One of the books that I read to our children and have also read to our grandchildren is called “Yertle the Turtle.” The story is of a turtle who wants to be king over all kinds of other things, so he keep seeking a higher and higher perch from which to see. The higher he went, the more he could see and the more over which he could claim to be king. He got other turtles to stack themselves upon one another and climbed to the top of the tower, and he demanded that the tower and his position me made higher and higher until the entire tower collapsed and he was once again just a turtle in the mud. It makes a good children’s story and it makes a good point about the importance of thinking of others and their feelings.
I was thinking of Yertle the Turtle as we were talking with cousins yesterday. We gathered in the late afternoon to talk about community and about our plans for the future and about lots of other interesting things that cousins talk about when they are together. Enough years have passed and we’ve gathered for enough funerals that somehow we have become the elders of our family. There are still three generations around after most of the people who came for my cousin’s funeral have gone home and we are the oldest of those generations. All of us elders are at points in our lives where we need to make decisions about where and how we will live for the next phase of our lives, so we talked about places where we might live and how we might form and participate in community as we grow older.
The cousin whose life we celebrated and whose grave we visited this weekend once wrote about his choice of place. He lived all of his life within a few miles of the place where he was born, but he made some decisions about where to locate his house and how he would live, including choosing the place where he would die and be buried. He once wrote an essay in which he said that at one time he thought he would like to live on top of a hill, where he could look around and see for miles and miles. This is very open country. You don’t have to be on top of a hill to see for many miles, but when you do crest a hill, the view is truly impressive. You can see mountains in the distance in several different directions and the wheat fields roll on from horizon to horizon. The problem with living on top of the hill, he wrote, is that in order to live there he would have to marry the daughter of the man who owned the top of the hill. That would be acceptable, he surmised, but then you would build your house up there and you would always be looking beyond your own fields and beyond the fields of your neighbors. Instead, he chose to build his home in the bottom land next to the river. He couldn’t see the great distances, but over the years he built up his ranch in such a way that he was the owner of all that he could see from his home. He concluded his essay by saying that when he was overwhelmed by the view and the size of the land he could close his shades and limit his view to an even smaller space and feel that he had even more control over what he could see.
I’m not telling my cousin’s story very well, but he developed a philosophy that was the opposite of the ill-fated king Yertle of the turtles. My cousin’s philosophy proved to be a good way of living and viewing the world.
There are many who would say this particular part of Montana is lonely country, but it has never felt that way to me because it is a place of our ancestors and it is populated by family. There may not be many of them, but they are generous with hospitality and quick to welcome us whenever we visit. I love to come to this part of the world, but it isn’t the place where I will be making my home. It was just the right place for my cousin to live and die, but it isn’t my place.
One of the stories of our people is of Abraham and Sarah, who lived long lives and grew old together. They were wanderers and nomads, always following the dream of a promise and a land. What they didn’t realize, at least in the beginning of their travels, was that the promise was to their people, not to a single generation, and when they reached their old lives, the promise still was in the future. Sarah was the first to die and when she did, the family had no land that they owned. Her burial plot was the first piece of real estate that they acquired. The location of that bit of land was determined by where they happened to be when that event occurred. So they negotiated a price and bought a bit of land and and laid her to rest. The family continued to move for several generations before settling. And even then, they occupied the land for only a few generations before time and circumstances forced their people to become nomads once again. We often speak of being a people of the story - a people of history - rather than a people of place.
As we continue to seek the place for the next part of our lives, we are sometimes a bit overwhelmed with the life of uncertainty. We have been enabled to live in some pretty wonderful places along our life’s journey. We have met some really wonderful people and had some very great communities. We feel the urge both to move on and to stay. We experience the beauty and power of place, but we know that our ownership is always temporary. We live in this land for a little time. Time progresses. Things change. New generations are born and gather around the campfire. They keep singing and talking after the elders have gone to bed. It is the natural way of the world.
I still don’t know where we will decide to live for the next phase of the adventure, but as we search for that place we are grateful for the conversations we are having along the way.
Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!
The river ranch sits on the Missouri River between Great Falls and Fort Benton. Family ranch and farm land are on both sides of the river. The land has been certified organic and is managed without the use of chemicals. The hills and breaks and bluffs of the Missouri Valley have been used as rangeland and are home to deer and a host of other critters. It is a beautiful place. My cousin’s grandchildren are the sixth generation of our family who have lived on and worked this land.
All land is sacred, endowed by the Creator with properties that support and sustain not only our bodies, but also our spirits. Just visiting the ranch is always a time of renewal for me. Waking up this morning to the prolific birdsong is a special treat for me.
Yesterday a group of a hundred or more people gathered at the ranch to remember my cousin Russ, who lived all of his life on the ranch and whose larger than life personality impacted so many lives. The gathering was an amazingly diverse group of ranchers and organic farmers and scientists and engineers and authors and even a couple of ministers. We had a grand potluck with so much food that there was no way to even sample all of the offerings.
I talked with cousins whom I haven’t seen for decades and met a few new folks. We all had stories about Russ. It was interesting to note that each of us had a sense that we had received special treatment from Russ. I had spent two of my teenage summers working with him on the ranch and always felt that whenever I was around, he would drop everything to visit with me. So did my cousins. He had a way of making each person feel welcomed, loved and valued.
After a big meal and lots of visiting a smaller group of us got in our cars and drove down by the river to a place that has been special to a lot of us to visit the gravesite where Russ is buried. Knowing that his body is there in the very soil he loved and tended with the river running by and the sweet sage perfuming the air gave me a deep feeling that this is right. We love the people in our lives and we grieve when they die and we find ways to express our grief while we acknowledge that in God’s great creation nothing is wasted. The elements of our bodies are returned to the earth and new life comes forth.
Russ was an unconventional man and so his grave is a bit unconventional as well. In place of a headstone, there is a cairn of rocks. In addition to the native grasses and sage there have been planted a few organic lentils and a bit of purple sage. Some of those who gathered left other small tokens. We sang a few songs. The river kept flowing. The birds kept singing. The wind kept refreshing the countryside.
And then there was more talk. Cousins pondering ideas of the passing of generations, of the simple fact that we are now the elders of our family and that things are changing. New generations have spread out across the world. One piece of geography, though central to our family story, has a different meaning to our grandchildren than it does to us. The places of our childhoods are not the places of our grandchildren. Just like that mighty river that keeps flowing by the ranch, time keeps rolling by. Among the memories and nostalgia were hopes and dreams and a few fears about the future. Some of us are facing some big changes in our lives. Others have already gone through major life transitions. There is a kind of collective wisdom when our family gathers.
Whenever I wake on a Sunday while on vacation there is a moment of disorientation. I wake early on Sundays and am used to starting my day by reviewing my sermon. When I’m on vacation there is no sermon to deliver, and paying too much attention to the texts for the day can cause me to be distracted when I worship in a setting that is different from the congregation I serve. Part of vacation is allowing myself to be present in the moment of the lives and worship styles of others. I’m not the best at not being in charge and vacation is an opportunity to practice a skill that will be increasingly important as the years pass.
The sounds of the morning at the ranch are very good therapy for one who needs to work at the skill and grace of relaxation. The windsong and birdsong combine to refresh my life. It is no mistake that the big commandments of our people start with acknowledging and honoring God and move to learning to relax and giving God the sabbath before turning to the behaviors that sustain community such as honesty and honoring elders and respecting others. There is great wisdom just in the order of the rules we have received for living as a free people.
Today is sabbath. It is a holy day. The congregation that I love is in good hands with capable leadership. I am blessed to be in a place of deep meaning and rich tradition.
In Hebrew, the word for Spirit is the same word that is used for wind and it is the same word that is used for breath. Here in the Missouri breaks, it doesn’t take much imagination at all to feel the wind as the breath of God. It is a gift to be able to inhale that wind and feel the presence of the Creator and know that the air we breathe is shared with all of the creatures of this planet. Gratitude comes naturally.
Here I can understand that my elders and those who have gone before are not just in the places where their bodies have been laid to rest, but are a part of something much bigger that is beyond any particular place. That knowledge is something that I will take with me wherever I roam. And, when my time comes to join the elders in the life beyond this one I now know, the location will not be important because truly God is everywhere.