Wednesday, February 24, 2016


The Meeting Hall I knew.

Actually, I suppose I’m writing to a congregation that no longer exists except in my head, so I may be a little “off” because of not knowing the newer members.  After all, this is several ministers and several buildings since I was there in 1986.

So . . .Saskatoon, Saskatchewan — a euphonious town.  It’s been almost thirty years since I cut my hair and walked off.  So many memories, both good and bad.  And a lot of funny ones.

A college-aged Communist (he said he was Stalinist — hard core) took a liking to me and offered a bit of local geography.  He took me to walk on “Bare-assed Beach,” an expanse of sand next to a body of water that was every bit as good as an ocean beach.  It also offered grass high enough to give people a little privacy for sun-bathing, a sort of Scandinavian thing to do, escaping darkness while it’s possible.  We visited off season, so no shedding clothes.  

Someone told me a story about being there with her two little boys.  She was watching them while she read a book, but somehow they got too far out into the water without her noticing and were in trouble.  Just as she was registering the danger, a totally naked woman burst out of the grass at a dead run, easily passed her, soon had a boy in each hand and pulled them back to their mom.  Then she disappeared into the grass and was never seen again.

So Saskatoon was like that for me: full of narrow escapes, vast spaces, and surprises.  I don’t know who was more surprised, myself or the congregation.  But they were suspicious and I was unsuspecting to the point of naiveté.  I had thought they’d be “aboriginal-friendly” and that was one of the reasons I went there.

First of all, let me make it abundantly clear that I’m neither breaking off ties with the Unitarian Universalist movement (nor CUC) nor fishing around to return.  I am not interested in speaking gigs, nor even publishing with Beacon or whatever.  I don’t want to be a force for good in any denomination, but I don’t mind being a memory-keeper.  It’s not that I’ve left the principles but that they aren’t enough.  It’s not that I think congregations are bad — in fact, they are all that can gather endorsement in a democracy, because it takes numbers to impress governments.  But there are far too many people who will not unite their voices and who wish to use congregations as their own political stepping stones.  Everywhere.

I was astounded that the liberal people were funded by the government.  “Don’t you know it means they control you?”  They answered -- with moral indignation — "They wouldn’t DARE to try to control us!"  Ha.

The morning I quit.

So . . .Saskatoon, Saskatchewan — a euphonious town.  It’s been almost thirty years since I got up on Sunday morning, cut my hair to just below the earlobes and walked off.  But that was a tipping point and it wasn’t all about Sask.  I had been married to Bob Scriver throughout the Sixties on the Blackfeet reservation which is on the high east slope of the Rockies pushed up against the Canadian border.  My father’s family had lived in Minitonas, Manitoba, (another of those names) for years and Bob’s reputation was on both sides of the border.  We once tried to work with a foundry just outside Regina.  I thought this was enough to compensate for the stigma of being American.

During my second year Bob had a bad stroke.  I wasn’t notified, but I had one of those mysterious intuitions.  I arranged for a pulpit replacement and went back to Browning where Bob’s fourth wife was drunk on her ass, the hired men had gone blank and withdrawn into the shadows, and a teenaged clerk was running everything, begging for help.  I stayed a week and restored order.  When I came back, I discovered I had committed the equivalent of running off with a former lover.  I suppose I had.  But it was an American thing to do.  (Maybe French.)  I was asked to swear never, never to choose Bob over Saskatoon again.  Never to even make contact with him again.  Ha.

Myself and Bob Scriver

That’s a nice cover story, easy on my old tattered ego.  But there are layers of stories.  Somehow I got onto the board of the Friendship Centre, which is a euphemism for helping aboriginals.  The board was supposed to raise money, but no chance of that with this congregation.  Their identity was firmly attached to being academic and British Empire in a sea of Others.  So I’d go over to the Friendship Centre kitchen and peel potatoes while I gossiped.  

Those were the days when the cops routinely took “old drunks” and troublemakers way out of town and dumped them into the sub-zero snow (Fahrenheit, not Celsius) without jackets or shoes.  Their bodies were considered “accidents.”  Then one tough sunnavabitch made it back to town. 

This was also about the time that a new street drug hit town — I think it was meth or crack.  I talked to a friendly cop about it.  He said they didn’t know what it was or where it was coming from, but it made the customary drinking parties into a hell of violence with no coherent witnesses. Once I was given a premium for filling up my gas tank: a slender screwdriver with a shaft long enough to reach a heart.  I said to the gas jockey,  “This is not a tool — it’s a weapon.”  He quickly went inside.

I recognized the fear and the distortions and defensiveness that comes of mysterious change.  There was still a large part of the demographics that were survivors of Stalin’s famine, transplanted to fill up the prairies.  No one listened to the local television: they all subscribed to the North Dakota cable, which was not reassuring.  More dangerous and more glamorous at the same time.

In my blogger beret.

You folks know the saying “publish or prairies.”  It doesn’t apply down in the States, but up there the idea was that the academic world, if it were in the prairie province universities, was either purgatory or limbo.  The idea was to get to Eden — Vancouver.  Or if you wanted power, you could head east to Ottawa.  I never heard anyone yearning for Quebec, which is where Bob’s parents grew up.  I guess it was French.

What were the sources of good and courage?  What was the consensus?  What the resources?  How do the people of the congregation continue to grow and join hearts and have babies?  (Ivan Gidluck’s baby born while I was there must be about ready for college.  I remember that baby and mother were incandescent the next day after the birth.)  

When we had one of those endless soul-searching sessions to try to frame up a mission, everyone headed in a different direction.  Finally Ann Coxworth suggested,  “We receive the gifts of the universe gratefully and try to return them.”  Or something like that.  I just declared it the winner, the consensus, and drew a line under it.  The end.  Made everyone mad, but I still like it.

I remember so vividly staying the first night in Saskatoon at Ann Coxworth’s where there were tanks of turtles and a whole greenhouse alcove, which I’ve yearned for ever since, and in the garden a fish pond with chicken wire over it to keep out the cranes and raccoons.  Maybe you’ve seen those posters of a crane trying to swallow a frog that has a stranglehold on the crane’s neck so that it CAN’T swallow.  That’s what congregations can do: grip the esophagus of injustice.

One of the most transcendent moments for me was by accident coming to a field of courting cranes, with their graceful strangeness and haunting bugling.  I wonder how it would be for a Saskatoon minister to use the metaphor of the ultra-lite pilot leading a long line of cranes across the territory so as to take them to the nesting ground.  I suppose to some it will look as though the pilot is on a power trip, but to others the pilot will seem vulnerable, even if only to the possibility running out of gas.

Still, when I hear "Fanfare for the Common Man," I stop whatever I'm doing and listen through to the end with my hand on my heart.  (It was the congregation's prelude.)

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