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a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society

Tom Montgomery Fate

North Wall Detail – The artist reflects on himself – Diego is the man in the bowler hat.


…each must make a safe place of his heart,
before so strange and wild a guest
as God approaches.

—Li-Young Lee[1]

This morning, in hopes of avoiding the Chicago rush “hour” (which lasts 2 or 3 hours) I leave Glen Ellyn for the farm at 6:00 a.m.   The 290 inbound to the city is “open,” meaning no gridlock, and I can at least keep moving.  Still, it is an eight-lane weave among thousands of cars.  The outbound is backed up—an accident.  And the radio says I-55 south is at a stand still for a mile in both directions because a yelping, bewildered German Shepherd is loose on the narrow grass median.  Someone dumped him there.  Gapers want to help but don’t know how.   I imagine the dog’s panicked eyes—his fighting the instinct to run into the roar of interstate traffic toward the open land on the other side.

I reach the city center from the western burbs in a half hour and turn south on I-94.  Soon I can see the bank clock that I used to read from the other side when we lived on the corner of 47th and Woodlawn: 70 degrees at 6:50 a.m.—odd weather for the first day of October.  Yesterday it reached 78, a record.  The Robert Taylor Homes, a public housing high rise, shoots out of the cracked concrete and abandoned storefronts beyond the 51st Street exit.   Then it’s gone.  Garfield Boulevard is next, the exit for The University of Chicago.  A young mother cradling an infant on the second floor of a three-story apartment built too close to the interstate leans out of her splintered window frame.  She is close enough to smell the clouds of carbon rising from the gear-shifting semis as they roar by.   Then I’m past her, but not her haunting presence.

Having grown up in Iowa, the city still overwhelms me.  To my rural mind a million bodies packed into a few square miles can pull too tightly on the human braid of dream and desire, of suffering and joy, turning it, on a warm day, into a knot of disillusion that everyone would like to loosen a little, but has forgotten how.

Sick of the stench of exhaust, I close my window.  At the moment the humming panel of glass locks in its rubber-cushioned frame the honking and coughing engines are sealed out.  My thoughts drift to my own family and old tapes start playing:  Are these retreats into solitude irresponsible?  Does my work warrant the sacrifice?  Am I a good father and husband?

A line from my seeds file I read last night before bed surfaces: “Creative work requires a loyalty as complete as the loyalty of water to the force of gravity.”   More Mary Oliver.   I know what she means, but what about kids and groceries and vacuuming?   How does one place “creative work” at the center of the “real world” that my student Joan (the overworked single mother) mentioned?   Parenting is also “creative work,” also art, but it’s different—social rather than solitary, obligatory rather than elective.  It’s not an elaborate palette of colors for slow contemplation, but a wild and beautiful juggling act of love and loss, fear and hope.

All artists need a measure of personal freedom and self-confidence.  But a parent’s “freedom” may consist of the single hour that a toddler naps.  And the emotional smorgasbord of a family inspires as much confusion as confidence.  The “pull” of art outside of a family—of a poem, or a wet, spinning pot—always competes with the pull of obligation within a family—the ironing, soccer practice, a teacher conference.

Oliver, though she is not writing about the art of family or parenting, is right: the desire to let oneself fall headfirst into the solitary flow of creation is overwhelmingly powerful, like gravity.  But it is not as predictable or reliable.  And it can usually be resisted, or denied.  What Oliver calls the artist’s “loyalty” (which suggests clarity, even certainty) I call faith—in Creation, in a Creator, and in myself as somehow related to both.  Such a faith both sustains and confuses me.  Yet, it is what I follow to Michigan, and what leads me back home again.

I’m learning to believe that the art of faith is the art of witness, of learning how to attend to life with imagination and com-passion—“suffering with” the world—tuning heart and head and hands to the creative work God offers.  Poet-naturalist Patti Ann Rogers helps define this process with her idea of “reciprocal creation.”  For Rogers, creating art also re/creates the artist, making her both subject and object.  “I realized…the power of my own creation to enter and alter my soul,” she writes. “The language had created me.”[2]  From this spiritual center the artist can then claim her full response ability:   “[O]ur obligations are mighty and humbling,” Rogers writes.  “We are cocreators.  We are servants.”[3]  And for me, this service, this witness, is the work of praise, of gratitude.

Around 65th street the El tracks run down the median of the highway so in the inner most lane I’m 15 feet from the train platform.  Even at 70 miles per hour I see men and women pacing and talking as they wait for their train. A girl in a red check dress playfully snatches the bill of a little boy’s White Sox cap and runs off with it.  The mother looks terrified the kids will fall onto the tracks, and then I’m past them.  I’m writing with the notepad on my horn and accidentally slip: a honk and then a slight swerve.  The driver behind me pulls up next to me, glares, shrugs, throws his hands in the air like I have ruined his day, and then zooms off.

A half hour later a gray wall of cloud hanging behind the decaying steel mills along Lake Michigan in Gary, Indiana, becomes a mountain range on the horizon, conjures Wyoming.  Then the sun unveils the truth: the distant mountains are floating in the middle of the lake and hiding a hundred belching smokestacks.  But I’m still thankful, for the quiet beauty sleeping everywhere. Here, even along the poisoned Calumet River, amid the stink of the tributary canals, there are dozens of little elm and cottonwood trees, all reaching for the fire of the sun.

Just past Gary the traffic clogs.  I fish out a map to check alternates, but it only includes the main veins–four-lane highways or bigger.  The exit I want to try is backed up.  I’m hesitant to take one of the exits not on the map.  I have been lost before on such roads, on the network of narrow two-lanes that wind around the lake.  The last time, I found myself driving through a string of bucolic vineyards at dusk and was so taken with the cool light and the rich, acrid smell of the earth that I just kept driving.  I didn’t realize I was headed south and east rather than north.  I ended up in Pinhook, Indiana.

So today I keep inching along the toll way.  But when I finally cross the border from Indiana into Michigan I begin to lose my patience.  An irritating twinge in my lower back radiates up my spine.  I try to think of something hopeful and remember the mountain range of cloud.  I concentrate on the image, and what it kindled in me, what I so often feel while whirring down the interstate between the rows of factories and soybean fields:  Life is a rough draft. An imperfect gift.  More a search for a direction than a destination.  Maybe this is why I so often feel like I “arrive” while still on the road, while trying to navigate the crumpled, torn map of the heart.

[1] Lee, Li-Young.  From “Nativity” in Book of My Nights. BOA: Rochester NY, 2001. p. 10

[2] Rogers, Pattiann. The Dream of the Marsh Wren: Writing as Reciprocal Creation.  Milkweed: Minneapolis  (1999) p. 7

[3] Ibid. p. 91

Author Biography

Tom Montgomery Fate is the author of five books of nonfiction, including Beyond the White Noise, a collection of essays, Steady and Trembling, a spiritual memoir, and Cabin Fever, a nature memoir. He teaches creative writing at the College of DuPage in suburban Chicago. “A Torn Map” first appeared in Steady and Trembling. He is a fellow of the Black Earth Institute.


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