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Visible Darkness

There are a number of powerful phrases to describe depression, most of them from self-help books or first-person narratives. “Noonday Demon.” “Stubborn Darkness” and “Darkness Visible.” Each of them resonates with me these days—most days, in fact—because I have dysthymia. So, indeed, do two good friends, while others endure their own variations of the Big D.

One of the odd things about depression is that we want others to know that we have it but we also don’t especially want to talk about it—with them or one another. My friend Milton tries Lutheran Therapy on me (“Well just snap out of it, then.”) but most non-depressives wonder what we’re depressed about. My answer—”nothing, actually”—isn’t very satisfying, I understand. But it’s the truth.

My most successful strategy for coping with this stubborn darkness has been writing: letters, research inquiries and the papers that ought to grow from those efforts; stories (fiction or faction), many of which contribute to the story of an imaginary town in Iowa; and my less frequent attempts at poetry. My letters are addressed to individuals; the stories find their way here to the Agincourt blog. The poetry—with only one exception—has been consigned to the trash. But I’m putting the cart before the horse.

depression1

If my psychotherapy has been even modestly successful—you’ll be the better judge of that—it may be that I am a visual person. Some of us have an ability to describe abstractions; to render the ineffable in more vivid, familiar terms. I can, for example, actually watch the slow and steady arrival of my depression like the approach of a storm front on the Great Plains. It rolls across my field of vision like rain clouds on their way from Mapleton toward Dilworth. And like the weather, I observe this deliberate phenomenon, in slow motion, with no ability whatsoever to do a thing about it. The shift in temperature and humidity registers on my skin. My eyes dilate. I shiver.

Dysthymia (in case you haven’t looked it up) is a low grade depression that often sets in during the teen years and never leaves. It can be compounded or “double up” with the more normal sort of periodic depression for really spectacular effect. That’s what I’ve been experiencing lately. But while my dysthymia can’t be traced to any particular source, the heaping addition can.

That’s a story that could be shared but for no useful purpose.

If I were Mormon,…

krypton

One of the most interesting characters in my long-term research project on the early fieldstone Episcopal church buildings in Dakota Territory—that was a lengthy introduction, wasn’t it?—is the Reverend John Keble Karcher. Like many clergy who transplanted Anglicanism to the American Outback, he was itinerant, hopscotching from his birthplace in Pennsylvania to Massachusetts, Indiana, Minnesota, Dakota and ultimately (I think) Illinois. And with each geographic move Karcher changed his religious affiliation: he was born into the German Reformed tradition and then became, in order, a Unitarian, Episcopalian, Roman Catholic, back to the Episcopalians, oops, back to the Romans, and finally back to Canterbury and the Episcopal faith. Who knows what might have transpired had he lived longer. I mention this only because, at this point in my life, a religious conversion is unlikely.

Religion absolutely captivates me, both Faith itself and the shifts that we often make between and among its many faces. Did you know, for example, that if I were an adherent of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (abbreviated LDS or, colloquially, Mormon) and had lived a spotless life; had tithed and performed all the requirements to be signed, sealed and delivered to God at the end of my life, I could look forward 1) to becoming a god myself; 2) being given my own planet whose tenants I would govern as our god has governed Earth; and 3) I and my Celestial wives would birth an endless supply of spirit babies to inhabit the bodies of the planet’s physical children. Are you with me so far?

Whatever you may think of religious traditions other than your own, LDS beliefs are unusual. But several things are also probable: If I were a Mormon, I’d be a bad one. The “Godhead” would elude me but, on a more positive note, an entire planetary population would therefore be spared my divine intervention.

Would I be a laissez faire god? Very likely. Creation is a heavy responsibility, and authoring the town of Agincourt and its hinterlands in Fennimore county is about as close as I care to get to the”Godhead.”

Ghosts of Christmas Past #12

cru·ci·ble

ˈkro͞osəb(ə)l/
noun
  1. a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures.
    • a place or occasion of severe test or trial.
      “the crucible of combat”
    • a place or situation in which different elements interact to produce something new.
      “the crucible of the new Romantic movement”

three monks001

“For he is like a refiner’s fire…” Malachi 3:2

“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A. Tabor

Ghosts of Christmas Past #12: Brother Crucible

Brother Crucible (seated) and his two companions had come to Agincourt in the early 1920s. This photo was taken in my great-grandmother’s garden.

The brothers were staying in great uncle Anson’s old apartment above the stable [a typical ecumenical gesture for a woman whose religiosity, for her generation, was demonstrably small-C catholic], humble quarters convenient to the three Agincourt projects they’d come to build.

Before taking vows, Brian Havergal Armitage of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, had been an undergraduate student of architecture but found the prospects of professional life dispiriting. “The people who need architectural service aren’t always the one who can afford it,” he told his host Martha Tennant in a decade that anticipated the starchitecture we know today. So he left school, apprenticed as a carpenter, and joined the Franciscans, to bring building skills to a different audience.

Crucible recruited Brothers Andrew and Jerome and approached their Abbot with the idea of a constructional swat team, to serve the diocese in a pilot program. But sixteen months into their new calling—repairing God’s foundations and fascias—their reputation spread beyond central Pennsylvania; invitations came from New York and Indiana. Then came their ecumenical moment: Father Farber at St Ahab’s and his Episcopal counterpart Chilton Fanning Dowd pitched a three-part project to the Building Brothers.

Agincourt’s Roman and Anglican church buildings have ignored each other on East Agincourt Avenue for decades. Happily, their resident clergy have often been on far friendlier terms than their upper administrations: covering for one another; performing baptisms and weddings long before the Spirit of Vatican II took hold; even their choirs shared voices, regardless whether the hymns were unfamiliar.

But the Fathers Farber and Dowd were aging, and building maintenance is a problem at the best of times. So matters of rotting window frames, leaking roofs and such were beautifully resolved with a visit by the Property Brothers. Martha Tennant offered shelter in her stable loft and Mrs Breen fed them at Saint Ahab’s.

On the job, you’d never guess they were in vocation; the three resembled any tradesman of the 1920s: spacious canvas pants and blue-stripped cotton shirts made from mattress ticking; worn brown boots and tool belts from the 19th century. And after work and dinner, a discreet beer—whose origins were less clear than the beverage itself—finished the day.

Once the brothers broke the rhythm of construction, helping the Schutz family harvest their corn. And their last day in town—a Sunday—involved a barn dance and picnic, where we learned that Brother Andrew fiddled a respectable toe tapper.

Such were the ways of Agincourt ninety years ago, and such may be their ways again, if we play our cards right.

Authenticity

authenticity

This morning I saw an episode of an HGTV reality show. A couple with too much money—by which I mean way more money than I have—invest in a resort property for the rental market. Essentially, they are able to afford a second home by having renters pay for it during the “high season.” The target area was Lake Tahoe on the California-Nevada border.

The host (whose name I never quite learned) and his clients inspected three candidate properties, none of which had the necessary  level of Tahoe-ness—whatever that may be. The clients chose a a down-on-its-luck example from the 1960s, wherein and on the host applied a chalet entry porch, faux beams of distressed wood, and other rustic touches said to be characteristic of that region. I flashed back to a Fargo parallel of the 1970s.

At the southwest corner of Broadway and N.P. Avenue there was a men’s clothing store (whose name escapes me) that had a going-out-of-business sale, closed its doors and was promptly remodeled as “Old Broadway.” The interesting thing for a budding preservationists like myself involved the removal of everything in the essentially intact interior sales area and its replacement with imported historical artifacts that may well have come from a warehouse in Milwaukee or Omaha or Newark, for that matter. All of the interior surfaces—bead-board wainscoting, wallpaper, pressed-metal ceilings, hexagonal toilet flooring, etc. and, of course, nothing to do with the actual history of Fargo’s central business district and everything to do with the nostalgia then popular with twenty-somethings. In the 70s, we preferred a homogenized pseudo history for the real thing. And, of course, that faux history is a shifting target that changes with each generation.

This afternoon on MPR’s talk channel, there was a piece on the rebuilding of New Orleans and the remarkable phenomenon that restauranteurs are playing in that process. Here, also, Katrina had created a situation where the synthetic could all too easily have supplanted the authentic. Yet The Big Easy had resisted that trend. Instead, former neighborhood haunts survived, reborn through the persistence of their owners for the expectations of the clientele. Friends and neighbors they and been; friends and neighbors they remain. And the benefits accrue to rest of us. I, for one, look forward to a chance to revisit New Orleans for the first time since 1972! And, of course, I’m curious what the authentic-versus-synthetic dichotomy has to do with Agincourt.

authentic

[aw-then-tik]

adjective

  1. not false or copied; genuine; real: an authentic antique.
  1. having the origin supported by unquestionable evidence; authenticated; verified: an authentic document of the Middle Ages; an authentic work of the old master.
  2. entitled to acceptance or belief because of agreement with known facts or experience; reliable; trustworthy.

Authenticity, coincidentally, has been my goal for Agincourt, itself a synthetic community based on the circumstances of its time and place. This ersatz essay can only pose the question: How is Agincourt substantially different from the Tahoe-fication of a weekend place in Nevada?

Saint Ahab, pray for us

 

balance.jpg

As the author-curator of the exhibit “Agincourt Homecoming” (installed in early September and closing very grandly on October 25th, 2015, the 600th anniversary of the actual Battle of Agincourt), I have the disadvantage of putting things on walls and simultaneously knowing what isn’t there but could have been. That awareness troubles me much these days, the last three weeks—more or less—that we have to prepare. That being said, it seemed the appropriate time to compose the text of “Saint Ahab’s Prayer” that will accompany the as yet unseen icon of Ahab, original patron saint of the Roman Catholic parish in Agincourt.

His icon is being painted by our friend Jonathan Taylor Rutter [still not certain whether to alphabetize under “T” or “R”] who has hinted that it will fuse the traditional form of an Eastern Orthodox icon with Pre-Raphaelite romanticism of the 19th century. An intriguing blend, wouldn’t you agree?

For those unfamiliar with Ahab, a 3rd century saint from the reign of Diocletian, he is alleged to have converted to Christianity while crucified on the mast of his ship. Miraculous cures and conversions are associated with his relics, first enshrined in Zadar, Croatia and later brought to Azincourt, France by retreating Crusaders. Today he is the patron saint of pirates—very few of whom would seem to be Christians these days—and more recently of obsessive-compulsives, two themes that underlie his prayer:

O, worthy Ahab, intercede for us. Balance my mind; guide my hand. Help us understand the responsibilities borne of having much and the temptations that come with excesses of property or power. Make me an instrument of the Universe’s redistributive energy, sharing with those whose needs are great but voices weak. Never for myself, but ever and always an extension of the Invisible One who touches each, all, and everywhere.

William Holman Hunt: The Scapegoat, 1854.

William Holman Hunt: The Scapegoat, 1854.

The Rhythm of Life

Someone on eBay is selling a postcard of the Public Market in Kansas City, Missouri. The slightly elevated view shows a crowded market day with the single-story market building at the intersection of two busy streets, alive with pedestrian traffic, horse-drawn delivery wagons, and electric trolleys (“streetcars” when I was much younger in Chicago). The seller’s spiel is curious and actually undermines potential interest in the card: they wonder whether the crowding has, in some way, been enhanced.

MOkcMarket

 

Incidentally, the building in the left background was the City Hall, a design of circa 1890 by Chicago architects Burnham & Root.

The sellers don’t mention Photoshopping; they don’t have to, because real photo postcards (RPPCs in the trade) often ghosted in a trolley to suggest that some small Midwestern or Great Plains hamlet was far more advanced, more urbane, than its gravel streets and saloon-front stores would suggest. FYI, here’s an example of the Main Street of Coberg, Iowa with a superimposed street railway.

IAcoberg fake trolley

Are you laughing? No one seriously believed these cards. But the folks in many “wide spots in the road” of the American outback aspired to be another Chicago or a newer and better Kansas City. Remember that in 1907 it was the place that had “…gone about as far as they can go.” Agincourt had aspirations. Its people hoped to improve themselves and the future for their children. My own political preferences tell me that they may have weighed the potential costs of those improvements and, I hope, tried to better themselves at a minimal cost to others.

Ceremony and Celebration

cornerstone

The punctuation of American family and urban life is ceremonial and celebratory.

Anniversaries, whether public or personal, abound. Holidays and holy days. Parades! Weddings—I should know: my own two years ago and another this weekend. In this age of smart phones and selfies, there is little danger of any event passing without considerable public awareness. Every minor public appearance in the course of a political campaign is recorded, often at the candidate’s regret.

Agincourt’s sesquicentennial in 2007 was one such event—invented, of course—and 2015 offers its own. In May the one hundredth anniversary of the sinking of RMS Lusitania went largely unnoticed (not by me, of course) and October 25th is the convergence of several events: first, it is Saint Crispin’s Day in the church kalendar; “Founders’ Day” in Agincourt itself (the celebration of the city’s founding in 1853 and incorporation four years later); and—drumroll—it is also the 600th anniversary of the actual Battle of Agincourt. Sorry if I harp on this too often. My point is simply that all of these and other similar events are opportunities for Janus-like reflection: moving forward with one eye in the rearview mirror.

A.F. & A.M.

“…[T]he stone has been proved and found to be ‘fair work and square work’ and fit to be laid as the foundation stone of this Holy Temple.” Anyone who’s attended a cornerstone ceremony conducted by the Masonic Lodge (A.F. & A.M., in longhand) may recall the formula for judging a stone suitably laid for the Ages. Images such as this ceremony from Independence, Iowa, however, would not have represented Masonic ritual for the laying of a cornerstone at St John-the-Evangelist Roman Catholic church—the lodge is a decidedly Protestant institution—but surely something similar must exist among the Knights of Columbus. [Frankly, K-of-C regalia is, if anything, even sillier than Masonic outfits and is borderline Monty Python.] With that caveat, the 1911 event at St John’s would have drawn a community-wide audience of every stripe; multiple clergy, reporters, and surely every politician within fifty miles. This was a photo op not to be missed. I suspect we can find considerable information about “Gilbert” the photographer.