Friday, April 9 — Three Cairns – sculpture – Andy Goldsworth and Emily Dickenson

“Cairns [are] stone structures [or markers]
that identify a place of great importance.”

This little boy exploring a large stone egg got me wondering the way art does. Two artists here, the sculptor and the mom with the camera. So I emailed his mom back asking about the egg. She’s a close friend living in La Jolla, CA: “it’s a sculpture by Andy Goldsworthy, called ‘Three Cairns,’ in front of the Museum of Contemporary Art; my son calls it the ‘egg rock.’”

I found an explanation on the website of the Greater Des Moines Public Art Foundation ( Just below is their great picture of the central cairn at the Des Moines Art Center. “Cairns,” Public Art tells us, are “stone structures [or markers] that identify a place of great importance. Their dry-stone construction represents an engineering feat as well as artistic creativity. The process of shaping and stacking the stones into a simple oval shape is challenging and intense. The form symbolizes fullness and ripeness, time and energy, loss and endurance.” The Foundation also tells us that this is the largest project in the Western Hemisphere by British artist Andy Goldsworthy.

The photo, by Doug Millar, shows the central cairn at home among Iowa grass and trees. Goldworthy’s placement of the two hollow-out stone frames isn’t random. One points toward New York, a matching cairn outside the Neugerger Museum of Art; the other points west to the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art in La Jolla and the cairn my friend’s son showed off for us. The limestone for each comes from long before its physical home was inhabited by people calling their place “Iowa.”

Lots going on here. Not one place but three, not three places but a continent, not one time but millennia, all crafted with the precise skills of a contemporary worker of stone. I like to imagine the work we do at the university like that. Final exams are appearing on the horizon with their demands for precise thinking and some memory. We are a university.

While getting reacquainted with the Cairns, I opened a poem feed that lands in my inbox each day to find a gift from Emily Dickenson. Just below my signature, you will find Emily Dickenson’s 12 line poem about an unnamed bird. Which form of beauty opens me to deeper stillness this mid-April day in 2021, the trans-national sculpture or this poem from the 19th century? Answer? “yes.”

Some early spring rains begin to encourage grass and flowers and trees to do their thing.  Yesterday, I learned that on our 280 acre landscape a flock of wild turkeys has made their home.  Wild turkeys are fierce, agile creatures; no wonder Benjamin Franklin proposed them as the national bird.  I have yet to see the turkeys themselves, but I’m looking forward to it.

Have a blest weekend,


john st sj

Today’s Post

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I’ve heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

Emily Dickinson
December 10, 1830 – May 15, 1886

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April 7 – Mark, evangelist & poet “Repent and believe the good news”

April 7, 2021 – “being surprised”

“Is our main repenting, perhaps, made of believing good news,
that there is news,
something new,
and it is good?”

When I pray from Mark or Matthew or Luke (i.e., the three “synoptic gospels”),  it helps me to treat the evangelist as a poet, to allow the surprise buried in the text to stop me in my tracks.

Long ago, when I took a job here in 1980,  I wrote this poem based on Mark 1:15.  I found the challenges facing the university daunting.   This gospel text, “Repent and believe the good news” began to get my attention,  as strong poems can.    A teaching of St. Ignatius, (i.e., that I ask to grow in “intimate knowledge of our Lord who has become human . . .”)  began to challenge me.  “To become human” implies being born in some particular place with its own historical circumstances;  Jesus was born in one of the world’s meanest, poorest, and most violent places: the Roman Empire’s grinding police state where crucifixion of people who opposed the state became horrors up and down that small country (e.g., as many as 2000 rebel fighters were crucified during one period in the early childhood of the boy Jesus).  Sometimes it took a day or two for a strong man to suffocate to death;  crucifixion was intended to terrify,  intimidate and subdue opposition.

For me that became a deep surprise, taking the teaching of the young man Jesus, “Repent and believe the good news” seriously.  What could the evangelist poet Mark mean?   And that led me, little by little, to notice that where I was born (Marinette, WI, 1939) was a much less frightening place than where Jesus was born in his historical time and place.  The place where Jesus was born  more resembled the circumstances of 21st-century immigrant children torn from their mothers and fathers at U.S. borders. It helps, when I read this saying from Mark 1:15, to allow the poet’s word-choices to open my imagination into deep, shocking, surprise, like every strong poem would.  Best to read the poem out loud, with pauses.

Not everything about my Catholic faith makes me proud; but this teaching and men and women who have tried to live it, often  at the cost of their blood, stop me in my tracks,  like any strong poem should.

Have a blest day,


john sj

Today’s Post  “Repent and believe the good news.”   {Mk 1:15}

Is our main repenting, perhaps, made of believing good news,
that there is news,
something new,
and it is good?

That what we already know is not all there is,
that we must approach the presence of God
knowing we will be surprised,
committed to being surprised
and so to living in a surprise-able way?

Poem by john st sj

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April 5 2021, 2016 –Kathleen Norris – ” Dakota: A Spiritual Geography”

Last posted on September 19, 2016

On our campus as people in the university world, like people everywhere, suck air, walk too fast, and try to manage big and little start-ups.  Lots of people scramble in their digital workplaces, not just on campuses.   Maybe that’s why the Kathleen Norris memoir suggested itself during this year’s season of tedious hope and anxious attention to county-by-county digital maps showing percentages of fully or partially vaccinated human beings who have themselves kept vigil with our numbing hosts of the beloved dead.

Norris writes words that open deep into ordinary reality.   In 1974, after learning her way into New York City’s world of poetry with mentoring from the legendary Betty Kray at the Academy of American Poets ( Kathleen and her husband shocked their peers by moving to Lemmon in northwestern South Dakota where Kathleen had inherited the family home of her grandmother.  They stayed a long time.

In 1993, her Dakota: A Spiritual Geography took the literary world by storm.  Took me by storm too.  If a book of micro essays, some only half a page, ever approaches the taut, lean focus of strong poetry, for me this is the book.  In those South Dakota years, she became friends with vast horizons, and with the Benedictine monks at St. John’s Monastery in Minnesota.  She’s written several memoirs about the intersection of her secularity with the roots of Benedictine prayer and wisdom.

Think of these short quotes from Dakota as poems.   Best to read them out loud, with pauses.

Have a blest day.


john sj

Today’s Post:  Four texts from Dakota

“Once, when I was describing to a friend from Syracuse, New York, a place on the plains that I love, a ridge above a glacial moraine with a view of almost fifty miles, she asked, “But what is there to see?” The answer, of course, is nothing. Land, sky, and the ever-changing light.”

“Maybe the desert wisdom of the Dakotas can teach us to love anyway, to love what is dying, in the face of death, and not pretend that things are other than they are. The irony and wonder of all of this is that it is the desert’s grimness, its stillness and isolation, that brings us back to love.”

“To be an American is to move on, as if we could outrun change. To attach oneself to place is to surrender to it, and suffer with it.”

“For me, walking in a hard Dakota wind can be like staring at the ocean: humbled before its immensity, I also have a sense of being at home on this planet, my blood so like the sea in chemical composition, my every cell partaking of air. I live about as far from the sea as is possible in North America, yet I walk in a turbulent ocean. Maybe that child was right when he told me that the world is upside-down here, and this is where angels drown.”

meadowlark on a fence,  Fog Basin, SD  2008

A recording of the song of the Western Meadowlark

Kathleen Norris (born in Washington, D.C. on July 27, 1947) is a best-selling poet and essayist. Her parents, John Norris and Lois Totten, took her as a child to Hawaii, where she graduated from Punahou Preparatory School in 1965. After graduating from Bennington College in Vermont in 1969, Norris became arts administrator of the Academy of American Poets, and published her first book of poetry two years later.[1] In 1974 she inherited her grandparents’ farm in Lemmon, South Dakota, moved there with her husband David Dwyer, joined Spencer Memorial Presbyterian church, and discovered the spirituality of the Great Plains.[2] She entered a new, non-fictional phase in her literary career after becoming a Benedictine oblate at Assumption Abbey   ND in 1986, and spending extended periods at Saint John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota.[3] Since the death of her husband in 2003, Norris has transferred her place of residence to Hawaii, though continuing to do lecture tours on the mainland.

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Wednesday, March 31, 2021 Warsan Shire reading the journeys of refugees

In this lovely contemplative place some 60 miles north of Motown, I am finding nourishment in an A+ fitness center,  consistent attention to metrics like blood sugar and a mix of prescription meds,  early morning prayer attention to my newest-bound prayer journal while the dining room is still quiet.  Jesuits, like monks of St. Benedict learn to notice subtle realities in the world around them.  Perhaps that’s why this Warsan Shire compelling poem keeps pulling my coat recently, asking me to notice the c. 60,000,000 displaced human beings walking the roads of the world, driven from their own home places.

I lifted this from an Advent season 7 years ago.   Perhaps Warsan Shires perceptive language will disturb and bless you as it has me this lovely morning, the last day of March.  Have a blest mid-week day.

john sj


Taken from Work Day Post December 4, 2015

Somali-British poet Warsan Shire’s poem evokes intimacy — a crying child lucky enough to have a mom or a dad hold her or him, whispering “where does it hurt?”  Shire enters that moment and opens it out into the wide world and a time marked by brutal absolute convictions that demonize those with whom one differs.  Columnist Omir Safi turned to Shire’s poem while reeling with shock after the Paris massacre in December 2015.

“I watched the outpouring of grief from all over the world, including most of my Muslim friends. I saw hundreds of Facebook profiles being changed to the French flag-themed profile pictures, and thousands of #prayerforParis and #Prayers4Paris tweets.  I also saw, as I knew would come, wounded cries of the heart from friends in Beirut wondering why their own atrocity (43 dead) just one day before — also at the hands of ISIS — had not received any such similar outpouring of grief; friends from Pakistan wondering why there was no option to “check in as safe” during their experiences with violent attacks; friends from Central African Republic wondering why their dead — in the thousands — are the subject of no one’s global solidarity.”


Today’s Post:  “what they did yesterday afternoon”

by warsan shire

they set my aunts house on fire
i cried the way women on tv do
folding at the middle
like a five pound note.
i called the boy who use to love me
tried to ‘okay’ my voice
i said hello
he said warsan, what’s wrong, what’s happened?

i’ve been praying,
and these are what my prayers look like;
dear god
i come from two countries
one is thirsty
the other is on fire
both need water.

later that night

i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
and whispered
where does it hurt?

it answered

        Warsan Shire

posted November 16 2015  on Amber J Kaiser (

(SomaliWarsan ShireArabic: ورسان شرى‎‎, born 1 August 1988)
is a London–based- Somali writer, poet, editor and teacher.[1]  (

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Tuesday – March 23 “Lockdown”

Tuesday, March 23

“People are singing to each other
across the empty squares,
keeping their windows open
so that those who are alone . . . ”

When I moved to the Colombiere rehab Center in  February, all 60+ of us Jesuits were in lockdown, a tough slog of mostly isolation — not only masks and isolated meals off trays in separate rooms,  but no access to our world-class fitness center: the very constraints Franciscan poet, Michael Surufka describes in today’s post.

Now, these months later, “lockdown” can suggest what The Spiritual Exercises, in its Second Week describes as a purposeful remembering of some part of one’s past that wants intimate sensual remembering (i.e., when returning to some event or moment. try to use all five senses to get inside that moment, to “get there” (Sp Ex # 121). I am finding sensual remembering transformative these months.  Perhaps you will also.

Have a blest week,


john st sj


Today’s Post: “Lockdown”

Yes there is fear.
Yes there is isolation.
Yes there is panic buying.
Yes there is sickness.
Yes there is even death.

They say that in Wuhan after so many years of noise
You can hear the birds again.
They say that after just a few weeks of quiet
The sky is no longer thick with fumes
But blue and grey and clear.

They say that in the streets of Assisi
People are singing to each other
across the empty squares,
keeping their windows open
so that those who are alone
may hear the sounds of family around them.

They say that a hotel in the West of Ireland
Is offering free meals and delivery to the housebound.

Today a young woman I know
is busy spreading fliers with her number
through the neighbourhood
So that the elders may have someone to call on.

Today Churches, Synagogues, Mosques and Temples
are preparing to welcome
and shelter the homeless, the sick, the weary
All over the world people are slowing down and reflecting
All over the world people are looking at their neighbours in a new way
All over the world people are waking up to a new reality
To how big we really are.
To how little control we really have.
To what really matters.
To Love.

So we pray and we remember that
Yes there is fear.
But there does not have to be hate.
Yes there is isolation.
But there does not have to be loneliness.
Yes there is panic buying.
But there does not have to be meanness.
Yes there is sickness.
But there does not have to be disease of the soul
Yes there is even death.
But there can always be a rebirth of love.

Wake to the choices you make as to how to live now.
Today, breathe.
Listen, behind the factory noises of your panic
The birds are singing again
The sky is clearing,
Spring is coming,
And we are always encompassed by Love.

Open the windows of your soul
And though you may not be able
to touch across the empty square,


Fr. Michael Surufka OFM

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March 15 – Dom Helder Camera “a good traveler cares for weary companions”

Dom Helder Camera’s voice and eyes “a good traveler cares for weary companions”

“… but we know the journey is human life and life needs company.
Companion is the one who eats the same bread.”

Posted on March 20, 2020, 1st day of Daylight Savings Time  —  (n.b.,  recent research finds that the first full Monday of Daylight Savings typically registers a 6 – 7 % spike in traffic accidents  – –  )

Sheer beauty can look inadequate for repairing violent storm damage, such as COVID-19, our new global visitor.  But I doubt it.  The work of beauty is to remind us that deep down, under the exhausting burdens of our adult commitments, lives a wellspring of grace.

Dom Helder Camera, FortalezaCearáNortheast Region of Brazil –February 7, 1909 – August 27, 1999:  He was archbishop of Recife and Olinda Brazil from 1964 to 1985 during a severe military dictatorship.  He interpreted Catholic teaching with a consistent, fierce attention to the violence of systems that maintain brutal poverty.  Not surprisingly, he made serious enemies who worked to silence him.   It is said that some of Dom Helder’s enemies hired a hitman to assassinate him.  Like the professional he was, the hitman stalked the archbishop for some time, learning his habits, seeking a place and time most apt for killing.   In the process, he listened to Dom Helder Camera speak a number of times until, one day, he fell at his feet, weeping, and begged for the grace to change his profession and his life.

Dom Helder’s unblinking attention to the violence of poverty was matched by legendary playfulness.  Here is one story among many; this one I witnessed.  Once Dom Helder was speaking to about 1,500 people who sat on the St. Louis levee overlooking the Mississippi River (by the Arch). In the middle of his talk, a helicopter took off right behind him filled with tourists taking a ride for a bird’s eye view of the river and the city.   It made so much racket that it was impossible to hear what the Dom Helder was saying.  He paused, and turned around toward the helicopter which flew at that moment just above him, and offered the helicopter pilot and the tourists a puckish little wave.  When the helicopter got a little farther out on its trip, he turned back to us and blew our minds as we listened.

This Monday in March, my Lakota daughter Mary Tobacco reminds me that even snow, rain, and mud following last night’s heavy snow can be beautiful.

Photo from Mary Tobacco’s home after yesterday’s snow

Have a blest day,


john sj

p.s.      Here’s my favorite DH photo.  Alas, I’ve never found one of him waving to the helicopter.

Today’s Post-  a saying of Dom Helder

“It is possible to travel alone, but we know the journey is human life
and life needs company.
Companion is the one who eats the same bread.

The good traveler cares for weary companions, grieves when we lose heart,
takes us where she finds us,  listens to us.
Intelligently, gently, above all lovingly, we encourage each other to go on
and recover our joy
On the  journey.”

Dom Helder Camera

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An anonymous, shy, love poem

Friday, March 12, 2020 

Anxieties, anxieties, anxieties  —>  a fair sample of COVID-19 denials;  sometimes pretty noisy denials.  They remind me of a joke my dad used to tell from his early days growing up in a Kansas farm town.  The story goes that the preacher had written out his sermon so he could read it from the pulpit with notes that occurred to him as he got closer to the service.    My Dad’s joke:  the preacher had written on one place in the margin — “Weak Argument:  SHOUT LIKE HELL.”   I loved this bit of prairie humor as a boy who worshiped his dad;  I still love it.

Today’s  haiku, more playfully tender than my Dad’s Kansas joke about the shouting preacher, may whisper in your imagination this Friday afternoon.  Try reading it slowly, with pauses as you turn toward Daylight Saving Time.

No matter how busy you are, I hope there’s time to stand still and read these few, spare words, perhaps as a mind rinse.

Have a blest Friday,

john sj


Today’s Post – Anonymous

By way of pretext, I said:
“I will go to consider the condition of the bamboo fence”
but it was really to see you.”

Rocky Mountain National Park yellow flower – –  Ignatian Colleagues Silent Retreat – July 2011

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March 8 – Denise Levertov – “Uncertain Oneiromancy”

“I too saw only the obstacles”

Today’s post took shape last evening while talking with a soul friend who is spending this week at home, in stillness, tasting her life in its present moment.  Something in our conversation reminded me of still another from Denise Levertov, a late work in Sands of the Well (1996).  Wikipedia tells me that “Oneiromancy (from the Greek όνειροϛ oneiros, dream, and μαντεία manteia, prophecy) is […] a system of […]  interpretation that uses dreams to predict the future.”  To me, the definition is a little undercooked.  Contemplating a dream that asks for my attention is less about the future than about what vibrates beneath the surface of my life now.

Levertov approaches this dream with the assumption that the characters reveal dimensions of herself, the dreamer —  the blind man and she who led him, uninvited, through a vast museum filled with beauty turned into hazards.

It helps to read the poem out loud, more than once, with pauses.

Blessings on your week,


john sj

Today’s Post:  “Uncertain Oneiromancy”

I spent the entire night leading a blind man
through an immense museum
so that (by internal bridges, or tunnels?
somehow!) he could avoid the streets,
the most dangerous avenues, all the swift
chaotic traffic . . .          I persuaded him
to allow my guidance, through to the other
distant doors, though once inside, labyrinthine corridors,
steps, jutting chests and chairs and stone arches
bewildered him as I named them at each swerve,
and were hard for me to manoeuver him
around and between.  As he could perceive nothing,
I too saw only the obstacles, the objects
with sharp corners; not one painting, not one carved
credenza or limestone martyr.     We did at last
emerge, however, into that part of the city
he had been headed for when I took over;
he raised his hat in farewell, and went on, uphill,
tapping his stick.  I stood looking after him,
watching as the street enfolded him, wondering
if he would make it, and after I woke, wondering still
what in me he was, and who
the I was that took the long short-cut with him
through room after room of beauty his blindness
hid from me as if it had never been.

Denise Levertov   Sands of the Well  (1996)


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Friday, March 5 – Susan Rooke “letting go the taut shine of youth”

Friday, March 5  

“Then you relax your hand, and all the skin relaxes,
letting go the taut shine of youth . . .”

March 5 — this early day of March which, the saying goes, “comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb.”  Whoever thought the saying first must have lived somewhere where March weather is fickle and tentative.  Blustery.  Surely not Tucson or Miami.   Tentative weather months are the blessing of geographies where the tilt of the sun against the earth creates seasons rich with teasing, soft breezes swept away by 25 mph bluster.  The teasing sharpens the appetite for new flowers and fresh grass.  A great moment in the year for the Christian feast of Resurrection, thousands of tiny explosions of new life and improbable beauty.

Today’s post comes from a list that often expands my horizons (“A Year of being Here: mindfulness poetry by wordsmiths of the here & now”).  Susan Rooke is new to me and, perhaps, to you.  Today’s post, “A Marriage in the Hands,” can be read any day in any season of the year.  Understated love, so intimate.  It measures time in decades, not the rapid fire swirl of springtime energy only.  The story Susan Rooke tells fits our present situation — love without showy extravagances —  tender love — enduring love: a song of human intimacy.  Best to read the poet out loud, with pauses.

Have a blest weekend,


John sj

Today’s Post —  Susan Rooke: “A Marriage in the Hands”
Posted by Phyllis Cole-Dai on Mar 25, 2015 midnight

You make a fist, that I might see
your skin grow tight again,
smoothed across your hand.

Those big hands that you like
to joke are too heavy when carried
all day at the ends of your arms.

Then you relax your hand,
and all the skin relaxes, letting
go the taut shine of youth,

and I see your sacrifice,
the thirty years you’ve held
us close, held my strength

for me, and all your tenderness.
I put my own hand out, relaxed,
palm down, next to yours.

You are aging, so am I, and this
is something we have sworn
always to do as one. Undeniably

I see we have. Then you make
a fist again. I make my own.
As one we smooth the way ahead.

Susan Rooke

Susan Rooke lives in Austin, Texas.  Despite her normal façade, she’s always been interested in the mysterious and odd, and has completed the first novel of a fantasy series. Her work has appeared recently or is forthcoming in The Texas Poetry Calendar 2013Pulse: voices from the heart of medicine, San Pedro River Review, and on Austin Capital Metro buses.  She and her husband of almost 30 years (who indulges her interests without subscribing to them himself), spend as much time in the mountains of West Texas as possible.


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March 1 – “Grace” – – Isaiah “Song of the Servant of God”

Monday,  March 1

I began learning to teach as a 24-year-old kid at Holy Rosary Mission on Pine Ridge in South Dakota.  My life daunted me pretty much every day – so much I didn’t know about teaching, or about Lakota culture, or about the violence of Western culture as it assaulted Lakota culture over a century and a half. One of my jobs in that 7-day-week boarding school was to take care of c. 110 boys ages 5 to 14 in double and triple deck bunk beds. I took the K-4th graders up an hour before the older boys, got them ready for bed, tended scrapes they had acquired through the day, and told them a story once they were in bed. As they fell asleep, I walked among the bunk beds. I understood that some of these beautiful children already knew about violence and probably would not make it into a durable adulthood – and others would, no knowing which. It broke my heart to see them sleeping in a safe place within an unsafe world. During those nights these 2 lines from Isaiah’s “Song of the Servant of God” befriended me.

“A bruised reed he shall not break,
a smoldering wick he shall not quench.”

I began to imagine that The Servant of God about whom Isaiah spoke would not be frightened off by violence in the world. It’s one reason why I came to love Joy Harjo’s poem about the coming of spring after a hard winter in a racist prairie town.  I repeat it today because “Grace” reminds me of “The Servant Song.”  Perhaps also because very many people today must stretch so hard to let their imaginations be touched by tenderness and hope . . . in these wearing times.

Best to read both Isaiah’s song and Joy Harjo’s “Grace” out loud, with pauses.

Have a blest week,


john sj


Today’s Post  –  “Grace

I think of Wind and her wild ways the year we had nothing to lose and lost it anyway
in the cursed country of the fox. We still talk about that winter, how the cold froze
imaginary buffalo on the stuffed horizon of snowbanks.

The haunting voices of the starved and mutilated broke fences, crashed our thermostat
dreams, and we couldn’t stand it one more time.

So once again we lost a winter in stubborn memory, walked through cheap apartment
walls, skated through fields of ghosts into a town that never wanted us,
in the epic search for grace.

Like Coyote, like Rabbit, we could not contain our terror and clowned our way through a
season of false midnights.

We had to swallow that town with laughter, so it would go down easy as honey.

And one morning as the sun struggled to break ice, and our dreams had found us with
coffee and pancakes in a truck stop along Highway 80, we found grace.

I could say grace was a woman with time on her hands, or a white buffalo escaped from

memory. But in that dingy light it was a promise of balance.

We once again understood the talk of animals, and spring was lean and hungry with the
hope of children and corn.

I would like to say, with grace, we picked ourselves up and walked into the spring thaw.

We didn’t; the next season was worse.

You went home to Leech Lake to work with the tribe and I went south.

And, Wind, I am still crazy.

I know there is something larger than the memory of a dispossessed people. We have seen it.

p.s.  Joy Harjo has recently released a new anthology;  here’s the link.


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