With how much I travel these days, people often ask where I’m bound next—this week I write to you from Leavenworth, Kansas. I’ve had a fair number of questions about what was bringing me to “The Sunflower State”. After all, there is no Marist community here, nor is it a major destination for meetings and conferences, although I am in fact here for a professional development workshop.
The question of what brings me to Kansas is a very reasonable one. But then somebody asked me semi-jokingly, “Who wants to go to Kansas?” and I bristled.
Many things could bring a person to Kansas, even beyond a desire to see the world’s largest ball of twine by circumference. Space travel enthusiasts would likely enjoy seeing the final resting place of Apollo 13, while naturalists could be drawn to Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve or the Chalk Pyramids. The musically inclined might be interested to visit the birthplaces of Melissa Etheridge and jazz great Charlie “Bird” Parker. Aviation enthusiasts could see where Amelia Earhart was born or where Clyde Cessna grew up. You won’t find Superman’s childhood home in Kansas, but you can find where Langston Hughes spent part of his youth. Kansas is home to Haskell Indian Nations University, one of the tribal universities established to serve the American Indian population. Kansas was also a destination for many African-Americans who fled the South after the US Civil War and it has attracted enough Mexican immigrants over time so that nearly half the population of some southwestern counties are of that heritage. People have come to Kansas at different times for many reasons, and naturally a number of people have had reasons for leaving as well.
I don’t write this post as an ode to Kansas though. I barely know the place, and any appearance to the contrary is thanks to a few minutes spent on Wikipedia. I am, however, enamored of a number of places that others look down on. I have an abiding love for West Virginia, hope to return soon to Kentucky, and enjoyed my college years in rural Ohio. The scenic Dakotas have been the most beautiful part of several of my cross-country drives. Those who choose to fly over all of this miss out on far more than they know. The fact is, God’s country is as beautiful as we allow it to be. Also, it is all God’s country… everywhere on this globe and beyond. It only ceases to be beautiful if we humans excessively blemish it or if we keep our prejudicial blinders up.
My first trip to Mexico included three weeks on mission in Bawinocachi in Sierra Terrahumara, a mountainous and rather undeveloped indigenous settlement. Only one building there was electrified and a small handful possessed running water. One clear night when there were neither clouds nor moon, the stars were so incredible that you could see God. Granted, I was visiting in the summer instead of in the presumably more difficult winter, but in spite of the challenges there I never asked myself how the local people managed to live like that. Only when I flew back to the USA and landed in noisy, bright, dirty New York City did I ask how people managed to live there. My description may make Bawino sound exotic and wonderful, but how easily would somebody else dismiss it as a $h*th@le, the same way that some unfortunate world leaders have explicitly designated countries like Haiti (which I also love), or that many of my urbane acquaintances have shown clear disdain for states in the rural USA?
Just as all people have inherent dignity and worth, so too do all places. In my mind, there is no room for geographic discrimination. Is there culture in Kansas? My Uber driver, a retiree named Edwin, told me about his childhood growing up hunting racoon and other small game, all of which ended up on the dinner table. His grandmother had recipes for all these critters that she had perfected in the lean days of the Great Depression—apparently her treatment of squirrel was especially tasty. That might be a difficult menu for some readers to accept, but does it not express a genuinely different culture? It also expresses the beautifully rugged determination of human beings to survive even in the face of difficult odds. The fact is, I’ve never met any meat-eater too good to eat squirrel. If it’s good enough for Edwin the Uber driver…
We cannot always choose where we end up in this life, whether geographically or situationally. We do not choose where we are born, and only some of us choose where we live later on. Learn to cherish the place where you are. If you feel called to someplace else (as I often have), neither scorn your origin nor approach your destination with condescending pity. Love your new environs and its people just as much as you would your home.
We all encounter the limits of self-determination at some point. Jesus’ warning to Peter that “when you grow old […] someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go,” describes the reality not only of displacement, but also of illness, the challenges of aging, and any other unsought life change. When we can no longer choose our destiny, all that is left is for us to appreciate it and the companions we discover along the way. Even if that leads us to Kansas or not Kansas.
This week’s “ear candy” is Rather Be, a song sometimes used to poignant effect at the conclusion of significant encounters. To be in heaven is to treat wherever we are as the place from which we could sing this song. The “brain food” considers one’s attitude toward an unchosen difficulty by using the geographical analogy of travelling to Holland (after having prepared for a trip to Italy). In this case, the author reflects on her experience of parenting a child with Down Syndrome, but can we have the grace to discover the unexpected joys in other unchosen situations as well? Can we ask for the grace to celebrate the place where we are, even in difficulty?
Ear Candy: “Rather Be” by Clean Bandit
Brain Food: “Welcome to Holland” by Emily Perl Kingsley
Come back next Saturday for a new post!