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Reflections in the Silver Cup

WHERE THE DRAGONS ARE

Image courtesy Morguefile/hotblack

They are in the places where you never go. I'm not talking about pocket-sized dragons. I mean the big ones. The ones that make you shudder, the ones that dry out your mouth, make your stomach go cold, wound up in a tangled knot. Several times a day. Those dragons.
 
If you want to face your dragons (or quite possibly you don't), you will find them in a place unfamiliar––in the underground caverns of the mind, the freezing, barren peaks where it seems nothing can live. A place where the familiar no longer surrounds you.
 
Boarding school might have been my first such place, but I was too young to know what I was facing. You have to be able to look straight at your own reflection in the dragon's eye, and that requires some life experience, an ability to step outside all the feelings and then stare them down.
 
In my mid-thirties I entered the dragon's cave at the Scandinavian Yoga and Meditation School, in the dead of the dark Swedish winter. There for three rigorous months––34 days of silence, up at 3 a.m. to meditate, living with people I would never choose, building stairs of stone, cutting the rot from mounds of carrots in the dank root cellar until I couldn't feel my fingers, no reading, no writing––and the dragons swooped in. The steel-gray one, thin as a snake named Utterly Alone; the great red one, Obsession that assails me still; the one with green eyes, one that maybe you've met. Deprived of words and instructed not to communicate with hands or eyes––this and all things unfamiliar brought forth the monsters.
 
The pandemic presented me with the most gargantuan dragon of all. Once again, it was a dearth of  human communion that introduced the flapping wings, the scaly, slithering tail. Every morning the beast appeared when first I opened my eyes. It flooded me with rushes of intense anxiety. Throughout the day it attacked, flying up from deep in my belly, wave upon wave of fear. In the sixth month of COVID, I managed to look the dragon in the eye. I heard its name: You Have No Control. In that moment I came to the realization that control is possibly the thing I want most in this life, and I had none. No control over how others responded to the virus––whether or not they wore masks, how close they came in the supermarket, where they had been or what they'd been doing before crossing my path. With the dragon's snout in my face, I couldn't get away from seeing how desperately I want control. Of everything. All the time. Everything near me and most especially the behavior, the actions, even the emotions of others. I saw my urge to control had little to do with masks or social distancing. It was about everything in my life, and it had always been that. It was an illusion to think I ever have any power over others. And I felt sick inside at how ugly it is to want that.
 
Of course, I'd known for a long time that I like to be in control. And we need to control some things sometimes. But I never saw the pervasiveness of the desire for it so sharply as in this time of isolation. In this strange place where all of us are living these days. I hadn't seen so starkly the hideousness of my urge or smelled the stench of its hot breath. Deprivation of the familiar at the yoga school led to awareness. Awareness, the first step to letting go––and now, a strange, rare gift of the deprivation attending the time of Corona.

 

And the next step? I think it's simple but not easy. I think dear old Ram Dass had it: "Be here now." And let go.

 

Have you been to the place where the dragons are in this time of Corona? Have you looked them in the eye? Have the dragons borne you a gift?

 

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FAREWELL TO MY SOUTHWEST HOME

In the early 1980s I was homeless. I didn't think of it that way because to me, at the time, being homeless meant living on the street, which I never did. I was a lost soul, living for days or weeks in other people's homes. At one point I spent three weeks on the UC Berkeley campus, participating in a nutrition study, which gave me room and board and a stipend. From there I moved into an SRO, a Single Room Occupancy, also known as a "residence hotel." I worked at the desk there for my room and board and created an editing and typing business for spare change. I operated a switchboard that had survived the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and met women who had been shoved out of mental institutions by the Reagan policy. I got to know women from China who were studying for a six-week stint at the Van Ness Business College. I talked every day to a woman who had made the hotel her home since 1936. There was a chiropractor who had lived there for fifteen years. There were transients––tourists from Germany, Ireland and Jamaica, a young lesbian couple coming to the Promised Land from South Dakota, staying in the hotel while they sought jobs and someplace permanent.

 

In October of that year, I decided to return to New Mexico and the larger Southwest. I could hardly wait. One night, shortly before leaving, I wrote a poem I called "nightsong" about my joy to be coming home. Yet, I would still be homeless for many more months. It was New Mexico that was home and the Navajo Nation that was Home-Not-Home. I was going back to both.

 

While I was packing to leave New Mexico for Iowa, which I will do a week from now, I found that poem. I didn't know I still had it. So, although I'm leaving my New Mexico home now, it seems fitting to share the poem that tells of my deep connection here.

 

       nightsong

 

rain tonight in san francisco

past midnight     on the narrow bed

in the dark           

hear water slapping cement

drainpipes  chuggalugg

 

missing you

hours    talking    eating        laughing

in our kitchens

playing cards til 4am

hearing willie nelson        on the road again

 

i am coming home     i am coming

        blue sky

        red rocks

        green chiles

        mutton stew

        lazy brown mud houses

        brown skins

i am coming home

 

the red earth    wild animals howl at harvest moon

dry corn cracks on Canyon floor

i am coming

my     self wild wide deep   and    voluptuous as

      The Canyon

i am coming home

 

       golden yellow aspens

       smokey blue mountain ravines

       dust clouds down the road

 

       i   am   coming   home

 

        

 

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RACIAL INJUSTICE HAS BENEFITED ME

A BIA school like the one I attended

This entry first appeared in The Gallup Independent on June 13, 2020. Published here with permission with minor changes.

 

I grew up in the Navajo Nation and in Gallup. My parents were white missionaries. For several days now, we have been hearing and seeing rightful outrage about the murder of George Floyd by a white policeman. We are being reminded about many others whose lives have been only because of their skin color. We see and hear the words, "Black Lives Matter." Some people object, saying "All lives matter." Of course they do, but not all lives are in danger the way black and red lives are. The signs should say, "Black and Red Lives Matter," because in the US, police kill Native people at a greater percentage than any other group. These are the people whose lives are in danger from the people who are supposed to serve and protect them.

 

As a white woman, I have benefited all my life from being white in the US. This looked a little different in the Navajo Nation from how it might have looked in other parts of the country, but without a doubt I benefited because of my skin color. My family always lived in a house with running water. When we lived at Teec Nos Pos, Navajo people drove miles with horse and wagon to fill their water barrels. It could take all day to do this, while we simply turned a tap many times a day, thinking nothing of our privilege. Today 30% of Navajo homes are still without running water, which is a major factor in the extreme force of COVID-19 in the Navajo Nation.

 

In 1954, when I started school, Navajo children were being forcibly taken from home and sent to government and mission boarding schools, where they were punished for speaking their own language. But what could they speak? Not English. They didn't know English. There were no carefully sequenced lessons to teach English as a Second Language. It was sink or swim. I already knew how, not only to speak English but to read it. The principal moved me up to second grade on my first day. I had these educational advantages in that school because I was white.

 

On my first day of school, after our lunch of government commodity cheese sandwiches and lumpy powdered milk that made me gag, the matron marched us to the dormitory for naps. I knew the matron because her daughters were my playmates. I tried to tell her I didn't take naps anymore, but she acted like she didn't know me and sent me to one of the beds. I thought it meant would have to stay there like all the other children. Never go home again. As soon as the matron left, I rolled off my bed, snuck across the hall, out the heavy metal door, and raced down the hill—home to the mission, sobbing all the way. My mother called the principal and arranged for me to come home for lunch after that. This happened because I was white. The parents of my Navajo classmates couldn't speak to the principal in the "right" language. They didn't have telephones. The government forced them into boarding school compliance.

 

When I was eight, I was sent to mission boarding school. Unlike the parents of my classmates, my parents weren't forced to send me; it was a choice. Because I was white, I went home every other weekend. The Navajo children went home once during the school year for Christmas vacation. I was terribly homesick. Navajo children were deeply homesick, too, with far more reason—silenced because they didn't know the language, punished for speaking theirs, ripped from land and culture, from all that was sacred to them. Everything but home was familiar for me. I could excel in school simply because of language and cultural knowledge. At the end of that year, my parents moved to Gallup. No more boarding school. They had that choice because we were white.

 

Once at lunch I asked a Navajo high school student to pass me the milk—in Diné, the Navajo language. I didn't even think about what I was doing. Years later he told me he had thought, "If this little white girl can speak Navajo to me, why shouldn't I speak my own language?" Nothing happened to me because I used Diné. At the end of the school year, that Navajo student was told he couldn't leave with his father until he paid 85 cents. "Why?" he asked and was told, "A nickel for every time you talked Navajo." He didn't know he had been observed and charged. In 1957, 85 cents was money his family didn't have.

 

I have benefited in literally countless ways––then and still today, simply because my skin is white. Not black or red. These are only a few examples. If you are white, please consider how you have benefited because of the color of your skin. Consider what you can do to dismantle this system of racial injustice.

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Cholla

The cholla along the ditch surprised me yesterday, coming into full bloom suddenly––in just that moment, I thought. Or, more likely, I had passed unnoticing, thinking of other such important things. The little New Mexico bees are in love with her and not at all taken up with any concerns but this. They devote themselves utterly. We are here for a nano second, and when we are gone, the cholla will still be showing off her magenta glory; the bees will keep on gathering and scattering; the cholla's golden fruits will appear in the fall beside the prosaic ditch. We are here, and then we're gone, and the rest continue despite all the indignities to which we subject them while we're here.

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