Tribal Connections

Whenever my life begins to feel too “cushy” – which is often since I’m a spoiled American Baby Booming corpulent white male with a loving/doting wife, a squared-away son, a reasonably functional family, early retirement, and a supportive church family – I sign up for a mission trip, foreign or domestic.

Which cures the spoiled-brat syndrome pronto.

If you embark on such an adventure, expect:  crushed legs on long flights, strange food clogging the septic system, strange water unplugging the septic system, flat-hard hotel beds, endless oversize bags full to maximum 49.9 pounds of cement-grade calcium carried up and down steps via human chain, sleepless nights filled with the cacophony of poultry crowing contests and spontaneous dog fights, mission beds made of burlap and two-by-fours, water-less showers until Angel Plumbers work their magic, twelve-hour days spent mostly on the feet, the ringing sound of eighty voices banging around the cement walls of the clinic, three languages bouncing in a Babel of towering intensity.

So, why do we subject ourselves to that?

Probably for the same reason soldiers return to Afghanistan seven-or-eight times.  Why firefighters rush into burning buildings.  Why doctors continue to practice medicine into their eighties, serving a network of friends they’ve made over a lifetime.

My personal physician, Paul Brown, Jr.,MD., has lead a mission team to Mexico for over thirty years.
Paul Brown, Jr., MD., leading missions for 30+ years.

They do it for the tribe.

Opinion:  we are designed by the Creator to function in small groups, say twenty-to-sixty people – all carrying different abilities (spiritual gifts) – a tribe where everyone has a job, everyone is respected for their contribution, and everyone is connected to a purpose outside their own agenda.

“In 1753, Benjamin Franklin wrote to a friend about a curious phenomenon in the American west. White prisoners rescued from Native American tribes were seizing the first chance they could to flee into the wilderness and rejoin their captors. There were no reports of native warriors migrating in the opposite direction. Perplexed, Franklin concluded that the errant whites must have become ‘disgusted with our manner of life’ despite being shown ‘all imaginable tenderness’ on their return.” (Source).

Sebastian Junger, author of Restrepo and The Perfect Storm, recently penned a book titled Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, which focuses on the War in Afghanistan and veterans’ mental health.  Junger writes:  “Today’s veterans often come home to find that, although they’re willing to die for their country, they’re not sure how to live for it.”

Instead of focusing on job training and social re-conditioning, we treat vets like pariahs and load them up on drugs while ignoring the root cause of their distress and side-stepping psychiatric care, which is expensive and time consuming.  We treat veterans as if they aren’t worth our time and effort after they return with lost limbs and shattered psyches.  The suicide rates for white males over sixty-five, many of whom are Vietnam vets, bears witness to these unresolved issues.

“In 2008 active duty and veteran military personnel abused prescription drugs at a rate that was more than twice the rate for the civilian population. In 2009, the VA estimated that around 13,000 vets from Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from alcohol dependence syndrome and require veteran mental health treatment for this problem.” (Source)

After listening to Junger’s podcast, it occurred to me that we are indeed better beings when connected to a well-functioning small group, which is why churches, synagogues, mosques, Boy Scouts, Rotary, Lions Clubs, Crips, Bloods, and Hell Angels exist.

The last three will probably lead to harm, but the call of the tribe is embedded into our nature, and that is why making a conscious decision to serve on a positive team is a healthy choice.

Let’s take a look at contemporary suicide rates

White males accounted for 7 of 10 suicides in 2016; and, the rate of suicide is highest in middle age — white men in particular (The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention).

Sadly, suicides in all demographics have risen dramatically since 1999, though Hispanic males are much lower than white males.


The March 2018 medical mission I joined to Ixtepec, Tatoxcac, and Xochiapulco, Mexico offered unending examples of a high-functioning tribe  than I can list (starting with the angel who swapped her airline aisle seat twice for my leg-killing window view); furthermore, this team comes together bi-annually to bring medical care to under-served residents in the rugged mountains northeast of Puebla, Mexico. Nearly half of the folks treated were indigenous, speaking Totonaca, a native language “not closely related to other native languages in Mexico.”

Which required three levels of translation:  English – Spanish – Totonaca — and back again.

This year I was the “optometrist” which meant that I helped 320 folks find workable reading glasses over four days using two Bibles (the KJV, and a Totonaca New Testament), a spool of thread, a needle, a flashlight, and a pocket knife to cut plastic.  The spectacles were donated by the generous Lion’s Club Tribe.

The will to work is unshakable in this ninety-year old.
The will to work is unshakable in this ninety-year old.

My Spanish interpreter – Fany (pronounced Fanny), from the Methodist College in Puebla – was coming off a semester of concentrated French, so the combination of suddenly switching to English while simultaneously deciphering an unknown indigenous tongue wore on her along with all the physical challenges, yet she hung on to gain a second wind and finish the week admirably.

Local teens connected to the Ixtepec Methodist Church also saved the week by giving fully of themselves, obviously loving and cherishing their elderly by listening carefully to their needs, then translating them into Spanish, where Fany would pass it to me, and then back again.  Three hundred twenty times in four days.

Multiply that by the entire cohort of volunteers (approximately 120), and you begin to perceive the amount of coordination it takes to make this mission work.

Plus eleven months of planning and preparation up front.

Sebastian Junger claims that we need three essentials to live healthily and harmoniously: 1) we need to feel competent at what we do; 2)  we need to feel authentic in our lives; and, 3)  we need to feel connected to others.

Looking back at the suicide statistics, it must be noted that the Hispanic males take their own lives in much fewer numbers than Caucasian males.

“White men over the age of 65 commit suicide at almost triple that overall rate.  These men are also eight times more likely to kill themselves than are women of the same age group, and have almost twice the rate of all other groups of male contemporaries.

Disparities along ethnic lines for elderly males are also substantial. Compared with white males ages 65 and older, African American males (9.2 suicides per 100,000), Hispanic or Latino males (15.6), and Asian or Pacific Islander males (17.5) in the same age range had significantly lower suicide rates.”  (Source)

Research on the “why” is thin, but after spending a week in Ixtepec, casual observation of the culture exposed a deep connection to family, community, nature, and God:  all characteristics of a healthy tribe.

In contrast, the phenomenon of disconnected angry white American males sitting in dark rooms drinking alcohol and absorbing CNN or FOX is ending badly.

Imagine that.

Our Mexican patients exhibited a wide range of physical needs – missing teeth, scabies, parasites, allergies, an entire gamut of untreated ailments testing the knowledge and experience of the mission doctors, nurses, and pharmacists – but the local populations’ connectedness to the spirit, energy, patience, and genuine good nature lifted the hearts of all servants, Mexicans and Americans alike.

Pablo, a minister from another province, traveled to Ixtepec with his teenage son, both patiently washing, drying, and treating foot ailments.  Ricardo and LuLu traveled from Nicaragua to lead the translating team, and three other college students traveled with Fany from Puebla to sacrifice their free time and comfort to serve their country.

Foot Care
Foot Care via agape.

The exact ratio of Mexican-to-American servants on this mission is unknown, but it seemed like 3:1 as local teens, the church pastor’s family, and other Mexican missionaries – plus half the congregation – pitched in to make it work. Villagers lined the street to tote heavy bags down to the church the minute we arrived, and waited patiently for hours on end — often in the rain and wind – to receive their annual medical care.

We didn't ask for help, but we received it with joy.
We didn’t ask for help, but we received it with joy.

The Ixtepec-Tatoxcac-Xochiapulco clinics succeeds because everyone has a job – or three – everyone is valued for their contribution, and all are connected through Jesus Christ.

No matter where our travels take us – Johnson City, Ixtepec, Tasmania, wherever – if two-or-more are gathered in His name, we are connected. We are also connected by our willingness to serve, to share that last full measure of devotion that propels The Tribe.

“Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.” Romans 12:1 NASB

My two previous mission trips to this beautiful mountainscape northeast of Puebla occurred in the late Nineties, and I must say there is a noticeable improvement in infrastructure – the highway from Puebla to the mountains is new and modern – plus the thirty-two years of medical mission work is revealed in the faces of the people, who look much healthier. Even the dogs show fewer ribs.

Waiting for the clinic to open ...
Waiting for the clinic to open …

The visiting team stood in awe of these patient, hard-working, community-loving, God-present, spiritually connected folk – The Tribe – functioning as it’s meant to be.

Meanwhile, reality-show Americans continue to back-stab each other on social media, ignore common values, highlight differences, suck down opioids and alcohol in record volumes, endlessly eyeball the latest fear-mongering headlines slanted to feed personal preferences, and commit suicide in record numbers.

Simultaneously, church attendance in North America is dropping like a rock.

Suicide stats don’t lie. Broken lives parading past our eyes don’t lie.

"How do you become an adult in a society that doesn't ask for sacrifice? How do you become a man in a world that doesn't require courage?"  -- Sebastian Junger, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging

You don’t.

Those who serve rely on the tribe:  church family, Sunday school classes, spouses, and relatives, all connected through Christ – who finance our way, who donate medicine, eyeglasses and crutches, who pray for and bless our service with their love.

We certainly relied on the tribe in Mexico who fed, housed, worked diligently beside us, and have served faithfully for over thirty years.

From desert wanderers seeking the Promised Land … to disciples sharing the Good News … to medical missions serving the needy in foreign lands … The Tribe functions with efficiency through its unselfish connection to The One.

I don’t know about you, but I’m sticking with The Tribe.


Note:  More pictures here.

Midwestern Lake Tour: Superior, Michigan, Dale Hollow (Fall 2017)

Following a two-month visit to Western Illinois this fall – helping my active mother recuperate from hip surgery – my wife Lana and I were free to drive back to Tennessee any way we chose.

Near my hometown of Sheffield, Illinois
Western Illinois in late August

Pumped up on Jim Harrison’s “Brown Dog” novellas set in Upper Peninsula Michigan, we needed to lay eyes on this special place, and as always, interesting characters popped up along the way. Even Brown Dog uncloaked in Paradise, Michigan.

Furthermore, Lana’s college friend Donna and her husband Phil enjoy a condo jutting out off a basalt platform overlooking Lake Superior at Two Harbors, Minnesota, and they had previously invited us for a weekend, so we wandered home across America’s stunningly beautiful heartland lake country.

31 August 17

The drive from Sheffield, Illinois to Galena – where U.S. Grant briefly resided – is usually delightful:  endless cornfields rolling north in static undulations of unglaciated hills  snaking beside the Mississippi River.

But this time drifting Canadian wildfire smoke hung trapped above the ground in the ghostly-still air, reminding us that California simultaneously roiled in flames, and that Grant loved big cigars.

Ironically, Ron Chernow (author of Hamilton) recently released a biography of the 18th president, which appears to lift him out of the scandal and booze for a bit and focuses on the advancement of racial equity.

Normally we take time to wander the streets of the Galena – lowercase galena in science textbooks – with its wonderful shops and picturesque hillside quaintness, but we decided to turn in early. The next morning we rolled into Wisconsin, emboldened with sunshine and covered with breweries.

***

1 September 17

Meandering north through corn-beans-corn, we arrived at the Potosi Brewery, home of Snake Hollow IPA, a wonderful beer if you like yours hoppy.  Then the Great River Road north sent us toward Pepin as we enjoying seeing the well-decorated laid-back small towns along the way.

Our 1950’s era Pepin hotel lacked everything except two sleep-able beds and a bathroom, but a walk down to the dockside found us at the Harbor View Café where the motto is best from scratch.  While dining we overheard customers say they drove down from Minneapolis twice a month to enjoy the always-changing but consistently-good fare. The spicy lamb cassoulet was tasty, indeed, washed down with the mandatory local craft beer.

Lake Pepin, a man-made reservoir on the Mississippi River west off Wisconsin’s Route 35, provided a lovely backdrop as we after-dinner strolled the top of the levee surrounding a harbor filled with people cooking and drinking on sailboats while the hardier rolled out into the sunset with fishing poles lashed to down-riggers.

US Conservancy picture of the North Mississippi in Wisconsin
US  Nature Conservancy photo of the Mississippi in Wisconsin

3 September 17

We stopped at Duluth on our way north to Two Harbors, and the old downtown manufacturing center was covered with tourists strolling the promenade, enjoying the Portland-ish rose gardens, dozens of thriving restaurants and shops sporting sunny views of the lake.  One gentlemen mentioned that locals were soaking it up because they knew what lay ahead. Short-sleeved walkers all around us belied the coming white season, the majesty of Lake Superior’s shining blue soon turning to the leaden-grey gales of November.

Duluth roses
Duluth roses

A couple of hours up the Bob Dylan Way (Highway Sixty One) we arrived in Two Harbors, Minnesota,  a quaint village on the western shores of Lake Superior where our friends Phil, Donna, and Moses – a charming three-year-old cocker spaniel – accepted us graciously into their spacious condo filled with glass facing the ever-changing “Gitche Gumee” (the great sea in Ojibwa).

Driving to Two Harbors, MN
Lake Superior off Phil and Donna’s Porch

Clouds, sun, radical shifts in color and mood, moon, clouds, lake, the ever-changing kaleidoscope of God’s artistic capacity happily traipsing past each day … our friends have delighted in this gift – both physical and spiritual –  for over twenty years and are still mesmerized.

Our gracious hosts
Moses maintains control.

4 September 17

After rising early and dining on Phil’s hearty eggs and sausage, we toured Highway 61 north with Phil behind the wheel of the family van, Moses sitting on my lap peering out the windshield, and the women happily reminiscing in the passenger seats as we tooled up to Grand Marais, Minnesota with an extended side-trip on the Gunflint Trail to snatch a peek at the Boundary Waters, a treasure both Phil and I have fished on separate occasions, an astounding  1,090,000-acres of fresh water lakes covering both shores of the US and Canada.

As we looked northwest into the horizon, loons spontaneously serenaded, a bald eagle passed at eye level yards in front of our rock overlook, wheeled, and fell into the abyss.

Earlier in the day we’d visited Gooseberry Falls State Park, Split Rock Lighthouse, and Tettegouche State Park, known for its rock climbing.  All of these worthwhile stops appear along Highway 61 on western shores of Lake Superior between Twin Harbors and the Gunflint Trail.

5 September 17

The next morning we drove down to the docks to see iron ore loaded onto a massive lake hauler, but we arrived a few minutes late only to witness it steaming away toward Sault Saint Marie where we’d soon visit and watch similar ships pass through the locks.

Parting with good friends and carrying wonderful memories, we thanked Phil and Donna for their grace and hospitality, talked of future visits, then headed south to the Wisconsin state border – then east – with a glimpse of Apostle Islands passing by the driver’s side window as we cruised down Highway 13.

6 September 17

Between Bayfield and Marquette we passed iron ore mining towns – Ironwood, Bessemer – then lunched on remarkable onion soup at the Portside Inn at downtown Marquette on a bright fall day filled with tourists and shoppers.

Near Marquette, MI
Abandoned iron ore docks near Marquette, MI

Following Route 28, we stopped in Munising, Michigan to see Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore with its spectacular cliff and rock formations, but it was socked-into-the-fog so we headed to Whitefish Point where we thoroughly enjoyed the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum.

Whitefish Point Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum
Whitefish Point Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum

Endless rounds of Gordon Lightfoot’s Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald (warning: if It’s A Small World still rings in your head, you may want to don ear plugs) lead you audibly through an excellent display of nautical science, specialized equipment, geographic explanations, descriptions of shipwrecks and stories of real-life derring-do that will spin your head.  The bravery of those masters of the Inland Sea is legendary, while technology has kept more Edmund Fitzeralds from finding the bottom of its inhospitable depths.  The Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point is a must-stop, indeed.

***

A lovely drive down Highway 28 to Paradise found us at the end of the day inside the Magnuson Grand Lakefront Hotel with a balcony view of the ever-changing face of Lake Superior, and evening of sun, clouds, mist, and shifting light.

Lake Superior at Paradise, MI
Lake Superior at Paradise, MI

***

If you are a reader, then it’s possible you have met or have at least seen a character step out of the pages and cross your path.

This has happened to me twice.

Two years ago, when I was writing Jellybeaners, Lana and I passed through Tellico Plains, Tennessee on a motorcycle trip.  Tellico Plains is actually renamed “Kituwah Falls” as the novel’s fictional setting.

While eating a light lunch at a local restaurant, I witnessed the main character walk in – a six-foot wiry raven-haired half-Cherokee beauty – look at me, pull herself to her full height, smile, then back out and stride off  down the street.

Now two years later we stumble across Brown Dog, the part-Ojibwe hero of Jim Harrison’s UP novellas, a character here described by the New York Times’ Anthony Doeer:

Brown Dog has no other name. He’s simply B. D., a scoundrel, a “backwoods nitwit,” a “kindly fool,” a goof as lovable as Sancho Panza and a libertine as promiscuous (if not as discriminating) as Don Juan. Picture a smuttier, older and alcoholic Huckleberry Finn, who happens to be Native American.

The long-haired whiskey-soaked half-Indian Brown Dog – or his doppelganger – stumbled into the Little Falls Inn while we soaked up burgers, but he was much longer-in-the-tooth than the 49-year-old protagonist, which made sense because Harrison published the last Brown Dog novella in the early 90’s. Our BD paid us no mind and remained in character, affixed to a female, a second muscle-bound hand wrapped around a beer mug.

***

7 September 17

After breakfast we drove to Tahquamenon Falls State Park, amazed at the size of the falls and the water’s brown color, the effect of tannin in the soil that’s swept downstream.

Gooseberry Falls
Tannin colors the water at Tahquamenon Falls State Park

8 September 17

Ambling south, we arrived at Sault Saint Marie (sue saint mah ree)  mid-morning and happened to walk up to the locks just an iron ore ship Herbert C. Jackson, a seeming identical twin to the Edmund Fitzgerald, slipped through, then slowly descended to Lake Huron below as the life-sized crewmen we just chatted up minutes ago morphed into miniature Toy Story characters hauling string-ropes.

http://www.saultstemarie.com/attractions/soo-locks/
The Herbert C. Jackson

“The Soo” is an American city past its prime, though its Canadian twin appears to thrive, and there’s new talk of widening the locks to accept heavier commerce, which may bring a new financial spring for both as the Great Lakes eternally serve our distribution of goods with an efficiency outstripping trucks pounding interstates into oblivion and high-sulfur Wyoming coal trains hogging rail lines as commuters sit fuming on overcrowded expressways.

A friend of mine from high school moved to Seattle after college, loved his IT job at Boeing for nearly thirty years, but retired the day after his work buddy suffered a heart attack on a traffic-blocked expressway, expiring in his car, unable to exit, unable to receive help from outside the blocked lanes.

We can do better.

Spending the night in St. Ignace, Michigan – located on the north end of the Mackinac Bridge – we ran across another novel-worthy character who’d literally built his own functional tractor out of an assortment of parts-on-hand:  a straight six Ford motor, a massive steel u-bar for the frame, used wheels and tires, a drive train constructed of welded bolts and assorted gear drives from the parts bin. You can tell you’ve encountered a “character” when their spirit shows through … brightly.  It’s an experience beyond words, but you know it when you see it.

This wiry retired farmer dressed in oil-soaked overalls and reeking of knowledge gained from life experience, travel, and wide reading told us we’d just missed a parade of 2,200 antique tractors crawling over the Mackinaw, and that there were such annual parades for motorcycles and semi-trucks covered in lights.

We bid adieu after two beers and several enjoyable stories, then drove down to the waterside where antique tractors glowed in the orange-red sunset of a near-perfect fall day, Lake Huron shimmering in the background.

9 September 17

The next morning we paused at Bridge View Park, a memorial to the iron workers who built the Mackinac Bridge and enjoyed outstanding views bathed in warm sunshine, cumulus clouds reflecting on still waters, and then crossed the Mackinac Bridge onto the Lower Peninsula, where we meandered along the western shores of Lake Michigan.

The sculpture is a composite of a typical ironworker, said the Grosse Point Park artist, typical of the men who began building the Mackinac Bridge May 7, 1954, 53 years ago.
The sculpture is a composite of a typical iron worker

Spending the night in Ludington, we watched the sun set on a ferry stuffed with tourists as it pulled out for Manitowoc, Wisconsin, a system of conveyance allowing travelers to avoid the clogged arteries surrounding Chicago and Gary and enjoy themselves with brews and views instead of fumes of doom.

Luddington, MI
Ludington, MI

10 September 17

The next morning we eased out of Michigan on a cloudy day and transitioned into yellow-corn-sandy-soil northern Indiana, something I noticed having grown up in black loam Illinois where thick green stalks stand 6’ by the 4th of July.

The immaculate farms throughout Indiana, however, thrive under Amish and Mennonite ownership.  We made a mental note to return to this pristine countryside on a slow motorcycle ride.

Buggies clogged the roads...
Buggies clogged the roads…

11 September 17

During our last day on the road we slipped through Indiana into Kentucky and decided to spend the night at the well-designed Dale Hollow Lake Inn on the Tennessee / Kentucky border, where we enjoyed one last night of changing lake scenes while deer munched grass below our veranda.

Dale Hollow Lake
Dale Hollow Lake

***

Even with the exquisite scenery, renewed friendships, outstanding food, unexpected delights and character revelations, we realized our quick week in the UP was simply a training mission for longer, more laid-back excursions to come, perhaps by motorcycle or camping trailer because …

Midwestern lakes always leave you longing for more.

One Lake Superior Mood
A Superior Mood