Negotiating the Peace – 6

Chapter 6

Kateri Tekakwitha

Kateri Tekakwitha was born in the Mohawk village of Ossernenon in 1656 in what is now New York State.  She was the daughter of a Mohawk chief, and an Algonquin mother who followed the Catholic faith.

At age four her parents and brother died from smallpox. Kateri survived but was left nearly blind, with deep scars on her face and her body physically weakened.  Her uncle, also a Mohawk chief, took her into his family.  Kateri lived with her adoptive family among her people at the village of Ossernenon.

When Kateri turned 8 years old, her uncle, following Iroquois custom, selected a young man for her future husband. Recalling her mother’s faithful devotion to the Holy Mother and Jesus, Kateri rebelled, declaring she would remain single and devote her life to Jesus. This began a long struggle with her Uncle and members of her Iroquois village. They named her Tekakwitha which means “bumps into things.”  Tribal members did not hold back their ridicule of the poor-sighted, disfigured girl. There was deep distrust of the Black Robes—Franciscan priests who attempted to convert native people to European faith traditions.

At age ten, her village was destroyed by French soldiers with enemy tribes. They fled to the north side of the Mohawk River near present day Fonda, New York.

In her new setting, Kateri began in secret to devote herself to Jesus and to follow a Christian faith. She lived in Caughnawaga village until age 20 at which time she was baptized at the fervent protest of her uncle and Mohawk community. Eventually she was forced to flee for her life to a Catholic mission near Montreal.  Kateri made the long, arduous journey alone, terrified of reprisals.

St. Xavier Mission was formed among Christian natives. The settlement, also known as Caughnawaga or Kahnawake, became the place where Kateri devoted her life to serving people and God, taking a vow of perpetual virginity in 1679. She was noted for her deep faith and practice of self denial. Perhaps because of the aftereffects of smallpox which hastened her demise, she became seriously ill at age 24 and died shortly after. Upon her death, the deep scars on her face disappeared and her face glowed with light. Two priests bore witness to the miracle.

Kateri’s short but deeply devoted life as an aspirant continues to inspire millions of people today. Many miracles are ascribed to her intercession. She remained Blessed Kateri until 2012 when sainthood was finally bestowed by Pope Benedict XVI. The prayers of millions of native and non native Christians helped to bring her canonization. She became the first Native American to gain sainthood in both the USA and Canada.

I would later learn that Earth, my principal spiritual teacher, had devoted her life to Kateri from childhood. Her parents lived in Montreal not far from the Iroquois Confederacy seat of power. Both her mother and father had assimilated into French Canadian culture. They followed the Catholic faith. But her father’s father, her grandfather, was a traditional Mohawk elder and spiritual leader to whom Earth bonded early in her life. The Mohawk reservation in Akwasasne, where her grandfather resided, became the early spiritual center of my teacher’s life. She often played near what is today the Kateri shrine as a child and a young woman, and related to me that she’d had many encounters with Kateri’s spirit.

In the ongoing mystery of my education, Earth arrived at my trailer with a rosary and a prayer book, insisting that I learn to pray the Rosary with her. We went down on our knees in front of the little devotional altar I had constructed by then, and she taught me how to use the beads and the prayers before and after.

For the four years of my study with her I wondered why a native person embraced a Christian saint. Later when I questioned her, she answered that was my koan—a paradox about which I was to meditate.

 

           

 

 

Negotiating the Peace: 5

Chapter 5

Sitting in Silence

I am convinced that there are places where it is possible to step out of time into another reality. That is what I believe happened for me when I crossed over Earth and Sky’s threshold in that humble setting of row upon row of trailers, and among people of varying circumstances in Yuma, Arizona in the year 1990. Not until 4 years later would I return to clock time as I had perceived its passing throughout my life and my cultural window.

~~~~~~

The interior felt surprisingly cool given the near 100˚ temperature outside. Colorful Mexican blankets covered the windows, and Indian rugs of varying sizes decorated the otherwise worn carpet. A beautiful stringed instrument with a large round belly sat as a centerpiece in the room. A white leather hide hung from its long stringed neck.

Sky filled an easy chair, arranging her aquamarine cotton skirt. She nodded toward the couch on the opposite side of the room. I sat bolt upright in anticipation or perhaps ready to flee, I am not sure which. As I recall the moment, my mind went blank.

Thus the long ritual began. A darkened trailer, a teacher and student, a Benson and Hedges lit and the long in breaths and exhalations. That first day she uttered no word though we sat with each other for two hours, at the end of which I was a nervous wreck and she simply stood, and said, “I have things to do now.”

~~~~~~

Curriculum of Study

I bought the trailer across the street, in defiance of my family’s disdain for anyone who lives in a trailer park. I learned it is its own little world: young, poor families working in service and trade jobs while raising their families; well-off seniors who migrate from their homes in cooler climes; residents like Sky whose ex-wives demand alimony; non-commissioned military on meager salaries, and odd birds like me on a specific mission.

Yuma, Arizona has its own tidal rhythm. Much like the Colorado River which once flooded its banks in spring and retreated in summer, the population of the town swelled with the arrival of overwintering snowbirds and shriveled with their retreat as summer arrived. The town’s economy ebbed and flowed accordingly.  Casinos and restaurants filled to capacity in the winter. When I arrived that summer in 1990, Yuma was a ghost town.

As it should be. That first summer saw a day that reached 126˚ F. When I opened the door on the trailer at 8 a.m. to get in my truck and run errands, it was nearly 100˚. The radio announcer has warned everyone to shelter indoors by noon at the latest.

Very hot dry air feels like sharp-sided glass when it reaches the cooler soft tissue of lungs. But, strangely, it was invigorating. My body recognized potential life-threatening conditions and became vigilant and present. No mistakes could be made. There must be plenty of water and gas in the car at all times. There must be no flats or car trouble and a direct path to each destination must be known. There was simply no margin for error.

It was in this crucible of heat and threat that I began my study with Native American teachers. All these elements continuously delivered a message to me: I surely was crazy.

The 3-year curriculum of my study confirmed it.

On that fateful day when I first met Sky and Earth they had suggested we move from Denny’s to a place called The Garden. It was another restaurant known only to locals. Set near a spring, it was a lush oasis in the city limits. Palms and bamboo grew profusely around it and there was an outdoor patio covered in deep shade. It was still very hot for a beach dweller like me, and I soon got a raging headache, a sure sign of dehydration. Nausea set in later, and I ended up spending the night in their trailer on the living room couch before I woke at dawn to return to San Diego, still my place of residence.

At The Garden two actions took place, the significance of which I would realize only decades later. First, following a natural tendency, I had purchased gifts for my new teachers. When I gave them these items (a brightly colored South American sash, and a large polished mother of pearl shell), they leaned their heads together examining the items, muttering exchanges I could not hear. They thanked me with great sincerity. Then, Sky handed me a lengthy document describing my curriculum of study.

How can I explain the impact of reading that document? It came from some other reality and I clearly was mystified. It was like reading an ancient document from civilizations that existed thousands of years ago. It spoke of places I would go, things I would learn, and the guides that were given to me by White Star, a spiritual being who guided my teachers. My problem, as I understand now, is that I thought it referred to my current reality. I read it literally. But, for some reason, I decided to trust the process and just see where it might lead. For someone like me, a logical thinker who makes lists of daily tasks to accomplish each day, it was amazing to think that I would suspend my doubts so easily.

Dragonfly, White Swan, and Kateri Tekakwitha would be my guides. Since my education, Blessed Kateri has become Saint Kateri – the first Native American sainted by the Catholic Church. Here is a link to the Katerie Tekakwitha Shrine in upstate New York.

READ NEGOTIATING THE PEACE FROM THE BEGINNING.

 

Negotiating the Peace: 4

Chapter 4

House on Wheels

I made my way to The Crossing restaurant, recommended by my supervisor at the Junior High School where I would be teaching in the upcoming fall.

A mind needed little imagination to reach back in history to a similar establishment full of cowboys and Indians. Just change out the chaps and boots for permanent press or military blues—The Crossing was the local watering hole, and, I subsequently learned, the best Mexican food in town. The rich tamales and enchiladas with rice and beans on the side mellowed my soul. A cold Tecaté beer delivered the sedative. Peeling myself off the chair, I went in search of a motel to lay my head on the pillow and drop off the planet for a while.

A half day later I woke to an overhead fan covered in cobwebs and white light streaking around the edges of sun panels darkening the window. I showered and made my way to the continental breakfast near the lobby.

After a couple cups of coffee, I begin to let in my new home. Everything in me fought the feeling of a foreign country with a language of its own: I want it to be easy, familiar. But I cannot push reality back. It’s going to be uphill, even steep terrain, and I’ve been climbing for two years already.

My kids’ faces flashed in front of me. I pushed back on the stressful memories of a acrimonious divorce and the struggles to stay connected to my children, teens at the time.

DIVE! I said to myself. DIVE IN. I found a payphone and called Sundance. It rang and rang. Finally, she answered.

“Hello?” A soft low voice on the other end of the phone.

I hesitated, about to belly flop on the dive.

“Hello …it’s Susan.”

No answer. I heard the indrawn breath and imagined the Benson and Hedges cigarette in her large hand.

“Well…are you coming over?”

“If that is OK, I mean yes, if you want me to…”

“Where are you?” she said with obvious effort to be patient.

I gave her the address and she gave me directions to the trailer park and hung up.

“And, welcome to Yuma, Susan. We are so glad you are here,” I muttered as I went to my room to pack up.

The El Camino my son left behind was now a dusty red pony, baptized in desert soil. Just walking to the car, I felt grit on my face, in my shoes, and on every surface I touched.

Following directions I left the main drag – a thoroughfare lined with low-budget buildings, gaudy signs, dusty people, and dusty cars. I turned onto B Avenue and drove along groves of citrus trees with blue water coursing through canals. Finally, I came to a large sign over an entrance: “Avenue B Trailer Park”. The unimaginative person who thought up the name must have also laid out the park. Row upon row of trailers pepper the streets, all of them with a number and letter code like prison cells on a block.

In spite of the modest surroundings, residents had planted gardens, and decorated with colorful clay pots holding cacti or roses or any tenacious sun-loving plant. I found Sky and Earth’s trailer, noticing there was one for sale across from them. Sky was at work so I pulled up close to the trailer.

With trepidation I knocked on the door. No answer. I knocked again and waited. No answer. As I raised my hand to knock one last time, the door flung open to an angry woman.

“Don’t pound on the door!” she said opening it wider and walking back into dark recesses, leaving me to decide if I wanted to cross her threshold.

Frankly, I did not. But, I’d come all this way. What the hell, I can only be murdered and rolled out later in the desert where no one would ever find me. I dove.

Negotiating the Peace: 3

Chapter 3

Crossing Over

Along Interstate 8 water flowed swiftly across the Imperial Valley in the All American Canal delivering precious Colorado River water to thousands of square miles of agricultural fields. A fine curtain of water spewed from enormous sprinklers moving in circles like alien beings on metal legs.

My beach car began to heat up in the direct sunlight. I delivered my own spray of water to cool my face and neck. My son’s beach car had no air conditioner. San Diego was a place of mild weather and the blue Pacific Ocean. I had entered an inferno.

I stopped in El Centro where I slumped over the counter of a local Wendy’s, dehydrated and near faint. A waitress took me to a table and delivered a couple big cups of iced water. I stayed there for hours until I recovered enough to go on to Yuma, my destination.

Clearly, I was unprepared for the desert. This would not be the last of its hard lessons, surprises and mysteries. I was a true initiate in every sense of the word.

As I neared Yuma what can only be described as an Arabian desert appeared out of nowhere with high, white sand dunes stretching for miles along the highway and southwest toward Mexico, not far away. As suddenly as they had appeared, the dunes ended and I was back in flat scrubland.

Signs for Yuma, The Crossing, appeared along the roadside. At Yuma, I crossed over the Colorado River from California into Arizona centuries after the westward Gold Rush which put Yuma on the map. Of course, I was going against the flow.

At the time of the Gold Rush, the Colorado River flowed freely in a broad expanse toward the Sea of Cortez in Mexico. Dense forests of mesquite and sycamore trees that lined its shores were cut down to fuel the big steamboats carrying gold seekers to their fates. By the time I crossed over the Colorado, the forests were gone, the river narrow, and it no longer ran down to the sea.

Thus I began to learn about the ghosts of a time, a people, and a natural history that existed almost entirely in people’s memories but still there in the subtle contours of the landscape.

 

Replenishing the Earth – Wangari Maathai

Winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2004

Wangari Maathai grew up in her homeland in Kenya, living close to the earth and learning traditional Kikuyu values and practices. Her memoir, Unbound, describes her daily activities as a child, her mother’s teachings, and how her people regarded the streams and forests in a land where the balance of nature is delicate, not to be abused without serious consequences for its inhabitants.

In Replenishing the Earth: Spiritual Values for Healing Ourselves and the World, Maathai’s wisdom is distilled onto each page, every sentence the next drop in the flow. Wangari describes herself as working practically to solve problems she learned about in discussions with communities and among women’s groups. Their need for clean water, and for access to earn a living, were her daily concerns. Eventually, Wangari and the women she served established the Greenbelt Movement that planted over 30 million trees in Kenya.

In Replenishing, Wangari’s concerns about the destruction of the environment in Kenya are examined in light of the world’s sacred traditions. Always a practical perspective, her observations and reflections give readers much to consider often through humor. For example she writes that God in his wisdom created Adam on Friday. If he’d created him on Monday he’d have perished for lack of food!

Wangari Maathai’s clarity of thought is invaluable in this age where massive destruction of oceans, rivers, wildlands, and forests have imperiled life the world over. She and the women of Kenya remind us of the earth-shaking power of people to replenish the earth, if we choose to do so.

Listen to an interview with Wangari Maathai on OnBeing.org.

 

 

Songs of Ourselves – Great Read

In 2015, Blue Heron Book Works published a collections of blog posts, journal entries, and other writing forms from writers across the nation. Bathseba Monk, the intrepid and visionary editor of Blue Heron Book Works, and her editor Mary Lawlor, put together a book of American voices as varied as the landscape between our coastlines.

Songs of Ourselves is a real trip into and across Americana. If you haven’t read it, I compare it to about two dozen Blue Highways wrapped into one volume.

Listen to Tomas Benitez: Quietude in the Gully. No moaning animals or ruckus. It’s as if the Pomona Freeway Ocean knows and slows to a steady heartbeat rhythm. The waves rumble with a distant peace. La Luna is framed by the dark outline of the palm fronds on the left, the Yucca tree on the right seems to be reaching up like a hand holding her aloft. She is so beautiful tonight; it is all about her I suspect. Maybe the animals are huddled in their shadowed hollows also watching her. Not even Jinx is dancing in her moonlight. We’re in church. ~ pages 15-16.

Well worth the read. A treasure of American voices across our land. Buy it here.

 

National Parks: Citizen Library

Carlotta Walls LaNier

In the previous post I described my joy in visiting the Central High School National Historic Site which preserves and tells the story of desegregation in Little Rock, AK. There I bought two memoirs, one by Daisy Bates (The Long Shadow of Little Rock), the other by Carlotta Walls LaNier with Lisa Frazier Page (A Mighty Long Way). [*This link includes an interview with Mrs. LaNier and an excerpt from the first chapter, and links to purchase a copy of the memoir.]

Both memoirs brought me renewed appreciation for the personal struggles of individual Americans striving for their civil rights, and the importance of parents being involved in their children’s education. Reading both books rendered a deeper understanding of historical events through the lived experiences of my fellow Americans. The NPS Interpreter was also a powerful communicator who brought history to life–another important function of our National Parks.

On my current sojourn in Kentucky, I drove to Mammoth Park –another National Park site–preserving and interpreting one of the world’s great natural wonders. In 2016 it celebrated its 200th anniversary!

Stephen Bishop Portrait

In their gift store, I headed for the books section. There I found a historical novel by Roger Brucker, about Stephen Bishop, a famous and early explorer/guide at Mammoth Park (Grand, Gloomy, and Peculiar). Stephen was a slave at the time his owners assigned him the duty to serve as a guide at the privately owned wonder.  It was already a favorite travel destination for wealthy and local people. The associated hotel inn for guests owned slaves who cooked and cleaned for guests. Charlotte Brown was a slave working at the inn. It was there that she fell in love with Stephen Bishop. They would eventually marry.

The novel’s story is told through the voice of Charlotte Bishop. The narration is based in part on Charlotte’s real story. Historical documents and testimonies from people who met and knew Stephen and Charlotte guided the author in writing this delightful book. (I am about half way through.)

My point is this: if we do not know history, how can we navigate the future? Each of these National Parks sites, and the books I found there, provide citizens with living history. Our National Parks are repositories for learning and recalling great moments and individuals in history.

A Tale of Two Cities: Tucson & Pensacola

Pensacola BeachMy parents moved to Pensacola as retired military. Nearby Pensacola Naval Air Station gave them access to the commissary, officer’s club, and other amenities. They were smitten, as are so many visitors, with the incredible beauty of the Gulf coastal region and relaxed Southern lifestyle.

After moving to Tucson in 1999, I began annual treks to the beach and back, linking me to what at first glance appears to be environments at opposite ends of a moisture continuum: desert to marine systems. But I began to find uncanny parallels:

  • Barrel BlossomsThe spectacular high desert of Tucson with its tropical blooming cacti and tall saguaros, evolved from a subtropical environment as recently as 8,000 years ago – America once had a large inland sea in the Midwest;
  • The Gulf and coastal environs evolved from a dry savannah that supported lions, elephants, and other megafauna that thrive in dry, hot weather;
  • The desert hills of Tucson and the sugar white dunes of Pensacola both support prickly pear cacti and similar species of horny toads!

    Prickly Pear Fruiting
    Prickly Pear Fruiting

I also found that we are on very close latitude lines: Tucson is   32.2217° N and Pensacola is 30.4213° N.

 

 

Where I live!
Where I live!

Strains of Jimmy Buffet come to mind:

It’s those changes in latitudes,
changes in attitudes nothing remains quite the same.
With all of our running and all of our cunning,
If we couldn’t laugh, we would all go insane.

The Tucson Connection

My romance with Tucson seems predestined.  This long relationship began in my childhood with Dad’s assignment to Davis Monthan AFB.

Fifty years later, I moved back to Tucson to accept a position as Director of Education at the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum. Little did I know that a future friend and writing fellow was finding her way to Tucson from her home in the Republic of Columbia, in northwest South America. We never met while we lived in Tucson but we would later share our love of the desert in a more tropical habitat.

That is because both of us left Tucson and ended up in Pensacola, Florida. Vicki is a member of the Portfolio Writers’ Group, one of many writing groups in the West Florida Literary Federation. She is a poet and talented painter who not only continues to inspire my writing, but who, by virtue of membership, became an early editor of drafts of  the Threshold manuscript.

For me it was wonderful having a talented writer/friend who knew Tucson and is bilingual. She was able to spot problems and to provide correction to Spanish terms and translations. (Vicki is a Spanish instructor at the University of West Florida and provided instruction for students at the University of Arizona while in Tucson.)

It seems that wherever I go, Tucson follows along. I am so glad because it is a community that won my heart. I even bled for it (see previous blog). That initiation got buried in my unconscious. Good thing. I might never have returned!

My Tucson "Connection"
My Tucson “Connection”

See Victoria’s new book of poetry including her gorgeous painting.

How fragile our lives

IMG_0188For readers: I wrote this short essay in 2009. Dad passed away on December 7, 2012. When I wrote this piece I was living with my Dad, helping him recover from pressure sores on his heels after surgery.

Being with Dad

He is not up yet. I think gloomy thoughts. Usually he rises before me and struggles past my bedroom door. I hear the heavy breathing and the cranking noise of his walker.

Should I go check on him? I decide to wait until 7 a.m. It is 5:45 now.

What would I do if I found my father dead in his bed? I envision the scene: opening the door and listening intently for his breathing, made audible by emphysema.

Hearing nothing I creep down the hallway past the bathroom and as I turn the corner there he lays, mouth open, eyes closed, withered into his pillows like an old wrapper.

My Dad…

The birds are munching happily now at his feeders, a cardinal’s clarion call pulls on my heart. For over twenty years my father sits at the front windows in the condo’s watching birds, smoking his pipe, and trying to complete the NY Times crossword puzzle.

For many years my mother lived here, too, until she passed away in 1996—thirteen years ago. Dad has lived a peaceful albeit lonely life since then. Her struggle with cancer, over so many years, drained him of all his mental and physical resources so that these years have been an island of tranquility.

Retired Air Force pilot… During “Saving Private Ryan” on TCM a couple nights ago he came out of his semi-awake fog with an emphatic “Seeing all those gravestones fills me with rage!”

Z-49 Over MtHe led his crew on low altitude bombing raids over Tokyo in the B-29 they named The Three Feathers in his honor. Lt. Col. EB Feathers recalls the smell of burning flesh that haunts him now. “Will I burn in hell for that?”

I can tell he worries about dying and wonders what will happen to him, or worse, nothingness…oblivion…

My journey to living with Dad in these last days and months of his life was not planned nor is it heroic by any standard. I shipwrecked at a job that was completely wrong for me and he invited me to stay here until I can get back on my financial feet.

Even in his nineties he is still taking care of his four daughters. But that is not entirely true: lately we have become his caregivers and decision-makers as we see that he has given up trying to live and is just waiting now.

Being with Dad at this juncture on his life’s path has caused me to reflect on my own. We never know what may become the defining event of our life while we are in the midst of it but later it emerges like a fulcrum on which before and after impinge.

For Dad the memories of war haunt him. He finds no glory in the carnage and has lately become a true pacifist.

I listen to the stories of his early life—how Lindbergh inspired him to fly and how it felt to be airborne on his solo flight, the fear and excitement mixed with the sheer magic of winging high above the green rolling hills of Tennessee.

I see him tall with a full head of dark brown hair and real teeth.

He is stirring. I hear him go into the bathroom…one more day, then.

I recall a beautiful poem by Crowfoot on his deathbed:

What is Life? It is the flash of a firefly in the night.
It is the breath of a buffalo in the winter time.
It is the little shadow which runs across the grass
and loses itself in the Sunset.