Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Minnesota 16.6.93 (2): Ruined Barns and Dancing in the Ruins

I thought of all this yesterday when we walked to the K. farm, a little paradise that once functioned as a virtually self-sufficient “monastic” community complete with workshop, beehives, smokehouse, etc. It’s now lived on by Glenn and Linda, who have a trailer and teach at the local community college, and who farm with Louis. And by Joseph, who pursues an almost eremitical existence in the old K. house, where he has kept everything virtually as it has been from the late 19th century.

Steve is nostalgic about the way it used to be. He laments the falling of the smokehouse, beehouse, even barn, into desuetude. The corncrib is no more; it rotted to the ground a few years ago. The large garden once known all over the area for its neatness and the succulence of its raspberries is now largely a breeding ground for dock, lamb’s quarters, plantain, and dandelions.

It’ll never be the same. The point, it seems to me, is not to look nostalgically back, as if some moment in time is the moment, the fly to be encased perennially in amber. The point is for us to realize that the economic system, the familial organization, the entire cultural ethos that permitted such a world to exist, is no more.

And yet. And yet Joe, Glenn, and Linda still live on the place. Louis still farms. The resources, human and otherwise, to live gracefully and creatively in these United States are still there. These resources won’t permit, can’t cover, all the demands of the world that is gone.

They will permit the new, however, built in a strange new way in the shell of the old. What’s more to the point: these resources will never be able to replicate the religious life of the traditional large farming families of the area, even if people like Joe, Linda, Lou, and Glenn wanted to do so.

This is a point that U.S. Catholicism, or at least strong controlling groups in the U.S. church, are simply unable to appreciate. Belmont Abbey College is a case in point. There, there’s a determination to keep the machine oiled and greased as long as it’ll turn, no matter how many bones have to be fed into it for it to crunch and stay alive, no matter how many liters of bright blood it must guzzle to appear eternally youthful. All is premised on the eternal continuation of the now, disguised as the moment in the past we choose to identify with the tradition tout court.

For some reason (how coy—for reasons I perceive perfectly well), sexuality is the sticking point in all this, the Freudian knot that keeps it all bound up tight. For some reason, we’d rather keep alive the fiction of family, celibacy, Ozzie and Harriet and Going My Way Catholicism, rather than accept what is, and can’t be otherwise.

To bring the digression to the destination: the choice of the Minnesota Opera Co. to stage the opera here raises all these questions in the most interesting, troubling way. I thought of this a great deal last night, as the cast rehearsed and then as we had a pizza party in town.

At the party, the professional (i.e., not local volunteers) component of the cast spontaneously sang “The Promise of Living” from the opera—re: loving, helping, living together. This was a thanksgiving song for the hospitality of the town, as the host families were announced and each received a key with the event engraved on it.

Loving, helping, living together: sounds banal. It was anything but. In the same way that Copland himself transmuted “banal” folk melodies into symphony and opera, the cast seized the moment and created a moment. In the square, concrete block room of hideous proportions and even less promising appointments that constitutes the Red Lake Falls pizza parlor, they sang their hearts out. First a male vocalist led in, a female vocalist responded in contretemps, call-response, and bit by bit, the whole cast, who were accidentally dispersed all along the walls in groups that could not have been more artfully arranged, had someone tried, joined in at one point or another.

Profoundly, profoundly moving. I know I overdo this language (sunset a few nights ago), but it was—in the way the ordinary and not-quite-ordinary always can be, when we’re away from our accustomed surroundings. What was most moving, aside from the performance itself, which was exquisite, was the sense that I’m privy to the birth of something fascinating and unexpected that’s happening in this land, at this time.

It’s an opening of the banal, the despised, ordinary, hard-working, unimaginative people of the center to something that goes beyond politics, economics, religion even, to culture, to the creation of culture. It’s the meeting of the people with high culture, and what happens to both when that occurs—the sandpapering of the haughtiness and pretensions of the presumed makers of culture, and the slight cracking open of the clam-tight prejudice of middle America.

And all this, this reinstitution of Chautauqua, at a moment of cultural change in which culture ought not to matter to anyone. After all, there is no money for it anymore. After all, times are hard, jobs insecure, prospects dismal. Why sing and dance, except in that sad way people do when they dance in the face of death?

Yet that’s not what all this feels like. It feels instead like new synthesis, new determination (or perhaps that’s too active and conscious a word: new recognition of the need) to sign and dance, if we’re to be human, to face the future with any courage, resolve, grace. And a recognition and opportunity motivated by gay people, and by gay people who are increasingly in your face, unwilling to mediate culture in that hidden and self-effacing way we’ve had so long , we gay people. Which is to say, the burst of creativity has much to do with the increasing coming out of gay people.

On this, I could write and write, especially re: the after-party evening of talk Steve, Louis, George F., Vern S., and Lawrence B. and I had. But that episode, dear reader, you must wait till next week.

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