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WORDS FROM FRIENDS

BOOKS ON THE JOURNEY

Childhood



Readers–we are a distinctive assemblage of folks. This has come to my attention more often since To Drink from the Silver Cup came out. With all the publicity about the general populace becoming nonreaders, I was gratified when I casually mentioned at the AT&T Store that I was heading out on a book tour, and the young man serving me got excited. “I love to read. What’s your book about? Do you have a card?” Over the months I heard it often, in part I suppose because of the mystique of meeting an author. But also just because there really are still a lot of people who love to read.

Then there are the people who have actually read Silver Cup. Some of them are dog-earers, highlighters, and flaggers. Some want to carry on correspondence with me, and we do. The lovers of books want to tell me what they’re reading and find out if I’ve read the same book. And then there are the ones who have forgotten that my book is liberally salted with references to books that have accompanied me on my journey. These tend to be people who confess to having devoured the book, sometimes in a single day, and now they’re asking which books have been important to me.

Honestly, I had thought at one time that a list of the books I’d mentioned in the text could appear in an appendix, but—another honest word—I had to duel with my publisher to retain the three appendices that have been included. And I was right, of course; several readers have expressed gratitude that the appendices exist. Never mind. I recently went through the book, created a list, and have decided to write a few blog posts sharing some thoughts about them. I’ve grouped them chronologically as to when they appeared on the journey. This revealed that the book, which I have perceived as thematic in structure, is more chronological than I’d thought. I’ve added the Silver Cup page on which the book is mentioned to each blurb.

I begin with books that were important to me in childhood. The first is The Children’s Story Bible Book, referenced in the chapter titled “Family Circle.” This is what we always called the children’s Bible, but based on an utterly familiar cover image—turbaned, colorfully robed priests blowing long trumpets—I realize now that it may have actually been called Marian’s Favorite Bible Stories by Marian Schoolland, originally published in 1948 by Eerdmans. We heard the reading of the Bible after every meal, but the reading after supper was for us children. Story after story enchanted me, until the characters were people I knew as well or better than the people I walked and talked and played with in real life. There was Enoch who walked with God leading to the great mystery of his disappearance because God took him. Ruth who attached herself fiercely to another woman and to that woman’s God. Samuel who answered God’s call. Mary who bent to the will of God in her life despite the social consequences it would have for her. The centurion who knew he needed help believing. The woman at the well, who learned Jesus’ true identity before anyone else. Paul, the missionary I wanted to be. And Jesus. Jesus whom everyone wanted to follow, including me. Stories to nurture the imagination and thus the soul. (p. 14)

And of course there was the Bible itself, in the gorgeous language of the King James Version. I heard it read over and over again until I know passage after passage by heart without ever having taxed myself to memorize them, though we did also memorize entire chapters, mostly Psalms. These are passages that come to me now and have always come to me when I needed them. (p. 14 and many, many others)

On the same page I mention The Family Altar, which wasn’t a book, but a devotional that came in the mail every month and was read after breakfast each day with an attendant Bible passage. Mostly boring until I got old enough to be paying attention to my spiritual growth, and even then I don't remember it being terribly inspiring. The Family Altar represented a connection with our church at large, and my parents knew many of the preachers that authored the writings. (p. 14)

And then The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, first serialized in 1910, published as a book in 1911. If had to name my favorite childhood book, it would be this one. It is the story of emotional, physical and social healing through communion with the earth, with growing things, with nature, with animals and people. Burnett calls it magic, and I would simply call the Spirit of Life and the power of the mind and heart to bring us into wholeness. It is definitely a magical book, the sort that as a child I would slip under my striped polo shirt and from thence under the table, trying to get away with reading it during dinner, never succeeding. As an adult, I’ve been granted the deep pleasure of reading The Secret Garden to children I love. It was as an adult that I realized that as a child I must have subconsciously absorbed the idea that an attitude of embracing life is profoundly curative. (p. 14)

Oh, Robinson Crusoe. Magical in its own way. Since it was part of my third grade curriculum, and since it was a thin, small book with a hard brown cover that bore a yellow and black illustration of Crusoe wearing a conical goatskin hat, I’m certain it was an adaptation. But it touched something in me that runs deep even today—the allure of survival through ingenuity, the adventure of travel with the possibility of danger. I remember vividly the frisson of fear I felt on the day that Crusoe saw Friday’s footprint in the sand and knew he was not alone on his island. I remember the attendant torture brought about because the footprint came at the end of a chapter, and my mother, my homeschool teacher, adhered strictly to the Calvert Course’s schedule of one chapter per day. (p. 16)

The Calvert Course, a correspondence school administered to the children of missionaries in isolated places the world over, was attuned to child development in its curriculum choices. I’ve always loved to learn, but the Calvert Course made learning tremendously exciting. Besides Robinson Crusoe, the third grade studies included being read Greek and Roman mythology. Calvert suggested that this was the right age for an introduction to mythology because developmentally eight-year-olds are interested in things fairy and fantasy. American history was taught through fiction, too, in Smiling Hill Farm, the story of a family that moves by covered wagon from Virginia to the frontier that would become Ohio. All of it holds vivid sway in my mind. (p. 16)

I can’t leave the hymnals out of my childhood recollections, but in Silver Cup I wrote about some unusual uses I made of them. I still sing hymns in the Diné language from the small, square, soft-bound Navajo Gospel Hymns. I know the songs mostly from memory, so I don’t get out my little book when I sing while I do chores around the house, walk the neighborhood, drive down the road. Sometimes when the church accompanist plays the introduction to a hymn, it’s the Diné words that come to mind first.

I used the Navajo Gospel Hymns for a purpose other than singing. When the interpreter was preaching in the Diné language, sometimes I sat and listened for words I knew, making easier connections because I’d already listened to the English version. But other times, I went to the Navajo index of the hymnal and read the names of the people who had translated individual songs. Some I knew well, and some were long-gone heroes on my horizon. There was Alice P. Gorman, the mother of well-known artist Carl Gorman, grandmother of the even more famous R. C. Gorman, both of whom I would later meet. There was J. C. Morgan, the fifth chairman of the Navajo Nation. Geronimo Martin told us Coyote Tales and taught us string games in the winter after supper. When I was in sixth grade, I was assigned an essay titled, “The Person I Admire Most;” I wrote it about Geronimo Martin. Ella Henry translated “Bee Iłhozho Ninizingo” (“If You Want Joy”). She also gave me my Diné name when I was a baby and whispered it in my ear every time she saw me. I thought Scott Redhouse was the handsomest man I knew with the most beautiful voice of any I’d heard. John Charles was the father of my friend Ted Charles, who used to ride out with us to Tołigaii to play the piano for church services. L. P. Brink was a Dutch American, an early missionary who died in 1936 and is buried in Missionary Row where my father rests. I’m not sure why the translators interested me so much, but later I would hope to become a Bible translator until I realized that the Wycliffe Bible Translators door would be closed to me because of my sexuality. Nevertheless, it may have constituted one brick in my later study of linguistics and my work in Navajo bilingual education.

As a young adult, when that work led to deeper interest in questions regarding colonization, and after hearing the gorgeous Missa Luba, a mass sung in the African musical tradition, I asked my mother why English language hymns had been translated. “Why didn’t we sing Christian words in the musical style of Navajo traditional music, using Native instruments?” I wanted to know. She said that it was the Navajo missionaries who had insisted on not using Native music in church services. She said this was to discourage a return to pagan ways. In May of this year, I attended the First Indigenous Christian Music Conference, where Navajo, Choctaw, and Anglo Christians from several denominations gathered to begin to change this pattern. We sang new Christian songs in a traditional style, we heard from people who had written these songs and experimented with using them. One man asked us to imagine what things would have been like if white missionaries had brought the news of Jesus to the Navajo people and then left. What would worship have looked like then? Several told how Navajo Christians had tears streaming down their faces when they heard Christian songs sung in traditional Navajo style. I talked with one of the leaders at lunch time who said that the reason for singing translated hymns was less about guarding converts from returning to Navajo ways and more about taking care not to break certain Navajo regulations about how songs should be developed and sung. (p. 48)

In the Navajo Nation, we also used an English language hymnal sometimes, but off-reservation, we sang from the blue Psalter Hymnal. The first few hundred pages of the psalter were songs based on Psalms. After the Psalms came some hundred other more modern (mostly 19th- and early 20th-century) hymns. At the back of the Psalter Hymnal were printed the Heidelberg Catechism from which sermons were preached each Sunday, the confessions, such as the Apostles Creed, and a set of forms for various church observances. There was the form for the Lord’s Supper, the form for marriage, the form for baptism and for profession of faith (akin to confirmation). And there was the form for excommunication. At some point, perhaps with some prescience about how the church would respond to me, a young lesbian Christian, I was drawn to reading that form when I got bored listening to a long sermon. I didn’t insert my name into the form as I read. No, it was the name of the person I was crushing on at the time. I did imagine that she had fallen into some sexual sin—unrepentant adultery, no doubt—because it seemed that living in sexual sin was the only reason for which someone might be excommunicated. (p. 67)

Next time: Books from adolescence, as mentioned in To Drink from the Silver Cup.

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