The Flying Nun
As our plane approached Omaha, Nebraska, I surveyed the irregular grid of rectangles and squares formed by western Iowa's country roads. Cumulus clouds cast dark shadows of punctuation over the vibrant greens, yellows, and siennas of the state's corn and soybean harvest.
I tend to think of our nation's industrialized monoculture as a rigid corporation of hundreds of thousands of acres of symmetrical fields, but, in practice, even agribusiness can only bend the land so much. At an altitude, one sees that our fields are as shaped by the extant topography as they are by human manipulation. Indeed, some of Iowa's fields, with their rounded edges and calligraphic plow lines, could, from the air, be mistaken for southeast Asian rice paddies.
My neighbor on the plane was a pleasant Benedictine sister. Dressed in full habit, she was en route to Norfolk, Nebraska, for an assembly of the world's Benedictine Monastic Missionaries. She works and resides in Namibia, Africa, assisting with education and HIV/AIDS prevention. I deeply appreciate the charitable activity and lifelong devotion of such missionaries, but I remain wary of the proselytizing component.
At several points in my conversation with the sister, I felt as though she was soft-selling her faith. She commended me on my given name, Christopher, explaining that I was named after the Catholic saint that supposedly carried the young Yeshua of Nazareth across a river. (Of course, that isn't quite right. The saint, if the man in fact existed, was named for his deed; the Greek word Christophoros translates as "bearer of Christ.") She was also happy to learn that my vocation, my calling, was art, and encouraged me to use my artwork to "usher in Christ's love everlasting." I replied with a noncommital "um hmm," and left it at that.
Perhaps because my response was ambiguous, she persisted. Inspired by my affinity for art, she recollected a visit she made to the Norman Rockwell Museum, where she viewed a sculpture by Rockwell's son, Peter. According to the nun, the sculpture featured a crucifix crowned by devil horns. The piece sounds wholly adolescent, but it evidently upset one of the nun's companions, who couldn't understand why the "symbol of all that is good" would be paired with "the symbol of all that is evil." The nun reassured her friend by pointing out that "at least Peter Rockwell isn't an atheist." She weighted the last word, and shook her head as she pronounced it. I'm not sure what element of the sculpture informed her confident conclusion about Rockwell's metaphysics, but her story made clear her negative feelings for those who doubt or deny her particular faith.
Some minutes after the Rockwell anecdote, she expressed pleasure at Pope Benedict XVI's decision to expand contemporary Catholic use of the Tridentine Mass, a Latin text that vilifies Jews. Considering the nun's clear dislike of atheists and her implied disapproval of non-Christian religious beliefs, I'm happy that I dodged any questions that, squarely answered, would have revealed something of my personal path from a Christian baptism, to agnosticism, to atheism, to my current exploration of and identification with panentheistic or panendeistic Judaism. Part of me was disappointed in myself for not confronting her ecumenical failure, but, frankly, I was more interested in looking out of the plane's window.
First Impressions of Nebraska City
If you define "city" as a settlement with a large population, Nebraska City is a misnomer. Compared to New York City, my home for almost a decade, Nebraska City is a population blip. New York City's population, estimated at 8.5 million, is 1,200 times Nebraska City's roughly 7,000 residents.
Shortly after we loaded the minivan with our bags and left the Omaha airport, Ron, the owner (and sole employee) of Tree City Taxi Service, said that most Kimmel Harding Nelson Center residents that come to Nebraska City from big cities experience some degree of culture shock. But, although I now live in New York City, I originally hail from Locustville, Virginia. Locustville's population was just 99 when I lived there, and I don't believe that the number has significantly increased or decreased in the years since. Compared to my hometown, Nebraska City is, as its name suggests, a veritable metropolis!
In conversation with Ron, I gathered that the largest employer in Nebraska City, the American Meter Company, has recently laid off a significant number of its employees. Two other companies that the townspeople depend upon, Cargill Meat Solutions and Diversified Foods & Seasonings, are also facing cutbacks. As a result, many of Nebraska City's citizens are struggling to make ends meet. The economic woes are apparent on the town's main street; it seems as though every block on Central Avenue is home to at least one vacant storefront.
Ron also confirmed my assumption that white-tailed deer, turkey, carp, and channel catfish are major focal points of the region's outdoor recreation. He proudly told me that two of his granddaughters, decked out head-to-toe in camouflage gear, already accompany their dad deer hunting. The image of the camouflaged little girls made me smile, perhaps because I fondly recall the too-big camouflage outfits of my childhood.
Along with hunting and fishing, the major pastimes in eastern Nebraska are high school and college football. This afternoon, from the kitchen window of my residency apartment, I watched the middle school football team practice. I wondered if, compared to their coastal peers, a greater percentage of Nebraska's teenage athletes bank on athletic scholarships and dream of going pro. Many of the players' parents arrived early and watched them from the edge of the practice field.
Photo credits: image of Iowa corn field, ripped from Iowa State website; image of western Iowa fields, ripped from Legacy By Design blog; all photographs of Nebraska City, Hungry Hyaena, 2009