Indigenous Indignities by Jamie Kirkpatrick

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A couple weeks ago, I watched a segment on 60 Minutes about an Inuit throat singer. Before that, I had never heard of Inuit throat singing, and to be honest, I’m not about to download some Inuit throat singing and add it to my favorite playlist. But that’s not the point. Embedded in the 60 Minutes story was the sad saga of Inuit mistreatment by the Canadian government: the forced assimilation and marginalization of a distinct native culture into a non-native, white society. It sounded almost as heinous as the mistreatment of Native Americans by our own government.

Indigenous indignities are, sad to say, common phenomena. The histories of Mexico, Central America, and South America are rife with indigenous indignities. The African slave trade is a horrific chapter in the still unfolding saga of the human and economic exploitation of the New World. Immigrant Australians have pushed the native Aboriginal culture of their island continent almost to the point of extinction. Canadians, whom I have always thought to be fair, inclusive, and open-minded people, have not been so fair, inclusive, and open-minded when it comes to their own Inuit population. And here in the United States, the legacies of Thomas Jefferson’s Manifest Destiny, Andrew Jackson’s Trail of Tears, the Bosque Redondo (the federal internment facility for Navajos and Mescalero Apaches), and the forced relocation of countless other Native Americans have left not just a scar but an open wound on our own landscape.

Tell me: why is it that a predominantly white culture feels it has the right to exert dominance over another indigenous, non-white culture? Is it lust for territory? Natural resources? Wealth? Or is it an unquenchable feeling of cultural or religious superiority—what the French colonizers of West and North Africa called their “civilizing mission” or what Rudyard Kipling labeled the “white man’s burden?” Moreover, isn’t it ironic that Christian missionaries were often the agents—unwitting or otherwise—of cultural assimilation and even annihilation, but then those missionaries were, more often than not, simply using their particular order’s interpretation of a divine plan to justify a more demonic one.

The perpetrators of past indigenous indignities are certainly the revered ancestors of today’s white supremacists.These people should have become extinct along with the dinosaurs, but somehow their misguided notion of superiority seems to have been reborn and is making a new and even more hateful resurgence these days. Whether driven by political tolerance from on high or by fear of economic or social displacement below, the current crop of white supremacy practitioners have all-too-boldly reclaimed space in our national discourse. Their claptrap should have been silenced at the first syllable, but when that didn’t happen, they grew emboldened and shouted louder. Now the genie is out of the bottle. It’s hard to imagine anything remotely resembling a silver lining to this phenomenon unless it’s now that white supremacy is out in the open, it should be easier to wipe out once and for all. How I wish!

The roots of white supremacy run deep; the soil of indigenous indignities has historically been all too fertile. Empires have been built upon it. The irony, of course, is that the morally erosive influence of these indignities makes for a house, a nation, or even an empire built on shifting sand. If we are to withstand the storms that are sure to come, we have to shore up our foundation and exterminate all notions of white supremacy.

Not too long ago, I spent a week in the Navajo nation writing a profile of a doctor friend of mine who works the night shift at the Fort Defiance Indian Hospital near Window Rock, Arizona. My friend leads an upside-down existence, sleeping by day, treating patients by night. A traditionally trained and highly skilled emergency room physician, he is known locally as “Big Daddy Medicine Man.” Every night, he sees a little of everything—diseases and injuries that seem out of place in the 21st Century. He has also bumped into traditional Navajo healing rituals— sand paintings and sings that address the emotional and spiritual roots of sickness and disease. He has learned an important lesson. “Who knows what really works,” he told me with a shrug one dawn, “what really heals?”

From all the indigenous indignities that have been inflicted on one culture by another, I hope we all might learn a similar lesson. We need all the healing we can get.

I’ll be right back.

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015.  A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was published in May 2017; a second volume of Musings entitled “I’ll Be Right Back” was released in June 2018.  Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com

Boom by Jamie Kirkpatrick

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I arrived on my family’s doorstep three years after the end of World War II. My parents and my three older—much older!—siblings were undoubtedly surprised. I didn’t really understand why; I was just one tiny drop in that flood of natural immigration now known as the “baby boom.” The war was over and won: let the good times roll!

If you want to get technical about it, a baby boom is simply a period marked by a significant increase in the birth rate of a particular geographic area. In my case, that increase was caused by several factors: all those veterans returning from the war, victorious and grateful to be alive; the passage of the G.I. Bill which encouraged home ownership and higher levels of education; a strong post-war economy; and perhaps most important of all, a renewed sense of optimism in the American Dream. The soundtrack of that dream had decreased in volume to a mere whisper during the Great Depression but in the wake of the war, it got turned back up to a full-throated roar…or maybe that was the sound of all those wailing babies.

The Baby Boom in the United States lasted for about 17 years. During that time, 65 million babies arrived on other doorsteps around the country—that’s one about every seven seconds. If the Great Depression and the World War had put a temporary halt to making babies, peace and prosperity more than made up for lost time. The world looked like it was going to be a safer place and the suburbs beckoned with lots of room for bigger families. Rosie the Riveter didn’t need to go to work anymore and we all thought father knew best. It was a time of great blessing made possible by lots of corny advertising on television and a new-fangled invention known as the credit card. Just look at all those happy little Mouseketeers on their way to becoming happy consumers!

Of course a shadow lay across the land but we refused to see it. I guess we didn’t want to think about the day when all those boomed babies would have babies of their own before they became old enough to retire and collect social security checks. I mean, why buy an umbrella when the sun is shining? A ‘Dependency Ratio?’ What’s that?

I’ll tell you what it is: it’s a stretch mark on the belly of the segment of the productive part of the population that is still going to work every day. Simply put, there are now a lot more of us boomers who are no longer working than there are Millennials or Gen Xers who are, and that ratio is only going to increase in the next couple of decades. According to the Census Bureau, the dependency ratio will reach a record-breaking high in 2020 and will continue to rise in the years beyond. Cue all those Malthusian economists who warn of dire times ahead when overcrowding, food shortages, and an overtaxed healthcare system lead us all down the dismal road that leads to Dystopia.

Sorry; I didn’t mean to go all doom and gloom on you. There are solutions available but they will require a measure of sacrifice and a larger portion of bipartisanship than what we’ve seen on the dinner table for quite some time. I’ve yet to be convinced that capitalism is endemically equipped to resolve the riddle because wealth just doesn’t seem to trickle down like it’s supposed to. And as for progressive socialism, that ideology just doesn’t seem all that compatible with our optimistic and hard-working old friend, the American Dream. You know which dream I mean, the one all of us Boomers lapped up like mothers’ milk.

So what is the solution? I’m listening…

I’ll be right back.

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015.  A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was published in May 2017; a second volume of Musings entitled “I’ll Be Right Back” was released in June 2018.  Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com

Wonder by Jamie Kirkpatrick

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I have a friend who is, among other things, a very fine magician. He performs illusions—I don’t like to think of them as “tricks”—that leave me wondering. Period. I’ve given up asking “how did you that?” because I don’t really want to know. I can live with wonder; in fact, I’m not sure I could live without it.

Close observation of the world around us is another very fine thing. Along with a million other people, I’m currently reading a novel by Delia Owens called “Where the Crawdads Sings.” It is, among other things, the story of a “marsh girl,” first a young girl and then a young woman who spends her life largely alone in the marshlands of the Carolina low country. She fills her days with the close observation of nature: the flora and fauna of the marsh, tiny jewel-like feathers, sea shells, bird nests—all the mostly forgotten or overlooked creations that surround us everyday. There is more to the story, of course, because the business of life does have a way of intruding upon the stillness of nature. It’s a sad truth, one that makes folk understandably suspect of those among us who choose to live in wonder.

Now I don’t want to give too much of the plot of the novel away, but the unschooled marsh girl learns to read and introduces her sense of wonder to the intricacies of a rational universe. She begins her self-directed path of discovery with Aldo Leopold’s masterpiece “A Sand County Almanac” and eventually makes her way to Einstein’s space-time continuum, which, like my friend’s magic, leaves me pondering existence and reeling with wonder. To begin to wrap my mind around Einstein’s theory, I googled “space-time continuum for dummies” and came up with this definition: “Einstein’s theory of special relativity created a fundamental link between space and time. The universe can be viewed as having three space dimensions — up/down, left/right, forward/backward — and one time dimension. This 4-dimensional space is referred to as the spacetime continuum.” I stopped right there. Going any farther would have been like asking my magician friend “how the hell did you do that?” I’m content to live without complete understanding, to remain in wonder. I’m ok with things beyond my ken.

Now don’t mistake my acceptance of wonder in the world for rejection of reality in that same world. I accept that I live in a rational world in which I need to know some pretty basic stuff. I usually know how to get to the bus stop and which bus to take. I’m ok with these transactions—they’re what we all need to get through our days and live fulfilled lives. But I try not to let the realities of my life snuff out the sense of wonder that lies beneath. I’m not always successful, but there’s bravery in the attempt.

One reason, among many, that I love living on this side of the Bay is that I feel I’m that much closer to wonder over here. The natural world is more observable, more accessible on this side of the bridge. It’s easier to wonder where the pace is slower, the friendships deeper, the stars that much brighter. I spent a lot of years over there. As I wind down now, moments are more luminous over here.

A couple of months ago, I went to watch the Super Bowl at my magician’s friend’s house with a few other friends. Before the game, he showed us a locked box in which there was another box. One of us was told to guard the box and to make sure it was not touched. At half time, my friend had one of the guests unlock the box, open the inner box and extract a piece of paper. Three things were written on the paper inside: the prediction of a card selected by someone in the audience before the game; the total of three random numbers written down by three different people; and the score of the game at halftime. My friend the magician had someone open the locked box. He did not touch the locked box, the box inside the locked box, or the paper inside that box. The selected card: correct. The total of the three numbers: correct. The halftime score, 3-0, Patriots: correct.

Now how the hell did he do that?

I wonder.

I’ll be right back.

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015.  A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was published in May 2017; a second volume of Musings entitled “I’ll Be Right Back” was released in June 2018.  Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com

 

 

A Trout in Wine Country by Jamie Kirkpatrick

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My wife and I just returned from the left coast. California, to be exact. The Bay Area to be even more exact and San Francisco, to be exactly exact. Oh: and a few extra days in wine country—Sonoma and Napa—if you’re expecting the unredacted version of this report.

We were in San Francisco as wedding guests. We were in wine country doing research. I say “research” but I’m guessing you know what I really mean.

The legendary California valleys and their equally legendary wineries are a world unto themselves. I didn’t pretend or presume to understand much about wine before we went out to the wine country and I’m not sure I understand much more after having sampled so much of their product. But I did lean a few things. There is, for example, an entire language devoted to wine. I learned a few new words, but I’m far from fluent. Palette problems, I guess. I also learned that there is a business side to the wine industry that is completely separate from the drinking side of the wine industry. It’s a little like fly fishing; I know because I watched a friend of mine get hooked like a trout. He now owns a few cases of current vintages, a few cases of future vintages, an empty barrel of wine, and some measure of a share in a winery that bears a passing resemblance to his surname. That kind of thing can happen when one is in the throes of a good tasting. The next day, I thought his cheek looked a little sore from where he took the hook.

But that flesh wound will heal soon enough. All those bottles and barrels will arrive on his doorstep long before his credit card bill and we’ll relive the experience—the pleasure and the pain.

I imagine that what I’m about to say next is either heresy or blasphemy or both to an oenophile, but I’ve come to the conclusion that apart from the different productions and different vintages and the different vistas or views, the game at one winery is pretty much the same as the game at every other winery: make the tasting last just long enough in order for the taster to select several bottles of wine for purchase or better yet, to join that particular winery’s club. That’s when the fly is taken and the hook gets set.

I understand that each vintner or winemaker grows slightly different types of grapes and produces completely different varieties of wine and that a few extra feet of elevation here, or the amount of clay in the soil on a given hillside over there, or a barely distinguishable micro-climate on the other side of the valley can account for subtle variations in the color, texture, or taste of the finished product. Furthermore, it makes sense to me that one year is never exactly like the next and that variations of a few degrees of temperature or the amount or timing of rainfall can affect all those grapes clinging to all those vines and that as a result, the vintages that those grapes are destined to become are more like kissing cousins or maybe even distant relatives than identical twins. But here is my personal in vino veritas truth: I may like some wines better than others but they’re all awfully good.

I know that variety is supposed to be the spice of life and I’m guessing the same is probably true for wine. But now that I can parse the lingo of my own wine appreciation probably at the level of a first grader, I know I prefer red to white, but I really prefer rosé to both. Drier is better than sweeter. Age matters and price does make a difference. I probably won’t ever buy a $100+ bottle of wine (the wine I do buy is less, not more, in case you were wondering), but those pricey bottles are smoother, richer, have a more pleasant nose, and can make you feel like a king.

Or a pauper.

Or a trout. I should know: my cheek is a little sore, too.

I’ll be right back.

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015.  A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was published in May 2017; a second volume of Musings entitled “I’ll Be Right Back” was released in June 2018.  Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com

Taos Pueblo by Jamie Kirkpatrick

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There is one more thin place I want to revisit with you. It’s not in Mother Africa like Kilimanjaro, nor in Old Europe like the Piazza Navona. It’s here in what some of us mistakenly refer to as the ‘New World,’ but don’t be fooled: this, too, is a very old place, much older, in fact, than the first white men who came to this remote corner of the world seeking refuge and riches, power and position. Like other thin places—places where heaven and earth almost gently touch—it is both suspended in time and very much alive, a place of stillness that nevertheless buzzes with ancient energy. It is both dreamlike and real, a museum-like window into the past but also a place that is still very present in the lives of the 150 people who live there.

In 1992, the United Nations (UNESCO) designated the Taos Pueblo a “World Heritage Site.” By then, the pueblo was already almost a thousand years old. Sited amid the Taos Mountains in the Sangre de Cristo Range in northern New Mexico, it is one of the eight Northern Pueblos inhabited by people who speak variants of the Tanoan language. (There are also ten Southern Pueblo communities in New Mexico, linked to the northern pueblos by culture but not by language.) Perhaps because it is the northernmost and most remote pueblo, Taos is distinct. It is by far the most conservative, private, and secretive of all the Pueblo communities; the rituals and rites of the kivas—the underground ceremonial chambers used by all of the Pueblo People—are rarely, if ever, shared with outsiders.

It has always been this way. A few years ago, I spent several months in the region researching an event known as the Pueblo Revolt. Also known as Popé’s Rebellion, the revolt took place in 1680 and in many ways, it was the first truly American revolution, an uprising of indigenous people against a colonizing power, in this case, the Spanish settlers and missionaries in the province of Santa Fe de Nuevo México, present day New Mexico. The uprising began in the Taos Pueblo and was guided by Popé (pronounced po-PAY), a mystical holy man who ingeniously planned and orchestrated the revolt which left over 400 Spaniards dead and expelled the remaining 2,000 settlers from the province. Popé promised the people of the pueblos that once the Spanish were gone from the land, their ancient gods would return them to health and prosperity. That mystical belief empowered the revolt and you can still feel its shrouded legacy today.

(Historical footnote: in the rotunda of the US Capitol, each state is entitled to two statues of historical import. For years, there were only 99 statues in the Rotunda; New Mexico had only one. Its second statues was finally added in 2005; it depicts Popé, his back scarred by Spanish lashes and in his left hand, he holds the knotted cord he used as a secret way of timing and initiating the revolt among all the distant peoples of the southern and northern Pueblos.)

Today, there are two sprawling apartment-like dwellings in Taos Pueblo, North House and South House, as well as a maze of dead-end alleys that wind through the village. Built of adobe and two, sometimes three, stories tall, the great houses face each other across a expansive, open plaza that is bisected by Red Willow Creek, a thin band of water flowing out of the sacred Blue Lake up in the mountains, the ancestral home of the Taos people. On many days, the Pueblo is open to visitors but on Feast Days or, for that matter, on any other day deemed important by its current inhabitants, it is off-limits to the outside world.

I’ve spent many hours in the Pueblo, sitting quietly by the creek, sketching the interplay of light and shadow emanating from the high cumulus clouds that hover over the backdrop of mountains, or just wandering where I am permitted. People are polite but not necessarily welcoming; I understand their wariness. They have been bruised by the world around them but yet they remain willing to share their thin place with us…up to a point, but no further.

According to legend, Taos women used to rub mica into the adobe walls of the Pueblo to make them shine. Some think that maybe it was this trick of light that caused early Spanish explorers to first come to the pueblo in their search for the fabled Seven Cities of Gold. Whatever the reason, that first encounter set in motion a chain of events that are still moving forward today. But, to me, the true power of the Taos Pueblo lies in its natural splendor, its spiritual peace, and the mysterious pulsating energies of heaven and earth that delineate a truly thin place.

I’ll be right back.

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015.  A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was published in May 2017; a second volume of Musings entitled “I’ll Be Right Back” was released in June 2018.  Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com

Piazza Navona by Jamie Kirkpatrick

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Long before Dan Brown made it a crime scene in one of his grisly thrillers, I had come to the conclusion that the Piazza Navona in Rome was a very “thin place.” In fact, I had even gone so far in my young (mind you, this was fifty years ago!) brain to think it was the really the center of the known universe, so perfect was it in concept, design, symmetry, and aesthetic harmony that everything else in the world must revolve around its sublime axis. Even now, all these years later, I think maybe I was privy to some cosmic secret.

I was lucky. I stumbled on the Piazza Navona one summer day having wandered through a warren of streets in a workingman’s neighborhood in Rome. Suddenly, in early morning light, the space just seemed to magically appear out of thin air. It was still a quiet time of day: no streams of gawking tourists, no caricature artists, just a pair of blue-habited nuns walking out of the old convent that used to overlook the square. I sat down to take it all in—the play of light and water and granite—lost in that ephemeral suspended moment of time that is the hallmark of a truly thin place.

Today’s piazza is an ancient place. Built on the site of the Stadium of Domitian in the first Century AD, it follows the oblong form of an open arena where ancient Romans used to congregate to watch games. It was officially designated a public space in the 15th Century. Today, art historians acknowledge the piazza as a superb example of Baroque Roman architecture, but I’m sticking with my own new-age designation: it’s a superbly thin place.

If God is in the details, then the Piazza Navona must surely be a part of heaven. In the center, the Fountain of Four Rivers (the Nile representing Africa, the Danube representing Europe, the Ganges, Asia, and the Rio de la Plata, the Americas) dominates the space. Designed by Lorenzo Bernini in 1651, the fountain adds a rather base human emotion to an otherwise divine vision. One of its stone gods faces the church of Sant’Agnese, designed and built by Francesco Borromini, a contemporary and rival of Signor Bernini. Apparently Signor Bernini didn’t think much of Borromini’s architectural acumen because the god of Bernini’s fountain has his hand raised in a cowering gesture as though one of Borromini’s Adam-and-Eve towers is about to topple over on his stone head. Today, that demeaning message would probably be delivered in a tweet.

There are two other fountains in the Piazza. The Fontana del Moro (the Moorish Fountain) is located at the southern end of the Piazza while the Fontana del Nettuno (Neptune’s Fountain) provides balance at the northern end. On a hot summer day, the splash and spray of the three fountains add a refreshing note to the cobblestones of the Piazza and the graceful facades of the surrounding buildings.

Be that as it may, it’s the life around and within the Piazza Navona that gives it a beating heart. There are bars and cafés, gelateria, ristoranti; people eating, drinking, talking, laughing, gesturing—after all, this is Italy. And yet, for all the buzz of the place (especially on a warm summer evening), there is a pervading sense of serenity and heavenly peace hovering over all the earthly activity in the Piazza. Even the jealousy and rivalry of some of the hands that created certain elements of the space seem to join in celebration of the gift they bequeathed to us. They must have had God whispering in their ears.

I’ll be right back.

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015.  A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was published in May 2017; a second volume of Musings entitled “I’ll Be Right Back” was released in June 2018.  Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com

Kilimanjaro by Jamie Kirkpatrick

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Even now, more than fifty years later (sigh!), the memory haunts me. It was the summer of 1968—both Bobby and Martin were dead—and I was on my way to Africa. It was a last-minute destination. I had applied to my university for a summer study grant to spend a few weeks at the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Haiti, but something had gone awry there and I had to seek another location or forfeit the award. Fortunately, with my father’s help, I made contact with Lawrence Sagini, the Minister of the Interior in Kenya, and he agreed to sponsor my “research.” I really didn’t know what research I was going to do, but I’d figure it out when I got there.

Kenya was the crown jewel of Africa. Independent since 1963, it was essentially a single-party political state, ruled by Jomo Kenyatta and his KANU (Kenyan Africa National Union) party. But general elections—the first since independence—had been scheduled for the following year and Kenyatta wanted to consolidate his party’s hold on government. It was my host’s mission to spread the ‘Uhuru’ (Swahili for ‘Freedom’) message throughout the country and so I rode his political coattails listening to stump speeches in countless villages all that summer. I even met Tom Mboya, the charismatic rising star of Kenyan politics who was assassinated a few months later. It was all an incredible experience, but that’s not the abiding memory remains with me today. Kilimanjaro is.

I had taken a week off from the campaign to go on safari with my parents who had come to visit. (They did things like that.) We travelled to Tsavo East National Park to see the great herds of the Serengeti plains and maybe to catch a glimpse of Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak. The animals had cooperated, the mountain had not. Shrouded by cloud and fog, its summit had remained obscured for days and time was running short; I had to get back to Nairobi.

Before dawn on our last morning in the park, we drove out to watch the great herds graze. There were zebra, wildebeest, giraffe. But Kilimanjaro stayed hidden under a cloud bank. Still, it was a thrill to watch a scene that was both timeless and momentary and I felt a sense of peace and freedom unlike anything I had ever known or perhaps ever will know again. This was the world as it was in the beginning and I was whole in it, unencumbered by any thought of my brief past or of future that lay in wait.

Then it happened. As though an unseen hand parted a thin curtain, the clouds around Kilimanjaro’s summit suddenly lifted and I watched the sun rise on the mountain’s peak. Then, as now, I couldn’t stop the tears as the summit went from a blush of deep lavender to Midas gold to brilliant snow-capped white, all in the space of a few minutes. Time stopped and I was one with the universe—a very ‘thin place’ indeed. And then, just as suddenly as the curtain parted, the clouds descended again, shrouding all that glory for another day. It might have been a dream, but the tears running down my cheeks told me it wasn’t. I had, for one brief, shining moment, seen the hand of God.

I’ve rarely spoken of that moment since. It just seems too much to tell. Even now, all these years later, I wonder if it really happened. But I know it did. I can still recall the perfect stillness, the suspension of time, the awe and the wonder. That needs to be shared now.

When things get tough, I summon the moment I saw Kilimanjaro’s summit. It helps me get through the meanness and pettiness of these times because I know the mountain is still there. The herds still graze peacefully on the plains below and every day, the sun still rises on its summit. Fleeting and yet eternal.

I’ll be right back.

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015.  A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was published in May 2017; a second volume of Musings entitled “I’ll Be Right Back” was released in June 2018.  Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com

Thin Places by Jamie Kirkpatrick

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I recently stumbled across a bit of old Celtic wisdom: the existence of thin places. Thin places are spaces in this world where heaven and earth don’t quite collide but almost touch. Places where time is suspended and you could live forever in the moment. Like in the photo that accompanies this Musing: a selfie taken a few years ago on an unseasonably warm day on the southern shore of Iona, a small island off a slightly larger island (Mull) off the west coast of Scotland. It captures a moment that captured me; an idyllic afternoon I will treasure forever.

As far as I know, there is no roadmap to, or listing of, thin places. They’re not in any London cabbie’s A to Zed. As I did on that day ten years ago—and again just yesterday in an article from a few years back on the Travel Page of the New York Times—you have to stumble upon a thin place. Better yet, perhaps it has to find you. Thin places may be natural or man-made. They may be encountered in the most unexpected of settings or at the least expected moment. Maybe it’s that place an athlete calls “the zone” although I happen to think a thin place is more than that. It’s where a window opens, a gauzy thin curtain parts, and suddenly, quietly, you are one with time and space. Maybe thin places are portals to another dimension, grander than wonder, greater than awe. The word ‘rapture’ might best express what I’m talking about if it hadn’t been hijacked by evangelicals. I’ll just say this: you’ll know a thin place when you are in it.

Thin places are both old as time and new as now. That’s part of their beauty but not all of it. They may be hidden or right in front of our noses. Like stars in the daylight, they are always present—we just can’t see them. They’re both mysterious and wonderful, sacred and profane, ephemeral and everlasting. I’ve often encountered thin places in areas surrounded by water, but I’ve experienced them in sere places, too. They are often announced by a subtle quality of light that seems to almost radiate or glow. I’ve tried to photograph thin places but it’s difficult; in the time it takes me to reach for my camera, they may already be gone.

If you haven’t guessed by now, I believe deeply in the cosmology of thin places. If I could, I would inhabit one at every waking moment. But I know that while life can be supremely blissful in a thin place, it’s only a transitory space, a safe pathway we are lucky enough to cross to get from one side of life’s busy street to the other. Sigh. The good news is that while we may come and go, thin places will always be within reach.

I hope I haven’t lost you. I promise I haven’t been eating mushrooms. If you thought this Musing was about a new fad diet, I apologize. I just think that my Celtic ancestors knew something wise and ancient that maybe we’ve forgotten and that deserves remembering.

I also think that over here on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, we live in a thin place—or very close to one—so we should always keep our eyes and hearts open. Whether it’s something as spectacular as the annual arrival of the tall ships or as simple as sitting on the porch surrounded by friends, I have felt heaven and earth meet here. I have always felt I didn’t find this town, that it found me. Now I’ve been given a name by which to call this phenomenon.

In times like these—times of turmoil, times of division—we need to know there are still thin places where we can find a measure of peace and comfort and stillness. A thin place of unity.

I’ll be right back.

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015.  A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was published in May 2017; a second volume of Musings entitled “I’ll Be Right Back” was released in June 2018.  Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com

March Madness by Jamie Kirkpatrick

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Every year at this time, the NCAA Men’s & Women’s Basketball Tournament reminds us all how democracy is supposed to work. Sixty-four teams (sixty-six, if you count the play-ins) compete in each tournament: win and play again; lose and go home. The last man/woman standing is crowned our National Champion. Simple.

But that’s not the March Madness I’m talking about here. No; it’s Elizabeth Warren’s recent idea to do away with the Electoral College. Is it March Madness or March Genius? Let’s take a look…

The Electoral College convenes every four years for the sole purpose of electing the President and Vice-President of the United States. Each state is entitled to a number of Electors equal to the combined total of that state’s membership in the US Senate and House of Representatives. Additionally, pursuant to the 23rd Amendment to the Constitution, the District of Columbia is entitled to a number of Electors equal to the number of Electors from the least populous state(s) which is currently 3. (The other least populous states are North and South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Alaska, and Hawaii.) That adds to 538 Electors; and absolute majority of 270 Electors is required to win the election.

Additionally, Article II of the US Constitution (Section 1, Clause 2 for those of you who enjoy spending time in the weeds) specifies that the legislature of each state may determine the manner in which its Electors are chosen. After each Presidential election day (the first Tuesday in November or November 3, 2020 if you happen to be counting down), each state counts its popular votes and determines how its Electors will cast their votes. In 2016, Donald Trump received 304 electoral votes, Hillary Clinton received 278. (Three other candidates received electoral votes including Bernie Sanders who received 1 of Hawaii’s electoral votes and Spotted Owl who received 1 of Washington’s.) The irony, of course is that Ms. Clinton won the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes. And therein lies the Electoral rub.

It would seem that the Electoral College is an inherently anti-democratic institution, that it undermines the notion of “one person, one vote.” Proponents of the College argue that it is fundamental to American Federalism and requires candidates to appeal to rural areas as well as to larger urban populations. Opponents criticize the system saying it encourages candidates to focus on a few “swing states” and gives a few states with small populations a disproportionally large influence in national elections. They also rue the fact that the Electoral College may result in a one candidate winning the popular vote but losing the election. They may have a point: that confusing result has already happened twice in this Century (2000 and 2016).

In several polls taken since 1967, a majority of Americans favor with doing away with the Electoral College, calling it anachronistic, a relic of our nation at the time of the Founding Fathers (and Mothers). Yet it remains. Now along comes Ms. Warren’s proposal to abolish the Electoral College because she “wants every vote to matter.” Many agree with her: let the popular vote decide; don’t ‘delegitimize’ an election by declaring a candidate with fewer popular votes the winner.

Ms. Warren’s proposal has its critics, to say the least. Senator Lindsay Graham says Democrats “want rural America to just go away politically.” Senator Marco Rubio thinks the Electoral College is “a work of genius.” Not surprisingly, Mr. Trump defends the College by claiming that “cities would end up running the country…and we don’t want that!”

Which brings me back to the NCAA Basketball Tournament. It’s about clear winners and losers. Score more points and play on. Score fewer points and go home. Simple. But basketball tournaments and national elections in a Federalist Republic are not the same thing. Our Founders knew that the tyranny of the majority was a dangerous beast that had the potential to result in something more akin to mob rule than true democracy. They preferred a system with more checks and balances. The Electoral College may have its conceptual problems but it may also protect us from the beast.

I’ll be right back.

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015.  A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was published in May 2017; a second volume of Musings entitled “I’ll Be Right Back” was released in June 2018.  Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com

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