as I would with a poem. On page
107, Raylene writes,
What are the moments that separate out certain ones of us for a certain
destiny? We have strange visions, imagining ourselves somewhere else. Some of these dreams
last only until the end of the cotton row; others hang onto us, stick to us like the bolls of cotton
which prick our fingers to the blood. And on the following page,
[A] two-seater, single-engine
navy plane, an SNJ like he would fly in Basic Training, came to take Lawrence from the cotton
fields and red soil of Oklahoma up into the air. This lyrical prose gives me a rich connection
with the narrator that I miss in the more straight-ahead exposition.
I suggest lingering over her poem,
Ceremony, in the Preface.
Ceremony is on its
surface about Lawrence Hart officiating at the Mennonite funeral of Raylene’s Aunt Ruth. It is
also about the storied layers that ritual can incorporate into a corpus that involves one’s own
body in cooperation with the spirited bodies of the tribe, of the Body of Christ (another tribe),
the body of the Mother, Earth.
For me, the poem provides the emotional backbone for the
search of the book’s title,
the awe and loss and longing for a unifying principle and ritual and place that draw together
mortality and eternity, Cheyenne and Mennonite, Lawrence and Raylene.
As I re-read this poem now, it does not surprise me that Raylene chose as the titular
subject for her book a man who is a bridge, whose vocation, marked by patient integrity, is
enlarge the tribe, whose clarity about his role illuminates our own.