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 "official" accounts, 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 'heap of birds'" (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 "to enlarge the tribe," whose clarity about his role illuminates our own.
Copyright © Bethel College
Contact Mennonite Life