My friend Amy of The Writer’s Refuge wrote this post on Kathleen Norris’ book Dakota: A Spiritual Geography. This is a memoir that I read in one of my college classes and this post has inspired me to want to pick it up off my shelf and read it again! I hope it does the same for you.
Synopsis: In 2001 Kathleen Norris published a memoir titled Dakota: A Spiritual Geography. This rousing story illuminates what life is like in a rural town––but more than that, it begs the question of what it means to live life as fully and intimately as possible.
About the Author: Norris is a well-known poet and essayist who lives deep in the rural Dakotas, in the little town of Lemmon. She moved here after spending much of her life in New York City, but also spends some of her time in Hawaii. Other publications of hers include Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, The Virgin of Bennington, and The Cloister Walk.
Themes––Land, Humanity, Love, Prosperity: The themes in Dakota are simple, yet profound. In this review I strive to provide an overview, and break down the whole of the book into four clear themes; however, the reader should note that each theme is like a lake––placid on the surface, but immeasurably deep. This review is meant to be just an introduction, not a full in-depth analysis, that will hopefully entice the reader to enjoy the book.
Our odd, tortured landscape terrifies many people. Some think it’s as barren as the moon, but others are possessed by it. (p. 36)
Dakotans know why they like living here, where life is still lived on a human scale. (p. 35)
Watching a storm pass from horizon to horizon fills your soul with reverence. It makes your soul expand to fill the sky. (p. 9)
Norris muses about the wide, open plains and the lack of trees and large cities. To Norris, especially as a poet, the solitude of the land inspires her to a deeper connection with God, to the grittiness of real life, and to her creative pursuits.
Even urban monasteries run on a rural rhythm, taking notice of sunrise and sunset with morning prayer and evensong. (p. 184)
Together, the monks and coyotes will sing the world to sleep. (p. 217)
Norris writes that the 21st century has stripped us of all realness. She asks: What if we rose and set with the sun, just as God made us to do? She argues that humans have created their own sense of time, one that runs on hours and minutes and seconds, where we focus too much on the numbers of a clock and less on how our bodies are meant to flow with the days.
At first glance these notions may sound strangely new-age––rhythms? Follow the sun? But Norris is not advocating for the worship of nature by any means; rather, she spends much time with the Benedictines who teach her spiritual disciplines, and ground her in the teachings of Christ.
True hospitality is marked by an open response to the dignity of each and every person. (p. 197)
Norris often mentions the extreme love monks have for their fellow humans. She is inspired by age-old proverbs of desert monks who gain knowledge by solitude––and who find that this intense solitude, such as experienced on the Dakotas, provides immense joy when social interaction is received.
In short Norris writes that she is becoming like a monk: She sees a trip to someplace bigger than Lemmon as a great joy, a feast.
Both monks and country people take for granted that prayer works, and that it’s worth doing. Why not relax and enjoy it? Why not make it beautiful? (p. 211)
Why not become all flame? (p. 123)
Norris writes of the hard times in the poor, rural Dakotas. She recognizes the blessings this area has to offer, but does not sugarcoat the struggles these people have endured throughout history.
Last Statements: She leaves the readers with a sense of aloneness––but not loneliness. This idea, to be “all flame,” to transform into one whose religion is not a rigid set of rules, but a faith that at its root seeks truth in Christ, provides hope to the poor Dakota soul. In turn, the reader can also find hope.
Maybe the desert wisdom of the Dakotas can teach us to love anyway, to love what is dying, in the face of death, and not pretend that things are other than they are. (p. 121)
Amy is a writer who likes to loiter in coffee houses, read books by old dead people, and burn homemade candles. Her work has appeared in the Southwest Metro and Plymouth magazines, and the St. Paul Voice newspaper. She runs The Writer’s Refuge blog.