Saturday, November 27, 2010

Chapter Sixteen: "Come Spinning Down"

            On June 23rd, we passed the halfway point across America: not the halfway point of our trek, but the geographical halfway point from coast to coast.  Some marchers celebrated, but I just let the humble roadside marker pass.  I figured our cross-country walk would be anything but symmetrical, so the “halfway” sign was no more revealing than a bottle labeled “Drink me.”  I had no idea how events would continue to unfold; all I could say for sure was that I was growing accustomed to the constant cycle of adaptation and change. 
Over the next few days we continued along Route 30 through Wood River, Alda, Grand Island, Chapman, Central City, Clarks, Silver Creek, and Duncan.  I couldn’t help but imagine that Nebraska’s tiny towns existed in the middle of absolutely nowhere simply because a hundred and fifty years ago some pioneer woman jumped down from the wagon and shouted, “That’s it, Shelton! (or Alda or Clark or Duncan)  I’m not takin’ one more step!  We’re stayin’ right here.” 

Portrait: Peace Marcher
In Columbus, Nebraska, I attended my first tree planting ceremony.  Evan had been learning to play bass guitar in a new band called “Jonah, Moan and the Blisters,” and they were playing at the ceremony, so Evan invited me to go along and sing backup.  I wasn’t enthusiastic—for one thing, it was ninety degrees in the shade—but it was something to do, so I went.  Phil Holmes, a fellow marcher, spoke first and welcomed us to Columbus—his hometown.  He was a gentle man whose red hair and a red beard made him one of those noticeable people in camp.  I had met him back in Denver a month earlier and forty degrees cooler when Iris had pulled us together for a “best-sweaters-on-the-march” photo, me in my penguins and he in his rainbow-striped pullover.  As he spoke, I tried and failed to imagine childhood in a tiny Nebraska town.  No woods, no creek, no hills to wander.  Instead, wide, treeless streets lined with two-storey buildings, an occasional town park, and, at the edge of town, a train depot overshadowed by mighty corn silos, all surrounded by acres and acres of flat-as-a-pan farmland.  It pained me just to think about it.
Gathered around the peace tree were Mayor Justine and several members of “Nebraskans for Peace,” which was, someone said, the oldest continuous peace group in the United States.  “Nebraskans for Peace” and our Advance Team were working together to coordinate rallies, food procurement, and campsite locations all the way across the state.  We listened to an exchange of words of friendship and then made a wish for peace as the root ball was lowered into the earth.  The song we sang was a well-crafted reggae tune that Jonah had written called “Ponderous.”  A guy named Natty played guitar, and Willa played her conga.  I found an easy harmony part, and the song sounded nice. Except for the fact that the sapling in question was not yet tall enough to provide us any shade, the tree planting ceremony was a pleasure.  It felt good to plant something lasting in our transient peace march lives. When the peace march was over, if all went well with our bid to rid the world of nuclear weapons, that tree would still be there in Columbus, reaching for the sky.

Journal Entry—June 27. 
It’s so hot and humid today I think I’m going to die.  I am sweaty and uncomfortable and ornery and mean.  It’s all I can do to remember to drink and pee, drink and pee.  I left my visor in Jonah’s van and have only sunglasses to protect my eyes and nothing to cover my head.  My hair is dark, and it retains heat like an asphalt roof.  The walk is twenty-two and a half miles—Half miles?  Who’s counting half miles?  The roadway is flat and straight and utterly treeless with rows and rows and rows of corn stretching to the horizon in every direction.  It’s enough to drive a person mad.  The water in my water bottle turns from cool to warm to hot in a matter of ten or fifteen minutes.  After that, each swig just makes me more irritable.  Every fifteen minutes or so, I blandly remind whoever I’m walking with to “drink water,” and they do the same for me, but I am not, as Libby would say, a happy camper.

            As we crossed Nebraska, “Peace City” sprang up farther and farther from the simple pleasures of a Laundromat, a flush toilet, a shower, a ceiling fan, a jukebox, or a cold bottle of beer.  One day I heard that we were headed for a campsite in a sheep pasture.  I anticipated mounds of sheep scat, swarms of black flies, and all-night bleating.  When we arrived, the first thing I noticed was the tall stand of trees that surrounded the big, square pasture like a row of sentinels guarding a citadel.  The second thing I noticed was an absence of sheep.  It seemed that the herder had moved his animals so our own flock could inhabit the field.  I picked up my tent and sleeping bag and stepped gingerly across the field, looking out for dung balls, when I realized—there was no scat… nor, I noticed, were there any flies.  Would wonders never cease?  We flattened down the rough grass and made a home in the pasture.  Someone parked our communal wash-up wagon at the center of the site and placed wooden loading pallets on the ground to make a deck around it.  Marchers took turns having a proper shave or a shampoo in the gravitational flow.  Lynnie, the littlest marcher, took a bath in a plastic cooler.  As day turned to evening, a familiar calm fell over the camp, illuminated by the sunlight flirting through the closely spaced trees on the western side, like cathedral light filtered through stained glass windows.  It appeared that our “mantle of grace” was effective even against flies and sheep poop. 

Washing Up in the Sheep Pasture
The next morning, I was talking with Tom over by the kitchen.  The main march had left for the day, and the workers had begun the morning routine of washing up the breakfast dishes and breaking down the campsite.  I was about to gather my crew to load the gear trucks when an argument broke out between two marchers.  They were fighting over a set of car keys.  Suddenly, both men were on the ground, wrestling, grabbing for the elusive keys.  My heart leapt into my throat, but the scene was so bizarre in the context of our peace community that what came to mind was a fight scene from an old Popeye cartoon with arms flailing and dirt flying.  To my surprise, in the time it took me to blink, Tom had stepped in, separated the two guys, gotten them back on their feet, and arbitrated a negotiation about the keys and the car.  A minute later, they walked off in peace, and Tom returned to our conversation as though nothing had happened.

Our Neighborhood in the Sheep Pasture
In addition to being gallant peacemaker, Tom was a pleasure to be around.  He was funny and honest and open, and his energy was contagious.  We were nearly the same age, and we both came from big families and had similar attitudes about people and kids and pets and all those family kinds of things.  We shared an appreciation for old television shows, old movies, music, sports, and a general enthusiasm for life.  Tom liked folk music, and he introduced me to musicians I’d never heard before.  We had a lot in common; still, I was reluctant to get into a relationship on the peace march because I knew if it went sour, it could ruin an otherwise spectacular experience.  Even if it went well, I didn’t want my experience of the peace march to be limited to working out the details of a relationship with one person.  I told Tom how I felt, and he said he understood, though he wished it were otherwise.  In many ways, I did, too.
Out on the road, I practiced walking meditation, chanting and using my prayer beads to send out positive energy to my friends and family and to the world in general.  Many other marchers were exploring the internal landscape, too.  Some walked in prayer, some in silence; others fasted.  Silent walkers often wore a little ribbon or sign to let others know not to speak with them.  Most smiled and signaled with an index finger to the lips that they wished to remain in silence; I usually smiled back and, hands in prayer position, bowed to indicate a blessing.  One woman was walking in silence every time I saw her.  She frowned sternly when I so much as smiled at her.  Perhaps she was silent for the entire march.  It was hard to find out.
Many people engaged in fasting, so many, in fact, that someone finally suggested we move all fasting to Thursdays so that the kitchen staff could better estimate our food needs throughout the week.  No one seemed to object, so Thursdays became the day of community fasting, a time to contemplate our abundance.  The Thursday fast was optional, of course, but when I stood in the food line on Thursdays filling my plate, I felt pressure to conform.  In fact, I was the perfect candidate for fasting.  Eating was something of an obsession with me.  Morning and noon I would eat as any normal person would.  But between teatime and supper, I could easily consume the equivalent of two full meals, including desserts.   In my old life before the march, I snacked my way through the afternoon, picking through the shelves of the refrigerator and the cupboards.  I'd eat a cup of yogurt here, half a box of fig newtons there, a slice of toast with peanut butter, a couple of carrot or celery sticks, three quarters of a can of soup, and so on.  For some reason, the idea of preparing a balanced meal and sitting down to eat it depressed me.  Over a period of four or five hours, I consumed a fairly balanced diet, but my eating habits were horrible.  When I finally decided to give fasting a try, my motives were largely honorable, but part of me just wanted to earn the right to eat on Thursdays for the remainder of the march.  It was the twisted logic of a person who couldn’t tolerate the thought of losing access to food.  I was a long, long way from spiritual awakening through fasting. 
A group of a dozen or so marchers formed an entourage around the small band of Japanese Buddhist monks who had joined us somewhere back in Utah.  The monks wore long, orange robes and floppy, white hats.   The Japanese monks and their followers comprised one of several Great Peace March sub-cultures dedicated to inner peace.  They kept tempo on a hand drum as they walked along, droning, “Nam-Yo-ho-Ren-ge-Kyo, Nam Yo-ho Ren-ge Kyo, Nam Yo-ho Ren-ge Kyo.”  I had heard the phrase used by an American religious group in Los Angeles to call blessings, mostly of a material nature, into their lives.  I didn’t know the meaning of the phrase, and I wasn’t familiar with the monks’ religious beliefs or practices other than that they walked and chanted every day.  In fact, I found that I preferred to stay out of earshot whenever I was walking not because I was struggling inwardly to separate myself once and for all from rigid expressions of religious dogmatism, but simply because the drumming interfered with my waltz.

Political, Spiritual, Patriotic
Meanwhile, back in the physical world, we progressed down the Lincoln Highway.  What the automobile driver across America sees as a peripheral blur, the slow walker views in fine detail.  A couple of observations came clear to me at my four mile-an-hour rate of speed.  First, America’s blue highways were absolutely strewn with road kill.  When I saw the multitude of animals sidelined by human progress, it seemed a miracle that there were any living creatures left at all.  We saw dozens of dead animals every day, mostly small ones, but also cats, raccoons, opossums, a couple of deer, and once, a whole cow.  One day I was walking along the road in Nebraska and noticed that someone had picked wildflowers and placed one on every dead animal along the way—mice, voles, frogs, birds, even the butterflies.  Every few paces, there was a flower over some dead animal’s body.  That’s when I realized the high number of casualties.  The gesture struck me as sweet and respectful, and sad, and funny, too. 
American drivers threw a lot of clothing from the car as they sped down the highway.  Most of it was men’s clothing.  There was so much of it that I started to wonder if these guys driving by in their pickup trucks were wearing anything at all.  It was not a pleasant thought.  It also disturbed me to see the occasional child’s item because I couldn’t block the nightmarish thought that maybe over the next few hundred feet we would come across the other sandal, the child-size sunglasses, the sippy-cup, and then the child himself, bruised and crying in the ditch by the side of the road, having somehow escaped from his car seat and scrambled out the window; or else I would imagine the parent, one hand still gripping the steering wheel, bawling him out for dropping the sandal out the window in the first place, or searching desperately for the pacifier that had fumbled from the child’s little paw miles back.
            It reminded me of an unpleasant experience I’d had as a little girl when I inadvertently let go of a favorite bracelet I was dangling out the window in the wind as my family sped down the highway somewhere in Connecticut.  One flinching little finger and it was gone.  I begged my mother to drive back and look for it, but she said it would be impossible to find it again.  We couldn’t go back.  I remember thinking defiantly, “I could find it,” but I wept in silence and stared out the window at the treacherous countryside that had gobbled up my bracelet.  Who knows, maybe that was what I was really looking for on the Great Peace March.  Occasionally, we saw a woolen hat, a baseball cap, an old tee-shirt, a lone sock, a sneaker or boot.  Whenever we found a glove, we amused ourselves by picking it up, fixing the fingers into a peace sign, and posting it on the nearest fence post.
We passed through small towns as innocently as a swarm of locusts.  The Great Peace March overwhelmed local restaurants and coffee shops with hundreds of hungry customers.  On several occasions I walked into restaurants overrun with diners and did a double take as I recognized familiar faces among the wait and kitchen staff—marchers who had tied on an apron or picked up a spatula to help manage the rush.  Most of the day’s “specials” would have been crossed off hours earlier, and we would order pancakes or grilled cheese sandwiches or chili or tuna salad or whatever the server recommended, which was to say whatever was left in the larder.  Aside from the mad rush, though, one had to admit that the Great Peace March was a boon for local business.  
Dairy Queen was one of Nebraska’s most ubiquitous features.  They often posted “Welcome Peace Marchers” on the signboard out front.  (Churches posted messages on their signboards, too.  “Blessed Are the Peacemakers,” and “Swords into Plowshares” were two I saw more than a few times.)  Some marchers shunned Dairy Queen as representative of the food industry’s mistreatment of dairy animals.  Others resisted going in for unhealthy fast food.  For many marchers, though, Dairy Queen was an extra rest stop, a place for a refreshing drink or a soft ice cream or a quick meal.  Personally, I avoided stopping in for a Blizzard every time I saw a Dairy Queen, but I did enjoy the occasional lemonade and almost always took advantage of a few minutes’ break from the sweltering heat.  Besides, Dairy Queen was as good a place as any to interact with the local residents. 
In camp, we took turns doing “wake-up” call in the morning.  Like every job on the march, “wake-up” left plenty of room for individual expression.  Some used the gentle, echoing meditation gong to raise us from sleep.  Others walked between the tents merrily calling out, “Rise and shine!” or “Time to wake up!”  Toby and his do-op singers harmonized it; Jerry from Hawaii gave a “surf report.”  The wake-up typically went something like, “Good morning, peace marchers!  It’s six-thirty.  The march will be leaving in one hour.  Breakfast is scrambled tofu, whole grain pancakes, yogurt and fresh fruit.  Today’s walk will be nineteen miles.  The current temperature is sixty-six degrees.”  Jerry from Hawaii added low and high tides.
Toward the end of June, Evan and I prepared to take a turn at the morning wake-up call.  It was June 28th.  With a little help from Iris, I had written a simple song with a bright Calypso beat.  Evan and I had practiced harmonizing it, and we were excited to sing it to camp, even though our audience would all be inside their tents sleeping when they heard it.  In the pre-dawn hours, one of the kitchen workers woke me up, then I woke Evan up, then I tuned up my guitar and we walked through camp gently singing our Calypso “Wake-Up.”  We announced the breakfast menu and the day’s mileage and the weather forecast and sang until the whole camp was awake and stirring.  We bowed to the domed tents and then got breakfast and loaded up two extra plates for Tom and Beth in their sleeping bags.  It was the perfect dawn of a brand new day.

Wake up, wake up, everybody gotta wake up.
Wake up, wake up, it’s the dawn of a brand new day.
Wake up, wake up, everybody gotta wake up.
Wake up, wake up, it’s time to be on our way.
            It’s a blue sky morning, gonna be a blue sky day,
            The sun is shining and everything’s okay.  Hey!
Wake up, wake up, everybody gotta wake up,
Wake up, wake up, it’s time to be on our way…

I rode into Lincoln, Nebraska with Evan, Jonah, Sunny, Natty and Chuck in Jonah’s vehicle known as the “Rad Van.”  Downtown Lincoln was hot and humid.  The city was flat and glaring and possessed no architectural highlights that I could see.  Evan and I wandered in and out of pawnshops.  He spotted a bass guitar and an amplifier he liked, but he didn’t have the money to buy them; I went into a music store and had the man insert a peg on the end of my classical guitar so I could attach a strap.  The morning’s wake-up call had been fun, but it was awkward to walk around playing a guitar without a strap.  To test out the new peg, I stood on the street and played the songs I’d written—Lucille, Wake Up, and Three Blind Mice—to passing Nebraskans, none of whom showed the slightest interest in my original creations.  In the face of humiliation I told myself it was a good character building experience to sing in public.  Besides, I was so desperate for something interesting to do that singing on the street corner, which would normally terrify me, merely felt like an okay way to spend the afternoon.

The Main March Arriving in Lincoln
Main March Leader: Walkie Talkie at the Ready
The next day Jonah, Moan and the Blisters performed at the peace rally at the State Capitol in Lincoln. Evan and I were now in a band.  The number of attendees was modest, but everyone seemed to enjoy meeting each other despite the heat, and the music sounded great.  I liked the songs that Jonah wrote, and I liked his musical style, but he and the other the guys in the band went in for a kind of cool pose, all dressed up with colorful scarves and crazy hats and all, and I didn’t quite fit in.

Great Peace March Rally in Lincoln
  Iris Bean Blossom returned at last.  At the rally she introduced her brother, Chet, who lived in Lincoln.  He kindly offered several of us Marcher-in-the-Home at his apartment, and we accepted his invitation.  He promised us no home cooked meals, no laundry facilities, and no comfortable sleeping arrangements.  We said that sounded perfect and liked him right away for his disarming charm and humor.
At night we played again, this time at “The Boardwalk,” a gay club outside Lincoln, and I happily sang backup as a Blister.  The club was crowded and sprawling, with low, acoustic tile ceilings, linoleum floors and a disco ball.  Jonah’s songs called for social justice; the style was mostly reggae beat.  The club goers listened to our message of nuclear disarmament and danced and seemed to like the music.  Evan sounded great on bass guitar.  With an indoor sound system, the band sounded good despite competition from a raging thunderstorm outside.  The quandary came when Jonah introduced the band.  When he came to me, he said, “That’s Laura.  She has a great voice.”  I was pleased and replied with a kind of aw-shucks expression.  Then, he added, “She’s probably the kind of girl who got straight-A’s in school.”

Jonah, Moan and the Blisters
  I wasn’t sure what that little dig was all about.  It wasn’t the first time I had given the impression of being something of a goody-goody, but the reality was that in high school I had spent most of my time with my friends, my guitar, my boyfriend, and my band, and not as much time with my books as I might have, so Jonah was wrong about that, but it bothered me anyway.  He could have just introduced me as the un-cool member of the band.  That would have been more accurate.  We played another song or two, but I didn't feel so happy anymore.  After the performance, Tom and I got lost on the way back to Chet’s house.  We wandered around in the aftermath of the storm reading street signs in the dark until two marchers happened by in a car and gave us a ride. 
The last day of June was a rest day in Lincoln.  Iris and I had a lot of catching up to do, so we went downtown for breakfast.  We ran into two marchers, a mother and daughter, who had been in camp the previous night.  They said the thunderstorm was the worst of the whole march: lightning struck near camp and high winds threatened to pull their tent up from its stakes.  This morning, they said, camp was completely awash in water.  They were shaken even in re-telling the events.  The Victorville sandstorm, the thunderstorm at Red Rocks, and the hailstorm near Sterling, Colorado all came to mind.  If it was worse than those, it must have been pretty bad.  Iris and I had had no idea.  We were lucky to have been safe inside “The Boardwalk.” 
After breakfast, Iris and I returned to Chet’s where I played my guitar and wrote letters.  I had a vague sense of wasting time, so I headed out to a shopping center to do my laundry.  I poured in the soap, tossed my clothes into the washer, closed the lid, slid in the quarters, and went outside to pass the time with several other marchers who were hanging out on the sidewalk in front.  A summer storm had just passed.  Against its receding, silver-grey wake, the afternoon sunlight splashed a complete double rainbow.  The bands of color -- red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet -- shimmered and glowed, but brightly.  I thought of where troubles melt like lemon drops and the sweet silver song of the lark and leprechauns and pots of gold.  Then I considered that maybe we were at the end of the rainbow, and that life was our pot of gold.  Had I read that in a book of Irish fairy tales?  It surprised me that Nebraskans didn’t stop pushing their shopping carts or loading their groceries into their cars to watch.  Maybe double rainbows were commonplace in Lincoln.  It seemed that thunderstorms certainly were.  I savored the fleeting moment -- hoping that the marchers in camp were seeing the double rainbow too, for what consolation it might offer after a night of dangerous weather -- until the colors faded from the sky. 

After the Storm
The next morning we bade a fond farewell to Chet and thanked him for his minimalist hospitality.  He had given us shelter from the storm.  We joined our compatriots and headed back out on the road for our last few days in Nebraska.
I had heard of writers and poets being possessed by the muse and plunged into a timeless tide of creativity, but I never imagined it might happen to me.  It was July 3rd.  I was walking along at my usual, steady pace in three-quarter time, when I started singing an original line of lyrics, “Come spinning down to the emerald; come spinning down to the green; come spinning down through the waters to the land where the spirit’s seen.”  One line led to the next, and the next, and the next.  It was as though the sky were a sieve of musical ideas.  The song was a plaintive chant, like an “Amazing Grace” but not hymnal, and as it got longer, I felt a flutter of panic that I might forget the words.  It was a strange feeling.  I had never been a quick learner, particularly when it came to memorization, and I was afraid this sudden gush of music might flow right past me.  I had no choice but to ride it like a wave.  If I could suspend judgment and trust what was happening, I thought, perhaps the substance would stay with me after the force that carried it had passed.  I felt suspended in time, as though nothing was happening in the world except what was happening to me.  After I felt I had the whole song, I sang it again and again for some ten or twenty minutes -- it could have been longer -- until I reached camp.  There, I went straight to the gear trucks, took a pen and my journal from my crate and quickly wrote down the words.
 When I had scrawled the last stanza on the page, I realized that I had no idea what I had written.  I had memorized it in the way that a very young child memorizes the “Pledge of Allegiance.”  If someone had asked me at that moment what the song was about, I wouldn’t have had a clue.  I read it through two or three times and slowly grasped the meaning.  It was a kind of prayer, to be sung by a woman who has been unable to conceive a child, a song inviting the child’s spirit to “come spinning down” to earth to be conceived and born.  I was bemused, in the precise meaning of the word.  I could never have dreamed up such a theme—nor would I have set out to use a prayer as a device for writing a song.  It seemed that the song had come from an inner—or outer—creative source, and I had served as a conduit for its conception.  It was a weird feeling.  The layered significance of conceiving the song and the theme of conception within the lyrics was not lost on me. 
For a long time, I tried to convince myself that the song about bringing a child into being was for another woman to sing, but deep down I knew it was my own song and my own prayer.   It was the real and beautiful and natural sound of what others crassly refer to as the “ticking biological clock,” an insensitive term for one of life’s most powerful longings. 

Journal Entry: Come Spinning Down

(Click here to listen to "Come Spinning Down.")

My encounter with the creative force was Nebraska’s departing gift.  It was time to step across the border into Iowa.