Plow Creek Foss Memorial

I was at Plow Creek Farm last weekend; my old stomping grounds. Sunday morning I went down to the valley. I’m on my way to Thailand in a week, and the conference theme there is “crossing over”. So I’ve been thinking about how the Israelites “Crossed over” the Jordan, stacking stones as they did so, in memorial. I wanted to go down and make a cairn at Plow Creek to memorialize Rich Foss, who also “crossed over” last week. My favorite shot is above. You can’t tell how small the cairn is from that photo. Well, it’s all about perspective! Sometimes the things that were small seemed big. Sometimes the things that were big seem smaller later. Relationships aren’t about whether a person is big or small, just about whether you are close to them or far away. Intimate to them, or not. Your perspective on how big they are really comes from your proximity to their heart, and not at all to any measure of fame they have attained. There are, therefore, no big people. There’s no such thing as a big shot. Only humans who know how to be intimate, gentle, compassionate, and kind, to those they know well and live with, and friendly to everyone else they meet…  and there are humans who don’t. Rich knew.

Rich knew.

Rich Foss knew how to love people and so he will be a sorely missed influence in my life. Rich was a mentor to me, asked me to carry on the work of his nonprofit, Evergreen Leaders, and was a major influence in giving myself permission to call myself a writer, and to do the hard work of writing a novel. Rich wrote one novel in his life, Jonas and Sally. It’s beautiful, poetic prose, sold a fairly high number of copies, and it is out of print. I found a copy of it a few weeks ago in a used bookstore in Pennsylvania for $1 and bought it.  I often sell them alongside my own books, so I’m on the lookout for copies. I’m surprised to find that I’ve already written more books than he did… but I’m not surprised to feel that none of them are quite as good. Which is, of course, a matter of opinion. You might like my books better. Who knows?


So many Plow Creek kids grew up being really great at hoops. I stunk. I don’t know how I can call myself a Hoosier and hold my head high. Indiana has this big thing about basketball but it’s huge in rural Illinois too. Several of the kids I grew up with ended up playing college basketball and winning state championships in high school. Rich Foss’ son played for Colgate University. I think he made it to the NCAA tournament one year. My guess is that if he wanted to he could still dunk on this rim. I could barely reach it with my camera, that’s how much ups I’ve got.


Somebody beat me to the creek, post-ice storm. They must have thrown these three rocks on the ice to see if it was safe to cross over. When they did it, it was. By the time I got there Sunday, not so much. I didn’t try to get to the north bank. Even though Dave Stahnke loaned me a warm pair of boots, I didn’t want a soaking. While I was there I got to hear the ice; deep, groaning, creaking sounds of water, in solid state, splitting up. I watched as a huge section calved.


I made this little cairn on the ice. The stones were smaller than I remembered, as everything at Plow Creek is, and there were few enough of them sticking out of the bank. I had to bang most of them out of the frozen ground with another rock. It was slow, and quickly became apparent that I wasn’t going to get to build a huge cairn, certainly not one that did justice to how big of a big shot Rich was. Everything seemed underwhelming when you stepped back, but taking a good angle I could still get some interesting shots. Something intimate, with stones, ice and brown grass.


Here’s an interesting accidental shot. Sometimes what we think is the focus is really the background in life. Maybe for you what I’m talking about in this blog is painting the background for what you’re really dealing with. Or maybe there’s something coming into focus that I’m not even thinking about as I write it.


From this view you can see the barn. We used to play in the loft. Behind the trees just beyond the barn is where the creek runs, so the other shots (above) were taken in the creek bed behind the barn that you can’t see, because it’s lower, obviously. To the left you can see the North Bluff, which has been gradually eroding into the creek for millions of years, since I was, like, five.

I thought it was interesting that this trailer claims Plow Creek Farm has delivered local berries, produce and beef since 1978. I asked some of the folks my parents’ age what they remembered about when Plow Creek began to sell produce. They reminisced about how the first gardens were planted in difficult soil, clay, on the top of the hill, and they located the garden there initially because “it was close to the house, and besides there was plenty of sun” rather than planting in good soil. They were suburban kids who had to teach themselves to farm while living communally. I knew they started the community in 72 or 73. It makes sense now that it took them 4-5 years to get to the point where people would come buy their produce. It’s hard to imagine my mom and dad and all these other folks who used to farm this land not knowing where to put a garden. I guess the beauty of our twenties is that we’re stupid, and we’re beginning to know it, but our kids don’t know it yet. We get a period of life where we can grow and learn without our kids holding it against us. To them, we are simply big shots.

I also heard a great story from my Dad I had never heard before. Once he shot a stray cat (sorry, animal lovers, on farms you sometimes have to keep the population down) and the neighbor came over a few days later, wondering if anyone had seen his cat. Dad said, yeah, I shot a stray, but it doesn’t fit your description so I don’t think it was yours. The neighbor came back a few days later and dug up the cat Dad shot. Well, it was his cat. I joked with dad that of course the cat he shot didn’t fit the same description; the neighbor’s description was of a lively, warm, purring cat, while the one Dad shot was lifeless, cold … Dad said he felt really bad and offered the neighbor his pick of a litter of kittens, but he didn’t want any of them. I guess sometimes you only want the cat you had.

Death is an unacceptable event. Any substitute offered in its aftermath is anathema to us for a time. Our desires for the good things we had are set in stone, cataloged rock by rock in our memory, cemented down as a pillar. We don’t want different good things. We want what we loved. We don’t want to develop new intimacies. It’s hard to break in a new pair of shoes. It’s a pain to learn a new operating system, language, code, code of ethics, culture, route to the grocery store, new flavor of food. We have to learn to communicate again in new ways, which takes energy we don’t have. Death is an unacceptable event.

What happens to us: one day, the ice breaks up, and even our cairns get washed away in the spring flood, all our memories of the old earth are gone, as clouds in new heavens come drifting along. The season will change, the water will be warm and pure, and we’ll all cross over to the north bank, climb the bluff, pick the blueberries and tell each other stories: perhaps with the old rhythms, but under brighter skies. Rich will be there too and I know exactly how he will be laughing.






Memory’s Patina

In courtroom psychology, where facts are king, memory has been shown to be one of the more unreliable tools for discovery. Each time we recall an event, our brains add to or subtract from the experience, creating a patina, adding layers of varnish or grime so that while the antique table of our memories looks less and less like it did the day that memory was made, we only recognize it years later as the shiny antique we now see.

If an ancient memory is like an antique table, what is the value of stripping it back to its bare facts? For those who love the PBS show Antique Road Show you know that stripping the patina and refinishing a piece of old furniture actually lessens the value of it, but in some cases a painting or piece of furniture can also be restored by an expert, giving it even greater value. In the same way, your memory, coated over with layers, may become less valuable as a tool to illuminate beauty and principle if stripped by confrontation with the basic facts; as if it were a pearl stripped back to the initial grain which irritated the oyster. On the other hand, the idea of “cleaning or restoring” corresponds to the idea that we might take that memory and distill from it the underlying principle, making it elegant again.

We do not want to strip the memory to bare facts, but we do want to highlight the beauty of what we learned from it, what stays with us as evidence of the refining of time which makes it more valuable. It isn’t the wood of the table (though it may be from an extinct tree such as the American chestnut – that is the like the last remaining person whose personal memory includes World War One). The beauty is the patina itself, something nobody could create, it’s only made by time.

So. Memories attached to emotions, are one of the most reliable tools for getting at the principles of what impact events have had on the speaker’s life. For example, my memories of Congo are not perhaps factual, (see Congo blogs in archives) but the principles I’ve drawn highlight what was valuable in the experience.

We might even say that the writers of the four Gospels, who waited some thirty years, may not have given us the facts, in the strictest sense, that they might have if they were involved in some sort of daily journalism during the days of Christ. On the other hand, their somewhat delayed picture may be even more valuable for the patina they added; the things they remembered because of how the principles continued to ring true over time come closer to an illumination of the indelible reality Jesus left them with than what a newspaper man might have given us looking at events in real time.

The Listener understands that truth may contain facts, but no true story contains all facts, and therefore a motivational listener is unconcerned with knowing all facts. Long before Christ walked the earth Lao Tzu speaks of the “Myriad things” or “Ten-thousand things” while Solomon ridiculed the quest for all facts “everything under the sun is vanity.” The aim of their poetic philosophy is to uncover principle, not to catalog fact. They realized long before computers existed that nobody would ever be able to collect all facts in one place and that facts were, in fact, relatively superfluous to the discovery and illumination of truth.

The Listener hears stories constructed from Memory knowing that such stories are, as time goes on, scientifically unreliable in terms of factual reconstruction of events, but that the same Memory is remarkably reliable in its able to recall emotions experienced or established during an event. In my recollections of Congo/Zaire 27 years ago, my memory now has such a patina that you should not trust my memory to give you a perfect rendering of the facts. You should be able to trust that the patina on my memory will give you a very accurate rendition of how the events shaped my life. And that is the reality I now live.

Canonized books of story or poetry which have been used as factual sledgehammers cause us discomfort, but their original impact in society was due to their usefulness in the way their story elucidated truth regardless of factuality. The first question to ask when studying canonic texts is not “is this or that a fact?” but rather, “how does this story impact me emotionally? What true principles are here?” If the story should turn out to be factual as well, all the better.

The Listener reads fiction with abandon, uncovering truth wherever it may be found, and reads non-fiction with caution, recognizing that each fact stacked upon another fact could build a tower of Babel; that a large collection of facts twisted for the writer’s profit is less valuable than a single principle uncovering some absolute truth. And so, for example, the books of the Bible, if you take them to be fiction, read them with abandon, and if you read them as non-fiction, read them with caution. When you listen to a companion, encourage their wildest fantasies, let them ride unicorns to the ends of rainbows where they find pots of gold, and take their statements of fact (particularly when remembering facts of long ago) with a grain of salt.