“It would’ve been easier to join the garden club.”
Not that she has anything against gardens, or clubs, but it was the way Mary Kay Turner explained these last years of her life. We were sitting in the living room of her home in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, talking about the complicated mess of the Middle East, particularly the seemingly intractable troubles of the Israeli and Palestinian peoples.
Yes, there was a certain irony, having our board meeting for the Telos Group looking out onto the Grand Tetons, but that is what we did. In its own way it was a window into the tensions of life for everyone everywhere: how do we take into our hearts both heartache and happiness, both brokenness and beauty, both realities being the reality of life?
No one I know well enough to know has any other life than this. In our thousands upon thousands of different ways, we all wrestle with making sense of both the cries of history and of every heart, and the wonders written into our experience of day by day life. For every awful stench, there is a wonderful smell. For every grievous injustice, there is a remarkable mercy. The horrific and the horrible are somehow right alongside the glorious and the sublime in this very now-but-not-yet world.
Watching Mary Kay for most of week was a gift to me, seeing and hearing someone who keeps making the choice to take both joy and sorrow into her heart, and finding her vocation in that. A woman with a characteristic smile, one as honest and wide as the West itself, and yet someone with a tender, hospitable, passionate heart too, willing to commit herself to the hardest things, because they matter.
For more than ten years now I have been listening to her questions, good questions that they are, ones the probe the most important things about our local lives, as well as our global responsibilities. And as I have listened to her, I have learned from her, once more struck by what is unusual in our experience, living the lives we do, human beings that we are. Why is it that some people care? Why is it that some people decide to step into history? Why is it that some people have eyes to see that things are not right in the world, and choose to spend themselves in hope, giving heart and soul for the way things ought to be, even the way things could be?
Mary Kay is not alone in her loves and longings. Married for most of 50 years to John, they spend some of each year at home in Wyoming, and some of each year in their home away from home, Washington DC. They met in South Bend as undergraduates, Mary Kay at St. Mary’s and John at Notre Dame; she was from Detroit, and he was from Jackson Hole. When they married, he took her home, to his long home, to a people in a place that was his for generations.
In a different way than Mary Kay, John too has loved the world, his passions and commitments forming his vision for who he is and what he would do. From a family of cowboys, he grew up with horses and saddles, but also with a love for the flora and fauna of the Grand Tetons. As the truest and best stewards of the earth always are, he is a man rooted in the pastures and meadows, mountains and rivers of his home— and so of course he has cared about where he grew up, the land of his family’s loves. A lifetime of interests grew into a sense of political responsibility for his community, and he spent 20 years in the Wyoming state senate, its president for some time. Along the way he wrote a book about the bald eagles of his world, watching them for years along the Snake River. And then those experiences drew him into more national commitments, becoming the head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and then after that the Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs.
It is always one thing to know about the complex needs of the world; it is always another thing altogether to care about them, to see ourselves implicated in them, by them, for them.
There was nothing in Mary Kay that was dismissive of garden clubs. That is as far from who she is as Wyoming is from Washington. But poetically, she was trying to help us understand that she had other choices, like we all do. As I listened, I thought, “She didn’t have to care about the Middle East, especially to enter into the unpopular vision of the Telos Group,” arguing as it does that we must choose both histories, both hopes, both Israelis and Palestinians— and not believe the short-term political fiction that we can choose just one. And yet she did, and years later, still does.
John could have been a cowboy, and an honorable life and work that is. And in one sense he still is, with his well-worn hats and boots and chaps; but he has also become a citizen of the world, knowing that even the bucolic beauties of his boyhood home are part and parcel of a world where the skies are not always majestic and the mountains are not always grand. As the apostle Paul wrote to the Romans, trying to help these citizens of the capital city of the first-century A.D. understand the world and their place in it, “Even the creation groans, yearning for what it should be and could be and someday will be.” So John has made a lifetime of choices that have deepened his heart, and grown his mind, hearing with his own ears the creation crying, year by year becoming someone who sees himself responsible for the way the world turns out.
The Oxford moral philosopher Iris Murdoch once wrote, “At critical moments of choice, most of the business of choosing is already over.” A true truth, and true for all of us— for Mary Kay and John Turner too, a woman and a man whose loves have become their lives.
(Photo taken from the Turner’s Triangle X Ranch in Jackson Hole, WY, looking out onto their pasture full of horses and the Grand Tetons.)