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This American Choice

reading in the library

It seemed like the longest silence that had ever existed. Dadaji staring at me in the quiet of his study.

"This American choice," he finally asserted,"It is not Indian choice. not a choice for a Sikh. You are a Sikh, so you must follow our traditions."

I had accepted the offer for school in America, when it was clear he wished me to do otherwise. I'd let classmates convince me to cut my long hair. Washing my long hair was time-consuming, as was the morning ritual of winding seven meters, or more than 20 feet, of cloth around my head. It was hot and uncomfortable. It got in the way during gym classes. But as soon as the barber cut my hair, I knew I had made a mistake.

I wrote to DadaJi and told him what I had done. He said we would discuss it when I came home on the winter holiday.

I told him how people associated the turban with terrorists. I told him it was old world ways in a new expanding world. Afraid of being branded a Taliban or an al-Queda, I told him that there was no convincing people otherwise.

He laid before me on the table a perfectly white patka - and a considerable length of the family's deepest red silk.

"There is no convincing of people, only showing people by our peaceful example. Their misunderstanding is rooted in fear, fear that you will dissipate. A turban asserts a public commitment to maintaining the values and ethics of the tradition, including service, compassion, and honesty. We wear the turban as a symbol of the equality and sovereignty of all people."

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Cookies can change the world

sugar sprinkle cookies

"OMG. 9 - 1 - 1   YOU MUST COME TO THE BAKERY AISLE RIGHT NOW - the text had read.

Bill pushed the cart into bakery to see his husband standing with a handful of the splendidly besprinkled sugar cookies. 

"This was the emergency you 9-1-1'd me all the way across the store for?"

"LOOK AT THEM - these are the solve for so many of the world's problems! right here."

"sprinkled sugar cookies, how so?"

"imagine how it would change EVERYTHING, particularly religion!"

"Religion?"

"Just imagine how long the lines would be for communion at St. Matthews if the communion wafer was replaced with these," he said, taking one cooking and holding it in his left hand, performing the sign of the cross, "Take. eat, and have a sugary, buttery flavorgasm in remembrance of me! - I mean - it rewrites three parts of the new testament in one blow. Take that Mark, Luke AND Corinthians! It's all suddenly a whole lot sexier. Communion wafers are so 12th century, they need to modernize. We could replace communion wine with chocolate milk -- and save thousands of souls in the process."

"I think changing out food items is missing the point."

"nope, not lost on me. I get it body of christ, blood of christ. but as long as it still transubstantiatiates. You've seen the articles showing how people going to church, as a percentage of the population, is on the decline. Why not use better tasting, more satisfying carbohydrates? 800% more satisfying body of christ? Thats a 799% improvement. " 

"it strikes me we'd just have chubbier Christians, and the same problems."

"You're not seeing the big picture, yet. We could solve world hunger by making cookies with sprinkles made of superfood like quinoa or little kale sprinkles."

"Kale... sprinkles."

"You make the sprinkles inside full of kale - - the antoxidants, vitamins C, A and K. Give the people what the want - and hide the nutrition in the sprinkles," he paused seeing the skeptical look from his husband.... "You are not letting me show you the big picture. Kale sprinkles and cupcakes could change the world."

"so we should get a dozen to test this theory?"

"You've shopped with me before, right?" he said, happily realizing they were coming home with a dozen research cookies.

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the little disturbances of men

cross field

I was an eleven year old boy the first time someone left me alone with Father Thatcher. St Louis in 1850 was a rough place. If diseases didn't claim you, there were plenty of unscrupulous people waiting for you to show a sign of weakness. So the way of the time, was to never to do so. While Pop had died while I was young, at least he'd taught me never to look down at my shoes, never show a sign of weaker character. The moment you do, someone like Thatcher, or worse, would prey on you like a wolf in the wild. My pop called them 'the little disturbances of men' - that as we moved out in the frontier, that men's basic instincts would be to show their worst far earlier, knowing that fear is a powerful weapon over most folk.

As if to prove his lessons to me, Pop died that year. He'd gotten pneumonia and worked sick through the planting season - and he was dead by harvest. Ma did the best she could, wrestling what little money they had. Without him, she simply had to get to work. We had moved to St. Louis from Montreal with barely a houseful of belongings a year prior. We spoke French, instead of Prairie English - so my words came to me slowly. What was my Mother to do but find somewhere I could take refuge, somewhere I could find some peace from other farm boys, for whom I was quick pickings. They’d learned from his schoolhouse how brutal his cane could be, so I would go to Thatcher's rectory after school and wait for my mother to come get me.

Father Thatcher was not your stereotypical Catholic priest. He was the type of man you’d imagine fighting on the streets of New York or working the docks of Baltimore or Boston. He was a barrel of a man. It was if he'd cut trees like a lumberjack and one day, decided God was a stronger calling. It's forty years ago now - but I can still remember the first time he gave me that unusually strong hug one dark fall evening. It didn’t end quickly and socially like all the others before it. I realized he was aroused under his trousers. Fearing what was coming next, I began trying to wriggle away.

I screamed out at him, "I'll tell someone."

"Go ahead and tell, boy. Nobody will believe you.”, he said, calmly breathing hot against my neck. He knew the impact that truth had on me.

I thought in that moment, the fire and fury this man would have met if my father was still alive. How it would have cut through my Father's faith in everything, God at the very least. I think that it would have destroyed my father - but in turn, he would have rose up and destroyed the bully towering over me in the rectory. But that is another boy's story - this one is mine.

Instead Mother had slapped me off my feet when I told her, “You don’t you dare lie about a priest like that.", she said, visibly disgusted.

I was no dummy. You beat me once for something, I’m not going to come back again and get beat again. So I didn’t tell anyone else.

She sent me back to him the next morning for counseling. Right back to the man who had license to rape me.

While I was under his influence he would bribe me with extra food to take home to the family or have a box of cookies or chocolates for my Mother. I think that was the worst part of it, was that not only did he have me, but I watched him manipulate my Mother into making me spend more and more time around him with equal precision and mastery. If I relented to his needs, my Mother would hear what a good Catholic boy I was turning out to be, otherwise, he'd tell her he was worried there was sin growing in me, and that only prayer and service to the Church would solve my continuing troubles. I'd see him during services give that look he'd given me once - to another boy in the choir or that almost imperceptible pause in front of another altar boy during services. As gross as it sounds, at the time, I did nothing to warn others.

His power in that rectory was absolute - whether he was rapping your knuckles in class or insistently rubbing his sweaty crotch against your face. There was simply nobody there that would understand. It was such a dark secret I didn't even dare talk about it with the other boys my age, who might share a similar fate left in his care or advice. The way things turned out, I never had an adult conversation with her about it. I never had a chance to ask her how she could let it happen to the child she was sworn to protect. I still wonder if she did know, but felt powerless. Because once someone knows, it falls on them, too. They become responsible, and for some people that's too much to handle. I don't blame her. Here she was on the edges of the frontier, alone. She was left with so few real choices.

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the bell would ring

education
The first breezes of fall fell upon our small town like a salve. The collective sigh of relief was palpable, as the summer had been hot, even brutal. I was eager to trade in my hard worn harvest boots for a pair of oxfords, and a return to the single room schoolhouse. I'd been unable to hide my eagerness to return from my brothers, who would spend the winter haying hogs and cows.
 
"That boy just sees things differently," my Pop was fond of saying, and not always complimentary. He was a farmer. A farmer sees the soil as the great connector of lives, ultimately the source and destination of all. The Healer. Restorer and Resurrector. So to see me turn to knowledge as my own soil to turn, my Pop and I learned to accept that we were of different philosophers, but were still kin. He would learn to see his stubbornness in the high expectations in my classroom, his wit in my letters to congressmen and the St Louis newspapers, his attention-to-detail in lads he'd hire for the harvest after spending a year in my classroom. He'd never outright admit so, but he was proud of the man I'd turned into.
 
A single room with a stove in the corner and bookshelves on every available wall. Unlike other teachers - each student kept a personal chalkboard. My brother had helped me craft them one fall, and they'd changed our room. Whether battling long division - or drawing out plants, the small little boards were a source of pride for every child who owned one.
 
I would teach them writing, 'rithmetic and try and expose them to new ideas and stories and adventures from around the world. Many of the kids I saw in the fall had never been but fifty miles square from the little brick building we stayed in together.
 
They couldn't grasp 100 miles - leave alone 1000 - or thousands of miles. They'd been raised in the working shadow of the farm and field. Chores had been learned before language. Contributing to the family - and keeping everyone safe was a language they spoke long before anything else. They understood simple ideas like 'A wagon box is 2 ft. deep, 10 feet long, and 3 ft. wide. How many bushels of wheat will it hold?'
 
My kinders would learn simple spelling - my juniors the history of our brave new country - and my seniors, the ways of business, and what opportunities are out there for the right determined mind. The next spring, the first kids would move on after seven years in my room for the winter. I polished my oxfords, quietly pulled on my wool pants and starched shirt and tie. Soon the bell would ring and a new winter dedicated to exploring would begin.
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completely intact

sunset

It wasn't something I'd chosen intentionally - the current of the exploration simply swept me up on it's way westward. Once word got back to St. Charles that the wagon train that had left the following spring had reached the Oregon Territory pretty much intact, it passed from the realm of fantasy into something that felt accomplishable. The west presented something new for everyone. It presented a way out. It was an escape from the lure of the city, a strike out at the unknown.

Just as the prairies beyond Missouri were storied to be vast - so were the imaginations of what we all thought we'd find there and who we might become. For me it was a chance to get some space - both literally and figuratively - between me and this life so far. I naively thought that if I could draw out a thousand miles behind me, that life would finally let me free. They never warn when you are out there on the frontier - any fear you packed along with you becomes amplified, the silence gets filled by whatever you bring with you. It's true that a lot of did come through the other side of it, but not even the strongest amongst us came through it completely intact.

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