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Peace Like A Turtle

James O'Brien

I'm not crazy about the term "spiritual path," but as long as we're here, the first stop on mine was in church, where, with the sanctimonious sounds of the priest bouncing round my head, my brother and I would open the hymnal and point to random phrases that would leave us lip-biting weak with squirrelly laughter. Since then, I haven't had much patience for anything or anyone that purports to Have All The Answers, which probably explains why I recently wound up at a farmhouse outside of Cannon Falls, in a room surrounded by Buddha statues, candles, African art, and the sight and sound of Pam Keul proselytizing about her latest find, Etty Hillesum.

"She was awesome. She was a spiritual giant," says Keul, holding a copy of Hillesum's book An Interrupted Life: The Diaries 1941-1943, which features a photograph of a hungry-eyed Hillesum holding a cigarette tight between her fingers. "She threw a postcard off the train as it left from Westerbork to Auschwitz that said, 'We left the camp singing.' People who've studied her for years can't stop reading her. She was a real sexual person. The book starts out with her wrestling with her therapist and having sex with him and all this stuff, so some people don't want anything to do with it, but then as you get through, you see this progression. I'm just thrilled to write about her, because most people are not going to hear about her otherwise."

Hillesum was a lawyer, writer, philosopher, and Dutch Jew who died in Auschwitz at the age of 29, and whose appetite for the inner life led her to a deep correspondence with the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke. Musicologist and historian Frits Grimmelikhuizen recently described Hillesum as a "'bohemian woman'--special, attractive, vegetarian and homeopathic, leftist, unconventional, and emancipated. She loved poetry and reading books about art, loved different kinds of music (classical and popular), and loved to talk a lot with her friends and others. She was very sexually active. She easily fell in love with men (mostly older) and women. And then she fell in love with God."

That quote is from a recent article in the Turtle River Press, the bimonthly newspaper that Keul co-founded seven years ago. I started reading it a few years ago on the advice of the late, great St. Paul Pioneer Press religion writer, Clark Morphew. Each issue sat in my stack of mail until I had a quiet moment to browse the ads and articles that, in the land of Garage Logic, could be dismissed as new-age hoo-ha. And, truth be told, sometimes that's all it was. Sometimes the writing was pedestrian and the observations were the sort best left to bumper stickers and Successories. But then, inevitably, every issue would hold at least one first-person essay about the inner life, and I'd learn something about the writer and myself.

Amorphous though it may be, on page two of every issue, under the headline "What Is Turtle River Press?," Keul and her two co-founders, publisher/editor Connie Bickman and business manager Dean Lindeman, attempt to articulate the paper's reason for being: "...to provide opportunities for all people to learn, to grow, and to explore the endless array of interesting and unusual subjects...Newly found spirituality, old philosophies, the new millennium, the power of the creative, intuitive mind...such mysteries and truths fascinate."

Over the course of 46 issues, those concerns have manifested in full-length stories on all sorts of spiritualists and spirits, including a front-page celebration of Minneapolis club fixture Leland Carriger (a.k.a. The King of Wings), an entire issue devoted to horses, and several articles on shamanism, yoga, love, and peace. Not all of which has always gone over so well with some denizens of Cannon Falls and Goodhue County.

"I had a psychic from Indianapolis at my house, doing some classes," says Bickman, sitting in the farm's cluttered office where Turtle River Press is published. "We tried to run it through community ed, and everything was fine, but then somebody complained. So I said, 'Fine, I'll do it at my house.' This was really early on. There were no massage therapy places in town, or anything like that. When we started, we had a workshop where we had a nun who talked about tarot cards. Well, word got out, and there was an uproar. "

"If they don't teach it at their church, it's bad," says Keul. "We got a letter from one pastor who said he was 'angry and saddened' by what we were doing. And there was a letter to the editor in [the local paper] who said they couldn't believe Christians were involved in this."

The threesome are of various religious backgrounds, but they share a seeker's spirit that can be summed up in such lyrics as "It's a great puzzle, but you gotta like games" (Jules Shear), or "If I find my way, how much will I find?" (Joseph Arthur), or Rilke himself, who wrote, "So many live on and want nothing and are raised to the rank of prince by the slippery ease of their light judgments. But what you love to see are faces that do work and feel thirst."

"We focus on personal stories," says Bickman. "We don't have stories that say, 'You should do this,' or 'You should do that,' or how-to articles. We have first-person experience stories."

"I think there's an unseen community of people who are interested in things that the regular media isn't presenting," says Lindeman. "There just is not a lot of opportunity for people to make any connections, to explore anything, to examine anything, to experience anything new."

From there, the talk turns to definitions of God, religious upbringing, the validity of terms like "spiritual path" and "new age," music, the paper's readership (everybody from "cultural creatives" to high school and college students, plus a large out-of-state subscription base), to the "smorgasbord spirituality" that defines Turtle River Press and so mightily offends some Christians.

When I suggest that the paper is a good destination for those who find themselves constantly walking in two worlds--everyday earthbound experience on the one hand, and broader mysteries as framed by music, art, philosophy on the other--Keul says flatly, "I don't think we're that deep. I just think that we find things that are cool and put them in the paper." Then, with the sort of curt segue that could only be pulled off by a Catholic-mom-turned-yoga instructor, she talks about the week-long Etty Hillesum symposium she recently attended, and reads a passage from the back of the book: "Etty's story is one of fearless, passionate commitment to intellectual integrity, sexual honesty, moral beauty, and, finally, to a mystical encounter with the God within."

"I think," says Keul, "Etty would like Turtle River Press."


For more information on Turtle River Press, call 651.258.4944 or e-mail [email protected].


Jim Walsh can be reached at 612.372.3775 or [email protected].

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