With wild, sultry heat and humidity making Moorhead, Minnesota the most humid reporting station on earth Tuesday evening, with our government reopening after the longest state government shutdown in U.S. history, with two Minnesotans vying for the 2012 Republican nomination, and with U2 setting up for an outdoor concert on Saturday evening, a day with a forecast for strong and severe thunderstorms and a fireworks display scheduled a half mile down river from the concert, heaven knows, this is some kind of heartland.
I waited in an auto repair shop this morning expecting the worst and hoping for the best, as one does when waiting for the diagnosis of a grinding on-again off-again sound emanating from an indeterminate location just south of the left front wheel, or maybe the left rear wheel—it’s hard to say—one that kicks in only when you make a left turn under 15 mph—except sometimes it happens with a right turn, too, you think you remember now. As I waited, I thumbed through a June 2010 issue of National Geographic pulled from the middle of a stack of magazines piled on a rack in the waiting area. In the issue was an article called Counting Cranes, about the number of wild whooping cranes left in the world (not enough, the article said), which made me think of my high school English teacher, Mrs. Vincent. Mrs. Vincent had a passion for whooping cranes. In addition to English, Mrs. Vincent taught whooping cranes, informally. It was a love that called forth to her even in the midst of a lecture on one of the modern classics, and Mrs. Vincent knew that love is always at the heart of the great stories. The whooping cranes came alive in her narratives about them, or rather, her rhapsodies, and anyone knew from listening to her that they were something too good to lose. My high school was in Omaha, a hop, skip, and a longish—over 45 minute car ride along many intersecting dusty, gravel roads—jump from the Platte River, a way station for the cranes and other migratory birds, part of the Central Flyway. The Platte is a river you could say I grew up on; my great aunt and uncle had a cabin on it, as did one of our neighbors. It is a river as wide as the horizon and shallow, filled with sand bars, and with strategic planning and some luck, you could walk and leap from one side of the shore to another, practically without getting into water at all. You could stand in the middle of the river on a sand bar. You could dance in the middle of the river on a sand bar. From the Platte, I came to know rivers as places to walk in, and walk across, as places where you could leap, run and dance. I’m sure I whooped in that river, too, not unlike the dancing and whooping of the whooping cranes. But I’m in Minnesota now, and the rivers are running high, and the heartland is sweltering with a kind of heat that seems to shoehorn into emotional spaces that we didn’t know we had.
In the waiting area, the owner of the auto repair shop comes to tell me that they looked at the car, saw what appeared to be a bent rear brake plate, bent it back, and it seems good for now, and I’m good to go. “Don’t I owe you something?” I ask, slightly anxious, feeling that the conversation has ended prematurely and disproportionately, and that it is my call to do something about it. “No charge,” he says, “We were having a free front end inspection this week anyway.” No charge? I had heard about this place which bears a once popular Christian acronym as part of its name, an acronym such as one you might find on a defunct televangelist brand brought down by the scandal of its founder. The name makes me nervous, but I’ve heard the shop does good work, honest work. The person who referred me is not a Christian, but said that the shop is run the way Christians should act—with integrity. I am a seminarian, and I’m not keen on the brand of Christianity that the shop’s acronym brings to my mind. In fact, it’s a brand I once fled from, and stayed fled from, for all these many, many years, but somehow I got Jesus again, in popular parlance, and that often puts me in an uncomfortable place. A Christian is, quite honestly, the last thing I’d want to be considered when I hear the versions put forth by candidates whom God has allegedly called to run for the highest office in the nation. And here in this heartland, there is supposed to be some special values added stamp, as if merely being born here and living here gives one a primeval virtue blessed by God. But virtue isn’t regional, and the heartland, while dear to me, oozes with its own primordial tangle in its virtue talk. A lot of it seems to me to be mere blood lust, not virtue; a swift and sharp judgment for those who have not imprinted the model of family or relationships that the talkers have carefully defined in, oh, say, 14 point bulletins.
Yes, it is hot here in the heartland, and until my car ended up in the shop, I went out in the mornings and evenings to photograph water birds, especially cranes, not whooping cranes, but their relatives: great white herons or if you prefer, egrets; it’s hard to get bird identification sites to agree on that one. They are closely related. We are all closely related, if you think about it, and I stand with the herons on this: it doesn’t make a bird’s feather of a difference in what we decide to call them. Meanwhile, the whooping cranes are counting down, and I wonder if Mrs. Vincent herself is still around to know this. If they go, a particular kind of joy will leave the Platte River. We can issue bulletins about what family values mean, but in the end, what matters is what we do and are doing on this earth. There are all kinds of families here; too many to count.
I thanked the auto shop owner profusely for his service. Integrity matters, no matter what your brand, and that small slice of auto shop heartened me in this heartland, acronym aside. Maybe U2 will sing “Heartland” Saturday night, one of their finest and most underplayed songs, in my opinion. “In the towers of steel, belief goes on and on,” the song says. And who wants to live in towers of steel? And what does belief count for, after all, if cranes count down while people stand there with their signed pledges of belief, before they, too, count down. The most fortunate people are those who love, with wild, indiscriminate passion, this world they find themselves in, the way Mrs. Vincent loved the whooping cranes. Who knows why she loved them? She just did. Bless her.