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Georgianne Nienaber

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North Country Blues: Michael Jackson, Media, Community, and a Small Town Murder

Posted: 07/09/09 02:59 PM ET

I had no intention of watching the memorial service for Michael Jackson. Certainly I was aware of the tragic circumstances surrounding his life and death, but I was not a fan and had no real interest in his music or his art. Feeling especially frustrated by the non-stop media coverage of the event in Los Angeles, I had decided to take a drive through the Minnesota countryside to help an old friend unload her kayaks from a trailer parked alongside the Pine River. Frustration also entered the equation. I write extensively about the war in eastern Congo. The fact that the media pays little attention to the reports of 45,000 deaths per month there, and above all last week's Human Rights Watch reports of village children being burned alive, had me feeling angry and discouraged. It seemed as though Jackson chose his own path to death while there are so many others who are literally thrown into the Grim Reaper's grip like carrion to the wolves.

The road to my friend's small cabin took me past an inconspicuous rural cemetery. I pass it several times a month and had not stopped there for several years. As I drove my battered Toyota past the pine-rimmed perimeter, something called to me, but I kept driving, unwilling to stop and revisit an event that shook our rural community to its core almost six years ago. Sometimes, though, you cannot ignore what compels you to revisit an event or meditate on emotion. I begrudgingly spun the car around in the gravel driveway of a local beauty salon that is tucked behind trees and a few hundred yards down the road from the graveyard entrance. There are at least three tire trails that wind between the rows of graves, but I remembered which one to take. Whether I could find the person I was looking for was another question. I parked my car behind the veterans' memorial flagpole and just stood there for a moment to get my bearings. What was I hoping to accomplish? A pulsing sprinkler was attached to an octopus of hose lengths and the spray was hitting the car, so I stepped back to close the window. A caretaker running a weed eater glanced in my direction and I thought about asking him where she was buried, but felt embarrassed that he would know that I did not remember. She was and continues to be the angel of our rural community and to forget would seem a minor crime. Memory, however, served me well and I walked directly to her resting place. It was different than the last time I visited, and now had a permanent metal sculpture representation of a drawing she had once done of the "tree of life" marking her tomb.

Dru Sjodin was brutally and heinously murdered by a level three sex offender when she left her shift at a store in a mall in Grand Forks North Dakota on November 22, 2003. She graduated from the same high school here in Pequot Lakes as my daughter, although Dru was several years older and attending college in Grand Forks at the time of her death. Unless you live in a small town, you cannot imagine the sense of community and connection that is present beneath the surface. It blooms fully in the face of tragedy. Dru's murder shattered the community's sense of safety, but it also united everyone in a very spiritual way. Instead of a festive Christmas caroling session in what serves as the community square, there was an emotional candlelight vigil for Pequot Lake's missing daughter. I can't be the only one who is reminded of that night when the Christmas lights are again put on the town tree.

There is hardly anyone who did not participate in the search for her remains, which were eventually found in a ravine outside of Crookston, Minnesota in April 2004. A 50-year-old registered level 3 sex offender, Alfonso Rodriguez, Jr., was arrested and convicted in 2006. The controversy surrounding Rodriguez's early release from prison threatened to cast a huge blemish on the governorship of Tim Pawlenty, who may well be a candidate for President in 2012. Pawlenty was at the funeral service, which in a minor mirror image of the Jackson memorial, was broadcast on regional networks, attended by thousands, and piped to the overflow tents on closed-circuit television. People who did not know each other except by association were united in grief. The fact that I found myself in line in front of Pawlenty was an accident of fate and circumstance. My husband at the time was Dru's doctor.

As we were filing out of the service I noticed that Pawlenty was holding a broken stem--everyone had been given an exotic variety of daisy. I turned around and presented him with my unblemished flower, figuring that after all here was the Governor and he had come all this way to pay his respects in our tiny community. But Minnesota is like that, as Garrison Keillor would tell you. We all know someone in Lake Wobegon.

I did not "know" Dru, other than to recognize her in town, anymore than the thousands who are mourning Michael Jackson this week "know" him. Perhaps our country is one huge megapolis of Lake Wobegons--people seeking community and connection through collective mourning. Death always seems unfair. It is certainly uninvited and the circumstances, no matter how inevitable, always confusing. People want answers. If they find the answer, perhaps they can beat the certainty and escape the finality. It is a fool's errand.

As I stood in front of Dru's grave, I was speechless, even in prayer. I was trying to make sense of 45,000 dead in Congo--people I had no ability to help. I was hoping that if I could reconnect with the death of one person who died senselessly and through no "mistake" of her own, other than being in the wrong place at the right time for her stalker, it would mitigate the anger I was feeling about the media pomp and circumstance over a celebrity's death. To me, Michael Jackson had always been taking the fool's bet. Whatever the sad reasons behind his lifestyle, he was consistently pushing the odds that there would not be consequences to pay. It was written on his face, and much has been written about that. Did Jackson lack the innocence I attached to the victim's of war and the life of Dru Sjodin?

Unable to pray or even to form meaningful thought patterns, I remained there hoping for some flash of insight that was, for now, being elusive. All I heard in my mind were the chirping of wrens, the calls of orioles and robins from the nearby woods, and the steady "swish swish" of the sprinklers. Frustrated, I turned and walked in the direction of the car. Again, there was the compelling tug to turn around; to go back. I had all the time in the world. Dru's was gone, so was Jackson's, and so were the lives of six million innocents in Congo.

Feeling foolish and hoping the caretaker was not a witness to my indecision, I walked back to Dru. The ceramic cherub on the ground next to the "tree of life" caught my eye. I offered a prayer to Dru. "If you are really an angel now, please help me to erase my own bitterness and learn to walk in compassion." I can't say that I felt an arm go around my shoulder, but in that moment of asking for compassion, I felt the peace that comes when you feel protected by something bigger than yourself. We all want a connection with something universal. We use whatever means we can when the pain is too big. It is the hole that we all try desperately to plug. Is it God who will provide the comfort and fill us up? I don't know. I walked away with some understanding of what Michael Jackson means to his fans and those who did not know him, but love him anyway.

Memory forms the framework of existence and community provides our only lifeline.

 
 
 

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