Sunday, January 31, 2016

Dakota Dreamin'

I once heard someone say that when they go to the library, they will pick the book to the left or right of the book they were originally looking for, and just see what happens.  I found myself in the 900s section of the library the other day searching for a guide book for the Dakotas.  I noticed a book, aptly called, Dakota, a memoir by Kathleen Norris.  It's rare for me to start reading a book that I've heard nothing about, but there is something liberating about a literary whim!  

Being very fond of wide open plains, big sky, and rural landscapes, I've been dreaming of going to the Dakotas this year.  Norris had been living in New York City with her husband when they learned of the opportunity to live in the house built by her grandparents in an isolated town on the border of North and South Dakota, and decided to pursue small town life on the great plains.   She describes the push and pull of living in a small town, though she says, "I make no attempt in this book to resolve the tensions and contradictions I find in the Dakotas between hospitality and insularity, change and inertia, stability and instability, possibility and limitation, between hope and despair, between open hearts and closed minds."  While I felt the book lacked a clear structure and seemed thematically repetitive, there were many beautiful descriptions and passages that were illuminating for me as someone with little experience with small town rural life.  Here are some of my favorite passages:

"Magnificent old words like farrow, common English five hundred years ago, are still in use on the Plains."

"Plains speech, while nearly devoid of "-isms" and "ologies" tends toward the concrete and the personal"  the weather, the land, other people."

"Because it can't look outward, the town begins to turn in on itself, and a schismatic ultimately self-defeating dynamic takes hold."

 "Such outsiders can unwittingly pose a threat to the existing social order, and if their newcomers' enthusiasm doesn't wear off, if their standards don't fall to meet the town's, and especially if they keep on trying to share what they know, they have to be discouraged, put down, even cast out."

"Interlibrary loan is an unwelcome link to a larger world, forcing us to recognize that we're not as self-sufficient as we imagine ourselves to be."

"Hanging up wet clothes gives me time alone under the sky to think, to grieve, and gathering the clean clothes in, smelling the sunlight on them, is victory. "

"It seems a wonder to me that in our dull little town we can gather together to sing some great hymns, reflect on our lives, hear some astonishing scriptures (and maybe a boring sermon; you take your chances), offer some prayers and receive a blessing." 

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