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Across the Plains in 1844

I came across this booklet by Catherine Sager the other night, through a circuitous route that I won’t bore you with right now. Across the Plains in 1844 is the firsthand account of the Sager family’s misadventures on the Oregon Trail, and then, later, of the Whitman Massacre. It’s short and to the point, and you can read it in one sitting. It isn’t at all a pleasant read, and all the less so because Catherine Sager tells her story with little emotion. People distanced themselves from trauma in the nineteenth century; they couldn’t otherwise survive the hardships they faced. I don’t wish to neutralize the pain of modern westerners, but our souls haven’t been steeled by the constant trauma our forebears had to cope with.

Catherine Sager was the oldest girl of seven children and was sadly cursed with a father who couldn’t stay in one place. There was always a greener pasture to be explored. For a man like that, the Oregon Trail held great appeal. By the way, my paternal grandfather was like this, and he caused his family to live in poverty and constant mishaps. In my father’s childhood, mishaps were more common than complete tragedy, as the world had long since discovered the cause of infectious diseases and, furthermore, had suppressed the bloody wars on the frontier. Also, a trip across the country could be done in my grandfather’s day by car or by hopping a train and was, hence, much faster. This not being the case for the Sagers, the father’s hunger for greener pastures led his family to near ruin.

First, the father himself died of a slow creeping disease as they travelled westward. Soon after, the mother also succumbed to infection; she’d just given birth to a child and was too weak to fight off disease. This left seven children alone in the wagon train heading west. There was a Dutch doctor who vowed to care for them; they had met the doctor when Catherine’s ankle bones were severed with a wagon wheel. There were other kind folks who made sure the children were loved and cared for until they arrived in the Pacific Northwest. Despite hardship, or maybe because of it, many were willing to give near strangers what little they had. At the end of the trail, the Sager children were left at the Whitman mission, which was located near Walla Walla, WA.

The Whitmans had gone West to be a missionary family to the Cayuse people. Without children of their own, they had already adopted a few children, some of them “half-breeds” that weren’t accepted by either peoples. I don’t know that it would have ever been their intention to adopt seven non-Cayuse children, as they were responsible to a mission board that supported their efforts to preach the gospel and give medical care to the natives. The Whitmans, however, were generous people and adopted all seven children.

This is where the story gets interesting to me. It’s obvious Catherine left out many details of the wagon ride West. I would guess this is because she shut away the deaths of her parents and thus didn’t have as many memories of this time. By contrast, the children’s time with the Whitmans provides many good details. When the children arrived at the mission, the Whitmans had a good relationship with the Cayuse people. Their new father was trained as a doctor but had always wanted to be a preacher. He brought together these skillsets for his ministry, though Catherine criticizes him a little over the untrained nature of his preaching — i.e. she finds it boring. Nevertheless, he managed to hold regular services for the Cayuse and also did sabbath studies every Sunday in his own home.

The children had a good life with the Whitmans: it was a strict but fair household that provided the stability their own parents had failed to provide. They attended a mission school and helped in the garden and with all manner of tasks around the home. Catherine particularly focuses on the washing because with so many people now in the household, they all had to rise at four a.m. on washing day to accomplish the task.

Their lives, then, in this frontier land of Washington were good…until a number of events coalesced to turn it upside down. When Catherine writes about their trip along the Oregon Trail, she mentions that there are many native peoples along the way that offered help to the families on the wagon train. In general, I’d say most people don’t want to live in constant warfare. They want to make peace with other tribes of humans because it makes life easier. But the United States government could not be satisfied with peaceful relations between settlers and Native Americans and, after a series of military campaigns against the natives, this peace evaporated. The government was always doing this — whatever good intentions the average people had were destroyed by the US government. And, obviously, the government produced much propaganda to create its mess, e.g. on the philosophy of Manifest Destiny.

In the case of the Cayuse people, they had their own “turncoats,” as it were. A group of Cayuse men spread lies about the Whitmans because they didn’t want the missionaries around any longer. Perhaps they were opposed to Christianity. Perhaps they were against the Whitmans’ meddling in tribal affairs. When brought together with the US government’s treacherous acts, waves of diseases that were killing both the natives and the new settlers, and the vying groups of Christians trying to proselytize, an explosive situation occurred. A band of rebellious Cayuse slaughtered fourteen adults at the Whitman mission as well as some of the older children, sparing only the youngest.

Because Catherine Sager was a young teenager at the time, she was spared. However, the Cayuse took the children as captives and vacillated on whether they should continue to hold them or simply kill them, too. During this time, Catherine describes one Cayuse man as trying to “make her his wife” by force. I didn’t get a good sense of their living quarters, but the narrative states that there were both Cayuse and white children and adults being housed in one building. I’m not sure who the white adults were. Because Catherine wasn’t alone, whenever this man came around, she would scream and fight tooth and nail to keep him off of her. The Cayuse men ignored her screams, and the white men — according to her — only rescued her because they grew tired of listening to her scream. I only bring this up because it’s obvious that neither ethnic group was courageous or full of honor. In other words, there were scumbags amongst both. I mean, can you imagine allowing a young girl to be raped and only stopping it because the ruckus was preventing you from sleeping?

The problem with moralizing about history is that it’s rarely composed of neat binaries of good/bad and right/wrong. The modern day notion of the “evil white man” is absurd when looking at events like this through eye witness accounts. There were some decent people in the mix, such as the Whitmans who seemed to be very sincere in their desire to help the Cayuse with medicine and education and not simply foist their religion on them. One of their adopted children, in fact, was a half-Spanish, half-Cayuse whom the grandmother had rescued from her own daughter’s neglect and brought to them to care for. She trusted them to care for her unloved grandchild because they had demonstrated themselves to be decent people.

And while it’s tempting to paint the Cayuse as innocents oppressed by white people, that would be glossing over the truth. For a start, most natives in the Americas warred with other local tribal peoples, either from defense or as aggressors. The Cayuse were not exceptions. According to just this short account, some of them rebelled against their own tribal authorities and committed murder. Obviously rape wasn’t out of the question either, if Catherine’s story is to be believed. At the end of the account, the children only escaped due to the Cayuse’s attention being drawn to another military affair, in which their captives no longer mattered.

Catherine Sager and the other surviving siblings went on to live happy enough lives after this series of traumatic events. Catherine married, raised eight children, and lived to a decent age of seventy-five. According to historical documents, the other Sager daughters lived to nearly ninety.

This story has a happy ending…for some people. Others were sacrificed to whims of adventure or the US government or downright murderous mutiny. This is life, I guess, in all its messy and gory details. In short, if you have a couple of hours, read this account. I’m a little obsessed with primary source documents; they are endlessly fascinating to me. One word of caution, though — you have to accept them for what they are. They aren’t works of fiction. Most aren’t tightly plotted or masterpieces of journalism that merit special book prizes. The authors had their own reasons for writing them down. In Catherine’s case, she wanted to publish the story and make enough money to support an orphanage in the name of her adoptive mother, Narcissa Whitman. By the way, she wasn’t able to publish it in her lifetime. Ultimately, though, these types of accounts are simply glimpses into the world as it was through the eyes of the people who were unwitting witnesses to history in the making.

Here’s a link: Across the Plains in 1844.

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Less of Me and More of You and the Scourge of False Humility

There’s a little book that I’ve read a number of times throughout my life, Saint Teresa de Avila’s Interior Castle or Castillo Interior, as I originally read it in Spanish. I’m rereading it now because I’m trying to figure out why it appealed to me so much when I was a young adult. I wrote poems in Spanish and English dedicated to this saint and her book. While it’s true that I have a weird relationship to people who have lived long ago, few of them have merited my poetry (Alexander Pope, Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, Mary Leopor, and Mary Astell are only the others I can think of at the moment.)

I was caught by a section detailing the common misgivings of humans that are falsely attributed to humility. She says:

Oh, God help me, daughters, how many souls the devil must have ruined in this way! They think that all these misgivings, and many more that I could describe, arise from humility, whereas they really come from our lack of self-knowledge.

This portion of text is in the first section of the book, in one of the chapters detailing the “first mansion,” as she puts it. This first mansion must be dealt with in order to move through to the ultimate mansion, the seventh. Self-knowledge, she admits, is never the endpoint. But without it, we have difficulty moving forward in our spiritual walk with God because we have too many hangups.

It got me thinking about false humility, most of which is either promoted by a person blind to his own ego traps and failings (what Teresa de Avila is talking about here) or somebody who is willfully trying to blind others to his failings. In the aforementioned group, false humility often leads to a lack of confidence because these people don’t recognize their true weaknesses or their strengths, and they become recalcitrant and difficult to work with.

But as my mind goes, this line of thinking connected to a peculiar doctrine in modern churches, that of “He must increase, and I must decrease.” I have to admit that in the days when my husband and I were still attending a Protestant congregation (nondenominational), I would become recalcitrant (word of the day) over that doctrine of false humility. I refused to sing songs or speak “affirmations” that were worded similarly.

When I say this is a belief in modern churches, I mean those that sing tiresome songs repeating that line, I must decrease that God may increase. There is a modern praise song out there that does exactly that with an informal take on it: More of you, less of me. Ironically, the first line reads I made my castle tall, I built up every wall (lyrics by Colton Dixon, according to the internet).

Self-denigration isn’t a particularly new doctrine. I mentioned Sor Juana in the first paragraph; she is famous for giving up her worldly pursuits of studying and writing in a declaration, in which she famously stated: Yo la peor de todo. However, there is evidence she did not give up these pursuits, and the declaration was more likely a rhetorical flourish to appease the pesky bishop who threatened her with the tail end of the Spanish Inquisition over a debate she’d been having with him.

Breast-beating, self-flagellation — these are parts of historical Christianity. I don’t want to denigrate my own modern epoch too much. But I can’t deny that it is a doctrine dour Protestants have picked up from, as far as I can tell, an odd misreading of Scripture. The doctrine is derived from John 3, in which John the Baptist is answering his followers, who’ve noted that Jesus is also baptizing people beyond Jordan. John tells his followers the truth: he is only a forerunner to Jesus, and his [John’s] ministry must decrease in order for Jesus’s ministry to increase. In other words, the times are changing. No longer will the Israelite people be under the old covenant, but a new one that John only bore witness to.

It seems to me, though, that Christians misuse this verse to put on a false sense of humility, in which they declare that they must be drained of their personhoods in order for God to reign in their lives. There is no doubt that all humans need to repent of their wickedness and be cleansed by the blood of Jesus, and they need to continuously be in a state of repentance to keep themselves from impurity. I would never deny that. What I do deny is that God wants us to give up who we are as individuals so that he can better use us.

This hatred of humans, this anti-life denigration of the creatures whom God created in his own image is a doctrine of perverse men. It’s a doctrine we get stuck on because we get stuck in that first mansion Saint Teresa writes about, where we are supposed to be doing self-examination but where many of us never come to understand who we truly are in God. If God despised us to such a degree that he would want us to become empty shells for him to fill up as helium fills a balloon, why would he have sent his son to sacrifice his life for us? If he loves only himself and not the children he made in his image, why does he tell us he loves us?

I cannot reconcile this doctrine of self-immolation with a God who died for me. I just can’t. I utterly reject this foolish false humility. There are times when I need to do a little breast-beating. I sin through my own fault, just as it says in the liturgy. I don’t do what I should, and I do what I shouldn’t. I need to be self-aware enough to recognize this, confess my sins, and turn away from them so that I can be the individual God planned for me to be, not a persona non grata cum deus en machina. That’s enough tortured Latin for the day.

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G.K. Chesterton

I should get to writing my Roswell Journals, as I won’t be living here much longer. But I have nothing to say about Roswell. It has remained the same to me, a place I’m not that fond of. My life instead resides in my home and in my mind. I have few friends and want to keep it that way. In fact, if I were to give in to my natural desires, I would find a better friend in death authors than the people around me. This is entirely my fault, and I own up to my deficient nature.

G.K. Chesterton happens to be one of my dead author friends whose books I’m currently reading. I should say that I’m always reading Chesterton because I read bits and pieces of his writing between other books. Most recently, I’m reading Orthodoxy. Chesterton is the type of writer I would add to my reading inside my biased worldview folder. Years ago, he wrote of the same world I live in today. He had a grasp on the modern world in its dullest heights — or its loftiest heights; I’m not really sure. And he seemed to suffer from the same prejudices as I do these hundred years later.

Take this quote for a start:

Imagination does not breed insanity. Exactly what does breed insanity is reason. Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do. Mathematicians go mad, and cashiers; but creative artists very seldom. I am not, as will be seen, in any sense attacking logic: I only say that this danger does lie in logic, not in imagination.

This idea has borne itself out time and again in the last century. Modern materialist culture is neurotic. People are miserable. Of course, this is in part owing to the lack of expectations young people have placed on them. They need expectations of the old-fashioned kind, such as celibacy until marriage, eventual and hopefully early marriage, children, and carrying on the family faith. This is a life rife for the imagination because it takes courage to believe these important elements matter, that everything will be all right if we do what we should and put our fate in the hands of an eternal creator. When neuroticism is squelched through normal living, it’s much easier to walk the balance of believing in practical solutions and miraculous ones. In general, neuroticism creates bad art.

Materialism leads to rationalism leads to neuroticism leads to bad art and miserable humans. That is my opinion, and it has been my opinion for some time. It’s better to avoid the arts altogether if you are overly analytical; however, I do add the caveat that analytical people can be imaginative. The problem is analytical imagination takes a high working IQ that can itself lead to problems, albeit not neuroticism. These people are rather going to suffer from an excess of frustration at not being believed or understood. Or they will just have a grand sense of humor. It would be good if they could aim for the latter. They are, however, such a small percentage of the population that it wouldn’t be worth it to write advice columns for them.

Chesterton does concede that miserable poets do exist and, in fact, these miserable poets have been infected with rationality. He particularly highlights Poe and Cowper. This is where I know I’m reading in my worldview rather than experiencing new thought. He says about Cowper:

Perhaps the strongest case of all is this: that only one great English poet went mad, Cowper. And he was definitely driven mad by logic, by the ugly and alien logic of predestination.

I can’t disagree with that. Calvinist thinking has always struck me as being of the most miserable kind, and I’ve no doubt written about Cowper’s misery here on the blog. This blog started out, years ago, as an 18th C history blog, so it’s highly likely. And while I like Cowper’s hymns, it can’t be denied that he was a miserable and mad man. But being of a mindset more inclined to a Chesterton — or, in Cowper’s day, of a Samuel Johnson, lending a hand or a bit of advice to a Cowper (although in his day, it was Christopher Smart).

It’s almost inevitable for madness to ensue if one’s faith is too far gone toward the route of rationalism. Although God certainly created logic, God’s logic is not entirely understood by us mere mortals. When we believe it can and should be, and that furthermore, this is how we approach God, we will fail. But if anyone wants to be contentious about this, go ahead. I’m sure the easy out would be to claim that no human is actually rational at all and therein lies the problem.

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Social Media For Writers

What is happening to the world? If it wasn’t clear enough before that the tech overlords control our society right along with the media, I hope it’s clear now. I ditched Twitter years ago and have been ditching Facebook on and off when it becomes too much. I end up going back, drawn to that place where I can reach my old high school friends and the family I never see. But I can’t keep it now. I can’t support a corporation that blocks our president. I can’t return to Twitter because they’ve done the same. YouTube? God knows they aren’t any better. And Amazon? What? I have zero interest in joining conservative ghettos like Parler, but I don’t feel like supporting Amazon after they cancelled Parler.

Where does this leave a struggling writer who doesn’t have much of an audience as it is? People have been joking that conservatives should just make their own internet. Okay, well, right along with the continuous process of learning how to write, edit, create print books and ebooks, and then market my books, I now have to learn to be my own silicon valley CEO. That leaves me a little woozy. I might as well go find a vanity press and print up thousands of books and sell them on street corners all over the US. Seriously.

At least I still have WordPress, but I’ve been wondering how to get around the mindset that requires free venues. The reason we’re in this position of having tech overlords controlling our livelihoods, interpreting our reality, and telling us what we can and can’t believe and say is we walked willingly in. All of those instructive fairy tales we heard as a child didn’t leave the impression they should have. We walked right in the witch’s cabin, and now she’s got us trapped and has been fattening us up on her sweets until we’re ready to be consumed. Perhaps you find that an exaggeration. I don’t.

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The World Still Turns

My steps toward a writing career made several big steps forward in the months between March and August. I finished my Roswell alien book and sent it off to a small publishing company that was interested. I wrote 70,000 words toward my breakdancing cyberpunk before I had to take a break to put money in the bank and figure out how I was going to continue doing that while homeschooling again. The pandemic has changed things. I took advantage of losing my income while I had the chance, but it was never going to last. Also, my son is not going to be doing online school or attending a private school, where he would sit in one classroom all day wearing a mask. Not. Going. To. Happen.

To be honest, I lost interest in blogging these past few months. My focus was on this present reality, and how to keep functioning. For me that means interacting with friends and family, even if only on Facebook. Yes, Facebook. Which is awful, just not in the same toxic way that Twitter is. It also means keeping a schedule every day of exercise plus walks, household chores, writing and editing. This blog? I don’t know if I’ll get the interest stirring in my soul again. It’s all right, though. The internet is a wasteland of abandoned blogs — many of which were abandoned because the physical world around held more appeal.

It does. It really does. I was finally confirmed in the Catholic church. That was a long road, which ended in a small gathering wearing masks who were blessed with holy oil smelling of cloves and given the eucharist. Afterward, we went to a Mexican restaurant and ate al pastor tacos outside on their “patio” because we weren’t allowed inside. My sponsor gave me a St Patrick’s rosary as a gift, and it’s a tangible representation of what prayer is. This is life: going to mass, eating tacos, and kneeling and praying.

I have to add that my patron saint in Francis de Sales, saint of writers, who wrote apologetics against Calvinism. I find myself doing that a lot. Hence…he is my patron saint. He was also a gentle saint, even in his denouncing of Calvin. I hope to be a little gentler, a little kinder. That’s all for now.

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