January is often a boring month, at least to my way of thinking. Gone are the bright lights of Christmas and the celebratory mood of New Year’s. The world is plunged into a long month of wintry struggle in which we are expected to go about our daily lives as if everything is as it should be — when the days are cold, icy, and dark. Now the days are getting longer I know, but this business of leaving the house in the dark and then coming home in the dark is distressing. I truly don’t mind winter, but I do struggle to find ways of giving my life some direction until I can turn the calendar to February.
This January, now don’t laugh, I tried rock painting. I had some acrylic paint in the house and of course plenty of rocks available. I know there are rock painting parties, but I am not going to go and embarrass myself until I see what I can do. Actually, I turned out a few pieces worth keeping and anyway it was all “just for the fun of it”. Once in awhile I like to surprise myself with what I can do when I try something new.
I stumbled on another little project that was a bit of a surprise. I became intrigued with the Bell Street Bridge over the Yellowstone River as a subject for some architectural photography. The bridge is lighted at night and if you stand on the east bank of the river and look toward the bridge it really is impressive with the light and shadows that play out across the water or the ice (depending). Going in the late afternoon there was some light still available on the western horizon. Shooting west across the river I can take in most of the bridge. Some of the results were really arresting. One or two pictures I took standing on the east end and then shooting the length of the bridge’s walking area. When I did it at night with only the overhead lights for exposure the results in stark black and white, were startling.
I was sharing my thoughts and photographs with my cousin who lives in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. We stand at opposite ends of the spectrum in our families — he is the eldest child of the oldest child, a daughter. His mother and mine were sisters, but my mother was the youngest. I enjoy hearing him relate his mother’s memories. She was twelve years old when the family homesteaded in western South Dakota in 1912. He talked about bridges.
Bridges are so interesting, a means of connecting with others, seeing new sights, getting away from things; so many songs about bridges, also movies. The pioneers dealt with fording the rivers and streams, swimming the horses and cattle across a river. There were many tragedies, people, livestock as well as wagons and supplies. Think it was Ed Lemmon, a pioneer cowboy (Lemmon SD) who wrote about bringing cattle across the frozen Missouri River. One of our family stories is about Grandpa Larson with other homesteaders working with state and local people to get a bridge across the South Moreau River. The big ranchers were strongly opposed to such a convenience, being on one side of the river, threatening violence, but peace prevailed and the bridge was built. The “honyockers”, homesteaders, had been successful. The bridge over the South Moreau was much needed, a nasty runoff in the spring, trees, ice chunks, etc. Ranchers were very unhappy, waved guns in the air but calmness prevailed.
Spending time studying the bridge in these cold days I stretched myself a little and I found something worthwhile to work on. January was, as a result, a bit more bearable this year. I have always believed it is important to look at our world with “new eyes” once in awhile and see something in my own backyard which is beautiful, unique, and worthy of spending some time observing.
Cold January days. Finally the last two weeks in January winter appeared -- cold, snowy. But folks are surprisingly pragmatic about it all. Most comments I hear are -- "Oh, well, we haven't had much winter yet. Have to have some and it is January after all." I wouldn't feel as though I had my winter workout if I didn't have to get the snow blower out once in awhile. Makes quick work of the little bits of snow we get several times a week.
Life at church is moving toward Lent and Holy Week. I will re-assess at the end of April and see what the congregation wants and what I want. Life is good because God is good.
The government shut-down and its destructive effect on the lives of our people sent me to doing some research on the “great” walls in human history. To me, the building of the wall on our southern border and using a government shut-down as blackmail are two separate issues. Border security is something we all agree on, but as I read about “walls” they are as ineffective as I imagined them to be.
I took time to do a brief research on three walls: Hadrian’s Wall, the Great Wall of China and the Berlin Wall. If our president took some time to research and read he might have a better grasp of the archaic thinking he is involving us in as a country.
Hadrian’s Wall was built about 117 a.d. in England, the western most edge of the Roman Empire. The Emperor Hadrian abandoned continual conquest and expansion in favor of enclosing the Roman empire within clearly marked frontiers. In some provinces the frontier consisted of a road or a river guarded by forts and towers, while in others (including Germany, Africa and Britain) the frontier lines consisted of running barriers. This has been justly labelled overkill, it does seem that the northern British tribes were troublesome. The British tribes did not readily accept Romanisation. They continued to farm the land in their old ways, and probably fought each other. We do not know enough about the tribes and their organization to be certain that they were not perpetually aggressive. Eventually the wall was ineffectual and disappeared from use.
The Great Wall of China, 4,000 miles in length, has had a 2000 year existence. According to historians of China, the wall was originally built to keep out the Mongolian invaders which it did not do. Of note, the wall has been considered farcical and has been despised by most Chinese throughout history. The theory is that only weak dynasties need a wall to protect themselves. During the Second World War the wall was a road to invading China when the Japanese used it to transport soldiers throughout the country. There are only a few depictions of the wall in any of the art work of China. It is not considered of any historic importance.
The Berlin Wall lasted from 1961 to 1989. Its purpose was to stem mass defections from East Berlin and communist rule to the west. There had been a flood of refugees before the wall was constructed with 19,000 people leaving in one month, 30,000 in another time period and on August 12, 1961, over 2,400 people fled to the west. In the years the wall stood, over 140 people died trying to escape Communist rule. It was through diplomacy and the firm dealings of the United States the wall’s usefulness was finally ended.
And now we have The Border Wall. I was recently reading an author who was commenting on its construction. He gave his readers a larger view of history and I liked what I read. He said that no wall will ever ultimately achieve the purpose of keeping people in or out. People have been crossing the southern border for thousands of years north and south. The flow of human migration never ends. People have always been moving from one part of the world to another and within their own continents. It is ridiculous to think that anything will stop this movement. It seems to be embedded within our DNA. The first humans migrated from the Bering Straits all the way to the tip of South America unimpeded. As the Americas were being settled, Native Americans moved freely. Somewhere along the line Western Civilization got the idea you could own the land and fence it and it belonged to you. Nothing belongs to us. These migrations will continue long after we are gone and all fences, walls, and borders will disappear.
If surveillance is needed there are new technologies that can do the job. A fence is an arcane measure of keeping people out. Over 2000 years ago, using the best technology of their time, Chinese rulers thought to keep their empires to themselves. Their own people despised them and said it was a farce to think they could make this happen.
People in our own country are suffering because of this idea of a border wall and that does not include the people massing at the border . We need a comprehensive and humane plan to deal with this problem. Border policy could become our greatest success story in showing what our history and people are really about or it can be our greatest disaster, putting a black mark and highlighting a time in our history for which we will need to make amends. We have enough of those already.
My brother and I both have degrees in library science. We began our training in the days when libraries were quiet, respectful places, full of the treasures that came with reading books. Our parents encouraged reading. I can remember as a child climbing the steps to the third floor of City Hall which at that time was home to the Glendive Public Library. It was in my mind a shrine, a holy place. I could find books to read. I could browse through the materials and I could go home with treasures.
Both of us worked in public school and public libraries and still today are lifelong users of public libraries. Living in Henderson, Nevada, my brother has discovered libraries that are marvels of technology and innovative centers of learning. One of my recent treats was to visit one with him while there.
The key to understanding why libraries are vital to our society is to see them as information centers. Now, with computers and wi-fi available to all the community, the slogan of the library “as the true university of the people” was never more apparent. Libraries pride themselves on providing free and accessible information on both sides of the issue. A library must be a safe place to discuss issues and to find people of inquiring minds.
In this divided world in which we find ourselves, my brother sent me a column from an on-line magazine. I don’t need to say anything more.
The author, Anthony W. Marx, president of the NY Public Library, wrote this: Many in our great country aren’t listening. We aren’t vetting information. Our curiosity ends the moment that we discover information different than what we already believe. We don’t debate, We defriend. We are so convinced that we are right that we can’t tolerate an opposing thought. This is unspeakably dangerous, and in direct opposition to the founding principles of our nation. We are meant to be a democracy of informed citizens, a country of curious people who feel a collective ownership over our future and joint responsibility to protect the values we are supposed to stand for: Inclusion. Acceptance. Discussion. Debate. Equality. Opportunity. Without those bonds and a commitment to establishing fact-based arguments and critiques of power, democracy itself is at risk. . .
And there’s one thing every American can do to get started—a very simple resolution that we can all commit to in 2019: We can go to our local libraries, get library cards, and start our journeys towards healing our democracy. You can meet your neighbors there. You can find books there. You can find librarians eager to point you towards credible, vetted information there. You can find your community there. Go. Visit. Introduce yourself to a librarian. Introduce yourself to a patron. Ask for a recommendation.
There are endless stats about the benefits of community interaction and reading for pleasure. I don’t need the stats: I see it every day, as I have the privilege of visiting various branches of The New York Public Library system. I see people proactively checking out books, reading, taking classes, and learning. People from all walks of life — all backgrounds, all income levels — sit together, learn together, help each other, and talk to each other. There are red neighborhoods and blue neighborhoods in the three New York City boroughs we serve. Everyone comes together with equal opportunity to access knowledge and information. Everything is free.
This is completely unique to public libraries. In an increasingly isolated world, where it’s so easy to criticize and disrespect others behind the anonymity of the internet, libraries are an oasis of calm and community — temples of knowledge that welcome everyone and are located in every neighborhood across the country.
We are at a moment in history, where if we can't sit together, if we can't learn about each other, if we can't respect each other, then we won’t have a democracy. The public library is quietly fighting to protect and maintain our democracy. We are in every neighborhood, on the front lines, ensuring an informed, learning and skilled citizenry. We take it seriously and we are proud of that role.
So in 2019, please, make a resolution to start a revolution against darkness and ignorance. It has already started — in our system, library card sign-ups are up more than 40 percent over last year. Research collection usage is up. So let’s keep it going. The fate of our nation depends on it.
Amen. Amen. And Amen.