Living on the Great Plains or Life in a Red State, what’s that like?

Dakota: A Spiritual Geography by Kathleen Norris

A book worth reading to get a better understanding of rural America, and the rest of America too…

“I had stumbled onto a basic truth of asceticism: that is it not necessarily a denigration of the body, though it has often been misapplied for that purpose. Rather, it is a way of surrendering to reduced circumstances in a manner that enhances the whole person” (23).
Kathleen Norris

After reading  Acedia & Me  I wanted more from Kathleen Norris. Again I tried for The Cloister Walk, but unable to find it through interlibrary loan, I requested Dakota: A Spiritual Geography.  I’m captivated by the cover photo since I am writing from a state with trees.

I must confess that my knowledge or literary imagination of the Great Plains rests on the books by Laura Ingalls,  Little House on the PrairieHer story offered only a glimpse here and there of fierceness. It was mostly focused on her family as they wandered the mid-west over to prairie country in search of land good enough to farm. Much of the movement in the nineteenth century was spurred on by Government incentives and the American dream of owning a space large enough on this earth to feel free. The Ingalls settled in De Smet, South Dakota.  The Long Winter, is, in my opinion, the best of the Little House series. It engages the reader in a fierce Dakota winter. Although, much of the reality is left unwritten, and somehow the Ingalls make it through without so much as a fight among themselves, or any issues around toiletry, nevertheless, the reader is sufficiently occupied by what is offered, that she can only finish in awe of any family who made their life in the Great Plains facing the unknown harshness of daily living — which mainly meant the weather and the land; not the Native Americans.

Dakota, too is a personal story, but it leaves in the grit that a more romantic view of the Great Plains might filter out.  Unlike the Little House stories it is certainly not meant for young readers, and not meant for anyone who wants to consider some harsh realities of life and making choices.  It is also a book in which a lot of seeds are planted by the author for her future work.  Norris begins to quote Evagrius and play around with the concept of acedia, which eventually takes root and becomes,  Acedia & Me.

When I first read through Dakota I thought the author was brutal in her depiction of South Dakotans. I wondered if she really liked the place. I did notice, however, around the second half of the book, after the chapter, “Gatsby on the Plains,”  Norris had softened a bit toward her home town. I understood it as a transformation, in part, due to her continued deepening spiritual life, but then I found a talk on Youtube by Norris, held by the Humanities Council of the Rapid City Public Libraries, which sought to recognize her book Dakota as part of their participation in the 125th celebration of Dakota statehood, where she states that her publisher told her the first half of her book was too critical. Perhaps it is shocking on the first reading. For this reason I read her book a second time and came out with a different opinion.  I found that between all of the harshness of her criticism she is constant in her love for the land and its people. What she worries about most is a great big sell-out by the very people who claim to love the place. A tenderness and concern come through even when she is giving examples of how people in Dakota just don’t get it:

“The year we lost our J.C. Penney store, young people were quoted in the town’s weekly newspaper as saying, they’d like to see a McDonald’s or a K Mart open in its place.” (30)

She goes on to explain how the Dakotans do not seem to get capitalism, which is market driven, and so her frustration, I believe, is with citizens who, and I’ll use a cliche here, want to eat their cake and have it too! One simply cannot have it all is her final thought towards the end of the book. I believe, her deep engagement with religion frames her conclusions of rural life in the Dakotas (or life in general). Rural areas might have to give up the dream of living a so-called ‘American dream’ that is narrowly defined as a great paying job with benefits, big house, great school district, easy transportation, quick access to any kind of service, and plenty of grandchildren to stay around to reap the rewards of your life’s toil (I wonder if it would be comforting for rural parents to know that children do not necessarily remain in the hometown in which they were raised because there are good paying jobs, nice restaurants, transportation, and family?).

Not to say that Dakotans cannot have community or job prospects, but, it seems to me what Norris is trying to say, is that there are sacrifices to every choice, and then after that choice is made, there are continued sacrifices to the responsibility of living out that choice.

Norris speaks like a prophet, not only to Dakotans, but to the rest of the country as well:

“… Dakotans are in danger of becoming victims of their own mythology. As our towns are failing and our lives here become less viable, many Dakotans cling stubbornly to a myth of independence and local control that makes it difficult for us to come together and work for the things that might benefit us all. We’ve been slow to recognize that our traditional divisiveness (country versus town, small town versus city) makes us weak, not strong (32).”

Norris’ insights hold true today as well. We are now living in a moment of great danger where the myth of independence is threatening to destroy our country and ultimately the Earth. We seem to have confused the idea of independent living, which requires living in community and communion with others, with living only and utterly for ourselves — a sort of radical individualism. At a time when what we need most is to work together and focus on moving forward; not aggressively positioning ourselves to take what we want, there are people fanning the flames of divisiveness.

She also points to the dangers of regressing to an age when we thought life was much better. As Norris describes her shock at hearing a young woman declare the need to go back twenty years:

“Beyond the shock of hearing a young woman say she wanted to recapture the earthly paradise the world had seemed at twelve, I began thinking: 1964” (45). 

She then goes on to list some notable events, starting with the assassination of John F. Kennedy, that occurred in that year. The point being that going back to a better time is also a myth or at least it depends on your perspective. I suppose as a child all the world seems good and stable — although this is certainly not the case for many children. The desire to go back is a forceful temptation — if only because we were all younger years ago than we are now. And, because going forward means constantly giving up the security of the quickly moving present. I see this with my children too. I have a third grader who tells me it was easier in first and second grade. I do not believe this for one moment. I have watched her go through each stage and each one has had its challenges. I believe the desire to go back underlies not only a deep anxiety about the future, but too a tiredness with the daily drudge of life.

Her most pointed criticism and worry turn around isolationism.  The Dakotas are isolated enough, but when you exaggerate the isolation by not reading, refusing to engage with the rest of the world, and give yourself up to suspicion of outsider influence you are at risk:

“As their frame of reference diminishes, so do their aspirations and their ability to adapt to change” (51). 

I believe hunkering down is a survival strategy. Unfortunately, it is a strategy that does not work very well in the long run.  I find this too with my oldest daughter who we adopted when she was two and a half. She has many disabilities and because of her history she is constantly looking to control everything. She does not open up to anything, and does not want to move forward. She is just as fierce as the Dakotan landscape, and as insistent on isolation as any rural inhabitant could be if they were fearful of what comes next. What she most fears is change. She is just plain tired of it, I suppose. Taken out of her house. Put into an orphanage. Living now in the U.S.. Change to her is frightening, but at the same time her life is better now than it was at any other time in her brief time alive. But, she cannot see it. She only sees change as that over which she has no control. What she will do sometimes is a sort of engineering of change, this is to say, she will stomp around making us change things for her, but in reality it is a pattern that she controls, is familiar with and essentially has gotten to like very much.

“Ironically, it is the town’s cherished ideal of changelessness that has helped bring about the devastation, and is the town’s true history that is lost” (63).

Perhaps, collectively we can act in the very same manner as my daughter. We can all be so afraid of change that we become unable to understand progress as an ineluctable force that we cannot control. Instead of working with it we use all our efforts to thwart it. In the end we wind up, if we are lucky, in the same place as always; if we are not so lucky, we are a little further behind each time we become uncomfortable with real life.

As Norris writes about her frustrations with Dakotans who do not seem to want change, or to think about the rest of the world, and finally, who do not want to suffer the loss of leaving home to find work, I found it made me think about what is the desire here? On one hand, the argument can be made that it is for a changeless environment. Indeed, Kathleen Norris seems to think the desire to have stability or changelessness, is what is at play here. But, Lemmon, South Dakota, the town where Norris lived with her husband John Dywer, really has not changed much in years. The population has gone down, but it has not undergone a major transformation. It begs the question, when people live in an unchanging environment, are they content? If I think this through my child with a disability, I would say that in fact she does want change, but cannot seem to find an acceptable level of it; as a result she swings from one extreme to the other. It’s always feast or famine in our house.

Reality is where truth enters, as Norris writes:

“And what of truth? We don’t tend to see the truth as something that could set us free because it means embracing pain, acknowledging our differences and conflicts, taking our real situation into account.” (82). 

If we do not take “our real situation into account” then how do we begin to manage our affairs? How do we know our limitations, our strengths and weaknesses? The rural areas will never be the cities and the cities will never be the rural areas. They both offer an intensity that is unique to their landscape. Fighting over which one is better or offers more or is more American is a waste of time and a mere distraction, and in this millennium it is a death drive.

About half-way through the book, beginning with the chapter, “Where I am” there is a change noted. The author leaves aside — for the most part — politics, frustration, and lack of trust, to take up community.  Dakota becomes a very different place with the aid of Benedictine Monks. As religion, prayer, the liturgy become more alive in Kathleen Norris she in turn looks out at the Great Plains, her small town, the ruggedness of Dakotans, the fierce landscape, and finds a way back home.

“We are seeking the tribal, anything with strong communal values and traditions. But all too often we’re trying to do it on our own, as individuals” (129).

Community shines bright in the second half of Norris’ book. As she allows herself to be awakened through the discipline of Benedictine life. She sees value in true asceticism. She has returned to her very own notion in the beginning of the book, the idea that true asceticism is not just self-denial. In a way, her asceticism is much harsher than self-denial. The task at hand is to live in reality and have gratitude. While love of her hometown in South Dakota, and of Dakotans is present as she sings alongside them or preaches a sermon at Hope Presbyterian Church, nevertheless, this is not a ‘and they all lived happily ever after’ book.

As she states:

“Perhaps I am also redefining frontier not as a place you exploit and abandon but as a place where you build on the past for the future” (133). 

Kathleen Norris does not offer any easy solutions to Dakota. The Dakotas will always remain a fierce landscape. I think what she does offer is a brutal critique of narrowness of mind and reactive isolationism. As painful as it is to read about small town perspective — which can, ironically, show up in some of the biggest cities —  it is far better to work within what is real than to succumb to the temptation to shut down completely and try to live out a glorious past that never was in the first place.  As much as Dakota: A Spiritual Geography is about Dakota it is also about all the places we call home.  How much are we willing to accept about our home, and how much can we try and improve upon it without selling our souls or our own brothers, sisters, and neighbors to do it? Can we move forward together? Can we accept that we might have to sacrifice guaranteed stability or great paying jobs, big homes, or a trip to Walmart? Can we redefine, not only the “frontier” but the very idea of the market without getting caught up in labels?

And, finally, can we redefine the good life? Because, honestly, the good life as it is currently being portrayed does not seem all that good.

Here’s to Kathleen Norris, wherever she is… and if this should find her then I do hope she can send me The Cloister Walk — one book I cannot get from interlibrary loan!

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