The White Buffalo Articulation and the Interstices of Being
In the summer following my senior year in high school, I decided that I'd like a summer job in a location where I knew nobody, where I would have my first real experience living apart from my family. I wasn't quite ready for total independence, however, so I my father obligingly secured a job for me at a small airport in Janesville, Wisconsin. Janesville was about an hour and a half's interstate drive from my home in Chicago, which enabled me to spend weekends at home.
I haven't visited Janesville in decades, so it might have changed since I spent the summer of my eighteenth year there. I strongly doubt it, though. Janesville was, probably still is, an archetypal American small town, and archetypes steadfastly make a point of remaining themselves. A one-boulevard, three stoplight, one movie theater community, Janesville was nestled like a robin's egg in the surrounding miles of Wisconsin farmland. Friendly people, of course, almost disturbingly so, particularly for a kid like me who was accustomed to a certain measure of edgy guardedness in social relations.
Well, let's be honest, I found Janesville to be "sleepy," a characteristic that I first found charming, even exotic. After a few weeks, however, the rows of growing corn at the edge of the airport's runways didn't quite give me the same *frisson*.
My job at the airport was "lineboy," the guy who refuels aircraft. Since this was a small-town airport, an informality prevailed, which meant I also swept the hanger daily, cleaned the washrooms, and ran out to get everybody a candy bar when they wanted one.
Well, during my tenure as lineboy, I managed not to forget to screw the gas-tank caps back onto the Cessnas, nor did I crash the 6-gear, multi-ton gasoline truck I grimly steered around the airport. I made some friends, even had a minor romance with a -- you guessed it -- local waitress. By summer's end, however, I was more than ready to put Janesville behind me. Yes, on some level, I appreciated the salt-of-the-earth virtues of small towns, but I couldn't escape the impression that burdens callow kids the world over: nothing ever happens here.
To my shame, I recall that this impression I had of bland landscape also extended to the people of Janesville. In my own callow eyes, they lacked the brio, the go-get-'em rhythm of my city and suburban friends. They seemed disturbingly *content* with their lot. Simple and uncomplicated, they were, with a touch of -- I couldn't help but draw the parallel, Wisconsin being the Land of Cows -- the bovine.
I once asked one of the local pilots if he ever drove into Chicago. His eyes popping open like a doll's, he exclaimed in horror, "Lord, no, that traffic terrifies me, I couldn't handle it, " -- and this from a guy who occasionally risked his life landing his Cessna at grand gala supermarket openings. Well, so be it, I thought. I couldn't account for what I regarded as their near-pathological avoidance of "where the action is," but I knew it wasn't for me. Watching the night lights of Janesville dwindling in my rear view mirror as I left the town for the last time, I thought, well, thank you, Janesville, for the sweet postcard memories, but I won't be returning because I've got a fast track to run, places to go, people to meet, excitement to be had, don't you know, and because nothing ever happens here.
Flash-forward several decades to a summer in 1994. To say that the arc of my life had by this time taken a series of unexpected turns would be very much the understatement, but that's a story for another time. I'm sitting at my kitchen table reading a newspaper when an item on page three immediately catches my eye. At this juncture in my life, it was the kind of story that fired up my imagination, caused my heart to beat a little faster: A white buffalo had been born.
As many of you no doubt know, the birth of the white buffalo is a signal event in American Indian prophecy and belief. I won't go into detail here, but the coming of the white buffalo is considered a sign that the birth of a new age is imminent. Now, I consider myself a Christian of the esoteric sort; I am open to prophecies from various spiritual traditions. If they issue from a source that I believe to be spiritually sound, I take them seriously. I took the birth of the white buffalo seriously. I felt a genuine sense of awe. My perception of what constituted a Big Deal had been considerably revised over the years, and now I understood this to be a spiritually historic Big Deal. So would thousands of others, including the Dalai Lama who sent a gift of a scarf to the buffalo.
Incidentally, the birthplace of the white buffalo was Janesville, Wisconsin. You know, nothing ever happens here.
One thing that I've observed about the nature of our spiritual progress is that we aren't always aware of what we know until we see it articulated in some manner. At that point, we experience the shock of recognition, and our self-awareness takes a quantum leap upward. It's like a graduation ceremony, the final integration of a particular lesson we have, in fact, already learned. (In this sense, we, as atoms in the Body of God, must already "know everything" -- however, we become aware of what we already know in stages, a slow progression.)
The white buffalo event was for me just such an articulation, a rather thundering one at that. Much of what I had learned through years of trial and trauma -- and yet until this moment had not been fully aware that I had learned -- came into focus. What better place than Janesville?
For it is the nature of the Spirit to hide in plain sight. That is, the Spirit avoids what men would find seductively intriguing. The Spirit avoids the "corridors of power." A man who would save the Republic -- perhaps save the very idea of Democracy itself -- emerging not from Massachusetts or New York State, but from the frontier wilds of Kentucky? Let's face it, the Spirit has a puckish sense of humor. If in 1960 someone had told you that a music was soon coming that would capture the world's imagination and even fundamentally change the world's culture, would you guess that music would be coming out of Liverpool, England?
Astronomers say that if you want to see a star clearly with the naked eye, it's best to look a little to the side of the star. Then the star comes into clear focus. I'm not sure if this applies here, but I do think it interesting.
Here's one of my own coinage: You're more likely to find a quarter on the sidewalk by *not* looking for it as you are by actually looking. I think this also probably applies to finding love. In either case, anxiety will be kept to a minimum.
There is a natural desire, of course, to go looking outside ourselves for the answers, for *ex*-citement. Ancient Rome with its bread and circuses must have been exciting. How were you going to keep them down on the farm in Gaul after they caught a glimpse of the coliseum torch light? Meanwhile, the Light of the World came gleaming out of the dust of Bethlehem, a flyblown one-donkey speck on the map -- and later rode into Jerusalem, not in steed-driven chariot, but on the back of a shaggy pack animal. That's what I call a good sense of humor.
Obviously, spiritual growth is marked by an adjustment to that which we register as being of transcedent importance. How is it, the secular Christian bashers like to ask, that the Roman and Jewish historians contemporary with Christ make no mention of him? Probably for the same reason William Manchester or Steven Ambrose didn't write about Padre Pio. These ragamuffins Christ and Pio just didn't ping the importance sonar. We might say they flew over the radar.
Bottom line: We tend to see is what is important to us. I'm not saying statecraft and politics isn't important. I'm saying that there's something far more important in this world of ours. It hides in plain sight, it manifests and expresses Itself through the medium of simplicity and humility. The natural eye is not drawn to it; the inner eye is. Without It's many willing hosts over the millennia, ie., the saints known and unknown, there would be no statecraft and politics on the earth, only a howling chaos.
I have these dreams where I'm borne back to Janesville on a whirlwind. I'm the age I am now, but everyone in Janesville is still the age they were when I was there long ago. They're all there in the hanger I used to sweep, everyone I knew or merely saw, the waitresses, the mechanics, the pilots, the farmers, the guys in the drug store, the clerks in the five and dime. I think I see the white buffalo behind them, moving in the shadows. I'm holding my head in my hands and asking for forgiveness. A voice -- maybe it's the waitress's -- says to me, "Aww honey, we always knew how scared and lonely you were, don't you worry about it."
I'm going to be relocating soon. I'm not going to tell you where, other than to say it's a known place, but *not that well known*. Why am I moving? Well, I lived in the city nearly all my life, and the truth is, *nothing ever happens here.*